The Mind in the Making Part 9

The Mind in the Making -

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Dans les sciences politiques, il est un ordre de verites qui, surtout chez les peuples libres ... ne peuvent etre utiles, que lorsqu'elles sont generalement connues et avouees. Ainsi, l'influence du progres de ces sciences sur la liberte, sur la prosperite des nations, doivent en quelque sorts se mesurer sur le nombre de ces verites qui, par l'effet d'une instruction elementaire, deviennent commune a tous les esprits; ainsi les progres toujours croissants de cette instruction elementaire, lies eux memes aux progres necessaires de ces sciences, nous repondent d'une amelioration dans les destinees de l'espece humaine qui peut etre regardee comme indefinie, puisqu'elle n'a d'autres limites que celles de ces progres memes.--CONDORCET.


Of course the kind of reasoning and the presuppositions described in the previous section will appeal to many readers as an illustration of excessive and unjustifiable fear lest the present order be disturbed --a frenzied impulse to rush to the defense of our threatened institutions. Doubtless the Lusk report may quite properly be classed as a mere episode in war psychology. Having armed to put down the Germans and succeeded in so doing, the ardor of conflict does not immediately abate, but new enemies are sought and easily discovered.

The hysteria of repression will probably subside, but it is now a well-recognized fact that in disease, whether organic or mental, the abnormal and excessive are but instructive exaggerations and perversions of the usual course of things. They do not exist by themselves, but represent the temporary and exaggerated functioning of bodily and mental processes. The real question for us here is not whether Senator Lusk is too fearful and too indiscriminate in his denunciations, but whether he and his colleagues do not merely furnish an overcharged and perhaps somewhat grotesque instance of man's natural and impulsive way of dealing with social problems. It seems to me that enough has already been said to lead us to suspect this.

At the outset of this volume the statement was hazarded that if only men could come to look at things differently from the way they now generally do, a number of our most shocking evils would either remedy themselves or show themselves subject to gradual elimination or hopeful reduction. Among these evils a very fundamental one is the defensive attitude toward the criticism of our existing order and the nave tendency to class critics as enemies of society. It was argued that a fuller understanding of the history of the race would contribute to that essential freedom of mind which would welcome criticism and permit fair judgments of its merits. Having reviewed the arguments of those who would suppress criticism lest it lead to violence and destruction, we may now properly recall in this connection certain often neglected historical facts which serve to weaken if not to discredit most of these arguments.

Man has never been able to adapt himself very perfectly to his civilization, and there has always been a deal of injustice and maladjustment which might conceivably have been greatly decreased by intelligence. But now it would seem that this chronic distress has become acute, and some careful observers express the quite honest conviction that unless thought be raised to a far higher plane than hitherto, some great setback to civilization is inevitable.

Yet instead of subjecting traditional ideas and rules to a thoroughgoing reconsideration, our impulse is, as we have seen, to hasten to justify existing and habitual notions of human conduct.

There are many who flatter themselves that by suppressing so-called "radical" thought and its diffusion, the present system can be made to work satisfactorily on the basis of ideas of a hundred or a hundred thousand years ago.

While we have permitted our free thought in the natural sciences to transform man's old world, we allow our schools and even our universities to continue to inculcate beliefs and ideals which may or may not have been appropriate to the past, but which are clearly anachronisms now. For, the "social science" taught in our schools is, it would appear, an orderly presentation of the conventional proprieties, rather than a summons to grapple with the novel and disconcerting facts that surround us on every side.

At the opening of the twentieth century the so-called sciences of man, despite some progress, are, as has been pointed out, in much the same position that the natural sciences were some centuries earlier. Hobbes says of the scholastic philosophy that it went on one brazen leg and one of an ass. This seems to be our plight to-day. Our scientific leg is lusty and grows in strength daily; its fellow member--our thought of man and his sorry estate--is capricious and halting. We have not realized the hopes of the eighteenth-century "illumination", when confident philosophers believed that humanity was shaking off its ancient chains; that the clouds of superstition were lifting, and that with the new achievements of science man would boldly and rapidly advance toward hitherto undreamed-of concord and happiness. We can no longer countenance the specious precision of the English classical school of economics, whose premises have been given the lie by further thought and experience. We have really to start anew.

The students of natural phenomena early realized the arduous path they had to travel. They had to escape, above all things, from the past.

They perceived that they could look for no help from those whose special business it was to philosophize and moralize in terms of the past. They had to look for light in their own way and in the directions from which they conjectured it might come. Their first object was, as Bacon put it, _light_, not _fruit_. They had to learn before they could undertake changes, and Descartes is very careful to say that philosophic doubt was not to be carried over to daily conduct. This should for the time being conform to accepted standards, unenlightened as they might be.

Such should be the frame of mind of one who seeks insight into human affairs. His subject matter is, however, far more intricate and unmanageable than that of the natural scientist. Experiment on which natural science has reared itself is by no means so readily applicable in studying mankind and its problems. The student of humanity has even more inveterate prejudices to overcome, more inherent and cultivated weaknesses of the mind to guard against, than the student of nature.

Like the early scientists, he has a scholastic tradition to combat. He can look for little help from the universities as now constituted. The clergy, although less sensitive in regard to what they find in the Bible, are still stoutly opposed, on the whole, to any thoroughgoing criticism of the standards of morality to which they are accustomed.

Few lawyers can view their profession with any considerable degree of detachment. Then there are the now all-potent business interests, backed by the politicians and in general supported by the ecclesiastical, legal, and educational classes. Many of the newspapers and magazines are under their influence, since they are become the business man's heralds and live off his bounty.

Business indeed has almost become our religion; it is defended by the civil government even as the later Roman emperors and the mediaeval princes protected the Church against attack. Socialists and communists are the Waldensians and Albigensians of our day, heretics to be cast out, suppressed, and deported to Russia, if not directly to hell as of old.

The Secret Service seems inclined to play the part of a modern Inquisition, which protects our new religion. Collected in its innumerable files is the evidence in regard to suspected heretics who have dared impugn "business as usual", or who have dwelt too lovingly on peace and good will among nations. Books and pamphlets, although no longer burned by the common hangman, are forbidden the mails by somewhat undiscerning officials. We have a pious vocabulary of high resentment and noble condemnation, even as they had in the Middle Ages, and part of it is genuine, if unintelligent, as it was then.

Such are some of the obstacles which the student of human affairs must surmount. Yet we may hope that it will become increasingly clear that the repression of criticism (even if such criticism becomes fault-finding and takes the form of a denunciation of existing habits and institutions) is inexpedient and inappropriate to the situation in which the world finds itself. Let us assume that such people as really advocate lawlessness and disorder should be carefully watched and checked if they promise to be a cause of violence and destruction. But is it not possible to distinguish between them and those who question and even arraign with some degree of heat the standardized unfairness and maladjustments of our times?

And there is another class who cannot by any exaggeration be considered agitators, who have by taking thought come to see that our conditions have so altered in the past hundred years and our knowledge so increased that the older ways of doing and viewing things are not only unreasonable, but actually dangerous. But so greatly has the hysteria of war unsettled the public mind that even this latter class is subject to discreditable accusations and some degree of interference.

We constantly hear it charged that this or that individual or group advocates the violent overthrow of government, is not loyal to the Constitution, or is openly or secretly working for the abolition of private property or the family, or, in general, is supposed to be eager to "overturn everything without having anything to put in its place".

The historical student may well recommend that we be on our guard against such accusations brought against groups and individuals. For the student of history finds that it has always been the custom to charge those who happened to be unpopular, with holding beliefs and doing things which they neither believed nor did. Socrates was executed for corrupting youth and infidelity to the gods; Jesus for proposing to overthrow the government; Luther was to the officials of his time one who taught "a loose, self-willed life, severed from all laws and wholly brutish".

Those who questioned the popular delusions in regard to witchcraft were declared by clergymen, professors, and judges of the seventeenth century to be as good as atheists, who shed doubt on the devil's existence in order to lead their godless lives without fear of future retribution. How is it possible, in view of this inveterate habit of mankind, to accept at its face value what the police or Department of Justice, or self-appointed investigators, choose to report of the teachings of people who are already condemned in their eyes?

Of course the criticism of accepted ideas is offensive and will long remain so. After all, talk and writing are forms of conduct, and, like all conduct, are inevitably disagreeable when they depart from the current standards of respectable behavior. To talk as if our established notions of religion, morality, and property, our ideas of stealing and killing, were defective and in need of revision, is indeed more shocking than to violate the current rules of action. For we are accustomed to actual crimes, misdemeanors, and sins, which are happening all the time, but we will not tolerate any suspected attempt to palliate them in theory.

It is inevitable that new views should appear to the thoughtless to be justifications or extenuations of evil actions and an encouragement of violence and rebellion, and that they will accordingly be bitterly denounced. But there is no reason why an increase of intelligence should not put a growing number of us on our guard against this ancient pitfall.

If we are courageously to meet and successfully to overcome the dangers with which our civilization is threatened, it is clear that we need _more mind_ than ever before. It is also clear that we can have indefinitely more mind than we already have if we but honestly desire it and avail ourselves of resources already at hand. Mind, as previously defined, is our "conscious knowledge and intelligence, what we know and our attitude toward it--our disposition to increase our information, classify it, criticize it, and apply it". _It is obvious that in this sense the mind is a matter of accumulation and that it has been in the making ever since man took his first step in civilization._ I have tried to suggest the manner in which man's long history illuminates our plight and casts light on the path to be followed. And history is beginning to take account of the knowledge of man's nature and origin contributed by the biologist and the anthropologist and the newer psychologists.

Few people realize the hopeful revolution that is already beginning to influence the aims and methods of all these sciences of man. No previous generation of thinkers has been so humble on the whole as is that of to-day, so ready to avow their ignorance and to recognize the tendency of each new discovery to reveal further complexities in the problem. On the other hand, we are justified in feeling that at last we have the chance to start afresh. We are freer than any previous age from the various prepossessions and prejudices which we now see hampered the so-called "free" thinking of the eighteenth century.

The standards and mood of natural science are having an increasing influence in stimulating eager research into human nature, beliefs, and institutions. With Bacon's recommendations of the study of common _things_ the human mind entered a new stage of development. Now that historic forces have brought the common _man_ to the fore, we are submitting him to scientific study and gaining thereby that elementary knowledge of his nature which needs to be vastly increased and spread abroad, since it can form the only possible basis for a successful and real democracy.

I would not have the reader infer that I overrate the place of science or exact knowledge in the life of man. Science, which is but the most accurate information available about the world in which we live and the nature of ourselves and of our fellow men, is not the whole of life; and except to a few peculiar persons it can never be the most absorbing and vivid of our emotional satisfactions. We are poetic and artistic and romantic and mystical. We resent the cold analysis and reduction of life to the commonplace and well substantiated--and this is after all is said, the aim of scientific endeavor. But we have to adjust ourselves to a changing world in the light of constantly accumulating knowledge. It is knowledge that has altered the world and we must rely on knowledge and understanding to accommodate ourselves to our new surroundings and establish peace and order and security for the pursuit of those things that to most of us are more enticing than science itself.[27]

No previous generation has been so perplexed as ours, but none has ever been justified in holding higher hopes if it could but reconcile itself to making bold and judicious use of its growing resources, material and intellectual. _It is fear that holds us back._ And fear is begotten of ignorance and uncertainty. And these mutually reinforce one another, for we feebly try to condone our ignorance by our uncertainty and to excuse our uncertainty by our ignorance.

Our hot defense of our ideas and beliefs does not indicate an established confidence in them but often half-distrust, which we try to hide from ourselves, just as one who suffers from bashfulness offsets his sense of inferiority and awkwardness by rude aggression.

If, for example, religious beliefs had been really firmly established there would have been no need of "aids to faith"; and so with our business system to-day, our politics and international relations. We dread to see things as they would appear if we thought of them honestly, for it is the nature of critical thought to metamorphose our familiar and approved world into something strange and unfamiliar. It is undoubtedly a nervous sense of the precariousness of the existing social system which accounts for the present strenuous opposition to a fair and square consideration of its merits and defects.

Partisanship is our great curse. We too readily assume that everything has two sides and that it is our duty to be on one or the other. We must be defending or attacking something; only the lily-livered hide their natural cowardice by asking the impudent question, What is it all about? The heroic gird on the armor of the Lord, square their shoulders, and establish a muscular tension which serves to dispel doubt and begets the voluptuousness of bigotry and fanaticism.[28] In this mood questions become issues of right and wrong, not of expediency and inexpediency. It has been said that the worthy people of Cambridge are able promptly to reduce the most complex social or economic problem to a simple moral issue, and this is a wile of the Father of Lies, to which many of us yield readily enough.

It is, however, possible for the individual to overcome the fear of thought. Once I was afraid that men might think too much; now, I only dread lest they will think too little and far too timidly, for I now see that real thinking is rare and difficult and that it needs every incentive in the face of innumerable ancient and inherent discouragements and impediments. We must first endeavor manfully to free our own minds and then do what we can to hearten others to free theirs. _Toujours de l'audace!_ As members of a race that has required from five hundred thousand to a million years to reach its present state of enlightenment, there is little reason to think that anyone of us is likely to cultivate intelligence too assiduously or in harmful excess.


Our age is one of unprecedented responsibility. As Mr. Lippmann has so well said:

Never before have we had to rely so completely on ourselves. No guardian to think for us, no precedent to follow without question, no lawmaker above, only ordinary men set to deal with heartbreaking perplexity. All weakness comes to the surface. We are homeless in a jungle of machines and untamed powers that haunt and lure the imagination. Of course our culture is confused, our thinking spasmodic, and our emotion out of kilter. No mariner ever enters upon a more uncharted sea than does the average human being born in the twentieth century. Our ancestors thought they knew their way from birth through all eternity; we are puzzled about day after to-morrow.... It is with emancipation that real tasks begin, and liberty is a searching challenge, for it takes away the guardianship of the master and the comfort of the priest. The iconoclasts did not free us. They threw us into the water, and now we have to swim.[29]

We must look forward to ever new predicaments and adventures. _Nothing is going to be settled in the sense in which things were once supposed to be settled, for the simple reason that knowledge will probably continue to increase and will inevitably alter the world with which we have to make terms_. The only thing that might conceivably remain somewhat stabilized is an attitude of mind and unflagging expectancy appropriate to the terms and the rules according to which life's game must hereafter be played. We must promote a new cohesion and co-operation on the basis of this truth. And this means that we have now to substitute purpose for tradition, and this is a concise statement of the great revolution which we face.

Now, when all human institutions so slowly and laboriously evolved are impugned, every consensus challenged, every creed flouted, as much as and perhaps even more than by the ancient Sophists, the call comes to us ... to explore, test, and, if necessary, reconstruct the very bases of conviction, for all open questions are new opportunities. Old beacon lights have shifted or gone out. Some of the issues we lately thought to be minor have taken on cosmic dimensions. We are all "up against" questions too big for us, so that there is everywhere a sense of insufficiency which is too deep to be fully deployed in the narrow field of consciousness. Hence, there is a new discontent with old leaders, standards, criteria, methods, and values, and a demand everywhere for new ones, a realization that mankind must now reorient itself and take its bearings from the eternal stars and sail no longer into the unknown future by the dead reckonings of the past.[30]

Life, in short, has become a solemn sporting proposition--solemn enough in its heavy responsibilities and the magnitude of the stakes to satisfy our deepest religious longings; sporty enough to tickle the fancy of a baseball fan or an explorer in darkest Borneo. We can play the game or refuse to play it. At present most of human organization, governmental, educational, social, and religious, is directed, as it always has been, to holding things down, and to perpetuating beliefs and policies which belong to the past and have been but too gingerly readjusted to our new knowledge and new conditions. On the other hand, there are various scientific associations which are bent on revising and amplifying our knowledge and are not pledged to keeping alive any belief or method which cannot stand the criticism which comes with further information. The terrible fear of falling into mere rationalizing is gradually extending from the so-called natural sciences to psychology, anthropology, politics, and political economy.

All this is a cheering response to the new situation.

But, as has been pointed out, really honest discussion of our social, economic, and political standards and habits readily takes on the suspicion of heresy and infidelity. Just as the "freethinker" who, in the eighteenth century, strove to discredit miracles in the name of an all-wise and foreseeing God (who could not be suspected of tampering with his own laws), was accused of being an atheist and of really believing in no God at all; so those who would ennoble our ideals of social organization are described as "Intellectuals" or "parlor Bolshevists" who would overthrow society and all the achievements of the past in order to free themselves from moral and religious restraints and mayhap "get something for nothing". The parallel is very exact indeed.

The Church always argued that there were no new heresies. All would, on examination, prove to be old and discredited. So the Vice-President of the United States has recently declared that:

Men have experimented with radical theories in great and small ways times without number and always, always with complete failure.

They are not new; they are old. Each failure has demonstrated anew that without effort there is no success. The race never gets something for nothing.[31]

But is this not a complete reversal of the obvious truth? Unless we define "radical" as that which never does succeed, how can anyone with the most elementary notions of history fail to see that almost all the things that we prize to-day represent revolts against tradition, and were in their beginnings what seemed to be shocking divergences from current beliefs and practices? What about Christianity, and Protestantism, and constitutional government, and the rejection of old superstitions and the acceptance of modern scientific ideas? The race has always been getting something for nothing, for creative thought is, as we have seen, confined to a very few. And it has been the custom to discourage or kill those who prosecuted it too openly, not to reward them according to their merits.

One cannot but wonder at this constantly recurring phrase "getting something for nothing", as if it were the peculiar and perverse ambition of disturbers of society. Except for our animal outfit, practically all we have is handed to us gratis. Can the most complacent reactionary flatter himself that he invented the art of writing or the printing press, or discovered his religious, economic, and moral convictions, or any of the devices which supply him with meat and raiment or any of the sources of such pleasure as he may derive from literature or the fine arts? In short, civilization is little else than getting something for nothing. Like other vested interests, it is "the legitimate right to something for nothing".[32]

How much execrable reasoning and how many stupid accusations would fall away if this truth were accepted as a basis of discussion! Of course there is no more flagrant example of a systematic endeavor to get something for nothing than the present business system based on profits, and absentee ownership of stocks.

Since the invention of printing, and indeed long before, those fearful of change have attempted to check criticism by attacking books. These were classified as orthodox or heterodox, moral or immoral, treasonable or loyal, according to their tone. Unhappily this habit continues and shows itself in the distinction between sound and unsound, radical and conservative, safe and dangerous. The sensible question to ask about a book is obviously whether it makes some contribution to a clearer understanding of our situation by adding or reaffirming important considerations and the inferences to be made from these. Such books could be set off against those that were but expressions of vague discontent or emulation, or denunciations of things because they are as they are or are not as they are not. I have personally little confidence in those who cry lo here or lo there. It is premature to advocate any wide sweeping reconstruction of the social order, although experiments and suggestions should not be discouraged. What we need first is a change of heart and a chastened mood which will permit an ever increasing number of people to see things as they are, in the light of what they have been and what they might be. The dogmatic socialist with his unhistorical assumptions of class struggle, his exaggerated economic interpretation of history, and his notion that labor is the sole producer of capital, is shedding scarcely more light on the actual situation than is the Lusk Committee and Mr. Coolidge, with their confidence in the sacredness of private property, as they conceive it, in the perennial rightness and inspiration of existing authority and the blessedness of the profit system. But there are plenty of writers, to mention only a few of the more recent ones, like Veblen, Dewey, J. A. Hobson, Tawney, Cole, Havelock Ellis, Bertrand Russell, Graham Wallas, who may or may not have (or ever have had) any confidence in the presuppositions and forecasts of socialism, whose books do make clearer to any fair-minded reader the painful exigencies of our own times.

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The Mind in the Making Part 9 summary

You're reading The Mind in the Making. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): James Harvey Robinson. Already has 32 views.

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