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Six Ideas to Keep Us Human

By Edmund Opitz, author of The Libertarian Theology of Freedom and Religion and Capitalism: Allies, Not Enemies. This essay was originally published in the November 1972 issue of The Freeman.

Most people live lives of quiet desperation, Henry David Thoreau told us. If there was truth in that observation, in the pleasant, spacious old New England of Thoreau’s day, how much more truth is packed into those words in these melancholy days! Events have gotten out of hand and the world lurches into chaos.

Things have fallen apart faster than any of us would have dared predict, and we are seized by pangs of guilt and self-doubt. So many promising experiments have gone sour, from the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson to the latest ukase of the present administration. The statesmen of this era talked peace and sought to outlaw war, but they let the twentieth century break down into the bloodiest period of all the twenty-five hundred years of warfare studied by Pitirim Sorokin. “We live,” wrote this great scholar, “in an age unique for the unrestrained use of brute force in international relations.”

The threat of protracted international conflict is bad enough, but there is also the well-founded fear of domestic violence and crime. And even if we are lucky enough to escape actual robbery, we know that inflation is steadily draining our wealth. We’ve seen the race issue go from integration to Black Nationalism; we’ve witnessed the emergence of the sex and drug cult, the rise of astrology, witchcraft and voodooism; V.D. has reached epidemic proportions among the young; and then there is abortion, homosexuality, the campus crisis, the environmental crisis, the inner crisis in man himself. For is it not true, as Yeats says in a famous poem, that “The wicked act with dreadful intensity, while the good lack all conviction.”

Youth Seeking Identity

It is a time of troubles for all, but perhaps it’s easier for the old whose habit patterns firmed up in a healthier era than for the young who are searching for a value system and cannot find one. Depression, in the vocabulary of many young people, does not mean the economic malaise which this country staggered through during the Nineteen Thirties; it means the somber mood in which they hang question marks around life, wondering if it really is worth living. They are trying to find meaning for their lives in terms of the values their elders lived by — or on any other terms — and they are not having much luck. We sometimes find their behavior rather bizarre; the long hair, the weird clothing, the haphazard life styles. But perhaps these symbolize a message they are trying to get across to us. Some of the so-called hippies, by deliberately being ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, may be practicing a charade whose message is that the More Abundant Life, as defined in New Deal terms, is not a proper goal for man. Perhaps they have a suspicion that reality is wider and deeper than the physical universe revealed to common sense — as religion has always maintained —and so they experiment with mind-expanding drugs. They grope after some form of religious expression, but still they drift.

Now, we know something about the rise and fall of civilizations. In our schoolbooks we read about “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome.” Toynbee, Spengler and Dawson have made us aware of dead civilizations on other continents. A civilization comes into existence cradled in dominant ideas, launched by deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice, and it maintains itself in a tonic condition only so long as it has solid grounds for believing in itself and its destiny. But civilizations wane; Rome fell; Spengler predicted the decline of the West. We need not buy a single one of Spengler’s theories, but it is hard to argue against his phrase: The West is in decline. Great numbers of people in this favored land no longer believe in the things that made Western civilization unique.

An animal species which has flourished in a given area may be wiped out by a disease, or it may be decimated by a predator, or a climatic change may destroy its food supply. Every one of these afflictions has beset primitive peoples in times past, but a civilization does not founder for any of these reasons. A civilization goes under when its people, for one reason or another, lose contact with the big keynote ideas of their culture.

Ideas Make Us Human

Wherein lies the great difference between the human species and every other? We have much in common with other forms of life, especially with the warm-blooded vertebrates. In structure we bear some resemblance to the manlike apes, but the critical difference in the domain of ideas far outweighs any resemblances. If a chimpanzee has any thoughts at all about what it means to be an ape, they are rudimentary; he’s a pretty good animal without even thinking about it. But no man is fully human unless he maintains a lively contact with a set of ideas as to what it means to be a person.

This is where our disease has set in, in the realm of ideas. The perilous days we are living through are not the result of a drying up of the food supply, which is more abundant than ever. There’s been no marked change in the physique of modern man, and disease is not a menace. Nor are we beset by predators. The malaise from which we suffer has impaired the ideas which instruct us what t means to be men and women, and we function poorly in consequence. The people of our race built the Parthenon, constructed he great systems of philosophy, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Clapel, wrote the plays of Shakespeare and the music of Bach; and we can’t figure out how to teach our kids tolerance and mutual respect without busing them all over town! Something is definitely wrong with us, and it won’t be right with us until we come to terms with six big ideas. I’ll mention them briefly now and deal with them at greater length later on. They are the right convictions about free will, reason, self responsibility, beauty, goodness, and the sacred. We have “blown it” at every one of these points, and that’s more than enough to account for the sorry spectacle modern man has made of himself. It also points the way to recovery. Let’s, first of all, hear a portion of he indictment leveled at us by contemporaries.

Downgrading Man

The human race is getting a bad press these days, and we love it. Norman Cousins told us a while back that “Modern Man is Obsolete,” and we confer a couple of distinguished editorships on him in a frenzy of approval. Robert Ardrey writes a book to demolish what he calls The Romantic Fallacy and argues that our forebears were killer apes, whose blood lust still surges in our veins. And so great is the demand for preachments of this sort that the book has gone through seventeen printings! The creature we used to refer to as the glory of creation is, when you scratch the surface, little more than a Naked Ape, Desmond Morris tells us. This book has gone through six printings and there are two paperback editions. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Morris writes a second book, The Human Zoo. The Nobel Laureate in biology, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, goes Morris one better with a book entitled The Crazy Ape. And it is common knowledge that this odious race fouls its own nest, pollutes the environment of its neighbors, wars ceaselessly on its own kind, destroys wildlife, watches Lawrence Welk and votes Republican. The creature once regarded as little lower than the angels is now ranked several degrees below the beasts!

The books whose titles I have listed above purport to be in the realm of science. In the realm of the admittedly fictitious there is a new school of novelists who aim, in their stories, to reveal man as the pitiable slob he really is. A critic comments that “From Cervantes to Hemingway, storytellers have assumed that man has hopes and aspirations, and that they could be expressed meaningfully. Bosh, says the new school. Man is blob, creeping and leaping about a world he cannot control, his words meaningless or hypocritical or both.”1

Immortality of the Soul

How different the outlook of a great writer like William Faulkner, in these words from his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950: “I believe that man will lot merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he clone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Brave words such as these are in danger today of being drowned by the sheer bulk of the other message, which, through the numerous outlets it has contrived, produces the enervating atmosphere)f misanthropy in which we struggle for survival. Take the movies. We are given films which degrade our species by focusing on the sordid, the silly, the ugly, the cowardly, the disgusting; as if all elements of the dramatic were lacking in characters who exhibit nobility, heroism, kindness, or even common decency. Another tack is taken in such a film as “The Hellstrom Chronicle.” The mere ability to film those astonishing pictures of the insect world represents the culmination of the work of many geniuses, but this heartening thought is squelched by the narrator who tells us toward the end of the film that they really do organize things better in the insect world, and human beings should learn from wasps and ants to submerge their individual talents for the greater glory of the hive and termitary!

The examples I have cited from works of popular science and the realm of entertainment might be multiplied many times, and they represent no more than the fraction of the iceberg that pokes itself above the surface of the water. The huge mass below the water line represents the mood, outlook, trend or drift that sways the multitude.

In many previous ages lonely thinkers and poets sounded the note of pessimism, voiced their despair, and vented their hatred of life. But they were read and heard by only a handful of their contemporaries; they did not reach the multitudes. The masses of men in previous ages were comfortably insulated against ideas of any sort; most of them couldn’t read and the range of the human voice limited the size of the audience. The traditional religious belief gave men’s lives meaning and even dignity, and most human energy was used up in producing enough to live on.

Catering to the Masses

Things are different now. Antihuman sentiments, dislike of humanity, hatred of life, are epidemic among present-day intellectuals, and the idea that life may not be worth living has percolated down to the masses of people. This is a new situation in history. The masses of men are relatively inarticulate but only a mass audience can make a book a best seller, or award a golden record to some singer, or enable a film to gross ten million dollars. The people, books, songs, ideas which ride the crest of fashion today are held there by popular support; whereas, formerly, the artist and composer wrote for wealthy patrons. Joseph Hayden composed magnificent music for the Esterhazys; but Leonard Bernstein writes his Mass for the masses. We are dealing with a perverse attitude toward life which has infected major sectors of Western culture at every level. In the year 1929, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote a stunning little book entitled The Modern Temper, using the word “temper” in the sense of frame of mind, or outlook. His major point was that educated people had come to assume that science had exposed as delusions the values and standards upon which Western Civilization had been founded, and that the decline of the West was due to Western man’s loss of faith in himself. The prevalent belief, he argued, is that men are animals and animals are machines.

What men believe about themselves is an important factor in the success or failure of their efforts. A golfer who firmly believes he can sink a putt is more likely to do so than one who believes he’ll miss the cup. A swimmer like Don Schollander tells how he gets himself “psyched up” before a race and tries to make his opponents feel like losers in a war of nerves. It is a notorious fact in baseball that certain pitchers have the “Indian sign” on a particular batter; he’s a dangerous hitter except against this one pitcher. The right beliefs, in short, inspire right action.

I don’t know what an elephant believes about himself; I suspect that he doesn’t believe anything about himself, one way or the other. I think it would not matter; he’d go on being the same old elephant he always was. Sometimes we say of a pet Saint Bernard who tries to crawl up into our lap that “Bozo thinks he’s a kitten.” But we know we’re joking; and even if this was said seriously, we know that Bozo remains a dog no matter what he thinks he is.

With the human species it is different: Human beings do not attain their full stature as persons unless they are reinforced by the proper ideas and beliefs about the meaning of being a person. We share our physical being with other mammals; biologically speaking, we are anthropoids. By virtue of our genetic equipment we are clever, adaptable hominids; but no one of us realizes his full potential as a man or woman unless he knows what it means to be human. If we so misread human nature as to regard our species as nothing more than the fortuitous product of natural and social forces, then we have impaired our chances of achieving the most uniquely human qualities within our capacity.

Environmentalism

If it is generally believed that man is merely the product of his environment — the individual a passive outcome of the time and place into which he was born, the human race a consequence of accidental chemical and physical events of a few million years ago — when such beliefs pervade a culture, the result is pessimism and resignation. The sense of individual responsibility is dead in a man who regards himself as a passive creature of his circumstances. The only people who prove superior to their circumstances, who surmount environmental handicaps, are those whose beliefs about the human species endow men and women with the creative energy to overcome life’s difficulties.

It may sound as though I am endorsing a “think and grow rich” formula, or the like. Actually, I am talking about the big picture; the dominant world view entertained by a culture, the prevailing ideology, the real religion. The dominant world view today is some form of materialism; explicit where Marxianism has taken hold, implicit elsewhere. Let me document this assertion from a statement entitled “What I Believe” by C. P. Snow; novelist, scientist, member of the peerage, writing in the current issue of the Britannica Roundtable (Vol. 1, No. 3). A publication such as this is no vehicle for publishing radical departures from orthodoxy; Baron Snow’s statement is printed because his point of view is commonplace among people who regard themselves as being in step with up-to-date ideas. Snow writes as follows: “I believe life — human life, all life — is a… fluke which depended on all manner of improbable conditions happening at the same time.” But if all life is a chance occurrence, so is Baron Snow’s life. And if Snow’s life is a fluke how can his thinking be anything but a series of flukes? His thoughts then are random events, without rational foundation. “All that happened,” he continues, “is within the domain of the laws of physics and chemistry… it was a completely material process…. A few million years ago, subject to the laws of statistical chance, the creatures that were our direct ancestors came into existence…. Speech and what we call conscious intelligence accrued…. We are still an animal species, but much cleverer than all others.” Snow goes on to add, rather wistfully it seems, “It has been a very unlikely process, with many kinds of improbability along the way.”

Nature’s Passion for Order

Now, old Mother Nature has a passion. for order. She has an aversion to disorder, and the Laws of Probability simply record Mother Nature’s gyroscopic tug to keep things on course. The Laws of Probability record that the number of male and female children born is roughly equal. Flip a penny fifty times and it will come up heads on the average of about every other throw — twenty-five times out of fifty. Make a thousand random throws of a pair of dice and the Laws of Probability can tell you approximately how many times they’ll come up snake-eyes, and how many times you’ll get box cars. Numbers between two and twelve are within the system, and each of the eleven possible numbers will appear a certain number of times according to the laws of statistical chance.

But let’s pose this question: In a thousand random throws of the dice how many times will we get seventeen? How many times will the dice turn into a rabbit? The answer is that this would never happen; spooky questions like this imply belief in magic. Now suppose we ask the same question, but say that the dice have been thrown once a second for a billion years. Now how many seventeen’s and how many rabbits? The answer of any sensible person is “None!” to both questions. The number seventeen and rabbits are outside the system of the little spotted cubes called dice.

When a man like C. P. Snow declares that no life becomes life due to the operation of the Laws of Probability over immense time, he attributes magical properties to mere duration. He assumes that dice do turn into rabbits if the time span be measured in billions of years. And when he invokes another huge block of time to account for the transformation of the non mental into the mental and the nonrational into the rational, he is endowing the mere sequence of days, centuries, and millenia with miracle-working efficacy.

Monkeys vs. Shakespeare

We’ve all heard the assertion — intended to illustrate what mere chance and time can accomplish —that if a thousand monkeys were seated at a thousand typewriters and banged away for a thousand years they would reproduce every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The premise upon which this wild illustration is based is that a Shakespearian sonnet is nothing but a mechanical arrangement of black letters on white paper. There are indeed letters on paper, but there is one other special ingredient in these sonnets: Shakespeare’s genius. There is no place for genius in the world view of the materialist who professes to believe that mind is an offshoot of matter. A poet simply marks the location where a poem occurs, according to B. F. Skinner: “The poet is also a locus, a place in which certain genetic and environmental causes come together to have a common effect.”2 And besides, the genius is a salient individual who stands out above the crowd when really he should be content to seek “social gains!”

What men believe about themselves has a great deal to do with determining the success or failure of their efforts in the several departments of life, and when influential segments of the literate population embrace notions about the universe which demean man by depriving him of his most distinctive characteristics the culture is thrown off base.

Let me now probe a little deeper along this line. I shall argue that six major ideas, together with body, brain and nervous system, transform what Snow calls “an animal species, but much cleverer than all the others” into a full-fledged member of the human species. A creature with anthropoid features who completely lacks these ideas is not of our species even though he walks, talks, and dresses like a man. Fortunately, in consequence of the animal health and grace in even the worst of men, it is almost impossible for any person to eliminate from his make-up all traces of these ideas;

Now then, six big, potent, interrelated ideas, without which man is not man.

It is no secret that a great many philosophers and scientists deny free will and affirm determinism; it is also a fact that no one can really bring himself around to believing that he is an automaton. A philosopher who announces himself as a determinist presumes to offer us a conclusion he has arrived at after observation, after marshalling the relevant evidence, after reflection, and as the end result of a chain of reasoning. Each of these steps reflects the action of a free being, and these free actions can never be pieced together so as to contrive an unfree result. Man’s will is free; it is so free that it can deny this freedom!

Take the case of Baruch Spinoza. If any man ever lived free it was Spinoza; he was the “inner directed” man par excellence. But Spinoza’s own experience clashed with the new world view of Mechanism — the notion that the universe is constructed along the lines of an intricate piece of clockwork. Ideology overcame experience and Spinoza denied that his will was free. I quote from Proposition XLVIII of his Ethics:

There is in no mind absolute or free will, but the mind is determined for willing this or that by a cause which is determined in its turn by another cause, and this one again by another, and so on to infinity.

The mind is a fixed and determined mode of thinking, and therefore cannot be the free cause of its actions, or it cannot have the absolute faculty of willing and unwilling; but for willing this or that it must be determined by a cause which is determined by another, and this again by another, etc. Q.E.D.

Free Will

If the individual does not have free will, then he is not at liberty to reject determinism! But where will a man find a position from which he might judge whether his will is indeed free, or not. The answer is: Only as he looks within himself, at the workings of his inner life; by introspection, in other words. Now introspection is rather frowned upon today as a means of getting at the truth, as not being in accord with scientific technique. Early science viewed nature from the standpoint of the external observer, as a theater goer views a play. The man occupying the seat in the first row of the balcony is observing the drama unfold upon the stage; he is detached from the action, is not involved in the play, his standpoint is objective. The world view that grew out of science is assumed to be the way the universe looks to an outsider who is not part of the action, merely looking in upon it.

Once this approach is adopted, what follows? Let me answer by quoting from Jacques Barzun’s great book, Science: The Glorious Entertainment: “Pure science was engaged in sketching, bit by bit, the plan of a machine — a gigantic machine identical with the universe. According to the vision thus unfolded, every existing thing was matter, and every piece of matter was a working part of the cosmic technology.” Thus emerged the ideology bearing the label Mechanistic Materialism, and human beings schooled in this ideology come to think of themselves as mere cogs in the world machine. And just as every gear and cog in the machine is moved by another, so is every human action the mere effect of a previous cause, and so on. Observe a man’s actions from the outside and you see only his body and limbs in motion; nothing that you can see from the outside gives you any assured knowledge of what is going on inside him. You cannot observe his will from the outside, nor his mind. You might guess what’s going on, but that’s the best you can do.

A Hidden Inner Life

There is one region of the universe which will always be beyond the ken of the external observer, and that is the region of the inner life. Each man’s inner life is concealed from all the world; he alone has access to it. Millions of people can view the same eclipse of the sun, but only one person can know your inner life, and that is you. Truth about the will in action can be known by introspection only; it will never be disclosed to those who adopt the standpoint of the external observer and refuse to shift their perspective. If there is indeed freedom of the will, this is a truth which, in the nature of the case can be known only as each person knows it first hand in himself. Let a man look within himself and he knows with solid assurance that he is capable of exercising freedom of choice in situations where real alternatives are open to him. Which of us has not wrestled with dilemmas of the type: “I want to do this; but I ought to do that”? We know, in this context, that the will is free.

There’s an old story about Galileo, who assured one of his contemporaries that the ring around Jupiter was composed of satellites; “I’ve seen them through my telescope; take a look and see for yourself.” The friend had figured out that the ring was solid and refused to put his eye to the glass, the only posture from which he could test his theory. The free will, if it operates at all, operates only within, and those who are so wedded to the standpoint of the external observer that they refuse to look within, effectively bar themselves from ever obtaining any knowledge of the matter.

The consequence of this state of affairs is unfortunate. It is “unscientific,” the average man is led to assume, to believe he has free will, and that decisive action on his part can make a real difference in life. He is taught that he is determined by heredity, or environment, or race, or childhood traumas, or poverty, or by some other factor that limits his capacity for free choice; and his ability to choose is impaired because he thinks he doesn’t have it! The initiative is given over to environment and man only reacts; he doesn’t act. Adjustments to the environment, comfort, and ease then come to be the goals of life. If we accept the dictum of a great economist that “the end, goal or aim of any action is always the relief of a felt uneasiness,” then we have given up on life, for we’ll never rest easy until we’re dead! To live is to strive for greater intensity of life, and this means that we may choose adventure, heroism, suffering, and maybe even death.

The issue of free will constitutes a battle line of first importance. A people among whom the flame of life has burned so low that their philosophers preach determinism will be severely handicapped in the game of life. They will find it difficult to put their trust in reason and, as we might expect, reason itself is now under attack from several quarters.

Rationality

The second of the big ideas which make man man is this: Man is a reasoning being who, by taking thought, gains valid truths about himself and the universe. The attack on the rational mind comes from several quarters. Philosophical materialism and mechanism assumes that the ultimate reality is nonmetal; only bits of matter or electrical charges or whatever are, in the final analysis, real. If so, then thought is but a reflex of neutral events. “Our mental conditions,” wrote T. H. Huxley, “are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism.”

Evolutionism, popularly understood, is materialistic and mechanical. So viewed it conveys the idea that living things began as a stirring in the primeval ooze and became what they are now by random interaction with the physiochemical environment, moved by no purpose, aiming at no goal. Darwinism offers an account of organic change which has no need of intelligence to guide it.

From popular psychology comes the notion that reason is but rationalization, that conscious mental processes are but a gloss for primitive and irrational impulses erupting from the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis discredits mind by subordinating intellect to the id.

From Marxianism comes the notion that class interest dictates a man’s thinking. There is one logic for the proletariat and another for the bourgeoisie; and the mode of production governs the philosophical systems men erect, and their life goals as well. The unfortunately placed middle class forever gropes in darkness, unable to share the light revealed to Marx and his votaries.

Convictions about the reality of reason and free will develop in the context of our vision of the ultimate nature of things. And here I bring up again the ideology of Mechanistic Materialism. There are several kinds of Materialism, the most prominent today being Dialectic Materialism, the official religion of Marxianism. However, the several brands of Materialism differ only in nonessentials; they agree that all forms of consciousness arise, develop, and disappear with changes in the material world. Every variety of Materialism downgrades mind; it makes mind an offshoot of matter, a derivative of material particles, an epiphenomenon.

Let Bertrand Russell tell us in his own words:

“Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.

.. Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”

Of course, if matter is the ultimate reality, mind is discredited. But if this discredited instrument is all we have to rely on, how can we put any confidence in its findings? If untrustworthy reason tells us that we cannot trust reason, then we have no logical ground for accepting the conclusion that reason is untrustworthy! Well, I don’t trust the reasoning of people who champion the irrational, and I do know that our reasoning powers may be — like anything else — misused. But when human thought is guided by the rules of logic, undertaken in good faith, and tested by experience and tradition, it is an instrument capable of expanding the domain of truth. Reason is not infallible, but it is infinitely more to be trusted than nonreason!

Self-Responsibility

The third great truth is that each man is the custodian of his own energy and talents, charged with bringing himself to completion and having a lifetime to do the job. Gifted with reason and free will, the human being must take himself in hand in order to complete his development; most animals, on the other hand, simply mature, brought to full term by innate drives. Human beings are not thus programmed, and occasionally we have to act against inclination and instinct and inertia if we would achieve our goals. This is simply illustrated in sports, where the successful performer forces himself to train even on those days when he’d rather be doing something else. The bike club I ride with held a century run over a six mile course. A couple of youngsters turned up in full regalia and rode off, one pacing the other, looking very professional. Quite a few miles later I noticed that one of the young men had dropped out, so I asked the other what happened.

“I train every day whether I want to or not,” he replied, “he just goes out when he feels like it.”

There you have it on a small scale, but the same principle applies to life. “That wonderful structure, Man,” wrote Edmund Burke, “whose prerogative it is to be in a great degree a creature of his own working, and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation.”

The persistent downgrading of life, during recent centuries has reduced man to a cosmic accident inhabiting a fourth rate planet, lost in the immensities of space and time, in a materialistic universe devoid of values. This dubious vision has not been vouchsafed to the birds and the beasts, but only to human beings. Only man among all the creatures of the planet has been able to take all time and all space within his purview and draw conclusions of any sort. And it is a perverse kind of silliness for a creature gifted with the ability to understand and explain to bemoan his littleness in the face of the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos. Whose mind is it that comprehends all this? What creature controls an enlarging domain? Man confronting the universe as astronomer, physicist, geologist, engineer, is entitled to stand tall; would that he might do as well in other departments!

Beauty

In the area of aesthetics, for example, to illustrate the fourth vital idea. Here man confronts beauty in the very nature of things, and reproduces his vision in art. In a materialistic age it comes to be believed that particles of matter in motion are the only realities, which means that beauty is unreal. “Beauty,” we are told in the familiar phrase, “is in the eye of the beholder.” How did it get there? we want to know, unless loveliness — as every great artist has taught us — is real, and out there waiting to be experienced.

What shall a painter resort to when the ideology of the age convinces him and his potential public that matter is the ultimate reality and beauty a mere illusion? Let Picasso answer:

When I was young I was possessed by the religion of great art. But, as the years passed, I realized that art as one conceived it up to the end of the 1880′s was, from then on, dying, condemned, and finished and that the pretended artistic activity of today, despite all its superabundance, was nothing but a manifestation of its agony.

As for me, from cubism on I have satisfied these gentlemen (rich people who are looking for something extravagant) and the critics also with all the many bizarre notions which have come into my head and the less they understood the more they admired them…. Today, as you know, I am famous and rich. But when I am alone with my soul, I haven’t the courage to consider myself as an artist.

One more quotation, this time from Joseph Wood Krutch, generalizing about modern artists:

They no longer represent anything in the external world, because they no longer believe that the world which exists outside of man in any way shares or supports human aspirations and values or has any meaning to him.

Art once celebrated the greatness of the human spirit and man’s aspiration for the divine; great art reconciled man to his fate. “We are saved by beauty,” wrote Dostoevsky. Art now is the reaching out for bizarre forms of self-expression by more or less interesting personalities; or it becomes outright buffoonery and charlatanism.

Goodness

The fifth big idea has to do with ethics; it is the conviction that moral values are really embedded in the nature of things, and that men have the capacity and are under the necessity of choosing the good and eschewing evil. Given a revival of belief in reason and free will I am confident that ethical questions will be brought within the human capacity to resolve. But if we succumb to the attacks on reason and free will, and if we accept the ideology of Materialism we will seek in vain for some substitute for ethics. We reduce morality to legality; we confuse what is right with what works; or what advantages us, or what pleases us. These things, including utilitarianism and relativism, boil down to ethical nihilism, for if nothing is really right, then nothing is really wrong either.

The Sacred

The sixth big idea pertains to the human experience of the sacred — a dimension which transcends the workaday world. This encounter evokes awe, reverence, a sense of the sublime; and it produces — in the intellectual sphere —the philosophy known as Theism. Theism is the belief that the universe is not merely brute fact, but that a mental/spiritual principle is at the heart of things; the finite mind in each of us is somehow grounded in an infinite Mind. In one perspective, Theism encompasses all the other ideas; and in another perspective, if our thinking is right on the previous five ideas, Theism is an immediate inference.

We resist the word “God” because for most people the notions of their childhood still cling to it, and these notions they have outgrown while they have not permitted their ideas of God to grow with them. But if one rejects the idea of God, he has no logical stopping place short of the idea of Materialisim; and if he goes this far, he has embraced an ideology which shortchanges his own mental processes. Mind, reason, logic, and God are all bound up together. Santayana was once referred to as an atheist, and he replied, “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe, and rejects only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of human interests.” Genuine Theism demands that we be “a-theistic” toward the false gods.

Theism contends, as a minimum, that a Conscious Intelligence sustains all things, working out its purposes through man, nature, and society. This is to say that the universe is rationally structured, and this is why correct reasoning pans a few precious nuggets of truth.

Acceptance of the Creator reminds men of their own finitude; no man can believe in his own omnipotence who has any sense of God’s power. And finite men, aware of their limited vision, have a strong inducement to enrich their own outlook by cross fertilization from other points of view.

When theistic belief is absent or lacking in a society, men are beguiled by the prospect of establishing a heaven on earth. They vainly dream that some combination of political and scientific expertise will usher in utopia, and they use this future possibility as an excuse for present tyranny. Under Theism, they modestly seek to improve themselves and their grasp of truth — thus making the human situation more tolerable, more just, more enjoyable — confident that the final issue is in God’s hands.

But won’t men perversely use Theism as in excuse for intolerance and even persecution, as indeed has happened in history? Of course they will, for there is no good thing that cannot be misused. But reflect on the deadliness of the alternative as exhibited by regimes which make atheism official. Communism, during its first fifty years in several countries, has taken a toll of at least eighty-four million lives!

What is Man? the creature from Mars might ask. And our answer would be that man is a being with an anthropoid body and six ideas. What if he loses contact with one or more of these ideas? our questioner continues. In that case, we answer, his humanity is thereby that much diminished.

Diminished man has come to the fore at an accelerating rate during the past century. In statecraft, he was unable to resolve minor differences between Western nations and thereby prevent them from tearing each other to pieces in the cycle of wars which began in 1914. In religion, we have a split between the “death of god” trend, on the one hand; and, on the other, an emphasis on push-button salvationism. In education, there is agreement on one point only, that there is a crisis in the schools; but there’s no consensus as to cause and cure. Philosophers have abandoned the great tradition in philosophy to embrace one fad after another; positivism, linguistic analysis, existentialism. Then there is the “treason of the intellectuals,” many of whom have found communism and socialism irresistible; who resolved that there should be no more war in the Thirties but decided a few years later that war was a wonderful thing. And in personal life, at a time when the male is giving his worst performance, unable to reconcile women to their roles in life, the female wants liberation so she can imitate the male!

It goes without saying that as I list a portion of the indictment against modern man, I have in mind statesmen, artists, philosophers, theologians, intellectuals, as well as ordinary men and women, who have kept the faith, who have not lost their heads. I am not certain that the madness from which we suffer has run its course, and that we’ve turned the corner, but I am enough of an optimist to have confidence that the corner is within sight, and that there is sufficient health in us to make it.

Notes:

1. Free Will. Man’s gift of free will makes him a responsible being.

2. Rationality. Man is a reasoning being who, by taking thought, gains valid truths about himself and the universe.

3. Self-responsibility. Each person is the custodian of his own energy and talents, charged with the lifetime task of bringing himself to completion.

4. Beauty. Man confronts beauty in the very nature of things, and reproduces this vision in art.

5. Goodness. Man has a moral sense, enabling and requiring him to choose between good and evil.

6. The Sacred. Man participates in an order which transcends nature and society.

Each of these big ideas is in trouble today. The attack on them has been gathering momentum for a couple of centuries and the case against has just about carried the day in influential circles. We’ll further examine these ideas in a concluding article next month.

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