The ideal of the human under the aegis of something higher provides the strongest counter-pressure against the fragmentation and barbarization of our world…
Editorial Note: The essay has been edited from an untitled, undated transcript of a lecture which Richard Weaver delivered to a meeting of the Newman Club at the University of Chicago shortly after the end of World War II. It was one of the many manuscripts he was apparently readying for publication at the time of his sudden death in April, 1963. —Robert Hamlin, University of Kansas
Now, of course, when one begins to talk about the amount of happiness or good existing in any given society, he lays himself open to attack from several quarters. There are those who maintain that the amount of good existing increases steadily as time goes on. There are those who maintain that it decreases steadily. And there are those who maintain that the amount of good is always constant, and that our impressions of increases and decreases are pure illusion. About the first, I would say that they are naive or insensitive; about the second that there is probably something wrong with their ontology; and about the third that they are despairing men who leave no room for free will or deliberate improvement but represent us as caught up in a meaningless dance.
I take the position that the amount of positive good does vary from time to time and from group to group, and that the relative amount is closely dependent upon the amount of intelligence and good will that men exercise. This is just another way of saying that we are in great measure the authors of our own fortunes and that there is no decent refuge in either complacency or self-pity.
While this is true, it is also true that our own case is relatively hard. We have one of the toughest assignments in trying to remain humane that any age has had, and I hope you will indulge me if I describe things pretty much as I see them. There are two circumstances that I believe create our difficulties. The first is a mentality; the second is a great fact of the objective world. Discussing these involves a critique of present-day science. And since science is up for canonization, I intend to play the role of the devil’s advocate. I am going to say the worst and meanest things I can about science.
We are all familiar with the assertion that we live in an age of science. So many times have we heard it that probably few of us pause to give the statement reflective content. When we do attempt to say more, particularly what the “science” is that dominates our world, we find ourselves looking at a program of inquiry, and at the solid or tangible results of that program. About the inquiry itself I shall say what may seem a dreadful thing, but I propose to offer my grounds. It seems to me that this inquiry reflects a habit of mind which must disquiet us. The habit appears to rest on a supposition that if you can do a thing, you must do it. And I can characterize that only as an infantile mentality. It is like the stage of boyhood one passes through during which one feels that if he can chin himself twenty times, he must do it; that if he can throw a rock across a certain stream, he must do it. The criterion then is not whether you should do a thing, but whether you can do it. I am afraid that much of the vast scientific activity which goes on about us is predicated on nothing profounder than that. There is a real bite in Winston Churchill’s description of science as “organized curiosity.”
But this attitude, that if you can do a thing, you must do it, is one that civilized societies outgrew, and I should like to develop this proposition more seriously by approaching it through another route. Those familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus will recall an early scene in that dialogue, before the argument settles down to a single theme and while Socrates and Phaedrus are exchanging what might be called pleasantries. The two are outside the city walls looking for a shady place to rest. As they walk along, Phaedrus is reminded that this is the place where, in the myth, Boreas is said to have carried off Orcithyia. Phaedrus then asks Socrates whether he believes the tale is true. The answer which Socrates gives has always seemed to me one of the most meaningful things in this wonderful dialogue because it pits scientific rationalism against humanism, and humanism carries off things with a high hand.
He begins his answer by remarking that many tales of this kind are open to a sort of rationalization. That is to say, one may substantiate a scientific explanation by stating that a young maiden was playing on some rocks when a blast of north wind pushed her over; and that when she had died in that manner, she was said to have been carried off by Boreas. “I think such explanations are very pretty in general,” says Socrates, “but are the inventions of a very clever and laborious and not altogether enviable man…. This sort of explanation produces only a boorish type of wisdom—the Greek phrase might be rendered “a countrified sort of wisdom”—and Socrates regards it as beside the point. “I have no time for that kind of investigation,” he says—if I may translate loosely here—”because I don’t yet understand myself. Why should I occupy my time with matters like that while I still do not understand whether I am a monster more complicated and more furious than Typhon, or a gentler and simpler creature to whom a divine and quiet lot is given by nature.”
This statement of Socrates contains the essence of humanism. What it asks is merely this: Can I afford to spend all my time—or even much of it—studying the rocks and the trees while I still don’t know what my nature is and therefore cannot be sure what use I would make of these studies? This is the locus classicus of the principle that we do not find the secret of man’s life in the study of things.
Modern man has obviously taken the alternative that Socrates rejected. He has made the most prodigious researches into nature and has come up with terrifying discoveries. To use an illustration which comes very dose to home, he has unlocked the secret of atomic energy without waiting to make certain whether he is a creature crueler and more furious than the monster Typhon. The first use made of this great discovery was to drop it on the heads of other men. (The parallel is so close that I cannot refrain from mentioning that Typhon in the legend was chiefly notorious for having slain his brother.)
What this illustrates to me is that after all the labors of the social scientists, we now know less about human nature than did the men of Socrates’s day or the men of the Middle Ages. They recognized that man needs to be protected against himself; and they were interested in setting up internal safeguards. We seem to think that only external safeguards, in the form of bastions and air fleets directed against other men, are needful. The Greeks and the men of the Middle Ages made their failures; but they seem not so egregious as the failures we have made and the failures we may be facing, because our theory of the human being has simply ceased to be candid. It is no longer candid because it will not recognize that man has a bad nature too. This is not our whole nature, but it is a part of our nature which has to be looked after sharply. Humanism studies man as expressed through his whole nature, including his motivation; and that is why it seems to some now, as it seemed to Socrates that day in Athens, to have a prior place in the course of inquiry.
While we are on the subject of the proper study for man, let me cite a corollary fact about scientific development. Is it not a perturbing consideration that scientific progress seems to get its greatest impetus from war? Why should this be so? Taken by itself, is not this congruence of mutual human slaughter and great scientific progress, as it is called, a rather frightening conjunction of events? Among the ancients this conjunction of truths would have been regarded as an omen. Everywhere today we read about products and techniques which came into being thanks to war time studies in science. Docs not this raise some question about the motivation of science? If its greatest efforts are always seen in times of hatred and mass hysteria, is there not some small ground for suspecting that the very essence of this undertaking is exploitative and aggressive? And what we may be justified in asking is whether things created in that kind of crucible are in the long run good for us. Their intent is so narrow, so special, so ill-inspired. One thing we can certainly say: They are not made in contemplation of human happiness. As to whether they can be turned to the ends of human happiness—well, I think the burden of proof is on the devisers.
Now being a piece of a logician, I do not contend that this concurrence proves that one is the cause of the other. But this sort of conjunction repeated is the kind of analogy that leads to the more serious kind of investigation. Moreover, there are probably other aspects to indicate that science in its nature is not contemplative, but aggressive. Bacon’s statement that knowledge is power, which he meant in some such sense as this, is one of the most dubious aphorisms ever handed down. It leaves hanging in the air the whole question of power for what.
A pamphlet issued by the Office of War Information during World War II bore the subtitle “Science at war.” The first time I saw it I felt “How anomalous.” Science cannot be at war. And certainly if someone were to conceive the slogan “Art at War,” there comes at once a great outpouring of aesthetic theory to prove that art cannot go to war, or that such part of it as does go ceases by that act to be art. But the code of science is different, and the more I reflect upon the subtitle, the more I suspect that it is one of those locutions through which the truth slips out while we are trying to say something else. For the very fact that science has declared an implacable sort of warfare upon the unknown, upon space and time, makes us again wonder whether its aims are not hostile to our peace. It tends to set up a world of such brittle relationships that if one part gets a sharp knock, the whole flies to pieces. One certain result we can see is an increasing rigidification of our world. If there is a sneeze in Siberia, it disrupts something in Patagonia. The shock absorbers have been removed. We used to look upon space and time as cushions which protected us against phenomena we did not wish to intrude. But science seems to have declared war on both, and both are being cut down, so that everything has a new proximity.
Here I would suggest that a mind to which everything is present at once is a mind gone many steps toward madness. As human beings, we can’t stand that kind of thing, we can’t stand to think of all our troubles at once, or even of all the things we have to do next week at once. To do so unsettles us or makes us frantic. But this is what the new structure given our world by technology tends to make us do. An uprising in Indo-China or Malaya jolts as severely in Washington as it does in Hanoi or Singapore. And this is true, we are told, because science has made the world one. Things are put upon an all or nothing basis. We must have permanent and indivisible peace, or we must have universal war. This sort of rigor, this sort of spectacular inclusiveness, appeals to some natures, but I question whether it is a healthful development. I suspect rather that true union is through a kind of grace, and not through an unbearable tension. This sort of unity that science, at least in its applied version, is giving the world, is the unity of a rigid mechanism.
I have already introduced the second division of my topic, which is the tangible products of this great program of inquiry, and what they do to us as well as for us. Here I intend to focus upon the machine as a special construct of science and upon its reputed benefits. There is no need for me to make a canvass of these. Every speaker who dilates upon the theme of progress reminds us of how many machines we have, of how the face of the earth has been changed through the application of mechanical power, of how modern life is sustained by a great network of energies. I shall merely summarize and remind you that we do live in a mechanized world and that many circumstances of that world cannot be explained apart from the fact.
Yet there is one aspect of the machine’s existence which I think has not been sufficiently noticed by social philosophers. This is what I shall call the moral role of the machine. Here I seem to be dealing in anomalies myself. The machine is not supposed to have a moral nature, and in the conventional way of thinking, of course, it does not. The conventional approach is to represent the machine as an innocent, almost as an injured innocent, since man has obviously misused it under many circumstances. The argument runs that the machine is a completely impartial agent. One can use it for good or for bad. It has no preference in the matter. Or, to put this into a figure, the science of ballistics along with some other sciences will tell you how to make a gun, but it will not tell you whom to shoot with it. And the gun itself will not tell you either. Therefore, it is said, the great tragedy of our day cannot be blamed upon science and machinery, since these never fail to exhibit a perfect impartiality.
This argument seems valid up to a point, but it leaves out one consideration, and the omission of that permits too simple a conclusion. The argument says, to repeat, that the machine does not have a character and hence cannot be good or bad. It cannot be principal or accessory in the acts where it has a part.
Now it is true that the machine does not have character, but it does have being. And being itself may be thought of as a kind of force.
Allow me to try to make plain what I mean here by drawing on a concept from the field of military strategy. When military strategists go about planning the defense of a country, I understand that they speak of the armies, the fleets, and whatever the other countries may possess as “forces in being.” And these forces in being, although they are inactive and although they are the possessions of a nation at peace, nevertheless determine policy. That is to say, measures have to be devised which will take into account these “forces in being” even though they seem to have a purely existential status. This means that a “force in being” cannot be treated as if it had no influence on the course of affairs. Or, if our word “influence” in its common acceptation does not quite state the idea, maybe I could say “effluence”—which means an outpouring, an outgiving of something. And what I am preparing to ask at this point is whether we must not regard the mechanical creations of science as a “force in being.” It is easy enough to say that they are neutral with regard to us, that they do not affect our course one way or another. But is this realistic in the sense of admitting all the factors that are at work? Does it take into account the effluence?
We might use the automobile for a simple illustration. Most of us who have had the experience of owning an automobile have found that the simple existence of this piece of private property makes it relatively hard for us to get enough exercise. Not that the automobile has a moral character, not that it enters into a dialectic with us and tells us that we ought to ride when we know we have only three blocks to go. But there it is, sitting by the curb, such a masterpiece of ingenuity that we are perhaps a little proud to be associated with it. Its simple being is a standing temptation to use it. The fact that it is there seems to induce us to find additional opportunities for its use.
Now what is true of the automobile in this everyday illustration may be broadly true of the great world of machinery created by technology. Certainly, it does not tell us to use it for idle or wasteful or destructive purposes. But again, there it is, a force at hand, and the very least we can say is that it imposes an added strain upon human nature. I am afraid this is seen especially in the case of weapons of war, where the temptation to see how well they will work, once they have been created, is almost overwhelming. If what I have outlined is even measurably so, then our living in this world which science has created calls for more heroism than other ages have demanded, and it is at least well to know what the requirements are.
Not only does this science-created world act as a deflector of specifically human activity, there is yet another result, one which I am not able to analyze very clearly, but which I can indicate by pointing to certain phenomena that give cause for concern.
When the proponents of science feel they are on the defensive, they recite the things which the various sciences are able to cure, either wholly or partially. Actually, the list runs from cancer to psychopathology. Our retort to this must be: “Why are there so many things today that need curing? Has the world just become more cure-conscious? Or do we actually have more forms of degeneracy, mental and physical?” Generally, I believe it is a bad sign when a man feels that he needs a cure. Is it not possible that we are curing things that we are causing, or that with our cures we are only running after things that we have started and are trying to hold back? If a world which is chiefly distinguished by its precariousness produces a great number of psychopathic individuals, and scientific techniques can cure say thirty percent of these, where is the profit? My point is simply that we should be as interested in why so many cures are found needful as we are in the brilliance of the curative techniques. I have heard it plausibly argued by an ingenious man that cancer is morally caused, and that the moral cause has something to do with the guilt complex of specifically modern man. I certainly would not attempt to settle this proposition. But taking facts apart from suppositions, here is an instance in which degeneracy has kept well ahead of the most strenuous efforts of the keenest scientific brains. To put it in my way, the need for a cure is outstripping the cure available. The same is probably true of psychopathology, of suicide, of divorce, and of other afflictions of the social body. Technique, however brilliant, is an employment of means. Perhaps our error is the ignoring of first and final causes, which cannot be studied without some conception of the whole man.
I have now spent a good many minutes playing the devil’s advocate against science. It is not a very fashionable thing to do, and I hope I have not appeared contumacious. Science is with us as a great empirical fact. We all make use of it to some extent and anyone who does so much as wear eyeglasses must ask himself how well he could get along without it. It certainly is not going to be banished by one short polemic like this. We shall continue to come to terms with it. Even its devotees and followers have the necessity, sometimes personally arduous, I believe, of adapting themselves to its progressive changes.
My final consideration must, therefore, be: What is the best means of living with science I do not necessarily assume here a hostility, for even where the attitude is friendly, problems do persist. The city of Chicago is perhaps the foremost example in this country of a great complex situation produced by science and technology. At the same time, it is true that the leading impression many people have of Chicago is an impression of brutality. Indeed, one of her poets has celebrated this as a virtue, but I do not believe that is the considered feeling of most of us. Rather, we are perplexed over how to adjust to it.
As one looks over the scene and tries to decide his policy, two alternatives are almost certain to suggest themselves. Either one can immerse himself in the element and strive to be just as brutal as it is; or he can detach himself, cutting down to the minimum his point of contact with it. That is to say, he can try to fight it by its own means, or he can run from the fight.
I think a little reflection is needed to show, that both of these have unacceptable or certainly undesirable consequences. By trying to compete in brutality, you make yourself a brute, and this man is commanded not to do. Brutality is in its essence a lack of discrimination, a lack of regard for distinctions and susceptibilities and rights. It is the action that smashes or levels or obliterates while remaining contemptuous of qualifying circumstances. This is the bestial attitude and the antithesis of humanity. On the cultural level, it is fatal to what we respect as the humanities. But detachment too, while it seems to preserve intellect, draws bad things in its train. It results in isolation, a decrease of sympathy, eventual loss perhaps of any vital idea of brotherhood; and it is certainly likely to engender pride. The man who is self-consciously perched above the fray comes to have a sort of disdain for those who are wrestling with the world’s intractability, and that too tends to be inhumane in the way that it divides us off. We are all here to be proved, and it seems that a man should not try to save himself by individual withdrawal.
If, then, he is to mix in the world but not be brutal, if he is to preserve his integrity but not abstract himself too far from others, he must have some kind of guide or measure, must he not? He must, in short, look for some standard of humanity. Now one way to do this is to make a survey of history and to gather up the best that has been thought and said, as Matthew Arnold exhorted us to do. By this method, humanism becomes inference and generalization about human behavior in its historical composite. But humanism so conceived cannot serve as an inspiriting goal. On the contrary, it collapses from the fallacy that man is the measure of all things. The explanation seems to be that if you limit attention to the best of human achievement, you introduce a concrete ideal. But concrete ideals are never legislative or normative. Our opponents can always attack us, if we take such a stand, by saying that one age has as much authority as another. Why, they will argue, should we not take our human objectives from the present age? We exist just as truly as did any past age. Let the Greeks be the Greeks; we will be the modern Americans. The difficulty arises because one concrete ideal cannot sit in judgment on another concrete ideal. Before we can have the idea of relative evaluation at all, we must have a tertium quid, a third essence, an ideal ideal, as it were. This is why a humanism which is merely historical-minded can be learned, but cannot in the true sense be critical. Such humanism is, as I once heard a clever man express it, horsepower without the horse. Now, where do we look for the horse?
Unquestionably, this is the point where humanism has to seek transcendental help. Such help is indeed implied by the problem we posed for ourselves; namely, how do we practice a humanism amid circumstances tending to defeat our humanity? The answer must contain an element of prescription. Nor is there anything in this approach to outrage our basic definitions, if you will grant that the human being cannot be fully defined without some reference to final ends. He can be anthropologically surveyed; he can be culturally appreciated; but these accounts merely describe him on certain levels of his existence. As Cardinal Newman said explicitly of his ideal of the gentleman: It is an attractive role with many incidental benefits, but it does not exhaust the vocation of man. Indeed, it is not really comprehensible until it is validated by something higher. In the same way, humanistic activity has to be measured, pointed up, directed by some superior validating ideal. Not long ago on this campus, I heard a speaker exclaim, after expressing impatience with all this transcendental moonshine, “Why can’t we just be good human beings!” The reply would be that one of the attributes of the good human being is some kind of response to the whole of existence, and that this response, however you care to figure it, lays some kind of obligation upon the respondent. Since humanism, as I have tried to show, cannot carry its own measure, it has to solicit that measure from some other source. Some higher point of view seems necessary to gather up the implications of humanism.
We find ourselves up against great pressures today in our effort to maintain a humane life and to cultivate what we rejoice in as the humanities. In this effort, we need to know how far to go and in what way. We also need a little moral bucking-up. The impetus of the trend is against us. Descriptive comparisons will not suffice because they will merely pit this age and its ideals against other ages and their ideals. In view of the very formidable size and weight of our own, it would probably win out in any such contest. What we do, then, is look to an ultimate source of value and judgment, one of whose prescriptions is that we retain the image in which we were made. It is this ideal of the human under the aegis of something higher which seems to me to provide the strongest counter-pressure against the fragmentation and barbarization of our world.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 1970). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.