Pessimism, that variety which is collectively contagious, is a disease which affects primarily the highly developed parts of a society—the sensitive and the educated—and there are today certain groups of Americans who seem to be most susceptible. There are those who formerly believed that Christianity (the Hebraic-Christian ethic and religion) was so strong an agency of humanization that men would never willfully abandon its values; those who thought that science was to become the universal instrument of man’s progress; or that a sufficient quantity of innate human goodness existed to permit the operation of a relatively self-regulating political and economic system. Some believed that social change might be brought about by means of violent revolutions followed by beneficent dictatorships; or that a cosmic process known as evolution was at work in the realm of human affairs, assuring ultimate progress. There was the conviction that popular education must produce a maximum number of reasonable individuals who would together devote themselves to social ends. Finally there were those who believed that democracy, the most humanistic of all conceptions of order and culture, had taken permanent possession of the minds and hearts of men and would therefore continue its expansion, culminating in a democratic world society.
These are, then, our potential pessimists: romantic religionists, scientific positivists, laissez-faire libertarians, revolutionary Marxists, sentimental evolutionists, quantitative educators and naive believers in traditional democracy. The similarities between these above groups are more important than the distinctions. These are all believers, and each found himself sooner or later a participant in a movement. These are all particularists, that is, persons devoted to a single line of reform. Most of these believers were also persuaders, and to the degree in which they succeeded in winning converts to their particular doctrine they lost the habit of self-criticism and thus became centers of reactionary influence. In a curious, paradoxical manner the believers became the latent betrayers. For pessimism— the loss of will and energy to struggle for ideals—is in itself one of the grosser forms of human betrayal.
Nevertheless, these persons had the energy needed for improvement. Faith generates energy and without belief nothing is accomplished. Even an erroneous faith, a belief which cannot stand the scrutiny of tested knowledge, produces energy and at times in greater quantity than a belief well founded and authenticated, as Hitler has so vividly demonstrated. We are thus brought face to face with one of man’s deepest dilemmas: he must believe if he is to live, and yet the act of belief frequently becomes the source of decadent conservatism; or at moments when the objects of belief are denied, the believers themselves become disillusioned defeatists. Those of us who assume critical tasks must strive to come to grips with this dilemma.
The first responsibility of faith is action. To believe means to be prepared to enter upon an experiment. Belief which does not imply action is either an escape from reality or a variety of hypocrisy. What loss of personal dignity we have seen lately in those who continue to profess a faith which they do not practice! A believer who does not think and act automatically becomes a hindrance to human advancement.
The second obligation assumed by the genuine believer is the practice of self-criticism. Only self-critical believers may be trusted to retain the capacity to hear and understand what the disbelievers say. When this capacity wanes, the believers also lose the habit of communication. They become sectarians; they communicate only with those who share their convictions and develop insulations against all others. When this happens, the units of energy generated by faith cancel each other out. This process may continue until confusion becomes so widespread as to constitute preparation for the rise of a willful demagogue, and by definition a demagogue may be regarded as a person who spreads false truths and false hopes.
To believe is to “get set” for action. But action is not self-justifying. T he person who is not ready to consider the consequences of his action will suffer the worst form of self-delusion. He will ultimately, like the Fascists of our time, call evil good and good evil. The true believer believes also in human experience. T he ultimate test of an article of faith is its practicability in experience, not its logical consistency within a framework of doctrine. Experience is also a form of logic. Beliefs are hypotheses to be tried. Whether a belief is true or not depends upon the consequences as experienced.
I have listed above certain objects of faith which formerly had the support of many intelligent and sensitive persons. I do not wish to insinuate that they are either separately or collectively false. I do not know. What I am prepared to assert is that these faiths have not resulted in human progress and that many of the most faithful of a former age are now defeatists. Also, I believe that the energy generated by these beliefs has suffered degradation and cannot now be relied upon for purposes of regeneration. Christians wage total war against each other. Scientists seek employment where they can get it, regardless of the moral purposes of their employers. Laissez-faire libertarians will still struggle for individual freedom even if it means merely the freedom to starve. Contemporary Marxists make themselves indistinguishable from Nazis and Fascists by utilizing the methods of both. Cosmic evolutionists tend to shy away from reality and hide in new obscurantisms. Educationists have become so timid that any pressure group with sufficient power can now get its objectives incorporated as educational goals. And the victories of the dictator countries have frightened the emotional believers in democracy into a paralysis of inaction, making disorder, confusion, anger and hatred. These are not promising sources of energy for any purpose except destruction.
The United States has, of course, decided to arm against any possible attack by the dictators. But while a defense program may be necessary, it is not in itself an act of faith. Indeed, it may be only the result of rear. We must prepare to defend ourselves if we are to survive as a people, but I am concerned about something more important than mere survival. What interests me is whether or not the American people are capable of revival. The late Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes insisted that to live is to act and to act is to affirm an ideal. I want to live and act, and therefore I know that I must believe. Many minds are now demoting themselves to an appraisal of our material resources; these must be marshaled in such manner as to convey meaning to the dictators, who no longer employ the language of reason. My chief concern is centered upon a point far beyond these fateful warring years. My thought is focused upon the resources of the mind, out of which we may (or may not) construct a decent, a humanistic and peaceful culture.
The question I am asking is this: What resources (other than material ones) do we possess for purposes of reconstruction and regeneration? More specifically, what resources do we possess which were not available to former generations faced with disaster? My answers are lamentably small in number and to many will seem incredibly feeble when placed beside eighty-ton tanks, nests of furtive submarines and swarms of swift-flying bombers. But I make no apologies. I am prepared to rebuild both my faith and my dismembered world with the tools available, and I await no miracles. It may be that I see through a glass darkly, but I think I see, and this is my initial report.
We possess an instrument almost unknown to past civilizations, an instrument whose values are only dimly recognized at present but which will one day, I believe, become our most powerful preventive against human disaster. This instrument is mental hygiene. Emerson, who had a canny foreknowledge of this discipline, said we now know that life can be mean but we also know what makes it mean. We know that we have been “too much hurried by systems” and not enough concerned with human motivations. The mechanisms of incentive are still, perhaps, a tangled web, but slowly the tangle is being unwound and gradually we come to see what it is that makes men desperate and unreasonable. We see also some of the poisons which have brought decay to the roots of human relationships. Indeed, we have even proceeded far enough in therapeutics to be able to straighten lives that had become warped and to train individuals to recognize their own twisted emotions. But, this instrument is still in its primitive stage of development and its promises are infinite.
Our second resource is to be found in historic realism. The amount and the quality of reliable historical material which has been gathered in recent years will astonish those who are not familiar with this field of research. The time has come when clarifying generalizations may be abstracted from this great mass of information. One lesson from history seems already to have become fairly clear, namely that civilizations may be destroyed but not culture itself. The values of culture inherent in Greek civilization at its best shine now with more luster than ever before. We also learn from history that civilizations rarely if ever die as the result of their own toxins. Complete decay does not come from within. A civilization may become weak from within, may lose touch with its true tradition, and so prepare itself for the aggressor. From this lesson we also learn that a civilization which is to save itself must acquire the art of lifting itself by its own bootstraps. We are even now being tempted to concentrate most of our energy in the direction of hatred towards aggressors, whereas history teaches us that we should reserve the major part for the solution of our chronic difficulties.
We are in possession of new analytical devices which might, if properly utilized, save us from confusion and chaos. Science has taught us to suspect oversimplifications of cause and effect. In nature, it appears, there are no single causes, and since we are a part of nature it seems reasonable that we should abandon the pernicious habits of particularism. When disaster impends, when a whole society is threatened, it should be clear that no simple or unitary explanation will suffice. Our difficulties are neither economic, nationalistic, racial, political nor moral. These are merely terms which describe certain phases of human experience, but they are interconnecting terms. Specialists can help us only when the various aspects of life are flowing in the same general direction. When this is not the case, specialized interpretations lead to more confusion. The economist, for example, who is not likewise interested in morality is sure to be a poor guide. By the same token, the moralist whose principles do not apply to economic life will ultimately find himself operating in a social vacuum.
The fourth resource for future hope is more doubtful because it arises, not from scientific, but rather from philosophical experience and hence will not be shared by as many minds. We seem to have learned that end-gainers are also mischief-makers. By “end-gainers” I mean persons who stake out specific goals and then develop a moral attachment to them. Such a person will invariably measure his success or failure in life in terms of these a-priori goals or ends. This means that defeat will become so unbearable a prospect that he will become careless regarding his means rather than alter the ends. This is the source of much of the worst of our current immorality, namely that persons will utilize means which are incompatible with their ends. But, quoting Emerson again, “ends preexist in the means.” We become what we do, not what we wish. The lesson to be learned here—and it is one which is peculiarly pertinent for educators and all other instructors in human behavior—is that a sense of direction is much more important than a specific goal. What needs to be taught to the young is that “intellectual and moral victories are the only ones which do not leave the victor bankrupt and desolate in spirit when the goal is won” (AE).
The last of my present list of resources for the future centers upon the democratic symbol itself. We have been exhorted to believe that what we are now struggling for is the democratic way of life as contrasted with the totalitarian way of life. Unless we come to a better understanding of the use of symbols, this battle will, I believe, be lost. The totalitarians have defined their conception of life. We have not. We are still asking people to sacrifice and fight for a mere symbol. This they may do for a time, but if the symbol does not sooner or later take on flesh and bones and become a living reality, their persistence and courage will not endure. If, then, we are to use such rich and symbolic concepts as Democracy, we must state what we mean, not merely in terms of some former age but for the present and the future. The largest defections from Democracy come from young people. Why? Because they have never seen Democracy at its best. Some are not able to describe its meaning at all, that is, in terms of actual day-to-day behavior. Academic interpreters of Democracy insist that this conception of life rests upon such believes as pluralism and personal dignity. But what is pluralism in action? How do individuals attain dignity? How will the young worker who spends each hour of each day throughout an entire year, throughout a complete lifetime perhaps, doing nothing except pushing a lever, reach dignity? How much dignity is left to the citizen who votes knowing that both candidates seeking election are bound to be controlled by corrupt party manipulators? What we are slowly beginning to learn is that we can expect persons to be loyal only to that which they have experienced and found good.
This article originally ran in the December 2, 1940 issue of the magazine.