Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: Whither Civilization?

Although in its quiet way England has staged a social revolution, he would be a courageous man who would assert that any conscious process of thought accompanied it. The English people have an almost innate reluctance to formulating social ideas in words. Their own, time-honored semantics have taught them that words more often divide than unite. Thus, there is no English school of sociology. But there is an English method of social action, which subordinates thought to life, and seeks to find solutions in life itself. If one only tries long enough, questions may spontaneously resolve themselves, the English seem to say—and in any case one avoids the mistake of making them insoluble by attempting to force a solution where none is yet possible.

This method reigns at those summer meetings which combine the stimulus of a holiday in the countryside with the contemplative seclusion of ashram. It could be seen at its best at the first postwar Conference of the Institute of Sociology held at Reading University, July 26 to August 2.

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True, the method seems to leave all too many factors to the inscrutablele working of chance—yet good care is taken not to allow the mills of the intellect to run out of grist. Products of first-class thinking are put at the disposal of the gathering, which is left free to react to them or not—as collective wisdom deems fit. This permits the very stuff of thought to be tested by the only valid test: the reactions of seriously interested persons to stark facts of the mind. Of course, there is a prepared program of lectures, open forums, symposia, and discussion groups; yet the Holy Ghost is allowed to move freely. No provision is made for the systematic treatment of a body of recognized knowledge; there is no covering of the ground, nothing but the rare phenomenon of a conversation carried on between differing and separate viewpoints—a hurling of shafts of light across none-too-well-defined provinces of human life, leaving the spectator to choose between the varied hints of truth.

Only to those who watch the Conference developing and moving warily from one subject to another does the underlying stream of thought reveal itself. The audience is largely composed of experts in their own fields, who still pretend to be merely an interested public with no special qualifications to judge the productions of the well-known speakers who put forth their views. Actually, it is the audience which picks up one thread of thought and drops another, pressing for clarification of one aspect, and letting another fade out of vision. The apparently random fits and jerks by which the proceedings move forward merely cover up a dialectic which ultimately is conditioned by the meaning of the total situation. In this case, the atom bomb was the true object of concern. Yet apart from one single address, which was devoted to the subject, and involved important enunciations, hardly any mention was made of the release of nuclear energy. The collective mind, in its silent rumination, had arrived at the conclusion that no more could be done about it; consequently, the less said the better.

In effect, what approximates to a state of acute distress over the international situation was one of the invisible poles of the Conference. Proof is the fact that the question of the relative contributions of America, Russia, and Britain to the problem of presentday industrial civilization was not even mentioned. ‘For any discussion of it would have brought up the issue of Soviet communism in all its breadth and depth. That in turn would have catalyzed thought upon the world situation, the Paris Peace Conference, and the other intractable maladies of the hour. A tacit conviction that nothing could be gained at this juncture by treating these crucial questions by the clumsy method of public discussion made the conference refrain from tackling the obviously central issue.

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If intense though silent political concern was one pole of the meeting, the other pole was the religious issue. With the atom bomb hardly mentioned, the Jewish-Christian tradition moved into the foreground. The repression of politics resulted in an overemphasis on religion.

This connection, though never mentioned, was probably apparent to all. That may be the reason why neither the differences between the various religious positions, nor even the unbridged gap separating religious and nonreligious opinion, prevented the meeting from proceeding with its job.

Though the fact was never brought into the open, the gathering was deeply split on the question of religion. The younger generation, on the whole, rejected the traditional lead given by the older members. It was this rift which made Professor Hodges’ contribution on the failure of philosophy so poignant. Though personally ‘belonging to the younger generation, he depicted the tragedy of nonreligious thought with an almost passionate vehemence.

On the other hand, the main religious currents in England represented in the Conference struck an uncompromising note, as if to meet the challenge of the hour by an extreme formulation of their tenets. Youth, increasingly indifferent towards religion, was thus confronted with absolute statements of the various Christian positions.

The immediate issue of the day, the atom bomb, was dealt with in an informal, but authoritative fashion. The recently formed Atomic Scientists’ Association, comprising a considerable part of British nuclear physicists, was represented by its president, Professor N. F. Mott of Bristol University, Fellow of the Royal Society. His address, chaired by G. W. Scott Blair of Reading University, was felt to be an important event.

Professor Mott declared that he, like his colleagues in America, wished to address himself to the public not as a scientist but as a citizen. “Science cannot flourish behind barbed wire—in the atmosphere of ten years’ prison sentences,” he said, alluding to the recent conviction of the King’s College physicist, Dr. Nunn May. England does not fear the spirit of friendly rivalry either with the scientists of the USA or with those of the USSR. After these introductory remarks, he warned of exaggerations in regard to the military effects of the use of the atom bomb under present conditions. As long as atom bombs could not be produced by the 10,000—and this certainly would not be the case within the next years—the bomb was not a war-winning weapon. Its destructive effect was, on the whole, comparable to a raid of 1000 bombers carrying ordinary bombs. Yet, obliteration bombing did not cut short the German war effort. In effect, German war production continued to increase right up to the end of 1944. Now, both the USA and the USSR possess numerous industrial centers, the units of which are dispersed. Short of several tens of thousands of bombs, nothing in the way of a decisive military defeat could be inflicted on either of them. “To call a spade a spade,” he said, “the Red Army would not be stopped on its march on Calais.” The Atomic Scientists’ Association based its practical policy on the Lilienthal Report, which he called “one of the historical documents of the age.” He supported its proposals to set up an Atomic Development Authority to own all uranium stock piles, and to become the prime body of atom research in the world. Outlawing of the use of atom bombs would be mere eyewash. An international police force armed with atom bombs could not avert wars. Would you agree, he asked, to the atom bomb being used as a policing measure, for instance, in Palestine? Or to stop Argentina from misbehaving? A strong man can be restrained only by fighting him. Punitive measures alone could not prevent any powerful nation from making bombs. The use of the atom bomb must therefore be envisaged in a large-scale war of Great Powers. Therefore, he said, we must teach the nations to live together, because they must. The Atomic Scientists’ Association does not combine its proposals with the demand that “veto” should be dropped in the Security Council. Even though the Russians are overdoing the use of the “veto,” UN without Russia would no longer be an international authority in the true sense of the term. What we need is an acceptance by the Russians of the Lilienthal Report. Inspection on both sides of the frontier would then start. We must peg away until this happens. Russia has changed her policy more than once in the past; she may do so again. The Atomic Scientists’ Association is determined to keep this realistic view before the public eye.

The audience gave an ovation to Professor Mott. And at the close of the Conference the following was unanimously adopted as part of the resolutions:

There was a progressive decline of moral judgment during the war, as evidenced by the widespread acceptance of obliteration bombing, and carried a big stage further by the use without warning of the atom bomb.

The Conference welcomes the initiative taken by the Atomic Scientists’ Association of America and of Great Britain in bringing these issues before the public.

It calls upon its fellow citizens to urge the government to give full support to the Baruch plan for the control of atomic energy and to support similar provisions against the use of all weapons of indiscriminate extermination.

(The chairman of the Conference session emphasized that the resolutions were an act of the Conference and did not commit the Institute.)

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On the theoretical level of politics, two lecturers offered original contributions: Professor George Catlin, late of Cornell University, and Professor Hsun-Cheng Shao, of National Tsinghua University, Peiping.

In their addresses, an orientalized West was being confronted by an occidentalized East. Professor Catlin said: “When we see the new teaching of psychologists, educationalists, philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists all pointing in the same direction, we may be sure that something will emerge as a new cast of thought, as significant in its day as the work of Adam Smith or of Jeremy Bentham (or of Karl Marx).” The problem of power consisted, it was increasingly realized, in superseding its dominative forms by its cooperative forms. This passed into a problem in education and even of religion. Here the issues of teleology, that is, of the norms and values of the required society, became all important. Professor Catlin had taken this position in 1929 and found no reason to withdraw from it in 1946. A galaxy of minds was moving in the same direction. Novelists such as A. Huxley, S. Maugham, A. J. Cronin, depicted the “good man” of Leibnitz’s Perennial Philosophy. Writers such as E. Gill, J. Middleton Murry, J. Macmurray, G. Heard, and R. M. Maclver, had developed and deepened the idea of community. Educational psychologists, such as Isaacs, Anderson, and Homey; psychoanalysts, such as Suttie, Harding, Ranyard West, or Clover; social anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict, Dollard, and Malinowski; all had made important discoveries concerning man as a cooperative being. Niebuhr’s analysis of pride, Russell’s diagnosis of power, gave substance to the “remedial approach” broadly followed by Albert Schweitzer, M. K. Gandhi, and Aldous Huxley. As a practical matter, Catlin said, we need a great increase in the power of the religious spirit. He called for an unqualified support of organized religion, preferably of the Roman Church, for only in that way can the right psychological training be translated into political terms. In a conversation which he recently had with Gandhi, the Mahatma told him that “no religious man talks about rights and political guarantees; he is never a ‘minority,’ because he feels himself to be with God.” This faced Catlin with the question, “Must we, in the name of Christianity, abolish all police and all courts?” But if so, what about Russia, the enemy of the Roman Church? Should the USSR go unrestrained? No, the medieval scholastics were sound when they established “the later churchly doctrine” on the subordinate and limited use of the “secular sword.” Our world tribunal is UN, and its armed executive is the secular sword. Nothing should stop us in our determination “to enforce without flinching the decisions of the world tribunal against the makers of all disorders,” Catlin concluded.

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While Catlin was calling on the mystics of the East to help us in righting the balance of Western politics, Professor Shao offered a remarkable application of the most rational political science of the East to our problems.

Traditional political thought in China is often falsely regarded as “philosophical” in the contemplative sense of the term, and as “moralistic,” that is, as an approach through the question of right behavior. Actually, Chinese political thought is based on stark realism in respect to the deadlock which is at the heart of political and social problems. Far from regarding that deadlock merely as a matter of ignorance (as Socrates might have put it) or of man’s moral inadequacy (a view towards which the Christian tends), it accepts it as real and basic. Consequently, Chinese tradition is suspicious of “solutions” that would directly interfere with the deadlock or suppress one of its factors. Time is often needed for any spontaneous shift in the underlying forces to work itself out and permit of a direct solution. Again, the gaining of time is not a mere matter of patience and toleration—although the techniques of these virtues are highly developed—but of a concrete understanding of the nature of the balances involved. Professor Shao’s conclusions in regard to the present world crisis were, accordingly, concrete. A world state is not yet possible; to believe in its proximity is therefore dangerous. On the one hand, it prevents us from facing actualities, on the other, it leads to the futile (and undesirable) attempt to eliminate differences by ignoring them. Here lies the danger of a utopian cosmopolitanism. Even in view of recent scientific advances with their threatening implications, existing differences can be blunted. In the future as in the past, such differences can contribute much to man’s collective existence as long as they are rationally controlled, not eliminated through a process of leveling. Admittedly, the present bi-polar power constellation of Anglo-American democracy vs. Soviet communism may well lead to catastrophe. But it is not beyond the range of the possible to introduce such modifications as would make it workable and safe. The prime need is for the creation of a neutral belt or additional “poles of power,” independent of the two dominating poles in the world today, thus forming a multi-polar system. In Europe, Graeco-Latin civilization should be fostered and organized under the moral and cultural leadership of France, as one of the neutral poles. In Asia, China would have to bear the burden of being the neutral pole. Although she may have to go through a tragic process of transformation before achieving recovery and prosperity, she will prove equal to the task of blunting the edges!

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An even richer orchestration than for the discussion of politics was provided for that of religion. Professor H. A. Hodges, of Reading University, opened with an address on “Philosophy and Civilization,” which asserted that philosophy had ceased to provide any basis for the use of reason. “How long can such a civilization stand?” he asked again and again. The Roman Catholic thinker, Monsignor Ronald Knox, amazed the Conference by his answer, which was to the effect that Christianity was indifferent to the future of civilization. Donald MacKinnon, of Keble and Balliol Colleges, made it, on the contrary, the crucial test of Christianity, whether it is or is not able to savè civilization. He called this religion’s “total engagement in society.” Confronted with the schism between agnostic and Christian, Professor Hodges demanded a new consciousness in which the two can meet. Without such an “understanding of understanding” the diremption of our civilization was final.

Hellenism, the self-conscious civilization of the Greeks, Professor Hodges said, is the only valid conception of civilization known to the philosopher. It postulates man as the rational animal, who fulfills his purpose in a city-state community ruled by reason. He is capable of an intellectual contemplation of the universe, because the universe itself is rational. In the 17th century, this basic concept was enriched: observation and experiment led to “progressive methods,” employed in exploring a developing world. Reason now meant Enlightenment; deliberate purpose replaced intuition and emotion. Self-control offered itself as the content of the idea of freedom. Still, man and the world had a purpose, and man was rational in a world of reason. The fatal turning of the screw took place in the 19 th century. Positive science and psychology undermined the rational idea of the world. Civilization was seen as the result of unconscious trends; the world, as an accident. In Marx and in Spencer, this was still accompanied by a humanist outlook and confidence in the future—“an optimism without cause.” For survival—the highest value in the new evolutionism—depended upon factors none of which was “civilized.” For strength, cunning, and cooperation may well reach their peak in violence, applied science, and the herd instinct, respectively. No longer was an appeal to the concept of man as a rational animal implied.

Man can not understand a universe which is not understandable, said Professor Hodges. Nor would understanding be of value once survival does not involve civilization. Philosophy has criticized itself out of existence. There is no longer any basis for the use of reason. “How long can such a civilization stand?” On this note of unqualified despair Professor Hodges closed.

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Monsignor Knox disowned civilization in the name of religion. The work of the Church is to colonize Heaven, the work of the reformer is to breed for Utopia. Religion thrives when civilization is sick. It is weak where civilization is strong. In the Athens of Pericles, religion was mere lukewarm municipal piety; the Augustinian period and the Renaissance were low points of religion. Religion and civilization were inimical—except where religion gained strength by revolting against civilization, or civilization advanced religion by persecuting it. “Am I hauling down the flag of religion, and handing over,” Knox said, “to the poet, the artist, the scientist, the philosopher?” No, civilization can exist without them. The Victorians had no art, the High Middle Ages no science, the Augustinian age no philosophy. These adornments of life are in truth parasitic on the general well-being of society. The criteria of civilization are security of life, security and comfort. Yet civilization must decay if the age has lost the instinct of living dangerously. That precisely is happening in our time. The modern state, if it can keep clear of war and palace revolution, is omnipotent: man exists for the state. Behind the “iron curtain” the last remnants of democracy are being stamped out. And it is not much better in the West. Artists, scientists, philosophers, divines, should unite against the state, to avert the dehumanization of humanity. True, there are quarrels between them, but all must concentrate on Enemy Number, the menace of state-encroachment. Private quarrels can be settled later.

To no views did the conference react more strongly than to those so brilliantly expressed by Monsignor Knox. His intellectual nihilism was all the more clearly realized to the extent that it was proclaimed in the name of religion. All too obviously his “Ecrasez l’infâme” was hurled against the State with the intent of enthroning the Church.

Donald MacKinnon raised the religious issue with an incisiveness reminiscent of Sören Kierkegaard’s dialectic a century ago. His response was both global and total. Religion entered into the bitter battles fought in India and Palestine today. The Nazi creed confronted the Christian world. And in the clash between Russia and the West an essential component was the interaction of Marxist doctrine and the fervent Christian belief of an unreformed Church. “Christians are becoming self-conscious, perhaps for the first time,” he said, “that their religion involves a total engagement in the life of the society in which a Christian has to live.” Eventually, in Nazi Germany, Christians overcame the Lutheran split between Faith and State. Resisting on the religious issue, they were driven to resist on the political plane as well. Religious thinking reveals itself by its crucial quality; for unless it is crucial, it is nothing. “Russia can attack the democracies successfully,” he said, “on one point: on the issue of imperialism. Indeed, how far do the achievements of democracy depend directly on imperial circumstances? Our consciences are still troubled by Hiroshima, Nagasaki. By its power to gain illumination on the relation between Russia and the West, our religion will be judged.”

Clearly, in spite of the transcendentalism he shares with Knox, both the theology and the politics ‘of MacKinnon were radically opposed to those of Monsignor Knox, who had preached the total disengagement of religion from civilization.

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Professor Lewis Mumford’s address (entitled: “The Nature of the Age in which we live, involving the problem: What action shall we take to suit the time and the place?”) was chaired by Sir Alfred Zimmern, late professor of international affairs, Oxford University.

The problem of our civilization, Sir Alfred said, arose on three distinct levels: on the international plane, which involved the rule of law and the control of nuclear energy; on the plane of the good society, which demanded planning for welfare as well as social equality; on the philosophical or religious plane, which required the understanding of life on its deeper level. In all three he regarded Mumford as a leader of our time.

Lewis Mumford is a great name in England. His Culture of Cities and Condition of Man rescued for Britain the inheritance of Patrick Geddes, the Scottish genius, and made their author perhaps the strongest single influence in forming the revival of urban civilization here. With Aneurin Bevan’s housing schemes and Lewis Silkin’s New Towns Bill in the lime-light, Mumford’s ideas are far from being of merely academic importance in a country which is in the course of reshaping its whole national existence.

Professor Mumford has what is needed to transform theories and vistas into a dynamic message. “The task before me,” he began, “is an impossible task; but our age has to attempt to fulfil the impossible.” The first half of the sentence accounts for the facts; the second arouses our slumbering moral faculties. The call is not contrary to reason; yet, in order to be heard, it demands a reinterpretation of the functions of reason. This is attained by virtue of a fundamentalism which erects the idea of man’s communal achievements into an absolute—let our ideals be subordinated to the single aim of saving the sources of higher life. Ultimately human civilization is a unity of its parts and functions, none of which is to be allowed to turn into an act of self-destruction against the idea of a meaningful common life. Far from being a construct of mere wish-fulfillment, such an ideal of civilization has a hard core of realism. It does not make absolutes of knowledge, efficiency, or even peace; it sets the content of life above life itself. We must forego our culture as it is, our civilization as it stands, our personality which we secretly idolize. We must, as individuals, strengthen our weakest sides, and weaken our strongest. Thus only can civilization be a unity, and live on. As far as the English mind is concerned, the secret of Mumford’s appeal is twofold. The hint at a crucial experience makes him an authentic witness to some; to others the dethronement of absolutes transcending common human existence rightly appears as a restatement of the case for reason.

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The present writer delivered a talk attempting to establish man’s freedom to shape his own civilization. He called for a rejection of the very concept of economic determinism, which would limit this freedom.

Man’s dependence upon material goods—the economic factor—is not translated into an immediate incentive. What has been thus identified during the past century is nothing other than the working of the market-economy, which existed during the 19th century but which—with the exception of the United States—is in our time rapidly disappearing. Its peculiarity was twofold: First, it included markets for labor and land, that is, for man and nature; consequently, the whole of society was embedded in the economic system. Secondly, motives for participating in production were reduced to fear of hunger and hope of gain; these incentives were regarded as being “economic.” Actually, in no other human society of which we know, are hunger and gain motives for participating in production. On the contrary, such motives are of that “mixed” character which we usually associate with civic duties. The economic system is therefore embedded in social relations—these determine the form of economic institutions. No “economic determinism” exists under such conditions. Fear of the road to serfdom in a planned economy was proof of an uncritical belief in the validity, in general, of economic determinism. True, much of what we have come to cherish as freedom was a by-product of market-economy. In the future we shall have to plan for such freedom in a planned economy. The bill of rights will have to be extended into the industrial field, protecting the individual against abuses of the power agglomerated in the hands of governmental or trade union authorities. There is no reason for our not having as much freedom in a planned society as we wish to possess. It is human ideals, not economics, which are determinative outside a market society.

The educational problem was brought to the fore by Dr. John Bowlby and Kenneth Richmond, regional education officer of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Bowlby offered a most instructive account of educational experiments in the USA, while Richmond argued for a more equalitarian system of general education in Britain, combined with a reform of teaching method. Noel F. Newsome, late editor of the European news services of the BBC, a policy-making member of the Liberal Party, gave a forthright and embracing presentation of problems of freedom in a planned society. Montgomery Belgion gave an analysis of the criteria of civilization from the viewpoint of literary art. Discussions were conducted by A. Farquharson, Secretary of the Institute of Sociology and organizer of the Conference.

The problem of the three civilizations—American, Russian, British—was, as we said, not touched upon. Concern about the day after tomorrow took precedence over the freedom to scan the far horizons.

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