Commentary Magazine

The Conduct of Life, by Lewis Mumford

Mumford’s “Third Course”
The Conduct of Life.
by Lewis Mumford.
Harcourt, Brace. 342 pp. $5.00.


For twenty years Lewis Mumford has been engaged upon a tetralogy dealing with the human condition, of which the successive volumes have been Technics and Civilization (1934), The Culture of Cities (1938), The Condition of Man (1944), and now The Conduct of Life. Earlier still, beginning in 1922 and after eight years of magazine writing, he had brought out five books of cultural criticism, with the emphasis on architecture and literature. He interspersed the writing of the tetralogy with the publication of small books which continued his earlier themes and contained by-blows of his later ones. Thus for thirty-seven years Mumford has been addressing the public in one guise or another; and since 1924, when Sticks and Stones appeared, he has been rightly considered a major American critic of culture.



This writer first came upon Mumford in 1924 when he reviewed Sticks and Stones, and found him immensely sympathetic. Since then his opinion of Mumford has fluctuated from approval to impatience, reaching its lowest when Mumford attacked “Uncle Charlie” Beard for his stand on World War II, less to refute Beard’s arguments than to liquidate him entirely. Even then one could not but admire Mumford’s great qualities, despite, indeed, his penchant for the glittering generalization, his frequently overblown romanticism, and the numerous instances in his writings of a portentous solemnity. This excursion into Mumford’s long record is made to give an appropriate backdrop to the considered declaration that The Conduct of Life—a title boldly borrowed from Emerson—is a book of major importance which no reader interested in the condition of man should, by an unlucky chance, miss.

While in Mumford’s view “possibly three-quarters of our society is still organically healthy,” the diseased quarter remaining may topple it into an abyss. Three courses, he says, are today open: (1) continuance along the present way which will bring us to extinction—a formulation I think overdrawn; let us rather say to a period of sharp, disorderly retrogression, fatal to millions; (2) an attempt at “compulsive stabilization” or fascism, a term that includes Stalinist sovietism; (3) an attempt at a dynamic integration and renewal. Mumford in this new book devotes himself to exploring his third course. He attempts by analysis and description to “recreate the values necessary for our survival and our salvation”; or, better put, he points out certain values and enunciates a way of looking at life that will assist in their vitalization. The over-arching principles he advances are a worldwide cooperation of peoples, a Point Four program, plus the Fulbright scheme and in larger dimension; a more just distribution of all the goods (philosophically-defined) of life; the disciplined reduction of knowledge and energy to the service of life,. ransoming life from compulsive service to them; and the elevation of the human spirit to a higher plane than has hitherto been achieved. At the center of his universe Mumford places Man; and the central purpose of his new world is the making of Men.



In attempting to read the meaning of human history, Mumford has come to the conclusion that man is both infinitely creative and infinitely malleable. While man may have bungled badly in building his various historical ways of life, now throwing the emphasis too far in one direction, now in another, he has always thus far shown a capacity for redressing; the balance (given time) and arriving by devious ways at a higher level of excellence. There is no proof that he has yet exhausted his: capacities, though copious evidence exists that he has misused them. He has never achieved perfection and it is unlikely that he ever will. It is likely, on any final accounting, that he cannot achieve perfection because he is radically imperfect by nature and, to vary Dr. Johnson’s. remark, imperfection is always breaking in. But even his current civilization, which Mumford’ assumes is basically illustrated by what obtains in the Euro-American world, is a marked advance over what has gone before. Not its qualities but its imperfections are ruining it. Its imperfections are traced to the fact that, as Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Man today, as a consequence, is disoriented and demoralized. At his worst he is a mass-man and mass-men are at once legitimate objects of pity and a menace to the continued enjoyment of the three-quarters of contemporary society that is healthy. The mass-man can appear, it must not be forgotten, in any class, as my Australian friend Sir Frederick Eggleston recognized when he referred to “the wealthy lower orders.”

What, then, is a mass-man? We know Ortega’s assault on the type. Here is Mumford’s:

. . . A mass man: incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree, but increasingly irresponsible as his choices become fewer and fewer; finally a creature governed mainly by his conditioned reflexes—the ideal type desired, if never quite achieved, by the advertising agency and the sales organizations of modern business, or by the propaganda office and the planning bureaus of totalitarian and quasi-totalitarian governments.

This may not be a precise description of anybody in particular, but it certainly contains elements discoverable in all of us and in our society. If we consider the power of the forces operating to make us mass-men, our wonder is not that large numbers have succumbed to them rather completely but that any have escaped them in noticeable measure.

The problem, then, is how to get on top of this messy situation and redirect it to the advantage of everybody concerned, including those who today feel no pain. Not too long ago many of us, with a consciousness of great rectitude, would have phrased the solution exclusively in terms of institutional changes. Today we are not so sure. But I for one am sufficiently unregenerate to feel that Mumford’s conspicuous weakness in The Conduct of Life is his steady avoidance of the question of institutional reform. I fear this will bring him altogether too many of the wrong kind of customers, the self-improvement cranks. One gets from him the feeling Thoreau got from listening to the elder Henry James: that while he is good at “subsoil plowing” he is not much at reorganizing the police force or improving the House of Correction. I suspect Mumford imagines that if sound men appear numerously, the institutions needed for their service will, so to speak, take care of themselves. Up to a point this is true, but not, I am afraid, to the point of being absolutely true. Institutions aid in the corruption of men, else Mumford’s indictment of contemporary society loses much of its point.

But the root is man. If he can improve himself—for that is what it comes to—the whole of life is bound to be transformed. Now Mumford’s emphasis is upon man’s capacity to go forward, which pleases me immensely. I have rarely read a more convincing criticism of the folly of attempting to regenerate man by the recovery of some past regimen or system of belief, even when such a system contains elements of high value. This alone removes Mumford from that ever increasing category of persons who are seeking salvation by “going back to” one church or another. He is not anticlerical and certainly not anti-religious, but he cannot see that man will find his way out by reverting to any historical answer to his problem. He must create a new answer. He may, in doing so, and probably should, raid past answers as well as present formulations for valid principles and ideals—Mumford himself does just that.



Mumford shows small sympathy, but considerable aesthetic appreciation, for Christianity as an ecclesiasticism. He has a large sympathy for the spiritual principles attributed to Jesus, but these principles are in Christianity encrusted by the conditioning to which they were subjected as they were institutionalized, and must be excavated like archeological specimens. Mumford’s general view of religion is that it is a valid and invaluable variety of experience and he wants to incorporate it into the regimen of men of the future, but he himself, it seems to me, is not religious and does not look upon religious insight as necessarily the highest insight. Mumford appears to be a romantic with a decided naturalistic bias. It is indicative of his attitude that he takes considerable pains to combat the increasingly fashionable idea that a viable ethics must have a religious basis. It is the inclusiveness of Mumford’s vision that marks him out from almost all other writers of his general kind. “None of the existing categories of philosophy,” he writes, “none of the present procedures of science or religion, none of the popular doctrines of social action, covers the method and outlook presented here. . . . For the essence of the present philosophy is that many elements necessarily rejected by any single system are essential to develop life’s highest creative potential. . . .” Abstracted from the book, this sounds both portentous and evasive. Read in context it does not, though Mumford does have a tendency to fetishize the word “life” without defining it; or perhaps to fetishize its undefinableness.

At bottom, Mumford’s problem is one of values. He writes: “While the physical superstructure may still look sound, the underpinnings of value and meaning have been eaten away.” I think he might better have written “are being eaten away.” For the values that Mumford would preserve are not entirely gone; and those he would install flourish more widely than he seems to suppose. The search for authentic values is one of the most heartening phenomena of our time. Mumford himself founds some of his optimism on this same active concern and search for values. The best of the positive values that he advocates-I cannot deal with them seriatim here, much as I should like to—are more widely held than he implies. It is in recommending values, however, that he incidentally goes way off the rails, when he writes: “. . . one of the prime marks of an organic change in our culture, would probably be the drastic reduction of the now compulsive habits of smoking and drinking; along with this would go a return, on the part of women, to a mode of wearing their hair which would forego the elaborate mechanical or chemical procedure for producing fashionable uniformity of curl. . . .” Humor is not Mumford’s forte. And should not humor survive as a value in any imaginable world?



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.