The editors of COMMENTARY recently invited a number of the leading men of thought in America and Europe to address themselves to a subject which many consider the basic issue of our times. We asked them to contribute to a series on “The Crisis of the Individual,” and we stated the theme as follows:
In our time, the individual human being has been more violently debased than in many centuries. Every aspect of the human personality—his civil rights, his individuality, his status, the regard in which he is held, the dignity accorded him—all have been violated. We have seen living human beings used ‘as beasts of burden and guinea pigs, and their dead bodies treated as natural resources. We have seen millions of them set outside the bounds of the State as ‘displaced’ pariahs. Jews have perhaps suffered the brunt of this new inhumanity, but they and other minorities’ are by no means either the sole or the last victims.
Yet the inviolability of the individual human being has been so much a part of our Western civilization, it has been taken for granted. Whatever advances we hoped for in our culture were based on this ideal. Now men are beginning to suspect that its submergence is more than a temporary by-product of war—a suspicion that has been underlined by the unleashing of atomic energy. It is not so much that this ideal has been crushed by tyrannical rulers, but that it is dying in the minds and hearts of men. The debasement of the individual has, of course, not only dehumanized millions of victims and brutalized the perpetrators, but it has also affected the spectator, active and passive. It has blunted his mental and emotional reaction to it. And, most important, it threatens his appreciation of the importance of maintaining the fundamental values of our civilization. This would indeed mean a lowering of the political and moral level of our life.
Why is this happening to us?
Where did we go wrong? Is it a lost cause or is this the transition to a new society with better values?
Is it that men have always had the will to treat one another solely as means and are today simply using technology to do so efficiently and impersonally?
Is a renascence of religious belief the answer?
Is it that the economic exigencies of our time compel men to treat one another in this way? Is it inevitably bound up with large-scale social planning, or is it a result of debasement or misuse of such ideals?
We invite you to answer these questions and to show in which directions the return to health and wholeness lies.
We would like you to treat the problem, not in hortatory fashion or noble abstractions—neither to preach nor to scold—but to analyze, appraise and give us fact and judgment, and if possible guidance and new objectives.
The following writers have so far accepted our invitation: Hannah Arendt, G. A. Borgese, Martin Buber, Pearl S. Buck, Waldo Frank, Louis Finkelstein, André Gide, Sidney Hook, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ralph Barton Perry. Dr. Niebuhr’s article appears below. Others will appear in succeeding issues.—Editor.
The diagnosticians of a historical crisis usually see one or the other dimension of the crisis. They see either the political-social maladjustments in the body of civilization, or the philosophical-religious weaknesses in the spirit of a culture; and attribute our difficulties solely to the one or to the other. This is analogous to a neurologist and a psychiatrist cooperating in the diagnosis of a patient and creating confusion because the one attributes his illness to purely physical, and the other to purely psychic causes.
There have, for instance, been many diagnoses of the collapse of France in which the defeat of France has been attributed to a variety of causes, spiritual and physical, running all the way from the effect of eighteenth-century philosophy upon French morale, through the disintegration of the French family, and ending with technical aspects of French military inadequacy. All of these diagnoses may have been true on their own level. But no one has sought to present a theory of breakdown which would bring all the diagnoses into a consistent whole.
The present crisis in our culture and our civilization is certainly wide and deep enough to involve, and probably to have been caused by maladjustments on all levels of our existence.
On the political and economic level the situation is fairly clear. Our crisis is due to the fact that we have not been able to develop political and social instruments which are adequate for the kind of a society which a technical civilization makes possible and necessary. The atomic bomb is in a sense only the most recent and the most dramatic symbol of this deep inner contradiction which cleaves our whole society. The ever increasing introduction of technics into the fields of production and communications constantly enlarges the intensity and extent of social cohesion in modern man’s common life; and also tends constantly to centralize effective economic power. The effect of technics upon communications is to create a potential world community, which we have not been able to actualize morally and politically. The effect of technics upon production is to create greater and greater disproportions of economic power and thus to make the achievement of justice difficult. The one represents the international aspect of our crisis and the other the domestic aspect. We might well consider each in turn.
On the level of international life Nazism was a form of tyranny which grew in the soil of international anarchy and sought to overcome that anarchy by the coerced unification of the world. Had not the several nations felt themselves irresponsible toward the duty of maintaining the liberties of each against the threat of aggression, Nazism could not have come within an ace of achieving success. Nations have not, of course, ever accepted a very high degree of responsibility for each other’s welfare. But modem technics had created a world-community in embryo. It was by the use of modern technics that one nation could gain the military power to make world-domination a plausible military goal. It therefore became necessary to develop political instruments through which the nations of the world would express and implement a worldwide sense of common responsibility. Since it was not possible to take such a step quickly the tyrannical threat almost succeeded.
Indeed it is still far from certain even now that we will have adequate instruments, or a sufficiently universal moral sense, to solve the problems of community on a worldwide scale. The political instruments that have been constructed at the San Francisco Conference are obviously of only minimal efficacy for the purposes for which they are intended. They could not be made much better because of a lack in the moral imagination of the nations. Each of the great powers is still more interested in strategic security for the event of another conflict than it is in security against conflict.
The systems of unilateral security which have been more or less artfully combined with a general system of mutual security may very easily vitiate the power of the mutual system. We have, for this reason, no right to hope that we are at the end of the crisis of our age on the level of the international problem.
It is possible indeed that we may live in this crisis for centuries. The task of building a genuine world-community is greater than any generation can solve; and it may be too great for the resources of a century. The enormity of the task is usually underestimated. Our cultural presuppositions are such that we have not understood the tragic character of history or the difficulty of historic achievements.
The present-day world community is held together by economic interdependence created by modem technics; and is threatened by the technical elaboration of instruments of warfare. The forces which make for political and moral cohesion are minimal. They consist of a general though rather vague sense of universal moral obligation; and of the fear of the consequences of overt world-anarchy.
This fear of war is however not as potent a cement of cohesion as the fear of a concrete foe, which has frequently welded smaller communities together. Furthermore the international community lacks all the intermediate forms of cohesion that’ hold national and imperial communities together. It lacks a single center of power and authority, a common language or a common cultural, moral, or religious tradition. No geographical frontiers help it to arrive at a common consciousness and it has no sense of a common history, as nations have, except the minimal common experience .of a war partnership through which a terrible foe was defeated. But the very defeat of the foe removes one factor of cohesion.
For this reason our civilization will probably require ages before it will master the problem of our common life on the world level. The inevitability of a considerable degree of frustration in achieving what we must achieve is one aspect of our existence for which our culture has not prepared us.
If technics in modem communications I have created a potential world-community, which finds difficulty in becoming actual, technics in production have shattered old forms of justice and made the achievement of new ones difficult. The modem machine becomes larger and larger as it becomes more and more efficient. It long since has divorced the skill of the worker from his tool. It has to a certain degree divorced the worker from his skill, which is now increasingly in the machine. It has thus made the worker powerless, except insofar as common organized action has given him a degree of social and political power. It has on the other hand constantly increased the power of fewer and fewer centers of economic authority. It may be regarded as an axiom of political justice that disproportions of powers increase the hazard to justice; for to be armed with power means that the temptation to do what one wants increases. And what one wants immediately is usually not the common welfare.
The cultural inadequacies of our age have contributed to the difficulties we face in achieving economic justice. For our age began with the presupposition, derived from a naturalistic philosophy, that economic justice would be achieved by a natural equilibrium of social and economic forces. The eighteenth-century physiocrats, and Adam Smith after them, made the mistake of assuming that history, like nature, has limited potencies. Actually the very character of human history is to give the forces of nature unlimited scope. The “pre-established harmony of nature,” which eighteenth-century enlightenment thought would guarantee justice, has actually never existed in history, though there were some evidences of it in an agrarian and in an early commercial age. But an industrial age disturbed all these harmonies and created monopolistic power in a realm where a harmony of powers was to reign. One of the most ironic facts of history is that Adam Smith elaborated his theory, upon which modem capitalism is based, at the precise moment when the steam engine was invented.
We in America suffer particularly from the legacy of the eighteenth-century naturalistic determinism. We have developed technics more fully than any nation. Yet every effort to achieve social justice within terms set by modem productive arrangements is dogged by nostalgic social and economic theories which have no relevance to our actual problems. The Marxist answer to this problem may be wrong; it is certainly not wholly correct. Yet it recognizes some aspects of the problem which liberalism does not.
Modern society has already proved that long before it will allow the process of centralization of economic power to work itself out to the catastrophic conclusion which Marxism predicted and expected, it will take political measures to arrest the tendency toward irresponsible and disproportionate economic power. Democracy is not quite as potent an instrument as the eighteenth century believed; but it is more potent than the Marxists imagined. The poor are armed with political power in a democracy. They use that political power to redress the balances in the economic sphere. Whether the power is sufficient to achieve a true balance is another question. It may not be. It may be that oligarchies of the economically powerful may possess sufficient strength to destroy the political instruments in the hands of their foes before those political instruments finally destroy their privileged position in society. This is the meaning of fascism in the field of domestic relations. It may be that the consequences of fascism, where it was tried, have been sufficiently horrible to prevent a drift toward that answer. But we cannot be sure.
At any rate the achievement of a decent minimum of economic security for the masses in our civilization is still an unsolved problem. It may not be as stubborn a problem as the international one, though there are some who regard it as more stubborn. There are nations like Britain and Sweden who have moved far enough toward its solution to encourage the hope that they will continue to approach the goal of economic justice without running the risk of social catastrophe. It is not certain that we are as safe against social catastrophe in this country. Our working people are less politically mature than some of the workers of other nations. And the possessors of economic power in America are on the whole remarkably stupid. Even now they would have us believe that the intricate task of shifting from a war to a peace economy can be accomplished merely by relaxing governmental restraints upon the economic and industrial process and allowing everything to find its own level. Catastrophe lies in that direction. We shall probably be too wise to follow the road to that catastrophe consistently; but we are hardly wise enough to avoid tentative efforts to restore an unmanaged unity and harmony of economic process.
Even if we avoid the most obvious mistakes we cannot find a simple solution to the problem of economic justice which confronts us. Russia has revealed that it is possible to pay too high a price in freedom for the economic security of the masses. The consistent socialization of all economic power is no more adequate a solution for our problem than a consistent disavowal of political authority upon economic process. The latter leads to anarchy as the former leads to tyranny. The wisest nations experiment in order to find a middle way which will insure a maximum of freedom and security. That middle way certainly involves the socialization of some forms of property that cannot otherwise be brought under social control. It means placing certain governmental checks upon other forms of economic activity and yet allowing freedom in the economic process wherever possible, which means wherever that freedom will not tend to destroy freedom.
The cultural weaknesses which have contributed to our crisis, and which make it difficult for us to fully understand the depth and breadth of it, are in some cases immediately related to the political and economic crisis and in other cases they have a more indirect relationship.
The most obvious cultural presupposition that is in immediate relation to the crisis is the excessive individualism of the culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This individualism resulted from the breaking of the medieval organic forms of social life and from the natural illusions of the rising bourgeois class. Having new and dynamic forms of social power, they regarded the individual as much more self-sufficient than he really is. The bourgeois class emphasized the ideal of liberty to the point of imperiling the community and obscuring social responsibility. They elaborated social theories according to which human societies are created when atomic individuals come together by a “social contract”—that is, through a pure fiat of the human will. Actually, no decision in human society is ever taken that does not presuppose some form of community previous to the decision; for society is as primordial as the individual.
The excessive individualism of the bourgeois classes led to a collectivist reaction on the part of the working classes. This collectivism of Marxism is probably closer to the truth than bourgeois individualism; but it is also in error when it assumes that a frictionless harmony between the individual and the community can be established. In reality the individual has a form of constitutional spiritual freedom which makes it inevitable that even the best community will frustrate as well as fulfill the highest aspirations of the human spirit. Love is the law of life for the individual, in the sense that no human being can fulfil himself within himself. He is fulfilled only in the community. But the same individual rises in indeterminate degree beyond all communal and social relevancies. It is this transcendent freedom of the individual which is guarded and expressed in the historic religions of the West, Jewish and Christian. Modem culture disavowed these traditional religions. In consequence it emphasized freedom in society to the point of destroying society; and in reaction emphasized social solidarity to the point of imperiling the dignity of the individual.
The class warfare between the bourgeois and the working classes which contributed so much to the undoing of European nations was not merely a political and economic conflict. It was also a cultural and religious conflict, in the sense that two forms of secularized religion were embattled. The one religion made the individual self-sufficient to the point of making man the idolatrous end of his own existence. The other religion made society the idolatrous end of the existence of the individual. This is a conflict which cannot be resolved within the presuppositions of a culture that fails to measure the character of man’s historic existence in its full depth. For a man is a historical creature, constantly fulfilling his life by realizing higher forms of communal life and yet always standing beyond even the widest social obligations and realizations in the highest reaches of his spiritual freedom.
The analysis of the excessive individualism and collectivism of a secular culture has thus already brought us to another aspect of our cultural crisis. The “naturalism” of our culture was celebrated as a great spiritual achievement in the heyday of our era. It was supposed to prevent men from being beguiled by false eternities. They would realize the highest historic possibilities the more certainly if they were no longer led astray by illusions of eternal salvation and redemption. Actually there have been many forms of religious “other-worldliness” which were merely compensations for frustrations, and expressions of social defeatism. It was good that men should be emancipated from them. There are also forms of religious “super-naturalism” which conceive the world as a kind of layer-cake affair, with two layers, the one natural and the other supernatural, the one physical and the other “spiritual.” There is only one world; just as man in the unity of his physical and spiritual life is one. Religious dualism is an error. But so is a naturalistic monism that seeks to comprehend the full dimension of human existence from the standpoint of man’s relation to nature.
Man is undoubtedly a creature of nature, subject to its necessities and limitations. But an excessive emphasis upon this aspect of man’s existence obscures the full dimension of human personality. It is by man’s freedom over natural process and limitation that he is able to make history. But the same freedom which lies at the basis of man’s historic creativity is also the root of human evil. Thus man, whose nature it is to be realized beyond himself in the life of his fellows, is also able to corrupt the community and make it the tool of his interests. The possibilities of evil as well as of good are much greater than modem culture assumed.
The naturalistic assumptions of modem culture prompted the belief that history was an extension of the evolutionary process of nature, that this evolutionary process guaranteed a higher and higher achievement of the good, however that good might be defined. It was frequently defined in contradictory terms.
But human freedom breaks the limits of nature, upsetting its limited harmonies and giving a demonic dimension to its conflicts. There is therefore progress in human history; but it is a progress of all human potencies, both for good and for evil. A culture which imagined that history was moving naturally to a wider and more inclusive community, toward the “parliament of mankind and the federation of the world,” was naturally completely overtaken by the catastrophe of our era. It was not prepared for the tragic character of human history. It did not anticipate that a potential world-community would announce itself to history in global wars. After the First World War the natural attitude of modem culture was to regard the war as a capricious interruption of the stream of progress, occasioned by an evil nation. Even the second world catastrophe was sometimes interpreted in such terms.
The historical optimism of our culture was thus derived from a view of man and history that failed to measure the full dimension of the human spirit and of its historic achievements. Man is able by the technical elaboration of his powers to establish a wider and wider community. But the same skills also arm him with a mighty weapon of individual and collective egotism when he desires to set himself against the community.
While it is quite possible that we will finally discover the right political instruments for ordering the communal life upon a world scale, certain aspects of this task are not fully comprehended in our culture. The difficulty, for one thing, is not fully understood. It is not understood that the same technics that integrate the world community also arm the individual nations and encourage them to follow their own respective courses and possibly to threaten the world-community with anarchy. Because the struggle between the universal and the particular, between egotism and the community, is a more stubborn struggle on every level, the whole of human history is more tragic than modem culture had assumed; and it will continue to be more tragic because the sources of conflict do not lie in the past. They reappear in every historical level.
Nor is it fully understood that there are no absolute securities and stabilities in human history; and there will be rather fewer in the future than in the past. Modem culture is inveterately utopian and is always looking for a security in the future that men did not have in the past. It believes, for instance, that the failure to master nature made man insecure in the past and that modem technics have overcome this insecurity. Actually the same technics by which we gain security in nature increase our insecurity in human history and in the ever larger communities in which we must live.
Smaller communities are always close to nature, held together by a natural force of consanguinity and supported by nature’s abundance. Large communities are held together by the artifice of statesmen and supplied by intricate arrangements of commerce and communication. They depend upon the human will and imagination, which frequently fail.
There is thus a complete misinterpretation of the future. The future may be filled with glorious achievements, but not with greater securities than in the past. This means that a culture which failed to understand that human life cannot be completely fulfilled in human history will be inadequate for man in the future, as it becomes more fully recognized that human life is subject to historical frustration even on the highest level of historical achievement. This does not validate crude forms of “other-worldliness.” But it will make relevant once more the real meaning of the transcendental reference in historical religions.
Finally it must become apparent that no matter how effective the social instruments for the protection of communal order are, they are never adequate without an inner moral and religious check. The older religions frequently made the mistake of placing all emphasis upon moral discipline and neglecting the various forms of social and political restraint by which justice is achieved. That is why democracy was frequently the fruit of a secular culture, though this is not altogether the case since the presuppositions of democracy are deeply imbedded in Hebraic prophetism and Christian faith. Today it is frequently assumed that the right kind of economic organization and the right kind of political order will guarantee the virtue of man and the welfare of society.
Marxism assumes that a wrong economic organization is the root of an human evil and that on the other side of a revolution men will be virtuous and human ambitions will be perfectly related to common welfare. Liberalism is not quite so naive but frequently looks upon democratic political forms as the guarantors of virtue. Actually, :he freedom of ‘man is such that no perfection of social instruments obviates the necessities of inner moral checks upon human ambitions. On the other hand, it must be observed, of course, that inner checks are also not sufficient if we do not achieve the best possible social instruments for checking self-will and egotism and for increasing the common and mutual concerns of men.
There is thus no reason to suggest that the regeneration of the world depends merely upon a religious and moral revival which will create the “good” men of old without whom no social system can function. Good men with social and political instruments inadequate to the new dimensions of a social problem are futile. But on the other hand, all purely social or political interpretations of the human problem are unavailing. Man is more social than bourgeois liberalism assumed. His final freedom reaches beyond all social responsibilities and communal fulfillments in a way that modem forms of collectivism do not understand. There are dimensions of his existence which are fully understood in the historic religions. They recognize that his moral freedom and responsibility have no limit or end except in God. But the historic religions were on the whole oblivious to the dynamic character of human history, particularly as it has unfolded since the introduction of technics. The Hebrew prophets did indeed have a conception of a dynamic history moving toward a great fulfillment. But neither the Jewish nor the Christian faith have ever done full justice to this aspect of prophetism.
It remained for modern culture to interpret the dynamic character of history; but it did so too optimistically and without a full awareness of the depth of evil and the height of creativity which might be unfolded in history. This blindness to the depth of good and evil was derived from the mistake of measuring the whole human enterprise in too shallow a dimension.
There is, therefore, no possibility of fully understanding the tragic character of the history through which we are passing, or of living sanely in a period of great frustration as well as of great historical achievement, or of placing inner moral checks upon the dynamism of man, without the resources of an older religious culture. Our modern culture is too flat, too lacking in the tragic sense of life, and too blind to the total dimension of existence to be an adequate guide for our day.
Yet our problem is not solved by some simple “return to religion,” as the traditional religionists would have it. An adequate culture must combine the modern sense of historical dynamism with historic religion’s sense of the dimension of life that transcends history.
The last great cultural and political crisis of Western history involved the breakdown of a medieval culture and a feudal civilization. The one was destroyed by the dynamism of a scientific culture and the other by the power of a rising bourgeois civilization. Both this scientific culture and this bourgeois civilization have now reached the period of disintegration. The facts of life are too complex and too tragic to be comprehended within the limits of a secular culture; and the disharmonies, worldwide social maladjustments and worldwide communal issues are too stubborn to be solved by the social instruments, either individualistic or collectivistic, which our modern civilization uses today.
An adequate culture for our day must therefore combine the historical dynamism of our culture with the depth of the culture of previous ages.