Waldo Frank’s is the seventh article in the series “The Crisis of the Individual.”
The still reverberating events of the recent war and the years that led up to it in Germany and elsewhere have revealed a collapse in the concept of the inherent dignity of the human personality that is rendered all the more ominous by the mass scale on which it has occurred. It is the aim of this series of essays to examine the causes and the nature of this moral catastrophe in Western civilization and to hazard possible remedies.
Future contributors to the series include Leo S. Baeck, Martin Buber, Lewis Corey, Louis Finkelstein, Andrè Gide, Sidney Hook, Hans Kohn, and Karl Polanyi.
It is part of the disease of the modern world that its most menacing symptoms frighten us away from the study of their causes. Thus, the threat of the fission bomb drives men of good will to seek political safeguards against war, while they accept unchallenged the complex of economics, social psychology and religion at the root of the danger. If our civilization goes down (or blows up), the next one, centered perhaps in Siberia or Brazil, will find in our present hysterical stoppage of integrating thought a basic cause of our destruction.
Let us assume that some kind of world equilibrium is set up in the near future. Its chief sustainers must be the United States and Russia, the only two independent world powers of our day. Unless under this leadership all the peoples are freed and launched upon a course of economic independence, unless the peace heals the intimate frustrations which are the seed-bed of war, the tentative world order must fly apart before its seams are solid. But this kind of collaboration of Americans and Russians among themselves and with each other demands a revolutionary change in the socioeconomic and cultural textures of both countries—which brings us back to our neglected basic problem. Or let us assume that no confederation rises to replace the flimsy UN. If nevertheless, by miracle, the dominant peoples reach the maturity to cut the roots of war, if the masses of Asia and South America as well as at home become able to breathe and to cultivate the gardens of peace, we should survive; but if that change fails to come in time, we are doomed; and either way, the vital issue is the roots of our culture.
Let us go further: let us assume that the fission bomb and similar weapons are effectively outlawed or that a new invention makes them innocuous as firecrackers, or even that fear abolishes total war: while the present trends of peace continue toward regimentation, toward the atomization and suppression of creative men in favor of a machine-massed everspreading order run by machine men for machine values, we are still doomed. For the humanly destructive forces of our world are stronger than the bomb which is indeed their symbol. It is the trends of peace—full blown before 1914, that threaten us. In fact, our fear of the atomic bomb and of war is largely a neurotic mask to keep us from beholding our bad conscience and the Gorgon-face of the peace which our world leaders are dickering to establish.
Whichever way we look at it, the fundamental problem of man: his nature, his psychology and values, his relation to the cosmos, his need of a method of behavior to enact his good intentions, is the timely issue of our day. The degree to which the intellectuals avoid it is appalling. Thus, in our impulse to construct a livable world we are painfully, articulately aware of the faults of our major partner, Russia; but we are tragically unaware that our sole way to improve Russia is to improve ourselves. We fail to see that our control (bloodless because perfected) of most of the Western Hemisphere, our support of the British and Dutch empires and our consistent treachery toward the Spanish people (while we praise freedom), our continued manufacture of atomic bombs (while we preach peace), our treatment of the Negro (while we preach democracy), and our complacence before the subjection of our politics and press to Money (because Money is “free” under the Constitution), speak more eloquently to the world than our ideals; and indeed vitiate every good impulse that accompanies our statesmen into the council chambers. Since the instruments of free expression, of changing our economy, are in our hands, our failure to employ them is essentially a cultural, a religious failure. Creative insight into the deepest realms of our being is needed if the new world is not to be a house of cards—the old cards dealt by the very men who let Hitler grow and who made the war. And insight begins at home.
The individualisms upon which Western civilization is based, through which it has reached its present suicidal crisis, and by which American democracy is run, are false, because they excise one or another element of the organic whole of man; and are inadequate, because it is only upon the sound nucleus of the whole man that a society of all men can be founded. Some years ago, I called these individualisms “separatistic and atomic,”1 without realizing that the civilization they created was about to produce the perfect symbol of their atomicity, the atomic bomb.
The false modern individual has many expressions. Through the traditional religions, he believes in his separate eternal soul and in the possibility of its private salvation: a belief which rapidly leads to the scramble for private and special-group success. Through utilitarian democracy, he believes in economic laissez faire, the survival of the fittest, which inevitably brings about the survival of the shrewdest and most grasping. Through the cult of comfort and science worship, he believes that the machine can establish universal welfare and that the sciences—techniques for ordering and exploiting empirical phenomena—can touch life’s ultimate meanings. In pragmatism, he believes illogically both that reason is an end product of man’s need to adjust to what he calls reality, and yet that upon no premise more organic than itself reason can abolish the struggle in man between his earth-bound and his earth-transcending impulses; that it will perfect a “religion without tears,” and will naturalize man in an Eden of complacence.
The fallacy of these partial conceptions of man’s nature is revealed in their works, individual and social. The devout individualist of the organized churches finds himself enslaved—his piety exploited—by hierarchies of reactionary power; or he congregates in temples whose worship, divorced from act, is the void of “vain oblations.” The democratic individualist finds himself the undifferentiated member of economic group or political party, whose leadership, ever more remote from his control, thrives through the collective power of individual weaknesses. In some countries, he becomes the prone recipient of “nationally advertised” wares and of “nationally advertised” ideas concocted by commercial or power salesmen; in other countries (and in all, in time of crisis), he becomes a mere head in a herd, a mere arm in a horde ruled by dictators.
This transformation of the devout individualist into a mass-man whose most intimate life is invaded by mass production, both material and mental, is no paradox: it is the inevitable consequence of an organic lack in the individualist at the outset. The whole man is an integer of three indissoluble strands: one, the body with all its attributes of instinct, emotion, will, mind; two, the social complex of heredity, environment, culture; three, the cosmic dimension known by the mystics as God. Cut any one of these strands from the individual’s implicit culture and consciousness, and the result is literally dissolution . . . dissolution both social and inward . . . dissolution whose innumerable phases may be observed at leisure in the modern world.
One major trait of this maimed individual is a growing simplification under the growing intricacies of our mechanics, the growing proliferations of our economic ties. Centralization of power, totalitarianism, authoritarianism, are political simplifications. The drift to the inevitable collectivism of machine production (whether the state takes over big business or big business runs the state), without the organic counteraction to safeguard the personal and creative in the crafts and arts, is economic simplification. Vulgar Marxism, empirical rationalism, pragmatism, as philosophies of the Real, are intellectual simplifications. The popular “realism” which reduces life to a surface report of the senses, and the new modish romantic reactions that reduce the real to the dream world of the Surrealists or man to the solipsistic solitude and death-moment of certain Existentialists, are types of aesthetic simplification. In America, the shrinkage of consciousness has gone so far that metaphysics has been virtually outlawed even from what calls itself philosophy! And our common literary language is being reduced to the flat “basic” English of newspaper and advertisement, concerning which the delusion reigns that its empty precision is “good writing.”
All these trends of simplification, so varied and hostile to one another, are the results of fragmentation in man’s potential consciousness: atomizations of the organic whole which is man’s health; and no more adequate to create a world in which we can live than is a solitary atom to create an organism. Each on its own, they sum up to dissension, sterility and chaos; indeed, they constitute the contemporary scene, whether of culture with its memory-less kaleidoscope of fads, of economics with its competing corporations of magnates and labor, of politics with its little leaders who strive so sedulously to make peace out of the same basic values that make war.
The ultimate simplification, of course, is total war. And the military mind that can run a war is already pressing toward control of the peace. Here, the reader may object: nothing, he will say, could be more complicated than the logistics of war, than the techniques of modern machine and weapon; so that the masters of these, whatever their shortcomings, cannot be accused of “simplification.” The answer is, of course, that all the calculus of physical organization cannot add up to the organic wholeness of one human life. A bomber plane, however intricate, is in the literal sense of the word infinitely more simple than the most primitive human mind, than the most simple human emotion or, for that matter, than the sonnet or song which adequately voices it. And the business of running the bomber, of waging war over the seven seas: the shipping, the feeding, the munitioning, the marshalling of millions of men against millions of others, is infinitely more simple than the whole life of the least one of these millions.
Yet the annihilation of lives in war is a minor factor in the threat that is upon us. More lethal is the work of war on its survivors—and not only the famine-stricken. And deadliest of all is the day-by-day effect of a peace whose organization starves the consciousness of man and whose arts and religions fail to defend and mature it. In the long run, for instance, a folk whose daily fare in music is our radio songs will be more stricken by their vitamin-less vacuity than by the bomb that might wipe out Detroit. In the long run, a folk like the Mexican that lacks a Detroit to be blown up but receives an emotionally and spiritually nutritive fare in music may have the better chance for noble growth and survival.
Fortunately, this is not the entire picture of our advanced Occidental world. While the false individualisms break down and coalesce into their inevitable herd agglomerations, revolt spreads and countertrends appear. For instance, the most creative literary artists of our time reveal in various forms and moods the dissolution, the unreality, of our individualisms. (Examples are Gide, Kafka, Proust and Hermann Broch.) The best religious thinkers expose the untouched solitude of man within the gigantic social and intellectual syntheses of the Ig9th century, which leave man out. (Examples are Kierkegaard and Unamuno.) Others (Tillich, Niebuhr) demonstrate the deep psychological truths in the theological myths that science seemed to have devalued: and their precise bearing on our world. Even orthodoxy in the work of a Catholic like Maritain, of a Protestant like Barth, reinfuses actuality, social and personal, into the old dogmas, striving to make them organic. Freud, Jung, the Gestalt school, in their mutually antagonistic ways, reveal the complex spectrum of the ego, from the infrared of racial and social strains to the ultraviolet of mystic intuition. F. M. Alexander, that still unheralded genius from Australia, contributes pioneer proof that civilization has broken down the unconscious kinaesthesia of the modem psychosomatic organism, and discloses principles by which the xhealth of the body-mind may be established. Anthropology and archaeology have dissolved the false perspective by which Western culture saw its roots exclusively in Judea, Greece and Rome. And while techniques at least potentially bind the world together, a few social critics (in America, Lewis Mumford) reveal the fallacy of assuming their humanistic consummation unless their inward energies (long antedating the industrial revolution) are rerouted.
These are all vital trends toward a still non-existent integration. If it is a fact that the parts of the fission bomb remain inert until assembled, it might be said by analogy that all the parts of that infinitely more complex organism, a future society of whole men, lie unassembled within the chaos of our world; lie impotent, awaiting the work of synthesis against the extremely active disintegrating inertias which separate and annul them. For our chaos is not static. Indeed, as long as it prevails, it tends to deform all potentials of integration into positive forces of further disintegration.
Take for example the power of world communication made possible by techniques. To say that the radio, the newsprint, the airplane, today make “one world” is poisonous nonsense. By these carriers today come voices, visions, wills, that are products of, and spokesmen for, disintegration; come special and sectional pulls; come egoisms both individual and collective. The mountains of fractional “information” they disseminate about any country, any event or problem are something even worse than non-truth, since they perpetuate confusion with a delusion of knowledge that dims or dazes the natural human impulse to know. Indeed, the crowded, noisy ignorance of the modem world is less easily invaded by knowledge than was the silence of illiterate epochs. But the peril is more positive. Our common communicators by dealing out predigested arts and “discussions” muffle the intuitions and soften the intellectual discipline of the public, making it more readily swayed by the controlling economic powers.2
But the abuse of radio, newsprint, etc., is only an extreme example of how unintegrated trends toward potential integration today work against integration. We find the same disease in the intellectual realms. Thus, the literature that reveals the falsity of modem individualisms inspires writing that voices nihilism and despair. The literature that discloses the cosmic in the human ego produces schools of transcendental mysticism or of decadent orthodoxies that ignore the social dimension altogether. The analysis of the social element in the ego has led to a widespread denial of the forming nucleus within the ego, which is pre-rational and cosmic. In the fields of action, also, the curse is present. Against a vulgar communism that simplifies man’s problem to mass-economic terms stand churches that read the problem as exclusively moral or other-worldly . . . the democratisms that find a solution in “free enterprise” . . . the legalistic federationists who would spread a constitution over our untouched insanity of conflict and frustration.
Each faction of the unassembled body of integration, each with a part of truth but standing alone, asserting itself alone, multiplies disintegration; causes a pendulum swing from one partial extreme to another. And the reason is, of course, the want of pre-existent balance, the organism’s way of digesting all it absorbs, using and rejecting according to its form. We thus find ourselves in a vicious circle: because we lack the organic sense to begin with, we misuse or deform the trends in our world that should move us toward it.
The signature of our fragmentary drives toward integration is that they are all beliefs. Modern man believes; and believes in the dignity and efficacy of belief. And in this trait, we can approach the heart of our problem.
Consider our average American beliefs: the Democrat’s and Republican’s, that the world should accept the American system which they believe to be “free enterprise”; the American Catholic’s, that to this system should be added the spiritual primacy of his Church; the Socialist’s and Communist’s, that a collective state economy will alone bring peace. Beliefs less openly avowed: that America should go its own way and let the rest of the world hang; that the Anglo-Saxons must dominate the world to save it; that the need is for the strong leadership of business, of technicians, of the generals—of these in combination; or the acceptance (perhaps unconscious) of Luther’s defeatist pessimism about all government, so that the one hope is in individual salvation. In most of these variant beliefs, there are truthful intuitions. Even the fascists who, under disguise, flourish in our midst, have a glimpse of human nature denied to most Socialists and pragmatists, in their (distorted) awareness of the ties of blood; have a (distorted) truth, lost by most Christians, that he who loses his life shall find it. The common danger in all belief is that its intuition, its inherited or perhaps rational truth, becomes energized with the separatistic will of the ego. Through this will, the believer’s prejudices, lusts and fears pour into the equation; merge with the truth that masks them as part of the belief.
Two examples: one, the Nazi, under such truths as German excellence among the European peoples and as the healing strength of group-service and group-action, admitted into his conviction resentments both national and individual, lusts of the ego and the herd, the need of compensating for frustrations, and thus came to believe sincerely that his was the master-race which must not shrink from wholesale slaughter—nor he from individual death—to conquer the world; two, the American disciple of Winston Churchill, aware of the virtues of Anglo-Saxon political democracy, blind to the virtues of other peoples who are weak where he is strong, concludes that his institutions are the best, and with the unconscious fear of losing them comes to believe in “the American century” and in the God-given inferiority of Slav, Latin, African and Asiatic. This belief, as long as America prospers, is certainly less virulent than the Nazi’s; but bring adversity and anger to our shores, and the egocentric lusts, fears and ignorances in the American’s belief, despite its partial truths, might be as dangerous both to Americans and to the world as the Nazi’s. In both beliefs dwells the common belief of Western man that his individuality is a separate atom justified in its own “right,” and entitled to succeed by joining other similar national atoms. And while this belief prevails, in old forms or new, Western man empowered by techniques must spread disaster.
Contrary to common notion, belief is not primary in man. Organic knowledge comes before belief, and belief derives in part from it. The infant knows its being long before words shape belief. The organic knowledge may be instinctive like the infant’s sense of its own body and like the primitive man’s sharing in tribe and nature. Or it may be the conscious knowing of the founders of the high religions that God is in man, and that thereby all men are brothers. This knowledge is not irrational; since it is organic, it is pre-rational and as it becomes rationalized it begets belief.
While belief is closely attached to organic knowledge, it is healthy and creative. This was the condition of Christian belief during the centuries that made Europe and the Americas. The belief took theological forms that were contingent on the contemporary intellectual and economic phase of man’s development; that were therefore bound to pass, but remained predominantly creative while the pre-theological organic knowledge of God in man was present and was renewed by saints, poets, simple pious men and women. Trends, social and intellectual, from the 13th century progressively corroded the Christian belief; but more radically, they undermined its inherent organic knowledge. Europe still had holy men who knew; but with the corruption of the social orders supported by Christian belief, with the consequent loss of prestige by the Church hierarchy and by the aristocracy that worked with it, and with the growing prestige of success in the fields of natural science, discovery and commerce, the active knowers (always a minority of course) lost their hold on the folk and its leaders. Thus was prepared the Modern era in which belief, theological and scientific, mixed—as belief always is—with ephemeral concepts and false individual will, lost contact with the organic knowledge that alone makes it valid.
The organic knowledge of which I speak always exists among men; it exists today: the problem is to integrate it in the social body. To this end, the great cultures of the past devised methodologies to induce, nourish, preserve the knowledge and to bring it into public action. The specific methodology always fitted the specific intellectual and economic condition of the culture: which is to say that the reason why it “worked” was also the reason why—when the conditions changed—it stopped working. The methodology of the Hindus, for example, was adapted to a caste society and to a primitive agrarian economy unable to cope with tropical nature: whence its transcendental defeatist attitude toward the earth. The methodology of the Jews (their Torah with its touch on every phase of behavior) was a remarkable means of impregnating the entire folk, first surrounded by more potent nations, later scattered among them, with the continuous presence of God. All the classical methodologies reflect the social limitations of the pre-scientific world in which human exploitation of some sort was the prerequisite of the class culture, and in which the ideal of unity and brotherhood was bound to become transcendental because technically unattainable on a divided, un-mastered earth. Wherefore, all these methodologies (despite their continued claim on individuals or groups in special conditions) are obsolete. And the world today, riddled with beliefs, glutted with techniques, strangled with organizations for production and distribution, has no methodology whatsoever for forming and activating the organic knowledge of man’s nature and meaning: the knowledge that will alone set us free, so that we may transfigure our new overwhelming force from destruction to creation.
This is as far as a brief essay can go: to a mere threshold. I conclude with a few suggestions of what must be developed in another piece . . . The organic knowledge is of God in man: is the discovery within the individual who by contemplation, meditation, psychological practice and love penetrates to contact with himself that within self lives the essence of universal conjunction. It is precisely this knowledge that the Modern empiricist liberal brands as “mystical” and denies. He believes the democratic dogma that all men are brothers; he believes the need of justice and the primacy of love in justice; he believes the revelation by art of the essential unity of human experience; he believes that alone the principles of brotherhood can bring man peace for himself and build peace for the world. He will even admit that with our technical might the alternative is destruction. But despite fifty centuries to prove it, despite his own condition, despite his faith in the techniques that move things, he refuses to see that his beliefs lack the dynamic principle of action. Unless his instinct of self-preservation has grown blunt, today’s threat of disaster must at last force him to hearken to those (as well versed in the sciences as he) whose knowledge insists that the premise of all liberal beliefs is the presence of the universal . . . of the Whole . . . of God, in man. Without it, the democratic doctrine that all men are brothers can be denied (Germany), can be constantly betrayed (the United States and Britain), can be debased into an “equality” of mass-men (totalitarian Communism as it might develop in the Soviet Russia, if orthodox dialectical materialism prevailed over the organic intentions of the Russian people). Only with this knowledge may man be preserved from the grinding processes of collectivism, under whatever name.
Perhaps to admit this at first requires an act of faith. But faith is not belief; faith is proto-organic knowledge; it is closer to instinct than to intellection; it is indeed the specific human instinct.
What is cryingly needed is to develop in Modern man the psychological focus-and-fulcrum that is at once the self and the continuum . . . the Whole: a set of coordinates, imaged and felt, by which the self, not only in acting from its center but in feeling and seeing, spontaneously marks a relation with the Whole. And for this “Whole,” God is the better word; since God implies the element of value and love, of personal relatedness to the cosmos, the mystery of life which both inheres in us and transcends us; the organic life-force by which alone a theory of organic wholeness can become experience and action.
The methodology need not destroy the theological beliefs of men still devout in the high religions: Christian, Jewish, Mohammedan or Asiatic. But it may foreshadow the post-theological phase of religion in which activated psychology will come to replace supernatural dogma. Why will it save us from the cancers of egoism? Because it acts within and upon the Will. It begins to integrate within the ego and the more dangerous group ego, the truth of relation; so that when the individual, the family, the labor union, the chamber of commerce, the church, the racial minority, the racial majority, the nation, act—as they must act—from their own centers, they will act instinctively in relation with the Whole that constitutes their world.
Given the enormous physical powers of science, the alternative to the appearance of this methodology in every phase of Modern life is our extinction. But if the doom comes, it will not be for mankind; it will be for our Western civilization (short-lived as compared to other cultures, rich in material conquests and arrogant beyond compare). For infant Man’s destiny is not to die; it is to grow in knowing—even if the next step takes place on the slopes of the Andes or in remotest Asia.
1 See chapter XX of The Re-discovery of America, chapter VI of America Hispana, chapter IV of Chart for Rough Water.
2 Even the good of so seemingly benign an enterprise as the widespread broadcasting of classical music must be questioned. It is dubious if the hearing of music can nourish anyone who has not some experience in making music. Our mechanical communication of music, performed by its masters, is undoubtedly discouraging the individual making of music, at least after school age. This in time may result in a growing anemia in the work of the composers.