Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

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An address given first on November 1, 1966, as the Beckman lecture at Wells College (Aurora, New York); expanded for delivery on May 2, 1967 as the fourth of Blanshard’s Neilson lectures at Smith College (Northhamp-ton, Massachusetts); and published as a pamphlet by Smith in 1967.  Blanshard’s wife graduated Smith in 1916 and served on its Board of Trustees from 1953 to 1958; her mother, Margaret Bradshaw, taught English at Smith for many years. 

Posted April 29, 2008


The Life of the Spirit in a Machine Age


Brand Blanshard


When I was a boy, I lived for some years in a country town in Ohio.  It was a sleepy little place, consisting chiefly of a cross-roads store with a post-office in it, a blacksmith shop, a pair of white-painted churches, of one of which my father was the minister, a little wooden schoolhouse of which I was a junior janitor, and some scattered farmhouses.  There were no movie theaters, no supermarkets, no radios blaring, and only rarely a horseless carriage—as it was then called—to strike terror into the gentle Dobbins that pulled us about. 

But on all sides there were green spaces to play in; there were maple woods where we gathered sap for syrup in the spring, and where violets and jack-in-the-pulpits were plentiful. In the long winter evenings we piled wood into the pot-bellied stove, lit the oil lamps and studied our lessons. On summer evenings we played baseball in the road to a serenade of tree-toads and cicadas till it was time to light the lamps again and read G. A. Henty.

I went back to that little town recently. I had not seen it in sixty years, and after some months of work in a big city, I wanted to soak up a little peace from that quiet countryside. But the village seemed to have vanished. Instead there was a highway intersection a red light to keep the rivers of cars from piling up.  The house where I lived, which stood in a great green lawn, had been torn down to make way for a garage with old tires and battered cars around it.  There was a gaudy gas station or two and a quick-lunch where truck drivers could get fast service. The little Congregation-al church where my father preached was still there, looking tired and forlorn (its Methodist rival had long since been torn down), and its graceful old parsonage had been re-done with cheap fabric shingles.  The village of which I had harbored such idyllic memories had become a back· wash of the machine age—sordid, littered and tinny.

I came away meditating on the distance the world can travel in sixty years.  We live today in a different epoch.  Would I go back, if I could, to that earlier world? No, I think not.  I should not want to live in a world without cars or radios or refrigerators or oil furnaces or penicillin or planes.  We have left that world once for all behind, and I suspect, for a better one.

But that is not my point at the moment. What I want to say is that it is a different world, different in the extreme, that this difference is due largely to the triumph of the machine, that the machine has affected every aspect of our life, and that if we are to be happy or at home in this new world we must learn how to adjust ourselves to it.

Consider what has happened in a few important areas of life.  First, transportation. My father’s horse moved at eight or nine miles an hour, and to own a horse at all, with quarters for stable and buggy, was something of a luxury. Now the average family owns a car, in which father, driving at fifty, and junior at seventy, can shop, visit, or commute at what used to be impossible distances.  Forty years ago in a house in Ann Arbor I saw two old men talking with each other earnestly in a corner.  One of them was Robert Bridges, the British poet laureate; the delicate featured man he was talking to looked like a poet too; he was seeing visions of an America on rubber wheels; it was the first Henry Ford.  His dream has come true. Our railroads are dying.  New Yorkers who want to go to Seattle find it less convenient to spend four or five days in a train than to leave at six o’clock, have a leisurely dinner on a plane and descend on Seattle before bed time.  This will soon seem a bit slow.  A new supersonic plane is under discussion that will reduce the time from New York to London to about two hours.  Even now a statesman who needs to confer in Algiers or India can be there next day; indeed an Australian friend of mine, flying to America, reported to me that like “the young lady named Bright, whose speed was faster than light,” he had arrived on the preceding day.  Buckminster Fuller, the engineer of the American exhibit at Expo ‘67, “envisions the day when any man anywhere can get to work half-way around the world and be home for supper.

The communications story is similar. I remember hearing the first Roosevelt in the campaign of 1912 shouting and pounding with his fist from the back of a Pullman car as his train receded into the distance; that exhausting method was his best means of communicating with the people.  Now if a President wants to speak to the American people as a whole, he can sit down and talk in his office, and we will see and hear him two thousand miles away more clearly than I did the older Roosevelt in the flesh.  One call now talk by telephone from the east coast to the west without even calling an operator.  One call sit in one’s living room and see the Orioles win or the Mets lose, and with Tel-Star one can now see people smile or frown at that very instant on the streets of Paris.

Or consider the invasion by the machine of our more intimate life.  As a boy I chopped wood for the stove; as a young instructor, I shovelled coal in the cellar while my wife shivered upstairs; as a retired philosopher, I sit in my study and meditate while a complicated thing in the cellar feeds itself oil and water, and, considerate of the economy of a pensioner, lowers the temperature at night without being told.  In the kitchen there is no longer an ice-box, stored with blocks of deliquescing ice from Lake Michigan, but a handsome white cabinet that purrs its contentment about the store of almost incredible edibles inside; owing to canning and freezing machinery, Americans are the best fed people in the world.  Laundry is no longer a matter of skinned knuckles and steaming tubs, but of touching a button first in a washer and then in a dryer; and that ancient problem of dishes which has made serfs of so many housewives, seems to be almost solved.  American are alleged to be the cleanest people in the world; if this is true, it is largely the work of our water engineers, with their provision of a constant supply of hot and cold water, and their unsung but momentous mastery of the problems of plumbing and drainage.  I have a yard to take care of that has an ill-repressed yen for reincarnation as a hay field; but I keep it in its place, not by pushing a mower and swinging a scythe, as I once did, but by a machine that actually pulls me along as I strut exulting behind it.

And now machines have begun to do even our intellectual work for us.  They keep our accounts at the bank.  They bill us for our water, light and power.  Not only have they reduced many of our factories to a skeleton crew; they handle much of the registrars’ work in our universities and the immense administrative labors of the Pentagon and the Veterans’ Administration.  I have seen a machine which can instantly convert simple spoken sentences into type on paper.  Libraries are condensing books and pages to postage stamp size, though with reading aids they remain perfectly legible. The Hartford Hospital in Connecticut has an arrangement with the Public Health Service in Washington whereby in emergency cases of heart disease an electrocardiogram can be sent to a central computer and an analysis of the symptoms be reported in fifteen seconds. Machines will teach us languages at home with just the right refined accent.  Examinations of certain types are graded by machines.  When sociologists or insurance men must interpret statistically great ranges of data, they often find it faster and more accurate to do so by machines.  And when elaborate computations are necessary in astronomy, physics or mathematics, the machine may be the only resort.  Some mathematicians at the University of Illinois recently wanted to find out, for reasons I do not know, whether a certain number was a prime, i.e., divisible only by itself.  Most of us can answer this question readily enough if the number is a low one; we can see that 11 or 23 or 37 is prime, but what about 379 or 12,021?  That takes thought. The number the Illinois people wanted to know about was 2,917 digits long, and it was estimated that it would take a man about 80,000 years to make the necessary calculation.  The machine proved the number to be really prime by completing some 750 million additions and multiplications in 85 minutes.  Of course all we have is the machine’s word for it that this is right; no human being will ever check it.  But even if someone did live eight thousand lives and claimed in his seven thousandth life that he had run across an error, I suspect the Illini would still prefer to believe their machine.

These are a few examples from thousands of how the machine is infiltrating modern life. We are going to consider what is implied in this infiltration, and let us look first at an inference that many have drawn from this last kind of illustration.  Is it not clearer than ever that man himself is a machine, differing only in degree from these marvelous machines he has made, some of which can out-think him already?  After all, a human body is a material thing, an aggregate of billions of cells made themselves of countless billions more of protons, electrons, and the thirty-two other particles; and no physicist seems to doubt that these ultimates, or at least aggregates of them, obey the laws of physics.  We may protest that a machine could not guide itself intelligently, as a man can.  But guiding oneself seems to mean ordering one’s behavior toward a result and re-ordering it suitably if obstacles arise.  And a machine can be made to do that; for example, it can be made to play a respectable game of chess. The secret of construction here is the feed-back principle, by which contingencies are provided for in advance, so that when they arise the machine will deal with them in the most effective way.  I gather that no match for the championship has been arranged between Fischer and the IBM Company, but it is entirely possible in theory that there should be such a match and in consequence a new champion crowned. Now the human body is a mechanism compared to which the most complex computer is a child’s toy.  Is there anything to prevent our saying that this body is itself just a feed-back machine?  Of course no engineer is now in a position to duplicate it. But that shows only a lack of present knowledge.  If knowledge continues to accelerate at its current rate, are we not bound to discover in a century or two that human beings too are just machines, and life itself a story written in the alphabet of physics?

The answer to that is No, it is not even a theoretical possibility.  The reason why is suggested by a drawing that appeared in The New Yorker.  A towering computer covered with rows of bulbs and buttons is issuing from its depths a slip of paper, and a pair of engineers are examining it with fascinated amazement; for what the slip is saying is, “I think, therefore I am.”  The picture gave me pause—could any machine say that in Descartes’ famous sense? What Descartes said was that his consciousness certainly existed; he could not doubt that he was doubting, since in doubting it, he was doing the doubting he was doubting about.  But then no machine doubts or is conscious.  We talk, to be sure, about its calculating and remembering and making mistakes and correcting them.  But it never does these things in the sense in which we do them, for we do them consciously and it does not.

I have heard engineers say that they do not know what this consciousness means, that if a machine did everything a human being did, it too would be human, for you couldn’t tell the difference.  That is a fallacy.  There would still be a difference, whether you could discover it or not.  Indeed there is no greater difference anywhere than the difference between a change in a dental nerve and the pain you feel as the dentist’s buzzer strikes the pulp, between a feeling of anger and the blow that expresses it, between a thought and a thing. Furthermore, in this fragile flower of consciousness, which seems so expendable to our behaviorists, lies all the value in the world.  I do not deny that mind has its roots in the body; I do not deny the instrumental value of the matchless machines and medicines that help us to keep those roots alive.  What I am saying is that consciousness, which is not a physical thing, not a motion of particles or something that can he bounded in space, is the only thing worth having in ill itself, that if its flickering light were to be snuffed out tonight by the tail of some truant meteor, then so far as we know, nothing good or evil would be left in the wide universe.  It is in those things, and those things only, in which man is not a machine that his importance lies.

If this is true, the question becomes a meaningful one whether the machine age marks a real advance or not.  If anyone were to ask us whether man had truly progressed in the last two thousand years, many of us would think first of air planes, telephones, steamships and refrigerators as evidence that he has.  But once we have clearly seen that these are instruments rather than values in themselves, and that the test of advance lies in the quality of man’s consciousness or spirit, their abundance is not conclusive.  The Greeks had none of these things.  But even without them, certain flowers of the spirit managed to grow in the Greek garden—Pericles, for example, and Pheidias and Demosthenes and Sophocles and Plato.  The food these men ate, their cleanliness, their medicine and surgery, their clothes, streets and houses, were probably wretched by our standards.  And such things are of course important; life itself often depends on them; and it is better to be George F. Babbitt alive than Plato dead.  But granting this, the question is still arguable whether life was more worth living for the average citizen of Attica than it is for the average citizen of America

What is not arguable, I suppose, is that the means are in our hands for a life better by far than men ever lived before.  Better food, health, comfort, longevity, income, means of knowledge—these are prodigious advantages; and if you were to consider the matter fairly, comparing the quality of life, fairly, not to a constellation of Greek geniuses, nor even of the free citizens of Athens, but of the Greeks generally, including women and slaves, with that of Detroit or Chicago, the result is by no means a foregone conclusion.  Still, it is disquieting to think that there could be a real question about it.  A recent book by Chad Walsh, From Utopia to Nightmare, points out the curious fact that the old delight in Utopia-making has turned sour, that the castles men are now building in the clouds are dystopias, places of boredom or terror like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984.  One reason for the disillusionment about what can be done by external reforms.  The reforms urged by socialist dreamers have largely come true; we have enough food for all, cars and television sets and gang-ploughs on the farms; most people have incomes that would have spelled luxury not long ago.  Yet few of them feel as if they were living in Utopia.  A land may flow with milk and honey and not, after all, be the promised land.  It may be purgatory.

The fact is that the machine age generates currents that tend to paralyze its natural beneficence.  If we are to avoid such paralysis, we must take thought of these currents and how to neutralize them.  Let me mention a few of them.  I will not talk about nuclear explosions or the population explosion, vastly important as these are; I am more interested at the moment in what the new age is doing to us immediately and personally.

One thing you will have noted is that we are changing rapidly from a country people to a city people.  Farming machinery has been so successful as to have destroyed much of our farming community.  Our granaries are full to overflowing; the farms of Vermont and New Hampshire are being sold for summer places because they cannot compete against the giant mechanized acreages of the middle west. Happily there are still open spaces where men can farm and fish and live like Thoreau if they care to, but these are not the places where people go to live.  They are going to the cities.

During the first century of our national life, from 1790 to 1890, our total population increased sixteen times, our urban population a hundred and thirty-nine times, and urbanization is accelerating.  At the last census the vast majority of us lived in cities or their suburbs. The time is not far off when our eastern seaboard from Boston to Baltimore will be virtually one continuous city.

This urbanization is changing our character as a people.  It is changing us physically.  The boys of my distant childhood thought nothing of walking miles to school, and mowing the yard and currying the horses when they got back; they went to bed at night, as Stevenson said sensible people should, “tired and content and undishonored.”  The boys in our city apartment ant-hills do not know what to do with their physical energy, and they reach bed-time untired and discontented and quite possibly dishonored because their overflowing youthful energy has exploded in petty delinquency.  They and their fathers go wistfully to look at professionals playing ball under the arc lights, but that is a very different thing from playing themselves. The popularity of westerns in our movies is largely due, I suppose, to the imaginative escape they provide to boys and men whose life no longer provides for physical exploit and adventure.   I am not sure that city life is physically so hard on our women, though the record of our women’s athletic teams in Europe and particularly in Russia is disquieting.

Fitness is important, because our minds have their roots in our bodies and cannot flourish if those roots are untended.  The American tradition in this matter is curious. Our Puritan ancestors had a dash of asceticism which made them regard flesh and spirit as somehow enemies of each other, but for all that, the exacting outward conditions of their life made bodily vigor indispensable.  Their descendants have broken free from this inward asceticism only to find themselves in outward conditions that require almost nothing from them; they get out the car to go a block or two. If we are to prevent a flabby degeneracy from setting in, we must take matters in our own hands, with the clear realization that healthy minds cannot flourish in overfed and under-muscled bodies. President Kennedy’s physical fitness program was a gallant counter-move which might well be taken seriously by city dwellers, not through absurd attempts by obese executives to walk fifty miles, but by a daily program designed to build and keep physical tone. There are few things that would payoff so well in the life of the mind.

If I insist on this, it is because physical vitality is probably the most important condition of happiness, and with such vitality, modern life is at war.  With the honk and roar of mechanized traffic invading sleep, with the nervous weariness of commuting to and from business in a river of cars, with theaters beginning at about what used to be bed-time, countless men in grey flannel suits are also turning grey inside. The greyness may be due to nothing more sinister than a continually low barometer of energy.  If I sought a symbol for happiness,” writes F. L. Lucas, “it would perhaps be a mountain spring gently, but unfailingly, overflowing its basin with living water.  There seems to be nothing in life more vital than to keep this slight surplus of energy.  One should always overflow.”  Modern life, if we let it, can swiftly drain that foundation dry.

A man’s worth depends on how he orders such energy as he has.  And here we come to another point of tension between modern man and his age.  The satisfaction and distinctiveness of his life lies in fulfilling his own powers  own powers.  On the other hand, the machine age will iron him out flat if it can.  May I develop these two theses a little further?

As for the first, a line of thinkers reaching from antiquity to Freud has taught us that the good life lies in being ourselves, in finding and fulfilling our  powers.  Our chief duty, said the poet Pindar, is becoming who we are.  Plato distinguished between a free man a slave by saying that the free man accepts his purposes from his own nature, while a slave accepts them from someone else.  For the sober Aristotle and the sober Butler, the richest life consisted in the harmonious free play of the nature with which a man was endowed. “Every man truly lives,” said Sir Thomas Browne, “so long as he acts his nature, or some way makes good the faculties of himself.”  A porpoise cuts a beautiful figure in the sea, but would hardly do so in the tree-tops; a monkey is a genius in the tree-tops, but a pitiful sight in the sea.  So it is with men.  For the sake of both joy and effectiveness, they must find what they are made for if they can. The miseries of Macaulay doing mathematics, of Clarence Day trying to play the violin without an ear, of Phillips Brooks trying to teach when he was made to p reach, are witnesses to the unhappiness and impotence of people who have not discovered themselves.  It may be objected that the full life lies, not in being oneself, but in the service of others.  That is an important comment, but I will stay on it only long enough to quote the advice of Ibsen, who was not lacking in social conscience, to the young Georg Brandes: “There is no way in which you can benefit society more than by coining the metal you have in yourself.”

Now no two of us are quite alike, not even twins.  “Ah, sir,” said Thackeray, “a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine—all things in nature are different to each . . . .”  “A man,” says Emerson, “is like a piece of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand, until you come to a particular angle: then it shows deep and beautiful colors. There is no adaptation or universal applicability in men, but each has his special talent, and the mastery of successful men consists in adroitly keeping themselves where and when that turn shall be oftenest to be practised.”  It is a tragedy for some of us that our lot never provides for that particular turn which would reveal the light that is in us; one wonders what Emerson would have been if he had spent his youth in the General Motors factory at Flint. Education is a sort of spit for turning us artificially and exposing every side to the light.

Now, for the second point: the danger of the machine age is that it will mass-produce not only things but minds.  As Prime Minister Asquith said, “The modern world with its steam-roller methods, its levelling of inequalities, its lopping of excrescences, its rounding of angles and blunting of edges . . . tends inevitably and increasingly towards uniformity, sameness, monotony.”  Two hundred million people, speaking the same language, and so near together that in the age of planes they almost make one great city, invite centralization, and we have it.  Just as we are governed not from Hartford or Boston, but from Washington, so in entertainment, literature and religion, we are increasingly moulded by certain great centers of influence. We look at the same movies, whose capital is Hollywood; we read the same technically superb magazines, supplied by the Luce, Curtis, and McCall empires; we tend to read the same books, helped out by book-of-the-month clubs; more of us, both absolutely and relatively, are coming under the sway of the most powerful of the Christian churches, but not the one most disposed to encourage individual thought.

Even going to college, the traditional means to individuality, has now become something to do because everyone else is doing it; and when a youth does enter college, he often fids  himself submerged in a mass of students so great that little special attention can be paid to him.  He responds to mass methods by conforming to the mass mind.  In my forty years of teaching I have read thousands of papers by young Americans, and I look back at them, not as over a desert—they were too intelligent for that—but as over a vast plateau.  The average ability was high, but the flatness of that great plain!  How a truly individual essay would have stood out, an essay with true distinctiveness of thought or true distinction of style!  I recall an article about Americans and their ways by that keen and critical visitor from abroad, Lowes Dickinson, in which he wrote: “I have visited many of their colleges and universities, and everywhere . . . . I have found the same atmosphere. It is the atmosphere known as the ‘Yale spirit,’ and it is very like that of an English Public School.  It is virile, athletic, gregarious, all-penetrating, all-embracing.  It turns out the whole university to sing rhythmic songs and shout rhythmic cries at foothall matches.  It praises action and sniffs at speculation.  It exalts morals and depresses intellect.  It suspects the solitary person, the dreamer, the loafer, the poet, the prig. . . . I know Americans of culture, know and love them; but I feel them to be lost in a sea of philistinism.”  That was written many years ago; was it the sour estimate of a carping alien?  Not wholly, I am afraid; it has been repeated too often by reflective Americans themselves.  Here, for example, is Professor Douglas Bush of Harvard, speaking at a recent conference on education: “The only kind of individuality that is generally admired is skill in sport or smartness in business; the individuality of the cultivated mind and taste meets only indifference or antagonism in school, in college, and in society.” Perhaps that is over-stated, but there remains enough truth in it to be disquieting.

Here, then, are two facts: If we lived fully and freely, each of us would be different; the pressures of our age are toward making us the same.  What is to be done about this tension? If it were a problem that could be settled by organization and expenditure, you could trust Americans to deal with it effectively.  They have done some notable things in educational organization, for example President Aydelotte’s reconstruction of Swarthmore to break the educational lock-step.  But in the realm of the spirit, no organization can guarantee results.  The required changes must be inside. Let me suggest a few that might help.

One is a larger tolerance of people who do not toe our line.  “I do not know of any salvation for society,” says Justice Douglas, “except through eccentrics, misfits, dissenters, people who protest” (and Mr. Douglas is not afraid to practice what he preaches.)  McCarthyism is always smouldering below the surface, ready to erupt at weaker spots.  Our most pressing national problem is that of race; it has not been solved even by the great civil rights bill.  There is only one thing that can possibly solve it, namely a regeneration of inward attitude that would seem now to be a miracle, but is not beyond hoping and working for.  And full tolerance means more than toleration; it means looking at the person who differs, not with automatic suspicion or aversion but with interest, as one who may have something to give us.  This does not require us to entertain fools gladly and beam on all communists, Birchers and beatniks alike.  Tolerance based on the principle that everything is as good as everything else is not real tolerance, for then there is nothing left to tolerate.  Real tolerance does not deny us our disapprovals, but only the right to disapprove someone merely because he is different.  And just as true tolerance will not condemn someone because he is different, it will not praise him either for that reason.  There is no merit in difference as such.  Originality springs from thinking for oneself, not from trying to think differently from others.  Minds of real power have sometimes yielded to this temptation.  Mencken, Chesterton and Shaw seem at times to have used a formula: find out what most people regard as self-evidently true and announce that of course this is nonsense.  The pattern grew tiresome after a time.

But difference from the run of people, when expressive of conviction or character, needs encouragement, both in others and in ourselves.  There is so strong a pressure in a business family to become a business man, in a medical or academic family to become a medic or an academic, that it may need no little courage to follow one’s own gift for repairing machines or writing verse or planning houses. Such courage may make all the difference between a drab life and a life with heart in it. James Truslow Adams, having gone abroad to take stock of his countrymen in perspective, spoke strongly on this matter: “if our lives are to be based on any art of living, if our souls are not to be suppressed and submerged under a vast heap of standardized plumbing, motor cars, crack schools for the children, suburban social standards and customs, fear of group opinion, and all the rest of our mores and taboos, then the first and most essential factor is courage, the simple courage to do what you really want to do with your own life.”  On all this our classic document is Emerson’s Self-Reliance; I hope that mighty sermon is still read.

No doubt the comment of many would be: “My trouble is not that I have convictions without courage; I’m sure I’d have courage enough if I had any special convictions to express; unfortunately I haven’t any.”  And all too possibly that is correct.  Convictions, if they are worth having, require thought; thought is an activity and a hard one; and the machine age breeds passivity by doing for us much that was once done by us.  Children no longer need ingenuity to entertain themselves; they can sit before the TV set and be entertained without effort by the hour. Looking requires less effort than reading, and even in the rising tide of paperbacks, the art of reflective reading seems to be falling off.  F. R. Leavis remarks: “There seems every reason to believe that the average cultivated person of a century ago was a very much more competent reader than his modern representative.  Not only does the modern dissipate himself upon so much more reading of all kinds: the task of acquiring discrimination is much more difficult.”  Have you not often reflected, as I have, that one could spend one’s life in reading the journals that the postman deposits at the door, that one is expected somehow to keep up not only with the books and journals of one’s profession, but also with the political explosions around the world, with what Saul Bellow and Iris Murdoch may have written recently, and what Karl Barth and the Death-of-God theologians have been arguing, and what astronauts and artists and doctors and dictators have been doing.  We have courses in speed-up reading; no matter; we shall never catch up.  And as T. S. Eliot reminds us, “where there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields of knowledge in which the same words are used with different meanings, when everyone knows a little about a great many things, it becomes extremely difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.”

Yet I suggest that it is rather important to know just that.  And in order to know it, one must go beyond passive reception to active reflection.  There is a vast difference between being well-informed and being educated, between being learned and being thoughtful, and anyone who has tried to write a book or even an article will know how wide apart are the inward attitudes of the absorbent reader and the active thinker.  I am sure that many students go through high school and college without ever learning this difference; sometimes it takes the struggle for a Ph.D. to bring it home to them.  One needs to have done a good deal of thinking even to learn what sort of evidence to be satisfied with, for as Aristotle pointed out, the kind of evidence with which a thinker should rest content in natural science is very different from that in morals or mathematics.

I have often thought with pleasure of an incident that comes, with what truth I do not know, from the early days of our history.  An assorted group of travellers who had taken lodgings for the night was sitting before the fire at a wayside inn.  Conversation fell on religion, and a couple of young men who had been reading the latest tracts threw their weight around with a cleverness and conceit that had the rest of the company reduced to exasperated silence.  An old man had been sitting a little apart and listening without joining in the discussion.  Noticing him at last, the pair condescended to say that it was time they heard from him.  And they did hear from him. Quietly the old man proceeded to restate their conclusions for them, expose their assumptions, and dissect their arguments, with a logic and lucidity that was not merely damaging; it was annihilating.  At the end the abashed pair were not unnaturally curious. “May we ask your name, sir?”  “My name is Marshall,” he said.  They knew what that meant; the old man could only be John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States.  What an exhilarating thing it is anywhere to stumble upon this power to think, to state a case, to move to a conclusion in a straight line!

Surrounded on all sides by mountains of miscellaneous fact that the vast presses of the machine age are piling around us, we could all profit by more of that power.  Some of the mountainous stuff is important; much of it is not; and only a mind disciplined in interpreting fact can tell which is which.  There are plenty of agencies ready to do our thinking for us, from The New Republic to The National Review, and if they did not contradict each other so flatly, it would save us a great deal of trouble to let them do it.  But that would be unfair to oneself.  Do you remember the chapter on Individuality in Mill’s fine old essay on Liberty?  “The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference,” says Mill, “are exercised only in making a choice.  He who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice.  He gains no practice in discerning or in desiring what is best. . . . He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties.  He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision . . . . It really is of importance not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.”  And Mill practised what he preached.  He can still warm young minds to a rosy glow, for there is a fire burning in him, the fire of a genuine passion to see things for himself and see them as they are.

We need this power of authentic judgment for a further reason: our age is bombarding us with specious values, and many people, having lost the power to judge between them, become the prey of propaganda. “Madison Avenue,” says Vance Packard, “is fascinated with the possibility of making us more hedonistic. America is going through a revolution in self-indulgence . . . . Living on credit is both moral and fun, they tell us. American people are told the way to live is to be happy all the time.  We are subject to constant titillation of the senses. We spend nine times as much for liquor as we do for books.”  There is the same confusion of voices in the realm of art.  “We once had an art,” said Gilbert Murray, “which was enjoyed and admired by ordinary intelligent people; now we have school upon school, system upon system, of art—all transient, and each in its time enthusiastically admired by cliques or artists and up-to-date reviewers, while the ordinary intelligent man remains skeptical or repelled.”

Now the ground on which we should appraise values is one of the hardest questions in contemporary philosophy, and to ask that plain men should think these matters through for themselves does seem unreasonable.  Is the achievement of an authentic discrimination in values therefore impracticable?  I do not think so.  There is no need to carry the world on our own shoulders. We have had millions of ancestors on the planet who have had experience in these matters and have left registers of what they found.  And judging by these registers, they achieved pretty general agreement that some ventures into poetry, to take but one art, have been supremely successful and others not. The vote is not quite unanimous; it never is. Tolstoy railed against Shakespeare, and Goethe against Dante, and Herbert Spencer against Homer, but do we not feel that they wrote themselves down in doing so?  On some candidates for our suffrage, the polls are all but closed.  We know well enough whether to find the best that has been thought and said in the world; and the proved  prescription for a discriminating taste is to live with this best until it has entered into our bloodstream and affected our heart and brain. There is no need to drown in the tides of formless art and meaningless verse and hedonistic morals that swirl about us.  After all, there are firm islands in the flood.

Let us turn briefly to a final problem of adjustment.  Perhaps the most striking thing about the recent past is the accelerated pace of change.  For many thousands of years, and until the middle of the nineteenth century, the horse remained our fastest means of conveyance. But in the last fifty years we have moved from the Wright brothers’ little flying machine to propeller planes moving at 300 miles an hour to jets at 700 miles an hour, and to astronauts at 17,000 miles an hour; our moon astronauts, when they are ready to go, expect to reach about 25,000 miles an hour. Even in little things our way of life has been changing at a fantastic speed.  When I was a student in England, there were laid out for us on our examination tables quill pens of the type used by John Locke and, I suppose, by Duns Scotus.  Since then I have lived through the age of steel pens, fountain pens, ball point pens, manual typewriters, electric typewriters, space-adjusting electrics, and portable recorders; by the time I typed this lecture I had reached the electric eraser. Such accelerated change, occurring in every department of life, calls for continual readjustment.  Many people are not equal to it and break down in the attempt.  The strain is greatest in our cities.  Sociologists working on the topography of insanity have found not only that the rate is higher in the city than in the country but that within the cities themselves there are well defined insanity zones, so that the rate of lunacy rises as you travel towards the heart of the city.  Life in this roaring traffic, where there are no neighbors, no morning dews or evening quiet, and no green things growing, may be dreadfully dehumanized.

Faced with this dehumanization, people have tried two extreme kinds of response. One is the line of Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi, the line of revolt and withdrawal from the machine age and of return to the simple life. Thoreau lived alone in the woods, never married, never voted, and refused to pay taxes.  Tolstoy wanted to get rid of electricity and railways and to go back to tilling the ground with sticks pulled by horses.  Gandhi, one reads, wanted people to spin their own clothes, objected to being fanned by electric fans, questioned irrigation projects, and, like Tolstoy, disliked railroads.  Samuel Butler said that “every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species.” These were in some ways great men. But their way of meeting the machine age is surely self-defeating.  To abolish railways in Russia or India would mean starvation for great numbers of people.  Tolstoy depended on the machines he detested even for disseminating his detestation of them.  When Louis Fischer went to see Gandhi, he found that while Gandhi would not allow an electric fan in his hot room, he allowed his wife to sit stolidly and fan him by the hour.  To retire from the machine age is too likely either to make others pay the price of one’s large-mindedness or, if carried consistently through, to decimate and decivilize the race.

The other extreme is that of surrender to the machine age.  One may let the gadgetry of modern life prescribe its means and ends. Why call one’s legs into needless play if one has a car to transport one into the next block? While there is TV to look at, why converse? While there are instalment plans open to us, why be content with the old car, or with one car, or, for that matter, with anything but the latest in what all salesmen now describe as “homes”?  The glossy magazines tell us, with their incomparable colored plates, that we can achieve what is called “glamour,” not by doing or being anything, but by wearing something, and they suggest powerfully that if we do not wear it, if we are content with what is merely comfortable and becomes us, if we venture on a plane with that shabby luggage of ours, if we go on with our black telephones and our white bathrooms when in both cases we might have lavender, we are falling behind the times.  Now the trouble with this train of thought is that there is no end to it.  The appetite for these appurtenances grows by what it feeds on, till one becomes like Sisyphus, rolling his great stone endlessly up hill.  One works harder and harder to get more things and then more, only to have to replace them faster and faster by working harder and harder.  That is what the east means when it charges Americans with materialism.  It is a way of life in which things are in the saddle and ride mankind.

Now surely the way to deal with machines is neither to flee from them nor to surrender to them, but to use them, to use them as means to ends appointed not by them, but by ourselves. The great Greek achievement was based on freedom, but that freedom was based in turn on the slavery of human beings. Our freedom rests not on slaves or even servants, for they have vanished, but on an army of sleek new retainers who are always on call, who are never sick or tired, and who never go on strike if decently treated.  I submit that the so-called machine age provides, on the whole, the best conditions in history for a widely-lived life of the spirit.  The new world of automation promises us a leisure owned in other days only by aristocrats. Machines are not hateful monsters; they make us possible.  Sir Charles Snow is surely right that we should have more understanding of the science and technology that have produced them.  Still, the real danger in America is less that we should ignore technology than that: we should miss the point of it, which is, quite simply, that it should further the life of the spirit.  Apart from that, it has no point, and is only too likely to turn life into the rat-race that for some of us it has already become.

But “the life of the spirit”; what in the world does that mean?  The phrase has a religious ring, and I may be asked if I am urging the kind of other worldliness that might come out of a seminary and end in a monastery.  Religion is, of course, one of the great traditional forms of the life of the spirit. But that life has many forms—how many may be suggested by naming a few people who in my judgment have lived it.  I should say that Socrates lived it, and Leonardo, and Spinoza, and Mozart, and John Keats, and Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, and Albert Schweitzer.  Different as these men were, they had something in common: they ordered their life from within; things were their servants, not their masters.  They lived among intrinsic values, and great ones; even when they were lords of gadgetry, like Leonardo, they never sold their souls to it. Some were men of means; most were not; but their treasure in all cases was laid up where moth and rust could not corrupt.  They were lovers of beauty in sounds or words, or lovers of truth as it presented itself to quiet reflection or to the watchful eye; they were lovers of life and full of zest in it.  Inwardly they were rich, for they had found themselves: their wants were matched with great goods; their grasp of these goods was strong and authentic, and it carried them beyond the petty embroilments in which most of us live.  This firm distinction between means and ends, this insight at first hand into what counts, this habitual living among things that are good in themselves, is what I mean by the life of the spirit.

Many people think that our machine age is at hopeless odds with such a life.  David Reisman argues that it is making us an other-directed people, following public pressures rather than our own lights.  Mary McCarthy is vehement about it: “People’s lives are becoming more and more thin and impoverished and ugly.  It’s part of the development of industrialism, and now it’s absolutely unchained.  Atoms for peace will be the final blow.”  Well, I have admitted that the life of the spirit is encompassed and endangered by pressures.  I repeat, nevertheless, that it has today an unprecedented opportunity.  To say that with the amplest means in history for education, health and leisure, we must live more impoverished and ugly lives is sheer defeatism. The remedy is in our own hands. We need to lift up our eyes to the hills, above our hundred-page newspapers, above the traffic snarls and the smokestacks.  We shall get more from the world if the world is not too much with us and we can reap the harvest of a quiet eye.  In their last Yearly Message, the Philadelphia Quakers proposed this question to their members: “Have I allowed my life to become so filled with activities, even with good works, that I am always under pressure, lacking in serenity and peace, and having neither time nor strength for renewal?”  It is a good question for all Americans.

Count Keyserling said that Americans were people without inner lives.  It is not true.  But it is true that the machine age will turn us, if it can, into bustling, over-gregarious extroverts while some of the best things in life are labeled “for introverts only.”  Philosophers on the whole have been an odd lot, but their art of contemplation, discovered by the Greeks, is one of the most precious achievements of men; to stand off from things and see them in perspective, to be, in Plato’s large words, “a spectator of all time and all existence”—that protects any mind that attains it from engulfment in the immediate.  True poetry—not the conundrums and acrostics that are sometimes served to us as such; true art—not Rorschach tests on canvas; great fiction as opposed to news-stand whodunits—these are an inexhaustible refreshment.  These deep wells of the humanities are open to all of us as never before.  And we need them as never before.  In the babble and roar of our society we must keep some corner apart where we can drink from them, think our own thoughts, perhaps even see visions and dream dreams. To live aright in the machine age, one cannot be wholly of it.


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