Where We Stand

CIVILIZATION? Is it learned and wealthy social organization? Or general gentility? Without agreeing onany ethical definition, we may admit that the most civilized state will be that wherein is found the greatest proportionate number of happy, healthy, wise, and gentle citizens. Whether civilization, judged by this standard, has ever been high, is more than doubtful; it was certainly still low before the war, and is at the moment even lower. The Great War was not a thunderbolt from the blue launched at an unoffending mankind: it was a stealing Fate carefully nurtured within the bosom of modern civilization; the natural and gradually reached result of a crude competitive system pursued almost to its limits — the climax, in fact, of the individual, political, and national rivalries which have been speeding to this end since the Middle Ages.

The march of mankind is directed neither by his will, nor by his superstitions, but by the effect of his great and, as it were, accidental discoveries on his average nature. The discovery and exploitation of language, of fire, of corn, of ships, of metals, of gunpowder, of printing, of coal, steam, electricity, of flying machines (atomic energy has still to be exploited), acting on a human nature which is, practically speaking, constant, moulds the real shape of human life, under all the agreeable camouflage of religions, principles, policies, personages, and ideas. After the discovery and exploitation of gunpowder and printing, the centuries stood somewhat still, until, with coal, steam, and modem machinery, a swift industrialism set in, which has brought the world to its recent state.

In comparison with the effect of these discoveries and their unconscious influence on human life, the effect of political ideas is seen to be inconsiderable. For theories arise from and follow material states of being, rather than precede and cause them. British Liberalism, for example, did not give birth to that hard-headed child Free Trade (by Wealth out of Short Sight); it did not even inaugurate the ‘live and let live’ theory; it followed on and crowned with a misty halo a state of long-acknowledged industrial ascendancy. Prussian ‘will to power’ did not cause, it followed and crowned with thorns, the rising wave of German industry and wealth. And outstanding personalities such as Gladstone and Bismarck are rather made outstanding by the times they live in, than make those times outstanding.

This is one of two sober truths with which one has to reckon in forecasting the future of civilization; the other is the aforesaid constancy of human nature. The fact that modern human nature is much more subtle, ambitious, and humane than the nature of primitive man, is not greatly important to creatures who live but three-score years and ten, and who in their mental and spiritual stature are on the whole no higher, and in physical development probably lower, than the Greeks and Romans.

A cataclysm such as this war makes stock-takers of us all; and we are now recording in a hundred ways, with a sort of automatic busyness, where we stand, with the praiseworthy intention, no doubt, of standing somewhere else. We shall point out to ourselves where we failed, and what we have now to do, and probably proceed to do what our inventions and discoveries, acting on our general nature, make us. This fatalistic reflection, however, should incite us to effort, rather than discourage us therefrom; for it is no use laboring under illusions; mankind, which docs not see the grip his discoveries have on him, is the more powerless against that grip. Nor is there any use in being blind about the sort of beings we are. Consider a moment that, queer compound, average human nature. Plain everyday man, superior to his exploiters, pastors, and masters, in the qualities of hardihood, endurance, patience, and humor, is inferior to them in power of imagining, speculating, devising, competing, and telling others what to do. The competitive and scheming qualities of these leaders — of politicians, militarists, industrial captains and exploiters, of pressmen, labor leaders, lawyers, pastors, and writers — form, with the simple qualities of those they lead, that amalgam which we call average human nature. But leaders and led are almost equally deficient in pure altruism — the impersonal quality; so that, in sum, human nature is personal, strenuous, hardy, enduring, ingenious, shortsighted, combative, and competitive — just the right material to be stampeded by its own discoveries and inventions.

The war has not changed human nature by jot or tittle, and has added to, rather than taken from, our undigested inventions and discoveries: it has, for instance, developed engines of destruction, and flying machines, whether for purposes of trade or war, and increased general ingenuity and the possibilities of material production. What else has it done? It has carted the hay of old national boundaries and problems, — preserving, of course, the Irish problem, — and produced a luxuriant crop of fresh ones. It has destroyed some autocracies, and given such stimulus to so-called democracy as to threaten the world with fresh tyrannies of the part, over the whole. It has disrupted Greater Russia, probably forever; and has wasted the youth and wealth of Europe to such a degree as to shift the real storm-centre of the world to the Pacific Ocean, and the three unexhausted countries lying east and west thereof. It has exaggerated the conception of nationalism, and, on the whole, lowered that of individual liberty.

It has brought forth the theory of a league of nations, which will, alas, remain a theory unless, to their uneasy surprise, the now dominant powers should suddenly become altruistic. It has greatly advanced the emancipation of women, and loosened family life. It has increased the hopes and wants of ‘the workers’ — a name which suggests a monopoly by no means existing. It has, by development of flying, turned both land-warfare and sea-power into gambles in the air. It has demonstrated t he need for nations to be self-sufficing in the matter of food-growth, without inspiring, apparently, in this English land any real intention of so becoming. It has not, so far as one can see, altered in the least the only accepted ideal of modern states — maximum production of wealth to the square mile.

Now the sole hope that the future of civilization may be better than its past or present centres round the possibility of substituting for that bankrupt ideal the ideal of the maximum production of health and happiness; for, whatever the fashion of our speech and the complexion of our thought, this is not precisely the same thing. To judge from the speeches of some of their leaders, the ‘workers,’ indeed, would seem to be feeling after such a substitution. But it may well be doubted whether many of their followers have risen to more than a partisan conception of the need, or fathomed the roots of the evil.

For an example by the way: there is going on in this country a great hubbub concerning coal-production, nationalization of mines, and so forth. Only a wildered pelican here and there croaks of the need to concentrate national attention on chaining the tides and using water-driven electricity, on opening up oil-deposits and abolishing altogether the need for coal. Coal is a curse, if there is any way of doing without. It has done more to destroy healt h and happiness than any of our great discoveries. And, even if it were rendered smokeless, it has still to be extracted, and millions of men in this beautiful world must work below ground. We are told, with clamor, that on coal-production our exporting power depends — power to pay for the food we now have to import. Only in apologetic whispers are we told that we should grow the food instead, — which is perfectly possible if we set our minds to the task, — and save that amount of need for coal. And why this fatalistic attitude about coal? Simply because we are still in the rut made by an exploited discovery acting on average human nature: we know that we have huge unextracted stores of coal; many of us own coal-mines or shares therein; more of us make a living by extracting coal; our rulers depend on the votes of a coal-worshiping community; we want wealth quickly; in sum, we are human beings and prefer each of us his own immediate profit to what will benefit us all in the future. That is a short concrete example of why the future of civilization looks so black.

We are all borne along in the car of industry, driven by that blind driver, our own competitive mood. What applies to ourselves applies to other nations. America and Japan are going our way fast, becoming town-ridden, industry-mad communities. The next great war will probably begin between them. Even the Chinese are now infected by the Western idea of maximum wealth to the square mile. Their ‘advanced’ men are saying, ‘We must adopt Western methods or we cannot compete with Western industry.’ Pursue Industrialism without the two basic safeguards, — self-growth of food by every nation, and the diversion of the spirit of competition to things of the mind, to art, and to sport and adventure, — pursue it thus unguarded, and civilization cannot hope to advance. Proceed as the nations may with plans for economy, for housing, sanitation, education, industrial expansion, a hundred other things, they cannot keep pace with the ruin implicit in their progress, while their ideal remains maximum production of wealth to the square mile.

Nations, like men, can be healthy and happy, though comparatively poor. Better, if need be, limit population scientifically, than go on scuttling and scuffling down this road of danger. Wealth is a means to an end, not the end itself. As a synonym for health and happiness, it has had fair trial, has failed dismally, and brought on us this war.

Remembering that human nature remains the same, that inventions are always with us, and that men almost invariably learn by experience too late, — ‘si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait,’ — civilization appears to be in an impasse. When we are assured by statesmen that the bad old world must and shall pass away, we naturally ask ourselves why—failing any real change of directing mood — it should become anything but worse. Must we, then, throw up our hands and say, ‘Well, we’re only human beings: we do what we can, and after all, in some respects the world is better than it was, even if we are heading for a conflagration more hideous than the last’? Or is there any way in which we can try to struggle up out of the impasse?

If there be a saving way, at all, it is obviously this: substitute health and happiness for wealth as a world-ideal; and translate that new ideal into action by education from babyhood up. To do this, states must reorganize education spiritually — in other words, must introduce religion; not the old formal creeds, but the humanistic religion of service for the common weal, a social honor which puts the health and happiness of all first, and the wealth of self second.

The only comfort in the situation is the curious fact that, underneath all else, the sociability inculcated in modern nations by quick communications and incessant intercourse is already tending toward the formation of this new humanistic religion. But at present the tendency lacks proper machinery for expression of itself. The main object of education now is material advancement, with some honorable hankering after spiritual training. It should be the other way round. Boys and girls should be taught to think first of others in material things; they should be infected with the wisdom to know that in making smooth the way of all lies the road to their own health and happiness. It is a question of the mood in which we are taught to learn. That mood, from school-age up, should be shaped so as to correct, and not, as at present, to emphasize, our natural competitive egoism. None can do this save teachers themselves inspired by this ideal of service for the common welfare. The first need of civilization, therefore, is the finding and equipping of such teachers.

The teaching profession should be honored before all others; the direction of its ideals, standards, and curricula, the choice of its man-power and woman-power placed in the hands of the most truly enlightened and sweetliving persons in the state — not mere capable administrators or scholars, but men and women who have shown in practice that they can rise to an altruistic conception of human existence. States should spend money and effort as freely on this great all-underlying matter of spiritual education, as they have hitherto spent them on beating and destroying each other.

Economic production, science, development, discovery cannot save us, pursued in the rampant competitive mood. Trade is not a good in itself; it is almost, if not quite, an evil, fostering as it must the sharp and selfishly competitive qualities. Instead of the trading mood, we need a sort of universal sportsmanship, the basis of a mood which, competing keenly in things of the spirit, — in architecture, art, music, letters, and such science as ministers to health and happiness, — competing, too, in sports and in adventure, agrees to pool all productive and industrial endeavor, and to put the material welfare of mankind first, and the material welfare of self second; and we need that such a mood should be beyond and above all narrow national prejudice and partisanship.

The real and supreme importance of the League of Nations consists in its power of giving such a mood the first chance it has ever had in international affairs. For it must freely be confessed that, without this chance in international affairs, there is no hope that the mood will be adopted and fostered nationally.

Failing then the success of the League of Nations in leading to the general establishment of this new mood governing our lives, civilization will continue to advance only in the public press and the mouths of statesmen in all countries, deeply, if unconsciously, committed to the devil. Nay, it must steadily lead us to another world-catastrophe many times worse than that we have just encountered, because of our blind progress in the use of destructive mechanism. In that event those of us who are left alive will console ourselves with the thought that we are human beings — of whom too much cannot justly be expected.