MANY years ago a philosopher, addressing the seniors of Dartmouth College, warned them of the world into which they were soon to go forth as a place governed by maxims of a low prudence. He urged them to be bold, be firm, in holding fast by the intellect, to seek truth and beauty though the world mock them. Why should they, he said, give up their right to traverse the starlit deserts of truth for the sake of an acre, a house, and a barn?
How vague these phrases sound to us now, though less than a century has elapsed since they were spoken. Modern ears like not an abstraction, for in receiving it they must transmit to the mind something that demands thought, definition. Emerson spoke of beauty and truth, but these terms we reject, unwilling either to seek out his meaning or to find one of our own. We have not the time for such speculation. Besides, so overwhelming are the problems of the moment, which may be solved, that we cannot give heed to the problems of forever, which we know cannot be solved, even though — and of this also we are aware — man’s intellectual energy is most nobly employed in the attempt to define the abstractions from which he sprang and into which most certainly he will return. Whence did man come? What is his good? How shall he live toward Nature who creates and destroys him? We laugh these questions away as fit only for green minds, not because they have been answered, but because they cannot be answered, and we will have naught to do with effort unproductive of substance. So we interpret life in terms of expediency, as though the fabric were cracking and our sole concern were to patch it here and there for a few more trips to the well.
Yet surely it is no sign of incompetency to attempt definitions of the abstract. History shows us otherwise, and even Nature provides us with a pretty analogy against such an assumption. Our concise bodies are knit together from the vast earth — definitions in flesh of ineffable desire. Our minds, too, are devised to lay hold on tremendous concepts and compress them into a single thought. Why should we be impatient if that thought must give place to others more in step with forward-pacing truth? Our bodies are not immortal, we cannot cling to them beyond their span; yet by implication we require of our thoughts a permanence not vouchsafed even to the stars. Like children exasperated at a difficult puzzle, we fling the whole problem from us because we cannot complete the elucidation. Philosophy, in the greatest sense of the word, has disappeared.
The philosophers themselves were the first to withdraw from their wide heritage. The teachers, now wholly seduced by facts, followed them. And at last literature has succumbed. We may study Plato, Epicurus, Plotinus, if we will (though few of us do), but rare is that teacher, even of socalled philosophy, who can discourse on them as intimates, and rarer still the philosopher who contemplates, as they contemplated, the mysteries that nourish the spirit even while they defy the reason.
Literature was the last to leave off speculation. Of the novel little need be said, for that form of art was never the natural vehicle of philosophy. But the disaffection of drama and poetry left human thought voiceless. In modern writing we find sociology, that degenerate grandson of philosophy through ethics, and psychology, its equally degenerate cousin, yet at their best these are poor substitutes for the grander meditations so congenial to the normal man. For the most part, literature has surrendered to an extreme individualism, and devotes itself to tracing the reactions of a single mind or — and this applies especially to modern poetry—describing unrelated sensations. The pyramid of literary technique is upside down, all its weight converging on one not very important point.
However, literature was the last to lose consciousness, cosmically speaking. The religious leaders and the philosophers themselves, to whom in the past men were wont to look for spiritual refreshment, were the first to fly the field. Priests and ministers have not bestirred themselves, except in quibbles, for so many years that we have ceased to think of them as a part of the intellectual republic. Few would seek out a clergyman seriously convinced that they would see through his eyes a universe illumined with new possibilities. Yet perhaps this test is unjust. The tradition of the priesthood has never fostered speculative thought. No doubt the sacerdotal quarrel as to whether or not Amon was in fact assumed into the substance of Ra represented a high level of priestly speculation in Egypt, though the question may not now seem of importance. I think we may safely exonerate the religious from responsibility for those greater questions which remain unchanged through the centuries. But the philosophers we cannot exonerate.
We have it on their own authority that science has closed against them the gates of that spiritual Eden wherein their predecessors were wont to stroll in the cool of evening, surrounded by their disciples. Yet I understand that the scientists, or at least such of them as ponder the matter at all, declare that the gates are as far open as ever, and that for their part they are merely interested in the physical composition of the universe. No honest scientist deviates, except as an amateur like you or me, into a contemplation of the First Cause. Indeed, he has no license to do so, for science is exact, whereas the problems of philosophy, in spite of its logic, must remain by their very nature inexact both in their posing and in their conclusion. No laboratory has been built wherein the existence of the soul can be proved, nor has truth yet been distilled into a test tube. The scientist who swept the heavens with his telescope and found no God was a dull fellow after all. I might just as well say that I have beaten the bass drum and have seen no lightning. Examining this matter, we find that the scientists are entirely blameless. It is not they who have invaded the field of philosophy; it is the philosophers who are attempting to fasten scientific methods on wholly unscientific material. Should we bring the subject down to a specific example, we might consider Ouspensky’s use of Einstein’s mathematics. Strange and wonderful are the ideas on which philosophy thus squanders the hard-earned penny-facts of the scientists.
Of these purchases, perhaps psychology (still known as a branch of philosophy, but verily the devourer of the parent stem) is the gaudiest. Stretching the philosophic license of speculation beyond the wildest fantasy, it gravely claims scientific exactitude for the conclusions it derives therefrom. Incidentally, a rather pathetic proof of man’s eagerness for any sort of thought is the avidity with which he has picked up the crumbs dropped from so starved a board as that of modern psychology. Our speech bristles with complexes, the subconscious, and sublimation. Doubtless Greek conversation was embellished, in much the same manner, by references to the Word, the Spirit, and the Elements. Both may be jargon, but something more than the illusion of the past makes us find in the Greek a nobler turn of speech.
Instead, therefore, of urging people’s thoughts toward those larger horizons toward which they naturally turn, psychology, our substitute for philosophy, ascribes even these thoughts to an aberration of the human mechanism. Not many years ago we feared to dream lest our sins find us out. At that time many of us, exasperated beyond measure at the corruption and scattering of Freud’s highly specialized theories, longed for a Leonardo, who, it will be remembered, when all the world was hysterically groveling before Savonarola, sardonically amused himself, during one of the fanatic’s sermons, by drawing a hideous caricature of him. Lacking a Leonardo, we took comfort in this quotation: ‘The foundation of it all is essentially unscientific. . . . It would be impossible to give any detailed conception of the treatment of dreams. Nor would the attempt reward the pains; the curious specialist must read the treatise for himself. He will find in it one of the most astonishing efforts of besotted credulity to disguise itself under the forms of scientific inquiry. He will find a subtlety and formalism of system worthy of a finished schoolman of the fourteenth century, and all employed to give order and meaning to the wildest vagaries of vulgar fancy. The classification of dreams is a great effort . . . and is followed out in exhaustive order. . . . It would be wearisome and even disgusting to give examples of this futile and almost idiotic superstition, masquerading as a science.’ The quotation is not, as one might well believe, from an attack on Freud. It is Samuel Dill’s commentary, in his Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius,on the interpretation of dreams as practised by one Artemidorus at the height of the Roman Empire. Certainly that society found Artemidorus as important as we found Freud, but it had also its Marcus Aurelius, its Seneca, its Epictetus.
Furthermore, it had many teachers who, though they contributed little to the main stream of philosophy, directed eager youth to the deeper channels where he might launch his bark. But what of our teachers, who discourse in lyceums, academies, even in universities? Surely they would be the last to succumb to maxims of a low prudence. Though all the world desert philosophy and follow the changing demands of t he stock market, the teachers, frugal and meditative, should be counted on to encourage youth in his long, long thoughts and permit him to wander, during those four brief years, in a plaisance secure from the bruits of a factual world. It matters not that most young men consider their college course as but a link in the ordinary development of business, a help in obtaining a more lucrative job, an opportunity to meet advantageous friends. That pure love of learning, to which the teachers have dedicated themselves, will foster the natural speculations of youth, and, whereas he has come expecting water, they will give him wine. Though the student’s motives be uncertain, the teachers’ are pure.
And in fact, desirous of academic advancement and more money, the teachers have yielded to a stranger system than will be found in all the vagaries of high finance. Submitting their free minds to a set scheme for gathering facts, abandoning their love of ideas for a narrow channel prescribed for those who would be successful before the world, they undergo a certain treatment for a term of years and come forth stamped with the ironical title of Doctors of Philosophy. If this be not following the maxims of a low prudence, coin was never minted. Why should youth, beholding his most enlightened elders devote themselves to a fantastic system, seek other than the doctrines of expediency? If gold rust, then what shall iron do?
Writers, philosophers, teachers, they have all left the ancient love, the writers finding their talents best employed in chronicles of sensation, the philosophers in dev ising new theories concerning the brain and the nerves, the teachers in peddling facts. We merely laugh at youth when, in a characteristic mood, he ‘discusses the Universe,’ believing, indeed, that such discussion is proper only to adolescence. We have forgotten that the most mature races, beside whom we should appear but as children, found in their relation to life a subject of keen interest. The cosmic speculations which, without encouragement or guiding, spring up on the campus of an evening or during the lunch hour in a broker’s office are the first shoots of a hardy plant that in other ages has brought forth man’s fairest blossoming. Why have we blighted it with our laughter or cut it off with our insistence on ‘more important things’? To be sure, great thoughts are greatly demanding. Yet, viewing the antics of the wealthy and their hangers-on in avoiding thought, we cannot believe that thought involves more labor than the escaping of it. Rather, we shun philosophy because we are impatient of anything which cannot reach completion before our eyes, which cannot by tangible result justify its inception. The nature of the soul we leave to our neuropath, who tinkers us into a semblance of sanity for a few more years; for ethics we hav e substituted a code that we obey or defy according to our impulse. Whatever we do, we fly from those deeper questions the mere asking of which sets us apart from the beasts of the field.
Let none accuse me, however, of advocating an outburst of vague speculation. We have enough of that in the intellectual slums where the thousand and one cults make ridiculous the very name of God. The life of thought is a profession; its brotherhood is called to an arduous and aloof task the performance of which may not, in the time being, show perceptible result. Yet the times are favorable for philosophy. The Church cannot, even though it would, obstruct the thinker’s programme. Most important is our need for philosophy. We cannot rebuild this subtly undermined world, we can do nothing but patch it from day to day, until arises in our midst a fresh conception of the heights toward which we shall raise our towers and the depths that shall support them.