Our Burden of Choice



JUNE 1934


THERE is a limit beyond which free and independent thought and action cannot be carried by the average man, except at too great a cost. The development of individualism to a new climax since the turn of the century has been accompanied by consequences which indicate that the limit has been reached, that the burden of choice imposed on us by our autonomy is too heavy for many of us to bear. The vague discontent, the nervous pursuit of pleasure, the high rate of divorce, are suggestive of general moral discomfort, and the increase of mental disorder and crime which has accompanied our liberation from the bonds of custom may well be the price of our new privileges. Moreover, in the widespread tendency toward group action that has already expressed itself in Communism, Fascism, National Socialism, perhaps even in the will-tosurrender so prevalent in the America of to-day — in this tendency one is tempted to see an effort on the part of the mass of the people to rid themselves of the responsibilities of autonomy. ‘Rugged individualism ’ seems recently to have lost its charm over a wide area of the earth’s surface.

The very foundations of our thinking would be severely shaken if we accepted as probable the hypothesis that we are suffering from and seeking to shift the burden of choice. We should look with new eyes at our most cherished beliefs; we should be forced to reconsider assumptions that we have come to regard as axiomatic, and the consequences for many of our dogmas would be incalculable. It covers too wide a field to be susceptible of absolute proof, but I am going to set forth the reasons why to me, who am Protestant, liberal, individualistic, unorganizable, and therefore biased in its disfavor, this hypothesis seems nevertheless to furnish the most illuminating interpretation of certain aspects of our life to-day.


No interpretation of contemporary life, illuminating or otherwise, can be attempted without some appreciation of the value of habit and custom as means to mental and emotional economy. It is only by realizing the degree to which man has relied on these devices, through the long period of his development, that we can appreciate the consequences of our present degree of emancipation. The importance of habit as a mechanism that relieves us of mental stress would no doubt be admitted without argument by anyone who gave the matter a moment’s consideration. If every semi-automatic action that we perform in the course of the day were the result of conscious decision and deliberate effort, we should have little energy left for anything else. We are so accustomed to the blessings of our habits that we are hardly aware of them; but if one should attempt even to catalogue the parts of his acquired machinery he would find himself faced with an impossible task, so many and so various are these little devices that contribute to the smooth running of our lives.

Copyright 1934, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

Think, for example, of the series of complex actions you perform from the time you are called in the morning until you arrive at your office. If you had to decide whether or not you would get up, which shoe you would put on first, whether or not you would brush your teeth or say your prayers, you would probably stay in bed. In fact, if by some miracle all our habits could be destroyed without loss of our sanity, if each one of these actions that we perform without a struggle had to be preceded by attention to the situation, consideration of the pros and cons, conscious decision and effort, we should find ourselves imprisoned within a nagging round of small duties — duties which we normally perform without even noticing that we perform them. It is undoubtedly true that we consider, and probably correctly consider, the power of conscious decision as an indication of an advanced state of mental development. It is true that we tend to be contemptuous of the man who is a ‘creature of habit,’ who allows himself to become so completely mechanized that he is incapable of deviating from the beaten path except at the price of exquisite mental pain. Nevertheless, we all probably agree that without the help of habit we should have no time and no energy left for those matters which seem to us worthy of conscious decision. Paradoxically, it is routine that saves us from servitude.

Willing though we are to give habit its due, we of this generation tend to consider custom an obsolete impediment to the freedom of man. We condemn it as blind and irrational, which it undoubtedly is, and in our pride of intellect we believe ourselves to be beyond and above the need of its support. The service that custom performs for the group is, however, closely analogous to the service that habit renders to the individual. In fact, to a considerable extent the two overlap, many personal habits being the outgrowth of custom. The human being is obviously a social animal. The human group is inclined to develop a pattern of behavior to which the members of the group are expected to conform, and generally do conform without doing any apparent violence to their being. Custom sets the pattern of behavior for the group to follow, if not without thought, at least without much emotional wear and tear. The pattern may be good or bad, from a biological or sociological point of view; the amazing thing is the extent to which the human being not only can but actually wants to adapt himself to it as long as the authority of the group is behind it.

In a society in which the fabric of custom has not been torn by contact with the steel blade of modern civilization, custom not only dictates what the members of the group shall do, but even to a great extent what they shall feel — even determines the most complex emotional relationships. For instance, according to a custom that prevails among a number of widely separated primitive peoples, the marriage of the children of two brothers or two sisters is barred as incest, whereas, according to the same custom, marriage is favored between the children of a brother and a sister. To illustrate further, among many of those peoples who trace descent through the mother, the father’s authority over his children is not recognized. The nearest male relative on the mother’s side is charged with the bringing up of the child, and assumes not only the responsibilities but the attitude of parenthood. According to another curious custom often found among primitives, a man may not take a second wife who is not a member of the first wife’s family without their special permission. They are jointly responsible for the services that a wife is normally expected to perform; and, if she has no children or dies, it is their duty and privilege to furnish from their ranks a supplementary or a second wife. One could continue almost indefinitely with such illustrations.

In fact, when one considers how easily man’s emotional energy has been harnessed by custom, even in great civilizations such as that of the Chinese, when one realizes to what complete tyranny over his personal life man has adjusted himself, and still is adjusting himself, the emphasis of certain schools of modern psychology on the dangers of repression seems misplaced. Perhaps the psychologists had better look elsewhere for the source of our misery. As has already been suggested, it may lie not so much in the mass of restrictions that civilization has imposed on us as in the strain and confusion entailed by our liberation. For the result of the breakdown of custom has been to throw on the individual the burden of an infinite number of conscious decisions which formerly were made for him or so weighted for him by custom that he did not have much trouble making them.


In the last two thousand odd years there have been long periods of stability in the Western world when, to paraphrase Wordsworth, custom has lain ‘upon us with a weight, heavy as frost and deep almost as life.’ There have, of course, been movements of social integration, when the hold of custom has been strengthened. On the whole, however, the tendency on this side of the planet has been toward the development of free and independent thought and action.

In the Western world, so far as I know, the first clear crystallization of thought in regard to individualism was that of Socrates. Before his time the Sophists had done their bit, undermining the traditional moral code, and the naïve faith of their fathers exercised only a faltering control on the Athenian youth of his day. To those who followed him or whom he buttonholed for the purposes of discussion, Socrates preached a new morality, founded on the assumption by the individual of the burden of choice. He taught them that the ultimate measure of all things was man’s invisible soul, and that neither fate nor the gods, but we ourselves, shape our destiny. By such teaching he encouraged his listeners to look upon themselves as individual centres of thought and force rather than as atomistic and passive components of society. Such individualism was disturbing to the common people of Athens, and when they came into power this corrupter of youth was condemned to death.1 The teachings of Socrates, however, refined and enriched by Plato, continued to exercise a profound influence. During the so-called Hellenistic period which lies between the conquests of Alexander and the fall of the Roman Empire, Plato’s mystic successors continued to emphasize the value of the 4 soul ’ and ultimately contributed to the development of the metaphysical individualism of Christianity.

Like Socrates, Christ sought to direct his people to a new way of life. While he tried to revivify the values that were characteristic of Jewish ethics, he was contemptuous of compliance with convention for convention’s sake, and demanded of his followers compliance of the heart with the will of God. His exaltation of the humble and his belief in the value, in God’s eyes, of the individual human soul have been powerful forces in the development of the dignity of man, and have made indirectly an important contribution to the development of individualism.

Organized Christianity, through the medium of the Catholic Church, has continued through the centuries to emphasize the value of the individual human soul. The very structural necessities of the Church, however, have demanded the submerging of the individual in the organization and have inspired vigorous repression of individual thinking in the field of faith. In theory the Church has not been concerned with what men thought about matters not related to religion. In practice, however, she has frequently clamped down on intellectual liberty, since in almost every field of knowledge one encounters sooner or later the assumptions of faith. The Church has also been hostile to moral individualism, and has played a dominant rôle as a conservative force by the development and maintenance of a pattern of behavior for her adherents.

Undoubtedly certain Protestant sects have striven to exact, and have succeeded temporarily in exacting, more in their requirements as to the minutiae of conduct than the Catholic Church. Undoubtedly, also, there have been periods in the Church’s history when her control over conduct, especially of the privileged classes, has been amazingly lax, and in certain parts of the world, as in Mexico, she has failed tragically in her avowed mission. Nevertheless she has maintained a fair degree of control over her adherents for nineteen hundred years. Probably her most effective means of discipline has been the institution of confession, in accordance with which the penitent surrenders to the priest, in whom the authority of the Church is incarnate, the burden of choice — the responsibility of deciding what should be done to atone for past actions and of suggesting future behavior. This institution has not only provided the Church with a powerful tool for the shaping of conduct, but has no doubt also been of great value from the point of view of the mental health of the believer.

To a great extent man functioned as a member of a group in the Middle Ages. What the Church did not decide for him was largely taken care of by his caste or his guild. There seems to have been little individual autonomy; even in aesthetic activity, the individual was lost in the group, in the silence of anonymity. (It is a long way from the rôle of the mediaeval artist to that of the artist of to-day, hell-bent on self-expression.) Probably many of the conditions of life in the Middle Ages were appalling as far as physical hygiene was concerned. Nevertheless the well-knit hierarchical organization of mediaeval society and the limited play that it gave to individualism seem to have provided better bases for mental health than our society of to-day.

We have, of course, no dependable clinical evidence, but there seems to be ground for the belief that, except for an occasional epidemic of collective frenzy such as the convulsive dancing that was probably an aftermath of the Great Plague, the people of the Middle Ages were mentally much healthier than we. The mere fact that insanity was attributed to possession by the devil would appear to suggest that it was considered to be an exceptional and solemn phenomenon. Moreover, allusions to cases of insanity in the clinical sense of the word are, I believe, relatively rare in the texts of the Middle Ages, though the words 4 mad ’ and ‘madness’ are frequently found in the indefinite and clinically neutral sense in which we often use them to-day. One must, of course, take into consideration the fact that before the spread of syphilis and alcoholism the main contributing causes of certain forms of insanity were, happily for the Middle Ages, nonexistent. However, the greater simplicity and the more leisurely rhythm of life were, no doubt, the main reasons for the relative freedom of these times from the Great Plague of to-day.

In the fourteenth century certain events combined to diminish the prestige of the Church and to promote the disintegration of custom. To some extent, no doubt, the weakening of the Church’s control and of the hold of custom contributed to the rebirth of the individual which we know as the Renaissance, as a result of which man became, in Western Europe generally, more self-conscious, more confident of his powers, more aware of his dignity as man. The Reformation was one of the varied expressions of this new dignity. By its emphasis on the individual conscience, it gave a tremendous impetus to intellectual individualism and subsequently to other forms. At first the Bible, reverenced as the word of God, the basis of all belief, the light for all darkness, displaced the Church as the final authority for Protestants. The substitution of one superior and exterior authority for another was, however, only temporary, for Protestantism had been born of the rebellion of individual consciences against the collective spiritual yoke, and it could not but be faithful to the individualism from which it sprang. The consciences that had defied the Catholic Church preserved their initial autonomy in the right of the individual to interpret the very scriptural authority that they had set up for themselves. The loss of a final authority resulted in the setting up of innumerable authorities and the subsequent impairment of all authority, with the inevitable assumption by the individual of the burden of choice. Even in the supremely important matter of individual salvation, where, according to Calvinistic doctrine, the decision lay with God, the individual obtained no relief from responsibility. As God generally did nothing to indicate his intentions, the believer was left entirely in the dark concerning his eternal fate. His anxious uncertainty about God’s decision and the obsessing intensity with which his individual problem presented itself to him were bound to incline him to preoccupation with himself, to a brooding individualism which is reflected in the attitude of introversion so often displayed by writers of Calvinistic origin.


Modern rationalism had its real beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century. Not only was it in itself an expression of individualism, but by its disintegrating influence on the force of custom it prepared the way for a further individualistic expansion. Together with romanticism, it furnished the basis of the anti-clerical, anti-authoritative movement known as the Enlightenment, which, under the guidance of Voltaire, Rousseau, and the other lesser stars of the Encyclopedist galaxy, reached its climax in France toward the end of the eighteenth century. These prophets of the new dispensation opposed the authority of nature to that of dogma, the clear daylight of reason to the torch of faith. Their challenge to the Church and to secular authority echoed through Europe, was heard even in the American colonies, and culminated in the French Revolution. It may indeed be reasonable to interpret the French Revolution as a reaction to the disintegration of custom, as a mass movement to reëstablish the group on the basis of a new code which would be compelling to all. Whatever potential benefits might have been inherent in democratic solidarity, however, were counteracted by the individualistic unrest which had been excited in men’s minds by the Enlightenment. This unrest continued after the disillusion of the Revolution and during the period of reaction. It is to some extent the very definition of modern romanticism which offers us the tragic, when not ludicrous, spectacle of the individual claiming for himself all the burden of choice and at the same time complaining with eloquent groans about the load that his pride imposes upon his weakness.

During the last century, the industrial revolution, the tremendous development of science, the extension of education, the unparalleled increase of contact between peoples, the feminist movement — all have contributed to the further breakdown of fundamental custom and directly or indirectly to the development of individualism. The reaction to these influences in this new country was of course radically different from the results that they produced in the Old World.

The Puritan code certainly had a remarkable vitality, and in a large part of the country effected a superficial conformity to its standards. It was utterly alien, however, to many people of colonial stock, and to the great armies of immigrants who swarmed to our hospitable shores. Some of these groups of newcomers clung with tenacity to their traditional way of life, but it was difficult to maintain the old ways in the new country, and, generally speaking, in one or two generations the young were thoroughly ‘Americanized.’ That, unfortunately, was apt to mean that they wanted to get rich more than anything else, and as quickly as possible. Since we have no caste distinctions in America, except as applied to certain races which we in our inscrutable wisdom have decided to consider inferior, the only constant standard of value which has been generally recognized is that of wealth. The fact that wealth was accessible to so many in this new land made it appear to be within the reach of all, and the desire to acquire the tangible evidence of superiority has resulted in an incontinent greed for money which only reached its climax in the boom of the last decade.

The general social fluidity that has existed in America has, of course, had great advantages. No doubt much ability has come to the fore because of the elasticity of class lines, and among the greatest of this nation are men who rose from the simplest beginnings. On the other hand, the very lack of exterior limitation has created a profound discontent and has all too often resulted in our failure to develop any pride in occupations that are considered to be humble or any sense of dignity related to the efficient performance of inconspicuous duties. The ambition of the American parent, which we have perhaps exalted beyond its deserts, has generally been to advance his children beyond himself socially as well as economically. The handing down of craft or trade from one generation to another which is usual in older societies has become less and less common in this country. This has been due in part to the decreased demand for many skills resulting from industrialization, but more still to the fact that neither a man’s work nor his position in the world is, generally speaking, determined by tradition. The burden of choice as to what he should at least try to be has rested on him, and his natural desire has been to ‘better himself.’ At the outbreak of the World War, the people of this nation were vigorously bending their individual energies toward this end, and as a people we were considerably less integrated than we had been a hundred years before.

All war is probably to a certain degree an integrating force. Therein lie, no doubt, its fatal charm and its perennial popularity. The World War was certainly no exception. In fact, one is tempted to wonder whether it was not to a certain extent a partial reaction to individualism; whether, indeed, without such a reaction it would have been possible to compel the peoples of the Western world to make such colossal personal sacrifices. It is bewildering and profoundly disturbing to realize, as many of us have been forced to do, that in spite of the agony they endured, in spite of the horror and suffering they witnessed, many of the most civilized and sensitive men look back on the years of the war with a kind of nostalgia, of which they are themselves ashamed — look back on those terrible years as to a time when morally they were at peace. The fact that the burden of choice had been lifted from them, that they had been liberated from their convulsive little selves, evidently created in the minds of many men a state of grim contentment. The integrating effect of war was apparent even among the civilian population. The cheerfulness with which most of us bowed to the inevitable indicates that it was a relief to us actually to deal with an inevitable. The courage and energy with which apparently soft people turned to exacting tasks suggest that it was a comfort to find life exacting.

On the other hand, the war was a violently disintegrating influence on the old order. Social inhibitions relating to sex and class and race went down before it. Many of us can remember the amazing speed with which old values melted away in the crucible of war, old barriers disappeared. Many of us found ourselves almost immediately in a new world. As long as the war lasted, it imposed its own discipline, but with the coming of peace the extent of the destruction became clear. Not only had the moral standards of civil life cracked during the war beyond repair, but millions of men came back to civilization who, except for brief intervals, had been subjected for years to a discipline wholly at variance with that given lip service by the communities to which they returned. The peace brought bitter disillusionment to those who had gone to war with the conviction of a sacred mission, whose moral justification for war had been the end to be achieved. To many of them, regardless of nationality, it seemed that all the high-sounding words, all the talk about idealism, had meant nothing after all. The peace was damned, and the men who had survived the agony were a drug on the market. Youth turned with violent contempt from conventional morality, now discredited in their eyes. Custom had lost its authority for them, and, to an extent unparalleled in human history, the individual was left with the burden of choice.


This statement would probably be disputed by those critics of modern industrial civilization whose complaints are based on their belief that life has been standardized by mechanization. Perhaps they do not see the woods for the trees. Standardization in detail we certainly have as a result of machinery, with all the loss of opportunity for creative self-expression which that implies. Our lives themselves, however, have as certainly become less and less standardized. What is more, the very machinery that has standardized the individual product has resulted in the production of an infinite variety of each product, of an infinite variety of products, and has thus increased the variety of possible experiences.

For example, if one wants to-day to buy such a simple thing as a button, one is confronted with a bewildering selection of round, square, oblong, convex, flat, concave, dull, shiny objects, having as their single common denominator the fact that they can be sewed on. Even such a humble choice involves consideration of a confusing array of alternatives, an expenditure of energy out of all proportion to the importance of the decision. Compare, if you will, this embarrassment of riches with the simplicity of choice in an unmechanized world such as that of the Mexican Indians, where one design of earring or one pattern of blanket will suffice for a whole village, generation after generation.

The appalling number of alternatives between different wants that we may satisfy is another minor addition to our present woe. What is more, and worse, is that there is no end in sight. As long as there is profit in the creation of new wants, new wants will be created and our lives will be further confused thereby. Indeed, one still finds people to-day who are naïve enough to believe that the United States of America can be saved by the development of some great new source of comfort or pleasure comparable to the automobile in its general appeal.

As for the new experiences that mechanization has contributed, those that provide only vicarious delights, such as the movies and cheap literature, are of no mean importance. By far the most profound influence on our way of life, however, is exerted by our amazing mobility. Even a generation ago, most of the people of this country stayed in one place most of their lives. To-day the roads are swarming from sea to sea, from Canada to Mexico, and many people spend a great part of their lives trekking restlessly to and fro, with inevitable consequences as far as home life and social integration are concerned.

As a result of mechanization, then, as well as by the removal of inhibitions, the possibilities in the way of experience have been vastly increased for us. Probably we have sacrificed in intensity what we have gained in extensity; for, though our horizons have been pushed back and back, the world within them has been curiously flattened out. Too often our lives seem like blank paper on which we might write almost anything, but on which we are not strongly impelled to write anything, for the range of possibilities is too wide for selection and the choice is too free. The possibility of fulfilling a multitude of desires has robbed many of these desires of their poignancy, and the yielding to such desires may be as often the measure of their weakness as of their strength; for, paradoxically, people often do what they think they should n’t because they don’t want to enough, because their desire is n’t strong enough even to provoke their resistance. Hence, at least in part, the vague discontent, the nervous grasping for pleasure, the search for bigger and better sensations, which have been especially characteristic of the post-war world. As to the high rate of divorce, it would be folly to attribute so complex a phenomenon to a single cause. However, among the contributing causes is certainly the fact that the removal of the obstacles to a greater variety of experience in marriage has belittled its importance. When there is no sense of finality, marriage is no longer so brave an adventure; when change is relatively easy, people are not inclined to give all they have. Even love itself is apt to become a trivial affair, to fail to cut a channel deep enough in the territory of the heart so that the stream of emotion will be contained within the banks of that channel.


The briefest consideration of what choice involves should make clear what our new responsibilities are costing us in the way of wear and tear. Every conscious decision entails a certain degree of tension, varying from simple attention all the way up the scale, according to what the individual believes to be the importance of the decision. The breakdown of the social machinery results, therefore, in a constantly recurring state of tension due to the vast number of decisions that modern man has to make for himself. This, however, is only half the story. The fact that to-day a multitude of forces play on the average man which either did not exist in his grandfather’s day or from which his grandfather was mercifully protected by social inhibitions leads to a widespread lack of integration of personality. Too often for our own comfort, the whole personality is not on the side of the decision, and the result is the continuation of a state of tension after the decision has been made.

The question is whether the human nervous system can stand as much strain as is now imposed on it. The evidence appears to indicate that in the case of a large proportion of the population it cannot. The assumption certainly seems to be warranted that the increase of insanity which is peculiar to modern civilization is directly related to the increased mental and emotional strain entailed by the responsibilities that our self-determination has forced upon us. The commonest form of mental disease is dementia præcox, or schizophrenia, which actually means splitting of the mind and implies a break in the internal harmony of the personality. This type of disorder develops among introverts — that is, people who are inclined to live within the world of their own mind. They are generally intellectual, seclusive, reserved, and disinclined to action. It would seem reasonable to infer that a contributing factor to this form of insanity, perhaps the principal factor, is the burden of choice, and that the symptoms represent the mind’s reaction to the uncertainties that choice involves; for the characteristic mark of dementia præcox is the withdrawal from reality, to a world where no decisions have to be made. A curious piece of corroborating evidence is the frequency with which patients suffering from dementia præcox develop the delusion that they have discovered the solution of all the problems of the world, the unifying principle.

The much discussed ‘ inferiority complex,’ which plays such an important part in current interpretations of both mental disease and crime, furnishes more food for thought. According to the hypothesis here advanced, there is ample ground for the development of a sense of inferiority in the members of a disintegrated society. Few men are strong enough to stand alone. Few of us are entitled on rational grounds to anything but a sense of inferiority. It is the isolation of the individual from the group, the emphasis on the individual as a separate entity, that has exaggerated the importance of the inevitable inferiority of the average man and has created the necessity in his own mind for the development of compensatory mechanisms.

Sometimes associated with the sense of inferiority, and sometimes, I believe, independent of it as a factor in delinquency, is a morbid egotism which is probably traceable to loss of the normal relationship between the individual and the group. Furthermore, the removal of inhibitions due to the breakdown of custom, and parlicularly to the loss of restraints that has come with the decline of family life, is a direct factor in the increase of crime that is too obvious to require further emphasis.

It should not be impossible to subject this part of the hypothesis to proof, although reliable data on many points may not be available for some years. If, however, the relationship between insanity and crime, on the one hand, and, on the other, the breakdown of custom and the development of individualism, is established, then we shall find less insanity and crime in those societies of the Western world where custom has disintegrated less swiftly than in our own; we shall find less in those groups whose faith has protected their code of custom from destruction, as in the case of Catholics, Quakers, Orthodox Jews. We shall find more insanity and more crime among groups which have suddenly lost the code of their forefathers, such as the children of our immigrant population. We shall find a decrease of insanity and of crime in those societies that have been welded anew into a unit and have vested the group with authority. In the course of a few years there may be sufficient data to prove or disprove these assumptions.


Let us now return to the group movements referred to in the first paragraph and see whether in the light of what has been said they can be interpreted as reactions to individualism. The first of these movements, the Communist Revolution, look place in October 1917, after Russia had been at war for over three years. The war had driven the Russian people to a frenzy of despair and had united a coherent and active minority in a passion of indignation against the national government. Despair, however, was nothing new in Russia. In fact, despair seems to have been a quite normal attitude of mind on the part of articulate people in pre-revolutionary Russia, and the great mass of the people were sunk in a bog of hopeless apathy. The general pessimism and sense of futility deepened after the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. The young turned frequently to suicide, or to sexual pleasures as an escape. In fact, probably the happiest people in Russia before the war were the revolutionists, in spite of imprisonment and exile, in spite of the sacrifice of all the warm delights of life. They at least knew where they were trying to go and had surrendered themselves to a cause greater than that of personal happiness.

The second group movement took place in Italy in October 1922, four years after the termination of the war. It was preceded by a period of chaos, during which the weakness of the government became increasingly apparent. This disorganization was, no doubt, largely due to the détente following the war, but was further accentuated by dissatisfaction with the terms of peace, which left the Italian people with the conviction that the reward had not been commensurate with the sacrifice they had made. As in Russia, however, the foundations of the Fascist Revolution had existed before the war in a widespread sense of inferiority; together with the reaction of a small but determined minority to this state of mind. The tragedy of Caporetto had further deepened the sense of inferiority; in fact, one is tempted to wonder whether the general need of the Italian people to wipe the shameful memory from their minds may not have been in part responsible for the striking of the aggressive, virile attitude characteristic of the revolutionary movement.

In Germany, the disintegration which prepared the way for reaction was enormously speeded up after the war, when for fifteen years the nation tried unsuccessfully to function as a republic. With the collapse of the old régime, much that was noble and fine in the German character seemed to decline, with no compensating loss of what to us seem its unlovely features. In Germany also, however, there existed before the war the faith which, fanned to a bright flame, was later able to weld the German people together more closely than ever they have been welded in our time. This faith was the mystical belief in the superiority of the German people, which originated, strangely enough, in France, and had developed into a religion for many Germans during the last seventy-five years.

The common elements of these three movements are of far greater importance than their divergencies of purpose. All three are anti-democratic and dictatorial. All three are or have been ruthless to the point of great cruelty to dissidents. All three demand a nationalistic programme of economic control, directed toward economic independence and involving, of necessity, some form of socialism. But the basic common element is the surrender of the individual to the group.

In attempting to evaluate the psychological effects of these revolutions, one’s own political views are wholly irrelevant, and one’s moral convictions are out of place. We are considering these revolutions from the point of view of their psychological consequences, and from that point of view alone. There can hardly be any question about the startling and profound changes they have made in the psychology of these three peoples — changes that probably could not have been made in the component individuals treated as individuals by any science known to man. By the submerging of the individual, he has been exalted.

The Russian Communist is a man made new by faith in his cause and by the surrender of his will in order to serve it. Into the new faith he has poured the mysticism that formerly united him with God; for man is at best a fragmentary creature, seeking always to be made whole, and when one means of completion fails him, he finds another. In the service of this new faith incredible miracles have been performed by a people who, a few years ago, were drifting without hope and without conviction. The average Russian citizen, with the exception of the tragic remnants of the old régime and the prosperous peasant, appears to have been swept along with the current. There are, of course, still individualists in Russia, lonely, isolated, unable to yield, whose lives are like ineffectual trickles of water that sink swiftly into the ground and are lost, while the great river of the common life roars by.

In Italy, to-day, even the humblest laborer need no longer see himself as an insignificant inhabitant of a country whose main source of strength is its beauty. He is part and parcel of a great race, whose past he shares, whose glory is his. He has led the thundering legions; he has invaded, conquered, and ruled the greater part of Europe, and he holds his head high.

In Germany, the exaltation that has lifted the hearts of the people since the National Socialist Revolution has been heightened by the fact that this new and complete integration of the German nation has brought with it a sense of release from the humiliation of defeat and of long-continued poverty, a shifting of the blame for all past failure to non-German shoulders. The German of to-day (provided his great-greatgrandmother was not a Jewess) sees himself no longer defeated, nor poor, nor humble, nor alone, but as a symbol of his race, and his self-esteem and his faith in his race are the same.

Such are the blessings of surrender, of the preference of moral comfort over liberty.


It may be that, without freedom from one’s self, all other freedom is vain, and that this essential freedom is better promoted under a system of government which demands self-surrender than under one such as ours that encourages individual autonomy. It seems unlikely, however, that AngloSaxons who have been for centuries imbued with the love of liberty will ever yield themselves as completely as have these other peoples to any faith, whether in a cause or a race or a religion. Moreover, the heterogeneity of our population would act as a deterrent to integration on the basis either of race or of religious faith, unless that faith were more inclusive than those that now light our various ways. There are, nevertheless, certain current tendencies in this country that are definitely suggestive of a reaction to individualism and that point to the possibility of a new integration of the American people. In the field of manners and morals, there has been a decided tempering of the impatience with all restraint which our extreme individualism had fostered in the younger generation. Bad manners have ceased to be smart; grace and courtesy even have their exponents. The youth of to-day appear to be far less hysterical than the youth of ten years ago and may well be steadier than their parents. The recent orgy of spending as a means of self-expression has ended in the disillusionment of many of us who took part in it, and the greater satisfaction of a life of enforced simplicity has developed in us a far better sense of values than we ever had before.

It is, however, in the field of politics and economics that the recent changes have been most striking. Among the startling developments is the apparent willingness on the part of the great mass of the people to yield to the Federal Government almost dictatorial powers over their economic life, even at the price of liberty. With President Roosevelt’s accession to power, our traditionally truculent and distrustful attitude toward Washington was supplanted by one of almost supine abandon and childlike faith, carried to such a point that even intelligent and dispassionate criticism was looked upon as high treason. This was true not only of the unfortunates who saw in the New Deal a means of relief from their private woes, but also of a large proportion of the privileged, who welcomed with enthusiasm a leader who knew what he wanted and seemed to know how to get it. Even if the expected miracles have not materialized, even if the glory of last spring has been somewhat dimmed, there nevertheless remains behind the President a quality of support that is without precedent, and an attitude toward the Federal Government that is unparalleled.

Closely associated with the surrender to the government of economic rights which we formerly cherished is the abandonment of our belief in the efficacy of laissez faire. During the last century our thinking in the field of economics has been dominated by this doctrine, which harmonized not only with the immediate interests of the capitalist class, but to a considerable extent with the realities of life in a rich and new country. Supported by a few biological generalizations culled from evolutionary theory, this development of individualism has constituted a faith to which those who ruled the destinies of this fair land gave complete adherence. The needs of the ‘unfit’ have been met after a fashion, for, regardless of theory, we are a kindly people. Our government has on the whole, however, been operated for the successful in the interests of the successful. ‘Rugged individualism’ is so far out of harmony with our present-day thinking that the expression has an almost comic flavor, but we should not forget that Herbert Hoover’s political and economic philosophy was fairly representative of that of the best people of this country before the implications of the depression sank into their minds.

To-day a stupendous effort is being made to base the operations of government on the needs of the whole people, even at the expense of the successful. Whether this effort is the fruit of madness or of sublime wisdom, whether the extension of the functions of government in the interests of the weaker members of society has gone too far or not far enough, whether the economic nationalism that appears to be an inevitable part of our programme may not result in infinite complications — these are questions that only the future can answer. Clearly, however, the policies of the Federal Government are based on the conception of our society as an organism of which no part can decay without injury to the rest. Clearly, too, in the minds of a great portion of the people is the conviction that the victory over our present-day devil cannot be won by any individual or by any class alone.

In this conviction, in the enthusiasm for a great leader, there may be found the means by which a temporary integration of the American people can be effected. But that is not enough for our salvation. The depression will pass; the enthusiasm, in any event, will die. Perhaps in the deeper realization of our inevitable brotherhood, perhaps in our increased awareness of values other than material, there may lie the germ of a lasting faith by means of which the diverse peoples of this nation may be united in a common purpose.

If, moreover, the reasoning presented above is sound, — if the burden of choice imposed by the conditions of modern society is too heavy for us to bear, if we are suffering from and seeking to shift the weight of that burden, — then the implication is clear. We need a unifying faith, by means of which some part of the responsibilities that we are now carrying may be lifted from us, in the light of which our way may be made clearer before us. We need a body of convictions in harmony with our corporate welfare by which our decisions may be weighted. We need a way of life which only faith can blaze. For few of us are strong enough or wise enough to make our way alone.

  1. Like his divine counterpart of five centuries later, Socrates believed that one should render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s, and he died a voluntary martyr to the laws that condemned him, submitting himself (perhaps ironically) to what he acknowledged as the common good. — AUTHOR