Mankind, Take Care!
IT is no more than honest to begin by saying that the writer is in the early years of his seventh decade. Now it may be that oncoming age colors our attitude toward the ‘new’ in the world and the times in which our lot is cast. The fact may, to some extent, invalidate our opinion of them. And yet not many people will contradict me when I say that one need not be sixty to be shocked by the world’s present plight.
No; one has plenty of younger men on one’s side — perhaps one even has everybody who is at all able to put himself at a little distance from the world of our day and look at it objectively, instead of simple-mindedly and blithely fitting in with the rest.
The gift of detachment is of course a doubtful good, from a eudæmonistic point of view. Yet a man possessing it is not only justified in making use of it, but bound by sacred duty to do so, as long as life is in him. Life itself, which is not a matter of chance, is responsible for his possessing it, and only death can take it away.
Thus it is that men with eyes and hearts have never shrunk, simply because of age, from sharp criticism of the younger world about them. And their judgment may even have been right. Goethe in his age confessed his hearty love of youth; he even said that he loved himself when young much more than he did in age. Yet that very utterance stands between two others displaying his impatience with and lack of belief in the new breed. He writes in 1812: ‘ When one sees not only how the world in general, and particularly the young, are given over to passions and desires, but also how their higher and better natures are distorted and distracted by the grave follies of our time; how, even aside from the unspeakable pressure of outward circumstance, all that might bring them happiness becomes instead a curse — when one sees all this, one no longer wonders at the monstrous acts by which men express their fury at themselves and each other.’
How familiar all that is: the scorn of the young for higher and better things; the unspeakable pressure from without; and also the monstrous acts. The timidity of age must not prevent us from calling these things by their right names.
The same sixty-year-old man says, in another place: ‘The young folk no longer listen; indeed, to do that takes a certain kind of culture.’ Culture! The scornful laughter of a whole generation mocks at the word. It refers, of course, to the cherished goal of our whole liberal bourgeois outlook. As though genuine culture were anything else but precisely this: liberalism, good citizenship! As though it were not the exact opposite of crudeness and human impoverishment, and no less the opposite of a wretched inertia and flabbiness which remains flabby no matter how stiffly it stands at salute! As though, in a word, culture, whether as a matter of form, as desire for freedom and truth, as the conscienlious guiding spirit of life, as endless painstaking, were anything at all but moral discipline itself!
I love a certain poem of Goethe’s, written wlicn he was old, that begins: —
Mit der Last, die wir getragen?
Yes, where is there one who troubles himself over the burdens that we bore? The children of the age assert that their youth is harder than ours was: necessitous, full of risks, completely insecure; whereas we grew up in the economic security of the bourgeois age. But they overestimate the importance of the material factors, the shift from ease and satiety into shabbiness and heroics — though we elders too have had to get used to that shift in our old age. Far more important is the fact that they have lost knowledge of ‘culture’ in its higher and deeper sense; of work for its own sake, of individual responsibility, of individual painstaking. As a substitute, they must take refuge in the group.
For the collective is a comfortable sphere by comparison with the individual — comfortable to the point of laxity. What the collectivist wants and concedes to himself and others is a perpetual holiday. What he loves and longs for is ecstasy. That very state has high and holy elements, indispensable for the religious heightening of our lives; the use of the word in this connection shows that the collectivist pattern of life to-day is only a popular distortion, a modern mass consumption and mass misuse of elements long understood and reverenced in Europe.
‘With these words virtue lays aside its clashing harness, the spirit of man lays the sceptre down, from the bond of being death disappears, and eternal youth, one and indivisible, animates and beautifies the world.’ That is the Dionysiac ecstasy. We rediscover it, debased, in the collectivist intoxication, in the purely egotistic and hedonist craving of youth — which has nothing real at the bottom of it — to march together, keeping step and singing songs which are a mixture of degenerated folklore and propaganda.
Youth loves for its own sake this absorption into the mass, this complete relief from personal responsibility. It has not much concern with the goal of the march. Challenged to define more precisely the gratification it gets, it displays a distaste for further analysis. The mass intoxication which releases youth from the burden of its ego is a goal in itself; the ideologies involved — Socialism, the State, the Greatness of the Fatherland — are more or less subordinate; they are decidedly secondary, indeed superfluous. The main thing is the intoxication, the release from the ego, from the obligation to think — in short, from moral and reasonable obligations altogether. From fear too, of course — the fear of life which urges youth to huddle close, to feel the human warmth, to sing right lustily. And this is the aspect of the situation which most of all helps us to pity and to understand.
The priceless experience of being emancipated from the ego, the release from personal responsibility, was a product of the war period. Indeed, when we speak of the modern man, the man of to-day, it is agreed that we refer to the post-war European, the type which went through the war or was born into the post-war period. We tend to consider the state of the world to-day — economically, intellectually, and morally — as the result of the war; and probably we exaggerate. The enormous wastage the war caused, materially and spiritually, is beyond question. But it did not create our post-war world; it only magnified, clarified, and exaggerated what was already there. We have to admit, in the interest, of truth, the incredible cultural loss, the moral retrogression, as measured by the preceding century; they may have been aggravated but they were not produced by the war. They were in full swing before it. They were the phenomena of their age, conditioned first of all by the rise of the mass man to power — as José Ortega y Gasset has shown us with great brilliance in his book, The Revolt of the Masses.
It is tragic to realize how the very liberality of the nineteenth century was responsible for the twentieth; how its mighty productivity, whose social and economic benevolence could triple the population of Europe, and its enormous goodwill were to blame for all the helplessness of our present state; how this crisis, which threatens to hurl us all back into barbarism, has its roots in the nineteenth century’s shortsighted generosity.
Ortega gives a capital description of the invasion of the new masses into a civilization of which they make use as though it were nature, without knowing its highly complicated antecedents and thus lacking all respect for them. It is an instance of their attitude toward the conditions to which they owe their lives that they trample on liberal democracy, or rather they make use of it to destroy it. And quite possibly, with all their childish, primitive love of the machine, they may destroy that too, because they do not dream that it is only the end product of a free research practised disinterestedly for the sake of knowledge, and because they despise idealism and everything that is bound up with it — in other words, freedom and truth.
It is here very much in place to speak of primitivism. Put before an audience of to-day (if this word, with its implication of selectness, is applicable to the modern masses) a play like Ibsen’s Wild Duck, and you will see that in the course of thirty years it has become quite incomprehensible. People think it is a farce and laugh in all the wrong places. In the nineteenth century there was a society capable of grasping the European irony and innuendo, the idealistic bitterness and moral subtlety of such a work. All that is gone; and that it could go, that there is such evidence of an abrupt decline of standards and descent to the primitive, — displayed not alone in insensibility towards the nuance but even in a savage hatred of it, — is a startling phenomenon. The nineteenth century could not have believed it possible, because the nineteenth century believed in continuity. The phenomenon is startling, in that it opens up the possibility of much greater losses; it suggests that we may lose and forget all that we have gained, that civilization itself is by no means secure against the same fate.
I repeat that the atrophy of European culture was not brought about by the war, but only made swifter and more striking. Not war alone flung up the huge wave of unreasoning barbarism and the primitive, county-fair crudity of mass democracy. Modern man is at once the product and the prey of wild, distracting impressions which assault him, intoxicate his senses, and stimulate his nerves. The amazing development of technology, with its triumphs and disasters, the noisy sensationalism of sports records, the fantastic adulation and overpayment of popular stars, the boxing bouts before hordes of people for million-dollar stakes these things and more like them make up the picture of our time, together with the decline and obsolescence of civilizing, disciplinary conceptions such as culture, mind, art, ideals.
For those are conceptions from the bourgeois age, idealistic trumpery out of the nineteenth century. And in fact the nineteenth century was above all an idealistic epoch — only to-day, and with some emotion, does one realize how idealistic it was. It believed not only in the blessings of a liberal democracy, but also in socialism — that is, in a kind of socialism which would raise and instruct the masses and bring them science, art, education, the good things of culture. To-day we have convinced ourselves that it is both easier and more important to dominate the masses, developing to greater and greater perfection the clumsy art of playing on their emotions — in other words, of substituting propaganda for education.
And the masses, it seems, are not inwardly averse; they feel themselves at bottom more intimately drawn to a smart propaganda technique than to any educational ideas. They are easily organized, and it seems that they are grateful for every form of organization, no matter in what spirit, be it even the spirit of violence. Violence is an extraordinarily simplifying principle; no wonder that it is understood by the masses.
If they were simply primitive, these modern masses, if they were only blithe barbarians, then one could do something, one could hope for something from them. But they are two-sided — they are sentimental, and they are given to philosophizing. And that is a catastrophe. The mass mind, extravagantly up-todate though it is, yet speaks the jargon of romanticism: talks about the ‘folk,’ about ‘blood and soil,’ and all the old and sacred things; it rails at the industrial age — with which it is one. The result is a false and lying muddle of soulfulness and humbuggery, submerged in raw sensibility. Truly a triumphant combination; it conditions and determines our world to-day.
As for the philosophy of the masses, that is even worse. Of course, it is not their own; it has merely trickled down on them from above, from more intellectual regions. The rôle which for some years now the intellect has played is of the strangest. It has turned against itself. First it made itself prey to its own irony, and then in a burst of emotion abdicated in favor of life and the forces of the unconscious, the dynamic, darkly creative, holy-conceiving motherworld, which alone is life-giving.
We all know how the mind can turn on itself, turn against reason; can curse it and put it in the pillory as the destroyer of life. It is an amazing and fascinating spectacle, but by its nature so bewildering that perhaps it ought not to have been shown to the general public. Of course the war against idealism was itself idealistic. The nineteenth century loved truth with such vehemence that through the mouth of Ibsen it even declared that illusions were indispensable to life. There is, certainly, a great difference between admitting the lie out of a thwarted and ironical love of truth and doing the same thing out of sheer disregard for it.
This difference is not clear to everybody to-day. Nietzsche’s highly irritable polemic against Platonism, Socratism, and Christianity was that of a man with more likeness to Pascal than to Cesare Borgia or Machiavelli. His was the ascetic self-conquest of the born Christian. Very similar was the struggle of Marx against the German idealistic conceptions of truth and morality. His struggle was idealistic; it was for the sake of a new truth and justice — it was not born of contempt for mind.
That attitude was reserved for decades which romanticized the idealistic revolt against idealism, and thereby lent to it dangerous possibilities of popular favor. They did not see, or they recked not of, the dangers for humanity and culture which lie in all intellectual anti-intellectualizing; they did not see the seeds of reaction in such a revolution. They did not realize the sinister possibilities of its abuse, or how in the turning of a hand it could become a license for unintellectualism and anti-intellectualism pur sang — and for every sort of human indecency, every sort of contempt for truth, freedom, justice, and humanity. We must admit that mind has been irresponsible; it has failed to perceive that the moral and the intellectual are linked, that they stand or fall together, and that the consequence of contempt for mind is moral bewilderment. Ten thousand preachers of the irrational have troubled themselves not at all that they might be educating the people to moral sans-culottism and to callousness in the face of atrocities.
The new masses heard talk of the epochal dethronement of reason and intellect which had taken place in the upper spheres. They took it in, as the very latest novelty; and they could not have been greatly astonished, for much the same thing had been in practice among them for some time. Many things were now possible which the stricter humanism of the nineteenth century would not have tolerated; all sorts of occult sciences had slipped in, to the blaring jazz accompaniment of the time — half-sciences, charlatanry, obscure sects, and silly backstairs religions, sheer humbug, superstition, and quackery. They had hordes of believers; they set the tone of the time. And many educated men saw in all that not modern vulgarity, not cultural blindness, but a mythical rebirth of deep living forces and a lofty manifestation of the folk soul. The ground was prepared for the most absurd and disgraceful mass superstition: not the dumb, unthinking superstition of earlier times, but a modern, democratic kind, which presupposes the inborn right of every man to think — in short, a superstition with a philosophy.
No doubt necessity teaches people to think. But one must ask how. We have seen what happens when the middle and lower-middle classes, impoverished, dispossessed, resentful, begin to think and to indulge in mysticism. The peiit bourgeois learned by actual experience that reason had been liquidated and that mind may be insulted with impunity; that these bogies, in some way connected with socialism, internationalism, and Judaism, were to blame for his plight. He had sanction from on high when he began to reason against reason and to twist his tongue round that blessed word ‘irrationalism.’ The popularization of the irrational, during the second and third decades of this century, is probably the most ludicrous and pathetic spectacle in history. The intoxicated little bourgeois himself invented an expression: he talked about the ‘intellectual animal.’ It is an idiotic term, yet to some extent sanctioned by the antiintellectual upper spheres. And how brutally effective it is! How it reduces to a single death-dealing formula the assault upon the rational will in the social and political sphere, upon the desire for peace, upon European civilization, and quite explicitly upon all intellectual discipline and restraint!
But the anti-intellectual intellect cannot escape being intellectual, after all. And its inferior offshoot, the mass mind, is in the same case. It talks — yes, verily, it writes and philosophizes; and its product is nothing but distorted intellectualism, intellectual small change. The air is thick with mass ideas stirred up by clumsy propaganda. Miasmic literary vapors hang in the atmosphere and make it hard to breathe. Mass man, philosophizing against the reason, has arrogated to himself alone the right to think, to talk, and to write. He has forbidden to everybody else the expression of opinion; and then, secure against contradiction, he uses his prerogative in such a way that we are blinded and deafened, and would fain curse our liberal democracy which has taught the masses to read and write.
We cannot help feeling that the Word, that thought itself, are forever dishonored by this miserable abuse. This halfeducated pseudo-knowledge, stimulated to the top of its bent, flings about its malicious propositions and mystagogic rubbish unchecked; while true science stands there, in part intimidated, in part shockingly sympathetic, and now and then weakly ventures a soft rejoinder. It will not be long before this kind of thinking will hold the field alone, and arrogantly rejoice in its power to translate its ideals into history. And the history will be according to the fact.
But is there not something touchingly Christian in this triumphant uprising of the poor in spirit, this abasement of science, learning, and culture before the feet of the humble, the fisherfolk, the publicans and sinners? I feel that we must use the parallel with great caution. For between the early Christian revolution and the modern revolt of the masses there is a great difference. To put it in the simplest possible way, it is a difference of character, of goodwill and brotherly love; and it warns us against confusing the two. Our time has brought about this paradox: a mass aggregation of the poor in spirit applaud with pathological frenzy that abrogation of human rights which has been proclaimed to them through a loud-speaker from on high.
Truth may come of simpleness; of degradation, never.
I may be answered that the Christian conquest of the world, like the French Revolution, was altruistic in its character, whereas the modern movement is heroic. I love and reverence the great manifestations of the heroic spirit; but, however much I try, I cannot believe in the heroism of the underdog. His world is not heroic. It is the world of the short story and the detective novel, of the penny dreadful and the sensational film; there is nothing heroic about it.
We object to applying the word to the modern fanatical invention of crime and murder as a policy. Even to grasp the meaning of the word ‘heroic’ one must possess higher moral standards than those of a philosophy based on violence and treachery. It is the philosophy of the small man crazed by the fury of thinking. He believes in violence, and in only one thing more; he believes, even more passionately, in the lie. Among all the European ideals — truth, freedom, justice — which he thinks to have liquidated, truth is the one he most hates and rejects. In its place he puts the ‘myth.’ It is a word which bulks as large as the heroic in his vocabulary; and what he means by it, one discovers, is the abolition of the distinction between truth and humbug.
This problem of trut h — truth as absolute, and truth as conditioned by life, truth in its everlastingness and in its eternal permutations — is the most serious we have to face. What is truth? Thus asked the skeptical Roman — but not only he. For philosophy itself, the critical, self-examining mind, puts the same question. It is on the side of life; it grants that life needs a truth which helps and advances it. ‘Only the lifepromoting is true.’ Granted. Yet we must add, that morality may not sink in the bog of cynicism, ‘Only truth is truly life-promoting.’ And since truth is not given us once and for all, but is mutable, the more profoundly, the more sensitively and conscientiously careful for it the intellectual man must be, the more watchful for stirrings of the time spirit, for changes in the garment of the truth — in other words, for the will of God, which the intellectual man must serve, regardless of the hatred of the stupid, the fearful, and the insensible, of all those interested to uphold the domination of the false and evil.
Such, in brief words, is the problem of truth, as it presents itself to the mind of the reasonable, well-disposed, and Godfearing man. It has been reserved to the mass mind of which I speak to set up the lie as the single life-giving, history-shaping force, to create out of it a philosophy which abolishes all distinction between it and truth, and to enthrone in Europe a shameful pragmatism which denies spirit itself for the sake of gain; which commits or condones any crime that is to the advantage of its pseudo-absolutes, and does not shrink from placing any advantageous lie on a level with the truth.
I will not go so far as to equate this human type with modem man as a whole. But it is a widely prevalent type, a mass type. And when I call it characteristic of our time I am only repeating this kind of man’s very own conviction: the conviction that gives him the smashing élan with which he sets out to overrun a world so hampered by its moral scruples that he may well make himself its lord and master.
And the issue is abundantly clear and certain. It would be war: the ultimate catastrophe, the collapse of our civilization. It is my firm conviction that this and only this must be the consequence of the activist philosophy of this type of man; for this reason I feel constrained to speak of him and of the awful threat which he embodies. It is heartbreaking to see the weakness of the older cultural group in face of this barbarism; its bewildered, confused retreat. Dazed and abashed, with an embarrassed smile it abandons one position after another, seeming to concede that in very truth it ‘no longer understands the world.’ It stoops to the foe’s moral and mental level, adopts his idiotic terminology, adjusts itself to his pathetic categories, his stupid, spiteful, and capricious propaganda — and does not even see what it is doing. Perhaps it is already lost. It certainly is unless it can take thought and wrench itself free from the creeping hypnosis.
In all humanism there is an element of weakness, bound up with its hatred of fanaticism, its tolerance and love of skepticism — in short, with its natural benevolence of spirit. That weakness may become its nemesis. What we need to-day is a militant humanism, conscious of its own virility and inspired by the knowledge that the principles of freedom, tolerance, and skepticism must not be exploited by shameless and unscrupulous fanatics. If the ideas of European humanism are incapable of a militant rebirth, if it can no longer possess itself of its own soul in a new and vital capacity to fight, then it will be destroyed. A new Europe will be born, in which only the name will remain, and from which one would wish to find a refuge lying outside space and time.