Humanism and the Belief in Man

by ARCHIBALD MACLEISH

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THE end of the war will present two great questions — a question of government for the governors and a question of education for the teachers. There will be other questions as well. There will be bankers’ questions for the bankers, and food questions for the farmers, and traders’ questions for the traders, and military questions for the generals and the admirals. But the two great questions will be the questions of government and of education.

How do you govern in the new world with its invisible frontiers? And how do you educate the new people with their new possibilities of creation and destruction?

These two questions are serious. We can perhaps get along if the bankers fail to find an answer to the question of money — or refuse to accept the answer someone else finds for them. We can probably get along somehow whether or not the farmers find an answer to the question of food, and whether or not the traders learn how to trade, and the generals and admirals how to police the isthmuses and the oceans and the islands. But unless the governors — which means those who are governed as well — and the teachers—which means also those who are taught — can find out how to govern the new world and how to educate men and women to live in it, we are quite literally lost. Lost not in rhetoric: lost in truth.

We used to say twenty-five years ago that the world couldn’t survive another war. We thought we were making speeches. We know now that we were stating fact. The only parts of the world which will survive this war, except as ruins and fragments and remains, will be the parts of the world over which the war has not been fought. Next time, as the Nazis have obligingly shown us, there will be no margins. Planes which flew a few hundred miles with a few pounds of explosives in 1918 now fly thousands of miles with tons of explosives. Robot projectiles which now carry a ton of explosives a couple of hundred miles will increase both range and load in much the same way.

The lesson we have learned over the last few years is the lesson that “there are no neutrals in this war.” In the next war, — if there is a next war, — the lesson we shall learn will be the lesson that there is no part of the world which is not a battlefield. Which means, not as a figure of speech but as a statement of fact, that what we understand by “the world” will not survive that war. Which means, in turn, that if there is another war our world is lost. Which means, finally, that we have no future worth thinking about unless we can learn, and learn quickly, to govern the world in such a way, and to educate its people in such a way, that another war will not occur.

When anyone talks about the crisis of humanism at the war’s end, he is talking, if he is serious, about the answer humanism has to give, or ought to have to give, or ought to be allowed to have to give, to these two inescapable and desperate questions of government and education. He is not talking, that is to say, about the sad plight of the classics in the modern college, or the overemphasis on science in the current curriculum, or the lamentable discovery, in universities which had previously terminated all literature with the last rock on Land’s End, that an American literature also exists. He is not talking, that is to say, in terms of academic politics or academic prestige or his own future as a professor. Above all, he is not talking about the effect of the Array training program on the academic economic system.

He is talking about the most urgent and most critical decisions to be taken in his time. And he is saying that a certain approach to these problems, a certain tradition of thought, a certain discipline, has something of importance to offer to their solution. He is saying that the tendency of the practical men among his contemporaries to exclude that approach and that discipline is dangerous, He is saying that it is dangerous, not to him and his academic fellows only, but to the practical men themselves — and to the world they share with us.

The serious question in all this discussion of the humanities, in other words, is the question whether the humanists and their discipline have, in fact, anything to offer to the solution of the two great moral and intellectual and political problems we must solve or perish. If they have not, if the humanists can claim no more than a decorative function in the preparation of young men for dinners-in-hall, then their disputes with their academic rivals, however brilliantly managed and however learnedly expressed, are hardly worth the present attention of living men. For one thing, living men have other and more urgent business to attend to. For another, they have every reason to remark that a philosophy of the education and life of man which has nothing to say to mankind about its life and education at the most critical moment in its recorded history is not a philosophy of man at all but a dilettantism with a pretentious name.

Both problems clearly fall within the field of humanist concern. Certainly the question of the role of education in the crisis of our time is a question on which the humanists can be expected to speak and by which they should expect to be judged. Humanism is at bottom a theory of the education proper to man and cannot therefore avoid judgment upon its position in the most solemn examination of educational theory the modern world has been obliged to undertake. On the contrary, humanism might well protest, and bitterly protest, its exclusion from that great assize.

The same thing is true, or so it seems to me, of the problem of government. Humanists, I realize, have not claimed the right in recent years to speak with authority of the art of government. Some of them may even decline that right today. Some of them, thinking of humanism as though it were something in a university catalogue, may perhaps refuse to hold opinions on the art of government — on the ground that government is taught in the courses on political science and that the courses on political science are not usually given in the departments of humanities.

Others, taking a less curricular view, might conceivably renounce all right to be heard on the issue of government, and might decline to be judged by their contribution to its Solution, on the ground that humanism is concerned with men solely as individuals and not with men in their relation to each other, or on the ground that humanism looks inward, not outward, or on the ground that humanism looks backward, not forward.

Philosophers of the ancient world would consider these to be strange limitations, I submit, upon the spiritual jurisdiction of a school which concerns itself with humanitas — with those things in man which are most manlike. Aulus Gellius defined humanitas by saying that earnest students of the liberal arts are most highly humanized because the knowledge they pursue is “granted to man alone of all the animals.” Of the various forms of knowledge granted to man alone of all the animals, knowledge of the art of government is surely not the least.

Nor was it the least regarded in the past. It was not believed in Athens and Rome that the best education for man was an education unrelated to his practice of the art of government. On the contrary, it was assumed that a philosophy which thought in terms of the whole man, of the man in whom the manlike qualities were most developed, must necessarily have views not only on the training of those qualities but upon their exercise as well, and above all upon their noblest exercise — which would have included, in that time and in those cities, their exercise in government.

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BUT there are other reasons than reasons of logic and history for the extension of humanist ic jurisdiction, and therefore of humanistic responsibility, to the art of government. There are reasons of a practical nature. The humanistic renunciation of the public world has been happy neither for the public world nor for humanism. Humanism has become pallid with the pallor of all things grown within ivory walls; and government, once considered a noble art, has become at best a kind of profession and at worst a business. The recent uproar about Henry Wallace makes the point with an unintentional but appalling pertinence. Henry Wallace, said a characteristic article by one of the best-known of American journalists, is an exceptionally fine human being. He has a feeling for the tendency of things to come. But he is not at home and at ease in “the real world” and he is therefore, under the circumstances of the election, unacceptable for the Vice-presidency.

Whatever may be said of the opinion of Henry Wallace, the view of statesmanship there expressed is one a humanist might challenge and, in my opinion, should. Indeed both humanism and statesmanship would be healthier today if the humanists had challenged the businessman’s view of the art of government before it produced the generations of leaders “at home in the real world ” which conducted Western civilization through so much of the nineteenth century and the twentieth to the situation in which we find ourselves today. It would be difficult to prove that there would have been more Lincolns and Jeffersons if the humanists had not forsaken the public world, but it must be obvious that there would almost certainly have been fewer Coolidges and Tafts.

I propose to assume, therefore, and for the purposes of this discussion, that, humanism can be expected to supply an answer to the two critical questions of how to govern and how to teach. It remains therefore to consider whether the answer humanism can be expected to offer is or is not entitled to a better hearing than it has had.

But that considerat ion turns, of course, upon the nature of the humanist answer. There are almost as many definitions of humanism and the humanities as there are men who have written them. If one assumes, for example, that the humanities are what Webster calls “the branches of polite learning,” especially belles-lettres and the ancient classics, and that humanism is merely a scholarly devotion to these studies, there will be some difficulty in persuading a tortured world that humanism and the humanities have much to say to it.

Polite learning, it will be objected, is all very well for a polite age, and knowledge of the ancient classics and of beautiful letters is a charming embellishment in a serene and spacious time; but for us, bewildered and frightened in a chaotic and savage world in which all the landmarks are lost and all the assurances washed away, the book beneath the classic bough is a mockery and a delusion. We have First Things to learn again before we can learn Last Things. We must learn again how to survive — how to keep the peace; how to restrain the wild beasts and the violence. Keep your culture, the world might well say, until we can build a quiet room to house it in — until we can be certain that t he house of culture will stand at least for a generation at a time; until the skies are quiet again and a place for stars, not for the most terrible and insensate death and the swiftest destruction.

And there will be much the same objection if you define your humanist as the perfect type of intellectual aristocrat, living a life of reflection and criticism above the battle and the common dust. You will be told that such a man, if he does not make himself a prig in the process, may well become an ornament in a world which has room for ornaments, but that we, who must buttress and rebuild our lives before chaos engulfs them, have no time to think of such luxuries as a natural aristocracy of learning and of taste.

So again if you adopt the definition of humanism which describes it as a form of intellectual discipline — the discipline of the intellect for its own sake rather than for the sake of proficiency in some art, or craft, or profession. Rude persons will tell you that to cultivate the mind for its own sake one must first have leisure, and that to have leisure one must be able to foretell the time, and that in our world a man cannot foretell the time since the time is already past and nothing is sure and each day is more dangerous than the last and a man can only prepare himself for disaster or survival.

It will be the same, too, even if you take the more generous definition in which humanism appears as that method of education and that practice of life of which the purpose is to free the faculties of men for their fullest exercise and their finest development. To free the facult ies of men for t heir fullest exercise is a noble purpose. But its end, as someone will be unkind enough to point out, is not a free man, — a man committed to freedom as well as possessed of it,

— but rather a freed man — a man freed of all commitments, including the commitment to freedom it self.

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SUCH an end, however enchanting it may seem in a peaceful time when men can afford the after-dinner sport of questioning everything and giving themselves to nothing, has an irresponsible and even a frivolous look to a generation which has been compelled to think of freedom as something you were either prepared to die for or prepared to lose. To be free of every prejudice, including the prejudice of freedom, may make a man superior, but it can hardly endear him, for the moment at least, to those who have offered their lives precisely to defend the prejudice that freedom has a supreme and absolute worth. Moral eclecticism looks curiously out of place among the dead wreaths and the fading cotton flags of the soldiers’ cemeteries. It is particularly out of place when the certainty of the soldier’s grave that freedom was worth dying for is the only certainty men have to hold to. To offer to teach the men of such a generation how to avoid the pitfalls of prejudice and excessive belief is indeed to offer stones to those who starve for bread.

The fact is that the humanism of these various definitions is a humanism which finds its reason in the fifteenth century rather than our own — in the fifteenth century and in those later centuries in which, as in the fifteenth, the sickness of the soul was dogma and superstition. Humanism considered as an intellectual discipline-for-discipline’ssake, or as a regimen to free the mind of prejudice and infatuation, or as an aristocratic training of the taste, or as a cult of the classic past, or as the appreciation of fine arts and beautiful letters, is a prime specific for such ills as bigotry and puritanism and jesuitry and vulgarity and Victorianism and the complacency of the bourgeois mind. But humanism so conceived has little if anything to say to a time in which the spiritual sickness is not excess of belief but lack of belief. And ours, if we understand the ills we suffer from, is such a time.

We have valued liberty enough to fight for it, and we know very well what enemy we detest, but the affirmative cause, not only of the war but of our lives, escapes us. When we debate, as we have debated endlessly, the question of what we are fighting for, we have sometimes thought it was what we are living for we needed most to know. The weakness is not in the time, we think, but in ourselves. We have seen whole peoples deliver their lives and purposes and wills to tyrants they themselves have invented out of a loud voice and a blathering mouth and a ridiculous uniform to satisfy the hunger of their fear. We have seen others who cried out for a great conversion of the world, a vast revival, a wind from beyond the planet and the stars, to fill us in spite of ourselves, and without our effort, by some miracle of faith, like the miracle they imagine to have happened when Christianity first took the world, or when the religion of the Prophet took it.

Everywhere in our time there are the signs and indications of a passion to believe, a passion to escape from the sense of human inadequacy which spreads and deepens as science and the mechanical arts disclose the enormous scale and the terrible potentialities of a universe vaster and more dangerous than men, before our generation, had imagined. The natural sciences open fissures in the skin of the earth and the cover of the sky which lead beyond human meaning. The specialists press their narrow drills of research outward and away from the human center of experience. The libraries overflow with a flood of printed pages, and knowledge has become too vast for men to know.

The world, we say to ourselves, is too large for us, too difficult to understand, too savage to restrain, too swift to master. It is no longer a world to be measured in distance by a man’s foot, or in time by a man’s sleeping and waking, or in danger by a man’s strength or an animal’s. It is a world beyond the capacity of men to control — a world that needs gods or men like gods. And so we long for the men like gods, or for the gods, to believe in.

Humanists may regret this hunger to believe, but they will be foolish, notwithstanding, if they ignore the longing of their generation; and worse than foolish if they do not see the significance of that longing to themselves and to their cause. For the meaning of our longing for belief is this: that we have lost our sense of the place of man in the universe.

It is to a generation which has lost this sense that the humanists now must offer what they have to teach. If they do not understand the significance of that fact to the philosophy they protest; if they persist in declaring that what they have to teach is a method only, a gymnastic, or at the best an antidote, a cleansing salt, an antiseptic; if they are unwilling to turn their questions into answers for a time that needs their answers — then they have themselves to thank, and not the blunders of the Army and the Navy, or the blindness of their colleagues in the universities, for the indifference of which they now complain.

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FOR there is a definition of humanism by which humanism becomes a belief in the one thing in which man has greatest need now to believe — himself, and the dignity and importance of the place he fills in the world he lives in. There is a definition of humanism by which humanism becomes precisely the belief of man in his own dignity, in his essential worth as a man, in what Ralph Barton Perry calls “his characteristic perfection”: a belief not in the potentiality of man, but in the actuality of man; a belief not in the classic perfection of the beautiful letters men have written in the distant past, but in the human perfection of the men who wrote those letters and of others like them, whether writers or others than writers, and whether living in the past or in the present or not yet born; a belief not in the thing a man may become if he reads the right books and develops the right tastes and undergoes the right discipline, but a belief in the thing he is.

No one has put this better than Professor Perry in his superb Definition of the Humanities. “The reference to man in the context of the so-called ‘humanities,’” he says, “is . . . not descriptive or apologetic, but eulogistic; not‘human — all too human,’ or ‘only human,’ but human in the sense in which one deems it highest praise to be called ‘a man.’” The answer humanism has it in its power to make to the two great questions, how to govern and how to teach, is the answer of belief in man, “ in the sense in which one deems it highest praise to be called ‘a man.’” If the world can be taught to believe in the worth of man, in the dignity of man, in the “characteristic perfection” of man, it can be taught not only to survive but to live. If the world can be governed in belief in the worth of man, in the dignity of man, it can be governed in peace.

These proposit ions need no proof. They speak for themselves. If government throughout the world were directed by a convinced belief in the dignity of man as man, in the worth of man as man, so that decisions of government were everywhere made in consonance with that belief and in furtherance of it, no one can doubt that the world would be well governed and that peace would be as nearly certain as peace can be in a variable universe. It is lack of faith in the essential dignity and worth of man which corrupts and weakens democratic governments, substituting for a government by the people in the people’s interest, which is peace, a government of rulers in the rulers’ interest — which may be war. It is doubt of the dignity and worth of man which opens the road to the tyrannies and dictatorships which have no choice but war. It is cynical contempt for the worth and dignity of man which makes the wars of the dictators wars of slavery and subjugation.

If the fundamental proposition upon which the government of the world was based were the proposition that man, because he is man, and in his essential quality as man, has worth and value which governments exist to serve and to protect, regardless of race and regardless of color or religion, there would be little room for the play of international politics which, under color of realism or under color of necessity, puts power first or oil first or gold first, and men second or nowhere, preparing thus for the wars of powder or of oil or gold. If the first business of government everywhere were man, the whole man of the humanists; if the first object of government everywhere were the good of man, man “ in the sense in which one deems it highest praise to be called ‘a man’”; if the first principle of government everywhere were the principle that government exists for man and not man for government, there would be no place for the governments of which the first business is business, or for the governments of which the first object is economic advantage, or for the governments of which the first principle is power.

But to govern in this way it is necessary first of all to believe, and not merely to declare that one believes, in the fundamental worth and value of man and to practice that belief and never to cease to practice it. It is necessary to believe in man, not only as the Christians believe in man, out of pity, or as the democrats believe in man, out of loyalty, but also as the Greeks believed in man, out of pride.

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THE same thing is true of the question how to teach. If education were informed with a belief in the dignity and worth of man; if the purposeof education were an understanding not only of the weaknesses of man and the sicknesses of man and the failures of man but of the essential nobility of man also, of his “characteristic perfection,” men would be able again to occupy their lives and to live in the world as the Greeks lived in it, free of the bewilderment and frustration which has sent this generation, like the Gadarene swine, squealing and stumbling and drunk with the longing for immolation, to hurl themselves into the abysses of the sea.

If science were taught, not as something external to man, something belittling of man, but as one of the greatest of the creations of the human spirit; if economics were taught not as a structure of deterministic laws superior to man and controlling his conduct, but as one of the many mirrors man has constructed to observe the things he does; if history and descriptive literature were taught not as peepholes through which the unworthy truth about mankind may be observed but as expressions of man’s unique ability and willingness to see and judge himself; if belief in man and in his dignity and worth became the controlling principle of education, so that the people of the world were taught to respect the common principle of humanity in others and in themselves, and to believe that their lives would be shaped and their future determined not by some law of economics, or by some formula of science, or by some regimen of the subconscious, but by their own wills and on their own responsibility — if these things could be accomplished, who will doubt that the sense of irresponsibility and frustration which has driven so many millions of our contemporaries down the blind steep of slavery into war could be corrected?

The task education must accomplish, if free societies are to continue to exist, is the re-crcation of the sense of individual responsibility — which means the re-establishment of the belief of men in man. Fascism is only another name for the sickness and desperation which overcome a society when it loses its sense of responsibility for its own life and surrenders its will to a tyrant it, and it alone, has invented. But the sense of responsibility in a nation is a sense of responsibility in the individuals who compose that nation, for the sense of responsibility is always a charge upon the individual conscience and vanishes when many share it. And to re-create the sense of individual responsibility it is necessary to restore the belief of men in man — the belief that man can direct his destiny if he will.

It is impossible to charge the consciences of men with responsibility for the world they live in without convincing them that they can act upon their world — that the power to decide and act is theirs. No one knew that better than Abraham Lincoln, who knew many things about the human soul. When it became necessary for him, in the terrible December of 1862, to drive home to the Congress a sense of its responsibility, he used these words: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. . . . We — even we here — hold the power and bear the responsibility.”

What education in the free countries must drive home, if the free countries are to survive, is the conviction that we — even we here — hold the power and bear the responsibility. The task is in part a task beyond the power of the schools as such, for the sense of individual responsibility and power involves a sense of individual participation, and a sense of individual participation is only possible in a society in which individuals can make themselves felt directly and not through agglomerations of money or people. There must be social changes as well as educational changes. But the educational changes come first. Not until men believe that the responsibility can be theirs to bear, and therefore should be theirs to bear, will they make it theirs. To teach men to believe in themselves therefore is to teach them responsibility and so to assure their freedom.

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THESE, as I understand humanism, are the answers the humanists have it in their power to give to their time and to the questions their time has asked of them. They are answers which seem to me to be true and to dispose, once and for all, of the question whether humanism has anything to say to the generation to which we belong. Any school, any philosophy, which can go as close to the root of the essential sickness of our time has a right to be heard, and may claim that right, and may denounce fairly and justly those who deprive it of that right, pretending that other points of view are more practical and therefore more important.

But these answers are not the answers, as I read the record, which the humanists — all the humanists at least — are willing to give. On the contrary, many humanists would reject them, and reject them for a reason which goes very deep. They would reject them because the dignity of man in which they believe is not the dignity implicit in these answers — is not, that is to say, a dignity which men possess because they are men, but only a dignity which men may earn by undergoing certain disciplines and acquiring certain characteristics.

Man, to these humanists, is not born with worth, but may acquire worth. Until he has earned it he has no right or reason to believe in himself, nor should a belief in man determine the attitude in which he is to be ruled. Humanism to these humanists, in other words, is not a democratic doctrine on which a practice of self-government can be founded, but an aristocratic doctrine which, because its concern is inward, has little to say of government of any kind. It is, if anything, a doctrine opposed to democracy and to theories of the universal worth of man, because excellence, not equality, is its goal and purpose.

It would be a mistake to dismiss these humanists as dwellers in towers, or their definitions as definitions of refuge. The passion for excellence can be a sword as well as a sanctuary. Committed to the love of the arts and the great books and the monuments of unaging intellect, as Yeats so wonderfully called them, and the courtesies and graces and perceptions of a civilized and generous life, the worshipers of excellence have waged war, and noble war, against an increasing vulgarity which has won its greatest triumphs in our time, having found the mechanical means at last to intrude its coarseness into every hour, however private, and every chamber, however secret, of our lives.

Those to whom humanism is the worship of excellence do not admit, as they look around them in the streets and trains and hotel lobbies of our world, that all men have dignity and worth. They do not believe, as they look back across the centuries to the world they imagine to have existed in Athens and in Rome, that all men are able to govern themselves or should be allowed to. They do not agree, as they face the crisis of our time, that freedom is the answer to everything. They do not necessarily hold with public freedom. The freedom they seek is inward in the large and lofty world of enlightened intellect where learning paints the various landscape and a trained and delicate taste selects the road. That there must be peace and quiet outside the mind, if a man is to journey within it, they readily admit. But the peace without, they say, is not their business.

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IT is understandable enough that men should love what these men love, and hate what they hate. Their ideal of the truly civilized man is in every way admirable. Their contempt for a world in which taste is determined in advertising agencies, and intelligence is measured by the answers children give to questions on the air, is a contempt which later generations of Americans will not find strange. But what is not understandable is their choice of the word humanism to describe their inward and selective life. Humanism as a word cannot cut itself off from its root or forget its derivation. Humanism, to deserve the humanitas from which it comes, must incorporate some notion of things appropriate to every man as man — things worthy of man in every man.

It must incorporate, that is to say, some notion of a universal dignity which men possess as men and by virtue of their manhood. The dignity of man upon which a philosophy of man, a school devoted to man, is based cannot be a rare and sought-for attribute which only the school can teach man to acquire and only the philosophy aid man to deserve. You do not construct out of the airy goal at which you hope to arrive the solid ground from which you depart. You do not derive the dignity of man on which your philosophy is founded from the dignity which those few who practice your philosophy can claim to possess. The dignity of man is either here and now or it is never. It is either in mankind or it is nowhere.

One can no more make an aristocracy of human dignity than one can make an aristocracy of human love or human curiosity, or any other fundamental human characteristic. Some men will develop their manlike qualities farther than others. Some will be more learned, have surer taste, livelier imagination, greater gentility — will be, in brief, more civilized than others. But whatever the degree of their development, the qualities with which the true humanist is concerned are the manlike qualities — the qualities which men possess because they are men; the qualities, therefore, which all men possess to one degree or another. It is man whom the humanist values, and man is in all men — is all men.

To limit humanism, therefore, —to put a narrower construction upon it than this, — is quite literally to deprivo it of its fundamental meaning. It is as though a select association of superior and cultivated people were to call themselves the association of mankind. The word mankind, in such a context, would have an ironic meaning or have none at all. So humanism, if its concern is not man, and therefore all men, has only an ironic meaning or has none. But founded on the universal human basis which its root implies, the name becomes a noble and intelligible word with meanings which our time needs more than any others.

This war is a war against those who, in contempt of man and in despair of man’s power to direct his life, have surrendered their lives into the hands of tyrants they themselves have created. It is a war against the philosophy of contempt for man and despair of his future which those who have surrendered their lives have invented to justify themselves, or have accepted from their masters. It is a war therefore in which the issue is, in last analysis, the issue of man — of the concept of man which is to shape and control our time; of the idea of man which governments are to reflect and societies to mirror.

We, on our side, have found it easy to put our cause into negative words, into words of resistance. We are opposed to the philosophy of contempt for man and to those who accept that philosophy: we have seen what it does to those who practice it and to those upon whom it is practiced also. But we have not found it easy to put our cause into the affirmative words of our own purpose. And for this reason: that the affirmative statement of our cause is a declaration of belief in man, and we have not been altogether ready and willing to make that declaration, since we too have felt the winds of fear and doubt which turned our enemies to disbelievers. More than anything else, we need a rebirth of belief in ourselves as men. If humanism will make itself the instrument of that renaissance of man, its place, not only in the universities but in the world, is sure. For if it will make itself that instrument it will give our time its cause.