Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time
“The Reconsideration of Man”
NOT only the character but also the degree of a culture is responsive to the prevailing image of man. For what man tells himself he is manifests itself soon enough in what he does and may even predetermine what he can do. Historically speaking, man has been many things to himself, but the variation is only one side of the story. For if man has been many things, he is also one thing. Hovering over all the varieties is a harmonious ideal of man by which he must be judged if progression is to be at all possible. Even so empirical a thinker as John Stuart Mill, when he came to give his real or final reason justifying liberty, could not dispense with the imperative of this ideal. Now there are some images of man which impede this by holding people down to a low level of awareness and potentiality. The student of culture will be critical of all images that threaten true reaction — that is, reversion toward a poorer and less truthful concept of what it means to be a human being.
We must admit that man has been living with himself for many thousands of years without discovering completely what he is. But it is impossible to think that he has discovered nothing; that would less credible than to suppose that he has discovered everything. I should think that if there is one thing that man has learned about himself, it is that he is a creature of choice. A corollary to this discovery is that he is a creature of dignity. His dignity arises from his power of choice; it comes from the very precariousness and peril of his position, so that his dignity is something that he has perpetually to maintain by exercise. It is these qualities which make him different from the social insects and leave him capable of creating rational creatures – rational in the sense that they express a relationship of human ends and means.
Now it must be further admitted that the development of man’s self-knowledge has not been consistently forward. Rather, its history has been fraught with vicissitudes; there have been delays, back-trackings, even dark nights of the mind in which he seemed to know much less about himself than previous generations have done. The imminence of such a dark night of the mind is the subject of this essay.
One of the dilemmas of the modern world is that while the idea of the freedom and dignity of man is increasingly held up as the sanction of government and the goal of personal endeavor, other lines of reasoning, from other quarters, converge to make this belief seem untenable. Man is being told by the representatives of that body of knowledge which today enjoys the most prestige that he is not free, while it is being urged upon him by statesmen and leaders of opinion that freedom is the basis of his laws and institutions. At no other time in history have there been so many apostrophes to freedom and so much inner doubt as to whether the word stands for a reality. Two sources that the average person has been taught to respect come to him with opposite conclusions, and it is not to be wondered if his own conclusions become tentative and confused.
The conclusions which work toward undermining his idea of freedom come from science, although not always directly from the scientists. The dominant mood has been to accept what “science says” as an ipse dixit and then to see what, if anything, can be salvaged after its pronouncements have been conceded. It is my conviction that we do not have to fall back so far. We can offer defense and even attack at some of the outer works where the scientists deal with their own facts in their own way. In other words, we can show that some of the scientific claims are not scientifically based or are not rationally argued. Saving the image of man on which our culture depends requires that we make full use of these strategies.
We may well feel it curious that modern man has allowed himself to be pushed back so far in his efforts to defend his dignity and his freedom. I spoke a moment before of certain “lines of reasoning” which have had the effect of reducing him in his own eyes. They are such as far as their formal nature goes, but they are hardly valid reasonings. They are on the contrary illogical deductions from certain of the admitted facts of science. These have been used to remove man from a place “a little lower than the angels” to one where he is only the king of the beasts, and a king whose freedom is illusory. Yet it seems that the whole trend can be met and stopped by a little reflective reasoning on the reasoning processes themselves. I propose therefore to review certain steps in the progressive demotion of man. Let us begin then with what is referred to as his “dignity,” remembering that “dignity” by derivation means “worth.” Why is man worth less in his own eyes than he was in the eyes of his ancestors ten generations ago?
The first suspicious deduction concerning the status of man came by way of astronomy. Some three centuries ago it was discovered that the heavens do not revolve around our planet. Observation and theory since that time have revealed that the earth is a very small part of the universe which can be seen or assume to exist. Not only is it very small in comparison with other aggregations of matter, but it is not even centrally located. It lies off in some odd corner, away from the “important” center.
These facts may be vivid, but what is their real implication? It is easy enough to trace what has been drawn from them. From the fact that the earth is very small in comparison with the rest of the matter in the universe and from the fact that its position is eccentric, it has been inferred that man has a very small significance in totality.
But this is not the kind of thinking that passes muster with the logically trained mind or with any intelligent mind. Passing from the physical insignificance of the globe on which man dwells to his own insignificance commits the fallacy of sliding terms. Since the term “insignificance” here changes meaning. The proponents of the argument cannot get from something that is measured quantitatively to something that is qualitative without an illicit process. The reasoning, let us note again, purports to show that because man’s home is small, his importance must be small. The underlying assumption is that the Creator must have distributed his matter pro rata, with what is very important getting a great deal and what is less important getting less. But what is the standard of importance? We do not value animals so crudely, we do not say that because the elephant contains more matter in the form of protoplasm than the horse it is therefore a more valuable animal or one more favored by creation. There are no standards of valuation apart from the human or the divine. If one planet supports life and a whole galaxy supports none, there is nothing to give the galaxy a claim to greater significance. It is conceivable that the Creator made for man a small and somewhat out of the way pasture, but a very green one and one adequate to his needs. I cannot follow the reasoning which says that if man is to be considered important, he must inhabit one of the largest globes in space and that this must have a position at the center. Much of the universe might seem a waste of matter, but what is the meaning here of “waste”? The term seems to invoke the farmer’s economy. “Waste” has no meaning where matter can be created out of nothing, and where, perhaps, there is delight in the act of creation. The inference drawn from location is whimsical.
Yet, as it happened this enlarged view of the physical universe had the effect of reducing man proportionately in importance. Those who continued to speak of him as the cynosure of creation were ridiculed as illogical, but it seems to me that the illogic is mainly on the other side.
About the middle of the last century the second wave of depreciation came through the influence of Darwin’s theory of the descent of man. The effect of this was to place man squarely in the animal kingdom. For the evolutionists stressed not man’s distinctness, but his similarity to other animals. They traced his origin back hundreds of millions of years to the primeval slime, and although they acknowledged distinctive development through specialization, they taught that he was a member of the anthropoid tribe – “an ape reft of his tail and grown rusty at climbing,” as James Branch Cabell wittily phrased it. They emphasized, moreover, that man had developed through the same pressures as the other animals and that the law of survival of the biologically fittest applied to him no less than to the denizens of field and forest. A few left room for the supposition that at some point a divine spark might have entered into his composition, but their main story was of the progressive evolution of man out of a simpler and more primitive type of animal.
Man had already been deprived, as we have just seen, of his central position in the universe; now he lost hope that he was a unique kind of creation, on however small and insignificant a planet. The image he entertained of himself had to be narrowed down further. He was one of the animals and he could not be expected to behave differently from them – indeed, to behave differently might be to risk survival. If the story of man was but the story of an animal, was it really deserving of the sublime treatment it had been given in religion and literature? Many inferences adverse to social morality and even culture could be drawn. Some encouragement, it was suggested, might be found in the realization that man was now on his own and could fashion his future himself, although theories of determinism were to arise and undermine the latter supposition. Maybe the new enlightenment should have made him feel more responsible but it actually made him feel less so. More than likely what this revelation inspires in the average consciousness is the thought, “Well, if we are animals, let’s be real ones.”
I recognize that any layman’s criticism of the theory of evolution will appear to most people today as reckless. The amount of study given the theory has been so extensive, the alleged proofs are from so many sources and are so massive in appearance, and the evolutionists have so much “liberal” opinion on their side that the average person who is still reluctant to accept its implications feels that he may as well shrug in hopelessness and say, “I surrender.” Indeed the layman must not presume to question the facts assembled by qualified scientists (although what constitutes a fact is sometimes debatable). Nevertheless, we need to look at the matter from greater perspective and remember that no science exists purely in the form of a collection of facts. The sciences are these facts plus structures of reasoning that are built upon them. The facts we are bound to receive if they come from sources that have been given satisfactory evidence of their objectivity. But the reasoning that is done upon the basis of them is open to the inquiry of every man who has a rational faculty. Even in religious matters a certain amount of rational apprehension on the part of the communicant is indispensable – the meanings of certain propositions he is expected to understand and the meanings of imperatives he is supposed to carry out. It is certainly not less so with science: if men are to be convinced that they are simply the products of evolution, the convincing must be done in accordance with the necessary laws of thought. This is merely saying that the layman has the right to ask about the connection between the factual evidence and the conclusion when that connection is not apparent to him. He has the right to ask philosophical questions about the way the facts have been handled and even about whether all of the relevant facts have been taken into consideration.
On the permissibility of doing this, I wish to cite a distinguished biologist, Professor Edmund W. Sinnott of Yale, who has written the following:
. . . if the idealist will admit that life is his final problem and will halt his retreat to heights where the scientist is unable to follow him, he can successfully do battle at the level of biology itself and on its terms. Here he has the opportunity not only to defend himself but at last to counterattack the position of his adversary. In this combat let both opponents employ every scientific and dialectical force at their command to solve life’s riddle, and agree to abide by the result. In that day when the verdict is finally rendered there will doubtless be surprises for both in store.
Although I cannot hold Professor Sinnott responsible for inviting what I am going to say, I draw attention to his statement that the dialectical approach may have something to contribute to the final solution.
With this as prologue I list a few objections which seem to me to leave the evolutionary hypothesis somewhat less than overwhelmingly convincing.
First and most generally, the theory of evolution can be viewed as a form of the question-begging fallacy. It demands an initial acceptance of the doctrine of naturalism before any explanation is offered. Specifically, when the biologist is faced with the fact of the enormous differentiation and specialization in nature, he says that these were caused by the proximate method which nature would use, assuming that nature is the only creative force that exists. For example, it is admitted by biologists that complete empirical data for the descent of man from the lower animals is missing. The problem then becomes how to fit him into a scheme where nothing is allowed to appear except through natural causation. Thus it is reasoned that if man possesses the largest brain found in nature, it is because it must have been utilitarian for him to develop a large brain. But how can this be proved except by reference to the a priori postulate that nothing develops except through organic need? Again and again in the literature of evolution one find that things are viewed as “necessary” because they come from this assumed natural cause rather than as proved because they come from a known cause. In other words the fact that things have come into being is used as evidence that nature must have used the evolutionary process to bring them into being. I submit that this reasoning does not prove evolution a fact: it rather assumes that evolution is a fact and then uses as both cause and effect in describing the phenomena of nature. It is an ascertained truth that species do undergo change. But it is not in the spirit of free inquiry to hold the cause of that change down to a response between the organism and his environment in the interest of life. Here is where the theory slips and the questionable premise we have mentioned.
Even this account, however, is not without difficulties for the biologists. The pressure of environment alone seems not to explain the adaptation of organisms. There remains the task of accounting for the enormous variety of living things. How could simple environmental influence have called forth the giraffe, the centipede, the butterfly, the orchid, the sunflower? For this phase of the explanation the biologists bring in the theory of mutation. Mutations are chemical alterations in the genes which produce genetic variance which may permit a species to make a favorable adaptation to an environment. But two things at least seem to leave the theory of mutation wrapped in mystery. First, the scientists admit that they do not know how they occur. Second, species are found to contain mutants which are not related to their present needs for adaptation. In other words, mutation may occur (and in the timetable of evolution “long” may mean a very long while) before there is any need for them to insure the survival of the species. What this suggests is a kind of preadaptation, with the species being armed far in advance for some crisis it will meet in the future. The scientific explanation of this is that it is nature’s method to throw out ever knew possibilities, to provide a vast proliferation at the cost of staggering waste in the form of mutants which are not needed and species which do not make the grade in adjustment. Yet this seems to leave the whole matter inscrutable. It is not accurate, for example, to say that an environment of a certain kind will force a species to develop protective coloring, because some members will and some will not. Change is not, then, a simple predictable response of an organism to surroundings. We must now rely upon nature’s illimitable fertility in preadaptation to explain how some things get through. It was “provided” that the way should be left for some things to survive. But this is the kind of providence that might suggest to our total awareness an inscrutable purpose.
At the very least, the invoking of mutation disposes of mechanical causation and leaves the biologist to bridge the gap with some concept of emergence. The idea of an emergent is itself a concealed assumption, since it involves a place where the causal link is not known but is supposed to exist anyhow. The empirical data are neither complete nor rigorous enough to exclude the possibility of some kind of intervention or preintervention.
Moreover the theory of natural selection is not without its problems. One of the most puzzling of these concerns is the early stage of an adapted organ. It is easy enough to perceive the usefulness of an organ like the fully developed wing or eye. But of what use was this when it first began to develop, when it was rudimentary, and perhaps microscopically small? Could its usefulness then have been decisive enough to make the difference between survival and extinction? Given the broad nature of the forces that living organisms are up against, would these early tiny modifications spell the difference between life and death? The evolutionists answer this by emphasizing the slowness of evolution. Only let the period be long enough, they say, and these improbabilities will issue in present actualities. On one occasion Darwin himself was queried regarding this objection. He returned the answer that such a process of development might be inconceivable to the imagination, but it is not so to the reason. Yet I am left wondering whether this is an effective answer. It is perhaps conceivable to the reason if we accept certain lines of causality and exclude others and adjust the time interval accordingly. But imagination may have something to introduce which would make the development less dependent on time and infinitesimal change.
When we turn to the special subject of the evolution of man, other difficulties manifest themselves. The most insuperable of these is the mystery of the origin of language. Students approaching this through the route of anthropology have about given up the problem as hopeless. The best attempts to explain the origin of speech naturalistically rest upon feeble analogies. There is no anthropological or naturalistic account which is any more convincing than the mythological one that speech was a gift to man. What we do know is that language is specifically human in occurrence, that is, it is a specifically human endowment. Animals communicate among themselves by signs but a sign is a different thing from a verbal symbol. A sign is something imitative of or closely connected with what it indicates, as may be seen when we use the hand to beckon or the finger to point.
What we more than suspect is that all language is metaphorical in its origin, and the use of metaphor is distinctively intellectual and non-naturalistic, because metaphor disengages the word from the thing. At the same time it sets up a new level of meaning which relates the word to the thing and to something else. Here emerges the wider consciousness of meaning and the whole rich storehouse of transferred significations. A metaphor implies the world of symbolism, which is a world of transcendence over the merely natural. We cannot say whether man came into possession of this world gradually or suddenly or whether he had full access to it from his “creation,” because the history of this attainment is veiled from us. But it is a datum which has to be accounted for. The most one can do now is fall back upon the idea of emergence that supposes there was a cause which somehow induced man to make the kind of effort that issues in language. But again one feels that he is being asked to make concessions to preserve the integrity of a theory. It seems better to say that we are here confronted with a mystery which makes man, if not a special creation as the religionists have said, at least the possessor of very special capacities.
In net estimate the theory of organic evolution as applied to man is a partial philosophy of man’s place in the universe. It has evidently been promulgated with a strong anterior desire to submit man to nature. Yet there have been in the past more comprehensive philosophic views which visualized man in nature without leaving him blindly immersed in it or subject only to a single cause. When Immanuel Kant was a young man, he accepted in his The General Theory of Nature and Theory of the Heavens a thoroughgoing mechanism in the realm of all nature; but much later, when he came to write his The Teleological Faculty of Judgment, he took a more conservative view. In the latter he found it necessary to invoke teleology for the organic realm. Kant was willing to concede the development of species out of one common original parent, but he could not accept the idea of blind purpose: “. . . the archeologist of nature. . .must for this end ascribe to the common mother, an organization ordained purposely with a view to the needs of all her offspring; otherwise the possibility of suitability of form in the products of the animal and vegetable kingdoms cannot be conceived at all.” Long before this Aristotle had held that each form in nature had a formal cause, “an inner perfecting tendency,” which worked to preserve the unity of type. This theory, says Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn, left Aristotle halfway between physics and metaphysics. I suggest that this is where the idealist, believing in the specialty of the human being, while embracing all the knowledge of man and of nature which has accumulated since that time, will choose to stand. The formulations above are not offered as final. The need now is for some genius of thought who will bring all these concepts together and show how that unique condition of entropy which is man owes its existence to something more than a blind swirl of protoplasm. The final solution must accommodate the ideas lying behind our feeling that the appearance of man on earth was a destined miracle.
I have tried to sketch some grounds on which the student of man may enter a demurrer without losing entirely his intellectual responsibility. Yet we must recognize that the notoriety, if not the reasoning, of the evolutionists’ case has caused it to be very widely accepted that man is one of the animals, with like origin, like behavior, and like extinction. This has effected a second major change in man’s evaluation of himself, and in doing so it has further decreased his availability for roles that require transcendental significance. We hear smooth words to the effect that there is no real conflict between science and religion or between science and literature. There is no real conflict when one side gives up. The question still at issue is whether the facts and the logic dictate so complete a surrender as has been urged on one party.
Once the aggressions of science had man comfortably ensconced in nature in this manner, the next step is at hand. This was to immerse him entirely in material causality. If his being and shape were due to natural laws, which could be studied as phenomena, why not account for the whole of him, including his famous freewill, in the same way? In this fashion materialistic determinism followed hard upon Darwinism. Scientific study had shown the law of causality operating in areas where previously miracles and mysteries were thought to occur, and this was a mandate for science to continue its study until the last phenomenon had been explained in an equally scientific way. The law of physical causality was therefore posited as general, and it was assumed that these phases of human conduct which are now unexplainable are so because there has not been sufficient investigation to determine all the factors. When science has attained its goal, it will be possible, so the supposition has gone, to predict the behavior of the individual human being or of the political group to which he belongs, in the same way as it is possible to predict that rabbits will eat lettuce.
This bold claim encounters serious objections when submitted to the laws of evidence. The verdict “Not Proven” must be entered unless it can be shown either that man has no such thing as a spirit, being a material automaton only; or that if he does have a spirit, it is not merely influenced but is completed dominated by the material factors making up his body. Now the “proof” that man does not have a spirit cannot be said to rest on anything more than asseveration. It is the consensus of the great body of mankind – civilized, semicivilized, and uncivilized – that he does not have. The feeling rests upon a kind of immediate apprehension that there is something more to man than the body he carries around. It is connected with the feeling most of us experience that the body and the spirit do sometimes conflict. The body has some relation with the spirit; it provides it with a home during this phase of its existence and charges it room and board, as Eliseo Vivas has put it. But there are times when the spirit seems to rise up in its God-given sovereignty and tell the body to go to. There is more empirical evidence for this belief than for the contrary one. All that those who urge this materialism have, is a series of deductions from “laws” which are not themselves unassailable. If the universe is such and such, and if man is such and such, then he does not have one. But this proof looks thin compared with the assurance given by our consciousness. Increasingly the scientists are asking us to believe things that are contrary to the witness of our senses, and what is possibly more serious, contrary to the testimony of our intuitions. It is now with reference to their teachings that the poor layman has to say, “I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.”
Recently, however, those who argue that man is not free because he is part of the universe of matter have met difficulties on more scientific ground. For example, a good many social scientists have supposed that the statistical method would give us the key to human behavior. Only let enough data be collected, and let the data be run through computing machines, and have on hand a staff of scientists to draw the conclusions, and the random elements in human conduct would no longer trouble us. The collective and analyzed data would tell us for certain whether a designated individual would become a leading citizen in the community, or would turn criminal, or would commit suicide, or would develop an “authoritarian” personality, or whatever else. These expectations have proved wrong. The most that this kind of counting and analysis can establish is a statistical probability regarding the group as a whole. That is to say, we may arrive at a statistical probability that a certain number of persons out of one million will commit suicide in the course of a year. Yet this gives us no basis for predicting that one John Smith, living at a certain address, will be a suicide. There is no way of prefiguring his response to his environment by reference to such averages.
Finally, it is now being suspected by the physicists—the advance guard of modern science—that the behavior of matter is itself finally unpredictable. It is even suggested that indeterminacy may be an ultimate characteristic of matter. This seems a break of crucial importance in front of rigid physical and mechanical causation. If the new theory is true, it forestalls the effort of those who have been trying to drive man into a trap by progressively reducing him to physical bases. For if the ultimate constituents of matter are unpredictable in their behavior, where along the line is one going to establish the principle of determinacy? And of course if man is something more than matter, then the argument against determinacy for him becomes a fortiori.
We have now noted how man has been cut down in his own sight in three ways. He has been told of his cosmic insignificance; he has been informed that he must class himself as an animal, and he has been left in doubt as to whether he is a free agent. These assertions, made with increasing boldness over the present span of time, have rather percolated the public minds and have produced an attitude forbidding to his religious and poetic representation. That they have had a baneful influence upon culture can be shown, I think, by appealing to the broad history of literature, which I choose as one of the most various and complete expressions of man’s spirit.
What I shall relate is not so much a story of progressive degeneration as it is a story of successive retreats before the growing “scientific” image of man. It is a noteworthy fact that high tragedy began to disappear from the literature of our Western culture at the end of the seventeenth century, which was the very time that science first staked out its great claims. These claims seem to have undermined rather suddenly the kind of vision that leads the gifted creator to produce great pictures of man’s tragic situation. In order to appreciate a tragic representation, one has to believe first of all that man is important—to himself and to whatever transcendental powers may be. One has to believe also that he has a freedom of moral choice curiously related to fatal ignorance. This means that while gaining insights into reality, one has to reconcile oneself to the ultimate complexity and mysteriousness of this life. Such ideas are not compatible with the dogma of infinite progress or the belief that man’s dominion is potentially unlimited. Tragedy presents a universe still unknowable when it depicts man as incapable of learning enough in time to insure his happiness. Science as the growing unraveler of mystery promised to end this situation, and its growing influence seems thus related to the decline of tragedy.
Man had still enough human ground to stand on for satire, however, and the following century was the great age of satire. This may be understood as the first defensive position after tragedy has been yielded up. Satire is highly human just because it is critical. By the nature of his art, the satirist maintains a position of superiority to his subjects. From this position he wields a lash upon man for his follies and aberrations. In satire description is not validation; description is condemnation, and the satirist is judge. This cannot fail to mean that the satirist envisages a proper role and destiny for man. He sees man as human in the sense of bearing obligations, and his real subject is human delinquency. Satire does not indeed contain the dianoia of tragedy, but it does recognize good and evil and the principle of responsibility. It focuses upon man in a world of values, and it requires an espousal of values by an audience to appreciate the literature of satire. By the eighteenth century, people had been forced out of one position, but they had enough room left to make possible a great satirical literature. The difference between Shakespeare on the one hand, and Swift and Pope is wide, but Swift and Pope present a literary treatment of man.
By the nineteenth century the awareness of science was much greater, and satire, with its human evaluation, disappeared. This is, of course, a mixed period, which offers obstacles to generalization. One outstanding development, however, was the flowering of the novel. The novel is the loosest of literary forms, and perhaps this is a sign that the age was trying to do something, if only partly consciously, about the restrictions that were crowding in. Perhaps it was an attempt to say that if man cannot have tragic grandeur or moral status, he can at least have history. Novels are in a way histories of their characters, and some have been entitled histories. One notes at the same time a rather steady turning towards realism and naturalism—that is, to the depiction of man as he is outwardly and visibly, and to man as a creature of circumstance, which is a parallel to the scientific treatment of him. With a few outstanding exceptions, the belief that the critical field of battle is the moral consciousness fades out.
The twentieth century is so near at hand and so variegated that it is perhaps even more difficult to generalize about. There is some indication that the novel has reached a dead end and is ceasing to be a vital literary form. While large numbers continue to be published, they are increasingly chronicles of the abnormal, the aberrant, and even the criminal; they present their characters as products of material psychological conditioning, with narrow horizons of consciousness. When writers like William Faulkner and Robert Penn Warren do present in fiction the human dilemma, their works are often not read for what they are. The public, and in many cases the critics, seize upon some incidental aspect of them and interpret this as reflecting “today’s thinking.” The pressure against reporting the whole man in a moral situation has indeed not silenced such writers, but it has left them widely misunderstood.
It is true that nondramatic poetry has had a brilliant revival, although there is ground for fearing that this depends too much upon psychological intensity and experimental daring. Literary criticism has attained a volume and developed an intensity beyond anything seen before. This too is a brilliant achievement, but it has been suggested by more than one thoughtful source that such preoccupation with criticism is a sign of exhaustion of the creative impulse. Criticism is the looking over and the assessment of what has been done in creative hours, which are hours of warm blood and of feeling. Is this criticism an attempt to save literature by proving explicitly what literature itself ought to be left to show implicitly? Many persons are unhappy over the critical predominance, and few seem to feel that is a prelude to a renascence of that wonder out of which literature as well as philosophy has always sprung.
These are a few of the empirical evidences that the erroneously adduced scientific image of man is steadily taking away the room in which literature has flourished. I admit that it is difficult to prove a conclusion by these means, because pieces of empirical evidence look different and carry different weight in the eyes of different observers. In any case, they cannot be estimated without reference to underlying principles. Let us therefore go back to the essentials of the problem and ask what literature could do with the new man which the scientists and their attachés are ushering upon the stage.
All literature depends upon the belief that part of man, or man in his essential definition, is unconditioned; and in consequence, the end of literature is portended when the contrary idea that man is wholly conditioned, takes hold. When we think about the nature of tragedy, we recognize that every tragic story is about a being who potentially is, and actually should be, discerning and free, but who gets entangled in something which “conditions” him to the extent of obscuring his discernment and ending his freedom. The tragic struggle itself is between this spiritual and unconditioned man and the forces that conspire against that conditionless state. The man comes upon the scene free, happy, and confident, enjoying a career of prosperity. He enters into a situation where, in comparison with his previous ones, he is ignorant. This is where his ignorance, or a bent of character which obscures his judgment, begins preponderate and set him on the downward path. The tragic flaw is always this susceptibility to losing one’s freedom of choice where right choice is necessary to salvation. Our response to the tragic depends upon a belief that some men become in this sense conditioned and others do not. But in the world of the scientific outlook which we have just surveyed, all men are equally conditioned and hence all careers are equally tragic or untragic. Now if in spite of this we believe in the reality of tragedy, we value the literary expression of it because that teaches us to beware of—or, as some would be content with saying, apprises us of—the danger of that kind of conditioning. The whole tragedy is thus seen to be antiscientific. Tragedy is a lament that man should ever lose his unconditional freedom to cope with circumstances.
A similar set of factors explains comedy, for the comic character is conditioned or imprisoned although with less painful with less painful results. We see him as a man like ourselves, made to be free but in a situation in which he is not free. He may be dominated by some weakness, as in the old comedy of humors, or, as in some of the modern sadistic cartoons, he may be tossed and blown about by forces too great for him to withstand. He may be a character who is accustomed to one milieu, where he moves freely; but now he is in a different one, and everything he does is awkward because he does not understand. This is why Henri Birgson maintains in his treatise on the comic that comic effect always involves the temporary suspension of the individual’s free will. If the dignified man in the top hat steps on a banana peel and slips to the ground, we laugh, because we know that is the very thing he would not do if he had full command of himself. For a few brief seconds he has been wholly at the disposition of physical forces. That is the condition the true man is never found in, and hence our feeling that it is comical. But it would not be comical if we did not have in mind the contrast between mane as a free agent and the funny man who is the antithesis of this idea. Yet no strict materialist could laugh at the spectacle of the dignified gentleman slipping to the ground. According to his system, this is the one condition in which men are always and invariably; they are being pushed, pulled, or thrown around by the larger world of which they are a part. Their roles in the action are not responses but reactions, in the physical sense of that term. If human consciousness and will do not enter into the series of causes, there is nothing to sympathize with or to laugh at; there is only the passage of impulse from one thing to another. All effort to dignify man requires that we see him as experiencing something more than eventualities.
Thus the existence of literature depends on our willingness to take a serious view of man. In his Language as Gesture, R. P. Blackmur has written that “it takes a strong and active prejudice to see facts at all,” and to this he adds that “the sensibility must have a pretty firm anterior conviction about the nature of poetry in order to wake up to a given body of poetry at all.” Broadening this somewhat, I would say that it takes a strong and original feeling about man to see some of the things he does and is capable of doing. Without this original prejudice, which I employ here in the sense of a conception, one cannot regard man as worthy of the literary kind of depiction.
No person in the practice of living really thinks of himself as a simple aggregate of the calcium, iron, phosphorous, and other elements to which he is reducible chemically. He thinks of himself as a creation consisting of more than the sum of all of these and as a being having the power of self-conduct. This is the kind of image that traditional man, out of his intuitions and human preferences, constructed of himself. He felt that just as there was a special danger, so there was a special glory in his being “chosen.” For he was “not of the common kind,” the common kind being the nonrational and nonspiritual forms of life. With such a representation before him, he could look to Sophocles, Dante, and Shakespeare for his justification.
There never occurred to the pre-science ancients, to make the point clearer, a doubt that the proper study of mankind is man. That it is, is the premise of all classical literature, and this is the fountain from which the great tradition of humanism flows down to our time. Always the subject of classical literature was the human being, what he was doing in the world, and what his responsibility was when his eyes were lifted up to the horizon. Underlying any such premise is a feeling which can be identified only with affection. No one writes creatively and continuously about something which he dislikes. It has been justly observed that creative artists love even their villains. To write about man in the literary way is certainly not to prove that “one loves one’s fellow man” in the sentimental and banal sense, but that one does separate him out from other beings and regards his destiny as something no member of human kind should be indifferent to. Neither is it to affirm that man is “good” in the sentimental and romantic sense. Rather, it is to affirm that man is a critical problem. “The glory, jest, and riddle of the world,” a great poet has termed him.
Now while man has many times claimed goodness arising from a divine connection and while he is given to erecting codes of ethics, he has committed the most abominable crimes and has visited every kind of suffering upon his fellows for an infinite variety of alleged reasons. He is passionate and unstable, so that very little is required to set him on the warpath, even against his kith and kin. Most fearful of all to contemplate is his great power of self-deception. He often does things for reasons that are obscure to him, and undoubtedly many a person has led an entire life in ignorance of the mainspring of his own actions.
These things being so, nothing could be more proper to man than the study of himself, and it is important that this should be the deepest, freest, and most imaginative that the most gifted individuals are capable of making. It should be a continuing, earnest examination of human life, with all its moods, impulses, choices of means, failures and successes, miseries and happinesses shown in concrete representation. The indispensable requirement, both for the creation and the enjoyment of literature thus conceived, is a receptivity to the real image of man. The practical problem is how to restore that receptivity in the face of a barbarism nourished by the scientistic fallacies discussed earlier.
A simple illustration may make this clearer. Every teacher of experience knows that there is a type of student who resents the very idea of studying literature. This student hangs back or is even defiant because he senses that the study of literature demands a certain kind of intellectual and emotional response. We might say that it demands a sign of consent, almost like some religious sacraments. It requires of every man that he suppress at least part of his native barbarism and enter into rapport with the realm of value. The easier and more natural thing for him to do is to regard the work of literature with mingled contempt and truculence. For literature, at the same time it pleases those who accept it, imposes obligations; one does not entire into it and leave scot-free. In that important respect literature is further comparable to religion; it is not supposed to make us merely comfortable. This the wary barbarian (even in the form of the reluctant student) senses, and he may decide to persist in an obdurate barbarism. It is part of the barbarian’s self-protection to reject cultivation. He may repel all influences that would mollify the attitude that keeps him narrow and destructive. Putting this is a figurative way, one might assert that men are not ready for literature until they have been “Christianized.” By this I refer to the establishment of that “prejudice” Blackmur speaks of in Language as Gesture. They must give initial assent to certain propositions about man and the world. In no age are all men equally ready to give this assent, and in our age there are new active forces to persuade them against giving it. The barbarian’s picture of the world is founded upon simple adulation of force, direct ways of satisfying appetite, and generally the absence of any idea about human destiny. (Of course not all peoples who have been called barbarians fit this description.) When the barbarian is asked to respect things which rebuke, refine, and control these ideas, he is being asked to change his way of life. Hence the problem of conversion arises, which in the modern setting will have to be away from the idealization of physical comfort, from the view of life as the mere play of physical matter, and from the shortcutting of those processes around which cultured man weaves patterns of significance. It must be a conversion to an awareness of the ethical and religious drama of every moment.
The last observation introduces a final phase of the problem. If we should agree that literature is now beset with forces which mean its eventual extinction, are we faced with loss of an irreparable kind? I feel that an affirmative answer to this has already been given in substance, but let me summarize here my reasons for saying that literature cannot be spared if culture of the highest form is to endure. Literature is the keystone of the arch of culture. Not only is it the most various, searching, and “complete” of the forms, but it is the form in which an intellectual culture stores the ideas from which a society derives its rhetoric of cohesion and impulsion. If this goes, we cannot be sure how much else will be allowed to remain, and the degeneration of culture is the road back to brutishness.
It should be more widely appreciated that culture is an intermediary between man and his highest vocation, which in some form or other is a matter of the spirit. But it is not the nature of the mass of men to be spiritual at every moment in the saint’s way. Part of their devoir they can pay through due observance of and due tribute to the forms of their culture. Theses, in their various manifestations, are daily reminders that men are something more than eating, defecating, and mating animals. There is always in cultural observance a little gesture of piety, a recognition that there are higher demands on man along with the lower. While culture is not a worship and should not be made a worship, it is a kind of orientating of the mind toward a mood, a reverence for the spirit on secular occasions. Then there is the further consideration that a culture is a protection against the fanaticism both of the political and the religious kinds. If there is nothing but a vacancy between men and their political or religious ideal, the response to this may be without the rationality and grace of measure. But if these ideals are expressed in a thousand kindly and attractive forms in the creations of a culture, mere fierceness is mollified and the manner and approach are made right. Thus art and manners are seen to have a relation to politics and religion, not teaching them in any simple or direct sense, but providing a bridge by which one is helped to pass from one kind of cognition to another. This is the highest reason of all for desiring to preserve the basis of our culture, which we have now seen to be threatened by pseudoscientific images of man.