Skip to main content

Between the Spur and the Bridle

ISSUE:  Spring 1969

My theme is one of revolution, inspired not merely by the vast changes that have so radically altered the condition of man within our lifetime or by the recent phenomenon of militant intellectuals engaged in revolt on all of the continents, but also by the goals to which you are dedicated. Scholars and scholarly publishers are by nature revolutionaries. Their daily task, indeed their duty, is to demolish those dangerous monarchs, ignorance and error, and to enthrone in their place reason and truth as the legitimate sovereigns. Such treason of the intellectuals has a long and noble history in our western civilization. This, in fact, is what unites men of learning and the publishers of men of learning in a sodality transcending national and other artificial barriers. It is a tradition bright with the names of many shining heroes.

One of them was Pierre Bayle, a forerunner of Voltaire whose “Dictionnaire historique et critique,” published in 1697 in two great folios, caused the reigning clerical and secular monarchs to tremble on their thrones both in anger and in fear. This mighty barrage of fact and reason, in the words of one writer, brought all of “the plaster saints of scholasticism to grief.” It was of course denounced by the orthodox as obscene, as atheistic, and as subversive of all law and morality. It was immediately banned in France and Holland—and of course became one of the most popular works in Bayle’s native country. But to the young intellectuals of the day, nourished on the yeasty ideas of the seventeenth century, it was a clarion call to battle. We recognize it today as one of the seminal influences in the development of the modern spirit of rational inquiry.

Among the rebellious intellectuals who embraced Bayle with lasting devotion was a young man of twenty who had just earned his doctorate in philosophy at the University of Leipzig, where his father was professor of ethics and where, after a brief fling at jurisprudence and theology, he himself became a lifelong exponent of Bayle’s realistic approach to the writing and teaching of history. This young man, born to intellectual and material riches, was described as “thoroughly learned, and yet a relentless foe of pedantry.” He was also something of an academic politician and so rose to the office of Vice Chancellor. On one occasion in a congenial company a colleague of his held forth on the evidences of human frailty existing even within the world of scholarship. Even there, declared the speaker, fraud and pretense were sometimes to be found, as well as much so-called learning that was quite empty of significance. The whole subject, this unknown skeptic argued more than two and a half centuries ago, was one that clamored for scholarly investigation.

The suggestion was heartily embraced by the Vice Chancellor. It was his duty to deliver the lecture at the awarding of masters’ degrees and perhaps his canvassing of titles of dissertations and his being obliged at times to endure long hours of doctoral disputations caused him to be unusually receptive to the idea. At any rate he seized upon it with an eagerness that hints at the presence of some motive more potent than the mere desire to engage in disinterested inquiry. Such was his zeal and such the quantity of materials he was able to amass that a single lecture would not suffice and so he devoted two to the theme. Nor was that all. When the lectures came to be published in 1714 as “De charlataneria eruditorum,” the little volume elicited the enthusiastic aid of colleagues and former students to such an extent that in the next edition this treatise on the folly of the learned was doubled in bulk. And so, during the eighteenth century, it ran from translation to translation and from edition to edition, gathering fresh examples of academic pedantry and pretense as it went.

Among the characteristics of some scholars at which the author pointed a derisive finger was the attempt to gain public attention by “their beards, their stern countenances, and their filthy clothes.” Some of these earnest scholars, he declared, even affected “a soiled cloak, an old sooty doublet, and hose hanging below the knees, simply to make people believe that they think of nothing but their studies.” Others sought to impress the unwary by the sheer mass of their writings, hoping to let no year, or better still, no month pass without “something new from their exceedingly fruitful minds.” They were also much troubled to “see the children of their minds…ignored in the literary journals or not honored with sufficient eulogies or more urgently recommended to the reading public.” Yet they hurried themselves from one work to another, though no one pressed them, and “in bringing forth their blind whelps brag only that they were born without pain.” Surely, the author quoted a learned gentleman as saying, “we are living in a prolific century, when ‘Eunuchs beget, and mules have offspring.’” The author of this diatribe against academic emptiness was Johann Burkhard Mencken, collateral ancestor of Henry Louis Mencken, whose amiable iconoclasms delighted young intellectuals of the 1920’s much as Pierre Bayle had done in the 1690’s. Our Mencken, a man of learning and a friend of learned men though not a product of the universities, hurled bolt after bolt at the then reigning academic gods. He believed no democratic delusion to be more fatuous than that which holds that all men are capable of reason, and hence susceptible to conversion by evidence. To this savage indictment he made no exception for any who happened to hold a doctorate or to occupy an august chair in a university. On the contrary, he appears to have made such men his special target because they above all others were duty bound to develop the critical faculties and to bring everything to the test of reason. Among a multitude of other proofs of academic credulity, he could cite his own history of the bathtub, a sardonic jeu d’esprit whose facts were all fabricated in his own fertile imagination.

This famous essay in historical spoofing was indeed written to demonstrate the natural disposition of human beings, including academics, to believe what they wish to believe. Despite Mencken’s reiterated disclosure of the truth, these so-called facts were promptly accepted as valid by one authority, then borrowed from him by another, and in turn appropriated by still others, thus in the immemorial process of learned corruption finding their way into textbooks, encyclopedias, and, for all I know, into some of the impeccable works of scholarship that bear your imprints. The literature of the sciences and the humanities—perhaps even of the social sciences—is full of such salutary snares for the unwary, some of them brilliantly concocted by scholars themselves and even, it is rumored, by scholarly publishers.

But Mencken, as a friend of true learning, could have taken only grim satisfaction from this additional confirmation of his belief that history was destined to be written by third-rate men. His ancestor must have felt the same. “I am a friend to sound scholarship,” the earlier Mencken declared, “I profess to be a historian, I have loved poetry from childhood, and I respect ingenious mathematicians, skillful physicians, wise lawyers, theologians of piety and knowledge, and all other men who give their lives to the humanities.” It was because they revered learning so much that both Menckens held up to ridicule and scorn those who seemed to them to be profaning its inner sanctuary.

From our vantage point in history, both members of this distinguished family of German scholars and jurists seem to have been unduly exercised over the flaws they detected in the edifice of learning. The follies and affectations at which the first Mencken railed now seem trivial and superficial. We cannot see the studied mannerisms or smell the offensive garments, but remember only the learning of Pierre Bayle, of Robert Boyle, of Gottfried Leibnitz, of Samuel Pufendorf, and of others of Mencken’s learned friends whose devotion to rational inquiry affected the course of history so profoundly that we can still observe the revolutionary consequences of their lives. The targets of the second Mencken also seem puny by comparison with those that are all too visible and audible on our academic horizons. For the later Mencken loosed his arrows at such eminently respectable princes and potentates of learning as Thorstein Veblen, Paul Elmer More, William Lyon Phelps, and Nicholas Murray Butler, who, whatever else might be said of them, possessed among them not a single beard or old sooty doublet or hose hanging below the knees. The first Mencken ridiculed those scholars who disdained respectability, the second those who embraced it, and both had need of objects more worthy of their steel.

We could supply such objects in ample quantity. For today there are giants in the land, self-anointed messiahs of academia whose pretensions clamor to be challenged if not investigated. More than nine thousand of them, to take an example at random, recently published in three costly pages of The New York Times a simplistic and far from persuasive pronouncement on very complex issues in foreign policy and constitutional law, their names occupying more than ten times the space devoted to their message and thus allowing the unflattering inference that the signers considered the utterance less important than the source. Proceeding from a very dubious legal premise, they identified opposition to oppressive authority—that is, authority legitimately maintained by democratic process—with the finest traditions of our fundamental law. They then indicted this oppressive authority for initiating legal proceedings against those they were seeking to help, one of the principals of whom had declared the government would be “derelict in duty” if it did not institute such proceedings. More than three hundred other professors signed a manifesto entitled “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” and among its signers was the one who had made this declaration about the unavoidable duty of government. The mind reels under the impact of such circular logic, but the rebellious students, at once captive and captor, are following the messiahs, and nowhere in all the four quarters of the republic is there a Mencken to awaken their disbelief.

We sorely need one. For the folly, nonsense, and sheer irrationality now being articulated on a massive scale in the world of learning would put to the test even Mencken’s immense gift for satirization. Some of the propositions offered for our acceptance are indeed such staggering affronts to reason that those scholars who keep themselves informed about the militant intellectuals and whose sense and judgment we respect advise us not to listen to the revolutionary rhetoric but to try to understand what the speakers are trying to say. This is scarcely helpful. A primary tenet of the community dedicated to rational discourse is that a member of it should first of all understand his own propositions or, by inference, hold his peace. A second is that he is expected to stand accountable to his peers for such utterances as he may express as a scholar. Another is that his pronouncements will be accepted only when supported by rationalproofs and that they will be discarded when countervailing proofs are brought to bear against them.

The mythical fabulist Aesop observed more than two thousand years ago in the fable of the Forester and the Lion the natural human tendency for each to rely upon his own set of facts and to discount those of others who dispute them. But disputation in the world of learning, which is the vibrating essence of its life and purpose, aims to disavow and restrain this essentially selfish tendency. Such a disavowal depends not alone upon empirical tests. There is also implicit in it the need for developing a climate of civility in which reason can flourish. One of the proudest achievements of the community of scholars is that, over the centuries, there has come to be developed such an understanding among intellectuals-rarely if ever defined but always assumed as a pre­ condition of rational discussion. Among the qualities requisite for developing such a climate are tolerance, generosity, moral courage, justice, decency, and respect for reason. Among those qualities that pollute the environment, stultify the life of the mind, and cause reason itself to gasp for air are envy, arrogance, intolerance, suspicion, selfishness, and hatred.

We do not need such a morbidly fascinating work as Watson’s “The Double Helix” to know that some of these less admirable human qualities are to be found in the arcane reaches of science as well as among the humanities. But we recognize them as hostile to the climate of civility and as making war on some of the fundamental assumptions on which the community of scholars rests. Nowhere in the world of learning is this better understood or more scrupulously regarded than in that part of it devoted to scholarly publication. There, whether read or not, the right of a work of scholarship to exist is respected. While fads and fashions of criticism and centers of scholarly influence may sometimes give it less or more than it deserves, it will in general have a fair field. We are thus justified in believing that, over the years, a work of true merit will survive and the rational mind that produced it will find its reward. No audience of uncivil manners or authoritarian behavior, whether academic or other, can ever shout it into silence or keep it from being heard.

Yet there is a world of difference between that revolutionary mob in eighteenth-century Boston which ransacked the home of Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson and flung his books and papers into the muddy street and that other mob in our own day which destroyed the notes and manuscripts of a professor who had been engaged for years on a serious work of scholarship. Both were acts of violence, both a violation of the rights of others, both a triumph of passion over reason. But the first was a spark thrown off in a revolution whose ultimate aims were congenial with those of the community of scholars, the other a blind and outrageous profanation of all that such a community professes. When such an act can take place in a great university, the overt and subtle influences of the corruption in the climate of civility of which it is symptomatic can scarcely be unfelt anywhere in the home of learning. Even among you who defend the integrity of your imprints with your honor, the subtle and not so subtle consequences of the desire of some to reorder society and to remedy ancient wrongs on the instant can be seen.

History, of course, provides one of the most obvious and easily abused instruments for such political purposes and the danger of its abuse in emotional reappraisals of the role of radicals and minorities is so obviously present and so well known to you that I need not labor the point. Erik Erikson has said that his own field of learning involves a methodology of “disciplined subjectivity,” an apt phrase that is applicable also to the humanities and the social sciences. But many of our political and sociological historians have frankly discarded the adjective and embraced subjectivity for its own sweet sake. Eschewing pedantry and neutralism alike, they equate their social consciousness with the humane idealism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and insist that their explorations of the past should have a palpable relevance to present social problems. Since complete objectivity in the study of human affairs is unattainable, they not only abandon pursuit of it but regard moral detachment in historical research as unworthy. Such an approach to the past, which at bottom is a form of arrogant if not authoritarian manipulation, has its undeniable charms. One of the most seductive of these, especially for the young idealist, is that the tedious business of establishing the facts and the need to respect their contradictory and intractable nature are virtually eliminated. The high moral purpose justifies all. It cannot be deflected because of a few incorrigible details and what is lacking in thoroughness of investigation or in precision of language can be more than compensated by purity of motive. Yet it was only yesterday that Charles A. Beard and other products of Progressivism were being flayed without mercy for allowing their social objectives to intrude too blatantly into their historical writings.

What is happening within the community of scholars, which is as deeply divided as the nation, is not merely a negation of the civility of rational discourse or an abandonment of the ideal of rigorous impartiality in the weighing of evidence. It is, in part at least, an attack upon reason itself. In the world of the theater and among the creative arts, we are told, the new style of appealing to the most radical elements among us will drag the rest of us kicking and screaming into a brave new world of sensory enrichment. “Rational methods of perceiving the truth about man and his world seem to have failed us,” one supposedly responsible critic says, and “are being abandoned.” We are not surprised to hear such a pronouncement in the realm of the arts. A deliberate cultivation of the irrational may indeed be an indispensable ally in the creative process and today it appears almost certain to lead to affluence if not to immortality. Nor is one surprised or dismayed to find students engaged in acts of unreasoning violence under the impact of aroused emotions. On the contrary, the time for concern is when they are not committed to idealism, to efforts to refashion society, and to the preaching of rebellion for high moral purposes. But for scholars to turn their backs on reason is another matter altogether. It is in fact the ultimate betrayal. It is a denial of the noble tradition of the treason of the intellectuals. And it is of course the one certain way of destroying universities and defeating the purposes for which they stand.

If we listen to the academic rhetoric of irrationality, as we can scarcely avoid doing, we hear apocalyptic pronouncements of our last chance to redeem ourselves as a nation or as a community of scholars from this or that horrible fate. Our self-anointed messiahs, with Herbert Marcuse as their reigning philosopher, tell us that our society is so corrupt, our institutions so tyrannical, our morals so decadent that virtually any means of destroying the evil fabric are legitimate. We are portrayed as a nation sick, violent, lawless, brutal, materialistic—besides being, in the words of one of our most distinguished historians, “the most frightening people on this planet.” Where Edmund Burke declared himself ignorant of the means by which one draws up an indictment against a whole people—thereby, of course, aligning himself with the best of our tradition of personal accountability—we are asked by our academic saviors to accept not merely the collective guilt for all of the acts of violence in our society but also for the sins of our fathers and forefathers, which presumably were almost as numerous as our own. At the same time we are told, I fear by some of the authors whom you publish, that our past is not only irrelevant in the face of the problems with which humanity is afflicted but that it is indeed a burden and a handicap to us in meeting our responsibility as the pre-eminent world power. The bill of particulars in this wholesale indictment is a dismaying one, longer and more heinous even than that compiled by Thomas Jefferson against George the Third. But I spare you a recital not because I accept the accusation of collective guilt or refuse to acknowledge the validity of the grain of truth lurking in this assessment of our national character, but because every morning’s newspaper and every evening’s newscast brings to us all fresh extension as well as stale repetition of the whole oppressive catalogue of evils in our political, social, and educational institutions.

I spare you also because it is not the apocalyptic pronouncement that is significant. What is important is the sincerity with which it is believed and the place in which it is uttered. For some in the community of scholars have themselves, in the name of justice and by the promptings of conscience, manifested the same kinds of violence, hatred, and disregard for the legitimate rights of others of which they accuse the nation. Some have seemed to arrogate to themselves, as a privileged intellectual elite, the role of exclusive custodianship of the public conscience. Others, safely protected by the twin bastions of academic freedom and academic tenure as well as by those departmental baronies which remain the most intractable centers of power in the modern university, have engaged in something not very remote from witch—hunting in their desire to effect immediate change. This pursuit has resulted in the discovery of the most innocent and least powerful of witches in the administrative offices and among the boards of trustees. On the national scene the arch-villain, of course, is, or was, the President of the United States and in discussing him and his acts the climate of civility dissolved almost wholly into a climate of hatred. “Conscience,” Dean Acheson declared recently, “used to be an inner voice of self-discipline; now it is a clarion urge to discipline others.” The messiah tinged with fanaticism, convinced that his conception of the higher moral law takes precedence over all other laws, has always tended to identify his own mission with the fiats of heaven.

One grants the pilgrims on this moral crusade the attribute of conscience, even with its thunderous overtones of authoritarianism. But one is not obliged to exempt them from the charge of folly or of ignorance of history. Edward Potts Cheyney’s forgotten little essay on the role of the agitator in history, to look no further back, would show how old their discovery of human corruption and tyranny is, how much their jeremiads echo those uttered thousands of years ago, how deep in the past lie the roots of our present ills; and how little possibility there is of realizing their dreams overnight or with moral fervor alone. This little volume of essays, written by a member of that quiet, selfless advance guard of humanitarians of the past three centuries, the Quakers, would also provide another measure of the progress that human conscience disciplined by reason has enabled us to make.

A better understanding of history, if not of their own commitment to the life of the intellect, would inform them that this nation rose to greatness not from a feeling of guilt but from a sense of hope, not from an apprehension of doom but from a promise held forth. It became, in fact, a world power at the instant of birth by virtue of its proclaimed purpose of creating a society based on the concept of the equality of man and governed by reason and justice. This was a desperate gamble that the humane propensities of men would triumph over their brute passions. It was the most radical and irreversible revolution of history because its moral proposition included the transfer of sovereignty from the hereditary ruler to the individual citizen. It did so in the hope that, in Jefferson’s words, “every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own personal concern.” The dream was an ancient one and none of its shining elements was distinctively American. This is why its appeal was universal, why this nation came to be a people of all races, why in its unprecedented development it has exhibited all of the worst and all of the best qualities of the race. But the bold innovation has endured as the oldest constitutional republic on earth. The nation and its institutions have endured because there was implicit in the theory of this new kind of society—as was clearly understood by its founders—that the revolution would be a continuing one, that change would beget change, and that its institutions would accommodate themselves to it.

This continuing revolution, the founders of this new democratic system seemed to say, was the only legitimate way of altering the fabric. For by what other means could the new sovereign revolt against himself? On what grounds could he premise the right of a new revolution when reason and justice had already been pre-empted as justification of his own assumption of sovereignty? By what standards could he flout the will of the majority and declare, as some in the academic community now do, that civil disobedience on a massive scale will henceforth be the normal method of carrying on the democratic dialogue? The answer to these questions was provided in the seventeenth century and in many other chapters of history. Such an attitude toward law, declared John Locke, would “unhinge and overturn all politics, and instead of government and order, leave nothing but anarchy and confusion.” Such a result, indeed, seems to be the clearly defined object of a misguided few, with the perversion of the universities from centers of rational discourse to instruments of political action as one of the first and most powerful of means for accomplishing this purpose.

But the foundations were laid too securely. This nation was born in dissent and it has experienced the ultimate expression of disaffection in civil war. Even that ordeal, great as its moral and material consequences have been, did not sever the bonds of a common allegiance. The very extremes of violent disaffection now heard on our campuses, expressed in the midst of war and often with blind disregard for the rights of others, testify to the enduring strength of those bonds. The revolution begun in the eighteenth century is still in progress, still reaching for the golden promise that many have disavowed, and one of the most heartening evidences of the fact is that, for a decade and a half now, the greatest incumbent ever to occupy the office of Chief Justice of the United States has guided our highest tribunal under the conviction that the bill of rights is the heart of any constitution. But this is only one evidence. Another is the fact that, awesome as our material power is and mistaken as many of the policies resulting from our sense of world mission may have been, no great nation in history has exercised its might with comparable restraint and generosity. We cannot avoid the role of world power but neither can we meet its demands as a bitterly divided people. It is this fact that promises the most fateful consequences from the new revolt of the intellectuals, small as their minority is in the community of scholars.

For the American character, tolerant of dissent and generous with its substance, can indeed be frightening when goaded beyond the limit of its patience or aroused by unreasoning fear. One of its attributes is a deep-rooted desire to withdraw from world responsibility, an instinct for isolationism as old as the nation. Another is a latent susceptibility to demagoguery that thrives on anti-intellectualism. Both are qualities that are incompatible with our professions as a people who believe, as James Madison did, that liberty and learning must lean on each other for mutual support. But if I read the signs correctly, both are very close to the surface at this moment. Both are in large measure a response of the American people to the manner in which some in the academic community have articulated a contempt for the people’s institutions, for their history, and for their most cherished beliefs. I believe those who have thus alienated themselves from and indeed affronted the conventional wisdom of the society to which they belong—”the common sense of mankind in general” in which Thomas Jefferson placed such great confidence as the foundation of all authority and law—are a very small minority of the intellectual community. Even so, it is a sad reflection that the materials of anti­ intellectualism recently utilized for political advantage by the most offensive demagogue on the national scene were fabricated in large part within the world of learning. The ominous storm of isolationism, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism so inimical to our spirit as a nation is obviously gathering.

No matter—when the blast comes, all will have to suffer alike in the hurricane cellars. The beards, the old sooty doublets, and the hose hanging below the knees—even the revolutionary rhetoric—can be forgiven and forgotten. But the intellectual’s revolt against reason, even if only a few have succumbed to the guiles of undisciplined subjectivity, will require of us a great deal more charity. It will also require for a long time to come, I fear, an even stouter defense of the integrity of your imprints and a much more rigorous use of your very competent editorial pens.


“Reason,” wrote George Herbert in another age of revolution, “lies between the spurre and the bridle.” The spur in human society is provided in large part by its reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries. These are essential instruments and much that man has achieved both in moral and material progress has been due to their jabs and pricks, which to many are always irritating and sometimes infuriating. But the bridle is also essential. Its function is law, governance, and authority and it is necessary in all forms of government and institutions, including those dedicated to democratic principles. An exclusive application of the spur could end only in disaster and a sole reliance on the bit would result in stagnation if not in tyranny. Reason must be permitted to control both, determining when either is to be applied. But reason sits precariously in the saddle and may, through irrational fears, hatreds, or primitive emotionalism, hand over the reins or the spurs to ignorance on the one hand or blind fury on the other.

The “holy army of misologists” is not yet upon us even if we have seen the advance guard of the hosts of unreason. But I do not believe, as some among us evidently do, that our universities and other institutions designed to give reason a chance are fragile and can easily be destroyed. They can be injured, grievously and senselessly injured. But their roots are deep and their strength arises from man’s nature as an animal both capable of thought and endowed with humane instincts. I believe our nation, our universities, and our scholarly presses will endure, will continue to flourish, and in the spirit of our continuing American revolution will remain steadfast in the pursuit of their high goals. If this is a belief born of hope, I am at least in a great company of men in former centuries—Algernon Sidney and Thomas Jefferson, for example—who also were faced with the tyranny of unreason and who, nevertheless, comforted themselves with that rejection of despair which they drew from the deep well of ancient wisdom: numquam desperandum est de republica.

This is a source of strength that many of our intellectual rebels have forgotten or have not had the courage to learn. For hope, as Jefferson was always saying, is so much sweeter than despair and, as Francis Bacon said long before him, America made hope reasonable. It still does. The manner in which your scholarly presses have met and are meeting their high responsibility is one of the most gratifying proofs of this, even though a few may have been unable to resist infection from that enduring virus called charlataneria eruditorum, now prevalent in epidemic proportions among universities of the world.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading