Skip to main content

Bought at a Price

ISSUE:  Summer 1929

The Modern Temper. By Joseph Wood Krutch. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.50. A Preface to Morals. By Walter Ltppmann. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00. The Nature of the Physical World. By A. S. Eddington. (The Gifford Lectures, 1927) New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.75.

Human history has been approached from many angles: Man as the plaything of the gods; as matter reacting to cosmic forces; as a hungry animal seeking food and warmth; these are familiar interpretations. An interesting way, which so far as I know has not been attempted systematically, would be to tell the story of man’s efforts to live in peace with his own creations—with fire, with weapons, with language, with writing, with money, with printing, and, last of all, with science. It is in our attempt to find expression for our own times that man as Frankenstein, as the sorcerer’s apprentice, seems a more appropriate symbol than is furnished by any idea of divine government, of climate, or of economic forces. He has sought out many inventions and they have all but undone him. The physical survival of civilized man is bound up with his power over nature, but when he seeks to evaluate the life he has saved he finds that he has somehow lost it. Our standard of comparison is the twelfth century. This was the apex of the Christian synthesis. Physical life is today incomparably more secure than it was then; but the meaning, the sure sense of the significance of human destiny which was the common heritage of twelfth century man is gone from the sight of a large proportion of thinking men. The world of that time was hostile but the malevolence of an enemy who regards you as important is easy to bear compared with the indifference of a blind cosmos.

It is from this quasi-historical point of view that I wish to regard the three books before us. The history of modern thought is in its main features the history of science. The growth of man’s knowledge of nature and of his power over things material has made impossible to modern men the beliefs of their fathers. The transition from an age when little seemed knowable, but everything important known, to one in which we are promised the answer to almost every conceivable question except the one that really matters—the riddle of human destiny—has required much hardihood of spirit. Either in acceptance or rejection modern thought has revolved around this transition. The reactions of our three authors to the modern world are quite clearly revealed in the books before us. Each is typical of a certain background of experience. Professor Eddington, physicist and astronomer, is one of the great scientific figures of our generation, and hence one of those who are making the trouble from which Mr. Krutch, writer and student of letters, suffers. Mr. Lipp-mann occupies a middle ground and in a sense holds the scales as arbitrator. Let us look at the world through these three pairs of eyes, and then ask ourselves why the picture changes so. For I believe we shall see in these changes not a mere matter of temperament, but something less obvious and more profound.

They are large problems which our authors attack. The titles recall a phrase of William James about “settling the hash of the Universe.” The value of life, the problem of right and wrong, the place of man in the cosmos: these are questions which the mind of man can neither answer nor lay at rest. Such books are at once a challenge and a temptation to a reviewer; a challenge to give of his best and a temptation to become philosophical.

“The Modern Temper” is a sombre book, so dark that the felicity of Mr. Krutch’s style only makes it more hauntingly poignant. The judgment of future historians is easier to assert than to verify, but when the thin literary efforts of our day are forgotten, I can imagine spectacled professors of the future turning to this book in an effort to understand why the age was so sterile. And they will find their answer. It has that kind of authentic contemporaneousness which makes it suitable for cornerstones. Intellectually appraised it is hardly a great book; the thought is neither profound nor original, and though the analysis is penetrating, it starts from premises that have been accepted without much scrutiny. It is not as a closely reasoned thesis, but as the faithful reporting of a mood that we must judge it. Mr. Krutch thus states his own aim:

I hoped to reduce to definite form those floating convictions, tendencies, and moods which, taken together, constitute a temperament, and since the intellectual atmosphere in which that temperament was formed seems to me the one most characteristic of our time, I ventured to assume that there is something characteristic about my reactions to it. I know that I have learned the same things and thought about the same problems as most of my contemporaries. . . .

The book is at once a study and a confession—a study of the various tendencies in contemporary thought and a confession of the mood which submission to these tendencies has engendered. In so far as it states what these tendencies are it is, I believe, objective; in so far as it treats of the emotional states which these tendencies produced, it is, of necessity, colored by an individual personality, and yet the effort has been, even where these are concerned, to deal only with those emotional attitudes which bear a strong family, resemblance to those which are common to many. Here are, at least, no private adventures, no purely individual experiences, but only the thoughts engendered by the contemplation of the facts and theories familiar to every reading person and stated in a form as detached as I was capable of achieving.

In this aim Mr. Krutch has succeeded eminently, and this success must be counted no mean achievement. “The Modern Temper” is an honest book, but it is more. It has the value which attaches to any work which is genuinely of its own time. Step by step he traces the process of man’s disillusionment. The price of man’s power over nature has been the loss of his self-respect. The jubilant note which celebrated the triumphs of nineteenth century science is no longer heard; the time draws nearer when the devil will come to claim Faust’s soul of him. With the passing of man’s sense of sin has gone also his hope of salvation. One by one the values are stripped from existence, Right and wrong have become a matter of convention, love is a physiological impulse. There was a time when man could at least rebel, but what higher scheme of values can now claim his allegiance? I might quarrel with Mr. Krutch over some details but the essence of his position is in the question of values, and here we cannot argue but simply try to understand.

We have learned to expect certain things in a new book by Mr. Lippmann: sanity, clarity of expression, penetrating analysis, and above all a certain gentleness and generosity of spirit which robs of all sting his most devastating criticism. But I wonder how many feel as I do the rarity of that particular combination of excellences which he brings to his tasks. This is the combination of analytical power with an abiding sense of the impossibility of exhausting reality by any analysis. From only one other exponent of social theory, Walter Bagehot, do I get the same sense of solid ground beneath my feet. The world has suffered much at the hands of the so-called social scientists who have capitalized the triumphs of the physicist, the chemist, and the biologist in order to sell their neo-scholasticism as a product made by the same process. They use their formulas not to sum up knowledge, but as a substitute for knowledge, and eke out their poverty of insight by a technical vocabulary, so horrendous as to make sociology the most difficult of modern languages. From all such jargon and catch-words Mr. Lippmann is free; he is equally free from the nebulous impressionism which is the peril of the purely humanistic school. He uses abstractions, but they never degenerate at his hands into a “nothing but,” but are kept alive by the vivifying contact with life which he maintains. The tranquility of spirit which Mr. Lippmann achieves amid the life of New Babylon has always been a source of wonder to me, but, granted his genius for detachment, that same air may, be the source of his sense of reality. Walter Bagehot drew his breath in London, and as a successful banker thought the thoughts of everyday men, the while he stood aside and watched them.

“A Preface to Morals” is addressed to those who, finding the old landmarks and guide-posts swept away in their modern world, seek a substitute for the sanctions of religion. It is not for those who can still find their peace in the old order, nor for those who rejoice in the new. Essentially it is for those who find themselves in Mr. Krutch’s position. The book falls into three parts—a statement of the problem, an outline of the solution, and the filling in of this outline by applying the conclusions to a few typical questions of ethics. This summaiy description may leave an impression of cocksureness which is far from Mr. Lippmann’s intention or manner. He does not claim, nor does he think it possible for anyone to claim more than tentative value for any ethical formula which takes full cognizance of the moral desolation of Mr. Krutch and his contemporaries. In his statement of the problem he fully corroborates Mr. Krutch, though his treatment is more definitely historical and objective. Mr. Krutch makes us feel the blankness of his horizon almost like a physical pain. Mr. Lippmann makes us see the moral disintegration with uncompromising clarity, while with faultless logic he lays bare the emptiness of the modernistic substitutes for the ancient certitudes. Modern man suddenly finds himself utterly alone. It is all very well to brag about being captain of your soul, but the average man aspires at most to the first mate’s job, and feels shaky on his navigation. Also, where are his sailing orders? Mr. Lippmann quotes Huxley: “a man’s worst difficulties begin when he is able to do as he likes.” He continues:

The evidence of these greater difficulties lie all about us: in the brave and brilliant atheists who have defied the Methodist God, and have become very nervous; in the women who have emancipated themselves from the tyranny of fathers, husbands, and homes, and with the intermittent but expensive help of a psychoanalyst, are now enduring liberty as interior decorators; in the young men and women who are world-weary, at twenty-two; in the multitudes who drug themselves with pleasure; in the crowds enfranchised by the blood of heroes who cannot be persuaded to take an interest in their destiny; in the millions, at last free to think without fear of priest or policeman, who have made the moving pictures and the popular newspapers what they are.

These are the prisoners who have been released. They ought to be very happy. They ought to be serene and composed. They are free to make their own lives. There are no conventions, no tabus, no gods, priests, princes, fathers, or revelations which they must accept. Yet the result is not so good as they thought it would be. The prison door is wide open. They stagger out into trackless space under a blinding sun.

The medieval church claimed all human life as its domain. Science, art, politics, business: these were all at one time subservient to the great drama of human destiny under the guidance of God’s vicegerent. One by one these provinces have been stripped from her, so that today man lives his life in compartments, with religion as only a Sunday activity competing with recreation. In its efforts to reclaim some of the lost provinces religion has assumed strange disguises. Here is an example of the church in a business suit:

The sponsors of the Broadway Temple in New York City, put the matter in a thoroughly modem, even if it was a rather coarse, way when they proclaimed a campaign to sell bonds as “a five per cent investment in your Fellow Man’s Salvation—Broadway Temple is to be a combination of Church and Skyscraper, Religion and Revenue, Salvation and 5 per cent—and the 5 per cent is based on ethical Christian grounds.” The five per cent, they hastened to add, was also based on a gilt-edged real-estate mortgage; the salvation, however, was, we may suppose, a speculative profit.

But if modern man can find no landmarks, there are at least footprints. Mr. Lippmann seeks a clue in the wisdom of the great teachers of the past. For if we clear away the overlying rubbish we shall find more unanimity in their wisdom than we would at first suspect. Only when man can look clear-eyed on a world which recks not of his wishes, when he can limit his desires to what is attainable, is he fully adult. It is a gospel, not of renunciation, but of disinterestedness, of selflessness rather than unselfishness. It is an ideal implicit in democratic theory, but like its political counterpart it demands more of the common man than he willingly gives. He still prefers authority to leadership; a boss to give him orders and a priest to give him definite rules of conduct. “Because the teaching of the sages was incomprehensible, the multitude, impressed but also bewildered, ignored them as teachers and worshipped them as gods.” And yet it is just this teaching that the common man must now, in some measure, comprehend. Is the possibility of this altogether Utopian? Mr. Lippmann thinks not. In the development of our industrial civilization he sees forces at work which are shaping common men into some semblance of maturity, content with what is attainable, and not grieving overmuch because the moon is beyond their reach.

A bare outline like this is unfair, not only to the cogency of Mr. Lippmann’s reasoning, but to its persuasiveness. If we succeed in reaching his center of vision we are conscious of a certain classic serenity of mood which has healing for sore hearts. But while from that vantage point we see life steadily, I am not sure that we see it whole. Human longing is no less real than physical possibility; youth has its rights as well as maturity, and passion too deep a place in our own being to be left altogether out of the picture.

On this point we will call our third witness, Professor Eddington. “The Nature of the Physical World” has been reviewed extensively by many writers, but the notices I have seen have overlooked what is for me its chief significance. One and all they have hailed it as a clear and authoritative exposition of modern physical theories. This it undoubtedly is, but if this were all there were small need for me to add my belated voice to the chorus. It is not for their account of objective fact, but for their revelation of a characteristic attitude that these Gifford Lectures should be studied; not for their description of the physical world, but of the physicist’s world. What is this like?

The answer is paradoxical. For here is one who handles at their source those facts which have devastated the modern spiritual landscape and who yet seems to find his happiness in them. Mr. Lippmann divines something of this when he says that “pure science is high religion incarnate.” He sees in the disinterestedness of science the most complete expression of that outlook upon life which he calls mature. He sees also that science is “the creative element in that which is distinctively modern.” But he misses, I think, one implication of this. Creation has in it an element of youth, of passion, of desire outstripping actuality, which can find no place in the wisdom of the old. The values which science has destroyed for Mr. Krutch it has somehow kept for Professor Eddington:

. . . the impulse to this quest is part of our very nature; it is the expression of a purpose which has possession of us. Is this precisely what we meant when we sought to affirm the reality of the external world? It goes some way toward giving it a meaning but is scarcely the full equivalent. I doubt if we really satisfy the conceptions behind that demand unless we make the bolder hypothesis that the quest and all that is reached by it are of worth in the eyes of an Absolute Valuer.

This is not the note of disillusioned despair, but neither is it the note of humanism, with its aim of human happiness. It is not the modern ideal of the service of man, but one far older, the service of God. Science has many votaries, and these serve her for many ends, for wealth, for fame, for power, for human weal; but to the small company of those who own no other fealty, the search is self-justifying. These are the heirs to the great tradition, the children of Prometheus. One by one fall the barriers between us and the unknown, and with each triumph comes a sense of enhanced human dignity which is its sole warrant and reward.

Mr. Lippmann is right when he says that men must somehow learn to live without the ancient assurances. But an understanding of our great men of science should show us something of that other scheme of values for which they forsook the trodden path. They find their security, not in an answer to childish questions, but in an unshakable and abiding sense of the continuity of man’s quest for knowledge, and the conviction of its ultimate worth. Let me conclude with the words of another physicist: Most of us who have attempted to advance science have } had our all too brief and passing moments of inspiration; we have added a single brick to the mighty, structure or finished some corner which thmaster in his impetuosity has overlooked. And though our tiny efforts rightly pass almost unnoticed by the rest of mankind, they have a value for ourselves beyond what we can tell; one instant we have ) stood with the great ones of the earth and shared their glory, Even if nothing as yet has stirred in us the creator’s joy, we can yet appreciate the success of others. Nobody who has any portion of the scientific spirit can fail to remember times when he has thrilled to a new discovery as if it were his own. He has greeted a new theory with the passionate exclamation, it must be true! He has felt that its eternal value is beyond all reasoning, that it is to be defended, if need be, not by the cold-blooded methods of the laboratory or the soulless processes of formal logic, but, like the honour of a friend, by, simple affirmation and eloquent appeal. The mood will and should pass; the impersonal inquiry must be made before the new ideas can be admitted to our complete confidence. But in that one moment we have known the real meaning of science, we have experienced its highest value ; unless such knowledge and such experience were possible, science would be without meaning and therefore without truth.


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

Recommended Reading