Skip to main content

Civilization by Symposium

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Humanism and America. Essays on the Outlook of Modem Civilisation. Edited by Norman Foerstcr. New York: Farrar and Rin,chart. $3.50. Toward Civilisation. Edited by Charles A. Beard. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $3.00.

Two lobsters eaten before going to bed make a nightmare. Two symposiums read before sitting down to review make a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, as follows. Two armies are advancing on New York, the home of publishers and skyscrapers. One army is recruited from the colleges and universities of the country; it is an army of college professors. The other is recruited from the trade and technology schools of the country; it is an army of engineers. The college professors have collected works of art from the past and fashioned them into banners, insignia, and crests, and they, talk of culture, tradition, literature, and morals, as they march to the tune, but not the words, of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The engineers have carefully selected the most beautifully designed, the smoothest running, and the swiftest flying aircraft for an attack from the sky, and they carry blueprints rolled under their arms. They do not talk about the blueprints, but rather about Prometheus, Hephaestus, Daedalus, even Zeus, who were the ancient founders of the Golden Age which is still to come in the future. The professors are going to capture the publishers, and the engineers are going to take, hold, and beautify the skyscrapers. The fun is that the armies will never meet, except those professors who have publishers that live in skyscrapers and those engineers who publish books. That meeting will of course be amicable, because the parties already agree and even talk the same language. As for the rest of the respective armies, the engineers will build houses and pay the salaries for the professors and the professors will supply phrases for advertising and grant honorary degrees to the engineers.

It is in some such dramatic setting that the present controversy is to be understood. The editors of these two books have brought together the ism-mongering professors on one side and the utopia-mongering engineers on the other, and when they talk they are both advertisers of their wares. Sensible people do not very scrupulously follow the copy of counselors for public relations; they examine the wares of their clients for themselves. A proper and tactful discussion of these books should do the same.

In the first place both of these books are heavy with a burden that their authors call civilization. Rhetorical weight is here, as it is in most cases, an indication of confusion of thought, and the confusion runs very deep. It is not merely that humanist and engineer have not yet seen the fitting relationship of their literary and scientific means to (heir standards and ends, not merely that they find the inner man and the outer worlds both of literature and nature in bad adjustment. They have forgotten their ends and are ignorant of their means. Their confusion is therefore a kind of blindness, and like blind men they grope and shout for aid. Civilization for them as individuals has become a kind of professional fanaticism, which Mr. Santa-yana has defined as the redoubling of your efforts when you have forgotten your end.

There are many points in these two books that I might use to illustrate this blindness. I shall choose one which seems to me fundamental and from which others may be derived. Both humanist and engineer talk a great deal of measurement. A humanist is defined as one who heeds the rule of measure; and an engineer is defined as one “who believes in measurement, who knows how to measure, does measure, and is willing to abide by the results of this measurement, whether they suit his preconceived notions or not.” The juxtaposition of these two definitions will look to the modern reader like a pun or a wisecrack. It can safely be said that no humanist nor engineer would think seriously of putting the two together. Actually, the engineers’ use of measure and the humanists’ use of it are merely distinct applications of one principle which developed and enriched both its humanistic and naturalistic meanings side by side for over two thousand years of European culture. It is only recently, in the last two centuries, that their interrelations have become merely verbal, or occult, as in modern astrology and statistical social science. The humanist as well as the engineer is a modernist in so far as he makes the distinction absolute. Most of our modern isms are based upon the dilemma arising from this distinction and its solution by arbitrary choice. Is an animal like a man or like a machine? If you choose to measure an animal by numbers, the animal is a machine, and cannot be also like a man. You are a mechanist, and have all vitalists for enemies. If you choose to measure your animal by a man, you are a vitalist and have all mechanists for enemies: it may be added that if your measurement of an animal by man also involves measuring the man by an animal, you are excluded from the band of humanists.

All this is very amusing material for Gilbert and Sullivan, but, if I may for a moment put on the robes of a writer on “civilization,” I see also a serious loss of insight in the splitting of the principle of measurement into its numerical and moral applications in the modern period. The Greeks used analogies in discussing morals, and numbers in discussing things. Sometimes they reversed this procedure and used numbers in discussing morals and analogies in discussing things. At still other times they used a mixture of the two in discussing either one. In competent hands neither things, nor morals, nor numbers, nor literature suffered reduction and confusion. They called the whole method measurement, and said they were making things intelligible and rational, even perfect by its use. Proportions, harmonies, and perfections were to be found in celestial spheres, musical tones, poetic rhythms, and human morals with equal enjoyment. Measurement was thus the intellectual basis for the understanding the Greeks had of their own civilization, the cultural tradition to which both humanist and engineer refer in their separate ways in their present search for critical standards.

By some historical accident and some human oversight the college professor and the engineer have turned these vitalizing insights into opaque stereotypes. What were once values have become literary slogans and engineering formulae; it is no wonder that they no longer answer each other’s questions and practical problems. The humanists bewail the absence of nobility, heroism, self-control, and high tragedy in modern life and literature, not realizing that it is their own loosely woven intellectual net that is letting these values slip through its meshes. In the whole symposium there is not one successful attempt to define any of these terms, least of all their label, humanism. They attempt to anchor their thoughts in the immediate certainties of individual consciousness, which are as vague and romantic as any attribute of Rousseau’s natural man. The engineers promise to add beauty to structure and use as if it were a coat of stucco or paint, not suspecting that they would thus postpone indefinitely the human realization of the poetic, speculative, and moral values that still lie hidden in the work of the scientist whose material they are using.

It is satisfying to see in these books that the ignorance of the humanist and the engineer is no longer bliss. One can interestedly read what they say with this in mind. There is no gainsaying that there is a serious rift between the philological and scientific in our culture at present, and the spiritual misery that comes from it is widespread. What it means to me is that there is a task of scholarship to be accomplished. It does not consist of “additions to knowledge,” in the current phrase of research institutes, but rather in the recovery of old insights into the knowledges already at hand. This applies particularly to the history of science which has never been received into the academic or polite tradition, nor furthermore into the intellectual backgrounds of the practising scientist. The amazing revelation that these two books make is that both humanist and engineer have taken their understanding of science from current books in popularized knowledge. There is considerable evidence that they are equally distant from the sources of the literary tradition. Before we worry ourselves into more symposiums about the outlook for modern civilization it might be well to get acquainted with its various constituents. I suspect that such acquaintance would dissipate the problems to a far greater extent than Messrs. Babbitt, More, and Beard would like to admit.


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

Recommended Reading