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The Predicament of Modern Man by Elton Trueblood

Elton Trueblood is Professor at Large at Earlham College (1944). He is the author of more than twenty books, including The People Called Quakers and The Lord’s Prayers. Published by Harper and Row in 1944, New York, N.Y. 10016, this material was prepared for Religion-Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 2: The Failure of Power Culture

Partisan, religious, humanitarian and all other criteria in general, are completely irrelevant. Adolph Hitler

Not all who note the sickness of Western civilization are saddened by this. There are some who are glad that it is sick and hope it will die. The sooner it dies the better, they suppose, because they believe the central faith of Western man has been a mistake. This is especially true of those who look upon the Christian religion as an impediment to the full development of a strong, heroic age. With its constant emphasis on a moral imperative it has dampened natural enthusiasms and made man a tame creature. What is desirable, they think, is to set men free from the shackles of the Christian centuries and thus make way for the restoration of the old gusty life in which the strong are able to glory in their strength.

It might be argued that this way should be given a fair trial, inasmuch as the Christian way has already been tried a long time and does not seem to have been a marked success. Why not see what frank neo-paganism would do for the world?

Fortunately, so far as our decision is concerned, the problem is not a purely speculative one, since the suggested basis of culture has already been tried. It has been tried, not only in the ancient world, but in our own twentieth century. We are living in a time that is as exciting as it is sad, because we have seen a laboratory test of the old idea in a new setting. To a degree that would have seemed fantastic in prospect, the Nazi youth have been trained in the entire renunciation of the Christian ethic. It is a controlled experiment. Thousands of young people have been deliberately cut off from the cultural tradition that Western man has known for many centuries; they have been taught either to despise or to ignore the Christian ethic. The experiment has been carried on long enough, over a large enough area, and with sufficient methodological rigor to make it a ground for reasonable conclusions.

The experiment that has been undertaken with conscious deliberation in Germany is an accentuation of what has been happening in lesser degree in the entire Western world. In many areas of the West there has been the tacit rejection of our ancient culture, but without a pagan apologetic. The loosening of the marriage tie is one of the many evidences of this development. There have, of course, always been difficulties about monogamy, but acceptance of the Christian estimate of the sacredness of the marriage tie made men have a bad conscience when marriage failed. Now we have great numbers who appear to be able to contemplate their failure with entire complacency. And the reason is that marriage seems to them, not a sacramental act, but rather a temporary convenience. The Hollywood mentality is, in this regard, merely a grotesque accentuation of the general spirit of the times.

What is so amazing in our day is not the rejection of Western civilization in practice, for that has always occurred, but the rejection of Western civilization in theory. So long as the theory remains intact, there is always hope of regeneration, since some men will be disturbed by their hypocrisy. But when the theory goes, too, there is no hope; there is nothing to give men a bad conscience. It is bad enough to fail to live up to humane standards, but it is far worse to glory in that failure.

The reconstruction of human history which is presented to us as a live option is so revolutionary that we have had great difficulty in taking it seriously. It is well known that one of the reasons for Hitler’s initial and long-continued success is that his propositions seemed so preposterous that even those who stood most chance to be ruined by them refused to take them seriously. We did not understand him at first because we could not grasp the notion that his concept of culture was "non-Euclidean.’’(The introduction of this illuminating term in this connection originated, I believe, with Lewis Mumford. See his Faith for Living, pp. 182 ff.) We could not really believe that here was a system which introduced, not merely different conclusions, but different rules and different meanings for major terms. We have been slow to realize that a generation has now grown up in one part of the Western world in which terms used for more than fifteen centuries in Europe now have no meaning at all or vastly altered meaning. Sir Richard Livingstone has stated this point in words that should be repeated:

They do not know the meaning of certain words, which had been assumed to belong to the permanent vocabulary of mankind, certain ideals which, if ignored in practice under pressure, were accepted in theory. The least important of these words is Freedom. The most important are Justice, Mercy and Truth. In the past we have slurred this revolution over as a difference in "ideology." In fact it is the greatest transformation that the world has undergone, since, in Palestine or Greece, these ideas came into being or at least were recognized as principles of conduct. (Sir Richard Livingstone, The Future in Education, p. 109)

This new conception of civilization which presents itself as an alternative to that which has done duty so far in Western life in our era must be taken seriously. Its proponents will be defeated in Germany as they have already been defeated in Italy, but the idea will not, for that reason, be dead. Not only will there be the hosts of young people who have been indoctrinated in the non-Euclidean ethics, but there will be the many temptations to introduce similar ideas throughout other parts of the West.

It is convenient to refer to this alternative proposal for the human race as power culture. We have long used the term "power politics," and it is reasonable to expand the usage to include the entire cultural situation. The essential notion of power culture is the effort to organize human life independent of moral inhibitions. It is the non-ethical creed.("They carried to the logical limit the new cult of power. In the face of all human experience, they assumed that politics and industry could be completely divorced from morals." Mumford, op. cit., p. 182). It is the supposition, which Mussolini and his pupils have acted on thoroughly, while the rest of us have acted on it amateurishly, that civilization consists primarily in scientific, technical, and artistic achievements and that it can reach its goal without ethical considerations. We see this more clearly if we note, in some detail, the chief items of this creed.

(I)The first item in this creed is the accent on sheer power. The notable fact about human life is that some are strong and others are weak. Consequently the fundamental human relation is that of master and slave. Christianity has been a kill-joy because it has hampered the natural power of the master, which must no longer be hampered. Justice, as Thrasymachus said long ago in The Republic, is nothing more or less than the interests of the stronger.

Though this doctrine is a very old one, never wholly dead, it gains modern significance, when openly espoused, because human power has been so greatly enhanced in our day. Science, indeed, is power. Therefore the proponents of power culture will seek to foster science because science makes the strong man’s arm longer and his feet swifter. Apart from the infinitely careful and sometimes painful labor of science we should not have the machine, and the machine is absolutely necessary as a tool for those who wish to make their will felt in the modern world. So great is the power of the machine that it is wholly conceivable that a ruthless minority might inaugurate a reign of terror which would include all parts of the planet. "Technics," says Berdyaev, "rationalize human life, but this rationalization has irrational results."(Nikolai Berdyaev, The Fate of Man in the Modern World, P. 73.)

It is important to note that skill in war, an essential element in the power concept, may be marked while moral sensitivity is weak. There is no guarantee of balanced development in the human animal. An interesting illustration of this unbalance is afforded by the experience of the Aztecs, who, for a while, were able to combine great and ruthless military skill with a decadent general culture. They produced some art, including poetry, but it was of a uniformly morbid character. The appearance of the Aztec type of life on a large scale would be a terrifying prospect.

(2) The second item in this creed is the concept of leadership. The way is made clear for the emergence of this concept when the notion of human equality is categorically denied. Equality is a pure fiction; it does not exist physically, intellectually, morally, or culturally. It is entirely satisfactory that there should be masters and slaves, leaders and led. This is a situation, not to be outgrown, but to be accentuated and maintained.

As usually presented the doctrine has two aspects, one personal and the other racial or national. The personal aspect is the emergence of the single leader, who at once commands his people and becomes identified with them, so that his decisions are somehow theirs.(Spengler predicted the rise of Caesarism as a national development in our period of declining vigor. See The Decline of the West, Vol. II, Chap. XIV. But, long before Spengler, William Penn wrote, "Men must be governed by God or they will be ruled by tyrants.") The racial aspect is that one people is superior to all others, just as there are superior horses or cows, and these exemplify the leader principle in the human race as a whole. They must keep themselves pure biologically by refusal to mate with inferior breeds, and they must keep themselves pure spiritually by refusing to accept any inferior status or to grant equality when equality does not exist.

The leader principle thus sets itself in sharp contrast to three fundamental Christian teachings. It renounces, first, the Christian notion of human equality, it renounces, second, the Christian notion of the oneness of the human family, and it renounces, third, the Christian rejection of pride. Christ’s words, "Call no man master," are arrant nonsense to one who accepts the leader principle as valid.

(3) The third item in the creed of power culture is the principle of authority. This does not mean merely the acceptance of the authority of the expert, without which we could not even live; it goes much further. It means that the ideal organization is that in which the individuals live in unquestioning obedience and glory in doing so. The people, we are told, will be happy because they are set free in a curious manner; they are set free from freedom.

This conception is the direct renunciation of two highly prized features of our Western civilization, experimentalism and individualism. The experimental spirit, which takes as its text, "Try all things; hold fast that which is good," has been the source of much that we have prized, especially in science, but it has very little place in power culture. In a wholly authoritarian system the experimenter would not be free to declare his disquieting results, since, if they did not contribute to the success of the race or nation, they would not be "true."

That individualism is incompatible with the proposed creed is easy to see. The notion that each person is a separate object of infinite worth because he is a child of God made in God’s image must be rooted out if sheer authoritarianism is to flourish.

Our age, which began as a revolt against authority, became in short order one more addicted to authority than has usually been the case with mankind. When we wish to refer to an authoritarian epoch, it is no longer necessary to find our illustrations in the past. Few events are so instructive in this connection as the quick metamorphosis of the German Youth movement and its incorporation into the Hitler movement. If we understand the reasons for this change from revolt against authority to meek acceptance of authority, we are in a better position to appreciate the dangers in all parts of our Western life. Why cannot similar developments take place elsewhere?

As he faces this daring composite proposal, which amounts to a secession from Christendom with the avowed intention of making the secession movement dominant, the ordinary man is curiously helpless. He does not like Hitler and he does not like Hitler’s creed, but he has very little notion of what to do about it. He understands what to do in a military way, but he does not understand what to do in an intellectual way. He mumbles something about democracy, but he seldom examines the moral grounds that make democracy possible, and he has no living faith to put in the place of the heretical one that is so vigorously preached. He will, we agree, win the "war," in the sense that the Nazis will be stripped of their power to hold others in physical slavery and tyranny, but he may, nevertheless, lose the "struggle." The Kampf is much broader than the "war."

The chief weakness of modern Western man is weakness of the head rather than weakness of the heart. He is sympathetic and full of good aspirations; he is mild and kind; and he hates war. His strange delusion is the notion that the kind of world he seeks can be supported in mid-air, without a foundation. He denounces the Nazis but fails to see that they merely represent the logic of the modern position, which all of Western life has adopted to some degree. The Germans are more thorough and see the implications sooner. Modern man is, therefore, a pathetic creature -- pathetic in his hope.

Many of those who have lost their Christian faith but are revolted by the experimental evidence of what happens when the concept of power culture is taken seriously are beginning to see that a civilization which prides itself on artistic and scientific development, independent of ethical considerations, may become a hell on earth. German education and German science have been promoted and organized to an almost incredible degree, and German art has been encouraged, but the truth is that these are not enough. Without something else the end is moral chaos. Since the characteristic products of the hard labor of the laboratory can be used for a variety of ends, it is no surprise that these have made possible the strategy of terror in a way utterly unknown in the world before. Without the fruit of the labors of countless honest and brilliant men the present domination of so many small countries would be absolutely impossible. This is not to say that science is to blame for what occurs, but it is to say that the belief in science as sufficient for the development of a good society is fatuous in the extreme.

A convincing illustration of the possible role of science is seen in the Nazi use of psychology. There is no subject more carefully treated in Mein Kampf than propaganda, especially scientifically organized propaganda. This explains the great emphasis that has been put on the work of Dr. Goebbels. Dr. Goebbels is, we have reason to know, a first-rate psychologist. He knows, to a remarkable degree, the foibles of the human heart, and he knows how to exploit them. He has made some mistakes, but his major service to a bad cause has been phenomenal. Here is as good an illustration as could be desired of scientific knowledge and insight divorced from ethical considerations. The fears of an entire nation are fostered with the kind of skill and detachment that other men employ when dealing with rats.

In a brilliant analysis of our present culture, Professor H. G. Wood has dealt directly with the claim that ethical standards can be derived from science and has used as a test case the scientific estimate of the race mysticism of the Nazis, especially the claim made for the Germans as a Herrenvolk. But, as Professor Wood shows, the scientific criticism of the doctrine is one thing, while the ethical criticism is another.

. . . It is a good thing that so many of our biologists and anthropologists have torn to shreds the theory of racial purity promulgated by the Nazis; but the policy of the Nazis is not wrong because the theory of blood and race assumed as its basis will not stand scientific investigation. If the theory of blood and race advanced by the Nazis were acceptable to science, the Nazi policy would still be wrong, and we do not need the scientific refutation of their race-mysticism to see that their policy is wrong. Their policy is wrong because if they were the Herren-volk that they claim to be, the world has the right to expect from them something very different from their present contribution to world affairs. A Herren-volk should be subject to the principle "noblesse oblige." They should justify their racial superiority by what they give to mankind, and not by what they demand; but when I say this, I am judging them by a certain standard of greatness, and this standard of greatness is not derived from any particular science or from any scientific attitude; it is derived from the Gospel. The scientific criticism of the Nazi philosophy is comparatively trivial. The criticism of it in the light of the Gospel is final.(H. G. Wood, Christianity and Civilization, p. 28.)

Since our age is so strongly marked by the development of science and the technical products of science, we need to engage in more searching inquiry concerning the place of science in a civilization. We soon note that, in the nature of things, science may be good but that it is always a conditional good. The goodness of science is conditional because science is an instrument and the same instrument can be used for various or contrasting ends. It is like fire, which can burn valuable libraries or warm men’s dwellings with equal success. Science can help us to know the facts in most situations and it can help us to perform intended tasks, but it cannot tell us what we ought to do. Professor Wood’s reasoning is so helpful at this point that it is desirable to quote him again:

If we accept as our guiding principle the second great commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," science can help us not only by providing us with means to fulfill the law, but also by defining the obligations of neighborly love in detail. But the command is not a deduction from science or the scientific attitude, and if it be denied, the scientific attitude cannot reaffirm it. Ultimate ethical principles are not deductions from natural science. Indeed the boot is on the other leg. Natural science depends for its existence and progress on the acceptance of some ethical distinctions and ethical disciplines.(Ibid., pp. 30, 31)

This last point is the one that needs most clarification now. Since science is such an undoubted good, though a conditional good, we must try to discover in which cultural situations it can flourish or is likely to flourish. It is abundantly clear that there are some kinds of life in which science either cannot flourish or will actually decline. For example, science will not be long possible in any society that denies complete freedom of research. Scientists will not be able to do good work over a long period if they are controlled by any consideration other than the unprejudiced search for the truth. It is particularly clear that any limitation on freedom of inquiry will lead to the decline of a university. "A university," as President Hutchins has told us, "is a place where people think. It follows that the criterion of a university is intellectual." But in a system of power culture there is another criterion that supplants the criterion of intellectual integrity.

How the limitation on freedom works in practice was made clear as early as 1936, when the University of Heidelberg held its jubilee celebration. Though the foreign representatives were relatively few, there was a strong effort to impress them, but, even so, the limitations on academic freedom were not denied. The Reich Minister of Education, Herr Bernhard Rust, sought to defend the system by saying:

National Socialism is justly described as unfriendly to science if its appraiser assumes that independence of presuppositions and freedom from bias are the essential characteristics of scientific inquiry. But this we emphatically deny. National Socialism has recognized the fact that to construct a system of knowledge without presuppositions and without certain value judgments at its foundation is totally impossible.(John Brown Mason, "Academic Freedom under Nazism," Social Science, Vol. XV, No. 4.)

Value judgments are undoubtedly inescapable, but the value judgment on which science in the Western world is based is the sacredness of truth. It is incompatible with a system that breeds a disregard for objective truth or undermines the standard of personal honesty that requires a man to submit unfavorable as well as favorable evidence when he is testing a hypothesis. Science is possible because there are men engaged in it who will not sell out to the political boss, who will not falsify reports to support a preconceived notion, who will stay on the job even when the ordinary rewards are denied. Science, then, depends on ethical foundations, the chief of which is the unmercenary love of truth.

A consideration of the ethical foundations of science leads us to the clearest evidence that the system of power culture is bound to fail, no matter how successful it may seem for a time. It will finally fall of its own weight, because it involves inner contradictions. The power ideal in the modern world rests on the instrumental value of technics, and technical advance is impossible without faithful groundwork in the natural sciences. If truth is interpreted as referring, not to what is objectively the case, but to what advances the party or the nation, this faithful work cannot long be fostered. The best spirits will be driven out, as Einstein was driven out of Germany, and those who remain will find themselves working in an unhealthy atmosphere. Genuine science is something so delicate and so precious that it cannot thrive except under the best conditions.

The condition which, so far, has been most conducive to science is that in which the Christian world view is generally accepted. (The supposed conflict between science and the Christian faith has been much overestimated. Even the conflict that has occurred has been no more than an episode. It is in universities that owe their origins to Christian inspiration that a great share of scientific advancement has been made.) Men who undertake to think God’s thought after Him are working under a powerful stimulus. It is interesting to note that much of this mood carries over into the lives of men who, on the basis of the evidence with which they are acquainted, are forced to declare themselves as atheists. Frequently they have the reverent attitude toward the truth and the search for it that makes sense only in a theistic world view and is obviously inherited from such a view.(The Archbishop of Canterbury says, in his Gifford Lectures, that he attaches great importance to this point. Speaking of the sense in which Truth is august and compelling, he says: "This feeling is quite unreasonable if the order of reality is a brute fact and nothing else." -- William Temple, Nature, Man and God, p. 250.) Why should men be so finicky about the "truth" if the only relevant considerations are our subjective desires and brute matter? Indeed, the Nazis have carried out quite rigorously the logic of the non-theistic position. In doing so they have done the rest of mankind the service of showing the dire results of adopting the non-Euclidean faith that we have already described. Their pragmatism may be a bastard pragmatism, but it at least demonstrates to us the vast difference between a cultural system that accepts an order of objective truth and one that does not. It is a serious question whether the specific features of Western civilization that we have learned to prize are possible at all if their ancient foundations are removed. "It is perhaps a strange thing" writes Professor Flewelling, "that so little attention has as yet been paid to the necessity for moral and spiritual integrity in the scientist. In reality an integrity is called for which is no less than religious in its scope and sense of responsibility, and the field of science has never been wanting in its martyrs to the cause of truth.’’(Ralph Tyler Flewellin, The Survival of Western Culture, Harper & Brothers. New York, 1943, p. 211. Professor Flewelling’s ambitious book will reward the careful reader.) A culture that does not encourage this kind of integrity will not have genuine science very long.

Just as some declare their faith in science without inquiring sufficiently into the structure that makes science possible, others assert that their faith is in democracy. But a democratic way of life can by no means stand alone. Its success or failure depends, not primarily on political technics, but on the unargued principles and premises that the citizens of a democracy already espouse. Ultimately it depends on the faith of the people, and this fact is demonstrated by the failure of the most modern democratic technics when the supporting faith is weak or non-existent.

Democracy does not succeed by creating a system of counting votes. It depends far more on whether we retain the essential dignity of man. Can man, the individual, respect himself and his neighbors. If he cannot, the most elaborate system will break down. Lacking respect for himself and failing to trust others, he is easily appealed to by a demagogue who asks the citizens to trust him and him alone. Loss of the sense of human dignity leads thus directly to Caesarism. But how is this sense of human dignity to be maintained and preserved?

Just as science and political order are dependent on more fundamental considerations, so economic justice also is dependent. Professor Von Beckerath has done good service in showing how economic reconstruction is largely dependent on moral stamina. If faith in the pledged word should break down, we should have a marked lowering of the economic standard of living no matter what fine instruments of production we might invent.(Cf. Herbert Von Beckerath, In Defense of the West.)

The question that faces mankind at this juncture is not which civilization we like but how civilization is possible. We are especially interested in how that civilization is possible which produces science and art and the various improvements on raw nature. The meaning of civilization, as most of us understand it, is the supremacy of reason, not merely over the forces of nature, but more truly over our human dispositions.(Cf. Albert Schweitzer, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, pp. 37 ff.) This sounds like a matter of education, but the problem goes far deeper than that. Mass education brings its own dangers and may actually lead to degradation since the resultant literacy makes it easier to reach a people with propaganda. The conclusion, then, is that there can be no enduring or generally satisfying civilization apart from ethical foundations. A mere power culture will eventually cease to be a culture at all.

What would happen if worse came to worst and the moral foundations that have been so laboriously constructed in several centuries were to be destroyed, as they have already been temporarily destroyed in some parts of the West. Most of our external structure would still stand, just as most of the external structure of Rome stood after the ancient pattern was shattered. Some observers might even be impressed, for a while, with trains that run on time. But the external structure of society would be an empty shell. All combinations between different power groups would be temporary arrangements of ultimate rivals, and everyone would understand their transitory and cynical nature. There would be continual planetary civil war, either a war of bullets or a war of nerves, and most of the fine things that man has produced would eventually be destroyed. Finally, restoration might come, but it would come only by the slow, hard way of ethical reconstruction.

Modern Western man should be wise enough to engage in this practical and necessary task while he still has allies and while he has great resources. The chief of these resources in the Western world centers in a precious cluster of ideas, which has been well described by Professor Stace as follows:

Western civilization, especially as it appears in democratic countries and institutions, has for its inner soul or substance a special and peculiar cluster of ideas. I call them a cluster because they cling together. They imply one another. The chief members of this cluster are the ideas of (1) the infinite value of the individual; (2) the equality of all men (in some sense or other), (3) individualism; (4) liberty.(W. T. Stace, The Destiny of Western Man, p. 124.)

Modern man has many important tasks, but it is difficult to think of one more important than the maintenance, growth, and application of this cluster. The question how this can be done will be approached in the next chapter.

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