Chapter 16: How Surmount Discouragement about the World?

Dear Mr. Brown: Letters to a Person Perplexed about Religion
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 16: How Surmount Discouragement about the World?

My dear Ted:

Yes, I saw that statement to which you refer, recently issued by the Federation of American Scientists. It is indeed sobering to be told by an organization, representing two thousand scientists, that "it appears unlikely that the world will avoid a nuclear holocaust if another fifteen years pass without arms control agreements." We are hearing that kind of warning from every side now. Leo Serem, an atomic physicist, writes,

If the three words "Activate Plan A" are ever spoken into a certain crimson telephone at Strategic Air Command Headquarters, over three hundred B-52 bombers will take to the sky, carrying 20-megaton nuclear bombs to the enemy. In a number of hours, boasts the S.A.C., 50 million Russians will be killed. And when the tumult subsides this planet of ours will be an irrevocable inferno of radioactive debris.

Or, putting the matter in reverse, a subcommittee of our Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy has predicted the result of a possible attack on us, which would kill 23,000,000 Americans immediately and leave 25,900,000 others so badly injured that they would subsequently die. Drop a single bomb into the Hudson River, say the experts, and it could create a tidal wave which would drown most of the inhabitants of Manhattan.

And now you want me to write you a letter that will lift from your mind the shadow of discouragement about the world!

My first remark is that it is better to be dismayed than to be complacent. This is no time for optimistic contentment. Never in all history has mankind faced such monstrous danger. How different is the world which you confront from the world I knew in my young manhood! Then optimism reigned. Scientists and philosophers preached "inevitable progress"; an historian could write, "Human history is a record of progress -- a record of accumulating knowledge and increasing wisdom, of continual advancement from a lower to a higher platform of intelligence and well-being"; and the poets sang,

God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world,


Glory to man in the highest,

For man is the master of things.

To be sure, the new inventions were causing many difficult problems in human relationships, but Thomas Edison had the answer to that: "What man’s mind can create, man’s character can control." Well, can it? Today that is the world’s towering question. What man’s mind has created -- the techniques of nuclear and bacteriological warfare, for example -- man’s character is not controlling. So, you are disturbed and at times disheartened. I don’t blame you. All of us had better be disturbed. No wonder that a physician recently said to one of his patients, "What you need is a few months vacation on another planet."

Nevertheless, I am not discouraged, and I will try to tell you why.

For one thing, the very fear which all sane men and women feel today as they face the possibility of nuclear war can have constructive results. When fear means panic, terror, consternation, it is worse than useless. But intelligent fear of some evil which ought to be feared is one of the major secrets of all human achievement. As Angelo Patri put it, "Education consists in being afraid at the right time." Undoubtedly this is a proper time to be afraid. We cannot take our civilization for granted any more. Let’s not fool ourselves -- we can lose it. One more war, armed with megaton weapons, and it will be gone.

Alfred Noyes, in his poem "The Torch-Bearers," describes Galileo showing his new telescope to the senators of Florence; and the old men, wagging their white beards, say to one another,

This glass will give us great advantages

In time of war.

So, presented by science with a gift that could expand the mind and spirit of the race, those old men thought first of "great advantages in time of war." And Alfred Noyes exclaims,

. . . O God of love,

Even amidst their wonder at thy world,

Dazed with new beauty, gifted with new powers,

These old men dreamed of blood.

That is exactly what our "old men" are doing now with the priceless gifts of science, and it is history’s supreme spectacle of lunacy.

So, of course, we are afraid, and we ought to be, but such fear can be a constructive incentive to notable achievement. Behind our schools is the fear of illiteracy and ignorance. Behind our medical science is the fear of dread diseases. From lighthouses on perilous seacoasts to democracy trying to displace crushing tyranny, man’s positive response to danger has been one of the most creative factors in his experience. When the pull of aspiration is backed by the push of intelligent, popular fear, something generally happens. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions."

God grant that fear may have that consequence now in preventing a nuclear war! Personally, I am hopeful that it will.

For another reason I refuse to surrender to discouragement: the basic causes of our present danger are full of promising good. The development of modern science is obviously rich in marvelous possibilities. To be sure, science has put into our hands powers with which we can commit suicide; it has mounted us on a bigger horse than we yet know how to ride; but only a fool would wish to return to prescientific days. This problem of getting power and then mishandling it is very old. Leonardo da Vinci invented a submarine, and then tore up the plans for fear of what men might do with it. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, thinking that so dreadful an explosive never would be used in war; and then with the profits from dynamite he established the Nobel Peace Prize to help make his hopes come true. Our present-day scientists, like J. Robert Oppenheimer, did not want the first nuclear bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima; they wanted it dropped on a small, uninhabited island off Japan’s coast to exhibit its terrific power, without killing anyone. And now, seeing how megaton weapons threaten the world, Dr. Oppenheimer says, "The physicist knows sin." Well, our whole society knows sin -- the tragic sin of misusing a gift which is inherently promising and good. But just because science is so rich in promise, I refuse to panic at this calamitous abuse of it. My faith is that the time will come when mankind will be endlessly grateful for "atoms for peace."

A second basic cause of our present danger is also good: the increasingly intimate interrelationships between all peoples, so that one way or another we are all in touch with everybody else on earth, and what happens anywhere matters everywhere. Your generation cannot imagine how swiftly this new situation has swept in on us. Before I went to college I had never been more than sixty miles away from home. Before my grandchildren went to college they had flown the Atlantic Ocean three times, had lived and studied in Switzerland two years, had been all over Europe and the Middle East; one of them had lived as an exchange student in Turkey, and the other as an exchange student in New Zealand. That is a homely illustration of a new fact about the world. And it is a promising fact, rich in possibilities of co-operation, mutual understanding, raised living standards, world federation, and so on. But, Ted, that same good fact is going to keep your generation in turmoil. It contains the possibility of total war. It inevitably involves all sorts of vexatious conflicts between diverse groups whose first contacts will issue, not in co-operation, but in rancor and prejudice. It will mean the explosion of underprivileged peoples, demanding almost overnight the standards of living they now see in richer nations. It may well mean a drift toward totalitarianism and various forms of collectivism -- including communism -- in states whose people are unprepared for democracy, or who find its processes too slow in giving them what they want. Nevertheless, I refuse to be terrified. This movement toward "one world" is basically hopeful and promising. Granted its dangers! But danger can mean stimulus, not fright.

To sum up this point I am trying to make, we should be encouraged by the fact that our problem is, not how to handle debility and feebleness, but how to handle power. Science, putting under our control instruments of tremendous efficiency, and breaking down the ancient barriers of isolation with new means of intercommunication, has introduced us to an era of unprecedented power. That is sobering, but it is not discouraging. Indeed it puts a torch to my Christian faith and sets it blazing. For I keep hearing those unforgettable words of Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize winner in atomic physics: "Science has created a world in which Christianity is a necessity."

For a further reason I refuse to surrender to discouragement: the changed attitude toward war. A young man like yourself can only with difficulty imagine how radical and widespread that change has been. Let me illustrate by quotation the appraisal of war that was dominant in my young manhood. "The noblest virtues of man are developed in war. Without war the world would degenerate and disappear in a morass of materialism" -- that was Field Marshal von Moltke. "War is one of the conditions of progress. . . The day that humanity achieves a great pacific Roman Empire, having no external enemies, that day its morality and its intelligence will be placed in the very greatest peril"-- that was Ernest Renan, author of the famous life of Christ. "We must play a great part in the world, and especially . . . perform those deeds of blood, of valor, which above everything else bring national renown. . . . By war alone can we acquire those virile qualities necessary to win in the stern strife of actual life" -- that was Theodore Roosevelt. Can you imagine anyone outside an insane asylum talking like that today? I am thinking, not of what pacifists are saying, but of what militarists are saying. General Eisenhower has repeatedly told us that in a nuclear war there can be no victors, only victims; and General MacArthur, speaking in Tokyo, said, "Another war may blast mankind to perdition, but still we hesitate, still we cannot, despite the yawning abyss at our very feet, unshackle ourselves from the past."

Once it was possible to win a war. Victors and vanquished stood in such opposite categories at a war’s conclusion that there was no possibility of mistaking the prestige, prosperity, and increased power of the one and the dismal defeat and disgrace of the other. But war now would plunge all participants, and the neutrals also, into indiscriminate ruin. War has become the mass murder of civilian populations, plus the unfathomed genetic effects of nuclear fall-out for generations to come. Appalling? Yes! But, as John Dewey once said, "Nobody thinks until he has to"; and mankind now faces a situation which compels thinking and thinking hard. I do not see how anyone can have lived as long as I have, and can have witnessed the extraordinary about-face in man’s thinking about war, without finding hope rising in him that we shall in the end "unshackle ourselves from the past."

Despite the unique horror of our present danger, I cannot avoid taking courage from still another source: the unexpected, unforeseeable victories of right over wrong in history. Ours is not the first disheartening generation. Over a century ago in England Samuel Wilberforce was so discouraged that for a time he avoided marriage, not wanting to beget children, "hostages to fortune," he said, in so ill a world. Then the miracle happened. An idea captured Wilberforce. Frail in body, low in mind, yet faith grew in him that at least the miserable slave trade did not need to last. So he took his stand, was elected to Parliament, fought a magnificent battle, whose final victory he greeted on his deathbed with incalculable joy. That kind of thing has happened so often in history that I am encouraged to expect to see it again.

Just a few years ago Hitler seemed to be on top of the world. Certainly, he thought he was. Children in German schools were using Nazi textbooks with statements in them like this: "The teaching of mercy and love of one’s neighbor is foreign to the German race, and the Sermon on the Mount is, according to Nordic sentiment, an ethic for cowards and idiots." Did Hitler last? Upon the contrary, who ever fell more ignominiously from the peak of success into the abyss of defeat and shame? Of course that doesn’t prove that Russia will not push us into war, or that some accidental mistake may not trigger an explosion of insane nuclear slaughter. But I cannot read history, so constantly echoing Victor Hugo’s remark that Napoleon fell and ended on St. Helena because he "bothered God," without feeling in my bones that Stalin and Khrushchev and Mao Tse and all their kind are not history’s final word.

For example, when the fifteenth century was swinging into the sixteenth here are the big names that made the news and filled the ears of men: Sultan Muhammad II, Pizarro, Cesare Borgia, Charles the Bold, Suleiman the Magnificent, Baber, Francis I. Ted, how much do you know about any one of them? But here are three other names of that same generation: Columbus, Copernicus, Martin Luther. Any school child can tell you about them. Is not that a pattern, repeated over and over again in history -- the works of violence perishing and the achievements of the spirit enduring?

I dare you to be a pessimist. You are troubled by discouragement. I dare you to stop playing around the fringes of it and to plunge deep into it. Stop trying to be hopeful. Accept pessimism, lock, stock, and barrel, and make a creed of it. Believe that all man’s ideals are delusions, all his hopes mirages, that any seeming progress in the past was only an accidental flash in the pan. Agree that we have now reached dead-end, that the dictatorships have the democracies on the run because democracy is essentially unworkable, that Christian goodwill is all fantasy and fustian, and that a nuclear war will soon finish off civilization and perhaps the human race. If you are going to be a pessimist, try being a real one; make disenchantment your final word and futility your creed. You can’t do it. At once arguments on the other side begin shouting, and will not be silenced. You are going out into a tough and stormy generation, but you are going with hope that a victory can be won over the evil forces that threaten the world. That kind of victory has been won so often in history that you cannot deny your faith that it can happen again. Easygoing optimism is silly; thoroughgoing pessimism is fatal; what we need is intelligence, faith, goodwill, courage. "Courage," says Sir Edmund Hillary, the famous mountain climber, "often means beings afraid, and yet carrying on as though you didn’t know what fear is."

I suspect that you can guess what I am going to say in conclusion. Underneath the reasons I have given for keeping up an undiscouraged fight for a world freed from the threat of war lies my religious faith. I don’t believe that this universe is, as one materialist put it, "all an affair of chance, the froth and fume of the waves on an ocean of sterile matter." Because I believe that there is Mind behind our lives here, Meaning in them, Purpose running through them, Destiny ahead of them, confidence and hope will not down. Such a situation as we face today, far from weakening that faith, calls it out, makes it seem all the more indispensable.

In 1908 a book was published in France entitled La Folie de Jésus (The Insanity of Jesus), in which the author said that in modern Europe Jesus would have been put into an asylum, as a megalomaniac afflicted with mystical hallucinations of a kind well known to clinical medicine. So! This modern world with its hatred and violence is wise, and Jesus is insane! The spectacle of intercontinental missiles, polaris submarines, and stockpiles of megaton bombs is common sense, and he is crazy! Well, during our Civil War they told Lincoln that Grant was a drunkard, and Lincoln answered that he wished he knew what kind of liquor Grant drank, that he might get some for his other generals. So, anyone who cares about mankind today might well wish that Jesus’ madness would infect us all. If to be sane is to be like our nuclear militarists, and if to be mad is to be Christlike, then insanity would be our profoundest need.

I began believing in God for intellectual reasons, and I am confident that they still hold good. But today my faith is militant because the lack of it seems to me so dangerous. Take one of the great agnostics, a rebel against all religion, Herbert Spencer, a towering philosopher and a good man. Listen to him telling us where his agnosticism left him:

Then behind all these mysteries lies the all-embracing mystery -- whence this universal transformation which has gone on throughout a past eternity, and will go on unceasingly throughout a future eternity! And along with this rises the paralyzing thought --what if, of all that is thus incomprehensible to us, there exists no comprehension anywhere?

It is a "paralyzing thought." It can paralyze hope and courage, all confidence in mankind’s future and all faith in the dignity and value of personality. Ted, Haeckel, the materialist, undertook to explain the sense of duty, this strange, commanding, imperative sense of moral obligation in us, and how do you suppose he accounted for it? It is nothing but a physical accident, he said, due to "a long series of phyletic modifications in the phronema of the cortex." That seems to me ludicrous intellectually; but even worse is its deteriorating effect on a man’s confidence, faith, hope, and devotion in a dangerous time like this. My faith is Lowell’s:

Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,--

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

The best of good wishes to you as you go deeper into your study of International Law. I am hoping that it will lead you into some area of diplomacy where you can help save the world from its present insanity. We certainly need strong and dedicated leadership, and skeptics and cynics cannot furnish it. Strength to your faith! And let me say again what I have already said to you face to face, how deeply I enjoyed sharing in the Communion Service when you joined the Church. I was delighted with your minister and most favorably impressed by his excellent sermon.

Most cordially,