Chapter 9: Harnessing the Caveman

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 9: Harnessing the Caveman

Many people listen, perhaps allured but still unconvinced, to the presentation of high ideals of spiritual quality and life, and the reason is the caveman. Young people in particular often visualize their moral problem in some such way as this: on the one side is the ideal life with its purity, its self-forgetfulness, its fine awareness of things invisible, and on the other side are the primitive instincts -- pugnacity, egotism, sensuality, the caveman within, and between these two there is an irreconcilable hostility. Thus morally split and bifurcated, with the ancient savage frowning on the potential saint, folk try to live, supposing that such is man’s inevitable estate.

Some, to be sure, endeavor to simplify their disunited lives by throwing their whole weight upon one side of the division against the other, but seldom with entire success. They try to be whole-hearted cavemen, to give loose rein to their primitive instincts, but even if they do not encounter the laws of man they face that higher half of themselves, their Dr. Jekyll who regards their Mr. Hyde with ashamed contempt. Or if they side with their higher half, they often see nothing better to do with their primitive instincts than to restrain them, thrust them down into their hold and shut the hatch on them. Such folk always have a smoldering mutiny on board. Even on days of quiet sailing they can hear the grumbling of their barbarian instincts in the hold, and sometimes those long repressed mutineers break loose and seize the quarterdeck and there is trouble to pay before they are got back again.

Most folk are in one of these two classes: barbarians with penitent and wistful interludes, or good men with unconquered mutinies.

Yet both are failing to meet one of the elemental tests of character: harnessing the caveman. For our primitive instincts are neither to be surrendered to nor to be stamped on and cast out. They are about the most valuable part of our native equipment. They are our original motive force, and our business with them is not to crush them but to expand their uses, to organize them around new purposes and direct them to new aims. In the jungle, for example, the hunting instinct inevitably developed. Hunger evoked it. Men had to hunt if they would live and, because nature associates satisfaction with her necessary operations, men enjoyed the hunting to which need prompted them. Now, however, when jungle days are long outgrown and hunting in its old form is no longer necessary, the hunting instinct does not stop, but is lifted up, enlarged, centered around new purposes; it becomes driving power in some of the noblest achievements of the race. When Magellan circumnavigated the earth, he was hunting for the truth about the globe. When Galileo swept the heavens with his telescope, he was hunting for a larger vision of the universe. When Pasteur, in spite of his paralysis, sought for the secret of disease, he was hunting a remedy for human ills. When St. Augustine prayed, "I will seek Thee, that my soul may live," he was hunting for spiritual resources without which life is not worth living. To what fine meanings and noble aims can this primitive hunting instinct be expanded!

The difference between the best lives and the worst does not lie in the possession of strong primitive instincts by the low and the lack of them by the high. The difference lies in the purposes around which those primitive instincts are organized and the ends to which they are directed. A dog’s loyalty to his master is so fair a thing that unforgetable stories are told about its depth and constancy. Yet a dog’s loyalty to his master began with a wolf’s loyalty to his pack. That was its starting point. For primitive instincts can be transformed, and that fact presents to human character one of its elemental problems and one of its finest hopes.


Ambition, the desire to overtop our fellows, to have more than other people have, to be more than other people are, has left a bloodstained trail across history. It began back in the jungle where men had to conquer or die. Either this chief would overthrow that chief and seize his wives and his estate, or else that chief would overthrow this chief and seize his. Under such circumstances, when a man was born with a powerful endowment of physical and mental force, there was but one channel in which that overflowing stream of personal energy could flow -- ambition to surpass and overcome.

When this primitive instinct, ingrained by immemorial necessary, passed from the jungle into history, the consequences were terrific. Pierre Fritel’s picture, "The Conquerors," tells the story. Between two rows of the piled dead, men stark and naked, women with cold babies at their breasts, amid the bleak desolation of old battlefields, the conquerors appear, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, and their ambitious company, riding on horseback amid bloody scenes to their supremacy.

Nevertheless, in spite of the ruinous moanings of ambition, none of us who amounts to anything lacks it. That instinct is an indispensable part of our native endowment; it is one of the most powerful driving forces of our lives. Let the ambition to discover the North Pole lay hold on Peary and no obstacles could defeat him. For over twenty years he made it his ambition to plant the Stars and Stripes at the North Pole, until, as he said, "I long ago ceased to think of myself save as an instrument for the attainment of that end." If a child were born in one of our homes lacking ambition, we should be seriously worried: he would not be all there. Whatever we may be doing with that instinct, it is in us all and more than once, when it has cracked its whip, we have done some of our best work.

The attitude of idealistic teachers toward this deep-seated and powerful element in our nature has often been one of severe repression. They have condemned it utterly as a curse, to be cast out and trodden under foot. Such an attitude is historically represented in old monasteries where men turned their backs on this world’s ambitions and hopes, and counted themselves holy for so doing. That same attitude is represented in some forms of evangelicalism, as in hymns like,

Oh, to be nothing, nothing.

The idea behind that familiar conception of Christianity is that ambition is to be crushed, and the consequence of that attitude has been a pallid and sickly kind of Christianity. If a man prays too hard, "Oh, to be nothing, nothing," he may get exactly what he asks.

When, however, one turns to those great lives which have been the glory of the Christian movement, it is plain that they are handling ambition in another way altogether. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, was a man whose figure looms the larger the longer we know it, as mountains look greater when we retreat from them. But his own phrasing of the motive power which drove him down into the slums of Darkest England to work for folk whom everybody else had forgotten, was this: "the impulses and urgings of an undying ambition" to save souls. Ambition is not something to be cast out; it is to be lifted and expanded, oriented around new aims, and devoted to great purposes.

The greatest saints are always made of the same material as the greatest sinners. Ignatius Loyola, the dashing, gallant, adventurous cavalier, becomes Ignatius Loyola, the fearless, ambitious, militant reformer, with all the endowments of his old life reorganized around Christian purposes in the new. He threw none of his equipment away. He kept it all and used it.

For we can employ powers like ambition in many different ways. A man may be ambitious to conquer a neighboring chief and steal his wives, or he may be ambitious to make a city neighborhood through his settlement house a more decent place in which to live. A man may be ambitious to be the richest man in the county, or he may be ambitious to make his business a blessing to every man who works for him and a public service to every customer who buys from him. A man may be ambitious to be saluted as Rabbi in the market-place, or he may be ambitious to lay his life, like the prophet’s, on the lives of those whom he teaches and breathe into them the breath of life.

When Mackay, the missionary, reached Uganda in Africa, the difference between him and the natives was not that he lacked ambition and they had it. He had more ambition than all of them put together or else he would not have been there -- ambition to make Uganda one more province in the Kingdom of Christ. These primitive instincts are too valuable to throw away. They are meant to be developed, reorganized and rededicated, and the degree to which that has been achieved is one of the primary tests of character. The ideal man, as Jacob Boehme said, has all his fiery energies harnessed to the service of the light.


This truth applies to combativeness. The centuries are sick with it, and its trail across our generation’s life has made for us the bloodiest days in human history. It began in the jungle where men had to fight wild beasts or die, where they could not have survived had not nature endowed them with capacity for the swift rise of pugnacity. We still have in our bodies the left-overs of that old necessity. When we are tired one of the surest symptoms of our fatigue is that we begin imagining controversies with other people, making up in our minds contentious conversations with folk whom we do not like, writing imaginary letters swelling with rage or bitter with sarcasm. The reason lies deep in our history. Our fatigued bodies crave stimulant and, if there is no real fight on, our bodies persuade our minds to imagine one so that the glands may discharge the old fluid which used so swiftly to prepare our fathers for a fight. So deep-seated in us is the instinct of pugnacity!

When one thinks of this combative spirit in relation with the Christian Gospel, in what sharp contrast do the two things stand! One’s first impression is that Christianity can have nothing to do with combativeness except to cast it out. It is ruinous, disruptive, wrong. It has plunged the world in blood. Yet one cannot help remembering that when Martin Luther walked into the imperial council hall of Charles V at Worms to meet his enemies, a famous general tapped him on the shoulder and said, "My poor monk! my poor monk! thou art marching to make a stand, the like of which I, and many a general, in our gravest battles have never made." Combativeness has meaning in realms where physical violence has been left far behind. "When I am angry," said Luther, "I can pray well and preach well." He did not cast his caveman out; he made his caveman work for him.

Pugnacity expressing itself in physical violence is sheer savagery and in its organized form in war it is the most threatening peril that the world faces. Civilization cannot abide its continuance. But pugnacity has other expressions besides that. Combativeness may be in a soldier driving his bayonet into the abdomen of an enemy or it may be in a group of scientists like those who are now stalking yellow fever in the five places on this planet where it breeds, determined to win a great fight for humanity. Combativeness may appear in a gunman, swaggering, contentious and violent, or in an educator who has declared war on the ignorance of a Chinese province, and against all obstacles is building schools with which to win his fight. Combativeness may shoot up a frontier train in a drunken brawl or it may go into the pulpit to attack a social evil like slavery, saying in Henry Ward Beecher’s words, "All the bells that God has put in my belfry shall ring!"

Indeed, the only way to get rid of one kind of pugnacity is to exalt the other. As Hinton said, the only way to abolish war is to make peace heroic.


Indeed, it is a strange mistake to suppose that these primitive endowments of man’s nature, obviously needed in war, are not just as indispensable in peace. Those of us who were with the armies in France saw magnificent exhibitions of courage. Yet some of those soldiers today, carrying on in civil life with broken health, shattered nerves, lost limbs, need more courage than it took to see them through at St. Mihiel. Indeed, even if they escaped the bullets and the gas and came out whole and now are facing in their personal and family life only the sort of experiences that soon or late fall on most of us, the loss of children, the desperate illness of those whom we love better than ourselves, the collapse of fortune that forces a man to go down to the bottom and start over again, one suspects that more sheer courage is demanded than the Argonne required.

We are wrong when we suppose that courage receives its supreme exhibition in war. More patient courage is represented in the "hundred neediest cases" of The New York Times than in most battles. Many elements in war help people to be courageous -- the mass movements, the pride of patriotism, the panoply of uniform and parade, the long exalted traditions of war’s glory; all these help to create and sustain courage. Moreover, war is popular while it is being waged; orators defend it, songs praise it, the whole nation is shouting for it; and the most unimportant doughboy in the trenches knows that news of the enterprise in which he shares is awaited by millions with excited interest. Then, too, there is companionship in war; sacrifice and suffering are gregarious, not solitary, and no man goes into a tight place without knowing that all around him are thousands daring the same.

But in ordinary life multitudes face situations where courage is desperately needed, where no pomp of circumstance sustains their bravery, no interested public is concerned to see them win, and no fellowship surrounds their solitary fortitude. Blind folk fighting a brave battle, sick folk nourishing a forlorn yet patient hope, poor folk sustaining crushing poverty, bereaved folk covering broken hearts with the beautiful hypocrisy of smiling faces -- who says that the spirit of combative courage is not needed? If ever a man is tempted, in a low mood, to give up hope about humanity, let him think upon the courage which human life on every side of him exhibits -- the quiet, constant, sustained heroic courage in obscure and forgotten places where nobody sees!

No great moral life is possible without this spirit which enabled Paul to say, "I have fought the good fight." A young man in one of our colleges once sought an interview with Dr. Robert E. Speer. The youth came in shamefacedly, looked around to be sure that no one could hear or see, and handed Dr. Speer a letter. Seeing that it was in a girl’s handwriting, Dr. Speer returned it, but the youth insisted that he read it through. It ran like this: "I know all about your life at -- College, and I want to tell you what I think about you. You and I have known one another all our lives, and we have been good friends; but I think you are a coward and I think that I ought to tell you so." When Dr. Speer looked up the boy’s lips were trembling. "That is not the worst," he said. "She tells the truth." President of his class, playing on the football eleven, he was going to pieces because he was a coward. He knew what was right but he lacked courage to stand by it. As Samuel Johnson said, "Unless a man has that virtue he has no security for preserving any other."

"Sinner" is an old word and for some people the teeth are gone from it. But there is another word which one craves the chance to use about certain folk who are welching in the moral fight. They are cowards. They came from fine families, they have fine traditions, they know their duty, their sense of honor has not lost its voice. But they are cowards.

The ideal life is not soft. It has harnessed the caveman and put him to use. It has belted ambition and combative courage into the achievement of stable and useful character. It has caught the meaning of Walt Whitman’s brusque lines:

You there, impotent, loose in the knees,

Open your scarf’d chops till I blow grit within you.


One of the faults in much popular religion springs from the endeavor to construct the religious life out of our negative and passive virtues and to neglect the mastery and use of our vigorous native endowments. As a result, we get a religion characterized by dullness, apathy, feebleness.

My friend, who considers himself interestingly irreligious, was once assailing religion with considerable dash and spirit. In effect he was saying that faith is an opiate, that men drug themselves with it, become sleepy, complacent and comfortable through the use of it, and that their main object in going to church is to be sprayed once more with spiritual cocaine so that they may feel less acutely the ills of life and the miseries of men. As he thus talked on, my mind rehearsed the life stories of some of these religious folk whom he was thus berating, whose faith had been to them so comfortable and benumbing an anesthetic. I thought of Hugh Latimer on his way to the stake to be burned for his faith, saying to his companion in martyrdom, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." Raymond Lull, sustaining with incredible resolution his labors among the Mohammedans, and his ultimate martyrdom; Adoniram Judson, the missionary, lying for seventeen months in the King of Ava’s prisons and emerging just as unbeaten and twice as determined as he was before; John Howard, the prison reformer, who made as adventurous an expedition into the dark continent of Europe’s prisons as ever Livingstone did into Africa, -- such lives came into memory and others whose biographies never will be written but whom some of us know well. Most of all I thought of the supreme Figure in the history of religion and of the way his fearless life moved with persistent purpose through calumny, hatred and frustration to the brutality of the cross. And when my friend had finished disclosing his theory of religion as an anesthetic, I said some things to him in straight Anglo-Saxon.

Certainly the great exemplars of religion have never acted as though they were under the influence of an opiate.

So far as popular religion is concerned, however, my friend has something on his side. How much of our commonplace religious life is pulseless, unadventurous, and timid! In the country on a summer Sunday, when the quiet of the week’s first day falls over farm and woodland, and the church bells peal their charming, lazy call to worship, how restful is the scene! And if one asks the explanation of this unearthly quiet which has fallen on man’s work, the answer is "Religion." Even in great cities, where the machinery of life does not stop and throngs never pause, the church means to many people chiefly a place of relaxation from the strain of life. As in a crowded drawing-room, amid the clamor of eager conversation, a call of "Hush!" is heard and, slowly growing quieter, the crowd hears a voice singing and is silent, so religion still comes to many lives amid the week’s overstrain and turbulence, and its chief significance is passivity and quiet.

No one who rightly estimates the need of men for inward serenity will belittle this aspect of religion’s meaning. But there surely is a contrast sharp and unmistakable between this idea of religion and some of the characteristic attitudes of Jesus. When he cried, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me," he clearly was not administering an opiate. He was calling a band of young men to an adventure one of the most costly and significant that ever captured the imagination and allegiance of men. Pizarro, the Peruvian explorer, once faced his soldiers on a day when their enterprise had run into perilous hazard. With his sword’s point he drew a line on the sand from east to west and, turning to the south, he said to his followers, "Friends and comrades! on that side are toil, hunger, nakedness, the drenching storm, desertion, and death; on this side, ease and pleasure. There lies Peru with its riches; here, Panama and its poverty. Choose, each man, what best becomes a brave Castilian. For my part I go to the south." That sounds extraordinarily like the appeal of Jesus. On a sleepy Sunday morning, with a listless service and an apathetic sermon, one too easily may forget that the driving power of Christianity has lain in the courageous and combative Personality who founded it, the adventurous faith which has sustained it, and the brave people who have been its glory.


To be sure, the transformation of primitive instincts is at times exceedingly difficult. The sexual instinct, not finding normal and legitimate expression, can be translated into artistic and social creativeness, but it is not easy. The instinct of fear, indispensable in jungle life if man was to escape his enemies, has to be elevated into respect for equals and reverence for superiors. Selfishness must be transformed by enlarging the idea of what the self is, expanding the personality until it takes in our friends, our community, our nation, our world, so that one does not need to stamp upon his self, but can say,

To thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Needless to say, this transformation is not easy.

Moreover, not only is the problem in itself difficult, it is needlessly and cruelly complicated by untoward social conditions which make almost impossible the reorganization of old instincts around high purposes. There are some lives that never will have a fair chance to achieve this goal until their social circumstances can be changed. A gunman, for example, has been called "the genius of the slums." In a slum neighborhood a boy is born magnificently endowed with the old native instincts -- ambition, pugnacity, adventurousness, self-regard. In the slums, however, they find few natural channels to flow in where they will do anybody any good. They find perverse and primitive expression. They may land their owner in Sing-Sing or the death chair.

Exactly the same kind of boy, however, with the same endowment of native instincts, may be born in a good home and may easily become a blessing to the world. Decent channels are provided for his powers. Ambitious for the victory of good causes, a valiant moral warrior for the right, a pioneer in new social enterprises, with an expanded personality that calls all men brothers, he has a fair chance to beat his swords into ploughshares and his spears into pruning hooks.

Difficult as the problem is in itself, however, and complicated as it is by adverse circumstances, the solution of it still remains one of the central tests of character. Until it is met a man is doomed to live a disunited life at cross-purposes with itself. Part of him frustrates the rest of him. And one of the great tasks of all true education, social reform, and religion combined, is so to present to men and make possible for men those aims in life which are worth serving, that men may choose them, love them, become patriots for them, organize their lives around them, and so harness all their fiery energies to the service of the light.