Saints and Revolutionaries, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 1

To-day

WHAT do I believe about man in his relation to the universe? Very little, and that little very doubtfully. But about man's own nature, and about his position on this planet to-day I have certain beliefs which are firm, precise and far-reaching in their consequences. Though in the last chapter of this book I shall make a few guesses about the universe, I shall in the main be concerned with matters nearer home.

“Belief" is a vague word. We may distinguish between three attitudes, which I shall call “surmise," "belief" and "conviction". The distinction is not rigid, but it is useful. In "surmise" I feel a minimum of belief, but not no belief at all. So far as possible I avoid taking action, but if action is inevitable I act as though the surmised proposition were true. In "belief", though I have not certainty, I am ready to bet very heavily on the truth of the proposition. I act unhesitatingly, or rather with no appreciable hesitation. In "conviction" I have no doubt whatever that the proposition is true. I cannot conceive its being false.

In the course of my life I have acquired a certain loose tissue of thought about man and the rest of the universe. This tissue is made up of bushels of woolly surmise, a few relatively firm threads of belief, and one or two indestructible convictions, like rare wires of steel maintaining the whole web. These indestructible convictions are intuitive. They do not present themselves to me as propositions which I might perhaps have doubted but do in fact believe; they are immediate perceptions. I find them very difficult to describe in a satisfactory manner, but as they actually present themselves to me they are indubitable.

For instance, I perceive intuitively that kindliness and mutual respect and co-operation are in some sense "good", intrinsically and universally. But what exactly I mean by saying this, I find it extremely difficult to determine. All the same, the statement does represent an intuition which I find indubitable and immensely significant for practical life.

With equal certainty I perceive that it is "good" to become, so far as possible, accurately and comprehensively aware of the world, including myself and other individuals. It is "good" to be as sensitive as possible and as intelligent as possible. It is "good" to strive to see things truly and to see things whole.

Kindliness and intelligence, or in more exalted language, love and reason, present themselves to me with a special savour in virtue of which I call them "good", and declare with absolute confidence that in general, and apart from particular qualifying circumstances, they ought to exist.

From this intuited savour of love and reason I derive one of my very few firm, but theoretically dubitable beliefs. I firmly believe that no mind which clearly apprehends love and reason as they really are can fail to perceive them as good, can fail to approve of them. To anyone who denies that he perceives them as good I reply, "Either you do not understand what these words mean, or you have never clearly apprehended love and reason in your own experience; or else, though you have indeed encountered them, something is preventing you from attending to the fact that you do actually perceive them as good, intrinsically and universally." In a later chapter I shall try to defend this position. Meanwhile I am merely giving examples of my convictions, beliefs and surmises.

Another of my few firm beliefs is one of a very different order. It is much more complex and much more questionable. None the less, in my case it is very firm, and it has very far-reaching consequences. Along with my conviction of the goodness of love and reason, it is a controlling factor in my attitude to life. I believe that I am living at a time when human society and human culture are being refashioned perhaps more radically and certainly more rapidly than ever before. Indeed I believe that, if this change fulfils its promise, all earlier ages, including our own, will come to be regarded as ages of darkness and barbarism. To-day, most of the ideas in terms of which we conceive our beliefs are dissolving. Some will be abolished altogether; others will be reshaped into almost unrecognizable forms. It is impossible to-day for anyone who retains any suppleness of mind to state his beliefs without having very soon to discover that he was in many respects deluded.

My belief in the fluidity of our culture persuades me that beliefs should be reduced to a minimum. This scepticism is connected with my intuitive conviction that reason, or intellectual integrity, is itself good. I believe that no proposition whatever should be believed which, when everything relevant has been considered, offends reason. To say this, of course, is not to say that no proposition should be believed which reason cannot prove. For reason must at bottom be a reasoning about unprovable but not unreasonable propositions, based on immediate experience. And for my part I do not believe that the only immediate experiences which reason must take into account are sense-perceptions.

Intellectual integrity, then, impels me to reduce my beliefs to a minimum. I must recognize the limitations of human thought. Some people tell me that they believe in God, a benevolent and almighty ruler of the universe. Some say they believe in personal immortality, some in Evolution as a metaphysical principle, others in Materialism and so on. In these remote spheres I cannot reach any firm belief at all. Do I believe in God? Is Materialism true? Almost as intelligibly I might ask myself, is the fundamental essence of things Sunday or is it Monday morning? I dare hazard the guess that, in a very metaphorical sense, reality is a good deal more Mondayish than Sundayish. And as to God and Materialism I might perhaps in a moment of self-confidence hazard the guess that there is something not wholly undeserving of the adjective "God-like" in or about the universe; and yet that from another point of view the universe may very well turn out to be "matterish" through and through, if matter may be interpreted in the Pickwickian manner of Dialectical Materialism. But to raise either part of this guess into the rank of belief, to take either Theism or Materialism as an article of faith, a principle for the guidance of one’s life, seems to me unwarrantable, unwise, and inconsistent with strict intellectual integrity.

For my part I believe that for right living we must cling not to the frail stuff of metaphysical surmise, however bright or however exhilaratingly bleak its pattern, but to those few steel-true threads of intuition on which the rest is woven; and also, though less confidently, to certain generalizations based on logic and science and history. Of these, one of the most secure and most important is the belief in the fluidity of contemporary institutions and culture.

Of course, though this fluidity is obvious, the direction of social and cultural change is by no means certain. Though the process of revolutionary development in our institutions and ideas has begun, it may be frustrated. For in the present condition of the human race, and therefore in contemporary culture, there are two conflicting tendencies, intricately entangled with one another in every geographical region, in every department of social and individual life, and indeed in every "ideology" or system of doctrine. The one is an impulse toward archaic values, the values of primitive man. The other is directed toward the values appropriate to a highly developed society.

The archaic values are those connected with the solidarity of the tribe against its enemies, and the triumph of the heroic individual as tribe-compeller. The developed values are those which centre round the remote but increasingly important ideal of a world-community of very diverse but mutually respecting and mutually enriching individuals. To the unwarped mind it is becoming increasingly clear that the right goal of all social policy has two aspects, which involve one another. One is the development of individuality in all human beings up to the limit of their capacity. This is no vague phrase. It stands for a concept which at a later stage I shall try to state with precision. The other aspect of the social goal is the development of culture; or, let us say, of a communal pattern of knowing, feeling and creating.

The struggle between the archaic and the developed aspirations is the great issue of our day. The forces of reaction may defeat the forces of progress. If this happens, unprecedented natural knowledge and physical power will be used to establish the archaic values. The result will be a new kind of barbarism, archaic in spirit, but equipped with aeroplanes, bombs, radio and pseudo-modern ideas. The driving force of this new barbarism will be mistrust and dread of all that is most prized in the half-born progressive culture; and hatred, therefore, of reasonableness and kindliness and the ideal of a harmoniously co-operating mankind. It is possible, though unlikely, that if the new barbarism triumphs throughout the world it may actually destroy man’s intuition that reasonableness and kindliness are good. Moreover by systematic persecution it may seriously reduce the capacity of the race for these most human and most precious activities, these powers by which man rose to mastery of this planet. Then our species will inevitably decline, and perhaps vanish. This disaster is improbable because the way of life which is signified by these little words, "reason" and "love", is the only way by which man can find lasting peace and satisfaction. Almost inevitably, then, through however much self-frustration and self-torture, the race will sooner or later attain full realization of this fact, and reorganize its institutions in accord with this most practical of all principles.

But even if the species does not destroy itself, a temporary disaster seems probable. The triumph of the archaic in a world that is by now structurally modern may well cause a long period of misery and mental darkness. We can but hope that the wide-spread access of fury, which seems to us who witness it an apocalyptic catastrophe, may after all in the view of history turn out to have been a necessary period of revitalization after a phase of lassitude.

The struggle of our age may well be regarded as a war of ideas. But the conflicting ideas are themselves the reflections of the conflicting tendencies in human circumstances. The new form of society, and the new culture, if they come into existence, will be in a sense an expression of the immense objective changes in man's conditions during the modern period. The new society and the new culture must of course be created by men's minds; but they will be products of men's minds acting in response to objective conditions, in fact to the very novel conditions brought about by physical science and the use of mechanical power. Some men, no doubt, will be in specially comfortable or specially secluded circumstances which will make them not desire but dread any great change of institutions and ideas. Again some will be blinded by obsessive devotion to the old order. Many, even though their distressful personal circumstances are all the while driving them toward the new order, may lack the sensitivity to feel which way the wind of circumstance is blowing. These will cling passionately to the order that is crushing them. But in time either the human race will be forced by the pressure of circumstances to adopt the developed attitude or it will stagnate and decline.

Of course no one, not even the most sensitive and intelligent and least hide-bound, can yet know in any detail what kind of a society and what kind of a culture will really fulfil the requirements of man's rapidly changing circumstances. No doubt many bright minds think they know. They tirelessly advocate some particular social system or cultural principle. They assure us that they have seen the truth. But for my part I cannot believe that any of the conflicting ideologies of our day is the culture toward which we are so painfully groping. Most of them, no doubt, contain some truth. Some are probably very much more true than others. Some point more or less in the right direction, are in the true line of development, are based on fertile principles; while others are relatively perverse and barren. But all alike are expressions of the present transitional state of human society and the present "half-baked" human intelligence, which is the best that such a society can produce. And so we may be sure that all, even the truest, are in one way or another fantastically mistaken. Not one of them is such as to merit that in our day a sensitive and reasonable man should adopt it literally and without qualification as a sacred article of faith in relation to which his whole life should be unswervingly directed.

It may sometimes be right for a man to behave as though he did believe the least false of these half-truths. Social loyalty may compel him to attach himself to some party or movement which seems to him to be on the whole the main defence of progress against reaction. But if he remains intelligent and sensitive he will still maintain an inner detachment from this orthodoxy. He will never forget that all contemporary ideas are necessarily inadequate to man's rapidly changing conditions. He will try to imagine the most probable direction of cultural advance. But also he will constantly remind himself that his own most cherished beliefs, which he has reached by trying to regard everything in his experience objectively, must be shot through with prejudice and error. He will try to keep his mind supple enough to alter them.

Though suppleness of mind and far-reaching agnosticism are demanded by our changing world, there remain the few very important beliefs about which We can reasonably feel sure. Our culture is indeed being revolutionized by our changing conditions, but in some fundamental respects our conditions will remain the same. And our own human nature will remain at bottom what it is to-day. Consequently the culture towards which we are striving will not be wholly different from ours. Though it will be stripped of many of our illusions and prejudices, and doubtless will have characteristic illusions and prejudices of its own, it will be based, like our culture, on certain fundamental and enduring human values.

Of these enduring values kindliness and critical intelligence, or love and reason, are by far the most important. Any culture which ignores these values, or pays merely lip-service to them, is inadequate to the facts of human experience, and must sooner or later lead to disaster.

The problem for anyone trying to form a clear view of this perplexing world is the problem of being at once thoroughly sensitive to all the, growing points of feeling and thought in his contemporary society and also thoroughly aware of all the perennial values, even of those which his society has tended to underestimate. In writing this book I shall set myself this unattainable but salutary ideal. I shall try to be at once supple and stable, at once forward-looking and backward-remembering.

But is it possible for anyone like me, whose mind was formed in the matrix of the English bourgeoisie at the height of its power, to divest himself of the prejudices of his age and class, so as to reach an objective and significant view of a new age, and of the mighty cultural revolution which is now germinating around us?

Modern psychology has emphasized the fact that our judgments may be confused by motives which are not open to introspection. Marxism, even if in some respects it is untrue, has emphasized one important manner in which a culture may be vitiated by unconscious motives, namely by the disposition of the dominant and culture-controlling class to believe ideas which are on the whole favourable to its enterprise of managing society, and to reject those which directly or indirectly seem to threaten its position. Such a class tends grossly to over-estimate its own importance, and the importance of the social order which it maintains, and of the culture on which it is nurtured. It over-estimates the value of its own peculiar manners and moral sentiments. It is on the whole incapable of recognizing that many of its most cherished opinions are at bottom sheer prejudice in favour of social stability.

In another respect also our modern European and American culture is vitiated, in this case by the circumstances not of the culture-controlling but of the culture-expressing class. Many of our intellectuals are emotionally entangled with the established order. Their education, their speech, their clothes, their whole way of life, demand the continuance of the established order. But since they are on the whole more sensitive and intelligent than the average, they cannot help being aware of the rottenness of the order which maintains them. Consequently, they are tortured by a conflict between their need to pander to a fundamentally self-complacent and blinded public and the impulse to rebel.

In some cases the impulse to rebel is successfully stifled. Intellectuals of this type plunge into specialism and stop their ears to politics. Their chief concern is then either with the skilled trade of satisfying the current demand for romanticism or elegance; or else it is with subtleties which in our day can have no meaning beyond the restricted circle of the intelligentsia themselves. Some of these subtleties are undoubtedly of real importance in the life of the mind. They are the growing points of pure intellectual and aesthetic experience. The culture of a future and happier age will revert to them with interest and enlightenment. But in our day the pursuit even of these "live" subtleties is largely vitiated by the prevailing prejudices of our society. Their devotees pursue them less in a spirit of service in the common human enterprise than from a craving for withdrawal and aristocratic fastidiousness. Consequently even the "live" subtleties tend to degenerate into insignificant minutiae.

I am not so foolish as to believe that all intellectuals are rendered sterile by capitalism. There may be some who, in the ivory tower, are even now creating treasures which only a future and more fortunate age will appreciate. Others there certainly are who have successfully surmounted their bourgeois imitations, and are playing a great part in the cultural change. But one and all are hampered. Many who are haunted by an obscure sense of the futility of contemporary society and their own lives, are yet unable to break loose from the dead hand of the past. They cannot conceive of a better society and a better culture, and so they cannot look forward with hope. Their minds are over-clouded with a vague dread of the disintegration of their world. On the other hand many who do succeed in breaking away break out into extravagance. They throw out the baby with the bathwater. Or rather they bury the legacy with the corpse. They spurn everything in the traditional culture, and praise uncritically everything which purports to belong to the new.

Bearing in mind the disabilities imposed by my class, I have to ask myself whether the very foundations of my own thought are unsound. If so, this book ought not to be written. The more so since in our day too many books are written, and too few that are worth reading.

But to be aware of a danger is to be forearmed against it. And to be aware of two opposite dangers, namely of capitalist and of anti-capitalist prejudice, is to find in each a defence against the other. Moreover I remind myself that one of the ways in which a revolutionary culture might be expected to err is in a tendency to do less than justice to the ideas of the social order which it intends to overthrow. In particular it is likely to disparage or ignore such of the perennial human values as the old culture has pharisaically praised and betrayed. Contemporary proletarian and would-be proletarian literature, though some of it is splendidly sincere and creative, reveals none the less the effects of this blindness. This exaggerated rejection of all traditional values, just because they are traditional, has, I believe, damaged the cause of the revolutionaries by repelling many moderate people who might otherwise have joined them.

All the same, even those traditional values which are perennial need to be re-expressed in concepts suited to the modern temper. In this book I shall try to sketch the kind of restatement which I myself find helpful. It will be a restatement not only of the old in the light of the new, but also of the new in the light of the old.

Faced with the chaos of the contemporary world, I ask myself whether it is possible to discover any simple, clear and fundamental principles and policies for the guidance of my own life and for the common task of rebuilding human society.

Broadly speaking two heroic kinds of policy are suggested by two very different heroic kinds of people. A third policy, or at least a third attitude of mind, is advocated by a third, less heroic party.

The first heroic party declares that the only way to reform the world is to persuade masses of people to become far more kindly and reasonable than usual, in fact to become saints. Nothing, we are told, but a change of heart, a spiritual change, can save the world. The second heroic party insists that no such widespread change of heart can be created by mere exhortation, and that we must begin by changing the structure of society. Only when conditions are favourable, they say, can minds develop sanely. To raise men to a higher degree of moral integrity without first improving their conditions would be to perform a miracle. To this the first party replies that you cannot change conditions without first creating a widespread desire to do so; and we are nearly all too selfish or cowardly to risk much even for the sake of the new world. The root of our trouble is something to do with the quality of individual minds. So long as most men remain the frail or base creatures that they are, social revolution, it is insisted, cannot produce anything but a fresh tyranny. In this view, what we need is to be shaken out of our lethargy, wakened into a more lucid and vigorous frame of mind. Appeal must be made to our noblest impulses. All else will follow. So we are told.

The two views are expressed most strikingly by two kinds of people whom I shall call the saints and the revolutionaries. I shall use the word "saint" in rather a special sense. The genuine saint, whatever his religion, and even if he claims to have no religion, feels that unless he first learns to know himself in relation to the universe or in relation to what he calls his God, and unless he thereby gains self-mastery, he can neither know what is truly desirable nor have the strength to live in service of his fellows. The genuine revolutionary, on the other hand, feels that to worry about his own soul is selfish and mean. Instead of brooding on himself as a unique individual, he seeks to understand society, its origins, its present condition, and his own true function in it. He seeks this understanding in order that he may be able to act effectively, that he may be an effective instrument of the historical forces which, he believes, are pressing toward a far-reaching social change.

Though there is much in common in the characters of the saint and the revolutionary at their best, their attitudes to human society are very different. In general, any ordinary person who feels the importance of the values to which saints are loyal is a poor revolutionary; and ordinary "good revolutionaries" are not as a rule saints in the sense that I am giving to the word. They may and ought to be "social saints", in the sense of being wholly devoted to the cause of creating a new society. But revolutionaries generally lack that "inner life" which, rightly or wrongly, the saint regards as the root of all strength and understanding.

In the modern world the saints and the revolutionaries are often opposed to one another. The saints tend to regard the revolutionaries as superficial, hasty, rather insincere, self-deceiving, doctrinaire and prone to sacrifice individuals to abstractions. Sometimes they go so far as to say that many revolutionaries are inspired rather by hate than by love. On the other hand the revolutionaries insist that the saints themselves are the insincere self-deceivers, and moreover, that they are "escapists" who weave a dream-world around themselves, like a cocoon to protect them from unpleasant reality.

I believe that the opposition between the saints and the revolutionaries is largely due to misconceptions and short-comings on both sides. It does not spring from any insoluble conflict in the central convictions of the two parties. If the mass of ordinary men and women could come to see and feel the complementariness of the saint's characteristic experience, and the revolutionary's characteristic experience, we might have more hope of solving the tragic discord which is now besetting us all, and giving to gangsters the opportunity of destroying civilization.

The saint and the revolutionary are both essentially heroic. Between them stands the not essentially heroic, but ostensibly clear-headed, sceptic, refusing to be pulled in either direction. He is resolutely determined to criticize all beliefs, all values, all policies. His effective allegiance is given wholly to intellectual integrity. With John Locke he declares that the troubles of mankind are due mainly to our habit of forming opinions on insufficient evidence. Scepticism has undoubtedly played a great part in modern thought; for good and ill. Unfortunately the sceptic's loyalty to intellect tends to distract him from all other values. Indeed one of the main causes of the distress of our age is the disintegration of morals caused by the triumph of scepticism, an emotional scepticism which sprang from a well-justified but unbalanced revulsion against superstition and humbug. Scepticism by itself is certainly not enough. It affords no inspiration for the remaking of a world. It is incapable of dealing with a situation which demands an heroic change of heart. And undoubtedly unless by one means or another we achieve a widespread and heroic change of heart (and of other things) there is no hope for us. Both saint and revolutionary agree to this; though they propose very different methods of creating it.

To-day neither saintliness alone nor revolutionary zeal alone nor scepticism alone can solve the vast and delicate problems of the modern world. But each of them contains an important truth and an important precept for action. We need now a kind of glorified common sense which can be courageous enough and clear-headed enough to grasp the good of each, while avoiding its excesses.

Historically these three temperaments and associated doctrines have come into prominence in a certain order, namely, first saintliness, then scepticism, and now revolutionary zeal. It is perhaps worth while to point out that this process has been in a manner dialectical. It has been a movement from "thesis" to "antithesis" and on to a comprehensive "synthesis". But the synthesis, I suggest, is incomplete. This is a twofold dialectic which has yet to issue in a more comprehensive synthesis.

The religious attitude, with its emphasis on faith and on morality, generated within itself its own negation in the form of scepticism, the exaltation of intellectual integrity at the expense of faith and of morality. But man cannot live by intellect alone. Nor can he live without morality. Revolutionary Marxism is in a sense a synthesis of the claims of the saints and of the sceptics. It combines both the saint's moral fervour and the sceptic's iconoclastic contempt for superstition. The synthesis, however, is not complete. The Marxian temperament has not yet, I submit, gathered into itself and transmuted all that is of perennial value in the religious temperament. Rightly it embodies and transmutes the sceptic's contempt for superstition; though possibly, as I shall later argue, it sometimes indulges in superstitions of its own. No doubt this is inevitable in any comprehensive and militant ideology. But the real charge against revolutionary Marxism is that many Marxists tend to regard as mere superstition everything which contemporary science cannot readily sanction. In this respect the thought of actual revolutionaries in our day seems to lag behind the philosophy of Marx and Engels, which is in its very essence flexible and expandable. It can easily be interpreted to accommodate much more than the orthodoxy preached by strict Marxists.

In this book I shall say what it is that I personally have learnt from saints, sceptics and revolutionaries. I shall not attempt an historical study of the three movements of feeling and thought. I shall merely trace the twofold dialectical movement of my own mind in this respect. It is a movement which for me personally, whatever its public value, culminates in a hopeful synthesis. At the end of this book I shall venture on one or two speculations about the universe as a whole and man's place in it. This I shall do, not out of idle curiosity, but in the belief that such speculation, so long as it knows itself for what it is, can have a tonic effect on the mind. Indeed I believe that in shunning all speculation we violate one side of our nature just as much as, by indulging in loose speculation, we violate another side. Speculate we inevitably shall, unless our mental eyes have been destroyed. Therefore let us speculate critically, and without indulging in any confident belief.

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