Philosophy and Living, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 13

The Practical Upshot

WHAT is the practical upshot of our whole enquiry? How should it influence us in private and in public action?

To answer this question, we must first take note of the most significant features of our civilisation to-day. Some are obvious. One, and that perhaps the most important of all, is easily overlooked. It is obvious that science is transforming the life of the whole race. It is obvious that the East is destined to play a far more active part than it has done hitherto. It is obvious to all who are fairly intelligent and informed, and not blinded by some special disability, that Western civilisation is being undermined by vested economic interests and by absolute national sovereignty. It is fairly obvious that the issue of the present world-wide confusion must be either chaos and degeneration or a world in which the means of production are in some effective manner communally controlled. It is obvious that the forces of reaction are at present relatively hopeful and resolute, while the forces of progress are for the moment disunited, bewildered, and irresolute.

What is not so obvious is that a sinister change of temper is spreading throughout the civilised world and threatening to destroy both the flower and the root of civilisation. As the years pass we are tending more and more to abandon the two principles which constitute at once the goal and the essential means of civilised living. We are losing faith in the free critical intelligence. And we are losing faith in charity.

To understand the importance of this change, let us remember how our species triumphed. Throughout man's career intelligence and charity have been man's distinctive and most valuable assets. One of our early pre-human ancestors is said to have been much like the Spectral Tarsier, a little mammal about the size of a mouse, with long wiry fingers and huge forward-looking eyes adapted for binocular vision. Not by weapons but by correlation of subtle eyes and subtle hands through subtle brain, this creature triumphed. And man himself conquered the world by the same means, by attention, by discrimination, by skilled manipulation, by versatility; in fact by intelligence and imagination in adapting himself to an ever-changing environment.

But intelligence and imagination have not been his sole outfit. By means of these he developed a more precise and penetrating kind of awareness of himself and others than is possible to sub-human animals. At some stage or other men began to be conscious of themselves and their fellows as conscious agents, having distinctive characters and needs. This new power enabled them gradually to attain, though rarely and precariously, a new kind of social experience and social behaviour. Sociality, as we have seen, is of two types: the distinctively animal and the distinctively human; that which demands only herd-mentality, and that which demands also the capacity for true community, based on the mutual respect of self-conscious and other-conscious individuals.

These then, the critical and imaginative intelligence and the capacity for community, are the powers by which man has risen. Both of them, particularly the latter, are fragmentary and precarious; but both have until recently been regarded as essential to civilisation. The tragedy of our time lies in the fact that, besides declining in scope, they are actually coming into disrepute.

In the Victorian age it seemed that the future lay with Liberalism, if by that name we may refer not merely to a political policy but to an attitude of mind, a culture, which was accepted by most men, irrespective of party. This attitude of mind had been conceived by, and was appropriate to, the needs of the rising bourgeois class in its fight for independence against the feudal aristocracy. Along with some distorted ideas that were special to the circumstances of the bourgeois class, Liberalism included two perennially important principles, namely, faith in the free intelligence, and respect for human individuality. All other liberal principles, good and bad, were derived from these. Economic laissez faire, the freedom of the individual to buy in the cheapest market and sell in the dearest; political democracy, the freedom of the individual to take a share in the control of public policy by voting; freedom of conscience; freedom from superstition; freedom of expression; freedom of physical and mental growth through universal comfort and security and universal education — these ideals, which were accepted by very many intelligent citizens, were thought to be capable of speedy realisation throughout the civilised world. Not only so, but the "scientific spirit," the new temper of disinterested enquiry which had been so painfully acquired during the preceding three centuries, and had become associated with Liberalism, seemed at last to be coming into its own.

These expectations, as we have already noted, turned out to be false. Liberalism failed to fulfil its promise. Its failure was due partly to the fact that it stressed individuality at the expense of community, partly to the insincerity with which its principles were applied in practice, partly to the general reaction from intellectualism.

The root of the trouble, as we have seen, was that the policy of laissez faire was not implemented with equality of bargaining power. It favoured fortunate individuals at the expense of society. It brought not the millennium but plutocracy and wage-slavery. It brought the rivalry of industrial empires competing for the exploitation of backward lands and peoples. It brought also, though against its will, tariff walls and neurotic patriotism, arming to the teeth. Indirectly, and in spite of itself, it brought the European War.

What followed? The war accustomed men to discipline and to conformity. The exigencies of war, abroad and at home, and the exigencies of class-domination, tightened discipline in every sphere. Not only the Liberal Party, but the far more widespread Liberal mentality, was torn by an internal conflict, a conflict between democratic ideals and the expediency of defending the social order which it, the bourgeois class, controlled. Liberal principles suited a rising but not a dominant class.

Meanwhile, among the workers not individualism but collective action against the employers had proved the only remedy against oppression. This fact discredited the whole system of Liberal ideas, both the good and the bad. It was from Russia that Liberalism received its death-blow. There the tendency to sink the individual in the militant party and class gained immense prestige from the success of the Revolution and the founding of a social order planned in the workers' interests.

In Italy and Germany the same disgust with individualism brought the same tendency to energise and discipline the individual by persuading him to regard himself merely as a member of a group. But here the issue was a very different social order.

In the reaction from Liberalism we must distinguish two opposed but closely entangled factors, namely, an advance toward the will for genuine community and a regression toward the herd-mentality. In Russia, Italy, and Germany there has been a revulsion from individualism; and both the herd-mentality and the will for community have played a great part. It seems probable, however, that while in Russia the will for community has, on the whole, been dominant, in Italy and Germany the main factor has been herd-mentality, stimulated and used for private ends by individualistic capitalists and social adventurers.

The decline of Liberalism as a social policy brought with it the decline of Liberalism as a cultural ideal. In the more industrialised lands this cultural change was accentuated by a growing emotional revulsion from "scientific materialism," which was closely associated with Liberalism.

This change of feeling had two aspects. In general it was a reaction against the extravagant claims of the champions of the abstract intellect, in fact against a narrow intellectualism; and it was a particular protest against the intellectual undermining of morality. The belief that mind was a meaningless accident in the universe, and that moral values were merely subjective, seemed to be involved in the scientific world-view. This abstraction and hypostatisation of physical qualities was unjustified, but it accorded with the general preoccupation with the commercial aspect of the material world. Materialism, however, doubtless supported by a craving to be rid of tiresome moral obligations, led to the overthrow of the old moral sanctions. This revolution produced, particularly in the "advanced circles" of capitalistic countries, an irresponsible, sordid, and despair-racked way of life. This, or the reaction which it caused in spectators, gave rise in time to a phase of widespread disgust and horror at the effects of moral nihilism. The emotional tide turned once more toward self-discipline and even toward a "mystical" sanction for morality in some kind of religious devotion.

But devotion to what? The old religion had lost its power. A new one was urgently needed.

In one country alone this need was not seriously felt, or at least not recognised. Soviet Russia had not suffered from the disillusionment and degeneracy of Western Europe. In Russia, society itself, in the form of tae proletarian State, became the supreme object of veneration. And dialectical materialism strangely assumed much of the glamour of a mystical religion.

But in Italy and Germany materialism was blamed for social degeneracy. The deep need for a mystical sanction for values gave birth to the fantastic mythology of the divine race. The racial myth is based on the biologically unsound notion that the cultural differences between peoples are caused mainly by differences of biological stock, and that some races are innately nobler than others. This false conception is given an emotional appeal by the vague and wholly unfounded belief that one's own race is the best of all, and moreover has been entrusted with a divine mission to rule the world, or is itself an embodiment of the divine principle.

It is perhaps well to say in passing that, though we must emphatically condemn the culture which at present dominates Italy and Germany, it would be folly on our part to indulge in self-righteous censure of these great peoples themselves. The social neurosis which has seized them was bred of agony and dire frustration. And these were caused partly by cruel treatment at the hands of more fortunate neighbours, partly by the tragic failure of Liberalism.

The triumph of Liberalism had depended on the free exercise of the critical intelligence. Its downfall brought the free intelligence into contempt. In Russia, no doubt, intelligence is still prized; but it is muzzled and only allowed to function in directions approved by the State. Moreover, the discovery that all thought is unwittingly biassed has given rise, not only in Russia, to the perverse and lethal notion that distortion of facts and arguments is praiseworthy so long as it inclines in directions favourable to the social ideals of the thinker.

In Italy and Germany the free intelligence has been much more severely persecuted. The finer brains of both countries have been either exiled or destroyed. In the schools the young are brought up to believe that criticism of the official ideology, is always misleading and wicked. If the present regime continues, these two great peoples may within a generation suffer a very serious all-round reduction of mental capacity. Communists explain the Fascist annihilation of culture as a necessary result of the necessary hostility of capitalism to the free intelligence which tends to expose its weakness. No doubt there is much truth in this view. We must not forget, however, that in Russia also there is ruthless oppression and restriction of free criticism. This is officially attributed to the need for unity against threatened attack from within and without. It is true that grave danger inevitably brings oppression and cultural decline, and that in every country to-day insecurity, frustration, and fear are in fact producing this result. But it is difficult not to be gravely perturbed by recurrent shootings in Russia.

Liberalism was associated not only with the free exercise of intelligence but with a morality based on human brotherhood. This was a legacy from Christanity. It did not logically fit into the materialistic and ethically sceptical metaphysics that science had bred, but it accorded with the Liberal respect for individuality. Even within the sphere of Liberalism, however, it could not have long survived. We have already noticed the widespread "taboo on tenderness" that seized Western culture under the influence of science. A much more violent rejection of the orthodox tenderness-morality occurred in Italy and Germany as part of the emotional reaction against Liberalism. In fact, combined with a protest against ethical scepticism and moral licentiousness, there was a protest against the particular kind of morality which had for so long inspired Liberalism at its best. As against materialism, Fascism has reinstated morality, but as against Christianity it has dethroned love and set in its place courage and ruthless mastery. Finally, it is perhaps worth while to remark that, just as the racial myth necessitates suppression of the free intelligence that ridicules it, so this harsh morality demands a gradual blunting of all the finer sensibilities that condemn it.

It must not be supposed that the democratic countries (so-called) have been exempt from these tendencies. In Britain; for instance, what do we find? The key to the understanding of the whole process lies in the fact that the capitalistic social order is faced with very grave difficulties. In times of prosperity the owning class, influenced by Liberalism and spurred by the demands of the workers, tended to become comparatively tolerant and paternal. But recurrent financial crises, the fear of social disorder, and the necessity to arm extravagantly for the maintenance of imperial economic privileges are producing a very different temper. Already there are signs that tolerance and paternalism are giving way to a harsher spirit. This is partly the result of the inevitable increase of industrial centralisation. The individual firms of each industry tend to collaborate to restrict output and maintain prices. Capitalistic private enterprise is voluntarily controlling free competition in order to preserve the system. As yet there is no grand co-ordination of all industries, but it will come. At present, Parliament tries ineffectively to arbitrate between them. In time, presumably, the industries themselves will establish a central co-ordinating body, a sort of Fascist Grand Council.

Meanwhile, the tendency to Fascism is plain in other respects. Democracy is discredited by the supine behaviour of Parliamentary Governments. At the same time we see a steady encroachment on civil liberties. Police powers are extended. Attempts are made to discipline the people through gas-drills, and perhaps through the otherwise very desirable physical culture movement. Approval is given to hooligan action against persons whose political opinions are disliked. Conscription is in the air. Increasingly the press, the radio and the cinema become sensitive to Government suggestions for suppression or "interpretation" of facts. Along with all this we must note a change of moral temper, a slow but steady drift away from the tenderness morality of Liberalism and Christianity. Amongst intellectuals of a certain type we find, for instance, a disposition to defend blood-sports, including bull-fighting. There are signs that approval of corporal punishment is increasing, along with morbid delight in the infliction of it. Everywhere we encounter the first symptoms of the movement from kindliness to firmness.

It appears, then, that not only in the Fascist countries, and not only in these and Russia, but also in the "Democracies," there is a steady flight from the principles of Liberalism, both good and bad. I suggest that this cultural change is at bottom a consequence of the economic forces at work in our day. In fact I suggest that economic determinism is thrusting us not toward the Marxian Utopia but toward Fascism; and that, if economic determinism cannot be restrained, we are doomed.

The Marxian believes that this tendency toward Fascism occurs only in capitalist countries, and that sooner or later capitalism will crack, and the proletariat will seize control. He grossly underestimates the powers of propaganda and coercion in the hands of the owning class, and the gullibility of the masses. Also he underestimates, or still worse excuses as a temporary expedient, the tendency toward Fascism in Russia. It is necessary to face the possibility that the Communist party in Russia, in spite of its magnificent record of devotion, may ultimately degenerate into an oppressive bureaucracy or a reactionary religious hierarchy. May this fear prove unfounded!

Is there any hope of checking this trend of economic determinism? I believe that there is, though only a forlorn one. But forlorn hopes sometimes kindle the best in human nature and carry it to miraculous triumph. The only hope, I suggest, is that there may be a widespread and emphatic assertion of the will for true community. If, as I have argued, there was something more than economic determinism (in the narrow sense) in Early Christianity, in the French Revolution, and in the Russian Revolution itself, something without which these great events could never have been achieved, then there is after all a hope that the same spirit may yet refashion the whole world.

This spirit, however it has been described in the past, has always manifested two aspects, which in modern idiom consist of faith in the free intelligence and will for true community.

If this is correct, then the practical upshot of our survey of philosophy is obvious. Our main theoretical conclusion has been an increased reliance on the validity of the dispassionate intelligence and on the ideal of personality-in-community. If, as I have argued, philosophy does not end with theory, but is the love and the pursuit of wisdom, this conclusion must not remain purely theoretical. We have seen that in the contemporary world the dispassionate intelligence and the spirit of true community are falling into disrepute, and that their decline threatens to bring the human race to grave disaster. Clearly, then, the practical effect of our survey must be to stimulate us to do our utmost both in private life and in public life to foster these two essential factors in civilisation.

But though the free intelligence and the spirit of community are, I believe, by far the most important influences for civilising the world, we must not suppose that as abstract principles they constitute by themselves a panacea for all our troubles. To say, as some do, that if only we will be constant to these principles all will be well, is not enough. They are all-sufficient only when they are almost universally accepted, and accepted with sincere conviction. In the present world there is no prospect that this will soon be the case. On the contrary, even lip-service to them is dwindling; and at the best of times only a small minority will be capable of practising them constantly and sincerely.

Moreover, public events since the European War have shown all too grimly that a vague inclination toward sincere thinking and kindly behaviour is utterly powerless against a ruthless adventurer or a ruthless class, armed with modern weapons of propaganda and coercion. In our disjointed world there are too many dangerous neurotics who cannot be speedily turned from destructiveness by reasonable persuasion or by the power of non-violence. In the long run, assuredly, reason and love will prevail. And even to-day they are by far the most important instruments of civilisation. But unaided they cannot deal successfully with every crisis that threatens us with a further incursion of the new barbarism. We must face the fact that, though the free intelligence and the spirit of community are at once the goal and an essential means, they may be not only ineffectual but actually harmful, unless they are combined with a full measure of that hot indignation against tyranny, that devoted service in the struggle for the new order, which is characteristic of the best minds of the political Left.

On the other hand, the political Left, if it is to capture the imagination and allegiance of the people of this country and sweep them forward to victory, must, I believe, learn a more liberal spirit. I mean, of course, liberal not in the political but in the cultural sense, namely, loyalty to the free critical intelligence and respect for the human individual. For how do things stand? Up and down the country, up and down the world, in every class and every political party, outside the churches and inside them, there are increasing numbers of well-disposed and sensible men and women who are ready to make real sacrifices if thereby they can help to create a better social order and a peace that shall be lasting and world-wide. Many of those who have social and economic privileges are beginning to realise that such privileges are both unjust and doomed to vanish. Not only so, but many, in all social classes, who are citizens of capitalistic states with imperial privileges, are reluctantly beginning to see that their far-reaching advantages over less-favoured peoples are equally unjust and unmaintainable. Perhaps in time they will become reconciled to surrendering them.

But this growing mass of well-meaning bewildered public opinion is ineffective. One of the main reasons of its futility lies in the fact that no political party fully deserves its trust. The Conservatives are blinded by the prejudices of capitalism. The Liberals are often equally so. Labour is paralysed by the incubus of trade-union leadership. The Communists, unique in devotion and,courage, have gained a reputation for impracticable and doctrinaire policies and for political ineptitude. Moreover, the rank and file of the Communist party, and all but the best of its leaders, are too apt to play into their opponents' hands by indulging in a very excusable but none the less impolitic extravagance and bitterness.

Yet the increasing mass of politically waking people might, I believe, be brought whole-heartedly to support the Left and to make real sacrifices, if they could be sure that the Left was inspired, not only by righteous indignation and the will for a new social order, but also by outstanding intellectual integrity and respect for human individuality. Rightly or wrongly, people are afraid of Communism for the same reasons as they are afraid of Fascism. They are afraid that if it came into power it would prove more tyrannical than the present order, that it would regiment people intolerably and suppress criticism with much the same ruthlessness as Fascism. No doubt this impression is partly a result of hostile propaganda, but not entirely so.

The most urgent task of the Left to-day is to convince the mass of politically waking members of all classes that it stands not for a new kind of oppression and a new kind of censorship but for human kindliness and for the free intelligence. If the vague and confused forces of good will in this country and in the world are to be brought together to form a really effective movement for radical social change and world change, they must not only be taught true theories and sound policies; they must also find both a philosophy and a religion. And for this end the leaders of this great movement, which is so slowly and so tardily coming into being, must manifestly appear to be not only astute politicians, not only wise statesmen, but moral leaders. They must have the very highest degree of personal integrity. And by personal integrity I mean not merely incorruptibility in the face of personal temptations; for this is, or should be, a commonplace political virtue. I mean far more than this, namely that these champions of a new world must be relied on to preserve through all the excitements and emergencies of political action their fundamental loyalty to the ideal of personality-in-community and their respect for the free critical intelligence. I mean that they must be manifestly incapable of seeking any speedy but superficial triumph for the cause by means which in the long run will frustrate the achievement of the true social aim.

Apart from obvious economic ills, what is most wrong with the world to-day is that we have lost faith in the distinctively human attributes of man, namely, the free critical intelligence and the capacity for mutual respect. Leaders who combine sound social policies with unshakable and unmistakable loyalty to these principles will be able to inspire us, not only with a reluctant acceptance of the need to take serious risks, but with the will to follow such leaders constantly, even, if necessary, through the gravest sacrifices, in the faith that they are true builders of the new world.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00