One way of seeing reality is to see the appearances we usually take for it inside-out, back-to-front or looking-glass fashion. This is very difficult to do, considering how habituated we are to those appearances. It is also very difficult to be witty about vital and essential matters, though that is one of the best hopes we have of seeing them objectively, which is about the only hope we have of seeing them at all. Miss Green has achieved the looking-glass vision and the wit. Many, therefore, will call her too clever by half, forgetting that one of the things she is saying is that we are not half clever enough, for the very reason that we lack her witty vision because we wear the blinkers of our belief in appearances. So anyone who reads this book (as opposed to merely reading its words) must be prepared to be profoundly disturbed, upset and in fact looking-glassed himself; which will be greatly to his advantage, if he can stand it. Few books, long or short, are great ones; this book is short and among those few. One day, perhaps, it will become part of holy writ: a gospel according to Celia Green. Which kind of "insane" statement belongs to the book's own kind of truth.
— R. H. Ward
Chapter 1: Sanity
On the face of it, there is something rather strange about human psychology.
Human beings live in a state of mind called "sanity" on a small planet in space. They are not quite sure whether the space around them is infinite or not (either way it is unthinkable). If they think about time, they find it inconceivable that it had a beginning. It is also inconceivable that it did not have a beginning. Thoughts of this kind are not disturbing to "sanity", which is obviously a remarkable phenomenon and deserving more recognition.
Now sanity possesses a constellation of defining characteristics which are at first sight unrelated. In this it resembles other, more widely accepted, psychological syndromes. A person with an anal fixation, for example, is likely to be obsessional, obstinate, miserly, punctilious, and interested in small bright objects. A sane person believes firmly in the uselessness of thinking about what he does not understand, and is pathologically interested in other people. These two symptoms, at first sight independent, are actually inextricably related. In fact they are merely different aspects of that peculiar reaction to reality which we shall call the human evasion.
As I shall be using the word "reality" again I should make it plain at once that I use it to mean "everything that exists". This is, of course, a highly idiosyncratic use of the word. I am aware that it is commonly used by sane people to mean "everything that human beings understand about", or even "human beings". This illustrates the interesting habit, on the part of the sane, of investing any potentially dangerous word with a strong anthropocentric meaning. Let us therefore consider the use of "reality" a little longer.
It is first necessary to consider what might be meant by the word "reality" if it were usually used to mean "everything that exists". It would have to include all processes and events in the Universe, and all relationships underlying them, regardless of whether or not these things were perceptible or even conceivable by the human mind. It would also include the fact that anything exists at all -- i.e. that there is something and not nothing. And it would include the reason for the fact that anything exists at all, although it is most improbable that this reason is conceivable, or that "reason" is a particularly good name for it.
In fact it is quite obvious that to most people "reality" does not mean anything like this.
Particular attention should be drawn to the phrase 'running away from reality' in which "reality" is almost always synonymous with "human beings and their affairs". For example: "It isn't right to spend so much time with those stuffy old astronomy books. It's running away from reality. You ought to be getting out and meeting people." (An interest in any aspect of reality requiring concentrated attention in solitude is considered a particularly dangerous symptom.) This usage leads to the interesting result that if anyone does take any interest in reality he is almost certain to be told that he is running away from it.
Although so far we have given only one illustration, some impression may already begin to emerge of the way in which the sane mind has allocated to all crucial words meanings which make it virtually impossible to state, let alone to defend, any position other than that of sanity.
In fact by now this is the chief means employed by sanity to defend itself from any possible attack. Formerly it found it necessary to claim a certain interest in "reality" in the sense of "that which exists". There were religions, and systems of metaphysics, you may remember, which professed a certain interest in the creation of the world, and the purpose of life, and the destiny of the individual.
Now no such disguises are necessary.
I am reminded of a book called Flatland in which an imaginary two-dimensional world is described. Towards the end of the book a non-dimensional being is encountered -- a point in space. The observers listen to what it is saying (but of course, since they are of higher dimensionality than its own, the point being cannot observe them in any way). What it is saying to itself, in a scarcely audible tinkling voice, is something like this: "I am alpha and omega, the beginning and the end. I am that which is and I am all in all to myself. There is nothing other than me, I am everything and all of everything is all of me and all of me is all of everything..."
The human race has taken to producing similar noises. Perhaps we would not be surprised at the sociologists murmuring to themselves from time to time, "in society we live and move and have our being", as they scurry from communal centre to therapeutic group, but these days everyone is at it.
The philosophers have discarded metaphysics and have a tinkling song of their own which says, "In the beginning was the word and the word is mine and the word was made by me." This is rather a strong position in its way, because if you try to criticize it they will point out that you can only do so in words, and they have already annexed all the words there are on behalf of humanity. (And the meaning of the words is the meaning humanity gave them, and they shall have no meaning beside it.)
The theologians are finding theology rather an embarrassment, and one can only suspect they would be happier without it. Their tradition does make it a little more difficult for them to put God in his proper place, but all things considered, they're keeping up with the times pretty well. Sartre said "Hell is other people"; the up-to-date theologian says "God is other people".
It might have been thought that the "existentialists" would make some sort of a stand for the transcendent, but it hasn't been serious. In fact many people have found that a liberal use of existentialist language, loosely applied, has been extremely helpful in stimulating an obsessional interest in human society. (This interest is variously known as "commitment", "involvement", and "the life of encounter".)
The questions which remain are these. Are people, in fact, matters of ultimate concern to other people? And still more, can they be sources of "ultimate solution" to them? If they are not, what psychological force is at work to ensure that these questions are so seldom asked? Why, if you ask a question about man and the universe, are you given an answer about "man in society"?
Chapter 2 : The Characteristics of SanitySanity may be described as the conscientious denial of reality. That is to say, the facts of the situation (apart from a few which are judged to be harmless) have no emotional impact to a sane mind.
For example, it is a salient feature of our position that we are in a state of total uncertainty. Possibly the universe started with a "big bang" a few aeons ago, or perhaps something even more incredible happened. In any case, there is no reason known to us why everything should not stop existing at any moment. I realize that to my sane readers I shall appear to be making an empty academic point. That is precisely what is so remarkable about sanity.
The sane person prides himself on his ability to be unaffected by important facts, and interested in unimportant ones. He refers to this as having a sense of perspective, or keeping things "in proportion".
Consider the wife of the Bishop of Woolwich. She says— I have sometimes been asked recently: "What effect has Honest to God and all the reaction to it had on your children?" 1
That is to say, what effect has it had on her children that their father has written a book about the nature of reality which has attracted a great deal of attention. Have they become interested in their father's importance as a possible influence on the course of history? Have they started to take themselves seriously and determined to influence their generation? Or have they begun to take a precocious interest in theology, whether agreeing or disagreeing with their father? The Bishop's wife assures us that none of these unpleasant things have happened. What effect, then, has it had? "The simple answer is— practically none at all," she says. "Life goes on much as it did before." The vital questions continue to be "Do you have to go out tonight?", "What can I wear for the party?", and "What's for supper?"
This ability to keep things "in perspective", or upside down, is beautifully exemplified by certain remarks made by the ageing Freud.
Seventy years have taught me to accept life with a cheerful humility....
Perhaps the gods are kind to us in making life more disagreeable as we grow older. In the end death seems less intolerable than the manifold burdens we carry.... I do not rebel against the universal order.... (Asked whether it meant nothing to him that his name should live) Nothing whatsoever.... I am far more interested in this blossom than in anything that may happen to me after I am dead.... I am not a pessimist, I permit no philosophic reflections to spoil my enjoyment of the simple things of life.2 To appreciate the full force of these remarks one must realize that Freud had already had five operations for cancer of the jaw, and was in more or less continuous pain. (It may be held that when Freud looked at a blossom and found it more interesting than pain and death and fame, this was because he was overcome by the astonishing fact that the blossom existed at all. But if this were so, I think he would scarcely refer to it as one of the "simple" things of life.)
He was not entirely immune from reminders of his finite condition, as is shown by other statements which he made at various times.
... there is deep inside a pessimistic conviction that the end of my life is near. That feeds on the torments from my scar which never cease.3 When you at a youthful 54 cannot avoid often thinking of death you cannot be astonished that at the age of 80 1/2 I fret whether I shall reach the age of my father and brother or further still into my mother's age, tormented on the one hand by the conflict between the wish for rest and the dread of fresh suffering that further life brings and on the other hand anticipation of the pain of separation from everything to which I am still attached.4 The radium has once more begun to eat in, with pain and toxic effects, and my world is again what it was before -- a little island of pain floating on a sea of indifference.5
However, in spite of all this he didn't lose interest in trivia, and in the eyes of any sane person this establishes his claim to possess great "emotional stability".
Seeing things in perspective usually means that you stand at a certain distance away from the objects of observation. The "perspective" in which a sane person lives depends on avoiding this manoeuvre. You have to hold a flower very close to your eyes if it is to blot out the sky. The sane person holds his life in front of his face like someone with short sight reading a newspaper with rather small print. It follows that he cannot have emotions about the universe, because he cannot see that it is there.
This is a salient feature of sanity: it does not include emotions about the universe. Some sane readers may object: "Once I was excited about anti-particles for several hours", or "I tried out solipsism for three whole days".
So, if it is insisted upon, we may qualify this statement as follows: Sanity may occasionally allow transitory emotions about the universe or reality, but it does not allow them to exercise any perceptible influence as motives in the life of the individual. At this stage in our argument we must regard it as an open question whether this is an accidental by-product of sanity, or whether it is the deliberate but unstated objective at which all sane psychology is aimed.
I must explain what I mean by an emotion about the universe, since this is an unfamiliar and bizarre phenomenon—so let me give an example. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the founder of linguistic philosophy, which has made so great a contribution to intellectual sanity in this century, was himself not quite so sane as he would have liked. Indeed, it may be argued that linguistic philosophy was itself the product of his strenuous attempts to remain sane enough. A case of an irritated oyster producing a pearl—the sane may reply—which does not detract from the value of the pearl. Possibly.
But it is undeniable that Wittgenstein did occasionally have emotions about the universe. So his biographer records: "I believe that a certain feeling of amazement that anything should exist at all, was sometimes experienced by Wittgenstein.... Whether this feeling has anything to do with religion is not clear to me."6
Notice in passing the fastidiousness with which his biographer hastens to disclaim any exact comprehension of this feeling. ("I believe the lower classes eat fish and chips from newspaper. Whether this practice has anything to do with nutrition is not clear to me.")
What more can be said of the sane person? He is ubiquitous, and so his characteristics are invisible. There is nothing to compare him with.
But let us consider the picture given in a jolly little booklet called A positive approach to Mental Health.7 (The cover is adorned with a picture of a happy fakir sitting beside an abandoned bed of nails.)
"How does the person who is enjoying good mental health think and act?" the booklet asks, and proceeds to inform us, among other things, that "He gets satisfaction from simple, every-day pleasures." Freud, you see, certainly qualified.
"He has emotions", the booklet also informs us, "like anyone else." However, they are "in proportion" and he is not "crushed" by them. I think by now we have established what is meant by keeping things "in proportion"—i.e. you have most of your emotions about unimportant things. The booklet does not state this explicitly, but it certainly does not state anything to the contrary. It might, for example, be said that "the mature man is not unduly interested in matters of purely local significance, such as the state of affairs on this particular planet, because he realizes that they are of little ultimate significance." You will observe how outlandish that sounds.
The booklet becomes a little lightheaded when it comes to the matter of the mentally healthy person's interest in facts. "He's open-minded about new experiences and new ideas." A more accurate statement might be "A mentally healthy person has made a value judgement in advance that no idea or experience can be qualitatively more important than those he already understands. He is able to rely on his defense mechanisms and can listen with a bland expression to people with unpleasant ideas."
How does the mentally healthy person feel about his limitations? "He feels able to deal with most situations that come his way.... He tries for goals he thinks he can achieve through his own abilities; he doesn't want the moon on a silver platter." That is to say, he has so arranged his life that he doesn't try to do anything that doesn't seem pretty easy. "If he can't change something he doesn't like, he adjusts to it." "He knows he has shortcomings and can accept them without getting upset." That is, he has ways of pretending he does not mind about anything he cannot alter easily.
And how does he feel about other people? Here a slightly threatening note of reciprocity appears. "He is tolerant of others shortcomings just as he is of his own. He doesn't expect others to be perfect, either." "He expects to like and trust other people and assumes that they will like him.... He doesn't try to push other people around and doesn't expect to be pushed around himself." Let us just imagine what might have been said instead -- I know it will sound like the wildest fantasy. "He regrets his own shortcomings and is always willing to admire people with greater virtues and capacities than his own. He wishes to help other people, particularly those with higher aims and a more intense sense of purpose than he has himself. He does not expect to be liked in return for his help."
We have established that the mentally healthy person isn't going to let his life, with all its content of simple pleasures, be pushed around by anyone.
This, if you give it a moment's thought, ensures that all his relationships must be characterized by mutual purposelessness. If you once admit a purpose to the situation, it may make differential demands on different people.
Nevertheless, the sane person "is capable of loving other people and thinking about their interests and well-being. He has friendships that are satisfying and lasting. He can identify himself with a group, feel that he is part of it, and has a sense of responsibility to his neighbours and fellow men."
Notice that a friendship should be satisfying -- i.e. it is an end in itself, and not a means to an end. It should also be "lasting". Obviously if the friendship depended on community of purpose, it might be outgrown.
So it is plain that people constitute a rather large part of the mentally healthy person's world, but that all associations of persons have to be characterized by a mutual sacrifice of purposiveness.
I am reminded of the porcupines of Schopenhauer. They wanted to huddle together to keep one another warm, but found that their spines pricked one another. If they kept too far apart, they became cold again. So they established a distance at which they could keep one another warm without actually making contact with one another's spines. "This distance was henceforward known as decency and good manners."
The attitude of the mentally healthy person towards other people might be stated as follows: "He expects to derive warmth from his proximity to other people. He does not expect to derive anything else, and is willing to let other people derive warmth from him so long as they, too, abandon their prickly claims to possess needs of any other kind."
Before we leave this little booklet, let us consider that brilliant expression "mental health". It is, of course, a social euphemism of the same genre as "rodent operative" and "cleansing official". It saves sane people from embarrassment by permitting them to say that their confined and extraordinary relatives are not mad but "mentally ill" or even "mentally unwell". It implies that the human mind grows naturally and by biological necessity into the image and likeness of the Human Evasion, as the human body grows to a certain specified kind of shape. It implies that any deviation from the Human Evasion is the same kind of thing as a tumour or a running sore. It sanctifies the statistical norm. "Mental disease", the booklet says, "doesn't indicate lack of brain power but rather a malfunctioning of the brain and emotions. The individual just doesn't respond to various situations the way a normal person would" (my italics).
What can we add to this picture of the sane? One sane opinion. "... if I could spend the course of everlasting time in a paradise of varied loveliness, I do not fancy my felicity would be greatly impaired if the last secret of the universe were withheld from me."8
This opinion was held by a Gifford Lecturer in the 1930s. His lectures were entitled "The Human Situation", and they are a marvel of sanity from beginning to end. But they are outdated in one respect. We do not talk any more about "the human situation". The phrase implies that humans can be seen in relation to something other than humans. What we talk about now is sociology. Everyone is very proud of this fact. It is the quintessence of sanity.
Chapter 3 : The Genesis of Sanity
It is fashionable to locate the origins of psychological attitudes very early in life. The taste for doing so is not, perhaps, entirely unmotivated.
It is obviously fairly agreeable to regard one's psychology as the result of conditioning rather than of choice. It is relaxing; one has nothing to blame oneself for; one cannot be expected to change. It is, of course, possible that the infant mind is capable of significant emotional decisions, but this possibility is never discussed.
However, a perfectly satisfactory beginning may indeed be postulated for sanity, and this does not interfere at all with standard theories of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis deals with that part of a person's psychology which has become fixated on other people; so it may well describe what happens to the child in so far as that child becomes sane.
It is well known that the younger people are, the less sane they are likely to be. This has lead to the heavily-loaded social usage of the term maturity. It is an unquestionable pro-word. Roughly speaking, the mature person is characterized by willingness to accept substitutes, compromises, and delays, particularly if these are caused by the structure of society.
Young people are usually immature, that is to say, they wish their lives to contain excitement and purpose. It is recognized (at least subconsciously) by sane people that the latter is much the more dangerous of the two, so the young who cannot at once be made mature are steered into the pursuit of purposeless excitement. This is actually not very exciting, and is well on the way to an acceptable kind of sanity, as it leads to the idea of "excitement" being degraded to that of "pleasure".
Adolescents are known to think about metaphysics more than most people; thus thinking about metaphysics becomes associated with the negative concept "immaturity". If someone thinks about metaphysical problems at a later age, they are said to show signs of "delayed adolescence".
Now let us go back to the very beginning of the "maturation" process. It is to be presumed that a baby which is being born experiences helplessness as helplessness. That is to say, it experiences the painful and incomprehensible process without any of those reflections which are such a miraculous source of comfort to the sane�such as "It will soon be over", or "After all, it happens to everybody", or "It shouldn't be allowed. It's their fault".
The infant may be presumed to find its condition intolerable—because it is out of control of it. At this point of its life, what it minds about is that it cannot control reality, not that it cannot control people.
Now so long as one is finite—i.e. one's knowledge and powers are limited—situations may always arise which one cannot control. But it is very hard for an adult human to feel any emotion about his limitations vis-a-vis impersonal reality. What emotion arises in you when you think that you would be quite unable to lift Mount Everest? On the other hand, it is probably quite easy to feel some emotion at the thought that so-and-so is an inch taller than you are, or can always beat you at badminton. You may also (though less probably) still be able to feel a pang of jealousy or regret that you are not Nijinsky or Shakespeare or Einstein.
Obviously a process of psychological development takes place which ensures (so far as possible) that the limitations of the individual will be experienced only in comparisons with other people. Now it is obvious that the emotion which accompanies the original experience of helplessness is very strong. If you can recall any experience of impotent fury or horror in early childhood you may get some idea of this. This gives some clue to the strength of the human evasion. If people are to take the force of all this displaced emotion, it is scarcely surprising that they should be the object of such exclusive attention.
At first very young children are not immune from a feeling of helplessness per se. But it may be presumed that the part of their environment which is most readily manipulable is soon seen to be other people. The younger the child, the truer this is. Its own physical and mental grasp of the situation is greatly exceeded by that of adult humans—particularly its mother—who can affect the situation in its favour if they feel inclined to do so.
It is very painful to try to do something and to fail. The retrospective attempt to reject the combination of trying and failure is well known in social life. "I didn't really care about the game today." "Actually I was thinking that even if I was elected it was time I resigned to spend more time on my other interests." Therefore, by the time it has reached adulthood, the sane person has evolved ways of relinquishing the attempt in favour of some compensatory aim, in any situation in which it does not feel almost certain to succeed. For example, as a mature adult, you cannot even try (with any emotional involvement in the act of trying) to jump over a house. By the same token, you cannot try to make a door open by willpower alone, or try to arrive home quickly without traversing the intervening space and navigating such obstacles as stairs, walls, gates, etc., in the approved fashion. Your immediate sensation if you attempted to try, would be an overwhelming sense of impossibility.
It is (philosophically or factually speaking) the case that no future event can be demonstrated to be impossible. If something has happened once, this may be said to show it is possible. If it has never happened this does not show that it can never do so. But as has pointed out, reflections of this kind although true, have no emotional impact to a sane person.
As already mentioned, you may still (in rare circumstances) be able to try to achieve exceptional things in some socially recognized and strictly limited field. I.e. you may still be able to try and equal Nijinsky, Shakespeare, etc.
But it is far more likely that you have acquired some compensatory attitude towards any such symbols of outstandingness. It can give a very pleasant sense of gentle superiority to discuss Beethoven's deafness, and Shakespeare's Oedipus Complex, and Nietzsche's lack of success with women, in a more or less informed manner. Thus MacNeile Dixon:
So with the famous monarchs of the mind. They terrify you with their authority.... How royal is their gesture, how incomparable their technique!
There is, however, no need for alarm. Pluck up your heart, approach a little nearer, and what do you find; that they have human wishes and weaknesses like yourself. You may discover that Kant smoked, played billiards and had a fancy for candied fruit. The discovery at once renders him less awe-inspiring.1
This kind of approach is not only useful for eliminating a sense of inferiority, it also makes it much easier to ignore anything Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, etc., may have said about reality.
Now although the ambitions of the adult are already restricted to narrowly defined types of social recognition, even this form of aspiration is a strictly unstable structure in sane psychology—i.e. if it is displaced slightly from its equilibrium it will tend to fall further away from that position, and not return to it. On the other hand, compensation is a stable psychological position in sane psychology.
The replacement of aspiration by compensation is perhaps most clearly seen among college students. They frequently arrive at university with immature desires for greatness and an exceptionally significant way of life.
Not infrequently, also, this leads to emotional conflicts and disappointments of one kind and another. They adjust to their problems with startling rapidity. The solution which occurs to nearly all of them, and is suggested to them by psychological advisers, etc., if it does not occur to them spontaneously, is to accept their limitations. The acceptance of limitations is accompanied by a marked increase in the valuation placed on other people.
"I used to be quite self-sufficient and thought I wanted to be nothing but an intellectual. I lived for my work, and of course maths/classics/anything you like is the nearest thing there is to heaven. But it would be selfish to live like that. I see now you've got to take an interest in life—I mean, you have to live with other people. It's difficult to get on with people. Social problems are difficult. The other is easy. It's running away from reality." What is usually omitted from this exposition by the patient is that between the period at which classics (or whatever it may have been) was "nearly heaven" and the period at which human relationships became the central thing in life, there was usually a stage at which classics was no longer particularly easy.
It is a simple law of human psychology, therefore, that as soon as conflict arises, it will be eliminated by some compensatory manoeuvre in which other people are the central pivot. The process of becoming thoroughly sane depends on repeated manoeuvres of this kind.
This process may be presumed to have started in earliest infancy, when it was much more rewarding to aim at responses from one's mother than at controlling the environment directly. Here began the child's lifelong efforts to limit its trying to regions in which it could succeed. This process, of necessity, remained imperfect in early life, as moderate (though never disproportionate) efforts to learn things must be sanctioned in the young.
These efforts are almost at once heavily conditioned by social acceptability, though this is not yet the exclusive criterion. It is possible to find people who remember, as children, having tried (or attempted to try) to walk away from the stairs into the air instead of going on down them one by one. But even then they found it impossible to try very hard.
Why is it so painful to fail in something you have tried to do? In the case of the young child it is evidently because it reminds it of its limited powers, which suggests the possibility of permanent finiteness.
It is bad enough to be finite at present; it is intolerable to believe that one will always be so. If one tries and fails it proves that one's trying is insufficient. Better therefore to believe that one doesn't want to try—at least at present.
This view of the matter is not so far removed from that of orthodox psychoanalysis, which does, after a fashion, recognize the child's desire for omnipotence. Psychoanalysis is, however, most concerned with what happens once human persons, such as the child's father, have become partial symbols of omnipotence. There is also a tendency to describe the child as having a muddle-headed belief in its own omnipotence. This is, of course, less justifiable than a desire for omnipotence. Sane people cannot distinguish very easily between different attitudes of this kind.
Of course in the child and adolescent there are still remains of the belief that one will, at some judiciously selected time in the future, attempt altogether more ambitious things. In true adulthood this idea has disappeared (or becomes transformed into some such form as "it would make all the difference if people were only decent to me and gave me my rights").
Thus the sane, adult person wants (or tries to want) to have what it can have and to do what it can do, and exercises a good deal of ingenuity in attempts to want not to have what it cannot get.
One or two points must be made in parentheses. The sane person will not, of course, admit that the prospect of being permanently finite is intolerable.
Even if he looks so miserable that he cannot with any conviction claim to be happy himself, he will utter constant affirmations that "most people are perfectly all right and quite happy as they are." "Why should I mind about being finite? Suppose I enjoy it like this?"
This does not make our hypothesis about the development of the human evasion any less probable. Our argument is that a sane person's life has been spent in an increasingly successful attempt not to find finiteness intolerable. Thus if he makes assertions of this kind, he is telling us only that he has succeeded.
After all, it is accepted in psychoanalysis that one of the objects of a psychological reaction to an unacceptable fact is, eventually, to conceal the true origin and purpose of this reaction.
The sane adult will, of course, object that what happens when one comes up against one's limitations is not that one is reminded of the possibility of permanent finiteness. It is certain that the limits of one's capabilities are defined by what one can and cannot achieve.
The very young child reacts emotionally as if it believed that limitation is only potential; it does not yet identify itself with its limitations. In this its emotions are in accordance with the most abstract philosophy; whatever may be achieved in certain circumstances on one occasion or even on a great many occasions, it may still be the case that something quite different may be achieved on a future occasion. In the most abstract sense, this might simply happen in the way that everything might stop existing at any moment or start existing according to different laws. This, I know, is the sort of consideration that has no force at all to a sane adult. But even within the normal world-view, it cannot be claimed that very much is known about the psychological factors that restrict or permit achievement, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that if someone adopted a different kind of psychological attitude from any they had had before, they might find their abilities radically changed.
Initially, then, the child is merely horrified at the prospect that a single failure may contain some implication of permanent restriction; some barrier set forever between him and the possibility of omnipotence. It is a matter of social conditioning that he increasingly learns that he is regarded by others as defined by his failures, so that any single one comes to have the force of a permanent measurement of what he unchangeably is.
This process is accompanied by a continuous shifting of the idea of failure away from absolute failure (i.e. failure to fulfil one's own will) toward "failure by comparison with other people". To the mature adult only the latter is of any interest.
The child is trained, then, to react to failure not only by regarding his limitations as final, but by substituting something more readily obtainable for what he originally wanted. The substitution is usually eased by a shift of emphasis from what the individual himself wants, to what other people want from him. It may be the substitution of a different ambition from the first one, on the grounds that it will be just as useful to society, or it may be the substitution of social approval per se for any ambition at all.
Consider some well-known gambits. "Never mind, darling. Even if you fail your exams, you know we'll still love you." If the person concerned is actually worried about the exams, there is an obvious motivation for attempting to find this comforting. "Well, we know you did your best, and that's what counts." The latter is particularly subtle, since it combines the idea of finality of failure with the offer of social approval. What it is really saying is: "Provided you accept that you couldn't possibly have done better, and you really are worse than all the other boys, you may have our affection as a good boy who tries."
Now the child may well have an obscure feeling that in some way he wasn't feeling right about the thing; or that somehow everything felt wrong at school in some indefinable way that made it quite certain that he couldn't do that kind of thing there. But his mind must be distracted from any attempt to work out how one does make oneself feel right to do things. (If he does start reflecting on the effect of circumstances upon him he will most likely be told he is "making excuses".)
The denial of psychological reality is very important to sanity. It cannot afford to admit the existence of a psychology of achievement, still less to understand it. However, one of the few pieces of psychology that is understood by sanity is how to make young humans with aspirations feel discredited and absurd. Any aspiration bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a desire not to be finite at all. Inspiration is of little interest to modern psychology; it is about as unfashionable as witchcraft. If the subconscious mind is considered at all, it is considered solely as a repository of associations of ideas about parts of the body and members of one's family.
Of course there is a kind of non-aspiring psychology of success which is understood by sanity. It is roughly as follows: the most stable, least excitable, most normal, people will tend to be most consistently successful.
Even if this seems to be supported by observation, it must be borne in mind that these are the conditions for success (of a moderate kind) in a society composed of sane people.
Chapter 4 : The Society of the Sane
Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.
It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it were there for some other purpose -- to keep everyone alive and well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction. (Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)
Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable of eating -- and so are animals and plants -- so this qualifies magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful, or interested in metaphysics.
It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people. Now basically the situation of being finite is an infinitely frustrating one, which would be expected to arouse sensations of desperation and aggression -- as indeed it may sometimes be seen to do in very young children. I am aware that I must be careful, in using the word aggression, to state that I do not mean aggression directed towards people. What I mean is an impersonal drive directed against reality -- it is difficult to give examples but it may be presumed that geniuses who are at all worthy of the name preserve a small degree of this.
However, since all emotion must be directed towards people, it is obvious that the only form of aggression which a sane person can understand is aggression against people, which is probably better described as sadism or cruelty.
Now it is obvious that the open expression of cruelty towards other people would have a destructive effect upon society, apart from being unprofitable to the human evasion in other ways. So the usual way in which aggression is displaced onto other people is in the form of a desire that they should be limited. This, after all, is very logical. If the true source of your anger is that you are limited yourself, and you wish to displace this anger onto some other person, what could be more natural than that you should wish them to be limited as well.
This desire is usually expressed in the form of a desire for social justice, in one form or another. ('In this life you have to learn that you can't have it all your own way.' 'Well he can't expect to be treated as an exception for ever.' 'It's time he learnt to accept his limitations.' 'Don't you think you should try to think more what other people want? We all have to do things we don't like.' 'Why should they have all the advantages.')
This means that society is not only the chief source of compensation to a sane person, but his chief instrument of revenge against other people. It is useless to point out that there is no need to revenge himself upon them. If he were ever to admit that they were not responsible for his finite predicament, he would have to direct his hatred against the finite predicament itself, and this would be frustrating. It is this frustration that the human evasion exists to evade.
Any attempt to do something involves the possibility of failure and may remind you of reality. For this reason the sane society discriminates against purposeful action in favour of pleasure-seeking action. The only purposes readily recognized as legitimate by the sane mind are those necessitated by the pursuit of pleasure. E.g. pleasure seeking cannot efficiently be carried on unless the individual is kept alive and moderately healthy. Therefore his physical needs are regarded as important and ambulances are provided with noisy bells. There is no corresponding necessity that he should fill, say, his intellectual potentialities. In fact the attempt to do so is likely to appear unduly purposeful.
It is obvious in any number of ways that a sense of purpose repels rather than attracts assistance. You have only to consider the immediate sympathy that would be aroused in a sane mind by the complaint of some child that it was being driven to work at things far too difficult for its capacities, compared with the distrust and reserve with which it would view complaints by the child that it was not being allowed to work hard enough.
To the sane mind, even aggression against people is infinitely better than aggression against infinity. And it is the chief defect of sane society that it is boring. It is so boring that even sane people notice it. And so, from time to time, there is a war. This is intended to divert people's minds before they become so bored that they take to some impersonal kind of aggressive activity -- such as research, or asceticism, or inspiration, or something discreditable of that kind.
In wartime, rather more purposeful activity than usual is permissible. Even sane people relax their normal beliefs that nothing matters very much, and some time next week is soon enough for anything. This is regarded as justified because the war is always about something connected with other people, and may be regarded as an assertion of the belief that the thing that matters most is politics.
And yet it might seem that war was going rather far. It does contain a very considerable risk of contact with reality. It is difficult to pretend that people never die, or that they only die in soothing situations with up-to-date medical care and loving relatives to keep their minds occupied with family news. War is full of reminders that things happen, and that space and time are real, and that before the bomb blows up is not the same as after, and that there are risks and uncertainty.
How then can a sane society run the risks of allowing its population to have experiences of this kind, even occasionally? I think if you ask this question it is simply because you do not appreciate the robustness of sanity. If you shut people up in a prison camp, and torture them for a few years, they will not come out saying: 'I am a finite animal in existence and it is beyond endurance. How can I go on living in a body that can be tormented in these ways? I demand that human society stops all it is doing and starts attacking finiteness in every conceivable way....'
Instead, they will come out saying: 'It is terrible that other people should let wars happen, in which it is possible to be so degraded and reminded of one's limitations. It shouldn't happen; it is contrary to human rights; we are appalled at the evil in the heart of man. Meanwhile we demand reparation from society -- employment, and housing, and disablement allowances...'
Society, they say, exists to safeguard the rights of the individual. If this is so, the primary right of a human being is evidently to live unrealistically.
It has been pointed out that by the time a person is fully mature he will not, in normal circumstances, be made aware of his finiteness except in comparisons with other people.
It is not possible to ensure this absolutely. But it is possible to limit the loopholes to those of physical accident, illness and death. Human beings regard it as a sacred duty to be particularly untruthful about these things -- particularly to the afflicted person and to any young person who may be around. For example, the following account of the death of Madame Curie may well seem rather touching to a sane person.
Then began the harrowing struggle which goes by the name of 'an easy death' - in which the body which refuses to perish asserts itself in wild determination. Eve at her mother's side was engaged in another struggle; in the brain of Mme Curie, still very lucid, the great idea of death had not penetrated. The miracle must be preserved, to save Marie from an immense pain that could not be appeased by resignation. Above all, the physical suffering had to be attenuated; the body reassured at the same time as the soul. No difficult treatments, no tardy blood transfusions, impressive and useless. No family reunion hastily called at the bedside of a woman who, seeing her relatives assembled, would be suddenly struck to the heart with an atrocious certainty.
I shall always cherish the names of those who helped my mother in those days of horror. Dr. Toben, director of the sanatorium, and Dr. Pierre Lowsy brought Marie all their knowledge. The life of the sanatorium seemed suspended, stricken with immobility by the dreadful fact: Mme Curie was about to die. The house was all respect, silence and fervor. The two doctors alternated in Marie's room. They supported and solaced her. They also took care of Eve, helped her to struggle and to tell lies, and, even without her asking them, they promised to lull Marie's last sufferings by soporifics and injections.
On the morning of July third, for the last time Mme Curie could read the thermometer held in her shaking hand and distinguish the fall in fever which always precedes the end. She smiled with joy. And as Eve assured her that this was the sign of her cure, and that she was going to be well now, she said, looking at the open window, turning hopefully towards the sun and the motionless mountains: 'It wasn't the medicines that made me better. It was the pure air, the altitude...'1
It may be remarked that although the vulnerability of the human body makes it possible even for a fully-matured human being to be reminded of his limitations, no power on earth can remind him of the transcendent, in any shape or form. His reactions to pain, danger and death are limited to fear, depression, anxiety and commonsense. They do not include liberation, elation, or an interest in infinity. That is to say, the impact of reality has been rendered entirely negative.
In order effectively to distract people from reality, society has to provide them with pseudo-purposes, guaranteed purposeless. (Or, alternatively, with pseudo-frustrations, guaranteed permanent.) There are two main kinds of pseudo-purpose or -frustration; they are known as 'earning a living' and 'bringing up a family'. They both provide a person with a cast-iron alibi for not doing anything he wants with his life. (He does not, of course, want to be free to do what he wants, so this is all right.)
Sane people regard an apparently purposeful activity as disinfected by numbers -- i.e. if a sufficiently large number of people is involved, they feel sure that the outcome will be harmless to sanity, no matter how frenzied the labours may seem to be. The most large-scale examples are war and politics.
Into these activities, people allow themselves to enter with almost single-minded devotion.
Both war and politics have played a particularly helpful part in retarding the march of progress. In fact, the history of the human race is only comprehensible as the record of a species trying not to gain control of its environment.
Chapter 5 : How to Write Sane Books
It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call it the Outside.
The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if only because it exists) but not many people notice this.
In religious and philosophical writings it is often difficult to eliminate all reference to the Outside. There are a number of ways of dealing with this problem. One of the most successful is to generate a distinctive kind of ambiguity about the meanings of crucial words.
Consider the following passage in which the words 'being' and 'existence' are used. 'The term 'being' in this context does not designate existence in time and space.... (It) means the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence.'1
It is tolerably clear that at least when Tillich first uses the word 'existence' he means by it what I also mean when I use the word. It seems that what we both mean by 'existing' is 'being there'.
However, Tillich then explicitly repudiates this sense and goes on to define the word 'being' in a second sense. The term 'being' means the whole of human reality, Tillich says. The meaning of this phrase is not obvious.
Perhaps Tillich means the sum total of the mental content of all humans -illusions and all? What humans think is real? Or that part of reality which is accessible to the human mind?
The last seems to be the best we can do. So let us suppose that 'human reality' does mean that part of the mental content -- actual or potential -- of humans which is actually in accordance with what exists.
'Human reality' is then placed in apposition with 'the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'. What is to be understood by this? The 'aim of existence' seems at first sight to be clear, unless 'existence' has made an unannounced change of meaning since it was first used. It would seem that this phrase must mean 'the purpose for which everything exists'.
But this is difficult, because 'the aim of existence' is in apposition with 'human reality' which certainly does not include the purpose of existence.
This leads us to a distinct suspicion that when Tillich talks of 'the structure, meaning and aim of existence' he does not mean 'existence' at all, but 'human life' instead. If he does mean this, there seems no reason why he should say so -- except that it would rob what he is saying of a status it does not possess. And if he does mean this, we have arrived at the following definition of the word 'being' -- 'whatever happens to be realistic in the mental content of humans; the structure, the meaning and the aim of human life'.
In fact, we may suggest this paraphrase of what Tillich is saying: 'When we talk of 'being' we do not mean the Outside. We mean the Inside.'
This example illustrates a standard procedure for appearing to take the Outside into consideration without actually doing so. The rules for this kind of writing are very simple and roughly as follows.
There are a number of words and phrases which may mean something about existence or something about humans. For example: 'existence', 'depth', 'ground of being', 'ultimate concern', 'meaning', etc. Whenever what you really mean is 'human relationships' or 'day-to-day living' you should replace it by some existential-sounding combination, such as 'the depth of being'. It is a good idea to use compound phrases ('the depth of historical existence', 'the ultimate ground of meaning') as a considerable degree of obscurity can be created by summating the uncertainty of a number of uncertain terms.
It is usual to define these terms as little as possible. But if you wish to appear to do so, it is best to use a series of phrases in apposition (as in the example just considered: 'the whole of human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'). This gives a very good effect of struggling to define something difficult with precision while actually generating ambiguity (on the principle of summation of uncertainty already mentioned). The device of apposition itself introduces an additional modicum of doubt, since if you appose two such phrases as 'the depth of meaning' and 'the inmost structure of reality' no one will be sure whether the two phrases are ways of saying the same thing, or whether they are intended to complement one another.
Other verbal devices may be used for placing together in the closest possible proximity 'human' words and 'Outside' words. Words like 'ultimate' and 'reality' should be used in phrases like 'human reality' and 'ultimate concern', and the word 'meaning' should be softened into 'meaning and coherence'. (The word 'meaning' might be regarded as informationally sufficient; however, the addition of 'coherence' contributes a useful implicit suggestion that 'meaning' must hang together in a way that is recognizable and rather agreeable to humans.)
To illustrate these instructions, consider the typical phrase 'life and existence'. Now the word 'existence' may mean 'human life', but if it does it is adding nothing to the meaning of the phrase. So this phrase would seem to mean 'human living and the fact that things are there' -- which seems a strange combination to discuss in the same breath.
Another example of the way in which abstract words such as 'transcendent', 'meaning', 'existence' should be combined with human words such as 'life' and 'confidence':
High religions are ... distinguished by the extent of the unity and coherence of life which they seek to encompass and the sense of a transcendent source of meaning by which alone confidence in the meaningfulness of life and existence can be maintained.2May I suggest a paraphrase, which I think does not reduce the informational content. 'High religions are distinguished by making the whole of human life feel meaningful to the human being.' As human life already feels meaningful to sane human beings, this would appear to let anything or nothing qualify as a 'high religion'.
It is true that my paraphrase reduces Niebuhr's meaning if he is using the word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. If so, what he is saying becomes more complex, but questionable. Assuming 'transcendent' to mean 'possessing a validity which cannot be affected by any consideration whatever', or perhaps 'directly related to the reason for existence', it is difficult to see why a 'transcendent source of meaning' should be expected to maintain anyone's 'confidence in the meaningfulness of life'. For this to be true, we should have to accept the psychological supposition that people can only confidently accept transcendent meanings as meaningful. What is more, we should also have to accept that a transcendent source of meaning would have the characteristic of making a human being confident about the meaning of his life. It is an interesting sidelight on human psychology that it should be so often assumed that a transcendent purpose must be one that 'gives a meaning to life'. In fact, anyone sufficiently unusual to think occasionally about transcendence finds that it makes his life feel intolerably meaningless. (This is why people do not go on doing it.)
If we assume that Niebuhr is using the word 'transcendent' in one of the senses defined above, the most obvious characteristic of a transcendent meaning would seem to be that it invalidates all subordinate meanings. This, after all, is what 'transcendent' means -- that which invalidates, but cannot itself be invalidated. So if Niebuhr is really using the word 'transcendent' to mean that which transcends, what he is saying becomes: 'High religions are distinguished by making the whole of life meaningful by reference to something which makes the whole of life meaningless, which is the only way in which it is possible to maintain confidence that life is meaningful.'
As this is patently absurd, I assume that he is not in fact using the word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. It is much more likely that when he talks of a 'transcendent source of meaning' he means 'anything which is capable of making the whole of human life seem meaningful to a large number of people'.
I leave the reader to appreciate the following without further explanation:
God made the world, and is never absent from it. So, within the mind of modern secularism there are feelings after the meaningfulness of human existence, recognition of supreme obligations in human relations, gropings after an undefined 'otherness'.3
The name of this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is God. That is what the word means, and it is that to which the words Kingdom of God and Divine Providence point. And if these words do not have much meaning for you, translate them, and speak of the depth of history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what you take seriously without reservation in your moral and political activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope, simply hope. 4
Chapter 6 : The Sane Person Talks of Existence
When the sane person talks about life he sometimes mentions the Outside, but here a splendid confusion can be created from the simple fact that other people are, in a certain sense, outside relative to the individual. And so it is possible to find passages like the following:
And what, too, would our reactions to (ESP) tell us about ourselves? That we feel safer living in splendid isolation, a huis clos? Or that we are prepared to face the possibility of being members of one another in a world which, as mathematicians already know, is first and foremost one of relationships, and which now, as a great mathematician, Hermann Weyl, has dramatically put it, is being made by modern science itself "to appear more and more as an open one... pointing beyond itself."1
This, incidentally, provides a particularly ostentatious example of the use which is constantly made by sane people of words with two possible meanings.
Here the word "relationship" is used to assimilate the two concepts "human relationship" and "mathematical relationship". A little analytical thought should convince the reader that a person may be interested in human relationships without the slightest attraction towards mathematical ones, and vice versa.
A distinction may be made, though it is a difficult one for a sane mind to grasp, between the idea of a world "pointing beyond itself" to mathematical abstractions, and one "pointing beyond itself" to human mutuality and cohesion.
This passage also illustrates the habit of talking about human relationships as terrifying, difficult, dangerous, and the like. Conversely, any outlook not constantly preoccupied with human interactions is—though never described—implied to be excessively conducive of feelings of safety, ease, and comfort.
There is no particular reason why these implications should correspond with the psychological facts. As we have already mentioned, 'sanity' shows many of the characteristics of recognized psychological syndromes. All psychological syndromes are ways of defending the individual from intolerable stress, and can only achieve this objective by concealing their true purpose. So one does not expect a high degree of objectivity in the statements of—say—a paranoid about his condition. In fact, one expects a characteristic kind of inversion on certain crucial points. (Pride replacing guilt, superiority concealing inferiority, and so on.)
Now if "sanity" is a device for protecting the individual from the impact of facts, in the same way that paranoia is a device for protecting the individual from feelings of humiliation, it is obviously under the same kind of necessity to conceal its true terms of reference.
So it is scarcely surprising that sane people should have an unfounded belief that they are adopting a difficult and strenuous attitude.
But what are the psychological facts? Is it actually the case that when people adopt a less anthropocentric outlook they find themselves overwhelmed by sensations of ease and self-aggrandizement? We cannot expect to find very much evidence either way, because people do not often adopt such an outlook, but such evidence as there is suggests that they actually feel alone and defenseless, not to say frightened.
In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb by revelations of my own state of mind.2
I shall never forget that night of December in which the veil that concealed from me my own incredulity was torn. I hear again my steps in that narrow naked chamber where long after the hour of sleep had come I had the habit of walking up and down. I see again that moon, half-veiled by clouds, which now and again illuminated the frigid window-panes. The hours of the night flowed on and I did not note their passage. Anxiously I followed my thoughts, as from layer to layer they descended towards the foundation of my consciousness, and scattering one by one all the illusions which until then had screened its windings from my view, made them every moment more clearly visible. Vainly I clung to these last beliefs as a shipwrecked sailor clings to the fragments of his vessel; vainly, frightened at the unknown void in which I was about to float, I turned with them towards my childhood, my family, my country, all that was dear and sacred to me: the inflexible current of my thought was too strong—parents, family, memory, beliefs, it forced me to let go of everything. The investigation went on more obstinate and more severe as it drew near its term, and did not stop until the end was reached. I knew then that in the depth of my mind nothing was left that stood erect.
The moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, somber and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.3
It is true that when people talk about life they do sometimes admit that being finite is rather awful. Sometimes they cannot even manage to say this without mentioning "other people" in every sentence. The following passage from Erich Fromm is interesting because it illustrates several kinds of question-begging simultaneously.
There is another element ... which makes the need to "belong" so compelling: the fact of subjective self-consciousness ... its existence confronts man with a problem which is essentially human: by being aware of himself as distinct from nature and other people, by being aware—even very dimly—of death, sickness, ageing, he necessarily feels his insignificance and smallness in comparison with the universe and all others who are not "he".
Unless he belonged somewhere, unless his life had some meaning and direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overwhelmed by his individual insignificance ... he would be filled with doubt, and this doubt eventually would paralyse his ability to act—that is, to live.4
The first thing to notice is that Fromm implies (even before he has stated the problem) that what a person needs is "to belong". When he does state the problem he states two problems at once as if they were the same. (To feel insignificant and small in comparison with the universe is actually different from feeling those things in comparison with other people.) Fromm calls this problem (or problems) "essentially human"—a reassuring description. He continues by implying that it is right and proper for a person to feel that he does "belong", and that his life does have "meaning and direction". This will prevent him from feeling like a particle of dust: if he did, he would be paralysed. This last is, of course, an unverified assumption.
There is no evidence that people who feel like particles of dust relative to the universe become paralysed and inactive, although it is a fact of clinical psychology that people who feel worthless relative to other people often spend a good deal of time in bed.
Virtually all categories of modern thinkers unite in chanting "There is no Outside". The existentialists, alone, say "There is an Outside". On account of their sane upbringing they feel that this is a difficult thing to say and they say it with a kind of metaphysical stutter, inventing new words profusely in their desperation to make themselves understood. Of course in a sense they are right in supposing that it is difficult; no sane person is likely to understand it. But the difficulty is emotional, not philosophical.
(Incidentally, how well the human evasion has arranged matters when anyone who would say "There is an Outside" is driven to express himself at enormous length, in all but unreadable books.)
Existentialists admit that there are certain states of consciousness in which ideas about death, existence, isolation, responsibility, urgency and so forth may have some emotional significance. But these are rare and transitory.
The weakness of the existentialists' case is that they do not distinguish sufficiently between a philosophical attitude and a psychological one. A sane person may be made to admit, as a philosophical point, that everything is fundamentally uncertain, but this will not give it any power as a motive force in his life. Even a person who wished to realize the fact of uncertainty would find it difficult to perceive it with any vividness, or to eliminate other emotional attitudes which he saw to be incompatible with it.
Having accepted that one may, at certain times, become startlingly aware of certain things, the existentialist argument usually goes on to talk of "authentic" and "inauthentic" being. If what is meant by "inauthentic being" is living without awareness of these things, then obviously everyone is very inauthentic indeed. "Authentic being" would mean to live in constant awareness of these things, with all the modifications that would entail. But this is a problem in psychology; it must be asked what forces are at work to prevent this awareness, whether it is possible to defeat them, and how. It is particularly useless to give prescriptions for "authentic being" by involvement or commitment in the world. If we realize that we are talking about states of consciousness, it becomes clear that the procedure being recommended is this: "If you should chance to have a flash of awareness of things of which you are not usually aware, you will realize that your life is full of things which seem meaningless to you so long as you are in this state of awareness. What are you to do to overcome your sense of meaninglessness?" There is a simple answer. "The awareness will pass. You can forget it easily and go on living as before. But since you want to convince yourself that you are doing something about this flash of awareness you have had, you are recommended to return to your former way of life, but more thoroughly and deliberately than before. Commit yourself to doing just the kind of thing which makes further flashes of awareness unlikely."
Here, of course, we are encountering one of those linguistic swerves away from the point so characteristic of the evasive mind. "Authentic being" may be used to refer to a state of dishonesty towards the facts of existence, or to a state of dishonesty towards other people. It is even true that the two things may be to some extent interconnected, since a person suffering from the human evasion is clearly not able to be honest towards anyone, if only because he is constantly trying to force them to shield him from reality, including the reality of his own perceptions and desires.
It should come as no surprise that existentialist writers are unable to distinguish clearly between "mauvaise foi" towards existence and "mauvaise foi" towards people.
And so this kind of thing is written:
What can be said of the statement that we can enter "authentic" selfhood "now"? Existential flashes are not easily had to order. It is not even easy, by trying, to realize vividly the fact that you are going to die.
Dasein, everyday life, is destructible, and we should not even desire its indefinite continuation. But Existenz, authentic selfhood, can be entered into now and its meaning is imperishable. Only by facing death realistically do we become formed, decisive, resolute, and reconciled to finitude. The threat of missing true selfhood is worse than the unavoidable fact of physical disintegration. And the reality of the latter makes me alert to the former. It is because I am going to die as a biological organism that I may miss true self-hood. Because I do not have forever, the question hangs over every moment: 'Are you living, feeling, realizing, choosing yourself or some feeble caricature of what you could be?' One who has lived for ends-in-themselves and who has entered into existential communication with others knows that what is important in his life and in the life of his friend cannot be annihilated by death.5
Even more dubious is the assertion that once you have entered this state "its meaning is imperishable". Can this mean "you will be able to remain in constant awareness of the unknowability of existence", or even "once you have been fully aware of existence your psychology will never be the same again"? Such psychological evidence we have would seem to indicate that existential awareness is usually momentary, and its permanent effects on a sane person are nil.
Our existentialist now tells us that "only by facing death realistically do we become ... reconciled to finitude". To be aware of one's finiteness is one thing; to be reconciled to it is quite another. Nearly everyone seems to manage to be reconciled without being aware; I should have thought it probable that anyone who was fully aware of it would find it intolerable.
Chapter 7 : The Sane Person Talks of God
The human race has always been unable to distinguish clearly between metaphysics and morality. Thus the word "God" can be used to mean "origin of existence" or it can be used to mean "intelligent being interested in the social behaviour of humans". These two concepts are not, however, the same, and any relationship between them would have to be carefully established.
In the same way "religion" could mean two different things. It might mean something like "a person's attitude to the Outside in general, and the fact of existence in particular". As it happens, it does not mean this, and no one expects it to. It is actually used to mean "a person's attitude towards social interactions with other people, with some reference to a supposed intelligent being who is interested in these interactions". The last clause is dispensable. Most people would have little hesitation in accepting as "religious" someone who showed the required behaviour patterns, whether he said he believed in a God or not.
It is usually impossible to make sense of passages in which the word God appears at all often. Consider, for example, this description by Erich Fromm of an up-to-date, sensible kind of religious person.
The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of the monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or his mother; he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of knowing that he knows nothing about God. God becomes for him a symbol in which man, at an earlier stage of his evolution, has expressed the totality of that which man is striving for, the realm of the spiritual world, of love, truth and justice. He ... considers all of his life only valuable inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding of his human powers—as the only reality that matters, as the only object of "ultimate concern"; and eventually, he does not speak about God—nor even mention his name. To love God, if he were going to use this word, would mean, then to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love, for the realization of that which "God" stands for in oneself. 1
Let us see what becomes of this passage if it is rewritten with the term "God" understood to mean "reason for existence" throughout.
"The truly religious person, if he accepts the idea of a single overriding cause which originated all that exists, does not expect this cause to be directly related to what goes on in his own life, and does not expect it to do anything for him. He does not ask it for anything and does not expect to enter into a security-giving personal relationship with it. He realizes that he is a finite being, and that the reason for existence is inconceivable to him. He realizes that he is one of a certain race of animals which has evolved on a certain planet of a certain star in a certain galaxy, and that as they evolved these animals formulate certain ideals at which to aim. The reason for existence becomes to him a symbol for the security and consistency which his race of animals would like to have. He considers his life only valuable inasmuch as he considers it valuable. He regards what interests him as the only reality that matters, and the only object of any importance to the overriding cause which originated all that exists. Eventually he does not ask any questions about the reason for existence—nor even refer to it in passing. To desire the knowledge of the reason for existence would mean to him, then, to long for the attainment of the full capacity to have an intense interest in the welfare of other members of his species. This is the realization of that part of one's psychology for which the words 'reason for existence' stand."
Modern thinkers are at last feeling free to divorce the ideas of "God" and "religion" from any direct connection with the fact that things exist. Some go further. Not only has "God" nothing in particular to do with the origin of existence, but also it has nothing whatever to do with anything human beings do not understand about—that is, it has nothing to do with the Outside.
Fromm's treatment of the idea of God depends on never defining it. A further advance has been made by the Bishop of Woolwich, who admittedly does not define it either, but says explicitly that it isn't there.
What is of interest about the Bishop of Woolwich is not that he is supposed to be a Christian (which is a matter of definition), but that he is human. One might say that he is very human. He speaks for his time; not only for the Christianity of his time but for human psychology as it stands facing the unknown—or rather, with its back to it.
I do not mean to be unduly condemnatory of human beings for standing in this position. It is the done thing. In fact, it has always been the done thing, although formerly some pains were taken to disguise the fact. When people talked about "God" they used to pretend that what they said had something to do with questions about the meaning of existence and the purpose of life.
The splendid discovery made by the Bishop of Woolwich is that the human race is completely uninterested in such questions, but now it is all right to say so. Man has "come of age".
It is not very easy to understand what the Bishop of Woolwich is saying, but it is easier if you start by ascribing a zero value to the term "God". What I mean is that you need to leave a sort of blank hole in every sentence in which the word "God" appears. It is never defined, and so it is semantically redundant.
However, though he does not say who or what God is, the Bishop wants most earnestly to assert that God is not Out There.
But the signs are that we are reaching the point at which the whole conception of a God "out there" ... is itself becoming more of a hindrance than a help ... Suppose belief in God does not, indeed cannot, mean being persuaded of the "existence" of some entity, even a supreme entity, which might or might not be there, like life on Mars? ... Suppose that all such atheism does is to destroy an idol, and that we can and must go on without a God "out there" at all?2
What can we make of these statements? Something (unspecified) is not Out There. Does this mean nothing is Out There? Or nothing of any significance is Out There? A little reflection convinces the questing mind that what the Bishop really means is "There is no Out There."
To make this a little more grammatical, let us rephrase it as "There is no Outside". As we have mentioned, we define the Outside as "that which falls outside the comprehension of the human race". Now whatever else God might be supposed to be, one would imagine that he, she or it was unquestionably Outside.
But the Bishop has two reasons for supposing that God is not Outside.
One of them is that the Inside is getting bigger. We are better at science than we used to be, and our expectation of life is increasing. We can make aeroplanes and control malaria. We do not know what everything is existing for, but neither do we care.
God is an "x" in the equation whom we cannot get on without, a cause, controller or designer whom we are bound to posit or allow room for�this hypothesis seems to men today more and more superfluous.3
Note, incidentally, a nice piece of sane writing. If you talk of "God" impersonally as "a cause" it is difficult to reject the hypothesis that "there is always room for a cause we do not know about." If, however, you talk of God as a "designer", you are obviously bringing in all those anthropomorphic associations which make the idea of God ludicrous. This is where apposition is so useful.
But the Bishop's main reason for supposing that God is not Outside is that we are none of us interested in an Outside, and we are interested in other people.
The world is not asking "How can I find a gracious God?" It is asking "How can I find a gracious neighbour?"4 So if "God" is to be of any interest, it must mean something about human relationships. (Just what about human relationships it could mean is never clear. The Bishop's only elucidation takes the form of periodically intoning such words as "depth" and "ultimacy".)
Of course, the Bishop is not alone in all this. He quotes extensively from Tillich, for example.
When Tillich speaks of God in "depth", he is not speaking of another Being at all. He is speaking of "the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being", of our ultimate concern, of what we take seriously without reservation.5
(I leave the reader to work out how many of the techniques described in "How to Write Sane Books" are used in those two sentences.)
Tillich maintains that God is the "ultimate concern" of every man. I think all modern theologians would agree. However, the question is whether you take "God" as defining "man's ultimate concern", or take "man's ultimate concern" as defining "God". Naturally, in this democratic age, the latter procedure is usually followed. (There is only one of God whereas there are a number of human beings; it would obviously be undemocratic to take God as a standard.) I am happy to see the old opposition between God and man has all but vanished from modern theology. There is now the most extraordinary sympathy, not to say identity, of outlook.
We must—even if it seems "dangerous"—affirm that the glory of God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of his will) than that which comes about in man's existence. And there is no other glory of man than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise God's beatitude coincides with man's happiness. Man's happiness is to make God's beatitude appear in his life, and God's beatitude consists in giving himself to man in the form of human happiness.6
So far we have only considered the modern kind of theologian, who does not believe in God. This should not be taken to imply that the human evasion has only just started to operate in this area.
Even when people believed in God you may remember that there was a certain difficulty in driving any metaphysical argument with them beyond a certain point. They would suddenly round on you, with or without a sweet smile, and say, "Ah, but the important thing is that God is a person." This effectively prevented any further discussion of his possible existence or attributes, particularly as the concepts "person" and "personality" appeared to defy analysis.
It is, of course, entirely compatible with the human evasion that it should suddenly interpose the "personal" and the reason for existence—by whatever name it calls it. It is no less compatible with it that the people who disbelieve in God should do so on the grounds that he was a personal God. "It is evident", they say, "that when people believed in God they were thinking of something like a human being with whom one could have emotional interactions. This is Freudian. It is obvious that there is no Outside because when people thought there was, they treated it like a person. I am well-adjusted and do not need a God to have emotional interactions with. I can have them with other people. Consequently there is no Outside."
Chapter 8 : The Religion of Evasion
The basic tenet of sane theology is that the chief barrier between man and God is constituted by pride—that is, self-sufficiency and ambition, which prevent him from recognizing his true place in the scheme of things. And we are enjoined to be humble—that is, to accept our place in the scheme of things and adopt an attitude of unassuming trustfulness.
This is remarkably like the standard prescription for preserving the human evasion, especially as it is usually accompanied by exhortations to take a particularly thorough interest in our fellow humans.
Now it might actually be true that a man was prevented from perceiving very much of reality (or from perceiving anything very interesting about it) by his satisfaction with himself as he is.
But if we tried to say anything about this in ordinary language the most extraordinary results would ensue. We should have to say, for example, that the essence of humility was to recognize one's desire to be God.
This follows from the fact that if you define "pride" as "what makes people feel they can manage all right as they are", "anti-pride" or "humility" should be "what makes people aware that being as they are is unsatisfactory".
The idea of anyone desiring to be God is very shocking to a sane mind which, with its usual facility for confusing the issue, makes no distinction between "desiring to be God" and "imagining oneself already to be God". Now what would actually happen to someone who desired to be God is not that he would be overwhelmed by sensations of satisfied megalomania, but that he would find being finite intolerable.
We know, of course, that sanity is designed to make finiteness comfortable, so it is not in the least surprising that the religion of evasion should contain this kind of thing:
It is possible for individuals to be saved from this sinful pretension, not by achieving an absolute perspective on life, but by their recognition of their inability to do so....
The recognition of creatureliness and finiteness ... may become the basis of man's reconciliation to God through his resignation to his finite condition.1
So the thing to do is to accept your finiteness. Notice, as usual, that "to accept" means "not to fight against; to settle down within". It does not mean (as it might) "to observe the presence of". I may accept that there is a rattlesnake in the corner without necessarily approving of the fact.
Now although all evasively religious people are clear that finiteness is to be treated in a spirit of peaceful coexistence, they do not like talking about it more than is strictly necessary.
They find the ideas of "sin", "guilt", "morality", and so on far preferable to ideas about "creation", "existence", or "non-existence", and the idea of "helplessness to improve" preferable to the idea of "helplessness". Some idea of the way these substitutions are made may be gained from the following account of Wittgenstein's attitude to the notions of "God" and 'immortality'.
... Wittgenstein did once say that he thought he could understand the conception of God, in so far as it is involved in one's awareness of one's own sin and guilt. He added that he could not understand the conception of a Creator. I think that the ideas of Divine judgement, forgiveness, and redemption had some intelligibility for him, as being related in his mind to feelings of disgust with himself, an intense desire for purity, and a sense of the helplessness of human beings to make themselves better. But the notion of a being making the world had no intelligibility for him at all.
Wittgenstein once suggested that a way in which the notion of immortality can acquire a meaning is through one's feeling that one has duties from which one cannot be released, even by death. Wittgenstein himself possessed a stern sense of duty.2
The substitution of "guilt" for "sense of finiteness" is immediate in most writers. So Tillich can say that the "power of nothingness" is experienced in the "anxiety of guilt".3
Unlike most writers, Tillich does recognize a sense of finiteness per se as a separate object of discourse, but plainly gives "guilt" the greater psychological importance. For example, he doubts whether the Stoics could have reached "utter desperation" because, though they could experience the despair of "fate and death", their philosophy did not recognize that of "personal guilt".4
This is in spite of the fact that he describes the awareness of finiteness in the following terms:
It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time. People who have experienced these moments, as for instance some mystics in their visions of the "night of the soul", or Luther under the despair of demonic assaults, or Nietzsche-Zarathustra in the experience of the "great disgust", have told of the unimaginable horror of it.... or facing the God who is really God means facing also the absolute threat of non-being. The "naked absolute" (to use a phrase of Luther's) produces "naked anxiety"; for it is the extinction of every finite self-affirmation....5
In fact, the recognition of "naked anxiety" would render guilt an untenable emotion.
Guilt in social situations arises from the assumption that you know at least some of the rules, and know the extent of your supposed obligations to keep them, and know also the extent of your power to do so (or at least the extent to which your inability to keep them will be misunderstood).
Perhaps there are cosmic rules (rules for what, rules about what?) and perhaps you have broken them all. Perhaps you broke them all by being born in the first place. Maybe the universe will blow up tomorrow on account of all the rules you have broken, but there is no point in pretending that even then you will know what the rules were.
Whoever you are, you are in an unknown situation which, rather incredibly, exists. You do not know what your past has been (though you do seem to have a certain supply of memory images). You do not know the significance of what you did in the past, and you do not know whether you could have done otherwise.
You do not know how many relevant factors there may be which you did not know, and still do not.
But this is not what evasive religion is about. Let us return to Tillich. He has an intellectual lucidity which not even the mannerisms of sane writing can conceal, and he is not unaware of "the astonishing pre-rational fact that there is something and not nothing."6
But as we have already observed, he says firmly:
It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more than a flash of time.7This is at once evidence that Tillich knows there is an Outside, and proof that he is nonetheless sane. He is sure that no one can perceive the fact that there is an Outside for more than a flash of time.
He does not say how many people he thinks have tried to experience this perception for longer. He does not say if he has tried himself. But he is sure that it cannot be done.
Human beings like to accept their limitations, and this one in particular.
Here is another example of Tillich's writing:
The state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going.8The fact that "we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going" is stated in the second sentence, which begins with an "And". The first sentence is a statement of a very composite kind. Characteristically, it refers both to existence (using the ambiguous word "being") and to "others" in the same breath. Even more characteristically, it makes the statement about existence or "being" after the one about "others".
This is the complete sequence of ideas in the passage (observe the order of priorities): we are estranged from certain "others" and from ourselves; because of this we observe that we are estranged from the Ground of our being; incidentally (in a second sentence starting with "And") we notice that we don't know anything.
Needless to say, all modern theologians are much more interested in our estrangement from other people than in the fact that we don't know anything.
The object of religion would seem to be to overcome the estrangement by the "life of community". Belonging is all. In view of this, they do not wish to demand any particular beliefs from people who wish to belong. A community of Christians means a community of persons who call themselves Christians, and a person who wishes to belong to such a community is a Christian. It is presumptuous to look for any special qualities in such a community; this is to forget our complete dependence on the Word of God (in Jesus Christ). God declared that He would create a spiritual community and we cannot question this decree. The great point is that its distinguishing attributes are spiritual—i.e. imperceptible.
Linguisticism, you see, is very useful once more. When it is used in theology it is usually associated with "the Word of God".
In general, the meaning of any part of the Word of God is spiritual, i.e. meaningless. We should not seek to attach any meaning, historical, metaphysical, or psychological, to the statement "Jesus Christ was the Son of God", but simply accept it as a valuable part of the Word of God. This process is known as "demythologizing". I hope this brief analysis may help those who find modern theology hard to understand. But perhaps it is not very hard for sane people.
Chapter 9 : The Philosophy of Evasion
Philosophy used to be about metaphysics, though it always suffered from the usual human tendency to discuss politics or morality in the same breath -- or at least, in the next chapter.
When philosophy dealt with metaphysics it revealed certain facts about the human situation, which can all be summarized in the statement that it is impossible to be certain of anything.
However, as a direct consequence of the human evasion, it was very difficult for philosophers to think for too long at a time about total uncertainty, so that various partial aspects of it were stated by different people, and they very often combined their thoughts about uncertainty with a good deal of their favourite kind of evasiveness. This is why their books were so much longer than necessary -- but this is true of almost all books by sane people.
Descartes, for example, began by placing everything in doubt.
I will suppose, then, not that there is a supremely good God, the source of truth; but that there is an evil spirit, who is supremely powerful and intelligent, and does his utmost to deceive me. I will suppose that sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external objects are mere delusive dreams, by means of which he lays snares for my credulity. I will consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no flesh, no blood, no senses, but just having a false belief that I have all these things. I will remain firmly fixed in this meditation, and resolutely take care that, so far as in me lies, even if it is not in my power to know some truth, I may not assent to falsehood nor let myself be imposed upon by that deceiver, however powerful and intelligent he may be.1 I will reject ... whatever admits of the least doubt, just as if I had found it was wholly false; and I will go on until I know something for certain - if it is only this, that there is nothing certain.2
Descartes proceeds from this to the famous 'cogito ergo sum': even if all his thoughts are erroneous, something must exist to think them.
And here commences the evasiveness of Descartes: in fact, he is not really entitled to say, 'I think, therefore I exist', but only 'I think, therefore something exists'. Nonetheless, this is the highest point reached by his philosophy.
After this he first reinstates his own psychology:
What then am I? A conscious being (res cogitans). What is that? A being that doubts, understands, asserts, denies, is willing, is unwilling; further, that has sense and imagination. There are a good many properties -- if only they belong to me. But how can they fail to? Am I not the very person who is 'doubting' almost everything; who 'understands' something and 'asserts' this one thing to be true, and 'denies' other things; who 'is willing' to know more, and 'is unwilling' to be deceived; who 'imagines' many things, even involuntarily, and perceives many things coming as it were from the 'senses'? Even if I am all the while asleep; even if my creator does all he can to deceive me; how can any of these things be less of a fact than my existence? Is any of these something distinct from my consciousness (cogitatione)? Can any of them be called a separate thing from myself? It is so clear that it is I who doubt, understand, will, that I cannot think how to explain it more clearly.3
Having reinstated his own ideas, Descartes decides that they include an idea of an infinite and perfect God. Descartes might be deceived in believing two and three to make five if a sufficiently powerful God chose to deceive him, but God must exist because Descartes has an idea of God, and such a God could not be a deceiver. So Descartes may now proceed with trustful confidence to reinstate 'the whole field of corporeal nature that is the subject-matter of pure mathematics'.4
Before the modern atheist mocks this line (or rather convolution) of argument too uninhibitedly, he should recall that it is Descartes's only way of avoiding the conclusion that there is no certainty except total uncertainty.
If you are trying to ward off uncertainty, you can believe in the infinite reliability of God, or of common sense, or of New Society -- it makes little difference. (Of the three, an infinite and perfect God would probably be the most elasticizing to the imagination. But I realize that that is no recommendation from a sane point of view.)
Incidentally, it is perhaps interesting to note that while 'establishing' the existence of God, Descartes shows a typically sane desire to accept his limitations. Considering how recently he has recovered from an attack of total uncertainty, his confidence in the permanence of his position is remarkable:
But perhaps I am something greater than I myself understand. Perhaps all the perfections I attribute to God are somehow in me potentially, though they do not emerge yet and are not yet brought into actuality. For I experience already a gradual increase of my knowledge; I do not see what is to prevent its being thus increased more and more indefinitely; nor why, when my knowledge has thus grown, I may not use it to acquire all the other perfections of God; nor, finally, why the potentiality of such perfections, if it exists in me already, is not enough to produce the idea of them.
All these things are impossible. First, it is true that my knowledge gradually increases, and I have many potentialities as yet unactualised; but this is alien to the idea of God, which implies absolutely no potentiality; for the mere fact of gradual growth is a sure sign of imperfection.
Again, even if my knowledge always grows more and more, yet I see that it will never be actually infinite; for it will never reach a point where it is not capable of still further increase.5
Then again, consider Hume. He saw clearly enough that 'all our reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom.'6 And as for the continued existence of objects when out of sight, he said: '... this conclusion beyond the impressions of our senses can be founded only on the connection of cause and effect; nor can we otherwise have any security that the object is not changed upon us.'7
More critical than Descartes of the origins of his ideas, Hume saw no way in which philosophy could save him from scepticism, and undisguisedly fell back on human nature to do so.
I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterates all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any further.8
However, frightened and muddled though the sceptical philosophers may have been, once some aspect of the total uncertainty had been plainly stated, it could never subsequently be refuted and it became a permanent piece of philosophy.
One of the aspects of uncertainty that became firmly embedded in philosophy was that there were no absolutes.
What was originally stated was that there was no way of finding out if there were any absolutes. Everything could only be assessed by reference to a specific standard, and the only available standards were finite ones.
The human race, in its anthropocentric way, took a particular interest in the conclusion that there was no moral absolute. There was no way of saying what was 'good' or 'evil' except by referring to the only standards available -- which were the opinions of human beings about what constituted a desirable life. These were obviously very subjective.
The human race eagerly responded to this finding by rejecting all former sets of opinions about the desirable life and developing a new one. The new one stated that heroic and extremist ideals were always based on foolish beliefs and prejudices, so that the thing to do was to seek pleasure, comfort, and security in a moderate and unheroic way.
Moreover, this finding gave rise to a feeling that it had now been proved that absolutes did not exist -- there were no standards other than human ones.
This last is an interesting conclusion, if you remember that the original statement was to the effect that whatever might be absolute, human standards certainly were not.
This interesting conclusion, that human standards constituted the only absolute, was reached emotionally before it could be formulated intellectually. No one was in serious doubt of it, but professional philosophers found it difficult to state explicitly. Statements about certainty such as the assertion that solipsism was possible remained obstinately irrefutable.
This did not prevent philosophers from engaging in strange attempts to assess the 'probability' of sceptical statements. In this they showed an unawareness of what I can only call 'logical priority' that is typically sane.
Once you have admitted you may be dreaming, what value can you attach to your reflections on the likelihood that you are dreaming? Yet comparative statements are made; it is more likely that we are deceived about this; less likely that we are deceived about that.
My own tentative view is that tactual perception ... justifies us in being practically certain that there are foreign bodies and that they do interact with our own bodies. It seems to me just conceivable, though extremely unlikely, that I might have had the kinds of experience which I describe as 'seeing' or 'hearing' foreign bodies even if there had been no foreign bodies or if they had never emitted light-waves or sound-waves to my body.
But I find it almost impossible to believe I could ever have had the kind of experience I describe as 'pushing' or 'pulling' or 'struggling with' foreign bodies unless there had been foreign bodies and they had quite often interacted dynamically with my own body through contact. 9
It was then that linguistic philosophy arrived, the true philosophy of evasion. It stated that it was under no necessity to refute statements about total uncertainty, because it did not accept them as possible statements.
('Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked.'10) It declared that the only way of deciding what was an acceptable statement was by reference to human standards.
For example, when you use the word 'uncertainty' you mean that you are not certain about something that may or may not happen. You have learnt to use this word in connection with a number of finite situations, such as whether or not it will rain tomorrow. The word is not usually used to mean 'the uncertainty whether anything will go on existing' or 'the uncertainty whether anything is existing now'. It is illegitimate to use the word 'uncertainty' to refer to these kinds of uncertainty, and it is therefore impossible to formulate any statements whatever about them.
When philosophers use a word -- 'knowledge', 'being', 'object', 'I', 'proposition', 'name' -- and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.11
In this simple way all discourse about the infinite and inconceivable is eliminated, for it is evident that all human words have actually been developed by finite beings to deal with things they are able to conceive.
There is now no need to think about 'reality' except in the sense of 'what all right-thinking humans are in verbal agreement about'. So Malcolm, discussing the idea that a person may realize he is dreaming while he is having the dream, comments: 'Surely there is something dubious in the assumption that there can be a true judgement that cannot be communicated to others'.12
What clues do we have to the human evasion in the psychology of Wittgenstein? At the end of the Tractatus (an earlier work), a series of ambiguous utterances:
Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.13
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.14
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly. 15 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.16
And in the Philosophical Investigations, on which his fame chiefly rests, a number of utterances in which it is not difficult to see an anguished desire for anaesthesia:
For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear. The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. -- The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in question. -
Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of examples can be broken off. -- Problems are solved (difficulties eliminated), not a single problem.
There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods, like different therapies.17
The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.18
... what is hidden ... is of no interest to us.19
Let us conclude this chapter by putting philosophy in its place in the sane perspective.
Philosophical questions have no intrinsic importance. Some questions are important for particular men because of the way in which the questions perplex them and deflect or obstruct them in going on with some other activity to which they are purposefully committed in life. 20
- Descartes, Philosophical Writings, edited by E. Anscombe and P. T. Geach, Nelson, 1954, p.65.
- Ibid., p.66.
- Ibid., p.70.
- Ibid., p.108.
- Ibid., pp.86-87.
- British Empirical Philosophers, edited by A.J. Ayer and R. Winch, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1952, p.445.
- Ibid., pp.357-8.
- Ibid., pp.496-7.
- C.D. Broad, Religion, Philosophy and Psychical Research, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953, p.34.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922, para. 6.51.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell and Mott, para. 116.
- Norman Malcolm, Dreaming, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1959, p.9.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1922, para. 6.44.
- Ibid., para. 6.522.
- Ibid., para. 6.54.
- Ibid., para. 7.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Blackwell and Mott, 1958, para. 133.
- Ibid., para. 255.
- Ibid., para.126.
- W.H. Watson, Understanding Physics Today, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p.15.
Chapter 10 : The Science of Evasion
The basic tenet of modern science is 'Thou shalt not think.'
Nietzsche once observed: 'If there were God, how could I bear to be no God? Consequently there is no God.' This is not logical. Modern science, which otherwise has no noticeable affinity with Nietzsche, uses arguments of a similar kind. 'If the universe had a beginning, we did not observe it.'
'Consequently it had no beginning.' (I do not know if any scientist has said this yet. If not, I offer it freely to modern science as my own humble contribution.) 'If electrons are different from one another, we cannot observe it. Consequently electrons are identical.' 'If there is a reason why this event happens rather than that, we cannot observe it. Consequently there is no reason.'
Arguments against thinking are presented with every appearance of intellectual sophistication. They are difficult to understand, but this makes them seem the more profound.
The prevailing spirit of science owes much to linguistic philosophy. A generation which understands that thinking is identical with talking finds it easy to accept that discovery is identical with making measurements.
The human evasion is seen at its best in theoretical physics. In doing physics it is difficult not to notice that some things are inconceivable. So physicists lay down special laws for not-thinking. Just as linguistic philosophy counsels us not to ask what a word means, but how we use it, so modern theoretical physics tells us not to think what a concept means, but only how we measure it. We might be tempted to ask what things like charge and mass were.
In a sense, the situation is similar to being asked to spell a word. If we were asked to spell the word cat, we would, of course, say c-a-t. If pressed for a further explanation, we could only state that the letters c, a, t, were part of the alphabet and represent sounds. To explain the letter a, for example, we would have to make the appropriate sound. There is no other way of conveying meaning. In a similar way, the concepts of charge and mass are part of the alphabet of physics. To become acquainted with charge, we need to experiment with it.1
It is pointed out that when you use concepts derived from everyday experience they are not wholly appropriate to describing events on the subatomic level. Therefore you must be particularly careful not to think when you use these concepts.
We must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that because an elementary particle has a spin, we must think of it as turning about an axis in itself, and that therefore it must have a finite radius, since a point turning about itself is a meaningless idea. Such a conclusion would be an unwarrantable extrapolation of our macroscopic ideas. Instead, we must simply accept the fact that certain experiments can be explained only on the assumption of elementary particles having spin and magnetic moment.2
Our approach must be operational. We define concepts by referring to the manipulation of them in experiments; we only ask questions which can be answered by performing experiments. A slight snag here is that you might eventually think of a different kind of experiment if you were worried enough about lack of information. This is not, however, a snag to a sane person. Sane people, including physicists, have no undue interest in reality and finding out about the universe is to be regarded as a rather unfortunate by-product of a certain kind of human activity. It is important to realize that physics is something people do.
Physics is ... based on training and practice and on human behaviour that has evolved with the growth of experience in doing physics.3
Physicists have great humility, as the sane understand the word. They accept, not that there is infinitely more to be discovered, but that they can never discover more.
This acceptance is based on their belief in something called the Uncertainty Principle. The Uncertainty Principle does not, of course, express the uncertainty that must always prevail about what the next theory in physics will be like. It describes a limitation in the knowledge of the human race which, it is confidently asserted, can never be surmounted. Young physicists find it difficult to see why it never could be, and it is an important stage in their intellectual maturation when they can.
The Uncertainty Principle arises from the fact that commonsense concepts do not apply very well to subatomic particles. You can say they are something like waves, or something like particles, but you cannot use both of your ill-fitting notions at once. (Still less may you try to have an idea of a single extraordinary entity that is exactly like a subatomic particle.
Whether or not you succeeded, this would be likely to give you feelings about inconceivability, and it is very important to avoid such feelings in physics.) So physicists have evolved a complicated and blurry way of using the concepts the human race already has. This is known as the Quantum Theory. The fact that it is blurry is expressed in the Uncertainty Principle, which states that so long as you use these concepts in this way the result will be blurry.
The human race does not know what other concepts it could use, and certainly has no intention of thinking about it. It therefore elevates the statement about the blurriness of reality to the status of a metaphysical absolute.
(Yes, I know the human race doesn't usually like metaphysical absolutes, but this one is different.)
There is a kind of earnest astonishment made popular by linguistic philosophers. ('This man says he thinks without words. What can we possibly infer about the past life of a man who makes such a statement?') This has been taken over by the theoretical physicists for use on anyone who suggests that there might be a theory completely different from Quantum Theory, even perhaps using different concepts.
'What precisely is the concept we are asked to entertain...? What picture is being painted for us...? What exactly will microphysics be like...? What is the physicist being asked to do...?'4 asks Norwood Russell Hanson, boggling hard.
So we all accept that reality is blurry and that the laws of nature are statistical. (Not -- 'our descriptions of nature are statistical', you notice.) This brings us to statistics. Emotionally, if not indeed intellectually, statistics is no longer felt to provide description, but explanation. It is not difficult to see why it should be so appealing. It is, as you might say, democratic (in every sense). It depends on counting, which is fair and equitable (why should one electron be singled out for special attention?) -- and then again, counting is a thing nearly everyone can do.
There used to be a philosophical error known as 'reification', which was what happened when people forgot that abstract nouns were not things, and imagined Truth sitting in state in a scarlet robe, for example. This is a very, very unfashionable kind of mistake to make today (because sometimes when people did it, it was a sign that they were taking the Outside too seriously).
So no one has noticed the reification of statistical concepts that goes on, and physicists talk of a thing being 'caused by chance' as if 'chance' sat there pushing the right proportion of electrons to the left. If an electron chooses to turn left, this is either caused by something, which may or may not be known to the human race at present, or it is caused by nothing, which is shockingly inconceivable. In neither case is it caused by a cosy little homebody figure called 'Chance'.
To do theoretical physics properly requires a very special kind of thinking.
Suppose that you find that all particles of a certain kind, when placed in a given situation, behave in one of two ways. Half of them do one thing and half do the other. First, you do not allow yourself to think that the particles might not be identical, or that there might be some unknown influence, which causes half of them to do one thing, and half to do the other. You must say 'I can make a statistical prediction. The laws of nature are statistical' with no sense of being puzzled or astonished, and without falling into a state of radical scepticism about the concept of 'cause'.
To perform this kind of mental manoeuvre to perfection requires years of training and great intellectual maturity. (Einstein always found it rather difficult. He expressed his inability in the curious, subjective statement: God does not play dice.)
The next manoeuvre to be described is comparatively easy. It is a technique for ironing infinity out of the universe. The technique depends on the fact that people cannot visualize a fourth dimension. So you say to them: 'The universe is infinite in a sense -- you can go wherever you like and never come to an edge. But it is also finite in a sense -- if you go on long enough you will come back to the same point.' People feel that this is a difficult kind of thing which they should pretend to understand. It also makes them feel happy, because it is a way of saying 'The universe is an Inside without an Outside.'
If this description of the universe is expressed with fewer dimensions it becomes clear what is really being said. The surface of a sphere is unbounded in that you can travel all over it without coming to an edge; it is also finite in that it has a certain definite area. But -- (since we can visualize things in three dimensions, as we cannot in four) -- it is clear that the sphere does have an Outside.
Or consider this exposition of a method for muddling yourself about infinity:
To construct a hypothetical three-dimensional world which is finite and unbounded, we will assume that our bug lives with a whole family of bugs in a space which has no physical boundaries or barriers. If we further assume that the bugs are very massive, then none of the bugs will be able to leave the group because the gravitational attraction of the group as a whole on each bug will prevent it. Furthermore, since the gravitational attraction is so strong, light rays will not be able to leave the mass of bugs either.
Thus, even if a bug looks off in the direction of space beyond the group, his line of sight will curve back towards the group, always producing 'bugs in his eyes', and he will never be able to see beyond the group.
'Straight ahead' for each bug always will mean towards the centre of the group. The bugs will not be conscious of any physical barrier, though; as far as they know, they will live in a world which is unbounded. Their world is finite, since the size of the group as a whole is finite and the group constitutes their world.5
Obviously the emotional force of this passage depends on the ease with which the sane mind can accept that 'they cannot see beyond the group' is a statement precisely equivalent to 'there is nothing beyond the group'.
Modern scientists have learnt their function; to make reality sound so dull that no one will be tempted to think about it. Stephen Toulmin gently chides Jeans and Eddington for popularizing science in a disturbing, thought-provoking way.
... Jeans, for instance, relied on finding a happy analogy which would by itself bring home to his readers the chief features of the General Theory of Relativity. And how did he invite them to think of the Universe? As the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional balloon. The poor layman, who has been brought up to use the word 'surface' for two-dimensional things alone, now found himself instructed to visualise what for him was a self-contradiction, so it was no wonder if he agreed to Jeans' calling the Universe a mysterious one.6
Whatever else the universe may be, every sane person knows it isn't that.
- Reuben Benumof, Concepts in Physics, Prentice-Hall, 1965, p.6.
- L.R.B. Elton, Introductory Nuclear Theory, Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, Ltd, 1959, p.4.
- W.H. Watson, Understanding Physics Today, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p.xi.
- N.R. Hanson, The Concept of the Positron, Cambridge University Press, 1963, pp.30-31.
- James A. Coleman, Relativity for the Layman, Penguin Books, 1961, p.108.
- Stephen Toulmin, The Philosophy of Science, Hutchinson and Co., 1960, p.12.
Chapter 11 : The Alternative to Sanity: What Would It Be Like?Let us now pause to consider what the alternative to sanity might be.
Recognized forms of mental illness do not provide an alternative; they are plainly best regarded as subdivisions of sanity. They have the same unawareness of reality, and the same intense focus on personal reactions.
The average paranoid, for example, is obsessionally interested in rights and wrongs and status and justification. These concepts are all very meaningful to the sane.
It is true that the small selection of facts which are permitted consideration by the paranoid mind differ a little from the selection made by the average sane person. But it is doubtful whether the distortion introduced by the suppression from consciousness of all the facts which might indicate that one is not Napoleon is actually any greater than the suppression from consciousness of all the facts that might make one dissatisfied to be merely human.
If we suppose that sanity is itself a careful avoidance of some other psychological orientation, dimly or subconsciously perceived, we may be able to make some kind of a picture of the not-sane by inverting the characteristics of sanity.
Obviously the first defining characteristic of the not-sane would be that they would be more interested in reality, or the universe, than in other people. Newton might, at first sight, appear to qualify. But it is clear that he did not approve of his interest in reality. He 'grutched the time' spent on theoretical physics 'unless it be perhaps at idle hours sometimes for a diversion'1. As Master of the Mint, he showed great initiative, intelligence and determination in hounding a forger to his death. So he is not likely to exhibit the personality-structure of the not-sane. (Though obviously he had his not-sane moments, as when he worked obsessionally at the Principia for eighteen months.)
There is a general supposition among the sane that sanity is a particularly altruistic state, and that any deviation from it would be marked by callousness, cruelty and vindictiveness.
This supposition need not be taken at face value. When paranoids and manic-depressives claim to have nothing but kindly attitudes to all mankind, this is interpreted as a cover for their repressed hostility. Statements about their own motivation made by sane people should be regarded with a similar open-mindedness. It is always useful to try the technique of substituting opposites throughout -- e.g. 'Sanity is a particularly sadistic state, and any deviation from it would be marked by sensitivity, kindness and generosity.'
In so far as the sane person has chosen to focus his attention on other people, rather than on reality, we may expect that he will desire to limit them as painfully as he himself is limited. This fundamental hatred of others (and particularly of the aspirations of others) might possibly be resolved by recognizing one's drive to the infinite as something to do with infinity. But the sane person cannot do this; in fact, the repressive force is so strong that he can scarcely admit the idea of infinity to consciousness at all.
But it does not at all follow that this is what would actually be felt by someone who was primarily interested in himself and the universe. It may fairly confidently be asserted that he would see nothing interesting in being cruel to people. Having accepted his won aspirations, he would probably be unusually tolerant of the aspirations of others. (In the same way that, according to Freudian psychology, the person who does not reject his own id-impulses will have a tolerant attitude towards them when they appear in his offspring.) Finally, we may guess that the not-sane person would find the repetitiveness of most human interactions rather dull.
Sane people are bad at psychology. This is not surprising because in order to keep yourself and everyone else in a state of unrealism, you have to have certain techniques for not noticing things. (Psycho-analysts would no doubt claim to be good at understanding psychology. But it is noteworthy that sane systems of psycho-analysis are exclusively about people's reactions to other people.) We may suppose that a not-sane person might not have quite the same reasons for denying himself psychological insight. He would therefore probably be good at psychology (but not in any way that sane people would appreciate -- they would think him unrealistic because of his interest in reality.)
The characteristics which the sane person dislikes most are urgency, singlemindedness, unconditionality, and self-sufficiency. I almost used the word 'independence', but this might have been misleading. In a sane world this does not mean 'doing what you yourself want, regardless of other people'. It usually means 'showing your independence of other people by doing something other than what they want'. Incidentally, the desire to demonstrate 'independence' is particularly aroused in the sane person by anyone showing signs of urgency, singlemindedness, unconditionality or self-sufficiency.
'Independence' is best demonstrated by opposing the purposes of the urgent one. This is a useful safety valve in the sane society, and in itself goes far to ensure that it will indeed be a self-regulating mechanism for preventing the fulfilment of its members. (It is most important that it should be this, in order that everyone should feel frustrated by people and not by the universe.)
I have mentioned some unfamiliar attitudes; let me try to describe how they might arise (even if, in practice, they never do).
A person with a sense of urgency might feel that because everything was uncertain, but his death highly probable, it was desirable to do anything he considered important with the minimum of delay. Single-mindedness and unconditionality might well follow.
A person might arrive at a position of self-sufficiency by a little reflection on his complete aloneness in the presence of the enigma of existence. He cannot be sure if anyone else exists; even if they do, there is every reason to suppose that they possess no information relevant to the problem.
The question is whether anyone has ever been, in any serious way, not sane.
I have examined the history of the human race with care. Kant gives the impression that he liked the inconceivable, but his books are too long; Einstein was interested in the universe, but bad at psychology; H.G. Wells saw that research consisted of taking risks, but declined into sociology.
My best candidates, therefore, are Nietzsche and Christ. It may be objected that their ideas cannot possibly be of interest, since one went mad and the other was crucified. However, I think we should not hold this against them.
They may have felt a trifle isolated.
- Letter to Robert Hooke, 1679.
Chapter 12 : Christ
Sane human beings are not interested in reality. This is clearly shown by the attitudes of both Christians and sceptics towards the origins of Christianity. Both factions are primarily concerned to attribute "human" emotions to its founder—nice modest fair-minded ones or nasty perverted abnormal ones according to taste. Neither side pauses to consider whether the available documents are remotely adequate to support their interpretations.
Now in fact the historical evidence is of such a kind that the question may reasonably be asked whether Jesus lived at all. None of the gospels can be dated much earlier than A.D. 57, and probably all the four synoptic gospels were written around the latter half of the first century A.D. There is every reason to suppose that the tradition had already been subject to many influences, some identifiable, some debatable. There is no reason to suppose that the writers of the Gospels were any more interested in facts than most sane people are. In fact the internal evidence clearly suggests that they had no inhibitions about modifying their text when they wished to make it support a particular point.
It is difficult to base any conclusions whatever on documents of this kind.
It is certainly impossible to see how they can be made to support statements of the kind sometimes made by Christians—that they derive from the Gospels an overwhelming sense of the personality of Christ. Or, indeed, a statement such as this made by an intellectual Christian in a University environment:
The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind His theological teaching unless He is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.1
In fact, there is very little "moral teaching" in the Gospels, and what there is is not shrewd. It simply makes unreasonable demands, of the utmost generality, of a kind that any purveyor of mental health would recommend his patients to disregard.
As for the theological teaching of Jesus, we do not know what it was. There is quite insufficient evidence for supposing that he claimed to be God, though we know that Christians from the fourth century onwards liked to make this claim on his behalf.
Probably more credit should be given to St. Paul. He was clearly a sane person—aware of the need to make a good impression on the neighbours. It may well be that the true reason for the survival of Christianity lies in his having adapted it into a form admirably compatible with sane psychology. Much confusion has been created by reading the Epistles of Paul as if they shed light on the interpretation of the Gospels.
Consider the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. This is supposed to have been central to the thought of Jesus. In fact, by all accounts, he had a positive obsession about it. Christians claim that it shows him to have been a warm, family-centred man and no cold metaphysician. Non-Christians claim that it shows him to have a father-fixation, combined with homosexual tendencies which he sought to gratify by his dubious relationship with his disciples.
Now, on grounds of textual criticism, it can be shown that there is little evidence that Christ himself had any particular interest in the Father concept—even as a symbol—still less in the Father-Son combination which is so important to later claims of the divinity of Christ. Although Jesus is credited with using the term Father frequently in Matthew and John, this is not the case in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels.
In Mark, God is only spoken of as Father in the absolute sense, without qualification, in two passages, both of which are believed to be either editorial interpolations or editorially modified.... Moreover, the expression my Father is never found in Mark, and your Father is found only in xi. 25-26.2
In fact, it is virtually impossible to reach any firm conclusions about what Jesus understood by "God". Attempts have been made to reconstruct his idea of God from the Jewish tradition of the time, but there is no knowing what influence this actually had on his thought. Modern man may like to believe himself the child of his environment, and his ideas the inevitable consequence of sociological influence. However, a few people have been known to think, and we cannot be sure that Jesus was not one of them. (The fact that the religion originated by him became widely accepted is not, of course, evidence for this supposition, but against it. If, that is, he did in any sense originate the religion which became accepted.)
If he was, he would probably have been capable of using the current terminology and sayings of his time in a sense of his own. There is no need to suppose him moronically unintelligent. The use of parables would seem to imply that he understood the use of metaphor.
We are not, I think, justified in concluding anything about the attitudes or opinions of Jesus from the areas of omission in the Gospels. Obviously we have only a handful of his sayings. The tradition had had plenty of time, before A.D. 57, to select those sayings which were reasonably compatible with the developing tradition of the Church, and to suppress the rest. The fact that we have only metaphor rather than description or definition to help us decide what he meant by "God" or "The Kingdom of Heaven" may not mean that he was a simple, emotional person who never defined his terms. It may only mean that his metaphors were all of his thought that could survive the transition into the world-view of the early Church.
Having said what cannot be inferred from the existing records, we may settle down to speculation.
There is an interesting possibility that Christ was not only not paranoid, but that he was not sane at all, and that the expression "the Kingdom of Heaven" refers to a state of mind not likely to be had by sane people. Let us discuss some of his utterances in the light of this possibility.
Matthew 13: 45-46
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls; who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.
Mark 8: 36-37
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and loose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
To suggest that one single thing could be worth more than everything else put together is, I feel sure, an immature attitude.
Matthew 7: 13-14
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
This is scarcely democratic and I do not see what a modern Christian can make of it. But it is a realistic assessment of the number of people likely to take up single-mindedness at all seriously.
Matthew 22: 37-38
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.
Matthew 7: 7
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.
Sane people are obviously not likely to qualify for anything on these terms.
They cannot want anything very much, or try to get anything very hard. They accept the first compensation that comes their way.
Luke 6: 24-26
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.
Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.
Does this really sound as though he was in favour of the jolly, well-compensated man-in-society?
Matthew 19: 21-23
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.
Then Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
A rather more interesting reading becomes possible if it is supposed that "riches" means "compensations".
Matthew 6: 31-33
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Modern Christians hold that the thing to do is "obviously" to feed everybody in the world, and until we have done that, we needn't ask what anyone is to do with their life, anyway. The question is whether Christ would have agreed.
Luke 18: 16-17
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
It has been suggested that what Christ found attractive about children was what sane people like about them—their uncritical trust in the superior wisdom of adults, their plasticity, submissiveness, suggestibility, and vulnerability. However, children have other characteristics besides these.
They are excitable and like excitement. They are in a hurry; it seems to them that to do a thing now may be altogether different from doing it tomorrow.
They are easily bored. They ask questions. They want to grow up to be the first Emperor of Space.
In short, they seek intensity of experience. They do not have much experience of life and they may seek it clumsily. As they grow older and saner they learn not to seek it at all.
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.
Modern enlightenment suggests that Christ was talking about the integration of the personality. The modern idea of integrating the personality is to accept all the bits of yourself on their own terms—enjoy all your pleasures without imposing upon them any rigid formalism. But this may not have been exactly what Christ had in mind. For one thing, modern people regard integration as a function of maturity—but Christ seemed to think children in some way eligible.
Matthew 6: 22-23
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, the whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
This makes it tolerably clear that if he was talking about the integration of the personality, it was a single-minded sort of integration.
Matthew 6: 24
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
It has been suggested that "mammon" means crude, ambitious, materialistic commercialism. Perhaps it just means "society", or even "other people".
Matthew 15: 9
But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
John 5: 44
How can ye believe, which receive honour from one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?
Would Jesus really have liked the idea that Christianity meant social conformity and lots of welfare work?
Matthew 10: 35
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
Not-sane people need not expect sane people to see eye to eye with them.
Luke 8: 19-21
Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at him for the press. And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.
Matthew 9: 16-17
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.
Perhaps this means "You cannot be sane and not-sane at the same time." But even supposing a sane person had a moment's excitement, would he not try to weld it into his ordinary world-view—to "integrate" it, as he would say?
John 12: 25
He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
Luke 12: 25-26
And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?
Does this sound like settling down happily within your finiteness?
Luke 1: 37
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
This could be a statement about the total uncertainty. For its philosophical status, see Chapter 9.
John 10: 34
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
A most unpopular piece of Christianity. Sane people do not want to be gods; they want to be ordinary-members-of-society-like-anybody-else.
Mark 11: 25
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
No sane person doubts the impossibility of moving mountains by will-power.
Philosophically, however, it cannot be shown to be impossible.
Matthew 13: 35
I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.
This may sound megalomaniac. But there is no great difficulty in keeping secrets from sane people. The incredibility of the fact of existence retains the status of a closely-guarded secret in spite of its accessibility to inspection.
Mark 13: 35-37
Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.
Whatever this may mean, it certainly demands a psychological attitude which is improbable in the sane. Live as though you expected the unexpected? As though something might happen?
However, if Christ was trying to talk people out of their adherence to sanity, he made one fatal mistake. He said "Love your neighbour as yourself." No one who understands the human evasion could fail to realize that any statement which could be interpreted as an exhortation to pay attention to other people, even if among a great many injunctions to single-mindedness and unconditional desire, would be the only one remembered.
In fact, everyone does love their neighbour as themselves. They desire that he shall accept the second-best as they have done; that he, too, shall be made to realize his limitations and "come to terms with himself".
The other aspect of Christ's thought that has seized upon the popular imagination is, of course, the use of the Father-symbol. If Christ was not sane, he may have meant something peculiar by "Father", and not necessarily something very human. He may even have meant something like "the Outside" or "the origin of existence".
Chapter 13 : Nietzsche
It is interesting to consider the case of Nietzsche in relation to that of Christ. In both cases, the human race has supposed that the central feature of their thought was an injunction to human interaction. In the case of Christ, they thought they were being enjoined to get on nicely with their friends and relations. In the case of Nietzsche they thought they were being enjoined to wear jackboots and torture the slaves before breakfast.
In actual fact, it is tolerably clear that both of them were extremely interested in something quite other than human beings. (Nietzsche, for example, observed: 'I love thee, O Eternity.')
Both of them glimpsed the possibility of some kind of psychological development which was distinctly not-sane. Nietzsche called this possibility 'the Superman'.
It does not pay to read the works of Nietzsche in their entirety, unless you wish to confuse yourself. The most distinctive expression of Nietzsche's thought is contained in Thus Spake Zarathustra, and in the first few pages of it at that. Nietzsche sometimes confused his psychological ideas with social or political ones, particularly in books other than Zarathustra.
(This kind of mistake is easily made by a person who has been brought up in a sane world.)
The idea of the Superman has nothing to do with politics. Nietzsche may have thought it had, at least on occasion, but if so he was mistaken. However, Nietzsche did not always make this mistake.
Where the State ceaseth, there beginneth that man which is not superfluous: there beginneth the song of the necessary man, the single, irreplaceable melody. Where the State ceaseth -- I pray you look there, my brethren! Do you not see it, the rainbow, the bridge to the Superman?1
Nietzsche may sometimes have thought he was liking the German aristocracy of his time and disliking the German bourgeoisie. In fact it is much simpler to suppose that he was disliking sanity. The 'Last Man' is recognizable as a sane person in a good state of mental health.
Alas! the day cometh when man shall no longer shoot the arrow of his desire beyond man, when his bowstring shall have forgotten its use! I say unto you: a man must have chaos yet within him to be able to give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: ye have chaos yet within you. Alas! the day cometh when man shall give birth to no more stars. Alas! the day cometh of that most contemptible man which can no longer contemn himself.
Behold! I show you the Last Man.
What is love? What is creation? What is desire? What is a star? asketh the Last Man, and he blinketh! ...
Man still loveth his neighbour and rubbeth himself against him; for one must have warmth ...
A little poison now and then: for that causeth pleasant dreams. And much poison at the last for an easy death.
They still work, for work is a pastime.... But they take heed, lest the pastime harm them ..
They have little lust for the day and little lusts for the night: but they have regard for the health.
We have discovered happiness, say the Last Men, and they blink.2
There are a few things in the thought of Nietzsche which appeal to sane people. Perhaps he over-reacted against the orthodox religion of his time and this may have made him sound more like an ordinary hedonist than he was. 'Do not be misled by otherworldliness!' says Nietzsche, and the modern reader, who is not in the slightest danger of being, says approvingly, 'Ah, yes. There is no Outside. I do understand that.' 'Man must create his own values!' says Nietzsche. 'But of course', says the reader, 'What other values could there be?'
Nietzsche, like Christ, used symbols freely. The human race is not good at psychology, and does not understand symbols. When, Nietzsche, for example, refers to 'dancing' one must realize that to him it probably meant primarily a quality of intellectual activity. Similarly 'wine' is most likely to refer to the intoxication of inspiration.
Nietzsche was certainly opposed to half-heartedness and repression; but exhortations to full-bloodedness do not necessarily imply an approval of physical pleasure. (Perhaps, sometimes, he thought they did, but if so he was mistaken.) It is much simpler to suppose that what he was primarily intending to convey was a total integration of the personality. There is nothing in the first few pages of Zarathustra to suggest that the Superman would be a hedonist (or a sadist).
What is the greatest thing ye can experience? It is the hour of great contempt. The hour in which even your happiness is loathsome to you, and your reason and your virtue likewise.
The hour in which ye say: What is my happiness worth! It is poverty and uncleanness and despicable ease. Yet my happiness should justify Being itself!
The hour in which ye say: What is my reason worth! Desireth it knowledge as the lion his prey? It is poverty and uncleanness, and despicable ease.
The hour in which ye say: What is my virtue worth! Not yet hath it roused me to fury. How I weary of my good and mine evil! It is all naught but poverty and uncleanness and despicable ease! ...
Man is a rope stretched betwixt beast and Superman -- a rope over an abyss.
Perilous is the crossing, perilous the way, perilous the backward look, perilous all trembling and halting by the way.
Man is great in that he is a bridge and not a goal: man can be loved in that he is a transition and a perishing.
I love them which live not save as under-goers, for they are the over-goers.
I love them which greatly scorn for they also greatly adore; they are arrows of longing for the farther shore.
I love them which seek no reason beyond the stars wherefore they should perish, wherefore they should be sacrificed, but which sacrifice themselves to the earth that the earth hereafter may be the Superman's.
I love him which liveth that he may know, and which seeketh knowledge that hereafter the Superman may live: for thus he willeth his own down-going.
I love him which worketh and deviseth to build an house for the Superman, to prepare for him earth, beast and plant; for thus he willeth his own down-going.
I love him which loveth his virtue: for virtue is the will to down-going, and an arrow of longing.
I love him which reserveth no share of spirit for himself, but willeth to be wholly the spirit of his virtue: thus in spirit he crosseth the bridge.
I love him which maketh of his virtue his inclination and his destiny: for thus for his virtue's sake he willeth either to live on or to cease to live.
I love him which desireth not too many virtues. One virtue is more virtue than two, because it is so much the more a knot on which destiny hangs.
I love him whose soul lavisheth himself, that neither requireth nor returneth thanks: for he giveth ever and keepeth naught for himself ...I love all them which are as heavy rain-drops falling one by one from the dark cloud that lowereth over mankind: they herald the coming of the lightning, and they perish as heralds.
Behold, I am an herald of the lightning and an heavy rain-drop from the clouds: but that lightning is named Superman.3
Nietzsche himself did not claim to be the Superman, so there is no point in objecting that the idea is invalid because Nietzsche had headaches, nor indeed because he went mad.
Never yet has there been a Superman. I have seen both naked -- the greatest man and the least. They are still far too like one another. Verily, even the greatest found I -- all too human!4
It is sometimes claimed that Nietzsche went mad (a) because he had syphilis, and (b) because he thought too much. It should be pointed out that you cannot hold both of these views simultaneously -- or at least, if you like the humorous implications of the syphilis idea, you cannot at the same time say, 'It only proves the human mind can't stand the strain of such extraordinary ideas.'
There is another argument about Nietzsche's madness (and I repeat, you cannot very well hold all of these attractive ideas at once). It is that a precipitating factor was the lack of recognition from which he suffered. 'If only,' the argument runs,'he had realized that his books were just on the verge of being appreciated -- it would have made all the difference. He would have liked this social compensation very much and become quite well-adjusted.' One thing wrong with this argument is that he already had quite a high degree of social recognition.
It seems to be doubtful whether appreciation was exactly what he wanted, anyway. It seems to me probable that he wanted people to be interested in not-sanity, and perhaps underestimated the universal hold which sanity has on the human mind.
A light hath dawned on me. I need companions -- living ones, not dead companions and corpses which I may carry with me where I will. But I need living companions which follow me because they desire to follow themselves -- and to go to that place whither I wish to go. 5
A thousand goals have there been heretofore, for there have been a thousand peoples. But the yoke upon the thousand necks is lacking, the one goal is lacking. Mankind hath as yet no goal.
But tell me, I pray, my brethren: if a goal be lacking to mankind, is not mankind itself lacking?6
There is one final stumbling-block in the thought of Nietzsche. This is 'eternal recurrence'. This is no doubt very difficult if you insist on taking it as a metaphysical dogma. But if one is permitted to ask,'What was the psychological significance of this idea? What gave it its emotional impact to Nietzsche?' one may see an answer in Joyful Wisdom.
What if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to thee: 'This life, as thou livest it at present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again, and all in the same series and sequence -- and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!' -- Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him:
'Thou art a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!' If that thought acquired power over thee as thou art, it would transform thee, and perhaps crush thee; the question with regard to all and everything: 'Dost thou want this once more, and also for innumerable times?' would lie as the heaviest burden upon thy activity! Or, how wouldst thou have to become favourably inclined to thyself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?7
Here it is plain that the idea is connected with the existential perception that the events of your life really exist. To normal psychology, this is a rather dull statement. But it may not have appeared dull to Nietzsche, and he may have used the idea of eternal recurrence to express the emotional force which it had to him.
- F. Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, translated by A. Tille, J.M. Dent and Sons, 1960, p.43.
- Ibid., p.9.
- Ibid., pp.6-8.
- Ibid., p.83.
- Ibid., p.13.
- Ibid., p.51.
- F. Nietzsche, Joyful Wisdom, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1964, pp.270-1.
Chapter 14 : Why the World Will Remain Sane
I met a man in a place that was something like a subterranean tube tunnel and something like a deserted railway waiting-room in the middle of the night.
It was impossible to see whether there was an outlet concealed anywhere behind the labyrinths of tiles and painted walls, but a biting wind blew from somewhere. There were a few other people sitting huddled up or pacing up and down. They looked too frozen to say much.
'Look here', I said to the man. 'Why do you go on staying here?'
'Oh, it's not bad', he said, blowing on his fingers. 'We keep very warm really. You get more used to it as you get older. Young people have crazy ideas about trying to find an exit, but they settle down.' (He nodded knowingly at some of the huddled shapes.)
'But, my dear fellow,' I said, 'you aren't warm at all. You're grey in the face and one of your fingers is so frost-bitten it's about to drop off.'
'Oh well, in a sense, that may be true', he said, a little uncomfortably.
'But most people are all right and adjust to things. Maybe I find it a little more difficult than most but that's just something to do with my upbringing which has affected my metabolism. It's my physiology, you see. Nothing is actually wrong with the place as such.'
'But the faces ... when you can see them through the wrappings -- can you say you know a happy person?'
'Yes, I can. There's my daughter. She's eighteen months old. She says 'I'm happy' all the time. It was the first thing we taught her to say.'
'You wouldn't be interested in finding an exit, then?'
'Well, obviously it would be escapism, wouldn't it? The very word 'exit' implies that.... I can't believe we're here just to give up and get out. It's up to us to assert the warmth and richness of the here and now.'
(Here the wind blew a little harder.)
'It might be warm outside', I said. 'Things might be happening there.'
'Oh well, it's up to you to prove that if you want me to be interested. Why should I give up what I've got here?'
'What have you got, then?'
'Interests. There are lots of things to do here. Like counting the cracks in the walls and stamping one's feet. Good for you, that is. Circulation.'
'There might be even more interesting things somewhere else.'
'Oh well, I don't know that, do I? Much more likely it wouldn't nearly be so healthy and interesting.'
'But even if someone did know a way out of here, he could only prove to you that the other place was better if you'd come and leave your interests to find out.'
'Exactly. That's what I said.'
'Does anyone ever look for a way out?'
'Well, I don't know exactly what you mean by looking. There are a few chaps called scientists who measure up bits of the walls sometimes, but it's more and more a specialist job and they reckon a few yards of wall is all one man can take on. Not that there would be any point in trying to study the whole wall at once. It can't be done. Nobody tries.'
'You could make a battering-ram', I said reflectively. 'With a few of these benches. Then you could try ramming the walls to see if they gave way. If everyone joined in ...'
'Yes, I thought you'd suggest something like that', he said, bitterly.
'People have other things to do besides helping you in your pet schemes, you know. You can try to persuade them, of course. It's a free country. Personally, I don't care so long as I enjoy myself.'
As he did so, a clergyman emerged from a whistling tunnel at my side. (Or perhaps he was a psychiatrist -- or, indeed, a sociologist.)
'Did I hear you mention that old idea about getting out of here?' he said, with a visible shiver. 'Symbolism, you know. We've demythologized all that now. They used to think there was something outside this place -- a literal outside, if you can imagine it! Of course it's quite valid as symbolism. This is the outside, here and now, if you live it to the full....'
'It's cold', I said.
'Think of others', he said reprovingly. 'It's really impressive the way modern psycho-analysis has confirmed the insights of the New Testament. Where two or three are gathered together, you know. It is an indisputable fact that groups of people, huddled as closely as possible, do feel much warmer. This is the basis of Group Therapy. It is also known as the Kingdom of Heaven.'
'Where do you suppose the wind comes from?' I asked him.
'I'm not at all sure that I would agree that there is a wind. It's really only perverse and neurotic people who remark on it. And very young people, of course. But if there is, then I'm sure its value depends entirely on us -- it is for us to make it into a meaningful part of the full life by refusing to notice it.'
'The full life?' I said, and added, at the risk of seeming rude, 'Full of what?'
'Of communication', he said patiently. 'Of I=Thou relationships. Of dependent interdependence.'
'Communication!' I said. 'These people are so frozen they wouldn't be able to say more than a few words to anybody.'
'That's a very narrow view, I think', he said seriously. 'It's imposing a utilitarian standard of reference on the variety and freedom of human relationships. One must care about people as they are.'
'But surely', I said, 'if one cared about these people, one couldn't be content to see them huddled up in this dreadful place....'
But he looked most displeased, and murmured something into his muffler -- it sounded like 'Arrogance'.
'Well, anyway', I said, 'surely you can't reject the possibility that this is all a dream?'
'Metaphysics', he said, coldly. 'Very nasty. Denial of life. People might lose interest in counting the cracks and spend their time trying to wake up instead.'
'Look', I said suddenly. 'I'm afraid I can't stay here. I have a very strong feeling that this is a dream and I'm about to wake up.'
'The methods of linguistic analysis have very valuable applications to religion. Chiefly they enable us to see the futility of making meaningless statements about the transcendent (which is of course a completely meaningless word). You cannot properly speak of waking 'up'. When I say something is going 'up' I mean that it is directed towards a position which is located above its starting point. It is meaningless to speak in this way about waking, because it would be a confusion of categories to suppose that 'waking' is located above 'sleeping'. Consequently...'
But at this point, with a certain sense of relief, I awoke.
AN OPEN LETTER TO YOUNG PEOPLETo be a genius has never been too easy, granted the tendency of the human race to like frustrating them. It is no easier in this century than any other time.
In fact, it is rather more difficult, as in this century it is believed that an unrecognised genius is impossible.
However, I have in Oxford a place in which it is possible to carry on the struggle for survival, and I am looking for people to join me. There are at present too few of us, and this makes the struggle for survival even more difficult.
I cannot give a brief summary of my ideas; they are original, and that means they are difficult to communicate. However, I have written a book, The Human Evasion, which while containing a rather small fraction of what I think, does give an introductory impression of my outlook. If you find this too uncongenial, I think you should not bother to get in touch with me to find out any more.
If, on the other hand, having read the book, you do want to know anything more about what I think, and to see whether you would like to join us, there is no alternative to coming to Oxford for a time.
Please write to me, in the first instance, care of the publishers of this book.
The address is:
Institute for Psychophysical Research
118 Banbury Road
Note: For current contact info visit http://www.celiagreen.com/contact.htm