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The Emersonian ‘Universal Mind’ and Its Vital Importance

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IT SEEMS I’m always trying to get people to read Emerson. Why? Because I’m convinced his writings contain solutions to many of today’s urgent social problems.

Perhaps Emerson’s most important contribution is a concept that he refers to throughout his works, calling various names, but most often Universal Mind. This term invites a number of unintended meanings, tending to obscure Emerson’s important message.

Universal Mind may at first glance seem a vague, new-agey reference to some cosmic super-intelligence, but that’s not what Emerson means.. The concept is more commonplace, down-to-earth and practical. It could perhaps better be called the Human Nature, Universal Human Nature, or Man. For now, though, I’ll stick with Emerson’s term, but put it in italics instead of capital letters to demystify it. What, then, does Emerson mean by the universal mind of humanity?

It is, basically, all human beings share a common repertoire of mental abilities. Just as insects or lizards of a particular species share a common natural endowment of behavioral instincts, so all humans have a common natural set of mental skills, aptitudes, and concepts. (In fact, sometimes uses the word Instinct instead of universal mind.)

For example, consider a basic axiom of plane geometry: that two parallel lines never intersect. Once this was explained to you in high school, at which point you said, “Oh, I see that. It’s common sense.” This is the Emersonian universal mind in action. Every other geometry student has the same response. The ability to ‘see’ this is or ‘get it’ part of our common mental ability as human beings.

And the same can be said of hundreds, thousands, or more particular elements of human knowledge. These cover many different domains, including basic principles of mathematics and logic, artistic and aesthetic judgments (all human beings admire a beautiful sunset, all see the Taj Mahal as sublime and beautiful), moral principles (what is just or fair?), and religion (e.g., that God exists and deserves our thanks and praise.)

By the universal mind, then, Emerson merely means that plain fact that all or virtually all members of the human race share a vast repertoire of common mental abilities, concepts, judgments, and so on. This is not wild metaphysical speculation. It is an empirically obvious fact. Without this implied assumption of universal mind, for example, criminal laws and courts would be pointless. The mere fact that we hold people accountable for criminal misdeeds implies a shared set of assumptions about right and wrong, accountability for ones actions, etc.

Now it is true that one may, if one wants, elaborate the principle of a universal human mind and add all sorts of metaphysical speculations. Some do. They see this universal mind as deriving from the principle of all men being made in God’s image and likeness. These are important considerations, but they are, in a sense, secondary ones. More important is that is, it is important that all people — theists and atheists, metaphysicians and empiricists alike — can agree on the existence of the universal human character. Said another way, it is vital that we not let disagreements over metaphysics obscure or distract us from this more important consensus that there is a universal man or universal mind.

Why? Because this concept — something we all assume implicitly — has been insufficiently examined and developed at a collective level. It needs to become a topic of public discourse and scientific study, because its implications are enormous. We’ve only just begun this work as a species, as evidenced by the fact that we as yet haven’t even agreed even on a term! It’s always been with us, but only lately have be become fully aware of it. This realization is a milestone in the evolution of human consciousness and society.

Maybe I’ll write a followup that discusses the specific ways in which this concept, fully developed, may advantageously affect our current social conditions. For now I’ll simply list a few relevant categories where it applies:

Human Dignity. Each person has vast potential and therefore vast dignity. Each carries, as it were, the wisdom and the sum of potential scientific, artistic, moral, and religious capabilities of the entire species. Any person has the innate hardware, and with just a little training could learn to discern the technical and aesthetic difference between a Botticelli painting from a Raphael, a Rembrandt from a Rubens. Each human being is sensitive to the difference between a Mozart piano sonata and one by Beethoven. And so in Science. Any person could understand the Theory of Relativity suitably explained. Or differential equations. Or the physics of black holes.

Consider this thought experiment. If the human race made itself extinct, but aliens rescued one survivor, that one person could be taught, almost by reading alone, to recover the sum of all scientific, moral, and artistic insights of the species! The entirety of our collective abilities would live on in one person. And, more, that would be true regardless of which person were the survivor. So much is the vast ability and dignity of each human being.

Education. It exceeds what we currently know to assert that all possible concepts already exist fully developed, though latent, in each person. But we can assert that all human beings are hard-wired in certain ways to enable to form these concepts when supplied with suitable data. In either case, the implication is that education does not instill knowledge, so much as elicits the pre-existing aptitudes. Further, in keeping with the preceding point, the universal mind means that no person is limited in their ability to learn. Each person is a Genius. We should do our utmost to make this potentiality a fact for as many as possible. Education should be lifelong, not something relegated to the first 18 years of life.

Arts are not the peculiar luxury of the elite upper class. Shakespeare, Mozart, and Raphael are the common heritage of all. We need to take much more seriously the basic human right to have each ones divine artistic nature flower.

Economics. Today economics has become the main frame of reference for conceptualizing all human progress. We must rethink this, and give greater allowance for seeing the flourishing of the universal man as our goal. Nobody can be happy with vast potentials unfulfilled. It is not the way of nature. We must get it clear in our thinking, individually and collectively, that the business of society is to empower the individual.

Social discourse. All solutions to social ills already exist latent in Man’s heart. The phrase ‘common dreams’ is more than a euphemism. We do have common ideals, great ones. Our social discourse should aim for mutual insight and self-discovery. Answers are within: one’s within oneself; but also, because of the universal mind, ones within the other as well.  Instead of argument and debate we should aim for dialectic: a joint uncovering of ideals and guiding principles and raising of consciousness.

Government. To much of modern political philosophy assumes the principle of nanny government. People are wiser than governments. We should insist that the first priority of government is to make itself unnecessary. Liberate the universal man — the ultimate moral force on earth — and see how much things improve without government intervention!

Foreign policy. All men are at the core alike. All respond to the same appeals to Reason and Morals. All have equal worth and dignity. All are designed for cooperation, friendship, and love. Any foreign policy which denies these realities does not conform with nature and cannot succeed.

As noted, Emerson’s discussion of the universal mind is found scattered throughout his works. Emerson was not systematic, but nevertheless his message comes across very clear. Some of his works most relevant this theme are Self Reliance, Intellect and Art (Essays, First Series), The Poet and Politics (Essays, Second Series), and Genius and Religion (Early Lectures).

First draft


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston, 1903–1904.
Online edition (UMich):

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 2. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller. Cambridge, MA, 1964.<a?


Pitirm Sorokin – The Conditions of Lasting Peace

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Pitirim A. Sorokin, “The Conditions of Lasting Internal and International Peace.”  From: Pitirim A. Sorokin, Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics.  New York: Harper, 1947;  Chapter 32, Part III (pp. 514–522).

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Chapter 32. Fluctuation of Peace and War in Intergroup Relationship

 III. The Conditions of Lasting Internal and International Peace

1. No Lasting Peace Within Decaying Sensate Culture, Society, and Man

Within the framework of the contemporary (sensate) culture [1], society, and man, no elim­ination, even no substantial weakening of national and international group tensions — eco­nomic, racial, ethnic, occupational and others — is possible, because this framework is shot through by a multitude of irreconcilable clashes of values. Neither most intensive sensate propaganda nor sensate education, nor political and economic measures, so far as they remain within the framework of sensate society and culture, can perform this task. At the best, they may shift the center and loci of the ten­sions, may change their color and concrete forms, but that is all they can do. Taken as a {p. 515} whole they are utterly inadequate to achieve the purpose, because they neither touch nor eradicate the deep cause of the intergroup tensions and conflicts.

The first reason for this somewhat pessi­mistic statement is the predominant nature of the contemporary culture and society and, as their resultant, of contemporary man. Their sociocultural nature incessantly generates a multitude of tensions and conflicts and cannot help doing that.

(a) They all are permeated by the spirit, ethos, and pathos of rivalry, competition, and desire of victory over the rivals and others in all fields of sociocultural activity, from science, football, fine arts, and business up to the “im­perialistic superiority” of religions and their Gods and followers. This spirit ceaselessly gen­erates a striving for superiority, power, and prestige of the competitors over their rivals, and a deep desire for their defeat and ‘lower place” in the universe. This passion leads to a cultivation of the “fighting spirit” and an inde­fatigable and never ceasing fight with the rivals. An unavoidable result of such a sit­uation is a multitude of intergroup antagonisms and clashes between the rivals, the victors, and the vanquished, “the superior and the inferior” (in politics, business, science, arts, religion, etc.), “the parties of success and of failure.” In other words, interindividual and intergroup conflicts are an inseparable, immanent, or in­herent trait of the contemporary culture, so­ciety, and man. These are inherently belliger­ent in their sociocultural nature.

(b) To the same result these lead through their assigning paramount importance to the sensory, material, hedonistically-utilitarian values in their total scale of values. Notwith­standing the hypocritical, half-mechanical preaching of the values of “the Kingdom of God,” the contemporary culture, society, and man, in their actual functions, make the sensory, material, hedonistic values paramount — the supreme goal of human aspirations, ambitions, and desires. These values range from money, wealth, material comfort, mate­rial security, and conspicuous consumption up to the kisses, copulation, popularity, fame, power, and prestige. As these values are scarce and limited in their quantity and cannot be spread in unlimited abundance among all in­dividuals and groups, the paramount value given to them by our culture and society pro­duces ceaselessly a never ending, intense, often bloody and antisocial struggle of every group with every other competing group for as large a share of these values as can be obtained at the cost of others. This results again in tensions and conflicts.

(c) The same result is generated by the contemporary culture, society, and man through their dominant hedonistic and egocentrically utilitarian ethics, law, and mores, and especially through the excessive relativization of all norms and values devoid of any universal binding. This atomization leads to moral, mental, and social anarchy and to cynicism in which each rival group regards itself as the supreme arbiter entitled to use any means for its victory. As a consequence, the emergence of rude force masked by fraud and other more subtle screens becomes in­evitable. Force becomes the supreme judge. “The weapon of criticism turns into the criti­cism by the weapon of force.” Tensions and clashes follow.

(d) Incessant clashes are also generated by the dominant — sensate — man of our time. He is, first of all and most of all, a fighter, intoxi­cated by lust for victory, power, influence, fame, pleasure, and sensate happiness. “To suppose that men who are filled individually with every manner of restlessness, maddened by lust of power and speed, votaries of the god Whirl, will live at peace whether with them­selves or others, is the vainest chimera,” rightly remarks one of the eminent American humanists. [2]

(e) This conflagration of war and violence is hastened along by the general degradation of man’s value by sensate culture. Quite consistently with its major premise, that true reality and value are sensory, it views man as a mere empirical “electron-proton complex,” a “reflex mechanism,” a mere “animal organism,” a “psychoanalytical bag filled with libido,” devoid of anything supersensory, sacred, or divine. No wonder that in such a culture man is treated in the same manner as we treat all the other sensory “complexes,” “mechanisms,” {p. 516} and “animals”; any individual or group that hinders the realization of one’s wishes is elim­inated in the same way in which we liquidate a mosquito or a snake or “neutralize” any organic or inorganic object that impedes the fulfillment of our desires. This explains why, in spite of all the vociferous claims by our culture as to its humanistic, humane, and humanitarian mission, it is, objectively, in its decadent phase, one of the most inhuman of all cultures, killing, mutilating, and degrading human beings by the tens of millions.

(f) Similarly, the basic institutions of con­temporary society are permeated by the same militarism and are incessantly generating inter­individual, civil, and international conflicts. Private property, with its inevitable differenti­ation into the excessively rich and the utterly miserable, generates persistent criminality, class antagonism, and class war. The state with its naked power policy of the Machiavellian raison d’état is an openly militaristic institution unrestrained by any of the ethical norms that are obligatory for private conduct. The same is true of our political parties: first and fore­most they are fighting machines, using the spoils system, bribery, vituperation, murder, and civil war as instruments in their struggle for spoils and power. Our occupational unions, beginning with labor unions and ending with capitalists’ associations, are organized primarily for militant purposes, namely, the successful defeat of antagonistic organizations by what­ever means may be necessary, whether there be strikes and lockouts or revolution and civil war. Even the family, so far as it imbues the children with the cult of family egotism, power, and “success,” is shot through with the same militaristic spirit. Finally almost all our in­stitutions glorify sensate power and success as the highest virtues. They methodically incul­cate a “fighting spirit” into everyone from the day of his birth to the day of his death. Our heroes are invariably fighting persons who suc­cessfully crush their rivals, whether on the football field, in cut-throat business rivalry, on a battlefield, in political machinations, or in class war; and they are typified by our “world champions” in tennis, swimming, coffee-drink­ing, pole-sitting, and jitter-bugging. Even our “Superman” is the superman only because he “is faster than a bullet, more powerful than a locomotive,” and more militant than Mars; he is forever in a fighting mess.

Thus, whether we study the objective move­ment of war and revolution that has grown with the emergence and growth of modern culture or whether we study the essential char­acteristics exhibited by it and the society and man expressing it, we cannot fail to see their preeminently militant sociocultural nature, especially in its decaying phase. War in its vari­ous forms, and especially the war for sensory values, is their ethos, soul, and heart. Within the framework of sensate culture, society, and man, no lasting national or international peace has ever been or ever will be possible.

This means also that most of the contem­porary plans for a lasting peace are doomed to failure so far as they hope to achieve it within this framework by a mere job of re-patching. Elementary inductive considerations will show this unequivocally. As patented panaceas against war, these plans offer an enlightened self-interest; a specious “utilitarian rationality”; emancipation from religion and absolutistic ethics; a greater and more extreme relativism of all values; a still greater dose of positivism, empiricism, materialism, utilitarian­ism, and mechanisticism in all their varieties; a further expansion of literacy, schools, uni­versities, newspapers, magazines, movies, the radio, and other “educational” instrumentali­ties; a still more rapid increase in scientific discoveries and technological devices; a re­placement of all monarchies by republics, of all autocracies by democracies, of capitalism by communism, socialism, and other sensate “isms”; dismemberment and disarmament of the vanquished; a bigger and better “balance of powers” and various “Unions Now” in the form of diverse double, triple, and quadruple alliances, on up to the United Nations, armed with a crashing military and police force; a higher economic plane of living, at least for the victorious nations; a more just distribution of natural resources, and so on and so forth. The hopelessness of all these hopes is unques­tionably shown by “an ugly fact,” that with the emergence and growth of our modern cul­ture and society from the thirteenth on to the twentieth century all these panaceas have been growing also; and yet their growth has been paralleled during these centuries by an in-­ {p. 517} crease of war and revolution rather than by the decrease for which the plans contend. From such a “concomitant variation” only an idiot can conclude that these panaceas are suffocat­ing war and that, when applied in a still greater dose, they could kill it forever. The only sound conclusion is that either the pan­aceas are perfectly impotent in the eradication of war and revolution or that, within the framework of this modern culture, society, and man, they work in favor of war and revolution, rather than against it. For this reason these plans, especially those that call themselves “practical,” “realistic,” and “scientific,” are nothing but an illusion and self-delusion. Within a different framework, as we shall see, some of these measures can be helpful; within the contemporary one, they cannot and will not build a temple of enduring peace.

2. The Culture and Society Necessary for an Enduring Peace and Order

These gloomy conclusions do not mean that an enduring peace is generally impossible. They signify only that for its realization a new culture, with an appropriate kind of society and man, different from the contemporary one, is in order. The essential characteristics of these can be briefly summed up. [3]

(a) The new culture must put less em­phasis upon purely sensory reality-value and more upon the truly rational and upon the supersensory-metarational reality-value, view­ing the true reality-value as an infinite mani­fold with three main aspects: sensory, rational, and supersensory-metarational, each within its sphere being a true reality and a true value. This conception of the true reality-value, spon­sored by Plato and Aristotle, Erigena, Thomas Aquinas, and Nicholas of Cusa, to mention but a few names, must replace the major premise of our sensate culture. Accordingly, the new culture must be an articulation of this new major premise in all its main compartments: in its science, philosophy, religion, fine arts, ethics, law, and forms of social organization on up to the manners, mores, and ways of living of its individual and group members.

(b) Its science must study, through sensory observation, the empirical aspects of the in­finite manifold; its philosophy must investigate through mathematical and syllogistic logic the rational and logical aspects of the true reality-value; its intuitive wisdom must give us the notion of the supersensory-metalogistic aspects of it through the intuition of great religious and ethical seers, great scientists like Sir Isaac Newton, great philosophers like Plato, great artists like Beethoven and Shakespeare, and great technological inventors inspired to their achievements by intuition. [4] The history of human knowledge is a cemetery filled with wrong empirical observations, false logical rea­sonings, and misleading intuitions. This means that, taken separately, each of these ways of cognition is fallible and that if it is to achieve validity it must have the cooperation and mutual verification of the other two ways of cognition. The outlined integralist system of truth gives us precisely this organic integration, cooperation and mutual verification of all three ways of cognition. As such, it promises to give a more valid, richer, and better-tested truth than that which the dominant, one-sided sensory cognition can give. It eliminates also the contemporary antagonism between, and mutual undermining of, science, philosophy, and religion.

(c) Instead of the excessively relativized and atomized utilitarian and hedonistic pseudo-norms of our culture—devoid of their universal binding-power, transgressed at every suitable occasion, and degraded to the level of mere Paretian “derivations,” Freudian “rationaliza­tions,” Marxian “ideological beautifications” of the economic, sexual, and other sensate “resi­dues,” “complexes,” “drives,” and “interests”— the ethics and law of the new culture in accordance with its major premise must be embodied in a set of universal norms binding and effectively controlling the behavior of all, unquestioned and undisputed in their ethical prestige by any other conflicting norms. In their content these universal norms must be a variation of the main ethical norms of prac­tically all great religions and moral codes, from the elementary Golden Rule and Ten Commandments on up to the norms of the Sermon on the Mount as their sublimest ex-{p. 518} pression. Such an ethics and law will stop the atomization of moral values, eliminate ethical and legal cynicism, and abolish the dictatorship of rude force and fraud as the supreme arbiters of human conduct.

(d) Instead of the spirit of rivalry and cult of success over the others, human relations must be permeated by the spirit of “oneness,” of all groups and persons, by the psychology of the free and real “we,” extended over humanity. Instead of incessant stimulation of “fighting spirit” to overcome the rivals, they must be filled with the pathos of mutual service, by profound ethics of humility and sac­rifice, by love at its noblest and best. Instead of glorification of “success” and the successful champions they must inculcate a sincere, wholehearted teamwork without the superiors and inferiors, the heroes, and the failures. The spirit of a good family in which every member is honestly doing his work, according to his ability, and where nobody thinks of a superi­ority and inferiority, is a rough approximation to this spirit of the culture and society neces­sary for the elimination of tensions, revolu­tions, and wars.

(e) Again in accordance with its major premise, the painting and sculpture, literature and music, drama and architecture, of the new culture must be quite different from contem­porary fine arts. Integralist beauty must be reunited with truth and goodness, so that the new fine arts will become a value-laden art instead of being an empty art for art’s sake. Instead of debunking the immortals, the new art must immortalize the mortals, ennoble the ignoble, and beautify the ugly. Instead of being negativistic, centered around the police morgue, criminal’s hideouts, insane asylums, and sex organs, it would reflect mainly the eternal values, positive ideals, heroic events, and great tragedies and dramas. Like the com­parable art of Greece in the fifth century B.C. and of Europe in the thirteenth century A.D., it must be an inspiring, ennobling, educating, and truly beautifying art instead of a degrad­ing, demoralizing, and enervating cult of social pathology, as contemporary art largely is.

(f) In such a culture man will again be regarded as an end-value, as an incarnation of the divine manifold rather than as a mere biological   organism,   reflex-mechanism, or psychoanalytical libido, as he is usually re­garded now. The value of man must again be lifted far above the utter degradation into which he is now thrown. Accordingly, the prac­tices, institutions, and relationships that turn man into a mere means for predominantly sensate ends will largely disappear.

(g) Most of the social institutions that con­tradict the total character of this new culture must be eliminated. The dominant form of social relationships in such a society must be neither contractual nor compulsory, but familistic. The economic and political regimes of such a society must be neither capitalistic, communistic, nor socialistic, but familistic. The enormous contrast between multimillion­aires and paupers, the rulers and the ruled, must disappear. Private property shall be limited and turned into a kind of public trusteeship. A decent minimum of the neces­sities shall be secured for all. The main motives for a socially useful economic and political life should be neither profit nor power but the motive of creative service to the society, similar to the motivation of great artists, religious leaders, scientists, and true philanthropists. Social institutions that contradict these pur­poses shall largely disappear, those that serve them will be established and reinforced.

The practical consequences of the establish­ment of such a culture and society will be im­mense, especially in the field of human men­tality, conduct, and interrelationships. The new system of values and truth will abolish the contemporary antagonism between science, philosophy, and religion; they will all be in­separable organs of a unified system of truth, all pointing toward the same verities, validities, and values. The contemporary atomization and relativization of truth, goodness, and beauty will have been terminated. With this there will be an end to the contemporary mental, moral, and social anarchy. An age of certitude will re­place our present age of uncertainty. Liberated from the gnawing tortures of uncertainty, the sapping poison of contradictions, and the weariness of confusion, the human mind will once more regain an inner harmony, peace, and happiness. With these qualities its creative vigor, self-confidence, and self-control will be restored. In such conditions most of the con­temporary psychoneuroses will evaporate. Uni­- {p. 519} versalized truth will unite into one mind all of mankind.

The general devaluation of that which is purely sensate will greatly weaken the con­temporary struggle for existence and for mate­rial values and will reinforce the quest for the rational and metarational values. As a result interindividual and intergroup antagonisms will greatly decrease, their brutal forms will wither, and man’s conduct will be ennobled and made truly social. The same result will follow from the universalized ethical norms rooted into the heart and soul of men. Not so much by external sanctions as by inner power they will inhibit most of the antisocial actions and relationships, particularly the bloody mistreatment of man by man, of group by group. The most brutal forms of crime, civil strife, and international warfare cannot thrive in such a cultural climate and will greatly decrease. The same is true of brute force and fraud as the arbiters of human con­duct.

The new fine arts will contribute their share to the same effect. By virtue of their positive beauty they will educate, inspire, instruct, fascinate, and control human beings fully as much as the new science and religion, philoso­phy and ethics. Primarily devoted to eternal beauty, the fine arts will serve also, as a by­product, the task of true socialization of homo sapiens. In this way they will contribute gen­erously to an elimination of antisocial activities, relationships, and institutions in the human universe.

Finally, through its regained harmony, peace, and happiness of mind the new culture will make human beings less egoistic, irritable, quarrelsome, violent, and antisocial. Through a release of new creative forces in all fields of sociocultural activity it will make everyone a partner and participant in the most sublime form of happiness, the happiness of a creative genius.

In these and thousands of other ways the new culture will develop a new man, happy, generous, kind, and just to himself and to all his fellowmen. Within the framework of such a culture, society, and man neither interin­dividual war (crime), nor civil war, nor inter­national war can flourish. If they do not dis­appear entirely, they will certainly decrease to the lowest minimum known in human history.

Such are the essential traits of the culture, society, and man necessary for an enduring peace in interindividual, intergroup, and inter­national relationships. Without this framework as the main condition of peace, all the other panaceas against war and revolution are futile. With it, many of these will facilitate its realization. For instance, with this sociocul­tural foundation the United Nations and other forms of superstate government will faithfully and fruitfully serve the cause of peace. With­out it, such a superstate government will be either as impotent as the defunct League of Nations or, what is still worse, may turn into a world tyranny as cruel as some of the “world empires” of the past or will lead to an in­crease of civil wars. [5] Without it the military and police forces of such a world govern­ment will certainly be misused and will even­tually serve the cause of war instead of the cause of peace. With it, all the state and super­state governments, no matter what may be their technical forms, will be true familistic democracies. As such they will actively facili­tate the maintenance of peace. Without it, no formal republican or democratic regime, even if universally diffused, can ever help—no more so than in the past, when the democratic and republican countries were at least as belligerent as the monarchical and autocratic nations and when the growth of republican and demo­cratic regimes for the last few centuries has been followed by an increase, rather than by a decrease, of war. Without this framework the further increase of scientific discoveries and technological inventions will be of just as little avail as in the past, during which, begin­ning with the thirteenth century, they have steadily and rapidly increased up to the present {p. 520} time and have been followed by an almost parallel increase of war and revolution. The same is true of the development of schools, universities, books, magazines, papers, movies, radio, theaters, and all the other means of contemporary education. Beginning with the thirteenth century, they have been steadily in­creasing without any resulting decrease of war, revolutions, or crime. This is still more true in regard to such panaceas as a more equitable distribution of the natural resources or a higher material standard of living or a more en­lightened self-interest and utilitarian “rational­ity.” Without the foregoing framework any truly equitable distribution of the natural re­sources throughout all mankind is impossible, just as it has been impossible in the past. The states and nations will remain as egotistic and rapacious as they have hitherto been. Those who believe that a diffusion of democratic forms of government would change this forget that the so-called democracies of the past and the present have been fully as imperialistic as the autocracies. They forget also the unpleas­ant but unquestionable fact that almost all such democracies, beginning with the Athenian and ending with the contemporary ones, have been based upon the severest exploitation of colonies and “spheres of influence” or have consisted of a vast layer of semifree and un-free population many times larger than the full-fledged citizenship of such democracies.

Likewise an “enlightened self-interest” and utilitarian “rationality” have been growing ever since the thirteenth century, without being accompanied by any decrease of war. One of the reasons for this is the fact that from a deeper standpoint this self-interest turns out to be a blind egotism, and utilitarian “rationality” a most irrational illusion. Util­itarian rationality is defined as the use of the most efficient means for the realization of an end desired. Typically, it has in view only the rationality of the means, and it neglects the rationality of the ends. The present war, which uses the most efficient and scientific means available for the defeat of the enemy, is perfectly rational from this standpoint; so also is the activity of a gang of efficient mur­derers, armed with the best techniques of murder, which is never caught or punished. These considerations show clearly that the truly rational action is that in which the ends as well as the means are rational. An action that uses rational means to irrational ends is particularly irrational. For this reason the utilitarian rationality of our society cannot re­gard war or revolution as irrational, and still less is it able to achieve the abolition of both.

Likewise, without this framework, the pan­aceas suggested for the eradication of crime, rioting, revolution, and civil war cannot be effective. These irrational phenomena will re­main and may even grow in spite of the pan­aceas, just as they have remained and grown during the centuries of the domination of modern culture. Notwithstanding the fact that these panaceas have been applied with especial liberality in the twentieth century, the glaring fact remains that neither crime, rioting, nor revolution has decreased; nor has the family become any better integrated; nor have suicide and mental disease declined; nor has the in­tensity of the interindividual and intergroup struggle for existence diminished; nor, if we can measure happiness by the movement of suicide, has man become any more happy. If anything, the objective results have been exactly opposite to what might be expected from the application of the panaceas.

The net result of the preceding analysis is that the suggested framework of the new cul­ture, society, and man is not the manifestation of a preacher’s complex, nor is it the “im­practical” indulgence of an armchair philoso­pher in his pet preoccupation, but rather is it a most practical, scientific, and matter-of-fact indication of the necessary conditions for a realization of the objective — a lasting peace. Without it, all the other means to building a temple of lasting peace and order are bound to be impotent or will only produce even bigger and more terrible wars and revolutions.

3. Prospects

To this conclusion may be raised the objec­tion that the new sociocultural framework is itself unrealizable and Utopian. If such an ob­jection were valid, it would only mean that an enduring peace is impossible. In that case all rational persons should stop fooling them­selves and others with the Utopia of a mankind without war, bloody revolution, and crime and should resignedly accept them as inevitable in {p. 521} the same manner in which we accept death. However, after a careful scrutiny, the objec­tion turns out to be far less axiomatic and unquestionable than it appears at first glance. In other words, the chances for a realization of the new framework, with the enduring peace that it implies, are not at all nil.

First, if mankind is going to live a creative life and is not going to sink either into the somnolence of “a benumbed and ruminating human herd” or into the tortuous agony of de­cay, the new framework is the only way that is left. The existing framework is so rotten and is progressively becoming so destructive and painful that mankind cannot creatively and contentedly live within it for any length of time. If it cannot be replaced by the new framework, then the end of mankind’s creative history, in one of the two ways just indicated, is inescapable, and science, having invented its atomic bomb, will hasten it. But such a conclusion is not inevitable; in spite of the gravity of many of the great crises that have beset mankind throughout history, human beings have always been able somehow to create new forms of culture and society that have eventually terminated the crisis. For the present there is no unquestionable evidence that a new sociocultural renaissance is im­possible.

Second, the shift from a withered sensate culture to a form of culture somewhat akin to that just outlined has happened several times in the history of Greco-Roman, western, and certain other great cultures. If it has been possible of occurrence in the past, there is every reason to suppose that it can recur in the future.

Third, if the birth of the new culture were dependent entirely upon contemporary “util­itarian rationality,” its emergence and growth would be uncertain indeed. But fortunately such is not the manner in which one form of culture is ordinarily replaced by another. The replacement is usually a result of the historical process itself, of gigantic, impersonal, spon­taneous forces immanent in a given sociocul­tural framework; and only at a later stage does it become facilitated by truly rational forces that plan and endeavor to build the new cul­ture with all available scientific means. The spontaneous forces immanent in our modern culture have already brought about its phase of decline and crisis; they have already under­mined its prestige and fascination to a con­siderable degree; they have already alienated from it a considerable portion of the popula­tion; they have robbed it of most of its charms — its security, its safety, its prosperity, its material comfort, its happiness, its sensate freedom, and all of its main values. Not in the classroom but in the hard school of life millions of people are being incessantly taught by these forces an unforgettable and indelible lesson, comprehensible to the plainest human being, that the existing framework is going to give them “stones” and bullets instead of bread; gigantic destruction in place of creative construction; misery instead of prosperity; regimentation in lieu of freedom; death, mu­tilation, and suffering instead of security of life, integrity of body, or bigger and better pleasure. With these charms progressively evaporating, this modern culture of ours has no other great values by which to hold the allegiance of humanity. Like a pretty woman whose bodily charms have gone, it is destined to lose more and more the adherence of human­ity until it has been entirely forsaken and de­throned from its dominant position in favor of a different sociocultural framework. This point has about been reached by our culture. Its magnificent creativeness, its prestige, and its charms are about over.

Parallel with this defection of humanity from contemporary culture, the same spontaneous forces are generating and increasing the quest for a different sociocultural framework, one which is more creative and adequate and less destructive and painful. This quest is at the present moment the main item in the order of the day; almost everyone is busy with the problems of the future society and culture. Only a few, who nothing forget and nothing learn, still cherish ideas of a restoration of the past and a revitalization of a withered frame­work. The overwhelming majority understand —if not by calculation and logical analysis, then by plain horse sense — that that is impos­sible. They recognize the necessity of some framework different from that which we have now.

At this stage the truly rational forces enter the play and take a guiding hand in it. With {p. 522} all the available wisdom and knowledge and with a sense of supreme duty they endeavor to create various systematic blueprints of the new sociocultural framework, to test and im­prove them, rejecting the less adequate ones and perfecting the better ones. New plans with their philosophies, ideologies, and ways and means of realization, multiply, become more and more coordinated, more and more diffused, continually accumulate a momentum and an ever increasing legion of adherents, until they become a tangible social force. This force grows and in thousands of ways begins significantly to influence human mentality and conduct, science and religion, philosophy and ethics, fine arts and social institutions. The process is slow, develops erratically from day to day, and has many deviations, mistakes, and miscarriages of its own. Altogether, it takes several decades, even a few centuries, for its full realization. Sooner or later, however, it terminates in a dethronement of the socio­cultural framework that was previously domi­nant, and in a rise to ascendancy of the new framework.

In the case of our contemporary culture we have reached the point at which the rational forces are about ready to enter the play. To­gether with the spontaneous forces of the his­torical process itself, they may be able to create a new sociocultural framework that will be a rough approximation to the one outlined above. When this objective has been reached, the utopia of a lasting peace and order will become a reality. If this is not achieved, apoca­lyptic catastrophe is ahead.


[1] (“Sensate” is Sorokin’s term for the materialistic cultural orientation, one of Sorokin’s three main cultural types; see “Culture in Crisis: The Visionary Theories of Pitirim Sorokin” — JSU.)

[2] Irving Babbitt, “The Breakdown of Interna­tionalism” (a reprint from the Nation, June, 1915). p. 25.

[3] See a more detailed analysis of this new cul­ture, society, and man in my paper, “The Task of Cultural Rebuilding,” F. E. Johnson (ed.), World Order (New York, 1945).

[4] Cf. on rule of intuition further, Chapter 35.

[5] From 500 B.C. up to 1925 A.D. there were in the history of the Greco-Roman and western societies some 967 international and 1623 civil wars. Great civil wars were as bloody and destructive as big international wars. A mere replacement of international wars by civil wars does not give any decrease of war and increase o£ peace. Hence — the futility of a mere establishment of the world government, without the other conditions necessary for a real peace. Cf. on number of wars and revolutions Social and Cultural Dynamics, Vol. III.

On the AAAS Report on the Humanities and Social Sciences, ‘The Heart of the Matter’

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A few months ago, in June 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report ‘The Heart of the Matter‘ addressing the state of the humanities and social sciences in the United States today.  Its conclusions were expressed as three main goals: (1) to “educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy;” (2) to “foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong;” and (3) to “equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.”

The first recommendation made in connection with Goal 1 was to support “full literacy,” meaning by that an advancement of not just reading ability, but also of the critical thinking and communication skills required of citizens in a thriving democracy.  That this is an excellent suggestion no one would dispute.  The first recommendation associated with Goal 3 was to promote foreign language education, to enable Americans to enlarge their cultural perspective.  Again this is an excellent and welcome suggestion.

But here we have exhausted the list of the high points. The remainder of the report is filled with such dubious assumptions and faulty reasoning that even the hungriest humanities teacher, clutching at the report as a sign of hope against the increasingly narrow emphasis on science and technology in our education system, ought to be circumspect in heralding it as a great stride forward.

The Cart Before the Horse

The fundamental problem with the report, as I see it, is that it has reversed the traditional ends and means of the humanities (and, by extension, of the social sciences, to the extent that both have similar goals; I shall herein, however, mainly address myself to the humanities).  The principle feature of the humanities is, almost by definition (that is, to the extent that ‘humanities’ mean the same thing as ‘Humanism’), that, in the best meaning of the phrase, the proper concern of man is man: that what we are really aiming at is human happiness and self-actualization; to empower man, to achieve the telos latent in his potentialities; to obtain what the ancients simply called the good life or beata vita.  Now as to what constitutes this good life, of course, there is some disagreement; but there is also considerable agreement: we seek a life where human beings are healthy, have ample leisure time, opportunities for education, where they enjoy the arts, study and practice philosophy, and so on.

In the modern era it has become an unquestioned assumption that we should also advance technology at a brisk pace, and, partly as a means of doing this, that our commercial economies should be robust and growing as well.  I tend to agree with this view, personally.  Yet where I evidently part company with the authors of the AAAS report is that I see the latter of these two goals – technological and economic advancement – as subordinate to the primary goal of obtaining ‘the good life’.  That is, to the extent that technological and economic growth gives us anti-malaria vaccines, freedom from hunger, computers, solar energy, digital classical music, open access online libraries, and so on, it is good. But when it means pollution, constant stress and anxiety, urban sprawl, perpetual war, corporation-run government, and a long commute to and from a mindless job pushing papers in a cubicle all day long merely to earn enough money to continue on the treadmill, then I think we have ample grounds for doubt, and to consider forging for ourselves a new vision of society.  May we put wage slavery and mass consumerism on the table as negotiable, and consider organizing our society for the 21st century and beyond in some more favorable way?

The gaping hole in the report’s logic is that it presents, apparently without the authors’ having any cognizance of its absurdity, if not outright danger, that we should improve the humanities in order to improve our economies, when it ought to be the other way around.  We are told that we should increase spending on the humanities and social sciences so that we may have “an adaptable and creative workforce”, and that, presumably to counter the economic threat posed by China or other developing nations, we need “a new ‘National Competitiveness Act'”, which is somehow supposed to be “like the original National Defense Education Act.”

That the authors would so deftly and unhesitatingly leap from “competitiveness” to “national defense” – and all in a report addressing the humanities and social sciences – ought by itself to alert us that something is not quite right.  But lest there be any doubt, we need only consult the flag-draped cover to learn that we need the humanities and social sciences “for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.” [underscore added] There you have it: we need the humanities and social sciences for national security.  Do your duty:  Uncle Sam wants you to read Shakespeare!  How else can we defeat the infidel third-world hordes greedily eyeing our huge piece of the global economic pie?  The world economy belongs to America, and our ticket to continued hegemony is the Humanities!

On page 59 we are treated to a photo of a US soldier in full combat gear who looks like he might be instructing his comrades in the finer nuances of Afghan culture and how to persuade the locals to rat-out the Taliban. Yes, definitely expand our Mid-Asian Studies programs, so that our future military occupations might be more effective than they have been of late.  Or maybe the idea is that by studying foreign cultures better, we’ll have more success in instigating, funding, and arming  rebel insurgencies to displace regimes antithetical to our economic interests.

Materialism vs. Idealism

The tragedy of the report is that it seeks to promote the humanities without the vaguest idea of what Humanism is, or even an awareness that this is something people have made some serious effort to define over previous decades, centuries, and millennia.  Now, to my mind  – and I’m scarcely alone in this opinion – Humanism of necessity implies some sort of transcendent orientation.  What makes human beings distinct and unique in the order of creation is that they are not only material, biological organisms, but contain something divine.  This is the classical, the Renaissance, and the religious basis of Humanism.  Not all humanists would agree, and I respect that.  But at least could we agree to acknowledge that the effort to define Humanism is something that ought to occupy our attention?  Is it asking too much to cite at least a single book, report, or article on the topic in a report that presents itself to be expert and authoritative?  I would rather see Matthew Arnold, Cardinal Newman, or Plato in the bibliography than Emmy-Lou Harris, George Lucas, and John Lithgow in the panel of experts whom the report consulted.

We are told, for example, nothing of the 1984 National Endowment for the Humanities report (‘To Reclaim a Legacy: A Report on the Humanities in Higher Education’) authored by William J. Bennett.  That report, while not as lavishly produced as the present one, nonetheless had a little more intellectual heft, at least insofar as it connected itself with traditional principles of Humanism, classics, and liberal education.  A natural question to ask is whether the effort to renew the humanities initiated by the 1984 report worked.  Apparently not too well, or we wouldn’t need a new initiative.  But unless we look at that earlier report and examine what happened since, how can we understand what went wrong (or right), or know whether the present plan will fare better?

Despite a bit of lip service paid to ethics and morals, the values of the report are materialistic and mercenary.  Small wonder, then, that the solution proposed is to throw more money at the problem. We’ll buy back the heart and soul of America.  But did it ever occur to the authors that we already have the raw materials for a new cultural renaissance, and that what is wrong is not lack of money but wrong values?  Instead of throwing money at the problem, couldn’t we simply persuade people to start reading Great Books?  And without a prior shift in fundamental values, how can simply funding interdisciplinary research centers or developing a “Culture Corps” (yes, they seriously proposed that) accomplish anything?

A more minor point, but one nevertheless worth making, is how suavely the report dismisses the tuition and student loan crisis in the country today.  Not a crisis, we’re informed; more like an inconvenience.  The point the authors miss is the effect that placing college students deeply in debt has on their educational goals.   One’s not likely to pay off a $75,000 student loan any time soon by majoring in American literature or ancient history.  And the debt-burdened graduate isn’t likely to wander around Europe or Asia for the sheer pleasure of broadening ones cultural horizons.  Better to major in accounting and hope to land a job with Bank of America.

Ironically, the report succeeds, after a fashion, in its failure.  Its deficiencies themselves speak volumes about the decline of the humanities in the American university system.  The report is the product of a higher education industry that has systemically neglected liberal education for at least 100 years. That we need to address this problem is abundantly clear.  But to give more money to an education system not wise enough to understand what the humanities are and mean scarcely seems like the answer.

The report is all window dressing and the only real message is “give us money.” But the heart is not bought.

Written by John Uebersax

November 5, 2013 at 12:08 am

Synderesis – the Divine Spark Within

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One way that modernism has led to dehumanization and diminution of the human spirit is to produce a revisionist moral vocabulary.

Human beings have a natural morality and spirituality.  We need no more evidence than the example of the religiosity of indigenous societies – Native American culture, for example – to establish this point.  But because we are thinking creatures, concepts are very important to us.  We define ourselves, we organize our minds, our behavior and our lives, around concepts. And words are the keys to concepts.  If you lose a word, when you can no longer express a concept with a word, you lose the concept.  This is true both individually and collectively.  When a culture loses a term for an important spiritual principle, they cannot talk about or teach it.  A whole dimension of life expressed by that word goes away.

Now one of the ways we lose words that relate to our moral and spiritual life is when they acquire a new, diluted meaning.  An example of this is the word ‘conscience.’  We still this use word, but its meaning is a far cry from how our ancestors understood it.  Today conscience means little more than a Freudian super-ego.  It is thought of as a collection of don’ts, taught by society, which we internalize.  And it manifests itself as behavioral inhibitions that restrain us, and as a nagging voice of guilt after some misdeed.

But our ancestors meant something much different by ‘conscience.’  Conscience was a kind of consciousness.  It was something transcendent and spiritual.  In older times, Christian divines considered conscience as the remnant of the image of God in which we were made.  It was understood as a spark of angelic consciousness within our soul.  It wasn’t so much concerned with don’ts as with connecting us with goodness. It was the means by which we grasped Goodness itself.  Therefore, to consult your conscience was virtually a mystical experience.  It could be like a fleeting glimpse of sheer Goodness, contact with the divine world, a moment of intense joy and amazement. And then, in the light of this experience, renewed by it, reminded of ones true self, of the nature of a Love that goes beyond all earthly manifestations of love, one could see the right thing to do in any situation.

But we have lost this experience, because modern philosophers and psychologists have taken the word conscience and given it a new meaning.  We have effectively lost our true conscience, because the word has been given a different, ersatz meaning.  We still have true conscience, at least latently, but no longer move the eye of our mind towards it.  We never open that window.  And so we no longer experience it.

The wisest of our ancestors had a special term for this form of conscience.  They called by a Greek word, synderesisSynderesis is defined as “the essence, ground, or center of the soul that enters into communion with God: the spark or emanation of divinity in the soul.”

By much reading and research, I have ‘rediscovered’ this older meaning of conscience; and, once having learned of it, it took no great effort to verify its reality in my own experience – as you can easily do also.  It is an innate sense.  Children are especially good at experiencing it.

I can give you a link to a helpful article on this subject, though it’s perhaps harder reading than most people will prefer:

Greene, Robert A.  Synderesis, the Spark of Conscience, in the English Renaissance. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1991), pp. 195-219.

(University or institutional access is needed to download the pdf.)

The article in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy isn’t very helpful, however.  Like so much written today, it is interested in academic details and loses sight of the big picture.  The historical development of the term, synderesis, is of little importance compared to the fact that you have it – a spark of God within your soul, and that it is something you can, without much difficulty, experience yourself.

But I can give you another hint for how you might discover synderesis.  Has it ever happened, perhaps when you have been in an extremely happy mood, that you met another person, and, for the briefest of moments you saw something brilliant in their eyes?  An irreducible spark of goodness, so intense, so joyous, that, inexplicably, you could not bear more than the briefest glance?   Now why is this? What ordinary explanation could account for it – that in such a positive mood, people cannot bear each other’s gaze?  And also that this occurs, yet no explanation is sought for it?  There is simply some unspoken truth that this is how things are. It is as though we accept a self-evident verity that there is something so intense in our nature – and, it would seem from these sorts of experiences, something so good – that we can scarcely bear it. That same intense spark in another’s eyes – eyes, the windows of the soul – is related to, or is, the synderesis.

Written by John Uebersax

January 21, 2013 at 6:16 pm