Alexander, Hartley Burr Letters to Teachers, and Other Papers of the Hour Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company 1919

The outbreak of the war in 1914 was a triumph for militarism in European civilization: that all men know. But all men do not see with the same eyes what were the forces leading to internationalism over which this militarism triumphed. It triumphed over the frail barriers of European diplomacy and the weak fortifications of international law, symbolized by The Hague–but who expected these to hold against a will to power? It triumphed over the economic bonds of industry and trade, whose symbol is banks and gold–but surely it is a fatuous estimate of the human soul which rests its hope for peace upon its love of gain. It triumphed over the communion of religion, symbolized by ecclesiastical Rome–but when has the Church kept Christians from one another’s throats? All these forces were discounted by the wise–slender reeds of support!–but there were still two elements of cohesion upon which men less consciously, but more convincedly, relied for the preservation of the integrity and sanity of the civilization of Europe, and it was the failure of these two that made the bitterest disillusionments of the earlier hours of the war.

The first of these was the spirit of the International Workingmen’s Association. Labor has always been the least articulate of the great forces in society; but in recent years it had formulated a faith in the fraternal relationship of the inarticulate masses of all countries vividly enough to impress the world with its reality and strength. It was a prime article of this faith that the masses of the different nations would not (at the command of the classes) slay one another; and even while bourgeois and aristocrat ridiculed, a dim reliance was placed upon this profession. Nay, it is more than probable that a moving cause of the war was the determination of militaristic oligarchs to kill this profession before it should have gained such conscious definition as to rob them of their power; in other words, the pacifism of the International and its socialistic offshoots was an actual cause of the war. The event shows that the militarists were too late, at least in Russia, to save themselves, although they were timely enough so far as ruining the world was concerned. Possibly the spirit of the International may yet assert itself redemptively–if first it gain articulation and discover within itself something of that generosity and nobility without which no faith can redeem.

But if the spirit of the International was the least articulate, that of the intellectuals was the most articulate of the great professions of European culture. It is the very business of art and science and scholarship to express themselves, and to an international audience and for an international understanding; and there was no solidarity of Western civilization so pretentious as that of its intellectualism. When the leaders (for the intellectuals proclaimed themselves leaders) of all the great nations were masters and pupils to one another, how could there be–so it was imagined–a disruption of so bonded a unity? So seated was the delusion that months after the war had bloodily blotted out all other interchanges, doctors and publicists were still sending manifestos across frontiers, passing from justification to repudiation and finally recrimination and hatred, in the wordy battles that seemed suddenly so remote from men’s affairs. One of the very earliest of these manifestos was the utterance of the ninety-three German professors sent out to neutrals; and it was also the most damning of all to the pretensions of intellectualism.

For from the very first it was abundantly evident that the intellectuals–naturalists and historians and all–were merely the propagandists of a narrow nationalism. The high communion of art and scholarship and the admirable edifice of science which were the creations of the concerted devotion of many lives in many lands, and which were supposed and indeed felt by their devotees to be the symbols of a spiritual unity and fellowship, suddenly, under the strain of the partisan ambitions of a class whom the intellectuals thought themselves to hold in contempt, fell vacantly asunder–and in a moment the mind of Europe was shown to be hollow and void of all spiritual substance.

In the hour of strenuous physical conflict the full significance of this collapse cannot be realized; but in the long run it will assuredly be found to be the most vital blow which the war has inflicted upon the modernism of the Western world. There was nothing so distinctive of this modernism as the achievement of its intellectuals; this was our pet and pride, the show baby of our civilization. We had come, too, to regard it as our salvation and as embodying the whole grace and illumination of life. To see a thing so idealized distorted to grotesque abuse, and what had been proclaimed the saviour of humanity made the slave of man’s corruption, this can end only in shock and revulsion and the gall of a bitter denial. It is therefore of high moment–lest we not utterly destroy in too greatly condemning–that we see the intellectualistic idol in its unfurbished truth, that we may discover its defects in season.

For there is a desirable salvage. I never read the “Meditations” of Rene Descartes–who is with an especial right the master of the moderns–without a renewed reverence not only for a man of such simple and conscientious honesty, but also for the truth itself. And I find in his immediate successors, in Spinoza the Jew, Locke the Englishman, Leibnitz the German, the continuation of that same austere and inspiring truthfulness. But if–not led by the gradations of illusion to which surrender is so easy when one follows step by step–if a leap be made from the beginnings to the nineteenth century, how unspeakable is the descent! Philosophy becomes confused with its own cunning and deluded with its own shows, and at the end we have such embodied bombast as Herbert Spencer and such theatric lying as Ernst Haeckel dominating economics and politics and religion with their biological spells and materialistic incantations. Love of truth is lipped and praise of the spirit mouthed, but everywhere reason is made the apologist of prejudice and science the pander of appetite.

Consider for a moment the dogmas and tenets of the intellectuals. Foremost is naturalism, everywhere, in art and science and religion, fuming about realities and meaning sensation, and undertaking such monstrosities as the creation of a rational faith–an artificial religion! With this, and undoubtedly as a conceit growing out of the invention of machines, is the conviction of human self-sufficiency: the dignity of man, the rights of man, the prowess of man, the idolatry of man–and of woman. The two, compounded under the blessed name “evolution,” unite into a fatuous dogma of progress, which is really only the fatalistic optimism of the irresponsible–like the chirping of crickets in Indian summer. That the Paradise of such a confession should be the materialistic bliss of fat meals and gaudy apparel, and that its ethics should resolve first into a consolation of vanity and thence into the cynical acceptance of the right of might is the sure effect of the drugging–as inevitable as the winter which ends the insect chorus.

The truth is, modernism suffers from a horrible vivisection of the soul, and its pæans to the intellect have been but praise of its own deformity. A soul which consists of mere intellect, with faith and hope and charity sheared away, is as helpless as a pigeon without its cerebellum; all steersmanship is gone, and its ideas are but empty ghosts twittering in a vacuum, ready to rush in a huddle at the first sacrifice offered, there to lap up the red blood. When in the modern world material enterprise set up the altars and, with capital jangling the castanets, politics prepared the offering, all the ghosts of science, art, and theology flew to the rites–seeking an interest, seeking a purpose, seeking a confession which might give them life and substance. The church talked social service and became a promoter of social clubs; art talked devotion to beauty and became a purveyor to mean appetites; science posed as the physician of human nature and concocted smooth formularies justifying the iniquities of the strong. The upper classes everywhere sank back into a kind of mawkish paganism, of which the most disheartening symbol is modern “higher education,” huckstering off to capital the various brands of brains which it models to capital’s use, and pointing with a vapid piety to the pillared porticos which capital rears for it–as if, by restoring the sacred precincts, Olympian Zeus could be made to live again.

It is small wonder that in this showy ritual labor has deemed itself to be the sacrifice–“the goat,” as we say. And it is small wonder–though thrice a pity–that, inarticulate and unled, it has made itself greedy of the unnatural feasts of politics and capital. This was the ruin of the spirit of the International- greed of economic goods; in our own country it is the “interest” of labor; in Russia it is maximalism and the sottishness of self-lust. For the spectre which the Bolsheviki have raised is the proper Nemesis of our hypertrophied intellectualism: it is unreason and appetite incarnate answering reason and intellect discarnate. The man of the body politic has been deformed in all his organs and functions and his whole being is in revolt.

The war is a dreadful purge, applied to a sufferer in a desperate’ strait. We trust that it will carry away many ill humors from the constitution of mankind, but we know that at the best there must be a long period of anxious care before we can hope to see civilization restored and hale. In the broadest sense the problem of recovery is an educational one. A new ideal of human life will have to be discovered by those who see truest the meaning of the spiritual agony. A new schooling will have to be developed to enkindle in a fresh generation the light of this ideal. What is beyond lies on the knees of the gods. But of this much, at least, we may be sure: that the future will refuse to own any mere intellectualism, but will demand in its place (and we need not shun the word) a confessed spiritualism. The education of the future, in school and state, will instill with all its power that there can be no knowledge without responsibility, no realization of beauty without sympathy, no discovery of goodness without idealism. There must be faith of men, not in other men for their attainment’s sake, but in the visioned Man, for his unattainment’s sake.