The War on Nerves


By DR. FOSTER KENNEDY, Professor of Neurology at Cornell University

Delivered before the New York Herald-Tribune Forum, October 25, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 81-82.

WE have been for six years made anxious, nervous, unhappy, by successive crises brought by the radio to our minds and hearts. In Europe, the annual mobilization had tired everybody. No one could plan ahead; the girls could get married, but the young men didn't know if it was worth while going to college, and as a London taxi driver put it in a nutshell to me last Easter: "Why, Sir, it looks as if we ain't going to get no summer 'olidays next year; we'd better fight the beggar now." Words and threats have held the world in jeopardy and suspense by dint of not being precise—by producing vague, formless fear of the future and unsettlement of the present. Those who did this to us recognized, consciously or not, chat both anticipation and memory of an emotion are more real than its reality.

They have known that coming events cast a shadow before them more fearful than themselves; that a Damoclean sword is more terrible than a battle. The production of suspense in war is an ancient weapon; its instant transmission is a new technique. It is also wholly new that the head of a great power should publicly espouse the lie.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was from God, and to St. John, the gentle Apostle, the meaning of the Word borne to us was wisdom, goodness and beauty. This is what we have thought, and tried to live up to for two thousand years. It matters nothing if there have been failures: the aim was there. The purpose, the striving thrusts of mankind, have been toward an ultimate good— until now. Since St. John's time the coinage of words—the only coinage the mind can use for exchange of thoughts— has been gradually debased, so today we can scarcely tell dross from gold—and the worst is that now this debasement is deliberate.

The conception of what we have called the higher values has in many parts of the world been jettisoned and cast aside, and instead of the Word, we are left with wordy babble Yet, this babble, freighted with emotion, can change men's lives. There are no drugs so potent as words, when strung on feeling without thought. Words are the only drugs with which men can be dosed, so that they go willingly to the slaughter. And the means of supplying this dose have been perfected in our own time to the great reduction of our culture. Our minds are pounded, through ear and eye, continuously and ubiquitously. The simpler the emotional appeal, the more primitive the slogan, the cruder the advertisement, the more securely the words stick.

Today, words are the most powerful force on the earth. By reason of their present use there has been a fantastic weakening of our critical faculty. Words contaminate the air and contaminate us. Anything that is new, whether it be a play, a book, a crisis or a war, is no sooner known by us than we are presented, at the same time, with criticism, appraisal, opinion. The judgment of others is thrust constantly upon our ears so that the straight and narrow path of personal judgment is forsaken for the broad road of second-hand opinion. Of such is the kingdom of propaganda.

Worse than all this, the bombardment of words to which the world is subjected has resulted in the lowering of our standards; or, perhaps, words have been only the death-blow

of standards. For about forty years the fixed girders of society have been loosening. Belief in anything has been dubbed by society the characteristic of a lowbrow. Relativity in the physical world has been matched by relativity in dignity and hope through some phases of modern psychology. Modern man has been compelled by science, and persuaded by half science, to regard himself as but a very little thing. It is only natural, therefore, that he should act in accordance with his beliefs about himself.

Never before our time has there been declared open warfare on the intellect of man and at the same time upon that intrinsic goodness which is the jewel of each individual, be he beggar, thief or king. The substitution of "dynamic action" for "knowing" and "believing" is a brutality thrusting us backwards in our evolutionary striving for good and imposed on our senses by all the technical means of science. This brutalizing of our standards makes us less than were our fathers They had their standards and codes, and deviation from them carried immediate penalty. In our days, we have allowed ourselves, and we are constantly being encouraged to become so pliable, so flexible, so "relative" to all things, in a current phrase so "broad-minded," that we are in danger of having no ethic, no vision, no hope.

But our power to reason and to be kind is our real power. The radio, which is the newly imposed, poorly adapted nervous system of the world organism, threatens both.

Through our weakened power of personal judgment we have vacillated for years on the knife-edge of indecision. But indecision locks up energy; it stabs the heart. Whereas decision, clearly taken, brings calmness, strength, the quiet mind and a flow of power. It is so in every man's experience, and since men make nations, it is so in national life. It is so on the field of battle and it is so in the more complex battlefield of civil living.

If one be unaware of the stream of history, of the fall and rise of energy in peoples, then one can be, by successive crises, shaken and made frail. But each good man has in himself a quiet place wherein he lives however torn seemingly by the passions of the world. That is his citadel, which must be kept inviolate against assaults. That quiet place must be founded upon a rock and the rock must be a belief, a fervent and passionate belief, in the existence of the ultimate good, and a willingness to put forth his strength against the ultimate evil. Only by so doing can he tap the flow of power needed to produce, between one nation and another, the same kindness and natural impulse for helping each other, the same natural acceptance of law that obtains at present between people walking together in a city street.

We must transfer to national units, as the United States of the world, the same reign of law and helpfulness that now exists between individuals, for as was said by Spinoza, "There is nothing more serviceable to man than man." It is evidence of impoverished growth that we can tolerate an ethic for national behavior that we would not think of tolerating in personal conduct. But until the decision to work for this end is made both by those who lead and those who are led, energy for this high adventure will not be forthcoming. Again one must say, through decision comes power.

But there is no old world to go back to—a new one must be made; and there are lions in the way. So there must bebred and nurtured a robust vigor to resist the vicious assertion that a state is an entity in its own right; that it need have no morals nor obligations, and that its members arecreatures to do its bidding regardless of their own dignityand kindliness.

In crises we all need faith The old Gods are uncertain at their altars and some of them upon their faces have been cast down. This has weakened us before the forces of anarchy and the radioed voices of Ahriman. The ancient fear of the next world has been replaced by an anxiety neurosis regarding this one, and as confidence in our own individual judgments in our personal opinion, has been so weakened, we can be played upon by threatening tongues. Our union with the herd is strength when we decide to resist and are imbued with action, but it is weakness when we cannot or do not have either decision or faith. The excess of adrenal substances which would armor us for battle, in the absence of battle fills us with fears.

We are all suggestible. As Alice said in Wonderland, "Anything that I say three times is true," and our critical faculty has become so enfeebled that for most of us indeed this is taken for fact.

Suggestion may be defined as the acceptance of an idea which is in consonance with an already established emotional trend. If we hope and are afraid, we readily believe. The poor Germans believed the other day that their nightmare war was over, peace returned and danger passed. If we hate, we believe almost any evil of those who we hate. If we envy, we listen readily to malice, and if we love, we can only apprehend good things of those we love. The reduction of the reasoning faculty, the weakening of the judgment of the individual man has left him a victim of his own suggestibility. The modern man has a smattering of information about many things and little real knowledge of any. So he believes and believes, believing opposites at once.

This lowering of the standard of critical judgment has been brought about in the first place by the weakening of respect for intellect, in the second by the notion of general relativity in all things, and in the third by the permeation of our near intellectuals by modern psychological dogmas. These last tend to reduce man to his lowest and commonest denominator, and while they explain the stratification of his culture, they assert that his highest aspirations are sublimates of his lowest and most primitive urges. All this departure from exact thinking, all this sacrifice of the judgment to the emotions, all this unbelief in belief, this replacement of trust in intellect or trust in dynamism and "action," is a reversal of man's onward progress. We become exposed to despair and wringing our hands already greet Nemesis. Even educated people may be heard talking of the "end of civilization," of a return to the "dark ages," so that listening to them one almost already sees the tumbrils and barricades.

But there is a hard virtue somewhere still within us.

It must have been a murderous necessity that forced our ancient forebear, a superior water-creature, to take to the land, but it was a fiery thought out of his intellect that made man take to the air. And how far he might yet project his power and personality we cannot even guess. We think of all these things in far too small units of time. Because we ourselves live only seventy years, we imagine twenty-five of them must be indeed very important, yet they are not even an instant in the absolute. Mankind is only departing from the nursery. He stands bright-eyed with new knowledge of his past and for the first time with the power and zest to mould—if he will—his own future. We may be indeed certain that we will be strong to endure, and when the seals have been put upon the forehead of the Beast, man will make a new world, robustly believing in his own power for reason and in his power for virtue.