Oil for the Lamps of Freedom


By KIRTLEY F. MATHER, of the Department of Geology and Geography, Harvard University

Phi Beta Kappa Address, Franklin and Marshall College, June 3, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 665-667.

IT is increasingly apparent that not only the physical possessions and material resources of democratically-inclined states and commonwealths but also their intellectual ideals and spiritual aims are now endangered by the aggressive tactics of totalitarian and autocratic nations. The lamps of freedom have succumbed to the blackouts in many parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. They are even now flickering in many parts of North and South America. Democracy is being tested on the forge of history in this middle third of the twentieth century as in no preceding epoch in the lifetime of mankind. The European war is something more than a clash between rival empires; it is a part of the world revolution in which all nations everywhere are involved.

The threat to freedom in America imposes upon us something far more difficult than merely defending what we have against an assault. The contemporary crisis in human affairs can be met victoriously only by a basic revaluation of aims and ideals, a thorough reconstruction of social relationships, economic methods and political techniques.

Nazism and fascism pretend to offer the world the new values and revolutionary structures that it needs. Their campaign is not just one of military power and deceitful intrigue; even more it is one of ideas and dynamic emotion. They can be defeated only by an equally revolutionary and dynamic movement, which offers the peoples already conquered, the rest of the world and even the Germans themselves a sounder and more inspiring alternative.

Men of intelligence therefore do well when they give time and thought to the careful consideration of the role which they ought to play as an essential factor in the social order. They share with all other citizens in a democracy the responsibilities of rendering useful service to the community of which they are a part and of participating in the legal process of "government by the people." There are however certain responsibilities of citizenship that rest more heavily upon them than upon other members of society.

Efficient organization of the modern totalitarian state depends upon blind, unquestioning, but superbly skillfulobedience, whereas the efficient organization of the modern democratic state depends upon wise, self-determined, but supremely beneficent cooperation. For dynamic motivation, the former depends upon coercion, in one or more of its manifold but always insidious guises; the latter upon persuasion, most effective when combined with education.

The totalitarian dictator wants a few physicists, chemists and technologists among his servants, but he will use every weapon in his arsenal to prevent the spread of scientific habits of mind throughout the rank and file of his obedient serfs. The truly democratic leader, however, will do all he can to stimulate among his fellow citizens the desire to know all the facts and the ability to think intelligently, in order that self-government may be wise and efficient. It is no accident that the founders of our republic made immediate provision for universal education and arranged to keep the public schools as free as possible from control by politicians. Nor is it an accident that institutions of higher learning have been closed or greatly restricted in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, as well as in subjugated Czechoslovakia and conquered Poland.

Far more important than any other issue with which men of learning ought now to be concerning themselves is the fundamental question of ways and means of preserving and strengthening democracy in the midst of the situation in which we find ourselves today. The preservation of democracy does not mean, however, an inflexible support of the American system of industrial, political and social arrangements that had been constructed during the first quarter of this century. A major transformation in our way of life is now taking place. The halcyon days—happy for some, if not for all—of laissez-faire are gone, never to return. If this is to be an age of reconstruction rather than of destruction there must be a planned society.

And here, it seems to me, is one of the most important reasons for the lack of unity responsible in large measure for the weakness of the United States in this hour of crisis. Our minds are confused concerning the nature of planning. We have failed to define our terms with precision andconsequently our thoughts are blurred, A planned society in many minds is synonymous with either fascism or communism; there is no clear understanding of the nature of democratic planning as contrasted with autocratic planning. I take it that one of the most important functions of the intellectual and vocal activities of educated men is to make that distinction clear. There can be no strengthening unity of purpose in America until that is done.

As Karl Mannheim put it, in his book entitled MAN AND SOCIETY IN AN AGE OF RECONSTRUCTION, "every country alike is groping for a new way of organizing industrial society. The democracies have not yet found a formula to determine which aspects of the social process can be controlled by regulation, and the dictatorships cannot see that interfering with everything is not planning."

In both national and international affairs there are processes now at work that can only find fulfillment in a new form of planning. And the essence of democratic planning must be to control living forces without oppressing them. Only if planning is based on the creative tendencies in society, can it have a positive value, and only thus can democratic principles be applied in modern life.

The long history of human civilization reveals that there have been three decisive stages of human thought and conduct. For hundreds of thousands of years, every improvement in the life of man came as a result of chance discovery. In that stage of human development the great achievement of thought involved merely the ability to remember the correct solution that had been discovered by trial and error, or the happy circumstance that had arisen through good fortune. Gradually, however, the Age of Discovery gave place to the Age of Invention. A new demand upon the human mind was made and met. At this higher level of thought it is necessary to imagine a definite goal and then think out in advance the proper way to distribute activities over a certain period of time in order to attain that goal.

But there is a still higher level of intellectual activity, more difficult to attain and calling for abilities superior even to those revealed by good memory and vivid imagination. Man and society must advance from the deliberate invention of single objects or institutions to the deliberate regulation and intelligent mastery of the relationships between these objects.

The great service rendered by science to society during the past four hundred and fifty years resulted largely from success in thinking on the level of invention. For the most part the relationships between the objects and institutions thus invented were determined by the unguided operation of the principle of cause and effect or were regulated by conflict, competition and the selection they brought in their train. Gradually, however, and with increasing intensity in the last few years, man has become aware of the necessity for intelligent, purposeful regulation of those relationships. The interdependence of men in a world neighborhood makes necessary a new pattern of thought. The Age of Invention is even now giving way to the Age of Planning.

Men of intelligence have abundantly demonstrated their aptitude as discoverers and their ability as inventors; they have not yet merited to any great degree the approval of their fellows as planners. Perhaps this is largely because they have been so busy with their discoveries and inventions that they have given little time or thought to the function of planning. Probably the expectation is justified that the mental discipline they have undergone and the habits of mind they have acquired would prove a most valuable asset if any when they turn their attention to that phase of intellectual activity. Certainly, any specifications that mightbe drawn of requirements for expert planning would include the ability to think according to the scientific pattern of thought. The person who succeeds as a planner may have to be something of an artist, a good deal of a philosopher, possibly a bit of a theologian, but an indispensable ingredient for the synthesis of the required capacities and qualities is supplied only by training and experience in scientific pursuits.

This then is the challenge for the educated man today. Can he achieve success on the level of planning equivalent to that already gained on the levels of discovery and invention? Only time can tell. It is yet too soon to reach a verdict. The best that can now be said is that there is abundant ground for hope that the answer will prove to be in the affirmative.

There are, obviously, many social and technical difficulties in transferring democratic controls to a planned society. We have seen plenty of them in the last few years and more remain to be uncovered in the near future. But I have confidence that these difficulties can be resolved if men of good will set their minds to the task. One suggestion only: we must separate long-range policy from temporary issues and we must introduce the principle of leadership where rapid decisions are essential. In a democracy, due process of policy-making is fundamentally just as important as due process of law. It is in the process of policy-making that democratic planning comes to the fore.

So much from the point of view of society as a whole. What about the problem of democratic planning from the point of view of the individual? Here such words as personal freedom and individual liberty immediately spring to mind.

G. A. Borgese suggests that we ought "to make a distinction between freedom and liberty." He proposes "that we use 'freedom' only when we mean a man's right to do, without hindrance, what he must do in order to be true to the best he knows and thinks and feels; whereas 'liberty' may be used to express one's right to act according to his wish. Freedom would thus pertain to the realm of man's highest duty; liberty to the area of man's desires and his hours of relaxation. Clearly, then, in any time of crisis, liberty would have to be sacrificed to freedom."

Indeed, it would seem to me that frequently, in time of calm as well as of stress, the necessities of democratic planning will require just that. Freedom for all, in the sense in which Borgese uses that term, can be attained only by curtailing the liberty of many. Christianity and Judaism would suggest that this may best be done voluntarily and joyously. In a sense, occidental religion gives new vitality to the dictum of that secular sage of ancient time who said, "Who then is free? Only the wise man who has learned how to govern himself."

But is it possible for men to live in freedom, dependent as we are in this age of so-called civilization upon resources that are present in only limited amounts?

In answering that question one must make a clear distinction between such renewable resources as water-power and the products of the plant and animal kingdoms, on the one hand, and such non-renewable resources as the metals and the mineral fuels, on the other. The assumed scarcity and obviously uneven distribution of the latter have provided the excuse for many an individual and nation to adopt the policy of "grabbing while the grabbing is good, lest there not be enough to go around." And that policy leads inevitably to the regimentation of society, with slavery for the many and dictatorial power for the elite.

Without citing the many details concerning the known reserves of the essential non-renewable resources, the trends in population statistics, and the expanding demand for things now possessed only by the fortunate few, it sufficesfor the moment to note that the data now available indicate that there is actually an abundance of the needed raw materials. A careful appraisal of the world stores of nonrenewable resources, including known substitutes for such resources as petroleum that are known to be present in insufficient amounts, reveals the fact that there is enough and to spare of all the necessary raw materials to provide the physical basis for the efficient, comfortable existence of every human being who is likely to be born anywhere on the earth during the next two thousand years, at least.

Moreover, science and technology are even now inaugurating a new relationship between man and the things he needs or thinks he needs. For a century or more the tendency has been to use more and more of the non-renewable resources, nature's stored capital, and relatively less of the renewable resources, man's annual income. But within the last decade, scientific research has reversed the trend. The expending chemical industries, with their plastics and synthetic resins, depend largely upon things that grow, and these are a product of the potentially inexhaustible resources of the soil. Long before the capital stored by nature throughout geologic time has been exhausted man may well have learned how to live within his annual income. Thanks to discovery and invention it may be truly practical literally to beat our swords into plough-shares, our spears into pruning hooks.

All of which is to say that Mother Earth is rich enough to nourish every man in freedom. It is man, not nature, that enslaves. The question whether it is better to starve as a free man or grow fat as a slave has often been a difficult one to answer. But that question need never arise, if men use intelligence and good will in determining the relations between the individual and society.

The political state is becoming the social service state, but that does not mean the extinction of human freedom. On the contrary, it is when we reach the stage of mass society that the genuine vigor of freedom is most needed. The ideal of freedom can be attained by the technique of planning for freedom.

I believe that there are inherent strengths in democracy and weaknesses in dictatorships that spell ultimate success for the one and downfall for the other. Totalitarian Europe cannot be defeated by democratic America by force of arms either on land or sea or in the air. But totalitarian Europe may be transformed from within if democratic America demonstrates that self-government is good government.

Already the forces of disintegration are at work in Europe. The clash between Hitler and Stalin, Mussolini and Franco is inevitable, not because of differences in ideology, but because of competing imperialistic ambitions. No one man, even in this age of science, can rule the eastern hemisphere, and no job lot of dictators can long live together in peace in a neighborhood such as that which centers in the Mediterranean Sea. Under the blatant show of irresistible force are subtle weaknesses, not merely because of lack of economic strength or natural resources, but because of the inherent nature of mankind. The tension developing beneath the surface bids fair to bring a counter-revolution in the near future. Totalitarian Europe will be transformed from within; the only question is that of the nature of the society that will result.

Human nature has certain ineradicable traits. You can change human behavior, but there are certain things pertaining to human nature that cannot be changed so long as man shall live. Among those is the love of freedom, the desire to determine one's own destiny. That longing for what is essentially the democratic way of life first gave evidence of its presence in Europe, and it is yet there. Eclipsed for a time, the sun of freedom will once more shed its ennobling rays upon a people who now live in darkness.

Beneath the hand of the tyrant there is a power that today is crushed but not destroyed, stifled but not extinguished. The war in Europe is not the collapse of civilization. It would take at least one more and perhaps two or three more wars to destroy completely the culture of the Old World. There is a reasonable basis for optimism not only for America but for Europe and Asia as well.

In the last analysis our basis for optimism is firmly established upon the principle that this is a moral universe, that there is a creative power operating through social processes toward an organization of the world community in which men may live and work together in freedom and peace. That power operates in and through the lives of men and women even in times of darkness and distress.

The trend toward organization is revealed in every process of nature amenable to scientific study. It is indeed an important element in our religious life. Electrons, neutrons, and protons are organized into atoms, atoms into molecules, molecules into compounds. Some of the compounds prove to be cells, and some of these are organized to form individual plants and animals. Latest of all in the history of creative evolution certain individuals have been organized into societies. Transcending all that has gone before is the development of human society, obviously the most difficult, but at the same time potentially the most glorious organization yet attempted. Human beings who devote their time and energy to the task of perfecting the social organization of themselves and their fellows are at that moment and in that way placing themselves "in tune with the infinite."

It is therefore only natural that those who believe in democracy as the keynote of their political faith should find themselves allied with those who believe in Christianity as the pattern of their religious ideals, as together we seek to replenish the oil in the flickering lamps of freedom. Together we focus our eyes not on the world as it is, but on the world as it might be. Neither democracy nor Christianity has yet failed; neither has yet been sufficiently tried.

The ideal of freedom in the midst of necessary social restraint must be invigorated within ourselves. Freedom cannot be taken for granted, but it can be attained if we are sufficiently eager for it. But only as it is available for all, can it be the possession of any. It is gained not through hoarding, but through sacrifice.

Such thoughts, I take it, must have been in the mind of Miss Florence Converse as she penned the epilogue to her narrative poem entitled The Efficiency Expert. In that poem she recounts the experience of a youthful engineer who found it necessary to deal with men as well as machines. Beyond discovery and invention he attempted planning and at last, after some bitter and soul-searching experiences he gained "an hour of insight" in which he found himself conversing with freedom.

'Art thou a-many, Freedom,
For star, for atom, for man?'
'The slave is legion, I am one,
One is the plan.'
'How shall I know thee,
beneath the mask's disguise?'
You'll know me by my folded wings;
Freedom never flies.'
'How shall I pledge thee, Freedom,
That happy day we meet?'
'We'll plight our faith in the loving-cup
And drink down defeat.'
'Dare I follow thee, Freedom?
Hearten me with a sign.'
'Dare you make a cross on your heart
For your sign and mine?'"