New Times Which Try Men's Souls


By DR. DIXON RYAN FOX, President of Union College, Schenectady, N. Y.

At the Baccalaureate Exercises, as part of the 146th Commencement of Union College, June 8, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, 558-560.

IT is thirty-four years since, in a magazine called the Smart Set, a pleasant American writer asked his readers individually if they were bromides or sulfites. Bromides, he explained, were those who purveyed the commonplace, the trite,—ideas and phrases from which the gloss and sparkle of novelty had been rubbed away by innumerable hands. Bromides flourish with a special vigor at Commencement time. Seven or eight hundred college classes are going to be told this June, for instance, that they are living in unusual times. Most will resent this because they are desperately weary of being told it, and do not suffer bromides gladly. Some, too, will resent it because it calls attention again to a special bit of bad luck that has fallen to them, to be assigned to earth in a troubled era, and implies

an obligation to partake in a repair job that they wish did not have to be done. They are oppressed with a sense of unfairness in the cosmic plan. In a bromidic atmosphere they cannot dodge an all-too-familiar tag of Shakespeare:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,

That ever I was born to set it right.

Still others, of contentious mind, will challenge the judgment anyway, and the more readily because it is commonly accepted. They will argue that since the great age of change began about five hundred years ago all times have been unusual, since with constant readjustment each year has opened with new problems and, in all probability, each year will so open until there are no such things as men or years. In general these last are right. But, after all, times differ in

the fate of change. The tempo of western civilization a hundred and fifty years ago or two hundred and fifty years ago happened to be very much more rapid than it was in 1741 or 1841. I fear we must concede that our own times are unusually unusual.

The rights of man once laid low the strength of tyranny, and it is conceivable that the strength of tyranny can in turn lay low the rights of man. The difficulty is that the rights of man confused themselves with destiny. It was thought that by once removing all political impediments to individual self-expression, and then by offering a theoretical share in political management to everybody who could prove a life-experience of twenty-one years, we had set the western world upon a safe road of national progress. It is true that we, or rather our ancestors, had set a great portion of mankind upon a way in which unlimited progress could be made; but the rate, or even the fact, of progress could not be guaranteed. Discovering a way does not insure a positive achievement in that way, any more than setting up a stage insures the production of a play.

Men have often made the grave mistake of thinking liberty a final achievement. Liberty is only the absence of restraint, a beneficent nothing. Why do men strive for this nothing, sacrifice all sorts of physical comforts for it, even die that others may have it? Why has the struggle for liberty, this nothing, inspired the loftiest poetry and the grandest heroism? Why was it Patrick Henry cried for liberty or death? How could Dryden dare to say:

The love of liberty with life is giv'n,

And life itself th' inferior gift of Heav'n.

There are two mighty reasons for the glory that man has wreathed about this sacred name. The first springs from the mystical conception that man has of himself, of what, science perhaps to the contrary, he insists on calling his own soul. Praise or blame him for it as we may, explain it as a basic instinct or a sweet dream transmitted to us from immemorial tradition, he believes he has an individual dignity, to violate which is against natural law. He is content only when that dignity is respected. Tell him that that dignity is gone, that henceforth he is but an instrument in the grip of another will, whether it be the will of another human being or of an aggregate of power called a corporation or a state; tell him that his own ideas of prudence, justice, right and wrong are permanently smothered by a force he cannot question, that he has ceased to exist as a person; and he answers that death has already come to him, and he accepts the future only on the vague hope that what he has been told may turn out not to be true.

This first reason, this persistent belief in his own dignity, is first apprehended, but it may be but an outflow of the second. The individual man, who has had a full and fair chance to try himself, in most cases believes that he has a better value to humanity as a freeman than as a slave. He believes that his own creative intelligence will produce more, not only for himself but for other people as well, than an intelligence completely harnessed by another driver. His faith fastens not only upon the powerful spur of self-interest toward activity but also upon a deep sub-conscious concern for voluntary mutual aid in human affairs. It is his conviction that he will use liberty wisely not only for his own gain but also for others' gain, that he will use it, in other words, responsibly. He is keen enough to know that he does not exist by and for himself, but is a related part of organized society, and that society will not tolerate any individual's irresponsible liberty,—which is to say the delusion of license, freedom misused in contempt of law and decorum. He believes that a well-informed man or woman

will not misuse freedom. That explains, in part, why we pay taxes to support public schools, to say nothing of gifts to college endowments. You will observe that the maintenance of liberty and the investiture of the majority will with all necessary social control are together the great gesture of human optimism.

If in his baccalaureate sermon thirty years ago President Richmond had used such phrases the Class of 1911 would have whispered among themselves that he was most uncharacteristically bromidic. These ideas would have been Quite unnecessary at that time. Not only were the people of the United States firm and happy in their adherence to their traditional principles of liberty and democracy, but the rest of the civilized world seemed to be finally accepting them as well. Our neighbors to the south were content with democratic forms, and the expulsion of the Mexican President Diaz in that year seemed to indicate a greater insistence upon democratic spirit. France, though troubled by a rising tide of social unrest, seemed unalterably a democratic republic. Liberal ideas were going rapidly forward in Germany, where the next year the Social Democrats would poll twice as many votes as any other party, and in Italy, where at the same time universal manhood suffrage would be enacted into law. The smaller kingdoms gave like testimony. Universal suffrage was four years old in Spain, and Portugal had just become a republic. The Scandinavians, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Swiss and others had long been satisfied with democratic institutions. Britain, only a few weeks before, in the famous act of April, 1911, had cut away the last important vestige of a special political privilege by abolishing the veto of the House of Lords. There would have been little point in analyzing, still less in defending, the principles of liberty and democracy at our Commencement time thirty years ago. They seemed established as the inner finality in government, and it seemed that all social advance—and nothing but advance was thought of—would be within their pattern and would proceed in peace.

In three short years the more or less happy world was bereft of this comfortable illusion. Democratic tendencies in Germany proved to be superficial. The will to national power quickly overswept respect for the dignity of self-governing man. In 1914 we entered upon an era of world wars which, hideous to say, may outlast all of us. In its simpler and more outward aspect it is a struggle of peoples, a struggle to determine whether for a considerable time to come the German people or the Anglo-American peoples shall set the tone of the world. Disheartened France and misgoverned Italy have figured in it, but they are playing secondary parts. The Iberian stocks scattered through South and Central America will have to choose which of the two great antagonists they like the better. They will, for example, have to decide which of the two great powers they would like to have in control of the seas. The myriads of India, though perhaps they can do nothing about it, will be calculating whether they would be better off under German influence or under British influence. Unless the world gets tired of mutual slaughter the ultimate victor will possibly have to encounter an embattled Asia stretching from the Baltic to the South Pacific; but the present phase of strife is between the German and the Anglo-American peoples. We are obviously past the time when we may ponder on which side our sympathies and basic interest lie; we are revealed as already heavily involved.

If this war, however, were simply a fight between two peoples for the pleasure and prestige of victory, if it were simply one vanity against another, neutral nations could sit back and contemplate the spectacle of two fools destroying

each other. Russia, having never known modern industrial life and abominating its two present expressions, is doing just that. But minds of more political experience will not only discern that these contending powers represent entirely different ideas and human attitudes but also that the decisive victory of one or the other of the alternatives will make a difference to every human being on this planet for at least a century to come. And they know that these two ideas cannot peacefully divide the world between them; the conflict will and must go on until either one or the other idea is wholly dominant. This is far more obvious to us right now than it was to the America of Lincoln's day that this country could not permanently exist half slave and half free.

So liberty and democracy, which we took to be, like land and sea and sky, permanent parts of human environment, has with appalling suddenness become the main matter at issue. Challenged by the stupendous dynamism of these days, democracy must—and such a compelling "must"!—become self-conscious, resolute, powerful in its own defense. For the first time in a century it learns that it can die. It had realized that it might languish from its own ineptitude; it had guessed that it might have trouble with communism, but, with the Mohammedans estopped long centuries ago, it did not expect attack from a militant national religion. Yet that attack has come.

In the view of Dr. Oswald Spengler, writing in high exultation as the Nazis seized the minds and bodies of the German people in 1933, the attack had been invited by conspicuous failure and was long, long overdue. "What we recognize as 'order' today," he says in his Hour of Decision, "and express in 'liberal' constitutions is nothing but anarchy become a habit. We call it democracy, parliamentarianism, national self-government, but in fact it is the mere nonexistence of a conscious, responsible authority, a government—that is, a true State." Greatness and happiness, he says, are incompatible, and the German nation chooses greatness. Greatness cannot be frustrated by narrow and unjust boundaries; the victories must come on foreign fields. Peace and good-will are not normal; war is normal. And he warns us that the onslaught will be terrible. "Man is a beast of prey. I shall say it again and again, All the would-be moralists and social-ethics people who claim a hope to be 'beyond all that' are only beasts of prey with their teeth broken."

These passages are not cited from some unknown and irresponsible pamphleteer. They are the measured phrases of Germany's most celebrated philosophical historian. If they do not represent the thought of the majority of Germans it is for them to say. They certainly represent the Germany that has been raining soldiers out of the skies upon the ancient seats of wisdom, been gliding secretly beneath the seas to pull down hundreds of ships to watery graves, been rushing its armed engines across frontier after frontier, been subsidizing treason whenever it could be discovered in peaceful countries, been discharging ruin from its flying forts upon the shrines of our own literary and legal culture in the land from which so many of our institutions came. That is the Germany which has robbed and then expelled those within its borders of varying race or creed. That is the Germany which goes on to the conquest of Suez, Gibraltar and, if sufficiently victorious, by herself or with her vassals, no doubt of Singapore, Panama and other gates of world trade. That is the Germany which we are nightly asked to ignore and with which we are encouraged later to come to terms. Whose terms? Do we want the highways of the world controlled by Messerschmidts and U-boats or by Dreadnaughts? Under which will liberty and democracy, all that we hold most dear, have the better chance of survival and prosperity?

This is what is called a rhetorical question, because there is, and for a long time there has been only one answer to it. History will say that there were two appropriate times for us to enter this conflict, one in the autumn of 1939 when our advent might have convinced the German people of the ultimate hopelessness of their venture, before it was far advanced, and the other in the summer of 1941 when it was seen to be absolutely necessary in order to avert a German peace.

We are not greatly interested in glory. Signor Mussolini notwithstanding, we know that glory cannot be conjured up by shrieks or set in motion of pompous strut. We know, indeed, that it cannot be created by tanks and planes. It can be established only by useful ideas and human services— as was the glory that was Greece. What we are determined to preserve is a world that gives men the chance to live according to their own enlightenment, that gives them the chance to laugh and the chance to respect themselves as creative individual human beings.

To preserve this world by force of arms at this present moment, this world in which we have been an important partner, is a task greater than any that the American people has ever suddenly and collectively undertaken. To protect it after victory against passion and stupidity in high places, against revenge and oppression so foreign to its creed, to insure a just and constructive collaboration throughout all humanity, will call for a calm intelligence that was not shown by this country or by others during the past twenty-two years. It is silly and dishonorable to say that mankind is ultimately determined to destroy itself, and that the causes of war cannot be dissolved by thought and good will.

Agitated and dislocated by war effort as it is, there will be some who will seek to push American society through domestic revolution, to set up the means of crushing individual initiative and establish a dull average of collectivism which the American people do not want and never have wanted. Whatever the right and wrong of that contest, it must not be settled either way by plausible fraud while we are engrossed in a struggle to preserve the general ideas of liberty and democracy. So far as possible such fifth columnists of revolution or reaction must be detected and rebuked, and their conflict postponed to a proper time when it may have a calm and open forum. Without regard to theory, certain classes will try to seize upon our common extremity to advance their own interests. But policies of taxation and price control have dimmed the prospect of profiteering, and the proclamation of unlimited emergency has at last made it possible for the federal government to explain that organized labor cannot put its own ambition before the desperate need of the whole United States. If we are to make a tremendous sacrifice, that sacrifice must run up and down throughout the American people.

Part of this sacrifice will be yours. A few new names may be reverently added to the roll of high appreciation carved here behind me. But nearly every man will make the sacrifice of some of his hopes and plans. The only sacrifice you are not called upon to make is that of principle. Whether in camp or in factory, on the field of arms or at the administrative table, you carry the obligation to be cultivated gentlemen, unafraid of anything save breaking the laws of God and the social conscience. You may be called upon to use your Union College education in most unexpected ways. My last word to you is an encouragement to resiliency, a readiness to take the buffet of fortune and bound back. That is the hard test of manliness, and never more than now. For we must apply again the words that Thomas Paine struck off when this nation was in birth: "These are the times which try men's souls."