The Time Is Ripe for Revolt
WE LIVE AMIDST THE RUBBLE OF THE NIHILISTS
By JAMES B. CONANT, President of Harvard University
Baccalaureate address delivered to graduating class, June 15, 1941
Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 567-569
GENTLEMEN of the Class of 1941: I take as my text for this Baccalaureate Sermon the well-known words of St. Paul: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things."
"If there be any virtue, if there be any praise." How effectively this vast understatement cuts the ground out from beneath the arguments of the cynic. It demolishes the position of those who pride themselves on their total scepticism. It forestalls the attack of those who doubt the significance of any value judgment, of those who question the ability of the human race to set up an enduring standard of right and wrong. For, caught off his guard, even the most skillful cynic will admit the existence of some virtue, be it only his own virtue as a dispassionate dissector of the universe.
"If there be any virtue, if there be any praise." The insertion of these conditional clauses in St. Paul's exhortation to think on "things of good report" reminds us of the antiquity of a modern problem,—the problem of how to reaffirm effectively our faith in the reality of those things of which St. Paul speaks. For disillusionment is not a new product of civilization. So-called "lost generations" have been a periodic occurrence in human history. As one century follows another, ages of faith have alternated with those of doubt; the pendulum of human emotion has swung first towards exaggerated credulity and then towards equally exaggerated incredulity. And even when we make such statements we are, of course, speaking only in terms of prevailing sentiment. We ignore the existence of those silent dissenters of all shades of opinion who in every age are neither extreme heretics nor strict followers of the reigning cult. Even in the periods marked by the greatest scorn forall ideals there have been some men of firm belief—just as in times of the ascendency of the strictest dogma there have been some who indulged in the luxury of doubt.
In recent years many men of penetrating intelligence have been busy blowing to bits almost every combination of words which express high human aspirations. Today we live amidst the rubble left by these nihilists. All who read and write can testify to the effectiveness of their work. Phrases once honored, and hallowed by usage, have been damaged apparently beyond repair, and now lie in the ash heap of outworn folklore. Amidst this devastation we pick our way as best we can. Any interpretation of human conduct which is not stated in terms of selfishness, greed and lust is regarded in many circles with suspicion. One handles fine phrases and noble sentiments as cautiously as an unexploded bomb. A time fuse set by a "debunker" may be ready to destroy a speaker's words before his face.
Now the desolation which appalls so many of our contemporaries seems to me only the natural consequence of what has gone before. The time was ripe some years ago for a revolt. For three generations since the Civil War, the last great spiritual crisis in this country, the man on the street who is the ultimate consumer, has patiently endured an ever-increasing flow of rhetoric. As literacy spread among the population, so spread the sea of words. Fine phrases were used to make palatable a variety of dubious enterprises. Politicians, advertisers, newspaper men and public speakers, including many in academic halls, have competed with each other in their endeavors to debase the verbal coinage. Before you gentlemen of the Senior Class were born the inevitable reaction had set in. In our own time it reached its height. Having seen so much hypocrisy unmasked, we automatically expect to find deceit lurking behind what ourgrandfathers would have acclaimed "noble and uplifting sentiments."
How we are to devise a modern set of phrases to replace the old, I do not know. But the need for some method of communicating from one individual to another the emotional overtones of a certain type of value judgment is pathetically apparent. Because we cannot today convey adequately through words our feelings about one kind of human behavior, we tend to deny the existence of such behavior. We have no difficulty in analyzing the past and present in terms of self-interest. Hence all those phases of history which illustrate purely selfish motives have been in recent years exhaustively documented. But since we have the greatest difficulty in expressing in modern terms such ideals as truth and beauty, not to mention justice, self-sacrifice and service, we do our best to forget many great chapters of history. We drift unconsciously into the fallacious position of viewing the activities of the human race through the glasses of complete cynicism. This distortion of the past does not improve our ability to understand the present.
Take the current debate between interventionists and isolationists, for example. A visitor from another planet listening to the arguments of either side would be inclined to concur with those harsh judges of modern America who declare that we are a nation of materialists. He would be inclined to say that we are a cold, calculating nation concerned only with our own selfish interests. And he would conclude that collectively and individually we are a money-getting, ignoble people.
In my opinion nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, we are a nation of idealists. Our great decisions on national policy have been based on our adherence to some ideal. An impartial study of American history should convince anyone of that. An analysis of America today will prove, I think, that there has been no alteration in our makeup. To be sure, the fashion at present is to dodge what our fathers would have called the moral issues. Arguments have to be "realistic," "hard-boiled," unemotional. But in reality there has been no decrease in the intensity of our idealism. There has been only a great desire to avoid the charge of hypocrisy,—a desire which often leads even the most zealous idealist to present his case as though he were arguing to fellow gangsters.
That we are still a nation of idealists seems to me to be amply demonstrated by the events of the last twelve months. In effect, a gigantic conflict of ideals has been in progress in the United States, a conflict between the ideal of peace and the ideal of freedom. We as a people have been torn between our hatred of war and our hatred of Hitler's philosophy, between our desire for peace and our desire to do our part in defending human decency. A nation caught in such an internal moral battle must suffer the tortures of a man upon the rack. Or, perhaps I should say, must suffer the tortures of an individual undergoing a similar struggle within himself. Indeed, not a few individuals in this last year have faced the bitter experience of cutting through the emotional impasse which results from the sudden collision of two ideals.
"Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure." Collectively, America by the vehemence of the debate between the idealists of two schools gives witness to her passion for these things! This fact may well serve as a foundation for the hopes of all those individuals who commence their life work in the dark days in which we live. It may serve not only as a foundation for their hopes but as a bench mark from which they may survey the future. For in a society in which there is virtue and there is praise, and in a companyof men who ponder on truth and justice and things of good report, life is worth the pain of living; but in a society where such possibilities are denied, mere existence becomes a daily burden.
All prediction is a matter of probability. But in individual decisions it is often not so much the degree of the probability which must be weighed as the consequences to a man's life of acting on one reading of the future rather than another. The attitude of many of the older students in France three or four years ago, we are told, was one of fatalistic despair. "What's the use of studying," they argued, "we'll all be dead in a few years, soon after the war breaks out." Events proved this prophecy to be wrong. Most of them are now in prison camps, their country is in chains.
It is conceivable that the next fifty years for the United States will be as black as the last year has been for France.
I believe the chances of such an eventuality to be negligible, It is conceivable that this country will have to be an armed camp for two decades yet to come. I think the chances for such a prolonged intense military period to be small. It is possible that those who hold dear the things of which St. Paul spoke may be driven into secret hiding places in this country. I think such an event most improbable of all. But even if the chances were two to one that the worst of these misfortunes would occur, the wise and courageous man will plan his life not for the eventuality that would frustrate his hopes, but for the alternative that gives promise for the long years ahead. Only savages believe as the sun darkens by eclipse that it will never shine again.
Sooner or later the present collective madness of a portion of the human race will pass. In the meantime, those who value the intellectual and spiritual fruits of western civilization will keep ever before their eyes the part each one must play in a world returned to sanity.
For as long a time as recorded human history, men have struggled not only against each other but with themselves. The problem of evil is older than the written word. And if there be no evidence that evil can be eliminated from a world peopled with human beings, there is also no evidence that in the long run evil will exterminate its opposite. The failure of Utopian hopes for a rapid moral progress of civilization need not drive us into the rash assumption that "things of good report" will soon be forever past. If the story of western civilization is black with crimes committed for personal aggrandizement with the aid of pious fraud, it is also full of examples of a quite different sort. In each age and in every country some men have lied, stolen, desecrated and destroyed; but others have sought truth, created beauty, endeavored to live honestly and to help mankind. For centuries some few have been ready to betray their friends, even their kinsmen without scruple. Such a one was Sir George Downing, a member of the first class to graduate from Harvard. But others have remained true to their trust even through torture and to final death. Such a one was Hugh Peter, a member of the first Board of Overseers of this College. It is easy to cite cases where collective greed and self-interest have determined the course of history. But it is equally easy, if one so desires, to quote chapter and verse to show that human conduct has often been motivated solely by a passionate adherence to an ideal. And with such stout belief comes the fortitude to bear misfortune, the patience to endure adversity, the confidence that insures that better days are indeed ahead.
Gentlemen of the Class of 1941, I hardly need remind you this is no usual Commencement. For the first time in a generation, the classes graduating here and elsewhere must listen to a direct call for assistance by the national government. However gladly each of you may carry, out his assignment in the defense work of the country, there will he for most of you some frustration of your ambitions. A sense of grim futility may at any moment descend upon you as the terrible drama of the next few years unrolls. If so, you will have need to seek a renewal of your spiritual vitality, of your confidence in peaceful and constructive days. For this reason I have ventured to remind you that the pages ofhistory are not an unmitigated chronicle of evil genius, but quite as much a record of things of good report. For this reason I have ventured to bring before your mind the fact that in the present apparent confusion of our countrymen there are signs of an ineradicable belief in whatsoever is honest and just and pure. Gentlemen, whether the months ahead be full of good or evil, think on these things.