The Fifth Column of Civilization


By GEORGE BARTON CUTTEN, President Colgate University

Delivered at Colgate University Commencement, Sunday, May 10, 1942, as the last official address as Colgate's president.

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VIII, 505-508.

WAR breeds fears. No, not fears of being bombed. We fear today that the civilization of which we boasted may be destroyed. It is true that we have done little to conserve this civilization, but now that it is in danger we prize it. After carelessly dissipating it, we are fighting for it. An ounce of prevention might have been worth a pound of cure, but of that I'm not sure.

There are those who fear, not the destruction of human political systems and social developments so much as the extermination of man himself. Not long ago I was talking with a biologist and in the course of the conversation he said, "Of course, you know that man is doomed to extinction." I said, "No, I did not know that, when did that happen?" He said that it happened a long time ago, but most people were as yet unaware of it. He referred to man as a terminal twig on the evolutionary tree, soon to drop off and disappear. Why? He could very soon tell you why. Man is over specialized, and over specialized species are on their way out.

Three forms of over specialization he emphasized. In the first place man is oversize, and this is fatal. Fifteen or twenty pounds is about normal for a primate; the anthropoid apes, the largest primates, are rapidly disappearing, and man is soon to follow. The dinosaurs and other saurians are only seen as skeletons in museums; their tiny cousins, the lizards, are widespread and persistent. Mammoths and mastodons adorned prehistoric landscapes, but are now not even a memory. Whales, elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotami are crowding toward the exit.

His second over specialization is his upright position, to which he is unable to adjust himself and which subjects him to countless diseases and disorders. His third handicap, if I may be permitted to mention it in this presence, is his over developed brain, which causes too much of a strain on the organism as a whole. The optimists naturally hope that the powerful mind, which is the concomitant of the over developed brain, may be used to solve his problems; —as I mentioned, these are optimists. So far the opportunity for self-directed evolution of the race has been sacrificed to minister to the whims of the individual. Those great laws of nature responsible for our development up to the present time have been thwarted in every possible way by this intelligence, which if properly named, and were really intelligence, should save us.

It is our particular civilization rather than our species with which most people are at present concerned. Those who accept an organic theory of political and social development naturally present the thesis that society, similar to the individual, experiences birth, growth, decline, and finally, death. This is true whether we take account of the smaller developments of civilization, or group these into larger epochs. We may speak of the Old Stone Age, the New Stone Age, the Babylonian, the Egyptian, the Cretan, the Hittite, the Greek, the Roman, and later ones; or we may see historical civilization in two great declines, the Hittite and the Graeco-Roman. In any case, civilizations have died, and may not ours?

Whatever our thesis may be, there seems to be little doubt of the fact that civilizations have developed and declined, and there are those who do not hesitate to opine that our present civilization is on the toboggan, and that this war will be the final blow necessary to destroy it. Has a war or a series of wars always been the end of civilizations? Yes, it seems so, but they may have been but the signal that the curtain had fallen. If war is the final act necessary, there must have been countless other indications of decline before that, and some degenerating influences which caused the war to be a losing one rather than a winning one.

Another step in diagnosis is called for: the most pertinent question for us today is this: Is there one element common to all the declines in civilizations which we may recognize as a distinctive element, or does each civilization have its peculiar distinctive cause of fatality? If the answer is the former, the recognition and elimination of it may be the most valuable matter before us at the present time; if the latter, we may fail to recognize the disease in time.

There is still another question; it is this: Is there something inevitably inherent in civilization which is suicidal? Is civilization like a pig swimming in the water; the further it swims the more sure it is to cut its own throat? If we answer this question in the affirmative, then our pessimism becomes glamorous, and we travel down life's corridor hopelessly waving civilization's flag.

We have complacently assumed that progress is inevitable. This assumption has insinuated itself into our thinking as a result of the theory of evolution. Evolution to us is no longer a theory to account for our progress, but an irresistible force pushing us upward whether we wish to go or not. There seems to be little doubt but that we progressed up to the beginning of history, but this progress came in waves. Each destroyed civilization left us somewhat further ahead than the last one. This can probably be predicated also concerning the historical era—it depends upon our definitionof progress. We cannot escape the suspicion that a growing intelligence has interfered with natural selection and thrown a monkey wrench into the evolutionary machinery. History has not covered a sufficiently long period upon which to base a well-considered judgment.

The gage by which we judge the progress of civilization today is different from what we used to measure the civilization of 20,000 years ago—very different. As we look back at our ancestors of that date we want to know about their advancement in the arts and crafts, their progress in art and religion, their ability to transmit to their children the knowledge and skills which they had acquired. Today we are thinking of progress in terms of individual comfort: how many gadgets in the kitchen, how much time mother had every day to play bridge and to go to the movies, how few steps father has to take to reach his office, and how convenient is the new elevator in the house. Our highest ideals are represented by two chickens in every pot, two autos in every garage, two caddies for every golf player, two hair dos every week, and two colored paints for every toe nail. If we could have these, could civilization be saved? And if so, would it be worth saving?

However, there is such a thing as progress in which the word "comfort" is not heard, and where the idea of comfort does not form a part. As an example, we may think of the progress during the early history of this country; of what did it consist? It consisted of the development of certain moral traits, of which the concomitant material results were but symbols. True to form, we now cite the symbols as the reality and forget the moral undergirding which is really important. These material results which were originally the symbols are now our reality, and in striving for them and improvements on them, we lose the substance and retain the shadow.

What made America great was not its extensive material resources, as unlimited as they may seem to be: they had been here ever since the third day of creation, though for age upon age America was a trackless waste. What made America great was the character of the people which un-relentlessly forced nature to pour forth her resources and the intelligence of the people who made the most of these resources after they were poured forth. But who defines America's greatness today in terms of character?

In trying to answer one of the questions with which we have been challenged let me say that civilizations are always destroying themselves and that progress has within itself elements of decay which up to the present have proved to be disastrous. If progress is real, it produces things which are coveted by the less progressive nations or races. America has been a land which, if not flowing with milk and honey, has been one dripping with freedom and wealth and luxuries. The dream of the poor and the oppressed and the distressed in all lands has been to come to America. Some have been disillusioned when they came, but not many. Their most extravagant dreams have been realized.

We have never been disposed to belittle our successes or to depreciate our accomplishments or to minimize our wealth. It was not necessary: we have only 6% of the area of the world and 7% of the population, but this small group in this meagre area uses 21% of the world's sugar, has 33% of the world's railroads, uses 36% of the world's coal, 42% of the world's pig iron, and 47% of the world's copper. We drink 48% of the world's coffee, use 53% of the world's tin and 56% of the world's rubber. We have 60% of the world's telegraph and telephone facilities, use 60% of the world's oil, 72% of the world's silk, and own 80% of the world's motor cars. Is it any wonder other nations covet what our civilization has given us, and want us to share our goods?

When one notes that the two highest percentages on the list are for silk and motor cars, we can see written across the face of our civilization in words of blazing brightness "Luxury and Comfort," and these, when translated, spell "Softness." Softness has two disastrous effects—in the first place it makes us indisposed or unable to recognize danger and in the second place if continued sufficiently long, it renders us incapable of protecting ourselves. Comfort, with its glamour, its seduction, its attraction, and its insidious infiltration, is the fifth column of civilization. When our civilization gave us so many things others want, and when these luxuries and comforts cause us to be unprepared if not unable to defend ourselves, then war ensues, which threatens, if it does not destroy, our civilization.

Beneficiaries of softness and comfort are always optimistic. They resist the unpleasant in act or in thought; they dismiss the disagreeable from their thoughts and refuse to face reality. Naturally they are pacifists and will not entertain the suggestion of, to say nothing of the preparation for, war. In these civilized times war is unthinkable. The behaviorist psychology is always acceptable to them—they know that barbarians, who are surrounded for two generations with civilizing influences, are absolutely trustworthy: they are wearing silk hats and does not that prove even barbarians to be gentlemen? They live in their dream world, or if reality persistently insists upon asserting itself, alcohol or some other narcotic drug will readily dispel it.

The conditions that make for real progress are usually unpleasant and we resent them as much as we crave the fruits of progress. Those conditions are strain and stress and conflict and distress—man has always had to be kicked up stairs. Hard times are ever the harbingers of progress, as necessity is the mother of invention. There was more progress during the four Ice Ages than in any comparable period in this old world's history, and the Ice Ages produced neither softness nor comfort. If there is any progress someone has to suffer, and this is as true of the individual as of the race.

A few years ago, a prominent businessman returned from the Far East, calling at Japan en route. At that time there was some tension between Japan and this country, and I asked him about conditions in Japan. He said that in Japan, men and women were working fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. He came home and found the people, who pretended to work at all, working eight hours a day, five days of the week—40 hours opposed to Japan's 98. In Japan there was no talk about time and a half for overtime, no talk of double time for Sundays and holidays, no restricted production, and no sit down strikes, no political twaddle about "We must not sacrifice our social gains," no sly glances at every action to calculate its effect upon the November elections. His final remark was, "Working as we do, we cannot defeat a nation working as they do."

I presume he had reference to the amount of goods which could be produced in preparation for war, but that was not the danger spot to me. It was not our decline in production but our decline in character shown by the decline in production which was the threat. This was nothing sudden. For ten years bribe after bribe has been thrown to a softening nation, which has been greedily lapped up. Formerly the people of this nation, which boasted of individual as well as national independence, scorned charity in any form, but during the past few years a craven pauperism has not only been offered to the people but openly and brazenly received with no trace of shame. What was formerly a badge of disgrace has now become a vested right: while boasting of our material comfort, we have lost our spiritual vigor. Of course, a decline in national character could not come even as suddenly as that. When a government and a peopleunite in a program of pauperism the decline has traveled fast and far. However, we cannot conceive of a government even twenty-five years ago offering such a program, or a people being so debased as to accept it. Public resentment would have upbraided a government which tendered such an insult. But how far removed are we from such an attitude today! It isn't that our civilization has slipped, it is that it has fallen.

It is customary for us to measure civilization by material gains, and this may be correct if we understand that the material gains may be a measure of character as money is a measure of wealth. Material gain should show character, not only in a quantitative way, but more particularly should it stress quality. The measure is determined not only by the amount of goods produced, but the kind of goods and their use is most important. When industry is consecrated to the production of goods which minister to physical comfort, character is at a low ebb, and civilization's fifth column is on the move.

We blame war for destroying civilization, but is it not the conditions back of war which are really the disease? Lack of individual industry, initiative, determination, honesty, and appreciation of the rights of others—all these things summed up under the head of "comfort at any cost", which finally precipitate us into war, and make an insidious assault upon civilization. Ministers preach against war, moralists write against war, people in general deplore war and hope that we shall not be involved in war, but I hear none of these people condemning the softness which gives us war and destroys our civilization. Do you hear ministers pray "Lord, destroy our comforts." "Lord, remove our laziness," "Lord, help us to do an honest day's work," "Lord, give us more hard times"? Do you? I don't. We want to eat our cake and have it, but can we?

What is the formula for real progress—progress without the softening influences? I wish I knew. If all progress or civilization carries within it the germs of decay is not the outlook a discouraging one? Can we hold out bait of comfort, ease, and wealth to make men strive and work and persevere, and yet never deliver it for fear of softening them? You remember pictures of a donkey; one end of a stick is fastened to his back and the other going over his head in front of him; on the front end is a bunch of carrots. He pushes ahead continually to reach the carrots but never succeeds; is that our pattern? If the donkey knew there was poison in the carrots he would be pleased if he never succeeded—unless he were a donkey.

I liken the situation to my game of golf. I am always trying to improve it, and that provides some zest, but always glad that I do not succeed and I'll tell you why: I notice that good players, if they make one poor stroke in an afternoon, are disgruntled for a week. But I, if I make one good stroke in an afternoon, am exalted for a week: and the law of chance is likely to drop one poor stroke in his bag and one good one in mine. My intelligence tells me that always striving but never succeeding is the proper pattern for happy golf.

But how can such a pattern be arranged for life? Where can we procure the initiative if there is no success? How can we prevent degeneration if there is success?

The most popular adjective in the twentieth century is the word "social." We talk of "social action", "social gains", "social progress", "social aid"; so far as that means any united action, it is but a manifestation of the herd instinct. The herd has either one of two motives: it is either organized for defensive or for predatory action, that is all. In both cases, it is predominantly destructive. Is not the herd ever noble and chivalrous? Very seldom except incidentally, and as a means to one of the other ends. Theappeal for altruistic ends must be personal and individualistic, to give any hope for success. While people can easily go to hell by droves, the salvation of the world depends upon the hopes, the ideals, the wills, and the actions of individuals. The psalmist recognized this—"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the council of the ungodly . . . the wicked are not so but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away." So Jehovah turned to the prophet of old and said, 'Oh, son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will, speak to thee." Listen for a moment! Don't you hear him speaking to you individually? He is repeating the message which he gave Ezekiel centuries ago, "Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak to thee."

Evidently God is not on speaking terms with sit-down strikers, and has no dealings with slouchers. When he speaks he wants men on the alert. People who dally with comfort and the laziness and lassitude which it engenders are not the people with whom God cooperates. Woe unto them who are at ease in Zion. Would God think men who evade eight o'clocks, and Saturday, and fourth floor classes worth educating? I wonder! The insidiousness of the fifth column is its danger—there is nothing directly wrong in comfort and the deterioration it brings, but indirectly it may be the wrongest thing that we can experience.

Oh, son of man, stand upon thy feet! God is sifting his human material to find men he can use. It is only the men who stand upon their feet that show some promise, and he is culling them as he did Gideon's three hundred who refused to lap the water. Colgate men should have an advantage over some others, for the rigors of the Hamilton winter should give them a measure of toughness and a hardy quality which would debar an infiltration of the softer and weaker elements of life. It is this characteristic of doggedness and ruggedness that must save us if we are to be saved. Is this worth considering? Do you think that war may be God's way of restoring these essential factors after we've degenerated—the penalty we pay for our worship of the false gods of comfort? It is a frightful penalty and a terrible price for our apostasy, but if it restores our stamina it may be worth while.

The asceticism of the saints of the Middle Ages was not all pretension or false show, it was training—not physical training but mental preparation. When God spoke to a saint he was ready—that is what made him a saint. Was the task difficult? Did it entail suffering? Was it dangerous? He was still ready. He did not have to be coaxed or coddled or assured—all that was necessary was to hear God's voice and he started.

If I were asked to name the twentieth century sin I would not hesitate a moment: it is dodging responsibility. This is the age of alibi. We not only like it, but we are trained for it: where is the sturdy independence and unbridled initiative of our fathers? That was all antiquated foolishness. If they wanted the forests cleared, cabins built, crops planted, Indians conquered, mines developed, roads constructed or rivers bridged they should have been aware of modern methods—they didn't know the A.B.C. of the twentieth century technique. If they had only had C.C.C, N.Y.A., W.P.A., how easy it would have been! And the very easiness would have been their downfall. Our nation would have died aborning. Thank God for their resoluteness; thank God for their hardihood; thank God for their courage, and thank God for their self reliance.

But the need for such men is not passed: their tasks may be different but the spirit must be the same. In the midst of the patriotic fervor in which we naturally live today, amid all the talk of tanks and guns and ships and airplanes, don't be misled. It is the hardy character which isgoing to win out. The nation which softens first is the first one to fall. Patriotism today means only one thing: it means such a belief in the justness of our cause and the validity of our ideals that nothing is too difficult to do to bring to a successful culmination the war in which we are engaged. That means character developed through sacrifice.

Take away the flaccid and the flabby and give us menupon whom we can rely: take away the comfort seekers and give us burden bearers; take away the frail and the weak and restore the strong and efficient. Oh, God! take away our comforts and our ease and our enjoyment and our petty satisfaction, and give us tasks that are hard, assignments that are fatiguing, toil that is exacting, and drudgery that is wearying—we want to be men, prove us—don't let this nation crumble.