We Were Not Skeptical Enough

Joseph Wood Krutch - Tucson, Arizona
Broadcast during the 1950s
Themes: freedom
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I was born in what was called “an age of unbelief.” When I was young, I took that description seriously and thought I was an intellectual because of the number of things I did not believe. Only very slowly did I come to realize that what was really characteristic of myself and my age was not that we did not believe anything, but that we believed very firmly in a number of things which are not really so.

We believe, for example, in the exclusive importance of the material, the measurable, and the controllable. We had no doubts about what science proves, and we took it for granted that whatever science did not prove was certainly false. When, for example, science proved that man had risen from the lower animals, we believed—as I still do—that this is a fact. But when science found it difficult to define or measure or deal with the ways in which man’s mind and character and motives differ from those of the lower animals, we believed that there was no difference between them.

The trouble was not that we were skeptical, but that we were not skeptical enough. We studied man by the methods which had proved fruitful for the study of animals and machines. We learned a great deal about man’s reflexes, animal drives, and the ways in which he could be conditioned to behave. Then, because our methods did not permit us to learn anything else about him, we came to the conclusion that there was nothing else to be learned.

We came to believe, to take the most familiar example, that love was nothing but the biological impulses connected to sex. What is even more important, we came also to believe that man’s thinking was nothing but his power of rationalization, that his ideals and values were nothing but the results of his early conditioning. We began to assume that what he believed to be his free choices were not really anything of the sort, that he was not the captain of his soul but only what the dialectic of society, or perhaps his infantile fixations, had made him. He was, we began to believe, not a cause but an effect.

Seldom before in the history of civilization has the world been in so perilous a state or have men seemed to believe less in a God who would save him. Yet it is at this moment that we have lost faith in man himself as a prime mover of events.

What I believe in most firmly is man himself. And by that, I mean something quite specific. I believe that he descended from the animals, but that he has powers which animals share but little, if at all. I believe that he can will, and choose, and prefer. That means, for example, that society is what he makes it, not that he is what society makes him. It means that he can be permitted to think, not merely conditioned by good or bad propaganda. I believe that he can be free, and that means a good deal more than given the vote or permitted civil liberties.

But I believe also that unless we do believe this, no kind of political or social freedom has any meaning. The difference between a totalitarian and a democratic society is the difference between those who believe the individual man, capable of being the captain of his soul, and those who believe that he is merely the creature of the society in which he lives. I believe that we cannot set the world free until we believe that the individual himself is free.