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A Sense of Crisis

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Gravedigger

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Gravedigger, 1895–1900

8,647 words

Editor’s Note:

Because of the warm response to Bill Hopkins’ Angry Young Man manifesto, “Ways Without a Precedent,” we are reprinting one of its companion pieces, Stuart Holroyd’s, “A Sense of Crisis,” also from Declaration, ed. Tom Maschler (London: MacGibbon and Kee, 1957), 181–202. For some background, see Jonathan Bowden’s “Bill Hopkins and the Angry Young Men.” 

I suspect that all the great psychological concepts, the Freudian Oedipus Complex no less than the Nietzschean Will to Power, reflect the psychology of their originators. And for that reason, although I am not a professional psychologist, I have no hesitation in nominating the Will to Freedom as man’s fundamental drive. I believe that it is the Will to Freedom that has motivated, unconsciously if not consciously, all that I have ever done; and I believe further that a properly directed Will to Freedom is the only thing that will save our civilization in its present hour of crisis.

One of the great mistakes of this century has been our persistence in seeking freedom on the political level. Freedom is an inner condition. It cannot be imposed from above, and it cannot exist in the community if it does not exist in the individual. Let me put my cards on the table at the start: I believe that his freedom is what characterizes the religious man, and consequently that the Will to Freedom in our time must express itself in a return to the religious attitude.

In my own experience, the Will to Freedom is not incompatible with the Will to Power. Indeed the two are inseparable, that is, provided it is understood that in Nietzsche, as in all religious men, the Will to Power took the self as its primary object. And the aspiring towards power over oneself is the same as the aspiring towards freedom. In fact, we might say that freedom is power over oneself.

Knowledge is power, and therefore it is in knowing himself that man attains to freedom. The formula “Know thyself,” when it was first introduced into the religion of the Greeks, constituted a great advance in civilization, a great step of liberation from primitive man’s slavery to nature. One of the great faults of religion in our time is that it has tended to forget this formula. People tell me that the religious revival I believe to be necessary is already taking place. But when I look for the signs of this supposed revival all I see is a widespread Billy Grahamism, a religion that makes its appeal to man’s self-interest, taking for its slogan the words “Get right with God,” and which makes its converts by threatening them with hellfire and a judgement in the grand inquisitorial fashion. Only in a few of the artists and thinkers of our time do I see a healthy subjectivism, an absorption in self-knowledge for the sake of freedom.

Man is not born free—and the statement that he is is one of the great lies of our humanist culture. He is born an unfree, restricted, instinct-driven little animal, and he only really becomes man when, having conceived an idea of freedom, he strives to realize it within himself. And the “within himself” is important, for the man whose idea of freedom consists in getting clear of his family or his creditors is obviously not willing for freedom in any profound sense of the word. Freedom, I repeat, is an inner condition. The free man is he who has a firm grasp on himself, a control over his faculties and his passions, an intellectual discrimination which liberates him from the thought habits of his time. He is, above all, the man who realizes that absolute freedom is a fiction, except for the insane, and that in fact freedom is defined as a condition of tension maintained between an aspiration and a limiting factor. In external freedom, the aspiration is towards gratification of one’s own self-will and the limiting factor is responsibility to the society in which one lives. In the case of inner freedom the aspiration is towards a condition of union with God and the limiting factor is one’s selfhood, one’s physical being. The experience of these tensions broadens a man’s grasp on existence, and it is precisely this breadth of grasp that is freedom.

Here, then, are three definitions of freedom which reduce to much the same thing: freedom consists in power over oneself, in self-knowledge, and in a broad grasp on existence. What they reduce to is the religious attitude. Now my argument is that the corruption of the religious attitude in our time has deprived man of his freedom, and has consequently deprived him also of his depth. Man has become trivial. He has become the slave of the manmade, and is carried around by the wheels of economic necessity which he himself set turning but is powerless to stop. From the nineteenth century and from the New World we have inherited a materialist standard of values. Inner freedom is on the whole discouraged, and we have substituted for it the myth of “the free countries of the world” which politicians so love to talk about. If a person has power, money, possessions, he is considered a worthy citizen. But take these things from him and what remains? A beast. What we call civilization is but a thin crust over the emptiness of our lives. Whether we live in a high-powered capitalist society, a welfare state or under a Communist totalitarianism, we are all threatened with the same fate: extinction of our individuality, increasing trivialization of our lives, and, consequent upon this, loss of relationship with anything beyond ourselves, alienation from God. In this situation only the religious attitude can restore to man his depth and his freedom.

In our time, therefore, the first thing that is required of a writer is a sense of crisis. He has a dual function to fulfil: to diagnose the sickness and to suggest the cure. It is not his business to “mirror the age,” but to change it. He must get outside the age, view it in its historical perspective, discover when and how the process of degeneration started, and attack it at its roots. And the main root, he will find, is the humanist-scientific culture which has dominated the European scene for the last three hundred years, and infected all branches of thought, political, philosophical and aesthetic, with its poison. He will find, moreover, that the rational “enlightened” mind which this culture has produced will be the great obstacle that always stands in his way.

To this type of mind the beliefs of the religious man seem absurd and unfounded; the man of faith seems to have abdicated his position as a conscious human being. I used to hold these views myself when I was in my teens and had not yet liberated myself from my inherited humanist thought-habits. I see now that I was wrong. In my book, Emergence from Chaos, I have tried to follow through the psychological process which leads to faith. Religious faith, I now believe, is the highest condition of the soul, to be attained to only by means of patient and persistent self-discipline. The attainment of faith deepens a man’s self-knowledge immeasurably.

That is what modern man needs: self-knowledge. He needs to know himself as determined eternally as well as temporally, in relation to transcendence as well as in relation to the world. The necessary precondition of all knowledge is wakefulness. Most men are asleep and need to be wakened up. One of the artist’s first tasks is to shake the foundations of man’s complacency, to awaken him to a realization of his own imperfection. Self-knowledge is deepened by self-division. The man who is divided against himself learns more about his own essential nature than the man who conducts his existence pretty steadily upon one level. The psychologist or philosopher who has not been through an experience of acute inner division is ill-equipped for his job. He is like a man who goes to break up a road with a hammer instead of a pneumatic drill. He lacks the power, the energy, to drive deep down into his subject. Electric power is only produced when you effect a contact between a positive and negative pole. The analogy holds on the psychological level. It is by dividing himself against himself and by striving always to become an unified whole, that a man generates power within himself. And it is this power born of division that produces works of art, and inspires progress in psychology, philosophy and the sciences.

The ancients realized this truth. Herakleitos was the first to formulate it. He regarded existence as “an attunement of opposite tensions,” and believed strife to be the fundamental law of nature. The Church Fathers took over the idea. The notion of the existence of Heaven and Hell and of the conflict between God and Satan, is a projection into myth of the psychological experience of the divided man. In our time—and the decline of religious faith is responsible for this—division has come to be regarded as a disease, rather than as the necessary condition of human, as distinct from animal, existence. We label the divided man a psychopath, and pack him off to the psycho-analyst to be “put right.” And the pity is that the treatment is usually effective, because the patient was not really divided at all. He had contracted a little neurosis, as a result, perhaps, of repression, or even just overwork. Nothing that couldn’t be put right after a few ten-guinea consultations! Nothing to prevent him being easily reassimilated into the old routine! Psycho-analysis certainly fulfils a useful function in our high-powered society. But it is a phenomenon produced by civilization at a certain stage of its development, an offshoot and not an integral part of the main structure. We can conceive society progressing to the stage when all the psycho-analysts would be out of work. The view of man implicit in most modern psychology (that of Jung is the notable exception) is superficial, and materialist to the core. When the care of man’s psychic life passed from the hands of the priest into those of the scientifically trained specialist something very important was lost: the realization that division is not a disease, but is radical in man, and is what distinguishes him as a spiritual being.

The first task of any serious writer in our time, therefore, must be to galvanize people into wakefulness, to broaden their grasp on existence by making them aware of their own divided nature. It is his job to graft a new dimension on to human existence, give it a new depth, for this is the only way to freedom. If we do not make ourselves free before long, if we do not wake up and deepen existence, it is going to be too late, and we’ll find ourselves picking up the pieces and wondering how to put them together again. Waking up consists first of all in waking up to oneself (religious awakening), and only secondarily in waking up to the world (political awakening). This should always be the sequence: first organize yourself, and only then consider yourself sufficiently mature to attempt to organize the society.

In practice we rarely find that the people who govern are religiously awakened individuals. The myths of democracy and representative government have placed the controls in the hands of arbitrarily chosen individuals who, more often than not, have no ideas about the very delicate art of governing. They scramble along short-sightedly from one problem to another, solving them as best they may, and are genuinely surprised when they find themselves involved in a war or an economic depression. The democratic principle has by now rooted itself firmly in the Western world and it is difficult to conceive how the situation could be changed; but an observer of post-war developments in the United States cannot help noticing how democracy tends towards totalitarianism, albeit a more benevolent form of totalitarianism than is practised in present-day Russia and her satellite countries. It may be that in a world which is split down the middle, and in which power is the end to which all else is subjugated, totalitarianism is inevitable. But we must have gone wrong somewhere to find ourselves in this situation.

One of the fundamental mistakes, I believe, was that of believing in the efficacy of a system of representative government. Such a system is a myth. No man can represent another. All he can do is represent his interest. And when government is based upon interests, the larger, more important political issues are lost sight of. The problem of how to ensure the greatest possible degree of inwardness in the individual members of the community and still maintain social cohesion, is a political one. For when a people lacks inwardness it lacks vision, lacks foresight. And even if we conceive politics as a purely prudential affair, having no object but the survival of the community, we must admit that a community which lacks foresight is in a very precarious situation. This is the kind of problem that the system of representative government is ill-equipped to solve, or even to consider. The alternative is to acknowledge that government is an art which should be in the hands of an expert minority, and at the same time to make the system fluid enough to prevent power falling into the hands of self-interested demagogues. If the minority are fully matured men, i.e. individuals who have awakened religiously, they will have two faculties which, if they could be made effective on the political level, would have profound and revolutionary repercussions: deep psychological insight and a developed moral sense. The first of these would operate to ensure better conditions within the community, the second would ensure more harmonious relations between communities. The example of the greatest civilizations of the past bears out my point: for they were all hierarchical.

It may seem vain to attack so firmly established an institution as that of representative government. But I am not here campaigning for a political revolution. All I am trying to do is to point out how certain characteristic features of our society—the growth of psycho-analysis, the democratic principle in the government, the faith in progress, the triumph of rationalism over religion—all imply a view of the nature of man which is at bottom superficial. Man is not wholly determined from below, but also, and more essentially, from above. He is not only a social or political animal, a mere member of the crowd. He is also an eternally existing individual who stands absolutely responsible for his actions before God. Most modern men have lost the feeling of their uniqueness, and have consequently become alienated from God. It is commonly believed that science has made God an anachronism. But the truth of the matter is that man has become so trivial that he no longer feels the existence within himself of anything that would be worthy of God’s interest. Belief in immortality has also waned, not because it has been disproved scientifically, but because man no longer sees any reason why he should be immortal. What is most urgently required at the present time is that men should recover a sense of their uniqueness, and should, with all their power, will to be immortal. It is no exaggeration to say that survival depends upon this.

I believe that the writers and the philosophers can do a great deal in this situation. Indeed, I believe that because they are (presumably) men conscious of the predicament, the responsibility for doing it devolves upon them. They can:

(a) make men more aware and awake (shock tactics here permitted),

(b) preserve values (that is, maintain their integrity in spite of every thing—a positive, but nevertheless a static role),

(c) vigorously re-define values (the philosopher’s task),

(d) instead of showing what man is, show what he can become (the dramatist’s and fiction-writer’s task).

It is the distinction of Bernard Shaw that he succeeded in doing all four of these things. Various other writers have been active in one way or another. This activity now needs to be stepped up. We need a generation of writers and thinkers who combine intellectual vigour and clear-sightedness with artistic capacity, imagination and creativeness. At the moment of writing I do not know what the other contributors to this book will have to say, but I am confident that certain of them will show that they belong to this category.

Our present need is not so much to come back to religion as to re-discover and re-create it. That is the task we must set ourselves. The majority of people have lost all conception of what religion is about. Recently I was in an Odeon cinema on a Sunday. Slipped into the programme (unadvertised) was a short called A Thought for Today—three minutes of maudlin moralizing. I asked the manager who made these films, and told him I thought them an insult to the audience’s intelligence. He explained that J. Arthur Rank is “a very keen Methodist,” and said I was the first person he had known complain about the films. Most people, I suppose, consider them edifying and put up with them as a sort of concession to religion. And J. Arthur Rank enjoys the nice warm feeling of the do-gooder. I don’t doubt that he makes the films in good faith. But this advertising of supposedly fine sentiments as if they were some new kind of breakfast cereal just demonstrates what I mean when I say that most people today have no conception of what religion is about. The crowd-drawing power of Billy Graham and other cavaliers of the Cross is yet another sign. And the fact that the Church approves of Graham’s methods, and has even worked out a follow-up system in conjunction with him, finally clinches my point. Religion needs to be completely overhauled and re-defined. A number of individuals need to come to the fore who are genuine religious men, who have thought and felt deeply, and are capable of teaching by their example what the religious life really is.

The obstacles which prevent the average modern man from ever attaining to the religious attitude are numerous. Three centuries of humanist culture have bequeathed us a burden of ideas and attitudes which few people ever get around even to questioning, and which are quite incompatible with the religious attitude. Liberalism, the dogma of equality, the faith in scientific method, the myth of progress and the idea of the perfectibility of man, may be cited as examples. We all grew up in the climate of these ideas, and it is difficult for us to shake ourselves free of them. But we must, somehow, if we are to survive as anything more than a race of ingenious little animals.

The popular misconceptions of the nature of religion which are so common in our time are nearly all traceable to the same fundamental mistake. People confuse the religious attitude with its consequences. They transfer the emotions which it is proper they should feel for the religious man to the actions which they believe to be characteristic of him. Religion thus becomes loving your neighbour, doing good works, being tolerant or charitable. If questioned about it, people would no doubt admit that there is a certain state of the soul which is prior to these actions and of which they are the expression, but as a rule it is the actions they have in mind when they speak of religion, and not the fundamental attitude out of which they proceed. In other words religion has lost its inwardness. And that means that it has become nothing, for religion without inwardness is unthinkable. People must be made to realize that the patterns of behaviour which have come to be thought characteristic of the religious man are by no means inevitable. A man may be uncharitable, intolerant and self-centred, and still be profoundly religious. The kernel of the religious life is what I have called the religious attitude. Instead of wasting our emotions of reverence on various incidental fruits of this attitude, we should labour to understand it and to realize it within ourselves. Such understanding brings a depth of psychological insight which most men seem to be afraid of. They have reason to be. It is an insight which shakes the foundations of life and requires us completely to re-orient our lives—a most inconvenient thing to have to do.

However, I believe such a radical re-orientation to be absolutely necessary at the present time. Man needs to understand himself more profoundly in order to live more humanly, that is, on more than one level. And it is the writer’s job to make him so understand himself. In Emergence from Chaos I have tried to define the religious attitude and to trace its genesis. In my next two books (of which I shall speak later) I am setting out to study in more detail the psychology of that attitude in its various manifestations, and thus at once to broaden and deepen the definition of religion by returning to its dynamic centre in the human psyche.

This is where our work of re-creating religion must begin: in our own innermost being. Compared with us, the evangelists are like a quack doctor who applies a lotion to the body in order to cure a deep-rooted inner disease. They fail to get to the root of the matter. Our method must be that of the skilled surgeon. With complete objectivity we must dissect our experience, mercilessly criticize ourselves, until we are utterly free from the illusions with which life in the world fetters us. We must gain access to that dynamic centre which is within all of us, though dormant in most, and set it working at full pressure. We must learn again, and practise, those disciplines which religious men in all ages and of all persuasions have found effective in liberating those deeper energies which most men do not even suspect that they possess.

In 1906 William James wrote an essay, The Energies of Men, in which he advocated the study of what he called “dynamo-genesis,” that is, of the sources and limits of human power. In the same year he gave an address to the Harvard Psychology Club in which he outlined his ideas about “functional psychology.” This branch of the subject, he said, should study those energies which operate in man’s religious life, and seek to work out a technique for their development and control. James, like another eminent physiologist, Dr Alexis Carrel, believed in the possibility of science effecting a remaking of man. The latter, in his book Man, the Unknown (1935), carried James’s work forward, and laid the foundations for the development of a comprehensive science of man. Another thinker who had meanwhile been working on similar lines was the German psychologist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers. Jaspers later spoke of his psychology as Existenz Clarification. He explained, “This psychology was no longer merely an empirical statement of the facts and laws of events. It was an outline of the potentialities of the soul which holds a mirror up to man to show him what he can be, what he can achieve and how far he can go.”

All these three scientific thinkers were profoundly religious men. They were the pioneers of an attitude which must become more widely held in our time, and they laid the foundations for the work which it is the responsibility of the writer of my generation to continue. What they had in common was a faith in man’s ability to change himself; and what they all implied was that if he does not change himself he must inevitably perish.

People are always talking about the historical process and the patterns of decline and fall in civilizations as if these were inexorable natural laws quite beyond the control of the human will. One thing they do not seem to take into account is that our civilization is scientifically more advanced than any previous one, and we thus have an unprecedented knowledge of the causes of its decay. Modern Man has his salvation in his own hands in a way that the members of previous civilizations did not have. We can diagnose our sickness, and that is the first step to curing it. It is conceivable that by a supreme effort of will at the present time we could attain to a higher form of civilization than has ever been known on the earth.

The problem is, of course, how to employ the will. The “rebel without a cause,” the man with plenty of will but no direction, has become a stock figure of contemporary literature. We must be careful to distinguish between the defiant will and the religious will. The will power of the religious man is generated, so to speak, in a continuous stream from the dynamic centre within. That of the “rebel without a cause” expresses itself in outbursts of petulance, is essentially negative, and is a less integral part of the man’s character. Men possessing a defiant will always seem to arise when a civilization is on its last legs. In the last days of both the Greek and Roman cultures the philosophical schools of the Stoics made their appearance. Sartre, Camus and certain of the other French existentialists are, of course, the great Stoics of our day. The “rebel without a cause” does not have the dignity of the Stoic, however. Stoicism is the last outpost in the retreat from faith, where the human spirit takes its stand and firmly asserts the validity of human values. It is thus distinguished from mere rebellion in being defiantly positive instead of defiantly negative.

Stoicism is a sort of Siren’s song for the thinking man in our age. It is a most seductive philosophical attitude, because it has at its centre a profound and compelling truth: the truth that man makes himself, and by virtue of his actions in the world shapes a self which did not exist before and which constitutes the whole justification of his existence. Like the authentic religious attitude, this view places the emphasis on the efficacy of the will, but essentially it is philosophy with its back to the wall. It leads to an extreme subjectivism, to the individual nursing his own salvation and saying, Let the rest of the world go hang! It implies a denial of the existence of any communal purpose for mankind, and thus it can make no contribution to the work of salvaging a civilization. The presence of God in a philosophical system has the effect of making it fluid and comprehensive and alive. When God is dropped out, philosophy stiffens into stoicism. In the past, stoicism has proved to be the last outburst of human greatness in a civilization that was about to relapse into barbarism. The challenge of our time, in so far as it presents itself in philosophical terms, is to resist the Siren’s song of stoicism, transcend it, and thus enter upon a new age of religious faith.

For the most modern men, stoicism will be a stage on the way to faith. When a man awakens to consciousness of our crucial historical situation and of his own personal responsibility, he must confront the problem of how he should employ his will. And his first answer should be in deepening his inwardness, his self-knowledge. It is here that the rebellious types go wrong. Instead of entering into themselves they vainly kick against the pricks. I have said before that a man must awaken to himself before he awakens to the world, and this period of self-absorption is likely to produce a stoical attitude to life. This attitude is a great advance from the condition of semi-consciousness in which most people live, and the further step which turns the stoic into a man of faith comes fairly naturally when he is made to consider the consequences of his position.

This, at least, was my own experience. I passed from total scepticism through a kind of stoicism, and emerged into belief. I venture to generalize the experience partly because I have observed a similar pattern of development in people of my acquaintance and also in certain contemporary literary figures, and partly because I believe that my starting point was typical of that of the majority of men today.

My home background, in so far as it was religious at all, was methodist. I soon revolted against the sloppy thought-habits and the sentimental ethic of this lowest branch of Protestantism, and declared myself an atheist. The first awakening of anything that could be called a religious sense in me was caused by my reading of the Romantics—particularly Keats and Wordsworth. I thought that the vague sense of the infinite which they communicated was an adequate substitute for the ridiculous belief in God. I subscribed to the religion of art, and was seduced by the aesthetes. I became proud of my humanism, and thought myself “enlightened.” Then I read Dostoevsky, and Berdyaev’s book on Dostoevsky, and William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience. I read all these together during an illness, and on reflection I came to realize that I had been intellectually ill for years, constipated with a bundle of ideas and attitudes that were not my own but which I had unquestioningly adopted because they were a part of my cultural inheritance. I realized then that humanism—at least the kind of humanism that was atheistic and set itself up as a substitute for religion—was a diseased attitude which had produced a race of spiritually stunted men. The discussions between Alyosha and Ivan Karamazov about the existence of God and the meaning of good and evil seemed far more real and vital to me than the laborious discussions of the ethics of social acts that I had been accustomed to hearing and partaking in. A new dimension of existence was opened up to me and at the same time a new power born within.

So my first approach to religion was psychological. I saw that certain states of mind, certain faiths passionately held, invested life with a deeper significance, and afforded man a more penetrating vision of his own nature and that of the world, than any rational or philosophical approach to these questions could ever obtain. I saw also that the religious life fostered certain virtues in men which I valued highly: creativity, self-abnegation, energetic singleness of purpose, intellectual vigour and power of will. Religion was simply life at its highest pitch of intensity, and for that reason alone it was man’s more authentic level of existence. When a man lives intensely, the question of the reasonableness of belief becomes a trivial one, for he knows that it is not reason that is essential to life, but will.

To live intensely means to live consciously. And the mark of conscious living is that it is oriented towards the future. The more distant the future, the greater degree of consciousness is required to grasp it as a telos. When the future is conceived as being beyond life, i.e. when life is oriented towards immortality, then you get what might properly be called religious existence.

It was with these basic ideas in mind that I embarked upon my first book, Emergence from Chaos. Chaos is the unconscious. It is his attempt to emerge further and further from the animal condition of unconscious existence that distinguishes man as a spiritual being. I traced this psychological development through six modern poets; taking Dylan Thomas as the least conscious, and T. S. Eliot as the most conscious, of the six. The book was thus a sort of literary Varieties of Religious Experience with a dogmatic point to it. The scheme which determined the choice of poets and the order of their appearance was a psychological one, and it reflected the pattern of my own experience. The idea of division, about which I have already spoken, was central in it. Both Yeats and Rimbaud were divided men, and for me their inner conflicts illuminated the human condition as determined religiously in a way that the writings of the poets of assured faith could not do. Inner division heightened a man’s consciousness. It was the struggle between consciousness and faith that generated the most highly charged creative energy. The sacrifice of reason was the most passionate act a man could perform. It was, paradoxically, the mark of his freedom.

The problems of consciousness and freedom are, of course, problems of philosophy. But when I turned to the philosophers I found that, with a few exceptions, they had no interest in the problems as they presented themselves to my mind. For them they were not problems of existence, having a profound bearing upon their own personal lives, but mere problems of analysis with which they occupied themselves only in the hours when they were philosophizing. I found the whole tradition of philosophy since Descartes antipathetic to my own temperament and beliefs. The definition of the philosopher as the man who doubts everything, seemed to me quite wrong. The philosopher should surely be the man of faith, the man of vision. I resolved to do all in my power to shake the security of the philosophical school of linguistic analysis which still predominates in English and American universities. I felt that what was lacking in the English intellectual climate was the sense of crisis; not so much of political crisis, but rather of the more fundamental crisis in human existence. People were not conscious of the fact that man was gradually being reduced in stature, and the range of his emotional life steadily narrowed down. This must be made clear to them. What was needed in England was an existentialist literary-philosophical movement.

No philosophy that is satisfied with man as he is is worthy of the name. The true philosophy demands imperatively that man be more. It issues a warning and a challenge. It turns a man’s eyes inward upon himself, upon his soul, and reveals, more often than not, that he possesses neither self nor soul. Be great, or perish: that is its warning. Possess yourself, realize yourself, develop yourself: that is its challenge. It points to the higher potential in human existence, to authentic being. It casts the ideal of human life beyond human life, and requires man to orient himself in relation to that ideal. Philosophy is not adequately defined as analysis: it is a drive towards deeper self-knowledge, towards greater power over oneself and over nature, towards more life, for life consists in power.

To the logical positivist philosophers this will sound like heresy. But to my mind it is they who have swallowed the greatest heresy of modern times: that of the supremacy of science and scientific method. The end of science is to advance knowledge. The primary end of philosophy is not knowledge, but life. Man can do without knowledge, but he cannot do without action. His first need is to live purposively and intensely. And philosophy, by illuminating the various levels of existence and pointing to its telos or end, enables him to do this.

We can distinguish three kinds of philosophy: epistemology, which asks How can I know?—metaphysics, which asks What can I know?—and existential philosophy, which asks How can I live more? how plug into the vital current of life and thus exist more really, more intensely? It is because they ignore these latter questions that most modern professional philosophers have become mere co-workers with the scientist, analysers of scientific terms. But a philosophy into which the philosopher’s own reality does not enter is a shadowy thing. Produced by men without selves and without profundity, it can have neither substantiality nor significance for a man who wills to apprehend himself on that level of his being where he enters into his relationship with the transcendent.

The philosophy which ultimately counts must be conscious of itself in its historical situation. The contemporary situation has produced the supposedly rival philosophies of existentialism and logical positivism, the one being eminently historically conscious and the other not at all so. But the modern world will tolerate no neutrals. You are either involved in the degenerative process of civilization, or you set yourself apart and resolutely oppose it. What unites the so-called existentialists is their realization of this degenerative process, though their opposition to it takes different forms. But the logical positivists are blind to it—as philosophers, I mean, not as men (but who knows what they think as men, since they never deign to tell us?). Bertrand Russell is of course the exception, but he states emphatically that his writings on politics, sociology and morality have nothing to do with his philosophical activity. This narrowing down of the scope of philosophy is churlish, and has no historical justification. Philosophy arises whenever you get a man thinking about his own essential nature and his relation to the universe; professional philosophy when you get a highly sophisticated man excogitating over refinements of this fundamental problem.

Positivism is well defined in W. B. Yeats’s lines about “Whiggery”:

A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind
That never looked out of the eye of a saint
Or out of a drunkard’s eye.

Yeats’s use of the word “levelling” here recalls Kierkegaard’s indictment of the “levelling process” which he foresaw would lead to the despiritualization of man. Auguste Comte’s positivism, his “Religion of Humanity” and celebration of “the divine average,” advanced this process; and it was on foundations established in part by Comte that the Viennese Circle—the group of philosophers who formulated logical positivism in 1928—based their philosophy. Positivism is the philosophy of a civilization which the myth of equality has taken by the throat. It abhors individualism. It reduces man to a function and strips him of his essential humanity. In ethics it produces utilitarianism, in psychology a naive empiricism. It distrusts the faculties of imagination and intuition, and will be guided only by the light of reason. The positivist philosopher is a modest fellow. He is not conscious of any high vocation, and if you ask him how a man should conduct his life or attain the greatest possible fullness of life, he will be embarrassed and refer you to the clergyman or the psycho-analyst. The greatest passion he knows is the passion for truth, but for him truth is synonymous with correctness, exactitude. The great insoluble questions that have troubled mankind since the dawn of consciousness he lumps together as metaphysical and consequently nonsensical, and consigns to the dust-bin. In short, he lacks vision. He is just another mediocrity in a world of mediocrities, a world which is slowly committing suicide, suffocating itself with the myths of equality and progress. He does not, or will not, realize that the function of the philosopher in our time is not to describe the limits of knowledge, but to show man what he can become.

A French existentialist was asked what he thought of a logical positivist’s penetrating critique of his ideas. He replied: “He is a cow!” When the situation is reversed and the existentialist becomes the critic, the logical positivist is equally unmoved, and says that the former is illogical and emotionally biased. The lack of any common ground between the two has reduced criticism to abuse, and in Western Europe at the present time two insular philosophies confront each other, each unable to contribute anything to the other’s development because temperamentally the thinkers of both schools are worlds apart. This is regrettable, for the great philosopher of the future will have to combine the positive elements in both schools. He will have to have both the intellectual rigour and the clarity of the logical positivist, and the depth of vision and psychological acuteness of the existentialist. My own sympathies and temperamental bias place me emphatically on the side of the existentialists, but, being a thinker of a later generation, and consequently unattached to either school, I cannot but recognize that by clearing away a good deal of philosophical dead wood the analytical philosophers will have done the creative thinkers of the future a useful service. Socrates was the existential thinker par excellence, but in him the critical and analytical faculty was highly developed. So it was also in Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher of our time who, because he stands between the two schools, has not been sufficiently appreciated by either. Throughout the history of philosophy the visionary temperament has been in conflict with the analytical, the mystical with the rational. It is when this conflict has been waged within one man that the really great philosophies have been produced, when depth has been allied with lucidity, and comprehensiveness augmented by vision. In the twentieth century this conflict has ceased to be subjective and creative, however, and has occasioned a cold war between two schools. The most urgent need in philosophy at the present time is that the conflict should be restored to the subjective level.

In philosophy, as in art and many other departments of life, no progress is made except by virtue of the creative tension in which those few people live whose minds are capable of grasping and holding on to the polarities of existence. “Progress” is, of course, an equivocal term, and the disciple of Russell will contradict me and say that progress is only possible through the efforts of a number of scientifically-minded philosophers who resolve to “divide and conquer” the problems of philosophy and are content to work slowly towards the truth by means of hypothesis and experiment. I reply that such progress, which involved reducing man to a mere function in the interests of “knowledge,” is the most pernicious myth of our time. The only real progress possible today is a general deepening of inwardness. Philosophy is not a science. The philosopher who prides himself on being a “disinterested seeker after truth” is a ridiculous figure, for the essential precondition for the apprehension of truth is interestedness, involvement in the flux of existence. Scientific method in philosophy can lead to the discovery of new facts. But fact is not truth. Truth itself (as distinct from truth about something, which is fact) is a condition of living. No amount of thinking will enable me to apprehend truth, unless I bend all my efforts to the task of living in truth. And living in truth is living dynamically in a condition of tension. I must root the polarities of existence firmly in my consciousness for my only way of attaining to truth is through them.

This is my most fundamental belief. It could perhaps be reduced to banal terms by saying that the philosopher must be a well-balanced individual. I would not mind that, provided it were understood that the extremes between which the philosopher has to maintain his equilibrium are infinitely wider than those which determine the normal man. If we envisage existence as extended between the poles, say, of hopeless despair and ecstatic affirmation of life, with a series of relative poles proceeding inwards from the extremes to the centre where the existential subject stands, then we have a measure for the greatness of man, for he is greatest whose grasp encompasses the widest extent of existence, and who, though he may vacillate between one extreme and the other, ultimately finds his equilibrium in a condition of dynamic tension. In the philosopher this tension often takes the form of a conflict between reason and vision, intellect and intuition. The resolution of this conflict results in the atrophy of the mind and the loss of one’s grasp on reality. The attempt to resolve it, however, is the very condition of creativity; for man is most creative, and therefore most fully himself, when inner conflict has brought consciousness to its highest pitch of intensity.

Creativity is one of the touchstones of greatness in my conception of philosophy. Inwardness is the other. In creativity and in inwardness man realizes himself as spirit and transcends himself as creature. This, and no other, is the ultimate purpose of life. The philosopher who is neither creative nor possesses himself in inwardness is a fraud, a mediocrity. It is the creative thinker who, however diverse his insights may be, and however confused his expression, advances the spiritual evolution of mankind. If he does not confine himself within the limits of official philosophy, that is no reason why we should decline to call him a philosopher. He extends those limits. He makes philosophy what it should be: a comprehensive science of man.

It is not surprising that the creative thinker should turn to the novel and the drama as media of expression more suitable than the academic treatise. His business is not analysis, but the communication of a sense of life. His purpose is not to divert or exercise his reader’s intellect, but to awaken him to an awareness of the dramatic nature of existence, the perilousness of human life, the delusion of all ideas of security, in order that he might begin to live more authentically, to spend his life, as Unamuno says, so that he might deserve to be immortal. For the fulfilment of such a purpose the novel and the drama are the ideal vehicles of expression. The essence of existence is drama. Man attains his highest through conflict. In the fiction of Dostoevsky, Kafka and some of the modern existentialists, discoveries have been made which are as significant as any arrived at by means of psycho-analysis, the microscope or the mathematical equation. The novel can thus be at once a means of imaginative psychological research and a vehicle for indirect moral exhortation. Literature and philosophy are only separate activities of the human mind in their lower forms. Both are creative activities, and the highest literature is philosophical in its implications, just as the highest philosophy is literary in its expression.

Most of the fiction and drama which has been produced in this country since the war has been trivial. Sensitivity and charm have become the criteria of excellence in the absence of those qualities which make great literature, namely, energy, vision and power. The novels and plays which have been taken most seriously are those expressing a mood of hopelessness, futility and impotence. No doubt it is the mood of the age, but that mood, I hope the reader of these pages will now see, is symptomatic of contemporary man’s unfreedom. He feels himself to be impotent and futile precisely because he lacks freedom, and he lacks freedom because he lacks inwardness, depth, breadth of grasp on existence. The writers who express this mood no longer retain even the sense of crisis which the writers of the thirties and forties, Orwell, Malraux, Huxley, Koestler, Hemingway, etc., possessed. Their works certainly reflect the crisis, but they do not seem to be conscious of it in the way these earlier writers were. And yet a sense of crisis is one of the first things needful in the writer today. He must see the crisis of our time as a threat to human freedom, and must seek to restore freedom in the only way possible: by deepening inwardness and, by means of his psychological vision, extending the limits of consciousness.

It is important to distinguish between the vision of absurdity of certain of the contemporary French writers and the sense of futility of their English counterparts. The difference between these two is the most important in the world, for it is the difference between life in a condition of dynamic tension and life which is oriented to only one of the poles of existence, and has therefore lost its intensity and its meaning. The characters in the English novels and plays which I have in mind are of this latter type. They have let go of life. They are fundamentally different from Camus’ “l’homme absurde” who realizes that he must live by virtue of the absurd, and that if he commits actual or intellectual suicide he does not triumph over the absurd (as Dostoevsky’s Kirillov imagined), for it disappears with his act and meaninglessness supervenes. The vision of absurdity is one of the poles of existence. Its correlate is the pole of reason and the will to live. So long as a man maintains his hold on these two poles he completes the circuit, so to speak, and the vital force of life flows through him. If he releases his hold he becomes nothing, or—which is much the same thing—the hero of a best-seller.

I have said that my most fundamental belief is that my only way to truth and to freedom is by way of rooting the polarities of existence firmly in my consciousness. This defines the purpose of all my literary activity. All my work is founded upon the psychological premise that through and in conflict with himself man attains to the greatest fullness of life, to authentic existence, to the optimum development of his consciousness, in fact to freedom. Division was, as I have already said, central in the psychological plan of Emergence from Chaos. In my next two books I propose to study the most frequent cause of division, i.e. despair, and its most extreme expression: demonism.

Despair and demonism are, I believe, the most important and the most characteristic subjects of literary psychology in all the literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My two books (the first called The Dialectics of Despair and the second provisionally entitled The Mark of Cain) will trace the variations played upon these themes in literature from the Romantics to the present day. Their development will be psychological, however, not chronological. My primary purpose is not to write a study in literary history, but to show how despair and demonism may be respectively the starting point for, and an expression of, the religious attitude. I have also a subjective purpose in writing these books: that of orienting myself within existence and in my historical situation. The last chapter of The Dialectics of Despair will be called The Despair of Europe. It will be a further attempt to diagnose the sickness of our age. In my diagnosis of this sickness I believe that I point to what in my opinion is the only possible cure: the religious attitude. In these pages I have been occupied in trying to define this attitude, to show how it is arrived at and what beliefs characterize it.

A friend of a slightly older generation expressed surprise—I think he was even a little amused—that I should be able with such apparent confidence to plan for the future. The feeling that there is no future is very common today, particularly among the generation who were in the last war and feel that somehow they missed their chance after it—their last chance. Certainly the future prospect is not one conducive to optimism. But it is equally certain that by lapsing into tensionless pessimism we make things worse. As I conceive it, the duty of the writer and thinker in our time is to work on the hypothesis of a future, and to show the conditions necessary for authentic existence. His first task is to make men aware, to awaken them to realities. And human life becomes real only when it establishes a relationship with transcendence. The philosopher must therefore concern himself not only with the future of mankind as a whole, i.e. the social problem, but also with the future of the individual in his eternal aspect: the religious problem. He must be a religious thinker.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Durtal1963
    Posted April 4, 2015 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for reproducing this.

    Comparing this with the Hopkins essay you reprinted, I was struck by the similarity in the two men’s thought. I confess that I always assumed that the Angry Young Men were a fairly amorphous bunch, but there does seem to be a real identity of thought and interest between the the central triumvirate of Wilson, Hopkins and Holroyd.

    Wish I understood what Holroyd meant by the phrase ‘… dispair and its most extreme expression: demonism’. At the risk of sounding gauche, does this refer to extreme psychological states or, literally, to the occult – both of which subjects Wilson would go on to specialise in, or to something else altogether?

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted April 4, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Good question. There are people who read this who are better able to answer it than I am.

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