First, because when you live a long time in a country you get more and more information about it; and the more information you get, the more confused you become, information blurring more or less your personal experience and disclosing the infinite complexity and ceaselessly contrasting aspects of so vast a human reality.
Secondly, because my philosophical work prevented me from undertaking any systematic, complete and supposedly "scientific" study of this matter.
Yet, on the one hand, I felt a growing inner urge to bear witness to this country and to its people it is a matter of justice and of gratitude for me. And in this respect I am only playing my small part in a French tradition which began with Chateaubriand and Tocqueville.
On the other hand, I came to realize that however helpful and necessary systematic surveys and scientific analyses may be, as, for instance, Gunnar Myrdal's book, An American Dilemma, on the condition of the colored people, there is room, nevertheless, for quite a different approach, a merely personal, experiential, non-scientific approach, which has a good chance of being as true, in its own way, as the scientific and objective one, and even of disclosing deeper, though less firmly established, truths.
For in the last analysis, our appreciation of a country or a people has to do with the knowledge of the individual, of the singular, of that immense collective personality which is a people with its history, its mores, its common psyche, its dreams, its vocation. And most important in the knowledge of the singular is what cannot be demonstrated, and depends on a kind of experience and perception so rooted in individual instances, in person to person relationships, that the statements in which it is expressed cannot be explained or proved by universal notions and rational disquisition.
The fact remains that in trying to express my reflections on the American scene, my position will be quite vulnerable: precisely because my statements will be susceptible of no demonstration. Moreover, they will claim to constitute neither an historical analysis nor any kind of complete picture, nor any kind of "explanation." They will leave aside many important questions for the discussion of which my impromptu way of speaking was not suitable. They will be incomplete, subjective, disconnected -- random reflections. Moreover, in such matters there is always a certain margin of error regarding the bearing of our observations, accurate as they may be.
But, for all that, I am confident that there are true insights at the core of my random reflections. Furthermore, the truths they contain are most valuable for me, for they are in essence a statement of why I love America, that America which I have known for almost a quarter of a century. I am aware of the fact that every great human reality is ambivalent, and that the best things involve dangers or are accompanied by more or less serious defects.
I am aware, too, of the severity with which Americans, and the best among them, criticize certain aspects of their own culture and nation. I shall have some opportunities to point out, myself, several of those unfavorable aspects. What matters to me is that they are of small import in comparison with all that I love in this country, all that which makes it crucially important for the hopes of mankind and the future of civilization.
These preliminary remarks were destined to make clear the nature and purpose of the seminar out of which grew this book. In particular they make clear, I hope, why I have tried to cling to my own personal experience, and to forget the books, the very good books, which I have read on the matter, such as Tocqueville's, André Siegfried's, Gilbert Chinard's La Doctrine de l'Américanisme, Waldo Frank's The New Discovery of America, John Nef's The United States and Civilization, Elinor Nef's Letters and Notes, Yves Simon's La Civilisation Américaine, and also those which I have on my desk but have not yet read, such as Jacques Barzun's God's Country and Mine, and Max Lerner's America as a Civilization.
With respect to this country, a more particular remark may be added. There are many foreign travellers who are not biased -- who even are good and clear-sighted observers, capable of sound, cool practical judgment. They appreciate America, and they like her. They weigh the pros and cons, and they conclude by admiring this country a great deal, with some suitable restraint, to be sure, a certain number of prudent qualifications, and sometimes, in addition, some good and more or less patronizing advice.
And, there are other foreign travellers who are struck right away with what we call in French le coup de foudre, love at first sight. Love at first sight does not deal with an object, but with a person. For those whom it strikes it is like a sudden illumination into a deep-rooted secret. They have been initiated.
This is so true that a friend of mine -- a great French scholar -- who underwent, as I did, this kind of experience, likes to think of the Frenchmen who got in this way, at one stroke, some inner understanding of this country, as constituting a group of privileged people, a sort of club, in which each one is on brotherly terms with the others by reason of the common understanding in question.
Now the very fact of which I am speaking -- love at first sight -- has its own significance. I would say that it takes place more frequently with respect to France and America than with respect to any other country. Contrary to Pascal's saying, we don't love qualities, we love persons; sometimes by reason of their defects as well as of their qualities. When he who, meeting for the first time either France or America, falls in love at first sight, it is because he is confronted with a moral personality, a moral vocation, something of invaluable dignity, which is spiritual in nature, and which, I think, in the last analysis is quickened, in one way or another, by some spark of the Christian spirit and legacy.
What was, then, my own first impression?
It was quite definite, though difficult to express in words. I felt I was obscurely confronted with a deep-seated contrast of immense bearing, a sharp, far-reaching contrast between the people on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what I would like to call the externally superimposed structure or ritual of civilization.
What I call the structure or ritual of civilization was the industrial civilization, born in Europe and arrived here from abroad, which I saw in this first insight as hanging over a people of pioneers and free men under God. This industrial civilization, which I had learned to know in Europe, appeared to me, here, both as gigantically developed (like many things transplanted from Europe over here) and as a kind of ritual dedicated to some foreign goddess. Its inner logic, as I knew it -- originally grounded as it was on the principle of the fecundity of money and the absolute primacy of individual profit -- was, everywhere in the world, inhuman and materialist.
But, by a strange paradox, the people who lived and toiled under this structure or ritual of civilization were keeping their own souls apart from it. At least as regards the essentials, their souls and vital energy, their dreams, their everyday effort, their idealism and generosity, were running against the grain of the inner logic of the superimposed structure. They were freedom-loving and mankind-loving people, people clinging to the importance of ethical standards, anxious to save the world, the most humane and the least materialist among modern peoples which had reached the industrial stage.
Thus the basic thing in my first impression was the sharp distinction to be made between the spirit of the American people and the logic of the superimposed structure or ritual of civilization: and not only the distinction, but the state of tension, of hidden conflict, between this spirit of the people and this logic of the structure; the steady, latent rebellion of the spirit of the people against the logic of the structure.
Then a telling question arose: what will be the result of the conflict between the spirit of the people and the logic of the structure? This was the second basic element of my first impression. Of course, this first impression made things a little too simplified, too dramatized. But I think it was fundamentally true. And, as a matter of fact, I came over for the first time in 1933, at the time, it seems to me, of a drastic turning point in the very drama which had begun years ago with Theodore Roosevelt.
And the more I lived in this country, the more I realized that the answer to the question I just mentioned was: the spirit of the people is gradually overcoming and breaking the logic of the structure.
In other words, the vital, pragmatic, completely unsystematic pressure exercised by the American people and the American soul on the structures of our modern industrial civilization is transforming from within the inner dynamism and historical trends of the industrial regime. It is causing this regime to pass beyond capitalism. The people have thus vanquished the inner logic of the industrial regime considered in its first historical phase, and have, almost without knowing it, inaugurated a really new phase in modern civilization. I only mention this point now. I will discuss it at greater length in a further chapter.
Of course, this sentiment that one is freed from history is a great illusion. We are never freed from history. But the illusion points, I think, to a very significant fact: this country is entirely turned toward the future, not toward the past. An appeal of this kind, a suction so to speak, exercised by the future upon the whole nation to such a degree and with such power, is in my opinion something new in human history, and is no doubt an element of the greatness of America.
You are not freed from your own history. On the contrary, you are deeply attached to it, even to the point of cherishing pieces of colonial furniture, and of artificially maintaining at great cost villages equipped and functioning as in the eighteenth century. But in one sense you are freed from the history of your European ancestors, for you have voluntarily cut off your links with this history. You depend, as does every Western man, on the history of Europe. But this history is your pre-history.
And your own history as a people, as a nation, is quite recent. It is barely two hundred years old. You have not had time for hardening, for sclerosis. And the voice of your Founding Fathers still appeals to your emotions in a lively manner (I would say that for the average Frenchman the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme is an old piece of parchment, but for you the Declaration of Independence seems to have been written some fifty years ago).
In this sense -- and in this sense only -- the American people are young. On the one hand, they enjoy that bloom, that openness to the future, which Aristotle called the flower of youth. On the other hand, there is in them a certain lack of that collective, common experience as a nation, which is an advantage, sometimes dearly paid for, of the Old World.
With respect to the illusory but telling sentiment of being freed from history, I would like to submit another remark -- relating to the root incompatibility which exists between the American people and Marxist philosophy. For Marx, history is, as you know, an immense and terrible set of concatenated necessities, in the bosom of which man slaves toward his final emancipation. When he becomes at last, through communism, master of his own history, then he will drive the chariot of Juggernaut which had previously crushed him. But for the American people it is quite another story. They are not interested in driving the chariot of Juggernaut. They have gotten rid of Juggernaut. It is not in any future messianic freedom of mankind, nor in mastering the necessities of history, it is in man's present freedom that they are interested. And as Diogenes proved movement, so they prove this freedom in walking. History is, in one sense, behind them. They walk, they march, they gambol ahead of history, as in those big processions with resounding bands and girls in fancy dress, which so often enliven American streets.
And I have more and more admired both the creative work which was thus accomplished and the process of self-creation through which it unceasingly continues.
I have already said that the American people are the least materialist among the modern peoples which have attained the industrial stage. As I put it in a parting talk  before leaving for Rome in 1945, "ce pays n'est pas un pays matérialiste comme le disent trop volontiers certains Américains eux-mêmes, il se fraye a force de courage un chemin difficile où la liberté de l'homme doit soulever le poids de matérialisme que la civilisation moderne, avec sa tendance à la technocratic et à l'hégémonie de l'argent, fait partout peser sur la personne humaine." I would like to insist on this point, because few things, to my mind, are as sickening as the stock remarks with which so many persons in Europe, who are themselves far from despising the earthly goods of this world, reproach this country with its so-called materialism. The power of this fable is so great that sometimes you yourselves are taken in by it. I remember some American ladies in New York who said to me, with a disillusioned (perhaps slightly treacherous) wink: "We are a materialist nation, aren't we?" Well, all this talk about American materialism is no more than a curtain of silly gossip and slander.
In a number of my fellow Europeans the fable in question proceeds from an old prejudice, confusing spirituality with an aristocratic contempt for any improvement in material life (especially the material life of others). In other cases the fable of American materialism (seemingly corroborated, as it is, by some of your exports, like average Hollywood productions) appears as a kind of compensation for the frustrations Europe has endured, and a kind of solace for the agony which the fact of owing gratitude to another imposes on human nature. And in other cases, it results, contrariwise, from too great an expectation, from the fact that Europeans expect from you an understanding which they fail sometimes to obtain.
I have no intention of denying that in America as in all other places in the world, especially among industrialized nations, large areas in the common consciousness -- the most obvious, as a rule, and the most superficial areas -- have been infected by the miasmata that emanate from the structures and ritual of our modern civilization; the noise made by a crowd of vulgar assertions, which measure everything either in terms of statistics and facts and figures or in terms of success, fun, and practical power, hold "ideas" to be only something to be "sold" to a possible consumer, silent partner, or sucker, and see human conduct as a by-product either of hormones or of economic factors -- this noise is too great not to be heard.
The observer may be misled, it is true, especially when it comes to the answers given by people about their personal aims in life, or about their political choices, by the appearances and facilities of language, I mean by the fact that as a rule, in our everyday life, we use words in a way which will save our brain cells as much work as possible -- and it is much easier and less expensive, in this respect, to have recourse to mean rather than to lofty platitudes. Yet the universal diffusion of a kind of popularized, anonymous positivistic philosophy, to which pragmatist dynamism, in this country, gave higher intellectual standing and additional pep, can only make more real and more insidious the process of materialist contagion of which I am speaking.
I don't deny these things; I do say that to invoke them as a proof of so-called American materialism is to talk nonsense. For, in the first place, they are in no way specifically American; exactly the same symptoms, in relation to similar sociological or psychological areas, leap to the eye everywhere (especially in Europe) where the industrial regime and its congenial ideological fumes are prevalent; only the vocal expression seems perhaps to be a little cruder and more naive here, whereas elsewhere it is either more cautious and sophisticated or more elaborately cynical. And, in the second place, there are here plenty of other, utterly opposing trends and characteristics, which relate to much deeper and more significant strata in the common psyche, and which are typically American, and give the lie to the fable of American materialism.
Well, I would like to ask the European critics of this country what are in their eyes the criteria of materialism. Are perhaps generosity and good will the signs of a materialistic cast of mind? Speaking not of such or such an individual, of course, but of the general cast of mind and the collective trends and customs of the people, what I know is that the basic characteristics of the American people are generosity, good will, the sense of human fellowship.
There are, of course, egoistic individuals in America as everywhere, but America is not egoist; for the common consciousness of America, egoism is shameful. There are greedy individuals in America as there are everywhere, but there is no avarice in the American cast of mind. The American people are neither squeamish nor hypocritical about the importance of money in the modern world. Even their frank admission of this importance makes Europeans uncomfortable. For the average European cares about money as well as the average American, but he tries to conceal the fact, for he has been accustomed to associating money with avarice.
Here, on the contrary, money is cared for openly, because money is considered a means, and must not be kept but rather spent -- for improving one's own life, to be sure, and one's freedom of action, but also, and this is fundamental, for improving the lives and freedom of others.
Americans like to give. Of course, there is the exemption from taxes for gifts directed to the common welfare; but this very law about taxes would not have been possible if the astute legislator did not know that as a rule the American people are aware of the fact that it is better to give than to receive. Not only the great foundations, but the ordinary course of activity of American institutions and the innumerable American private groups show us that the ancient Greek and Roman idea of the civis praeclarus, the dedicated citizen who spends his money in the service of the common good, plays an essential part in American consciousness. And let me observe that more often than not the gifts in question are made for the sake of education and knowledge. Frequently people who were unable to have a college education make large gifts to universities.
There is no materialism, I think, in the astonishing, countless initiatives of fraternal help which are the daily bread of the American people, or in the profound feeling of obligation toward others which exists in them, especially toward any people abroad who are in distress.
I shall never forget the work of the rescue committees for European scholars which I witnessed during the war, and all those luncheons which crowds of people eagerly attended in order to have an eloquent auctioneer, at dessert time, extract big checks from their pockets. I shall never forget the admirable devotion with which Alvin Johnson, then President of the New School for Social Research, pursued this work of rescue, nor the fraternal cooperation he extended to our French-speaking École Libre des Hautes Études when it was created with the help and on the premises of the New School.
There is no materialism in the fact that the American charities, drawing money from every purse, and notably to assist people abroad, run every year into such enormous sums that charity ranks among the largest American industries, the second or third in size, according to statisticians.
Yes, yes, I know, the very fact involves a certain danger that charity itself will become industrialized, or overorganized. Well, people who sit on their money like brooding hens are certain to avoid that danger! And if the collection of money for the needy and the helpless is so well organized here that in giving our contribution automatically each year, we may be tempted to think that we are excused from ever giving our heart (but can we believe that European streets are jammed with people busy giving their hearts?), let us not forget what an immense amount of personal attention to one's neighbor and what personal effort is unceasingly put forth in all the groups which exist in this country, and which spring up every day, to meet some particular human misfortune or some particular social maladjustment.
I would like to mention now other characteristics of American life, namely, the extraordinary resilience and versatility with which the American people face new problems and adjust themselves to new situations. They don't like to accept things as they are, and to let people shift for themselves by dint of suffering and ingenuity. They prefer to change things and situations. They prefer to find a new arrangement, new equipment, a new gadget, a new line of social activity, for the sake of the human individuals involved. Now, did not Hegel speak of the "infinite elasticity" of the spirit? Such resilience is a sign of a perpetual alertness of the spirit acting as a ferment in the mass.
Let us say, and this seems quite typical to me, that in the immense population of America there is no stagnation. As a result, I don't see America as a mainland, but as a sea, a big ocean. Sometimes a storm arises, a formidable current develops, and it seems it will engulf everything. Wait a moment, another current will appear and bring the first one to naught. A great country, with as many windshifts as the sea.
At the origin of this fluidity there is the activity of the mind at work in the people, in the humble ways of daily life.
Many other aspects might be stressed. First, I shall point out the concern of the American people for moral and religious values, their attitude toward moral conscience. I do not say that they always act according to the dictates of conscience -- what nation does? I say that they feel miserable, they endure terrible discomfort when they have a guilty conscience. The very fact alone of nursing a doubt as to whether their conduct was or was not ethically irreproachable causes them pain. The result is sometimes unexpected, as the Wave of fondness for the Japanese people which developed after Hiroshima. Let us say that hiring the devil for help will never be agreeable even to your politicians. The common consciousness of this country loathes cynicism, cannot be cynical. A second aspect is the fundamental part played in this country by free discussion, involving that right to dissent without which there is no community of free men, and which no historical circumstance can impair here for long. There is a perpetual process of self-examination and self- criticism going on everywhere and in every sphere of American life: a phenomenon incomprehensible without a quest for truth of which a materialist cast of mind is incapable.
A third aspect is the great battle which is being fought in the educational field to develop the humanities, the liberal arts, philosophy, and to make wisdom the final aim, a battle of which the members of the Committee on Social Thought are especially aware. It is in this so-called materialist country that professors of classics, each in his own great or small college, struggle with unequalled devotion to maintain the intellectual tradition with which they are entrusted; that a strenuous effort is being made by the universities, and by technological institutes as well, to overcome the dangers of overspecialization and the trends toward technocracy which are natural to industrial civilization; and that a reformer of such stature as Robert M. Hutchins has raised his bitter criticisms and insisted on the necessity for intellectual integration -- inspiring or prodding in actual fact the vast academic effort of which I just spoke, though naturally his name is too well known to the public ever to be mentioned on campuses.
A fourth aspect is the thirst, the eagerness for knowledge -- not only with a view to its practical applications, but first of all as a vital necessity for the mind -- which I have had the opportunity to observe, year after year, in American youth everywhere in the country. Such a thirst exists in the people as a whole, in uneducated as in educated persons. Here as elsewhere it is not created by education and teachers (sometimes they seem rather anxious to kill it). It is a need of nature, particularly fresh, huge and intense in the American people.
A fifth aspect is the thirst for spiritual life which is deep in the American soul, and the signs of which are more and more manifest, especially among young people. In a number of people it is more or less unconscious, more or less repressed by the conditions of existence and the tyranny of unceasing activity. For all that it is real and alive, and exercises continual pressure on souls.
For many years I was aware of this fact; I am particularly pleased to have laid stress on it at a time when such views seemed more than paradoxical, and my Carthusian friends in Europe told me that the very idea of ever having a Charterhouse in America was completely ridiculous.
In a lecture on Action and Contemplation written some twenty years ago, I insisted that there were in America great reserves and possibilities for contemplation; the activism which is to the fore appears, I said, in many cases as a remedy against despair, and masks a hidden aspiration to contemplation. I saw in the American inclination to be moved by large idealistic feelings an effect of this hidden aspiration. And I concluded: "The cult of action is not specifically American. It is a European idea, an idea of post-Renaissance and post-Reformation Europe. What may mislead us in this matter, so it seems to me, is that the New Continent, with terrible loyalty, has taken some of the Old World's ideas, transplanted into virgin soil, and carried them to their limits. When in America some few come to realize better the value of contemplative activity, its superiority and fecundity, I believe the possibilities I have spoken of will manifest themselves, at least in a small way, but forcefully enough gradually to modify the general scheme of values."
Well, now Tom Merton's books are best-sellers, great classical works on spiritual life are published in abundance and are widely read in the most varied circles, the Trapp of Gethsemani alone has more novices than all European Trapps combined, and is obliged to multiply new foundations; the monasteries founded by various contemplative Orders are so crowded that they refuse candidates for lack of room; and there is a Charterhouse in this country.
I have pointed out a certain number of aspects of American life which seem to me to be typical. I could continue in the same vein. There is no end to the enumeration of the various features peculiar, quite peculiar indeed, to so-called American materialism.
Let me only add that from Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Look Homeward, Angel and Requiem for a Nun -- from Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson to Hart Crane, Allen Tate and T. S. Eliot (who has remained an American in spite of himself) -- American literature, in its most objectively careful scrutinies, has been preoccupied with the beyond and the nameless which haunt our blood. Man, as it sees him, is a restless being gropingly, sometimes miserably, at grips with his fleshly condition -- whom obviously no kind of materialist paradise can ever satisfy.
The first one I shall mention is by no means a weakness. It is a deeply human and noble characteristic. I am alluding to the fact that the American people are anxious to have their country loved; they need to be loved. (You will never find such a need in an Englishman. As to Frenchmen, they are so sure in advance that everybody loves them that they don't feel any particular anxiety about the matter. But they are very much shocked when they realize it is not true.) Well, this desire to have America loved is the mark of a soul which lies open to the sense of human brotherhood; it plays an important part, I think, in the general psychology of this country.
I do not forget that the cultivated American -- perhaps because he feels a particular urge to cast a critical eye in a national environment he considers uncritical -- is as anxious to have America criticized as to have her loved. As a result, any writer who bitterly denounces the vices of this country is listened to with special care and sorrowful appreciation; though he hurts, and is gently packed off to the tenebrae exteriores where he belongs. And the writer who admires and praises this country has the nice qualities of a gratifying friend, to be sure, but is considered softhearted. The love of Americans for their country is not an indulgent, it is an exacting and chastising love; they cannot tolerate its defects. Frenchmen behave in the same way, yet they carp at their fellow Frenchmen with fun, either sarcastic or cheerful, whereas Americans denigrate America with ethical melancholy.
Now, in the second place: I remember that, speaking of his fellow Americans, especially of American youth, a great friend of mine said to me one day: "They have no roots." The worst scoundrel in Europe has roots; there is some old human legacy to which he can stick, for better or for worse. Here there is, it seems to me, a certain instability, or fleetingness, in the life of individuals; one is less sure that "it will last," that they will carry through, I don't say with the job they are determined to do, I would rather say with the inner purpose they have formed as to the direction of their own personal life.
That is why, among the general features of American psychology, and despite many exceptions, of course, I think we can observe a certain proneness to a peculiar sort of impatience, and, as a result, a proneness also to quick discouragement. Let me make my thought clearer. I just said that the impatience in question is a peculiar sort of impatience. American crowds (when waiting for a train, for instance or inconvenienced by any of the multiple regulations of our modern life, or plagued by red tape) are incomparably more patient than French crowds. Men and women in this country confront suffering with great courage, and often a strange Stoic resignation. In emergencies they manifest admirable endurance. But they are not patient with life.
They are not patient with their own life, as a rule. And they get disturbed and discouraged very soon, if the work they have undertaken is slow to succeed. The American artist, the American painter, would like to have his work satisfy him rapidly and give immediate results, whereas a French painter, a Cézanne, a Rouault -- disregarded, spurned by all for perhaps thirty or forty years -- remains bent on working with furious patience. As a rule, I think, a young American would be afraid that such an attitude marked only presumptuous stubbornness. If he is not recognized, he starts doubting himself. He thinks he is a failure.
The third point I would like to mention is akin to the second. It is a kind of inner insecurity -- masked, of course, by forced optimism. I don't believe very much in that big, radiant optimism which social etiquette obliges American faces to display. It masks more often than not worry and inner insecurity.
In actual fact, the great idea is to do as if evil did not exist. There was indeed, at one time, a real philosophy of the negation of evil in this country. War has put an end to it. American youth knows now that evil exists, that death exists, that the devil exists. This fact, at all events, does not diminish the inner insecurity of which I am speaking. I deeply respect this inner insecurity, inner discomfort, repressed anxiety -- these things to which many people are a prey. For they are proof that one does not bluff oneself, that one is aware of the awful magnitude and complexity of the problems in which human life is entangled. I believe, nevertheless, that in the last analysis they are caused by a lack of sufficiently firm and integrated intellectual certainties.
Be that as it may, the fact is that people here need often to be intellectually reassured; to know more unquestionably, either through better established rational convictions, or through the testimony of their fellow men, that they are right, especially as regards their idealistic incentives and their faith in the power of good will and generosity. As a corollary, I would say that the unjust European (and Asian) refusal to recognize the good intentions of this country, while trying to offer of the immense effort of American good will any kind of cheap cynical explanation, is of a nature to cause damage to the American soul itself.
Finally, a fourth point relates to the fact that Americans need, as it were, their natural environment to be themselves. That is probably why the behavior of Americans abroad is so different from their behavior at home. I was able to observe the fact in France and in Italy. My Parisian friends had the same impression. Most of the Americans they had known in this country did not seem to be the same persons in Europe. When they are abroad it seems that they feel unhappy, afraid of meeting people, shy. And, as a result, they tend to become arrogant. Where are their cordial, genial, cheerful manners? They left them behind, in the native climate of the big country. One is led to think that each individual needs his home, his natural environment so much that abroad he feels estranged from himself.
The most general fact concerning the race question in America is the opposition which exists between the mores and the law -- I mean to say, between the feelings and behavior of large parts of the white population, and the Federal law. Just as, at the time of Lincoln, the Federal government opposed slavery, to the point where the nation became involved in a tragic civil war, so the Federal law, in all matters which depend on it, stands for the complete equality of all citizens, without any sort of racial discrimination. And thus, each time an open conflict between the mores and the Federal law occurs, a kind of showdown takes place.
Furthermore, it is relevant, it seems to me, to distinguish between two categories of problems: on the one hand those which have to do with civil rights and legal segregation, and on the other hand those which have to do with racial prejudice in individual relations.
Segregation enforced by law, in its multifarious forms pervading all aspects of social life, still exists in Southern states, as a legacy of a social structure which was based on slavery. It corresponds not only to ingrained prejudices, but also to ingrained customs and traditions to which the daily activities of the white man and the Negro have been adjusted for generations, and in the framework of which better conditions for the Negro population, and even progress toward a kind of paternalist racial justice, were able to develop -- on the assumed condition that Negroes should continue being regarded, and regarding themselves, as socially under age.
One must, no doubt, look with understanding and sympathy at the difficulties with which many men of good will, who are aware of their duties toward colored people, but bound by their own local traditions, are confronted in the South. It is quite possible, moreover, that (just as was the case before the Civil War, under the regime of slavery) a number of Negro families may lead a happier (more care-free) life under the afore-mentioned circumstances than they will with the responsibilities of adult age. Yet the question is not a question of happiness, but of human right. And it is inescapable.
I have no doubt that after a more or less long interval, and despite the obstacles which certain local elements may put in the way, legal segregation will completely disappear, under the double pressure of Federal legislation and the decisions of the Supreme Court, and of the fight conducted with such poise, dignity, and self-devotion by the Negro population in Southern states. At this point I would like to pay my tribute of admiration to the colored people of Montgomery, Alabama, and their spiritual leader, Reverend Martin Luther King. They gave, in the famous bus boycott of 1956, an example whose historic importance may be considerable -- the most striking example as yet seen in this country of a possible use, in the Occident, of Gandhian methods of non-violence.
As regards the second category of problems, those which deal with racial prejudice in individual relations, they are not limited to the Southland; to one extent or another they are problems for the whole nation. Miss Margaret Mead observes that the American soldiers who fraternized with the Manus had no anti-Negro feeling with respect to the Negro race in general, to Negroes in the world, but could very well nurture strong anti-Negro bias with respect to their own colored people, their own Negroes in America: for then it is a question of tensions and competition within the social group, and of the presence of a supposedly alien element in the community. The demons of the human heart are ready to feed on the opportunity.
It is not only in the South, but also in any place in the North where a large afflux of Negro population takes place, especially highly industrialized areas, that the popular prejudice against colored people is rampant, composed as it is of a mixture of fear, a contemptuous superiority complex, and pleasure in humiliation, and bullying others, with a latent possibility of awakening here and there the worst instincts of destruction and persecution; it was in the suburbs of Chicago that, some years ago, particularly hateful violence was used to prevent Negro families from moving into sections inhabited by white people. I don't speak of the restricted hotels, restricted clubs, or restricted beaches, and of the "correct" forms that racial prejudice is taking in some parts of the educated or well-to-do strata of the population (and not only in relation to colored people, but in relation to Jews, and sometimes to Irishmen as well . . . ).
These things are heart-rending, and lead now and then to abominable excesses like lynching; this country will probably take a much longer time to put an end to them than to legal segregation. It will put an end to them, though; because it is determined to do so.
They are a plague on it, and they are incompatible with its spirit, the sense of human fellowship inherent in its people, and the very tenets in which living together is founded here. It may be remarked at this point that one may happen to hear in certain circles, as an attempt to seek some sort of moral alibi, blatant assertions about the so-called inferiority of Negroes; yet nothing resembling a racist doctrine exists in America. As a rule, those who fall prey to racial prejudice do not glory in it; they seem rather to feel uncomfortable about it -- it's a kind of physical condition with which they were born, they cannot help feeling this way, that's all. At the bottom of their hearts they realize that they can neither explain nor justify their bias, and consequently they invest it with the mysterious inevitability of a fact of nature.
Another remark may be made, relating to the fact that, whether one likes it or not, Negro citizens are in actual existence an integral part of the nation -- in wartime they are called, as any other citizen is, to imperil their lives for it. In becoming "integrated," they are only becoming socially and culturally what they already are existentially. "Negro people have made greater cultural, educational and social progress in a shorter time than has any other ethnic group in recorded history." In proportion as the number of educated Negroes occupying positions of responsibility in the community grows, the very progress toward complete integration gains momentum automatically.
I just said that the American nation is determined to make an end of anti-Negro prejudice with its typically un-American retinue of human inequity, humiliation and sanctioned distress. A sign of this is the persistent urge, stronger than any shuffling which may occur, which leads those elements in the nation officially representative of it -- namely the legislative and executive branches of the Federal government -- to take an always clearer and firmer stand on the matter. Another sign is the progressive awakening of public opinion, as well as the determination and activity of those self-organized groups of good citizens which are, so to speak, the nerve system of the nation. Last, and not least, no decisive victory over feelings and passions rooted in the obscure recesses of human nature can be achieved without profound inner changes caused by the power of spiritual energies. In this regard the role played by the religious organizations is crucial, and so is their responsibility. It is hard to condone the timorous inertia that Catholic as well as Protestant communities showed in the past with respect to the requirements of the Gospel as far as the Negro question was concerned. The very idea of separate pews in churches, and racial segregation at the communion table, is an intolerable shock for the mind. Well, things are changing fast. The uncompromising stand that Archbishop Rummel has taken in Louisiana in behalf of racial equality has unmistakable significance. As a matter of fact, the Protestant and Catholic clergy are now irrevocably engaged in the fight against segregation and racial prejudice. Every Catholic (and many a non-Catholic too) is indebted to the work pursued in this field for more than thirty years by Father John La Farge, and to the steady effort through which his wisdom and courage have illumined the public mind on the matter. I have been acquainted with Father La Farge's achievements for a long time, and I am one of his many admirers. The following sentence from a book, The Journal of a Southern Pastor, recently published by another priest who shares in his inspiration, has a universal bearing, as far as Christian conscience is concerned: "We Catholics," the author writes, "must deliberately move forward the complete integration of the Negro, welcoming him as our brother in Christ and fellow son of God in all the areas of our society."
To sum up, what we witness when we consider in a general way the race question in America, is the spectacle of a nation which struggles doggedly against itself, or, more accurately, against large segments of its own people, against a certain legacy of evil in its own mores, and against the demons of the human heart -- in order to free itself of abuses which are repellent to its own spirit, and to raise its entire practical behavior to the level of the tenets and principles in which it believes and in the strength of which it was born.
The Negro question is a thorn in the flesh of the American nation. The way in which the nation as such, or the body politic, in the midst of all kinds of local entanglements, reacts against this wound and goes ahead seeking more or less gropingly, but without respite, justice and fairness for all, deserves respect and evinces, within human infirmity, much human grandeur.
As for myself, I pretend in no way -- no more than in the case of the race question -- to offer a complete discussion of the matter in a short chapter. But the problem exists. And it is not irrelevant to my my impromptu reflections, I think, to point out, in a conversational manner, a few things which I have had an opportunity to observe about it.
The first remark I would like to make is that the American approach to problems which will always trouble and harass mankind proceeds, it seems to me, from a desire to face things as they are courageously, and to discover a way of straightening them out, be it at the price of some more or less untoward simplification. In the case of young people (in whose eyes, for instance, the system of "going steady" enjoys the dignity of a kind of social institution) this approach appears to be less far-fetched, and more integrated in the publicly recognized rules and customs of social morality, than the European approach, but, let me say, more naive too, and, on occasion, more naively animal. The final result, as I see it, is not much better than that of the European approach, but not worse either, to be sure. Moreover, stating that the average sexual morals in this country are probably on a level with the average sexual morals in Europe is not to pay a particularly great compliment to either, or to human nature.
Yet it is in no way with the actual moral behavior of people that my few reflections are concerned; they have rather to do with their way of thinking. From this point of view it might be said that a growing preoccupation with sex is a quite general phenomenon in our contemporary Western world, but that in this country it takes particular forms -- less depraved (by reason of basic American good will) than in certain sophisticated or literary European circles, and also sillier (by reason of the American confidence in facts and figures, statistics, "science," and the universal power of teaching). A quite peculiar sort of sex obsession, or, in more accurate terms, of studious, earnest and reverent concern for sex, is thus developing in the mental habits of the educated citizen: as if, once the yoke of Puritanism had been thrown off, American good will had discovered the realm of sex as a terra incognita of eminent and fascinating dignity, from whose conscientious exploration crucial discoveries in our own self-knowledge, and wonderful improvements in our human life should be expected.
Let us not speak of the foolish sexual sentimentalism of advertising lure and imagery. The most significant thing, to my mind, is the impact, on the new concern for sex I have mentioned, of the idea that everything, and especially human relations, is on the one hand matter for teaching and on the other hand matter for shallow rational explanation and so-called science -- where all that counts is that which can be observed by the senses or by instruments, measured, and figured out.
Hence a general tendency to think of all great problems concerning human love in simple terms of sex; and a tendency, in many a cultivated person, to dismiss any idea of subjecting sexual life to supra-biological and supra-sociological ethical standards as a product either of religious prejudice or of a prudish or puritanical cast of mind. At the same time one can witness the development of a sort of religious reverence for the "facts of life" which is, in my opinion, awfully stultifying. And instead of the genuine sex education (integrated in a comprehensive knowledge of the whole human fabric) which modern man needs very badly indeed, one can also witness the preaching of a so-called sex education in which cheap popularized science commingles with soap-opera sentimentality and a most artlessly serious-minded quest for the good. Competent doctors, in a tepidly benevolent, cautious and paternal style, uncover to attentive fathers and mothers of families the mechanisms of sexual pleasure. And the school system has classes in which respectable matrons teach young ladies the best feminine techniques through which male desires can be both stimulated and kept under control, in order that these pupils, naturally innocent and bookishly instructed, surprisingly bold and surprisingly calculating at the same time, may catch and keep a boy and make a happy marriage.
With respect to the common consciousness of the country these things are more conspicuous than really typical. The fact remains that it is a curious spectacle to see so many people either teaching or learning, through biology and psychology, how to be happy in sexual life, plus a lot of items which, as a rule, and since the beginning of things, nature has had its own ready ways of making known to human beings free of Puritan or anti-Puritan complexes.
This chapter and the preceding one were not comprised in my original plan, because my main purpose was only to point out what I love in this country. Why did I include them? -- For two reasons; first, by reason of you, dear reader, Hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frère, and of the mental habits of the public: if I did not speak of the disturbing aspects of the American scene -- even assuming they were extraneous to my subject -- I would appear to be concealing them on purpose, or be considered still more stupid and naive than I am.
The second reason is better: in reality the aspects in question are not extraneous to my subject. If we love a person or a country, it is only by looking at those things which carry into him or it the mark of the misery of human nature, and at the way in which he or it confronts them, that our own awareness of the reasons for our love is made complete. Only in the Kingdom of God has the devil no part. In the world, and in every nation of the world, he has his part. The question, for a given nation, is whether it likes or dislikes the fact, and whether it strives to turn evil to acconnt or to get clear of it.
It is surely not for what I do not love in her that I love America. But in the very violence with which, far from trying to hide them, she lays bare her own evils, or the kind of avowal or open display she makes of them and in the nerve and courage with which she struggles against them once she has become conscious of their malignancy -- there is a deeply and genuinely human element which causes me to love her still more.
As regards the subject of the present chapter, and that silly infatuation with the idea of sex to which this country's misguided good will is now giving way, the American people are still in the first of the two stages of which I just spoke, the stage of open avowal. The second stage, the stage of effort and struggle toward recovery, is sure to come about. When psychologists and psychiatrists who have a responsibility of their own for the infatuation in question, are made aware by statistics, and even perhaps a bit of common sense, of its destructive after-effects on the mental health of the nation, they will be among the first to crusade against it.
Now I come to some more definite reflections. The first remark I would like to submit is that there exists, in a general way, two opposite scales of values, in Europe and in this country. The supreme value in the opinion of the European, especially the French, people, is, I think, intelligence -- intelligence in contradistinction to goodness. If it is a question of the inner disposition of souls, I have no doubt that there is as much goodness in European people as in American people. There were, and there are, in Europe, saints who put divine love and love for the neighbor above all else. And if the French like to make a show of what is less good in them, it is in order to push the bad things outside, and thus to hide and shelter the good things inside which are their real treasure.
Yet I am speaking of a quite different thing: I am speaking of the accepted scale of values that people have in their minds and use in the conversation of ordinary life as well as in their external social behavior.
And I would say that in Europe, especially in France, "to be good" is synonymous with being naive, green, something of a simpleton. Wickedness, maliciousness -- appears to be a condition required for intelligence. So it happens that when you return from this country to Europe, your first impression is that you are entering a wasp's nest. You are stung on all sides. (I remember a letter of an American residing in Paris, who wrote to a friend of his: "At last I am really accepted in the country, and treated like a Frenchman: today I was abused by my concierge, abused by a policeman, abused by the post office employees, and berated by two art critics.")
Now, there is some advantage in this cast of mind. It entails strong intellectual competition; the law of the survival of the fittest plays a not negligible part in European culture. And there is even some truth involved -- for it is true that the intellectual virtues and the human virtues do not keep pace with one another. But the mistake consists in believing that everyone is an intellectual genius and has all the rights to maliciousness and aggressiveness involved.
If we turn now to the scale of values used in this country, it is just the opposite. The supreme value in the American scale of values is goodness; human reliability, good will, devotion, helpfulness. Hence, that American kindness which is so striking a feature to foreign visitors. Americans are ready to help, and happy to help. They are on equal terms of comradeship with everybody. And why? Simply because everybody is a human being. A fellow man. That's enough for him to be supposed worthy of assistance and sympathy -- sometimes of exceedingly thoughtful and generous attention. When you arrive in this country you experience in this connection a strange unforgettable sense of relief. You breathe more easily. And for all that, intelligence is not victimized.
I mentioned earlier the Manus of New Guinea. I would like to glance once again at this people who in twenty-five years jumped from the primitive to the civilized age, and at the impact that the passage of a million Americans through their island during the Second World War had on this anthropological phenomenon. Let us quote a few passages from the celebrated anthropologist Magaret Mead, in her book New Lives for Old: "There is no reason to believe that the Americans, the some million Americans, who went through Manus represented in any way a specially selected, better mannered, or more idealistic section of the United States than any other such cross-section. Yet the Manus experienced them as a people whose relationships to each other were casteless and classless, where each man treated each other man as a human being."
"The Americans treated us like individuals, like brothers," they said to the author.
"The Americans believe in having work done by machines so that men can live to old age instead of dying worn out while they are still young."
"As the Manus report it today, the Americans believed that every human being's life and health was of inestimable value, something for which no amount of property, time, and effort was too much to sacrifice . . . 'From the Americans we learned that human beings are irreplaceable and unexpendable, while all material things are replaceable and so expendable.'"
"'From the Americans we learned that it is only human beings that are important.'"
Shall we conclude that Manus are more perspicacious than Europeans with their slogans about American materialism? Let us say, rather, that while remaining on their island, they had the unique opportunity of seeing Americans at home. The million Americans who passed through Manus were not there Americans abroad; they had America with them, that kind of roving American world which was the American army.
A particular result of the scale of values I mentioned above is that, as I said, we find here a general kindness, kindness to everyone, the extension of which is, so to speak, indefinite. But close friendship, with all the hardships and quarrels, and the human communion it involves, seems perhaps to have, as a result, a little less opportunity to develop. (Moreover, conversation must be pretty difficult if it is true that in this country, as a good lady said to my wife, "it is becoming to speak neither of the body, nor of the soul.") So it is that in the midst of general kindness and the busiest social life, it is not rare to find in individuals a feeling of loneliness: perhaps because there is a sort of opposition between openness to all and that close world which is the world of friendship.
That is a point I only submit. I don't know, but it seems to me that there is something there.
The last point I would like to make in this chapter is about mutual toleration and the sense of fellowship. This sense is tragically thwarted by prejudice when it comes to the race question. The fact remains, however, that racial prejudice, as I previously remarked, is incompatible with the very tenets of the American way of life and the deepest demands of the American psyche, and that, as a result, this country has set itself to eradicate it. As to intellectual intolerance, intolerance with respect to the philosophical or religious creeds of co-citizens, it is no less destructive of the very tenets of American life; and the American conscience has triumphed over it. Speaking of New England culture in the days of the Puritans, Paul Elmer More stated that this culture passed through three successive stages: religious intolerance, imaginative isolation, nervous impotence. These are things of the past. The danger inherent in the instincts of human nature will always exist, to be sure. The Klan exists, with its cross-burnings. Yet despite any tension, or sporadic outburst of fear or anger, the American public mind, as well as American law, has irrevocably passed sentence on the use of violence, coercion, slander, or menace against any dissenter. Mutual toleration is an absolute necessity here, as a result of the very fact that the American community is made up of people from completely different national, social, and religious stocks. Without mutual tolerance, everybody would be at each other's throat. And that which was thus made obligatory by historical necessity represents in itself, at the same time, an invaluable gain for civilization: people committed to live together in mutual respect and tolerance. America is the only country in the world where the vital importance of the sense of human fellowship is recognized in such a basic manner by the nation as a whole.
Let me add that even so great an achievement could sometimes be understood in the wrong way. Kindness is not all. As I put it a moment ago, intelligence is not victimized here by goodness and the sense of human fellowship. It might be, though. And in one particular case I think it is, namely in the case of high school education, where remarkably intelligent and devoted teachers seem to make kindness prevalent to such a point that the great thing is to have everybody equally happy and successful, and to train happy boys and girls in any talent of their own and any activity of social life -- no matter how great the cost to genuine general culture and the fundamentals of integrated knowledge.
Coming now to more general considerations, I would like to observe that, as a result of a stronger community spirit, the conditions of intellectual life in this country differ somewhat from those in Europe. What I mean is that both organized intellectual effort and the general, collective intellectual work in the nation, the tilling of the soil for future intellectual harvests, and the general advance of research have much better possibilities here than in Europe. It is a fact that in more and more fields it has become imperative for scholars and the erudite in general as well as for scientists to acquaint themselves with what is going on in this country. But when it comes to the creative work of which a few are capable, and which demands solitary and ferocious obstinacy (and all the more dedication as nobody knows whether the result will be worth the pains), the conditions are, I would say, relatively less favorable: they involve a greater dislike for anything that entails a risk of separating the individual from the community.
I am thinking in particular of that kind of fear of outshining others which can sometimes be observed in academic circles. Many an American professor seems to be anxious not to be more brilliant or more original than the average member of the teaching community. After all, is not genius always harmful to mutual tolerance and a good state of affairs in the community, and is not mediocrity of good standing preferable to any occasion for jealousy, strife and rivalry?
Well, it is always enjoyable to have some fun at the expense of excessive reverence for community feelings. The fact remains that so far as intellectual life is concerned (this is the only perspective in which I am considering things at the present moment), the excessive reverence I just mentioned is peculiar to the academic world and even to its less remarkable elements. In more general terms let us say that between American intellectual life and European intellectual life there is a sort of dissymmetry, the one having often its weaker points with respect to qualities in which the other has its stronger ones, and conversely; but the one as a whole is at a level with the other as a whole. Moreover, American intellectual life, being in full growth, is at each moment able to develop unexpected potentialities. Today the emphasis is on science. In a few decades it may also be on the humanities or philosophy. In the realm of creative imagination, American novelists, poets, and critics are among those to whom modern literature owes its greatest achievements and most delicately penetrating investigations.
I do not forget, naturally, that field in which I have an interest of my own, the field of philosophy. Mortimer Adler was right in pointing out, in a recent article, that the names of Charles Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce, William James, and John Dewey give clear proof of the fact that in the period of general growth which took place after the Civil War, American philosophers came to deserve the appreciation due to great intellectual personalities. Their work (which, whatever conflicting points of view and sharp oppositions it may involve, has in common, as I see it, a general concern for objectivity, and a thoughtful attention to every aspect of existence) shows how absurd is the notion, still accepted by many people who are ignorant of this country, that the American mind has a congenital aversion for abstract ideas, and for sustained and disinterested reflection.
This work, no doubt, still largely depends on the various intellectual currents which were born abroad, especially in Europe; it is nonetheless genuinely creative. For it causes a body of philosophical material of considerable extent to be tried, tested, revised and recast against the background of the American moral and cultural situation, and worked out into original doctrines. So it is that now, as Herbert Schneider puts it, a completely new chapter in American philosophy is being written by the present generation. It is, I would add, no small achievement to have here a Metaphysical Society and a Review of Metaphysics which have taken a stand against all forms of positivism and against the concept that science is the only kind of valid knowledge human reason is capable of. "That America has come into its own philosophically seems undeniable," Mortimer Adler rightly stated. "Where we fall short, as compared with the older philosophical countries of Europe, is in public interest and participation and in further penetration of philosophy into the intellectual and political life of the nation. But this too will doubtless come in time."
For the time being there is indeed in American ways -- I would like to mention it parenthetically -- a particular point which offers little cause for elation, namely the attitude of public opinion toward intellectuals, especially toward artists. In France artists are kings; everybody is interested in their doings and in the opinion of a great novelist or a great painter on national affairs. Here, on the contrary, their opinions carry less weight than that of prominent businessmen; furthermore, and this is more serious, they seem to arouse some suspicion, and communion between the beholder and the artist is lacking in the very place where it should exist, namely, in that area which, though indeed larger than the small group of expert connoisseurs, is narrower than the general public, and which may be called the enlightened public. As to the connoisseurs, their fondness for art and their taste are especially remarkable here (one has only to think of the incomparable treasures in modern painting which have been brought to this country by the intelligent choice of private collectors). The general public has as vulgar a taste here as everywhere, though there is in them an eagerness to understand which could produce astonishing results if it were cultivated. But what about the enlightened public, with which I am particularly concerned? What the enlightened public expects from the artist is, doubtless, some kind of genuine intellectual enjoyment, and in general they are pretty good judges. But I am afraid they are no more interested in the inner creative effort of a painter or a writer than, I would say, in that of the cook who prepares food for them in restaurants. They enjoy the work as they enjoy the food, but the quest and discoveries of the artist in the proper field of art and poetry, his creative agony, stirs almost no one, I believe, outside the closed world of the artists and connoisseurs themselves.
To close this parenthesis, and come back to my subject, there is, I would observe, a possible mistake on the requirements of mutual toleration which, in my opinion, it is important to be aware of.
One happens sometimes to meet people who think that a primary condition of tolerance and peaceful co-existence is not to believe in any truth or not to adhere firmly to any assertion as unshakeably true in itself. May I say that these people are, in fact, the most intolerant people, for if perchance they were to believe in something as unshakeably true, they would feel compelled by the same stroke to impose by force and coercion their own belief on their fellow men. The only remedy they have found for their abiding tendency to fanaticism is to cut themselves off from truth. As a result, they insist that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice simply cannot be a good citizen "because he cannot and is not expected to admit the possibility of a view different from his own, the true view."
Well, if it were true that whoever knows or claims to know truth or justice cannot admit the possibility of a view different from his own, and is bound to impose his true view on other people by violence, the rational animal would be the most dangerous of beasts. In reality, it is through rational means, that is, through persuasion, not coercion, that man is bound by his very nature to try to induce others to share in what he knows or claims to know as true and just. Be it a question of science, metaphysics, or religion, the man who says "What is truth?", as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race. There is, in other words, real and genuine tolerance only when a man is firmly and absolutely convinced of a truth, or of what he holds to be a truth, and when, at the same time, he recognizes the right of those who deny this truth to exist, and to contradict him, and to speak their own mind, not because they are free from truth but because they seek truth in their own way, and because he respects in them human nature and human dignity, and those very resources and living springs of the intellect and of conscience which make them potentially capable of attaining the truth he loves, if some day they happen to see it.
The views I have just criticized about the "what is truth?" supposedly required by mutual toleration are not specifically American -- it was Kelsen who made a system of them. Moreover, when you hear, them expressed -- not infrequently, I would say -- in this country, they are much more an easy-going way of speaking than an expression of serious views to be put into practice. In actual fact what people think is rather that a kind of humility always keeps pace with the spirit of tolerance. And this is perfectly true.
I don't believe, nevertheless, that it is without utility explicitly to realize that doubt and intellectual timidity are not a prerequisite for mutual toleration; and that it is truth, not ignorance, which makes us humble, and gives us the sense of what remains unknown in our very knowledge. In one sense there is wisdom in appealing to our ignorance, if we mean the ignorance of those who know, not the ignorance of those who are in the dark.
Reflections on America II