All Commentary
Friday, December 1, 1972

Six Ideas to Keep Us Human (Part II)

Part One of this essay presents a diagnosis of the present malaise in terms of a loss of contact with six vital ideas. The ideas which keep us human may be summarized as follows:

1. Free Will. Man’s gift of free will makes him a responsible being.

2. Rationality. Man is a reasoning being who, by taking thought, gains valid truths about himself and the universe.

3. Self-responsibility. Each person is the custodian of his own energy and talents, charged with the lifetime task of bringing himself to completion.

4. Beauty. Man confronts beauty in the very nature of things, and reproduces this vision in art.

5. Goodness. Man has a moral sense, enabling and requiring him to choose between good and evil.

6. The Sacred. Man participates in an order which transcends nature and society.

It is no secret that a great many philosophers and scientists deny free will and affirm determinism; it is also a fact that no one can really bring himself around to believing that he is an automaton. A philosopher who announces himself as a determinist presumes to offer us a conclusion he has arrived at after observation, after marshalling the relevant evidence, after reflection, and as the end result of a chain of reasoning. Each of these steps reflects the action of a free being, and these free actions can never be pieced together so as to contrive an unfree result. Man’s will is free; it is so free that it can deny this freedom!

Take the case of Baruch Spinoza. If any man ever lived free it was Spinoza; he was the “inner directed” man par excellence. But Spinoza’s own experience clashed with the new world view of Mechanism — the notion that the universe is constructed along the lines of an intricate piece of clockwork. Ideology overcame experience and Spinoza denied that his will was free. I quote from Proposition XLVIII of his Ethics:

There is in no mind absolute or free will, but the mind is determined for willing this or that by a cause which is determined in its turn by another cause, and this one again by another, and so on to infinity.

The mind is a fixed and determined mode of thinking, and therefore cannot be the free cause of its actions, or it cannot have the absolute faculty of willing and unwilling; but for willing this or that it must be determined by a cause which is determined by another, and this again by another, etc. Q.E.D.¹

Free Will

If the individual does not have free will, then he is not at liberty to reject determinism! But where will a man find a position from which he might judge whether his will is indeed free, or not. The answer is: Only as he looks within himself, at the workings of his inner life; by introspection, in other words. Now introspection is rather frowned upon today as a means of getting at the truth, as not being in accord with scientific technique. Early science viewed nature from the standpoint of the external observer, as a theater goer views a play. The man occupying the seat in the first row of the balcony is observing the drama unfold upon the stage; he is detached from the action, is not involved in the play, his standpoint is objective. The world view that grew out of science is assumed to be the way the universe looks to an outsider who is not part of the action, merely looking in upon it.

Once this approach is adopted, what follows? Let me answer by quoting from Jacques Barzun’s great book, Science: The Glorious Entertainment: “Pure science was engaged in sketching, bit by bit, the plan of a machine — a gigantic machine identical with the universe. According to the vision thus unfolded, every existing thing was matter, and every piece of matter was a working part of the cosmic technology.”² Thus emerged the ideology bearing the label Mechanistic Materialism, and human beings schooled in this ideology come to think of themselves as mere cogs in the world machine. And just as every gear and cog in the machine is moved by another, so is every human action the mere effect of a previous cause, and so on. Observe a man’s actions from the outside and you see only his body and limbs in motion; nothing that you can see from the outside gives you any assured knowledge of what is going on inside him. You cannot observe his will from the outside, nor his mind. You might guess what’s going on, but that’s the best you can do.

A Hidden Inner Life

There is one region of the universe which will always be beyond the ken of the external observer, and that is the region of the inner life. Each man’s inner life is concealed from all the world; he alone has access to it. Millions of people can view the same eclipse of the sun, but only one person can know your inner life, and that is you. Truth about the will in action can be known by introspection only; it will never be disclosed to those who adopt the standpoint of the external observer and refuse to shift their perspective. If there is indeed freedom of the will, this is a truth which, in the nature of the case can be known only as each person knows it first hand in himself. Let a man look within himself and he knows with solid assurance that he is capable of exercising freedom of choice in situations where real alternatives are open to him. Which of us has not wrestled with dilemmas of the type: “I want to do this; but I ought to do that”? We know, in this context, that the will is free.

There’s an old story about Galileo, who assured one of his contemporaries that the ring around Jupiter was composed of satellites; “I’ve seen them through my telescope; take a look and see for yourself.” The friend had figured out that the ring was solid and refused to put his eye to the glass, the only posture from which he could test his theory. The free will, if it operates at all, operates only within, and those who are so wedded to the standpoint of the external observer that they refuse to look within, effectively bar themselves from ever obtaining any knowledge of the matter.

The consequence of this state of affairs is unfortunate. It is “unscientific,” the average man is led to assume, to believe he has free will, and that decisive action on his part can make a real difference in life. He is taught that he is determined by heredity, or environment, or race, or childhood traumas, or poverty, or by some other factor that limits his capacity for free choice; and his ability to choose is impaired because he thinks he doesn’t have it! The initiative is given over to environment and man only reacts; he doesn’t act. Adjustments to the environment, comfort, and ease then come to be the goals of life. If we accept the dictum of a great economist that “the end, goal or aim of any action is always the relief of a felt uneasiness,” then we have given up on life, for we’ll never rest easy until we’re dead! To live is to strive for greater intensity of life, and this means that we may choose adventure, heroism, suffering, and maybe even death.

The issue of free will constitutes a battle line of first importance. A people among whom the flame of life has burned so low that their philosophers preach determinism will be severely handicapped in the game of life. They will find it difficult to put their trust in reason and, as we might expect, reason itself is now under attack from several quarters.


The second of the big ideas which make man man is this: Man is a reasoning being who, by taking thought, gains valid truths about himself and the universe. The attack on the rational mind comes from several quarters. Philosophical materialism and mechanism assumes that the ultimate reality is nonmetal; only bits of matter or electrical charges or whatever are, in the final analysis, real. If so, then thought is but a reflex of neutral events. “Our mental conditions,” wrote T. H. Huxley, “are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism.”

Evolutionism, popularly understood, is materialistic and mechanical. So viewed it conveys the idea that living things began as a stirring in the primeval ooze and became what they are now by random interaction with the physiochemical environment, moved by no purpose, aiming at no goal. Darwinism offers an account of organic change which has no need of intelligence to guide it.

From popular psychology comes the notion that reason is but rationalization, that conscious mental processes are but a gloss for primitive and irrational impulses erupting from the unconscious mind. Psychoanalysis discredits mind by subordinating intellect to the id.

From Marxianism comes the notion that class interest dictates a man’s thinking. There is one logic for the proletariat and another for the bourgeoisie; and the mode of production governs the philosophical systems men erect, and their life goals as well. The unfortunately placed middle class forever gropes in darkness, unable to share the light revealed to Marx and his votaries.

Convictions about the reality of reason and free will develop in the context of our vision of the ultimate nature of things. And here I bring up again the ideology of Mechanistic Materialism. There are several kinds of Materialism, the most prominent today being Dialectic Materialism, the official religion of Marxianism. However, the several brands of Materialism differ only in nonessentials; they agree that all forms of consciousness arise, develop, and disappear with changes in the material world. Every variety of Materialism downgrades mind; it makes mind an offshoot of matter, a derivative of material particles, an epiphenomenon.

Let Bertrand Russell tell us in his own words:

“Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms.

.. Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way.”³

Of course, if matter is the ultimate reality, mind is discredited. But if this discredited instrument is all we have to rely on, how can we put any confidence in its findings? If untrustworthy reason tells us that we cannot trust reason, then we have no logical ground for accepting the conclusion that reason is untrustworthy! Well, I don’t trust the reasoning of people who champion the irrational, and I do know that our reasoning powers may be — like anything else — misused. But when human thought is guided by the rules of logic, undertaken in good faith, and tested by experience and tradition, it is an instrument capable of expanding the domain of truth. Reason is not infallible, but it is infinitely more to be trusted than nonreason!


The third great truth is that each man is the custodian of his own energy and talents, charged with bringing himself to completion and having a lifetime to do the job. Gifted with reason and free will, the human being must take himself in hand in order to complete his development; most animals, on the other hand, simply mature, brought to full term by innate drives. Human beings are not thus programmed, and occasionally we have to act against inclination and instinct and inertia if we would achieve our goals. This is simply illustrated in sports, where the successful performer forces himself to train even on those days when he’d rather be doing something else. The bike club I ride with held a century run over a six mile course. A couple of youngsters turned up in full regalia and rode off, one pacing the other, looking very professional. Quite a few miles later I noticed that one of the young men had dropped out, so I asked the other what happened.

“I train every day whether I want to or not,” he replied, “he just goes out when he feels like it.”

There you have it on a small scale, but the same principle applies to life. “That wonderful structure, Man,” wrote Edmund Burke, “whose prerogative it is to be in a great degree a creature of his own working, and who, when made as he ought to be made, is destined to hold no trivial place in the creation.”

The persistent downgrading of life, during recent centuries has reduced man to a cosmic accident inhabiting a fourth rate planet, lost in the immensities of space and time, in a materialistic universe devoid of values. This dubious vision has not been vouchsafed to the birds and the beasts, but only to human beings. Only man among all the creatures of the planet has been able to take all time and all space within his purview and draw conclusions of any sort. And it is a perverse kind of silliness for a creature gifted with the ability to understand and explain to bemoan his littleness in the face of the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos. Whose mind is it that comprehends all this? What creature controls an enlarging domain? Man confronting the universe as astronomer, physicist, geologist, engineer, is entitled to stand tall; would that he might do as well in other departments!


In the area of aesthetics, for example, to illustrate the fourth vital idea. Here man confronts beauty in the very nature of things, and reproduces his vision in art. In a materialistic age it comes to be believed that particles of matter in motion are the only realities, which means that beauty is unreal. “Beauty,” we are told in the familiar phrase, “is in the eye of the beholder.” How did it get there? we want to know, unless loveliness — as every great artist has taught us — is real, and out there waiting to be experienced.

What shall a painter resort to when the ideology of the age convinces him and his potential public that matter is the ultimate reality and beauty a mere illusion? Let Picasso answer:

When I was young I was possessed by the religion of great art. But, as the years passed, I realized that art as one conceived it up to the end of the 1880′s was, from then on, dying, condemned, and finished and that the pretended artistic activity of today, despite all its superabundance, was nothing but a manifestation of its agony.

As for me, from cubism on I have satisfied these gentlemen (rich people who are looking for something extravagant) and the critics also with all the many bizarre notions which have come into my head and the less they understood the more they admired them…. Today, as you know, I am famous and rich. But when I am alone with my soul, I haven’t the courage to consider myself as an artist.4

One more quotation, this time from Joseph Wood Krutch, generalizing about modern artists:

They no longer represent anything in the external world, because they no longer believe that the world which exists outside of man in any way shares or supports human aspirations and values or has any meaning to him.5

Art once celebrated the greatness of the human spirit and man’s aspiration for the divine; great art reconciled man to his fate. “We are saved by beauty,” wrote Dostoevsky. Art now is the reaching out for bizarre forms of self-expression by more or less interesting personalities; or it becomes outright buffoonery and charlatanism.


The fifth big idea has to do with ethics; it is the conviction that moral values are really embedded in the nature of things, and that men have the capacity and are under the necessity of choosing the good and eschewing evil. Given a revival of belief in reason and free will I am confident that ethical questions will be brought within the human capacity to resolve. But if we succumb to the attacks on reason and free will, and if we accept the ideology of Materialism we will seek in vain for some substitute for ethics. We reduce morality to legality; we confuse what is right with what works; or what advantages us, or what pleases us. These things, including utilitarianism and relativism, boil down to ethical nihilism, for if nothing is really right, then nothing is really wrong either.

The Sacred

The sixth big idea pertains to the human experience of the sacred — a dimension which transcends the workaday world. This encounter evokes awe, reverence, a sense of the sublime; and it produces — in the intellectual sphere —the philosophy known as Theism. Theism is the belief that the universe is not merely brute fact, but that a mental/spiritual principle is at the heart of things; the finite mind in each of us is somehow grounded in an infinite Mind. In one perspective, Theism encompasses all the other ideas; and in another perspective, if our thinking is right on the previous five ideas, Theism is an immediate inference.

We resist the word “God” because for most people the notions of their childhood still cling to it, and these notions they have outgrown while they have not permitted their ideas of God to grow with them. But if one rejects the idea of God, he has no logical stopping place short of the idea of Materialisim; and if he goes this far, he has embraced an ideology which shortchanges his own mental processes. Mind, reason, logic, and God are all bound up together. Santayana was once referred to as an atheist, and he replied, “My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe, and rejects only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of human interests.” Genuine Theism demands that we be “a-theistic” toward the false gods.

Theism contends, as a minimum, that a Conscious Intelligence sustains all things, working out its purposes through man, nature, and society. This is to say that the universe is rationally structured, and this is why correct reasoning pans a few precious nuggets of truth.

Acceptance of the Creator reminds men of their own finitude; no man can believe in his own omnipotence who has any sense of God’s power. And finite men, aware of their limited vision, have a strong inducement to enrich their own outlook by cross fertilization from other points of view.

When theistic belief is absent or lacking in a society, men are beguiled by the prospect of establishing a heaven on earth. They vainly dream that some combination of political and scientific expertise will usher in utopia, and they use this future possibility as an excuse for present tyranny. Under Theism, they modestly seek to improve themselves and their grasp of truth — thus making the human situation more tolerable, more just, more enjoyable — confident that the final issue is in God’s hands.

But won’t men perversely use Theism as in excuse for intolerance and even persecution, as indeed has happened in history? Of course they will, for there is no good thing that cannot be misused. But reflect on the deadliness of the alternative as exhibited by regimes which make atheism official. Communism, during its first fifty years in several countries, has taken a toll of at least eighty-four million lives!

What is Man? the creature from Mars might ask. And our answer would be that man is a being with an anthropoid body and six ideas. What if he loses contact with one or more of these ideas? our questioner continues. In that case, we answer, his humanity is thereby that much diminished.

Diminished man has come to the fore at an accelerating rate during the past century. In statecraft, he was unable to resolve minor differences between Western nations and thereby prevent them from tearing each other to pieces in the cycle of wars which began in 1914. In religion, we have a split between the “death of god” trend, on the one hand; and, on the other, an emphasis on push-button salvationism. In education, there is agreement on one point only, that there is a crisis in the schools; but there’s no consensus as to cause and cure. Philosophers have abandoned the great tradition in philosophy to embrace one fad after another; positivism, linguistic analysis, existentialism. Then there is the “treason of the intellectuals,” many of whom have found communism and socialism irresistible; who resolved that there should be no more war in the Thirties but decided a few years later that war was a wonderful thing. And in personal life, at a time when the male is giving his worst performance, unable to reconcile women to their roles in life, the female wants liberation so she can imitate the male!

It goes without saying that as I list a portion of the indictment against modern man, I have in mind statesmen, artists, philosophers, theologians, intellectuals, as well as ordinary men and women, who have kept the faith, who have not lost their heads. I am not certain that the madness from which we suffer has run its course, and that we’ve turned the corner, but I am enough of an optimist to have confidence that the corner is within sight, and that there is sufficient health in us to make it. 



1 Spinoza, pp. 74-5 of the Everyman’s Library edition of Ethics, (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1925).

² (New York: Harper & Row, 1964) p. 21.

3 From the essay “Free Man’s Worship.” Reprinted in Selected Papers of Bertrand Russell (New York: Modern Library, 1927) pp. 3, 14.

4 Quoted by Joseph Wood Krutch in And Even If You Do (New York: Wm. Morrow & Co., 1967) p. 186.

5 Ibid., p. 185. 

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.