All Commentary
Wednesday, November 1, 1972

Six Ideas to Keep Us Human

The Reverend Mr. Opitz is a member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education, a seminar lecturer, and author of the book, Religion and Capitalism: Allies Not Enemies.

Most people live lives of quiet desperation, Henry David Thoreau told us. If there was truth in that observation, in the pleasant, spacious old New England of Thoreau’s day, how much more truth is packed into those words in these melancholy days! Events have gotten out of hand and the world lurches into chaos.

Things have fallen apart faster than any of us would have dared predict, and we are seized by pangs of guilt and self-doubt. So many promising experiments have gone sour, from the New Freedom of Woodrow Wilson to the latest ukase of the present administration. The statesmen of this era talked peace and sought to outlaw war, but they let the twentieth century break down into the bloodiest period of all the twenty-five hundred years of warfare studied by Pitirim Sorokin. “We live,” wrote this great scholar, “in an age unique for the unrestrained use of brute force in international relations.”

The threat of protracted international conflict is bad enough, but there is also the well-founded fear of domestic violence and crime. And even if we are lucky enough to escape actual robbery, we know that inflation is steadily draining our wealth. We’ve seen the race issue go from integration to Black Nationalism; we’ve witnessed the emergence of the sex and drug cult, the rise of astrology, witchcraft and voodooism; V.D. has reached epidemic proportions among the young; and then there is abortion, homosexuality, the campus crisis, the environmental crisis, the inner crisis in man himself. For is it not true, as Yeats says in a famous poem, that “The wicked act with dreadful intensity, while the good lack all conviction.”

Youth Seeking Identity

It is a time of troubles for all, but perhaps it’s easier for the old whose habit patterns firmed up in a healthier era than for the young who are searching for a value system and cannot find one. Depression, in the vocabulary of many young people, does not mean the economic malaise which this country staggered through during the Nineteen Thirties; it means the somber mood in which they hang question marks around life, wondering if it really is worth living. They are trying to find meaning for their lives in terms of the values their elders lived by — or on any other terms — and they are not having much luck. We sometimes find their behavior rather bizarre; the long hair, the weird clothing, the haphazard life styles. But perhaps these symbolize a message they are trying to get across to us. Some of the so-called hippies, by deliberately being ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed, may be practicing a charade whose message is that the More Abundant Life, as defined in New Deal terms, is not a proper goal for man. Perhaps they have a suspicion that reality is wider and deeper than the physical universe revealed to common sense — as religion has always maintained —and so they experiment with mind-expanding drugs. They grope after some form of religious expression, but still they drift.

Now, we know something about the rise and fall of civilizations. In our schoolbooks we read about “The glory that was Greece, and the grandeur that was Rome.” Toynbee, Spengler and Dawson have made us aware of dead civilizations on other continents. A civilization comes into existence cradled in dominant ideas, launched by deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice, and it maintains itself in a tonic condition only so long as it has solid grounds for believing in itself and its destiny. But civilizations wane; Rome fell; Spengler predicted the decline of the West. We need not buy a single one of Spengler’s theories, but it is hard to argue against his phrase: The West is in decline. Great numbers of people in this favored land no longer believe in the things that made Western civilization unique.

An animal species which has flourished in a given area may be wiped out by a disease, or it may be decimated by a predator, or a climatic change may destroy its food supply. Every one of these afflictions has beset primitive peoples in times past, but a civilization does not founder for any of these reasons. A civilization goes under when its people, for one reason or another, lose contact with the big keynote ideas of their culture.

Ideas Make Us Human

Wherein lies the great difference between the human species and every other? We have much in common with other forms of life, especially with the warm-blooded vertebrates. In structure we bear some resemblance to the manlike apes, but the critical difference in the domain of ideas far outweighs any resemblances. If a chimpanzee has any thoughts at all about what it means to be an ape, they are rudimentary; he’s a pretty good animal without even thinking about it. But no man is fully human unless he maintains a lively contact with a set of ideas as to what it means to be a person.

This is where our disease has set in, in the realm of ideas. The perilous days we are living through are not the result of a drying up of the food supply, which is more abundant than ever. There’s been no marked change in the physique of modern man, and disease is not a menace. Nor are we beset by predators. The malaise from which we suffer has impaired the ideas which instruct us what t means to be men and women, and we function poorly in consequence. The people of our race built the Parthenon, constructed he great systems of philosophy, painted the ceiling of the Sistine Clapel, wrote the plays of Shakespeare and the music of Bach; and we can’t figure out how to teach our kids tolerance and mutual respect without busing them all over town! Something is definitely wrong with us, and it won’t be right with us until we come to terms with six big ideas. I’ll mention them briefly now and deal with them at greater length later on. They are the right convictions about free will, reason, self responsibility, beauty, goodness, and the sacred. We have “blown it” at every one of these points, and that’s more than enough to account for the sorry spectacle modern man has made of himself. It also points the way to recovery. Let’s, first of all, hear a portion of he indictment leveled at us by contemporaries.

Downgrading Man

The human race is getting a bad press these days, and we love it. Norman Cousins told us a while back that “Modern Man is Obsolete,” and we confer a couple of distinguished editorships on him in a frenzy of approval. Robert Ardrey writes a book to demolish what he calls The Romantic Fallacy and argues that our forebears were killer apes, whose blood lust still surges in our veins. And so great is the demand for preachments of this sort that the book has gone through seventeen printings! The creature we used to refer to as the glory of creation is, when you scratch the surface, little more than a Naked Ape, Desmond Morris tells us. This book has gone through six printings and there are two paperback editions. Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Morris writes a second book, The Human Zoo. The Nobel Laureate in biology, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, goes Morris one better with a book entitled The Crazy Ape. And it is common knowledge that this odious race fouls its own nest, pollutes the environment of its neighbors, wars ceaselessly on its own kind, destroys wildlife, watches Lawrence Welk and votes Republican. The creature once regarded as little lower than the angels is now ranked several degrees below the beasts!

The books whose titles I have listed above purport to be in the realm of science. In the realm of the admittedly fictitious there is a new school of novelists who aim, in their stories, to reveal man as the pitiable slob he really is. A critic comments that “From Cervantes to Hemingway, storytellers have assumed that man has hopes and aspirations, and that they could be expressed meaningfully. Bosh, says the new school. Man is blob, creeping and leaping about a world he cannot control, his words meaningless or hypocritical or both.”1

Immortality of the Soul

How different the outlook of a great writer like William Faulkner, in these words from his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950: “I believe that man will lot merely endure; he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he clone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Brave words such as these are in danger today of being drowned by the sheer bulk of the other message, which, through the numerous outlets it has contrived, produces the enervating atmosphere)f misanthropy in which we struggle for survival. Take the movies. We are given films which degrade our species by focusing on the sordid, the silly, the ugly, the cowardly, the disgusting; as if all elements of the dramatic were lacking in characters who exhibit nobility, heroism, kindness, or even common decency. Another tack is taken in such a film as “The Hellstrom Chronicle.” The mere ability to film those astonishing pictures of the insect world represents the culmination of the work of many geniuses, but this heartening thought is squelched by the narrator who tells us toward the end of the film that they really do organize things better in the insect world, and human beings should learn from wasps and ants to submerge their individual talents for the greater glory of the hive and termitary!

The examples I have cited from works of popular science and the realm of entertainment might be multiplied many times, and they represent no more than the fraction of the iceberg that pokes itself above the surface of the water. The huge mass below the water line represents the mood, outlook, trend or drift that sways the multitude.

In many previous ages lonely thinkers and poets sounded the note of pessimism, voiced their despair, and vented their hatred of life. But they were read and heard by only a handful of their contemporaries; they did not reach the multitudes. The masses of men in previous ages were comfortably insulated against ideas of any sort; most of them couldn’t read and the range of the human voice limited the size of the audience. The traditional religious belief gave men’s lives meaning and even dignity, and most human energy was used up in producing enough to live on.

Catering to the Masses

Things are different now. Antihuman sentiments, dislike of humanity, hatred of life, are epidemic among present-day intellectuals, and the idea that life may not be worth living has percolated down to the masses of people. This is a new situation in history. The masses of men are relatively inarticulate but only a mass audience can make a book a best seller, or award a golden record to some singer, or enable a film to gross ten million dollars. The people, books, songs, ideas which ride the crest of fashion today are held there by popular support; whereas, formerly, the artist and composer wrote for wealthy patrons. Joseph Hayden composed magnificent music for the Esterhazys; but Leonard Bernstein writes his Mass for the masses. We are dealing with a perverse attitude toward life which has infected major sectors of Western culture at every level. In the year 1929, Joseph Wood Krutch wrote a stunning little book entitled The Modern Temper, using the word “temper” in the sense of frame of mind, or outlook. His major point was that educated people had come to assume that science had exposed as delusions the values and standards upon which Western Civilization had been founded, and that the decline of the West was due to Western man’s loss of faith in himself. The prevalent belief, he argued, is that men are animals and animals are machines.

What men believe about themselves is an important factor in the success or failure of their efforts. A golfer who firmly believes he can sink a putt is more likely to do so than one who believes he’ll miss the cup. A swimmer like Don Schollander tells how he gets himself “psyched up” before a race and tries to make his opponents feel like losers in a war of nerves. It is a notorious fact in baseball that certain pitchers have the “Indian sign” on a particular batter; he’s a dangerous hitter except against this one pitcher. The right beliefs, in short, inspire right action.

I don’t know what an elephant believes about himself; I suspect that he doesn’t believe anything about himself, one way or the other. I think it would not matter; he’d go on being the same old elephant he always was. Sometimes we say of a pet Saint Bernard who tries to crawl up into our lap that “Bozo thinks he’s a kitten.” But we know we’re joking; and even if this was said seriously, we know that Bozo remains a dog no matter what he thinks he is.

With the human species it is different: Human beings do not attain their full stature as persons unless they are reinforced by the proper ideas and beliefs about the meaning of being a person. We share our physical being with other mammals; biologically speaking, we are anthropoids. By virtue of our genetic equipment we are clever, adaptable hominids; but no one of us realizes his full potential as a man or woman unless he knows what it means to be human. If we so misread human nature as to regard our species as nothing more than the fortuitous product of natural and social forces, then we have impaired our chances of achieving the most uniquely human qualities within our capacity.


If it is generally believed that man is merely the product of his environment — the individual a passive outcome of the time and place into which he was born, the human race a consequence of accidental chemical and physical events of a few million years ago — when such beliefs pervade a culture, the result is pessimism and resignation. The sense of individual responsibility is dead in a man who regards himself as a passive creature of his circumstances. The only people who prove superior to their circumstances, who surmount environmental handicaps, are those whose beliefs about the human species endow men and women with the creative energy to overcome life’s difficulties.

It may sound as though I am endorsing a “think and grow rich” formula, or the like. Actually, I am talking about the big picture; the dominant world view entertained by a culture, the prevailing ideology, the real religion. The dominant world view today is some form of materialism; explicit where Marxianism has taken hold, implicit elsewhere. Let me document this assertion from a statement entitled “What I Believe” by C. P. Snow; novelist, scientist, member of the peerage, writing in the current issue of the Britannica Roundtable (Vol. 1, No. 3). A publication such as this is no vehicle for publishing radical departures from orthodoxy; Baron Snow’s statement is printed because his point of view is commonplace among people who regard themselves as being in step with up-to-date ideas. Snow writes as follows: “I believe life — human life, all life — is a… fluke which depended on all manner of improbable conditions happening at the same time.” But if all life is a chance occurrence, so is Baron Snow’s life. And if Snow’s life is a fluke how can his thinking be anything but a series of flukes? His thoughts then are random events, without rational foundation. “All that happened,” he continues, “is within the domain of the laws of physics and chemistry… it was a completely material process…. A few million years ago, subject to the laws of statistical chance, the creatures that were our direct ancestors came into existence…. Speech and what we call conscious intelligence accrued…. We are still an animal species, but much cleverer than all others.” Snow goes on to add, rather wistfully it seems, “It has been a very unlikely process, with many kinds of improbability along the way.”

Nature’s Passion for Order

Now, old Mother Nature has a passion. for order. She has an aversion to disorder, and the Laws of Probability simply record Mother Nature’s gyroscopic tug to keep things on course. The Laws of Probability record that the number of male and female children born is roughly equal. Flip a penny fifty times and it will come up heads on the average of about every other throw — twenty-five times out of fifty. Make a thousand random throws of a pair of dice and the Laws of Probability can tell you approximately how many times they’ll come up snake-eyes, and how many times you’ll get box cars. Numbers between two and twelve are within the system, and each of the eleven possible numbers will appear a certain number of times according to the laws of statistical chance.

But let’s pose this question: In a thousand random throws of the dice how many times will we get seventeen? How many times will the dice turn into a rabbit? The answer is that this would never happen; spooky questions like this imply belief in magic. Now suppose we ask the same question, but say that the dice have been thrown once a second for a billion years. Now how many seventeen’s and how many rabbits? The answer of any sensible person is “None!” to both questions. The number seventeen and rabbits are outside the system of the little spotted cubes called dice.

When a man like C. P. Snow declares that no life becomes life due to the operation of the Laws of Probability over immense time, he attributes magical properties to mere duration. He assumes that dice do turn into rabbits if the time span be measured in billions of years. And when he invokes another huge block of time to account for the transformation of the non mental into the mental and the nonrational into the rational, he is endowing the mere sequence of days, centuries, and millenia with miracle-working efficacy.

Monkeys vs. Shakespeare

We’ve all heard the assertion — intended to illustrate what mere chance and time can accomplish —that if a thousand monkeys were seated at a thousand typewriters and banged away for a thousand years they would reproduce every one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The premise upon which this wild illustration is based is that a Shakespearian sonnet is nothing but a mechanical arrangement of black letters on white paper. There are indeed letters on paper, but there is one other special ingredient in these sonnets: Shakespeare’s genius. There is no place for genius in the world view of the materialist who professes to believe that mind is an offshoot of matter. A poet simply marks the location where a poem occurs, according to B. F. Skinner: “The poet is also a locus, a place in which certain genetic and environmental causes come together to have a common effect.”2 And besides, the genius is a salient individual who stands out above the crowd when really he should be content to seek “social gains!”

What men believe about themselves has a great deal to do with determining the success or failure of their efforts in the several departments of life, and when influential segments of the literate population embrace notions about the universe which demean man by depriving him of his most distinctive characteristics the culture is thrown off base.

Let me now probe a little deeper along this line. I shall argue that six major ideas, together with body, brain and nervous system, transform what Snow calls “an animal species, but much cleverer than all the others” into a full-fledged member of the human species. A creature with anthropoid features who completely lacks these ideas is not of our species even though he walks, talks, and dresses like a man. Fortunately, in consequence of the animal health and grace in even the worst of men, it is almost impossible for any person to eliminate from his make-up all traces of these ideas;

Now then, six big, potent, interrelated ideas, without which man is not man.

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.

Each of these big ideas is in trouble today. The attack on them has been gathering momentum for a couple of centuries and the case against has just about carried the day in influential circles. We’ll further examine these ideas in a concluding article next month.


1 Time, October 13, 1958.

2 Saturday Review, July 15, 1972.

  • 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.