All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1962

The Web of Materialism


Dr. Malik is University Professor, The American University, Washington, D.C. He also has been President of the General Assembly of the United Na­tions and was Ambassador of Lebanon to the United States.

The world has become physically one, as a result of fast transporta­tion and instantaneous communi­cation. On the other hand, here are these one hundred nations of which the United Nations is com­posed: they display so many sov­ereignties, a dozen religions, a score of cultures, hundreds of languages, a score of social orders, many different forms of govern­ment, and a dozen or more stages of economic development. Despite the fact that the world has been physically brought closer together, it is obvious that in these several realms there is no unity about the world at all. In fact, the more the diverse peoples and cultures of the world get physically closer to­gether, namely, the more they see and rub shoulders with and know one another, the more they tena­ciously hold to and consciously be­come jealous and proud of their distinctive cultural heritages.

The mind then is bewildered: it wants unity—that is indeed its innate tendency—but it finds only physical unity, the most super­ficial and the most external of all unities. This silly unity (that we are all now physically neighbors of one another, that we inhabit the same planet, etc.) does not satisfy it—and no wonder. Goaded by its unabating quest for unity, the mind then hits on the next best thing: all these human beings are, after all, animals; they all need food, clothing, and shelter, and a minimum standard of material ex­istence; here then is an obvious principle of unity—man is an eco­nomic animal.

In this way the whole of human­ity is neatly leveled down onto this one single plane—the plane of the levels of economic develop­ment. Everything else is viewed as derivative from and dependent on this. Culture is a function of the economy, religion is a function of the economy, morality is a func­tion of the economy, the system of government is a function of the economy, etc. And when the think­er or statesman who is thus en­gaged in this unifying or simpli­fying or leveling-down process happens also to be one who does not have fundamental convictions of his own, or who had them once but has “outgrown” them since, or who has them but is ashamed of confessing them, or who has them but is afraid that they prove too “divisive,” or who dreads being “persecuted” on account of them, or who belongs to a racial or re­ligious or some other kind of mi­nority, then he clings all the more firmly to this wholesale materiali­zation of man as his ark of salva­tion.

At last a principle has been found which will equalize all men and he will not have to stand out; here is a materialist brotherhood; in this all-embracing sea of mat­ter all men—and therefore he, the timid or lonely or frightened or rebellious one—can safely swim without discrimination and with­out scandal or offense. Any other principle of unity will either leave him out or leave large segments of humanity out (and, as a “hu­manitarian,” he wants to include everybody, the whole of the “hu­man race”) or bring upon his head the persecution of the world. Nothing then is safer, more equal­izing, more comfortable, and more “needed,” than the seamless sea of matter. As fish in this sea we are all “brothers.”

What Is Materialism?

Philosophically, precisely what is materialism? Materialism is not just a belief in the existence of matter, namely, of something ac­cessible to our senses; in this sense, everybody, including the most outspoken idealists, is a ma­terialist. Nor is it just the doc­trine that there is a substratum, whether or not we sense it, and whether or not in every case it is the same kind of substratum, out of which everything is composed—say, the hard, round balls, the atoms, of the classical atomic theory, or the “probability waves” of the recent versions of that theory; again, in the sense that everything is composed of some kind of substratum, everybody, in­cluding the saints and the theolo­gians, is a materialist, for God, under any theory, has some sub­stratum. Nor is it just the belief that man cannot exist without food and drink and air, and this body which is composed of flesh and blood and bones, and a general ma­terial solid support, say the earth, on which he can lean; again, in this sense, everybody, including the most radical ascetics, such as the hermits of the desert, is a ma­terialist.

Materialism rather is the denial that there is a higher and a lower in existence and that the higher is completely independent of the lower and can never be reduced to it. The precise metaphysical for­mulation and refutation of this doctrine, including a survey of its historical development, is outside the scope of this lecture. But when the whole—any whole—is looked upon as only the sum total of its parts—that is materialism. When the highest and most distinctive in man—his mind, his spirit, the fact that he can be touched and transformed by something that is holy and divine—when all this wonderful side of man is reduced, as an epiphenomenon and without any remainder, to his bodily functionings—that is materialism. When mind, spirit, truth, ideas, principles are denied an absolutely original potency—that is material­ism. When nothing that is fixed and firm and given and complete and perfect and full of being is al­lowed, when everything is dis­solved into the fluency and flux of elements and things—that is ma­terialism. When man is inter­preted as made up only of insati­able and uncontrollable desire—that is materialism. When quality is overwhelmed by sheer quantity—that is materialism. When, sur­veying the majestic orderly evolu­tion of the past, the mind derives, as by magic, the higher integrally from the lower, the more perfect integrally from the less perfect, the more advanced integrally from the more primitive, the different integrally from the same—that is materialism. When the whole of human life is viewed as inherent­ly without rest, without repose, without peace, without grace, without fullness of satisfaction—that is materialism.

Seed Bed for Communism

Now as these things constitute the very warp and woof of modern civilization, is it any wonder that materialistic communism, with its exaltation of human desire, with its derivation of all ideas and all norms and all valuations from the sheer economic struggle, with its interpretation of history as the product only of conflicting class interests, interests that can never be reconciled except through vio­lence and the destruction of one class by another, with its inciting of all that is primitive and ele­mental and unformed to rise up against all that is more perfect, more developed, more sure of it­self, with its doctrine that in the end there is nothing, nothing, nothing, save atoms in motion—is it any wonder, I say, that ma­terialistic communism has found in this spiritual climate of modern civilization a perfect soil for its development?

The above article is an excerpt from his address, “The Individual in Modern Society,” delivered at the second Cor­ning Conference, May 18, 1961. Copies of the full address in booklet form may be obtained by writing The Director, Corning Glass Works Foundation, Cor­ning, New York.