Skip to main content

Full text of "Man In The Modern World"

See other formats


and falsehood only applies in a limited number of situations. The
atomic theory of Dalton was true in giving a reasonably accurate
picture of chemical fact. It was incorrect in ascribing indivisibility to
atoms; but this does not make it false, only incomplete. The fact
remains, however, that man's capacity for conceptual thought makes
it extremely difficult for him to think in relative terms. The general
and the abstract tend, almost automatically, to become invested with
the intellectual halo of the absolute. The lesson of science is that this
tendency should be resisted. Paradoxically, we find that we are
enabled to accumulate a more complete and a more certain store of
knowledge when, as in science, we reject the possibility of absolute
completeness or absolute certainty, and are prepared to abandon our
dearest theories in the face of new facts.

What holds for truth holds also for beauty and goodness. But in
the case of goodness in particular, this predisposition to translate the
particular into the general, the general into the abstract, and the
abstract into the absolute, is reinforced by another effect—the sense of
emotional certitude which in its origin is to be traced to the mental
mechanisms growing out of the need for infantile repression. Thanks
to repression, it is natural for us not only to think in absolute terms,
but to feel in them. The inhibiting influences of the super-ego tend
to produce an intolerant assurance of being right, because only
through such an assurance could they have succeeded in repressing
their opponents into the unconscious. In so far as they succeed, they
acquire emotional certitude; and that emotional certitude, given the
construction of the human mind, inevitably tends to rationalize itself
by claiming absolute value.

When, however, we come to practice, we find ourselves plunged
back into the confusion of the relative. For instance, when we win
this war, what will be the right way of treating Germany? The
absolute principle of justice makes us feel the demand that crime
should be punished. But, applied to the Germans, does this mean
punishing Hitler, the Nazi leaders, all those directly guilty of cruelty
and injustice, or the whole German people? Furthermore, the
absolute principle of justice conflicts with the equally absolute
principles of mercy and love. And finally, these absolute emotional
principles come in conflict with the frankly utilitarian principles, like
the greatest good of the greatest number, whose application can only
be decided rationally and relatively to circumstances. Clearly one
course will prove to be more right than another; but in deciding