A Catechism for Our Times

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

[Please Note: This essay was written by Dr. Adler in the 1960s and some of the political, historical, and social facts mentioned have subsequently changed. This in no way should distract from the main ideas, criticisms, and suggestions that Dr. Adler discusses.]

Here are seven questions to which all of us, young and old, should have answers. The answers we give should not be matters of faith, but conclusions of reason, supported by fact. When we differ in the answers we give, our differences of opinion should be amenable to discussion, should be susceptible to the weight of argument and evidence, and should be settled by efforts at persuasion.

I have placed the questions in an order that enables each answer to throw light on the answers to follow.

  1. By what standard can we judge the relative merits of different centuries, societies, and cultures?

  2. What should government do, in shaping the political, economic, and social institutes of a society, to safeguard and facilitate the pursuit of happiness by all its people?

  3. In what ways does the culture of a society — especially the value system that underlies its mores — encourage or discourage the individual in his efforts to make a good life for himself?

  4. Is this — our century — a good time to be alive?

  5. Is the United States today in the forefront of the twentieth-century revolution?

  6. Is ours a sick society? Curably or incurably sick?

  7. Do we need a moral and an educational revolution?


1. By What Standard Can We Judge the Relative Merits of Different Centuries, Societies, and Cultures?

One century, society, or culture is better than another in proportion as its technological conditions, its political, economic, and social institutions, and its actual value system promote or facilitate a really good life for a larger proportion of its human beings.

One century or culture is worse than another in proportion as its various components work in the opposite way — to deprive a larger proportion of its members of the external conditions they need in order to make good lives for themselves, or to impede, interfere with, or even discourage their efforts in this direction.

The ideal, of course, is a society and culture that provides all its members — all without exception — with the external conditions they need, and at the same time encourages them in their pursuit of the good life.

By “ideal” I do not mean a state of affairs that is perfect in every way. That is utopian and unattainable. I mean no more than normal or healthy. Thus, for example, if the purpose of men in associating is to enjoy the good of communal life, which is peace, then war in any form represents a pathological social condition, one that defeats the very purpose for which men associate. A society rent by civil strife or one that is engaged in external war is malfunctioning; and, in this medical sense of the term, it is pathological or abnormal. If I speak of war as an instance of social pathology or abnormality in this sense, I am obviously not using the word “abnormal” to mean unusual in a statistical sense; for, either through civil strife or external conflicts, almost all societies since the beginning of history have been abnormal or pathological.

Another example may help to reinforce what I have just said. The purpose of men in associating, in families, tribes, or states, is not only to enjoy the blessings of peace, but also to achieve other goods that the isolated individual could not achieve for himself. Among these are wealth, a decent supply of the means of subsistence, and sufficient free time for the goods that can be achieved through play and leisure. Hence when the technological conditions of a society are such that widespread poverty or destitution cannot be eliminated, and the lives of most men are consumed in back-breaking toil from dawn to dusk, working in a state of chattel slavery or abject servitude, the society is pathological or abnormal in the sense indicated. It is not functioning as a society should; i.e., it is not serving the purpose for which men form associations. Once again it must be said that, from the beginning of history to the present time, most, if not all, societies have been pathological or abnormal. War in any form represents a pathological social condition.

2. What Should Government Do, in Shaping the Political, Economic, and Social Institutions of a Society, to Safeguard and Facilitate the Pursuit of Happiness by All Its People?

On the conceptual plane, there can hardly be a better statement of the objectives of government than the one made in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. These objectives are:

“[To] establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. . . .”

Taken together with the proposition in the Declaration of Independence, that all men, being by nature equal, are equal in all their natural rights, rights that a just government must attempt to secure equally for all, the objectives set forth in the Preamble provide a standard for measuring the goodness of any government, including our own at various stages in its history from the beginning to the present day.

Let us now consider these objectives in relation to the parts of a good life — the means that the individual must employ in his effort to make a good life for himself. The means consist of the following seven classes of goods:

  1. Goods of the body, such as health, vigor, and the pleasures of sense.

  2. Goods of the mind, such as knowledge, understanding, prudence, and even a modicum of wisdom; together with such goods of the mind’s activity as skills of inquiry and of critical judgment, and the arts of creative production.

  3. Goods of character, such as the moral virtues of temperance, fortitude, and justice in relation to the rights of others and the good of the community.

  4. Goods of personal association, such as family relationships, friendships, and loves.

  5. Political goods, such as domestic tranquillity — both civil and external peace — and political liberty, together with the protection of individual freedom by the prevention of violence, aggression, coercion, or intimidation.

  6. Economic goods, such as a decent supply of the means of subsistence; living and working conditions conducive to health; medical care; opportunities for access to the pleasures of sense and to aesthetic pleasures as well; opportunities for access to the goods of the mind through educational facilities in youth and in adult life; and enough free time from subsistence work, both in youth and in adult life, to take full advantage of these opportunities.

  7. Social goods, such as equality of status, of opportunity, and of treatment in all matters affecting the dignity of the human person.

Of these seven classes of goods, the first four belong to the inner or private life of the individual. They are acquired and preserved by him as a result of the way in which he conducts himself, employs his faculties, and husbands his personal resources. Whether or not he acquires and accumulates these goods in the course of his life depends mainly on him. This is particularly true of the goods of character and of personal association. These are the least dependent on the good fortune of beneficent external circumstances. With regard to his acquirement of the goods of the body and the goods of the mind, the individual is more dependent on favorable external conditions — on conditions conducive to health and provisions for medical care, in the case of bodily goods; on opportunities for schooling, learning, and creative work, and on having enough free time to take advantage of these opportunities, in the case of the goods of the mind. Hence, with regard to all the goods subsumed under the first four categories, the actions of government can do no more than indirectly abet the pursuit of happiness by the actions it takes.

The last three classes of goods are environmental or external in the sense that the individual’s possession of them is mainly dependent on the outer or public conditions of his life. Thus, for example, unless be is fortunate enough to live in a republic — under constitutional government or a government of laws — and unless he is among those who are enfranchised as citizens with suffrage under that constitution, he will be deprived of political liberty. Unless he either has income-producing property or has what I am going to call the “economic equivalents of property,” he will not have, through forms of wealth and the things that wealth can provide, the economic goods that he needs for the pursuit of happiness — things that are good not only because they maintain his life and health, but also because they facilitate his acquirement of other goods, especially the goods of the mind or the goods of leisure. Unless he enjoys equality of status, opportunity, and treatment, he will, in varying degrees, be deprived of access to the goods he needs for his personal development and for the enhancement of his dignity as a person.

Hence, so far as government can shape and control the political, economic, and social institutions of the community, it secures the individual’s right to make a good life for himself largely through measures that directly affect his possession of political, economic, and social goods and, indirectly, through them, other goods that are not wholly within the power of the individual, as, perhaps, only the goods of his own character are.

Thus, for example, it may be practicable now, though it was not always practicable in the past, for a government to see that no individual starves or is undernourished; but no government, now or ever, can see to it that he is temperate and does not ruin his health by gluttony. Similarly, it may be practicable now for a government to provide adequate educational facilities for every child and even for every adult; but no government can prevent an individual from neglecting these opportunities, or compel him to acquire and use the goods of the mind. A government can give every man suffrage and, therewith, political liberty, but it cannot give him the civic virtue whereby he uses that freedom well; just as it cannot make him just in his use of other forms of freedom that it grants him and safeguards.

3. In What Ways Does the Culture of a Society — Especially the Value System That Underlies Its Mores — Encourage or Discourage the Individual in His Efforts to Make a Good Life for Himself?

Let me now briefly summarize the criteria for judging one culture as better than another by reference to its favorable or adverse effects on the pursuit of happiness.

One culture is better than another in proportion as

(1) it regards wealth always as a means and never as an end, and so does not look upon the continual expansion of the economy, beyond the production of useful wealth, as an end in itself, to which everything else should be sacrificed or subordinated;

(2) it subordinates business to the pursuits of leisure, the production and consumption of wealth to the goods of the mind;

(3) it provides ample means for the mind to refresh itself from business, through the pleasures of play, through the enjoyment of the arts, through the advancement of the sciences, and through all forms of learning and of creative work;

(4) it subordinates the goods of the body to the goods of the mind, and places its disapproval upon unlimited indulgence in sensual pleasures or even upon excessive preoccupation with amusements and recreations that do not contribute to the growth of the mind or to the improvement of the individual as a person;

(5) it cultivates the refinements of life and even a modest degree of elegance, but at the same time censures extravagance and the lust for luxuries, or even creature comforts and conveniences beyond all reasonable need;

(6) it honors the man of private and civic virtue above the man who succeeds, by foul means or fair, in the rat race for power, fame, or wealth;

(7) it esteems intrinsic human excellence above any and every form of merely external or worldly success.

How does a society honor the things that should be cultivated there if its members are to be aided and abetted in their pursuit of happiness?

One part of the answer lies in the cultural institutions that it creates, maintains, and develops at the public expense — its libraries, its museums of art and science, its theaters, its public parks, and so on. But the heart of the answer lies in that one of its cultural institutions which most directly affects every individual: its educational system — not only its schools, colleges, and universities but also the educational facilities it provides for continued learning in adult life.

I am not concerned here with equality of educational opportunity, but rather with the quality of the schooling and other educational opportunities that is afforded both young and old. If, for example, all children were given an equal number of years of schooling, from kindergarten through college or university; and if, in addition, they enjoyed equal educational facilities during these years, but the schooling they received were directed mainly toward technological and economic advances rather than to the pursuits of leisure and the development of human excellence, the educational system would operate against rather than for the individual’s making a good life for himself.

To know whether the culture of a society is or is not favorable to the pursuit of happiness, one need look no further than the scale of values embodied in its educational system — the objectives it is designed to serve. Only if an educational system subordinates all forms of specialized, technical, professional, or vocational training to discipline in the liberal arts and to all forms of humanistic learning for their own sake — only if it places truly liberal education first, and relegates all merely utilitarian programs of education to second place — does it reflect a scale of values that accords with the order of real goods in the pursuit of happiness. Then and only then do we have a persuasive sign that the culture of a society is beneficent because it honors the things that should be cultivated there for the sake of a good human life.

4. Is This — Our Century — a Good Time to Be Alive?

The answer is unqualifiedly yes. It is better than any earlier period of human life — better in that it provides the external conditions of a good human life to a greater extent and for more human beings than ever before on earth.

For the first million years of human life on earth, members of the hominid family led bestial, not characteristically human, lives — that is, they lived mainly, if not exclusively, on the bare subsistence level.

Beginning 35,000 years ago, technological progress began to be made which brought man to the verge of civilization: the domestication of animals; the transition from stone to iron implements; the establishment of permanent settlements, etc.

But not until 6,000 years ago, with the emergence of civilized societies, with superior agricultural technology, with political or quasi-political institutions, with an increased division of labor, and almost always with human slave labor — not until then were the external conditions of a good human life provided for a fortunate and privileged few.

In short, from the beginning until 6,000 years ago, the external conditions for leading a good human life were available to no one. Beginning 6,000 years ago, with the rise of cities and civilized societies (which are one and the same), and from then until now — or rather until the end of the nineteenth century — we have had all over the world what I am going to call the parochial civilizations of privilege, based on an inequality of conditions for their human members.

In all of these historic, parochial civilizations of privilege, the external conditions of a good human life were provided only for the few, at the expense of misery for all the rest. And it seems fair to say that, under the circumstances of the time, especially the poor technology of the time, these inequalities of condition could not have been rectified — except, perhaps, by going backward to a state of affairs in which no one could lead a good human life.

The second great revolution in human affairs began yesterday — with the opening of this century. The twentieth-century revolution, which began first in the United States and Western Europe, is now sweeping the world. Please note that I said “began”; for the twentieth-century revolution has only just started even in the countries where it first began. It may take anywhere from 100 to 500 years, maybe even 1,000, before this revolution yields its full results on a worldwide basis, with the emergence, for the first time, of a world civilization that is based on universal conditions of equality for every human being on earth — all men with no exceptions.

What is this twentieth-century revolution? It involves, first of all, extraordinary advances in science and technology, resulting in vastly increased power to produce wealth, in the elimination of inhuman forms of subsistence work at the level of sheer drudgery, the reduction in the amount of time that must be spent in producing wealth, etc. All these changes indicate that it may at last be possible to eliminate slavery, poverty, unequal educational opportunities, unequal conditions of health, etc.

Second, the twentieth-century revolution involves a commitment, in varying degrees, to the democratic and socialistic principles that all men, being by nature equal, are entitled to an equality of social, economic, and political conditions. It calls for the elimination of all class divisions, especially the division between the economic haves and have-nots. It calls for political equality — the equality of citizenship, with political rights, liberties, and privileges for all. It is not only democratic but socialistic in that it accepts the ruling principle of the welfare state: that the state should make every effort to promote the general economic welfare, in which all citizens shall participate up to at least the minimum level of a decent and secure standard of living. Hence this is not only the first century in which men can project the elimination of war by the constitution of a world federal government; it is also the first century in which men can project the advent of a truly classless society, pervaded by a universal equality of conditions. For the first time in history, it seems practicable to eliminate the twin evils of class and war that, as Toynbee points out, have beset civilized life from its beginning.

Though these great advances in the conditions of mankind may take centuries more to bring to their full fruition, even now, in this century, many more men than ever before on earth can think about their lives as a whole because external conditions are now such that it has at last become possible for them to make good lives for themselves.

5. Is the United States Today in the Forefront of the Twentieth-Century Revolution?

Let us list and compare the states or countries in which the twentieth-century revolution has begun and taken hold, limiting our attention for the moment to political, economic, and social conditions.

In varying degrees, all these states are characterized by political democracy, economic welfare programs, the broadening of public education, public health programs, reduction in the hours of human labor, improvement in the types and conditions of subsistence work, increase in recreational facilities, participation in the enjoyment of the arts, increases in longevity, advances in communication and public information, etc.

Let me designate this type of state as the technologically advanced, democratic, welfare state, moving toward — approximating but not yet fully achieving — the ideal of the classless society, with a universal equality of conditions and with ample free time for all.

In the world as it is today, we find this type of state realized in varying degrees:

(1) In the highest degree, by the United States, Sweden, Japan, and a few states of the British Commonwealth.

(2) In the next rank, by Great Britain, the states of Western Europe (with the exception of Spain and Portugal), and by the Soviet Union and the smaller socialist republics, such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and perhaps Poland and Rumania.

(3) Far below this are most if not all of the states of Central and South America.

(4) The twentieth-century revolution may have begun, but it has not yet taken hold to any appreciable degree in the Middle East, in Africa, in China, and Southeast Asia. The two possible exceptions in Asia are North Vietnam and South Korea.

All of the states in which the twentieth-century revolution is now underway, and especially those in which it has made substantial progress, are vastly superior to any societies that ever existed on earth before, so far as their political, economic, and social conditions are concerned; vastly superior to the best of ancient societies — to the Athens of Plato, which unfortunately did not live up to the encomiums heaped upon it by Pericles 50 years earlier; to the Rome of Cicero and to the China of Confucius; in all of which the conditions of a good life were accessible only to the very few, and then at the cost of misery to the great mass of men whose lives were either ruined by slavery or consumed by stultifying toil.

How does the United States compare with other leading states of the same type — states that are technologically advanced and that have begun to approximate an equality of conditions, political, economic, and social?

The comparison is difficult to make, because it is multidimensional. Thus, for example, the United States is much less class-structured than England, has a higher median income than Sweden, has achieved a greater equality of educational opportunity than most European countries, though not more than Australia or Canada, and so on. It also has more political equality and liberty than the U.S.S.R. and its satellites. On the other hand, economic equality may be more fully achieved in Sweden and in New Zealand; public health may be better cared for in any number of European countries; political democracy may work more responsibly in England; and so on.

With all such considerations in mind, I still think it is fair to say that, from the point of view of providing the external conditions of a good human life for a larger proportion of its citizens, the United States is, on balance, as good as, if not better than, any other country in the world today, and vastly better than any state that ever existed in the past. It fails most of the tests enumerated in the answer to Question 3. But it fails them no more — and probably less — than any other nation in the world today.

The twentieth-century revolution has just begun and it still has a long way to go before it reaches its full fruition — the full realization of the sound principles that have motivated it, the reaping of all the advantages that advanced technology has the power to confer while at the same time overcoming the serious threats that are the avoidable, not inevitable, consequences of these advances.

The war on poverty has just begun; so has the struggle against racism in all its forms. These efforts must be carried forward; and it will take many years to see them through to complete success.

No country is free from the evils of war or the chicanery of foreign policy; and none can be, as long as the jungle or anarchy of sovereign states exists. Foreign affairs is the domain of power politics, and will always remain so until we have advanced to world peace secured in the only way it can be secured — by world government. That, by the way, is the next revolution that lies ahead: the step forward from our parochial societies, always in a state of war with one another, and with an irremediable inequality of conditions as between the have and the have-not nations — forward to a world society, under world government, with an equality of conditions for all men everywhere.

Until that happens, all sovereign states, vis-à-vis one another, are about equally bad; and the United States is no better but also no worse than the rest. And until that happens, the evils of poverty and racism cannot be eradicated on a worldwide basis — perhaps not completely even at home.

With all its past and present imperfections, the United States has shown itself more susceptible to social improvement than any other country. Its history, as has been well said, has been the history of a continuing revolution prosecuted mainly by legal and peaceful means. More radical institutional changes have been made in a relatively short time in American history and, for the most part, with less violence, than in the history of most other countries — with the possible exception of England. This holds out a great promise for further positive developments by peaceful means.

6. Is Ours a Sick Society? Curably or Incurably Sick?

Ideal conditions have never existed in the past and do not yet exist anywhere on earth. All existing countries, including the United States, are socially defective or pathological. If the word “pathological” means “sick,” it also raises the question whether the pathology is remediable, whether the sickness is curable. It seems to me perfectly clear that the existing social pathologies are all remediable. If that were not the case, the twentieth-century revolution could go no further, as it must and will.

Hence those who call the United States a sick society, and mean by that one that is mortally or incurably ill, are willfully shutting their eyes to all the available facts and refusing to acknowledge obvious trends of change that support reasonably optimistic predictions.

There is a middle ground between the perfection of blooming health and mortal or incurable disease. And that is where we are — a relatively healthy society with some spots of pathology, some curable defects or deficiencies. The importance of recognizing the soundness of the middle ground in criticizing the United States can be illustrated by the difference between two questions that one can ask about a house that one is thinking of buying because one wants to live on the site where it exists. One can ask, “Is it so bad a house that the only thing to do with it is to tear it down or gut it, and start from the ground up?” Or one can ask, “With all its defects, is it nevertheless good enough to remodel, improve, and redecorate?”

The present state of the U.S.A. should inspire us to ask the second of these questions. And we should answer it by saying that the United States, with all its defects, is good enough to deserve our trying to improve it by carrying forward the peaceful revolution, reform by due process of law, that has been the course — more than that, the genius — of our development from the beginning. Recourse to violence is justified only when civil or legal measures are not available.

While saying this, we should also recognize the justifiable impatience of all those who are still oppressed by injustices that are not yet rectified and may not even be rectifiable with sufficient speed to satisfy them. The deep unrest that exists among those who are still oppressed, even the revolutionary violence that the wrongs they have long suffered now impel them to incite, is itself a sign that the time is at last ripe for the needed reforms. The politically, economically, and socially oppressed have always spearheaded the revolutionary changes needed to right the wrongs that they have suffered and can no longer tolerate. Sometimes the time is not ripe for the changes demanded in justice, and revolution is then bloody and abortive. But today we are confronted with oppressed groups, all over the world as well as in our own country, whose revolutionary impulses are fired by rising expectations — by the great progress that has already been made, which promises the possibility of further progress, and by the possibility, now as never before, of institutional reforms that will make the twentiethcentury revolution, when completed, the first revolution in the history of mankind that will have really meant all” — all without exceptions — as it moves towards its ultimate goal of an equality of political, economic, and social conditions for every human being on earth.

7. Do We Need a Moral and an Educational Revolution?

The things that are most prized and honored in America are the expanding production of wealth, whether the wealth produced satisfies real Deeds or only artificially induced wants; technological advances either for their own sake or for the sake of creature comforts and conveniences that are in excess of genuine need; external or worldly success as measured by the acquisition of money, fame, or power rather than the development of the inner man and the growth of the human being as a person; the expansion of the sensate life rather than the intensification of the life of the mind.

The high value set upon these things represents a fundamental disorder of goods, a perverse scale of values, placing lower over higher goods, mistaking merely apparent for real goods, and even erecting goods that are only means into ends to be sought for their own sake as if they constituted the good life as a whole. Whereas the favorable political, economic, and social conditions that have been achieved in our type of society make it possible for a large proportion of our population to make good lives for themselves, this unfavorable moral atmosphere or climate militates against the possibility of their succeeding; it disinclines them to make the effort; it turns their lives in one or another wrong direction. The unfavorable moral atmosphere and cultural influences that are here being criticized exist, in varying degrees, in all technologically advanced industrial societies. The perverse scale of values that sets up cultural obstacles to leading a good life in the United States today prevails in the mores of every other country of the same general type. “Materialism” — a preference for external goods over the goods of the human spirit — as prevalent in Europe as in the United States, and in Eastern as well as Western Europe. The cult of sensuality, addiction to a life of play and frivolity, the existentialist cop-out which consists in living from day to day with no accounts carried forward and with no thought of a good life as a whole — these things flourish everywhere, not just in America; and it is to these things that too many of the young, unfortunately, tend to turn when they are disaffected with the materialism of their elders, not only in the United States but in Europe as well.

What all this calls for is a moral revolution, but a moral revolution that can begin only after the moral problem is itself understood and the solution of that problem is envisaged in all its details. That, in turn, calls for an educational revolution; but these two revolutions would seem to be so interdependent that, in fact, neither may be possible unless both come into being simultaneously.

I would like to say a few words about the educational revolution that is needed in the United States — one that will reverse the so-called academic revolution that Professors Jencks and Reisman have so accurately described in their recent book. I confine my attention to the United States not because the educational revolution is most needed here, but because it is here that all the externals of equal educational opportunity have been more fully achieved than anywhere else. This makes the misdirection of our educational system to the wrong ends so great a travesty on our success in the externals.

The rebellion of the students in our colleges and universities is thoroughly justified by wrongs that they are suffering at the hands of their institutions, but wrongs of which most of them are only dimly and, at best, inchoately aware. They are being cheated and defrauded by an educational system that has displaced genuinely liberal and humanistic training by all forms of specialized, technical, and vocational training that is intended to fit the young for their places in the industrial machine rather than to fit them for a good life by preparing them to make a good use of their free time in the pursuits of leisure. As I pointed out earlier, the reform of abuses is usually spearheaded by those who suffer under them. Today the young feel abused, but many of them project their complaints against the wrong objects — the political, economic, and social institutions of our society. The root cause of their malaise is rather the cultural disorder of a society that is devoted mainly to technological advances and industrial development, and is reflected in the misdirection of the educational system to the wrong ends.

The young complain again and again of the inadequacy and irrelevance of the education they are receiving. They are right. They have suffered, and the generations to come will suffer even more, unless the university system is radically reformed, unless colleges are emancipated from the heavy and deadening hand of graduate and professional schools, and unless the universities themselves become once more communities of scholars and cease to be service stations for the industrial state, R & D agencies for government and private industry, or even havens for professors to pursue their special interests without regard to the best interests of the students whom they should be serving.

It is particularly in the classrooms of our colleges that the young are suffering the worst abuses. To correct these abuses, not only must curriculums be revised, but faculties must once again consist of teachers not professors — men interested in liberal and humanistic learning for themselves as well as for others, more than in research or in the advancement of knowledge in some specialized or technical field. Unfortunately, most of the young, precisely because they are so poorly educated, do not and cannot know the kind of education that they so sorely need — the kind that would have maximum relevance not to business or worldly success, but to the business of making good lives for themselves and to success in that effort. What they need is genuinely liberal and humanistic learning as a means to the good life, the dullest among them as well as the brightest. But the brightest among them do not now want the kind of education that they most need, as is indicated by the types of courses that they themselves arrange for when they set up their own Free Universities. They do not want the kind of education that they need, because they have not been taught the basic moral lessons about the shape of a good human life, about its constituent parts and the means they must employ to achieve it.

                                      • *The foregoing answers to the seven questions that we must all consider and attempt to answer are “catechistic” in the sense that they merely provide a framework within which evidence and reasons can be assembled and marshaled. When that is done, the answers indicated above can, in my judgment, be supported to a degree that is little short of being demonstrative. In view of this, what should be said of and to the critics of our century and our society?

Many of them, old as well as young, direct their complaints at the wrong objects. One of the most regrettable features of our century and of our society is not the fact that it has a large number of highly vocal critics who complain about it, but rather the often mistaken, unreasonable, and off-the-beam ways in which they voice their complaints.

On the one hand, the dissident young, frequently under the influence of their professors, together with the leaders of the New Left and others who are full of disaffection for our century and our society, do not hesitate to make moral pronouncements about social evils that they think must be immediately eliminated — and they make these pronouncements with a dogmatic certitude that is inappropriate to such matters, and with an emotional conviction that is unaccompanied by a commitment of their minds to the moral principles and moral reasoning that underlie their charges of injustice and iniquity.

It is perfectly clear that they do not know or understand the moral principles that would give support to their charges, and that they have not engaged in the moral reasoning that could make their criticisms tenable. Exactly the same principles that might support criticism of the war in Vietnam, of racism, and of poverty, should also lead them to criticize a society that exaggerates the importance of sensual pleasures, that engages in the overproduction of superfluous commodities, and that does not draw a line between the frivolous and the serious use of free time. Exactly the same principles and reasoning would also help them to understand what is wrong with being a beatnik, a hippie, a self-alienated refugee from reason, or an existentialist cop-out — wrong in a way that can ruin a human life; or what is wrong with overindulgence in sex; what is wrong with psychedelic escapism, with attempts to expand the sensate life but not the life of the mind; what is wrong with pure emotionalism and the rejection of reason; and so on.

On the other hand, the self-appointed guardians of the morals and patriotism of our society are no less dogmatic in their pronouncements, or in their suggested cures for the evils that they profess to see. They propose, for example, the re-injection of morality in the schools in the form of simple homilies that are as irrelevant today as they were in the past, when they abounded; and they propose, too, that patriotism be taught by distortions of history to emphasize the contributions of persons they think were “patriots,” while ignoring those of persons of whom they disapprove. But morality cannot be taught by homilies, nor patriotism by the example of men who were often foolhardy and sometimes not patriots at all.

It is true of these critics, too, that they do not know or understand the principles that would give moral support to their charges. Exactly the same principles that might support their criticisms of the educational system, or of the young, or of corruption in government, should also lead them to criticize a society that exaggerates the importance of wealth and wealthgetting, and an economy that depends too much on defense contracts. Exactly the same principles would help them to understand what is wrong with being a businessman (when business is considered as an end in itself) — wrong in a way that can ruin a human life; what is wrong with overindulgence in alcohol or sports or television; what is wrong with intellectual escapism, combined with ignorance of and contempt for the life of the mind; what is wrong with cruelty and the excessive use of force and the rejection of compromise; and so forth.

Most important of all, these critics — all of them — fail to recognize that many of their criticisms, leveled against America and Americans, apply to all societies and to the human race generally.

In the course of the centuries, human institutions have been greatly improved, and they might be further improved without limit, as William Graham Sumner has remarked, were it not for folly and vice. Folly and vice are human defects, not American defects. Twentieth-century America has no monopoly on folly and vice; nor do the critics of the twentieth century have a monopoly on conscience-stricken reactions to human folly and vice. Plato charged the Athenians who condemned Socrates with folly and vice. The dialogues of Plato are a more penetrating critique of the false values of Athens, at the time when it was the glory of antiquity, than anything now being said about America, because Plato had a true scale of values on which to base his criticisms. That is clearly not the case with the most vociferous and emotional critics of American society today.

These things being so, let me suggest three considerations that must be borne in mind when one examines the current attacks on our society and our century. First, one should ask whether or not the objects of attack are simply human folly and vice. Second, to put these attacks or criticisms into historical perspective, it is necessary to consider the facts in terms of which the twentieth century must be compared with all earlier centuries, and the United States with all other countries in the world today. Many of the critics of our country seem to be totally oblivious of these facts or emotionally unwilling to acknowledge their obvious significance when they are presented. Third, one should ask whether those who criticize their country and their fellow countrymen have the moral wisdom — a correct understanding of the good life and a reasonably sound plan for achieving it — that would commit them to a really good life for themselves and direct them in its pursuit. One should also ask whether their own scale of values, the end they aim at and the means they employ, betokens their possession of the moral virtues and of prudence. The evidence — too often, I regret to say — suggests that they do not. They are as much subject to folly and vice as are the objects of their criticism. And the only salvation for them, as for all the rest of us, is the moral wisdom that must be learned to correct the folly, and the moral discipline that must be cultivated to correct the vice.

This essay was originally published in The Great Ideas Today (1969) based on the conclusion of the University of Chicago’s 1968 Encyclopaedia Britannica Lectures.

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