The World As I See (2)
The Meaning of Life
What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow-creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life.
The true value of a human being
The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained to liberation from the self.
I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause. The example of great and pure characters is the only thing that can produce fine ideas and noble deeds. Money only appeals to selfishness and always tempts its owners irresistibly to abuse it.
Can anyone imagine Moses, Jesus, or Gandhi armed with the money-bags of Carnegie?
Society and Personality
When we survey our lives and endeavours we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires are bound up with the existence of other human beings. We see that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals. We eat food that others have grow, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built. The greater part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language which others have created. Without language our mental capacities wuuld be poor indeed, comparable to those of the higher animals;we have, therefore, to admit that we owe our principal advantage over the beasts to the fact of living in human society. The individual, if left alone from birth would remain primitive and beast-like in his thoughts and feelings to a degree that we can hardly conceive. The individual is what he is and has the significance that he has not so much in virtue of his individuality, but rather as a member of a great human society, which directs his material and spiritual existence from the cradle to the grave.
A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows. We call him good or bad according to how he stands in this matter. It looks at first sight as if our estimate of a man depended entirely on his social qualities.
And yet such an attitude would be wrong. It is clear that all the valuable things, material, spiritual, and moral, which we receive from society can be traced back through countless generations to certain creative individuals. The use of fire, the cultivation of edible plants, the steam engine–each was discovered by one man.
Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society–nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.
The health of society thus depends quite as much on the independence of the individuals composing it as on their close political cohesion. It has been said very justly that Græco-Europeo-American culture as a whole, and in particular its brilliant flowering in the Italian Renaissance, which put an end to the stagnation of mediæval Europe, is based on the liberation and comparative isolation of the individual.
Let us now consider the times in which we live. How does society fare, how the individual? The population of the civilized countries is extremely dense as compared with former times; Europe to-day contains about three times as many people as it did a hundred years ago. But the number of great men has decreased out of all proportion. Only a few individuals are known to the masses as personalities, through their creative achievements. Organization has to some extent taken the place of the great man, particularly in the technical sphere, but also to a very perceptible extent in the scientific.
The lack of outstanding figures is particularly striking in the domain of art. Painting and music have definitely degenerated and largely lost their popular appeal. In politics not only are leaders lacking, but the independence of spent and the sense of justice of the citizen have to a great extent declined. The democratic, parliamentarian regime, which is based on such independence, has in many places been shaken, dictatorships have sprung up and are tolerated, because men’s sense of the dignity and the rights of the individual is no longer strong enough. In two weeks the sheep-like masses can be worked up by the newspapers into such a state of excited fury that the men are prepared to put on uniform and kill and be billed, for the sake of the worthless aims of a few interested parties. Compulsory military service seems to me the most disgraceful symptom of that deficiency in personal dignity from which civilized mankind is suffering to-day. No wonder there is no lack of prophets who prophesy the early eclipse of our civilization. I am not one of these pessimists; I believe that better times are coming. Let me shortly state my reasons for such confidence.
In my opinion, the present symptoms of decadence are explained by the fact that the development of industry and machinery has made the struggle for existence very much more severe, greatly to the detriment of the free development of the individual. But the development of machinery means that less and less work is needed from the individual for the satisfaction of the community’s needs. A planned division of labour is becoming more and more of a crying necessity, and this division will lead to the material security of the individual. This security and the spare time and energy which the individual will have at his command can be made to further his development. In this way the community may regain its health, and we will hope that future historians will explain the morbid symptoms of present-day society as the childhood ailments of an aspiring humanity, due entirely to the excessive speed at which civilization was advancing.