The Twilight of the American Enlightenment (6 page)

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
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The ideal of a coherent society with intellectual leadership went back to the Greeks and the Romans, but it had been revived during the enlightenment of the eighteenth century.
The intervening era of church domination had provided a heritage of thinking of Christendom as a single entity united by a common faith. When Western Christendom fragmented after the Reformation, and neither Protestants nor Catholics could command the whole, the notion persisted that a basis for the cultural unity of Western civilization could be found—but now in some sort of universal reason. That ideal would place intellectuals in the forefront among the shapers of culture. In the nineteenth century, that concept found romantic expression in a movement that added artists and writers to the list of the bearers of the best in the culture, as expressed, for instance, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's depiction of a heroic and free “American Scholar.” More influentially, the Marxist mix of romanticism and science had evolved into the Bolshevik belief that the “intelligentsia” could speak for the masses. American intellectuals, many of whom had at least flirted with such outlooks during the 1930s, retained the idea that they should be leaders who were shaping the culture as a whole. John Dewey, the most influential American philosopher and educator of the first half of the twentieth century, proposed “a common faith” based on secular principles.

By the end of the 1950s, historian Richard Hofstadter was working on what would become his classic study of the threats to the ideal of intellectual leadership: his Pulitzer Prize–winning
Anti-intellectualism in American Life
, published in 1963. Hofstadter traced the historical roots of what he depicted as the ominous “anti-intellectualism in our time.” He defined anti-
intellectualism as “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the
mind and of those who are considered to represent it.”
Hofstadter cited Billy Graham as one of his exhibits of contemporary anti-intellectualism and gave primacy in his historical analysis to the revivalist tradition in religion and the fundamentalist “revolt against modernity.”

In Hofstadter's jeremiad, there was a lost golden age, the enlightened era of the founders. (The irony of the contrast to the later populist appeals of the religious right to the “Christianity” of the founders is worth noting). “When the United States began its national existence,” wrote Hofstadter, “the relationship between intellect and power was not a problem. The leaders
intellectuals.” That era soon gave way to populist anti-intellectual counterforces, ending definitively with the 1828 defeat of John Quincy Adams (“who could write”) by Andrew Jackson (“who could fight”). Hofstadter had already depicted, in his 1955 book
The Age of Reform
, the paranoid style of the populist politics of the late nineteenth century, which had anticipated elements of McCarthyism. In addition,
Hofstadter believed, American business culture, faith in practicality generally, the popularity of self-help techniques, and the experience-over-content views of education had all contributed
to the current sad state of American society. Hofstadter, as a historian, was quicker than most of his peers to see the roots of the mass society in earlier American experience, but these precedents provided all the more reason to fear that democracy based on intelligent regard for the best humanistic values of the civilization might be destroyed by the shallow fickleness of mass culture and mass man.

The status anxieties of the midcentury intellectuals were possible only because they had what in retrospect looks like
considerable status. There was still something of a national conversation on the state of civilization, and the intellectuals themselves had a prominent place in that conversation. Even looking back from a few decades later, the 1950s would look like a sort of golden age for American intellectuals.
An ideal was still intact—the notion that the culture of the nation might be guided by a broad inclusive national consensus—and academics and other intellectuals were more on the inside of that project than not. They recognized that their position was precarious, but they had reason to be hopeful that they could play major roles in guiding the national dialogue. In that respect they were heirs to a hope that had been strong among the educated in Western civilization since the eighteenth century: the hope that a humane, cultured elite might provide the society with direction and coherence.


Freedom in the Lonely Crowd

The anxieties over television, mass media, and
culture dominated by mindless anti-intellectualism were all premised on that deeper concern that the world might be witnessing the emergence of a whole new creature, “mass man” or “modern man.” Those were people whose lives were shaped not by traditional cultures but by the demands of urbanized, industrialized, and commercialized modern life, of which
shallow mass culture was one expression. The West had dominated much of the world for centuries, but something essential
about the heritage of Western civilization was possibly about to be lost. Since America was leading the way into modernity, that cultural erosion might be weakening the American moral character and the collective ability of Americans to remain as a free people. As Bernard Rosenberg put it in an alarmist, but not unusual, form, “At its worst, mass culture threatens not merely to cretinize our taste, but to brutalize our sense while paving the way to totalitarianism.” At
stake, then, in countering the modern trends that degraded the quality of human experience, might be nothing less than loss of freedom.

“Freedom” was much celebrated in midcentury America and was a word one could use without explanation or argument. The massive sacrifices and destruction of World War II had been justified in the name of freedom. The Cold War was defined in the West as a struggle between Communist totalitarianism and “the Free World.” But beyond simple political freedoms and not being taken over by foreign powers or by totalitarian dictators, what did “freedom” mean?

What is fascinating and revealing is how easily talk about the unassailable ideal of “freedom” in a political sense blended into an ideal of personal attitudes of independence from social authorities and restraints. A key word that was often used to express this taken-for-granted ideal was “autonomy.” To be autonomous means literally to be a law unto oneself. In a more popular sense it meant simply to be a free, self-determining individual. It meant to “think for oneself,” which was the highest ideal of education. The standard advice of graduation speeches was “just be yourself,” or “be true to yourself.” The opposite of autonomy was “conformity.” Everyone, it seemed, agreed that one should not be a conformist.

We can get a sense of the times and of its characteristic perceptions of the forces shaping modern society by taking a brief excursion through some of the popular social analyses that dealt with the modern threats to freedom in the sense of personal autonomy. As one follows these accounts of the forces shaping individual lives in modern times, there are a num
ber of questions to keep in mind. What were the assumptions underlying the analyses? What were assumptions, for example, regarding human fulfillment, and regarding the relationships of individuals to their societies and to subcommunities? What was the role of science in relation to other authorities? Was science an aid to freedom, or a threat to it? What sorts of forces or trends were popular writers and their readers noticing then that seldom draw comment today? What was taken for granted that might not be taken for granted today? Which of the characteristic ideals of that era are still very much alive and shaping contemporary culture?

The best-known work relating the rise of totalitarianism to wider issues of personal freedom in society was Erich Fromm's
Escape from Freedom
, first published in 1941 and still widely read in the 1950s (it went through three printings in 1959 and 1960 alone). Fromm was one of those remarkable Jewish émigrés who had become influential in almost every area of American thought and the arts. (One list includes forty-three such figures, from Albert Einstein in science to the composer Arnold Schoenberg.) As in the case of Hannah Arendt, the fact that he was a refugee from Hitler's Europe made his analysis of the rise of totalitarianism all the more compelling. Fromm was not a systematic historical thinker like Arendt, explaining totalitarianism in terms of multiple levels of causation. He was, rather, an engaging synthesizer, who sketched the big picture in broad and often speculative strokes and who offered engaging insights to which general audiences could easily relate.

The problem, said Fromm, was with freedom itself, that most celebrated achievement of modernity. “Modern man,”
Fromm explained, had been freed from both the restraints and the securities of pre-individualistic societies, “but has not gained freedom in the positive sense of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities.” Even though freedom “brought him independence and rationality,” it also “made him isolated and thereby anxious and powerless.” Rather than advancing to the realization of the true freedom “based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man,” he had retreated into “new dependencies.” Voluntary submission to totalitarianism was the most dramatic symptom of this regress. But Americans could also see it much closer to home in the conformity of modern society, in which “the individual ceases to be himself” and “adopts entirely the kind of personality offered by the cultural patterns,” so that “he becomes exactly as all others are and as they expect him to be.”

Fromm was a master of the grand generalization in describing the evolution of modern culture and of modern man. Trained in sociology, he fashioned his historical interpretations with an air of scientific authority. The two great forces shaping the historical evolution of the collective attitudes of societies, he believed, were the economic and psychological factors. Fromm was most interested in the psychological ones. In the early modern era, Westerners believed that humans were essentially rational and driven by self-interest. Sigmund Freud exploded that view by showing that humans were most often driven by irrational and unconscious forces. Fromm saw himself as a follower of Freud, but he was also critical of the father of psychoanalysis, believing Freud was too rooted in his own time and place and not aware enough of how historical
developments transformed societies and their collective psyches. Fromm nonetheless borrowed psychoanalytic categories for his explanations of historical developments. For instance, he attributed the rise of Hitler to the appeal of sadomasochism. Sadism was related to the inbuilt human will to power, and masochism reflected the tendency “
to get rid of the individual self, to lose oneself
” or “
to get rid of the burden of freedom
.” Or, in order to make clear he was not talking about just neurotics, regarding normal people this tendency could be described as simply the “
authoritarian character
” who “admires authority and tends to submit to it, but at the same time he wants to be an authority himself and have others submit to him.”

Fromm turned his analysis most directly on affluent America in 1955 in
The Sane Society
. In the modern world, he argued, even free societies could be insane, or organized on a pathological basis that undermined the fulfillment of truly humanistic values. At the end of the Middle Ages, “man discovered nature and the individual, . . . laid the foundations for the natural sciences and developed humanistic ideals that combined the moral conscience of the Judeo Christian tradition with the intellectual conscience from the Greek tradition.” But, in recent centuries, technological and industrial gains, rather
than advancing those ideals, had subverted them. “In building
the new industrial machine,” Fromm explained, “man became so absorbed in the new task that it became the paramount goal of his life.” Human energies, “which once were devoted to the search for God and salvation, were now directed toward the domination of nature and ever-increasing material
comfort.” As mechanization dramatically advanced these material goals, “man himself became a part of the machine, rather than its master.” Contemporary societies, whether totalitarian or capitalist, organized everything efficiently, and everyone was to fit in like “a cog in the machine.” In such societies, Fromm wrote, “happiness becomes identical with consumption of newer and better commodities.” But affluent Americans typically became quickly bored with their material things. So the rates of alcoholism and suicide in America were among the highest in the world, and escapist entertainments were everywhere. Modern societies promoted short-term “happiness,” but they did not cultivate truly humanistic lives characterized by relatedness, creativity, individuality, loving relationships, reason, and “a frame of orientation and devotion.”

The commoditization and objectification of modern capitalism thus produced, to use two of the most popular terms of the day, “alienation” and “conformity.” The idea that capitalism led to the alienation of humans from their true selves went back to Karl Marx, but Fromm argued that Marx entirely missed the irrational side of humans. Furthermore, contrary to Marx, Fromm said that in highly industrialized societies alienation was rampant regardless of who controlled the means of production. In America, the widely noted conformity illustrated how widespread alienation was in a consumerist society. In the Soviet Union, conformity might be imposed from above, but in the United States it was voluntary. Vast numbers of Americans chose to eat tasteless and non-nourishing white bread and to drink Coca-Cola because these products were the most effectively advertised and marketed. The new suburbs,
with rows of similar houses, likewise illustrated the leveling of tastes. The new suburbanites typically said they did not want to “stick out” too much. Conformity to whatever one's neighbors did was the new authority. Psychological problems had become matters of “adjustment” to conventional norms.

Fromm, ever the optimist about human potentialities, did not think it was too late to change. Declaring that time was short, he concluded with a sermonic peroration: “We are in reach of achieving a state of humanity which corresponds to the vision of our great teachers; yet we are in danger of the destruction of all civilization, or of robotization. A small tribe was told thousands of years ago: ‘I put before you life and death, blessing and curse—and you chose life.' This is our choice too.”

Fromm appealed to American audiences in part because he was a moralist who adopted the classic American sermonic form of the jeremiad, a lament for a lost golden age.
identified the Renaissance as this ideal time, a time when Judeo
-Christian moral consciousness combined with Greek respect for intellect and when modern science was emerging. Although he criticized the thinkers of the eighteenth-century enlightenment as having too naïvely trusted in reason and for neglecting the irrational, he nonetheless shared with them the confidence that, with proper scientific analysis of the human
condition, it should be possible to construct an enlightened society in which peace, brotherhood, and cooperation would prevail

More immediately, Fromm's ideas resonated with the mainstream American conversation of the mid-1950s because he
provided an engaging diagnosis of a malady that one of his former students, David Riesman, had already named in the title of his famous 1950 book
The Lonely Crowd
. Riesman wrote as an academic sociologist, and not in as accessible a style as Fromm's, but, like his former teacher, he offered to the general reader a wide-ranging historical and contemporary analysis framed into a few easy-to-remember categories. Despite the academic character of the work, his categories caught on, and by 1954 Riesman had reached what at the time was the closest thing to canonization in America by appearing on the cover of
. As one commentator remarked at the end of the decade, “
The Lonely Crowd
is like a lot of books that have permanently changed men's minds”: far more people knew its thesis or had looked into it than had actually read it.

Why did the basic motifs of Riesman's rather turgid analysis resonate so well with middlebrow audiences? The answer is that he was addressing, with a scientific aura, one of the most compelling questions regarding the human condition, a question that had already attracted the interest of many thoughtful people. The question was whether the typical “modern man” had become alienated, inauthentic, conformist, and phony. Every educated person would have been familiar with the theme, as it had appeared in recent popular works of literature. Arthur Miller's long-running 1949 play
Death of a Salesman
was among the most prominent of these. Willie Loman, the salesman dominated by his hopes for economic success and being “well liked,” became a symbol of the emptiness of modern times. Countless other literary and artistic works, both at home and abroad, presented complementary themes. One
could reflect on the emptiness of modern life in Jean-Paul Sartre's
No Exit
, for example, where hell is to get what one always wanted in life: to be regarded in the perception of others. Or, in Albert Camus's
The Stranger
, one might contemplate the
meaninglessness of modern existence. Ralph Ellison's
The Invisible Man
in 1952 offered an African American depiction of the artificiality and alienation in the modern world. For middle
-class college students who were fretting about becoming conformists, no text was more canonical than J. D. Salinger's 1951 book
The Catcher in the Rye
, with its depiction of the phoniness of adult life. No longer was it easy to believe, as it had been in the 1930s, that politics and ideologies might offer real answers. Just as the title of the 1955 novel and 1956 film
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
became another catchphrase to summarize the problem, so the title of the immensely popular 1955 James Dean film
Rebel Without a Cause
came to encapsulate the worry that there might not be a solution.

BOOK: The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
8.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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