Wrong Turns and Bad Choices

Commenter Dale Nelson just shared a quote that deserves better than the swift oblivion of a comment thread, so I am elevating it to the slightly less swift oblivion of a post.  He tells me that the passage was written by Robert Aickman (1914-1981), an English conservationist and writer of weird tales, and that it was warmly approved by the American paleoconservative and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk.

“I believe that at the time of the Industrial and French revolutions . . . . mankind took a wrong turning. The beliefs that one day, by application of reason and the scientific method, everything will be known, and every problem and unhappiness solved, seem to me to have led to a situation where, first, we are in imminent danger of destroying the whole world and where, second, everyone suffers from an existential angst, previously confined to the very few.”

My cursory search failed to discover the original source of this passage, although it is certainly congruent with what I was able to discover about Aickman’s general outlook on the world.*  As I said in answer to Mr. Nelson, it is also congruent with the Orthosphere’s general outlook on the world.  We all know and enjoy the benefits that have flowed from the aggrandizement of reason and the scientific method, but we also know and suffer its very considerable costs.

In my answer to Mr. Nelson, I mentioned that my wife and I attended a dinner party last evening, and that a sign hanging over the fireplace exhorted whoever might read it to “choose joy.”  In fact, I seem to recall some of my wife’s home décor likewise exhorting me to “joy.”  When I noticed such exhortations, I snorted and was stricken by a slight malaise, for joy is not a servant that will come when I call for it.  It is more like a wild animal that I may put myself in the way of seeing, but that I may even then fail to encounter.  And like all other wild animals, joy grows increasingly secretive and rare in the world that reason and science have made.

Like the old man in this poem, joy has become for modern man an increasingly distant memory.

“There’s something in a noble boy,
A brave, free-hearted, careless one,
With his uncheck’d, unbidden joy
His dread of books and love of fun . . .

His shouts may ring upon the hill,
His voice may be echoed in the hall
His merry laugh like music thrill,
And I in sadness hear it all,

For like the wrinkles on my brow,
I scarcely notice such things now.”**

Here is a second quote that seems to point in the same direction.  It was written by the American nature writer John Burroughs in an account of his travels in Europe in the 1870’s.  Looking back at the United States, Burroughs saw what he described as “the leanness and depletion of our social and convivial instincts,” which I take to mean that his homeland was a place where joy was seldom sighted.

“European cities differ from ours . . . . They have a homelier character—more the air of dwelling-places, the abodes of men drawn together for purposes other than traffic.  People actually live in them, and find life sweet and festal.  But what does our greatest city, New York, express besides commerce or politics, or what other reason has it for existence?  This is, of course, in a measure the result of the modern worldly and practical business spirit, which more and more animates all nations, and which led Carlyle to say of his own countrymen that they were becoming daily more ‘flat, stupid, and mammonish.’  Yet I am persuaded that in our case it is traceable also to the leanness and depletion of our social and convivial instincts, and to the fact that the material cares of life are more serious and engrossing with us than with any other people.”***

The devolution of that word homely is telling, is it not?  Here it means the “sweet and festal” milieu of home, whereas for us it means the ill-favored mug of a woman who will not go far in this world.

Burroughs saw that “the modern worldly and practical business spirit” (offspring of science and reason) was infecting all nations, but averred that his own countrymen were well ahead in the universal race to flatness, stupidity and mammonism.  The creed of mammonism holds that the pursuit of money is the purpose of man’s being and his highest calling; and, as Carlyle explained, it is therefore hardly surprising that

“We have profoundly forgotten everywhere that Cash-payment is not the sole relation of human beings; we think, nothing doubting, that it absolves and liquidates all engagements of man.”†

Indeed it does absolve and liquidate all engagements of man, until every place on earth is a part of the universal marketplace (i.e. “global economy”).  But search as you like in this universal marketplace, you will find no vendor of joy!  You will, however, find abundant substitutes for joy.  Indeed, much of the trade in the universal market is a trade in synthetic bliss, double-distilled hilarity, and costly exhortations to “choose joy.”

This trade thrives because what we have truly chosen is to starve what Burroughs called our “social and convivial instincts.”  We have chosen to live in this universal marketplace, and to run our lives on the nervous energy that Aickman called “existential angst.”  And, as Aickman said, by so doing we have chosen to put ourselves “in imminent danger of destroying the whole world.”

And Carlyle agreed:

“Enlightened philosophies . . . will tell you: ‘Enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, Heaven, Hell and such-like: yes, all that was true enough for old stupid time; all that used to be true: but we have changed all that . . .’  Well; if . . . man have no heroism in him deeper than the wish to eat, and in his soul there dwell now no Infinite of hope and awe . . . behold the Abyss and nameless Annihilation s ready.  So scandalous a beggarly Universe deserves indeed nothing else.”


*) Mr. Nelson supplies bibliographic information in a comment below.
**) Nathaniel Parker Willis, “The Boy” (1835)
***) John Burroughs, Winter Sunshine (1875)
†) Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present (1843)

9 thoughts on “Wrong Turns and Bad Choices

  1. “Dale Nelson” would be okay.

    The Aickman quotation is from “An Essay” that Aickman contributed to The First World Fantasy Awards, edited by Gahan Wilson (1977). Aickman had won the award for “Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal.” I wouldn’t say that Dr. Kirk quoted the Aickman passage, but rather that, when I showed it to him, he said it was very close to his own belief.

  2. Pingback: Wrong Turns and Bad Choices | Reaction Times

  3. What is really dispiriting is coming to the realization that great minds had diagnosed the malady generations ago . . . and that their words were not lost in a locked, secret dungeon of some remote, mountainous monastery but instead were probably available at the nearest public library (thanks to that mammonish Scotsman and his like). The 24-centuries-old Republic and Laws offer a good deal of analysis applicable to our currently passing scene. It’s all there, but where are the ears to hear? Is every wise man destined to play Cassandra?

    • We must all learn to play Cassandra sooner or later. I used to think my words had am impact. Now I think they sometimes appear to have an impact, and that is when they happen to concur with what people are going to do anyhow. In the case of these old writers, they were not so muck warning that we were approaching the edge of a cliff as they were observing that we had fallen from it.

  4. Burroughs saw that “the modern worldly and practical business spirit” (offspring of science and reason) …

    With this part I strenuously disagree. Bacon’s New Organon is the slaving of science and reason to nothing but “the modern worldly and practical business spirit,” along with the radical reduction and removal of anything previously considered part of science and reason that would not fit that goal.

    Again there is another great and powerful cause why the sciences have made but little progress, which is this. It is not possible to run a course aright when the goal itself has not been rightly placed. Now the true and lawful goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.

    From the two kinds of axioms which have been spoken of arises a just division of philosophy and the sciences, taking the received terms (which come nearest to express the thing) in a sense agreeable to my own views. Thus, let the investigation of forms, which are (in the eye of reason at least, and in their essential law) eternal and immutable, constitute Metaphysics; and let the investigation of the efficient cause, and of matter, and of the latent process, and the latent configuration (all of which have reference to the common and ordinary course of nature, not to her eternal and fundamental laws) constitute Physics. And to these let there be subordinate two practical divisions: to Physics, Mechanics; to Metaphysics, what (in a purer sense of the word) I call Magic, on account of the broadness of the ways it moves in, and its greater command over nature.

    Having thus set up the mark of knowledge…

    • But Bacon did have a decidedly technological understanding of modern science. I recall the line about “extending the empire of man to the effecting of all things possible.” I agree that many individual scientists have been and are philosophers of a sort, but Science is a tool of Leviathan.

      • We’re in complete agreement about that. My point is that Science and Reason were redefined from their natural, good meanings by Leviathan to serve his purposes, rather than giving rise to him, in exactly the same way as everything else was.


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