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The Ethics of Belief: The Great English Mathematician and Philosopher William Kingdon Clifford on the Discipline of Doubt and How We Can Trust a Truth

“It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

The Ethics of Belief: The Great English Mathematician and Philosopher William Kingdon Clifford on the Discipline of Doubt and How We Can Trust a Truth

“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman observed in summarizing his pioneering behavioral psychology studies of how and why our minds mislead us. And yet our beliefs are the compass by which we navigate the landscape of reality, steering our actions and thus shaping our impact on that very reality. The great physicist David Bohm captured this inescapable dependency memorably: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… What we believe determines what we take to be true.”

How, then, do we align our beliefs with truth rather than illusion, so that we may perceive the most accurate representation of reality of which the human mind is capable, in turn guiding our actions toward noble and constructive ends?

That’s what the English mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford (May 4, 1845–March 3, 1879) explored with uncommon insight and rhetorical elegance nearly a century and a half before the golden age of “alternative facts.”

William Kingdon Clifford by John Collier

By the time tuberculosis claimed his life at the unjust age of thirty-three, Clifford had revolutionized mathematics by developing geometric algebra, had written a book of fairy tales for children, and had become the first person to suggest that gravity might be a function of an underlying cosmic geometry, developing what he called a “space-theory of matter” decades before Einstein transformed our understanding of the universe by bridging space and time into a geometry of spacetime.

But one of Clifford’s most lasting contributions is an essay titled “The Ethics of Belief,” originally published in an 1877 issue of the journal Contemporary Review and later included in Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy (public library). In it, Clifford probes the nature of right and wrong, the infernal abyss between belief and truth, and our responsibility to the truth despite our habitual human deviations into unreason, delusion, and rationalization.

Clifford, at only thirty-two, begins with a parable containing an ethical thought experiment:

A shipowner was about to send to sea an emigrant-ship. He knew that she was old, and not overwell built at the first; that she had seen many seas and climes, and often had needed repairs. Doubts had been suggested to him that possibly she was not seaworthy. These doubts preyed upon his mind, and made him unhappy; he thought that perhaps he ought to have her thoroughly overhauled and refitted, even though this should put him at great expense. Before the ship sailed, however, he succeeded in overcoming these melancholy reflections. He said to himself that she had gone safely through so many voyages and weathered so many storms that it was idle to suppose she would not come safely home from this trip also. He would put his trust in Providence, which could hardly fail to protect all these unhappy families that were leaving their fatherland to seek for better times elsewhere. He would dismiss from his mind all ungenerous suspicions about the honesty of builders and contractors. In such ways he acquired a sincere and comfortable conviction that his vessel was thoroughly safe and seaworthy; he watched her departure with a light heart, and benevolent wishes for the success of the exiles in their strange new home that was to be; and he got his insurance-money when she went down in mid-ocean and told no tales.

What shall we say of him? Surely this, that he was verily guilty of the death of those men. It is admitted that he did sincerely believe in the soundness of his ship; but the sincerity of his conviction can in no wise help him, because he had no right to believe on such evidence as was before him. He had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, but by stifling his doubts. And although in the end he may have felt so sure about it that he could not think otherwise, yet inasmuch as he had knowingly and willingly worked himself into that frame of mind, he must be held responsible for it.

Clifford adds a layer of ethical complexity by arguing that even if the ship hadn’t sunk, the shipowner would be guilty of the same error of judgment, for he “would not have been innocent, he would only have been not found out.” He writes:

The question of right or wrong has to do with the origin of his belief, not the matter of it; not what it was, but how he got it; not whether it turned out to be true or false, but whether he had a right to believe on such evidence as was before him.


For it is not possible so to sever the belief from the action it suggests as to condemn the one without condemning the other. No man holding a strong belief on one side of a question, or even wishing to hold a belief on one side, can investigate it with such fairness and completeness as if he were really in doubt and unbiased; so that the existence of a belief not founded on fair inquiry unfits a man for the performance of this necessary duty.

A century before psychologists came to identify such cognitive flaws as confirmation bias and the backfire effect, Clifford adds:

Nor is it that truly a belief at all which has not some influence upon the actions of him who holds it. He who truly believes that which prompts him to an action has looked upon the action to lust after it, he has committed it already in his heart. If a belief is not realized immediately in open deeds, it is stored up for the guidance of the future. It goes to make a part of that aggregate of beliefs which is the link between sensation and action at every moment of all our lives, and which is so organized and compacted together that no part of it can be isolated from the rest, but every new addition modifies the structure of the whole. No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character for ever.

In a sentiment evocative of the Indian poet and philosopher Tagore’s reflections on the interdependence of existence, Clifford takes care to highlight the sociological tapestry out of which each strand of our private beliefs is frayed:

No one man’s belief is in any case a private matter which concerns himself alone. Our lives our guided by that general conception of the course of things which has been created by society for social purposes. Our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought, are common property, fashioned and perfected from age to age; an heirloom which every succeeding generation inherits as a precious deposit and a sacred trust to be handled on to the next one, not unchanged but enlarged and purified, with some clear marks of its proper handiwork. Into this, for good or ill, is woven every belief of every man who has speech of his fellows. A awful privilege, and an awful responsibility, that we should help to create the world in which posterity will live.

In a passage of astounding pertinence today, as dangerous ideologies divorced from truth offer false comfort in “alternative facts” to the detriment of our common good, Clifford cautions:

Belief, that sacred faculty which prompts the decisions of our will, and knits into harmonious working all the compacted energies of our being, is ours not for ourselves but for humanity. It is rightly used on truths which have been established by long experience and waiting toil, and which have stood in the fierce light of free and fearless questioning. Then it helps to bind men together, and to strengthen and direct their common action. It is desecrated when given to unproved and unquestioned statements, for the solace and private pleasure of the believer; to add a tinsel splendour to the plain straight road of our life and display a bright mirage beyond it; or even to drown the common sorrows of our kind by a self-deception which allows them not only to cast down, but also to degrade us. Whoso would deserve well of his fellows in this matter will guard the purity of his beliefs with a very fanaticism of jealous care, lest at any time it should rest on an unworthy object, and catch a stain which can never be wiped away.

Three centuries after Western philosophy founding father and reason crusader René Descartes asserted that “it is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to apply it well,” Clifford adds:

In regard, then, to the sacred tradition of humanity, we learn that it consists, not in propositions or statements which are to be accepted and believed on the authority of the tradition, but in questions rightly asked, in conceptions which enable us to ask further questions, and in methods of answering questions. The value of all these things depends on their being tested day by day. The very sacredness of the precious deposit imposes upon us the duty and the responsibility of testing it, of purifying and enlarging it to the utmost of our power. He who makes use of its results to stifle his own doubts, or to hamper the inquiry of others, is guilty of sacrilege which centuries shall never be able to blot out.

How to purify and enlarge our access to truth is what Carl Sagan outlined a century later in his timeless Baloney Detection Kit, but Clifford himself crystallizes the most effective approach in a wonderfully succinct dictum:

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

Complement with Lewis Thomas, one of the most enchanting writers of the past century, on the transmutation of ignorance into truth, Karl Popper on the crucial difference between truth and certainty, and Laura (Riding) Jackson’s unusual and profound 1967 manifesto for the telling of truth.


Descartes on Opinion vs. Reason, the Key to a Wakeful Mind, and the Discipline of Critical Introspection

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to apply it well.”

Descartes on Opinion vs. Reason, the Key to a Wakeful Mind, and the Discipline of Critical Introspection

“The questions raised by the desire to know are in principle all answerable by common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant treatise on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning. “But the questions raised by thinking and which it is in reason’s very nature to raise — questions of meaning — are all unanswerable by common sense and the refinement of it we call science.”

What kind of reasoning, then, can we develop in order not only to inoculate ourselves against unreason, not only to arrive at truth, but to access meaning? More than that, in an age of instant opinions blind to the fact that the hunger for certainty often starves us of truth, how are we to train ourselves to shed the blinders of opinion and attune our organs of insight to unclouded truth?

Four centuries ago, the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) set out to answer these questions in a 1637 treatise on “the method for conducting one’s reason well,” included in his Philosophical Essays and Correspondence (public library). Building on the twelve tenets of critical thinking he had penned a decade earlier, in this part-autobiographical, part-philosophical work Descartes delineates how he arrived at his famous I think therefore I am dictum and illustrates the discipline of cultivating a wakeful, considerate mind honed for discerning truth from unreason, a mind sensitive to its own propensity for self-deception and therefore compassionate to even the most deluded others.

Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648
Portrait of Descartes after Frans Hals, 1648

Descartes begins by considering the nature of common sense and the cause of our divergent opinions:

Good sense is the best distributed thing in the world, for everyone thinks himself to be so well endowed with it that even those who are the most difficult to please in everything else are not at all wont to desire more of it than they have. It is not likely that everyone is mistaken in this. Rather, it provides evidence that the power of judging well and of distinguishing the true from the false (which is, properly speaking, what people call “good sense” or “reason”) is naturally equal in all men, and that the diversity of our opinions does not arise from the fact that some people are more reasonable than others, but solely from the fact that we lead our thoughts along different paths and do not take the same things into consideration. For it is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to apply it well. The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues. And those who proceed only very slowly can make much greater progress, provided they always follow the right path, than do those who hurry and stray from it.

He reflects on the path of his own steadfast progress toward reason:

For myself, I have never presumed that my mind was in any respect more perfect than that of ordinary men.


But I shall have no fear of saying that I think I have been rather fortunate to have, since my youth, found myself on certain paths that have led me to considerations and maxims from which I have formed a method by which, it seems to me, I have the means to increase my knowledge by degrees and to raise it little by little to the highest point which the mediocrity of my mind and the short duration of my life will be able to allow it to attain. For I have already reaped from it such a harvest that, although I try, in judgments I make of myself, always to lean more on the side of diffidence than of presumption, and although, looking with a philosopher’s eye at the various actions and enterprises of all men, there is hardly one of them that does not seem to me vain and useless, I cannot but take immense satisfaction in the progress that I think I have already made in the search for truth, and I cannot but envisage such hopes for the future that if, among the occupations of men purely as men, there is one that is solidly good and important, I dare to believe that it is the one I have chosen.

Illustration of the Trojan horse from Alice and Martin Provensen’s vintage adaptation of Homer for young readers

Although he was “nourished on letters” since childhood but “delighted most of all in mathematics because of the certainty and the evidence of its reasonings,” Descartes awakened early to the lacuna between learning and reasoning, becoming aware that if so many expert opinions could exist about the selfsame subject, it was quite probable that many of them were incorrect. Thus he realized that the most reliable tool of evaluating truth is a well-trained critical mind of one’s own. But contrary to hasty misconception, Descartes was no reclusive scholar who simply theorized these precepts in the isolated comfort of an ivory tower. Rather, he wrested them from what he calls “the book of the world,” in consonance with Werner Herzog’s insistence that all work aimed at creative breakthrough “must have experience of life at its foundation,” and then continually tested them against reality as he interacted with that world. He recounts:

As soon as age permitted me to emerge from the supervision of my teachers, I completely abandoned the study of letters. And resolving to search for no knowledge other than what could be found within myself, or else in the great book of the world, I spent the rest of my youth traveling, seeing courts and armies, mingling with people of diverse temperaments and circumstances, gathering various experiences, testing myself in the encounters that fortune offered me, and everywhere engaging in such reflection upon the things that presented themselves that I was able to derive some profit from them. For it seemed to me that I could find much more truth in the reasonings that each person makes concerning matters that are important to him, and whose outcome ought to cost him dearly later on if he has judged badly, than in those reasonings engaged in by a man of letters in his study, which touch on speculations that produce no effect and are of no other consequence to him except perhaps that, the more they are removed from common sense, the more pride he will take in them, for he will have to employ that much more wit and ingenuity in attempting to render them plausible. And I have always had an especially great desire to learn to distinguish the true from the false, in order to see my way clearly in my actions, and to go forward with confidence in this life.

It is true that, so long as I merely considered the customs of other men, I found hardly anything there about which to be confident, and that I noticed there was about as much diversity as I had previously found among the opinions of philosophers. Thus the greatest profit I derived from this was that, on seeing many things that, although they seem to us very extravagant and ridiculous, do not cease to be commonly accepted and approved among other great peoples, I learned not to believe anything too firmly of which I had been persuaded only by example and custom; and thus I little by little freed myself from many errors that can darken our natural light and render us less able to listen to reason. But after I had spent some years thus studying in the book of the world and in trying to gain some experience, I resolved one day to study within myself too and to spend all the powers of my mind in choosing the paths that I should follow.

In a sentiment which John Cowper Powys would echo centuries later in his meditation on the crucial difference between being educated and being cultured, Descartes contrasts the value of such introspective critical thinking with that of rote learning:

Book learning, at least the kind whose reasonings are merely probable and that do not have any demonstrations, having been composed and enlarged little by little from the opinions of many different persons, does not draw nearly so close to the truth as the simple reason-ings that a man of good sense can naturally make about the things he encounters… Because we were all children before being men and because for a long time it was necessary for us to be governed by our appetites and our teachers (which were frequently in conflict with one another, and of which perhaps neither always gave us the best advice), it is nearly impossible for our judgments to be as pure or as solid as they would have been if we had had the full use of our reason from the moment of our birth and if we had always been guided by it alone.

But he offers one crucial disclaimer, inviting a sensitivity to nuance in distinguishing between expertise and authority, one being the product of objectively superior knowledge and the other of accepted order or unquestioned custom. Expertise, he cautions, is not to be dismissed by those who lack it in the very subject they are trying to evaluate:

The single resolution to rid oneself of all the opinions to which one has heretofore given credence is not an example that everyone ought to follow; and the world consists almost exclusively of two kinds of minds for whom it is not at all suitable. First, there are those who, believing themselves more capable than they are, are unable to avoid being hasty in their judgments or have enough patience to conduct all their thoughts in an orderly manner; as a result, if they have once taken the liberty of doubting the principles they had accepted and of straying from the common path, they could never keep to the path one must take in order to go in a more straightforward direction, and they would remain lost all their lives. Second, there are those who have enough reason or modesty to judge that they are less capable of distinguishing the true from the false than certain others by whom they can be instructed; such people should content themselves more with following the opinions of these others than with looking for better ones themselves.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

He returns to the question of what gives rise to divergent opinions and how irrelevant opinions are, at bottom, in the conquest of truth:

I had recognized in my travels that all those who have sentiments quite contrary to our own are not for that reason barbarians or savages, but that many of them use their reason as much as or more than we do… One and the same man with the very same mind, were he brought up from infancy among the French or the Germans, would become different from what he would be had he always lived among the Chinese or the cannibals.

Predating Kierkegaard’s assertion that “truth always rests with the minority” by two centuries, Descartes adds:

Thus it is more custom and example that persuades us than any certain knowledge; and yet the majority opinion is worthless as a proof of truths that are at all difficult to discover, since it is much more likely that one man would have found them than a whole multitude of people.

In the remainder of the treatise, Descartes goes on to outline the four rules he devised for himself to help him efficiently and lucidly evaluate what he encounters, and emerge with truth. Complement his Philosophical Essays and Correspondence with his reflections on the relationship between fear and hope, the cure for indecision, and how to acquire nobility of spirit, then revisit Hegel on the peril of fixed opinions and Karl Popper on the vital difference between truth and certainty.


The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die.”

The Sane Society: The Great Humanistic Philosopher and Psychologist Erich Fromm on How to Save Us From Ourselves

“Every advance of intellect beyond the ordinary measure,” Schopenhauer wrote in examining the relationship between genius and insanity, “disposes to madness.” But could what is true of the individual also be true of society — could it be that the more so-called progress polishes our collective pride and the more intellectually advanced human civilization becomes, the more it risks madness? And, if so, what is the proper corrective to restore our collective sanity?

That’s what the great German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) explores in his timely 1956 treatise The Sane Society (public library).

Fifteen years after his inquiry into why totalitarian regimes rise in Escape from Freedom, Fromm examines the promise and foibles of modern democracy, focusing on its central pitfall of alienation and the means to attaining its full potential — the idea that “progress can only occur when changes are made simultaneously in the economic, socio-political and cultural spheres; that any progress restricted to one sphere is destructive to progress in all spheres.”

Erich Fromm

Two decades before his elegant case for setting ourselves free from the chains of our culture, Fromm weighs the validity of our core assumption about our collective state:

Nothing is more common than the idea that we, the people living in the Western world of the twentieth century, are eminently sane. Even the fact that a great number of individuals in our midst suffer from more or less severe forms of mental illness produces little doubt with respect to the general standard of our mental health. We are sure that by introducing better methods of mental hygiene we shall improve still further the state of our mental health, and as far as individual mental disturbances are concerned, we look at them as strictly individual incidents, perhaps with some amazement that so many of these incidents should occur in a culture which is supposedly so sane.

Can we be so sure that we are not deceiving ourselves? Many an inmate of an insane asylum is convinced that everybody else is crazy, except himself.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Fromm notes that while modernity has increased the material wealth and comfort of the human race, it has also wrought major wars that killed millions, during which “every participant firmly believed that he was fighting in his self-defense, for his honor, or that he was backed up by God.” In a sentiment of chilling pertinence today, after more than half a century of alleged progress has drowned us in mind-numbing commercial media and left us to helplessly watch military budgets swell at the expense of funding for the arts and humanities, Fromm writes:

We have a literacy above 90 per cent of the population. We have radio, television, movies, a newspaper a day for everybody. But instead of giving us the best of past and present literature and music, these media of communication, supplemented by advertising, fill the minds of men with the cheapest trash, lacking in any sense of reality, with sadistic phantasies which a halfway cultured person would be embarrassed to entertain even once in a while. But while the mind of everybody, young and old, is thus poisoned, we go on blissfully to see to it that no “immorality” occurs on the screen. Any suggestion that the government should finance the production of movies and radio programs which would enlighten and improve the minds of our people would be met again with indignation and accusations in the name of freedom and idealism.

Art by Edward Gorey from The Shrinking of Treehorn

Less than a decade after the German philosopher Josef Pieper made his beautiful case for why leisure is the basis of culture, Fromm adds:

We have reduced the average working hours to about half what they were one hundred years ago. We today have more free time available than our forefathers dared to dream of. But what has happened? We do not know how to use the newly gained free time; we try to kill the time we have saved, and are glad when another day is over… Society as a whole may be lacking in sanity.

Fromm points out that we can only speak of a “sane” society if we acknowledge that a society can be not sane, which in turn requires a departure from previous theories of sociological relativism postulating that “each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.” Instead, Fromm proposes a model of normative humanism — a redemptive notion that relieves some of our self-blame for feeling like we are going crazy, by acknowledging that society itself, when bedeviled by certain pathologies, can be crazy-making for the individual.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for Bearskin from a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

One key source of that tension between sanity and insanity, Fromm argues, is our misconception of “human nature” as a single, static monolith, when in fact the nature of the human experience is varied and dynamic. In a sentiment which Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert would echo half a century later in his famous aphorism that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Fromm writes:

Just as man* transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.

The most pernicious effect of any given social order, Fromm suggests, is that it breeds a culture of truth by consensus rather than truth by evidence, truth relative to collective opinion rather than absolute truth — the sort of relativism which Karl Popper memorably admonished is “a betrayal of reason and of humanity.” In another passage of astounding pertinence today, as we witness a global groupthink elect destructive ideas to the status of truth and therefore power, Fromm observes something as true of religious delusions as it is of ruinous political ideologies:

What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health… The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

Art by Ben Shahn from On Nonconformity

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the individual vs. society, why we conform, and the power of the minority, Fromm writes:

For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work… There are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”

He considers what a sane society actually means:

A sane society is that which corresponds to the needs of man — not necessarily to what he feels to be his needs, because even the most pathological aims can be felt subjectively as that which the person wants most; but to what his needs are objectively, as they can be ascertained by the study of man. It is our first task then, to ascertain what is the nature of man, and what are the needs which stem from this nature.

A decade after Abraham Maslow placed self-actualization atop his foundational hierarchy of needs, Fromm illustrates our ultimate need as analogous to the development of children:

Physical birth, if we think of the individual, is by no means as decisive and singular an act as it appears to be… In many respects the infant after birth is not different from the infant before birth; it cannot perceive things outside, cannot feed itself; it is completely dependent on the mother, and would perish without her help. Actually, the process of birth continues. The child begins to recognize outside objects, to react affectively, to grasp things and to co-ordinate his movements, to walk. But birth continues. The child learns to speak, it learns to know the use and function of things, it learns to relate itself to others, to avoid punishment and gain praise and liking. Slowly, the growing person learns to love, to develop reason, to look at the world objectively. He begins to develop his powers; to acquire a sense of identity, to overcome the seduction of his senses for the sake of an integrated life. Birth then, in the conventional meaning of the word, is only the beginning of birth in the broader sense. The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to himself; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die — although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

A sane society, Fromm suggests, is one which helps the individual continually give birth to herself, whereas a society which is not sane stymies that ongoing rebirth and renders the individual in a state of alienation. He outlines the consequences:

The psychological results of alienation are [that] man regresses to a receptive and marketing orientation and ceases to be productive; that he loses his sense of self, becomes dependent on approval, hence tends to conform and yet to feel insecure; he is dissatisfied, bored, and anxious, and spends most of his energy in the attempt to compensate for or just to cover up this anxiety. His intelligence is excellent, his reason deteriorates and in view of his technical powers he is seriously endangering the existence of civilization, and even of the human race.


Reason deteriorates while their intelligence rises, thus creating the dangerous situation of equipping man with the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it. This alienation and automatization leads to an ever-increasing insanity. Life has no meaning, there is no joy, no faith, no reality.

Throughout history, Fromm observes, various thinkers have attempted to identify the root of alienation and to propose alternatives — while Marxists pointed to economic factors, thinkers like Tolstoy pointed to the spiritual and moral impoverishment of humanity. Fromm himself points to “robotism” — the mindless automation of our lives — as the seedbed of modern alienation, and proposes what he calls “humanistic democratic socialism” as the antidote. He writes:

The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes

Noting that the gravest dangers of his time — which are equally the dangers of our time — are war and robotism, Fromm offers his best recipe for a sane society:

[The alternative is] to get out of the rut in which we are moving, and to take the next step in the birth and self-realization of humanity. The first condition is the abolishment of the war threat hanging over all of us now and paralyzing faith and initiative. We must take the responsibility for the life of all men, and develop on an international scale what all great countries have developed internally, a relative sharing of wealth and a new and more just division of economic resources. This must lead eventually to forms of international economic co-operation and planning, to forms of world government and to complete disarmament. We must retain the industrial method. But we must decentralize work and state so as to give it human proportions, and permit centralization only to an optimal point which is necessary because of the requirements of industry. In the economic sphere we need co-management of all who work in an enterprise, to permit their active and responsible participation. The new forms for such participation can be found. In the political sphere, return to the town meetings, by creating thousands of small face-to-face groups, which are well informed, which discuss, and whose decisions are integrated in a new “lower house.” A cultural renaissance must combine work education for the young, adult education and a new system of popular art and secular ritual…

Holding up what he calls “humanistic communitarianism” as our only hope for protecting ourselves from the alienation of robotism, Fromm writes:

Man can protect himself from the consequences of his own madness only by creating a sane society which conforms with the needs of man, needs which are rooted in the very conditions of his existence. A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.


Man today is confronted with the most fundamental choice; not that between Capitalism or Communism, but that between robotism (of both the capitalist and the communist variety), or Humanistic Communitarian Socialism. Most facts seem to indicate that he is choosing robotism, and that means, in the long run, insanity and destruction. But all these facts are not strong enough to destroy faith in man’s reason, good will and sanity. As long as we can think of other alternatives, we are not lost; as long as we can consult together and plan together, we can hope. But, indeed, the shadows are lengthening; the voices of insanity are becoming louder. 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.

Complement Fromm’s stimulatingly sane-making The Sane Society with H.L. Mencken on reclaiming democracy from the mob mentality that masquerades for it and Hannah Arendt on our only effective antidote to the normalization of evil, then revisit Fromm on the art of living, the art of loving, and how to transcend the common laziness of optimism and pessimism.


The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher Tagore on Truth, Human Nature, and the Interdependence of Existence

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.”

The Great Indian Poet and Philosopher Tagore on Truth, Human Nature, and the Interdependence of Existence

“Nature, the soul, love, and God, one recognizes through the heart, and not through the reason… Reason is a tool, a machine, which is driven by the spiritual fire.” So wrote the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky as he contemplated how we come to know truth. Nearly a century later, the great Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (May 7, 1861–August 7, 1941) explored this question from a kindred angle, bringing to it the tools of philosophy, scientific knowledge, and spiritual inquiry.

In May of 1930, two months before his famous conversation with Einstein about the intersection of science and spirituality and seventeen years after he became the first non-European to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, Tagore delivered a series of lectures at Oxford University exploring human nature, spirituality, and our experience of reality. The following year, they were collected in The Religion of Man (public library).

Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore — whose legacy has inspired writings as diverse as physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic ode to science and philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s investigation of our political emotions — begins the opening lecture, “Man’s Universe,” with a poetic cosmogony of life:

Light as the radiant energy of creation started the ring-dance of atoms in a diminutive sky and also the dance of the stars in the vast lonely theatre of time and space. The planets came out of their bath of fire and basked in the sun for ages. They were the thrones of the gigantic Inert, dumb and desolate, which knew not the meaning of its own blind destiny and majestically frowned upon a future when its monarchy would be menaced.

Then came a time when life was brought into the arena in the tiniest little monocycle of a cell. With its gift of growth and power of adaptation it faced the ponderous enormity of things and contradicted the unmeaningness of their bulk. It was made conscious not of the volume but of the value of existence which it ever tried to enhance and maintain in many-branched paths of creation, overcoming the obstructive inertia of Nature by obeying Nature’s Law.

But the miracle of creation did not stop here in this isolated speck of life launched on a lonely voyage to the Unknown. A multitude of cells were bound together into a larger unit, not through aggregation but through a marvellous quality of complex inter-relationship maintaining a perfect co-ordination of functions. This is the creative principle of unity, the divine mystery of existence, that baffles all analysis. The larger cooperative units could adequately pay for a greater freedom of self-expression, and they began to form and develop in their bodies new organs of power, new instruments of efficiency. This was the march of evolution ever unfolding the potentialities of life.

When humans emerged, Tagore argues, we “turned the course of this evolution from an indefinite march of physical aggrandisement to a freedom of a more subtle perfection” — a realization of the unity between the physical and spiritual dimensions of existence, between one and all. He writes:

The leather binding and title-page are parts of the book itself; and this world that we perceive through our senses and mind and life’s experience is profoundly one with ourselves.

The divine principle of unity has ever been that of an inner inter-relationship. This is revealed in some of its earliest stages in the evolution of multicellular life on this planet. The most perfect outward expression has been attained by man in his own body. But what is most important of all is the fact that man has also attained its realisation in a more subtle body outside his physical system. He misses himself when isolated he finds his own larger and truer self in his wide human relationship. His multicellular body is born and it dies; his multi-personal humanity is immortal.

Illustration by Rob Hunter from A Graphic Cosmogony

Inhabiting this sense of belonging to the interconnectedness of things, Tagore suggests, is the closest our mortal selves can get to an experience of immortality. In a sentiment which the trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson would echo a few years later in asserting that appreciation of nature’s wholeness gives us the only real taste of immortality, Tagore writes:

In this ideal of unity [man] realizes the eternal in his life and the boundless in his love. The unity becomes not a mere subjective idea, but an energizing truth.


We have our eves, which relate to us the vision of the physical universe. We have also an inner faculty of our own which helps us to find our relationship with the supreme self of man, the universe of personality. This faculty is our luminous imagination which in its higher stage is special to man. It offers us that vision of wholeness which for the biological necessity of physical survival is superfluous; its purpose is to arouse in us the sense of perfection which is our true sense of immortality.

Tagore argues that we find this sense of immortality — or, rather, we create it — in our works of art, in philosophy and science, in service. He writes:

On the surface of our being we have the ever-changing phases of the individual self, but in the depth there dwells the Eternal Spirit of human unity beyond our direct knowledge. It very often contradicts the trivialities of our daily life and upsets the arrangements made for securing our personal exclusiveness behind the walls of individual habits and superficial conventions. It inspires in us works that are the expressions of a Universal Spirit; it invokes unexpectedly in the midst of a self-centred life a supreme sacrifice. At its call, we hasten to dedicate our lives to the cause of truth and beauty, to unrewarded service of others.

Reflecting on his own experience of first contacting this immortal awareness of the interconnectedness of things, he adds:

The first stage of my realisation was through my feeling of intimacy with Nature — not that Nature which has its channel of information for our mind and physical relationship with our living body, but that which satisfies our personality with manifestations that make our life rich, stimulate our imagination in their harmony of forms, colours, sounds and movements… that which lavishly displays its wealth of reality to our personal self having its own perpetual reaction upon our human nature.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio, an alternative origin story exploring the grand questions of existence

Nearly six decades before the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler proffered his “It from Bit” theory, in which he asserted that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Tagore considers the relationship between the consciousness of the human observer and the truth this consciousness perceives:

Even the impersonal aspect of truth dealt with by science belongs to the human Universe. But men of Science tell us that truth, unlike beauty, and goodness, is independent of our consciousness. They explain to us how the belief, that truth is independent of the human mind, is a mystical belief, natural to man but at the same time inexplicable. But may not the explanation be this, that ideal truth does not depend upon the individual mind of man but on the universal mind which comprehends the individual? For to say that truth, as we see it, exists apart from humanity is really to contradict science itself; because science can only organise into rational concepts those facts which man can know and understand, and logic is a machinery of thinking created by the mechanic man.

Interestingly, Tagore is writing the selfsame year that the mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems, demonstrating through mathematics rather than philosophy that there are limits to how much of reality scientific logic can grasp. Perhaps Gödel would have been pleased by the example with which Tagore illustrates his point:

The table that I am using with all its varied meanings appears as a table for man through his special organ of senses and his special organ of thoughts. When scientifically analysed the same table offers an enormously different appearance to him from that given by his senses. The evidence of his physical senses and that of his logic and his scientific instruments are both related to his own power of comprehension; both are true and true for him. He makes use of the table with full confidence for his physical purposes and with equal confidence makes intellectual use of it for his scientific knowledge. But the knowledge is his who is a man. If a particular man as an individual did not exist, the table would exist all the same, but still as a thing that is related to human mind. The contradiction that there is between the table of our sense perception and the table of our scientific knowledge has its common centre of reconciliation in human personality.

The same thing holds true in the realm of idea. In the scientific idea of the world there is no gap in the universal law of causality. Whatever happens could never have happened otherwise. This is a generalisation which has been made possible by a quality of logic which is possessed by the human mind. But this very mind of man has its immediate consciousness of will within him which is aware of its freedom and ever struggles for it. Every day in most of our behaviour we acknowledge its truth; in fact our conduct finds its best value in its relation to its truth. Thus this has its analogy in our daily behaviour with regard to a table. For whatever may be the conclusion that Science has unquestionably proved about the table, we are amply rewarded when we deal with it as a solid fact and never as a crowd of fluid elements that represent certain kinds of energy.

But, in a sentiment which Karl Popper would echo decades later in his admonition against the dangers of relativism, Tagore takes care to ground his point in the lively conviction that science remains our best method for ascertaining truth with accuracy and, as such, offers a model for exploring the human mind itself:

I do not imply that the final nature of the world depends upon the comprehension of the individual person. Its reality is associated with the universal human mind which comprehends all time and all possibilities of realisation. And this is why for the accurate knowledge of things we depend upon science that represents the rational mind of the universal man and not upon that of the individual who dwells in a limited range of space and time, and the immediate needs of life. And this is why there is such a thing as progress in our civilisation; for progress means that there is an ideal perfection which the individual seeks to reach by extending his limits in knowledge, power, love, enjoyment, thus approaching the universal. The most distant star whose faint message touches the threshold of the most powerful telescopic vision has its sympathy with the understanding mind of man, and therefore we can never cease to believe that we shall probe further and further into the mystery of their nature. As we know the truth of the stars we know the great comprehensive mind of man.

A century after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, asserted that “everything is naturally related and interconnected,” Tagore considers how this unity of the elements of existence — of observer and observed, of physical and psychic — illuminates the human experience:

The truth, which is Man, has not emerged out of nothing at a certain point of time, even though seemingly it might have been manifested then. But the manifestation of Man has no end in itself — not even now. Neither did it have its beginning in any particular time we ascribe to it. The truth of man is in the heart of eternity, the fact of it being evolved through endless ages. If Man’s manifestation has round it a background of millions of light years still it is his own background. He includes in himself the time, however long, that carries the process of his becoming.

Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.

Complement this particular portion of The Religion of Man with Karl Popper on truth vs. certainty, Lewis Thomas on the transmutation of ignorance into truth, Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means, and Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning.


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