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Celia Green The Human Evasion
The Human Evasion
by Celia Green
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- The Characteristics of Sanity
- The Genesis of Sanity
- The Society of the Sane
- How To Write Sane Books
- The Sane Person Talks of Existence
- The Sane Person Talks of God
- The Religion of Evasion
- The Philosophy of Evasion
- The Science of Evasion
- The Alternative to Sanity: What Would It Be Like?
- Why The World Will Remain Sane
One way of seeing reality is to see the appearances we usually take for it inside-out, back-to-front or looking-glass fashion. This is very difficult to do, considering how habituated we are to those appearances. It is also very difficult to be witty about vital and essential matters, though that is one of the best hopes we have of seeing them objectively, which is about the only hope we have of seeing them at all. Miss Green has achieved the looking-glass vision and the wit. Many, therefore, will call her too clever by half, forgetting that one of the things she is saying is that we are not half clever enough, for the very reason that we lack her witty vision because we wear the blinkers of our belief in appearances. So anyone who reads this book (as opposed to merely reading its words) must be prepared to be profoundly disturbed, upset and in fact looking-glassed himself; which will be greatly to his advantage, if he can stand it. Few books, long or short, are great ones; this book is short and among those few. One day, perhaps, it will become part of holy writ: a gospel according to Celia Green. Which kind of "insane" statement belongs to the book's own kind of truth.
R. H. Ward
Chapter 1 : Sanity
On the face of it, there is something rather strange about human
Human beings live in a state of mind called "sanity" on a small planet
in space. They are not quite sure whether the space around them is
infinite or not (either way it is unthinkable). If they think about
time, they find it inconceivable that it had a beginning. It is also
inconceivable that it did not have a beginning. Thoughts of this kind
are not disturbing to "sanity", which is obviously a remarkable
phenomenon and deserving more recognition.
Now sanity possesses a constellation of defining characteristics which
are at first sight unrelated. In this it resembles other, more widely
accepted, psychological syndromes. A person with an anal fixation, for
example, is likely to be obsessional, obstinate, miserly, punctilious,
and interested in small bright objects. A sane person believes firmly
in the uselessness of thinking about what he does not understand, and
is pathologically interested in other people. These two symptoms, at
first sight independent, are actually inextricably related. In fact
they are merely different aspects of that peculiar reaction to reality
which we shall call the human evasion.
As I shall be using the word "reality" again I should make it plain at
once that I use it to mean "everything that exists". This is, of
course, a highly idiosyncratic use of the word. I am aware that it is
commonly used by sane people to mean "everything that human beings
understand about", or even "human beings". This illustrates the
interesting habit, on the part of the sane, of investing any potentially
dangerous word with a strong anthropocentric meaning. Let us therefore
consider the use of "reality" a little longer.
It is first necessary to consider what might be meant by the word
"reality" if it were usually used to mean "everything that exists". It
would have to include all processes and events in the Universe, and
all relationships underlying them, regardless of whether or not these
things were perceptible or even conceivable by the human mind. It
would also include the fact that anything exists at all i.e. that
there is something and not nothing. And it would include the reason
for the fact that anything exists at all, although it is most
improbable that this reason is conceivable, or that "reason" is a
particularly good name for it.
In fact it is quite obvious that to most people "reality" does not
mean anything like this.
Particular attention should be drawn to the phrase 'running away from
reality' in which "reality" is almost always synonymous with "human
beings and their affairs". For example: "It isn't right to spend so
much time with those stuffy old astronomy books. It's running away
from reality. You ought to be getting out and meeting people." (An
interest in any aspect of reality requiring concentrated attention in
solitude is considered a particularly dangerous symptom.) This usage
leads to the interesting result that if anyone does take any interest
in reality he is almost certain to be told that he is running away
Although so far we have given only one illustration, some impression
may already begin to emerge of the way in which the sane mind has
allocated to all crucial words meanings which make it virtually
impossible to state, let alone to defend, any position other than that
In fact by now this is the chief means employed by sanity to defend
itself from any possible attack. Formerly it found it necessary to
claim a certain interest in "reality" in the sense of "that which
exists". There were religions, and systems of metaphysics, you may
remember, which professed a certain interest in the creation of the
world, and the purpose of life, and the destiny of the individual.
Now no such disguises are necessary.
I am reminded of a book called Flatland in which an imaginary
two-dimensional world is described. Towards the end of the book a
non-dimensional being is encountered a point in space. The
observers listen to what it is saying (but of course, since they are
of higher dimensionality than its own, the point being cannot observe
them in any way). What it is saying to itself, in a scarcely audible
tinkling voice, is something like this: "I am alpha and omega, the
beginning and the end. I am that which is and I am all in all to
myself. There is nothing other than me, I am everything and all of
everything is all of me and all of me is all of everything…"
The human race has taken to producing similar noises. Perhaps we would
not be surprised at the sociologists murmuring to themselves from time
to time, "in society we live and move and have our being", as they
scurry from communal centre to therapeutic group, but these days
everyone is at it.
The philosophers have discarded metaphysics and have a tinkling song
of their own which says, "In the beginning was the word and the word
is mine and the word was made by me." This is rather a strong position
in its way, because if you try to criticize it they will point out
that you can only do so in words, and they have already annexed all
the words there are on behalf of humanity. (And the meaning of the
words is the meaning humanity gave them, and they shall have no
meaning beside it.)
The theologians are finding theology rather an embarrassment, and one
can only suspect they would be happier without it. Their tradition
does make it a little more difficult for them to put God in his proper
place, but all things considered, they're keeping up with the times
pretty well. Sartre said "Hell is other people"; the up-to-date
theologian says "God is other people".
It might have been thought that the "existentialists" would make some
sort of a stand for the transcendent, but it hasn't been serious. In
fact many people have found that a liberal use of existentialist
language, loosely applied, has been extremely helpful in stimulating an
obsessional interest in human society. (This interest is variously
known as "commitment", "involvement", and "the life of encounter".)
The questions which remain are these. Are people, in fact, matters
of ultimate concern to other people? And still more, can they be
sources of "ultimate solution" to them? If they are not, what
psychological force is at work to ensure that these questions are so
seldom asked? Why, if you ask a question about man and the universe,
are you given an answer about "man in society"?
Chapter 2 : The Characteristics of Sanity
Sanity may be described as the conscientious denial of reality. That
is to say, the facts of the situation (apart from a few which are
judged to be harmless) have no emotional impact to a sane mind.
For example, it is a salient feature of our position that we are in a
state of total uncertainty. Possibly the universe started with a
"big bang" a few aeons ago, or perhaps something even more incredible
happened. In any case, there is no reason known to us why everything
should not stop existing at any moment. I realize that to my sane
readers I shall appear to be making an empty academic point. That is
precisely what is so remarkable about sanity.
The sane person prides himself on his ability to be unaffected by
important facts, and interested in unimportant ones. He refers to this
as having a sense of perspective, or keeping things "in proportion".
Consider the wife of the Bishop of Woolwich. She says I have
sometimes been asked recently: "What effect has Honest to God and all
the reaction to it had on your children?"
That is to say, what effect has it had on her children that their
father has written a book about the nature of reality which has
attracted a great deal of attention. Have they become interested in
their father's importance as a possible influence on the course of
history? Have they started to take themselves seriously and determined
to influence their generation? Or have they begun to take a precocious
interest in theology, whether agreeing or disagreeing with their
father? The Bishop's wife assures us that none of these unpleasant
things have happened. What effect, then, has it had? "The simple
answer is practically none at all," she says. "Life goes on much as
it did before." The vital questions continue to be "Do you have to go
out tonight?", "What can I wear for the party?", and "What's for
This ability to keep things "in perspective", or upside down, is
beautifully exemplified by certain remarks made by the aging Freud.
Seventy years have taught me to accept life with a cheerful
Perhaps the gods are kind to us in making life more disagreeable as we
grow older. In the end death seems less intolerable than the manifold
burdens we carry…. I do not rebel against the universal order….
(Asked whether it meant nothing to him that his name should live)
Nothing whatsoever…. I am far more interested in this blossom than
in anything that may happen to me after I am dead…. I am not a
pessimist, I permit no philosophic reflections to spoil my enjoyment
of the simple things of life.
To appreciate the full force of these remarks one must realize that
Freud had already had five operations for cancer of the jaw, and was
in more or less continuous pain. (It may be held that when Freud
looked at a blossom and found it more interesting than pain and death
and fame, this was because he was overcome by the astonishing fact
that the blossom existed at all. But if this were so, I think he would
scarcely refer to it as one of the "simple" things of life.)
He was not entirely immune from reminders of his finite condition, as
is shown by other statements which he made at various times.
… there is deep inside a pessimistic conviction that the end of my
life is near. That feeds on the torments from my scar which never
When you at a youthful 54 cannot avoid often thinking of death you
cannot be astonished that at the age of 80 1/2 I fret whether I shall
reach the age of my father and brother or further still into my
mother's age, tormented on the one hand by the conflict between the
wish for rest and the dread of fresh suffering that further life brings
and on the other hand anticipation of the pain of separation from
everything to which I am still attached. The radium
has once more begun to eat in, with pain and toxic effects, and my world
is again what it was before a little island of pain floating on a sea of
However, in spite of all this he didn't lose interest in trivia, and
in the eyes of any sane person this establishes his claim to possess
great "emotional stability".
Seeing things in perspective usually means that you stand at a certain
distance away from the objects of observation. The "perspective" in
which a sane person lives depends on avoiding this manoeuvre. You have
to hold a flower very close to your eyes if it is to blot out the sky.
The sane person holds his life in front of his face like someone with
short sight reading a newspaper with rather small print. It follows
that he cannot have emotions about the universe, because he cannot see
that it is there.
This is a salient feature of sanity it does not include emotions
about the universe. Some sane readers may object: "Once I was excited
about anti-particles for several hours", or "I tried out solipsism for
three whole days".
So, if it is insisted upon, we may qualify this statement as follows:
Sanity may occasionally allow transitory emotions about the universe or
reality, but it does not allow them to exercise any perceptible
influence as motives in the life of the individual. At this stage in
our argument we must regard it as an open question whether this is an
accidental by-product of sanity, or whether it is the deliberate but
unstated objective at which all sane psychology is aimed.
I must explain what I mean by an emotion about the universe since
this is an unfamiliar and bizarre phenomenon so let me give an
example. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the founder of linguistic philosophy,
which has made so great a contribution to intellectual sanity in this
century, was himself not quite so sane as he would have liked. Indeed,
it may be argued that linguistic philosophy was itself the product of
his strenuous attempts to remain sane enough. A case of an irritated
oyster producing a pearl the sane may reply which does not detract
from the value of the pearl. Possibly.
But it is undeniable that Wittgenstein did occasionally have emotions
about the universe. So his biographer records: "I believe that a
certain feeling of amazement that anything should exist at all, was
sometimes experienced by Wittgenstein…. Whether this feeling has
anything to do with religion is not clear to me."
Notice in passing the fastidiousness with which his biographer hastens
to disclaim any exact comprehension of this feeling. ("I believe the
lower classes eat fish and chips from newspaper. Whether this practice
has anything to do with nutrition is not clear to me.")
What more can be said of the sane person? He is ubiquitous, and so his
characteristics are invisible. There is nothing to compare him with.
But let us consider the picture given in a jolly little booklet called
A positive approach to Mental Health. (The cover
is adorned with a picture of a happy fakir sitting beside an abandoned bed
"How does the person who is enjoying good mental health think and
act?" the booklet asks, and proceeds to inform us, among other things,
that "He gets satisfaction from simple, every-day pleasures." Freud,
you see, certainly qualified.
"He has emotions", the booklet also informs us, "like anyone else."
However, they are "in proportion" and he is not "crushed" by them. I
think by now we have established what is meant by keeping things "in
proportion" i.e. you have most of your emotions about unimportant
things. The booklet does not state this explicitly, but it certainly
does not state anything to the contrary. It might, for example, be
said that "the mature man is not unduly interested in matters of
purely local significance, such as the state of affairs on this
particular planet, because he realizes that they are of little
ultimate significance." You will observe how outlandish that sounds.
The booklet becomes a little lightheaded when it comes to the matter
of the mentally healthy person's interest in facts. "He's open-minded
about new experiences and new ideas." A more accurate statement might
be "A mentally healthy person has made a value judgement in advance
that no idea or experience can be qualitatively more important than
those he already understands. He is able to rely on his defense
mechanisms and can listen with a bland expression to people with
How does the mentally healthy person feel about his limitations? "He
feels able to deal with most situations that come his way…. He tries
for goals he thinks he can achieve through his own abilities; he
doesn't want the moon on a silver platter." That is to say, he has so
arranged his life that he doesn't try to do anything that doesn't seem
pretty easy. "If he can't change something he doesn't like, he adjusts
to it." "He knows he has shortcomings and can accept them without
getting upset." That is, he has ways of pretending he does not mind
about anything he cannot alter easily.
And how does he feel about other people? Here a slightly threatening
note of reciprocity appears. "He is tolerant of others shortcomings
just as he is of his own. He doesn't expect others to be perfect,
either." "He expects to like and trust other people and assumes that
they will like him…. He doesn't try to push other people around and
doesn't expect to be pushed around himself." Let us just imagine what
might have been said instead I know it will sound like the wildest
fantasy. "He regrets his own shortcomings and is always willing to
admire people with greater virtues and capacities than his own. He
wishes to help other people, particularly those with higher aims and a
more intense sense of purpose than he has himself. He does not expect
to be liked in return for his help."
We have established that the mentally healthy person isn't going to
let his life, with all its content of simple pleasures, be pushed
around by anyone.
This, if you give it a moment's thought, ensures that all his
relationships must be characterized by mutual purposelessness. If you
once admit a purpose to the situation, it may make differential
demands on different people.
Nevertheless, the sane person "is capable of loving other people and
thinking about their interests and well-being. He has friendships that
are satisfying and lasting. He can identify himself with a group, feel
that he is part of it, and has a sense of responsibility to his
neighbours and fellow men."
Notice that a friendship should be satisfying i.e. it is an end in
itself, and not a means to an end. It should also be "lasting".
Obviously if the friendship depended on community of purpose, it might
So it is plain that people constitute a rather large part of the
mentally healthy person's world, but that all associations of persons
have to be characterized by a mutual sacrifice of purposiveness.
I am reminded of the porcupines of Schopenhauer. They wanted to huddle
together to keep one another warm, but found that their spines pricked
one another. If they kept too far apart, they became cold again. So
they established a distance at which they could keep one another warm
without actually making contact with one another's spines. "This
distance was henceforward known as decency and good manners."
The attitude of the mentally healthy person towards other people might
be stated as follows: "He expects to derive warmth from his proximity
to other people. He does not expect to derive anything else, and is
willing to let other people derive warmth from him so long as they,
too, abandon their prickly claims to possess needs of any other kind."
Before we leave this little booklet, let us consider that brilliant
expression "mental health". It is, of course, a social euphemism of
the same genre as "rodent operative" and "cleansing official". It
saves sane people from embarrassment by permitting them to say that
their confined and extraordinary relatives are not mad but "mentally
ill" or even "mentally unwell". It implies that the human mind grows
naturally and by biological necessity into the image and likeness
of the Human Evasion, as the human body grows to a certain specified
kind of shape. It implies that any deviation from the Human Evasion is
the same kind of thing as a tumour or a running sore. It sanctifies
the statistical norm. "Mental disease", the booklet says, "doesn't
indicate lack of brain power but rather a malfunctioning of the brain
and emotions. The individual just doesn't respond to various
situations the way a normal person would" (my italics).
What can we add to this picture of the sane? One sane opinion. "… if
I could spend the course of everlasting time in a paradise of varied
loveliness, I do not fancy my felicity would be greatly impaired if
the last secret of the universe were withheld from me."
This opinion was held by a Gifford Lecturer in the 1930s. His lectures
were entitled "The Human Situation", and they are a marvel of sanity
from beginning to end. But they are outdated in one respect. We do not
talk any more about "the human situation". The phrase implies that
humans can be seen in relation to something other than humans. What we
talk about now is sociology. Everyone is very proud of this fact. It
is the quintessence of sanity.
Chapter 3 : The Genesis of Sanity
It is fashionable to locate the origins of psychological attitudes
very early in life. The taste for doing so is not, perhaps, entirely
It is obviously fairly agreeable to regard one's psychology as the
result of conditioning rather than of choice. It is relaxing; one has
nothing to blame oneself for; one cannot be expected to change. It is,
of course, possible that the infant mind is capable of significant
emotional decisions, but this possibility is never discussed.
However, a perfectly satisfactory beginning may indeed be postulated
for sanity, and this does not interfere at all with standard theories
of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis deals with that part of a person's
psychology which has become fixated on other people; so it may well
describe what happens to the child in so far as that child becomes
It is well known that the younger people are, the less sane they are
likely to be. This has lead to the heavily-loaded social usage of the
term maturity. It is an unquestionable pro-word. Roughly speaking,
the mature person is characterized by willingness to accept
substitutes, compromises, and delays, particularly if these are caused
by the structure of society.
Young people are usually immature, that is to say, they wish their
lives to contain excitement and purpose. It is recognized (at least
subconsciously) by sane people that the latter is much the more
dangerous of the two, so the young who cannot at once be made mature
are steered into the pursuit of purposeless excitement. This is
actually not very exciting, and is well on the way to an acceptable
kind of sanity, as it leads to the idea of "excitement" being degraded
to that of "pleasure".
Adolescents are known to think about metaphysics more than most
people; thus thinking about metaphysics becomes associated with the
negative concept "immaturity". If someone thinks about metaphysical
problems at a later age, they are said to show signs of "delayed
Now let us go back to the very beginning of the "maturation" process.
It is to be presumed that a baby which is being born experiences
helplessness as helplessness. That is to say, it experiences the
painful and incomprehensible process without any of those reflections
which are such a miraculous source of comfort to the sane such as
"It will soon be over", or "After all, it happens to everybody", or
"It shouldn't be allowed. It's their fault".
The infant may be presumed to find its condition intolerable because
it is out of control of it. At this point of its life, what it
minds about is that it cannot control reality, not that it cannot
Now so long as one is finite i.e. one's knowledge and powers are
limited situations may always arise which one cannot control. But it
is very hard for an adult human to feel any emotion about his
limitations vis-a-vis impersonal reality. What emotion arises in you
when you think that you would be quite unable to lift Mount Everest?
On the other hand, it is probably quite easy to feel some emotion at
the thought that so-and-so is an inch taller than you are, or can
always beat you at badminton. You may also (though less probably)
still be able to feel a pang of jealousy or regret that you are not
Nijinsky or Shakespeare or Einstein.
Obviously a process of psychological development takes place which
ensures (so far as possible) that the limitations of the individual
will be experienced only in comparisons with other people. Now it is
obvious that the emotion which accompanies the original experience of
helplessness is very strong. If you can recall any experience of
impotent fury or horror in early childhood you may get some idea of
this. This gives some clue to the strength of the human evasion. If
people are to take the force of all this displaced emotion, it is
scarcely surprising that they should be the object of such exclusive
At first very young children are not immune from a feeling of
helplessness per se. But it may be presumed that the part of their
environment which is most readily manipulable is soon seen to be
other people. The younger the child, the truer this is. Its own
physical and mental grasp of the situation is greatly exceeded by that
of adult humans particularly its mother who can affect the
situation in its favour if they feel inclined to do so.
It is very painful to try to do something and to fail. The
retrospective attempt to reject the combination of trying and failure
is well known in social life. "I didn't really care about the game
today." "Actually I was thinking that even if I was elected it was
time I resigned to spend more time on my other interests." Therefore,
by the time it has reached adulthood, the sane person has evolved ways
of relinquishing the attempt in favour of some compensatory aim, in
any situation in which it does not feel almost certain to succeed. For
example, as a mature adult, you cannot even try (with any emotional
involvement in the act of trying) to jump over a house. By the same
token, you cannot try to make a door open by willpower alone, or
try to arrive home quickly without traversing the intervening space
and navigating such obstacles as stairs, walls, gates, etc., in the
approved fashion. Your immediate sensation if you attempted to try,
would be an overwhelming sense of impossibility.
It is (philosophically or factually speaking) the case that no future
event can be demonstrated to be impossible. If something has happened
once, this may be said to show it is possible. If it has never
happened this does not show that it can never do so. But as has
pointed out, reflections of this kind although true, have no
emotional impact to a sane person.
As already mentioned, you may still (in rare circumstances) be able to
try to achieve exceptional things in some socially recognized and
strictly limited field. I.e. you may still be able to try and equal
Nijinsky, Shakespeare, etc.
But it is far more likely that you have acquired some compensatory
attitude towards any such symbols of outstandingness. It can give a
very pleasant sense of gentle superiority to discuss Beethoven's
deafness, and Shakespeare's Oedipus Complex, and Nietzsche's lack of
success with women, in a more or less informed manner. Thus MacNeile
So with the famous monarchs of the mind. They terrify you with their
authority…. How royal is their gesture, how incomparable their
There is, however, no need for alarm. Pluck up your heart, approach a
little nearer, and what do you find; that they have human wishes and
weaknesses like yourself. You may discover that Kant smoked, played
billiards and had a fancy for candied fruit. The discovery at once
renders him less awe-inspiring.
This kind of approach is not only useful for eliminating a sense of
inferiority, it also makes it much easier to ignore anything Kant,
Nietzsche, Hume, etc., may have said about reality.
Now although the ambitions of the adult are already restricted to
narrowly defined types of social recognition, even this form of
aspiration is a strictly unstable structure in sane psychology i.e.
if it is displaced slightly from its equilibrium it will tend to
fall further away from that position, and not return to it. On the
other hand, compensation is a stable psychological position in
The replacement of aspiration by compensation is perhaps most
clearly seen among college students. They frequently arrive at
university with immature desires for greatness and an exceptionally
significant way of life.
Not infrequently, also, this leads to emotional conflicts and
disappointments of one kind and another. They adjust to their
problems with startling rapidity. The solution which occurs to nearly
all of them, and is suggested to them by psychological advisers, etc.,
if it does not occur to them spontaneously, is to accept their
limitations. The acceptance of limitations is accompanied by a
marked increase in the valuation placed on other people.
"I used to be quite self-sufficient and thought I wanted to be nothing
but an intellectual. I lived for my work, and of course
maths/classics/anything you like is the nearest thing there is to
heaven. But it would be selfish to live like that. I see now you've
got to take an interest in life I mean, you have to live with other
people. It's difficult to get on with people. Social problems are
difficult. The other is easy. It's running away from reality."
What is usually omitted from this exposition by the patient is that
between the period at which classics (or whatever it may have been)
was "nearly heaven" and the period at which human relationships became
the central thing in life, there was usually a stage at which classics
was no longer particularly easy.
It is a simple law of human psychology, therefore, that as soon as
conflict arises, it will be eliminated by some compensatory manoeuvre
in which other people are the central pivot. The process of becoming
thoroughly sane depends on repeated manoeuvres of this kind.
This process may be presumed to have started in earliest infancy, when
it was much more rewarding to aim at responses from one's mother than
at controlling the environment directly. Here began the child's
lifelong efforts to limit its trying to regions in which it could
succeed. This process, of necessity, remained imperfect in early life,
as moderate (though never disproportionate) efforts to learn things
must be sanctioned in the young.
These efforts are almost at once heavily conditioned by social
acceptability, though this is not yet the exclusive criterion. It is
possible to find people who remember, as children, having tried (or
attempted to try) to walk away from the stairs into the air instead of
going on down them one by one. But even then they found it impossible
to try very hard.
Why is it so painful to fail in something you have tried to do? In
the case of the young child it is evidently because it reminds it of
its limited powers, which suggests the possibility of permanent
It is bad enough to be finite at present; it is intolerable to believe
that one will always be so. If one tries and fails it proves that
one's trying is insufficient. Better therefore to believe that one
doesn't want to try at least at present.
This view of the matter is not so far removed from that of orthodox
psychoanalysis, which does, after a fashion, recognize the child's
desire for omnipotence. Psychoanalysis is, however, most concerned
with what happens once human persons, such as the child's father,
have become partial symbols of omnipotence. There is also a tendency
to describe the child as having a muddle-headed belief in its own
omnipotence. This is, of course, less justifiable than a desire for
omnipotence. Sane people cannot distinguish very easily between
different attitudes of this kind.
Of course in the child and adolescent there are still remains of the
belief that one will, at some judiciously selected time in the future,
attempt altogether more ambitious things. In true adulthood this idea
has disappeared (or becomes transformed into some such form as "it
would make all the difference if people were only decent to me and
gave me my rights").
Thus the sane, adult person wants (or tries to want) to have what it
can have and to do what it can do, and exercises a good deal of
ingenuity in attempts to want not to have what it cannot get.
One or two points must be made in parentheses. The sane person will
not, of course, admit that the prospect of being permanently finite is
Even if he looks so miserable that he cannot with any conviction claim
to be happy himself, he will utter constant affirmations that "most
people are perfectly all right and quite happy as they are." "Why
should I mind about being finite? Suppose I enjoy it like this?"
This does not make our hypothesis about the development of the human
evasion any less probable. Our argument is that a sane person's life
has been spent in an increasingly successful attempt not to find
finiteness intolerable. Thus if he makes assertions of this kind, he
is telling us only that he has succeeded.
After all, it is accepted in psychoanalysis that one of the objects
of a psychological reaction to an unacceptable fact is, eventually, to
conceal the true origin and purpose of this reaction.
The sane adult will, of course, object that what happens when one
comes up against one's limitations is not that one is reminded of the
possibility of permanent finiteness. It is certain that the limits
of one's capabilities are defined by what one can and cannot achieve.
The very young child reacts emotionally as if it believed that
limitation is only potential; it does not yet identify itself with its
limitations. In this its emotions are in accordance with the most
abstract philosophy; whatever may be achieved in certain circumstances
on one occasion or even on a great many occasions, it may still be the
case that something quite different may be achieved on a future
occasion. In the most abstract sense, this might simply happen in the
way that everything might stop existing at any moment or start
existing according to different laws. This, I know, is the sort of
consideration that has no force at all to a sane adult. But even
within the normal world-view, it cannot be claimed that very much is
known about the psychological factors that restrict or permit
achievement, and the possibility cannot be ruled out that if someone
adopted a different kind of psychological attitude from any they had
had before, they might find their abilities radically changed.
Initially, then, the child is merely horrified at the prospect that a
single failure may contain some implication of permanent restriction;
some barrier set forever between him and the possibility of
omnipotence. It is a matter of social conditioning that he
increasingly learns that he is regarded by others as defined by his
failures, so that any single one comes to have the force of a
permanent measurement of what he unchangeably is.
This process is accompanied by a continuous shifting of the idea of
failure away from absolute failure (i.e. failure to fulfil one's own
will) toward "failure by comparison with other people". To the mature
adult only the latter is of any interest.
The child is trained, then, to react to failure not only by regarding
his limitations as final, but by substituting something more readily
obtainable for what he originally wanted. The substitution is usually
eased by a shift of emphasis from what the individual himself wants,
to what other people want from him. It may be the substitution of a
different ambition from the first one, on the grounds that it will
be just as useful to society, or it may be the substitution of social
approval per se for any ambition at all.
Consider some well-known gambits. "Never mind, darling. Even if you
fail your exams, you know we'll still love you." If the person
concerned is actually worried about the exams, there is an obvious
motivation for attempting to find this comforting. "Well, we know you
did your best, and that's what counts." The latter is particularly
subtle, since it combines the idea of finality of failure with the
offer of social approval. What it is really saying is: "Provided you
accept that you couldn't possibly have done better, and you really are
worse than all the other boys, you may have our affection as a good
boy who tries."
Now the child may well have an obscure feeling that in some way he
wasn't feeling right about the thing; or that somehow everything
felt wrong at school in some indefinable way that made it quite
certain that he couldn't do that kind of thing there. But his mind
must be distracted from any attempt to work out how one does make
oneself feel right to do things. (If he does start reflecting on the
effect of circumstances upon him he will most likely be told he is
The denial of psychological reality is very important to sanity. It
cannot afford to admit the existence of a psychology of achievement,
still less to understand it. However, one of the few pieces of
psychology that is understood by sanity is how to make young humans
with aspirations feel discredited and absurd. Any aspiration bears an
uncomfortable resemblance to a desire not to be finite at all.
Inspiration is of little interest to modern psychology; it is about as
unfashionable as witchcraft. If the subconscious mind is considered at
all, it is considered solely as a repository of associations of ideas
about parts of the body and members of one's family.
Of course there is a kind of non-aspiring psychology of success which
is understood by sanity. It is roughly as follows: the most stable,
least excitable, most normal, people will tend to be most consistently
Even if this seems to be supported by observation, it must be borne in
mind that these are the conditions for success (of a moderate kind) in
a society composed of sane people.
Chapter 4 : The Society of the Sane
Society begins to appear much less unreasonable when one realizes its
true function. It is there to help everyone to keep their minds off
reality. This follows automatically from the fact that it is an
association of sane people, and it has already been shown that sanity
arises from the continual insertion of 'other people' into any space
into which a metaphysical problem might intrude.
It is therefore quite irrelevant to criticize society as though it
were there for some other purpose to keep everyone alive and
well-fed in an efficient manner, say. Some degree of inefficiency is
essential to create interesting opportunities for emotional reaction.
(Of course, criticizing society, though irrelevant, is undeniably of
value as an emotional distraction for sane people.)
Incidentally, it should be noticed that 'keeping everyone alive and
well-fed' is the highest social aim which the sane mind can accept
without reservation or discomfort. This is because everyone is capable
of eating and so are animals and plants so this qualifies
magnificently as a 'real' piece of 'real life'. There are other
reasons in its favour as well, of course, such as the fact that
well-fed people do not usually become more single-minded, purposeful,
or interested in metaphysics.
It has been seen that the object of a sane upbringing is increasingly
to direct all emotion towards objects which involve other people.
Now basically the situation of being finite is an infinitely
frustrating one, which would be expected to arouse sensations of
desperation and aggression as indeed it may sometimes be seen to
do in very young children. I am aware that I must be careful, in using
the word aggression, to state that I do not mean aggression directed
towards people. What I mean is an impersonal drive directed against
reality it is difficult to give examples but it may be presumed
that geniuses who are at all worthy of the name preserve a small
degree of this.
However, since all emotion must be directed towards people, it is
obvious that the only form of aggression which a sane person can
understand is aggression against people, which is probably better
described as sadism or cruelty.
Now it is obvious that the open expression of cruelty towards other
people would have a destructive effect upon society, apart from being
unprofitable to the human evasion in other ways. So the usual way in
which aggression is displaced onto other people is in the form of a
desire that they should be limited. This, after all, is very
logical. If the true source of your anger is that you are limited
yourself, and you wish to displace this anger onto some other person,
what could be more natural than that you should wish them to be
limited as well.
This desire is usually expressed in the form of a desire for social
justice, in one form or another. ('In this life you have to learn that
you can't have it all your own way.' 'Well he can't expect to be
treated as an exception for ever.' 'It's time he learnt to accept his
limitations.' 'Don't you think you should try to think more what other
people want? We all have to do things we don't like.' 'Why should they
have all the advantages.')
This means that society is not only the chief source of compensation
to a sane person, but his chief instrument of revenge against other
people. It is useless to point out that there is no need to revenge
himself upon them. If he were ever to admit that they were not
responsible for his finite predicament, he would have to direct his
hatred against the finite predicament itself, and this would be
frustrating. It is this frustration that the human evasion exists to
Any attempt to do something involves the possibility of failure and
may remind you of reality. For this reason the sane society discriminates
against purposeful action in favour of pleasure-seeking action. The
only purposes readily recognized as legitimate by the sane mind are those
necessitated by the pursuit of pleasure. E.g. pleasure seeking cannot
efficiently be carried on unless the individual is kept alive and
moderately healthy. Therefore his physical needs are regarded as important
and ambulances are provided with noisy bells. There is no corresponding
necessity that he should fill, say, his intellectual potentialities. In
fact the attempt to do so is likely to appear unduly purposeful.
It is obvious in any number of ways that a sense of purpose repels
rather than attracts assistance. You have only to consider the
immediate sympathy that would be aroused in a sane mind by the
complaint of some child that it was being driven to work at things far
too difficult for its capacities, compared with the distrust and
reserve with which it would view complaints by the child that it was
not being allowed to work hard enough.
To the sane mind, even aggression against people is infinitely better
than aggression against infinity. And it is the chief defect of sane
society that it is boring. It is so boring that even sane people
notice it. And so, from time to time, there is a war. This is intended
to divert people's minds before they become so bored that they take to
some impersonal kind of aggressive activity such as research, or
asceticism, or inspiration, or something discreditable of that kind.
In wartime, rather more purposeful activity than usual is permissible.
Even sane people relax their normal beliefs that nothing matters very
much, and some time next week is soon enough for anything. This is
regarded as justified because the war is always about something
connected with other people, and may be regarded as an assertion of
the belief that the thing that matters most is politics.
And yet it might seem that war was going rather far. It does contain a
very considerable risk of contact with reality. It is difficult to
pretend that people never die, or that they only die in soothing
situations with up-to-date medical care and loving relatives to keep
their minds occupied with family news. War is full of reminders that
things happen, and that space and time are real, and that before the
bomb blows up is not the same as after, and that there are risks and
How then can a sane society run the risks of allowing its population
to have experiences of this kind, even occasionally? I think if you
ask this question it is simply because you do not appreciate the
robustness of sanity. If you shut people up in a prison camp, and
torture them for a few years, they will not come out saying: 'I am a
finite animal in existence and it is beyond endurance. How can I go on
living in a body that can be tormented in these ways? I demand that
human society stops all it is doing and starts attacking finiteness in
every conceivable way….'
Instead, they will come out saying: 'It is terrible that other people
should let wars happen, in which it is possible to be so degraded and
reminded of one's limitations. It shouldn't happen; it is contrary to
human rights; we are appalled at the evil in the heart of man.
Meanwhile we demand reparation from society employment, and
housing, and disablement allowances…'
Society, they say, exists to safeguard the rights of the individual.
If this is so, the primary right of a human being is evidently to live
It has been pointed out that by the time a person is fully mature he
will not, in normal circumstances, be made aware of his finiteness
except in comparisons with other people.
It is not possible to ensure this absolutely. But it is possible to
limit the loopholes to those of physical accident, illness and death.
Human beings regard it as a sacred duty to be particularly untruthful
about these things particularly to the afflicted person and to any
young person who may be around. For example, the following account of
the death of Madame Curie may well seem rather touching to a sane
Then began the harrowing struggle which goes by the name of 'an easy
death' - in which the body which refuses to perish asserts itself in wild
determination. Eve at her mother's side was engaged in another struggle;
in the brain of Mme Curie, still very lucid, the great idea of death had
not penetrated. The miracle must be preserved, to save Marie from an
immense pain that could not be appeased by resignation. Above all, the
physical suffering had to be attenuated; the body reassured at the same
time as the soul. No difficult treatments, no tardy blood transfusions,
impressive and useless. No family reunion hastily called at the bedside
of a woman who, seeing her relatives assembled, would be suddenly struck
to the heart with an atrocious certainty.
I shall always cherish the names of those who helped my mother in
those days of horror. Dr. Toben, director of the sanatorium, and Dr.
Pierre Lowsy brought Marie all their knowledge. The life of the sanatorium
seemed suspended, stricken with immobility by the dreadful fact: Mme Curie
was about to die. The house was all respect, silence and fervor. The two
doctors alternated in Marie's room. They supported and solaced her.
They also took care of Eve, helped her to struggle and to tell lies, and,
even without her asking them, they promised to lull Marie's last sufferings
by soporifics and injections.
On the morning of July third, for the last time Mme Curie could read
the thermometer held in her shaking hand and distinguish the fall in fever
which always precedes the end. She smiled with joy. And as Eve assured
her that this was the sign of her cure, and that she was going to be well
now, she said, looking at the open window, turning hopefully towards the
sun and the motionless mountains: 'It wasn't the medicines that made me
better. It was the pure air, the altitude…'
It may be remarked that although the vulnerability of the human body
makes it possible even for a fully-matured human being to be reminded
of his limitations, no power on earth can remind him of the
transcendent, in any shape or form. His reactions to pain, danger and
death are limited to fear, depression, anxiety and commonsense. They
do not include liberation, elation, or an interest in infinity. That
is to say, the impact of reality has been rendered entirely negative.
In order effectively to distract people from reality, society has to
provide them with pseudo-purposes, guaranteed purposeless. (Or,
alternatively, with pseudo-frustrations, guaranteed permanent.) There
are two main kinds of pseudo-purpose or -frustration; they are known
as 'earning a living' and 'bringing up a family'. They both provide a
person with a cast-iron alibi for not doing anything he wants with his
life. (He does not, of course, want to be free to do what he wants, so
this is all right.)
Sane people regard an apparently purposeful activity as disinfected by
numbers i.e. if a sufficiently large number of people is involved,
they feel sure that the outcome will be harmless to sanity, no matter
how frenzied the labours may seem to be. The most large-scale examples
are war and politics.
Into these activities, people allow themselves to enter with almost
Both war and politics have played a particularly helpful part in
retarding the march of progress. In fact, the history of the human
race is only comprehensible as the record of a species trying not to
gain control of its environment.
Chapter 5 : How to Write Sane Books
It will be convenient to have a name for that part of reality which is
not emotionally regarded as 'real' by the sane person. We shall call
it the Outside.
The Outside consists of everything that appears inconceivable to the
human mind. In fact everything is inconceivable to the human mind (if
only because it exists) but not many people notice this.
In religious and philosophical writings it is often difficult to
eliminate all reference to the Outside. There are a number of ways of
dealing with this problem. One of the most successful is to generate a
distinctive kind of ambiguity about the meanings of crucial words.
Consider the following passage in which the words 'being' and
'existence' are used. 'The term 'being' in this context does not
designate existence in time and space…. (It) means the whole of
human reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of
It is tolerably clear that at least when Tillich first uses the word
'existence' he means by it what I also mean when I use the word. It
seems that what we both mean by 'existing' is 'being there'.
However, Tillich then explicitly repudiates this sense and goes on to
define the word 'being' in a second sense. The term 'being' means the
whole of human reality, Tillich says. The meaning of this phrase is
Perhaps Tillich means the sum total of the mental content of all
humans -illusions and all? What humans think is real? Or that part of
reality which is accessible to the human mind?
The last seems to be the best we can do. So let us suppose that 'human
reality' does mean that part of the mental content actual or
potential of humans which is actually in accordance with what
'Human reality' is then placed in apposition with 'the structure, the
meaning and the aim of existence'. What is to be understood by this?
The 'aim of existence' seems at first sight to be clear, unless
'existence' has made an unannounced change of meaning since it was
first used. It would seem that this phrase must mean 'the purpose for
which everything exists'.
But this is difficult, because 'the aim of existence' is in apposition
with 'human reality' which certainly does not include the purpose of
This leads us to a distinct suspicion that when Tillich talks of 'the
structure, meaning and aim of existence' he does not mean 'existence'
at all, but 'human life' instead. If he does mean this, there seems no
reason why he should say so except that it would rob what he is
saying of a status it does not possess. And if he does mean this, we
have arrived at the following definition of the word 'being'
'whatever happens to be realistic in the mental content of humans; the
structure, the meaning and the aim of human life'.
In fact, we may suggest this paraphrase of what Tillich is saying:
'When we talk of 'being' we do not mean the Outside. We mean the
This example illustrates a standard procedure for appearing to take
the Outside into consideration without actually doing so. The rules
for this kind of writing are very simple and roughly as follows.
There are a number of words and phrases which may mean something about
existence or something about humans. For example: 'existence',
'depth', 'ground of being', 'ultimate concern', 'meaning', etc.
Whenever what you really mean is 'human relationships' or 'day-to-day
living' you should replace it by some existential-sounding
combination, such as 'the depth of being'. It is a good idea to use
compound phrases ('the depth of historical existence', 'the ultimate
ground of meaning') as a considerable degree of obscurity can be
created by summating the uncertainty of a number of uncertain terms.
It is usual to define these terms as little as possible. But if you
wish to appear to do so, it is best to use a series of phrases in
apposition (as in the example just considered: 'the whole of human
reality, the structure, the meaning and the aim of existence'). This
gives a very good effect of struggling to define something difficult
with precision while actually generating ambiguity (on the principle
of summation of uncertainty already mentioned). The device of
apposition itself introduces an additional modicum of doubt, since if
you appose two such phrases as 'the depth of meaning' and 'the inmost
structure of reality' no one will be sure whether the two phrases are
ways of saying the same thing, or whether they are intended to
complement one another.
Other verbal devices may be used for placing together in the closest
possible proximity 'human' words and 'Outside' words. Words like
'ultimate' and 'reality' should be used in phrases like 'human
reality' and 'ultimate concern', and the word 'meaning' should be
softened into 'meaning and coherence'. (The word 'meaning' might be
regarded as informationally sufficient; however, the addition of
'coherence' contributes a useful implicit suggestion that 'meaning'
must hang together in a way that is recognizable and rather agreeable
To illustrate these instructions, consider the typical phrase 'life
and existence'. Now the word 'existence' may mean 'human life', but if
it does it is adding nothing to the meaning of the phrase. So this
phrase would seem to mean 'human living and the fact that things are
there' which seems a strange combination to discuss in the same
Another example of the way in which abstract words such as
'transcendent', 'meaning', 'existence' should be combined with human
words such as 'life' and 'confidence':
High religions are … distinguished by the extent of the unity and
coherence of life which they seek to encompass and the sense of a
transcendent source of meaning by which alone confidence in the
meaningfulness of life and existence can be maintained.
May I suggest a paraphrase, which I think does not reduce the
informational content. 'High religions are distinguished by making the
whole of human life feel meaningful to the human being.' As human life
already feels meaningful to sane human beings, this would appear to
let anything or nothing qualify as a 'high religion'.
It is true that my paraphrase reduces Niebuhr's meaning if he is using
the word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. If so, what he is
saying becomes more complex, but questionable. Assuming 'transcendent'
to mean 'possessing a validity which cannot be affected by any
consideration whatever', or perhaps 'directly related to the reason
for existence', it is difficult to see why a 'transcendent source of
meaning' should be expected to maintain anyone's 'confidence in the
meaningfulness of life'. For this to be true, we should have to accept
the psychological supposition that people can only confidently accept
transcendent meanings as meaningful. What is more, we should also have
to accept that a transcendent source of meaning would have the
characteristic of making a human being confident about the meaning of
his life. It is an interesting sidelight on human psychology that it
should be so often assumed that a transcendent purpose must be one
that 'gives a meaning to life'. In fact, anyone sufficiently unusual
to think occasionally about transcendence finds that it makes his life
feel intolerably meaningless. (This is why people do not go on doing it.)
If we assume that Niebuhr is using the word 'transcendent' in one of
the senses defined above, the most obvious characteristic of a
transcendent meaning would seem to be that it invalidates all
subordinate meanings. This, after all, is what 'transcendent' means
that which invalidates, but cannot itself be invalidated. So if
Niebuhr is really using the word 'transcendent' to mean that which
transcends, what he is saying becomes: 'High religions are
distinguished by making the whole of life meaningful by reference to
something which makes the whole of life meaningless, which is the only
way in which it is possible to maintain confidence that life is
As this is patently absurd, I assume that he is not in fact using the
word 'transcendent' in a transcendent sense. It is much more likely
that when he talks of a 'transcendent source of meaning' he means
'anything which is capable of making the whole of human life seem
meaningful to a large number of people'.
I leave the reader to appreciate the following without further
God made the world, and is never absent from it. So,
within the mind of modern secularism there are feelings after the
meaningfulness of human existence, recognition of supreme obligations
in human relations, gropings after an undefined 'otherness'.
The name of this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is
God. That is what the word means, and it is that to which the words
Kingdom of God and Divine Providence point. And if these words do
not have much meaning for you, translate them, and speak of the depth
of history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what you
take seriously without reservation in your moral and political
activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope, simply hope.
Chapter 6 : The Sane Person Talks of Existence
When the sane person talks about life he sometimes mentions the
Outside, but here a splendid confusion can be created from the simple
fact that other people are, in a certain sense, outside relative
to the individual. And so it is possible to find passages like the
And what, too, would our reactions to (ESP) tell us about ourselves?
That we feel safer living in splendid isolation, a huis clos? Or
that we are prepared to face the possibility of being members of one
another in a world which, as mathematicians already know, is first and
foremost one of relationships, and which now, as a great mathematician,
Hermann Weyl, has dramatically put it, is being made by modern science
itself "to appear more and more as an open one… pointing beyond
This, incidentally, provides a particularly ostentatious example of
the use which is constantly made by sane people of words with two
Here the word "relationship" is used to assimilate the two concepts
"human relationship" and "mathematical relationship". A little
analytical thought should convince the reader that a person may be
interested in human relationships without the slightest attraction
towards mathematical ones, and vice versa.
A distinction may be made, though it is a difficult one for a sane
mind to grasp, between the idea of a world "pointing beyond itself" to
mathematical abstractions, and one "pointing beyond itself" to human
mutuality and cohesion.
This passage also illustrates the habit of talking about human
relationships as terrifying, difficult, dangerous, and the like.
Conversely, any outlook not constantly preoccupied with human
interactions is though never described implied to be excessively
conducive of feelings of safety, ease, and comfort.
There is no particular reason why these implications should correspond
with the psychological facts. As we have already mentioned, 'sanity'
shows many of the characteristics of recognized psychological
syndromes. All psychological syndromes are ways of defending the
individual from intolerable stress, and can only achieve this
objective by concealing their true purpose. So one does not expect
a high degree of objectivity in the statements of say a paranoid
about his condition. In fact, one expects a characteristic kind of
inversion on certain crucial points. (Pride replacing guilt,
superiority concealing inferiority, and so on.)
Now if "sanity" is a device for protecting the individual from the
impact of facts, in the same way that paranoia is a device for
protecting the individual from feelings of humiliation, it is
obviously under the same kind of necessity to conceal its true terms
So it is scarcely surprising that sane people should have an unfounded
belief that they are adopting a difficult and strenuous attitude.
But what are the psychological facts? Is it actually the case that
when people adopt a less anthropocentric outlook they find themselves
overwhelmed by sensations of ease and self-aggrandizement? We cannot
expect to find very much evidence either way, because people do not
often adopt such an outlook, but such evidence as there is suggests
that they actually feel alone and defenseless, not to say frightened.
In general I dreaded to be left alone. I remember wondering how other
people could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that
pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life. My mother in particular, a
very cheerful person, seemed to me a perfect paradox in her unconsciousness
of danger, which you may well believe I was very careful not to disturb
by revelations of my own state of mind.
I shall never forget that night of December in which the veil that
concealed from me my own incredulity was torn. I hear again my steps
in that narrow naked chamber where long after the hour of sleep had come
I had the habit of walking up and down. I see again that moon, half-veiled
by clouds, which now and again illuminated the frigid window-panes. The
hours of the night flowed on and I did not note their passage. Anxiously
I followed my thoughts, as from layer to layer they descended towards the
foundation of my consciousness, and scattering one by one all the illusions
which until then had screened its windings from my view, made them every
moment more clearly visible. Vainly I clung to these last beliefs as a
shipwrecked sailor clings to the fragments of his vessel; vainly,
frightened at the unknown void in which I was about to float, I turned
with them towards my childhood, my family, my country, all that was dear
and sacred to me: the inflexible current of my thought was too strong parents, family, memory, beliefs, it forced me to let go of everything.
The investigation went on more obstinate and more severe as it drew near
its term, and did not stop until the end was reached. I knew then that
in the depth of my mind nothing was left that stood erect.
The moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself
exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so
full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, somber and
unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought
which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days
which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life.
It is true that when people talk about life they do sometimes admit
that being finite is rather awful. Sometimes they cannot even manage
to say this without mentioning "other people" in every sentence. The
following passage from Erich Fromm is interesting because it
illustrates several kinds of question-begging simultaneously.
There is another element … which makes the need to "belong" so
compelling: the fact of subjective self-consciousness … its
existence confronts man with a problem which is essentially human:
by being aware of himself as distinct from nature and other people,
by being aware even very dimly of death, sickness, ageing, he
necessarily feels his insignificance and smallness in comparison
with the universe and all others who are not "he".
Unless he belonged somewhere, unless his life had some meaning and
direction, he would feel like a particle of dust and be overwhelmed by
his individual insignificance … he would be filled with doubt, and
this doubt eventually would paralyse his ability to act that is,
The first thing to notice is that Fromm implies (even before he has
stated the problem) that what a person needs is "to belong". When he
does state the problem he states two problems at once as if they were
the same. (To feel insignificant and small in comparison with the
universe is actually different from feeling those things in
comparison with other people.) Fromm calls this problem (or problems)
"essentially human" a reassuring description. He continues by
implying that it is right and proper for a person to feel that he does
"belong", and that his life does have "meaning and direction". This
will prevent him from feeling like a particle of dust: if he did, he
would be paralysed. This last is, of course, an unverified assumption.
There is no evidence that people who feel like particles of dust
relative to the universe become paralysed and inactive, although it
is a fact of clinical psychology that people who feel worthless
relative to other people often spend a good deal of time in bed.
Virtually all categories of modern thinkers unite in chanting "There
is no Outside". The existentialists, alone, say "There is an
Outside". On account of their sane upbringing they feel that this is a
difficult thing to say and they say it with a kind of metaphysical
stutter, inventing new words profusely in their desperation to make
themselves understood. Of course in a sense they are right in
supposing that it is difficult; no sane person is likely to understand
it. But the difficulty is emotional, not philosophical.
(Incidentally, how well the human evasion has arranged matters when
anyone who would say "There is an Outside" is driven to express
himself at enormous length, in all but unreadable books.)
Existentialists admit that there are certain states of consciousness
in which ideas about death, existence, isolation, responsibility,
urgency and so forth may have some emotional significance. But these
are rare and transitory.
The weakness of the existentialists' case is that they do not
distinguish sufficiently between a philosophical attitude and a
psychological one. A sane person may be made to admit, as a
philosophical point, that everything is fundamentally uncertain, but
this will not give it any power as a motive force in his life. Even a
person who wished to realize the fact of uncertainty would find it
difficult to perceive it with any vividness, or to eliminate other
emotional attitudes which he saw to be incompatible with it.
Having accepted that one may, at certain times, become startlingly
aware of certain things, the existentialist argument usually goes on
to talk of "authentic" and "inauthentic" being. If what is meant by
"inauthentic being" is living without awareness of these things, then
obviously everyone is very inauthentic indeed. "Authentic being" would
mean to live in constant awareness of these things, with all the
modifications that would entail. But this is a problem in psychology;
it must be asked what forces are at work to prevent this awareness,
whether it is possible to defeat them, and how. It is particularly
useless to give prescriptions for "authentic being" by involvement
or commitment in the world. If we realize that we are talking about
states of consciousness, it becomes clear that the procedure being
recommended is this: "If you should chance to have a flash of awareness
of things of which you are not usually aware, you will realize that your
life is full of things which seem meaningless to you so long as you are
in this state of awareness. What are you to do to overcome your sense of
meaninglessness?" There is a simple answer. "The awareness will pass.
You can forget it easily and go on living as before. But since you
want to convince yourself that you are doing something about this
flash of awareness you have had, you are recommended to return to your
former way of life, but more thoroughly and deliberately than before.
Commit yourself to doing just the kind of thing which makes further
flashes of awareness unlikely."
Here, of course, we are encountering one of those linguistic swerves
away from the point so characteristic of the evasive mind. "Authentic
being" may be used to refer to a state of dishonesty towards the facts
of existence, or to a state of dishonesty towards other people. It is
even true that the two things may be to some extent interconnected,
since a person suffering from the human evasion is clearly not able to
be honest towards anyone, if only because he is constantly trying to
force them to shield him from reality, including the reality of his
own perceptions and desires.
It should come as no surprise that existentialist writers are unable
to distinguish clearly between "mauvaise foi" towards existence and
"mauvaise foi" towards people.
And so this kind of thing is written:
Dasein, everyday life, is destructible, and we should not even
desire its indefinite continuation. But Existenz, authentic selfhood,
can be entered into now and its meaning is imperishable. Only by facing
death realistically do we become formed, decisive, resolute, and
reconciled to finitude. The threat of missing true selfhood is worse
than the unavoidable fact of physical disintegration. And the reality
of the latter makes me alert to the former. It is because I am going
to die as a biological organism that I may miss true self-hood. Because
I do not have forever, the question hangs over every moment: 'Are you
living, feeling, realizing, choosing yourself or some feeble caricature
of what you could be?' One who has lived for ends-in-themselves and who
has entered into existential communication with others knows that what
is important in his life and in the life of his friend cannot be
annihilated by death.
What can be said of the statement that we can enter "authentic"
selfhood "now"? Existential flashes are not easily had to order. It is
not even easy, by trying, to realize vividly the fact that you are
going to die.
Even more dubious is the assertion that once you have entered this
state "its meaning is imperishable". Can this mean "you will be able
to remain in constant awareness of the unknowability of existence", or
even "once you have been fully aware of existence your psychology will
never be the same again"? Such psychological evidence we have would
seem to indicate that existential awareness is usually momentary, and
its permanent effects on a sane person are nil.
Our existentialist now tells us that "only by facing death realistically
do we become … reconciled to finitude". To be aware of one's finiteness
is one thing; to be reconciled to it is quite another. Nearly everyone
seems to manage to be reconciled without being aware; I should have thought
it probable that anyone who was fully aware of it would find it
Chapter 7 : The Sane Person Talks of God
The human race has always been unable to distinguish clearly between
metaphysics and morality. Thus the word "God" can be used to mean
"origin of existence" or it can be used to mean "intelligent being
interested in the social behaviour of humans". These two concepts are
not, however, the same, and any relationship between them would have
to be carefully established.
In the same way "religion" could mean two different things. It might
mean something like "a person's attitude to the Outside in general,
and the fact of existence in particular". As it happens, it does not
mean this, and no one expects it to. It is actually used to mean "a
person's attitude towards social interactions with other people, with
some reference to a supposed intelligent being who is interested in
these interactions". The last clause is dispensable. Most people would
have little hesitation in accepting as "religious" someone who showed
the required behaviour patterns, whether he said he believed in a God
It is usually impossible to make sense of passages in which the word
God appears at all often. Consider, for example, this description by
Erich Fromm of an up-to-date, sensible kind of religious person.
The truly religious person, if he follows the essence of the
monotheistic idea, does not pray for anything, does not expect anything
from God; he does not love God as a child loves his father or his mother;
he has acquired the humility of sensing his limitations, to the degree of
knowing that he knows nothing about God. God becomes for him a symbol in
which man, at an earlier stage of his evolution, has expressed the totality
of that which man is striving for, the realm of the spiritual world, of
love, truth and justice. He … considers all of his life only valuable
inasmuch as it gives him the chance to arrive at an ever fuller unfolding
of his human powers as the only reality that matters, as the only object
of "ultimate concern"; and eventually, he does not speak about God nor
even mention his name. To love God, if he were going to use this word,
would mean, then to long for the attainment of the full capacity to love,
for the realization of that which "God" stands for in oneself.
Let us see what becomes of this passage if it is rewritten with the
term "God" understood to mean "reason for existence" throughout.
"he truly religious person, if he accepts the idea of a single
overriding cause which originated all that exists, does not expect
this cause to be directly related to what goes on in his own life, and
does not expect it to do anything for him. He does not ask it for
anything and does not expect to enter into a security-giving personal
relationship with it. He realizes that he is a finite being, and that
the reason for existence is inconceivable to him. He realizes that he
is one of a certain race of animals which has evolved on a certain
planet of a certain star in a certain galaxy, and that as they evolved
these animals formulate certain ideals at which to aim. The reason for
existence becomes to him a symbol for the security and consistency
which his race of animals would like to have. He considers his life
only valuable inasmuch as he considers it valuable. He regards what
interests him as the only reality that matters, and the only object of
any importance to the overriding cause which originated all that
exists. Eventually he does not ask any questions about the reason for
existence nor even refer to it in passing. To desire the knowledge
of the reason for existence would mean to him, then, to long for the
attainment of the full capacity to have an intense interest in the
welfare of other members of his species. This is the realization of
that part of one's psychology for which the words 'reason for
Modern thinkers are at last feeling free to divorce the ideas of "God"
and "religion" from any direct connection with the fact that things
exist. Some go further. Not only has "God" nothing in particular to do
with the origin of existence, but also it has nothing whatever to do
with anything human beings do not understand about that is, it has
nothing to do with the Outside.
Fromm's treatment of the idea of God depends on never defining it. A
further advance has been made by the Bishop of Woolwich, who
admittedly does not define it either, but says explicitly that it
What is of interest about the Bishop of Woolwich is not that he is
supposed to be a Christian (which is a matter of definition), but that
he is human. One might say that he is very human. He speaks for his
time; not only for the Christianity of his time but for human
psychology as it stands facing the unknown or rather, with its back
I do not mean to be unduly condemnatory of human beings for standing
in this position. It is the done thing. In fact, it has always been
the done thing, although formerly some pains were taken to disguise
the fact. When people talked about "God" they used to pretend that
what they said had something to do with questions about the meaning of
existence and the purpose of life.
The splendid discovery made by the Bishop of Woolwich is that the
human race is completely uninterested in such questions, but now it is
all right to say so. Man has "come of age".
It is not very easy to understand what the Bishop of Woolwich is
saying, but it is easier if you start by ascribing a zero value to the
term "God". What I mean is that you need to leave a sort of blank hole
in every sentence in which the word "God" appears. It is never
defined, and so it is semantically redundant.
However, though he does not say who or what God is, the Bishop wants
most earnestly to assert that God is not Out There.
But the signs are that we are reaching the point at which the whole
conception of a God "out there" … is itself becoming more of a
hindrance than a help … Suppose belief in God does not, indeed cannot,
mean being persuaded of the "existence" of some entity, even a supreme
entity, which might or might not be there, like life on Mars? … Suppose
that all such atheism does is to destroy an idol, and that we can and must
go on without a God "out there" at all?
What can we make of these statements? Something (unspecified) is not
Out There. Does this mean nothing is Out There? Or nothing of any
significance is Out There? A little reflection convinces the questing
mind that what the Bishop really means is "There is no Out There."
To make this a little more grammatical, let us rephrase it as "There
is no Outside". As we have mentioned, we define the Outside as "that
which falls outside the comprehension of the human race". Now whatever
else God might be supposed to be, one would imagine that he, she or it
was unquestionably Outside.
But the Bishop has two reasons for supposing that God is not Outside.
One of them is that the Inside is getting bigger. We are better at
science than we used to be, and our expectation of life is increasing.
We can make aeroplanes and control malaria. We do not know what everything
is existing for, but neither do we care.
God is an "x" in the equation whom we cannot get on without, a cause,
controller or designer whom we are bound to posit or allow room for this hypothesis seems to men today more and more superfluous.
Note, incidentally, a nice piece of sane writing. If you talk of "God"
impersonally as "a cause" it is difficult to reject the hypothesis
that "there is always room for a cause we do not know about." If,
however, you talk of God as a "designer", you are obviously bringing
in all those anthropomorphic associations which make the idea of God
ludicrous. This is where apposition is so useful.
But the Bishop's main reason for supposing that God is not Outside is
that we are none of us interested in an Outside, and we are
interested in other people.
The world is not asking "How can I find a gracious God?" It is
asking "How can I find a gracious neighbour?"
So if "God" is to be of any interest, it must mean something about
human relationships. (Just what about human relationships it could
mean is never clear. The Bishop's only elucidation takes the form of
periodically intoning such words as "depth" and "ultimacy".)
Of course, the Bishop is not alone in all this. He quotes extensively
from Tillich, for example.
When Tillich speaks of God in "depth", he is not speaking of another
Being at all. He is speaking of "the infinite and inexhaustible depth
and ground of all being", of our ultimate concern, of what we take
seriously without reservation.
(I leave the reader to work out how many of the techniques described
in "How to Write Sane Books" are used in those two sentences.)
Tillich maintains that God is the "ultimate concern" of every man. I
think all modern theologians would agree. However, the question is
whether you take "God" as defining "man's ultimate concern", or take
"man's ultimate concern" as defining "God". Naturally, in this
democratic age, the latter procedure is usually followed. (There is
only one of God whereas there are a number of human beings; it would
obviously be undemocratic to take God as a standard.) I am happy to
see the old opposition between God and man has all but vanished from
modern theology. There is now the most extraordinary sympathy, not to
say identity, of outlook.
We must even if it seems "dangerous" affirm that the glory of
God and the glory of man, although different, actually coincide. There
is no other glory of God (this is a free decision of his will) than that
which comes about in man's existence. And there is no other glory of man
than that which he may and can have in glorifying God. Likewise God's
beatitude coincides with man's happiness. Man's happiness is to make
God's beatitude appear in his life, and God's beatitude consists in giving
himself to man in the form of human happiness.
So far we have only considered the modern kind of theologian, who does
not believe in God. This should not be taken to imply that the human
evasion has only just started to operate in this area.
Even when people believed in God you may remember that there was a
certain difficulty in driving any metaphysical argument with them
beyond a certain point. They would suddenly round on you, with or
without a sweet smile, and say, "Ah, but the important thing is that
God is a person." This effectively prevented any further discussion of
his possible existence or attributes, particularly as the concepts
"person" and "personality" appeared to defy analysis.
It is, of course, entirely compatible with the human evasion that it
should suddenly interpose the "personal" and the reason for existence by whatever name it calls it. It is no less compatible with it that
the people who disbelieve in God should do so on the grounds that he
was a personal God. "It is evident", they say, "that when people
believed in God they were thinking of something like a human being with
whom one could have emotional interactions. This is Freudian. It is
obvious that there is no Outside because when people thought there was,
they treated it like a person. I am well-adjusted and do not need a God
to have emotional interactions with. I can have them with other people.
Consequently there is no Outside."
Chapter 8 : The Religion of Evasion
The basic tenet of sane theology is that the chief barrier between man
and God is constituted by pride that is, self-sufficiency and
ambition, which prevent him from recognizing his true place in the
scheme of things. And we are enjoined to be humble that is, to
accept our place in the scheme of things and adopt an attitude of
This is remarkably like the standard prescription for preserving the
human evasion, especially as it is usually accompanied by exhortations
to take a particularly thorough interest in our fellow humans.
Now it might actually be true that a man was prevented from perceiving
very much of reality (or from perceiving anything very interesting
about it) by his satisfaction with himself as he is.
But if we tried to say anything about this in ordinary language the
most extraordinary results would ensue. We should have to say, for
example, that the essence of humility was to recognize one's desire
to be God.
This follows from the fact that if you define "pride" as "what makes
people feel they can manage all right as they are", "anti-pride" or
"humility" should be "what makes people aware that being as they are
The idea of anyone desiring to be God is very shocking to a sane mind
which, with its usual facility for confusing the issue, makes no
distinction between "desiring to be God" and "imagining oneself
already to be God". Now what would actually happen to someone who
desired to be God is not that he would be overwhelmed by sensations of
satisfied megalomania, but that he would find being finite
We know, of course, that sanity is designed to make finiteness
comfortable, so it is not in the least surprising that the religion of
evasion should contain this kind of thing:
It is possible for individuals to be saved from this sinful pretension,
not by achieving an absolute perspective on life, but by their recognition
of their inability to do so….
The recognition of creatureliness and finiteness … may become the
basis of man's reconciliation to God through his resignation to his
So the thing to do is to accept your finiteness. Notice, as usual,
that "to accept" means "not to fight against; to settle down within".
It does not mean (as it might) "to observe the presence of". I may
accept that there is a rattlesnake in the corner without necessarily
approving of the fact.
Now although all evasively religious people are clear that finiteness
is to be treated in a spirit of peaceful coexistence, they do not like
talking about it more than is strictly necessary.
They find the ideas of "sin", "guilt", "morality", and so on far
preferable to ideas about "creation", "existence", or "non-existence",
and the idea of "helplessness to improve" preferable to the idea of
"helplessness". Some idea of the way these substitutions are made may
be gained from the following account of Wittgenstein's attitude to the
notions of "God" and 'immortality'.
… Wittgenstein did once say that he thought he could understand the
conception of God, in so far as it is involved in one's awareness of
one's own sin and guilt. He added that he could not understand the
conception of a Creator. I think that the ideas of Divine judgement,
forgiveness, and redemption had some intelligibility for him, as being
related in his mind to feelings of disgust with himself, an intense
desire for purity, and a sense of the helplessness of human beings to
make themselves better. But the notion of a being making the world
had no intelligibility for him at all.
Wittgenstein once suggested that a way in which the notion of
immortality can acquire a meaning is through one's feeling that one
has duties from which one cannot be released, even by death. Wittgenstein
himself possessed a stern sense of duty.
The substitution of "guilt" for "sense of finiteness" is immediate in
most writers. So Tillich can say that the "power of nothingness" is
experienced in the "anxiety of guilt".
Unlike most writers, Tillich does recognize a sense of finiteness
per se as a separate object of discourse, but plainly gives "guilt"
the greater psychological importance. For example, he doubts whether
the Stoics could have reached "utter desperation" because, though they
could experience the despair of "fate and death", their philosophy did
not recognize that of "personal guilt".
This is in spite of the fact that he describes the awareness of
finiteness in the following terms:
It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more
than a flash of time. People who have experienced these moments, as for
instance some mystics in their visions of the "night of the soul", or
Luther under the despair of demonic assaults, or Nietzsche-Zarathustra
in the experience of the "great disgust", have told of the unimaginable
horror of it…. or facing the God who is really God means facing also
the absolute threat of non-being. The "naked absolute" (to use a phrase
of Luther's) produces "naked anxiety"; for it is the extinction of every
In fact, the recognition of "naked anxiety" would render guilt an
Guilt in social situations arises from the assumption that you know at
least some of the rules, and know the extent of your supposed
obligations to keep them, and know also the extent of your power to do
so (or at least the extent to which your inability to keep them will
Perhaps there are cosmic rules (rules for what, rules about what?) and
perhaps you have broken them all. Perhaps you broke them all by being
born in the first place. Maybe the universe will blow up tomorrow on
account of all the rules you have broken, but there is no point in
pretending that even then you will know what the rules were.
Whoever you are, you are in an unknown situation which, rather
incredibly, exists. You do not know what your past has been (though
you do seem to have a certain supply of memory images). You do not
know the significance of what you did in the past, and you do not know
whether you could have done otherwise.
You do not know how many relevant factors there may be which you did
not know, and still do not.
But this is not what evasive religion is about. Let us return to
Tillich. He has an intellectual lucidity which not even the mannerisms
of sane writing can conceal, and he is not unaware of "the astonishing
pre-rational fact that there is something and not nothing."
But as we have already observed, he says firmly:
It is impossible for a finite being to stand naked anxiety for more
than a flash of time.
This is at once evidence that Tillich knows there is an Outside, and
proof that he is nonetheless sane. He is sure that no one can
perceive the fact that there is an Outside for more than a flash of
He does not say how many people he thinks have tried to experience
this perception for longer. He does not say if he has tried himself.
But he is sure that it cannot be done.
Human beings like to accept their limitations, and this one in
Here is another example of Tillich's writing:
The state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves,
because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are
estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know
where we have come from, or where we are going.
The fact that "we do not know where we have come from, or where we are
going" is stated in the second sentence, which begins with an "And".
The first sentence is a statement of a very composite kind.
Characteristically, it refers both to existence (using the ambiguous
word "being") and to "others" in the same breath. Even more
characteristically, it makes the statement about existence or "being"
after the one about "others".
This is the complete sequence of ideas in the passage (observe the
order of priorities): we are estranged from certain "others" and from
ourselves; because of this we observe that we are estranged from the
Ground of our being; incidentally (in a second sentence starting with
"And") we notice that we don't know anything.
Needless to say, all modern theologians are much more interested in
our estrangement from other people than in the fact that we don't know
The object of religion would seem to be to overcome the estrangement
by the "life of community". Belonging is all. In view of this, they do
not wish to demand any particular beliefs from people who wish to
belong. A community of Christians means a community of persons who
call themselves Christians, and a person who wishes to belong to such
a community is a Christian. It is presumptuous to look for any special
qualities in such a community; this is to forget our complete
dependence on the Word of God (in Jesus Christ). God declared that He
would create a spiritual community and we cannot question this decree.
The great point is that its distinguishing attributes are spiritual i.e. imperceptible.
Linguisticism, you see, is very useful once more. When it is used in
theology it is usually associated with "the Word of God".
In general, the meaning of any part of the Word of God is spiritual,
i.e. meaningless. We should not seek to attach any meaning, historical,
metaphysical, or psychological, to the statement "Jesus Christ was the
Son of God", but simply accept it as a valuable part of the Word of
This process is known as "demythologizing".
I hope this brief analysis may help those who find modern theology
hard to understand. But perhaps it is not very hard for sane people.
Chapter 9 : The Philosophy of Evasion
Philosophy used to be about metaphysics, though it always suffered
from the usual human tendency to discuss politics or morality in the
same breath or at least, in the next chapter.
When philosophy dealt with metaphysics it revealed certain facts about
the human situation, which can all be summarized in the statement that
it is impossible to be certain of anything.
However, as a direct consequence of the human evasion, it was very
difficult for philosophers to think for too long at a time about total
uncertainty, so that various partial aspects of it were stated by
different people, and they very often combined their thoughts about
uncertainty with a good deal of their favourite kind of evasiveness.
This is why their books were so much longer than necessary but this
is true of almost all books by sane people.
Descartes, for example, began by placing everything in doubt.
I will suppose, then, not that there is a supremely good God, the
source of truth; but that there is an evil spirit, who is supremely
powerful and intelligent, and does his utmost to deceive me. I will
suppose that sky, air, earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external
objects are mere delusive dreams, by means of which he lays snares for
my credulity. I will consider myself as having no hands, no eyes, no
flesh, no blood, no senses, but just having a false belief that I
have all these things. I will remain firmly fixed in this meditation,
and resolutely take care that, so far as in me lies, even if it is not
in my power to know some truth, I may not assent to falsehood nor let
myself be imposed upon by that deceiver, however powerful and intelligent
he may be.
I will reject … whatever admits of the least doubt, just as if I had
found it was wholly false; and I will go on until I know something for
certain - if it is only this, that there is nothing certain.
Descartes proceeds from this to the famous 'cogito ergo sum': even if
all his thoughts are erroneous, something must exist to think them.
And here commences the evasiveness of Descartes: in fact, he is not
really entitled to say, 'I think, therefore I exist', but only 'I
think, therefore something exists'. Nonetheless, this is the highest
point reached by his philosophy.
After this he first reinstates his own psychology:
What then am I? A conscious being (res cogitans). What is that? A
being that doubts, understands, asserts, denies, is willing, is
unwilling; further, that has sense and imagination. There are a
good many properties if only they belong to me. But how can they
fail to? Am I not the very person who is 'doubting' almost everything;
who 'understands' something and 'asserts' this one thing to be true, and
'denies' other things; who 'is willing' to know more, and 'is unwilling'
to be deceived; who 'imagines' many things, even involuntarily, and
perceives many things coming as it were from the 'senses'? Even if I
am all the while asleep; even if my creator does all he can to deceive
me; how can any of these things be less of a fact than my existence?
Is any of these something distinct from my consciousness (cogitatione)?
Can any of them be called a separate thing from myself? It is so clear
that it is I who doubt, understand, will, that I cannot think how to
explain it more clearly.
Having reinstated his own ideas, Descartes decides that they include
an idea of an infinite and perfect God. Descartes might be deceived in
believing two and three to make five if a sufficiently powerful God
chose to deceive him, but God must exist because Descartes has an idea
of God, and such a God could not be a deceiver. So Descartes may now
proceed with trustful confidence to reinstate 'the whole field of
corporeal nature that is the subject-matter of pure mathematics'.
Before the modern atheist mocks this line (or rather convolution) of
argument too uninhibitedly, he should recall that it is Descartes's
only way of avoiding the conclusion that there is no certainty except
If you are trying to ward off uncertainty, you can believe in the
infinite reliability of God, or of common sense, or of New Society
it makes little difference. (Of the three, an infinite and perfect
God would probably be the most elasticizing to the imagination. But I
realize that that is no recommendation from a sane point of view.)
Incidentally, it is perhaps interesting to note that while
'establishing' the existence of God, Descartes shows a typically sane
desire to accept his limitations. Considering how recently he has
recovered from an attack of total uncertainty, his confidence in the
permanence of his position is remarkable:
But perhaps I am something
greater than I myself understand. Perhaps all the perfections I
attribute to God are somehow in me potentially, though they do not
emerge yet and are not yet brought into actuality. For I experience
already a gradual increase of my knowledge; I do not see what is to
prevent its being thus increased more and more indefinitely; nor why,
when my knowledge has thus grown, I may not use it to acquire all the
other perfections of God; nor, finally, why the potentiality of such
perfections, if it exists in me already, is not enough to produce the
idea of them.
All these things are impossible. First, it is true that my knowledge
gradually increases, and I have many potentialities as yet unactualised;
but this is alien to the idea of God, which implies absolutely no
potentiality; for the mere fact of gradual growth is a sure sign of
Again, even if my knowledge always grows more and more, yet I see that it
will never be actually infinite; for it will never reach a point where it
is not capable of still further increase.
Then again, consider Hume. He saw clearly enough that 'all our
reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but
custom.' And as for the continued existence of objects when
out of sight, he said: '… this conclusion beyond the impressions of our
senses can be founded only on the connection of cause and effect;
nor can we otherwise have any security that the object is not changed
More critical than Descartes of the origins of his ideas, Hume saw no
way in which philosophy could save him from scepticism, and
undisguisedly fell back on human nature to do so.
I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in
the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest
darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling
these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of
this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent
of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which
obliterates all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I
converse, and am merry with my friends; and when, after three or four
hours' amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so
cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to
enter into them any further.
However, frightened and muddled though the sceptical philosophers may
have been, once some aspect of the total uncertainty had been plainly
stated, it could never subsequently be refuted and it became a
permanent piece of philosophy.
One of the aspects of uncertainty that became firmly embedded in
philosophy was that there were no absolutes.
What was originally stated was that there was no way of finding out if
there were any absolutes. Everything could only be assessed by
reference to a specific standard, and the only available standards
were finite ones.
The human race, in its anthropocentric way, took a particular interest
in the conclusion that there was no moral absolute. There was no way
of saying what was 'good' or 'evil' except by referring to the only
standards available which were the opinions of human beings about
what constituted a desirable life. These were obviously very
The human race eagerly responded to this finding by rejecting all
former sets of opinions about the desirable life and developing a new
one. The new one stated that heroic and extremist ideals were always
based on foolish beliefs and prejudices, so that the thing to do was
to seek pleasure, comfort, and security in a moderate and unheroic
Moreover, this finding gave rise to a feeling that it had now been
proved that absolutes did not exist there were no standards
other than human ones.
This last is an interesting conclusion, if you remember that the
original statement was to the effect that whatever might be absolute,
human standards certainly were not.
This interesting conclusion, that human standards constituted the only
absolute, was reached emotionally before it could be formulated
intellectually. No one was in serious doubt of it, but professional
philosophers found it difficult to state explicitly. Statements about
certainty such as the assertion that solipsism was possible remained
This did not prevent philosophers from engaging in strange attempts to
assess the 'probability' of sceptical statements. In this they showed
an unawareness of what I can only call 'logical priority' that is
Once you have admitted you may be dreaming, what value can you attach
to your reflections on the likelihood that you are dreaming? Yet
comparative statements are made; it is more likely that we are
deceived about this; less likely that we are deceived about that.
My own tentative view is that tactual perception … justifies us in
being practically certain that there are foreign bodies and that they do
interact with our own bodies. It seems to me just conceivable, though
extremely unlikely, that I might have had the kinds of experience which I
describe as 'seeing' or 'hearing' foreign bodies even if there had been
no foreign bodies or if they had never emitted light-waves or sound-waves
to my body.
But I find it almost impossible to believe I could ever have had the
kind of experience I describe as 'pushing' or 'pulling' or 'struggling
with' foreign bodies unless there had been foreign bodies and they had
quite often interacted dynamically with my own body through contact.
It was then that linguistic philosophy arrived, the true philosophy of
evasion. It stated that it was under no necessity to refute statements
about total uncertainty, because it did not accept them as possible
('Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would
doubt where a question cannot be asked.') It declared that the only way of deciding what was an acceptable statement was by reference
to human standards.
For example, when you use the word 'uncertainty' you mean that you are
not certain about something that may or may not happen. You have
learnt to use this word in connection with a number of finite
situations, such as whether or not it will rain tomorrow. The word is
not usually used to mean 'the uncertainty whether anything will go on
existing' or 'the uncertainty whether anything is existing now'. It is
illegitimate to use the word 'uncertainty' to refer to these kinds of
uncertainty, and it is therefore impossible to formulate any
statements whatever about them.
When philosophers use a word 'knowledge', 'being', 'object', 'I',
'proposition', 'name' and try to grasp the essence of the thing,
one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in
the language-game which is its original home? What we do is to bring
words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.
In this simple way all discourse about the infinite and inconceivable
is eliminated, for it is evident that all human words have actually
been developed by finite beings to deal with things they are able to
There is now no need to think about 'reality' except in the sense of
'what all right-thinking humans are in verbal agreement about'. So
Malcolm, discussing the idea that a person may realize he is dreaming
while he is having the dream, comments: 'Surely there is something
dubious in the assumption that there can be a true judgement that
cannot be communicated to others'.
What clues do we have to the human evasion in the psychology of
Wittgenstein? At the end of the Tractatus (an earlier work), a
series of ambiguous utterances:
Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.
There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me
finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through
them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder,
after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
And in the Philosophical Investigations, on which his fame chiefly
rests, a number of utterances in which it is not difficult to see an
anguished desire for anaesthesia:
For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity.
But this simply means that the philosophical problems should
The real discovery is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing
philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so
that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself in
Instead, we now demonstrate a method, by examples; and the series of
examples can be broken off. Problems are solved (difficulties
eliminated), not a single problem.
There is not a philosophical method, though there are indeed methods,
like different therapies.
The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an
… what is hidden … is of no interest to us.
Let us conclude this chapter by putting philosophy in its place in the
Philosophical questions have no intrinsic importance. Some questions
are important for particular men because of the way in which the questions
perplex them and deflect or obstruct them in going on with some other
activity to which they are purposefully committed in life.
Chapter 10 : The Science of Evasion
The basic tenet of modern science is 'Thou shalt not think.'
Nietzsche once observed: 'If there were God, how could I bear to be no
God? Consequently there is no God.' This is not logical. Modern
science, which otherwise has no noticeable affinity with Nietzsche,
uses arguments of a similar kind. 'If the universe had a beginning, we
did not observe it.'
'Consequently it had no beginning.' (I do not know if any scientist
has said this yet. If not, I offer it freely to modern science as my
own humble contribution.) 'If electrons are different from one
another, we cannot observe it. Consequently electrons are identical.'
'If there is a reason why this event happens rather than that, we
cannot observe it. Consequently there is no reason.'
Arguments against thinking are presented with every appearance of
intellectual sophistication. They are difficult to understand, but
this makes them seem the more profound.
The prevailing spirit of science owes much to linguistic philosophy. A
generation which understands that thinking is identical with talking
finds it easy to accept that discovery is identical with making
The human evasion is seen at its best in theoretical physics.
In doing physics it is difficult not to notice that some things are
inconceivable. So physicists lay down special laws for not-thinking.
Just as linguistic philosophy counsels us not to ask what a word
means, but how we use it, so modern theoretical physics tells us
not to think what a concept means, but only how we measure it. We
might be tempted to ask what things like charge and mass were.
In a sense, the situation is similar to being asked to spell a word.
If we were asked to spell the word cat, we would, of course, say c-a-t.
If pressed for a further explanation, we could only state that the
letters c, a, t, were part of the alphabet and represent sounds. To
explain the letter a, for example, we would have to make the appropriate
sound. There is no other way of conveying meaning. In a similar way, the
concepts of charge and mass are part of the alphabet of physics. To become
acquainted with charge, we need to experiment with it.
It is pointed out that when you use concepts derived from everyday
experience they are not wholly appropriate to describing events on the
subatomic level. Therefore you must be particularly careful not to
think when you use these concepts.
We must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that because an
elementary particle has a spin, we must think of it as turning about an
axis in itself, and that therefore it must have a finite radius, since a
point turning about itself is a meaningless idea. Such a conclusion would
be an unwarrantable extrapolation of our macroscopic ideas. Instead, we
must simply accept the fact that certain experiments can be explained
only on the assumption of elementary particles having spin and magnetic
Our approach must be operational. We define concepts by referring to
the manipulation of them in experiments; we only ask questions which
can be answered by performing experiments. A slight snag here is that
you might eventually think of a different kind of experiment if you
were worried enough about lack of information. This is not, however, a
snag to a sane person. Sane people, including physicists, have no
undue interest in reality and finding out about the universe is to be
regarded as a rather unfortunate by-product of a certain kind of human
activity. It is important to realize that physics is something
Physics is … based on training and practice and on human behaviour
that has evolved with the growth of experience in doing physics.
Physicists have great humility, as the sane understand the word. They
accept, not that there is infinitely more to be discovered, but that
they can never discover more.
This acceptance is based on their belief in something called the
Uncertainty Principle. The Uncertainty Principle does not, of course,
express the uncertainty that must always prevail about what the next
theory in physics will be like. It describes a limitation in the
knowledge of the human race which, it is confidently asserted, can
never be surmounted. Young physicists find it difficult to see why it
never could be, and it is an important stage in their intellectual
maturation when they can.
The Uncertainty Principle arises from the fact that commonsense
concepts do not apply very well to subatomic particles. You can say
they are something like waves, or something like particles, but
you cannot use both of your ill-fitting notions at once. (Still less
may you try to have an idea of a single extraordinary entity that is
exactly like a subatomic particle.
Whether or not you succeeded, this would be likely to give you
feelings about inconceivability, and it is very important to avoid
such feelings in physics.) So physicists have evolved a complicated
and blurry way of using the concepts the human race already has. This
is known as the Quantum Theory. The fact that it is blurry is
expressed in the Uncertainty Principle, which states that so long as
you use these concepts in this way the result will be blurry.
The human race does not know what other concepts it could use, and
certainly has no intention of thinking about it. It therefore elevates
the statement about the blurriness of reality to the status of a
(Yes, I know the human race doesn't usually like metaphysical
absolutes, but this one is different.)
There is a kind of earnest astonishment made popular by linguistic
philosophers. ('This man says he thinks without words. What can we
possibly infer about the past life of a man who makes such a
statement?') This has been taken over by the theoretical physicists
for use on anyone who suggests that there might be a theory
completely different from Quantum Theory, even perhaps using
'What precisely is the concept we are asked to entertain…? What
picture is being painted for us…? What exactly will microphysics be
like…? What is the physicist being asked to do…?'
asks Norwood Russell Hanson, boggling hard.
So we all accept that reality is blurry and that the laws of nature
are statistical. (Not 'our descriptions of nature are
statistical', you notice.) This brings us to statistics. Emotionally,
if not indeed intellectually, statistics is no longer felt to provide
description, but explanation. It is not difficult to see why it
should be so appealing. It is, as you might say, democratic (in every
sense). It depends on counting, which is fair and equitable (why
should one electron be singled out for special attention?) and then
again, counting is a thing nearly everyone can do.
There used to be a philosophical error known as 'reification', which
was what happened when people forgot that abstract nouns were not
things, and imagined Truth sitting in state in a scarlet robe, for
example. This is a very, very unfashionable kind of mistake to make
today (because sometimes when people did it, it was a sign that they
were taking the Outside too seriously).
So no one has noticed the reification of statistical concepts that
goes on, and physicists talk of a thing being 'caused by chance' as if
'chance' sat there pushing the right proportion of electrons to the
left. If an electron chooses to turn left, this is either caused by
something, which may or may not be known to the human race at
present, or it is caused by nothing, which is shockingly
inconceivable. In neither case is it caused by a cosy little homebody
figure called 'Chance'.
To do theoretical physics properly requires a very special kind of
Suppose that you find that all particles of a certain kind, when
placed in a given situation, behave in one of two ways. Half of them
do one thing and half do the other. First, you do not allow yourself
to think that the particles might not be identical, or that there
might be some unknown influence, which causes half of them to do one
thing, and half to do the other. You must say 'I can make a
statistical prediction. The laws of nature are statistical' with no
sense of being puzzled or astonished, and without falling into a state
of radical scepticism about the concept of 'cause'.
To perform this kind of mental manoeuvre to perfection requires years
of training and great intellectual maturity. (Einstein always found it
rather difficult. He expressed his inability in the curious,
subjective statement: God does not play dice.)
The next manoeuvre to be described is comparatively easy. It is a
technique for ironing infinity out of the universe. The technique
depends on the fact that people cannot visualize a fourth dimension.
So you say to them: 'The universe is infinite in a sense you can
go wherever you like and never come to an edge. But it is also finite
in a sense if you go on long enough you will come back to the
same point.' People feel that this is a difficult kind of thing which
they should pretend to understand. It also makes them feel happy,
because it is a way of saying 'The universe is an Inside without an
If this description of the universe is expressed with fewer dimensions
it becomes clear what is really being said. The surface of a sphere is
unbounded in that you can travel all over it without coming to an
edge; it is also finite in that it has a certain definite area. But
(since we can visualize things in three dimensions, as we cannot in
four) it is clear that the sphere does have an Outside.
Or consider this exposition of a method for muddling yourself about
To construct a hypothetical three-dimensional world which is finite
and unbounded, we will assume that our bug lives with a whole family of
bugs in a space which has no physical boundaries or barriers. If we
further assume that the bugs are very massive, then none of the bugs
will be able to leave the group because the gravitational attraction
of the group as a whole on each bug will prevent it. Furthermore, since
the gravitational attraction is so strong, light rays will not be able
to leave the mass of bugs either.
Thus, even if a bug looks off in the direction of space beyond the
group, his line of sight will curve back towards the group, always
producing 'bugs in his eyes', and he will never be able to see beyond
'Straight ahead' for each bug always will mean towards the centre of the
group. The bugs will not be conscious of any physical barrier, though;
as far as they know, they will live in a world which is unbounded. Their
world is finite, since the size of the group as a whole is finite and the
group constitutes their world.
Obviously the emotional force of this passage depends on the ease with
which the sane mind can accept that 'they cannot see beyond the group'
is a statement precisely equivalent to 'there is nothing beyond the
Modern scientists have learnt their function; to make reality sound so
dull that no one will be tempted to think about it. Stephen Toulmin
gently chides Jeans and Eddington for popularizing science in a
disturbing, thought-provoking way.
… Jeans, for instance, relied on finding a happy analogy which would
by itself bring home to his readers the chief features of the General
Theory of Relativity. And how did he invite them to think of the
Universe? As the three-dimensional surface of a four-dimensional
balloon. The poor layman, who has been brought up to use the word
'surface' for two-dimensional things alone, now found himself instructed
to visualise what for him was a self-contradiction, so it was no wonder
if he agreed to Jeans' calling the Universe a mysterious one.
Whatever else the universe may be, every sane person knows it isn't
Chapter 11 : The Alternative to Sanity: What Would It Be Like?
Let us now pause to consider what the alternative to sanity might be.
Recognized forms of mental illness do not provide an alternative; they
are plainly best regarded as subdivisions of sanity. They have the
same unawareness of reality, and the same intense focus on personal
The average paranoid, for example, is obsessionally interested in
rights and wrongs and status and justification. These concepts are all
very meaningful to the sane.
It is true that the small selection of facts which are permitted
consideration by the paranoid mind differ a little from the selection
made by the average sane person. But it is doubtful whether the
distortion introduced by the suppression from consciousness of all the
facts which might indicate that one is not Napoleon is actually any
greater than the suppression from consciousness of all the facts that
might make one dissatisfied to be merely human.
If we suppose that sanity is itself a careful avoidance of some other
psychological orientation, dimly or subconsciously perceived, we may
be able to make some kind of a picture of the not-sane by inverting
the characteristics of sanity.
Obviously the first defining characteristic of the not-sane would be
that they would be more interested in reality, or the universe, than
in other people. Newton might, at first sight, appear to qualify. But
it is clear that he did not approve of his interest in reality. He
'grutched the time' spent on theoretical physics 'unless it be perhaps
at idle hours sometimes for a diversion'. As
Master of the Mint, he
showed great initiative, intelligence and determination in hounding a
forger to his death. So he is not likely to exhibit the
personality-structure of the not-sane. (Though obviously he had his
not-sane moments, as when he worked obsessionally at the Principia
for eighteen months.)
There is a general supposition among the sane that sanity is a
particularly altruistic state, and that any deviation from it would be
marked by callousness, cruelty and vindictiveness.
This supposition need not be taken at face value. When paranoids and
manic-depressives claim to have nothing but kindly attitudes to all
mankind, this is interpreted as a cover for their repressed hostility.
Statements about their own motivation made by sane people should be
regarded with a similar open-mindedness. It is always useful to try the
technique of substituting opposites throughout e.g. 'Sanity is a
particularly sadistic state, and any deviation from it would be marked
by sensitivity, kindness and generosity.'
In so far as the sane person has chosen to focus his attention on
other people, rather than on reality, we may expect that he will
desire to limit them as painfully as he himself is limited. This
fundamental hatred of others (and particularly of the aspirations of
others) might possibly be resolved by recognizing one's drive to the
infinite as something to do with infinity. But the sane person cannot
do this; in fact, the repressive force is so strong that he can
scarcely admit the idea of infinity to consciousness at all.
But it does not at all follow that this is what would actually be felt
by someone who was primarily interested in himself and the universe.
It may fairly confidently be asserted that he would see nothing
interesting in being cruel to people. Having accepted his won
aspirations, he would probably be unusually tolerant of the
aspirations of others. (In the same way that, according to Freudian
psychology, the person who does not reject his own id-impulses will
have a tolerant attitude towards them when they appear in his
offspring.) Finally, we may guess that the not-sane person would find
the repetitiveness of most human interactions rather dull.
Sane people are bad at psychology. This is not surprising because in
order to keep yourself and everyone else in a state of unrealism, you
have to have certain techniques for not noticing things.
(Psycho-analysts would no doubt claim to be good at understanding
psychology. But it is noteworthy that sane systems of psycho-analysis
are exclusively about people's reactions to other people.) We may
suppose that a not-sane person might not have quite the same reasons
for denying himself psychological insight. He would therefore probably
be good at psychology (but not in any way that sane people would
appreciate they would think him unrealistic because of his interest
The characteristics which the sane person dislikes most are urgency,
singlemindedness, unconditionality, and self-sufficiency. I almost
used the word 'independence', but this might have been misleading. In
a sane world this does not mean 'doing what you yourself want,
regardless of other people'. It usually means 'showing your
independence of other people by doing something other than what they
want'. Incidentally, the desire to demonstrate 'independence' is
particularly aroused in the sane person by anyone showing signs of
urgency, singlemindedness, unconditionality or self-sufficiency.
'Independence' is best demonstrated by opposing the purposes of the
urgent one. This is a useful safety valve in the sane society, and in
itself goes far to ensure that it will indeed be a self-regulating
mechanism for preventing the fulfilment of its members. (It is most
important that it should be this, in order that everyone should feel
frustrated by people and not by the universe.)
I have mentioned some unfamiliar attitudes; let me try to describe how
they might arise (even if, in practice, they never do).
A person with a sense of urgency might feel that because everything
was uncertain, but his death highly probable, it was desirable to do
anything he considered important with the minimum of delay.
Single-mindedness and unconditionality might well follow.
A person might arrive at a position of self-sufficiency by a little
reflection on his complete aloneness in the presence of the enigma of
existence. He cannot be sure if anyone else exists; even if they do,
there is every reason to suppose that they possess no information
relevant to the problem.
The question is whether anyone has ever been, in any serious way, not
I have examined the history of the human race with care. Kant gives
the impression that he liked the inconceivable, but his books are too
long; Einstein was interested in the universe, but bad at psychology;
H.G. Wells saw that research consisted of taking risks, but declined
My best candidates, therefore, are Nietzsche and Christ. It may be
objected that their ideas cannot possibly be of interest, since one
went mad and the other was crucified. However, I think we should not
hold this against them.
They may have felt a trifle isolated.
Chapter 12 : Christ
Sane human beings are not interested in reality. This is clearly shown
by the attitudes of both Christians and sceptics towards the origins
of Christianity. Both factions are primarily concerned to attribute
"human" emotions to its founder nice modest fair-minded ones or
nasty perverted abnormal ones according to taste. Neither side pauses
to consider whether the available documents are remotely adequate to
support their interpretations.
Now in fact the historical evidence is of such a kind that the
question may reasonably be asked whether Jesus lived at all. None of
the gospels can be dated much earlier than A.D. 57, and probably all
the four synoptic gospels were written around the latter half of the
first century A.D. There is every reason to suppose that the tradition
had already been subject to many influences, some identifiable, some
debatable. There is no reason to suppose that the writers of the Gospels
were any more interested in facts than most sane people are. In fact
the internal evidence clearly suggests that they had no inhibitions
about modifying their text when they wished to make it support a
It is difficult to base any conclusions whatever on documents of this
It is certainly impossible to see how they can be made to support
statements of the kind sometimes made by Christians that they
derive from the Gospels an overwhelming sense of the personality of
Christ. Or, indeed, a statement such as this made by an intellectual
Christian in a University environment:
The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add)
shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which
must lie behind His theological teaching unless He is indeed God, has
never been satisfactorily got over.
In fact. there is very little "moral teaching" in the Gospels, and
what there is is not shrewd. It simply makes unreasonable demands,
of the utmost generality, of a kind that any purveyor of mental health
would recommend his patients to disregard.
As for the theological teaching of Jesus, we do not know what it was.
There is quite insufficient evidence for supposing that he claimed to
be God, though we know that Christians from the fourth century onwards
liked to make this claim on his behalf.
Probably more credit should be given to St. Paul. He was clearly a
sane person aware of the need to make a good impression on the
neighbours. It may well be that the true reason for the survival of
Christianity lies in his having adapted it into a form admirably
compatible with sane psychology. Much confusion has been created by
reading the Epistles of Paul as if they shed light on the
interpretation of the Gospels.
Consider the doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. This is supposed to
have been central to the thought of Jesus. In fact, by all accounts,
he had a positive obsession about it. Christians claim that it shows
him to have been a warm, family-centred man and no cold metaphysician.
Non-Christians claim that it shows him to have a father-fixation,
combined with homosexual tendencies which he sought to gratify by his
dubious relationship with his disciples.
Now, on grounds of textual criticism, it can be shown that there is
little evidence that Christ himself had any particular interest in the
Father concept even as a symbol still less in the Father-Son
combination which is so important to later claims of the divinity of
Christ. Although Jesus is credited with using the term Father
frequently in Matthew and John, this is not the case in Mark, the
earliest of the Gospels.
In Mark, God is only spoken of as Father in the absolute sense,
without qualification, in two passages, both of which are believed to
be either editorial interpolations or editorially modified…. Moreover,
the expression my Father is never found in Mark, and your Father is found
only in xi. 25-26.
In fact, it is virtually impossible to reach any firm conclusions
about what Jesus understood by "God". Attempts have been made to
reconstruct his idea of God from the Jewish tradition of the time, but
there is no knowing what influence this actually had on his thought.
Modern man may like to believe himself the child of his environment,
and his ideas the inevitable consequence of sociological influence.
However, a few people have been known to think, and we cannot be sure
that Jesus was not one of them. (The fact that the religion originated
by him became widely accepted is not, of course, evidence for this
supposition, but against it. If, that is, he did in any sense
originate the religion which became accepted.)
If he was, he would probably have been capable of using the current
terminology and sayings of his time in a sense of his own. There is no
need to suppose him moronically unintelligent. The use of parables
would seem to imply that he understood the use of metaphor.
We are not, I think, justified in concluding anything about the
attitudes or opinions of Jesus from the areas of omission in the
Gospels. Obviously we have only a handful of his sayings. The tradition
had had plenty of time, before A.D. 57, to select those sayings which
were reasonably compatible with the developing tradition of the
Church, and to suppress the rest. The fact that we have only metaphor
rather than description or definition to help us decide what he meant
by "God" or "The Kingdom of Heaven" may not mean that he was a simple,
emotional person who never defined his terms. It may only mean that
his metaphors were all of his thought that could survive the
transition into the world-view of the early Church.
Having said what cannot be inferred from the existing records, we may
settle down to speculation.
There is an interesting possibility that Christ was not only not
paranoid, but that he was not sane at all, and that the expression
"the Kingdom of Heaven" refers to a state of mind not likely to be had
by sane people. Let us discuss some of his utterances in the light of
Matthew 13: 45-46
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking
goodly pearls; who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all
that he had, and bought it.
Mark 8: 36-37
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and
loose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
To suggest that one single thing could be worth more than everything
else put together is, I feel sure, an immature attitude.
Matthew 7: 13-14
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the
way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:
Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto
life, and few there be that find it.
This is scarcely democratic and I do not see what a modern Christian
can make of it. But it is a realistic assessment of the number of
people likely to take up single-mindedness at all seriously.
Matthew 22: 37-38
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy
heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first
and great commandment.
Matthew 7: 7
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it
shall be opened unto you.
Sane people are obviously not likely to qualify for anything on these
They cannot want anything very much, or try to get anything very hard.
They accept the first compensation that comes their way.
Luke 6: 24-26
But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that
laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep.
Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their
fathers to the false prophets.
Does this really sound as though he was in favour of the jolly,
Matthew 19: 21-23
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou
hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven:
and come and follow me.
But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for
he had great possessions.
Then Jesus said unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich
man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.
A rather more interesting reading becomes possible if it is supposed
that "riches" means "compensations".
Matthew 6: 31-33
Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall
we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these
things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that
ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God,
and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.
Modern Christians hold that the thing to do is "obviously" to feed
everybody in the world, and until we have done that, we needn't ask
what anyone is to do with their life, anyway. The question is whether
Christ would have agreed.
Luke 18: 16-17
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to
come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God
as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
It has been suggested that what Christ found attractive about children
was what sane people like about them their uncritical trust in the
superior wisdom of adults, their plasticity, submissiveness,
suggestibility, and vulnerability. However, children have other
characteristics besides these.
They are excitable and like excitement. They are in a hurry; it seems
to them that to do a thing now may be altogether different from
doing it tomorrow.
They are easily bored. They ask questions. They want to grow up to be
the first Emperor of Space.
In short, they seek intensity of experience. They do not have much
experience of life and they may seek it clumsily. As they grow older
and saner they learn not to seek it at all.
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and
every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.
Modern enlightenment suggests that Christ was talking about the
integration of the personality. The modern idea of integrating the
personality is to accept all the bits of yourself on their own terms enjoy all your pleasures without imposing upon them any rigid
formalism. But this may not have been exactly what Christ had in mind.
For one thing, modern people regard integration as a function of
maturity but Christ seemed to think children in some way eligible.
Matthew 6: 22-23
The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single,
the whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy
whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is
in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!
This makes it tolerably clear that if he was talking about the
integration of the personality, it was a single-minded sort of
Matthew 6: 24
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and
love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.
Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
It has been suggested that "mammon" means crude, ambitious,
materialistic commercialism. Perhaps it just means "society", or even
Matthew 15: 9
But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the
commandments of men.
John 5: 44
How can ye believe, which receive honour from one of another, and seek not
the honour that cometh from God only?
Would Jesus really have liked the idea that Christianity meant
social conformity and lots of welfare work?
Matthew 10: 35
For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the
daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her
Not-sane people need not expect sane people to see eye to eye with
Luke 8: 19-21
Then came to him his mother and his brethren, and could not come at
him for the press. And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.
Matthew 9: 16-17
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that
which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent
is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break,
and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine
into new bottles, and both are preserved.
Perhaps this means "You cannot be sane and not-sane at the same time."
But even supposing a sane person had a moment's excitement, would he
not try to weld it into his ordinary world-view to "integrate" it,
as he would say?
John 12: 25
He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in
this world shall keep it unto life eternal.
Luke 12: 25-26
And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?
If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye
thought for the rest?
Does this sound like settling down happily within your finiteness?
Luke 1: 37
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
This could be a statement about the total uncertainty. For its
philosophical status, see Chapter 9.
John 10: 34
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are
A most unpopular piece of Christianity. Sane people do not want to
be gods; they want to be ordinary-members-of-society-like-anybody-else.
Mark 11: 25
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain,
Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in
his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come
to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
No sane person doubts the impossibility of moving mountains by
Philosophically, however, it cannot be shown to be impossible.
Matthew 13: 35
I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of
This may sound megalomaniac. But there is no great difficulty in
keeping secrets from sane people. The incredibility of the fact of
existence retains the status of a closely-guarded secret in spite of
its accessibility to inspection.
Mark 13: 35-37
Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh,
at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning:
Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.
Whatever this may mean, it certainly demands a psychological attitude
which is improbable in the sane. Live as though you expected the
unexpected? As though something might happen?
However, if Christ was trying to talk people out of their adherence to
sanity, he made one fatal mistake. He said "Love your neighbour as
yourself." No one who understands the human evasion could fail to
realize that any statement which could be interpreted as an
exhortation to pay attention to other people, even if among a great
many injunctions to single-mindedness and unconditional desire, would
be the only one remembered.
In fact, everyone does love their neighbour as themselves. They
desire that he shall accept the second-best as they have done; that
he, too, shall be made to realize his limitations and "come to terms
The other aspect of Christ's thought that has seized upon the popular
imagination is, of course, the use of the Father-symbol. If Christ was
not sane, he may have meant something peculiar by "Father", and not
necessarily something very human. He may even have meant something
like "the Outside" or "the origin of existence".
Chapter 13 : Nietzsche
It is interesting to consider the case of Nietzsche in relation to
that of Christ. In both cases, the human race has supposed that the
central feature of their thought was an injunction to human
interaction. In the case of Christ, they thought they were being
enjoined to get on nicely with their friends and relations. In the
case of Nietzsche they thought they were being enjoined to wear
jackboots and torture the slaves before breakfast.
In actual fact, it is tolerably clear that both of them were extremely
interested in something quite other than human beings. (Nietzsche,
for example, observed: 'I love thee, O Eternity.')
Both of them glimpsed the possibility of some kind of psychological
development which was distinctly not-sane. Nietzsche called this
possibility 'the Superman'.
It does not pay to read the works of Nietzsche in their entirety,
unless you wish to confuse yourself. The most distinctive expression
of Nietzsche's thought is contained in Thus Spake Zarathustra, and
in the first few pages of it at that. Nietzsche sometimes confused his
psychological ideas with social or political ones, particularly in
books other than Zarathustra.
(This kind of mistake is easily made by a person who has been brought
up in a sane world.)
The idea of the Superman has nothing to do with politics. Nietzsche
may have thought it had, at least on occasion, but if so he was
mistaken. However, Nietzsche did not always make this mistake.
Where the State ceaseth, there beginneth that man which is not
superfluous: there beginneth the song of the necessary man, the single,
Where the State ceaseth I pray you look there, my brethren! Do
you not see it, the rainbow, the bridge to the Superman?
Nietzsche may sometimes have thought he was liking the German
aristocracy of his time and disliking the German bourgeoisie. In fact
it is much simpler to suppose that he was disliking sanity. The 'Last
Man' is recognizable as a sane person in a good state of mental
Alas! the day cometh when man shall no longer shoot the arrow of his
desire beyond man, when his bowstring shall have forgotten its use!
I say unto you: a man must have chaos yet within him to be able to
give birth to a dancing star. I say unto you: ye have chaos yet within
you. Alas! the day cometh when man shall give birth to no more stars.
Alas! the day cometh of that most contemptible man which can no longer
Behold! I show you the Last Man.
What is love? What is creation? What is desire? What is a star? asketh
the Last Man, and he blinketh! …
Man still loveth his neighbour and rubbeth himself against him; for
one must have warmth …
A little poison now and then: for that causeth pleasant dreams. And
much poison at the last for an easy death.
They still work, for work is a pastime…. But they take heed, lest
the pastime harm them ..
They have little lust for the day and little lusts for the night: but
they have regard for the health.
We have discovered happiness, say the Last Men, and they blink.
There are a few things in the thought of Nietzsche which appeal to
sane people. Perhaps he over-reacted against the orthodox religion of
his time and this may have made him sound more like an ordinary
hedonist than he was. 'Do not be misled by otherworldliness!' says
Nietzsche, and the modern reader, who is not in the slightest danger
of being, says approvingly, 'Ah, yes. There is no Outside. I do
understand that.' 'Man must create his own values!' says Nietzsche.
'But of course', says the reader, 'What other values could there be?'
Nietzsche, like Christ, used symbols freely. The human race is not
good at psychology, and does not understand symbols. When, Nietzsche,
for example, refers to 'dancing' one must realize that to him it
probably meant primarily a quality of intellectual activity. Similarly
'wine' is most likely to refer to the intoxication of inspiration.
Nietzsche was certainly opposed to half-heartedness and repression;
but exhortations to full-bloodedness do not necessarily imply an
approval of physical pleasure. (Perhaps, sometimes, he thought they
did, but if so he was mistaken.) It is much simpler to suppose that
what he was primarily intending to convey was a total integration of
the personality. There is nothing in the first few pages of
Zarathustra to suggest that the Superman would be a hedonist (or a
What is the greatest thing ye can experience? It is the hour of great
contempt. The hour in which even your happiness is loathsome to you,
and your reason and your virtue likewise.
The hour in which ye say: What is my happiness worth! It is poverty
and uncleanness and despicable ease. Yet my happiness should justify
The hour in which ye say: What is my reason worth! Desireth it
knowledge as the lion his prey? It is poverty and uncleanness, and
The hour in which ye say: What is my virtue worth! Not yet hath it
roused me to fury. How I weary of my good and mine evil! It is all
naught but poverty and uncleanness and despicable ease! …
Man is a rope stretched betwixt beast and Superman a rope over an
Perilous is the crossing, perilous the way, perilous the backward
look, perilous all trembling and halting by the way.
Man is great in that he is a bridge and not a goal: man can be loved
in that he is a transition and a perishing.
I love them which live not save as under-goers, for they are the
I love them which greatly scorn for they also greatly adore; they are
arrows of longing for the farther shore.
I love them which seek no reason beyond the stars wherefore they
should perish, wherefore they should be sacrificed, but which sacrifice
themselves to the earth that the earth hereafter may be the Superman's.
I love him which liveth that he may know, and which seeketh knowledge
that hereafter the Superman may live: for thus he willeth his own
I love him which worketh and deviseth to build an house for the
Superman, to prepare for him earth, beast and plant; for thus he
willeth his own down-going.
I love him which loveth his virtue: for virtue is the will to
down-going, and an arrow of longing.
I love him which reserveth no share of spirit for himself, but willeth
to be wholly the spirit of his virtue: thus in spirit he crosseth the
I love him which maketh of his virtue his inclination and his destiny:
for thus for his virtue's sake he willeth either to live on or to
cease to live.
I love him which desireth not too many virtues. One virtue is more
virtue than two, because it is so much the more a knot on which destiny
I love him whose soul lavisheth himself, that neither requireth nor
returneth thanks: for he giveth ever and keepeth naught for himself
…I love all them which are as heavy rain-drops falling one by one from
the dark cloud that lowereth over mankind: they herald the coming of the
lightning, and they perish as heralds.
Behold, I am an herald of the lightning and an heavy rain-drop from
the clouds: but that lightning is named Superman.
Nietzsche himself did not claim to be the Superman, so there is no
point in objecting that the idea is invalid because Nietzsche had
headaches, nor indeed because he went mad.
Never yet has there been a Superman. I have seen both naked the
greatest man and the least.
They are still far too like one another. Verily, even the greatest
found I all too human!
It is sometimes claimed that Nietzsche went mad (a) because he had
syphilis, and (b) because he thought too much. It should be pointed
out that you cannot hold both of these views simultaneously or at
least, if you like the humorous implications of the syphilis idea, you
cannot at the same time say, 'It only proves the human mind can't
stand the strain of such extraordinary ideas.'
There is another argument about Nietzsche's madness (and I repeat, you
cannot very well hold all of these attractive ideas at once). It is
that a precipitating factor was the lack of recognition from which he
suffered. 'If only,' the argument runs,'he had realized that his books
were just on the verge of being appreciated it would have made
all the difference. He would have liked this social compensation very
much and become quite well-adjusted.' One thing wrong with this
argument is that he already had quite a high degree of social
It seems to be doubtful whether appreciation was exactly what he
wanted, anyway. It seems to me probable that he wanted people to be
interested in not-sanity, and perhaps underestimated the universal
hold which sanity has on the human mind.
A light hath dawned on me. I need companions living ones, not dead
companions and corpses which I may carry with me where I will.
But I need living companions which follow me because they desire to
follow themselves and to go to that place whither I wish to go.
A thousand goals have there been heretofore, for there have been a
thousand peoples. But the yoke upon the thousand necks is lacking, the
one goal is lacking. Mankind hath as yet no goal.
But tell me, I pray, my brethren: if a goal be lacking to mankind, is
not mankind itself lacking?
There is one final stumbling-block in the thought of Nietzsche. This
is 'eternal recurrence'. This is no doubt very difficult if you insist
on taking it as a metaphysical dogma. But if one is permitted to
ask,'What was the psychological significance of this idea? What gave
it its emotional impact to Nietzsche?' one may see an answer in
What if a demon crept after thee into thy loneliest loneliness some
day or night, and said to thee: 'This life, as thou livest it at
present, and hast lived it, thou must live it once more, and also
innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every
pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the
unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to thee again,
and all in the same series and sequence and similarly this
spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this
moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will
ever be turned once more, and thou with it, thou speck of dust!'
Wouldst thou not throw thyself down and gnash thy teeth, and
curse the demon that so spake? Or hast thou once experienced a
tremendous moment in which thou wouldst answer him:
'Thou art a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!' If that
thought acquired power over thee as thou art, it would transform thee,
and perhaps crush thee; the question with regard to all and everything:
'Dost thou want this once more, and also for innumerable times?' would
lie as the heaviest burden upon thy activity! Or, how wouldst thou have
to become favourably inclined to thyself and to life, so as to long for
nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and
Here it is plain that the idea is connected with the existential
perception that the events of your life really exist. To normal
psychology, this is a rather dull statement. But it may not have
appeared dull to Nietzsche, and he may have used the idea of eternal
recurrence to express the emotional force which it had to him.
Chapter 14 : Why the World Will Remain Sane
I met a man in a place that was something like a subterranean tube
tunnel and something like a deserted railway waiting-room in the
middle of the night.
It was impossible to see whether there was an outlet concealed
anywhere behind the labyrinths of tiles and painted walls, but a
biting wind blew from somewhere. There were a few other people sitting
huddled up or pacing up and down. They looked too frozen to say much.
'Look here', I said to the man. 'Why do you go on staying here?'
'Oh, it's not bad', he said, blowing on his fingers. 'We keep very
warm really. You get more used to it as you get older. Young people
have crazy ideas about trying to find an exit, but they settle down.'
(He nodded knowingly at some of the huddled shapes.)
'But, my dear fellow,' I said, 'you aren't warm at all. You're grey in
the face and one of your fingers is so frost-bitten it's about to drop
'Oh well, in a sense, that may be true', he said, a little
'But most people are all right and adjust to things. Maybe I find it a
little more difficult than most but that's just something to do with
my upbringing which has affected my metabolism. It's my physiology,
you see. Nothing is actually wrong with the place as such.'
'But the faces … when you can see them through the wrappings can
you say you know a happy person?'
'Yes, I can. There's my daughter. She's eighteen months old. She says
'I'm happy' all the time. It was the first thing we taught her to
'You wouldn't be interested in finding an exit, then?'
'Well, obviously it would be escapism, wouldn't it? The very word
'exit' implies that…. I can't believe we're here just to give up and
get out. It's up to us to assert the warmth and richness of the here
(Here the wind blew a little harder.)
'It might be warm outside', I said. 'Things might be happening there.'
'Oh well, it's up to you to prove that if you want me to be
interested. Why should I give up what I've got here?'
'What have you got, then?'
'Interests. There are lots of things to do here. Like counting the
cracks in the walls and stamping one's feet. Good for you, that is.
'There might be even more interesting things somewhere else.'
'Oh well, I don't know that, do I? Much more likely it wouldn't nearly
be so healthy and interesting.'
'But even if someone did know a way out of here, he could only prove
to you that the other place was better if you'd come and leave your
interests to find out.'
'Exactly. That's what I said.'
'Does anyone ever look for a way out?'
'Well, I don't know exactly what you mean by looking. There are a few
chaps called scientists who measure up bits of the walls sometimes,
but it's more and more a specialist job and they reckon a few yards of
wall is all one man can take on. Not that there would be any point in
trying to study the whole wall at once. It can't be done. Nobody
'You could make a battering-ram', I said reflectively. 'With a few of
these benches. Then you could try ramming the walls to see if they
gave way. If everyone joined in …'
'Yes, I thought you'd suggest something like that', he said, bitterly.
'People have other things to do besides helping you in your pet
schemes, you know. You can try to persuade them, of course. It's
a free country.
Personally, I don't care so long as I enjoy myself.'
As he did so, a clergyman emerged from a whistling tunnel at my side.
(Or perhaps he was a psychiatrist or, indeed, a sociologist.)
'Did I hear you mention that old idea about getting out of here?' he
said, with a visible shiver. 'Symbolism, you know. We've
demythologized all that now. They used to think there was something
outside this place a literal outside, if you can imagine it! Of
course it's quite valid as symbolism. This is the outside, here and
now, if you live it to the full….'
'It's cold', I said.
'Think of others', he said reprovingly. 'It's really impressive the
way modern psycho-analysis has confirmed the insights of the New
Testament. Where two or three are gathered together, you know. It is
an indisputable fact that groups of people, huddled as closely as
possible, do feel much warmer. This is the basis of Group Therapy. It
is also known as the Kingdom of Heaven.'
'Where do you suppose the wind comes from?' I asked him.
'I'm not at all sure that I would agree that there is a wind. It's
really only perverse and neurotic people who remark on it. And very
young people, of course. But if there is, then I'm sure it's value
depends entirely on us it is for us to make it into a meaningful part
of the full life by refusing to notice it.'
'The full life?' I said, and added, at the risk of seeming rude, 'Full
'Of communication', he said patiently. 'Of I=Thou relationships. Of
'Communication!' I said. 'These people are so frozen they wouldn't be
able to say more than a few words to anybody.'
'That's a very narrow view, I think', he said seriously. 'It's
imposing a utilitarian standard of reference on the variety and
freedom of human relationships. One must care about people as they
'But surely', I said, 'if one cared about these people, one couldn't
be content to see them huddled up in this dreadful place….'
But he looked most displeased, and murmured something into his muffler
it sounded like 'Arrogance'.
'Well, anyway', I said, 'surely you can't reject the possibility
that this is all a dream?'
'Metaphysics', he said, coldly. 'Very nasty. Denial of life. People
might lose interest in counting the cracks and spend their time trying
to wake up instead.'
'Look', I said suddenly. 'I'm afraid I can't stay here. I have a very
strong feeling that this is a dream and I'm about to wake up.'
'The methods of linguistic analysis have very valuable applications to
religion. Chiefly they enable us to see the futility of making
meaningless statements about the transcendent (which is of course a
completely meaningless word). You cannot properly speak of waking
'up'. When I say something is going 'up' I mean that it is directed
towards a position which is located above its starting point. It is
meaningless to speak in this way about waking, because it would be a
confusion of categories to suppose that 'waking' is located above
But at this point, with a certain sense of relief, I awoke.
AN OPEN LETTER TO YOUNG PEOPLE
To be a genius has never been too easy, granted the tendency of the
human race to like frustrating them. It is no easier in this century
than any other time.
In fact, it is rather more difficult, as in this century it is
believed that an unrecognised genius is impossible.
However, I have in Oxford a place in which it is possible to carry on
the struggle for survival, and I am looking for people to join me.
There are at present too few of us, and this makes the struggle for
survival even more difficult.
I cannot give a brief summary of my ideas; they are original, and that
means they are difficult to communicate. However, I have written a
book, The Human Evasion, which while containing a rather small
fraction of what I think, does give an introductory impression of my
outlook. If you find this too uncongenial, I think you should not
bother to get in touch with me to find out any more.
If, on the other hand, having read the book, you do want to know
anything more about what I think, and to see whether you would like to
join us, there is no alternative to coming to Oxford for a time.
Please write to me, in the first instance, care of the publishers of
Celia Green, www.celiagreen.com
The address is:
Institute for Psychophysical Research
118 Banbury Road
but don't bother writing unless you've read every IPR book you can
Casual requests for information probably won't be answered. - Mitch
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