Are All Men Human?
Are All Men Human?

Harper's
January, 1933

See also: Were chimps the first socialists? by Matt Ridley

In an essay called, "Why We Do Not Behave Like Human Beings", Mr. Ralph Adams Cram sets forth the thesis that the vast majority of us do not behave like human beings because we are not. The great nineteenth-century doctrine of progressive evolution, which makes homo sapiens the crowning glory of creation, is baseless; evolution does not work that way, but is catastrophic rather than progressive. Homo sapiens is a zoologist's classification, not a psychologist's. From the latter's standpoint, most members of homo sapiens are not human beings at all; the human being is an occasional product, whereof the mass of homo sapiens is merely the raw physical material. Psychically, this mass is not differentiated in any essential respect from certain classes in what we call "the lower orders" of creation, and it has not undergone any essential change since the Neolithic Period. Except for certain camouflages, and certain proficiencies acquired chiefly in a mimetic way, it is precisely what it was ten thousand years ago. It is to-day, as it was then, merely the basic raw material out of which, by some process as yet undetermined, the occasional "human being" is formed as a species which is psychically distinct from that of his zoological fellows.

It may be said that while Mr. Cram is a great authority on architecture, he is not an authority on these matters, and is, therefore, not in a position to overmuch serious attention to what he says about them. This might all be very well if he stood alone, but he does not stand alone; other writers have lately put out the same idea independently. If true, it is the most important news that has come before the world since the Middle Ages. Are we, or are we not, right in accepting the purely zoological classification of human beings? Are we, or are we not, right in assuming that every member of homo sapiens is a Man? This is the question that I think should engage the profound consideration of anthropologists and psychologists, for the answer to it seems to me to go to the root of our entire system of values, moral, political and social.

A few months ago I published anonymously some diffident speculations about the nature of man, and this brought me from Dr. S. D. McConnell his remarkable book called Immortability. Doctor McConnell is one of the ablest men in America, and has put in an uncommonly long lifetime on the study of his subject. He has apparently trued up his work by every available kind of special authority, and so far as I can see, it is thoroughly scientific in spirit as well as in form. At the outset he lays down the exact fundamental thesis that Mr. Cram has laid down in his essay:

"It has been generally taken for granted that 'Man' occupies a unique and solitary place at the head of the ranks of living creatures, with an unpassable chasm between him and them. For the naturalist this is satisfactory, but for the psychologist it is wholly misleading. Psychic phenomena disregard it entirely. The classification is determined by physical data solely. The problem...has been hopelessly obscured by the traditional presumption that all those living creatures classed as Man on physical grounds are also Man on psychical grounds.... The broad lines of demarkation which mark off species from species as to physical structure and function, do not at all coincide with the path by which mental evolution has climbed. The point...will be found, not at that which separates man from brute, but at that which separates one kind of man from the rest."

Again, in another place Dr. McConnell says:

There are psychic relations between man and animal, even more intimate and real than the physical connection of man with man. Measured by psychic standards, the interval between the lowest man and the highest man is a hundredfold greater than that between the lowest man and the brute.

Meanwhile, three thousand miles away, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset writes a brilliant book called The Revolt of the Masses, which, to me at least, is quite unintelligible on any other assumption than that a portion of the human race is psychically a distinct species, answering only physically to the zoological classification of homo sapiens.

II

If the vast majority of what we call the human race are not human beings at all, then certainly a great many things that have always puzzled the moralist are fully accounted for; but they are accounted for in a way that must be far more disheartening to the moralist than his present way of accounting for them. Certain traits and instincts that we commonly speak of as belonging to "human nature" are put over into an entirely different category, but the worst of it is that when they are put there they look a great deal more formidable and discouraging than they did before. If they really belong to brute nature, not to human nature, and if the poor brute homo sapiens has made no appreciable headway against them in ten thousand years, what prospect is there that at the end of another ten thousand he will have done any better? None that I can see. The moralist's hope that he will somehow progressively evolve himself across the chasm that separates his species from the generality of mankind, seems to be without foundation. There seems little chance that he will ever graduate himself into a life that is properly human. Like most intelligent animals, he can be to some extent domesticated, to some extent instructed, and so long as nothing too strongly moves him to forget his training, he will behave in a conventional accord with it; but that is about the best he can ever be counted on to do. Again, like the bee or the ant or the beaver, he can organize a society very efficiently for certain purposes, but those purposes will never be human purposes, nor will this society ever become a human society.

Here, apparently, we have an explanation of the anomalies that our so-called human society has always presented, and also an indication of the way that a thoughtful person should regard them—assuming, of course, that the explanation is valid. During the late war, for example, I had the instructive experience of seeing numbers of people who were well placed in civil society, acting like maddened apes. If you described their conduct to a man of science, he could not possibly tell you whether it was the conduct of "man" or "beast." If these people were human beings, they presented a disturbing anomaly, no doubt, and the reflective person would take note of it accordingly. But if they were not human beings, their conduct was regular enough, and it would make an entirely different impression on a reflective person's sensibilities.

There is only an apparent anomaly, too, in the phenomenon of a "human " society motivated by ruthless acquisitiveness. Professor Sakolski's recent book, The Great American Land Bubble, is the first attempt, as far as I know, at a history of land-speculation in America, and is correspondingly valuable. For [those] who have been bred to the notion that "human nature" is perfectible, or even measurably improvable, it is rather dispiriting reading, for it shows two hundred years of supposedly human society motivated precisely like Carlyle's "Egyptian pitcher of tamed vipers, each struggling to get its head above the others," or as we ourselves have observed it in the days of the Florida land-boom or the "Coolidge market." But if our society is not, and never has been, preponderantly a human society, it has behaved quite as one would expect it to behave. It is characteristic of brute nature to take and keep all it can get, regardless of the needs of others of its kind, and also to exploit or capitalize those needs for its own benefit, when possible. If, therefore, the mass-man is not a human being, but purely a brute, there is no anomaly in his doing so, and no one should be surprised or particularly grieved at his behavior; and right here one makes the interesting observation that hardly any one [is] surprised or grieved. Most of his fellow-beings instinctively accept his behavior as natural, and think nothing of it; and possibly this instinctive acceptance might be held to have some evidential value in this matter of determining the mass-man's psychical status.

In fact, I do not at the moment recall a single apparent anomaly in the collective behavior of man that this idea does not resolve. It accounts for the curious fact that a society will always take the short-time point of view on its own interests. Brutes do not look beyond the prospect of immediate benefit; it is this trait that enables trappers to victimize them. Similarly, a whole society will plunge headlong into a war or an election or any kind of mass-movement with no thought whatever of anything beyond an immediate interest, even though it may be clear that in the long run the movement will be ruinously unprofitable; and this trait enables the sagacity of demagogues to become effective. The mass-action of people is proverbially compared to the mass-action of sheep; and if in the main they are no more nearly human than sheep, the proverb merely transfers itself from the realm of allegory to the realm of fact.

If the human being is psychically a species distinct from homo sapiens, we should naturally expect the mass-man to be a great deal handier at a mechanical enterprise than at a moral enterprise; and so, in fact, he is. There is nothing more remarkable about him than the immense disparity between his mechanical proficiency end his moral proficiency. The mechanical wonders of the radio, or of stagecraft, or of printing and electrotyping are almost insignificant by comparison with the moral wonder of the uses to which they are most commonly put. Henry George once remarked how strange it was that human beings were smart enough to build the Brooklyn Bridge, but not smart enough to keep a lot of condemned wire from going into it. But if the promoters of this enterprise and the society behind them were alike preponderantly non-human, there is nothing strange about it. Engineers, I believe, are much venerated just now, so perhaps one risks punishment for lese-majeste in saying that proficiency in engineering is not a human characteristic. Actually, however, it is not, as anyone acquainted with the proficiency of the beaver or the brown rat will testify. A human being may be a good engineer, but that a good engineer is necessarily a human being is another question altogether. A non-human society may conceivably be glad to avail itself of a bridge, glad to use it for purposes that in general may be harmless and praiseworthy enough, but are essentially no more nearly human than a beaver's purposes, and be content to take the short-time point of view on the sort of material it is made of.

Again, if the race is preponderantly non-human, one would expect it to show a blank insensitiveness to moral considerations in all the more general problems affecting its collective life; and just so, we find, it does. It is notorious that the mass-man is very little interested in either the irrationality or the injustice of his social maladjustments; what interests him is their inconvenience, their unfavorable effect upon his personal concerns. The reformer finds to his chagrin that an appeal to reason or the moral sense does not get him very far, and that his cause is likely to languish unless and until some pressing sense of inconvenience arises to back him up. It was so in the case of the slave trade, for instance; moral considerations apparently had very little to do with England's abolition of the slave-trade. They seem also quite as ineffectual in the case of the traffic in drugs. Probably the influence of disinterested humanitarianism on improving the conditions of labor and the conditions of the poor, has been much exaggerated. One cannot be quite sure that it has much to do with the enormous outlay of public funds for the relief of destitute persons in England, Germany, and the United States, at the present time; at least, one notices that heretofore where there has not been, as there is now, some good collateral reason for buying off discontent and turbulence, it has never been done in any large way.

In a non-human society, again, one would expect to find moral considerations especially uninfluential in politics, and one usually does find them so; under a republican form of government, like ours, or under a quasi-republican form, like England's, one invariably finds them so. John Bright said that the British Parliament had done some good things, but he had never known it to do one merely because it was a good thing. One must also remark with interest that in a republic every extension of the franchise has been accompanied by a deterioration in the character of politics and in the personnel of the public service; and this, too, is by hypothesis what one would look for. When England extended its franchise in the last century, Mr. Mill asked pathetically how it was possible to produce great men in a country where the test of a great mind was agreement with the opinions of small minds; and one can easily paraphrase this saying to suit the terms of our hypothesis. Allowing everything in reason for other contributing causes, there is at least a striking coincidence in the fact that the American public service, all over the land, became fully twofold more irresponsible, unscrupulous, and scandalously wasteful almost at the moment when the electorate was practically doubled by the extension of the suffrage to women.

If the truly human being is an occasional product, standing in a distinct species, one would expect him to be relatively ineffectual in the non-human society that surrounds him; and this seems always to have been the case, and never more clearly so than now. The Antonines were much respected, much beloved. After Marcus Aurelius died, it seems that almost every Roman household had a bust of him in its possession. Yet with all this, and with all the power of autocracy behind their will, the moral force of the Antonines was relatively ineffectual in improving either the quality of the Roman mass-man or the direction of Roman public affairs. We see the same apparent anomaly everywhere. The mass-man may or may not give the human being's works and ways a tribute of conventional respect; whether he does so or not depends as a rule upon the human being's civil and social status. If Marcus Aurelius had been a private person, the mass- man would probably have disregarded him. In any case, however, the mass-man's practical choice is usually for some Barabbas; at the present time, for instance, it is a stock complaint that moral, social, and intellectual mediocrity reign supreme. But if the mass-man is not human, his choice is not anomalous, but quite natural and regular, and the existing state of society is exactly what one would expect it to be.

So one might go on throughout the long list of apparent anomalies that our society exhibits. May I say once more that I am not making out a case either for or against the hypothesis that the mass-man is not human? I am only trying to show how important it is that we should get the anthropologists and psychologists to tell us whether he is or not. Is the Akka human; the Australian blackfellow; the South African bushman? The men and women who make up the overwhelming bulk of our society to-day—are they human, or are they not? That is the question to be answered. The men of science need not trouble themselves about the logic of their answer. Let them simply establish the premise and the logical consequences of the premise will take care of themselves.

III

After reading Mr. Cram and Doctor McConnell and Senor Ortega y Gasset, I said to myself, "Here is a fine kettle of fish. Is it possible that these people really see the drift of what they are saying?" For as a matter of fact, if their premise be true, then from the human point of view the whole organization of modern society, for over a century and a half, is a thundering blunder. On its political side, the eighteenth-century doctrine of republicanism, on which the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution are based, turns out to be utterly false and mischievous. This doctrine assumes that if the mass-men take control of politics, if sovereignty be lodged in "the people" and exercised directly by them, they will in time work out a true commonwealth, a political order established on principles of justice, as set forth in the Rights of Man. The ground of this assumption, obviously, is that the mass-man is human, and therefore capable of a degree of development competent for this purpose; and indeed, if this be true, the doctrine is probably sound enough, the only postulate being that of practically unlimited time.

At the time our republic was established, Alexander Hamilton was one of many who were strongly against this doctrine. He objected to the experiment of putting sovereignty in the hands of the mass-man, and he expressed himself about it in terms that are curiously anticipatory of the idea that we are discussing. "The people," he said, "are a great beast." Now, if the anthropologists should decide that Hamilton was right about this, if the mass-man be literally and actually not human, if he be essentially incapable of any such degree of development as our eighteenth-century political theory presupposes, then surely republicanism is about the worst system that could be devised, even for the mass-man himself; for, in practice, instead of promoting any such limited development as the mass-man, in common with the other more teachable and imitative forms of animal life, is capable of making, it seems bound to reflect the very lowest common denominator of the mass-man's intelligence and character, and its tendency must be continuously to depress that denominator ever farther. Thus instead of improving and elevating the mass-man by means of political experience, republicanism serves merely to degrade him.

This appears to be what we see taking place. The candidate for political favor is sedulously careful to approach the mass-man on a plane of intelligence and character which is never above that of the mass-man's ordinary self. It is a commonplace of republican politics that he not only does so, but must do so. The issues and policies that he presents must be such only as are adjustable to a potential majority in a mass-electorate endowed with an unlimited franchise. Thus every republican campaign reminds one of nothing so much as the scene described by Plato, where a huge, sluggish, obscene monster is surrounded by people who are assiduously flattering it, pretending to understand its noises, and in every imaginable way courting its good-will. Hence, by a selective process almost automatic, the political organization of a republican society is bound to be in control of the mass-man who is gifted merely with a low type of sagacity somewhat in excess of his fellow-creatures; whereby he is able to exploit their lack of intelligence, their vagrant attention, their superficial spirit, their hot and cold fits, their superstitions, their tendency always to run to the short-time point of view—and worst of all, their occasional good impulses, their occasional good faith, their boundless credulity, their weak hopes and weaker fears.

All this is extremely bad for the mass-man. What it does in the long run is to snarl up his society in a terrific tangle, wherein he is utterly helpless. Not only the financial genius of Hamilton but also the transcendent philosophical genius of Hegel foresaw this consequence. Hegel said, at the outset of republicanism, that it would culminate in an unexampled catastrophe; for, when all comes to all, republicanism puts upon the mass-man a burden of responsibility which he is not only unable to bear, but wholly incapable even of comprehending. This view has been inconclusively debated ever since the end of the seventeenth century, and its satisfactory conclusion on a priori grounds now seems as remote as it was then. In our own history we find John Adams on one side of the question, saying that the political struggles of the mass-man, left to his own devices, could end only in "a change of impostors." On the other side we are confronted by the great name of Mr. Jefferson, who believed that the mass-man was indefinitely improvable, that he was capable of learning by political experience, and of learning fast enough to enable him to hold his society together in some sort of working order while he was learning more.

Now, it strikes me that the only way to settle this question is by determining scientifically just what the mass-man is. If the mass-man be a human being, then Mr. Jefferson's faith in him is justifiable. He can learn indefinitely by political and social experimentation, and while his society may come a hard cropper every now and then, he can pull himself together and go on expert[?] meeting; one may always be hopeful about him, no matter how badly he be mired at any given time. But if he be psychically incapable of progress beyond, say, the level of an eight- year-old human child, he cannot learn anything worth knowing from his own history, he will keep on mismanaging things as he has always done, repeating the same old mistakes, and will end in catastrophe and chaos; and the remarkable technology which he commands will only hasten [his] final downfall.

So much is obvious on the political side of his collective life; and on the social side we see again that the quality of the mass-man's future depends wholly upon what manner of being he is. On the one premise, his society may go at extremely loose ends for some time, but one may always count on his ability to straighten it out, and set it going in a better direction, with something, at least, learned from its calamitous experience. On the other premise, one can look only for a progressive essential degradation; a progressive reliance upon technology alone, a progressive contentment with a purely technological civilization; and in a practically direct ratio with this, a progressive coarsening and enfeeblement of culture, and a progressive atrophy of such moral sense as the anthropoid possesses in common with the human being.

IV

The political and social reformer, the educator and the preacher should join in this demand which I am making upon the anthropologists and psychologists, for it appears that the worth of their enterprises is absolutely conditioned by the answer to the question I am raising. In the present state of our own national politics, for instance, the reformer must surely see that this question is very pressing. Our politics is actually and by intention the simon-pure, unalloyed politics of the mass-man. Well, then, if the mass-man be human and improvable, the reformer's enterprise is justified. He may take heart of grace, and redouble his strength. If apparently he accomplishes nothing at the moment, he has at least the sustaining consciousness that he is on the side of the future. But if the mass-man be not human and not appreciably improvable, the reformer is wasting [his] life, and might far better employ himself otherwise, for not only is the present against him, but the future also.

So too with the preacher and the educator. It is a noble and delightful undertaking to evangelize and educate a mass-society, if this society be by nature capable of being evangelized and educated. But surely no one would deem himself acting with the simplest of ordinary common sense if he set out to evangelize or educate a society of anthropoids. Nay, if on this premise he should set out to find the occasional human being, to [seine?] him out of his surroundings, and evangelize or educate him, his prospects would be as little hopeful, because he would have to proceed under the handicap of conditions set by anthropoids; for the management of education and the management of organized Christianity are alike mass-management.

Let us have it out once for all with the anthropologists and psychologists; let us insist that they stand and deliver, for this question is by far the most important of all that are now before the world.


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