Toadstools
Toadstools
Freeman, Volume VIII
1924

In one of his earlier books Mark Twain tells of seeing a toadstool which in its growth had dislodged and pushed up into the air a mass of tangled roots and leaves, amounting to twice its own bulk. Commenting on this display of strength, he says: "Ten thousand toadstools with the right purchase could lift a man, I suppose. But what good would it do?"

There should be more of this strong common sense employed to make our estimate of our civilization less formal and more fundamental. One of the most striking differences between the Oriental mind and ours is seen here. The Oriental is struck with our way of regarding things and actions as good in themselves, without reference to individual and personal realization; and it seems strange and unnatural to him. Railways, banks, telephones, finance-companies, industrial development, newspapers—all such things are most commonly and generally accepted among us as absolute goods in themselves, quite irrespective of their effect upon the spirit of the individual life, and the quality of the collective life, which are lived under their influence. Let a new railway be laid out, or the postal service be increased, or some new device be invented for quickening communication or transportation, and our general tendency is to accept it at once without question as a good thing, not considering that its whole value is to be measured by its effect upon the spirit and quality of life, and that until this effect be ascertained our estimate of it is worthless and misleading. Our newspapers teach us to take this formal and mechanical view of trade-balances and the expansion of industry, never raising the question whether these actually tend towards a better spirit and finer quality of human life or whether they tend towards a spiritual impoverishment and vulgarization; nor is it regularly pointed out that unless they are so employed as progressively to improve life, unless they are practically interpreted in terms of personal realization, they are hardly worth having.

Surely common sense and the free play of consciousness upon the facts of the material world about us are enough to show that this formal view, almost universal as it is, is superficial and retarding. We read the other day a complaint from a railway-official about new trackage. It seems that only a few miles of new trackage have been laid during the past year. He spoke of this as a calamity, as indeed it may be, but the mere fact does not prove itself as such. One must go further and ask whether it can be shown that individual realization has at all profited, and if so how much, by what trackage we already have. How does the spirit of American life compare, indeed, with the spirit of life at a period when there was no trackage at all? Again, we read not long ago a statement by the president of a great chemical concern, in which he predicted that science would possibly before long enable us to produce synthetic food, cheap fuel, artificial wool; to store solar heat, to do without sleep and to prolong mental and physical vigour. The tone of the statement left no doubt that this chemist regarded all these matters as absolute goods in themselves, whereas clearly they are nothing of the kind. If they are made to tend towards the enrichment and deepening of the spiritual life of man, they will be good; if they are made to tend against it, they will be bad; if they are made to tend neither way, they are of no consequence except in point of curiosity, like Mark Twain's toadstool.

Again, we lately saw the advertisement of a life-extension institute, headed, "Do You Want to Add Ten Years to Your Life?" Here once more the obvious assumption was that longevity is in itself a good and desirable thing. But is it? There is of course in all of us the primary instinct of self-preservation which speaks out strongly in favour of living as long as we can; and it is to this instinct, this irrational and almost bloodthirsty clinging to life, that the advertisement was intended to appeal. As such it seemed to us, we admit, a little ignoble; we were reminded, as all such enterprises which are now so much in vogue remind us, of Julius Caesar's remark that life is not worth having at the expense of an ignoble solicitude about it. But instinct apart, the worth of such enterprises is measured, surely, by the quality of the life which we are invited to prolong. The content of the average life being what it is, and its prospects of spiritual enlargement and enrichment being what they are, may longevity be so indubitably regarded as an absolute good that one is justified in an almost ferocious effort to attain it?

We are not now concerned that these questions be answered; we are concerned only that they be raised. We are concerned with the habit, which seems to us unintelligent and vicious, of regarding potential accessories to civilization as essential elements in civilization. We insist that civilization is not to be measured in terms of longevity, trackage, the abundance of banks and newspapers, the speed and frequency of mails, and the like. Civilization is the progressive humanization of men in society, and all these things may or may not sustain a helpful relation to the process. At certain periods and places, indeed, the process has been carried notably further without any of them than it is now carried with all of them. When we learn to regard them intelligently, when we persuade ourselves that their benefit is potential and relative, not actual and absolute, then we are in the way of intelligently and quickly applying them to the furtherance of true civilization; but as long as we unintelligently regard them as absolute goods in themselves, we shall merely fumble with them.


Introducing Nock ||| Biography ||| Bibliography ||| Selected Essays
Challenge ||| Divagations ||| Nockian Society ||| Books in Print

Latest Authorized Area ||| Fulton's Lair

hits since May 16, 1998