Lewis Mumford: “The Conduct Of Life” and Renewal (1951)

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Please pardon the use of “man” and “he” and “him” and “his” and “slavery” and many expressions from the 50s that are thankfully now made appropriately antique.

But something even more disastrous has happened within this machine culture: life itself, for the ordinary man, though protected and furthered by a hundred devices that increase his expectation of life, has become less interesting and less significant: it is at best a mild slavery, and at its worst, the slavery is not mild. Why should anyone give to the day’s work the efforts and sacrifices it demands? By his  very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged classes in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed: the small variations, the minor initiatives and choices, the opportunity for using one’s wits, the slightest expression of fantasy, have disappeared progressively from the daily  tasks of the common man, caught in big organizations that do his thinking for him. The most deadly criticism one could make of modern civilization is that, apart from its man-made crises and catastrophes, it is not humanly interesting.

To alleviate his boredom modern man has invented an extravagantly complicated outer life, which fills up his leisure hours with forms of play that are hardly to be distinguished from his work. As man’s inner life has shriveled, he has recovered a sense of vitality and purpose by giving release to the most primitive elements in his unconscious: the crimes and guilts of Electra, Orestes, Hamlet, Macbeth, are relatively human expressions compared to the calculated cruelties and infamies so-called civilized nations have introduced, both in fantasy and indeed.

Lewis Mumford then concludes:

In the end, such a civilization can produce only a mass man: incapable of choice, incapable of spontaneous, self-directed activities: at best patient, docile, disciplined to monotonous work to an almost pathetic degree, but increasingly irresponsible as his choices become fewer and fewer: finally, a creature governed mainly by his conditioned reflexes — the ideal type desired, if never quite achieved, by the advertising agency and the sales organizations of modem business, or by the propaganda office and the planning bureaus of totalitarian and quasi-totalitarian governments. The handsomest encomium for such creatures is: “They do not make trouble.” Their highest virtue is: “They do not stick their necks out.” Ultimately, such a society produces only two groups of men: the conditioners and the conditioned; the active and the passive barbarians. The exposure of this web of falsehood, self-deception, and emptiness is perhaps what made Death of a Salesman so poignant to the metropolitan American audiences that witnessed it.

And Mumford ends it well:

The balanced man has the mobility of the migratory worker of the nineteenth century without his rootlessness: he has the friendliness toward people of other cultures that we see most admirably in the native Hawaiian; and with the habits so engendered goes a lessen of his conceit over what is exclusively indigenous. With respect to his own region, he observes two rules: first he cultivates every part of it to its utmost, not merely because it is near and dear, but because it can thus contribute its specialties and individualities to other places and peoples; and second, when he finds his own region deficient in what is essential for full human growth, he reaches out, to the ends of the earth if need be, to bring into it what is missing — seeking the best and making it his own, as Emerson and Thoreau, in little Concord, reached out for the Hindu and Persian classics.

Into the balance of the new man, accordingly, will go elements that are not native to his race, his culture, his region, even if the place he identifies himself with be as large and multifarious as Europe. The savor of his own idiosyncrasy and individuality will be brought out, rather than lessened, by this inclusiveness. So in him the old divisions between townsman and countryman, between Greek and barbarian, between Christian and pagan, between native and outlander, between Western civilization and Eastern civilization, will be softened and in time effaced. Instead of the harsh and coarse contrasts of the past, there will be rich fusions and blendings, with the strength and individuality that good hybrids so often show: this one- world intermixture will but carry further a process visible in the rise of most earlier civilizations.

The change that will produce the balanced man will perhaps occur first in the minds of the older generation: but it is the young who will have the audacity and courage to carry it through. In any event, the new person is, to begin with, one who has honestly confronted his own life, has digested its failures and been re-activated by his awareness of his sins, and has re-oriented his purposes. If need be, he has made public acknowledgment of such errors as involved any considerable part of his community. What has gone wrong outside himself he accepts as part and parcel of what has gone wrong within himself: but similarly, where in his own life he has had a fresh vision of the good or has given form to truth or beauty, h^ is eager to share it with his fellows.