In the midst of the vast flock of the degenerate, the corrupt and the foolish, there are still many people capable of behaving reasonably. These include all children with a good heredity, adults who have remained healthy and, above all, those of ripe age who have kept the freshness and plasticity of youth. An important minority of the population, in towns as well as in the country, has preserved the traditional habits of honor, morality and courage. Even in contaminated and more or less degenerate families, there are still some normal individuals. It is probable that the present decadence is not incurable, for it results from the wilting of the individual under the influence of the environment rather than from a lesion of the germ plasma. In other words, it is not the outcome of racial degeneration. Although our civilization is in very great danger, it is not in anything like the desperate state of Roman civilization during the first centuries of the Christian era.
At that time the line of empire builders was rapidly dying out and being replaced by that of their slaves. The decadence of the moderns, on the contrary, is mainly due to their habits of life and thought. There are, of course, in France, as in New England, sections of the population which seem to be really degenerate. It does not look as if good hereditary qualities will ever revive in certain Breton villages which are undermined by consanguinity, alcoholism, tuberculosis and cancer. But there remains sufficient good stock for regeneration to be possible.
In the dawn of their lives young human beings grow, as joyfully as young animals, according to the laws of nature. They slip spontaneously into reality. If they are not spoiled by their family or their school, they are enthusiastic, eager to love and willing to sacrifice themselves for an ideal. Heroism comes naturally to them. They readily adopt new habits and they are not afraid of the truth. Nothing prevents them from submitting to the eternal disciplines of life. This is why it is not in the least Utopian to undertake the transformation of the attitude of the entire youth of a country toward fundamental human problems.
What at this moment is the proportion of individuals who deserve the name of homo sapiens? It is impossible to collect statistics of people whose conduct is rational. We possess no sure test of character, judgment, nervous equilibrity, moral sense and robustness of spirit. It is very useful to be able to measure psychological age for thus we can detect the weak-minded who are incapable of reasonable behavior. On the other hand, neither a high intelligence quotient nor success in difficult examinations is any proof of wisdom.
It is said that, if only a few hundred people were suddenly kidnaped in New York, the whole city would be entirely paralyzed. The number of men capable of governing themselves and others is certainly extremely small; so small that wisdom seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
But may not this perhaps be an illusion? Was the world wiser formerly than it is today? Are there fewer individuals capable of guiding themselves at the present time than there were in classical civilization, the Middle Ages or the eighteenth century?
Periods of decadence are probably distinguished from others by the high proportion of human failures. The elite is then stifled by the mass of the weak and the defective.
Perhaps certain periods of history are characterized by the brief flowering of a humanity really fitted for self-guidance. Such epochs may have occurred in the time of Pericles, at the moment of the foundation of Rome or in the great age of the cathedrals. Possibly Thomas Jefferson would not have written the Declaration of Independence if he had not judged the Americans worthy of liberty. Like the animals, homo sapiens has retreated before the advance of civilization.