The symptoms of this malady are complex. They manifest themselves simultaneously in the individual, in society and in the race.
The individual has adapted himself ill to the moral climate in which modern democracy forces him to live. The mental level has not risen concurrently with the progress of medicine, hygiene and education. Ever since intemperance, irresponsibility and the search for comfort have become in some sort the guiding principles of conduct, nervous resistance, the capacity for effort and even intelligence have diminished. The enormous sums spent by the United States on public education have not produced the desired result. According to the National Committee of Mental Hygiene, at least 40,000 children are too stupid to follow the classes. Illiterates are still very numerous. Herbes' famous investigation in 1917 on the officers and men of the American Army, showed that 46 per cent of them were below the mental age of thirteen.
It is probable that a study of the French population, particularly in certain villages of Normandy and Brittany, would reveal a similar situation. But here we have no statistics which would permit us to compare the chronological and psychological ages of schoolchildren. We must not be deluded about the importance of the examinations with which young people are overloaded. School certificate, matriculation, even university degrees are not a proof of intelligence. Many young people of poor mental caliber manage to pass these examinations. The adult population comprises a great many abnormal persons. In the United States there are possibly thirty million individuals who are unadapted or unadaptable to modern life. In France, numbers of the unemployed are too unintelligent, ignorant or ill to work. A quarter of them show themselves incapable of any activity whatsoever. This means that normal people have to bear the burden of the defectives and the parasites. The majority owes its daily bread to the work of the minority. By an odd aberration, we are more solicitous about our backward children than about our gifted ones.
This general lowering of intelligence and common sense appears to be due to the influence of wine, spirits and excess of all lands; in fact, to lack of moral discipline. There is a definite relation between the alcoholism of a community and its intellectual decay. (Of all nations addicted to science, France is the one which drinks most wine and least often wins the Nobel Prize.) Certainly the movies, the radio and the absurd complexity of the school curriculum also contribute to the critical state of the French mind. But, undoubtedly, intemperance is one of the main causes of the downward trend of this people once famous as the most intelligent in the world.
There are, at the same time, grave disorders in the non-intellectual activities of the mind; even an atrophy of certain of these activities. Feeling, as much as intellect, has been profoundly affected by the pursuit of profit, sensual satisfaction and amusment. Absence of moral sense, dishonesty, cowardice and intemperance bring about a simultaneous disorder in the affective, intellectual and organic functions. In France, these dislocations of the personality are particularly frequent and pronounced. The Frenchman, though often highly gifted, is apt to display himself as a narrow and petty being. There are, of course, numbers of individuals who are intelligent, healthy and highly moral. There are also large and robust families. In many of the oldest, hereditary potentialities have remained intact. Side by side with idiots, madmen and criminals, one finds admirable artists, great scholars, marvelous inventors and heroes. Christianity is far from being dead. Today, as in the first centuries of its history, the Church continues to produce apostles of charity, mystics and saints. These are undeniable facts and they give us legitimate grounds for hope. But can the high intellectual and moral development of the few make up for the corruption and stupidity of the many? When Greece was conquered by Rome, did she not pride herself on the presence of Polybus and Archimedes? France was once the largest, richest, bravest and most intelligent nation in Europe. The British Empire dominated the world by its gigantic power. The United States lived in a state of hitherto unparalleled prosperity. What factor, other than degeneration, could have been powerful enough to bring such extraordinary disasters on the people of the West?
Optimism is undoubtedly an attractive state of mind. It is tempting to deny the existence of evil since denying it obviates the need to fight it On the other hand, a clear vision of wrong spurs us to action. We can only get on our feet again if we realize that we have fallen. We have to admit the fact that we have not known how to guide ourselves.
Do sudden disasters bring back a sense of reality to those who have lost it? It is essential that the democracies should understand that they are suffering from the same sickness as France and that the same fate awaits them.
It is not the first time that this sickness has appeared in the world. It has already manifested itself at a certain moment in the history of all the great peoples of antiquity. As Dean Inge once wrote, civilization is a disease which is invariably fatal.