Everyone feels the desire to live according to his own fancy. This desire is innate in man, but, in democratic nations, it becomes so peculiarly inflamed that it ends by acquiring a positively morbid intensity. It was the philosophers of the Century of Enlightenment who enthroned this blind cult of liberty in Europe and America. In the name of reason, they heaped ridicule on the traditional disciplines, thus rendering every kind of constraint odious or absurd. Then began the final period of the struggle against the rules of conduct which our ancestors accepted; rules which owed their origin to the experience humanity had acquired over thousands of years and to the moral teaching of the Gospels.
To be accurate, our emancipation began over four hundred years ago. Nevertheless, in spite of the immense effort of the eighteenth century, its achievement is hardly in sight today, for its ultimate success depends on the progress of scientific knowledge. To enjoy total liberty, we have not merely to free ourselves from old ideas but to obtain mastery over the material world. This mastery can only come about through science. But science had a long and difficult childhood and its maturity barely dates back to yesterday. This is why we have delayed so long in proclaiming our independence of ancestral modes of life and thought.
This revolt has a long history. It began during the Renaissance. In that period there occurred an apparently insignificant event. Copernicus demonstrated that the earth is merely a satellite of the sun. Immediately, the world of Ptolemy crumbled; the earth was shorn of its proud pre-eminence as center of the universe. The Church was alarmed, with good reason, but in vain. The trial of Galileo emphasized still further the importance of this revolution. The world of Aristotle, of St. Thomas Aquinas, of Dante, ceased to exist; that logical, complete, comfortable world where man only sojourned on earth to prepare himself for a future life; where heaven and hell were within our reach.
At the same time, earth as well as heaven acquired a disquieting vastness. Marco Polo had already revealed to the West the fabulous immensity of Asia. The New World had opened up before Christopher Columbus; Vasco da Gama had discovered the route to the Indies. There was an amazing outburst of adventurers, conquerors, pioneers and apostles. The wealth of Europe accumulated prodigiously and, with it, the desire to know and master the material world. The era of Science had begun. A few years before the appearance of Machiavelli, Copernicus and Luther, Gutenberg had discovered printing. New ideas could thus be rapidly diffused. Side by side with the affirmations of philosophy and religion came the certainty which results from the systematic observation of phenomena. The clarity of scientific concepts, arrived at by the intellect alone, challenged the light of faith. God, with His angels and His saints, began to seem far away. Then began the corrosion of the framework which for so long had kept our medieval ancestors in a hitherto unparalleled state of spiritual and social stability. Luther's attacks had severely shaken the authority of the Church over individuals and peoples. Christendom was divided; the nations of Europe were beginning to take shape. Thus was sown the seed which, after centuries of incubation, was to bring about war between all the nations of the world and to threaten universal chaos.
By a very similar process, the seeds of division were sown in the core of the individual conscience. The conflict of faith, philosophy and science was an apple of discord in the soul of Western man. There was no longer an inflexible rule of behavior and moral discipline grew slack. The beauty of art and poetry was preferred to the beauty of virtue. The will, ceasing to aspire toward another world, confined itself to acquiring the goods of this one. As Machiavelli had boldly proclaimed, the end of human existence is not God, but profit. Economic forces had begun their ascent toward supreme power.
Nevertheless, since Europe was deeply saturated with Christianity, the old customs did not disintegrate at once or completely. The people had not forgotten that it was they who had built the Gothic cathedrals. The spire which rose above the village was a true symbol of the aspiration of the human community toward the divine. Reason needed many centuries before it could obscure and darken faith. Moreover, the hard struggle for existence forbade the jettisoning of rules of conduct necessary for the survival of the race. Technology perfected itself only by very slow degrees. Nevertheless, it tended more and more to create conditions which made it possible for man to behave according to his fancy. At the same time, the smoldering quarrel between philosophy and science broke into fiercer flame. In the domain of inert matter, science triumphed; it engendered the race of machines and made us masters of the earth. But, in the domain of the human, that is to say of individual and social conduct, it was vanquished. The logical constructions of the mind took precedence over the data of observation and experience. Ideologies were preferred to scientific concepts or to religious morality. Pascal was abandoned in favor of Descartes; tie clarity of an idea was supposed to be the touchstone of its truth. Henceforth, any logical ideology, any fantasy of the intellect, appeared worthy to serve as a base for human behavior, provided only it was rational. No one understood that, if it is to endure, a civilization must be built, not on philosophical principles but on scientific concepts of the human being and his environment.
The tendencies symbolized by Machiavelli, Luther and Galileo tunneled obscurely in men's minds for several decades. It was not till the eighteenth century that they emerged into daylight. Then, under the influence of Voltaire and the Encyclopedists, they launched themselves openly. It was in the name of those symbols that the United States proclaimed their independence. It was recognized that the power of the rulers depended on the consent of the ruled and that each individual was free to pursue happiness in his own way.
At the same time, the Industrial Revolution was rapidly spreading throughout England. Adam Smith loudly proclaimed the new religion in his book The Wealth of Nations. The businessman became a kind of public benefactor. By a curious process of juggling, the unlimited freedom of a few to acquire wealth was considered as the condition of happiness for all.
It was in this period, too, that Lavoisier laid the foundations of modern chemistry. It was the dawn of liberty, prosperity and the triumph of science. The future opened bright with promise.
The French Revolution broke out. The aristocrat was replaced by the bourgeois and military feudalism by capitalism. Economic liberalism began its rise, a rise which was to be one long triumphal progress from Waterloo to the first world war. That same period saw science working a continuous transformation of modes of life and thought. On the other hand, religion proved itself incapable of resisting tie attacks of rationalism. Under the influence of inextricably interwoven factors such as dechristianization, the development of technology, the increase of wealth and material comfort, the motorcar, the cinema and the radio, the moral tone of society became lower and lower. The moment had come for civilized people to throw overboard the last relics of the old ancestral disciplines.
In the soothing softness of the modern world, the mass of traditional rules which gave consistency to life broke up as the frozen surface of a stream breaks up in spring. This breaking up is as characteristic of the individual as it is of the family and of society. We are freed from the hard labor imposed on our muscles, our organs, our nervous systems and our minds by the necessity of forcing the earth to yield our daily bread, by the threat of famine, by the difficulty of communications through forest, marsh and mountain. We no longer have to keep up an incessant struggle against heat, cold, drought, wind, rain and snow. We no longer dread the long winter nights or isolation in the inaccessible depths of the country. Science has miraculously taken the edge off the bitter struggle for everyday life. We are fed, clothed, sheltered, transported and even educated by the work of machines. Thanks to the progress of technology, the greater part of the restraints imposed on us by the cosmos have disappeared and, along with them, the creative personal effort which those restraints demanded.
We have abandoned the struggle against ourselves as eagerly as that against our environment. Without troubling to ask ourselves whether the traditional rules were not necessary for the success of individual and collective life, we have emancipated ourselves from all moral discipline. The frontiers of good and evil have vanished in a mist of ideologies, whims and appetites. In the ancient community as in the modern, morality was bound up with religion. In Greece, when the Sophists destroyed belief in the gods of Olympus and the fear they inspired, each man behaved according to his own fancy. The moral laws which had formed the soul of Western civilization from its cradle were founded on belief in a future life, on divine revelation, on the dogmas of the Church and on the love of Christ. Naturally these did not survive the disappearance of faith.
As soon as we renounced the precepts of the Gospel, we renounced all interior discipline. The new generation is not even aware that such a discipline ever existed. Temperance, honor, truthfulness, responsibility, purity, self-mastery, love of one's neighbor, heroism are outworn expressions; meaningless words which provoke nothing but a contemptuous smile from the young. Religious beliefs, when they are sincere, inspire the kind of respect accorded to rare objects in a museum. Admittedly, in the groups which have remained Catholic, people still speak readily of charity, justice and truth. But, apart from a faithful few, no one applies these principles to ordinary life. For modern man, the only rule of conduct is his own good pleasure. Everyone is enclosed in his own egoism like the crab in its shell and, again like the crab, seeks to devour his neighbor. Elementary social relations have changed profoundly; everywhere, division reigns. Marriage has ceased to be a permanent bond between man and woman. Both the material and the psychological conditions of modern existence have created a propitious climate for the breaking up of family life. Children are now considered a nuisance, if not a calamity. This is the final result of having abandoned those rules which, in the past, Western man had the courage and wisdom to impose on his individual and social conduct