The text for a radical idea that deserves deep reflection was written by the late Albert Schweitzer:
A new public opinion must be created privately and unobtrusively. The existing one is maintained by the press, by propaganda, by organization, and by financial and other influences which are at its disposal. The unnatural way of spreading ideas must be opposed by the natural one, which goes from man to man and relies solely on the truth of the thoughts and the hearer’s receptiveness for new truth. . . .1
Dr. Schweitzer affronts the foibles of the day; for our contemporaries spend millions on propaganda, promotion, publicity, and advertising—“unnatural” means for creating sound public opinion, according to Schweitzer. In order to investigate the means he considers “natural,” we must contrive a word picture of our predicament. In the broadest generality, it looks like this to me: There is arrayed on the “unnatural” side untold millions of persons. The world has never known an army with as many officers and footmen. The “natural” side, however, can barely muster a corporal’s guard.
But these two sides are not geographically squared off against each other with a few persons here and many there. So intermingled are they that, except as we may hear their talk or see their writing, we cannot tell one side from the other. There is nothing in physical mien or uniform or insignia or political label to distinguish them. They ride on the same trains, fly on the same planes, work in the same offices, live in the same homes, listen to the same preacher, play on the same teams, defend the same flag, vote for the same office seekers. Indeed, the very same person will be on one side now and on the other a moment later. How, then, are we ever to discern which is which from such a melange as this?
The two sides are to be distinguished by tiny, invisible entities that take root in the minds of men: ideas and beliefs. These determine how men act, make them what they are, fix the side they are on. Some of these invisibles are deeply and stubbornly embedded; others come and go willy-nilly but, actually, their absence or presence is decided by the mind’s affinity for or antagonism to them. Being extremely sensitive to the mind’s hospitality, no idea or belief ever takes root unless the welcome sign is out.
The method an individual uses to spread ideas is determined by his attitude toward ideas and people. Unnatural methods of dissemination proceed from unnatural ideas; natural methods grow out of natural ideas. In short, persons will try to spread ideas—good or bad—in ways that are consistent with the good or bad ideas they hold. The tumbleweed has no choice as to how it spreads its kind; neither has an oak tree; neither has an idea. Each has to obey its nature. Man, however, is free to choose the ideas he will accept or reject.
The above, of course, demands an immediate distinction between natural and unnatural ideas. How is the one side to be known from the other? The answer seems obvious: natural ideas are those that are consonant with Nature or Truth; unnatural ideas are antagonistic to what is real and true.
Truth Comes from Seeking
But, the skeptic will inquire, who has the effrontery to claim such wisdom? A sound question indeed, for no one can be said to behold Truth in its pristine purity. This, however, no more means that Truth should be discarded as an intellectual lodestar than that any out-of-reach ideal should be dismissed as a guide to reason. Let us put it this way: whatever one’s highest conscience dictates as right may not in fact be Truth, but it is as near an approximation to Truth as one can achieve. This is the human being’s Truth—the best he has to work with. To reject the individual’s Truth as a means to thinking, simply because it may not be the whole Truth, is to allow no credence to conscience—the soul adrift.
Thus, the best I can do in defining natural and unnatural ideas is accurately to report what I perceive them to be. I discover, however, that natural ideas are infinite in number and variation and, therefore, beyond my powers of definition. Natural ideas, it turns out, can be known to me only as that infinity of ideas which do not fall within the unnatural category. What, then, is the unnatural?
It is contrary to the Cosmic Scheme—to Nature, to Truth—for any human being to be cast in the image of any other human being. Any person who believes it is his role to make over others into a likeness of himself is harboring what appears to be the basic unnatural idea. For this idea is the genesis of and is fundamental to countless day-to-day practices that show forth in political and private actions—man lording it over man not only temperamentally but, more often than not, forcibly. I shall not comment on the ways this idea extends itself, the above being sufficient to clarify Dr. Schweitzer’s thesis.
It is often inferred that man plays God when he tries to cast others in his own image. What we must realize is that not even God “plays God.” As Hans Denk (1495-1527) phrased it, “God forces no one, for love cannot compel, therefore is a thing of perfect freedom.” But man is so radically free that he can deny and contradict his Creator. He is free to behave unnaturally. This is precisely what he does when he aims at controlling the creative activities of others or when he attempts to make the ideas and beliefs of others carbon copies of his own ideas and beliefs.
Love cannot compel! The observation is relevant to this discussion and comes clear if, instead of regarding love and affection as synonymous, we think of love as enlightenment. This is the inference I draw from the companion beliefs, God is love and God is light. For me, this reasoning at least reduces metaphysical language to earthly comprehension, to communicable terms, to dimensions from which a conclusion is crystal clear: enlightenment is obviously an attracting, never a repelling or a coercive, force. A natural idea, therefore, cannot be coercive, repelling, compelling. Only an unnatural idea can so qualify!
Now the rub, the rude awakening to all who apprehend and heed Schweitzer’s counsel. We come face to face with the shocking fact that every time we employ unnatural ways as a means of downing authoritarian ideas we add fuel to the authoritarian fire we would extinguish! For this unnatural way of spreading ideas originates with and proceeds from the very same unnatural idea that gives rise to the authoritarianism we decry. For instance, when we argue with and try to convert the socialists—try to cast them in our image—we can be likened to the pot that calls the kettle black. When we lament that “we are only talking to ourselves,” we are in an authoritarian frame of mind: assuming enlightenment on our part and ignorance on the part of others. The inference is that we’d better set straight these poor, benighted souls. When we fret about an inability to insinuate our ideas into the consciousness of others, that fret stems from the unnatural idea which bedevils the world.
The above explains, to my satisfaction at least, why authoritarianism has been gaining by leaps and bounds even though millions of man-hours and millions of dollars have been spent to combat it. The anti-authoritarians have, unwittingly, been employing authoritarian methods and, thus, siding with the authoritarians. Of course, no one employs only the unnatural way of spreading ideas any more than anyone resorts exclusively to the natural way. No one is ever wholly consistent. This is why the same individual is now on this side, now on that. But, assuredly, the unnatural idea and its corollary, the unnatural way of spreading ideas, is the vogue of our time.
Wait to Be Called
The natural way, counsels Schweitzer, is private and unobtrusive, goes from man to man, and relies solely on (1) the truth of the thoughts and (2) on the hearer’s receptiveness to new truth.
The unnatural way, as we see it all around us, is mass and not private; it is obtrusive to the core—in effect: “Believe as I do, Stupid!” The seeking of Truth—learning—is rejected in favor of displaying an arrested growth, that is, peddling what one has learned. The hearer’s receptiveness is not simply ignored; it is defied!
The two ways are as different as the brainwashing of a propagandist and the introspection of a Shakespeare or Goethe; the difference between demanding and offering; between “ramming it down their necks” and making available; in short, the difference between repulsion and attraction.
The natural way should be more readily accepted and practiced than the other: it calls only for the improvement of one’s own understanding and clarity of exposition—a possibility within the reach of many. The other calls for making over others—an utter impossibility.
But the natural way is unpopular because it fails to satisfy our common itch “to do something.” Fie on improving me, run our notions; why, I’m only one person—too minor a project and, besides, what’s the need of it? Give me, instead, mankind to repair; that’s the kind of an intellectual giant I am. All of which reminds us of Napoleon whose own family drove him to distraction, though this in no way shook his confidence that he could manage humanity.
The natural way of spreading ideas calls for more than ridding ourselves of name calling, propagandizing, telling others what to think and how to act, and other obtrusive activity. It suggests that the soul be cleansed of any such notion, for it is clear that we can no more improve another person than we can alter the heavens above. That other person, even as you and I, controls his own improvement which, of course, is encouraged and made less difficult if our own standards are such as to induce emulation. This power of attraction is the sole power we possess for the betterment of others. We should be eternally grateful that this is a fact of life; were it not, all the insanities and inanities of earth could be insinuated into our own minds!
Turn the eye inward, counsels Dr. Schweitzer. Quit trying to make carbon copies of others; give them, rather, something to copy. Seek Truth above all else. Then, instead of obtrusively, destructively, unnaturally shoving, each may concentrate his efforts on pulling—attractively, fruitfully, naturally!
Let us try, now, for some further refinement in our search for Truth. . . .