Arthur to John, April 22, 1941
6740 Lawnton Ave
Oak Lane Philadlphia
The stay in the hospital was over in about ten days and the venture was a complete success. I am very nearly 100% and except for some diet limitations am leading my normal life. Which is sufficiently full so that the time for letter writing is not so easy to come upon.
Many thanks for your letter, for the Unitarian pamphlet, and for the quite unique and intensely interesting proceedings of your philosophical junta. You no doubt have a lot of fun - but I wonder if you realize how extremely illuminating this collection of apologial is to one in my position. Whatever else it may be - wise or foolish, profound or shallow, candid or disingenuous - this collection can be read with the hope of discerning therein a cross-section or digest of what state of mind and school of thought characterizes upper middle class, moderately well educated, middle western culture. I think I get the impression that it is different from the culture of my metropolitan Eastern Seaboard world - but perhaps that is not true. Perhaps it would not be too hard to find a corresponding group in suburban Philadelphia who might conceivably have contributed substantially the same papers to a similar symposium. Yet somehow I doubt it. Certainly my friends and associates would not duplicate them - indeed. I am sure they would differ from them, not in detail, but in general trend. Both groups, eastern and middle western, would contain liberal representation of our modern hedonistic paganism, that I suppose is world-wide or at least well distributed in all but the totalitarian countries: (they're pagan, but certainly not hedonistic!) It is a matter of emphasis and preoccupation. As I analyze it, using your book of essays as clinical data, the difference lies in at least two things - which I suppose would best be described as technique and sanctions. You fellows out there do not seem to pay very much attention to either of these. Perhaps you are right - both can be nuisances. But is just so happens that I am the sort of a hair-pin that can escape neither - and perhaps I don't really want to.
You set forth your various ideas and ideals as to the good life and the desiderata. But you pay little attention to method. That is what I mean by technique. Your expert in say Yoga, has found that sitting cross-legged in rapt contemplation of his belly-button will produce certain interesting results of a mystical or hypnotic sort. At least I think it's Yoga. Your Catholic Christian has a technique of exactly the same order - certain age-tested proceedures that he has learned to apply and within which he operates. He gains, not loses, by limiting his technique to a canon of behavior that deliberately excludes much that is tempting to include. Just as the composer for say the string quartet does not feel impelled to write in parts for the double bass or even a third violin - let alone a factory whistle or a calliope. I am not sure that I can get this idea whipped into comprehensible shape - but I distinctly sensed this lack - if lack it is - in the thought patterns of most of those papers. Perhaps I should have started off on the other foot. I mentioned sanctions. By that I mean that which convinces the actor that his actions are worth while. If we think of sanctions first - techniques second - it amounts to this: first one is to determine what is worth while and second how to set about obtaining it. Departure from this method involves disorder, or at least sloppiness or fogginess. The first decision is no cinch. A vague sort of aspiration, or admiration for some sort of ideal, is not enough. Perhaps it will not bear analysis. Perhaps these ideals are not the best ones. How test them? As a matter of fact, I feel that most of your club-mates have absorbed their ideals by a sort of osmosis. They (all of us) are the "heirs of all the ages" and the labors of saint and sage created the atmosphere within which they live and move. But that does not necessarily mean that they are right or valid or even a sensible hypothesis. It seems to me to call for the best sort of brains and thought we can bring to the problem. I concede that short of Rome or of uncritical Protestant Bibliolatry, in the religious field no certainty is offered. Consequently the best we can do is the best we can do. This however need not prevent us from assaying the whole set-up and placing our bets on the best horse we can pick. I submit that this can be a much more intelligently arrived at choice than the mere soaking in of an atmosphere. I read the story of the Arab princeling who had been elaborately entertained in London. Upon his departure to his native Arabia he insisted that he take with him that appurtinace of English culture that most impressed him. It was the hot-water faucet in his hotel bath-room. In other words, he thought the hot-water supply wonderful. But he never realized that to make it available there must operate the whole background of modern plumbing, of heating systems, of city water works, engineering skills, etc etc. I say that he who ignores techniques is no better than the Arab. Incidentally he may not have been so smart to pick out the hot water faucet. However he did have the sanction of his pleasure at the availability of the hot water and the convenience etc. To a hedonist that is a valid sanction. I am not denying that perhaps the hedonist is right. I merely say that I bet my life he is not.
I paused at this point to read over the foregoing. And was sorely tempted to tear it up. Perhaps by this time you would approve of the suggestion. It takes me as much room to manoever as a battle-ship. But I started out bravely enough. Perhaps you can develope my thesis for me. Start with sanctions. What is worth while, and why do you think so? Having set up some sort of a working hypothesis ( and it is worthy of the best brains in you skull) then lay out the proceedure that promises the most fruitful progress to its consummation. This is not to be brought to pass by happenstance. The method is at best elusive and frequently sterile and disappointing. So we search about for the best tools that come to hand. They are aesthetic, moral, ethical, mystical, and intellectual. All of these contribute! Neglect of any leaves holes in the pattern. Use of them all still leaves holes, due to the imperfections of us all. I got such a strong impression of this fact while reading the Unitarian tract. It is pure Emerson, I suppose - and I have read somewhere that the middle west is a colony of early American New England. Emerson was a profound and trancendental thinker. His sanctions are likely to be arrived at with as much thoroughness as the unaided intellect is likely to exhibet. But his loftiness badly needs crutches to help him navigate - or at least the rest of us need crutches to keep up with him. That is not supposed to be a wise-crack - It is merely ringing the changes on my original proposition, the need of technique.
John, I think I had better tackle this thing all over again at some future time. Have you the least idea as to what I am driving at? I assure you that I am fairly clear to myself - but I fear desire has once again outrun performance. Faulty technique - this time in expressing myself. Yet if it is so difficult to do that little trick, how much more should we be preoccupied with technique when it comes to living an entire life.
I shall mail your two books at an early date. Thanks again for sending them. Take it as wither a threat or a promise - I intend to back up what I have so clumsily tried to say with a more lucid presentation another time.
With best regards to you and yours from me and mine.
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