Reviewed by Milton Steinberg the Permanent Horizon, by Ludwig Lewisohn. Harpers. $2.50.
In “The Permanent Horizon,” Mr. Lewisohn has made public his credo; he has revealed the ultimate doctrines by which he lives. His theses are now nailed to a door and all who chose may read. Here, displayed in common view, are the articles of faith of a civilized human being of the twentieth century.
Externally considered, “The Permanent Horizon” is a collection of unrelated essays, treating with a variety of theseâ€”with economics, politics, art, religion, marriage and the good life, generally.
In essence, however, the book is a unit, permeated with the oneness of outlook and attitude. As many roads may lead to a common crossroad, or as many windows may look out upon the same scene, so all these essays, whatever their point of departure, make the same basic assumptions, express the same affirmations, and arrive at identical conclusions. These assumptions, affirmations, and conclusions constitute Mr. Lewisohn’s credo; they form together the permanent horizon of his thought.
Mr. Lewisohn opens his discussion by pointing to the spiritual restlessness of the modern manâ€”to the sense of disquietude, frustration and futility that has come over him. As a cure of souls, he offers his doctrines of belief. These he holds to be both adequate and necessary for a man’s salvation.
In schematic form they are as follows:
First: To live means to choose between alternatives, and choice, if it is not to be a matter of mere animal caprice, involves some ideal which shall serve as the basis of selection.
Second: Man, since he became man, has always faced similar alternatives and judged between them by the same principles of decision. Human nature is constant. There is about all men of all ages an “inevitable soness.” Progress in mechanical devices has served merely to enable men to attain their chosen objectives more expeditiously. It has not affected the nature of choice, the character of the alternatives nor the necessity for an ideal canon of selection.
Third: Since man’s destiny remains unchanged for all time, since his essential experiences are identical in every age, there can be no novel truth of major significance. “The deepest and most cogent truths have been known as long as man is man.” In tradition, therefore, in the accumulated wisdom of mankind, facing anew each day the same problems, are to be found “eternal truths by which, however varied in form; men have always lived.” And since life means the inescapability of choice and the consequent indispensability of principles of selection, tradition can teach men how to live wisely. For, it represents a crystallization of the experiences of the eternal, immutable heart of mankind facing the same, ever-current occasions of decision.
Fourth: The goal of human effort is the achievement of free personalities. Individuality and expression of it are man’s final ends. That such free personalities may be, the individual requires protection against coercionâ€”whether from dominating masses or tyrannical rules. Neither in a communist regime nor in a Fascist dictatorship is “the critically-minded individual” possible. Only when man is secure from external compulsion, when he possesses leisure, property and a life of culture and the amenitiesâ€”only then can he live as a moral agent, determining his fate by his freely-selected ideals.
Even from this bald recapitulation of Mr. Lewisohn’s theses, it must be immediately apparent that this is a profound and rich book. It is, moreover, sane, mellow with a sage wisdom and shot-through with penetrating insight into human nature. It expounds propositions which are not new but which require persistent re-assertion lest, by reason of their very venerability, men disregard them.
Nevertheless, “The Permanent Horizon” suffers from sharp limitations. It envisages the human problem too completely in terms of the individual in isolation from his social environment. Mr. Lewisohn is keenly conscious of the dependence of the individual upon the past, he is too little aware of the equal dependence of the individual upon his contemporary world. No human being can find for himself salvation in a vacuum merely by conversion and a change of heart, as Mr. Lewisohn seems to indicate. Man is organically united to his society, and until that society be perfected the heart by itself is, if not powerless, incapable of permanent remedy.
Indeed, the entire book suffers from the understatement of the gravity of the social crisis. Mr. Lewisohn cannot be as unconcerned as he makes himself out to be with the iniquities of our social order. He attacks, and with good reason, the ideology of communism. He has too little to say about the theory and operation of our own political and social scheme which is equally destructive of human individuality. Nor is it a realistic approach to advocate as a solution of the problems of man’s collective living, conversion and a change of heart. That these are ultimate factors in the attainment of an ideal order, this reviewer would be the last to deny. But the regenerated heart must find social instruments for the remaking of the world. What these instruments may be and on what pattern society is to be transformed, Mr. Lewisohn does not indicate.
It is the last chapter, “Toward Religion,” which is both the most interesting and the most disappointing. Having discussed the problem of salvation almost entirely in humanistic terms, Mr. Lewisohn seeks, in conclusion, to give cosmic background and sanction to his theses. Unfortunately, he has not thought his way through. As a result, the weltanschauung which emerges is neither clear nor internally consistent, Mr. Lewisohn begins his discussion of religion by expounding an epistemological idealism which leads the leader to anticipate that he will arrive at Berkeley’s position and posit the existence of an absolute mind. The inference however is left undrawn. Turning the argument, the author argues that man in actual creativity makes his universe. He hints, without explicit statement, that the entire physical world is a manifestation of a creative, form endowing power akin to the human soul. By implication, then, Mr. Lewisohn seeks to be at the same time an Absolute Idealist like Berkeley and a cosmic evolutionist somewhat like Hegel. Neither attitude is clearly developed nor explicity adopted. But both are incapable and mutually contradictory inferences from the various statements which Mr. Lewisohn does make. Now Mr. Lewisohn knows that he cannot eat his cake and have it, that he cannot be in both philosophical camps at the same time. Certainly he must be aware that hinting darkly at inconsistent cosmologies is neither the equivalent of a lucid, reasoned philosophy of the universe, nor helpful to the reader who, like his author, is seeking a world ground for his moral idealism.
With Mr. Lewisohn’s attempt to build his philosophy of man upon a philosophy of reality, this reviewer is in full sympathy. But until the cosmic problem has been thought out more fully, Mr. Lewisohn has moved toward religion, he has not yet arrived at a logically sustained religious position. The effort is something; it is, however, by itself not enough.