Reflections on the End of the Republic

Rereading now the essays I have written for this and other papers in the Sixties, I am struck by the activistic, almost rationalistic, mood that permeates them. One only needed, or so it seemed, to call the President’s attention to the probable consequences of certain policies and show him the alternatives and their probable consequences, and he would choose a policy most likely to serve the national interest. I remember with wry amusement my strenuous and ultimately successful efforts in 1965 to bring my views on the Vietnam war to the attention of President Johnson—efforts undertaken in the naïve assumption that if power were only made to see the truth, it would follow that lead. President Johnson’s political reaction to this kind of responsible criticism is a matter of public record. His personal reaction was a systematic attempt, making full use of the informal powers of his office, to discredit and silence the voice of the dissenter. In that latter undertaking, he had the voluntary and sometimes enthusiastic assistance of eminent academic and institutional (for instance, Freedom House) supporters of his policy.

If one must admit the failure of these essays, in so far as they had an immediate political purpose, to influence political action, one cannot help noticing that the experience of their futility is not a private, personal matter but that it coincides with a collective experience of futility that pits American youth not only against American politics and society but against the modern world itself. And that American revolt, in turn, is but a national manifestation of a world-wide revulsion against the world as it is. The student revolt, expressing itself positively in attempts at creating a new culture and negatively in aimless destructiveness and revolutionary tantrums, has its most profound roots in the seeming meaninglessness of life as it is led throughout the world and, more particularly, in the United States. What does a man live for? What is his purpose in life? What is the meaning of death, which appears to wipe out that life as though it had never existed? What, in short, is the truth about the human condition?

Man has always had to ask such questions, and in the past religion, reason, and science have endeavored to lay his questioning to rest. Yet the different systems of truth provided by these three methods of comprehending man and his world have tended to cancel each other out. Religion did not pass the test of reason, science discredited the metaphysical systems engendered by reason and has given us mastery over a monstrous world that needs religion and reason to give it meaning. That world is doubly monstrous because it sacrifices human ends to technological means, as well as the needs of the many to the enrichment and power of the few, and thereby diminishes the stature of man and threatens his very existence.

The universities have provided us with that mastery over nature, but they have been unable to give it meaning and…

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