Sounding Off

Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior

by Morse Peckham
The Seabury Press, 290 pp., $17.95

Hope and History, An Exploration

by Morton Smith
Harper & Row: World Perspectives, Volume 54, 230 pp., $12.95

Robert Nisbet
Robert Nisbet; drawing by David Levine

We are beset with books that look serious and important. They come from respectable publishers. Some of them are by new writers, some by men of established reputation; and of these many are useful and well written and a few are stunning in their accomplishment. Some may be left to drop out of sight, to end on the remainder tables of the bookshops. Of those that are neither useful nor accomplished a few are symptomatic, in that they tell us something about the state of the learned world out of which they come.

The books by Professor Nisbet, Peckham, and Smith are all of them curious in their different ways. They are, respectively, a scissors-and-paste job, and a dull one, on the history of a great idea: an exposition of what is claimed to be a revolutionary theory of language, a theory with vast social implications; and a set of pronouncements, savage and bilious, on how the world is going.

I begin with Professor Smith. One who has lived a long time and seen a lot happen is entitled to sound off about what is going on in the world, though not all times and places are right for doing this. It may be done in a bar or in a faculty common room, with cronies; some do it talking to themselves as they grimace in a mirror. A great man much given to witty complaints (Doctor Johnson, say) may have his remarks copied down and posterity will be glad about this. But consider some of the remarks written down by Professor Smith and published in a book belonging to a series all the members of which are designed to leave us better and wiser. (We are told that “It is the thesis of World Perspectives that man is in the process of developing a new consciousness which…can eventually lift the human race above and beyond the fear, ignorance, and isolation which beset it today.”)

American medical missions must bear a great part of the blame for the population explosion….

Biblical laws, like those of most primitive peoples, were made for small groups living in small communities with strong group discipline; they were to regulate the members’ behavior towards each other, not towards outsiders. “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” meant “Thou shalt love thy fellow Israelite as thyself.”

The rising rate of production…has created enormous demands for labor and pulled whole tides of men…from one country into another—Turks and Greeks, Yugoslavs and Italians into Germany…; Mexicans into the southern United States, southern negroes [sic] into the north, and so on [italics added].

If a healthy competent man has nothing better to do than tend the sick and incompetent, what are health and competence for?

It is…not surprising that sadists (including vandals) have become more common in western society, but they have particularly increased in…

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