The Philosophy of Our Times

Patrick, G. T. W. Psychology of Relaxation. Houghton-Mifflin. $1.25

We feel no hesitancy in proclaiming this one of the most important books we have seen in the last five years, although in that time something like 2,000 representative volumes have passed through our hands.

Let it be said at once that Professor Patrick presents, so far as we know, not one new fact. This is quite in keeping with the general character of great books; and certainly in the 20th century it is not new facts that we need; for we are already overwhelmed with them. What we need is the philosophical vision, the ability to correlate our multitudinous facts and thereby to discover the true relationship between them that we may arrive at unchanging truth and live more wisely.

In five chapters Professor Patrick discusses in turn the psychology of play, laughter, profanity, alcohol and war; and in a sixth chapter he presents some deductions from the foregoing inquiries. His purpose is to establish the relationship between work and play and the results, both to the individual and to society, of excessive work and insufficient relaxation.

In the chapter on “The Psychology of Play” is to be found the basis of the whole discussion. Beginning with the play of children the author shows that such play is not, as some psychologists have thought, a preparation for adult life, but rather a reversion to primitive forms of human activity. Boys climb, throw, play at war and hunting, and in numerous other ways give evidence of a persistent racial memory of primitive life. They do so because they are the descendants of those men in the past who excelled in just those lines, since excellence in such activities was the sole condition of survival. Girls, on the other hand, revert in their play to the duties of primitive woman, and for the same reason.

Now proceeding from the play of children to the play of the adult, which takes the various forms of sport and amusement, we find that in all cases relaxation is attained through a reversion to primitive activities. In hunting, fishing, boating, swimming, etc., the reversion is obvious enough. In football we have a reversion to the deepseated racial love of physical combat, excellence in which was the condition of survival for our ancestors. In the passion for horse racing, we find not only a reversion to the primitive love of the horse as a valuable and trusty companion, but also the persistence of the racial memory of a time when the command of speed ment [sic] safety both in flight and pursuit. Baseball is popular because it offers a return to many primitive activities at once — such as striking, throwing, running to catch or to evade, etc., together with an uprush of the old spirit of clan rivalry essential to race survival. Anyone who has noted the behavior of a vast crowd at a football or baseball game must have noted how easily the veneer of civilization drops off and how the most respectable citizen may become a howling savage. And that reversion to the primitive, we are assured, is good for that citizen; in fact, such periodic reversions in some form, either harmful or innocent, are absolutely essential. The question in point is concerned with the nature of the reversion.

As has been said, all relaxation comes through a momentary return to some primitive state. Just as man, the now erect animal, rears his body by assuming the prone position of primitive life far back in evolutionary time, so does man, the thinking animal, rest his spiritual self by a return to the lower mental activities of the primitive life. For just as the erect position of the human body is of comparatively recent occurrence in the long life of the race, so also is the development of the higher nerve centers comparatively recent. Each is, in the sense indicated, unnatural.

Now it is shown, and readily accepted, that the prime necessity in racial progress is the repression of primitive individual tendencies in the interest of the collective group, and hence the older nervecenters are more and more denied free use, while the comparatively recent nerve centers of intense abstract thought are greatly overdeveloped. It is further shown that the more recent nerve centers are the more readily exhausted. Hence, in our modern life, the ideal of which is to “speed up,” we note many signs of chronic fatigue, neurasthenia and kindred disorders, which, we are assured, account largely for our much-discussed social unrest. For there is much to show that man is not, by nature, a working and thinking animal; and more and more, in the last half-century, he has neglected the fundamental functions for the highly specialized and, in a sense, artificial functions which he has developed. The dancing craze, which has been sweeping over our country, doubtless is one symptom of our overwrought mental state — it being an attempt to relax the tension of modern life through a reversion to a distinctly primitive activity. The speed mania is another reversion, speed having been in the long past a necessity to survival in the struggle for existence; and throughout the whole range of sports and amusements. Professor Patrick succeeds, we believe, in supporting his theory of relaxation.

In the essays on laughter and profanity is shown again the reversionary tendency at work in human nature. When carefully analyzed, laughter proves to be the result of a sudden cessation of that inhibition of natural tendencies which civilization demands the racially old being contrasted with the racially new with a happy sensation as the result. Profanity is explained as another form of primitive reversion, being at its root a substitute for the primitive physical attack consequent to anger, by using names of terror and dread in place of weapons. It also is a mode of relaxation through a return is the racially old. In this connection it is interesting and suggestive to note that the most serious races have ever been the most addicted to profanity.

In the chapter on alcohol, the author begins to show the practical application of his theory. It is shown that the use of alcohol is not only prevalent among all races that possess the means of producing it, but that the desire for the drug is indigenous with each race. Further, the use of alcohol is greatest in the most progressive nations; and in spite of the powerful propaganda against the alcohol vice in our time, in spite of the fact that science has proven conclusively the utter uselessness of alcohol to the human machine, the per-capita consumption of intoxicanting liquors in the United States increased from four gallons in 1850 to over 22 gallons in 1914! Doubtless the antisaloon agitation has done some good in that the increase would otherwise have been greater; but the fact remains that the increase in per capita consumption has been tremendous in all civilized nations.

What does this mean? Professor Patrick affirms with reason that here again we have an illustration of his theory of relaxation. He tells us that alcohol has been shown to be not a stimulant at all, but a narcotic; and its increasing use is due to the ever increasing necessity of escape from the chronic fatigue of the higher nerve centers, overworked by the demands of unnatural civilization. A narcotization of those higher nerve centers which, being the more recent in development, succumb first, removes the artificial inhibition necessary to civilization so that a sense of joy and wellbeing is felt in the consequent freedom of the lower faculties. It is not strange, then, that the more intense our civilization becomes, the more alcohol is used.

Now we come to what seems to us the most significant chapter of the book — the essay on the psychology of war. We have found occasion, now and then, to point out in these columns the illusory nature of our vaunted “progress.” This we did repeatedly even before the great war broke out and set everyone talking excitedly about the “lapse into barbarism,” as though it was not to be expected; and to the “failure of civilization,” as though civilization had been bound on a straight ascending line toward perfection! We have ventured to suggest, what Professor Patrick knows, that frenzy is not progress, and that the greatest civilization the world has yet known — that of fifth century Athens — was great because in it the human faculties were evenly developed, poise and proportion having been the ideal in everything. Owing partly to a morbid emotionalism incident to our frenzied and highly specialized activities, and partly to a misapplication of the theory of evolution and a misunderstanding of our mechanistic triumphs, it had become a popular belief before the outbreak of the great war that mankind was becoming too refined, too “spiritual” to indulge in “wholesale murder.” But Professor Patrick shows conclusively how the very intensity of our lives made war inevitable, and that, far from banishing war, our present pace can but make wars increasingly frequent and terrible. For, pursuing his main line of thought, he makes it plan that war is the supreme form of relaxation through primitive reversion; and the more intense the civilization, the greater the danger, even the necessity, of such a reversion. For man becomes dominant on this planet because of his superiority as a fighting animal; and the fighting instinct, being the dominant one in racial memory, offers the most complete relaxation.

What, then, is to be inferred from Professor Patrick’s logic? That the problem is a hopeless one? That we are irretrievably bestial? Nothing of the kind is to be inferred. The inference is concerned with our conception of human destiny as an insane strenuosity, and with the necessity for harmless relaxation. So long as we persist in denying the fundamentals of human nature, and insist upon an intense and unnatural striving after things that in the end avail us nothing — so long he thinks, we shall pay the price of folly. All the propaganda that enthusiasm can command will stop neither the increasing use of alcohol nor the increasing frequency of terrible wars. A fiat is not enough; the psychological cause must be understood and removed through education. We must return to a realization of the higher values, know again the beauty of moderation in everything, once more become religious in the true sense.

Already there are signs of reaction, as we have, at several times ventured to suggest in these columns. That reaction will be against a too intense individualism and toward a renewed conception of the race as the unit. National danger would hasten the reaction.