Wanted — A New Ethics

OUR CHANGING CIVILIZATION. By John Herman Randall. (Frederick A. Stokes Co.)

THE author is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. As the subtitle indicates he attempts to “show how advance and the machine are reconstructing modern life.” His book of over 360 360 pages stumps the reviewer by its wealth of argument and citation of facts, historical, social, political and scientific.

It was no small task to show how the struggle between the old and the new, in religion, social and industrial life has repeated itself from century to century; how the new ideas have been the cause of contention and despair to the conservative element, and how society has over and over again settled down to a compromise. Prof. Randall draws a striking contrast between the simple, rural civilization of the past, based on the folklore of the time or the Christian tradition, and the modern urbanized, machine dominated civilization which has thrown all the revered ideals into the cavern below Doubting Castle and plunged many a simple soul into the Slough of Despond.

We need — Oh how greatly — an ethics to fit this new age of science and mechanism, of pride in our achievements and our determination to live for pleasure. The Jewish prophets spoke to a harassed nation. The Christian teachings were for people who saw no hope of triumphing over nature. Poverty and suffering called for an ethics of resignation and of looking for a better life. As Paul said: “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.” But now, with wealth accumulating beyond calculation with our statesmen and scientists bidding us hope for the abolition of poverty through machine production and management, Prof. Randall tells us “we need an ethics of achievement and mastery; we have only an ethics of consolation.”

How to adapt ourselves to this astonishing new era is a difficult problem. We should not, the author says, reject the old traditions, though they are not perfect nor to be accepted without change. “Take them for what they are, the best that our fathers were able to see. Take them and make them better.” We must make wealth serve life. And, he holds, the best is yet to come if we understand the past and live “with faith in the potentialities of industry and science, faith in the vital forces of our growing civilization, faith in our ability to bring to pass a good life from out its conflicting currents.”

— H. M. W.