Anxiety and Uncertainty in Modern Thought

The Great War had totally destroyed most people’s image of a world that was progressing and improving. In its stead, many people felt uncertain and controlled by forces over which they had no influence. Many people searched for ways to find meaning in a life that seemed to have no meaning. The revolution in thought and ideas that marked the uncertain age after World War I had actually begun much earlier; however only a few people were aware of it. After the devastation of the war, these ideas began to spread throughout Western society. Values and beliefs that had guided people since the Enlightenment were suddenly questioned or abandoned.

Prior to the war, most people believed in reason and the rights of the individual. They also believed that human society was progressing. These ideas fit nicely with the logical nature of the universe as described by Sir Isaac Newton and with faith in the ability of rational humans to understand the universe. It was a common belief that there were laws of society, just as there were laws of science which rational human beings could discover. Rights of individuals were increasing, and there was a moderately optimistic view that the world was in good shape.

Even so, a small band of writers had disagreed with this optimistic viewpoint, as early as the 1880’s. They rejected the idea of progress and the power of the rational human mind. Their ideas seemed to gain credence after World War I, inasmuch as the war seemed to demonstrate that humans were nothing more than a pack of violent, irrational animals capable of tearing an individual and his rights to shreds. These ideas of uncertainty were perhaps best expressed by the French Poet, Paul Valéry who spoke of the "crisis of the mind" in the 1920’s:

Valery saw the "cruelly injured mind" as besieged by doubts and anxiety. The crisis of thought he described soon spread after the war to every field of thought.

Modern Philosophy: Among those who challenged the idea of progress and faith in the human mind was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche the son of a Lutheran minister who abandoned Christianity and was a professor of classical languages before he was forced to retire for health reasons. He suffered a mental collapse at age forty five, and often sent telegrams to his friends signed, "The Crucified." Nietzsche argued that Western society had overemphasized rationality and stifled the passions and animal instincts that drive human activity. He hated all religions, and soon questioned all values, especially religion, stating that Christianity embraced a "slave morality" which glorified weakness, envy, and mediocrity. Religion, he said, destroyed the individual’s capacity for natural development and fulfillment by imposing uniformity. His most famous line was "God is dead…and we have killed him." To Nietzsche, Christians no longer believed in God, and had therefore "murdered" Him. No religion, he argued, could provide ethical guidance, because there was no single morality that could be appropriate for all people. He considered reason, democracy, progress, etc as outworn ideas whose influence actually suffocated self realization and excellence. He envisioned a dark cold world, with the people disoriented and depressed. Nietzsche saw no home for humanity accept to accept the meaninglessness of mans existence and make that very meaninglessness a source of liberation. Nietzsche often spoke of "master races" and "slave races," in a period in which racism was on the rise; however he did not support the frenetic growth of German nationalism, and opposed anti-Semitism.

Nietzsche eventually lost his mind (as his philosophy would seem to indicate) and was confined to a mental institution which led one critic to comment, "At last the right man in the right place." He eventually committed suicide at age 56. He has gained in influence in more recent years because of his attacks on conventional wisdom and thinking. Ironically, his philosophy soon became the rallying cry for a new "German religion," freed from the constraints of Christian humanitarianism and rationality; and was a significant factor in Nazi hostility to Jews and organized religion.

The revolt against established philosophical ideas went in two directions after World War I:

Christianity Revived: With the loss of faith in human reason and progress, Christianity and religion in general revived. It had been on the defensive since the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Before 1914, many religious thinkers, especially Protestants, began to interpret Christian doctrine in such a way that it did not contradict science, evolution, and common sense. Jesus was seen as a great moral teacher and the supernatural aspects of his divinity were played down.

This idea also changed after the war with a revitalization of the fundamentals of Christianity. The new theologians of the day stressed the sinfulness of human beings, the need for faith, and the mystery of God’s forgiveness. Chief among the modern theologians was Karl Barth, who sought to recreate the religious intensity of the reformation. Barth’s philosophy was based on the concept of human beings as sinful creatures whose reason and will are hopelessly flawed. Religious truth is made known only through the grace of God. Humans should accept God’s word and the revelation of Jesus Christ with awe, trust, and obedience. Lowly mortals should not expect to "reason out" God and his ways.

Religion became much more relevant and meaningful to thinking people with its latest rejuvenation. Among those who converted to Christianity or were attracted to it were T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis. Lewis, a professor of Medieval literature at Oxford and famous for The Chronicles of Narnia became a foremost Christian apologist, with works such as The Screwtape Letters (a discussion between a young and a more experienced devil), Mere Christianity in which he offers proof of the existence of God and Miracles. Much of his work was in the form of radio addresses which were later published in book form. Christianity seemed to offer an anecdote to the despair of the early twentieth century. As writer Graham Greene put it, "one began to believe in heaven because one believed in hell."

The New Physics: For many years, science was considered the province of the absolute. Science was presumably based on hard facts rather than philosophical speculation or faith (as in the case of religion); Science was believed to have achieved an unerring and almost complete picture of reality; unchanging natural laws that determined physical processes and permitted useful solutions to more and more problems. The laws of nature and science, like the laws of mathematics, were considered fixed and unchanging. With the attacks on religion by the new philosophy of the twentieth century, a belief in the absolutism of science offered a degree of comfort, a rock in a stormy sea of doubt.

However, even the absoluteness of the laws of science was challenged by new discoveries in physics. Atoms had long been believed to be hard, permanent fixtures, like tiny billiard balls; however physicists determined that they were composed of infinitely smaller particles, such as neutrons, electrons and protons. Marie Curie, the French scientist, discovered that radium constantly emits subatomic particles and therefore does not have a constant atomic weight. Max Planck, a German physicist, demonstrated that subatomic energy is not emitted a steady stream, but in uneven spurts which he called "quanta." His discovery made the seemingly unquestioned distinction between matter and energy suddenly a matter or doubt; the possibility existed that they were different forms of the same thing.

The foremost discovery in physics was the work of Albert Einstein, a German customs officer who dabbled in physics as a hobby, and in 1905 postulated his famous theory of relativity. His theory argued that time and space are relative to the viewpoint of the observer, and that only the speed of light is constant for all frames of reference to the universe. He further theorized that matter and energy are interchangeable (E=MC2) and even a particle of matter contained enormous amounts of potential energy.

The "heroic age of physics" followed Einstein’s theories. In 1919, Ernest Rutherford demonstrated that an atom could be split. By 1944, seven subatomic particles had been identified, the most important of which was the neutron. The ability of the neutron to pass through other atoms and chain reactions of unbelievable force were discoveries which soon led to the development of the atomic bomb.

These discoveries shook the foundation of millions of people who considered physics and science to be fixed and unchanging. Newton’s universe had been rational and unchanging; now one was faced with complex tendencies and probabilities that were relative. Suddenly, everything was "relative," that is, dependent on the observers point of reference. Such a universe, which could only be described in complex mathematical symbols, seemed to have little to do with human experience and human problems. When Max Plank was asked what science could contribute to resolving conflicts of values, he replied, "Science is not qualified to speak to this question." Physics, which had always afforded easy answers suddenly, offered no answers at all.

Psychology and the Work of Sigmund Freud: Prior to Freud, psychologists and physicians had assumed that a single, unified consciousness processed the sensual experiences of the mind in a rational and logical way. Human behavior was the result of rational calculation, or "thinking" by the conscious mind. Freud, who based his work on dreams and hysteria, concluded that human behavior was irrational. He said the mind operated on three levels: the unconscious mind, or id, which operated on the "pleasure principle." The id, which was driven by sexual and aggressive devices, even appetite, was in a constant battle with the rational conscious part of the mind, the ego, which operated on the "reality principle," of what one could do; and the superego, based on ingrained moral values, and operated on the "morality principle," of what one should do. The ego is forced to attempt to satisfy the demands/desires of the id without offending the superego. Freud argued that the id, driven not only by desire but also by instinct, was very powerful, and could easily overwhelm one in a violent, distorted way. At the same time, he agreed with Nietzsche that the mechanisms of rational thinking and traditional moral values, the province of the superego might too effectively suppress sexual desire, and cripple people with feelings of guilt.

Freud’s theories created a stir and much opposition, particularly in Protestant countries such as Northern Europe and the United States, where many interpreted his writings as stating that the first requirement for mental health was an uninhibited sex life. This interpretation actually lent itself to growing sexual experimentation, particularly among middle class women. More serious students understood his writings to undermine the old, easy optimism about the rational and progressive nature of the human mind.

Twentieth Century Literature: Writers of the early twentieth century abandoned the style of the nineteenth century in which all-knowing narrators described realistic characters and their relationship to a society that may have been harsh but was at least understandable. The newer writers took the confusing and limited viewpoint of a single individual. They often focused on the irrationality of the human mind and human behavior. A technique developed known as stream of consciousness.

Among the more famous writers of the period: