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The Age of the Crisis of Man

Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973
Mark Greif
Princeton University Press


From the Introduction: The "Crisis of Man" as Obscurity and Re-enlightenment

In the middle decades of the twentieth century, American intellectuals of manifold types, from disparate and even hostile groups, converged on a perception of danger. The world had entered a new crisis by 1933, the implications of which would echo for nearly three decades to follow: not just the crisis of the liberal state, or capitalist economy generally, and not only the imminent paroxysm of the political world system in world war. The threat was now to "man." "Man" was in "crisis." This jeopardy transformed the tone and content of intellectual, political, and literary enterprise, from the late thirties forward, in ways that—because they are so intertwined with panic, piety, and the permanent philosophical questions of human nature—have still not been given an adequate accounting.

To its adherents, the crisis of man specified the danger of the end or barbarization of Western civilization. New conditions seemed destined to snap the long tradition of humanism, the filament of learning, humane confidence, and respect for human capacities that had made intellect modern and progressive since the Renaissance. Thinkers mourned the "end of history" as a forward-moving, progressive stream; it seemed a lonesome terminus in their eyes, and not a fulfillment as in our contemporary "end of history." Their fear, above all, was that human nature was being changed, either in its permanent essence or in its lineaments for the eyes of other men. The change would have the same result in either form: the demolition of those certainties about human nature, which had been pillars for optimistic thinkers for two centuries.

The Rights of Man had been the foundation upon which modern democracies were built. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men ... are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," the Declaration of Independence asserted in 1776. "[T]he only causes of public misfortunes and the corruption of Governments," allowed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789, are the "ignorance, forgetful-ness or contempt of the ... natural, unalienable and sacred rights of man."1 After 1939, the unalienable rights of man could not be taken for granted in Europe, as "man" was being alienated and eradicated, altered and undone. These erasures largely occurred at gunpoint, of Nazi, Soviet, or fascist arms, though intellectuals took the threat to be much more general. Perhaps men had been better off in ignorance and naive hopefulness, except that, the intellectuals warned, it was this blindness that had prepared the field for the disasters of Nazism and totalitarianism.

Meditations on fundamental anthropology are as continuous a stream of introspection as one can find in the history of philosophy, alongside questions of the substance of the world and the nature of the heavens; you can reach down and pull up a dipperful of speculations on the human in any year. The distinct return of man as a center of intellectual inquiry, apart from his scientific, practical, or religious nature, marks more definite occurrences within the long philosophical trajectory of the history of the West, and the period of the interwar years and World War II constitutes one such landmark. In this moment, the modern progress of expanded rights and protections for oppressed human groups and ignored subjects—the nonwhite, nonmale, and the nonelite—gave way to a renewed inquiry into the majoritarian, unmarked human subject itself, to change and reground the rationale for human moral status and inviolability.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, intellectuals debated a fundamental abstraction. "Whatever be the line of inquiry, the thread leads back to man. Man is the problem," the Jewish sociologist of religion Will Herberg wrote in 1951, speaking for a perception of the uniqueness of his time. His mentor, the Protestant neoorthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, had stated the discourse's difficulty, however, along with its necessity, a decade earlier, near its inception: "Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself? Every affirmation which he may make about his stature, virtue, or place in the cosmos becomes involved in contradictions when fully analysed." Interminable analysis itself also became the intellectuals' form of action, a means to pull others into the framework of affirmation and contradiction that their thought created.