Thank You Lewis Mumford

By Dan Bertolet November 25, 2010

I often tell people that Lewis Mumford ruined my life because reading his work resonated so much with my desire to end my career in electrical engineering---a change from which I took a massive economic hit. But that's just snark, because the reality is Mumford and numerous other like-minded authors have effectively given me a renewed and more meaningful life.

At a used bookstore the other day I picked up a lonely old hardcover copy of "The Conduct of Life", published in 1951, the last in Mumford's four-part series that includes "Technics and Civilization" (1934), "The Culture of Cities" (1938), and "The Condition of Man" (1944). And so on this lazy gray Thanksgiving morning, I find myself getting sucked into Mumford-land once again, and being thankful for it.

Below are a few selections, though when I read Mumford I usually find about every other paragraph worthy of quoting. (Regarding Mumford's usage of the word "man," keep in mind the age in which he lived---as one who has read much of his work, it is clear to me that he was not sexist.)

"The age of the machine is already over. We cannot save our cunning inventions and our complicated apparatus of scientific research unless we save man; and when we do so, the human person, not the machine, will dominate the scene. The New World Symphony of exploration and conquest, and the Ballet Mecanique of modern industrialism have both been performed to the point of exhaustion. The next number on the program will be scored for a full orchestra and a multitude of human voices, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony: a mass for the dead, a hymn for the living, a paean to the unborn: the Oratorio of One World and of a new man capable of being at home in that world."


"The heroes of the old drama, proud, self-willed, formidable men, aggressive in action, isolationist in thought, will become the clowns and villains in the new; and those who were once cast for supernumerary parts will find themselves, because of their capacity for mutual aid, in the very center of the stage. For the renewal of life is the new drama of life. The main task of our time is to turn man himself, now a helpless mechanical puppet, into a wakeful and willing creator."

Here's how the book ends, and yes, it's a ridiculously long and dense quote, but hey, no pain, no gain (did I mention that I'm a bit obsessed with Mr. Mumford?).

"Only those who have confronted the present crisis in all its dimensions will have the strength to repent of their own sins and those of their community, to confront and overcome the evils that threaten us, and to re-affirm the goods of the past that will serve as foundation for the goods of the future that we have still to create. For those who have undergone these changes, life is good and the expansion and intensification of life is good. To live actively through every organ and still remain whole: to identify oneself loyally with the community and yet emerge from it, with free choices and new goals: to live fully in the moment and to possess in that moment all that eternity might bring: to re-create in one's consciousness the whole in which man lives and moves and has his being---these are essential parts of the new affirmation of life. The rest lies with God.

"Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. When fullness of life has been achieved, shortness of days is nothing. What is perhaps why the young, before they have been frustrated and lamed, have usually so little fear of death: they live by intensities that the elderly have forgotten.

"This experience of fulfillment through wholeness is the true answer to the brevity of man's days. The awakened person seeks to live so that any day might be good enough to be his last. By the actuarial tables he knows, perhaps, that his expectation of life at birth is almost three score and ten; but he knows something more precious than this: that there are moments of such poignant intensity and fullness, moments when every part of the personality is mobilized into a single act or a single institution, that they outweigh the contents of a whole tame lifetime. Those moments are eternity; and if they are fleeting, it because men remain finite creatures whose days are measured.

"When these awakened personalities begin to multiply, the load of anxiety that hangs over the men of our present-day culture will perhaps begin to lift. Instead of gnawing dread, there will be a healthy sense of expectancy, of hope without self-deception, based upon the ability to formulate new plans and purposes: purposes which, because they grow out of a personal reorientation and renewal, will in time lead to the general replenishment of life. Such goals will not lose value through the changes that time and chance and the wills of other men will work on them, in the course of their realization; nor will the prospect of many delays and disappointments keep those who are awakened from putting them into action at the earliest opportunity. Nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible to the balanced person, provided it arises out of the needs of life and is dedicated to life's further development.

"Even in his most rational procedures, the balanced person allows a place for the irrational and the unpredictable: he knows that catastrophe and miracle are both possible. Instead of feeling frustrated by these uncontrollable elements, he counts upon them to quicken the adventure of life by their very unforeseeableness: they are but part of the cosmic weather whose daily challenge enlivens every activity.

"Life is itself forever precarious and unstable, and in no manner does it promise a tame idyll or a static eutopia: the new person, no less than the old, will know bafflement, tragedy, sacrifice, and defeat, as well as fulfillment---but even in desperate situations he will be saved from despair by sharing Walt Whitman's consciousness that battles may be lost in the same spirit that they are won, and that a courageous effort consecrates an unhappy end. While the conditions he confronts are formidable, the initiative nevertheless remains with man, once he accepts his own responsibility as a guardian of life. With the knowledge man now possesses, he may control the knowledge that threatens to choke him: with the power he now commands he may control the power that would wipe him out: with the values he has created, he may replace a routine of life based upon a denial of values. Only treason to his own sense of the divine can rob the new person of his creativity.

"Harsh days and bitter nights may still lie ahead for each of us in his own person, and for mankind as a whole, before we overcome the present forces of disintegration. But throughout the world, there is a faint glow of color on the topmost twigs, the glow of the swelling buds that announce, despite the frosts and storms to come, the approach of spring: signs of life, signs of integration, signs of a deeper faith for living and of an approaching general renewal of humanity. The day and the hour are at hand when our individual purposes and ideals, re-enforced by our neighbors', will unite in a new drama of life that will serve other men as it serves ourselves.

"The way we must follow is untried and heavy with difficulty; it will test to the utmost our faith and our powers. But it is the way toward life, and those who follow it will prevail."

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