August 16, 2013

Henry Geiger - How Opinions Are Formed (1986)

Henry Geiger (1908?-15 February 1989) was the editor, publisher, and chief writer of MANAS Journal which published from 1948-1988. Abraham Maslow called him “the only small ‘p’ philosopher America has produced in this century.”
Below is an excerpt from, "How Opinions Are Formed" by Henry Geiger. Source: MANAS Journal, Volume XXXIX, No. 17. April 23, 1986.
People seldom give much attention to the mystery of—which is it, human nature, or something more reliable? Human nature is always with us, and seems to require no study, yet in these days of anxiety and uncertainty we often wonder what is the shaping factor in the formation of opinion. Habit of course plays a part, but this is in the maintenance of opinion rather than in its formation. Tradition is obviously a source of belief, but traditions, as they grow old, often become superstitions, which means that people have lost all track of why they believe them.

Now and then a writer comes along— someone like Tom Paine—who sees the value in helping his countrymen to throw off an inherited faith or sense of obligation, who startles them with the realization of how ridiculous it is. This was the emotional power of Common Sense, which brought a great many of the colonists to the kind of self-reliant maturity which winning the war for independence required. Martin Luther accomplished something similar in the history of religion, and there have been others to use the strength of an idea "whose time has come" to release whole populations from outworn beliefs.

Historians sometimes take notice of these far- reaching changes. Henry T. Buckle is one of these, and in the first volume of his History of Civilization he wrote:
Owing to circumstances still unknown there appear from time to time great thinkers, who, devoting their lives to a single purpose, are able to anticipate the progress of mankind, and to produce a religion or a philosophy by which important effects are eventually brought about. But if we look into history we shall clearly see that, although the origin of a new opinion may be thus due to a single man, the result which the new opinion produces will depend on the condition of the people among whom it is propagated. If either a religion or a philosophy is too much in advance of a nation it can do no present service but must bide its time until the minds of men are ripe for its reception. . . . Every science, every creed has had its martyrs. According to the ordinary course of affairs, a few generations pass away, and then there comes a period when these very truths are looked upon as commonplace facts, and a little later there comes another period in which they are declared to be necessary and even the dullest intellect wonders how they could ever have been denied.
Another distinguished nineteenth-century historian, W. E. H. Lecky, wrote in a similar vein. In his History of the Rise of Rationalism in Europe, he proposed that "the success of any opinion depended much less upon the force of its arguments, or upon the ability of its advocates, than upon the predisposition of society to receive it, and that that predisposition resulted from the intellectual type of the age."
As men advance from an imperfect to a higher civilization, they gradually sublimate and refine their creed. Their imaginations insensibly detach themselves from those grosser conceptions and doctrines that were formerly most powerful, and they sooner or later reduce all their opinions into conformity with the moral and intellectual standards which the new civilization produces. Thus long before the Reformation, the tendencies of the Reformation were manifest. The revival of Grecian learning, the development of art, the reaction against the schoolmen, had raised society to an elevation in which a more refined and less oppressive creed was absolutely essential to its well-being. Luther and Calvin only represented the prevailing wants, and embodied them in a definite form. The pressure of the general intellectual influences of the time determines the predispositions which ultimately regulate the details of belief; and though all men do not yield to that pressure with the same facility, all large bodies are at last controlled. A change of speculative opinion does not imply an increase of the data upon which those opinions rest, but a change of the habits of thought and mind which they reflect.
Here Lecky seems to minimize or neglect the actual capacity of the thought and persuasion of strong individuals to affect opinion, despite the truth in what he says, which applies largely to the opinions of those who think little or not at all. But what sets the tone, standard of belief, and habit of thought of which he speaks? He says:
Those who contribute most largely to its formation are, I believe, the philosophers. Men like Bacon, Descartes, and Locke have probably done more than any others to set the current of their age. They have formed a certain cast and tone of mind. They have introduced peculiar habits of thought, new modes of reasoning, new tendencies of enquiry. The impulse they have given to the higher literature, has been by that literature communicated to the more popular writers; and the impress of these master- minds is clearly visible in the writings of multitudes who are totally unacquainted with their works.
How can we get a little closer to understanding the origin of the opinion-shapers here referred to? After all, Buckle's only comment on this question is in the first sentence we have quoted—"Owing to circumstances still unknown"—and we have made no notable progress in the inquiry since his time. We should add, however, that such individuals are by no means always philosophers, although they may certainly have a philosophic impact in setting a level of thought. This is true of great dramatists, and true also of novelists such as Dostoevsky, and in some measure Herman Melville. Does biography afford any clues—not answers, but clues? We need to find strong-minded, independent people and have a look at their lives, early and late. Having lately given attention in Review to Madeleine Slade—" Mirabehn" in India, as Gandhi named her—we turn to her autobiography, and find her saying, in the first few pages:
While I was still very small, five or six years old, in spite of the happy and loving surroundings in which I lived, my mind began to search in the region of the unknowable and was stricken with awe. . . . In the same way I dared not think about eternity, and used to dread being taken to church, where I should have to listen to things like the repetition of the prayer termination: "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end—Amen."

People seemed to repeat these sorts of phrases quite glibly, and I felt it was useless to say anything of what troubled me. The church attitude about Heaven and Hell also worried me a lot. How could people be fixed up for eternity as the fruits of one short life, especially as no two people had the same opportunities for winning through? What about people who died young, and what about poor colored people, who, I heard, were all heathens? Obviously something was wrong. It was an impossible puzzle. I could not make it out, and would again seek escape in the happy life around me.

But there was something which every now and then waited me far away. It would come at quiet moments, and always through the voice of Nature— the singing of a bird, the sound of the wind in the trees. Though this was the voice of the unknown, I felt no fear, only an infinite joy.
These childhood—but not childish— wonderings help us to understand the life of this extraordinary woman.