McLuhan came across John Lindberg’s The Foundations of Social Survival shortly after its publication in 1953. After reviewing it in Commonweal magazine early in 1954, he continued to refer to it frequently in his writings and lectures in the following months:
The God-Making Machines of the Modern World
John Lindberg is a Swedish nobleman long associated with the League of Nations and now with the United Nations.1 (…) Himself a Manichean resigned to the ordinary necessity of rule by myth and lie, Lindberg argues in his concluding chapter that the new conditions of global inter-communication2 compel us to scrap the rationalist Manichean hypothesis in favor of a plunge into faith and the City of Love. His march towards this city of the future is headed by a banner quote from Bergson’s Two Sources of Morality and Religion: “The essential function of the universe which is a machine for the making of gods.” The revolutionary situation which faces us would appear to have suggested to Lindberg that the man-made machine is the new universe for the making of gods. And whereas the machine of Nature made whatever gods it chose, the machines of man have abolished Nature and enable us to make whatever gods we choose. Perhaps a better way of saying this would be to suggest that modern technology is so comprehensive that it has abolished Nature. The order of the demonic has yielded to the order of art.
Lindberg speaks as one who has spent his life inside the great god-making machines of the modern world. He speaks also from inside the great classical tradition of European rationalist culture and scholarship. He does not write as a Christian. But Lindberg does write as a pagan for whom the Christian doctrine is now, for the first time in history, a plausible and even indispensable hypothesis for social survival. As an analysis of the pagan theology underlying dominant political theory since Plato, Lindberg’s testimony is of first importance. Most readers would find Fustel de Coulange’s classic, The Ancient City, a valuable preface to Lindberg’s book. Jane Harrison’s Themis and Rachel Levy’s Gate of Horn are likewise filled with detailed information about the pagan theory of the universe and the city as a machine for the making of gods. And Lindberg assumes to some extent a reader who is at home in pagan ritual and theology.
So far as these concern politics, he also provides a good deal of information himself. For example, most of the first chapters are taken up with a discussion of vertical and horizontal conditions of society. The golden age of primitive man is horizontal socially because there are no institutions. Men are related laterally by kinship but there are no hierarchies and no authority. Moreover the horizontal metaphor (which provides the sleeping giant Finn McCool of Finnegans Wake) indicates a state of collective consciousness. A state of homogeneity and non-differentiation which in pagan theory proceeded the fall of man. Vertical man, self-conscious man, rational and civilized man is in this view the result of a spiritual fall. Lindberg agrees with Karl Marx that this fall resulted from the first attempt to transfer or exploit a food or property surplus for private purposes. Horizontal man, pre-historic man, in this view, was innocent of “mine” and “thine.” He was without individual self-consciousness. Technological man or post-historic man is rapidly approximating the same state. Instantaneity of global communication plus the abundance of mass-produced goods has created a situation of mental and social collectivism.
It is to tracing the social and political consequences of the “fall” that Lindberg devotes much of his book. Paradoxically, the fall brings about the rise of individual reason and the invention of the instruments of culture and civilization. Reason, the tool-making faculty, is the fruit of evil. And reason is the myth-making power which produces the ruler.The ruler rules by the myth or lie which intimidates men to the point of social obedience. It is important to grasp Lindberg’s idea of myths and norms since they have characterized all civilization till now. But henceforth they must have new functions. Myths are for Lindberg the traditional religions imposed on men. They are products of reason. They are expedient lies. They are the means of curbing the monsters bred of men’s passions. Norms or moral conventions, on the other hand, are merely a cinematic projection on the screen of the city of the passions and preferences of men. Myths are vertical affairs imposed by ruling authority on the ruled. Norms are horizontal developments spreading outwards in accordance with men’s desires. Myths are static. The authoritarian myth-built city is local, brittle, easily susceptible of shock. If one myth falls, all will tend to fall. But the norm-structured society is open, elastic, malleable, receptive of change. Under current conditions of communication the static, myth-built cities of the Western world are doomed, says Lindberg.
The foundations of social survival are, however, to be found in a switch from reason to passion, from fear to love. And the possibility of the switchover resides in our capacity today to discover the creative dynamics of norm-making. Norm, the region of passion and flux, was no basis for any past city. But norm seen as a product of an individual and collective creative activity may be a clue to a new social dynamics. If we can discover by observation of many societies past and present the principles of creativity in morals, we shall have the master-clue to all future government of huge inter-cultural associations of men.
It is the conviction that such a possibility is realizable today that prompts Lindberg to espouse the idea of Christian charity in a spirit of positivism. Not belief but necessity urges him to a Christian idea of society and government. It is the same conviction which leads him to abandon the Manichean principles of realpolitik.
One tires today of hearing of “important” books. This book provides many striking perspectives on the theological principles underlying the practice of classical politics and economics in the past. (‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, Review of John Lindberg, The Foundations of Social Survival, Commonweal, 59:24, 606-607, March 19, 1954)
Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters
For anybody concerned with the subject of Catholic humanism in modern letters I should think that Joyce’s insight, which was marvellously realized in his work, is the most inspiriting development that is possible to conceive. But we must ask, what happens when this insight occurs even in a fragmentary way to the secular minds of our age? The answer can be found in The Foundations of Social Survival a recent book by John Lindberg, a Swedish noble man associated with the United Nations. His proposal for social survival is that we adopt the Christian doctrine of brotherly love. He is not a Christian but he thinks Christianity might be made to work by non-Christians. Perhaps he has in mind that it appears to be unworkable when left to Christians. In short, he proposes practical Christianity as a sort of Machiavellian strategy of culture and power. And his reasons are directly linked to the developments I have outlined in modern [arts and] letters. Namely that in the modern world we have through the very perfection and instantaneity of our means of communication made it impossible to resolve the conflicting claims of the numerous societies and cultures which are now in close association. Neither can we hope to impose any one culture on all the others and reduce them to a single form. But, he argues, we now have the key to the creative process which brings all cultures into existence (namely the extension into social institutions of the central form and mystery of the human cognitive process). And it is this key which he proposes to deliver into the hands of a world government. (‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’, a lecture given at St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Connecticut, on March 23, 1954)
Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry
John Lindberg’s recent Foundations of Social Survival is devoted to an elucidation of the political and social consequences of these two positions [viz, “the theology behind vertical and horizontal”]. And for the purposes of explaining Mr. Eliot’s use of the Manichean myth, Mr. Lindberg is helpful, because he attaches the term ‘myth’ to the Manichean or dualist position from Plato to Bergson. Myth, he considers to be that necessary or salutary lie which any governing class must tell the governed in order to arrest and control the daemonic movement of the passions in ordinary men. Opposed to myth is the area of norms and value, says Mr. Lindberg, speaking out of the Platonic tradition. Human values are all demonic, because they are mere expressions of irrational appetite and tempermental preference. The realm of norms and values is the realm of the brutish. But casting a twentieth-century eye over the untamed jungle of norms and values, Mr. Lindberg sees reason for preferring it to the dust on bowl of rose-leaves which is about all that remains of myth in an age of rapid inter-communication and change. If the governing elites have previously been rationalist, Platonic and Averroist in their strategy for power and culture, they now see the possibility of a more thorough-going control. Instead of imposing a brittle myth on the ordinary levels of human consciousness, why not occupy its creative centre? Why not install oneself at the point where the norms and values are born and control this process? Instead of governing men’s appetites, why not govern men through their appetites? The shift is basic. It is the shift from the dualism of the time school to the monism of the space men. It is a magical shift to the centre of the poetic process, which Mr. Eliot, among others, has revealed in our time. (‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, Address to the spring symposium of the Catholic Renascence Society in Philadelphia on April 19, 1954)
Poetry and Society
John Lindberg’s recent Foundations of Social Survival does go into the theology behind vertical and horizontal, but in the sphere of politics only. (‘Poetry and Society’, Poetry Magazine, May 1954, 93-95)
- In the American Swedish Historical Museum 1944 Yearbook biographical information about John Lindberg is provided as follows: “John Lindberg, Ph.D., is a member of the Mission of the Economic Department of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, Princeton. He has been instructor at the University of Stockholm, Assistant Secretary to the Swedish Unemployment Commission, member of the Statistical and Economic sections of the International Labor Office, and since 1937 member of the Economic and Financial Section of the League Secretariat. He spent 1925-28 in the United States as Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellow. He has written numerous books, articles and reports; he is a member of our Museum Board.” This was contributor information for Lindberg’s paper in that 1944 Yearbook, ‘The Long Sleep: An Essay on Swedish Nationalism‘. During his Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellowship, Lindberg wrote The Background of Swedish Migration to the United States (1930). Following WW2, he remained in Princeton as a member of “the Economic, Financial and Transit Department of the League of Nations on mission at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1946, apparently just before its demise in March of that year, the League of Nations issued his Food, Famine and Relief, 1940-1946. Lindberg then joined the UN within the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration. He was chief economist for an assistance mission to Libya in 1951. This resulted in a brochure authored by Lindberg and published by the UN: A General Economic Appraisal of Libya. Later he was the UN economic adviser to Jordan. In 1964, Lindberg published ‘The Secret Life of Dag Hammarskjöld’ in Look Magazine, 28:13, 30 June 1964. As described in the Look essay, Lindberg (1901-1991) and Hammarskjöld (1905-1961) had known each other in Sweden at Stockholm University in the early 1930s, long before both became UN officials (Hammarskjöld as its Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961). ↩
- McLuhan’s use of “inter-communication” here, and in the passage below from ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, recalls the frequent use of the phrase by his University of Manitoba teacher, Henry Wright. See Henry Wilkes Wright and Henry Wilkes Wright 2 for examples and discussion. ↩