Classic Essays

One Man’s Striving: Part 5


by William Gayley Simpson

Part 5 of 7

The author of Which Way Western Man? reaches a new level of understanding of man’s identity and mission, and he begins to gain an awareness of the importance of race


Editor’s Introduction: The previous excerpt from William Simpson’s autobiography ended late in 1931, when he was 39 years old. He had dark forebodings for the future of the Western world.

At the same time, however, he was closer than ever before to the understanding he had been seeking. His Inner Light was beginning to burn more brightly and surely, and it was illuminating both the world around him and his own path in the world more distinctly than it had earlier, during his Christian period.

But he was still climbing, still adding detail and definition to his emerging view. And he was still attempting to rid himself of extraneous influences and ideas. He writes of the summer of 1932:

* * *

IT IS evident from my journal that I was getting my interior hearing aid boxed in ever smaller compass. It wasn’t necessary to explore all the ramifications of a situation to make sure whether or not I had a rightful place in it. “Everything,” I wrote, “that deepens the stillness within me is life for me, and everything that disturbs the stillness within me is death for me.” What was alien to me and hostile to my deepest life betrayed the fact by blurring my vision and jarring the peace in my soul. This was in direct and literal agreement with the counsel I was to come upon many years later from Goethe:

“Was euch nicht angehoert
Muesset ihr meiden;
Was euch das Inn’re stoert,
Duerft ihr nicht leiden.” [2]

* * *

2 – ‘Whatever does not belong to you You must avoid; Whatever disturbs your inner being You dare not tolerate.”

Editor’s Note: He had, just a few months earlier, settled on a remote and isolated farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains, for which a friend had made the down payment. It gave him the quiet environment he so urgently needed to continue his exploration of his inner being. He describes his existence there in the early, wintry months of 1933:

* * *

. . . Even the nearest neighbors were far away and out of sight . . . On every side stretched the glistening snow to the shaggy mountain-tops across the valleys. The temperature dropped to 10 above, to zero, to 10 and even 20 below. The cold drove me to give up my study and to confine all my living, except my sleeping, to the kitchen.

Yet every morning, as soon as I had the stove well started, I ran out naked for a few minutes of exercises, deep breathing, and a snow bath.

Through the long evenings the wind howled around the house and sometimes sounded as though it were determined to carry away the roof. But inside, with my fire and my kerosene lamp, my books, my papers, and my thoughts, I was cozy and contented enough.

In the afternoons I commonly split wood for my stove, keeping a good supply ahead, and worked at wrecking the chicken house, the lumber in which I wanted for another building. Several of the salvaged two-by-fours I planed down and made into frames for my two bedsprings: I had two real beds at last.

Twice a week, with the same knapsack I had taken to India, I made the long trek to town for mail and milk and groceries. It took me a good two hours, for it was four miles each way — and coming back a climb of 900 feet from the valley floor. Sometimes, when even by leaving the road I could find no windswept places and with heavy load had to drag my feet through deep snow, it was stiff going.

But it was a healthy life. People began to speak of how well I looked. I found myself singing in the early morning.

* * *

Editor’s Note: He used this quiet time to continue his study of Nietzsche, and he gained new insights:

* * *

It came over me that Nietzsche was really, as I put it, “a Christ without a God.” What Jesus had to have a God for, Nietzsche reached without a God ….

And Nietzsche held this up as a goal for me. The heights I had reached in my Franciscan days I must be able to reach again, reach and pass, by a strength I found within myself. In those days God had been my all: my guide, my authority, my whole good, my companion nearer than any wife, in very truth my one Beloved.

It had meant everything to feel his presence in the grandstand above me, watching me run the race he had set before me. His love upon me had been the sun of my life, warming and illuminating all my way. And out of my love for him I had longed to stand before him naked, and to pour out all that I had in me. Now that seemed to be gone. And yet I must not limp for lack of it or grope and flounder or fly with wing less strong or less eager. Indeed, that was not enough. My life must be more steady and reach heights yet higher.

Somehow, though my theological, metaphysical “God” was gone, I still did feel deeply at home in the universe. That I recognized. But I asked myself sharply, “What do you mean by this? What foundation for it is there? Is it any more than one of the un-dispelled remnants of your erstwhile belief in God?” I was constantly mulling this over while I wrecked some more of the old chicken house or did my washing or made my long treks to town.

I had already, however, reached the conclusion that it was not merely the external that was only appearance, not only the evidence of the senses that was wholly illusion. Everything that reaches any sense of man is appearance. This holds true even of the farthest vision of the greatest mystic. He is still confronted with appearance. Jesus was. It simply is not given to man to go beyond this.

But I still talked about the real and the eternal and the ultimate, as though we had ground for believing there was any such thing, or if so, as if we could know anything about it, when as a matter of fact I recognized that no man had any faculty by which to experience it. The belief in God casts long shadows, and they linger long after God is gone.

But, as always, more interested in the vital and practical than the speculative, I asked myself whether, without a God, I could any longer follow my Inner Light so free as before from a concern for consequences. If one believes one’s Inner Light has behind it all the love, power, and omniscience attributed to God, one could more readily and with more show of good sense and justice leave to God all the consequences of the course he was believed to command.

But I was unable any longer to put behind my Inner Voice any such absoluteness of authority. I had come to see it as a synthesis of all my own highest perceptive faculties. It spoke at once for my instinct, my reason, and my most recently acquired sensitiveness to meaning, to value, to fine shades of difference in quality of life. It was as though, before it spoke, all three (instinct, reason, and spiritual sensitiveness) had met in secret conclave in the depths of my subconsciousness, there to thrash out their differences to a conclusion. And when they sent to my conscious mind a messenger, to speak for them in their unity, that messenger, what I “heard,” was my Inner Voice.

As such, there was nothing about it either absolute or infallible. It was definitely conditioned by one’s heredity and the totality of one’s past experience. It but represented one’s surest, subtlest, farthest-penetrating sense of what to do in the situation by which one found oneself at any time confronted, the highest light on the situation which was capable of reaching one’s consciousness at that stage in one’s development. It was the voice of the undivided whole man, or the willing of that man to become undivided and whole, giving him the next forward steps in that direction.

Now, thus conceiving my Inner Voice, could I (or even more important, should I) let myself any longer trust and obey this inner imperative as simply and implicitly as before?

My answer, finally, was yes. I could not, it is true, feel an equal certainty that my obedience would make for the best good of everyone involved, as I had felt when, for instance, I first parted with all my possessions. On the other hand, if I was correct in my understanding of what my Inner Voice was, and if I had faithfully met all the conditions for making sure that what I was listening to really was my Inner Voice, then I simply did not have any faculty or any recourse by which I might improve on its sense of direction. It represented the uttermost wisdom that was capable of penetrating to my consciousness at that time.

When, therefore, it clearly spoke to me I should obey it as if it spoke with all the authority of “Almighty God.” Fallible as it might in time prove to have been, it would nevertheless surely contain less error and make for more increase of life in this world than any other course just then actually open to me. At the very least I could count upon it to make for increase of life in myself. For it was the bared tip of my life pressing into the future. Only by ever giving it its way could my life grow into all it was meant to become ….

Out of some kind of self-abasement, we had learned to call “human” all those things in us that were weak, blind, ugly, shameful; and to attribute to “God” everything in us that was strong, beautiful, noble, and exalted. But the truth was that it was all human, all man, all ourselves. It was utterly impossible to know anything outside ourselves. What we had called “God,” therefore, were really our own highest powers and what they revealed to us, our own life on its highest levels and most significant reaches.

What we had called “ourselves” were the forces in us that hindered and fettered our highest life and the realization of our highest possibilities. It was they, and they only, that must humble themselves and surrender to the God in us. The God in us (that is, we, identifying ourselves with our own highest life and not solely with our weaknesses) must not humble himself.

Renunciation had been grossly misunderstood. Renunciation should be only of our lesser, shallower, fragmentary desires to our deepest, highest, most integral desire — to that one desire in us which was the very core of our being, of all we had it in us to be and to do, and apart from the satisfaction of which life was not worth living. All other desires must renounce and surrender to this one, to this center of our being. But this center, this holy desire, must never renounce. To do so were to surrender life itself, to show signs, therefore, of degeneracy and decay.

This meant that the man who renounced had no claim for moral credit. He had not, as has commonly been supposed, done something “unselfish.” He had merely submitted to one of the processes necessary to integration. He had merely surrendered something he wanted less for something he wanted more. Though it cost him life itself, there was nothing to whine about. He had got what he wanted most.

Also, since there was no metaphysical God-judge sitting on the throne of the universe, there was no sin. There might be error, weakness, blindness, even self-betrayal, in that one went against one’s own deepest insight, but there was no more that crushing burden a power-loving priesthood had loaded onto the shoulders of humanity.

Any God that was “infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth” — as the Presbyterian Catechism has it — was nothing more than a bit of human metaphysical speculation. Men had made him up. They had made him up because they needed him; they required belief in him in order to live. They were too weak to stand up alone in the face of a universe so utterly inscrutable, so seemingly non-rational, non-moral, and unhuman.

Their belief in God was a bit of burlap they had hastily woven out of their fears and wishes to stop up a hole in one of their windows, through which, else, the wintry and heartless blasts of the universe would have brought them death. They could not live without such a belief: therefore — it was true!

But whence, oh whence, this “therefore”? What dishonesty and cowardice and mental uncleanness was hid behind this “therefore”!

It seemed to me that all these believers in God were the real atheists, and I and others of my kind, the real believers. How little it mattered what the names we called things! What every one of us actually lived by was the reality behind them.

For those who so lightly professed themselves theists, God was little more than a figment of their minds. They talked of something they did not know, and could not know in the detail and intimacy with which they,talked about it, for all such lay outside the realm of human experience. The very way they talked about God revealed that he was not something they had ever heard, or seen, or touched, or been touched by. The truth was that they had no God, nothing real, only an idea about God, a mental abstraction.

But for myself, resolved to accept for the foundation of my life nothing that I did not have assurance of in experience, I found God only in what spoke in the deep stillness of my being. And that this God of mine was not any such metaphysical monstrosity as figured in our systems of theology, and did not bear all the attributes of absoluteness assigned to such a God, I meant to indicate by referring to this Inner Voice (if I called it “God” at all) as the “God-in-you” or the “God-in-me.”

Indeed, I was coming to perceive in mystical sensitiveness one of the last and subtlest achievements of life in its will to power.

* * *

Editor’s Note: So he had achieved a new understanding of himself, his consciousness, and his purpose — more generally, of man as a bearer of divine consciousness and of man’s mission as an agent of the Life Force in its upward struggle.

This new understanding left him with a greatly diminished tolerance for the doctrines of the Christian Church. Thinking of a young woman of exceptional intelligence and great spiritual vigor he knew who had decided to become a nun and withdraw into a Catholic religious order, he wrote in anguish, on the first day of 1934:

* * *

“This Jesus you love, I hate. For it is a false, lying, stupefying, destroying Jesus.

“And the Church, which has done this to you — this also I hate.

“Your mind seems to have died — or, rather, your will to intellectual fearlessness and cleanliness has been drugged and paralyzed.

“I see you bowed down before a castrated idol, requiring castration of its devotees, mental castration. And the sight of it affects me like the smell of smoking human flesh arising from before Moloch ….

“Yes, I hate this false, lying, fictitious Jesus; this Jesus of the Gospel of John; this Jesus who never lived, never said the things you think he said; this creation of John’s mind and imagination; this Jesus which has led men off the path; which has led them away from the true Jesus and made them his enemies; which more than anything else has destroyed the influence of the real Jesus and twisted it into the opposite of all he lived and died for; which turned this veritable lion of a lover into something only warm, soft, comforting, peace-bringing, into a womanly Jesus, a Jesus for weak people, sick people, broken people; which has actually become perhaps the chief force in our civilization making for the taming of men, the belittling of men, the stupefying of men; this Jesus, which has turned the real Jesus into Christianity — this Jesus I hate.

“And I hate the Church, which has set this trap for struggling feet, for the feet of the fairest and noblest.

“I hate this Jesus and this Church, because I see that they are enemies of Life – of that Life of unspeakable beauty, that grand, sublime, terrible Life, which through all the ages has been struggling to make men more godlike; enemies of that highest Life in myself which I began to know and to set free only as I began to see through this Jesus and this Church and to set them aside as snares, as poison, as prison houses; enemies of that holiest Life which I behold in you, before which, whenever I gaze upon it, my whole being seems fairly to stand still in an ecstasy of adoration, and which now seems caught in the black toils of this reptile.

“Once you protested against my saying anything to disturb you. But I have not spared myself. Why should I spare you? For you, as for myself, I love truth more than peace — more than peace of mind, the peace of lying down in the face of the storm and going to sleep in the snow …. “

* * *

Editor’s Note: The clearer Simpson’s view had become of the path ahead of him, the more clouded had become his relations with those he had known on the path already traversed. They had remained where he had met them, while he had moved on, and communication and understanding between the two had become increasingly difficult.

He continued to speak to groups of college students — even to specifically Christian groups — during the mid-1930s, largely as a result of invitations received from friends acquired during his Christian days, but the gap was growing.

He caught an intimation of this in 1934, when he was invited by Professor Ralph Harlow, chairman of the Department of Religion at Smith College, to a luncheon with a number of Smith girls, as a preliminary to setting up some speaking engagements at the college. He talked about his Nietzschean view of the world and man’s place in it during the luncheon:

* * *

… I ended very intensely with, “If there be no love in the universe, we will put it there. If there be no gods in the universe, we will ourselves become gods.”

There was dead silence. Then Ralph exclaimed, with an air of final judgment, “Sublime – but tragic!” Apparently he did not know that the greatest life has been tragic. Maybe existence itself is tragic. And maybe it is precisely this that religious belief has been devised to hide from the eyes of people too weak to face it. But to say that life is tragic is at the farthest remove from denying that life is good. It represents, rather, the fullest acceptance and endorsement of life, and the triumph over enigma, ugliness, and suffering.

But it was too much for Ralph Harlow. And that was the end of all thought of my ever being allowed to speak at Smith College.

* * *

Editor’s Note: There were other intimations. When he had spoken the summer before in New York to a Summer Service Group of select students from all over the country sponsored by the Y.M.CA., there had not been the empathy which he had been able to establish during talks to similar groups in earlier years.

And a series of talks he gave to the girls at Bennington College in 1935 apparently sounded a discordant note in the ears of many of his listeners. The professor who had invited, him, his former classmate Laurens Seelye (later to become president of St. Lawrence University), wrote to a mutual friend afterward that he had “nearly shocked Bennington College … into nervous collapse by bringing Bill Simpson there.”

Early the following year, however, he went on an extended speaking trip which took him as far south as Alabama and as far west as Chicago, and he received enthusiastic responses from at least some of his audiences:

* * *

Most of my meetings were at colleges. I never had spoken to Southern audiences before. I had hoped that some lingering vestiges of the aristocratic tradition that had prevailed in the South before the Civil War might make them more sympathetic with my deepening conviction that men are unequal. and that rights and duties and functions should vary with the individuals concerned. But I think the only difference I noted was that, on the whole, the minds of students (at least of those I encountered) were less open and less ready to reach out to the new.

It was also my first taste of audiences all Negro. Both at Fisk University, in Nashville, and at a state school for manual training in northern Alabama I found them exceedingly responsive. But I was doubtful whether the response came out of real spiritual comprehension or was the near-slave’s reaction to the enticing sniff of liberty.

In any case, I found that talking to them embarrassed me. It suddenly flashed upon me that for them to do what I counseled might be to court lynching. It was a question whether in the South any Negro could be an inwardly free and outwardly upstanding, wholly independent man, and be allowed to live. It even became a question in my mind whether, in the midst of a White man’s society, I wished to see them really upstanding and independent.

For I saw, as I did not see when I passed through the South nearly 20 years before, that this would almost certainly result in accelerated miscegenation, an increased intermarriage between members of the White and colored races. And this, for my own people, I was more and more inclined to believe, would mean dire and irretrievable ruin ….

The intensity of the response of my audiences increased as I returned north. One of the most satisfying speaking experiences I ever had was at Elmhurst, a small college just west of Chicago. Here, in the space of about three days, I had nine meetings. After the first, which was before the whole student body, and at which I presented my fundamental approach to life, I had the chance to present particular aspects of the problem, one after another. The place was fairly turned upside down.

Yet when I went on my way I felt I left behind me more real understanding and much less misunderstanding than were usual. After this experience I wondered whether I ought not to decline to speak at any place where I could not have at least two or three meetings on successive days.

* * *

Editor’s Note: But the next year, in 1937, it became manifest that the gap had grown too wide to be bridged. At the beginning of that year two of his closest friends sent out a letter to about 200 others, appealing for funds so that Simpson could continue his search for truth and his efforts to share his new understanding with others. The dearth of positive replies to the letter, and many negative replies, disappointed and hurt him, but they helped him to realize just how lonely and hard his new path would be:

* * *

My ultimate conclusion about it all was that friends who could not continue to believe in me through such decisions and changes of direction were simply not my friends. Such a course as I had followed was only what real understanding would expect of any man who was vitally alive and who, moreover, was resolved to put the claims of life absolutely first, regardless of cost or consequence.

The criticism of one of my friends, however, was constructive. Sterling Lamprecht, head of the Department of Philosophy at Amherst College, where he had heard me address the Amherst students some months before and answer their questions after the meeting, wrote me to express his conviction that for my own sake as much as for the good of some college I ought to have more sustained contact with a body of students. He would like to see me teach.

Well, I did not have much hope that any college would be willing to give me a place on its faculty, but I began to turn the idea over in my mind. I myself had found my brief contacts with student bodies unsatisfactory. My approach to life was so fundamentally different from that of most people that it was folly to hope for much real understanding from one meeting lasting but a few hours, or even from two or three such meetings …. I knew, too, that regularity of income would be a help, and that if I could effect some half-time arrangement it would not seriously interfere with my writing or my outside speaking ….

So early in May I drafted a letter in which 1 offered to teach any of several courses, chief among them the following: The High Trail, a largely biographical study of some of the great minds and souls of the race; Finding Oneself in the Modern World; The Mystical Experience, in which every great religion has had its origin; Culture and the Machine, a study of the effect of the machine on quality in human life and an effort to grapple with the enormous problems it has raised; and Aristocracy versus Democracy, the history and the philosophy behind these two principles, their emergence and conflict in the present world situation, and the issues at stake.

Copies of this letter I sent to four or five of my friends. Jack Darr at Scripps College in California was enthusiastic, but had only a counter proposal to offer: that I approach Pendle Hill, the Quaker school near Philadelphia, and Paul Jones at Antioch College. But I had spoken at Pendle Hill a year or two before, and rarely had I met with a response so dead ….

Paul Jones saw no place for me at Antioch, but he did invite me to be one of their panel of speakers, along with Dr. Jesse Holmes (professor emeritus of philosophy at Swarthmore) and Mr. Charles Taft (a brother of Robert Taft), at their annual Life’s Meaning Conference the following February, which led to a valuable experience. Chidsey at Lafayette College replied that few modern colleges could afford such a “luxury” as I should be, and that, anyway, he did not know of any faculty that would run the risk of the disturbance my presence on its campus would be liable to cause.

So my letters led to little. Perhaps I could have got a toehold if I had applied to some small college in the South or had made it a point to present myself in person. But this did not then occur to me. The letters helped principally to clinch my conviction, already more than half formed, that no conventional job requiring the approval of “the good and the wise” would be open to me. I had left the beaten track and sowed my wild oats, and though those wild oats might have been largely spiritual and intellectual, society would never forget or forgive: I would have to pay for it. A letter from Sterling Lamprecht that year made this evident.

* * *

Editor’s Note: Meanwhile, Simpson had begun 1937 with a determination to make himself as well informed as he possibly could about the new concerns — especially that for human quality — which had become foremost in his consciousness:

* * *

After Christmas [1936] … I went to New Haven for some months of concentrated study in the Yale University library. This was to prove of the greatest consequence for all the rest of my life. Again, as before, I had a little room in the Sailors’ Home. At the library I was given a corner to myself, and there I spent full days, every day, week after week.

My Christian inheritance and the socialistic values and sympathies that were so conspicuous throughout my Franciscan venture had left me with a bias against the physical and an inclination to favor everything based on the assumption that all men are equal. Nevertheless, even though for a long time my reactions had been kept largely beneath the surface of my consciousness, there had been going on for years a slow accumulation of observations, widening factual knowledge, and troubled reflections, which had at last brought me to the point where I knew that I must probe deep into biological realities and face squarely what I found there.

I had no one to introduce me to what the problems were. For the most part I discovered them by my own explorations. One thing led to another. But probably from the start, whether or not I then realized it, the basic question was whether men are, in fact, equal or are not. This cuts right through all questions to the very quick of human existence.

At the outset, too, I felt an understandable diffidence about my competence to reach reliable or significant conclusions in regard to problems in fields that I had received no specialized preparation for investigating. However, I believed I had fair general intelligence; and, layman or no layman, I was convinced I had to find out what kind of stuff our human world is really made of. I could not even chart the further course of my own life till I had reached some solid conclusions about this.

And both morally and logically this came first and must be settled before I could have anything to say about it to other people. Indeed, I think I must even then have had something of that sure instinct, which has since grown into conscious and very strong conviction, that no man has a right to take any stand on issues of such vast social consequence as those I was setting myself to explore, without first relentlessly and thoroughly testing his foundations in the same way I purposed to test mine ….

It is not too much to say that the work I did then, together with the continuing study I then projected and have since not only carried out but extended, has provided me with the solid foundation of factual knowledge and scientific method on which I have rested all my thinking in subsequent years, especially in regard to all problems having to do more or less with anthropology.

The problems on my mind at the time were, in particular, the physical and mental state of the American population; the differential birth-rate, by which our stocks of proven capacity are being outbred and supplanted by riff-raff; the genetic mechanism by which children inherit the components for certain distinguishing traits and levels or grades of capability, through their parents, from their ancestors; the comparative potency of heredity and environment as determining factors in the development of the individual; the possibilities of eugenics as a practical means of saving the Western world from what Professor E.A. Hooton called “biological sin”; and finally the question, even then touchy and now become so fearfully explosive, of race: Is it all an “illusion,” a mere “paint job,” as Professor Ashley Montagu termed it?

Or is it something real? And if so, how much does the reality finally matter? How about the racial differences in character and capacity as shown up in historical records of achievement and in test performances? And how about the wisdom of a “melting pot” policy as regards population, or of the marriage of men and women of races which, at least by all outward indications, are far apart?

Throughout my entire undertaking I was animated by a desire to strip all these questions of taboo and prejudice and to examine them in the light of the best-established facts I could find.

* * *

Editor’s Note: Even as he found answers to his questions during his studies at Yale in 1937, he continued to be troubled by the same forebodings which he had felt in 1931. If anything, his vision of the future had grown darker, and as he studied he became more convinced than before that mankind was approaching a crisis more dangerous and momentous than any it had yet faced.

In November 1936 he had gone on a speaking trip to Portland, Maine, where he had expressed his concerns for the future of the race:

* * *

I gave for the first time a talk I called “Aristocratic Radicalism,” in which I both attempted a critique of our society from the point of view of quality of life and ventured to lay down certain principles upon which alone I believed a culturally significant and enduring society could be built. There were certain reformative measures which, in my imagination, I could conceive as adequate to avert the catastrophe that hung over us; but I admitted that for me to present these remedies at such length was really inconsistent.

Talk of them was academic. For, search the field before me and scan the horizon as I might, I could discover no sign at all that anything would be done about a single one of them. The whole current of our day, in which we were caught, was sweeping us steadily toward disaster. We were like a canoe already feeling the suck of the waters at the very edge of the falls, and we talked about what we might yet do to get safely to shore.

It was too late. The situation was totally out of hand. There was no force, and no combination of forces, that could “save the situation.” Our society as a whole must go into the abyss.

Like others before me I also was reduced to what might conceivably be done with a remnant. My whole concern was with the few and the future. Today and tomorrow were already lost. But the few, who had the requisite vision and stamina, alone where necessary but preferably with others of like mind and spirit, must struggle to keep burning through the night and the storm that were ahead the light of the richest cultural heritage of our past, that when at last the new dawn came and men began to build again, they might have to guide them the wisdom that ages of human experience had proved soundest and most significant.

* * *

Source: National Vanguard magazine, March 1984, pages 15-20

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