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Activist Educators

by Sam Totten - 1982

This article summarizes educational activities of various sorts undertaken by antinuclear groups across the nation. Activists were interviewed to determine their motivations, aims, and hopes, and the work of scientific and medical activist groups, the nuclear freeze movement, religious groups, and educational organizations is noted. (Source: ERIC)

In his “Life of Milton,” Samuel Johnson writes of Socrates that it was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life; hut the innovators whom I oppose are turning off attention from life to nature. They seem to think that WC are placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the tars. Socrates was rather of opinion, that what we had to learn was, how to do good, and avoid evil. . . . The first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong.

Catherine Roberts makes this religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong her point of departure in her criticism of the methods and goals of contemporary biology and medicine, and at first sight it may appear that she is simply changing the subject from science to religion and morality. In fact, she is writing as a scientist trying, in Johnson’s idiom, to bring life back to nature, to awaken the scientific conscience. She rejects the methods of experimental research on animals without any compassionate regard to their needs and welfare, and she rejects the goals of value-free and objective knowledge of life and health without regard to its meaning for and impact on the human being who knows it. Life for man is not definable merely in biochemical and neurological terms, nor as the functioning of an organism oriented to material goals alone Man is unintelligible to himself except as spirit, related to his fellow human beings, and to every single living creature of every species, through his relation to the divine Good from which he has come and to which he shall return. For lack of a fixed starting point in this relationship, therefore, the movement of contemporary biomedicine is morally speaking a vortex, unable because unwilling to make value judgments about its significance and its goals. Its inhumanity to animals, in savage and needless experiments comparable to those of Nazi medicine on humans, violates not only those animals but the conscience and integrity of the experimenters and of the scientific community and the general public that consents to the research and profits from it or that in revulsion from it loses faith in the humanity of science and scientists. It violates animals and mankind alike; it violates life, our life together before the God who is the Life itself by which we live. Also, in regarding the dying as an opportunity to practice new life-support or pharmacological techniques or as a source of organ material for transplantation, she says, medicine ignores the truth that death is not just the termination of physical existence but its highest point, a spiritual change, taking one back to one’s source in the divine.

As regards animal experimentation in particular, she would reverse the words of Charles W. Eliot of Harvard: “The humanity which would prevent human suffering is a deeper and truer humanity than the humanity which would save pain or death in the animal.” What deep and true humanity can there be, she would ask, in preventing human suffering by the means of suffering inhumanly inflicted on animals with the brutality and scale that we see-if we are willing to look at it—practiced in contemporary research? It is not human to pursue the extended life and material comfort of human beings by simply any means whatever, any more than it is good to do simply anything that good may come. Even if, as Macbeth says, things bad begun make strong themselves by ill, this cannot justify them. Sheer strength, health, survival, painlessness, and comfort are lesser goods than justice and love toward our fellow creatures. It is justice and love that are the true humanity, the true human arete or excellence. Indeed, so Roberts argues, they are the true life. Let the biologist study these first, and the rest will be his as well.

There must be a renewal of conscience if there is to be any genuine science of life and art of healing, and this life and healing must be understood with reference to the good of man not merely as he is in himself but as he is related to the divine Good-Roberts’s Platonic expression for the divine origin, measure, and goal of all that lives-and through this Good to every other living creature. The biologist must study life at its highest and best, in the more abundant life of saints and heroes, and he must become what he studies. He must be transformed into the likeness of the humility, restraint, kindness, fairness, and brotherhood that he knows. Like is known only by like. And he must bring these virtues, the presupposition and goal of his investigation, to the nature that he investigates. His understanding of it requires of him, as Kierkegaard would say, a prior understanding with it, as to his kinship with all that lives and his responsibility to each for each. Noblesse oblige: As privilege implies duty, so the biologist needs “a harmonious, compassionate, and righteous relation with” the innocent and vulnerable creatures that he makes his concern and care.

He shall approach them with the recognition that human life, and indeed all life, originates in the divine and must return to it “to complete its cycle,” that the goal of evolution is “the spiritualization of matter through the final return of the created to the uncreated Good from which it came.” Life is a spiritual ascent that “no power on earth can stop.” Indeed, the spiritualization of biology, so Roberts argues in her final chapter, is itself an evolutionary imperative.

Roberts boldy treats this necessity as a principle of evolutionary biology, but one might ask if it amounts to a prediction of the future evolution of mankind and other species with him (refutable, say, by a cosmic catastrophe) so much as a religious and moral demand for the present self-transcendence or fulfillment of human individuals. Is spirit a result, or a way? Is it perhaps an active vision of the unity of all life?

She argues that the biologist must raise all living creatures to the divine Good, as a condition and consequence of his own ascent, and mankind’s: “He is rising in order to help others to rise, and . . . all must rise for the sake of the cosmic Good.” What more does this mean than treating all living things with reverence and love, revering and loving the presence of life in them? So far as we know, she admits, other creatures lack conscience and at any rate explicit knowledge of the Good. Man as biologist can impart this knowledge to his fellow human beings, but can he share it with the cat, to say nothing of the amoeba? Roberts says that he must become more than man, but perhaps it is rather that he must become more fully human, more humane in his respect for every other species, helping each to realize its own arete. He is fully human only when the cat is fully feline-not caged, starved, blinded, emasculated, and so forth. How then does he raise the cat to the Good, or help it to evolve with him, to transcend itself into the divine? Is it perhaps by becoming the eye and the heart of the cat and the amoeba, raising them, as some medieval philosophers have said, in the love of God for one another with which he loves them, in the timeless vision of God with which he sees them, in which God creates every single one and gathers them all into himself again?

The book is well written and deeply felt. The argument is lucid and detailed, and draws on such writers as Michael Polanyi, Alistair Hardy, and E. F. Schumacher, and especially Plotinus and Plato. Like Socrates, Catherine Roberts refutes rather than proves. She points to a possibility, shows its goodness and desirability, and makes one feel its necessity. Exposing excuses and evasions, she gives us courage to believe in the religious and moral unity of life, and (following R. H. Blyth) to say to our rationalistic doubts what Hamlet says to Horatio and Marcellus, “Unhand me, gentlemen. By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets [SC. stays] me!” At any rate she has made a powerful case that a better biologist must be a better human being. If this does not quite mean that he shall do no more animal research whatever, it does mean that he shall learn to do it with more restraint and compassion, with more humility and reverence, which is to say, with more humanity.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 1, 1982, p. 199-209
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 776, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:35:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Sam Totten
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    SAM TOTTEN is a doctoral candidate at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is currently completing two books on the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear war: Atomic Activists: Their Stories (with Martha Wescoat Totten), and Times of Crisis, Pilgrimages of Faith.
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