The Way to Flatland

by Fabian Franklin

“The next great task of preventive medicine is the inauguration of universal periodic medical examinations as an indispensable means for the control of all diseases, whether arising from injurious personal habits, from congenital or constitutional weakness, or from social and vocational conditions.” That this declaration by the Commissioner of Health of the city of New York is not the mere expression of an individual opinion, there is abundant evidence. And no one who has watched the growth of other movements towards such regulation of life as only a few years ago would have seemed wholly outside the domain of practical probability can doubt that the “Life Extension” movement, as thus outlined, will rapidly grow into prominence. Nor is there much room for doubt that, whether explicitly contemplated at present or not, compulsion as well as universality is tacitly implied in the movement.

I say that the movement is sure to grow into prominence, that it is a thing which must be seriously reckoned with; I do not say that it will march straight on to victory, or even that it is sure to prevail in the end. It is instructive, in this regard, to hark back to a recent experience in a more special, but yet an extremely important, domain. Several years ago a report on university efficiency was issued under the auspices—though, it should be added, without the official endorsement—of the Carnegie Foundation. The central feature of this report lay in its advocacy of the application to universities of those principles of system and of standardization which have been successfully applied on a large scale to the promotion of industrial efficiency, and are generally referred to by the catch-word, “scientific management.” In spite of the merits of the report in certain matters of detail, and of the high standing of the expert who wrote it in his own department of industrial engineering, the report evoked an almost universal chorus of contemptuous rejection not only in university circles, but also from those organs of public opinion which have any claim to be regarded as enlightened judges in questions of education and culture. The thing seemed to have been laughed out of court. And yet it turned out that a year or two afterwards a full-fledged scheme for carrying out some of the crudest and most objectionable features of this “efficiency” program was presented to the professors of Harvard University, apparently with the expectation that they would fall in with its requirements without hesitation or protest. For some days there seemed to be real danger that this would actually happen. It turned out to be a false alarm; the faculty of the foremost of American universities were guilty of no such supineness. The project was ignominiously shelved, with some sort of explanation that the springing of it on the professors was due to an error or misunderstanding. But that the attempt should have been made, and in a manner that argued so total a lack of any sense of its grossness and crudity, is a significant warning of the extent to which the notions underlying it have fastened upon the general mind.

The story of the eugenics movement in this country affords a striking illustration at once of the almost startling rapidity with which innovating ideas as to the regulation of life gain acceptance, and of the fact that this rapidity is by no means conclusive proof that their progress will be continuous. The one thing clear is that there is a large, active, and influential element in the population that is extremely hospitable to such ideas, and manifests a naïve, an almost childish, readiness to put them into immediate execution. Since, in the nature of things, this element is lively and active—since, too, what is novel and in motion is more interesting than what is old and at rest—at first there is almost sure to be produced a deceptive appearance that the new thing is sweeping everything before it. Just now there is evidently a lull in the onward march of legislative eugenics. This is sufficient proof of the conservatism of the people as a whole; we may be quite sure that anything beyond a very restricted application of eugenical notions will take a long time to get itself established in our laws or even in our customs. Nevertheless, it would be a great mistake to suppose that even the more extreme forms of eugenical doctrine are not forces to be reckoned with as affecting practical possibilities of a not distant future. Though no results may appear on the surface, the leaven is working. It is consonant with tendencies which in so many directions are becoming more and more dominant. So long as those tendencies continue in anything like their present strength, there can be little doubt that the idea of control in the direction of eugenics, like that of the regulation of human life in other fundamental respects, will continue to make headway, and may at any time become one of the central issues of the day.

To adduce prohibition as an illustration of this same character in the thought and the tendencies of our immediate time may seem like forcing the point. It is true, it may be said, that there has been within the past few years a rapid spread of prohibition in almost every part of the country; but the thing itself is sixty years old, has had its periods of advance and recession, and is now, in the fullness of time, reaping the fruits of two generations of agitation, investigation, and education. But to say this is to overlook the distinctive feature of the present situation regarding prohibition in the United States. A Constitutional amendment providing for the complete prohibition of the sale of liquor throughout the Union is pending in Congress. A year ago—probably six months ago—there was hardly a human being in the United States, other than those in the councils of the Anti-saloon League, who had so much as thought of national prohibition as a question of present-day practical politics. Suddenly it is announced that there is a distinct possibility of a prohibition amendment being passed by Congress in the near future; and one of the foremost representatives of the Anti-saloon League states, and with good show of reason, that if the amendment be passed by Congress, its ratification by the Legislatures of three fourths of the States can be only a matter of time. What the probabilities actually are, I do not undertake to say; neither am I concerned at this moment with the merits of the issue itself. What I am concerned with is the simple fact that in this situation, brought upon the country with dramatic suddenness, nobody seems to have been in the least startled, or so much as disturbed in his equanimity. There will of course be a great struggle over the question, sooner or later. But neither in Congress nor in the press has there as yet been any sign of such an assertion of the claims of personal liberty as, at any time previous to the past ten years, would have been sure to be made in such a situation. This collective silence, on an issue affecting so intimately the lives, the habits, the traditions of millions of people, is, in my judgment, by far the most impressive proof of the degree in which the public mind has grown accustomed to the inroads of regulation upon the domain of individuality.


A number of years ago, when the mathematical concept of space of more than three dimensions was attracting great popular interest, an ingenious writer undertook to make the idea intelligible to “the general” by picturing the state of mind in regard to three dimensions of a race of beings whose life and whose sensual experience was limited to space of two dimensions. He gave his little book the title “Flatland,” and it gained wide attention. In his Commencement address at Columbia last year, President Butler had the happy thought of applying the term in the characterization of certain aspects of the intellectual and political life of our time. He was speaking particularly of that absorption in the immediate problems of the day which makes almost impossible a true study and contemplation of the lasting concerns of mankind as embodied in history and literature. “Every ruling tendency,” he said, “is to make life a Flatland, an affair of two dimensions, with no depth, no background, no permanent root.” That this is a literal truth probably neither Dr. Butler nor anyone else would contend; but it hits off with great force and with substantial accuracy the prevailing character of thought in the circles most active and most influential in almost every department of human activity at the present time. And the tendency which President Butler describes as arising out of our absorption in current problems is still more manifest in the spirit of our actual dealings with those problems themselves. On every hand we find a surprising readiness to accept views which explicitly tend to take out of life that which gives it depth and significance and richness. Each one of the four movements we have mentioned affords an illustration of this: in following any one of them we travel straight toward Flatland. They differ very much, one from another; they have very different degrees and kinds of justification; it may be difficult in the case of some of them to strike a balance between the gain and the loss. The remarkable thing—the ominous thing, if we are to suppose that the present tone of thought will long persist—is that the loss involved in the flattening of life, as such, apparently almost wholly fails to get consideration. I say apparently, because there is, no doubt, a deep and strong undercurrent of opposition which, sooner or later, will manifest itself; in speaking of “ruling tendencies” we are apt to mean merely the tendencies that are most in evidence. But after all, it is to these that criticism of contemporary life and thought must, of necessity, be chiefly directed.

As I have already indicated, the attack on individuality and personal dignity in the universities was met in a spirit that is highly gratifying, and which is quite out of keeping with the tendency that I am discussing and deploring. Yet it is doubtful whether, outside the circle of the universities themselves, and of those individuals who are thoroughly imbued with the university spirit, there is any true realization of what it is that constituted the head and front of that offending. If some bureau of research were to present a formidable array of figures showing that the “output” of professorial work could be increased by so and so many per cent. through the adoption of some definitely formulated system of “scientific management,” it is by no means certain that the scheme would not receive powerful support in the highest quarters of efficiency propaganda. We should be told just how many millions of dollars a year we are spending on university education, and just how many of these millions go needlessly to waste. Even the opponents of the “reform” would probably find themselves compelled to use as their most powerful argument this and that example of great practical results which have flowed from letting men of genius go their own way. It would be pointed out that many an investigation which, to the authorities of the time, appeared wholly unpromising, turned out to be of cardinal value. We should be warned that what we gain in a thousand cases through time-clock and card-catalogue methods, might be lost ten times over through the shackling of the initiative of a single man of unrecognized genius. And all this would be very much to the purpose; but it is not upon any such special pleading that the case ought to be made to rest. The loss that would be suffered transcends all these concrete and definable instances of it. It would be pervasive, fundamental, immeasurable. Grievous as might be the injury caused by the prevention of specific achievements of exceptional importance, this would be as nothing in comparison with the intellectual and spiritual loss entailed by the lowering of the human level, the devitalizing of the intellectual atmosphere, which must inevitably follow upon the application of factory methods to university life.


The case of the eugenics propaganda is far more complex. In its origin, and doubtless in some of its present manifestations, it may lay claim to being directed toward aims which are particularly concerned with the higher interests of life. The author of “Hereditary Genius” certainly could not be accused of indifference to the part played in the past, or to be played in the future, by exceptional minds and characters; nor is it necessary to charge any of the present promoters of the propaganda with explicit failure to appreciate the importance of such minds and characters. The criticism is often made, from this standpoint, that the hard-and-fast rules which the eugenists propose would, in point of fact, have put under the ban some of the most illustrious names in the annals of mankind—men whose genius was accompanied with some of the very traits which they hold should most positively be prevented from appearing. But, however weighty this objection to the methods of eugenics may be, it is to be looked upon rather as an item on the debit side of the reckoning than as marking an ingrained defect, a fault at the very heart of the matter. The eugenists may well challenge those who urge merely this kind of objection to show that the losses thus pointed out are great enough to offset the gains, in the very same direction, which they regard their program as promising. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, they can at least set up the contention that, as a mere affair of quantity, genius will do better under their system than without it.

What brings the eugenics movement into the Flatland category is not its attitude toward the question of genius, or perhaps even of singularity, but its attitude toward the life of mankind as a whole—if indeed it can be said to have any attitude toward the life of mankind as a whole. The profound elements of that life seem not to come at all within the range of its contemplation. Of course this does not apply to everything that comes from the eugenics camp, nor to every person that calls himself a eugenist. But on the other hand it is by no means only of the crude projects of half-educated reformers, or the outgivings of the prophets of our popular magazines, that it is true. The agitation has derived much of its impetus, directly or indirectly, from the teachings of men of high scientific eminence who have attacked the question without any apparent realization of its deeper bearings on the whole character of human life. This influence often comes in the shape of exhortations, or suggestions, addressed to the public at a time when attention is centered upon some conspicuous crime or some particular phase of evil in the community; sweeping and radical regulation of the right of parenthood being urged as necessary for the prevention of all such distressing phenomena. Thus, after the attempted assassination of Mayor Gaynor, there was much talk of a “national campaign for mental hygiene,” which should have the effect of “preventing Czolgoszes and Schranks.” Its program was thus indicated by one of the foremost professors of medicine in the United States:

Provision must be made for the birth of children whose brains shall, so far as possible, be innately of good quality; this means the denial of the privilege of parenthood to those likely to transmit bad nervous systems to their offsprings.

What the carrying out of such a programme would mean to mankind at large, how profoundly it would modify those ideas about life, those standards of human dignity and human rights, which are so fundamental and so pervasive that they are taken for granted without express thought in every act and every feeling of all normal men and women—this does not seem ever to trouble the mind of the devotee of universal regulation. He sees the possibility of effecting a certain definite and measurable improvement; that the means by which this is accomplished must fatally impair those elemental conceptions of human life whose value transcends all measurement, he has not the insight or the imagination to recognize. The distinctions of social class, of wealth, of public honor, leave untouched the equality of men in the fundamentals of human dignity. They do not go to the vitals of self-respect; they do not interfere with a man’s sense of what is due to him, and what is due from him, in the primary relations of life. If nature has been unkind to him in his physical or mental endowments, he does not therefore feel in the least disqualified, as regards his family, his friends, his neighbors, the stranger with whom he chances to come into contact, from receiving the same kind of consideration, in the essentials of human intercourse, that is accorded to those who are more fortunate; nor does he feel in any respect absolved from the duty of playing the full part of a man. Under the régime of medical classification—and the “mental hygiene” programme can mean nothing less than that—all this would disappear. Some men would be men, others would be something less. It is true that, so far as regards the imbecile, the insane, and the criminal, such a state of things obtains as it is; but this stands wholly apart from the general life of the race, and has no influence whatever on the habitual feelings and experiences of human beings. The normal life of mankind is shot through and through with the idea that a man’s a man; all that is highest in feeling and conduct is closely bound up with it. Lessen its sway over our feelings and thoughts and instincts, and how much benefit in the shape of “preventing Czolgoszes and Schranks” would be required to compensate for the loss in nobleness, in depth, which human life would suffer?


The prohibition movement belongs, in the main, to a wholly different order of things. The fight against the evils of drink, as it has been carried on for a century or more, has been animated by a moral fervor which classes it rather with the fight against slavery, or with the great revivals of religion, than with those movements which owe their origin to a calculating and cold-blooded perfectionism. Its leaders have been fired with the ardor of a war directed against a devastating monster, to whose ravages was to be ascribed a large part of the misery and wickedness that afflict mankind. It is true that the economic and physiological aspects of the drink question were not ignored; the total-abstinence men were glad enough to have this second string to their bow. But the real fight was not against alcohol as one of many things concerning which the habits of men are more or less unwise; it was a fight against the Demon Rum, the ally of all the powers of darkness. The plea of the moderate drinker was rejected with scorn, not because there was any objection to moderate drinking in itself, but because total abstinence was the only true preventive of drunkenness, and drunkenness must be stamped out if mankind was to be saved. The moderate drinker was censured not because he was wasting his money, or failing to “conserve his efficiency,” but because for the sake of a trivial self-indulgence he was giving countenance to a practice which was consigning millions of his fellow men to wretchedness in this world and to everlasting damnation in the next.

Now this remarkable thing about the present extraordinary manifestation of growth and strength in the prohibition movement is that it is not in the least due to a strengthening of this sentiment. On the contrary, it is safe to say that feeling about drunkenness, about the drink evil in the sense in which it was understood a generation ago, is far less intense than it was then. The prohibition movement in its present stage is not the old prohibition movement advancing to triumph through the onward march of its proselyting zeal; of true prohibitionist zealots the number is probably less, in proportion to the population, than it was forty years ago. Its great accession of strength has come from the growth of that order of ideas which is common to all the “efficiency” movements of the time. And that growth helps it in two ways. On the one hand, to the little army of crusaders against the Demon Rum there has come the accession of a host of men who are not thinking about demons at all, but who calmly hold that the world would be better off without drinking, and that this is an all-sufficient reason for prohibiting it. And on the other hand, millions of persons who, in former days would have cried out against this way of improving the world—against the impairment of personal liberty and the sacrifice of social enjoyment and social variety—have no longer the courage of their convictions. The temper of the time is unfavorable to the assertion of the value of things so incapable of numerical measurement. Against the heavy battalions led by the statisticians, and the experimental psychologists, and the efficiency experts, what chance is there for successful resistance? On the opposing side can be rallied only such mere irregulars as are willing to fight for airy nothings—for the zest and colorfulness of life, for sociability and good fellowship, for preserving to each man access to those resources of relaxation and refreshment which, without injury to others, he finds conducive to his own happiness.


It is hardly necessary to say that, in taking up these various movements, no attempt has been made at anything like comprehensive discussion of their merits. Whatever may be the balance between good and ill in any of them, they all have in common one tendency that bodes danger to the highest and most permanent interests of mankind; and it is with this alone that I am concerned. What that tendency is has, I trust, been made sufficiently clear; but it will perhaps be brought out more distinctly by a consideration of the “Life Extension” propaganda more detailed and specific than that given to the other three.

Conspicuous in the literature of this propaganda is the appeal to standard modern practice in regard to machinery. “Those to whom the care of delicate mechanical apparatus is entrusted,” says the New York Commissioner of Health, “do not wait until a breakdown occurs, but inspect and examine the apparatus minutely, at regular intervals, and thus detect the first signs of damage.” “This principle of periodic inspection,” says the prospectus of the Life Extension Institute, “has for many years been applied to almost every kind of machinery, except the most marvelous and complex of all,—the human body.” To find fault with the drawing of this comparison, with the utilization of this analogy, would be foolish. That many persons would be greatly benefited by submitting to these inspections is certain; it is not impossible that they are desirable for most persons. And the analogy of the inspection of machinery serves excellently the purpose of suggesting such desirability. What is objectionable about its use by the Life Extension propagandists is their evident complacent satisfaction with the analogy as complete and conclusive. Yet nothing is more certain than that, even from the strictly medical standpoint, it ignores an essential distinction between the case of the man and the case of the machine. The machine is affected only by the measures that may be taken in consequence of the knowledge arising from the inspection; the man is affected by that knowledge itself. Whether the possible physical harm that may come to a man from having his mind disturbed by solicitude about his health is important or unimportant in comparison with the good that is likely to be done him by the following of the precautions or remedies prescribed, is a question of fact to which the answer varies in every individual case. It may be that in the great majority of cases the harm is insignificant in comparison with the good. However that may be, the question is there, and it is of itself fatal to the conclusiveness of the argumentum ex machina. That this is not a captious criticism, that it is based on substantial facts of life, ordinary experience sufficiently attests; but it may not be amiss to point to a conspicuous contemporary phenomenon which throws an interesting light on the matter. The Christian Scientists regard the ignoring of disease as the primary requisite for health and longevity. That the Christian Science doctrine is a sheer absurdity, no one can hold more emphatically than the present writer; but it cannot be denied that in thousands of cases its acceptance has been of physical benefit through its subjective effect upon the believer. Personally, I would not purchase any benefit to my physical life at such sacrifice of my intellectual integrity; I mention the point only by way of accentuating the undisputed fact that the presence or absence of concern about health may have a potent influence on one’s bodily welfare.

Although it is a still further digression from the main purpose of this paper, I must permit myself a few words on another point relating to the strictly medical claims of the plan of “universal periodic medical examination.” It is natural that its advocates say nothing about the danger of errors in diagnosis; everybody knows that this danger exists, but sensible men do not allow it to deter them from consulting a physician; in this, as in other affairs of life, they do not cry for the moon, but do the best they can. But it seems to be wholly overlooked by the advocates of the propaganda of “universal periodic examination” that the extent of this danger under present conditions affords no indication at all of what it would be under the system they contemplate. Its cardinal virtue, they constantly proclaim, would be the detection of the very slightest indication of impairment: “The task before us is to discover the first sign of departure from the normal physiological path, and promptly and effectually to apply the brake.” The consequence must necessarily be that for one case of false alarm that occurs today there will be a score, or a hundred, under the new régime. For, in the first place, the individuals seeking advice will not be, as they now are in the main, selected cases in which there is some antecedent presumption that there is something wrong; and secondly, the examiner, bent upon the one great object of overlooking nothing, however slight, will give warnings which, whether technically justifiable or not, will in great numbers of cases have a wholly unjustifiable significance to the mind of the subject. Who shall say how many persons will thus be made to carry through life a burden of solicitude about their health from which, if left to their own devices, they would have been wholly free?

But it is not my design to find fault with this scheme as a matter of medical benefit; if I have ventured to point out some drawbacks, it is only by way of showing that, even from the strictly medical standpoint the cult of uniformity, of standardization, of mechanical perfection, is not free from fault. But the great objection against that attitude of mind which is typified in the appeal to the analogy of machinery is far more vital. Our only interest in a machine is that we shall get out of it as much, and as exact, work as possible. Our interest in our bodies is not so limited. We may deliberately choose to forego the maximum of mechanical perfection for the sake of living our lives in a way more satisfactory to us than a constant care for that perfection would permit. Even the most ardent of health enthusiasts—unless he be an insane fanatic—draws the line somewhere. What he forgets is that other people prefer to draw the line somewhere else. They choose to run a certain amount of risk rather than have their health on their minds. To compel—whether by legal means or by social pressure—every man to take precautions concerning his own body which he deliberately prefers not to take; to make impossible, in this most intimate and personal of all human concerns, the various ways of acting which the infinite varieties of temperament and desire may dictate—this would be such an invasion of personal liberty, such a suppression of individuality, as would strike us all as appalling, had we not grown so habituated to the mechanical, the statistical, measurement of human values—to the Flatland view of life.


What gives to these movements that I have been discussing the character which I have been ascribing to them is not so much the specific things which they severally aim to accomplish, but the spirit in which they are carried on, and perhaps still more the spirit, or want of spirit, with which they are met. It is not that a balance is falsely struck between the benefit of the concrete, circumscribed, measurable improvement aimed at and the injury done to some deeper, more pervading, and quite immeasurable element or principle of life; it is that the balance is not struck at all. The subtler, the less tangible, element is simply ignored. It was not always so. It was not so in the last generation, or the generation before that. The phenomenon is one that is closely bound up with the ruling tendency of thought and action in all directions; it is not an accident of this or that particular agitation. Perhaps in no direction is it more convincingly manifested than in the prevailing tone of opinion, or at least of publicly expressed opinion, in regard to the objects and ideals of universities. That in the present state of the world’s economic and social development on the one hand, and of the various sciences on the other, “service”—that is, service directly conducive to the general good—should be regarded as one of the great objects of universities, is altogether right; that it should be spoken of as their only object, which is the ruling fashion, is most deplorable. The object of a university, said Mill, is to keep philosophy alive; yet it would go hard with the present generation to point to any one more truly and profoundly devoted to the service, the uplifting, of the masses of mankind than was John Stuart Mill. Were he living he would recognize, as thoroughly as the best efficiency man of them all, that the universities of today have opportunities and duties which were undreamed of half a century ago. But he would know, too, that in those activities which are directed to the promotion of practical efficiency, the university is but one of many agencies, and that if it were not doing the work some other means would be found for supplying the demand. Its paramount value he would find now, as he did then, in the service it renders not to the ordinary needs of the community but to the higher intellectual interests and strivings of mankind. That so few of us have the courage clearly to assert a position even distantly approaching this—such a position as was mere matter of course among university men in the last generation—is perhaps the most significant of all the indications of our drift toward Flatland.