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The inside of the open mind.


A MIDDLE-AGED Reserve Ensign once had the unwonted honor of sitting at the same table with an editor of the New Republic and remarked of that sprightly organ, “The trouble is you represent an irresponsible openmindedness.” It was a shock to find the observation accepted as an unqualified compliment. The irresponsible, which meant a good deal to the Ensign meant almost nothing to the editor. At the word openmindedness he beamed like a child. The seafarer had had the bad luck not to be understood and the good luck of blundering upon the sweetest of words to a modern editor’s ears. In idolizing openmindedness of whatever sort the editors merely echo the times. All young people regard openmindedness as axiomatically desirable, like health or physical cleanliness. The mind cannot be too much open or too constantly. Every wind of the Time Spirit must blow in lustily. The door of the mind must never be closed lest some worthy idea be excluded. In the words of the apostle to the Gentiles we are to “prove all things,” at least for the half minute or so between their entering and quitting our hospitably open minds.

It surprised the middle-aged man of the sea that so few nowadays read to the end of the Apostle’s sentence. “Hold fast that which is good” seems a sentiment unhonored and almost unknown. On reflection this appeared in keeping with the ideal of unlimited openmindedness now prevailing. The notion, as is so often the case in all social estimates, is purely quantitative. Evidently if you hold fast that which is good, you reduce the mind’s capacity for entertaining novelties. Every conviction inside, perforce excludes a certain number of appeals from the outside. Thus the mind becomes less open. By acquiring a single principle, you may lose half a dozen fads. For a mind requiring the daily fillip of novelty, so uneven an exchange is unthinkable. It was doubtless for such reasons that the flattered editor of an eminently openminded journal rejoiced in the irresponsibility attributed to him. It was the acknowledgment of his receptiveness, as the emptiness of a stomach is the guarantee of its ready response to a cocktail.

One or two similar adventures ashore set the seagoing philosopher to studying the entire technique of openmindedness. His endeavor to chart it is here given for what it may be worth. His first and very obvious discovery was that only young people and radicals of various ages were completely openminded. This did not amaze him. He knew well enough that the mind hardens with the arteries. Very young ensigns often had amazing short cuts in navigation, which he hadn’t. He knew those were the better methods, but he followed his own worse ones, as good enough for him. In short he was middleaged and knew he was. He was openminded, in that he was glad the time-saving computations had been invented, but closeminded in that he felt his ways good enough to last out his day. In short he accepted with equanimity the evident fact that he was becoming a back number, and wished well to those who were superseding him. This seemed a reasonably openminded attitude, combining as it did acknowledgment of his own limitations, and acceptance of his own past, with some appreciation of new ideas.

SUCH COMPLACENCY WAS soon disturbed by the discovery that his own autumnal openmindedness was entirely unlike the vernal sort now in vogue. It was soon seen that the open mind of youth opened only in one direction namely, towards the present and future. Indeed the present hardly found entrance. Towards the past all generous youthful minds were tight closed, largely through ignorance, as it seemed. Nobody knew much about the past. It was covered in comprehensive disapproval as a period of “capitalistic exploitation.” There was no wisdom in the world, and no justice, until a matter of two generations ago, when certain sages began to be “socially minded.” This picture of the past was found to be very common. The view could be symbolized for the middle-aged mariner under the similitude of a barrel of spoiled “salt horse” bearing the terse legend “condemned.” About such a metaphor, the historic sense of our youth invokes to cover some three thousand years of struggle towards civilization. There was neither admission of any achievement in the past nor any charity for its too evident shortcomings. It was simply wrong a thing to be thrown overboard as soon as youth should get its rightful control of things. The future, on the contrary, was going to be completely bright and right. For this good reason the up-to-date mind should open only in that direction.

The point of view was clear enough to the investigator, yet he recalled that on shipboard the future did not take care of itself. It had to be planned for in the light of rising or falling barometer, direction, force and quality of the wind, currents, or reefs known or supposed to be ahead. To cope with this prosaic future of the navigator a distinct estimate of situation and technical preparation therefor were necessary. Accordingly he began to study just what preparation openminded youth was making for its future. He found, somewhat to his dismay, that about the only resource of youth as coming arbiter, was the universal conviction that the past was all wrong, and that the future would be all right because youth had attained the right state of mind. Generally the emphasis was on knocking things down. The taint of the past in the present was irritating to the socially minded. Clear away existing ideas and institutions, and the resultant wilderness will quickly blossom like the rose. Such seemed to be about the only discernible program.

As regards the future, everybody felt competent to cope with it as it came along, not because he had any plan – few had plans, and these clashed confusingly – but because he knew he was in the right state of mind.
Some study of this right state of mind seemed indispensable for one who, not having it himself, might have to live a matter of twenty years yet among those who had. Apart from a frank contempt of whatever past civilization had achieved, it came down to a boundless hopeful curiosity. Take up with anything new, tie up to nothing was the actual practice. The trial marriage of untrue minds was clearly the ideal sought for, and in many cases successfully attained. The guide of life seemed chiefly the expectancy that something would turn up. Since something always does, the old difficult problems of wisdom, duty, and happiness seemed solved by a formula of easy and universal application. Just what turned up was supposed to matter almost as little as what had actually turned up in the past. It sufficed that something should always be entering the portals of the open mind.

‘Many of the quite open minds were also rather empty. Empty not from lack of intelligence, but from deliberate choice: the fear being that if the inside of the mind were occupied, there would be less room for newcomers in the way of ideas.’

AT FIRST BLUSH the programme was attractive. Life – one long novelty and hope – what better could be wished ? For a moment the observer was inclined to shed a tear over his departed youth, and pay homage to a spirit which he could no longer completely share. Then his attention turned once more to the relation between the open mind and the ideas it entertained. It troubled him to find that many of the quite open minds were also rather empty. Empty not from lack of intelligence, but from deliberate choice: the fear being that if the inside of the mind were occupied, there would be less room for newcomers in the way of ideas. Thus the mind would be less open, or at least its openness less effective. This clearing the mental house had the result that new ideas never stayed. They entered ill assorted and unacquainted with each other, found nobody at home, stared suspiciously at each other, and departed as they had come. Meanwhile the owner of the open mind was heartened by the gratification of keeping intellectual open house. It all reminded the onlooker of a youthful experience. He was once asked by a casual mate to come on to a reception held by a peculiarly obnoxious and inordinately wealthy politician. Declining the opportunity on the ground that he didn’t want to know the host, he was told: “Nobody has to know him; he’s just there if anybody wants to meet him.” In some such tentative sense, the owner of an unqualifiedly open mind is “at home” to new ideas.

There once was a new and enterprizing restauranteur who, by hiring a well-dressed man and woman to walk about in his glass turnstile, produced a pleasing illusion of frequentation. Of course the gentleman and lady who thus simulated a throng were technically inside the restaurant once every turn, but only technically. Of many minds this is a true symbol. Ideas never get inside at all, but revolve and pirouette deceptively about the portal.

What you open the mind upon may matter as much as what you open it to. Suppose you merely open it upon a jumble of receptivities. Thus at a pinch you can be amused for a lifetime, but in the end he who is amused will be just nobody. Descartes conceived the bold idea of denying all his received convictions, thus creating a clean slate on which his new philosophy should be written. Meanwhile he had to live, so he took the sensible course of deciding to keep on as if he were a Christian and a gentleman. This temporary body of convictions he was quite willing to let go whenever he should have a new set of thoroughly grounded principles to replace the old. He plainly saw the folly of trying to live through the formation of a new philosophy, without some mental and moral provision for his todays and tomorrows. He is an example of the reasonable use of openmindedness.

Unless there be some stock of principles, and even prejudices, there is no test for new ideas. They simply come and go. That a new idea is strong enough to supplant an old one is the very mark of its worth. This implies struggle, comparison, experience, judgment. A new idea thus adopted becomes a part of the man. One would no more discard it lightly than he would a leg or an arm. A mind replenished in this fashion becomes richer and stronger, without waiver of flexibility. With each change, the man comes nearer the truth that is his own. Each new principle has a greater validity than the one it replaced. The process becomes one of simplification, a weeding out of the less valuable. But the very condition of such a progress is that the mind should always contain something that is valued. It is the ultimate grace of a mind to be always ready to yield for cause, but the surrender has no meaning except that which it gains from the tenacity with which the ceded ground was once held.

‘A man who has neither respect for his own past nor for that of the human race can do little thinking worthy of the name. He may change, he cannot progress.’

IT IS NO easy thing to live handsomely in the world of ideas. The task is not for fretful or merely curious persons. Except on condition of reverence for received ideas, it cannot even be well begun. A man who has neither respect for his own past nor for that of the human race can do little thinking worthy of the name. He may change, he cannot progress. What is monstrous about the modern openmindedness is its inhumanity. Has mankind travailed for hundreds of thousand years to attain a modicum of wisdom and civilization only to be mocked or ignored? I have seen children whose father was a week dead, fox-trotting merrily. It wasn’t a pretty sight. In explanation I was told that they had never loved their father, who was an unamiable person, and that they couldn’t bear to miss the best dance of the season. The incident is a parable of the insatiateness of certain light and empty minds. Whether such minds are open or closed, matters not at all. Their existence is the real misfortune.

There is no need to overemphasize the ugliness of a certain vagabond type of mentality. It is better to dwell on its unfairness, and that shall be my parting theme. Ideas, whether new or old, have cost somebody pains. The world is mostly made up of people who have a personal stake in thinking straight. They are doing so for the profit of their bodies or souls. They suffer, and society suffers, if they give over the endeavor. Civilization is a going concern only upon condition of a lot of commonly held convictions and reverences. These are not immutable laws, no more are they negligible caprices. Into this world of work and thought trip faun-like creatures with wondering eyes, and satyr-like visitants with gluttonous lips. They will see and taste everything, let the world provide ever renewed bread and circuses. The world’s reward shall be the sense that it has amused the demigods and half-men. Humanity may look forward to the self-satisfaction of an approved impressario in a free and unsubsidized theatre. Let the repertory be rich and changing, and the half gods will applaud.

It will be plain that the new openmindedness is merely a phase of the old dilettantism. As more pretentious and persuasive, it is more harmful. The old dilettante had compensating graces. He viewed the world as a spectacle, but seldom claimed any merit for the attitude. He often made of detached observation a very fine art. He was unhurrying and unhurried. Towards the past his taste and appreciation amounted to reverence. Towards the present he was selective. Regarding the world as his show, he came to care enough for certain episodes to be grateful to the human beings involved. He had time for matured admirations, and, albeit, standing out of the world of morals and action, he built up for himself a fairly coherent world of taste. There were few of him, he was relatively laborious in his own fashion, and usually harmless. Sometimes he shockt the world enough to make up for the amusement it furnished him. He took his own code seriously, often too much so, and paid for his extravagances with his person.

Such is a fair picture of the dilettante, or decadent of the “naughty nineties.” In retrospect he looks moral and respectable compared to his successors. At least he was civilized, and, according to his lights, played fair. The professionally openminded person of to-day is noisy, fretful, hasty, and wholly uncivilized. His fickleness he vaunts as a virtue, he respects nothing but day after to-morrow. He leaps at novelty like a trout at feathers and tinsel, but like an illconditioned trout in August, never takes hold and hooks himself. He handles his mind like a cranky householder who is too busy ventilating his house to furnish it or keep it up.

If this kind of openmindedness could be permanently maintained, it could be regarded with the equanimity of pity or humor. To the student of behavior it would be only one more instance of arrested development the child mind carrying over into adult years. But the case is not so simple. The lack of interaction of a critical sort between what comes into the mind and what is already there, makes for a general instability which becomes an easy prey to a really strong impulse from without. It is the uncritically open minds that can be most completely and disastrously closed by a new evangel or heresy. Russia is paying to-day for two generations of intellectual hospitality in a moral vacuum. There is no safety for any one in opening his mind, unless he opens it on something inside.

Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., was an art critic and a professor of art and archaeology at Princeton University. He was also an editorial writer for the New York Evening Post and assistant editor of the Nation (1901–1906) and art critic for the Post (1905–1906; 1910–1911); from 1904 to 1906 he was American editor of the Burlington Magazine. He became editor of Art Studies in 1923. Born 1868, died 1953.

This article originally appeared  in The Unpartizan Review, Vol. XII, No. 23 (July-September 1919), pp 16-23.



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