As on a Darkling Plain
Time will corrupt you. Your friends, your wives or husbands, your business or professional associates will corrupt you; your social, political, and financial ambitions will corrupt you. The worst thing about life is that it is demoralizing. . . . So I am worried about your morals. . . . Believe me, you are closer to the truth now than you ever will be again.
In what turned out to be his last full report to his directors, Hutchins wrote extravagantly—as he so often did of the Center (and as he never had at Chicago): "The Center has maintained its program in Santa Barbara, started a new one in Chicago, covered its severance obligations, reduced its expenditures by approximately two thirds. . . . I think there will not be any argument about the desirability, even the necessity, of the work the Center is doing. That the Center has been able to withstand the trials of the last two years is a tribute to the power of the ideas on which it is founded."  But the founder had not withstood the trials so well. He was perceptibly deteriorating.
Still erect and ostensibly attentive, he was no longer jaunty or razor-sharp responsive. He was aging day by day. Early one morning one of his colleagues, arriving for work, found him sitting on a sofa in the lobby instead of in his office; he said he was resting, and he was. One friend asked him how he was one day, and he replied with what may have been the only cliché of his life: "I'm falling apart like the one-hoss shay." When another friend asked him how he was feeling, he cocked an ironic eyebrow and quoted the words of the Earl of Rochester on the end of the philosopher: "Huddled in dirt the reasoning engine lies, who was so proud, so witty, and so wise."
Apart from migraine headaches his health had been good until his early
seventies. Then in succession he underwent open-heart surgery and a radical bladder operation that left him equipped (as he put it) with outdoor plumbing. In March of 1977—two months after his seventy-eighth birthday—he was taken to the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara with a kidney infection. For six weeks he lay in the intensive care unit, semicomatose much of the time. There was a period of "guarded optimism," and he underwent physical therapy. Then there was a relapse. On the night of May 14 he died of uremic poisoning.
He was buried in a view lot in Santa Barbara's finest cemetery, and an Episcopal priest officiated. There were memorial services at the Center and in the Rockefeller Chapel of the University of Chicago.
El Parthenon was sold, and, after severance payments were made, what was left was ultimately transferred to the University of California at Santa Barbara, where it was modestly housed as the Robert Maynard Hutchins Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions—a successful conference center under a succession of presidencies of the men who succeeded the man who succeeded the man who succeeded Hutchins.
In the hospital he had seen almost nobody except his wife. What was probably his final word was addressed to Vesta Hutchins when she asked him how he was. Urbane to the last, he said, "Bored." Esther Donnelly, his secretary, asked him if he wanted reading material in bed. For the only time in his life he didn't. On his sixty-fifth birthday an interviewer had asked him for the meaning of life in one word, and Hutchins had said, "Learning." ("Generally people say 'Loving,'" said the interviewer.)
He was through learning—at least from books.
And through teaching from books. His two last writings were published in the weeks before his death in the Center's occasional periodical World Issues and the Center Magazine . There was only one solution to the world's problems, he said in "Why We Need World Law," and that solution began at home: "We have to stop throwing our weight around. We have to stop talking about being the most powerful nation on earth. We have to think of the nurture of human life everywhere, otherwise we return to Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach , written a hundred years ago:
The world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here, as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The law had been the third love of his life. The university had been the second, and in "The Intellectual Community" he now returned to it. "A university," he wrote, "is or ought to be an intellectual community. . . . An intellectual community is one in which everybody does better intellectual work because he belongs to a community of intellectual workers. An intellectual community can not be formed of people who can not or will not think, who will not think about anything in which other members of the community are interested. Work that does not require intellectual effort and workers that will not engage in a common intellectual effort have no place in a university. A common language, a common stock of ideas, and a common aim are the prerequisites of an intellectual community."
But his first love was Oberlin, and as his life closed he found himself recalling that "the most important word in the Oberlin vocabulary was 'ought.' . . . I have often asked myself in recent years a question I am unable to answer. The question is, what happened to the virtues? The virtues used to be good habits, moral and intellectual. Both kinds were said to have a place in education at all levels. The argument was not about whether, but about where, when, and how they should be inculcated. I never heard it argued that education had nothing to do with morality. The Oberlin view was almost exactly the reverse. . . .
"The intellectual virtues can be taught. A teacher can impart the habit of geometry or any other body of knowledge. Whether the moral virtues can be taught remains a disputed question. They are formed by acts. The virtue of punctuality, if it is one, is formed by being on time. . . . The atmosphere of an educational institution should be conducive to the formation of the moral virtues. And since these virtues and their opposing vices are formed early in life, the emphasis on moral aims, however achieved, should be conspicuous in the early stages of education.
"Or at least so it would seem. And if it should seem so, the question recurs: What happened to the virtues? We must assume that their disappearance from educational discussion is the result of the disappearance of our belief in them. Value-free social science, value-free science—everything valuable is now value-free. Watergate shows that politics has become the pursuit of power. The whole operation of society shows that we expect to get along without good people. People who would have been regarded as good sixty years ago would now be regarded as merely dull, perhaps even stupid, because they did not understand that the virtues are outmoded.
"There have always been bad people. But until Machiavelli, at least, there was thought to be some standard, other than their 'success' in life, by which they could be judged. . . .
"Nowadays you can't say a man is wicked. He may be maladjusted, or sick, but not bad. Of course there are many sick and maladjusted people. Every effort must be made to cure them or straighten them out. Moreover, we know now that traditional methods of achieving these objects, such as confining them in mental institutions or prisons, are, as the saying goes 'counter-productive.' We know, too, that the evidence for the bad effects of a bad environment, particularly in the earliest years, is overwhelming. Since individuals are not to be blamed for their environment, particularly in the earliest years, how can we distinguish between good and bad men, with any connotation of praise or blame? How can we distinguish between good and bad acts?
". . .The Greek idea was that the city educates the man. And the greatest Greeks thought of themselves as participating in that educational function. . . . The interpenetration of the political community and the intellectual community gave the Greeks that mastery of the whole, that grasp of principle, those critical standards, that comprehension, in short, which has extended their influence through thousands of years. Unless our political and intellectual communities can achieve similar vitality we can not hope to approach a similar educational ideal."
On reading that article, his friend Clifton Fadiman wrote him that the "techno-state" did away with the necessity of distinguishing good and bad and the necessity to understand anything. Hutchins managed to reply:
"Perhaps I overrate the power of reason, the resilience of the spirit, and what Aristotle declared in the opening sentence of the Metaphysics —the fact that all men by nature desire to know. But these are impressive human credentials, and it is not at all clear to me that the techno-state, as you have described it, is indomitable.
"You and I have lived long enough and read enough books to know that every generation tends to think that its age is at the crossroads, that the survival of mankind is at stake. Ours may indeed be such an age. The techno-state is in fact a powerful force. The techno-culture may threaten to sweep all before it. But if that is true, all the more reason to rally human resources, summon the best in man, and try to create those intellectual communities which will subordinate technology to higher purposes.
". . . I had not realized how optimistic I am."
On his office bookshelves he had cleared a space for an informal photograph of Scott Buchanan and a small metal sculpture of Sisyphus eternally rolling that stone up that hill.
I am inclined to string along with the proposition enunciated by William the Silent (or was it Charles the Bold?) that it is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere.