This I Believe

Gassner, John


  • John Gassner describes his abhorrence of dogma and his belief that humanism is the belief system that can enable humanity to make scientific progress without destroying itself.
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And now, This I Believe, a series of living philosophies presented in the hope they may help to strengthen and enrich your life. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. John W. Gassner is a member of the New York Drama Critic Circle, whose personal experience extends to almost every facet of the theater. Former head of the Theatre Guild's Play Department, he has produced, written, and adapted plays, on and off Broadway. Among the young playwrights who have been aided by his teaching and guidance are Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. The author of well over a dozen books on the theater, motion pictures, and literature, he has lectured at a number of colleges and universities. Now, John Gassner expresses some of the things he has found to be important on the broader stage of human experience.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been convinced that man must believe in something in order to have an authentic personality and a reason for living. As far back as I can remember, however, I have been distrustful of the hardening of beliefs into absolutist prescriptions. I’ve tended to consider dogmatism a manifestation of ignorance masquerading as certainty, and I’ve tried to resist it in myself, as a species of unholy pride easily translatable into lust for power and rationalization for man’s inhumanity to man.
For the same reason, I’ve been wary of efforts to reduce everything in the world to ideas. When feelings are reduced to concepts, they are only partially expressed and not infrequently misrepresented. When people are reduced to ideas, people are overlooked, and we are on the move toward rationalized tyranny. Men’s uncontrolled passions are to be dreaded.
But I believe that more evil has been brought into the world by uncontrolled belief than by uncontrolled passion.
More than twenty years ago, I read somewhere that when the famous Russian writer Maxim Gorki expressed his dismay at the severity of the Red Terror, Lenin replied, “But wait, Maxim, you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs.” This rejoinder was supposed to redound to Lenin’s credit. But I still remember my sudden and horrified realization that the eggs in Lenin’s dictum were human beings. Too many dogmatists have been willing to make omelets out of human beings.
The alternative to dogmatism, however, is neither invertebrate skepticism nor diffidence. We need not less belief but more. That is, belief in those principles that can make man more humane. They are the principles of Christian, and in some respects pre-Christian,
humanism. As I conceive this humanism, it is a belief that must never lose sight of man, that can neither begin nor end with men, just as it must never ignore reason but cannot begin or end with mere rationalism.
I believe that man’s dignity and humanness can be sustained and safeguarded only when we realize that human life is part of a larger design in our brief flicker of existence. A sense of totality, which I would not hesitate to call an intuition of divinity, can give us humility enough to be tolerant, security enough to be patient, and belief enough to be hopeful. It can enable us to overcome even the final fear, the dread of death.
Humanism, to sum up, is comparable to a tree. The trunk, branches, and leaves are the ideas, actions, and institutions of men. For the
roots of humanism run underground and feed on streams beyond our sight. Humanism, in other words, begins with faith and the power of a providential spirit we feel rather than fully understand, and ends with the belief in the rightness and rationality of the universe.
Even if this were not so, I should have to live as though it were. Only then can I expect to live rationally and humanely. Only humanism will enable men to devote themselves to science and social justice without making themselves worse rather than better, beasts rather than men.
Those were the beliefs of John W. Gassner, teacher, author and dramatic critic. He has played an important part in the development of the American theater.