The Modern Pharisee: An Address

Wriston, Walter B.


Many years ago, I had a teacher who advised the members of his class that whenever we read a new book, we should go back and read an old one. So, after having read a great deal about today's problems, I went back to a very old book written by a man named Luke. In his eighteenth chapter, he described how a Pharisee went into the temple to pray. He advised the Lord that he paid his taxes, fasted twice a week and thanked Him that he was not as other men with all their human frailties. Like many a pharisaical statement today, it was ostensibly addressed to one audience -- the Lord -- but the purpose of the loud voice was to reach a different audience, his fellow men.

The world today is full of modern Pharisees who thank the Lord not only in the temple but on network television that they are not as other men. They thank Him that they alone have absolute answers to complex problems and are imbued with a clear vision of how to set the world right. They alone have the program that protects the public interest.

No problem area in our society, nor any corner of our country, is free from the chant of the modern Pharisee. Some labor unions have constructed work rules that are totally out of step with the realities of the 20th century. They explain them by saying that, fortunately, they are not as other men. They claim to be intent only upon preserving the right of an individual to his job. The public interest is not recognized.

Illustrations abound, but at a time when the largest railroad in America is in bankruptcy, it takes a particularly self-righteous Pharisee to continue to maintain that a day's work should be measured by 100 miles of travel on a railroad, when it is not unusual for that distance to be covered in 90 minutes. They pay no heed to the fact that workers, as well as managers and stockholders, have responsibilities to the public.

The business community is also replete with modern Pharisees. They are sometimes so laggard in responding to changing value systems that reform is deferred until almost too late. It is not entirely unusual to hear a businessman say, for example, that we could solve all our economic problems if only Americans would go back to work. This simplistic view may not be widespread, but nevertheless it surfaces from time to time. If those of us in business were to give ourselves a critical self-examination, we might be forced to agree with Peter Drucker who pointed out recently that he knew "of no company where a sharp cut in the number of executives wouldn't be a real improvement."

The government sector is the favorite spawning ground of the Pharisee. Often, for instance, you can spend an entire year working your way through the bureaucratic labyrinth to get approval for the wording of a label on an aspirin bottle. At all levels, we seem to be dealing, not with entities organized to implement the achievement of national goals and aspirations, but with memorials to old problems. Ineffective programs are seldom -- one is tempted to say never -- cancelled, while new ones are constantly created.

Among the pharisaical groups in society, the media must certainly be included. In the name of freedom of the press, reporters refuse to disclose their sources; yet they are ruthless in the invasion of privacy. What a Supreme Court justice defined as "the right to be let alone," and to which he assigned primacy, no longer is respected by the media. The freedom of the press is a fundamental of our republic, but is only one of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; it is not superior to all others.

Our morning newspapers give us sweeping pronouncements of doom, many of which do not survive the next edition. Fortunately, the good sense of the American people continues to perpetuate our republic, which is perhaps the only truly revolutionary society in the world. We foster continuous change without extreme violence and constantly expand the areas of freedom.

The notion among many pundits that, fortunately, they are not as other men has virtually produced a pension fund for critics and stymied constructive action here and abroad. The left, especially, has been among the more vociferous complainants. Noam Chomsky, for example, berates the left for accumulating footnotes to history and completely failing to mount any kind of an effective program for change. And in Europe, Jan Myrdal confesses that "we once more can analyze the world situation and describe the wars and explain why the many are poor and hungry. But we do no more."

The religious sector is not immune now any more than it was at the time of the scriptural Pharisee. From the close of the Civil War to the first civil rights march, many of the churches neglected the race problem when the men of the cloth should have been the keepers of our conscience and the leaders by example. Even now, many seem to have more precise programs for the behavior of business abroad than for the real integration of their churches at home.

Whatever their origin -- business, labor, government, academe, religion, the media, the right or the left, in the U.S. or abroad -- the modern Pharisees have nurtured simplified nonsolutions of urgent issues; they promote a dangerous confusion of ends and means.

In order to be a really effective Pharisee, one must live entirely in the present and the future, and ignore the past. By making believe that history does not exist, the modern Pharisee can produce nothing against which to measure the current progress -- or failures -- of mankind. This one-dimensional view makes it extremely easy to see each headline with alarm, each tremor as a new disaster. The world has known trouble before and we must profit from experience.

We are very properly concerned about our environment, and we have increasing evidence of the damage that we do to it. Recently, many eminent scientists, some of whom should have known better, predicted the end of our world in much the same manner that soothsayers since the beginning of time have done repeatedly. These scientists are personally convinced by their own projections. Unfortunately, in their eyes, no one else is equally gifted. Thus their straight-line projection from here to the day the world ends is duly reported just as if it were validated fact.

We currently have a lot of problems in New York City, but not for the first time. We used to have a large, clear spring-fed body of water some 40 feet deep on the Island of Manhattan; it was known as "Collect Pond." The water was so good and pure that long lines of vehicles formed to obtain jugs full. Writing of this great national resource, Elizabeth Barlow recently recorded that in 1796 "water pollution had come to New York, and Collect Pond was badly polluted; a health hazard. Its refuse-laden waters stank with the bodies of dead animals. The old Kalchhook on the pond's western edge had acquired an infamous reputation, first as the spot where in 1741 a Negro rebellion had been quelled and the participants hanged and burned, and later as the site of the public gallows. In 1808 it was leveled and its rubble was used to fill in the pond. Streets were laid out, with present-day Centre Street running down the middle of the former pond." The fact that this was almost 200 years ago should indicate to most reasonable people that the problem of preserving the environment is not new. As the population of the United States has grown from just over five million in 1800 to over 200 million today, it is perfectly clear that our care of the environment has become a more urgent necessity since there are so many more of us sharing the same real estate.

Typical of the tunnel vision which currently affects many people are attitudes regarding pesticides. DDT is a good example. The largest killer of mankind in recent years has been malaria. The World Health Organization, on February 2 last year, made the following statement: "More than a billion people have been freed from the risk of malaria in the past 25 years, mostly thanks to DDT. This is an achievement unparalleled in the annals of public health....The improvement in health resulting from malaria campaigns has broken the vicious circle of poverty and disease resulting in ample economic benefits." Dr. Norman Borlaug, the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, has said that, "If the use of pesticides in the U.S.A. were to be completely banned, crop losses would probably soar to 50 percent, and food prices would increase fourfold to fivefold. Who then would provide for the food needs of the low-income groups?"

To remind you of the other side of the current questions of the world is not in any way to say that we do not have to do better, or that some of the crises of our time are not real, but only to try to bring some perspective to counteract the mild hysteria with which each new event is currently being greeted. We must and should take greater care of this planet's resources than we have in the past, but the nature of that care has to be balanced against the general human condition. The millions of people who are alive today because DDT worked to eradicate malaria get very little space in the press. We need to remember that their interest in living out their life span must rank at least equally with other ecological problems. The fact that all human actions have both primary and secondary effects should not paralyze action, but should cause us to assess the trade-offs involved.

Most modern Pharisees who take absolute positions on complicated questions fail to recognize that all of life is a trade-off, not just of the known, but also of the unknown.

Alvin Toffler's articulate worry about the terrors of future shock and how to prevent it through the operation of some technical ombudsman is merely a modern way of catching up with the ancient Greeks. The ombudsman may try to anticipate the spin-offs and fallouts of all new technology and monitor the pace of change. On the other hand, he may delay the search for truth and knowledge as he did in ancient times.

Ptolemy, for example, was able to prove in a mathematical way that the sun was the center of our solar system, but when he measured the distance from the earth to the sun, it was so great as not to be believed. The ancient technical ombudsman, therefore, came to believe that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun revolved around it. Presumably, this saved the Romans from future shock but, as it turned out, it merely delayed the search for the truth. It was left to Copernicus to present the truth to Renaissance man. The truth again proved too much to accept as Galileo learned during the Inquisition; he was forced to restore the earth to its former glory as the center of the universe.

We have, at best, an imperfect understanding of science and the nature of man. The spotlight swings from one sector of our society to another, and as it moves, we do not lack for new high priests who claim to be in possession of the one sure map by which we will reach Utopia.

Despite all that mankind has learned, many people still cling to the hope that real expertise in one field makes one knowledgeable in another. If testimony of any kind favors a position which appears to be popular that day, the credence of that testimony is increased far beyond the skill of the person giving it. Many will recall that Henry Ford, who displayed so many signs of genius in bringing a low-cost car to the American people, also entered the field of diplomacy only to find that his peace ship was a tragic failure. The secrets of the production line did not automatically equip him for the intricacies of international politics. In earlier times, the good people who testified in Salem that their neighbors were witches and possessed of the devil were doubtless excellent cobblers and blacksmiths, but not expert in the occult arts. Recent arguments over the progress of science illustrate an old story.

The Congress of the United States has spoken on the supersonic transport; only time will tell if our elective representatives were right or wrong. The quality of the testimony which they heard varied widely, to put it mildly. John Morrissey recently pointed out that "the threat to the ionosphere was described to the Senate by a man who had testified a few years earlier that the east coast power blackout of 1965 had been caused by little green men in flying saucers." So strong is the ecological movement that any man's testimony would be accepted. He points out that in the atomic field, an anthropologist advised the Senate that breeder reactors were not safe -- a statement made with no expertise in the physical sciences. We have pediatricians calling for a limit on the power of the Pentagon, and columnists who send their children to private schools while recommending busing for other families.

In the end, when we have had our experience with modern witch doctors who now recommend zero economic growth, or lived under the guidance of the new technical ombudsman, we must -- if we believe in the worth of man -- go back to the concept expressed in the great phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes when he spoke about the ability of an idea to get itself accepted in the marketplace. We should be distrustful of the instant experts of doom, because the distrust of science and technology goes back at least to the Greek legend of Prometheus chained to the rock because he brought mankind the benefit of fire.

The custom of putting the bearers of scientific truth in jail has happily passed into history in most areas of the world, but the recurring idea that some wise person or group should tell the scientists what to study and, therefore, have them bring forth only those inventions which the ombudsman regards as being in harmony with his own limited knowledge continues to appeal to some.

In political terms, such a concept results in dictatorship and, like all dictatorships, represents a profound distrust of the ability of the other fellow to run his own life. The main problem with all these straight-line projections leading from here to eternity is that they are inevitably based on what is known about today's technology. It never seems to occur to the soothsayers that as technology has changed in the past, it will continue to change in the future. This was put in terms of great clarity recently by Norman Macrae of the London . He pointed out that in every human lifetime it is not only possible, but tempting, to prophesy some ineluctable disaster "by foreseeing future... trends-and yet assuming no change in technology." Since the oldest Englishman was born around 1880, he must have expanded by several hundredfold the number of miles he travels annually, and since the population of England has almost doubled in the meantime, travel must have increased immensely. When the oldest man now living was a child, it could have been "proved" that this amount of travel would be impossible, since one could not find the hundreds of stables for the thousands of horses that would have been required in 1880 to make such mass mobility a reality. What's more, "even if cleaning of the streets... became the capital's largest industry," the entire city was bound to be asphyxiated.

What I am suggesting is not that we do not have to do better or that our problems are not very real. "The essential thing now," as Lord Snow cautioned us wisely, "is for Americans to keep their heads. Guilt, recriminations will get us nowhere. The lessons can be assimilated. American society is much tougher and fundamentally stabler than some of my American friends seem to think."

Here, surely, is a lesson for the modern Pharisee who has not only endangered perspective with his sweeping pronouncements, but has propagated a wide confusion of ends and means. If we ask why we want to eliminate poverty or improve education or right all the wrongs we have done to ourselves, our answer must be simply to bring a larger measure of freedom and justice to every individual. That is our final objective, and no single path leads directly to it.

Foreign observers, as well as American historians, see us as a nation with a credo, and however often we proclaim the end of ideology we remain, nevertheless, a value-conscious people. From the very beginning, the message is the same -- a persistent belief in liberalism and an abiding respect for the individual.

In the very first chapter of the very first book of the Bible, it is written that God "created man in his own image." That faith in the infinite worth of the individual is the centerpiece in our faith in democracy. This is what Reinhold Niebuhr was trying to tell us when he wrote, "Nothing that is worth doing can be accomplished in your lifetime; therefore, you will have to be saved by hope. Nothing that is beautiful will make sense in the immediate instance; therefore, you must be saved by faith. Nothing that is worth doing can be done alone, but has to be done with others; therefore, you must be saved by love."

  • The document was created from the speech, "The Modern Pharisee: An Address," written by Walter B. Wriston for the Religion in American Life Dinner on 7 March 1972. The original speech is located in MS134.001.002.00015.
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