Essays - Spring 2007

In Pursuit of Innocence

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From the Spring 1953 issue of The Scholar

By Paul Sears

March 1, 2007


EXCAVATION AT TEOTIHUACÁN, the great religious center of the pyramids in the upper Basin of Mexico, has exposed a charming mural known as “El Paraiso Terrenal de Teotihuacán.” This glimpse of paradise shows the blessed disporting themselves in a great pool of clear water, fed by a stream flowing from the mouth of Tlaloc, the Rain-God.

Archeologists had long wondered whether climatic changes had anything to do with certain curious shifts of culture in the Basin of Mexico. Eventually laborious sampling, countings and measurements were made of lake sediments, which preserve the record of past climates. These gave good evidence that Teotihuacán existed during a dry period. The mural seems to bear this out, for men furnish their paradises in terms of what some pedagogues call “felt needs” — in this instance, the need of more abundant water.

Since humanity is forever either coming out of or heading for heaven — but never there — its ideas of paradise can at least give us a locus of direction and a measure of desire. For the Western World, the Golden Age of the past and the City of Golden Streets seem to have one quality in common. That quality is innocence. The lion and the lamb lie side by side in a vision that pervades the dreams of men.

Mankind is in eternal pursuit of innocence: good men trying to attain it, evil men to destroy it. To saint and sinner alike, its value is known, to Christian on his way to the Delectable Mountains, to Herod in his slaughter of the Innocents, perhaps even to Apollo in pursuit of Daphne.

Innocence is far from being an innocuous, anemic thing. I once knew a most competent young magician whose art derived from the great Houdini by way of the young man’s father, who had been locksmith to the master. By endless practice my friend had disciplined his muscles and nerves into beautiful co-ordination and and control so that he performed with the utmost assurance. One situation, however, always threatened his composure. That was when he had to perform before an audience in which the front row was occupied by children. To him this was a perpetual hazard. It was no trick to deceive the sophisticated eye of the adult. But the clear, unspoiled gaze of childhood was quite a different matter, ever threatening to penetrate his deceptions.

The pains of learning are trivial as compared with those of unlearning. Ask any musician what it costs to achieve simplicity. Those who practice the graphic arts often speak literally of “innocence of eye” — that priceless quality which enables them to look and see as the newborn do, free from the implications and associations built up by long experience and sophisticated to reacquire this lost freshness of vision.

Something very like it infuses the disarming wisdom of those who have the gift of spiritual insight. Things that are concealed from the prudent are revealed to children. Those who are to be saved must be born again. The worldly Europe of the seventeenth century was enchanted by its concept of the noble savage. Even a modern scholar and scientist, the late George Vaillant, in his profound study of the Aztecs, saw behind the confusion of fierce gods and bloody human sacrifice a singleness of devotion which compelled his admiration.

In short, whether men dream of a Golden Age in the past or future, they cherish, in the moments they can spare from the grim business of getting their daily bread, the measure of a world that is better than the world in which they are living.

The slumbering Orient, whose dream has so long been of the ultimate peace of Nirvana, is now, as General MacArthur reminded the Congress, astir with new hopes and new aspirations. And so, indeed, are men everywhere. But what leader has ever taken sufficient pains to search for the common element in these aspirations, behind all the diversities of cultures and the conflicts of material interests? What leader has ever in his mind carried to its logical conclusion the fact that the peoples of the world are slowly becoming literate?

One may talk of the overriding power of self-interest and the supremacy of economic controls over human motives and behavior. Certainly the empty belly cries for food and the naked body for protection. But these are only the beginning. Satisfied, they give strength and opportunity to express deeper wants. Watch the baby through childhood as he begins to listen and make sounds, and you become aware of his intense desire to understand and be understood. Observe the behavior of that other traditional member of the household, the dog — his unflagging attention, his touching appeals, his warnings. He, too, wishes to understand and be understood, to communicate. How easily this desire is thwarted and the relationship corrupted, for child and dog alike!

In them, I should suppose, we have innocence if we are to find it anywhere. Yet there is nothing negative about it. It reveals no element of separation, withdrawal or isolation. On the contrary, it is alive with the impulse to and and participate, to comprehend to the fullest. To say that it is bent on its own destruction makes no biological sense, nor does it make ethical and aesthetic sense either.

To some extent, however pitifully distorted and perverted, this impulse persists through life in the generality of mankind. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” “Now we see . . . darkly, but then face to face.” Religious intuition cannot separate the omnipotence and infinite goodness of God from His omniscience.


Making whatever allowance we must for the mixed character of human motives, the impulse we have been talking about finds its fullest expression in the scholar, certainly in the scientist. He is a deceptive fellow, this scientist, deceiving himself as often, and as innocently, as he deceives others. Most misleading is the technical device of impersonality and disinterest, without which he cannot do honest and effective work. At the moment his feelings enter into his observations or his calculations, the truth he is after is imperiled. Actually this represents nothing more than the kind of necessary precaution which obliges the bacteriologist to be sure his glassware is sterile, the mathematician to check his calculations, or the chemist to run a blank along with his test.

Inevitably the habits of the workshop carry over into life outside it. Pasteur surreptitiously polishes the immaculate silver of his hostess with his napkin. The biologist, disciplined to believe only what he sees, is impatient with those who sense the ineffable. The physicist, accustomed to rigid controls and to advancing from certainty, becomes contemptuous of the improvisations of political life and suspicious of the good faith of those who practice that essential art. It is not wholly surprising that Germany, a leading nation in science, twice fell into line behind leadership which seemed to offer a pattern that, although circumscribed, was explicit and definite.

Another grave source of misunderstanding is the confusion of science with technology. Widespread among non-scientists, this confusion results in giving the discoverer of scientific truth the blame, or credit, for the way in which his discovery is used. Now that the sources of private support for independent research are drying up, and an increasing bulk of scientific energy is being devoted to projects which industry and government — civil and military — consider expedient, there is a lively danger that the scientists themselves may come to share the confusion of the laity. Already one detects signs of impatience in groups of scientific men when the distinction between “pure” and “applied” science is brought up. The issue, of course, is not purity, but freedom to pursue truth for its own sake. Beyond that point the scientist should have the same right, and obligation, as the rest of us to determine the ends to which knowledge is applied.

The scientist remains, for all his impersonality of method, very much a member of the human race. He is motivated, as is the artist, by an intuitive, creative impulse that lies beyond the realm of debate. He is sustained, as are the religious, by a profound and unshakable faith. Without faith in a consistent universe whose laws can be made evident by inquiry, he would not get very far. Almost any prolonged research offers tempting chances for the unconfident to say, “This is the end of my road.”

In both the creative impulse and the confidence which make science possible, there is a strong element of hope — hope for a wholeness of vision and understanding that will be clear and without guile. This hope is not confined to the scientist. Every great religious faith, knowing that the values and actions of men are governed by their notions as to the kind of universe in which they live, has set up its special cosmogony — its explanation of how the universe came to be, and the laws under which it operates.

That this responsibility, so far as the physical universe is concerned, must pass from theology into the keeping of science was made clear by Tyndall in his address as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1884. It was powerfully re-enforced by Lord Kelvin, who said, “Science is bound by the everlasting law of honor to face fearlessly every problem that can fairly be presented to it.” These are not words of arrogance, but of dignity and humility in the acceptance of a trust. Professor A. V. Hill, speaking in 1952 as a successor to Tyndall, placed the whole problem in its perspective: “The improvement of man’s estate by the application of human knowledge is one of the loftiest of adventures; but a belief that it can be achieved by scientific methods alone, without a moral basis to society, is a perilous illusion.”

Yet that illusion prevails widely, chiefly, I think, because the applications of scientific knowledge have done so much to ease the physical and mental labors of great segments of humanity, to prolong life and add to its amenities. It has led us to look upon the scientist as a handy man, a servitor for the solving of material and practical problems, ignoring his more profound role as a source of perspective. Thus we accept the dicta of physics in such problems as machine design, while we largely ignore their application to the great landscape of which we are all components.

It is not uncommon today to hear talk of an expanding economy, when in fact we are confronted by an expanding population in a finite environment. If doubts are expressed, the usual rejoinder is, “We have not even begun to use the resources which science can bring to bear to increase production.” Granting all the power and promise of those resources, the ultimate logic is that of an investor who chooses to underwrite a perpetual motion machine. Science does open up great vistas of the possible, but the shrewd investor has developed a healthy respect for the verdict of experiment and slide rule. He wastes no capital trying to derive 101 calories of energy from a measure of fuel containing 100, but instead focuses his attention upon the production of engines which might conserve some of the 70 to 80 per cent of fuel energy now being lost. Airplanes leave the ground against the pull of gravity not because the law of gravity has been canceled, but because it is a constant factor to be taken into account in the designing of planes.

How often one finds whole communities seeing through a glass darkly, caught up in natural processes of which they are utterly unaware! For an example, the people of one suburb had spread their homes in close array over ridges and valleys, replacing soil and vegetation with a virtually waterproof cover of buildings, walks and highways. And then citizens wondered why cellars in the lower streets were flooded after every rain! The members of this community, by the way, were mostly college graduates and presumably had met the conventional requirement in science.

Two important shipping centers (no doubt their number could be multiplied) have kept their harbors open by constant dredging, the cost of which, when analyzed, represents an expenditure of about five hundred dollars for the clearance of each vessel in an average year. Solely as a tax on commerce this is bad enough. But the problem comes into focus when we learn — as the citizens of the ports in question have finally come to realize — that the burden of silt, whose removal is so costly, represents the wastage and deterioration of upstream farms. The same deadly erosion, due to improper land-use, which is sapping the economy of a rural area is a plague to industry and to the taxpayer in general.

Why are not such situations immediately evident to the people who are affected by them? Clearly something is lacking in their preparation for responsible citizenship. They have gone through a mill of education which is one of the wonders of the modern world. They have been taught about the natural world in the grades, in secondary school and in college. Yet I suspect that all along the line much of this teaching has been out of context. I recall the surprise with which students discover that a reaction which they learned about in the chemistry building applies in the living plant as well as in the test tube.


Such defect of vision is not confined to the average, presumably educated citizen. It shows up, to the cost of society, among the specialists in science, too. An excellent book on the movement of water in and over the earth makes no mention of vegetation, so far as I can discover, although there is a mass of evidence as to the importance of plant life in regulating the behavior of water. Geologists have at times impeded the advance of better land-use practice by their insistence that erosion is an inevitable geological process. It is a standing complaint among biologists that their counsel is ignored by engineers in the planning of great public works in which biological factors constitute definite engineering hazards. Many biologists in turn seem to have an emotional block toward mathematics and fail to appreciate the problems of the engineer. During the recent war, Great Britain made effective use, in the antisubmarine campaign, of a group of scientists whose field was cold-shouldered by the leading scientific advisers of our own country, since it did not deal primarily with machines and chemicals.

Such difficulties are really failures of communication. We too often forget that to science communication is as vital as experiment and observation — and is to all scholarship. Much more than a mere unloading is involved. There must be a meeting of minds as well. Some years ago one of the federal courts wearied of the conflicting testimony of expert scientific witnesses retained by opposing sides. The issue happened to be whether smelter fumes were damaging truck crops in an irrigated valley. At length the court decided to employ its own panel of specialists. These men sat down together and in a few weeks determined the merits of a contest which had dragged on for years.

Society needs to apply, on a much wider scale, the priceless tradition of the Friends, with their “sense of the meeting.” To bring this about is no easy matter, but I think a good place to begin is with the teaching of science at the college level. It is here that the average educated citizen should have an opportunity to get some convincing grasp of the framework of physical reality within which we live. It is here, too, that the future specialist in science should acquire the sense of social and scientific perspective which he now too often lacks.

Most colleges require that each student take some one course in laboratory science — the kind not specified. One stated object is to acquaint him with the method of science. Two very necessary ingredients of the scientific process are curiosity and lack of haste — ample leisure to make mistakes and reflect upon them, to get the feel of one’s material, and to repeat procedures until some sense of confidence and mastery emerges. This, under our system of mass-produced education, is a large order, as James Thurber has shown in his reminiscences of the botany laboratory. To him the whole business was merely an intricate form of fraud.

Another stated object is to give the student an insight into the universe of natural phenomena of which he is a part. But the impression he receives is too often that of an involved and technical kind of chess whose rules have little connection with his daily life, largely, I suspect, because they are not taught in context with the rest of human knowledge. The teacher is too intensely aware only of his immediate subject. But teaching is an art, and the artist achieves design, balance — and fidelity — by always keeping a corner of his eye on the whole of the scene he is sketching, no matter what detail he may be working on at the moment. In this lies his “innocence of eye.”

We speak of the secrets of nature. Human culture has arisen not from secrecy, but from effective complunication, giving groups of men their common understanding and value. So formed, every human culture has developed its own internal logic and integrity, its sense of direction. To this end there must be, in an age of science, a continuing struggle to achieve clarity and grace of expression, not only between the specialist and the generality of men, but within the disciplines themselves.

The task of knowledge is not fulfilled with its gathering. Only when it has become the property of those who sing the songs, shape the manners, and write the laws of the commonwealth, is its charge completed.


Paul Sears delivered "In Pursuit of Innocence" as the Phi Beta Kappa Lecture at the College of William and Mary on December 5, 1952.


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