Why You Should Stand on a Mountain, from Joseph Wood Krutch

(By chance, the cover of my edition of Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Desert Year, first published in 1952, has a beautiful photograph of orange poppies flowering far into the distance below the towering pinnacles of Mount Ajo in southern Arizona. Twice I’ve stood on the summit of that mountain, one of the most dramatic places I’ve yet found in my travels. One trip inspired me to address a poem to America itself, which appears in My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse. In this excerpt from The Desert Year Joseph Wood Krutch explains why we should all take the trouble to stand on top of such a mountain.)

In the legends of the saints and the prophets, either a desert or a mountain is pretty sure to figure. It is usually in the middle of one or on the top of the other that the vision comes or the test is met. To give their message to the world they come down or come out, but it is almost invariably in solitude, either high or dry, that it is first revealed.

Moses and Zoroaster climbed up; Buddha sat down; Mohammad fled. Each in his own way had to separate himself from men before he could discover what it was that he had to say to mankind. In a “wilderness” (Near Eastern and therefore certainly xeric) Jesus prepared himself for the mountaintop from which he would reject the world which Satan would offer. Loneliness is essential and loneliness, it would seem, is loneliest where the air is either thin or dry and nature herself does not riot too luxuriously. If Plato was satisfied with no more than a grove in Athens, that was because he was already halfway to the mere college professor.

Yesterday, when I stood on a peak and looked down at an arid emptiness, I felt on my shoulders an awful responsibility. Under such circumstances as these, said I to myself, other men have grown wise. Only a few before me have ever had the double advantage of mountain and desert. It is now or never. It THE ANSWER is ever to be whispered into my willing ear, this should be the moment.

No awful presence—I hasten to add—handed me any tablets of the law. Neither did Satan appear to offer me the world, and if he had done so I might, for all I can really know, have taken him up. Yet it did seem that I saw something with unusual clearness and that I came down not quite empty-handed.

From where I stood there was no visible evidence that the earth was inhabited. Like some astronomer peering through the telescope at the planet Mars, I could only say, “It might be.” It was thus the world must have looked at the end of the fifth day, and I found myself wondering whether the text of Genesis might not possibly be garbled; whether, perchance, it was really after the fifth, not after the sixth day, that God looked at his work and saw that it was good. Would not I, in His place, have stopped right there? Would I have risked the addition of a disturbing element? Was the world ever again so obviously good?

But God’s decisions are, by definition, wise, and presumably He knew what he was doing. Perhaps, as some have fancied, He wanted one more projection of Himself to contemplate. Perhaps, as the deists supposed, man is an essential link in that Great Chain of Being which stretches unbroken from the most imperfect up to perfection itself. But in any event, here we are! And here, too, are others, sometimes exasperatingly like us, sometimes exasperatingly different. With ourselves and with these others we must somehow deal.

If one could stay on the mountaintop there would be no problem. To be wise there would be easy. Poetry and philosophy, self-generated, would suffice. But for reasons psychological as well as physical, that we cannot do. Sooner or later we must come down and mingle more or less intimately with populations more or less dense. Men we must meet, and when we meet them we meet Problems. The wisdom found on the mountaintop is not a sufficient guide in the populous lowlands. We must reckon with something which, up there, existed only in the mind or the memory.

But if wisdom, complete and adequate, cannot be brought down, there is something which can and that something is to be found nowhere else. Only from such distance can man be seen either in perspective or in his real context, and it is the absence of that context which invalidates all the solutions to human problems formulated—as today all such solutions are—in no context except that of men’s own making. Without this perspective and this context, philosophy and religion degenerate into sociology; and sociology is merely a modern substitute for wisdom. What it lacks is not merely the context of nature, indispensable as that is. It lacks also the context of human nature itself, for which it tries foolishly to substitute some mere observations of human behavior. It calls itself the science of Man, but it has forgotten to ask what Man is really like. The sociologist leaves himself out (he calls this “objectivity”) and therefore he leaves out the only thing which would give him a clue to the rest.

Not to have known—as most men have not—either the mountain or the desert is not to have known one’s self. Not to have known one’s self is to have known no one, and to have known no one makes it relatively easy to suppose, as sociology commonly does, that the central problems are the problems of technology and politics. It makes it possible to believe that if the world has gone wrong—and seems likely to go wronger—that is only because production and distribution are out of balance or the proper exercise of the franchise has not yet been developed; that a different tax structure or even, God save the mark, the abolition of the poll tax in Alabama point the way to Utopia. It is to forget too easily that the question of the Good Life—both the question of what it is and the question of how it can be found—has to do, first of all, not with human institutions but with the human being himself; that what one needs to ask first is not “What is the just social order?” or, “In what does true democracy consist?” but “What is Man?”.

That question neither the usual politician, nor the usual economist, nor the usual scientist has ever asked, because he has never been alone. No man in the middle of a desert or on top of a mountain ever fell victim to the delusion that he himself was nothing except the product of social forces, that all he needed was a proper orientation of his economic group, or that production per man hour was a true index of happiness. No such man, if he permitted himself to think at all, ever thought anything except that consciousness was the grandest of all facts and that no good life for either the individual or a group was possible on any other assumption. No man in such a position ever doubted that he himself was a primary particle, an ultimate reality.

Respectable universities, before they confer the degree which certifies that the recipient is now wise in philosophy, in science, or in sociology, commonly require a minimum period of “residence.” They might well require also a supplementary period of “non-residence,” to be passed neither at the university nor in any other populous place but alone. They might consider the fact that a knowledge of one’s self is as important as a knowledge of Latin and two modern languages. Already having an athletic field, they might even persuade some wealthy alumnus to make the gift of a Thebaid to which candidates could retire for six months. I can think of nothing more likely to change the direction of our thinking, and many who agree on nothing else agree that it ought to be changed.

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