THOUGHT is the basic energy in human history. Civilization is put together not by machines but by thought. Displace or eliminate thought and the human species has as little claim on survival as the dinosaurs with the four-foot skulls and the pea-sized brains. The impotence of the brute alongside the power of the sage is represented by thought. Hence the question: What standing does thoughtfulness enjoy today? Action, accumulation, diversion - these seem to be the great imperatives. We are so busy increasing the size and ornamentations of our personal kingdoms that we give little thought to the fact that no age in history has had as many loose props under it as our own.
We have more food than we can eat. We have more money per person than anywhere else in the world. We have bigger homes, bigger television sets, bigger cars, bigger theaters, bigger schools. We have everything we need, in fact, except the most important thing of all - time to think and the habit of thought. We lack time for the one indispensable for safety.
We have been told and we have told ourselves that America has the responsibility to lead. We are asked to keep freedom alive; we are asked to find some way to prevent a war that would incinerate 1 billion or more human beings and deform the rest; we are asked to find solutions to the problems of the global environment. It is not a simple task.
Leadership today requires not so much presiding over atomic explosives as a profound knowledge of civilizations. It requires ability to anticipate the effects of actions. In short, it requires thought. But who is doing the thinking? Who is giving sustained and incisive thought to the most complicated and dangerous problems in the age of man?
Does the president have time to think? His daily calendar, with its endless appointments and juggling of competing political pressures, not only excludes sustained thought but creates the kind of staccato, jangling pattern of mental activity that leads to the need for surcease rather than study.
If the president has no time to think, then who? Almost everyone in Washington is spending so much time being strategical that almost no one is being historical. There are so many movers and shakers that there is hardly any room for thinkers.
The paradox is that we are busy doing nothing. Never before has so much leisure time been available to so many. Leisure hours now exceed working hours. But we somehow managed to persuade ourselves that we are too busy to think, too busy to read, too busy to look back, too busy to look ahead, too busy to understand that all our wealth and all our power are not enough to safeguard our future unless there is also a real understanding of the danger that threatens us and how to meet it.
Thus, being busy is more than merely a national passion; it is a national excuse.
Everyone seems to agree, from the president down, that we have to find some way other than war to protect ourselves, support the cause of freedom in the world, and serve the cause of man. We talk about the Middle East or Africa or Central America as though they are unpleasant business instead of ominous possible curtain raisers for a world war. Meanwhile, we are told that there is no real defense against atomic attack. Surely, all this requires some thought.
This nation will not sustain itself automatically. If we are serious about the requirements of national survival, thinking is necessary.
But effective thought presupposes respect for the process. ``We shall not understand the history of men and other times,'' Benedetto Croce once wrote, ``unless we ourselves are alive to the requirements which that history satisfied.'' Perhaps the same idea was behind Abraham Lincoln's comment that, ``We must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves.''
There is no point in passing the buck or looking for guilty parties. We got where we are because of the busy man in the mirror.