The heightened pace of life in industrial societies, Charles Lindbergh realized, necessitated reflection on what type of life is best suited for man. Which of the two, reason or vital instinct, constitutes the best function of human beings? Which of the two contributes best to man’s happiness and lasting well-being?…
Charles Lindbergh begins Autobiography of Values by reflecting on the values that mold a person’s life. In the first pages of this autobiography of ideas and values, Lindbergh asks, whether life is best lived by paying allegiance to reason or to vital instinct.
This is the fundamental question that is addressed by philosophy of life thinkers like Maine de Biran, Wilhelm Dilthey, Miguel de Unamuno and José Ortega y Gasset, to name just a few. Lindbergh’s concern reflects the philosophia perennis, a term that was coined by Leibniz, but which contains themes that can be traced back to the ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosophers, Pythagoras and Heraclitus, and that are beautifully articulated by Socrates and Plato, and Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism.
For practical reasons, the act of balancing a life of reason with a life guided by vital instinct became more delicate after the Industrial Revolution.The heightened pace of life in industrial societies, Charles Lindbergh realized, necessitated reflection on what type of life is best suited for man. Which of the two, reason or vital instinct, constitutes the best function of human beings? Which of the two contributes best to man’s happiness and lasting well-being?
This question is of crucial importance for Lindbergh, for the world-renowned pilot embarked on a life of scientific and technological discovery. Lindberg lived during a time that witnessed the explosion of mechanization in twentieth-century Western civilization. The life of the legendary aviator was marked by this quest.
Lindbergh’s fascination with science and technology is commensurate with America’s in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet the other component of the perennial philosophy that Lindbergh addressed is that without moderation by vital instinct—a kind of checks-and-balances in itself—science and technology develop into sterile scientism, which eventually comes to rule over man by obfuscating man’s hierarchy of values. In his book Of Flight and Life, which Lindbergh published in 1948, he offers a refutation of philosophical materialism. He argues that to keep scientism from destroying Western civilization, “we must control it by a philosophy reaching beyond materialism, a philosophy rooted in the character of man and nourished by the eternal truths of God.”
The tension between reason and vital instinct elucidates what Lindbergh means by values. While reason can be equated with intellect, vital instinct in human beings is akin to lived-intuition, which serves as a guide for human emotion and passion. The values of vital life, Lindbergh suggests, enable man to decipher the meaning and purpose of human experience. This entails having to choose between often-conflicting values.
Early in life, the young Lindbergh did not like school. What he enjoyed most was working on the family farm in Minnesota and being in the outdoors. When he discovered flying, the values of vital life enabled the young flyer to treat flight with deference. Lindbergh writes: “Instinctively I was drawn to the farm, intellectually to the laboratory. Here began a conflict between values of instinct and intellect that was carried through my entire life, and that I eventually recognized as inherent in my civilization.”
Lindbergh’s flight in his single-engine monoplane Spirit of St. Louis from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927, is a feat of engineering and technology. By all accounts, this is what the crossing of the Atlantic in a single-engine airplane meant in those pioneering and dangerous days of aviation history. Lindbergh understood the technical specifications that such a flight would entail: weight to power ratio of his airplane, accurate navigation in relation to predominant wind currents, fuel consumption, etc. Lindbergh was careful to plan his flight across the Atlantic well in advance. This was the sublimation of emotion by the intellect. In other words, Lindbergh’s historic flight was not the whim of a daredevil pilot, even though he came to be known as Lucky Lindy.
Beyond the technical feat, Lindbergh’s near-3,600-mile and thirty-four-hour-long flight across the Atlantic is a human story of colossal proportion. Part of this has to do with Lindbergh’s character: The young man was reserved and private. He remained this way even after the fame that his historic flight brought him. Lindbergh’s description of the flight in his book The Spirit of St. Louis offers readers a deeper understanding of the thought process of the courageous twenty-five-year-old aviator. He describes his ordeal during the flight as one of vast personal discover: “Emerging from my contemplation were two areas of extraordinary interest. One related to aviation’s progress, the other to the quality and mystery of life.” This is the main theme that dominates his books and also, judging from the prominent role this plays in his autobiography, Lindbergh’s life.
Lindbergh’s historic New York-Paris flight made the young pilot realize the immense potential for the future of commercial aviation. First, airplanes needed to become bigger and more reliable. After Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing, technological development of aircrafts allowed for the growth of commercial aviation.
During this period of his life, Lindbergh began to reflect on the dominant values of Western civilization: what these mean to human liberty, the essence of man, and how the cultivation of man’s better traits and moral compass contribute to the upkeep of democratic societies. These questions, Lindbergh believed, are rooted in higher values.
Technological advancement made Lindbergh understand that civilization always wavers between the complexity of vast structures and instinctual simplicity. The former is imbued with scientific discovery, while the latter remains grounded in the values of a reflective existence. For instance, Lindbergh found inspiration in the work of the 1912 Noble prizewinner in medicine, Alexis Carrel. Lindbergh believed that life expectancy could be extended, perhaps indefinitely. The young Lindbergh believed that the future of life expectancy depended on the creation of efficient perfusion pumps—the kind of medical technology that Lindbergh designed in 1935—in collaboration with Carrel.
With the advent of World War II, Lindbergh witnessed the creation of evermore elaborate machinery and industrialization. Technology, Lindbergh feared, was outpacing the dreams and aspirations of those who labored to create it. Lindbergh’s philosophy of human values was in part inspired by Robert Goddard’s development of rockery, Werner von Braun’s V-2 rocket, and how these machines blossomed into the Saturn V rocket that would eventually propel man to the moon.
Lindbergh’s thinking is infused with the tension of balancing reason, which is calculative, with values of life—what he referred to as vital instincts.
Lindbergh’s reflective inquietude is the same encountered by philosophers of life, for through reflection on scientific explanations of the world; the individual finds himself as a responsible interpreter of human experience. Scientific explanation of human reality must be mediated by human thought and instinct. He explains, “I believe early entrance to this era can be attained by the application of our scientific knowledge, not to life’s mechanical vehicles, but the essence of life itself: to the infinite and infinitely evolving qualities that have resulted in the awareness, shape, and character of man.”
Part of the importance of Lindbergh’s philosophy of the role of the individual in Western civilization, which he expounds on in his writing, is his reflection and exploration of the perennial philosophy. The perennial philosophy revisits human ideas and values that remain relevant through the passage of time and that must be re-addressed by subsequent generations. Lindbergh articulated his discovery of many of these values after much thought and consideration of scientific problems.
Lindbergh’s philosophical ruminations display an efficient and fresh way to keep philosophy and philosophical reflection relevant, uncorrupted by the sterility of uninspired academic bureaucrats.
For instance, Lindbergh reflects on the problem of the fruit of the tree of knowledge posed in Genesis. If there exists a tree of knowledge that man must respect, then how does man appropriate this knowledge, without crossing the line that opens a Pandora’s Box of human suffering? What, then, if any, is the limit of human knowledge that the tree of knowledge suggests for man? Does the wisdom that comes from this knowledge require a rite of passage that is earned through self-reflection and sacrifice? Lindbergh considered these questions in earnest and has the following to say: “Genesis leaves us in a mystery not unlike what lies beyond scientific rationality. Was man ruined in his knowledge because it is finite? Was mankind better off following dogmatic religious myths than the fearful future realities of science? Is the intellect man’s tyranny over himself?”
The fantastic technological developments of the first half of the twentieth century made Lindbergh cognizant of the individual’s place in the cosmos. Mechanization made the dizzying speed of technological development possible. This, in turn, made it necessary for man to reflect on the scope of mechanization in Western societies. The difference between handcrafting canvass and wooden airplanes in the early days of aviation, to molding sheet metal, and using pneumatic tools to build the formidable Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental is enough to move sentient people to reflect about man’s capacity to create.
Lindbergh contends that the values of Western civilization must continually be made fresh, in order for the West to remain grounded in the values of life. “But in part modern science developed from the magic of times past,” Lindbergh suggests. “Maybe science was like an adolescent child smiling too surely at its uneducated parents.”
The legendary aviator argues that reason, intellectual discourse, and science and technology should be considered, and thus operate hand-in-hand with vital instinct. Speculation on cosmic reality enables man to reflect on the nature of individual existence. For this reason, Lindbergh writes, “man feels intuitively that something beyond life exists for him—a continuance, a direction, surpassing the description of his mind.”
Only through man’s encounter with differentiation can man make sense of the unique, lived reality that is experienced as individual human existence.
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