Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Lewis Mumford

American Writer, Philosopher, Historian, Teacher, Sociologist and Literary Critic

"A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search for truth and perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life... Variation, experiment and insurgence are all of them attributes of freedom."

"Man's chief purpose... is the creation and preservation of values; that is what gives meaning to our civilization, and the participation in this is what gives significance, ultimately, to the individual human life."

"Not wishing to be other than they are, the blameless ones, in their self-love, cannot conceive the real alternative; another self, cleansed of guilt and freed from folly, capable of renewal."

"The divorce of the practical and relative world of daily living from the astronomical sense of the high religions is surely one of the ultimate causes of the breakdown that has been going on so fast in our own generation."

"The good life is not only good for one's conscience; it is good for art, good for knowledge, good for health, good for fellowship."

"Each person is a temporary focus of forces, vitalities, and values that carry back into an immemorial past that reach ford into an unthinkable future."

"By his very success in inventing labor-saving devices, modern man has manufactured an abyss of boredom that only the privileged class in earlier civilizations have ever fathomed."

"Our national flower is the concrete cloverleaf."

"Not sense data or atoms or electrons or packets of energy, but purposes, interests, and meanings, constitute the underlying facts of human experience."

"Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends."

"I would define man as the unfinished animal, the radically dissatisfied and maladjusted animal who comes up with a dozen different answers to each of Nature's proposals. Man is the only animal who is not content to remain in the original state of nature."

"One of the functions of intelligence is to take account of the dangers that come from trusting solely to the intelligence."

"The great capacity of the Jews and the Chinese, above all other peoples, to survive the cancerous attacks of dehumanized power has derived from their sense of the family; loyalty to the generations behind them and those yet to come."

"The ultimate gift of conscious life is a sense of the mystery that encompasses it."

"When vitality runs high, death takes men by surprise. But if they close their eyes to this possibility, what they gain in peace they lose in sensibility and significance."

"War is both the product of an earlier corruption and a producer of new corruptions."

"We have created an industrial order geared to automatism, where feeble-mindedness or acquired, is necessary for docile productivity in the factory; and where a pervasive neurosis is the final gift of the meaningless life that issues forth at the other end."

"To despise the animal basis of life, to seek value only at the level of conscious intelligence and rational effort, is ultimately to lose one's sense of cosmic relationships."

"[Human progress] unites the person and the community; and one is not less necessary than the other. For without the social process the individual effort would be lost, and without the individual bid for freedom society would be curbed and confined, as most historic civilizations have in fact been confined, by its very success."

"At moments of crisis, where the roads to disintegration or to development separate, as on a watershed, a single decisive personality, or a small group of informed and purposeful men, may be a slight push determine the direction and movement of an otherwise uncontrollable mass of conflicting social forces… Only within the compass of the person can a total change be affected within the span of a single generation, sufficient to produce the necessary effect on civilization at large: like the seed crystal, he passes on to the whole new order of the part."

"[Man is] the unfinished animal, the radically dissatisfied and maladjusted animal… Man is the only animal who is not content to remain in the original state of nature."

"Civilization begins by a magnificent materialization of human purpose; it ends in a purposeless materialism. An empty triumph, which revolts even the self that created it."

"Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers."

"Disobedience is the infant’s first step toward autonomy."

"Life is a score that we play at sight, not merely before we have divined the intentions of the composer, but even before we have mastered our instruments: even worse, a large part of the score has been only roughly indicated, and we must improvise the music for our particular instrument, over long passages. On these terms, the whole operation seems one endless difficulty and frustration; and indeed, were it not for the fact that some of the passages have been played so often by our predecessors that, when we come to them, we seem to recall some of the score and can anticipate the natural sequence of the notes, we might often give up in sheer despair. The wonder is not that so much cacophony appears in our actual individual lives, but that there is any appearance of harmony and progression."

"Faith in the creative process, in the dynamics of emergence, in the values and purposes that transcend past achievements and past forms, is the precondition of all further growth."

"If anything could testify to the magical powers of the priesthood of science and their technical acolytes, or declare unto mankind the supreme qualifications for absolute rulership held by the Divine Computer, this new invention alone should suffice. So the final purpose of life in terms of the megamachine at last becomes clear: it is to furnish and process an endless quantity of data, in order to expand the role and ensure the domination of the power system."

"Man is… a self-transcending animal."

"Man is first and foremost the self-fabricating animal."

"Every transformation of humanity has rested upon deep stirrings and intuitions, whose rationalized expression takes the form of a new picture of the cosmos and the nature of the human."

"Men become susceptible to ideas, not by discussion and argument, but by seeing them personified and by loving the person who embodies them."

"Man’s chief purpose… is the creation and preservation of value; that is what gives meaning to our civilization, and the participation in this is what gives significance, ultimately to the individual and human life."

"The death of the advertising agency and the propaganda bureau will be one of the surest signs of the birth of a new society."

"Nothing about his life is more strange to [man] or more unaccountable in purely mundane terms than the stirrings he finds in himself, usually fitful but sometimes overwhelming, to look beyond his animal existence and not be fully satisfied with its immediate substance. He lacks the complacency of the other animals: he is obsessed by pride and guilt, pride at being something more than a mere animal, built at falling short of the high aims he sets for himself."

"The extent of the catastrophe that threatens gives the measure of the transformation that will be necessary in order to master it."

"The function of religion is to confront the paradoxes and contradictions and the ultimate mysteries of man and the cosmos; to make sense and reason of what lies beneath the irreducible irrationalities of man’s life; to pierce the surrounding darkness with pinpoints of life, or occasionally to rip away for a startling moment the cosmic shroud."

"The present may be as much determined by the future as by the past."

"The political unification of mankind cannot be realistically conceived except as part of [the] effort at self-transformation."

"The most generous dreams of the past have not become immediate practical necessities: a word-wide cooperation of people, a more just distribution of al the goods of life; the use of knowledge and energy or the service of life, and the use of life itself for the extension of the human spirit to provinces where human values and purposes could not heretofore penetrate. If we awaken in time to overcome the automatisms and irrational compulsions that are now pushing nations toward destruction, we shall create a universal community."

"Universal service is the price of peace."

"Throughout the world, there is a faint glow of color on the topmost twigs, the glow of the swelling buds that announce, despite the frosts and storms to come, the approach of spring: signs of life, signs of integration, signs of a deeper faith for living and of an approaching general renewal of humanity."

"What is any established institution but a Society for the Prevention of Change?"

"A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind."

"Nothing is unthinkable, nothing impossible to the balanced person, provided it comes out of the needs of life and is dedicated to life's further development."

"Without fullness of experience, length of days is nothing. When fullness of life has been achieved, shortness of days is nothing. That is perhaps why the young have usually so little fear of death; they live by intensities that the elderly have forgotten."

"Today, the degradation of the inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet."

"The chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity."

"Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past."

"Life is the only art that we are required to practice without preparation, and without being allowed the preliminary trials, the failures and botches, that are essential for training."

"The cycle of the machine is now coming to an end. Man has learned much in the hard discipline and the shrewd, unflinching grasp of practical possibilities that the machine has provided in the last three centuries: but we can no more continue to live in the world of the machine than we could live successfully on the barren surface of the moon."