In April of 1968, when I was a First-Year law student at Harvard Law School, after graduating from Harvard College the year before, at the very height of the Vietnam War protests on college campuses across our nation, Professor Crain Brinton, the forty-year Chairman of Harvard University’s Department of Intellectual History, publicly announced his intention to retire at the end of that academic year. He concurrently announced that he was going to reveal to the “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard”, in his final public lecture that year, “the most important single human idea which he had ever encountered” in his over fifty years of research in the field of Intellectual History while at at Harvard University.
On the assigned day of his final lecture, several hundred undergraduates, graduate school students from across the campus and alumni from around the world (who traveled from the far corners of the world to attend this much-hailed event) crowded into Lowell Hall to which Professor Brinton’s Final Lecture had been moved in order to accommodate the expected overflow crowd of attendees.
Taking the lectern, he looked out across the prestigious crowd which had gathered to hear his message. He began by reminiscing about the many hundreds of Harvard College graduates who, long after having graduated from Harvard College and departing from Cambridge for the far corners of the world, had taken the time to write to him to thank him for having exposed them, during their undergraduate years at Harvard College, to “The Great Ideas of Man.”
He then turned to the task which brought him before that esteemed crowd on that sunlit springtime morning in 1968:
“You have come from far away, and near, to hear my account of what I have concluded to be “The Most Important Single Human Idea” that I have ever encountered in my over fifty years of research in the field of Human Intellectual History here at Harvard. Surprisingly, it has not been difficult for me to make this determination.
While many thought that the answer would be “Human Freedom”, or “Democracy” or even “Human Equality” or some such other well-deserving human idea, the answer is, in fact, as follows:
A hush fell across the waiting crowd. Five hundred faces looked up in anticipation, most of which he had seen before, across the many years, when they were much younger, but no less eager to learn.
“It is my belief, after all these years, that the greatest and most important single idea which has occurred to the human mind in the entire recorded history of our species and which stands, therefore, above all others, as the most cherished and the most esteemed idea of humankind is this:
He turned solemn and looked up from his notes out into the faces arrayed below and said:
“The greatest minds among our human family, from the earliest recoded history, down to this very day, have recognized the fact that we, today, stand on the very brink of a new step in the biological evolution of our human species… a step which will differentiate us, as a species, from homo sapiens as much as
homo sapiens were distinguished from homo erectus – and
“That this step in our biological evolution will take the form of the evolution of a new and additional biological faculty… a biological ‘faculty’ – just like ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ … but this new faculty will enable us to directly, physiologically experience – just as we experience the physical phenomena of light and sound – the physical phenomenon which bonds together every single ultimately non-divisible unit of matter in the entire physical universe into one, single, harmonious WHOLE.
“And, that, by means of this unique, new physical experience, we – each one of us, as individual human beings… no matter what our race, no matter what our gender, no matter what our place of national origin or our individual religious belief – will be able to directly and experientially know what particular human conduct – both individual and collective – is either in direct physical ‘harmony with’ or is in direct physical ‘dis-harmony to’ the NATURAL ORDER OF THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE.
“And I am personally convinced that this historical event in all of the history of humankind is coming to fruition within this very Generation.”
He paused. And he looked down upon the young men of The Post World War II “Baby Boom” Generation who were gathered before him as his undergraduate class and he said:
“And THIS is why I believe that so many of you, in your Generation, have refused to go fight in this unjust and illegal war.”
With this, the entire crowd of Harvard men rose to their feet as one and broke into spontaneous applause and cheering. Crain Brinton smiled and bowed to his students. He then closed his notes, turned and silently left the lectern. He died within one month of his retirement, never having written a word of what he had concluded, never having made another public statement about this.
But his words live on, in the minds of those hundreds of Harvard College graduates who were privileged, on that Spring day in 1968, to have been present for that famous lecture…and in the writings and speeches of “the greatest minds among our species” down through the years.
There has been no more paradigmatic a statement of “The Progressive Worldview” that I have ever read or heard.
The unique time, the unique place, the unique audience, the unique speaker and the unique historical setting in which this statement was made all contribute to making this statement a very significant piece of evidence in the growing body of evidence which is gradually establishing the fact that the Moment has arrived, within our very lifetimes, when this Next Step in the political evolution of our Western Culture is immediately at hand.
It is truly an Idea Whose Time Has Come, now… after all of these long…long years of waiting in our civilization.
Crain Brinton’s talk helped inspire and shape the work contained in this website, read on to learn more.