Castles in the Air
NOVEMBER 01, 1974 by LEONARD E. READ
“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; there is where they should be. Now put foundations under them.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Scrutinize tradition and assess it, for it bears witness both true and false; to be blindly guided by it is to risk being led astray. So, beware of conventional thinking; break with tradition whenever reason shows its folly! As Ortega warned:
The so-called Renaissance was, for the moment, the attempt to let go of the traditional culture which, formed during the Middle Ages, had begun to stiffen and to quench man’s spontaneity… man must periodically shake himself free of his own culture.1
Thoreau was a hardheaded searcher for truth; he did his own thinking. His comment on castles in the air is a sample, a break with the conventional definition of daydreaming: "Anything imagined and desired but not likely to be realized."
Thoreau is right. Contrary to popular notions, castles in the air are the birthplaces of human evolution; all progress (and all regress), be it material, intellectual, moral, or spiritual, involves a break with the prevailing ideology. Not to break with the current conventions — to go on our dizzy way — means a headlong plunge into all-out socialism!
Castles in the air might indeed become chambers of horror. On the other hand, they encompass man’s unrealized goals and aspirations, the dreams not yet attained but not necessarily unattainable. An example from the past may help show their role for the future: In 1898 it was thought that intensive farming depended on the nitrate mines in Chile, and that their eventual exhaustion would bring world famine. Why did not this disaster come to pass? Three great scientists built castles in the air. They put foundations under them and thereby "solved the problem of nitrogen via ammonia synthesis from air and water."2 Result? More intensive farming than ever before! So we are not now dependent on nitrate from communist Chile; we do not face famine.
As to the future, such normal sources of energy as coal and oil are believed to be in critical shortage. "Energy crisis" is the talk of our time. Thank heaven for castles in the air. It has been known for centuries that all heat, light, and energy for the entire solar system comes from the sun. Coal and oil are but by-products thereof, the secondary sources we have used to survive. Very well! Why not anticipate the end of coal and oil and go directly to the sun for mankind’s energy? Harness energy at its source! Put foundations under it! Long steps in that direction have been taken, and it’s now only a matter of time — assuming some other castles in the air — before we will be capable of extracting more energy from the sun than human beings may ever need.3
Why the reservation, "assuming some other castles in the air"? It is this: If we persist in coming to be more and more like communist Chile, solar energy for mankind is a daydream without foundation. Tapping this source on a meaningful scale is out of the question except as there be at least one country in the world where men are free. Put this stark fact another way: Solar energy will not grace mankind unless we remove our restraints against the release of creative human energy; solar energy and creative human energy are inseparably linked!
Freedom does not make people strong; rather, it makes strength possible. It gives everyone an opening for intellectual, moral, and spiritual strength. With freedom, many will develop their faculties, some will not. The outcome depends on one’s inner strength. Indeed, this inner strength occasionally shows forth in persons living under extreme authoritarianism.
While such rare stalwarts as a Solzhenitsyn may keep a few sparks aglow, it is only when freedom’s flame is high and bright — when millions are free to act creatively — that such miracles as tapping solar energy are a possibility. The ones who get the credit — the scientists out front — actually ride on the shoulders of others with their thoughts, insights, intuitive flashes — countless thousands of unknown persons. For instance, did Johann Gutenberg invent the printing press? He is given the credit. The fact is that his was but a crowning achievement, a final touch to literally millions of antecedents — including the unknown hero who harnessed fire.
In view of the politico-economic trend in all nations toward all-out statism, any prospect for progress requires a turnabout in at least one nation. And the nation on which each of us must focus is his own. Only at home may one expect to put foundations under his dreams.
The American Dream
More than two centuries ago in this land of ours men built castles in the air. What was their dream? A country free from authoritarian tyranny; each citizen free to act creatively as he pleased, government limited to inhibiting destructive actions, invoking a common justice, keeping the peace! No political arrangement had ever matched this dream, even remotely. Castles in the air, indeed!
The challenge they faced was to put foundations under their dreams! And they did: The Declaration of Independence unseated government as the sovereign power and put the Creator there: "… all men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty…"
The Declaration, however, was only the first stage in laying the greatest politico-economic foundation in the history of mankind. The next step — cementing the foundation — was the Constitution, further supported by the Bill of Rights. These political instruments held government to a more limited role than ever before. Result? The greatest outburst of creative energy ever known — the American miracle!
What has happened? Our foundations are crumbling. We are reverting to the same type of authoritarianism from which our forefathers fled. We give it new names: the planned economy, the welfare state, socialism, communism. But tyranny is tyranny whether the master be a King James, a feudal lord, a Hitler, or a majority gone mad!
The remedy? Once again, castles in the air! Required is a lodestar — "a guiding ideal" — similar to that of our founding fathers, along with the will and the understanding to put foundations under that ideal.
Built into this foundation structure are gems of thought. The mortar holding the gems in place is composed of the several virtues: steadfastness of purpose; thinking for self rather than imitating others; an insatiable desire to learn, realizing that the more one learns the more there is to learn an ability to explain the fallacies of all dictatorial behavior; an understanding of and a devotion to the creative process; and, this above all, integrity — the accurate reflection in word and deed of whatever one’s highest conscience dictates as righteous.
Repeal the Restraints
Given such a foundation, what sequence of events might be expected to follow? A repeal of all laws that restrain or prohibit creative activity. A precedent forsuch a wholesome turn of events occurred in England following the Napoleonic wars. Richard Cobden and John Bright and a few enthusiastic supporters who understood the folly of mercantilism and the merit of freedom in transactions began the greatest reform movement in British history: the wholesale repeal of restrictive laws. As a consequence, England stood as a giant among nations until just before World War I when her foundations began to crumble, as ours are now crumbling. However, what happened once to achieve freedom in England can happen again there and also here. It can happen if there is the will to prevail, a faith that we can succeed.
Given a return to freedom, what about the harnessing of solar energy? It will be as commonplace a few years hence as delivering the human voice around the earth at the speed of light is today. Taken for granted! And who knows what other things free men can and will accomplish!
But far more important than these countless material blessings will be a freeing of the human spirit — tens of millions no longer wards of government but growing, emerging, self-responsible citizens, each his own man. Castles in the air? Let us build foundations under those worth keeping.
1 See Man and Culture by Jose Ortega y Gasset (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1962), pp. 72-73
2 See "Energy: The Ultimate Raw Material" by James Wei (The Freeman, August, 1972)..
3 "Although less than half the earth’s sunlight entering the earth’s atmosphere reaches its surface, just 40 minutes of that solar input equals all the energy mankind consumes in an entire year." In a word, 13,140 times as much solar energy as needed to serve present requirements. See "Tapping the Sun’s Energy" by David G. Lee (National Wildlife, August-September, 1974).