“THEORY” From “The Scheme of Things” by Allen Wheelis

Note: Wheelis wrote an interesting little book called “How People Change”. I don’t share his apparent rejection of the Christian faith, of course, but he is an honest and thoughtful writer, as this excerpt of another of his books shows. Be patient, the first paragraph is the slowest.

I have yet to conceive the relation between the scheme of things and the way things are, and how the scheme of things affects the way things are. In some way it relieves an unbearable vision. But how? My sense of it now is that with the advent of man, for the first time, one form of life gains a vision of life as a whole. The immediate horror man perceives is his own death, but beyond that he begins to see the entire life process as carnage, as eating and being eaten. A terrible screaming pervades the universe. Man is the first to hear it. This is the vision we cannot accept. It drives toward madness or despair. This is the way things are. Does the scheme of things simply say it isn’t so?Christianity is the scheme of things I know best, know in the sense that once, for a while, it really worked for me. What does Christianity do with this vision? It does not deny it; it makes it acceptable. What Christianity does for the Christian is give him strength to bear it. It redeems it. That’s the word! The scheme of things redeems the way things are. But what is redemption? It must be an interpretation. The scheme of things interprets the way things are as necessary to something grand. The scheme of things, therefore, is both a diagram of the something grand and an interpretation of the way things are as an essential part of the something grand. The life process thereupon becomes less horrible and more bearable because it serves, however obscurely, a glorious end. One’s individual life is redeemed when it is in the service of the something grand.


The beginning of the redemption of life is the beginning of culture. All culture is redemption. The history of culture, then, is the history of the changing forms by which a short and brutish life has been redeemed. The culture of a people, writes T. S. Eliot, is the incarnation of its religion. “Any religion, while it lasts, provides the framework for a culture, and protects the mass of humanity from boredom and despair.” In the sense in which people are unconscious of both their culture and their religion they are the same.

Man searches for a scheme of things larger than his own life, with greater authority, to which he may belong. The hunger from which this search issues is profound and inalienable. If he can find such a scheme and make his life “mean” something in it, that is, contribute to it, make a difference, he will have ferried something of his mortal self across the gulf of death to become a part of something that will live on. The doomed life must leave a residue of value. The carrier and guarantor of this value is a manmade scheme of things perceived as reality and presumed to be immortal.

What can I say of the way things are? That the constructions of mind are not coextensive with existence, that there is something “out there,” a universe independent of man, there before we arrived and to be there after we have disappeared. It affects us and we it. It and we are in continual contact and interaction, and we know it not. An angel, detached and immortal, could know it; we, mired in mortality, are partisan. Interest deflects our knowing. Our lives depend on its being other than it is. We live within a scheme of things carved from the way things are, but never can we make the scheme of things identical with the way things are. In the midst of the way things are we know only the scheme of things in which we live.

The scheme of things is a system of order. Beginning as our view of the world, it finally becomes our world. We live within the space defined by its coordinates. It is self-evidently true, is accepted so naturally and automatically that one is not aware of an act of acceptance having taken place. It comes with one’s mother’s milk, is chanted in school, proclaimed from the White House, insinuated by television, validated at Harvard. Like the air we breathe, the scheme of things disappears, becomes simply reality, the way things are. It is the lie necessary to life. The world as it exists beyond that scheme becomes vague, irrelevant, largely unperceived, finally nonexistent. One struggles then to have one’s life mean something not within a scheme of things that one’s culture happens is provide, but within that order taken to be the way things are. As soon as the scheme of things is questioned, it has lost its capacity to redeem. “What, then,” Camus writes, “is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But . . . in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.”

As man emerged from the condition of animal, there must have been a period of transition during which the carriers of the process could not have known what was happening to them or even that a change was taking place. Now in retrospect we can see it as an expansion of awareness which brought into being freedom and choice. The knowing mind begins to know itself and to perceive, along with the freedom to do this or that, a horror about which it has no freedom at all. As soon as we become able, floating down the river of life, really to see the remarkable scenery and to enjoy the newly acquired freedom to move this way or that in the current, at just that moment we hear the roar of the cataract ahead. This is the human condition. Amidst the luscious fruits we see the coiled asp. We become, at one stroke, gods and food for worms.

Changes that come about glacially in the transformation of species are reenacted in a flash in the lives of individuals. Thus we may catch a glimpse, each in his own past, of that moment which recapitulates the birth of man, the beginning of that exaltation and anguish which has become for us the condition of life, the air we breathe.

I remember a spring evening in a School auditorium during the rehearsal of a play. I am thirteen. I am weary of the farce, weary of the silliness of the cast, of our endless horseplay, mindlessness. A scene in which I have no part is being rehearsed; I stand in an open door at the rear of the dark and empty hall. A storm is under way. The door is on the lee of the building, and I step out under the overhang. The rain swirls and beats. Lightning reveals a familiar scene in a ghostly light. I feel a sudden poignancy. Images strike my mind. The wind is the scream of a lost spirit, searching the earth and finding no good, recalling old bereavements, lashing the land with tears. Consciousness leaves my body, moves out in time and space. I undergo an expanding awareness of self, of separateness, of time flowing through me, bearing me on, knowing I have a chance, the one chance all of us have, the chance of a Life, knowing a time will come when nothing, lies ahead and everything lies behind, and hoping I can then look back and feel it well spent. How, in the light of fixes stars, should one live?

How am I to conceive the origin of a scheme of things? As the creation of one man? a charismatic leader who achieves a new vision of life and secures a following? Did Christ invent Christianity? I think not. He created disorder, led a rabble, was an irritant to existing schemes of things. The scheme of things which is Christianity, of which his teachings are the nucleus, was the creation of many people over a span much longer than his life. Indeed, by the time it could be called Christianity it had assumed a character he would have repudiated.

A scheme of things must be a social creation, something offered to the individual by society as a system of significance. Necessarily social, for were it an individual creation its scope and authority would be limited, like the delusions of the paranoiac, to the doomed self that created it, and no success within that scheme could then protect against the dread of paranoiac, to the doomed self that created it, and no Success within that scheme could then protect against the dread of death. An individual scheme of things is but another way of saying madness. One’s ambition may be secret, but the pattern of meanings that makes possible the ambition and within which it may be realized is social. Even if one’s entire hope of meaning in life hinges on acquiring a complete set of American Stamps that vision still is Social, depends upon others being similarly engaged; for Such an effort could mean nothing in a world without stamp collecting.

When a society offers at its apex but one Scheme of things, inclusive and integrative of all subordinate orientations, and when that Scheme by virtue of being generally accepted as true holds great authority, then that Society is unified and cohesive, is an organism. Every leader seeks to embody such a scheme of things, and charismatically to make it ever more powerfully appealing, binding on the loyalties of all. When society offers, at the top, contending schemes, none of compelling authority, that society is fragmented, is not an organism but a congeries.

Should ever any scheme of things acquire absolute authority it would exclude from awareness anything beyond its limits. Nothing then could contend with it and no change could occur. It and the society it organized would be static and immortal. Each individual by making his life mean something in that scheme would share in that immortality. The dread of death would be overcome.

No scheme of things has ever achieved such authority though some schemes have endured for millennia. The world view of those Stone Age hunters of a million years ago may have been virtually the same as that of their predecessors a million years earlier. But in the long view, if one stands back far enough, change is evident even there. No scheme of things has ever been both coextensive with the way things are and also true to the way things are. All schemes of things involve limitation and denial. They are man-made. They reach out into the way things are, the realm of the existing, and make order.

A scheme of things is a plan for salvation. How well it works will depend upon its scope and authority. If it is small, even great achievement in its service does little to dispel death. A scheme of things may be as large as Christianity or as small as the Alameda County Bowling League. We seek the largest possible scheme of things, not in a reaching out for truth, but because the more comprehensive the scheme the greater its promise of banishing dread. If we can make our lives mean something in a cosmic scheme we will live in the certainty of immortality. Those attributes of a Scheme of things that determine its durability and success are its scope, the opportunity it offers for participation and contribution, and the conviction with which it is held as self-evidently true. The very great success of Christianity for a thousand years follows upon its having been of universal scope, including and accounting for everything, assigning to all things a proper place; offering to every man, whether prince or beggar, savant or fool, the privilege of evoking in the Lord’s vineyard; and being accepted as true throughout the Western world.

As a scheme of things is modified by inroads from outlying existence, it loses authority, is less able to banish dread; its adherents fall away. Eventually it fades, exists only in history, becomes quaint or primitive, becomes, finally, a myth. What we know as legends were once blueprints of reality. The Church was right to stop Galileo; activities such as his import into the regnant scheme of things new being which will eventually destroy that scheme.

When the ruling scheme of things comes to seem untrue or unimportant one’s efforts within it become meaningless. One’s whole life becomes meaningless. The Heavenly City falls into ruins. The avenue to immortality ends on an abyss. One is cast back on his own life, stares ahead through a transparence of days to death, which stands at the end. one enters a state of dread.

Life then is borne forward on waves of cynicism and despair. One seeks distraction — gambling, hang-gliding, the racing of fast cars — death-defying games which invoke the specter from which one flinches. By surviving the heightened risk one achieves briefly the illusion of mastery. But not for long.

Within the confines of a single life death is unmasterable. The threshold of distraction rises; to regain the illusion the risk must be increased. One raises the ante; a lead foot lies on the accelerator. Better die young seeking mastery than live long in dread.

Sometimes the distraction is less desperate — tennis, chess, antiques, the stock market, gourmet food — and may contain creative possibilities. What began as a distraction from the loss of meaning and the dread of death may come itself to have meaning and to protect against dread. The distraction, that is, becomes a new scheme of things. Though much reduced in scope from the one that has crumbled, the reduced scheme again constitutes an order greater than one’s own life within which, by struggling to contribute, to have one’s life mean something, one transcends death. A committed chess player may finally lose awareness that life contains anything other than chess. A new defense against the Ruy Lopez may be monument enough.

Society offers countless schemes of things — from technology to art, from psychoanalysis to Marxism — each of which lives on after the deaths of those who have labored within them. If one can bring one’s self to adopt one of these schemes of things, not nominally but passionately, investing it with such allegiance that it becomes a compelling order, if one gives over one’s mortal life to its enrichment, one recovers from disillusionment. One believes again. Death wanes.

In such a recovery one may move to a scheme of things larger than the one that has crumbled; the crumbling itself may then be seen in a perspective that makes it meaningful, perhaps even inevitable. People who Characteristically recover in this upward direction are of a religious nature; their tendency is toward a scheme of things so all-embracing that nothing lies beyond its grasp. So the Marxists of the thirties become the Freudians of the forties, and politics is subsume under psychology. A. A. Brill was able to comprehend the rash of strikes during the Depression as rebellious sons acting out their defiance of fathers. Conversely, one may recover from disillusionment by moving to a scheme of things smaller in scope than the one that was lost. People who characteristically recover in this downward direction are of a secular disposition.

For a thousand years Christianity was for the Western world the scheme of things organizing man’s world view. It stood at the apex of a hierarchy within which were included all other schemes, fraternal, artistic, Scholastic, political. That world order is now irretrievably lost.

I come back to Eliot’s dictum that culture is the incarnation of religion, that in the sense in which one is unconscious of his religion and his culture they are the same. If that is true — and I believe it’s true — a culture cannot survive the loss of its religion; for the lesser Schemes of things which that culture will still be able to offer will, whatever their merits, lack that element of the sacred which previously had derived from religions and without which no one of the lesser schemes will be able to achieve the unification of the whole.

Science, like religion, is a scheme of things hierarchically ordered, including many subordinate schemes. The compelling paradigm of one age may be the phlogiston of the next, without disturbing the overriding rational-scientific scheme of things of which the varying paradigms are subordinate Schemes. But Science has never, not even in its greatest ascendency, claimed such cosmic scope as Christianity. Some of the joys and sorrows of man’s condition have not, within Science, found a place or an accounting. Most particularly now do they find no place; for the rational-scientific scheme of things is itself on the decline. Fewer people now see it as coextensive with reality. More and more frequently do people look away from science, or around its edges, in search of some new vision, some new scheme of things with which to order their lives.

Copyright ©1980 by Allen B. Wheelis

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