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Joseph Wood Krutch: Philosopher of Humaneness

  • Joseph Wood Krutch at Langnerlane Farm in Connecticut. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten, used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust.

Joseph Wood Krutch came to fame as a Jazz Age cultural commentator with The Modern Temper (1929), a pessimistic work that deplored the degree to which the rational skepticism of science had displaced religious certainty, leaving the world bereft of meaning for humankind.

By the early 1950s, however, Krutch had discovered a world of meaning in nature, emerging as a major advocate for the nonhuman world, and especially for the animals who became the subjects of his later works. This personal and intellectual odyssey marked the point of convergence between one of the twentieth century’s greatest men of letters and a fledgling animal protection organization, The HSUS.

It was Krutch’s study of Henry David Thoreau that eventually convinced him that humans could find profound spiritual satisfaction by acknowledging their place in the broader community of life. His first book of nature essays appeared in 1948, the same year his biography of Thoreau came out. In the early 1950s, Krutch moved to the Arizona desert, and from that time onward, he devoted much of his writing to a celebration of nature and a worldview that took account of all its inhabitants.

In his 1954 essay, “Conservation is Not Enough,” which appeared in the very year of The HSUS’s founding, Krutch offered a memorable statement of his basic philosophy. “What is commonly called ‘conservation’ will not work in the long run,” he wrote, “because it is not really conservation at all but rather, disguised by its elaborate scheming, only a more knowledgeable variation on the old idea of a world for man’s use only." Anthropocentric and utilitarian resource management were not going to save nature or humankind, he argued; we also needed “love, some feeling for, as well as understanding of, the inclusive community of rocks and souls, plants and animals, of which we are a part.”

"The grand question remains whether most people actually want hearts to be tenderer or harder."

With The Great Chain of Life (1957), Krutch established himself as a philosopher of humaneness, and drew the attention of animal protectionists like The HSUS’s Fred Myers. Krutch was particularly disturbed by the alienation of so many human beings from the natural environment and nonhuman nature, which he traced to the devaluation and demise of traditional natural history education. "The grand question remains whether most people actually want hearts to be tenderer or harder," Krutch asked. “Do we want a civilization that will move toward some more intimate relation with the natural world, or do we want one that will continue to detach and isolate itself from both a dependence upon and a sympathy with that community of which we were originally a part?"

In May 1957, a review of Krutch’s book in the HSUS News, almost certainly written by Myers, noted with approval, “Krutch believes that if men can be made to feel their relationship with the other living creatures of earth, something akin to Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life’ will follow.” In the ensuing years, HSUS publications would frequently cite Krutch’s views on rodeo, animal experiments, hunting, and the fur and feather trade, along with those of Albert Schweitzer, whose vision of a greater harmony between humans and the nonhuman world had been so powerful in the formation of organizations like The HSUS and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Krutch was an active participant in anti-cruelty work. In March 1965, as debate intensified over proposals to regulate animal use in research, testing and education by a federal law, he wrote a piece for the Saturday Review, condemning cruelty both within and outside of the laboratory and arguing the case for such legislation. In 1968 Krutch contributed a foreword to HSUS president Mel Morse’s book Ordeal of the Animals, and received The HSUS’s highest accolade, its Humanitarian of the Year award.  In 1970 The HSUS renamed the award in his honor, a fitting tribute to a man who had given heart and voice to some of the most fundamental premises of the mid-twentieth century humane movement. 

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