Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/November 1877/The Differences of Things

615855Popular Science Monthly Volume 12 November 1877 — The Differences of Things1877John W. Saxon



COULD a man do himself up into a mathematical point and throw himself into the middle of infinite empty space, wherever that is, he would be surprised at the flatness of life under such circumstances. Infinite empty space is absolute sameness. It is, so fur as I have traveled the field of mental possibilities, the only specimen of the thinkable or the unthinkable of which we can say, "It is all alike."

Should we melt up the matter which is supposed to be scattered throughout infinite space, and then, by increased heat, turn it into gas, and expand it till all the systems of the universe became one infinitely-extended and equally-distributed universe of intermingled gases, we should have about as little variety as in the case of empty space.

Having unshackled the universe, and brought chaos back again, having secured a condition somewhat like that in which the advocates of the nebular theory suppose it to have been, consider what a dull time we should have if we were unable to find some little nook outside of infinite space, and, as a result, be obliged to amuse ourselves with such monotonous surroundings! It would be as wearisome as staring day after day at a blank wall without so much as a rain-streak on it.

But Nature seems to have understood that variety is not only "the spice of life," but life itself; and no sooner does she get in hand her raw material, than she sets herself to the work of creating differences. True, some astronomers reject the nebular theory; but, if not true, it will serve as an illustration. It seems to have been the great work of Nature to multiply differences. For instance, there was a time or an eternity in which Nature turned out her first owl, just as the first patent Yankee washing-machine must have had its day. But the inventors of the owl and of the washing-machine have gone on differentiating with unlike results. Most of the washing-machines are at rest. The fittest even scarcely survives. The owls are hooting still in varieties uncounted, and if, here and there, a specimen, discouraged and disgusted with the "modern improvements" of the Cainozoic period, gave up the ghost, and laid himself away with the old saurians—his Darwinian ancestors—he now finds himself resurrected, his bones neatly wired together, and the human owls hooting over him still. Like the immortal Webster, he "still lives" as a witness of Nature's wonderful resources as a differentiator—a difference-maker.

But let us look further into Nature's method of creating varieties. Shortly after the beginning of eternity, Nature began to put the verse in order. She at once began to make distinctions by getting her material together, and turning out worlds. It was the first step. Leaving other worlds to themselves, watch the progress of affairs at home. As soon as the first flurry is over, Nature settles down to the creation of differences. She puts the solid earth as a foundation, and piles the hot atmosphere above it; then she takes the water from the atmosphere, and we have air, earth, and water. With these she gets up some low forms of life. But, as she has only begun her work, she makes very little difference between the opposite ends of these forms. One end of a worm is so much like the other end that you may cut him in two, and one part putting on a tail and the other a head, you will in a short time have two very respectable worms. From these low forms, which carry as much life in one end as in the other, Nature goes on differentiating, till at last we find her getting up forms whose parts are so widely different that each has its own work to do, and one part cannot be substituted for another. A man losing any organ is imperfect; and many of his organs are such that the loss of one of them requires that he should go back into Nature's melting-pot, and be moulded over again into a new form of life—a Rhode Island pippin it may be, as good Roger Williams was. There is no record of any surgeon's having cut a man in two, and having made two men of the pieces. Nature is not content with multiplying species alone. She shows the same love for difference in varieties, and even in individuals, so that, as we are often told, there are no two peas exactly alike.

The utilitarian may ask: "But what is the need of all this variety? Why not have all peas alike?" This brings me to the important part of my essay; for, whimsical as some of my notions may appear to others, the conclusion to which I hope to bring my readers is to me a source of moral rest:

1. Relation of Difference to Consciousness.—How is it that we gain a knowledge of the external world whereby we become conscious intelligences? Simply by a perception of differences. What would follow were there no difference in color or shade? Go into a dark cellar with an extinguished candle to find a black cat that is not there. I know black is said to be no color, but it answers as an illustration. Your eyes are wider open than when above-ground in broad daylight, looking for a white cat that is there. Things being "all of a color," as common people remark when left in the dark, you are for the time as blind as the eyeless fish. Were white light put in the place of darkness, and each object to reflect it with absolute sameness, you would be just as unable to distinguish between objects, or between an object and its background. Were the black cat there eating a white rabbit, the cat having become white you could not tell where cat left off and rabbit began; neither could you tell where cat and rabbit ended and cellar-floor began. Everything would be of a piece. You could make out nothing, though you had as many eyes as the "devil's-darning-needle" of our boyhood, and each eye were "in fine frenzy rolling." Call, now, that cellar the universe, and then see if you can show cause why we may not consider the sense of sight as practically gone, and all knowledge that comes through sight a scaled book; ay, more, that nothing would be left to give us a hint that such knowledge could possibly exist.

How is it that we receive knowledge through the ear? By noting the difference between sounds, and between sound and silence. But, if there were no difference, there could be no hearing. If we had always listened only to a single tone, varying neither in pitch nor force, we should not be aware of the sense of hearing. We should be as one born deaf. It is the difference of sounds that gives us through the ear knowledge and harmony.

As with the senses named, so with smell, taste, and touch. Did all substances affect these senses in exactly the same way, however acute those senses, we should not be aware of their existence. Ask any one what is the smell of pure air, and he will tell you, "No smell." But how do we know that to be the case? As it has always been in contact with our smelling-nerves, we cannot judge of its odor. A dweller in Jupiter coming to visit his mundane cousins might, when he struck our atmosphere, expand his nostrils, as one sniffs the air when he all at once smells something very nice, or he might turn up his Jovian nose, as though he smelt something very bad. It is an open question whether or not the atmosphere is odorless, or, as a layman would put it, whether it smells the same as empty space. Could an intelligent man be put under an exhausted receiver, get the smell of a perfect vacuum, and survive to tell about it, he might throw some light on the question.

To sum up my reasoning, it comes to this: Were the universe one of sameness, instead of the universe of differences that it is, we should be unconscious of any external world, or of our own existence, no matter though we were the best-born specimens of the scientific stirpiculturist. In fact, we should be an army of negations. I am aware there is something a little queer in the logic of this paragraph, but yet there is a great deal of sound logic in it after putting aside the "queer," which will, however, pass current with all except professional detectives.

2. Relation to Knowledge.—What is knowledge? Only a perception of differences. How is a knowledge of natural history, for instance, obtained? Simply by finding out differences. In this way child and philosopher classify the horse and the ox. Progress in knowledge is possible in proportion—1. To objective differences; and, 2. To perceptive ability. Take botany. It is easy to classify those plants which have obvious differences into genera; but, when we come to the classification of sub-species, the work is more difficult. A stupid child can tell a piece of Boston brown-bread from a ginger-snap; but he cannot always tell whether his bread is spread with Orange County butter or oleomargarine.

Again, one man is color-blind, and in a knowledge of colors can make little progress. As an engineer, he would mistake a green for a red light; as a paint-mixer, he would be a failure; and, as a matcher of dress-goods, he would be little troubled by the sweet creatures to whom he belonged. Another man can distinguish not only the seven colors of the rainbow, but many shades of each. The progress of these two men in all knowledge resting upon color must differ widely. As in this, so in all departments of education: the man who is skillful in detecting differences holds the key to knowledge.

3. Relation to Happiness.—The wise and the good of all religions and the philosophers of every school are puzzled over what they term the evils of life. Assuming the Creator to be wise, good, and omnipotent, they wonder that he should allow these evils. They cannot understand the problem of pain and misery which meets them at every turn, and importunes for a solution. Why should there be any condition but happiness?

The philosophers best satisfied with the present order of things are those whom I shall name the protoplasmics. Denying the existence of a personal God, and falling back upon protoplasm as a substitute, they think that, taking into account the humble character of their protoplasmic god, he has done remarkably well. They are therefore very hopeful in their evolution theory, and in this respect have the advantage of their more orthodox brethren. They look upon creation with much the same feeling as that with which we look upon the first house built from cellar-drain to chimney-top by a self-made artisan. As a house pure and simple, it may be a failure, but as a self-made artisan's first attempt it is a wonderful success.

The great army of reformers, each in his way anxious to show himself the savior of the world, is but another proof of this widely spread belief that the world is in a very bad fix.

That this problem of evil is as old as the race is shown in the golden-age idea, whether it comes up in the Hebrew religion with its Garden of Eden, or in the mythology of the Greeks and the Romans. The explanation is, perhaps, this: Man clothes his god with the highest attributes he finds in himself. These qualities he magnifies, and joins to them infinite power. Seeing that the world is evil, and, conscious of evil tendencies in himself, he finds his way out of the dilemma by asserting that there was once a golden age, the condition of the universe as it came from the hand of its Maker, and that all the evil that has crept into it has come from man alone. Thus he solves the problem of evil, and saves the character of his god. We must admit that the theory shows a good degree of charity, humility, and logic. It would be a still better scheme if in it there could be found a place for charity toward the poor devil whom as yet neither charity nor logic can dispose of.

But there are other philosophers, among whom I count myself—I say it in all modesty, it runs in our family—who are not satisfied with any of these explanations, and very naturally ask: "Is the world a failure? Is it not a very good world? Is it not, in fact, as good as it can be? Were the united wisdom and goodness of the race supplemented with omnipotence and allowed to reconstruct the universe, could they improve upon the world as it is? Are these, that we name so, evils, or is it that we have failed to find out their character and use?" I purpose to answer these questions by applying to them the Law of Difference, which I conceive to be the panacea for the ills of life. Keep in mind that, as all knowledge comes to us as the result of the different, so do all emotions of pain or of pleasure. Every quality that is thinkable implies its opposite, or at least its different in degree. Happiness and misery are only relative terms. Absolute happiness cannot exist any more than a magnetic needle with only one pole. The sick man who rises for the first time for weeks from a bed of pain and is led out into the sunshine is very happy; while the strong man who has not known sickness for years is unhappy from some slight indisposition which scarcely interferes with his daily work. Why this difference? Simply from the contrast with the previous condition. He who would enjoy must suffer. The lives of some people pass so smoothly that we count them happy. They are simply in the possession of something whose value they have never known, hence it is to them worthless. If you want to know the full value of a clear conscience you must go through the hands of remorse. If you want to know the comfort of owning two shirts at a time, you must know the discomfort of owning no shirt at a time. Whence comes the pleasure we feel from our progress in knowledge? From the difference between the knowing and the not knowing of anything. Take the happiness that comes from social position in life. It arises from the fact that we are higher up than some one else. Bring all to the same level and it would be enough to make an angel weep to see how much happiness some people would lose. Many would be bankrupt. Take the tramps and vagabonds out of society, and the whole fabric would be cut down one story; for, to change the figure, they put one more round into the ladder—it matters not that it is at the bottom—and give the climber a chance to go one round higher. It is the length of the ladder that counts, no matter where the bottom is placed. What are wealth and poverty? Only relative terms. There is none so rich as the poor boy who has just received his first dollar after a week of hard work. We waste a great deal of pity on those who are born in the humbler ranks of life. It is my impression that, on the whole, it is better to be born poor, and work your way up to wealth and honor, than to have wealth and honor thrust upon you at birth, even though retained through life.

Nature has done much to create differences, and human egotism has come in to second the efforts of Nature, and supplement her work by getting up differences in our favor where no such thing in point of fact exists. B may be a fool, but thinks himself wiser than C, who is in truth far wiser than B. C thinks himself much wiser than he really is, and in comparing himself with B gets the full benefit of the real difference, with a large surplus from the inflation. Thus are both men made happy. Indeed, should you take each man's estimate of himself, you might, to find a fool, be obliged to do as Diogenes did to find an honest man. But, if you should take each man's opinion of other men's abilities, the fools would outnumber the wise men ten to one, that one being himself. Alas! what should we philosophers do were there no simple souls whereby to measure our colossal intellects? Thank God for wise men, but thank God for fools! Every fool as well as every knave has done a great. deal for human happiness. Woe is the day when fools and knaves shall be no more! O stirpiculturist, stay thy hand, and leave us still a background to the great picture of life! And thank God for egotism, which enables us to make so much out of so little. It was not the philosopher that "Oh'd!" when the poet wrote:

"Oh, wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

He was wiser who wrote—

"Where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise."

It will be a black-letter day when we find ourselves out. Why not let us go on, each one thinking himself the biggest toad in the puddle, and being happy? Why not let us still have the difference in our favor, since it is so cheap a happiness, and withal so innocent?

Those who agree with me thus far may yet ask: "But is not the number as well as the degree of differences too great? Has not Nature rather overdone the thing when she gets up a hell-bender" (vide Webster and the Aquarium), "or gives us not only an Apollo whom we admire, but a leper whom we loathe?" Why, my dear sir, after all the orthodox animals were made—though I don't know where you would draw the line between the regulars and the irregulars—you and I both could find much pleasure in looking at a hell-bender, and he no doubt finds far more pleasure in being a hell-bender than in being nobody. However many forms we may have seen, we still want to see something different. Yes, but how about the miserable, suffering leper? How about these extremes of wretchedness? Something in the way of music may be got up from the eight simple tones of a simple octave. If you are to have music worth hearing, you must extend the scale through the octave above and the octave below; but, if you would have music with all its pathos, power, and sublimity, you must make use of all the octaves that are at the command of the orchestra, from the low thunder of the big Boston organ to the shrillest wail of the Cremona fiddle. Nor do you want the major chords alone, you must have the minor tones, and discords, even. Can you spare the lowest octave from the big organ? If so, you bring the extremes an octave nearer, and so far restrict the range of the instrument, and by repeating the removal of the lowest notes you would at last find it impossible to play even the thinnest of tunes. So with human society. As you bring the extremes together, you take from life that which makes life worth having. The extremes in deep-water oyster society are very near each other, but each member of that society is only an oyster.

But how about the reformers? If things are all right as they are, why try to change them? My dear, short-sighted brother, the reformer can do no harm. He is a benefactor. He is only helping Nature out. He may cut off now and then a low note, but by adding two high ones he widens the range of the instrument. Society as a whole advances, but its extremes are probably farther apart than ever before. Moreover, if we take the world as a whole, we can still better understand the value of the reformer. Compare unreformed Africa, with its cannibalism and slow travel, with America, the land of the Grahamite and the home of the telegraph, and see if the various reformers have not made it a glorious thing to be a Caucasian! Every step in the moral world secured by the reformers makes greater the distance from the top to the bottom of the moral ladder. The day of the Inquisition and witch-burning has gone by; but the history of them still remains. We have only to read the old records, to find out what nice folks we are at the present day. I admit the conceit of some of these troublesome people, who believe they have a mission; but they are a necessary and important variety of the race. It is very plain that this world is the proper stamping-ground of the reformer.

Hence, variety is a necessity of life. The man that lives upon one kind of food only must deteriorate in body; the student who gives all his thought to one idea, will become crotchety; while the devotee to a single phase of religion will in time be a bigot, which is but another name for monomaniac. Sameness is the border-land of insanity. Have you ever been "possessed" by a whimsical idea, or a bit of poetry that would give you no let-up? If so, you can form some notion of the lunatic who was haunted with the idea that he carried in his stomach the twelve Apostles! There is many a man living a life of excessive toil or of idleness, of so fixed a routine that he is partially insane. It should be the aim of every man to so arrange his life as to bring into it a good degree of variety if he would secure physical, mental, and moral health. In this particular, division of labor often works mischief to the individual, however advantageous it may be to the community. Imagine the stupidity that must creep over the mind of a man who spends year after year pointing pins! It may be well to inquire as to whether or not the social and business framework of society is not doing much to reduce some of its members to a state little better than monomania.

To enforce the lesson taught by the Law of Differences we will pass by a million years, while I give the reader a picture of the reconstructed universe. It had been reformed to that degree that the wildest dream of the idealist had been realized. Desiring to have one more look at the old homestead, I came back from spirit-land, was "materialized," and once more walked the solid earth as was my wont a million years before. I need not say I was not quite up to the times. The first thing I noticed was that my physical geography was all at fault. There were no burning sands, no icy wastes, no earthquake, no tornado, no flood, no drought. The whole earth from pole to pole was on the golden-age pattern. In this respect, desire was satisfied. For centuries no one had been heard to complain of any imperfection. All was lovely. To me, with a recollection of what I had suffered in my youth in cold and barren New England—ten in the family, and all big eaters—the change was delightful. But what was my surprise not to find a single soul to share my pleasure! When I talked to those I met of their beautiful world, I spoke in an unknown tongue. I might as well have tried to convince Jones, the druggist, that pure air was as fragrant as the odors which blew from Araby the blest, or any other Araby. Jones would have told me, "I have had air in my nose for fifty years, and, if there is any smell in it, don't you suppose I should have found it out in that time?" They were as stolid as marble, and as unenthusiastic as a proper woman who never felt the slightest twinge of hope, fear, love, hate, or anything else, except propriety. "It is strange," said I, "that no one understands what I feel. . . . Well," I thought, "they have never known anything different, and as a result they do not know this."

I was no less agreeably surprised at the men and women whom I found peopling the globe. The stirpiculturist had finished his work and gone home. There was not a physical deformity of any kind among the millions that walked the earth. All were brought up to the highest type of physical beauty. There was not a woman I met with whom I did not instantly fall in love, though it was like Caliban falling in love with the houris. Every man was an Apollo, and every woman a Venus. But I was surprised to see them so blind to each other's charms. The men were the slowest of slow lovers; the women as responsive as lay-figures. "Ah! well," I sighed, "they never saw in man or in woman anything but beauty, and now they see not that." It seemed that a sight of me, which some of them could not endure without a shudder, had begun to awaken in them a new sense of which the stirpiculturist had robbed them—a sense of the beautiful. Being by nature benevolent, and inheriting a missionary spirit, it did me good to think that I was serving so useful a purpose, and starting a mission for the conversion of these heathen in æsthetics. With a force that almost took away my breath, it came to me that we owe a great debt to the deformed, the hideous, and the wicked; that those, the morally hideous, whom society hunts down as its worst enemies, spend their lives in serving the very class that seeks to destroy them.

Then, too, the goodness and holiness of the reconstructed world! There were met with only those with whom, having been so well generated for a thousand years, regeneration was impossible. A long line of physical, mental, and moral saints were the ancestors of the race. "What a perfect heaven!" I said to them. But I found upon their faces only a gingerbread-rabbit expression. Such words as heaven and hell conveyed to them no more idea than green or red conveys to a blind man. I was in despair at such a lack of appreciation. Here was practically the heaven upon earth which the race had worked for, prayed for, agonized for; and, now that it had come, no one seemed to enjoy it, or even to know of its existence. It is truly a misfortune to be born in and always to live in heaven. The eternal Law of Differences holds us fast. Hell is a necessity, which must be as deep as heaven is high. The world was better as it was before the reconstructed got hold of it. Give us back the iron age! All is not gold that glitters. My prayer was answered, and I found myself once more in this world of sin and holiness, joy and sorrow—in a word, back in this world of differences.