Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/Editor's Table
THE question of international copyright, as we have maintained on all occasions, is for the people of this country a very serious one. It is commonly regarded that our present condition in respect to it is merely an imperfect state of things which nobody knows how to remedy, and which need not much disquiet us, as it is happily working very much to our advantage. Why, it is asked, should we pick a quarrel with our own bread and butter, especially when the bread is buttered so thickly on both sides?
The reason why the matter is grave is that the bread and butter are both stolen, and because theft is bad for those who lose their property, and worse for those who get it. A nation can not tolerate palpable dishonesty without vital injury to itself. One injustice leads to another, and demoralization spreads. Selfish advantages openly override correct principles, and then, worst of all, come the mental obliquity and confusion resulting from attempts to palliate and excuse injustice. If a flagrant wrong is long and widely practiced, there will always be plenty to rally for its defense—some dishonestly, from interested motives, and others with a senseless sincerity from innate crookedness, cloudiness, or eccentricity of mind. These crotchety, whimsical, and erratic intellects are found both at home and abroad, and they often prove capable of doing considerable mischief.
Matthew Arnold affords the last example of this mental freakishness, in his article on the copyright question, in the March "Fortnightly Review." The article has excited a good deal of comment, and no little commendation, but it seems to us eminently unsatisfactory. We find no fault with the conclusion at which he arrives, which was intimated years ago, when he joined fifty other English authors in recommending the scheme of international copyright, which originated in this country, and which there has been much reason for thinking could be practically carried out. But, while Mr. Arnold's decision is sound, we think it would have been wise if he had withheld his reasons for it. They are not such as will bring other men to the same result. They are such as will carry other men to the opposite conclusion. So far as logic is concerned, Mr. Arnold takes substantially the same ground as that taken by Mr. J. M. Stoddart, the Philadelphia publisher, who is engaged in pirating the "Encyclopædia Britannica." They both agree that nobody's rights are violated, as there are no rights in the case. Mr. Arnold's point of view in regard to copyright is quite his own. Here, as everywhere else, he is haunted by the spirit of "Philistinism." The undesirable practice of appropriating an author's works is a miserable piece of middle class indelicacy. "The spirit of the American community and Government is the spirit, I suppose, of a middle-class society of our race, and this is not a spirit of delicacy. One could not say that in their public acts they showed in general a spirit of delicacy; certainly they have not shown that spirit in dealing with authors."
Mr. Arnold pursues this thought more fully. He says: "The interests of English authors will never be safe in America until the community as a community gets the sense in a higher degree than it has now for acting with delicacy. It is the sense of delicacy which has to be appealed to, not the sense of honesty. Englishmen are fond of making the American appropriation of their books a question of honesty; they call the appropriation stealing; if an English author drops his handkerchief in Massachusetts they say the natives may not go off with it, but if he drops his poem they may. This style of talking is exaggerated and false; there is a breach of delicacy in reprinting the foreigner's poem without his consent, there is no breach of honesty. But a finely touched nature, in men or nations, will respect the sense of delicacy in itself, not less than the sense of honesty."
Now, there can not be the slightest objection to this appeal to the sense of delicacy and honor in the effort to secure legal protection to the property of authors. It may be that there are those who would be moved by this consideration and no other; and if Mr. Arnold had been content to devote his paper to this view of the case, there would have been no reason to complain of him. But, instead of strengthening the case, he shifts its ground in such a way as completely to surrender it. It was not at all necessary to his argument from "delicacy" that he should deny the bearing of moral considerations upon the question; but this he has done in a way that, so far as it has any influence at all, will strengthen the hands of the inveterate enemies of copyright. He intensifies the discords upon a subject which many seem bent upon befogging and distracting by all the arts of ingenious sophistry. He professes to be friendly to copyright, and then reasons his way to the destruction of all copyright by denying that there is any right or wrong in the matter. This reasoning is as follows: "Now, for me the matter is simplified by my believing that men, if they go into their own minds and deal quite freely with their own consciousness, will find that they have not any natural rights at all. And as it so happens with a difficult matter of dispute, so it happens here: the difficulty, the embarrassment, the need for drawing subtile distinctions and for devising subtile means of escape from them when the right of property is under discussion, arise from one's having first built up the idea of natural right as a wall to run one's head against. An author has no natural right to a property in his production. But then neither has he a natural right to anything whatever which he may produce or acquire. What is true is, that a man has a strong instinct making him seek to possess what he has produced or acquired, to have it at his disposal; that he finds pleasure in so having it, and finds profit. The instinct is natural and salutary, although it may be over-stimulated and indulged to excess. One of the first objects of men in combining themselves in society has been to afford to the individual, in his pursuit of this instinct, the sanction and assistance of the laws so far as may be consistent with the general advantage of the community. The author, like other people, seeks the pleasure and the profit of having at his own disposal what he produces. Literary production, wherever it is sound, is its own exceeding great reward; but that does not destroy or diminish the author's desire and claim to be allowed to have at his disposal, like other people, that which he produces, and to be free to turn it to account."
Mr. Arnold here discredits as groundless and illusory that whole order of ethical conceptions which we have been wont to regard as fundamental in relation to human conduct. Whether he scouts all morality does not appear, but he denies it at least in one class of human actions. Though dealing with transactions between man and man which involve the ideas of "possession," "appropriation of property," "robbery," "criminality," "penalty," etc., he never refers to such things as "justice," "equity," "duty," "right," and "wrong," or any principles of obligation. Though all men recognize these conceptions, though the government of society is founded upon them, and though men are fined, imprisoned, and strangled, accordingly as their actions fail to conform to these fundamental ideas, yet Mr. Arnold airily waives them all aside as irrelevant and impertinent in relation to the subject he is discussing. The reader will notice the wordy circuits by which he avoids all the moral elements of the inquiry. To get rid of any question of rights in this matter, he plucks up by the roots and casts to the winds all natural rights. To him who claims a right to life he virtually says: "Oh! no; you have an instinct to live, which is natural and salutary. You find pleasure in life, but it is its own exceeding great reward, and society graciously allows you to have it at your disposal; but you have no natural right in the matter." He maintains that a man has no right of property in his productions, except "so far as the law may choose to create one for him." But is there no right or wrong in the nature of things by which the law itself is to be shaped, and to which it is the object of all law to give effect? A man creates a work of value into which he has put his time, exertion, substance, and his very blood. Has he a right to the property he has produced against those who covet it? It shall be as the politicians vote, argues Mr. Arnold: "If the ayes have it, he has; if the noes have it, he has not." This is not creditable. Mr. Arnold should cultivate a more intimate communion with the "power that makes for righteousness."
Much is made in this article of the difficulty of securing property in books. Government is, of course, a very imperfect agency, and only partially secures any of its objects. But all other difficulties are as mole-hills to mountains compared with that which Mr. Arnold lends his influence to increase and strengthen.
We recommend those thoughtless theologians who think they are doing God service by arraying modern physical science against him and charging that it is atheistic, to read the article entitled "God and Nature," by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle. He utters a timely and much-needed rebuke to his careless brethren on this subject. We have been amazed at the fatuity of many divines in the course they have pursued upon this question. Their predecessors have been more wise, and have generally recognized that "the study of nature led up to nature's God"; but now, on the contrary, we are assured that the study of nature leads to the denial of God. What on earth our theological friends are to gain by spreading the belief that physical science is fundamentally irreligious by renouncing and subverting all conception of the Deity, we are at loss to understand. Physical science is not to be put down in this way. It is a great phase of man's mental progress and is destined to increase in influence in an accelerating ratio. There is no doubt, furthermore, that its growth is an invasion of the domain illegitimately held by theology in the past, and threatens the ascendancy of theological systems and ideas. It is hardly to be expected that professed theologians can view this change with complacency, but that affords no excuse for getting into a passion with science, and striving to array religious prejudices against it. Our friends should not forget that the "modern science" upon which they expend their denunciations is a great body of accredited and impregnable truth, and that it is a somewhat serious matter to declare and reiterate the accusation that it is atheistic in its spirit and influence. How far is this from asserting that the demonstrative truth of nature is against the existence of God!—and if scientific men reply to the theologian, "Very well, you know best," where will rest the responsibility?
The Bishop of Carlisle sees that this is a mistaken policy. He says, "It is not desirable that the reproach of atheism should be thrown about rashly"; and, what is more important, he points out that as commonly done it is not true. A very slight examination of the conditions of thought in scientific pursuit forbids the current theological conclusions. He draws a valid distinction between the legitimate, proper, and logical attitude of the scientific mind toward the conception of Deity and the atheistic state of mind; and he strives to mark this distinction by the introduction of a new term. He says: "It seems to me that we want a new word to express the fact that all physical science, properly so called, is compelled by its very nature to take no account of the being of God; as soon as it does this it trenches upon theology and ceases to be physical science. If I might coin a word, I should say that science was atheous. and therefore could not be atheistic; that is to say, its investigations and reasonings are by agreement conversant simply with observed facts and conclusions drawn from them, and in this sense it is atheous, or without recognition of God. And because it is so, it does not in any way trench upon theism, or theology, and can not be atheistic, or in the condition of denying the being of God. Take the case of physical astronomy. To the mathematician the mechanics of the heavens are in no way different from the mechanics of a clock. It is true that the clock must have had a maker; but the mathematician who investigates any problem connected with its mechanism has nothing to do with him as such. The spring, the wheels, the escapement, and the rest of the works are all in their proper places somehow, and it matters nothing to the mathematician how they came there. As a mathematician the investigator of clock motion takes no account of the existence of clock-makers; but he does not deny their existence; he has no hostile feeling toward them; he may be on the very best terms with many of them; it may be that, at the request of one of them who has invented some new movement, he has undertaken the investigations. Precisely in the same way the man who investigates the mechanics of the heavens finds a complicated system of motion, a number of bodies mutually attracting each other and moving according to certain assumed laws. In working out the results of his assumed laws, the mathematician has no reason to consider how the bodies came to be as they are; that they are as they are is not only enough for him, but it would be utterly beyond his province to inquire how they came so to be. Therefore, so far as his investigations are concerned, there is no God; or, to use the word above suggested, his investigations are atheous. But they are not atheistic.
For the further working out of this conception in his article, the Bishop must be held responsible. We only call attention to the position here assumed, as illustrating the progress of a liberal and rational theology.
The attitude of the British press for the last twenty years toward the writings of Herbert Spencer is a curious study. It was natural enough that Spencer could not get a publisher who would take the pecuniary chances in an interminable system of philosophy opposed to all other systems, and based upon an unaccepted and repugnant doctrine; and so nothing remained for him but to publish himself. The works, at any rate, were thus put squarely upon their merits. The powerful agency of publishers in influencing the press was dispensed with; and, as Spencer was the last man to lift a finger for the procurement of critical favor, his publications were left to themselves, editors being neither directly nor indirectly bribed, placated, or flattered. The consequence was that, with but few exceptions, the books were assailed with such reckless misrepresentations that Spencer was compelled to stop sending copies to the press. Nor did he resume the practice until increasing public interest in his labors coerced critics into more decency and fairness.
Some influential journals, however adopted the policy of silence, ignoring Spencer's books altogether. The "Spectator" has adopted this plan. Not a single one of this author's works has ever been reviewed in that journal; and that they were not thought to be worth reviewing could not be alleged, because the chief editor of the "Spectator," Mr. Hutton, went out of his way to attack Spencer's ethical views in an essay read before the Metaphysical Society, and which he subsequently printed in "Macmillan's Magazine."
The London "Times" also, the organ and oracle of British opinion, has illustrated its idea of fair-play by never criticising or noticing any of Spencer's volumes. These volumes were being widely read; they were molding the opinions of thinkers; they were becoming influential in the universities; they were elaborately criticised in the reviews; they were replied to in numerous pamphlets and books; they were translated into all the Continental languages; they were guiding scientific investigation, and familiarizing the cultivated mind of the age with a new order of ideas, but they were never recognized by the London "Times" any more than if they were non-existent. George Henry Lewes said of Spencer that he alone of all British thinkers had organized a philosophy; but the "Times" had no information about it. The meanness of its course is the more palpable, as it never had any principles of its own to maintain, and said what it pleased on any subject; while Spencer was engaged upon a most formidable undertaking, with immense odds against him. But the "Times" has given in at last. Now that the world's verdict has been decisively rendered, it pluckily determines that this author's work must have attention.
And so it breaks the long silence by an elaborate review of "Ceremonial Institutions." There is nothing noteworthy about the article except the significance of its appearance in the "Times's" columns, and the ludicrous perplexity of the writer's position. He writes as if he thought his readers were asking, after twenty years' reticence, Why are you moved to speak now? The book he reviews is part of a series of works which can not be critically understood without reference to the previous volumes. But there is no reference to them—no intimation as to how Spencer was led to deal with the subject. It is, of course, easy in this way to make such a work appear very deficient, but the critic could do it no justice without convicting the journal in which he wrote of former inexcusable neglect. However, the "Times" has found it desirable to change its tactics, and it will no doubt do better next time.