Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/February 1881/Editor's Table
THE interesting volume of Mr. Henry George, on "Progress and Poverty," was discussed in the "Monthly" upon its first appearance, though rather for the purpose of making it known than of criticising it. But, as it has now become a success, and passed to a fourth and cheaper edition, it becomes desirable to look more closely into some of its positions. It is not, however, the author's doctrine of the great and growing evils of land monopoly, nor the remedy which he proposes for these evils, nor the economic views he has put forth, that now concern us. The first nine books of his treatise are devoted to these topics, but in the tenth and concluding book he takes up another and a larger subject. He here discusses "the law of human progress," and opens the weighty question of the philosophy of all social and political reform; and with the views here advocated we can not at all agree.
The argument of Book X, though not strictly a part of the main thesis of the volume, grows naturally out of it. Having traced certain great social evils to their root, and shown, as he believes, how they may be escaped, he was of course urgent that his measure should be forthwith adopted, and the good it promises secured. Impelled to write his book by realizing the squalid misery of a great city, which appalled and tormented him, he was driven by the whole force of his sympathies to find some plan of removing it, and when found he was naturally eager that it should be applied. But he was here confronted by the school of thinkers which now teaches that genuine and permanent social ameliorations must be far more gradual in their operation than has formerly been supposed; that the progress of human society is but part of a larger and very deliberate progress in the course of nature, and which takes place through the agency of natural laws to a great extent independent of the volitions or intentions of men. They teach that man himself is a product of progress, and has been so developed and transformed by nature that he at last begins to be capable of understanding nature's method, and of consciously taking part in the progressive work.
Mr. George takes issue with this whole theory, and coolly rules nature out of the entire business. He denies "that human progress is by a slow race development." He says, "We have seen that human progress is not by altering the nature of men," and again, "Human progress is not the improvement of human nature."
He further denies "that progress is by hereditary transmission," and affirms "that human will is the great factor." The view to which he holds is thus briefly intimated: "Mental power is, therefore, the motor of progress, and men tend to advance in proportion to the mental power expended in progression the mental power which is devoted to the extension of knowledge, the improvement of methods, and the betterment of social conditions. Now, mental power is a fixed quantity—that is to say, there is a limit to the work a man can do with his mind, as there is to the work he can do with his body; therefore, the mental power which can be devoted to progress is only what is left after what is required for non-progressive purposes. . . .
"These non-progressive purposes in which mental power is consumed may be classified as maintenance and conflict. By maintenance, I mean not only the support of existence, but the keeping up of the social condition and the holding of advances already gained. By conflict, I mean not merely warfare and preparation for warfare, but all expenditure of mental power in seeking the gratification of desire at the expense of others and in resistance to such aggression. . . .
"Association in equality is the law of progress. Association frees mental power, for expenditure in improvement and equality (or justice or freedom, for the terms here signify the same thing, the recognition of the moral law) prevents the dissipation of this power in fruitless struggles. Here is the law of progress which will explain all diversities, all advances, all halts, and retrogressions."
Nothing can be more unsatisfactory than this. It sounds like last-century talk, before science had entered upon the investigation, and ignores a whole continent of facts that have been upheaved during the last two or three generations, and which are fundamental to any theory of human advancement. These scientific revelations force upon us the question of the improvement of man in his earlier stages, as an indispensable key to the understanding of his later advancement. Mr. George says, "Whether man was or was not gradually developed from an animal, it is not necessary to inquire." That depends entirely upon the thoroughness of the inquiry it is proposed to make. Is it so obvious that the progress of man has nothing to do with the development of man? Surely knowledge is preferable to ignorance in regard to man's early history, as well as most other things. It is not all the same, for the purposes of truth, what theory we adopt of man's mode of origin. If the universe was jerked into existence out of nothing and altogether, some six thousand years ago, and if the first man came along with it perfected in intelligence, and endowed with a language suitable for the purposes of a comprehensive zoölogical nomenclature, then, indeed, all inquiry respecting the emergence of man is unnecessary. But this childish theory of his first appearance was long since exploded, and the growth of modern knowledge compels the adoption of another. Mr. George says, "We know that there have been geological conditions under which human life was impossible on this earth"; and he here tacitly gives away his whole case, for the implication is of a great historic order in nature, of the antiquity of the earth, and of the course of life as a time-problem of vast import. The indubitable records of life go back millions of years, perhaps millions of ages, in terrestrial history. And this life not only had its progress, but its incontestable mental progress. There was a slow and gradual passage from the lower to the higher, with successive epochs of advancing intelligence, the creatures nearest to man in organization coming last before man himself appeared.
We have here the conception of progress deep in the constitution of Nature. We have her method, which is that of progress by the operation of natural law. There was a time when the human race did not exist upon the earth, although it had been for countless ages a theatre of developing life. Will Mr. George maintain that man did not come in conformity with the preëxisting order? Does he deny that man is a part of Nature, the sequel of an organic series, and to be studied and interpreted in the light of the great unfolding law of this series? All the facts show not only that man has had a much greater antiquity upon this earth than was formerly supposed, but that he had a very low beginning. There was a prehistoric and primitive man, who dwelt in caves, made and used implements of stone, lived by hunting, and was the lowest kind of a savage. So much is established, whatever be the worth of speculations regarding his derivation from an inferior animal. The civilized man of to-day is the descendant of this ancient and semi-brutal-savage; and the problem of human progress involves an elucidation of the laws by which human nature has been developed and transformed, so that the creature that could not count his fingers may yet count a Newton among his descendants.
It is obvious that Mr. George's theory of progress can not in the least explain the earlier stages of social development. The cave-men did not say "Go to, let us progress," but they blindly struggled with their circumstances, and out of these struggles came improvement. Their experience was of conflict with wild beasts, which they had to kill in self-defense and to get the means of subsistence. For this purpose, the brutal and aggressive passions required to be strong. The life was predatory, and the aboriginal savage was cruel, revengeful, and delighted in the infliction of pain. How could such a creature, with his unsympathetic and unsocial nature, be brought into even the rudest forms of society? Only by a coercion so stern that it could subjugate his refractory passions, and force him into some kind of coöperation.
Mr. George is unable to see how war and slavery could ever have aided improvement, progress, and freedom. He quotes as absurd the reasons given for this view, namely, Comte's idea that "the institution of slavery destroyed cannibalism," and that "slavery began civilization by giving slave-owners leisure for improvement." But these are by no means the reasons on which this view rests. The question is, how brutal men were first subjugated and learned the lessons of subordination, which are the first steps of social progress. A coarse and inexorable discipline was required, such as befitted the natures to be subdued. War and slavery were just those relentless agencies that could force savages to work together, and habituate them to that respect for power which was an indispensable condition of the lowest forms of social order. The strongest man became the chief and the despot. Tyranny was indispensable. Where the moral condition of men was evinced by the habitual practice of cruelty, the wanton destruction of life, the torture of prisoners, cannibalism, and human sacrifices, the restraining power had to be inexorable and ferocious. It was by the arbitrary discipline of war that men first learned obedience; and, as the chief became king and government a military despotism, there gradually grew a stability in social relations and a progress of social institutions. War was an education in obedience, but not the sole education. Slavery was the result of war. Prisoners not killed were reduced to bondage. Despotic coercion was thus systematized, and the benefits of war were thus gained in time of peace. With his unsubdued nature, the habit of submission and of continuous application could only be acquired by the aboriginal man through a long apprenticeship of painful enslavement.
Recoil as we may at these contemplations, there is no evading the fact that this is Nature's method of human progress, and accordingly as we value the result must we appreciate the means that brought it about. That war may now hinder the beneficent work which it formerly promoted, is undeniable; but we are not to forget the part it has played when we undertake to explain the conditions and causes of human progress. What is all history but a bloody record of War's and Slavery's violence and injustice? Men are greatly changed and greatly improved, but civilization is still barbarian. Hostility looking to war is the international norm. We have plenty of survivals from our savage ancestors. Animals that they hunted from necessity, we hunt for sport; the gratification of killing continues. War is a regnant profession, the pastime of Christendom; and slavery disappeared from among us but yesterday. And how did it go? As a behest of the humanity of the nation? As a victory of philanthropy, education, Christianity, and the higher forces of progress? No! it was not removed by the national volition, but it went out in a convulsion of domestic carnage.
Obviously there is a great deal to be done yet before man will be prepared to take the work of human progress out of the hands of Nature, and carry it on in his own wiser way. He can do much; but the first thing he has to learn is that he can not do everything, and to find out what is practicable of accomplishment. He can not realize his dreams, and can only embody a small part of his aspirations. By his pre-scientific and unscientific education, he is not imbued with the method of Nature, and is too unconscious of the difficulties and impediments in the way of attaining his sanguine hopes. Dwelling, in virtue of his predominant culture, in an ideal world that he constructs to suit himself; taught by novelists, dramatists, and poets, whose function it is to create imaginary worlds; familiar with religious doctrines which teach the facile convertibility of human nature; studying history which is ever occupied with human doings, and ever exaggerates the offices of great men; and surrounded by a world filled with suffering and injustice—men come to think that all this evil might be quickly done away with if there were only the disposition and the will. As Mr. Bagehot somewhere says, only a short time ago it was the common belief that, if everybody would set to work in good earnest, human society might be renovated and perfected and brought to a millennial condition in about ten years. Science, as it confers a deeper knowledge of the order of the world, sobers our judgment and dissipates these pleasing illusions. Let it not be said that science thus becomes obstructive, and paralyzes exertion; on the contrary, it is promotive of real progress by checking futile effort, and disclosing the conditions and the way by which exertion may be made most effectual and substantial conquests achieved. And, in these times that are so prolific of social Utopias, no teaching is more valuable or more wholesome.
In the absence of Rev. Joseph Cook, the work of the Boston Monday lectureship has gone on by the aid of other clerical talent. The course was opened December 6th by Bishop Clark, of Rhode Island, who gave an address on "The Seen and the Unseen," of which an authentic version was published in the "Boston Traveler."
The Bishop succeeded well in adapting himself to the new circumstances. He entered easily into the general line of speculation for which this lectureship has become renowned, and filled the shoes of its Rev. Founder to a nicety. Whether it was the effect of association, or blue-Monday, or what, the speaker glided into the peculiar habits of the place, and indulged in logical licenses which could have been no novelties to his auditors. The Bishop discussed the problems of matter and spirit, the connection between the body and the soul, and the problem of personal immortality; and he here opened the question of the relation of religion and science in so explicit a way that readers on our side can not fail to be interested.
After an elaborate preliminary argument, he says: "The bearing of all this upon the question of our own personal immortality gives to the subject a most profound and solemn interest. It is hardly conceivable that man should have been endowed with immortality, and yet so constituted as to be unable to arrive at any satisfactory proof of the fact. To those who receive the records of the New Testament as authentic and true, no further demonstration is needed." And yet a little further on this important position is very materially qualified. The Bishop points out that the Scriptural presentation of the doctrine of immortality is neither made prominent nor emphatic, and, notwithstanding "its profound and solemn interest," he gives reasons why it was best to leave it meager and obscure. He uses the following language: "The light that is thrown upon the next stage of existence in the Scriptures is designedly somewhat general and limited. All the direct information on the subject which they give could be condensed into a very small space. The eschatology of the Old Testament could all be written on a single page, and very much in the New Testament which has been supposed to relate to the subject is now referred to the setting up of the kingdom of truth and righteousness here on earth. 'The kingdom to come' in many cases means simply the kingdom of Christ among men. Revelation was not intended to gratify our curiosity, and it would not be well to make the veil which hangs between us and the future too translucent. Our work is here, and, if that work is properly done, we can afford to wait until an actual entrance into the next world reveals its mysteries. The time is not most properly employed which is spent in speculating about these mysteries."
This is rational and encouraging, and a wide departure from the traditions; for theology has always maintained that the universe is insufficient for man, even during the short time that he occupies it; and that the knowledge of his immortal future is a thousandfold more momentous to man than all he can learn about the present world. In liberal contrast to this, the Bishop now assures us that the teachings of revelation upon this subject are general and limited; that it was not intended merely to gratify our curiosity; that it would not be well to remove the veil that hides the distant future; that our work is here; that we can afford to wait; and that speculation about those mysteries is not the most profitable.
But, having indulged in this little episode of common sense, the Bishop seems to have remembered where he was, and quickly tacked back into the middle current of the Monday lectureship. There is no more talk of unprofitable speculations, and veils not to be rent. The secret of this transcendental mystery of spiritual existence must be plucked out, and it must agree with the calculations about it, or life is a cheat and all nature an empty mockery! This view is enforced with rhetorical emphasis in the following spirited passage:
This is a significant enunciation, and will bear pondering. We have seen no clearer statement of the respective attitudes of the theological mind and of the scientific mind toward the things of this world. What is the value of the great scheme we call nature taken at what we know of it? Margaret Fuller, neither theologian nor scientist, but fond of the mystical, offered, on the whole, to "accept" this universe. Bishop Clark, not to be taken in by shams, will accept it conditionally, that is, if he has assurance that its end is such as to justify the process by which it is reached. The universe has no worth in itself, and can only acquire it as it is found to conform to the theological standard—a standard, moreover, which was set up in ages of ignorance before anything had been found out concerning the nature, character, method, or magnitude of the object valued. Here the universe is, a mighty, boundless, unfathomed fact; if it squares with the theological ideal of what ought to be its design—an ideal framed without any knowledge of its constitution—it may be approved; otherwise, it is a humbug, and, the sooner it shrivels into nothingness, the better.
It is to be here noted that on either theological alternative science is suffocated. Theologians claim to have long known the grand why and wherefore of this universe, but that never inspired them to inquire into its how—never led to science. For, having the greater explanation already, why should they concern themselves about lesser explanations? The greater explanation not only superseded the lesser, but condemned them. Familiar with the futurities, and having in hand the lever that controls the beatitudes and the torments of an immortal destiny, it would have been recreancy for the theologians to favor trivial inquiries into what was doomed soon to "pass away as a scroll." They were logically bound to resist all tendencies to such trifling in this probationary world. So, the men who knew the why proscribed, imprisoned, strangled, and roasted the men of vain curiosity who strove to understand the frivolous how. There was, therefore, plenty of consistency in the orthodox antagonism to the spread of the spirit of science.
But if, on the other hand, the why can not be known as the theologians claim to know it, independent of all knowledge of the how, then on the authority of Bishop Clark the universe is a sham, and who is going to get up much interest in the study of shams? A man will not seriously inquire into that for which he has no respect; and, just to the degree in which people are imbued with this spirit of contemptuous indifference for the present world, will be their carelessness in relation to that scientific truth which raises the value of life in proportion as it is known and applied.
And which is the most reverent and the most truly religious attitude—not to raise any question of humility—that which assumes to pronounce on the aims and purposes of the universe, while contentedly ignorant of all truth regarding its order, or that which searches out its wonderful constitution, that it may rise to its plans and purposes, as gathered from its beautiful structures, its exquisite harmonies, its beneficent adaptations, and the solemn grandeur of its mighty movements? We protest against the doctrines which the Bishop offers us in the name of religion, as well as much else that emanates from the platform where he spoke. And we would respectfully suggest to the devotees of the Monday lectureship, if it would not have been better to avail themselves of the absence of St. Joseph to get a few lessons in religious liberality by holding "deacon meetin's" and listening to the reading of "Scotch Sermons."