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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 20/April 1882/Has Science Yet Found a New Basis for Morality?

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 20‎ | April 1882


TO ask whether Science has yet found a new basis for morality, or even to answer that question in the negative, is a widely different thing from saying that morality can not exist without religion. It is still more widely different, if possible, from imputing immoral tendencies to science. No sane being doubts that the tendency of truth of every kind is moral, or that the tendency of falsehood of every kind, if persisted in, is immoral. But we are not bound to accept at once as science everything that is tendered as such by scientific men on subjects with which, perhaps, they have not long been familiar, and at a time when the excitement created by great discoveries is sure to give birth to a certain proportion of chimeras. If we were, we should have to accept the theory of the automaton man, which has been pressed upon us by the very highest scientific authority with a confidence bordering on the despotic, and that of the "citizen atoms," which, according to Haeckel, while diffused through space, concerted among themselves the structure of the world. Nor in any case can we allow ourselves to be hurried headlong by the current of new opinion into negative any more than into positive conclusions; above all, when the abjuration of a belief involves not merely a change in treatises of philosophy, but the greatest practical consequences, such as the abolition of religion. For abolished religion ought to be, and must be, as soon as it is proved to be founded on falsehood; the proposal of freethinkers, like Renan, to keep up the system as the means of restraining the vulgar and protecting the refined enjoyments of the cultivated, being no less shallow and, in an age of educated artisans, impracticable than it is repugnant to morality. We may accept with admiration and gratitude Darwin's scientific discoveries without feeling ourselves obliged to draw from them inferences which the discoverer himself has not drawn. We may recognize the breaches made by science, history, and criticism in the evidences not only of Christianity, but of natural religion; we may admit with sadness that the world is at present left without any positive proof, in a producible form, of articles of belief deemed but a few years ago as indisputable as they were fundamental; yet we may decline at once to pronounce that the religious sentiment in man is devoid of meaning, and that the evidences are absolutely incapable of rational reconstruction. Doubt, frankly avowed, and coupled with a resolve under all perplexities to be patient and see what the future of inquiry may have in store, is the attitude, as I am persuaded, of many men of science in whose characters caution and reverence have a place, as well as of many thoughtful and cultivated men of the world.[1]

He must be a scientific optimist, indeed, who refuses to admit that society has come to a critical juncture. That the rule of human life may ultimately be placed on grounds wholly independent of religion is a possibility which, once more, is not here disputed, though it is reasonable to wait for the demonstration of experience. But the interval may be one of serious disturbance. To use an undignified comparison, the crustacean may bo sure to get another shell, but he will be soft in the mean time. It seems impossible to question the fact that the morality of the mass of the people, at all events, has hitherto been greatly bound up with their religious belief. Ecclesiastical dogma may have had no effect on them; perhaps it has had worse than none, inasmuch as it has put forms in place of moral realities—an evil equally great

whether the forms are articles in irrational creeds or outward observances. But can it be maintained that the belief in an All-seeing Eye—in infallible, inflexible, and all-powerful justice—in a sure reward for well-doing and a sure retribution for evil-doing—has been without influence on the conduct of the mass of mankind, or that its departure is likely to be attended by no consequences of importance? There are two miners, say, by themselves, and far from human eye, in the wilds of the far West: one has found a rich nugget, the other has toiled and found nothing. What hinders the man who has found nothing, if he is the stronger or the better armed, from slaying his mate as he would a buffalo, and taking the gold? Surely, in part at least, the feeling, drawn from the Christian society in which his youth was passed, that what is not seen by man is seen by God, and that, though the victim himself may be weak and defenseless, irresistible power is on his side. I say in part only; I say at present only; and, once more, I do not prejudge the question as to the possible appearance of an independent and self-sustaining morality in the future. We dwell too exclusively on the restraining principle. Who can doubt that religion has, as a matter of fact, largely impelled to virtue; that it has formed characters at once of great force and of great beneficence; that it has sustained philanthropy and social progress? Who can doubt that many good and noble works have been, and are still being performed, from love of God and from a love of man which is inspired by belief in our common relations to God? Who can doubt that heroes and reformers have been led to face peril, to risk their lives in the service of their kind, by the conviction that they were doing the Divine will, and that while they were doing it they would be in the Divine keeping? Would it be so easy even to man a life-boat if all the ideas and all the hopes which center in the village church were taken out of the seaman's heart? Go to the beach: tell the men that if they sink there will be an end for ever of them, and of their connections with those whom they love; are you sure that they will not be rather less ready to take an oar?

Hundreds of thousands have suffered death for their religion. Is it conceivable that the belief for which they died can have had no influence on their lives? Is it conceivable that the influence can have been confined to the martyrs? Is not Christendom almost coextensive with moral civilization? And does not the whole face of Christendom—do not its literature, its art, its architecture, show that religion has been its soul? So, at least, thought that eminent agnostic who pronounced the eighteen centuries of Christianity a retrogression from the happy and scientific age of Tiberius, and by that strange burst of antitheistic frenzy showed that we may have to be on our guard against a fanaticism of hostility to religion as well as against a fanaticism of religion.

The opinion of those who are confident that no moral disturbance is coming, but, on the contrary, a great and universal improvement in morality, might have more weight with us if we were sure that their eyes were turned in the right direction. But their observation is apt to be limited, or too much directed to the circle of scientific men around them. Scientific men are pretty sure to be above the average in point of morality; they have dedicated themselves to a high calling, they are elevated by its pursuits, they are free from the more violent passions, and removed from the coarser temptations. For the signs of change we must look rather to the scenes on which men struggle for wealth or power, and the social regions in which the common vices prevail. We must look to the multitudes, who, being now told that they have no hope beyond this world, are apparently making up their minds to have as large a share of the goods and pleasures of this world as their force will give them. Communism, intransigentism, and nihilism are not well represented in scientific reunions. They who sat round the dinner-table of Helvetius, and congratulated each other on the coming of an age of reason and happiness, were the destined victims, not the workers, of the guillotine.

Moreover, as has been said before, the intellectual world, at all events, is still in the twilight of religion. That expression is, indeed, too weak in the case of the positivists, who, not only call themselves a church, but make good their claim to the title by sermons which would do the highest honor to any pulpit, and, though they prefer the name of humanity to that of God, must be really worshiping a deity, not an abstract term, which would be as deaf to prayers or praise as a stock or a stone. An abstract term, in truth, would be rather less susceptible of adoration than that which, like a stock or a stone, has at all events a real existence. But even the man of intellect who rejects all churches and all worship has still sentiments, hopes, and a conscience formed under the influence of Christianity. The same thing is indicated by the repudiation of the name atheist, and the adoption of the strange term agnostic. Blank absence of belief or inclination either way is probably an impossible frame of mind; in nine cases out of ten, when a man calls himself an agnostic, he most likely means that he retains his belief in the existence of a God, though without being able to present the proof distinctly to himself. The very term law, which physical science continues to use, though we can physically be cognizant of nothing beyond general facts, has a theistic significance, and carries with it a certain sense of religious elevation and comfort. Small probably, as yet, is the number of those who have fairly looked in the face blind force and annihilation.

But to the present question. An heroic physician—we remember to have come across the case in some Italian history—finding that a new and mysterious plague is ravaging his city, devotes himself to the preservation of his fellow-citizens, shuts himself up with a subject, takes his observations, consigns them to writing, and, feeling the poison in his own veins, goes calmly to the hospital to die. On the other hand, a man, between whom and a great fortune there stands a single life, takes that life in such a way as to escape suspicion, gets possession of the fortune, and, instead of a life of drudgery to which he would otherwise have been doomed, passes his days in the healthy development of all his faculties, in the enjoyment of every pleasure, intellectual and social, as well as physical, amid the troops of friends and grateful dependents with which his hospitality and munificence surround him, and, after an existence prolonged by comfort, ease, and immunity from care, dies universally honored and lamented. Why is the first man happy, and the second miserable? Theism, on his own hypothesis, has an answer ready. What is the answer of agnostic science? We must prefix an epithet, because without it a distinction drawn between science and theism begs the question. A rational theist maintains that theism is science.

We are likely to find the answer, if anywhere, in the "Data of Ethics," by Mr. Herbert Spencer—a book belonging to a series which has earned for its author, from Darwin himself, the title of "our great philosopher"; and which every one, whether he accepts its general conclusions or not, will allow to exhibit powers of acute criticism, and to be written in a most lucid and attractive style.'

Mr. Spencer commences, as might have been expected, not with humanity, but with the mollusks, and treats men simply as the last (he says the highest, but we have a caveat to enter against that phrase) of the evolutionary series. His tests of right and wrong in the actions of the most evolved of animals, as in the case of the least evolved, are pleasure and pain—pleasure denoting that the action is favorable, pain that it is unfavorable, to the vitality of the organism. His "supreme end" is "increased duration," together, if we understand his phraseology rightly, with increased intensity, "of life." An authoritative conscience, duty, virtue, obligation, principle, and rectitude of motive, no more enter into his definitions, or form parts of his system, than does the religious sanction. Of that which constitutes moral beauty, he has no word. Actions of a kind purely pleasant are absolutely right. The highest instance of right conduct is a mother suckling her child, because "there is at once to the mother gratification, and to the child satisfaction of appetite, a satisfaction which accompanies furtherance of life, growth, and increasing enjoyment." That the action is a mere performance of a function of nature, involving the exertion of no high quality, does not lower its place in the scale. Conduct, even the noblest and most heroic, which has any concomitant of pain or any painful consequence, is, to that extent, wrong, and the highest claim to be made for such conduct is that it is the least wrong which under the conditions is possible. We need not shrink from the hypothesis, or even commit ourselves to the rejection of it. Possibly the conclusion ultimately reached may be that man is nothing but the highest mammal, and in that case the hypothesis will be true. The present question is, whether it affords a new basis for morality.

Applying the tests, then, to the cases mentioned, we find that the action of the Italian physician is at least partly wrong: it gives him pain, and, instead of prolonging or intensifying, terminates his own life; it is ethically inferior to that of a Caffre woman suckling her child. On the other hand, the action of the murderer is at least partly right: to himself it is unquestionably productive of a great deal of pleasure, and, by releasing him from toil which might have been injurious to his health, it very likely prolongs his life, and certainly intensifies his enjoyment. The benefit extends to his family, and to all those who will profit by his judicious and liberal use of the wealth which comes into his hands. If the murdered man was a fool, a niggard, or a selfish voluptuary, who would have made no use of his riches or have used them ill, it really may be said that all the visible and calculable consequences of the action are good. One human life, indeed, is sacrificed, but from Mr. Spencer's point of view nothing can be said about the indefeasible sacredness of human life. Sacredness in general, and the sacredness of human life in particular, are religious conceptions, and as such have no place in his philosophy. Man may be "the highest of mammals," but is there any assignable reason why you should not put him, as well as any other inconvenient mammal, out of your way? When a stag gores his fellow-stag to death, that he may have exclusive possession of the does, we do not think that he does anything wrong, but, on the contrary, regard his action as a striking instance of the law of natural selection carried into effect through the struggle for existence. Mr. Spencer may say, and does say, that a few aeons hence, by the progress of evolution, or, to use his own formula, by "our advance toward heterogeneity," matters will be so adjusted, and men will have become so sensible of altruistic pleasure, that it will be not less disagreeable to you to kill your neighbor than to be killed yourself. But the murderer, if this is pressed upon him, will say: "A few æons hence I shall be out of the way; I will do that which, as it brings me present pleasure, with increased duration and intensity of life, is, as far as I am concerned, right." It is not very apparent what answer could be made. We are in quest, be it observed, at present, not of a moral horoscope of humanity, but of motives which, by making the men of our day—not the Herbert Spencers, but the ordinary men—do good and abstain from evil, shall save the world from a moral interregnum.

Pleasure is relative to the organism. There is no such thing as a type or ideal of perfection. This also Mr. Spencer lays down with the same distinctness with which he lays it down that pleasure and pain are the sole and universal tests of right and wrong in conduct. The master will perhaps be somewhat startled by seeing his twofold doctrine developed under the fearless hands of one of his disciples. Dr. Van Buren Denslow, the author of "Modern Thinkers," is one of the Americans who, sometimes with more of mother-wit than of erudition, are grappling vigorously, and in a practical spirit, with the great problems of the age. His work is introduced with a preface by Mr. Robert Ingersoll, the foremost teacher of agnosticism on that continent. The doctor is a profound admirer of Mr. Spencer, whom he depicts, in grandiose language, as assisting in the majesty of science at the birth of worlds. But he wants to push the agnostic principle to its logical conclusion, which, according to him, is, that there is no such thing as a moral law, irrespectively of the will of the strongest:

It is generally believed to be moral to tell the truth, and immoral to lie. And yet it would be difficult to prove that Nature prefers the true to the false. Everywhere she makes the false impression first, and only after years, or thousands of years, do we become able to detect her in her lies. . . . Nature endows almost every animal with the faculty of deceit in order to aid it in escaping from the brute force of its superiors. Why, then, should not man be endowed with the faculty of lying, when it is to his interest to appear wise concerning matters of which he is ignorant? Lying is often a refuge to the weak, a stepping-stone to power, a ground of reverence toward those who live by getting credit for knowing what they do not know. No one doubts that it is right for the maternal partridge to feign lameness, a broken wing or leg, in order to conceal her young in flight, by causing the pursuer to suppose he can more easily catch her than her offspring. From whence, then, in nature, do we derive the fact that a human being may not properly tell an untruth with the same motive? Our early histories, sciences, poetries, and theologies are all false, yet they comprehend by far the major part of human thought. Priesthoods have ruled the world by deceiving our tender souls, and yet they command our most enduring reverence. Where, then, do we discover that any law of universal nature prefers truth to falsehood, any more than oxygen to nitrogen, or alkalies to salts? So habituated have we become to assume that truth-telling is a virtue, that nothing is more difficult than to tell how we came to assume it; nor is it easy of proof that it is a virtue in an unrestricted sense. What would be thought of the military strategist who made no feints, of the advertisement that contained no lie, of the business-man whose polite suavity covered no falsehood?

Inasmuch as all moral rules are in the first instance impressed by the strong, the dominant, the matured, and the successful upon the weak, the crouching, the infantile, and the servile, it would not be strange if a close analysis and a minute historical research should concur in proving that all moral rules are doctrines established by the strong for the government of the weak. It is invariably the strong who require the weak to tell the truth, and always to promote some interest of the strong. . . .

"Thou shalt not steal," is a moral precept invented by the strong, the matured, the successful, and by them impressed upon the weak, the infantile, and the failures in life's struggle, as all criminals are. For nowhere in the world has the sign ever been blazoned on the shop-doors of a successful business-man, "Closed, because the proprietor prefers crime to industry." Universal society might be pictured, for the illustration of this feature of the moral code, as consisting of two sets of swine, one of which is in the clover, and the other is out. The swine that are in the clover grunt, "Thou shalt not steal—put up the bars." The swine that are out of the clover grunt, "Did you make the clover?—let down the bars." "Thou shalt not steal," is a maxim impressed by property holders upon non-property-holders. It is not only conceivable, but it is absolute verity, that a sufficient deprivation of property, and force, and delicacy of temptation, would compel every one who utters it to steal, if he could get an opportunity. In a philosophic sense, therefore, it is not a universal, but a class, law; its prevalence and obedience indicate that the property-holders rule society, which is itself an index of advance toward civilization. No one would say that, if a lion lay gorged with his excessive feast amid the scattered carcass of a deer, and a jaguar or a hyena stealthily bore away a haunch thereof, the act of the hyena was less virtuous than that of the lion. How does the case of two bush men, between whom the same incident occurs, differ from that of the two quadrupeds? Each is doing that which tends in the highest degree to his own preservation, and it may be assumed that the party against whom the spoliation is committed is not injured at all by it. Among many savage tribes theft is taught as a virtue, and detection is punished as a crime. . . . Having control of the forces of society, the strong can always legislate, or order, or wheedle, or preach, or assume other people's money and land out of their possession into their own, by methods which are not known as stealing, since, instead of violating the law, they inspire and create the law. But, if the under dog in the social fight runs away with a bone in violation of superior force, the top dog runs after him bellowing, "Thou shalt not steal," and all the other top dogs unite in bellowing, "This is divine law, and not dog law"; the verdict of the top dog, so far as law, religion, and other forms of brute force are concerned, settles the question. But philosophy will see in this contest of antagonistic forces a mere play of opposing elements, in which larceny is an incident of social weakness and unfitness to survive, just as debility and leprosy are; and would as soon assume a divine command, "Thou shalt not break out in boils and sores," to the weakling or leper, as one of "Thou shalt not steal," to the failing straggler for subsistence. So far as the irresistible promptings of nature may be said to constitute a divine law, there are really two laws. The law to him who will be injured by stealing is, "Thou shalt not steal," meaning thereby, "Thou shalt not suffer another to steal from you." The law to him who can not survive without stealing is simply, "Thou shalt, in stealing, avoid being detected."

So the laws forbidding unchastity were framed by those who, in the earlier periods of civilization, could afford to own women, for the protection of their property rights in them, against the poor who could not. . . . We do not mean, by this course of reasoning, to imply that the strong in society can, or ought to, be governed by the weak: that is neither possible, nor, if possible, would it be any improvement. We only assert that moral precepts are largely the selfish maxims expressive of the will of the ruling forces in society, those who have health, wealth, knowledge, and power, and are designed wholly for their own protection and the maintenance of their power. They represent the view of the winning side, in the struggle for subsistence, while the true interior law of nature would represent a varying combat in which two laws would appear, viz., that known as the moral or majority law, and that known as the immoral or minority law, which commands a violation of the other.

This is strong doctrine, and the passage seemed worth extracting at length. It is curious, both as a specimen of the practical tendencies of a certain school of thought, and as a reply to the historical skepticism which refuses to believe that the teaching of the sophists really was what it is represented to have been by Socrates and Plato. It would also seem to be a pretty conclusive answer to those who deride the apprehension of a moral interregnum, and feel confident that society is going to sail, without interruption or disturbance of its rule of conduct, out of the zone of theistic into that of scientific morality. It appears that between one state and the other there may be an interval in which the question will be not between the moral and the immoral, but between the top and the under dog.

The Marquis of Steyne is an organism, and, like all other organisms, so long as he succeeds in maintaining himself against competing organisms, is able to make good his title to existence under the law of natural selection. He has his pleasures: they are not those of a St. Paul, or a Shakespeare, or a Wilberforce, but they are his. They make him happy, according to the only measure of happiness which he can conceive; and if he is cautious, as a sagacious voluptuary will be, they need not diminish his vitality, they may even increase it both in duration and intensity, though they may play havoc with the welfare of a number of victims and dependents. He may successively seduce a score of women without bad consequences to himself. Why is he doing wrong? In the name of what do you peremptorily summon him to return to the path of virtue? In the name of altruistic pleasure? He happens to be one of those organisms which are not capable of it. In the name of a state of society which is to come into existence long after he has moldered to dust in the family mausoleum of the Gaunts? His reply will furnish the anthropologist with a fine illustration of the faculty of facial expression. Suppose you could induce him to try a course of virtue, or of altruism, if the term is more scientific, what in his case would be the practical result? Would it not be a painful conflict between passion and conscience, or perhaps, in the terms of the evolutionary philosophy, between presented sensations on the one hand, and represented or re-represented sensations on the other? Is it not probable that he would end his days before that conflict had been brought to a close? Its fruits, however imperfect, would, of course, be both happy and precious in the estimation of theism; but in the estimation of the philosophy embodied in the "Data of Ethics," what could they be but pleasure, unquestionable pleasure, lost, and pain, pain of a very distressing kind, incurred? And so with other organisms, which, as Dr. Van Buren Denslow would say, are pursuing their peculiar and congenial though conventionally reprobated walks of life. The assassin, the robber, and the sharper have their status in nature, as well as any other members of the predatory tribes. It is possible that by the gradual triumph of industry over militarism, and the general progress of evolution, those changes which Mr. Spencer confidently predicts may be brought about. The wolf may become as the lamb, and may even in the general competition for altruistic pleasures tenderly conjure the lamb to eat him. At present he is a wolf—a wolf with two legs it may be, and with the other physiological attributes of the highest of the mammals—yet as much at liberty as the lowest of the mammals to gratify his appetites so long as he does not eat any one who will disagree with him.

The author of the "Data of Ethics" discusses, in three lively and interesting chapters, altruism and its relations to egoism. But Dr. Van Buren Denslow flouts all this as "theological," and wonders that his sage should have allowed himself to be so much affected by the atmosphere of modern Christianity. The doctor hits the nail hard as usual, and there seems reason to suspect that he hits it on the head. "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself," is commonly cited as the precept of the Gospel. But the full commandment is, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." Supposing the theistic hypothesis to be true, and the communion of the Christian Church to represent a reality, to love one's neighbor as one's self is rational; if the two are members of each other, each in loving the other loves himself, and there is no need of any elaborate comparison or arbitration. But on any other hypothesis it seems difficult to press the claims of altrusim on an egoistic organism. You must alter the organism, or wait till it is eliminated by evolution. If a man is selfish, his pleasures will be selfish; and there, so far as we can see, according to the philosophy of the "Data of Ethics," is an end of the question.

Hear once more Dr. Van Buren Denslow:

The unphilosophical element in Herbert Spencer's scheme is its dogmatical assumption that there is a moral law, philosophically deducible by argument from the facts of nature; that this moral law is unique and single, not dual, though all the forces of nature whose study is to lead up to the knowledge of this law are dual and not single; that while at some points it may not yet be clearly definable, yet all the facts indicate both its existence and its philosophical deducibility from nature. On this point he says, p. 282: "For reasons already pointed out, a code of perfect personal conduct can never be made definite. Many forms of life, diverging from one another in considerable degrees, may be so carried on in society as entirely to fulfill the conditions of harmonious co-operation. And if various types of men, adapted to various types of activities, may thus lead lives that are severally complete after their kinds, no specific statement of the activities universally required for personal well-being is possible. But though the particular requirements to be fulfilled for perfect individual well-being, must vary, along with variations in the material conditions of each society, certain general requirements have to be fulfilled by the individuals of all societies. . . . Perfection of individual life hence implies certain modes of action which are approximately alike in all cases, and which therefore become part of the subject matter of ethics. That it is possible to reduce even this restricted part to scientific definiteness, can scarcely be said. But ethical requirements can here be to such extent affiliated upon physical necessities as to give them a partially scientific character. . . . That it will ever be practicable to lay down precise rules for private conduct in conformity with such requirements, may be doubted. But the function of absolute ethics in relation to private conduct will have been discharged when it has produced the warrant for its requirements as generally expressed [i. e., that the individual should so promote his own pleasure as not to mar the pleasure of others]; when it has shown the imperativeness of obedience to them; and when it has thus taught the need for deliberately considering whether the conduct fulfills them as well as may be." While Spencer gives away reluctantly nearly his whole position here (for of what value is an ethical system which can shed no light on the path of private duty?), yet the small portion he retains is retained unjustly, and must be surrendered. An ethical system which boils down into an exhortation to all men to promote their own interests has no ethical quality left in it; for, as we have seen, the mere doing of that which is clearly essential to self-preservation pertains to business and not to morals; since, to have a moral quality, an act must raise the question, Is it right? which mere attention to business does not raise any more than the flight of birds, the falling of water, or the explosion of gases.

The nearest thing to an authoritative and universal rule which we get in the "Data of Ethics" is the assertion that "the life of the social organism must, as a rule, rank above the lives of its units." Supposing even that society is in any but a figurative sense an organism with a life of its own distinct from those of its members, this canon, as it stands in Mr. Spencer's pages, appears to be almost as much a dogma and as little supported by demonstration as anything in the Athanasian Creed. Prove to a man, if you can, that to enjoy his own pleasure he must avoid interfering with the pleasure of others, obtain the co-operation of his fellows, and pay a certain tribute to the interests of society. But to tell him that, where there is a question between the life or the pleasure of the social organism and his life or pleasure, the claim of the social organism must rank first, is to tell him what, we venture to think, you will not be able to prove with any arguments supplied by the "Data of Ethics," the reasoning of which, like the promptings of Nature apart from theism, point rather the other way. The chapter on the "Sociological View of Ethics" is not, at least I have not found it, the clearest in a book generally remarkable for perspicuity: but, if I do not mistake, it forecasts a diminution of the claims of society on the allegiance of the individual man, in proportion as militarism gives way to industry, and the need of protection against the violence of other social organisms becomes less.

In one remarkable passage Mr. Spencer seems practically to avow the inability of his principle to settle what have hitherto been deemed the plainest questions of morality:

In men's wider relations frequently occur circumstances under which a decision one or other way is imperative, and yet under which not even the most sensitive conscience, helped by the clearest judgment, can decide which of the alternatives is relatively right. Two examples will suffice. . . . Here is a merchant who loses by the failure of a man indebted to him. Unless he gets help he himself will fail; and if he fails he will bring disaster not only on his family but on all who have given him credit. Even if by borrowing he is enabled to meet immediate engagements, he is not sate; for the time is one of panic, and others of his debtors by going to the wall may put him in further difficulties. Shall he ask a friend for a loan? On the one hand, is it not wrong forthwith to bring on himself, his family, and those who have business relations with him, the evils of his failure? On the other hand, is it not wrong to hypothecate the property of his friend, and lead him too, with his belongings and dependents, into similar risks? The loan would probably tide him over his difficulty; in which case would it not be unjust to his creditors did he refrain from asking it? Contrariwise, the loan would very possibly fail to stave off his bankruptcy; in which case is not his action in trying to obtain it practically fraudulent? Though in extreme cases it may be easy to say which course is the least wrong, how is it possible in all those medium cases where even by the keenest man of business the contingencies can not be calculated?. . . Take, again, the difficulties that not unfrequently arise from antagonism between family duties and social duties. Here is a tenant farmer whose political principles prompt him to vote in opposition to his landlord. If, being a Liberal, he votes for a Conservative, not only does he by his act say that he thinks what he does not think, but he may perhaps assist what he regards as bad legislation: his vote may by chance turn the election, and on a parliamentary division a single member may decide the fate of a measure. Even neglecting, as too improbable, such serious consequences, there is the manifest truth that, if all who hold like views with himself are similarly deterred from electoral expression of them, there must result a different balance of power and a different national policy: making it clear that only by adherence of all to their political principles can the policy he thinks right be maintained. But, now, on the other hand, how can he absolve himself from the responsibility for the evils which those depending on him may suffer if he fulfills what appears to be a peremptory public duty? Is not his duty to his children even more peremptory? Does not the family precede the state? and does not the welfare of the state depend on the welfare of the family? May he, then, take a course which, if the threats uttered are carried out, will eject him from his farm, and so cause inability, perhaps temporary, perhaps prolonged, to feed his children? The contingent evils are infinitely varied in their ratios. In one case the imperativeness of the public duty is great and the evil that may come on dependents small; in another case the political issue is of trivial moment and the possible injury which the family may suffer is great; and between these extremes there are all gradations. Further, the degrees of probability of each result, public and private, range from the nearly certain to the almost impossible. Admitting, then, that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the. state, and admitting that it is wrong to act in a way likely to injure the family, we have to recognize the fact that in countless cases no one can decide by which of the alternative courses the least wrong is likely to be done.

In the first case nothing, according to common conceptions, could appear more certain than this, that a man has no right to borrow money under any circumstances, or for any purpose whatever, unless he is sure that he can pay, or, at least, has fully apprised the lender of the risk. In the second case, it seems equally clear that in the exercise of a public trust public duty ought to prevail over all private considerations, and that, though a man may be justified in abstaining from voting if the state fails to afford him protection against the tyranny of his landlord, he can not possibly be justified in voting wrong. But we can easily see how, in both cases, the philosophy of the "Data of Ethics" breaks down. It finds itself involved in a hopelessly bewildering calculation of the relative amounts of pleasure and pain attending either line of conduct in its bearing on the sensation of the agent and of other people. Whether any other philosophy capable of distinct statement holds good is, of course, a different question, as we bear in mind throughout.

By the very method of his inquiry the author of the "Data of Ethics" is cut off from any appeal to human morality as essentially distinct from that of other animals. He is committed to the position that the conduct and ethics of man are merely an evolution of those of the mollusks. When he takes a woman suckling her child as his highest type of a right action, it is difficult to see why he might not as well have taken any other mammal. The sentence would run just as well, "Consider the relation of a healthy cow to a healthy calf. Between the two there exists a mutual dependence which is a source of pleasure to both. In yielding its natural food to the calf, the cow receives gratification, and to the calf there comes the satisfaction of appetite—a satisfaction which accompanies furtherance of life, growth, and increasing enjoyment." There is a caveat, as was said, to be entered against "higher" and "lower," applied to the earlier and later products of evolution; they carry with them the suggestion of a moral difference which might form a foundation for ethics. But, if the evolutionist were asked why the latter and more complex was higher than the earlier and simpler organism, we apprehend his only answer would be, that it was higher because it was later and more complex. If the pleasures of the other animals are less intense so are their pains, and from a large class of the pains which beset humanity they are altogether free. A sea-gull lives, it is said, longer than a man: it has found a sphere in which it has few enemies; it knows no care for the morrow, no moral effort, no moral conflict, no strivings after an unattainable ideal. At least it gives no sign of anything of the kind. Why is it to be dubbed lower?

Besides the list of pleasures denoting the conduciveness of the action to vitality, there may be said to be in the "Data of Ethics" a set of characteristics derived from perfection of evolution. Such are "adjustment of an action to an end," "definiteness," "exactness," "heterogeneity," "complexity," "multiformity" subordination of immediate to remote objects and of motives connected with presentative to those connected with representative and re-representative sensations, all regarded as placing the highest mammal at the top of the ascending scale; while the mollusks, with whose rudimentary ethics Mr. Spencer sets out, are at the lowest. Such, also, are the criteria stated in the terms of Mr. Spencer's special and, to common minds, mysterious theory of the movement of evolution, his "rhythms," and his perfect state of "moving equilibrium." Mr. Spencer, as he has eloquently avowed, thinks the first Napoleon about the greatest enemy of his kind who ever lived. Yet in which of the attributes of perfect evolution did Napoleon fall short? Were not his actions as admirably adjusted as possible to their evil ends? Was he not in the highest degree "punctual," methodical, and exact? Was any man ever more multiform in his activities or heterogeneous in the parts which he enacted? Did any man ever keep his eye more steadily fixed on remote objects or play a longer game? No one can question the vastness of his brain-power, and his historian boasts that his head was the largest and the best-formed ever submitted to the investigation of science. History can not pretend to say anything about his "rhythm," but during a considerable part of his life, at all events, he may be said to have been in moving equilibrium, for he was always on horseback, and had so loose a seat in his saddle that he rode merely by balance, and when the horse stumbled was apt to be canted over its head, though the powers of evil always preserved his neck. He is a figure to be noted by agnostics, for, though he lived before positivism, he was a perfect positivist. He had, as he tells us himself, shut all religious ideas out of his mind as hindrances to action; he had learned to discard metaphysics and philosophy altogether as the dreams of ideologues; he insisted on positive education, and he took his own propensities as the parts of his nature which were to determine his conduct without respect for any moral conventions. There is a curious jeu d'esprit (such, no doubt, it is) which connects, across the gulf of centuries, Bonaparte with that other great positivist before positivism, Machiavelli. It is a copy of "The Prince," supposed to have been found in the Emperor's carriage at Waterloo, with a running commentary by his hand, showing the correspondence of his own policy with Machiavellism; and the likeness is very striking.

Are not "punctuality" and whatever it denotes as much shown in keeping a guilty assignation or a rendezvous of crime as in appearing at the hour fixed for a charity meeting? Was "the adjustment of an action to its end" ever more exact, were the qualities which adjust actions to their ends ever more signally displayed, than when Ravaillac, having marked his opportunity and chosen his position well, drove the knife, which he had chosen with care and thoroughly sharpened, at a single stroke into the heart of a king whose life was the hope of the world?

Mr. Spencer, in his present, work, wisely forbears touching the question of moral necessity. So far as the "Data of Ethics" is concerned, therefore, he avoids the reef marked by the wreck of the automaton man. The reasonings by which automatism is supported, it may be noted by-the-way, are simply a reproduction of those of Jonathan Edwards, who was not in quest of truth, but of a philosophic basis for his Stygian dogma, and was himself half conscious that he had reduced his own argument to an absurdity when he found himself logically compelled to ascribe to the All-Good the personal authorship of crimes; for, of course, it could signify nothing to the question of agency, if no new spring of action was interposed, how long the chain of mere instrumentalities might be. He was right in asserting moral causation, which is given us by consciousness, and without which the moral world would be a chaos. His fallacy lay in the assumption that moral causation was the same as physical. What has been inappropriately called free-will may be roughly defined as the difference given us by consciousness between moral and physical causation. Though it is the most certain, as well as the most momentous, fact of our being, we shall probably never succeed in precisely formulating it by any phrase that we can devise, even supposing it to be fixed, and not to be increasing, with our ascent from a lower to a higher, from a more material to a more spiritual life.

Though not a declared automatist, however, Mr. Spencer is, by virtue of his general philosophy, a necessarian. He holds that evolution, which is the order of the universe, "consists in a change from an indefinite coherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations." The universe may well have heaved a sigh of relief when, through the cerebration of an eminent thinker, it had been delivered of this account of itself. Yet it must be a curious universe if this is its secret. As the Yankee said of the enormously rich church with a very scanty congregation, "it must be doing the smallest business on the largest capital of any concern in this State." Man, the insect, aims at producing things which we feel to be noble, and which, according to the measure of his span, will endure; but the power of the universe does nothing but turn the homogeneous into the heterogeneous and back again through the same tread-mill round of differentiations and integrations, every round ending in the same fatal "equilibration" and total wreck of all the results of the process. The higher the fruits, the more senseless the destruction. What set the homogeneous moving in the first instance and made it become the heterogeneous? This would be the question which we should have to ask if the law were tendered as a physical explanation of the origin of the world. Why, we might also ask, is the coherent to be called the heterogeneous, and the incoherent the homogeneous? Might not the terms as well be reversed?[2] But it is enough here to say that the theory is mechanical necessarianism, and that as such it is scarcely reconcilable, in a scientific point of view, with the high strain of ordinary morality and the passionate denunciations of wrong which we find in such passages of Mr. Spencer's work as this:

Such a view (of the progress of altruism) will not he agreeable to those who lament the spreading disbelief in eternal damnation; nor to those who follow the apostle of brute force in thinking that because the rule of the strong hand was once good it is good for all time; nor to those whose reverence for one who told them to put up the sword is shown by using the sword to spread his doctrine among the heathens. The conception set forth would be received with contempt by that Fifeshire regiment of militia, of whom eight hundred, at the time of the Franco-German War, asked to be employed on foreign service, and left the Government to say on which side they should fight. From the ten thousand priests of the religion of love, who are silent when the nation is moved by the religion of hate, will come no sign of assent; nor from their bishops, who, far from urging the extreme precept of the master they pretend to follow, to turn the other cheek when one is smitten, vote for acting on the principle strike, lest ye be struck. Nor will any approval be felt by legislators, who, after praying to be forgiven their trespasses as they forgive the trespasses of others, forthwith decide to attack those who have not trespassed against them, and who, after a Queen's speech has "invoked the blessing of Almighty God" on their counsels, immediately provide means for committing political burglary.

This is enough to show that, whatever the writer's moral system may be, his own moral sentiment is strong. But, surely, it is a splendid inconsistency. The bishop and the Fifeshire militiamen were in certain stages of evolution, or, in other words, of progress from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, through the necessary differentiations and integrations. The Episcopal organism in its state of comparative homogeneity could no more help being fond of converting Afghans, by killing them and burning their cottages, than a tiger can help wanting to eat the bishop, or the Buddhist sage in Mr. Arnold's "Light of Asia" can help wanting, in the immensity of his benevolence, to be eaten by the tiger. Bishop and militiamen alike will surely give their censor the crushing answer that they could not possibly be more differentiated or nearer the perfection of moving equilibrium than they are, without breaking the Spencerian law.

Another strong point, which any organism indisposed to altruism might make, is the warrant apparently given to purely selfish action by the struggle for existence. "In large measure," says Mr. Spencer, "the adjustment of acts to ends which we have been considering are components of that 'struggle for existence,' carried on both between members of the same species and between members of a different species; and, very generally, a successful adjustment made by one creature involves an unsuccessful adjustment made by another creature, either of the same kind or of a different kind. That the carnivores may live, herbivores must die; and, that its young may be reared, the young of weaker creatures must be orphaned." Why, a Borgia or a Bonaparte will ask, is the law to be confined to the case of carnivores and herbivores? Do not I equally fulfill it by making a prey of the herbivores of humanity, or by destroying in any way I can other carnivores who happen to stand in my way? If my acts are well adjusted to these ends, as Machiavelli says they are, why are they not good? The result will be that survival of the fittest which science proclaims to be the decree of Nature. Is it not difficult to find an answer which will not involve what Dr. Van Buren Denslow derides as theistic altruism?

The motive power to which, at bottom, Mr. Spencer's ethic mainly appeals in urging to moral effort or self-restraint, is the hope of a future social state, which in his, as in other agnostic philosophies, fills the void left by the discarded hope of a future life. Here, again, he is confronted by the logical consequences of his mechanical necessity: what must come will; we need not make any effort or forego any gratification to bring it about; the "co-operation" which he speaks of is needless, or, rather, illusory; nor is it in our power to forestall the process of evolution. Apart from this, however, the prospect of a social goal indefinitely distant, and to be attained not by the individual man, but by humanity, influences only highly educated imaginations and refined natures, if it greatly influences even these. What does Bill Sykes, what does a director of the Glasgow Bank, what does William Tweed, what does Fiske, or St. Arnaud, or St. Arnaud's employer, care about the fortunes of humanity a million years after he as an individual being has ceased to exist? What impelling force, to keep that side of the matter in view also, will such visions have with the multitudes of common people, unread in the "Philosophic Positive," on whose conscientious performance of duty society depends, and whose goodness is the salt of the earth? The philosophers of the ultra-evolutionary school put out of sight, in the scientific sweep of their social theories, two commonplace facts—individuality and death. Death some of the philosophers of the last century thought might be abolished: those of the present appear to think that, if we will all be quiet and refrain from ill-omened words, it may be hushed up. They constantly quote Spinoza's saying, that true wisdom concerns itself not with death but with life. Spinoza had inherited the creed of religious secularism, which in his active intellect took the form of pantheism—without, however, losing its essential character as a belief generated at a stage before the wisdom or the folly, as the case may be, which concerns itself with death and the life beyond death, had come into the world. But does any one seriously believe that man can now be put back into that infantine state in which he once passed his days like the other animals, without spiritual aspiration, and, like them, Jay down at last to sleep without hope or fear? What a clearance of art, architecture, poetry, philosophy, and history does a return to contented and dreamless secularism imply! Yet the other part of the undertaking is even more arduous. That men should be made to feel themselves members one of another, granting the theistic hypothesis, is not absolutely impossible; it may even be said that, tremendous as the obstacles were, in a space of time very short compared with the total duration of the race, an appreciable, if not a great, progress has been made. At least, it will hardly be denied that in philanthropy the world at the present day is more advanced than it was in the reign of Tiberius. Of that, Mr. Spencer's own sentiments are proof enough. In no ancient writer is there to be found a protest like his against the oppression of the weaker races. But to get this sensible, warm motion to lose itself in a mere generalization, whether the generalization be humanity, animality—which for all that we can see has just as good a claim as humanity—or simply evolution, and to be content with the prospective welfare of this generalization instead of thinking about its own, does seem to us absolutely impossible, unless it be in the case of a very extraordinary temperament, or during the brief continuance of an artificial mood. Besides, all ends sooner or later in a physical catastrophe—in the catastrophe, according to Mr. Spencer, of equilibration; and how can it be expected that people will be animated to moral effort by the idea that they are "co-operating with evolution in producing the highest form of life," when evolution itself flings all the results of so much differentiation and integration back into homogeneity with the recklessness of a child overturning its castle of sand?

There surely goes a good deal of quasi-religious faith to the making of this evolutionary millennium. We have in effect to assume that all the agencies of progress now at work will continue in full force, notwithstanding the departure of the beliefs with which some of them have been hitherto bound up, and that no new evils will emerge. Unhappily, the last part of the assumption is contradicted by the evidence alike of the sanitary, social, and political spheres. That physical Nature will become kinder to us there seems no reason to believe. The author of the "Data of Ethics" does not promise that she will: he says that flood, fire, and storm will always furnish occasions for the display of heroism—heroism which there will no longer be any very tangible motive for displaying. On the progress of science we may count; and this is so important as to make us feel that humanity altogether has at last struck into the right path. Yet, if we shut our ears for a moment to the pæans which are being sung over telegraphs and telephones, we become conscious that, while science has been making miraculous strides, the masses have not yet made strides equally miraculous, either in character or in happiness.

Mr. Spencer seems to expect unbounded improvement from the final ascendency which he confidently anticipates of industry over war. He is no doubt aware that the distinction between the military and the industrial types of society is familiar, though his use of it as a universal key to history is new. There never can have been a purely military state of society; somebody must have produced, or there would have been nothing for the warriors to pillage; nor is the difference between the ancient community, in which there was a warrior caste of masters with an industrial people of slaves, and the modern community, in which there is an industrial people of citizens with a standing army of professional soldiers, though most momentous, quite so radical as Mr. Spencer assumes. The most perfect type of a purely industrial community, perhaps, is China; not a very encouraging example, as the Chinese, besides their servility, their unprogressiveness, and their total lack of political life, are untruthful, vicious in some other respects, mean, and, as their punishments show, abominably cruel. In London and our other great commercial cities the military element is trifling, even taking in the volunteers; yet of vice and unhappiness there is surely enough. Biographers at some future time, seeking in Mr. Spencer's works materials for a life of the great philosopher, will find that he evidently had experience in his own person of some of the special evils of industrialism, such as plumbers who make business for builders, and crockery-breaking servant-girls, to whom he was compelled to apply that article of his ethical code which forbids you, when your crockery is concerned, to allow your line of conduct to be decided by altruism alone. These are but trifling instances of an industrial depravity over which jeremiads innumerable have been chanted, and which in its consequences even to life is hardly less destructive than war. The final transition will also be a most critical affair. A society wholly destitute of military force and without martyr spirit, which can hardly exist apart from religion, will be at the mercy of any surviving six shooter of the past.

In a recent number of this review there was an article by Mr. Spencer on "The Industrial Type of Society,"[3] to which was appended a note drawing a comparison between the morality of religious communities and that of savages who have no religion. The Christian era was represented as a hideous succession of public and private atrocities, innumerable and immeasurable, of bloody aggressive wars, ceaseless family vendettas, bandit barons and fighting bishops, massacres—political and religious—torturings and burnings, assassinations, thefts, lying, and all-pervading crimes. Nor was this description confined to the past. We were called upon to read the police reports, the criminal assize proceedings, the accounts of fraudulent bankruptcies, political burglaries, and criminal aggressions at the present day. With this picture we were invited to contrast the honesty, the truthfulness, the amiability, the mild humanity of the Bodo, the Dhimáls, the Lepchas, the Santáls, the Veddahs, the Arafuras, and the Hodas who have no notion of God nor belief in the immortality of the soul. Decisive judgment was given in favor of the savages by the philosopher, whom we can not suppose to have been indulging in mere rhetoric. But it will be allowed that the Christian nations are in general respects, and notably in everything pertaining to science, the most civilized. If in the most important matter of all they have retrograded to this extent, what becomes of the hope of civilization?

Yet Mr. Spencer himself sees the promised land of evolutionary adjustment and felicity from a very advanced Pisgah. His man is a man in a suburban villa with a good business in the city, who has only to be content with a sufficient income, avoiding the moral gulf of overwork, and that of "snatching a hasty sandwich," instead of taking a regular luncheon every day. Alas! to say nothing of the myriads who in the past have lived and died in slavery and misery of all kinds, how many centuries must elapse before the question between a hasty sandwich and a regular luncheon becomes a practical one for any appreciable portion of mankind! To do too much office-work is bad for health, and therefore, as Mr. Spencer most truly says, bad in every way; but how many are there who must either do too much work or starve! It is not healthful to be on the wintry Atlantic clinging to the frozen shrouds, to pant all day beside the fiery furnace, to be delving in the dark mine, to be sitting as a cab-driver exposed to all weathers, to be toiling as a farm-laborer with overtasked sinews from dawn to dusk. Of the labor which is the lot of most men, and in which their lives are almost entirely spent, very little is, like that of the artist, relieved by any sense of enjoyment; the bulk of it is drudgery and nothing else. Schopenhauer exaggerates, of course. Were it not so, the end, in spite of his super-subtile objection to the exertion of will in self-destruction, would be universal suicide. There is happiness in life; above all, the happiness of affection, though it is in this that we most keenly feel the sting of death. Yet if this life were all, and if enjoyment were the object of being, it would be difficult to deny that the pessimist had a formidable case, or that the world, on the whole and for the majority of mankind, was a failure. It is, at least it may be, otherwise if the theistic hypothesis is true, if the secret of the universe is not mechanical but moral, if the paramount object is the formation of character, and if the results of effort are to endure, in any form whatever, beyond the physical catastrophe of the planet. Trying to be good is within the power of a galley-slave; and it is conceivable that by being ever so little better than himself the most abject of mankind may cast into the moral treasury a mite more precious in the estimation of the Author of our moral being than the effortless virtue of a born seraph. In touching upon such points we feel that the criticism which repels a physical account of morality is not merely destructive, but conserves something on which it is possible that a rational theology may hereafter be partly based.

In short, while we find, as was said before, in the "Data of Ethics" much that is acute, much that is eloquent, much that is interesting, we do not find in it a new basis of morality. We do not find a practical answer to the question which was put at the beginning. We do not find anything that, on the mass of mankind, is likely to act as a strong inducement or as a strong deterrent. We do not find anything that can be relied on to save society from the danger of a moral interregnum. An exaggerated interpretation is not to be put upon that phrase. Society will hold together, and the milkman will go his round. For that, daily needs, habit, human nature, the examples of China and Japan, both of which are agnostic, sufficiently answer. Society has held together during former intervals between the fall of one morality and the rise of another; but it has been in rather a sorry way. Things have righted, but before they have righted there have been times to which nobody wishes to return. The continuity of history is indisputable; yet it is not such as to preclude very terrible convulsions; and surely the doings of nihilism, which in its speculative aspect is clearly a product of the present disturbance of religious and, at the same time, of ethical beliefs, are warning enough of the existence of subterranean fires. Once more, it is not from the personal tendencies of the distinguished party which surrounds an intellectual tea-table that we can gather with certainty those of the masses inflamed by fierce passions and goaded by animal wants, or even those of genius itself, like that of Napoleon, in pursuit of selfish aims. That all will be well in the end, theists, at any rate, must implicitly believe; yet the day of salvation may be distant.

"It is strange," says Mr. Spencer, "that a notion so abstract as that of perfection, or a certain ideal completeness of nature, should ever have been thought one from which a system of guidance could be evolved." Call the notion abstract, and the remark may be true. But it is certain that a personal type, or supposed type, of perfection, has furnished Christendom with guidance, with a rule of life at all events, up to this time. The sudden disappearance of that type must fill all, except the most serenely scientific minds, with misgivings as to the immediate future, it being admitted by "our great philosopher" that there is nothing to be put in its place.

There are one or two points which, though not strictly pertinent to the present inquiry, it may not be wholly beside the mark to notice. One of these relates to the theistic notion of morality, which we can not help thinking the author of the "Data" misapprehends, so far as rational theists are concerned. "Religious creeds," he says, "established and dissenting, all embody the belief that right and wrong are right and wrong simply in virtue of divine enactment." In another passage he represents the religious world as holding that "moral truths have no other origin than the will of God." There is a fallacy in the term "will." A law is not made by the will of the legislator; it is enforced by his will, but it is made by his nature, moral and intellectual, the goodness or badness of which determines its quality and the salutariness of obedience. Wise advice given by a father to his children is useful in itself, not merely because he gives it. Moreover, what a rational theist may be said to hold is simply that our moral nature points true to that of Him in whom we have our being; that he is with us when we do right, against us when we do wrong; that our well-doing moves his love, our evil-doing his aversion. There is nothing apparently more absurd in this than in believing the same thing with regard say to a friend, or even with regard to the community of which we form a part, and the good-will of which is a motive and a support of our rectitude. Nor is there any sort of necessity, so far as this belief is concerned, for entangling ourselves in a metaphysical labyrinth by going behind the divine nature and speculating on the possibility of its having been other than it is. Being is an inscrutable and overwhelming mystery: there is no more to be said.

That religion had its origin in primeval worship of the ghosts of ancestors or chiefs, and that, these ancestors or chiefs having been ferocious cannibals, we are hence enabled to account for the belief in propitiation by self-torture and the other diabolical characteristics of modern creeds, is a theory which Mr. Spencer habitually propounds as certain and almost self-evident. Scientific the theory may be, and on questions of science the utmost deference is due to its inventor's authority: that it is historical must be denied. In truth, when it appeared some of us could not help being reminded of Voltaire's prompt explanation of the fossil shells found on mountain ranges, and adduced by ecclesiastical writers in proof of the Deluge, as cockles dropped by pilgrims from their hats. Euhemerus explained the Greek mythology in some such way, but his explanation has not been applauded. Not in the Hebrew Scriptures, not in the Rig-Veda, not in the Zendavesta, not in any of the monuments of primitive religion which philological science has been placing before us, not in any important mythology, whether Greek or of any other nation, can we find the slightest confirmation of the cannibal chieftain view. Everything seems to show that the earliest religious impressions were those made by the great powers of Nature, especially by the Sun in his glory; and that this was the real origin of natural religion; though, be it remembered, there must have been a religious impressibility, however rudimentary, in man, otherwise religious impressions could not have been made. As man advanced, the power seen through his moral nature became, instead of those seen with his eyes, the paramount object of his worship. There would surely be something utterly preposterous in the supposition that evangelical Christianity was a survival of the primitive worship of dead chieftains. Mr. Spencer seems to have swallowed whole Mr. Tylor's theory of animism, and to have given it an application which was not given it by its acute and learned author; for Mr. Tylor, if I do not misunderstand him, would allow that Nature-worship was the origin of religion. The result, at all events, historians will say, is an unhistoric presentation of the most important subject in the history of opinion. In his volume on "Ceremonial Observances," Mr. Spencer maintains the surprising thesis that ceremony was primordial, and that politics and religion (or, to use his exact expression, political and religious control) were developed out of it by divergent evolution. His proof is the similarity of the modes in which reverence is shown to gods and to political rulers, and which, he says, denotes the kinship of the two sets of observances and their community of origin. In tracing this similarity he allows his fancy a pretty free range, as, for example, when he identifies the visit of a worshiper to a temple with a morning call paid to a great man, and the payments made for the support of a Christian clergy with sacrifices to a heathen deity. But it does not occur to him that man, being provided with only one set of organs of expression, is obliged to use them in the case of a ruler as well as in that of a god, and may do so without at all confounding in his mind the different characters and claims of the two. The abject adulation which deified the Roman emperors is a proof of this, not a contradiction; for the adulators were perfectly aware that they were giving to a man that which properly belonged to a god, and in the profanation lay the very point of the sycophancy. So with regard to the names of God, which Mr. Spencer thinks we shall be much startled by finding to have been originally descriptive words, and to have expressed superiority. Man has no celestial vocabulary. However distinct his conception of God might be from his conception of anything else, he would have to use the same words to express his reverence in this case as in that of a father or a chieftain. We do not see that the question as to the origin of religion is in any way affected by this discovery. Men speak now of the majesty of the king and the majesty of God; of the honor due to one as well as of the honor due to the other, without any confusion of ideas as to the respective natures and claims of the two beings. The most startling thing surely would have been to find a name for the Deity, unconnected with anything else in human thought or speech, a linguistic aërolite, as it were, dropped from the sky.

Mr. Spencer's view of the origin of religion is perhaps not unaffected by his extreme notion as to the importance and influence of militarism, of which he sees everywhere the malign traces. According to him, the Home Office, when it crops the head of a convict (and washes him), is unwittingly perpetuating the custom of taking trophies by cutting off the hair. When you give a man a lower seat at table, or in an assembly, the survivalist sees in the act a desire to have the force of gravity on your side in the conflict for which everybody is mentally preparing. There is something rather laughable in the idea that the high table on a dais in a college hall is a military vantage ground from which the "don" may be able to make an onslaught on the under-graduates with the force of gravity on his side. Between sun-myths and survivals there will soon be no room left for any natural belief or action.

The twist, as many readers will deem it, extends to every subject connected with religion, among others to that of asceticism, at which Mr. Spencer tilts ever and anon with a good deal of vehemence, and of its connection with Christianity. Religion is represented as still imbued with the belief, derived from blood-thirsty ancestors, in a diabolical God who is to be propitiated by self-torture. Nothing of the kind is to be found in the Gospel, in the apostolic fathers, or in any form of evangelical Christianity. Jesus was denounced by his enemies for not being an ascetic. Paul lived a live of self-denial and voluntary exposure to suffering and peril; but it was not for the purpose of self-torture, it was, like his celibacy, for the purpose of propagating the Gospel, as a soldier undergoes toils and privations for the sake of victory, or a man of science for the sake of a discovery. Even the Baptist was not a self-torturer he was a reformer preaching by austerity. Launched into the world, Christianity felt the influence of the various currents of thought and tendency—Hellenic, Roman, Alexandrian, and Oriental—nor did it escape that of the fakirism which had been generated in the mud of the Ganges. The monks of the Thebaid were fakirs, and may be left to Mr. Spencer's mercy. But so was not Benedict, or Bernard, or Anselm. Western asceticism on the whole corresponded to its name, which denotes not self-torture but self-training—the self-training of the spiritual athlete. Its central idea was that of liberating the soul from the shackles of the flesh in order to its complete union with the Deity. Chimerical it was, no doubt, and extravagant in some of its manifestations, but it was not diabolical, nor did it point to anything diabolical in the nature of the ascetic's God; and it is by no means clear that, in such a case as that of Anselm, it would not have stood Mr. Spencer's test of pleasure, though the pleasure would have been of a peculiar and perhaps fantastic kind. It was compatible with immense usefulness, social, educational, and even industrial, for monasticism in its prime was a great agricultural improver. Moreover, as alchemy helped to give birth to chemistry, asceticism may have helped, by conquering the brutish appetites which hold unlimited sway over the barbarian, to give birth to rational temperance. No portions of the "Data of Ethics" are better worth reading than those in which the writer inculcates attention to health, both for our own sakes, and for the sake of the offspring to whom our constitutions are to be transmitted; and preachers, if they wish to be practical, might do a great deal of good by dwelling oftener on the last point. But, waiving the theological form of expression, it is difficult to put the duty of caring properly for the body higher than it was put by the apostle who called the body the temple of the Holy Spirit. And though no one wishes to detract from the dignity of physiological science, or to underrate the benefits which a diffused knowledge of it might confer, it is certain that the temperance, soberness, and chastity which Christianity has labored not without effect to inculcate, are keeping unscientific people in perfect health with the cheerfulness which attends it, while even a thorough knowledge of physiology-seems often to be of little avail for self-management.

In conclusion, I must say again that I am not here contending that theism or that Christianity is true, nor do I blink the tremendous difficulties with which at this moment the proof of both of them is beset. I stand up for history, and decline either to reject existing beliefs before they are confuted, or to accept new beliefs before they are proved. There is nothing in this inconsistent with the most grateful veneration for science, or the most perfect willingness to embrace any kind of truth. Vincat Veritas, ruat cœlum. Only, if the catastrophe does happen, it will surely be better, with such spirit as we can summon, to confront the void, and not to try to delude our souls by putting figments in the room of that which has been lost.—Contemporary Review.


  1. I take this, the first available opportunity, of saying that a paper professing to be a critique of three articles of mine—two in "Macmillan" and one in the "Atlantic Monthly"—on subjects akin to that of the present paper, by Miss Louisa Bevington, which appeared in the "Fortnightly Review" of August last, was as complete a misrepresentation of the purport of those articles, of their spirit, and, above all, of the attitude of their writer toward science and scientific men, as angry prejudice could produce. The most recent of the three articles attacked had appeared in the "Atlantic Monthly" a year and nine months before this sudden outpouring of the vials of philosophic wrath, the immediate motive for which it is difficult to divine. The nature of my offense, however, is apparent enough. In her exordium Miss Bevington discloses her intention of suppressing what she is pleased to term the "noisy literature" of people like me, who accept Darwin's scientific discoveries and yet refuse, as at present advised, to draw inferences which, as has been said in the text, Darwin himself has not drawn, and which he has given us no reason for believing that he is disposed to draw. She hardly displays the spirit of the philosophy of which she is the devotee. The highly evolved ought to have patience while inferior creatures are going through the necessary stages of their evolution. I am charged with "reading evolutionism into the views of persons not commonly credited with paramount scientific authority, for the purpose of taking it out again ethically besmirched and reeking with the blood of the weaker peoples." If the charge were true, it would justify any amount of denunciation and almost any mixture of metaphors. But the passages of my three articles on which Miss Bevington founds it (and which she represents as the main purport and substance of the articles, though in truth they are of the most cursory kind and comprise in all only three or four sentences) do not relate to evolution at all: they relate to the doctrine of the moral inequality of races and their different claims to legal protection, put forth by Professor Tyndall at the time of the Jamaica affair. Professor Tyndall, not Dr. Darwin, is the "eminent man" to whom I allude, as I have thought that anybody who remembered the Jamaica controversy would have known. To the scientific doctrine of evolution I gave the frankest adhesion, acknowledging "that it was unspeakably momentous, and that great was the debt of gratitude due to its illustrious authors." This Miss Bevington does not quote, but she satisfies her sense of justice by alluding to the passage as "certain ethical admissions favorable rather than not to the evolution hypothesis." I am incapable of such folly as ascribing immoral consequences to any genuine discovery of science. Science, in combination with historical philosophy and literary criticism, is breaking up religious beliefs; and the break-up of religious beliefs is attended, as experience seems to show, with danger to popular morality. To say this, and to illustrate it historically, as I did in the "Atlantic," is a very different thing from saying that science is immoral. The inroads made, not more by science than by the other agencies and influences enumerated, on the evidences of religion have been recognized by me in the article on "The Prospect of a Moral Interregnum" with a freedom which must, I should think, have shown anybody not blinded by philosophical antipathy that it would be absurdly unjust to identify me with reactionary and obscurantist orthodoxy. My position, frankly avowed in all the articles, is that of doubt. I think I may venture to say that no one who is acquainted with me, and knows what my course has been on university questions, and questions of education generally, will deny my loyalty to genuine science. Instead of disparaging the morality of scientific men I have expressly recognized their moral superiority as a class, only pointing out that we can not reason from their case to that of the multitude. To those of the number who served on the Jamaica Committee I have paid the best tribute in my power by saying that they were "among the foremost champions of humanity on that occasion," as Miss Bevington finds herself compelled with very manifest reluctance to admit. There can be no harm in saying that the passage was inserted in the second "Macmillan" article to satisfy Mr. Herbert Spencer, who, as I learned in a conversation with him, had misconstrued, strangely as it appeared to me, a passage in the first. I assured him that I felt, and had always expressed in public and private, the greatest admiration and gratitude for the noble conduct of Mr. Huxley and others of that school in the Jamaica business, and that, if there was any possibility of misapprehension on the subject, I would take the first opportunity of removing it. In what respect I failed to fulfill my promise I am at a loss to see. I could not say that science was the main support of the movement in the country; the main support of this, as of the anti-slavery movement, Miss Bevington would have found, if she had carried her statistical researches a little further, was the Christianity of the Free Churches. What a political clergy might do from political motives could in no way affect religion. That in the case even of the men of science, a philanthropy, the offspring of the Christianity in which we have all been nurtured, was likely to be the impelling influence rather than anthropology, was an opinion for which I had my reasons, and which at all events was not offensive. In the interest of scientific truth Miss Bevington does not shrink from affecting to believe that I am assailing science when I deprecate the invasion of Afghanistan in quest of "a scientific frontier." Nor does she shrink from making up a quotation out of two passages, one of which is taken from an article in "Macmillan," the other from an article in the "Atlantic Monthly," and which, if they relate to the same controversy, do not relate to the same persons. The tone of the article in the "Fortnightly" was such as could hardly fail to act as a warning against too ready an acceptance of its statements. But anything published in so eminent a journal goes forth with some authority, and the idea that p. large circle of readers might be led utterly to misconceive my feelings toward science and men of science gave me, I confess, some pain.
  2. We have always suspected that with regard to the sociological portion of Mr. Spencer's theory of evolution, and perhaps even with regard to the whole theory, a very considerable part had been played by our old friend the division of labor. Adam Smith knew the bounds of his discovery, if discovery it could be called. Though the employments of men diverge and multiply, the unifying influences of civilization generally on the members of a community are greater than the diversifying influences.
  3. "Contemporary Review," October, 1881.