Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/January 1884/The Control of Circumstances



IN a previous article, we noticed that even circumstances which seem to result in accumulations involving vast lapses of time are seen to be temporary when considered with relation to very great and to us inconceivable periods. The stability is apparent only, and is due to our limited grasp of duration. The study of averages is valuable as showing the proportion of control attainable through knowledge of the limit of variation in certain kinds of events. It would require something like omnipresent intelligence to cope with the enormous variability in all events, so that were it not for the perception of identity, repetition, the law of probability, we would be as completely helpless in regard to circumstances as many claim we are. In extending this question of averages, demonstrating the illusion of chance, we see that the appliances of science and intelligence must lessen helplessness and misery with every coming century, although, owing to limitation of the individual, the control can never be anything like complete. It is important that we form right ideas of the control possible, so that we be neither like Don Quixote, who thought his power almost without limit, nor like a fatalist who resigns himself to the current of events. In the history of progress, we see that during centuries some suffering might have been escaped by a more complete knowledge of causes, as well as by better intellectual training resulting in more foresight. The delayed relief was and is due to crude methods of scientific thought and experiment, lack of that insight or flash of analogy by which all great truths are discovered. The power to group and combine complex results, shown by the most advanced minds when working under favorable conditions, is hardly sufficient for even a vague understanding of the development of diseased conditions. The mind is led step by step toward the truth, by means of scientific experiments. At last, Pasteur and others disclose the laws which account for some kinds of progressive destruction in the movements of organic or inorganic particles.

As we begin to comprehend vaguely the laws of events, and the importance of action as an element of modifying power—as we stand back and include a great number of incidents in our generalization—we see more relation between action and result. The direct importance of objective action, its immediate interest for us, is in considering the proportion of control which we can exert. This is one of the most complicated problems, because special thwartings conceal the control when we look from the "near point of view of daily life." Several years of experience are required to demonstrate the proportion of truth in the well-known business maxim that it is better to avoid joining fortunes with an unlucky man. Much of the misfortune is in the man's quality; for we say of the successful man that, if a given project fails, he still has something in reserve. He has foreseen and provided for failure, and has great power of readjusting his vocation in an emergency. Besides an accumulation of money, which he has thrown up as an embankment between himself and disaster, he has an even stronger reserve force in his knowledge of human nature, his address, and his strength of character. In this sense the average indicates that prolonged effort results in control. He reaches a point in after-years when the special event conforms to his effort easily.

But we must not overlook the conditions that limit success. There is a margin of uncertainty in the fact that the successful man is seen to suffer from temporary calamities, which clearly are not due to his action or inaction. We find an outward influence completely beyond his control. The fact that it can be conquered by perseverance and knowledge does not lessen its irresistible force in the present. The outer forces, largely social but not less powerful than those of organization and physical law, do not respond to his efforts—seem arrayed against him, or turn unexpectedly in his favor. It thus appears that the question of control might easily result in endless debate, because each side—the triumph of circumstances or of human will and perseverance—includes part of the truth. While admitting that the tendency is persistently in favor of effort, we yet find a positive conclusion impossible to hold. The control, even under favorable conditions, is incomplete. It is true we can not express this with even relative accuracy, yet a rough idea of the truth may be given by a statement of arithmetical proportion as applied to a large number of men having successful qualities—such as knowledge of human nature and perseverance. The proportion of control will seem much greater if we consider the effect upon a given calling or condition toward which the effort tends. When a person starts in life with one object—say, that of making money—and uses every available means to accomplish his purpose, saving and constantly watching the public wants with the intention of supplying them, working night and day at a sacrifice of social recreation, the average, we may say, is as high as ninety per cent that he will succeed. Many will put the possibility of failure at much less than ten per cent; but if the question be carefully considered, it will be admitted that sickness and other causes may make inroads upon prosperity, so that of a hundred persons with such qualities, ten might fail after a given lapse of time, owing to conditions beyond their control.

While noticing the proportion of failure which may result in spite of prolonged effort, we must not omit the immense differences due to the qualities with which men are born. This is the most important of all the conditions considered. After deducting a large number of exceptions, we would doubtless still find the balance heavily in favor of the children of efficient parents. It therefore follows that, although we can not trace the control absolutely to effort in the individual, we can still find a part of the difference accounted for in the efforts of a line of ancestors, or in parents whose special aptitudes, perhaps attained directly by work, are united with magnifying effect in one of their children.[1] If we go back of the effective qualities of men, we encounter the unfathomable fact of the persistence of force; for the most important characteristic of these effective qualities is a certain mechanical motive power. It may be possible to definitely separate the force in men into the presence or absence of different kinds of it in a line of ancestors, but ultimately we are obliged to say that the first impulse took place for the same reason that the earth persists in its course round the sun, or for the same reason that motion appears to be an inevitable attribute of matter. Of course this is not accounting for it. It is simply reducing the question to a point of fact beyond which further investigation is apparently useless. In estimating our power of control, the right method is to start with the qualities existing, or latent, and then proceed to their effects. We may say, with Herbert Spencer, that special forms of thought-force were built up through processes of action and adjustment, but, as involved or noticed in his conclusions, this only dissolves the existing special manifestations of force into a general but at the same time unaccountable force.

While the enormous magnitudes and forces in nature remind us of our helplessness, it is yet clear that the tendency to master distant facts is constantly stimulated by natural phenomena. We ought not to be discouraged by the fact that exceptional events are not always classified or reduced to order by us—their connection is often lost, owing to our limited grasp of duration—nor by the truth that as natural phenomena recede from us we are more conscious of problems beyond the circumstances or surroundings which we partly control. Many apparent disconnections gradually lead us away from the series close at hand. The heavenly bodies, for example, manifest so much variation in movement and brightness, that men are led to undertake increasingly difficult or more delicate tasks of calculation, as in estimating the distances of a Centauri, Sirius, Vega, and other stars. Another result is, that attempts are made to form at least a theoretical idea of the physical conditions of suns and planets through knowledge attained by means of the spectroscope. The conclusions thus reached are necessarily imperfect because based upon fragmentary data, but the mental tendency to inquire is with scientific minds inevitable, because there are always appearing, with every increase of telescopic power, other stars beyond those last discovered.

It thus appears that while the high aims of Plato and Aristotle find justification in the idea that effort is taught by nature, even when a definite result is invisible, yet the teachings of physical causation show that it is vain to expect an escape from some material trammels. We see the vibration of two apparently opposing social forces, in which the high and more intelligent force is slowly gaining the ascendency by a process of adaptation, so that the physical force is becoming a source of power to men instead of fear. Emerson's conclusion, like that of Kant, is two-sided—that the principle of mind is manifested to us through material action. This holds true aside from Kant's "Forms of Thought" on one hand, or Herbert Spencer's relations between particles on the other. We can not have the unalloyed mind-power or control usually wished for, because our demands are unreasonable in the sense that we would dispense with the necessary and lower conditions upon which the higher depend, and thus thrust out causation, which is the principle of combination or order by which error and absurdity could be escaped if the relations between events were completely mastered. This mastery of physical power represents an ideal condition in which the mind is no longer enslaved by forces that seem material or mechanical.

In closing with a general view of this subject, we encounter the following contradiction: During a long period we see that fortunes and reputations grow by means of industry, and that a high percentage of the men having these industrious qualities accomplish their purpose. On the other hand, it is obvious that many of the physiological phenomena of the human body, the varying limitation of thought in individuals, and especialy the universe of matter, are not appreciably influenced by our actions or ideas. The idea of possible control narrows from a solar system to a planet, to a particular part of planetary surface, to a special series, of effects, and to special kinds of callings. The arguer can truthfully claim that we have no control, and hold his position by referring to the material universe and the development of mankind; but particular kinds of effort when so considered undermine his argument as applied to immediate results of actions. In arguing on the other side, he can maintain as truthfully, to put the same idea in different form, that the control is almost complete, but he must apply his argument to special and restricted conditions.

It has been denied that we can trace with certainty any manifestation of law in circumstances; that there is a fatal error in conclusions regarding the inevitableness of causation or law; that there is no perceptible law, because everything shows a margin of variation which may reach inconceivable results in the course of ages. Law, as understood by a member of the Theosophical Society, means the exact repetition of previous conditions, owing to vast averages and inconceivably great lapses of time.[2] The argument as to whether phenomena are exactly repeated is apparently of no consequence, as long as average results are known. The notion of infinite variation, as thus implied, is defective because the identity underlying the variation is omitted. It is fair to assume that identity will keep pace with variation, and that the margin of variation must always involve continuity, or a further illustration of the order or law manifested by the phenomena considered. The history of science shows that the new relations do not render absurd the verified conclusions of reason, though much is added that has to be classified and as far as possible reduced to a reasonable basis. In fact, the variations are seen to verify the known sequences instead of lessening their certainty. We may therefore assume that vast, far-reaching forces, or forms of force now unknown, will never even seem to interfere with the obvious and seemingly necessary laws manifested by known phenomena. Such interference of unknown laws would be, as far as we could perceive, a break in continuity, or causation, and. the inflow of obvious absurdity. From this point starts the root of superstition; for persons without perception of the causation underlying all action endow the unknown forces with power to produce effects at variance with the simplest forms of sequence, the disturbance of which would at once render void the human intellect. Are we to believe that gloves were sent from Bombay to London in an instant, thus setting aside one of the first laws of matter learned in childhood? If such monstrous phenomena occur, then it is useless to think that we can trace method in circumstances.

All the evidence so far collected indicates that actions and results are related, and we are thus encouraged by the thought that no work is wasted—that it must stand to the credit of the worker. When the effect upon others is not discernible, we can be sure that the advantage still exists as latent force of character. The value of work remains good in spite of vicissitudes. This may seem trite, but we must remember that the relation between work and effect is constantly observed in a partial light, so that people are likely to be either fatalists like Micawber, or to look upon a special failure as inexcusable and as a certain indication of quality. It has been the object of this outline of so complicated a question to modify these opposing views, to encourage effort, to emphasize the rational perception of the continuity or order pervading events, and to put aside as far as possible the fearful possibilities with which some endow the mysterious power everywhere manifested in nature. As long as we feel conscious that the unknowable reality can never involve anything irrational, ill-fitting the harmony and grandeur of the sidereal universe, we feel that ideas may lessen the burdens of men, widen their thought, and teach them that these persistent effects following causes may be depended upon with entire trust. Meantime the progress of men in intelligence, toward a certain degree of happiness, continues. One of the principal factors of this advancement is that all should sincerely express personal conviction. The decline of intelligence and of our power to control circumstances may be conceived as beginning when old ideas are advocated merely because the first impression is that they are plausible, and particularly when certain books, purely intellectual, are avoided merely because the reader fears to find something unanswerable and convincing. By all means let us have free trade in ideas, from the theory of materialization advanced by Robert Dale Owen at one extreme to the scientific exactness of Herbert Spencer at the other. Let there be no protection of ideas, and let each one maintain its hold by virtue of its truth and power. Owing to the varying tendencies and views of men, the truth overlooked by one may be seen by another, so that if we encourage the expression of peculiar combinations or combining powers in minds, much suffering arising from our lack of knowledge may be escaped. Those who do not realize the value of ideas ought to reflect that, largely owing to our want of ingenuity and perception, we are still in the main at the mercy of particles in ways which could be spared us if we knew or had discovered more, or had more control of the onward march of the closely knit network of events and influences that make up our short lives. Lack of observation in a trifling matter, or short-sighted heed to the convenience of the present hour, may restrict the possible development of the finest powers, and so the development of intelligence, by widening these limits, indirectly as well as directly, may add to the power of men in a steadily increasing proportion. Those who do not see the helping power of science, or at least the promise of it, ought to remember that every omission to use the best intelligence in themselves, or to encourage it in others, results in a continuance of the amount of pain and disappointment now existing, which can only be lessened by the general development of intelligence, and by the use of the increasingly difficult and more subtile researches of men of science.

  1. A certain artist seems to have inherited his father's habit of keen observation and his mother's mechanical ingenuity. Very often, however, these characteristics can not be definitely traced back.
  2. This definition of law was advanced by one of the younger members of the society. It may not fairly represent the views of all the members.