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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/December 1887/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 32‎ | December 1887



THE "Journal of Commerce" of this city has been occupying itself lately with the question of the origin of the human race; and, as the result of its studies and reflections, feels justified in pronouncing that "the development theory is refuted by all human experience." The main argument on which our contemporary relies to support this opinion is that there is no "organic tendency toward constant improvement and greater uprightness," that it is not natural for man to be good, and that he only attains to any moral excellence through unceasing struggle. No text-book in theology—so we are informed—is needed to tell us that the race is not attaining to moral goodness by the slow process of natural development; the conflict in every man's breast being sufficient to assure him that the ideal which he pursues is the original image of perfect righteousness that has been defaced by manifold transgressions. Such is the argument of our contemporary, stated, as nearly as possible, in its own words. We need hardly say that we are glad to find a paper like the "Journal of Commerce" presenting subjects of this character for the consideration of its readers; and we feel assured that it will be prepared to examine in a candid spirit the comments we propose to offer on the view above outlined.

In the first place, we would observe, the theory of evolution is one of a very wide compass; and, if it is applied with some degree of confidence to the history of morals, it is because, in so many other fields, it has proved itself the key to phenomena otherwise unexplainable. The language held by Professor Morse before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and by Professors Roscoe, Newton, and others before the similar British Association, sufficiently proves in what light the doctrine of evolution is regarded by the most eminent scientific investigators of our day. The question, therefore, presents itself as to whether man's moral nature has been formed upon principles, and by a method, wholly different from those illustrated in every other domain accessible to human inquiry. Before we grapple with this question, however, it will be well to place before ourselves as clear an idea as possible of what man's moral nature is.

The moral nature of man, according to our understanding of the expression, is that part of the human consciousness which takes cognizance of, and is definitely affected by, conduct, as that term is employed both by Herbert Spencer and by Matthew Arnold. That there should be a sense for conduct is as natural as that there should be a sense for any other outward phenomenon; and, if so, we can readily understand that an individual may examine and criticise his own conduct just as he may examine and criticise his own personal appearance. The norm or standard in both cases—that is to say, whether conduct or physical structure is in question—is the same, namely, some assumed ideal suitable to the human race, and in a manner generalized from varying human characteristics. Nobody, so far as we are aware, aspires either to a virtue or to a beauty appropriate to any non-human race of beings. Enough for a man to be a man in the best sense; enough for a woman to fulfill the best type of womanhood. But this striving after a type, what does it imply? Our contemporary says that, so far as conduct is concerned, it implies the original creation of a perfect moral nature, which sin has marred, but of which a perpetual reminiscence lingers. Good! but how about the striving after physical beauty? Does that also imply the reminiscence of a lost perfection? Or does it merely imply a sense in the individual of that which constitutes the best expression of the species? We incline to the latter opinion, and we think a similar answer might be given to the question as to the striving after a moral ideal.

The fact should not be lost sight of that our ideas in regard both to beauty of conduct and to beauty of form are very greatly controlled by habit and tradition. The standard of physical beauty varies from country to country, so that what inspires admiration here may be regarded as far from attractive there; and the same may be said of the standard of virtue. What is deemed most worthy of imitation in one age or clime may be regarded with positive disapproval under changed conditions of time or place. The very words "moral" and "ethical" teach us a lesson under this head; since the essential meaning of both, if we revert to their etymology, is neither more nor less than "customary." The first notions of morality were therefore based wholly on custom; and only as reflection developed, and as the contact of tribe with tribe and nation with nation gave the opportunity of comparing custom with custom, did the notion of morality enlarge and purify itself. The red Indian of former days would strive to harden himself against physical suffering, and to deaden in his heart any stirrings of compassion for a fallen foe. Are we to suppose that the original typical or ideal human nature was one, the main features of which were physical en-' durance and remorseless cruelty? If not, the argument drawn from the sense of struggle or conflict must fall to the ground; for undoubtedly every individual Indian had to strive in order to bring himself up to the true heroic level, as understood in his tribe. The need for effort to attain any moral ideal, whether that of the red Indian or that of the most public-schooled inhabitant of Massachusetts or New York, seems to us to be strictly comparable and analogous to the need for educational effort of other kinds. The family, the tribe, the race, acquire knowledge, habits, and principles of one kind or another, which every new-born individual must grow up into, on pain of social failure and probably of early extinction. By the observation, the thought, the suffering of many, experience is gained, and by self-control and self-direction that experience is applied to the government of life. If the individual, with his narrower personal experience, wishes to share in the general fund of wisdom and morality acquired by the social aggregate to which he belongs, he can only do it by conscious effort. The customary morality of the community is impressed upon him, in the first place, by public opinion, and it is left to him to check his purely individual impulses in the degree necessary for realizing (perchance transcending) the social ideal. It may further be observed that the ideal toward which the individual strives is identical with the standard of conduct which he is disposed to exact from his neighbor. Thus, to each man, conscience is the echo of the demands he makes upon others in the matter of conduct. Every man wants truth and justice and kindly help when necessary from his fellow-man; why, then, should he not yield them in return? How can he fail to at least profess a conformity with the standard he sets up for others? And if he continually professes to acknowledge that standard, how can he fail to strive more or less to adjust himself to it? If this involves conflict, on the one hand, it promises escape from conflict on the other—the conflict between a man's inner and outer self, between his professions and his practice.

We are thus very naturally led to see that the sense of effort in the individual is in no way incompatible with the existence of general tendencies by which human conduct is raised to successively higher levels. We scarcely gather from our contemporary's article above referred to that he has taken any pains to familiarize himself with the arguments of the evolutionist school. If he will not shun the effort needed for this purpose, but will read with attention Herbert Spencer's "Data of Ethics," or even so brief a treatise as Mr. Fiske's "Destiny of Man," we think he will find himself confronted with indubitable evidence that there has been an evolution in morals and in thought as well as in physical structure; and that this has been carried on, in the main, independently of mere individual volition. What the individual has to do is to keep up with the procession, and take a front rank in it if he can; he does not make the procession, nor can ho greatly accelerate or retard the speed of its movement.

We might, indeed, turn our contemporary's argument against him by asking how it is, if a certain moral constitution was imparted to man at the outset, that so much struggle should be involved in getting back to it. Reversion is generally, if not always, an easy process; the difficult thing is to add something to the ancestral inheritance. Evolutionists say that, if wrongdoing is easier than right-doing, it is because wrong-doing implies falling back on the more deeply implanted primitive instincts, and right-doing the exercise of more recently acquired and morally higher instincts. To be sensual merely requires a yielding to appetite; to be unjust, a compliance with some selfish motive; to be cruel, the indulgence of the instinct for destruction. Primitive man, wherever we find him, is sensual, unjust, and cruel; and the hoodlums and ruffians of our great towns show to-day the same characteristic. If, then, men have to struggle in order to be moral, in order to attain to "righteousness," it is because the higher moral attributes are of comparatively recent development, and not as yet as thoroughly worked into human nature as the primitive, self-regarding instincts. We are glad to have had this opportunity of discussing an important and interesting question; and we trust the "Journal of Commerce" may find frequent occasion in future to introduce similar philosophical themes to the notice of its readers.



There is a well-known saying of Lessing's, according to which the pursuit of truth is rated as of higher value, and more to be desired, than the truth itself. Sir Henry Roscoe quoted this sentiment in his recent inaugural address to the British Association; and the London "Spectator," in a thoughtful article—all the "Spectator's" articles, we may say in passing, are thoughtful—raises the question as to whether Lessing's "paradox," as it calls it, conveys as much truth as is commonly supposed. It points out that, in scientific matters generally, the truths discovered are of value to thousands who take no part, and are incapable of taking any part, in bringing them to light; and that, even in regard to moral questions, it is impossible to conceive of the pursuit of truth having any value apart from a strong conviction of the value of the result to be arrived at. If the result is not itself of value, or at least is not believed to be of value, then there is nothing ennobling in pursuing it. If, on the other hand, the result is of value, and so far lends significance and dignity to the pursuit, how can we say that the mere pursuit, cut off from all hope of an actual realization of the truth, is of more value than the truth itself? How, indeed, can we regard it as having any elevating effect whatever?

All that can be said in reply to this reasoning, so far as we can see, is that we should not demand from Lessing's paradox more than, as a paradox, it is able to render. The function of a paradox, as we conceive it, is to draw attention to some aspect of truth which is in danger of being overlooked, and to do this by piercing below the level at which our thought ordinarily rests. Thus, in regard to truth, it is natural to think only of results, and to regard as failure all that does not lead to results. Here Lessing steps in to tell us, and truly, in our opinion, that more valuable than the discovery of any particular truth is the tendency of the mind toward truth in general. Truth, when realized, increases the resources of the human mind, or, as we may say, the intellectual capital of the human race. It is like the dollar won by honest labor, and henceforth available for the production of further capital. But, if such is the character and such the value of realized truth, what shall we say of the effort, of the concentration of mind and purpose, that led to its discovery? We can surely say that the discipline thus gained is often of far greater value, at least to the individual, than the final result of his labors. Thus, also, the dollar gained may really be of far less account than the qualities developed in the gaining of it. Of course, it may sometimes be the case, on the other hand, that comparatively slight labor and thought—mere accident even—may sometimes result in the discovery of some truth of the highest importance; just as one might, with slight or no searching, light upon a source of unlimited material wealth. From this point of view we have to consider what human life would be if all our discoveries came to us in this way without effort, and without any need for the self-control and patient industry which the serious pursuit of truth now involves. In trying to form a conception of this we seem to escape from all bounds of law, and to find ourselves in a region where the stable landmarks of human existence have disappeared. Work is man's discipline on this earth; and, without that discipline, he would be a poor, wayward, worthless creature, if, indeed, we can conceive him as existing as an intellectual being at all.

Lessing's paradox, then, presents us with an impossible situation. The choice between truth and the pursuit of truth could not conceivably be offered to any one; nor could such a thing be as an ever-fruitless pursuit of truth; nor yet such a thing as a system of truth grasped by the human mind independently of all previous attempts toward its construction. The very sense that truth is truth comes from a perception of harmony between an attained result and a set of circumstances or phenomena of which it affords a desired explanation. Had the explanation never been desired and sought after, no interest or value could possibly attach to it. While, however, the situation that Lessing's words suggest is an impossible one, our attention is none the less roused by it to the fact that, not by outward results alone is the value of human effort to be gauged, but also, and perhaps mainly, by the inward growth of mind and character which is its accompaniment. We learn, also, that to be loyal to the truth is of more account than to be merely successful in formulating it: in a word, that the interests of the human spirit, or, perhaps more correctly, of the intellectual and moral consciousness, are supreme, and that the great flow of significance, so to speak, is from within the human consciousness to the outward conditions, and not from without inward.