Popular Science Monthly/Volume 33/September 1888/Antagonism
By Sir WILLIAM R. GROVE, F. R. S.
SOME months ago, shortly after I had resigned my office of Judge of the High Court, I was expressing to a friend my fear of the effect of having no compulsory occupation, when he said, by way of consolation, "Never mind, 'for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.'" You may possibly in the course of this evening think he was right. I have chosen a title for my lecture which may not fully convey to your minds the scope of the views which I am going to submit to you. I propose to adduce some arguments to show that "antagonism," a word generally used to signify something disagreeable, pervades all things; that it is not the baneful thing which many consider it; that it produces at least quite as much good as evil; but that, whatever be its effect, my theory—call it, if you will, speculation—is that it is a necessity of existence, and of the organism of the universe so far as we understand it; that motion and life can not go on without it; that it is not a mere casual adjunct of Nature, but that without it there would be no Nature, at all events as we conceive it; that it is inevitably associated with unorganized matter, with organized matter, and with sentient beings.
I am not aware that this view, in the breadth in which I suggest it, has been advanced before. Probably no idea is new in all respects in the present period of the world's history. It has been said by a desponding pessimist that "there is nothing new, and nothing true, and nothing signifies," but I do not entirely agree with him; I believe that in what I am about to submit there is something new and true in the point of view from which I regard the matter; whether it signifies or not is for you to judge. The universality of antagonism has not received the attention it seems to me to deserve from the fact of the element of force, or rather of the conquering force, being mainly attended to, and too little note taken of the element of resistance unless the latter vanquishes the force, and then it becomes, popularly speaking, the force, and the former force the resistance.
There are propositions applying more or less to what I am going to say of some antiquity. Heraclitus, quoted by Prof. Huxley, said, "War is the father and king of all things." Hobbes said war is the natural state of man, but his expressions have about them some little ambiguity. In Chapter I of the "De Corpore Politico," he says, "Irresistible might in a state of Nature is right," and "The estate of man in this natural liberty is war." Subsequently he says, "A man gives up his natural right, for when divers men having right not only to all things else, but to one another's persons, if they use the same there ariseth thereby invasion on the one part and resistance on the other, which is war, and therefore contrary to the law of Nature, the sum whereof consisteth in making peace." I can only explain this apparent inconsistency by supposing he meant "law of Nature" to be something different from "the natural estate of man," and that the making peace was the first effort at contract, or the beginning of law; but then why call it the "law of Nature," where he says might is right? There is, however, some obscurity in the passage. The Persian divinities, Ormuzd and Ahriman, were the supposed rulers or representatives of good and evil, always at war, and causing the continuous struggle between human beings animated respectively by these two principles. Undoubtedly good and evil are antagonistic, but antagonism, as I view it, is as necessary to good as to evil, as necessary to Ormuzd as to Ahriman. Zoroaster's religion of a divine being, one and indivisible, but with two sides, is, to my mind, a more philosophical conception. The views of Lamarck on the modification of organic beings by effort, and the establishment of the doctrine of Darwin as to the effects produced by the struggle for existence and domination, come much nearer to my subject. Darwin has shown how these struggles have modified the forms and habits of organized beings, and tended to increased differentiation, and Prof. Huxley and Herbert Spencer have powerfully promoted and expanded these doctrines. To the latter we owe the happy phrase, "survival of the fittest"; and Prof. Huxley has recently, in a paper in the "Nineteenth Century," anticipated some points I should have adverted to as to the social struggles for existence. To be anticipated, and by a very short period, is always trying, but it is more trying when what you intended to say has been said by your predecessor in more terse and appropriate language than you have at your command.
I propose to deal with "antagonism" inductively—i. e., with facts derived from observation alone—and not to meddle with spiritual matters or with consequences. Let us begin with what we know of the visible universe, viz., suns, planets, comets, meteorites, and their effects. These are all pulling at each other, and resisting that pull by the action of other forces. Any change in this pulling force produces a change, or, as it is called, perturbation, in the motion of the body pulled. The planet Neptune, as you know, was discovered by the effect of its pulling force on another planet, the latter being deflected from its normal course. When this pulling force is not counterbalanced by other forces, or when the objects pulled have not sufficient resisting power, they fall into each other. Thus, this earth is daily causing a bombardment of itself by drawing smaller bodies—meteorites—to it; twenty millions of which, visible to the naked eye, fall on an average into our atmosphere in each twenty-four hours, and of those visible through the telescope, four hundred millions are computed to fall within the same period. Mr. Lockyer has recently given reasons for supposing the luminosity of nebulae, or of many of them, is due to collisions or friction among the meteorites which go to form them; but his paper on the subject is not yet published.
What is commonly called centrifugal force does not come from nothing; it depends upon the law that a body falling by the influence of attraction, not upon, but near to, the attracting body, whirls round the latter, describing one of the curves known as conic sections. Hence, a meteorite may become a planet or satellite (one was supposed to have become so to this earth, but I believe the observations have not been verified); or it may go off in a parabola as comets do; or, again, this centrifugal force may be generated by the gradual accretion of nebulous matter into solid masses falling near to, or being thrown off from, the central nucleus, the two forces, centrifugal and centripetal, being antagonistic to each other, and the relative movements being continuous, but probably not perpetual. Our solar system is also kept in its place by the antagonism of the surrounding bodies of the cosmos pulling at us. Suppose half of the stars we see—i. e., all on one side of a meridian line—were removed, what would become of our solar system? It would drift away to the side where attraction still existed, and there would be a wreck of matter and a crash of worlds. It is very little known that Shakespeare was acquainted with this pulling force. He says, by the mouth of Cressida—
"But the strong base and building of my love
Is as the very center of the earth
Drawing all things to it"—
a very accurate description of the law of gravitation, so far as this earth is concerned, and written nearly a century before Newton's time.
But in all probability the collisions of meteorites with the earth and other suns and planets are not the only collisions in space. I know of no better theory to account for the phenomena of temporary stars, such as that which appeared in 1866, than that they result from the collision of non-luminous stars, or stars previously invisible to us. That star burst suddenly into light, and then the luminosity gradually faded, the star became more and more dim, and ultimately disappeared. The spectrum of it showed that the light was compound, and had probably emanated from two different sources. It was probably of a very high temperature. If this theory of temporary stars be admitted, we get a nebula of vapor or star-dust again, and so may get fresh instances of the nebular hypothesis.
Let us now take the earth itself. It varies in temperature, and consequently the particles at or near its surface are in continuous movement, rubbing against each other, being oxidized or deoxidized, either immediately or through the medium of vegetation. This also is continuously tearing up its surface and changing its character. Evaporation and condensation, producing rain, hail, and storms, notably change it. Force and resistance are constantly at play. The sea erodes rocks and rubs them into sand. The sea quits them and leaves traces of its former presence by the fossil marine shells found now at high altitudes. Rocks crumble down and break other rocks, or are broken by them; avalanches are not uncommon. The interior of the earth seems to be in a perpetual state of commotion, though only recurrent to our observation. Earthquakes in various places from time to time, and, doubtless, many beneath the sea of which we are not cognizant, nor of other gradual upheavals and depressions. Throughout it nothing that we know of is at rest, and nothing can move without changing the position of something else, and this is antagonism. Metals rust at its surface, and probably they or their oxides, chlorides, etc., are in a continuous state of change in the interior. Nothing that we know of is stationary. The earth as a whole seems so at first sight, but its surface is moving at the rate of some seventeen miles a minute at the equator; and standing at either of the poles—an experiment which no one has yet had an opportunity of trying—a man would be turned round his own axis once in every twenty-four hours, while the earth's motion round the sun carries us through space more than a million and a half of miles a day. The above changes produce motion in other things. The earth pulls the sun and planets, and in different degrees at different portions of its orbit.
Before I pass from inorganic to organized matter, I had better deal with what may perhaps strike you as the most difficult part of my subject, viz., light. Where, you may say, is there antagonism in the case of light? Light exercises its force upon such minute portions of matter that until the period of the discovery of photography its physical and chemical effects were almost unknown. Such effects as bleaching, uniting some gases, and affecting the coloring-matter of vegetables, were partly known but little attended to; but photography created a new era: I shall advert to this presently. The theories of light, however, involved matter and motion. The corpuscular theory, as you well know, supposed that excessively small particles were emitted from luminous bodies, and traveled with enormous velocity. The undulatory theory, which supplanted it, supposed that luminous bodies caused undulations or vibrations in a highly tenuous matter called ether, which is supposed to exist throughout the interplanetary spaces and throughout the universe so far as we know it. Some suppose this ether to be of a specific character, differing from that of ordinary gases, others that it is in the nature of a highly attenuated gas; but, whatever it be, it can not be affected by undulations or vibrations without being moved, and when matter is moved by any force it must offer resistance to that force, and hence we get antagonism between force and resistance. Light also takes time in overcoming this resistance, i. e., in pushing aside the ether. It travels no doubt at a good pace—about one hundred and ninety thousand miles in a second; but even at this rate, and without being particular as to a few millions of miles, it takes three years and a quarter to reach us from the star which, so far as we know, is the nearest to us, viz., α Centauri. The ether, or whatever it may be called, tenuous as it is, is not unimportant, though it be not heavy. Without it we should have no light and possibly no heat, and the consequences of its absence would be rather formidable. I believe you have heard Dr. Tyndall on this subject. Supposing the visible universe to be as it is now supposed to be, i. e., in no part a mere vacuum, there can be no force without resistance in any part of it.
But photography carries us further, it shows us that light acts on matter chemically, that it is capable of decomposing or forcing asunder the constituents of chemical compounds, and is therefore a force met by resistance. In the year 1856 I made some experiments, published in the "Philosophical Magazine" for January, 1857, which seemed to me to carry still further what I may call the molecular fight between light and chemical affinity, and among them the following: Letters cut out of paper are placed between two polished squares of glass with tin-foil on the outsides. It is then electrized like a Leyden jar, for a few seconds, the glasses separated, the letters blown off, and the inside of one of the glasses covered with photographic collodion. This is then exposed to diffuse daylight, and on being immersed in the nitrate of silver bath the part which had been covered with the paper comes out dark, the remainder of the plate being unaffected. (This result was shown by the electric-light lantern.) In this case we see that another imponderable force, electricity, invisibly affects the surface of glass in such a way that it conveys to another substance of definite thickness, viz., the prepared collodion, a change in the chemical relations of the substance (iodide of silver) pervading it, enabling it to resist that decomposition by light which, but for some unseen modification of the surface of the glass plate, it would have undergone; and no doubt the force of light, being unable to effect its object, was reflected or dispersed, and instead of changing its mode of motion in effecting chemical decomposition, it goes off on other business. The visible effect is in the collodion film alone. I have stripped that off, and the imprint remains on it, the surface of the glass being, so far as I could ascertain, unaffected. Thus, in the film over the protected part, light conquers chemical affinity; in that over the non-protected part, chemical affinity resists and conquers light, which has to make an ignominious retreat. It is a curious chapter in the history of the struggles of molecular forces, and probably similar contests between light and chemical or physical attractions go on in many natural phenomena, some forms of blight and some healthy vegetable changes being probably dependent on the varying effects of light and conditions, electrical or otherwise, of the atmosphere.
Let us now pass on to organic life. A blade of grass, as Burke, I believe, said as a figure of speech, is fighting with its neighbors. It is robbing them, and they are trying to rob it—no agreement or contract, simply force opposed to force. This struggle is good for the grass; if it got too much nutriment it would become diseased. The struggle keeps it in health. The rising of sap in trees, the assimilation of carbon, the process of growth, the strengthening themselves to resist prevalent winds, and many other instances might be given, which afford examples of the internal and external struggles in vegetable life.
I will now proceed to consider animal life, and in this case I will begin with the internal life of animals, which is a continual struggle. That great pump, the heart, is continuously beating—that is, conquering resistance. It is forcing the blood through the arteries, they assisting in squeezing it onward. If they give way, the animal dies; if they become rigid and resist too much, the animal dies. There must be a regulated antagonism, a rhythmical pulsation, the very term involving force and resistance. That the act of breathing is antagonistic scarcely needs argument. The muscular action by which the ribs are made to open out and close alternately, in order to inhale and exhale air, and other physiological changes which I can not here go into, necessitate a continuous fight for life. So with digestion, assimilation, and other functions, mechanical and chemical forces and resistances come into play. Since this lecture was written, I have heard of a discovery made, I am informed, by Prof. Metschnikoff, and which has brought to light a singular instance of internal antagonism. He is said to have proved that the white corpuscles of the blood are permanent enemies of bacteria, and by inoculation will absorb poisonous germs; a recurrent war, as it appears, going on between them. If the corpuscle is the conqueror, the bacteria are swallowed up and the patient lives. If the corpuscles are vanquished, the patient dies and the bacteria live, at all events for a time. If the theory is founded, it affords a strong additional argument to the doctrine of internal antagonism. Possibly, if there were no bacteria, and the corpuscles had nothing to do, it would be worse for them and the animal whom they serve.
Let us now consider the external life of animals. I will take as an instance, for a reason which you will soon see, the life of a wild rabbit. It is throughout its life, except when asleep (of which more presently), using exertion, cropping grass, at war with vegetables, etc. If it gets a luxurious pasture, it dies of repletion. If it gets too little, it dies of inanition. To keep itself healthy it must exert itself for its food; this, and perhaps the avoiding its enemies, gives it exercise and care, brings all its organs into use, and thus it acquires its most perfect form of life. I have witnessed this effect myself, and that is the reason why I choose the rabbit as an example. An estate in Somersetshire, which I once took temporarily, was on the slope of the Mendip Hills. The rabbits on one part of it, viz., that on the hill-side, were in perfect condition, not too fat nor too thin, sleek, active, and vigorous, and yielding to their antagonists, myself and family, excellent food. Those in the valley, where the pasturage was rich and luxuriant, were all diseased, most of them unfit for human food, and many lying dead on the fields. They had not to struggle for life, their short life was miserable, and their death early; they wanted the sweet uses of adversity—that is, of antagonism. The same story may be told of other animals. Carnivora, beasts or birds of prey, live on weaker animals; weaker animals herd together to resist, or, by better chance of warning, to escape, beasts of prey; while they, the herbivora, in their turn are destroying vegetable organisms.
I now come to the most delicate part of my subject, viz., man (I include women, of course!). Is man exempt from this continual struggle? It is needless to say that war is antagonism. Is not peace so also, though in a different form? It is a commonplace remark to say that the idle man is worn out by ennui, i. e., by internal antagonism. Kingsley's "Do-as-you-like" race—who were fed by a substance dropping from trees, who did no work, and who gradually degenerated until they became inferior to apes, and ultimately died out from having nothing to do, nothing to struggle with—is a caricature illustrative of the matter. That the worry of competition is nearly equivalent to the hardships and perils of military life seems proved to me by the readiness with which military life is voluntarily undertaken, ill as it is paid. If it were well paid, half our men would be in the military or naval service, and I am not sure that we should not have regiments of Amazons! The increased risk of life or limbs and the arduous nature of the work do not prevent men belonging to all classes from entering these services, little remunerative as they are. Others take the risks of traveling in the deserts of Africa or wintering in the polar regions, of being eaten by lions or frozen to death, of falling from a Swiss mountain or foundering in a yacht, in preference to a life of tranquillity; and sportsmen elect the danger of endeavoring to kill an animal that can and may kill them, to shooting tame pheasants at a battue or partridges in a turnip-field. Then, in what is euphemistically called a life of peace, buyer and seller, master and servant, landlord and tenant, debtor and creditor, are all in a state of simmering antagonism; and the inventions and so-called improvements of applied science and art do not lessen it. Exercise is antagonism; at each step force is used to lift up our bodies and push back the earth; as the eminent Joseph Montgolfier said, that when he saw a company dancing, he mentally inverted his view and imagined the earth dancing on the dancers' feet, which it most unquestionably did. Indeed, his great invention of balloons was guessed at by his witnessing a mild form of antagonism between heat and gravitation. He, being a dutiful husband, was airing his wife's dresses, who was going to a ball. He observed the hot air from the fire inflated the light materials, which rose up in a sort of spheroidal form (you may have some of you noticed this form in dress!). This gave him the idea of the fire-balloon, which, being a large paper-maker at Annonay, he forthwith experimented on, and hence we got aërial navigation. This anecdote was told me by his nephew M. Seguin, also an eminent man. Even what we call a natural death is a greater struggle than that which other animals go through, and is, in fact, the most artificial of all deaths. The lower animals, practically speaking, do experience a natural death, i. e., a violent or unforeseen death. As soon as their powers decline to such an extent that they can not take part in the struggle for existence, they die or are killed, generally quickly, and their sufferings are not protracted by the artificial tortures arising from the endeavors to prolong life.
Let us now pass from individuals to communities. Is there less antagonism now than of yore? Do the nations of Europe now form a happy family? Are+ the armaments of Continental nations, or is the navy of this country, less than in former years? The very expression "the great powers" involves antagonism. As with wars and revolutions, so, as I have said, with regard to individuals, during our so-called peace, the fight is continuous among communities. If the water does not boil, it simmers. Not merely are there the struggles of poor against rich going on, but the battles for position and pre-eminence are constant. The subjugated party or sect seeks first for toleration, then for equalization, and then for domination. We call contentment a virtue, but we inculcate discontent. A father reproaches his son for not exerting himself to improve his position, and at school and college and in subsequent periods of life efforts at advancement in the social scale are recommended. Individual antagonisms, class antagonisms, political, trading, and religious antagonisms take the place of war. Can war exhibit a more vigorous and persistent antagonism than competition does? Take the college student with ruined health; take the bankrupt tradesman with ruined family; take the aspirants to fashion turning night into day, and preferring gas or electric light to that of the sun. But our very amusements are of a combative character: chess, whist, billiards, racing, cricket, foot-ball, etc. And in all these we, in common parlance, speak of beating our opponent. Even dancing is probably a relic and reminiscence of war, and some of its forms are of a military character. I can call to mind only one game which is not combative, and that is the game you are in some sort now playing, viz., "patience," and with, I fear, some degree of internal antagonism!
Take, again, the ordinary incidents of a day's life in London. Fifteen to twenty thousand cabs, omnibuses, vans, private carriages, etc., all struggling, the horses pushing the earth back and themselves forward, the pedestrians doing the same, but the horses compulsorily—they have not as yet got votes. The occupants of the cabs, vans, etc., are supposed to act from free will, but in the majority of cases they are as much driven as the horses. Insolvents trying to renew bills, rich men trying to save what they have got by saving half an hour of time. Imagine, if you can, the friction of all this, and add the bargaining in shops, the mental efforts in counting-houses, banks, etc., and road-repair, now a permanent and continuous institution. Take our railways: similar efforts and resistances. Drivers, signal-men, porters, etc., and the force emanating from the sun millions of years ago, and locked up in the coal-fields, as Stephenson suggested, now employed to overcome the inertia of trains and to make them push the earth in this or that direction, and themselves along its surface. Take the daily struggles in commerce, law, professions, and legislation, and sometimes even in science and literature. Politics I can not enter upon here, but must leave you to judge whether there is not some degree of antagonism in this pursuit. In all this there is plenty of useful antagonism, plenty of useless—much to please Ormuzd and much to delight Ahriman; but of the two extremes, overwork or stagnation, the latter would, I think, do Ahriman's work more efficiently than the former. We cry peace when there is no peace. would the world, however, be better if it were otherwise? Is the Nirvana a pleasing prospect? Sleep, though not without its troubles and internal antagonism, is our nearest approach to it, but we should hardly wish to be always asleep.
Shakespeare not only knew something about gravitation, but he also knew something about antagonism. He says, by the mouth of Agamemnon:
"Sith every action that bath gone before
Whereof we have record, trial did draw
Bias and thwart, not answering the aim,
And that unbodied figure of the thought
That gav't surmised shape."
In no case is the friction of life shown more than in the performance of "duty," i. e., an act of self-resistance, a word very commonly used: but the realization of it is by no means so frequent. Indeed, faith in its performance so yields to skepticism that it is said that, when a man talks of doing his duty, he is meditating some knavish trick.
The words good and evil are correlative: they are like height and depth, parent and offspring. You can not, as far as I can see, conceive the existence of the one without involving the conception of the other. In their common acceptation they represent the antagonism between what is agreeable or beneficial and what is painful or injurious. An old anecdote will give us the notion of good and evil in a slenderly educated mind. A missionary having considered that he had successfully inculcated good principles in the mind of a previously untutored savage, produced him for exhibition before a select audience, and began his catechism by asking him the nature of good and evil. "Evil," the pupil answered, "is when other man takes my wife." "Right," said the missionary, "now give me an example of good." The answer was, "Good is when me takes other man's wife." The answer was not exactly what was expected, but was not far in disaccord with modern views among ourselves and other so-called civilized races. I don't mean as to running away with other men's wives! But we still view good and evil very much as affecting our own interests. At the commencement of a war each of the opposing parties view victory—i. e., the destruction of their enemies—as good, and being vanquished as evil. Congregations pray for this. Statesmen invoke the god of battles. Those among you who are old enough will call to mind the Crimean War. Each combatant nation gives thanks for the destruction of the enemy, each side possibly believing that they respectively are in the right, but in reality not troubling themselves much about that minor question. We ( unconsciously perhaps) "compound for sins we are inclined to by damning those we have no mind to." So in the daily life of what is called peace. The stage-coach proprietor rejoiced when he had driven his rival off the road, railway directors and shareholders now do the same, so do publicans, shopkeepers, and other rivals. We are still permeated by the old notion of good and evil. But "antagonism," as I view it, not only comprehends the relation of good and evil, but, as I have said, produces both, and is as necessary to good as to evil. Without it there would be neither good nor evil. Judging of the lives of our progenitors from what we see of the present races of men of less cerebral development, we may characterize them as having been more impulsive than ourselves, and as having their joys and sorrows more quickly alternated. After the hunt for food, accompanied by privation and suffering, comes the feast to gorging. Their main evil was starvation, their good repletion. Even now the Esquimau watches a seal-hole in the bitter cold for hours and days, and his compensation is the spearing and eating the seal. The good is resultant upon and in the long run I suppose equivalent to the evil. These men look not back into the past, and forward into the future, as we do. We, by extending our thought over a wider area, are led to more continuing sacrifices, and aim at more lasting enjoyment in the result. The child suffers at school in order that his future life may be more prosperous. The man spends the best part of his life in arduous toil, physical or mental, in order that he may not want in his later years, or that his family may reap the benefit of his labor. Further-seeing men spend their whole lives on work little remunerative that succeeding generations may be benefited. The prudent man transmits health and wealth to his descendants, the improvident man poverty or gout. One main element of what we call civilization is the capability of looking further back into the past, and further forward into the future; but, though measured on a different scale, the average antagonism and approximate equivalence appear to me to be the same.
Can we suppose a state of things either in the inorganic or the organic world which, consistently with our experience or any deduction drawn from it, would be without antagonism. In the inorganic world it would be the absence of all movement, or, what practically amounts to the same thing, movement of everything in the same direction, and the same relative velocity; for, as movement is only known to us by relation, movement where nothing is stationary or moving in a different direction, or with a different velocity, would be unrecognizable. So in the organic but nonsentient world, if there were no struggle, no absorption of food, no growth, nothing to overcome, there would be nothing to call life. If, again, in the sentient world there were no appetites, no hopes —for both these involve discontent—no fear, no good or bad, what would life be? If fully carried out, is not a life without antagonism no life at all, a barren metaphysical conception of existence, or rather alleged conception, for we can not present to the mind the form of such conception? In the most ordinary actions, such as are necessary to sustain existence, we find, as I have already pointed out, a struggle more or less intense, but we also find a reciprocal interdependence of effort and result. The graminivorous animal is, during his waking hours, always at work, always making a small but continuous effort, selecting his pastures, cropping vegetables, avoiding enemies, etc. The carnivora suffer more in their normal existence; their hunger is greater, and their physical exertion, when they are driven by hunger to make efforts to obtain food, is more violent than with the herbivora if they capture their prey by speed or battle, or their mental efforts are greater if they capture it by craft. But then their gratification is also more intense, and thus there is a sort of rough equation between their pain and their pleasure: the more sustained the labor, the more permanent is the gratification. As with food or exercise, deficiency is as injurious in one as is excess in another direction; so, as affecting the mind of communities, as I have stated it to be with individuals, the effect of a life of ease and too much repose is as much to be avoided as a life of unremitting toil. The Pitcairn-Islanders, who managed in some way to adapt their wants to their supply and to avoid undue increase of population, are said never to have reached old age. In consequence of the uneventful, unexcited lives they led, they died of inaction, not from deficiency of food or shelter, but of excitement. They should have migrated to England! They died as hares do when their ears are stuffed with cotton, i. e., from want of anxiety. We have hope in our suffering, and in the mid-gush of our pleasures something bitter surges up:
"We look before and after, and pine for what is not,
Our sincerest laughter with some pain is fraught.
Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought."
The question may possibly occur to you, Have we more or less antagonism now than in former times? We certainly have more complexity, more differentiation, in our mental characteristics, and probably in our physical, so far as the structure of the brain is concerned; but is there less antagonism? With greater complexity come increased wants, more continuous cares. Higher cerebral development is accompanied with greater nervous irritability, with greater social intricacies—we have more frequent petty annoyances, and they affect us more. With all our so-called social improvements, is there not the same struggle between crime and its repression? If we have no longer highway robberies, how many more cases of fraud exist, most of it not touched by our criminal laws! As to litigation, I am perhaps not an impartial judge, but it seems to me that, if law were as cheap as it is desired, every next-door neighbor would be in litigation. It would seem as if social order had never more than the turn of the scale which is necessary to social existence in its favor when contrasted with the disorganizing forces. Without that there would be perpetual insurrections and anarchy. But though antagonism takes a different form, it is still there. Are wars more regulated by justice than of yore? I venture to doubt it, though probably many may disagree with me. National self-interest or self-aggrandizement is, I think, the predominant factor, and is frequently admittedly so. I also doubt if the old maxim, "If you wish for peace, prepare for war," is of much value. Large armaments and improvements in the means of destruction (whose inventors are more thought of than the discoverers of natural truths) are as frequently the cause of war as of its prevention. Are wars less sanguinary with 100 ton guns than with bows and arrows? I can not enter into statistics on this subject, but a sensible writer who has, viz., Mr. Finlaison, came to the conclusion that wars cease now as anciently, not in the ratio of the improvements in killing implements, but from exhaustion of men or means. Wars undoubtedly occur at more distant intervals, or the human race would become extinct. Probably the largely increased competition supplies their place: we fight commercially more and militarily less. It is a sad reflection that man is almost the only animal that fights, not for food or means of life or of perpetuating its race, but from motives of the merest vanity, ambition, or passion. War is, however, not wholly evil. It develops noble qualities—courage, endurance, self-sacrifice, friendship, etc.—and tends to get rid of the silly incumbrances of fashion and ostentation. But do the much-bepraised inventions of peace bring less antagonism? Consider the enormous labor and waste of time due to competition in the advertising system alone. Paper-making, type-founding, printing, pasting, posting or otherwise circulating, sandwich-men, etc., all at work for purposes which I venture to think are in great part useless; and those who might add to the productiveness of the earth, or to the enriching our knowledge, are helping to extend the limits of the black country, and wasting their time in interested self-laudation. And the consumer pays the costs. "Buy my clothing, which will never wear out." "Become a shareholder in our company, which will pay cent per cent." "Take my pills, which will cure all diseases," etc. These eulogies come from those highly impartial persons the advertisers, all promising golden rewards, but, as with the alchemists, on condition that gold be paid in advance for their wares; and the silly portion of the public, no small body, take them at their word. Though you may not fully agree in this my anathema of the advertising system, and though there may be some small modicum of good in it, I think you will agree that it affords a notable illustration of antagonism. If I were a younger man, I think I should go to Kamchatka to avoid the penny post; possibly I should not be satisfied when I got there. Civilization begins by supplying wants, and ends by creating them; and each supply for the newly created want begets other wants, and so on, "toties quoties."
As far as we can judge by its present progress, mankind seems tending to an automatic state. The requirements of each day are becoming so numerous as to occupy the greater portion of that day; and when telegrams, telephones, electro-motion, and numerous other innovations which will probably follow these, reach their full development, no time will be left for thought, repose, or any spontaneous individual action. In this mechanical state of existence, in times of peace, extremes of joy and sorrow, of good and evil, will become more rare, and the necessary uniformity of life will reduce passion and feeling to a continuous petty friction. The converse of the existence contemplated by the Stoics will be attained, and, instead of a life of calm contemplation, our successors will have a life of objectless activity. The end will be swallowed up in the means. It will be all pursuit and no attainment. Is there a, juste milieu, a point at which the superfluous commoda vitæ will cease? None probably would agree at where that point should be fixed, and the future alone can show whether the human race will emancipate itself from being, like Frankenstein, the slave of the monster it has created. In the cases I have given as illustrations—and many more might be adduced—the evil resulting from apparently beneficial changes is not a mere accident: it is as necessary a consequence as reaction is a consequence of action. In the struggle for existence or supremacy, inevitable in all social growths, the invention, enactment, etc., intended to remedy an assumed evil, will be taken advantage of by those for whom it is not intended; the real grievance will be exaggerated by those having an interest in trading on it, and the remedy itself will have collateral results not contemplated by those who introduce the change. I could give many instances of this by my own experience as an advocate and judge, but this would lead me away from my subject. Evils, indeed, result from the very change of habit induced by the alleged improvement. The carriage which saves fatigue induces listlessness, and tends to prevent healthy exercise. The knife and fork save the labor of mastication, but by their use there is not the same stimulus to the salivary glands, not the full healthy amount of secretion, whereby digestion suffers; there is not the same exercise of the teeth whereby they are strengthened and uniformly worn, as we see in ancient skulls. It seems not improbable that their premature decay in civilized nations is due to the want of their normal exercise by the substitution of the knife and fork and stew-pan. According to the evolution theory, our organs have grown into what they are, or ought to be, by long use, and the remission of this tends to irregular development, or atrophy. Every artificial appliance renders nugatory some pre-existing mode of action, either voluntary or involuntary; and as the parts of the whole organism have become correlated, each part being modified by the functions and actions of the others, every part suffers more or less when the mode of action of any one part is changed. So with the social structure, the same correlation of its constituent parts is a necessary consequence of its growth, and the change of one part affects the well-being of other parts. All change, to be healthy, must be extremely slow, the defect struggling with the remedy through countless but infinitesimally minute gradations.
Lastly, do the forms of government give us any firm ground to rest upon as to there being less undue antagonism in one than in another form? Whether it is better to run a risk of, say, one chance in a thousand or more of being decapitated unjustly by a despot, or to have what one may eat or drink, or whom one may marry, decided by a majority of parish voters, is a question on which opinions may differ, but there is abundant antagonism in either case. Communism, the dream of enthusiasts, offers little prospect of ease. It involves an unstable equilibrium, i. e., it consists of a chain of connection where a defect in one link can destroy the working of the whole system, and why the executive in that system should be more perfect than in others I never have been able to see. Antagonism, on the other hand, tends to stability. Each man working for his own interests helps to supply the wants of others, thus ministering to public convenience and order, and if one or more fail the general weal is not imperiled.
You may ask. Why this universal antagonism? My answer is, I don't know; science deals only with the how, not with the why. Why does matter gravitate to other matter with a force inversely as the square of the distance? Why does oxygen unite with hydrogen? All that I can say is, that antagonism is to my mind universal, and will, I believe, some day be considered as much a law as the law of gravitation. If matter is, as we believe, everywhere, even in the interplanetary spaces, and if it attracts and moves other matter, which it apparently must do, there must be friction or antagonism of some kind. So with organized beings, Nature only recognizes the right, or rather the power, of the strongest. If twenty men be wrecked on a secluded island which will only support ten, which ten have a right to the produce of the island? Nature gives no voice, and the strongest take it. You may further ask me, Cui bono? what is the use of this disquisition? I should answer. If the views be true, it is always useful to know the truth. The greatest discoveries have appeared useless at the time. Kepler's discovery of the relations of the planetary movements appeared of no use at the time; no one would now pronounce it useless. I can, however, see much probable utility in the doctrine I have advocated. The conviction of the necessity of antagonism, and that without it there would be no light, heat, electricity, or life, may teach us (assuming free will) to measure effort by the probable result and to estimate the degree of probability. It may teach us not to waste our powers on fruitless objects, but to utilize and regulate this necessity of existence; for, if my views are correct, too much or too little is bad, and a due proportion is good (like many other useful things, it is best in moderation), to accept it rather as a boon than a bane, and to know that we can not do good without effort—that is, without some suffering.
I have spoken of antagonism as pervading the universe. Is there, you may ask, any limit in point of time or space to force? If there be sothere must be a limit to antagonism. It is said that heat tends to dissipate itself, and all things necessarily to acquire a uniform temperature. This would in time tend practically, though not absolutely, to the annihilation of force and to universal death; but if there be evidence of this in our solar system and what we know of some parts of the universe, which probably is but little, is there no conceivable means of reaction or regeneration of active heat? There is some evidence of a probable zero of temperature for gases as we know them, i. e., a temperature so low that at it matter could not exist in a gaseous form; but passing over gases and liquids, if matter becomes solid by loss of heat, such solid matter would coalesce, masses would be formed, these would gravitate to each other and come into collision. It would be the nebular hypothesis over again. Condensation and collisions would again generate heat; and so on ad infinitum.
Collisions in the visible universe are probably more frequent than is usually supposed. New nebulæ appear where there were none before, as recently in the constellation of Andromeda. Mr. Lockyer, as I have said, considers that they are constant in the nebulae; and if there be such a number of meteorites as are stated to fall daily into the atmosphere of this insignificant planet, what numbers must there be in the universe? There must be a sort of fog of meteorites, and this may account, coupled with possibly some dissipation of light or change of it into other forces, for the smaller degree of light than would be expected if the universe of stellar bodies were infinite. For if so, and the stars are assumed to be of an equal average brightness, then if no loss or obstruction, as light decreases as the square of the distance and stars increase in the same ratio, the night would be as brightly illuminated as the day. We are told that there are stars of different ages—nascent, adolescent, mature, decaying, and dying; and when some of them, like nations at war, are broken up by collision into fragments or resolved into vapor, the particles fight as individuals do, and, like them, end by coalescing and forming new suns and planets. As the comparatively few people who die in London to-night do not affect us here, so in the visible universe one sun or planet in a billion or more may die every century and not be missed, while another is being slowly born out of a nebula. Thus worlds may be regenerated by antagonism without having for the time more effect upon the Cosmos than the people now dying in London have upon us. I do not venture to say that these collisions are in themselves sufficient to renew solar life; time may give us more information. There may be other modes of regeneration or renewed activity of the dissipated force, and some of a molecular character. The conversion of heat into atomic force has been suggested by Mr. Crookes. I give no opinion on that, but I humbly venture to doubt the mortality of the universe.
Again, is the universe limited? and if so, by what? Not, I presume, by a stone wall! or, if so, where does the wall end? Is space limited, and how? If space be unlimited and the universe of suns, planets, etc., limited, then the visible universe becomes a luminous speck in an infinity of dark, vacuous space, and the gases, or at all events the so-called ether, unless limited in elasticity, would expand into this vacuum—a limited quantity of ether into an infinite vacuum! If the universe of matter be unlimited in space, then the cooling down may be unlimited in time. But these are perhaps fruitless speculations. We can not comprehend infinity, neither can we conceive a limitation to it. I must once more quote Shakespeare, and say in his words, "It is past the infinite of thought." But whatever be the case with some stars and planets, I can not bring myself to believe in a dead universe surrounded by a dark ocean of frozen ether. Most of you have read "Wonderland," and may recollect that after the Duchess has uttered some ponderous and enigmatical apothegms, Alice says, "Oh!" "Ah," says the Duchess, "I could say a good deal more if I chose." So could I; but my relentless antagonist opposite (the clock) warns me, and I will only add one more word, which you will be glad to hear, and that word is—Finis.—Nature.
- Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, on April 20, 1888.