Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/The Wastes of Modern Civilization II


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THE use of certain remedial drugs is apt to become a confirmed habit, which often continues to afflict the patient for years after his apparent recovery from the effects of the original disease. The medication of desperate moral disorders has now and then entailed a similar penalty. During the millennium of mediæval superstition, when the enforcement of antinatural dogmas had made common sense a capital crime and secular science an article of contraband, the study of classic literature became for thousands a refuge from the peril of madness. From the tyranny of the monkish Inquisition thousands of persecuted thinkers could still escape to the haunts of Plato and Virgil, as, in spite of chains and guards, a Siberian exile may in dreams return to the lost paradise of freedom. Knowledge, too, could still be delved from the treasure-mine of pagan philosophy, and for nearly a thousand years the study of dead languages became thus a chief condition of intellectual survival.

Intellectual progress had been almost completely arrested. Like a monstrous dam, the barrier of an unnatural dogma obstructed the currents of civilization; all through priest-ridden Europe the rivers of national life had been collected into a vast theological mill-pond, and only from the heights of a classical education, from turrets accessible only by steep and tortuous stairs, philosophers could, in retrospect, study the phenomena of life under less abnormal conditions, and naturally made the attic of that edifice the repository of their own choicest thought.

Then came the great dam-burst of the Protestant revolt. The rills of the first breach soon became uncontrollable torrents, and the flood of the accumulated waters rushed onward with an impetus which, in the rapid progress of science and reform, promised to compensate the stagnation of a thousand years. Thus far, however, the speed of that progress has been sadly retarded by the very means which once constituted its only hope of revival. Instead of navigating the river of the new era in manageable boats, scholars persisted in clinging to the wreck of their classic observatory, to a cumbersome raft of old beams and planks which got stranded at every turn of the stream, and often became a serious obstacle in the channels of reform. The experience of the last three hundred years has as yet failed to disassociate the ideas of Latin and Greek from the scholastic notions of culture, and the time may come when practical educators will almost fail to realize the possibility of the fact that, in our own rapid age of discovery and invention, millions of our most gifted students had to waste from one-third to three-fifths of their time on the study of dead languages. Witness the following curriculum of the German Gymnasia, or high schools—the preparatory colleges of the best European universities, and the gates to every highway of liberal education:

Latin, ten hours per week; Greek, eight hours; Hebrew, three hours; German, four hours; mathematics, four hours; geography, two; history, two; drawing, two; French, two; physiology, two; religion, optional; English, optional (occasionally taught instead of French); gymnastics, four hours. In other words, twenty-one hours of graveyard studies to eighteen hours of all living sciences taken together, since gymnastics has ceased under certain circumstances to be a compulsory branch of education.

Those twenty-one hours devoted to the dead leave not a minute's time for the study of such problems of life as biology and rational hygiene; not a minute for anatomy, political economy, philosophy, rhetoric, or non-sectarian ethics. Such things, of course, are taught by the regular or special professors of the university; but a large percentage of students pass directly from the primer-class of the gymnasium to the duties of practical life, and in ninety-nine of a hundred cases may charge the long period given to the study of the ancient languages to the budget of total loss. Not one of a hundred non-philological students (graduates devoting themselves to the special study and the teaching of ancient languages) would ever dream of continuing his antiquarian pursuits or be able to look upon a Greek or Latin textbook without a shudder of disgust. It has been conclusively proved that all the etymological benefit derived from linguistic graveyards could be reaped in a single year by the study of root-words (most of them familiarized by their French and English derivatives). It has been demonstrated to the satisfaction of every impartial thinker that grammar-drill is not the superlative intellectual exercise vaunted in the arguments of its advocates, but, on the contrary, almost the worst of all possible systems of mental training—a dead-lift of memory, exercising the lower at the expense of the higher mental faculties. Nor is there a shadow of a doubt that in natural history, astronomy, geography, physiology, and mathematics, the achievements of Greece and Rome have been distanced as far as their own writers eclipsed the wiseacres of Scythia and Abyssinia. Yet the New World continues to emulate the Old in wooing the specters of the past, and thousands of American parents encumber the memory of their children with a mass of antiquarian rubbish that leaves no room for the culture of progressive science, too often not even for the adequate study of their own mother-tongue.

A cardinal tenet of mediæval ethics was the belief in the merit of mental prostitution—the duty of submitting to dogmas which their professors did not and could not believe, and which the exigencies of daily life obliged them practically to repudiate.

A logical consequence of that doctrine was the antagonism of theory and practice, which continues to involve an enormous waste in our method of moral education. A million pulpits still preach a gospel that inculcates the vanity of industrial pursuits. "Take no thought of the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." "Take no thought, saying. What shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewithal shall we be clothed? For after all these do the Gentiles seek." As a practical comment on the wisdom of those precepts, nations, cities, and corporations vie in the restless pursuit of wealth, and a thousand lessons of daily life admonish the young citizen of our industrial world to take earnest and constant thought of the morrow; nay, the mere attempt to disregard those lessons would be followed by the punishment of the shiftless vagrant.

Loss of health and wealth, loss of working capacity—in fact, every form of temporal affliction—the disciples of our moral exemplar are instructed to consider as proofs of divine favor. Yet the prevention of such favors is the legally encouraged purpose of dozens of fire and life insurance companies and mutual aid associations with their omnipresent agencies.

Our ethical text-books in the plainest terms teach the possibility of curing diseases by prayer and mystic ceremonies. "If any man is sick among you, let him call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." "And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up." "And when he had called unto him his twelve disciples, he gave them power against unclean spirits, to cast them out and to heal all manner of disease." Yet in at least forty-five of the fifty most civilized countries of Christendom the attempt to cure any serious disease on that plan would be followed by a prompt indictment for quackery.

The possibility of diabolical apparitions is implied in a countless number of passages which our traditional creed requires us to accept as infallible truth. Devils by scores and legions range the land of faith, tempting the virtuous, afflicting men and animals with strange diseases, or even taking permanent possession of a human body still tenanted by a conscious soul. The report of a five minutes' interview with the smallest of those imps would now expose the narrator to the risk of a lunacy inquest.

The worthlessness of earthly life is inculcated with a distinctness which seems intended as an encouragement to the indirect suicide of monastic asceticism; yet the same moralists who bewail this earth as a vale of tears take the liveliest interest in the prolongation of human life, and court popularity by indorsing every measure tending to promote the progress of sanitary reform.

The inevitable result of such inconsistencies is a moral confusion resembling the bewilderment of the guests invited to the banquet of Rueckert's Hakim Baba, who urged his visitors to indulge in wine, but thrashed them fearfully if they showed any signs of intoxication.

From the chaos of conflicting theoretical and practical lessons our children, by the aid of experience, somehow manage to evolve a moral compromise code of their own; but what a waste of time could be saved, how many hours of doubt, perplexity, and repentance could be obviated by a system of ethics inculcating precepts in harmony with the laws of nature and the facts of actual life!

Yet the injury caused by the theoretical survival of obsolete dogmas is far surpassed by the baneful results of the attempt to reestablish their authority by the aid of legal enforcements. Moral confusion in that case takes the more serious form of a moral revolt which strikes at the very root of social order by making injustice a synonym of law and order. The statesmen who constantly warn us against the danger of attempting social reforms by an appeal to "paternal legislation" have as yet failed to explain by what right they continue to employ that method for the perpetuation of social abuses. They decline to meddle with the affairs of their brother, for fear of sheltering him against "the natural penalties of his shiftlessness"; but they risk that interference by enforcing laws to deprive him of the natural rewards of his labor, especially if their own position enables them to evade the inconveniences of such laws. In other words, they denounce meddlesome help but connive at meddlesome injury. Their tender conscience shrinks from the injustice of confessing an arbitrary, unearned blessing, but consents to the injustice of inflicting an arbitrary, undeserved curse.

For what else is the tyranny of the laws by which, nine tenths of our fellow-citizens are robbed of their scant chance of recreation and obliged at the expense of their mental and physical health to toil like criminals, whose only alternative of labor is the dreary inactivity of their prison-cells—all in order to retain a conventional mark of deference to the joy-hating insanity of the middle ages—or, perhaps, to enhance by the charm of contrast the prerogatives of the privileged few, whose abundance of leisure days enables them to dispense with the blessing of a free Sunday?

It is true that the rigor of mediæval ethics has been modified in several important respects. The duty of abstaining from work and relying on prayer has been abrogated in favor of our taxpaying national industries. The duty of despising the danger of defilement by things that enter, the mouth has been generally remitted in favor of candidates for the temperance vote. The obligation of despising the vanities of secular science does not prevent the Rev. Tollemach-Tollemach from collecting his tithes by telephone; but the duty of renunciation, of submissive abstinence from worldly and physical enjoyments, is still enforced at the expense of every laborer whose financial circumstances preclude the luxury of extra-Sabbatarian leisure days.

In the course of the last twenty years several hundred appeals for the abrogation of our anachronistic blue laws have been calmly ignored as below the notice of legislators engaged in such important reforms as the dredging of Catfish Bayou, though it might be questioned if the total amount of misery entailed on our workingmen by the systematic suppression of public recreation has ever been surpassed by the results of the most inhuman alliance of mediæval bigotry and despotism. The Spanish Inquisition enforced its mandates regardless alike of fear and pity; but its victims were selected from a class forming, after all, only a small fraction of the total population—one scapegoat, perhaps, in a herd of ten thousand—while at least a hundred-fold proportion of our countrymen feel the galling yoke of the Sabbath despots. The Scotch ascetics of David Hume's time filled their churches by a system of penal statutes which made financial and social ruin almost the only alternative of conformity; but the Caledonian peasant who had passed a week among the flocks of his Highland home might easily endure a day of confinement in the man-pen of his kirk, while the bigots of our manufacturing communities enforce their asceticism upon men who need recreation and outdoor sports as they need food and sunlight, and whose numbers include thousands for whom the promise of a post-mortem Utopia has lost its compensating value.

A few Sundays ago I accompanied a friend on a stroll across a hill-pasture where a young goat-herd lay stretched out at full length under a tree still dripping from the showers of a recent thunder-storm.

"Hallo, Billy!" called out my companion. "What are you doing in that puddle of rain? Don't you know there is a law against bathing on Sunday?"

"That's a fact," laughed Billy. "If a stretch in the wet grass could do a fellow any good, I have no doubt there would be a law against it."

That reply exactly defines the popular verdict on a code of laws founded upon a system whose corner-stone is indeed the dogma that "whatever is natural is wrong." Sabbatarian despotism has succeeded in connecting the popular notion of a moralist with the idea of a kill-joy, and made religion a synonym of a system for the infliction of the greatest possible misery on the greatest possible number.

"Why, but is there not an offset in the leisure gained for the perusal of moral and instructive pamphlets?" asks the agent of the Free Tract Society.

Our pious friends can, indeed, not be accused of underrating the value of those tracts if they expect them to compensate the waste of opportunities for life-brightening recreations, the loss of good humor, the loss of patriotism, the loss of faith in the benefits of laws and creeds, the loss of content, and the often irretrievable loss of health and vital energy.