Popular Science Monthly/Volume 41/September 1892/Editor's Table
WHEN we look back over the history of this country since the close of the civil war we find, on the whole, ample cause for satisfaction and encouragement. Those who look for perfection in the working of political institutions are doomed to disappointment. Happy is the nation that, as the years and decades slip by, can count some solid gains for the cause of good government and national morality, even though many parts of the political machine may work faultily, and many evil tendencies manifest themselves from time to time. After the war, we entered upon a period of almost shameless political corruption, not only in national but in State and municipal affairs as well. To say that we have completely thrown off the disease of corruption would be, we fear, to say too much; but that a very considerable purification has been effected, especially in connection with the national Government, no one can doubt. Too many individuals throughout the community are indeed indifferent to this evil, and many are ready to make all kinds of apologies for it, as something that can not be dispensed with in connection with popular institutions; but in some way or other the nation, as a whole, has set its face against it, and the suspicion of being systematically corrupt—that is to say, of practicing, or being prepared to practice, corruption in the administration of the national Government would be fatal to either political party.
Twenty years ago the "spoils system" was in full force. Every office under the Government was virtually used for purposes of bribery. It was bestowed in the first place as a reward for fidelity to party, and the salary attached to it was afterward assessed for contributions to the party funds. The sense of decency of the people has risen up in revolt against this abomination, and, though the principles of civil-service reform have not yet been carried far enough, the great body of the national civil service has been placed on an independent and honorable footing. No party manager can now fry the meager "fat" out of the smaller office-holders for political purposes; the only persons to whom that process can at present be applied are the higher functionaries and the protected manufacturers. The result of this partial yet extensive reform of the civil service has been a considerable increase in the efficiency of the public departments. The public interest is now kept in view where formerly there was little thought of anything save how to make an office temporarily held of as much advantage as possible to the holder. The effect on the selfrespect of the service is already marked, and we can not doubt that it will become more so as years go on.
But there is further progress yet to be made. The perfection of any machine is to consist of the fewest parts—in other words, to be as simple as possible in construction—and to accomplish its work with the least possible loss of energy. In judging of our political and administrative institutions we can not keep this analogy too closely in view. But here arises a prior question: "What is the work which our political machine should be set to accomplish? Is it, for example, to regulate the whole industrial and commercial life of the people? If so, adieu all hope of simplicity of construction! Adieu, we may add, all hope of any efficient performance of so huge, so unlimited a task. As has often been pointed out—more than once in these columns—the system of taking certain industries under the protection and patronage of the state is, in itself, a species of corruption, and has its natural result in special acts of gross corruption. "What will a wealthy manufacturer, whose profits depend in large measure upon a tariff enacted for his special benefit, not do for the party that made and maintains the tariff? The thing is too obvious to need insisting on. The more help a party receives from the controllers of tariff-fed industries the more independent it is of the people; and it is for the people to see to it that they are not strangled in cords of their own making. The governing power in a state ought to be under no obligations of any kind to individuals, corporations, or interests within the state; it should stand aloof from all these, in order that it may do justice to all without fear or favor, without prejudice or partiality. Until this condition prevails it is absolutely impossible that we should have honest government in the full sense of the word. It is evident then what the next step in the purification of our national life must be: it is the freeing of the governing power from all dependence on, and all entangling alliances with, private interests. "We believe that, were this done, a higher standard of public duty and a nobler tone of public life would at once be established; and we should begin to see more clearly how, in other respects, our administrative methods might be improved. The ideal of a free state is the largest possible measure at once of liberty and security for the individual citizen, and the widest possible scope for spontaneous social activities. We are well aware that, even in this enlightened community, not every citizen takes this view of the matter; that the old idea of government as a kind of earthly Providence to whom prayers may be addressed on all possible subjects, and whose powers of interference with the natural course of things are, and should be, unlimited, more or less prevails. We trust, however, that this antiquated notion is on the wane, and that within the next few years our people will take a decided step in advance in freeing themselves from the thrall of unnecessary state interference with individual action. We shall never know what, as a people, we are capable of till we take our industrial and commercial activities into our own hands, and instruct our legislators that we shall not in future consider it one of their tasks to make this country wealthy and prosperous.
There has recently sprung into existence a society of vast extent, the professed purpose of which is to promote the doing of good deeds by its members. We refer to the Society of Christian Endeavor, a monster convention of which was held in this city two month ago. So far as its main object goes, it is impossible to find any fault, even were one so disposed, with the Society of Christian Endeavor. One is only tempted to ask a little mournfully why it should be thought necessary to join a society in order to feel prompted to good deeds. We all belong to a society far vaster than that of Christian Endeavor we are all members of the great human society. Through our membership therein we reap a constant succession of benefits of the most important character; and the question we should put to ourselves, if we have not already put it, is whether our personal attitude toward that great society is what it ought to be. It can not be what it ought to be unless we vividly realize the benefits our membership entails. To the human society we are indebted for peace and security, the protection of life and property, scope for the development of family and personal affections, access to the means of intellectual and moral growth, opportunities for aesthetic enjoyment in a word, all that enters into the great name civilization. Without this society into which we are all born members we should recede into a barbarism more primitive than that of our flint-fashioning ancestors, for even they lived in societies. Language would leave us, and, with language, all higher rationality.
This great human society, like other organizations, works under conditions, and, vast as are the benefits it now confers upon us, they are not what they would be if each member consciously endeavored to advance the ends for which the society exists. It is worth while to pause a moment and think what life would be if every member of the human society were a working member in the best sense; if, by a faithful performance of duty and a kindly bearing toward our fellow-men, we were all trying to bring our society to perfection. Does any one say that the human society is too big for one to feel any affection or loyalty toward it? If so, it is not wisely said. The Society of Christian Endeavor is getting to be very big indeed—running into the millions—but is the interest in it lessening on that account? We do not hear that it is. In point of fact the human society is not too big for many to feel a deep interest in it already; and we are persuaded that, if only its claims were properly presented, multitudes could be brought to profess their allegiance to it. Every day of life thousands, nay millions, of deeds are done consciously or unconsciously in the name of humanity—that is to say, with no other feeling or motive than a desire to do good to the world at large. What is wanted is a vast extension of this feeling and the raising of unconscious service to the human society to conscious service. "Who, indeed, that is not a criminal by nature would say: "I am wholly indifferent to the welfare of the social organism; if, by a slight effort, I could improve the conditions of life for numbers of my fellow-men, I would not do it"? If, then, we feel that selfish indifference to the general weal makes a man virtually a criminal and an outlaw, nothing should be required to spur us to a more diligent performance of our social duties than to be reminded from time to time of our membership in that vast society which comprises the human race, and whose constitution and bylaws are written in the civilization of our time. There is an esprit de corps which should animate every intelligent member of civilized society and which should make the performance of any service toward society, or toward any member of it, a pleasure. We certainly approve of the ends which the Society of Christian Endeavor sets before itself; but, in so far as it tends to obscure the antecedent obligation of every human being who lives by society to live also for society, it may, in spite of its admirable aims, be found working against rather than for the true progress of the race.
Most of our readers are probably aware that the name "positivism" was given by the French philosopher, Anguste Comte, to a system of thought and life which he professed to have founded on the unmistakable teachings of science. According to his view, the world had passed through the stages of intellectual childhood (theology) and adolescence (metaphysics), and had entered upon its maturity, the distinguishing mark of which would be the acceptance and systematic application of duly verified scientific truth. That Comte was a powerful thinker, with an altogether singular faculty for generalization, no one has ever been disposed to deny; and, although the scientific world in general has stood aloof from his system of thought as something too finished and definitive, and therefore too restrictive, for such an era of intellectual growth and expansion as the present, it has watched, not without sympathy, the efforts of his avowed followers to uphold the claims of science to a controlling voice in human affairs, and to promote the higher intellectual and moral life of society by means of popular lectures of a superior character. On the other hand, positivism has earned the hatred of the ecclesiastical foes of modern thought by the absoluteness of its rejection of their claims and pretensions. It is, therefore, an event of no ordinary importance that the leader of positivism in France, the man whom Auguste Comte designated as his successor, should have been selected by the Minister of Public Instruction to fill the newly created chair of the General History of the Sciences at the College de France, the most distinguished educational institution in the country. The chair was created, it is generally understood, with the express intention of offering it to M. Lafitte; and when the appointment was made it was greeted with almost unanimous approval by the press. Ecclesiastical journals, like the Univers, of course objected, and the Minister of Public Instruction had to answer some interpellations in the legislature; but, on the whole, the Government had every reason to congratulate itself on the effect produced on the public mind. Some of the comments of the Paris press are indeed very striking, showing a freedom in the expression of opinion to which in this country or in England the public is scarcely accustomed. "In these days of mystical reaction," says one paper (La Justice), "it was a very suitable thing to take strong ground for the positive and scientific spirit, and to proclaim in clear and lofty tones the one true religion, that which exalts the claims of humanity and of social duty." In defending his appointment in the Senate, the Minister of Public Instruction, after dwelling upon the intellectual qualifications of his nominee, paid the following tribute to his character: "Truly, if there is among us a modest man, a simple man, a man who has never courted notoriety, and who has reached his seventieth year without ever having asked anything of his country, it is M. Lafitte; and, for that reason, this modest and conscientious scholar, this savant, whose whole life has been devoted to disinterested study, appeared to us to present the moral as well as the intellectual characteristics necessary for the high dignity of a professor in the Collége de France." Again, speaking of positivism as a system, he observed: "This positivist doctrine, that people talk about and that some execrate, is an extremely tolerant doctrine; you may say that tolerance lies at its very base. Its absolute rule is to proceed by means of observation and experiment; to limit its conclusions and its affirmations to what is revealed to it by these special scientific methods; and, as regards what lies beyond verification, to treat with respect every belief and every hypothesis. Positivism is, therefore, from the philosophical point of view what the unsectarian, or lay state is from the political point of view; and I did not, therefore, think that M. Lafitte's profession of this doctrine should alarm or disturb men's consciences in this country, or prevent me from nominating him to a chair of which he was worthy."
These are notable words to have been spoken by a responsible minister in a country in which not long ago ecclesiasticism was so powerful. It is not necessary to have adopted, or to approve of, the peculiarities which mark positivism in its intellectual, and especially in its practical aspects, in order to rejoice that its most eminent teacher should have an opportunity of exhibiting its broader principles from the vantage-ground now afforded him, and of thus challenging for them, more openly than ever before, the criticism of the philosophical world. As to the action of the French Government, we can only applaud the determination it shows to place all competently represented systems of thought upon a footing of perfect equality.