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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/February 1895/Symbols


THE progress made by the experimental school of anthropology in Italy is proved by the works which are appearing in rapid succession by such men as Lombroso, Ferri, Gorofalo, Cogliolo, Sighele, and Bianchi, to mention but a few. The study of criminality and degeneration has in these later years greatly modified the juridical canon, and that which once appeared monstrous heresy is now shown to be truth; nor, owing to the power of science, are the summary judgments any longer possible of which Dante wrote when describing Minos:

"Judges and sends according as he girds him:—{Longfellow's translation.)

Guglielmo Ferrero, author of a work entitled Symbols in their Relation to the History and Philosophy of Law and Sociology, also belongs to this school, being one of its youngest members. In order to introduce him to our readers it is enough to mention his collaboration with Cesare Lombroso in his great work. Criminal Woman (La Donna Delinquente), discussed in these pages, which was written as a companion to the Professor's former work. Criminal Man (L'Uomo Delinquente). Symbols is an accurate, minute, conscientious study of a phenomenon innate in humanity, and the volume appears opportunely at the present time, when fiction and dramatic literature are so often inspired by symbolism. On this account besides scientists, novelists, and dramatists are invited to make use of the book, above all in Italy, where, unfortunately, gentlemen of that kidney study but little and talk at random. Guglielmo Ferrero says in his preface: "This book is only an essay, only a rapid transit across an immense unexplored region of the history of mankind"; adding: "The moral miseries of man have been much studied; the many devious ways of the passions, love, hate, vanity, covetousness, have been explored; but his intellectual miseries have been studied but little, those wretched errors into which man falls by reason of the organic weaknesses of his intelligence, owing to which the paths of humanity up to the present day have been bathed so often in blood and tears."

Such the genesis of Ferrero's book; such its raison d'être, as I deduce from his own words: "If we reflect that accidental changes of name have generated ferocious rites, that for a question regarding statues or pictures blood ran in floods under the Byzantine Empire; that at this day, at any moment, Europe might blaze up with fires of war, provoked by some unlucky metaphor, or by an ill-expressed phrase exchanged on account of some high political axiom: when we think of all this, who is it that can not see that beyond the ferment of the passions the most fatal enemies of man have been certain weaknesses and imperfections of his intelligence otherwise so highly developed?" A raison d'être therefore highly moral, and above all useful.

The volume is divided into two parts. The first deals with the physio-psychology of the symbol, the second with its psycho-sociological application. It is preceded by an introduction which treats of the laws of least resistance and of mental inertia, concerning which Ferrero holds views that are supported by Spencer, Letourneau, Garlanda, and other sociologists. It is beyond doubt a fact that man feels a natural repulsion for mental labor, and if there is one thing on earth that he dislikes it is work, even that of the muscles. In our author's words: "The Hebrew legend of Genesis causes God to give to man labor as a punishment for sin; a precious and ingenuous human document regarding the sentiments of primitive humanity toward activity. The love of savages for rest is for that matter so well known that it would be almost useless to dwell upon it at any length. It is sufficiently proved by the fact that almost universally the most fatiguing labors are reserved for women—that is to say, laid on the sex that were the first slaves, and which can not rebel owing to its weakness. In all savage communities the only male labor has been war and the chase; because war and the chase are associated with the pleasures of success—that is, those which arise from a consciousness of personal power, and the pleasures of vanity, through the esteem which surrounds, in primitive tribes, the strongest warrior or hunter."

Comparative etymology teaches that in Hebrew, in Latin, in Italian, and in French the word labor signifies pain or punishment. Man, by nature, avoids not only physical exertion but also mental, in that form which is known as attention. One constantly sees, "how practice precedes theory, and action is adapted to surrounding circumstances without the intervention of abstract thought."

How man acts under the influence of the law of the least effort Ferrero explains by the following example: "Another proof that man seeks to obtain results by the least possible effort is furnished to us by the growth of sociological evolution. Spencer has justly criticised with severity those scientific systems which see in every human institution, in the exact form in which we find it, the ultimate result of an effort on the part of mankind directed toward its creation. Man does not think as much as that; and no peoples have ever created their own institutions according to a finished plan, previously traced. Every social organism is the result, not of a complex idea, created by the people at a given moment, but of the accumulation of many small inventions and ideas which each generation has brought as its contribution to the entire work. This may be clearly seen by the study of the genesis of social institutions. Ministries are at this day a very complex institution, and therefore were not created at one cast. What was their origin? In Egypt, the king's fan-bearer belonged to the military staff, and in time of war commanded a division of the army. In Assyria, the king's eunuchs acquired great political importance. They became the monarch's counselors in peace and his generals in war. In France, in the Merovingian period, the blacksmith and the chamberlain, who were personal servants of the king, became public functionaries. In England, in the most ancient times, the four great functionaries of state were the master of the robes, the superintendent of horses, the blacksmith, and the house steward. This shows that the position of minister was not deliberately created, but that when the king found, especially in military affairs, that his functions were too numerous, he delegated one to a servant. At first this could certainly have been merely a temporary expedient, which through the continuance of the conditions which led to it became definitive. From this first sketch arose, by successive small modifications, the whole political structure."

With other examples, and by close reasoning, the author closes his introduction by saying that "symbols also must be regarded as the unpremeditated result of a series of small inventions, each intended to satisfy some elementary need."

Ferrero then passes on to the main divisions of his essay. He treats first of symbols of proof, as he names them, dealing at length with the written document, so important to the transactions of modern civilization and yet so tardily produced, and for a long time so incomprehensible to the multitude. Ferrero describes the primitive symbols that existed to guarantee property, or to mark the right of conquest, and of contracts in general, particularly of matrimony, of parental authority, and of adoption. After a minute examination of their origin, he writes: "We see thus from these examples how symbols of this class have nothing mysterious about them. They are only our written documents, our citations, etc., in a less abstract and more simple and primitive form. To us, accustomed to the dry and bare juridical forms of our own time, these symbols make a singular impression, almost as of simple and ingenuous poetry; but we may be assured that those who practiced those acts found no more poetry in them than we find in our formalities. These symbols are characterized by the greater simplicity of the mental effort necessary to understand them, as compared with our own formalities, and are therefore explicable by the law of least effort—the tendency, that is, of man to resolve the difficulties he encounters in the path of civilization by the methods which cost the least mental effort, accepting the most obvious solutions, and contenting himself with these until through the increase of his needs they become entirely inadequate to his requirements."

Ferrero then treats of descriptive symbols, enumerating them separately, and narrating how, from the primitive signs of recognition known to savages, we have arrived at the alphabetic writing, justly called by Ferrero "the most laborious and most complex of all the means of communication of use among men." And he is right, for writing is a most complicated association of optic sensations, acoustic images, and mental images and ideas. To read, we must be able to associate with the sight of a certain number of letters the images of certain sounds, drawing thus from graphic signs the acoustic image of the spoken word. We use these signs as spoken words, associating with them a given idea, a complexity of functions which is demonstrated also by physiology, because a particular nerve center is probably attached to the function of reading, as is shown by those persons who suffer from the malady called verbal blindness—that is, those who lose the sense of sight for graphic signs only, while they can see persons, houses, objects, etc., though they no longer recognize letters, either written or printed.

Symbols of survival, the hinges of the law, form the argument of another chapter. Born from the right of occupation and conquest, the epochs in which the res nullius abounded, they have come down to us, growing gradually, and forming in their turn those which regulate all the social movement of nations. Ferrero examines the analogies between these symbols in different nationalities, and concludes: "We have thus a fresh proof that man has never created institutions and customs, etc., according to a preconceived idea, and that his own determination counts for nothing in the ultimate results of his work. It was not the idea of contract or of pacific discussion which led to the substitution of purchase and judgment for rapine and the duel, but purchase and judgment substituted for rapine and the duel generated by slow suggestion the idea of contract and pacific discussion in the brain of man."

The sensations we experience of complex things are reduced sensations. Spencer also affirms this in his First Principles. The eye sees reduced images; the mind, by the theory of least effort, receives reduced sensations; and this phenomenon exerts a great influence upon the formation of symbols. For example, the reduplication which takes place in many languages in the formation of the plural, when it is the custom to repeat the substantive twice, is seen also in the most ancient art of Greece, where on the bas-reliefs a forest was represented by one tree, an army by one soldier, a house by a single column.

Gradually symbols become more abstract and tend to lose their concrete character. "The consignment of a piece of sod taken from the ground in presence of the buyer and of witnesses is a concrete and material formality, almost a consignment of the earth itself; but the consignment of a bundle of straw as a sign of the sale of land or of a house is already a much more abstract symbol, because its visible connection with the thing is less, because the separation between the symbol and the thing is much greater, and man fills up the gap with the rich mental associations which are already formed in his mind. Another step, and the fragile straw too will disappear, and the material symbolism of primitive times be replaced by the more ideal forms of proof which we employ. So, little by little, almost unawares, man is brought by evolution face to face with the most complex abstract ideas."

Emotional symbols is the subject of an interesting division. Ferrero says: "We perceive that an emotion, produced by whatever cause, lasts for a certain time, then grows weaker until it is extinguished. Neither love, nor hatred, nor pleasure, nor pain are, fortunately for mankind, eternal, because, as they are also transformations of force, they cease when they have exhausted the initial quantity of energy which they possessed at their origin. We perceive also that by the law of mental inertia this emotion can not be repeated, even with reduced intensity, unless a sensation antecedently associated with the same emotion in experience excites or recalls it. Now emotional symbols are composed of those sensations which have the power to awaken dormant emotions; by the law of inertia they arise once more and reacquire their immense importance." Hence he proceeds to show how the trophy arose, and also how, from the custom of taking from the vanquished his most brilliant garments, splendid garments came to be the insignia of dominant and privileged classes, kings, princes, chiefs, to be held as tokens of authority. Ferrero makes a minute examination of the importance attached to dress in modern society, and proves how this is an excellent specimen of an emotional symbol. In support of his views he cites the words of Buckle, where he says that dress was of such importance in the sixteenth century that a person's condition was evident from his exterior, no one daring to usurp the habit of a superior class. But during the democratic movement which preceded the French Revolution the innovations of fashion were felt even in the reunions of good society. At dinners, suppers, and balls, as contemporary writers tell, dress had been so much simplified that ranks were confused; ere long both sexes abandoned all distinctive garb, men went into society in "frac" women in simple bodies.

We now come to the most important chapter in Ferrero's work, that which treats of mystic symbols. It is a minute analysis of the genesis and development of these symbols, of their primordial and consequential causes, of their importance, and of the evil caused by their false interpretation. The series of mystic symbols is produced by the phenomenon which Ferrero calls ideatic arrest, and which he explains in the following way:

"We here find ourselves confronted by an ideatic arrest—that is to say, the series of mental associations by which we have arrived at a conclusion of causality becomes restricted to those facts which furnish an immediate sensation, and therefore leave in the brain images and ideas that have a tendency to associate themselves, and to exclude such facts as do not produce a special state of consciousness except through reflection; a laborious mental process, which ordinary men, and even thinkers in fields which are not their habitual objects of research, avoid, by the law of least effort." It is thus with writings, thus with books, with formulas mysterious to the vulgar, with commands, with prayers. By the phenomenon of emotional arrest in religion, nearly everywhere and at all times, the adoration which should lilt itself up to God stops at the image which represents him. And Christianity, although inaugurated by Christ, the apostle of a spiritual religion, is at this day too often nothing else than a real idolatry, at least in the multitude. We cite Ferrero once more: "God is here confounded with his symbol; and the theory of emotional arrest explains such a confusion. No one has ever seen God, wherefore we can not have an image of him, unless we construct one ourselves by our own intelligence. Now, to construct mentally, without the aid of the senses, a graphic image, necessitates a considerable mental development. For this reason, even to-day, for nearly every person the word God corresponds in the consciousness only to a vague and nebulous image. Hence it comes that when the peasant sees the cross, which awakens in him a complexity of sentiments compounded of respect and terror, the idea or the image of God, through being a most indeterminate state of consciousness, associates itself weakly, or not at all, with his emotions. Wherefore there is at such times present to his consciousness only the sight of the symbol, the cross, and the sentiments relating to it, not the image of God; and therefore such sentiments can be directed only to the symbol, because that alone comes into the field of consciousness, and behind it there is not for the worshiper the image of God which it should represent. Now, as a symbol works only in so far as it has power to recall a group of ideas and sentiments, if these associations do not come the symbol passes into the condition of reality, because the emotion is arrested by it and does not rise to what it represents. This is why idolatry is always repugnant to great intellects, from Moses and Mohammed to Pascal and Matthew Arnold, who protest always, but often in vain, at least from the plebeian point of view, against the worship of images."

Another phenomenon of emotional arrest is the banner, substituted for the fatherland, for whose sake are created honors and feuds. Thus, in politics, parties are designated by colors black, blue, red, according as men hold to one set of ideas or another. Thus also in parliaments there are the Right, the Left, and the Center; so, at the time of the rise of the new Italy, there was a fierce struggle over the emblems of the three colors, to display which every opportunity was seized. So, again, the name of Verdi, at the same epoch, served as a symbol for the patriotic cry "Viva Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia!" The toga, like the flag, is a mystic symbol, and it symbolizes in the tribunals the majesty of justice. Nor does the bureaucracy disdain the use of symbols.

In his chapter on the pathology of the symbol, Ferrero narrates how it had been adopted by criminals, and is the hinge of such secret societies as the "Maffia" and the "Camorra." Our author relates how even madmen adopt symbols, as well as the sick, concluding: "Certainly we are here treating of disease, but the extraordinary intensity of the phenomenon proves how profound is the tendency of the human soul to reduce sensations, images, sentiments; to exchange the whole for a part; to concentrate all its energies upon some particular, which thus becomes more potent in its action. Certainly in those normal processes of reduction whence the symbol proceeds, this absorption of everything into itself of the particular, is not so intense as in these morbid cases, precisely because these are an exaggeration. But in any case the phenomenon of symbolism by reduction, and these phenomena of moral pathology, throw light upon each other."

The second part of Ferrero's essay is entitled Symbolism in Modern Law. This chapter contains precious and useful observations with regard to the manner in which the letter and the spirit of the code are applied. The greater part of the juridic ideas consecrated in our codes, and the manner in which they are applied—almost everything, in short, known as justice—is nothing but one gigantic mystic symbol, the effect of a fatal confusion of the sign with the thing, a spring of infinite evil to society, and above all of that greatest of evils: the possession, that is, of a justice which causes more torment, perhaps, than benefit. In these utterances we recognize the great informing idea of the positive juridical school, the reasoning of Lombroso and of the other modern criminalists and sociologists. Ferrero, in summing up, to support his assertion, cites many practical examples, civil and penal, too long to be quoted here. He says: "From these rapid indications, which I hope to be able, in the future, to develop in a longer and more complete work, we may gather how the future of justice and of juridical institutions lies in the abolition of codes, in the abandonment of juridical principles which are dangerous generalizations and determining causes of ideo-emotional arrest; in the institution of boards of arbitration, composed of honest and intelligent persons, charged with judging ex æquo et bono, appealing, not to the authority of our fathers, but to the authority of their consciences: perhaps also it may be in the abolition of the profession of magistrate, and in a varied choice, often renewed, of arbiters, among persons of intelligence, instruction, and integrity, of diverse occupations; because the constitution of a class of magistrates favors professional ideo-emotional arrests. At all events, since the gravest danger to the right administration of justice lies in the production of this arrest, the normal and supreme scope of all reform should be to prevent, in the best manner possible, that for any reason ideo-emotional arrest should be produced in those who administer justice."

When that day dawns, if ever it see daylight, no pessimist will be able any longer to repeat, for the shame and condemnation of modern society, the bitter verses which Goethe has put into the mouth of Mephistopheles:

"Customs and laws in every place,
Like a disease, an heirloom dread,
Still trail their curse from race to race,
And furtively abroad they spread.
To nonsense, reason's self they turn;
Beneficence becomes a pest;
Woe unto thee, that thou'rt a grandson born!
As for the law born with us, unexpressed—
That law, alas! none careth to discern."

Guglielmo Ferrero—who, by the way, is quite a young man, not far advanced in the twenties—has shown in this book not only great promise but great achievement; and proved once more what a wonderful amount of talent is possessed by that Italian nation to which we owe so much of our culture and civilization.