Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | December 1895

Editor's Table.

 
THE BORDERLAND OF NONSENSE.

THAT mental stimulation may produce marked physical results is a proposition which few would be found to deny or even to question; but it is an unfortunate thing when this simple and limited truth is converted into a pretext for virtually denying the laws of physical causation, where human beings are concerned. Yet, if there is one gospel which a large class of persons hear more gladly than another, it is that the laws of matter are illusory and those of mind or spirit alone substantial and valid. Hence the numerous schools which, under various names, and with more or less pecuniary success, are attempting to make faith, emotion, hallucination do work which, so far as it is within the range of possibility, belongs to a well-devised system of physical, or combined physical and mental, treatment. It looks sometimes as if, according to the well-known Latin adage, the people really did wish to be deceived; and the upholders of sound doctrine and sane methods are doubtless tempted at times to be discouraged. The thing to do in such a case is to look away from the causes of discouragement and renew the battle against delusion and imposture with more energy than before, knowing that some good must come of every manifestation of the true nature of things.

We have no quarrel, as may already have been gathered, with those who maintain that some use may be made of a wise direction of thought and a healthy stimulation of mental interest in combating various forms of physical ailment. Every competent physician does what he can to "keep up the spirits" of his patient; and the common wisdom of mankind has recognized that mental conditions have in many cases much to do with questions of health and disease. A "mens Sana" is, we have not the least doubt, a powerful aid toward the maintenance of a "corpus sanum"; but, when this has been to the fullest extent admitted, it remains none the less true that the body is subject to the laws of matter, and that a given affection of our bodily organization will modify in the most important manner the action of our mind. In this respect man has no superiority over the brute: the physical causes which affect the latter affect man equally, and sometimes in greater measure, the equilibrium of the human constitution being perhaps, on the whole, less stable than that of the lower creatures. We may say of man and the lower animals what Shylock says of Jew and Christian that they are "fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer." That man has the higher mentality does not in the slightest degree exempt him from the operation of physical laws, though it does enable him to surround his life with safeguards, and in a general way pursue and secure his well-being by methods which no other species can understand or imitate.

All this may seem to most of our readers very commonplace and obvious, but nevertheless there is need to repeat even such truths as these when we find some pages of a scientific periodical[1] devoted to the advocacy of contrary doctrines. "Man," we read, "is a soul which, through an inherent tendency toward articulate manifestation, has picked up a little plastic material and erected it into an animated statue. This same dust has been, and will be, used over and over again to express other and different grades and qualities of life; and therefore it can have no distinctive character or identity of its own." It seems a great pity that man being "a soul" should require the help of a little characterless "dust" in order to arrive at "articulate manifestation." How is it, we feel inclined to ask, that so poor a quality of dust should be able to render so mighty a service to a soul? It is also a question what kind of existence a soul enjoys, when, for want of what the dust can supply, "pulveris exiqui munera," as Horace hath it, it as yet possesses no power of "articulate manifestation." But perhaps, before we trouble ourselves with such questions as these, it might be well to ask who stands sponsor for the theory that man is a soul with a power of "picking up plastic material," and by what series of observations it is claimed that the theory has been proved. To such an inquiry we hardly think any very satisfactory answer could be returned. The theory is certainly not entertained by another writer who contributes an article on The Brain in the Light of Science to the same magazine in which we find the article now commented on. and who pointedly rejects the idea that there is "something called 'intelligence' inhabiting the brain, but apart and entirely distinct from its structure."

That such views are fraught with practical danger is evident on further examination. The writer to whom we are referring will not allow that a draught can cause one to take cold. It can only be the occasion of taking cold; the real cause is the individual's "susceptibility." Continuing, he says: "A dozen persons are equally exposed to a contagion or malaria. Only half of them take it. Subjective conditions made the-wide difference between opposite results." Again we are disposed to ask for the authority for such a statement. It is very positively made, but that it admits of any kind of proof we doubt. What we do know is that physical conditions affect the result in such a case. The various forms of inoculation that are constantly being practiced afford proof that, independently of all subjective conditions, diseases can, with a large measure of certainty, be either communicated to, or warded off from, a given individual by the infusion of some suitable preparation into the blood. That subjective conditions have no more to do with the case than "the flowers that bloom in the spring" is shown by the fact that the most precise results can be obtained from operations on inferior animals such as rabbits and mice. Diphtheria is being controlled in the most remarkable manner by the antitoxine treatment; and it has lately been shown that a transfusion of serum from an individual who has shown a lack of susceptibility to a given disease will tend to produce immunity to that disease in another. The writer we have quoted states in an offhand manner that susceptibility is a matter of "subjective conditions," but these experiments prove that it is a matter of physical constitution; for it will hardly be contended that "subjective conditions" are transferred from one individual to another with a little serum.

The writer, it is true, does not advise people to sit in a draught and "resolve not to take cold." He says that "temporary surface thinking, though good, if in the right direction, can hardly transform one to a perceptible degree; that radical invigoration can only come from a sustained and focalized attitude of mind, which is attained through the firm holding of positive ideals." Then, if we firmly hold positive ideals, and so get a sustained and focalized attitude of mind, we can sit in as many draughts as we choose with perfect impunity. This or nothing is the teaching of these sentences. But how are we to know whether our mental attitude is sufficiently sustained and focalized to justify us in sitting in draughts? Is there not danger lest experiments should be prematurely made? An old Scotchman in the last century, when hard drinking was the rule, said that he had never known f any man dying of drink, but that he had known a good many who had died in training for it. So it might be in this matter of training for sitting in draughts. The supreme adepts might be immune, but those whose minds were not yet adequately focalized might succumb. And then, after all, why go to all this trouble of focalization, etc., when it is just as easy, generally speaking, not to sit in a draught? It seems to us that in point of simplicity materialistic teaching has, in this matter at least, a decided superiority over the spiritualistic. The believer in the laws of matter says: "If you sit in a draught, particularly when you are heated and perspiring, you will be in danger of catching cold, which may take the form of pneumonia, pleurisy, lumbago, or something else both dangerous and painful; therefore don't sit in a draught if you can possibly help it." The spiritual philosopher says: "Don't sit in a draught unless you are sure of your subjective conditions. Draughts do not cause illness; it is your susceptibility does that, and it should be your aim to get rid of such susceptibility by pursuing ideals and getting your attitude of mind properly focalized." A poet already quoted, who gives us many a shrewd hint, tells of a philosopher who, while gazing at the stars, walked into a well; and we should be inclined to dread some not altogether dissimilar catastrophe for the devotee of this exalted doctrine.

It is a great mistake, we are told, to say, "I am cold," "I am ill," "I have hurt myself." The proper phrases to use are not given, but it is implied that, if we would express the truth, we should say, "The plastic material which I, a soul, have picked up is cold, ill, etc." The body is the wicked partner that gets into these scrapes, and we should remind ourselves continually that the soul has no complicity in such misdoings. A man "may mentally say to himself—even mechanically at first until the habit is formed—I, the real ego, am well, I am strong, I am pure, I am perfect, disregarding adverse physical sensations." Ordinary common sense tells us that "adverse physical sensations" ought not to be disregarded, but on the contrary ought to be taken as warnings that we have violated in some way the laws of our physical nature. If we have an acute indigestion caused by taking food excessive in quantity or unsuitable in quality, we should, according to the above teaching, meet the emergency by eulogizing our soul for its strength, its purity, and its perfection, for its oneness "with the divine spirit of wholeness." Not occupying so exalted a plane as the advocate of mental healing, we should be disposed to consider the occasion a very unsuitable one for eulogizing the soul. If the soul does not direct or control the voluntary actions of the body, it is hard to see what good it is; and if our soul has allowed us to make a beast of ourselves, it would be better, it seems to us, to tell it some home truths. It is really almost too ridiculous to say that if a man gets drunk he is to "disregard adverse physical sensations," and sing a paean, however huskily, to his ego; yet, where is the line to be drawn?

But again, what degree of triumph over physical phenomena may we expect to achieve? It was promised to the early believers in Christianity that they should be able to take up serpents with impunity, and that if they drank any deadly thing it should not hurt them. Is something like this the goal of the system we are discussing? Once take the position that the material is the unsubstantial, and all the foundations of our everyday life give way. The "plastic material" which the soul appropriated in order to acquire "articulate manifestation" loses all definite properties; and how that would answer the purposes of the soul is a very obscure question. As we have hinted in our headline, the whole theory under discussion lies on the borderland of nonsense except when it crosses the line. The only saving truth it contains—and that is by no means its property—is that man is a rational creature, that his mental life is very closely connected with his physical life, and that the proper ordering of his thoughts and aims is, therefore, a matter of prime importance for his happiness. All the same, he requires a stable world to live in—one the laws of which will not permit him to be wayward or reckless, but which, while making ample return for worthy effort, will visit with penalties not to be averted, "adverse sensations" not to be conjured away by any tricks of self-hypnotization, every departure from the path of knowledge and self-control.

 

 
THE ANTHROPOLOGICAL VIEW OF CIVILIZATION.

We commented in our last number upon the interesting address delivered by the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and we have now before us an address of equal interest and perhaps of greater practical importance from the president, Dr. Flinders Petrie, of the Anthropological Section of the British Association. Dr. Petrie is widely known as one of the most learned Egyptologists of the present day, and as professor of that study at University College, London. He has spent many years in actual research in Egypt, and has thus been brought into close and varied contact with different sections of the Egyptian people. During the period of his stay in that country systematic efforts were being put forth to civilize the people according to European ideas, and, as a commencement, to teach them how to read and write; and he has been able to study the process in its practical results. In addition to his special accomplishments, Dr Petrie is a man of wide culture and of a vigorous habit of mind, and one therefore whose views are deserving of careful and respectful attention.

He discusses for us, in his address, the meanings which, from the standpoint of anthropology, should be assigned to those often vaguely used words "race" and "civilization." We must pass over his remarks on the first of these terms, though they are both interesting and original. In regard to the latter the position he takes is that wherever there was a human society there civilization is to be found. "Civilization," he observes, "really means simply the art of living in a community, the checks and counter-checks, the division of labor, and the conveniences that arise from common action when a group of men live in close relation to each other." In other words, the term has a relative, not an absolute meaning; and the practical question which confronts the so-called higher races in certain cases is whether it is desirable to replace, or attempt to replace, the relative civilization of a given lower race—or one which they regard as such—by their own more advanced modes of life.

This brings us to the most important part of Prof. Petrie's discourse. "Every civilization," he says, "is the growing product of a very complex set of conditions depending on race and character, on climate, on trade, and every minutia of the circumstances. To attempt to alter such a system, apart from its conditions, is to attempt the impossible. No change is legitimate or beneficial to the real character of a people, except what flows from conviction and the natural growth of the mind." Such conviction and such mental growth are not to be had if we present unassimilable ideas and ideals. Our intentions may be excellent, but the results will be none the less deplorable, if we ignore the limits which Nature and history have set to our efforts. "We talk complacently," says the professor, "about the mysterious decay of savages before white men." There is nothing mysterious about it; we change their environment, we subject them to new laws, force them to adopt new habits, give an unwonted direction and exercise to their mental faculties, subject them in a hundred ways to a psychological strain which they are unable to stand, and the result is that they wither just as we should do if we were similarly treated. Of all systems, that which the Anglo-Saxon race seeks to impose upon the weaker peoples with which it comes into contact is the most oppressive. "Scarcely a single race," the professor emphatically declares, "can bear the contact and the burden." In regard to the Egyptians, he gives his own experience. "Some of the peasantry are taught to read and write, and the result is that they become fools. I can not say this too plainly: an Egyptian who has had reading and writing thrust upon him is, in every case that 1 have met with, half-witted, silly, or incapable of taking care of himself. His intellect and his health have been undermined and crippled by the forcing of education."

Is it impossible, then, for the more advanced races to lend any real assistance to the less advanced? It is, if the only idea of assisting them is to Europeanize them; but not, if the more rational idea is adopted of a gradual education along wholly natural lines, with due regard to conditions both present and antecedent. "Our bigoted belief," says Prof. Petrie, "in reading and writing is not in the least justified when we look at the mass of mankind. The exquisite art and noble architecture of Mykenae, the undying song of Homer, the extensive trade of the bronze age, all belonged to people who neither read nor wrote. The great essentials of a valuable character—moderation, justice, sympathy, politeness and consideration, quick observation, shrewdness, ability to plan and prearrange, a keen sense of the uses and properties of things—all these are the qualities on which I value my Egyptian friends, and such qualities are what should be evolved by any education worth the name." The most valuable educative influence is example, if only it be of the right kind; and if the higher races could, in their dealings with the lower, show that they were steadily actuated by a purer and higher morality, they would insensibly modify for the better the institutions and customs of the latter.

The words in which Prof. Petrie describes the characteristic results of education in the best sense, and also his remarks on the effect of forcing education on minds unfitted for it, may well afford matter for reflection, not only in connection with the treatment of lower races, but with the working out of problems nearer home. In answer to the question, "What can be the harm of raising the intellect in some cases if we can not do it in all?" the professor says, "The harm is that you manufacture idiots." Now, seriously, are we quite sure that our own educational methods does not in some, nay in many, cases tend to the manufacture of idiots? Does every young man, or every second, or even every third, young man who goes through college come out of it intellectually—to say nothing of morally—stronger than he went in? When we read of the reckless and riotous insubordination that sometimes marks "commencement" days, we can not help wondering whether the right kind of material has been gathered within the college walls, or whether, if the material is all right, the course of instruction and discipline has been what it should have been. But, this consideration apart, has the public learned to recognize in the average college graduate a very intelligent, helpful, and self-helping young man? Or does just a suspicion of greater or less silliness and incapacity attach to the type? That many bright young men emerge from college it would be foolish, even on the general doctrine of probabilities, to doubt, seeing that a young man, if he possesses any brightness, has so good a chance in this country of being sent to college; but what, we ask, is the effect on those who have no bent toward learning, but who go to satisfy a social exigency or to fill up a certain number of vacant years? We fear that Prof. Petrie might in his haste pronounce some of them manufactured idiots not unlike the Egyptians he had seen spoiled by overmuch reading and writing.

But, taking a wider view, are we sure that even the public-school education which we force on all children alike is always an aid to true intelligence and civilization? Such as it is, it enfeebles, we greatly fear, rather than strengthens the brains of some who are subjected to it, and who are not intellectually fit for the abstractions with which, it largely deals. The whole subject requires to be carefully studied apart from all prepossession, prejudice, and sentiment. We have been forcing education for a long time with all the power of the state, but whether the average intelligence of the community has risen in response to our efforts is a question which it would not be safe to answer offhand. We do not hesitate to say that to us it appears as if our methods of education were being insensibly adapted to a lower and lower grade of general intelligence. In the matter of arithmetic, particularly, it seems to be assumed that something like idiocy is not only the starting point in the pupil's mind but a condition of considerable duration. Forty years ago no such elaborate means were resorted to as seem necessary to-day to get a few elementary principles of numerical logic into a child's mind; and it is a grave question whether in the attempt to devise a system of teaching adapted to the most degraded type of mind we are not running some risk of impairing the development of minds of a higher order. Exceeding bitter, we know, has been the cry of many a parent at the tedious drill and senseless repetitions imposed upon his children and the consequent needless lengthening by two or three years at least of the period of school education. The philosophy of the whole thing is apparent in the light of Prof. Petrie's remarks. The state is, to a not inconsiderable extent, engaged in the manufacture of idiots.

The discussion which followed the president's address was remarkable in one respect, and that was that among the speakers—all men of distinction—not one laid any stress, as would certainly have been done a generation ago, on the importance of Christianizing the lower races. It seemed to be assumed that Christianity, as a doctrine and to some extent as a moral system, involved too radical a change of ideas to be profitably adopted by heathen tribes, unless in a very gradual manner. The president himself pointed out that the apostle Paul had not seen it necessary to prohibit slavery, polygamy, or even gladiatorial shows. And yet the preaching of Paul prepared the way for "the greatest readjustment of the moral sense that the world has ever seen." We should learn from this to have patience with the imperfect usages of the heathen of our day, and not insist on their rising at once to the full height of an advanced Christian morality. It is impossible to doubt that the address of Prof. Petrie will have a powerful effect in promoting rational views on the important questions with which he dealt. It was not the utterance of a partisan, a zealot, or a narrow specialist, but of a man who spoke from well-matured conviction and a broad basis of knowledge. Had the meeting of the British Association given us nothing more than this, it would have made no slight contribution to the cause of enlightenment and true civilization.

 

  1. See New Science Review, July, 1895.