Popular Science Monthly/Volume 58/January 1901/The Story of Autonous
|THE STORY OF AUTONOUS.|
IF any one in these days condescends to read that first favorite with the youth of bygone generations, 'Robinson Crusoe' he will be aware that, disregarding its more subtle meanings and the allegorical intention upon which the author himself laid so much stress, we may consider the narrative as a detailed study of self-help. In our actual world, we depend to an extent which we seldom appreciate upon social environment, organization, the labors of others and the accumulated culture-capital of the past. Well, DeFoe takes a man of an eminently sturdy, courageous and practical type, casts him upon a desert island and there leaves him to shift for himself. Supplies which he manages to rescue from the ship give him a fund of materials to start with; but henceforth he has nothing to rely upon, save his own head and hands. To follow this plain and simple hero in his successful struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds does not fall within our present plan. But the issue shows how, by his own unaided exertions, an individual may reconstruct for himself a great many of those conditions of comfortable living which we are apt to assume to be impossible without the cooperation of others; and thus the mastery of man over his fate is vindicated—though it would certainly go hard with most of us if we were thrown into Robinson Crusoe's position.
Rousseau, who was the first to point out the educational significance of DeFoe's book, desired that Emile, in studying it, should examine the mariner's behavior, "to try to find out whether he omitted anything, and whether anything could have been better done." Questions of this kind may often have been in the reader's mind and are useful in bringing out the admirable art exhibited in every episode and detail. But there is another question which will, perhaps, occur to some, and which at once carries us beyond DeFoe's own narrative into a very wide field of speculation. Robinson Crusoe was already a mature man when he was cast away; he was in full possession of the stored-up resources of civilization; his mental powers were well developed; he brought a man's strength and training to bear upon the problems of his life. The theme of his story is, therefore, on the philosophic side, after all, a relatively simple and narrow one. But now let us suppose for a moment that he had been cut adrift from all his social moorings before education began—before, even, consciousness had awakened to a sense of outward things. What would have happened to him then? Would he necessarily have perished? Or, if he survived, would he have grown into anything better than a brute? What would the course of his life have been? And can we conceive that, lacking all influence from without, all family and social intercourse, all idea of human traditions as embodied in manners, customs, institutions, books, he would ever, mentally and morally, have reached the full stature of a man?
I am not going to attempt to discuss these questions from the standpoint of modern science, or in connection with the recent controversies of the evolutionists. My purpose is simply to give some account of an extremely crude, but none the less quaint and interesting old book, in which, under the thin guise of a story, an effort is made to answer them. The little volume is exceedingly rare and is probably unknown, even by name, to most readers of these pages. An outline of its contents may, therefore, prove entertaining, if not exactly instructive.
I must first dismiss some details of a bibliographical character. Referring, in his Memoirs, to his one-time tutor, John Kirkby, the historian Gibbon speaks slightingly enough of a work of his which, aspiring 'to the honors of a philosophical romance,' had brought him a certain measure of fame. Gibbon cites it by a brief title only—'The History of Automathes'; but its full title, after the fashion of the time, set forth a regular programme, or summary, of the volume—"The Capacity and Extent of the Human Understanding, exemplified in the extraordinary case of Automathes, a young nobleman, who was accidentally left in his infancy upon a desert island and continued nineteen years in that solitary state, separate from all human society." The book, which bears date 1745, was thought by Gibbon to be a kind of compound of 'Robinson Crusoe' and an Arabian story, 'The History of Hai Ebn Yockdan.' On closer examination, however, it turns out to be a barefaced plagiarism from a much smaller work, issued anonymously nine years before—"The History of Autonous: Containing a Relation how that young Nobleman was accidentally left alone in his Infancy, upon a desolate Island, where he lived nineteen years, remote from all human Society, till taken up by his Father; with an Account of his Life, Reflections and Improvements in Knowledge during his Continuance in that Solitary State. The whole as taken from his own mouth." It is almost incredible that, even in an age when literary frauds were more frequent and less easily detected than at present, Kirkby should have dared to publish his own book as original; but he never appears to have been taken to task for his conduct, nor, indeed, do readers and critics of 'Automathes' seem to have known or cared anything about 'Autonous.' But, from a pretty minute comparison of the two works, in the library of the British Museum, I am able to state that where Kirkby's dependence upon an earlier writer is referred to at all—as in the article in the 'Dictionary of National Biography'—the case for plagiarism is not put half strongly enough. Kirkby did not merely borrow hints, ideas, episodes; he stole the entire book, adding, expanding and slightly rearranging in places, but adhering to the plan of his predecessor and sometimes retaining his actual phraseology for paragraphs and pages together. To illustrate these statements would necessitate the reproduction of a number of lengthy passages, and space cannot here be spared for such an undertaking. I have said this much to make clear to any reader of Gibbon's Memoirs, or Scott's fragment of autobiography, why I now disregard Kirkby's work and confine myself to what was evidently its immediate source and model.
The writer of the 'History of Autonous,' then, opens his narrative by telling us how he became acquainted with that young nobleman, at the University of Eumathema, in the Kingdom of Epinoia. He is invited to take a short pleasure trip with him in his barge up the river. It is on this occasion that Antonous entertains his guest with the story of his life.
His father, Eugenius, chief of one of the most ancient houses in the kingdom, had married Paramythia, a young lady of 'quality nothing inferior to himself.' About the time of Autonous's birth, a rebellion broke out in Epinoia. It was promptly quashed; but, through 'the underhand Dealing of some ill-designing Persons,' enemies of Eugenius, he was arrested, tried and found guilty of treason. He was, therefore, condemned to banishment and the forfeiture of his estates.
With his wife, child and a couple of servants, the unfortunate nobleman sets sail for a distant land; the ship goes to pieces in a storm, and all on board perish, except Eugenius, Paramythia and the baby, who are east upon an uninhabited island. The father manages, like Robinson Crusoe, to save some necessaries and a number of miscellaneous articles from the wreck, and, with these, a little dog, which afterwards plays an important part in the story.
On examination of the island, it is found that, most fortunately, there are no 'noxious animals' or venomous creatures there, 'but multitudes of goats, deer and fowls of every kind,' furnishing abundance of provision. Eugenius hunts with bow and arrow and presently builds a cottage, in a grove of trees and within view of the sea, in the hope, like Enoch Arden, of sooner or later sighting a chance sail. But the island lies out of the ordinary course of vessels; wherefore, but for a merciful Providence, the little party would have perished one by one—a catastrophe which, says Autonous with refreshing simplicity, 'wou'd have depriv'd me of the Opportunity of thus telling my Story.'
Herbs, roots and 'limpid water,' with the produce of the chase, therefore constitute their fare; and their greatest pleasure, animal wants being satisfied, is found in 'the usual Eesort of Persons in affliction'— namely, 'Devotions and Spiritual Exercises.' Incidentally, we are here treated, in the characteristic style of the eighteenth century, to a brief disquisition on 'Nature' and 'Luxury'; but this may be skipped as having nothing directly to do with our narrative. By-and-by, poor Paramythia, unable to endure the hardships of the new life, falls sick and dies. For a time Eugenius is heart-broken. Then he returns to the care of the helpless baby, and, to obtain milk for him, domesticates a hind. By mere power of imitation, Autonous learns from the fawn to take nourishment directly from the animal, while by watching his constant companion, the dog, he soon begins to dig up edible roots.
Things in this way are prepared for the real commencement of Autonous's story. The death of his wife preys upon the mind of Eugenius; he grows restless and spends his time in vain attempts to devise some means of escape. One unusually clear day, he fancies that he can detect a faint streak of land upon the far horizon. Upon this, he patches up the ship's boat, which had been cast ashore, to start out by himself upon a voyage of discovery. Once more Fate shows herself against him. The boat, drawn into a swift current, is carried to another island and afterwards washed away. Eugenius saves himself, but father and son are now separated.
Autonous is not quite two years old when this happens. For nineteen years he lives entirely alone; at the expiration of which time both he and Eugenius are picked up by a stray ship of war and carried back to Epinoia. The latter's innocence is forthwith made clear to the world, and all ends happily. But, it may well be asked, in what condition is Autonous himself, after this long period of isolation? The good people of Epinoia are surprised, as we in our time are surprised, to find him acting more like 'a Philosopher than a Savage.' How had such an amazing result been brought about?
Looking back into the obscurity of his strange past, Autonous declares his first consciousness to have consisted in the simple sense of being in the cottage his father had built. He had, of course, no recollection of anything before his arrival on the island, or of his father and mother; but he remembered, vaguely, taking 'little journeys' from the cottage, the guidance or barking of the dog keeping him from going altogether astray. But he retained no image of the hind by which he had been suckled, for that portion of his experience belonged to the life of instinct and sensation merely. When he awoke to a realization of himself and the outer world, he found himself living, as a matter of simple habit, on roots and fruit, to which he had gone, apparently, in imitation of the animals and birds. "During this Part of my Life," he says, "my Rational Faculty laid [sic], as it were, dormant within me. I never made the least Reflection upon my Condition, nor turned my Thoughts to the Contemplation of anything about me." Such, Autonous conceives to be "the thoughtless State of all Persons for the greatest Part of the Childhood, while the Mind is furnishing itself with Instruments to work with."
With Autonous, however, this condition naturally lasts longer than with ordinary children, who from the beginning are associated with older people and have the advantage of the education directly and indirectly given by such intercourse. But it happens that, while all children are more or less inquisitive, Autonous is particularly so; and endowed, moreover, with unusual power of response to the stimuli of surroundings, he soon begins to gather in, from all sides, the rough materials of thought.
Happy accident first stirs him to 'serious Reflection/ One exceedingly hot day he strays 'something further than ordinary' from his cottage; and going to a small lake to quench his thirst, he is surprised 'with the appearance of a creature in the Lake' of a shape very different from anything he 'ever had seen,' which, as he stoops to the water, seems to leap upward to him, as if with a design to seize him. He flies in terror to a neighboring wood; but after a time, his thirst returning, he takes courage again, goes back to the lake and repeats the experiment; but only with the same dreadful result. This, Autonous explains, was the first time he had ever seen his reflection in smooth, still water, having previously drunk from fountains, or from shallow and rapid streams. He is so terribly frightened that for some weeks he hardly dares to leave the cottage, while his sleep is broken by 'fearful Starts and Dreams.' Little by little, the horror wears off, but other effects do not. He has been aroused to a 'sense of myself,' and begins to ask—a trifle prematurely, we fancy—'What am I? How came I Here?' These questions are rather too definitely put, but the incident and its consequences certainly foreshadow in an interesting way some of the speculations of recent anthropologists on the part played by shadows and reflections in the growth of the idea of the other self, or soul. Autonous's thoughts, however, take a somewhat different turn. He later discovers a 'crystal Brook,' in which, to his astonishment, he observes another sky, another dog, another world. By examination, he finds that there is, none the less, a real bottom to this brook; and thus he learns the secret of 'natural Reflection/ Remembering his former fright, he also studies himself very carefully in the water, and concludes that he had been alarmed by his 'own Image and Resemblance.' From this, he makes a sudden leap into theories concerning himself and the manner in which he and the dog had got to be where they are; and recalling what he had already noted of the 'usual method by which all other living creatures propagated their likes/ he sapiently infers that their own coming into the world must have been after the same fashion. All this must have happened, he believed, when he was about ten years of age.
The notion that he must have had a beginning somewhere, and that, though he was now living entirely alone, he was really in some inscrutable way linked to his kind, is now confirmed by an examination of his cottage, which up to the present he has accepted uninquiringly and as a mere matter of course. Comparing it with the dwellings of the beavers on the lake-shore, he guessed that it must have been built by predecessors of his own and arranged for their comfort and protection. The remains of one of the ship's boats, decaying on the strand, are, moreover, caught up in his speculation, suggesting transportation, and hinting, if at first rather vaguely, at a great human world out of which he has been cast. "But what," exclaims Autonous, "is the Beginning of Reason but the Beginning of Sorrow to creatures whose Reason can only serve to discover their Wants and Imperfections to them?" His tranquillity—the tranquillity of mere animal existence— is at an end. His mind broods continually over the 'Thoughts of Human Society,' without which he feels there can be no happiness for him, or even peace. He watches the birds and beasts, and envies their social lot. Had the boat been in sufficient repair, he feels that he might even have started off in the wild hope of finding somebody somewhere. "So strong an Inclination has Nature implanted in us for the Conversation of our Fellow-Creatures, in order to communicate our joys and griefs and sympathize under one another's sufferings."
Despite this heart-hunger, Autonous now enters on the high-road of intellectual progress. He begins to observe with close attention the growth of trees, grass and flowers, and the dependence of all animal life upon the fertility of the soil. Thus far we can without much difficulty keep up with him. But from this point he goes forward with such leaps and bounds that we are left almost breathless in our efforts to follow. For now he notes how the 'successive Renewals of Nature' exactly correspond with 'the Motions of the Sun,' and the agreement between the phases of the moon and the tides. The revolutions of 'the lesser heavenly luminaries' also become the subject of his 'nocturnal Contemplations'; moreover, he studies the rainbow, and discovers the 'necessity of Eain and the solar Heat' to 'ripen the Fruits of the Earth/
Nor are these the only, or the most astonishing, results of his solitary cogitations. He considers 'the admirable Structure of the Bodies of every Species of Animal' within his reach; is struck by the detailed adaptations of their faculties to the various conditions of their lives; and soon learns to appreciate their 'Art and Foresight' in the preservation of self and young. "In fine," he declares—and by this time we are, of course, fully aware of the drift of his thought, "I beheld the marks of Wisdom wherever I cast my Eyes. An universal Harmony and Dependence appeared through all the Parts of Creation, and the most neglected Things, when duly examined, were not without their manifest use; and I was everywhere surprised with an apparently wise Design, where the least Design was expected."
Had our young Natural Philosopher, we ask, been reading the 'Essay on Man' on the sly? His 'universal Harmony and Dependence' is only the 'great chain of being 7 over again, and when he further informs us that 'from the works of Nature and Providence' he was inevitably led to the knowledge of the First Mover,' he is simply explaining how he looked 'through Nature up to Nature's God.' In fact, the religious development of Autonous, solitary and untaught, furnishes us with an interesting illustration of the early eighteenth-century argument from design. The familiar discussion follows of 'beauty' and 'fitness' as evidences of 'some intelligent Agent,' who is easily shown to be at once all-wise, all-powerful and all-good. All this, indeed, belongs to the 'mere Light of Nature.' But we have only to remember the common eighteenth-century view of the relation of natural and revealed religion to appreciate the importance of the step which the lonely youth had now taken.
We may observe, in passing, that the conditions of life on the island are highly favorable to an optimistic philosophy. Dwelling in a veritable little Garden of Eden, where general peace prevails and the red tooth and claw of nature are seldom shown, Autonous has no difficulty in believing in a Providence both omnipotent and benign. This is surely the best of all possible worlds, he might have said, with Leibnitz and Dr. Pangloss; and there is no rude fact to meet him at the first turning of the eye and shake his whole scheme to its foundations. But what if Autonous had been thrown among birds and beasts of prey? Our author has simplified his task by not raising that question.
Meanwhile the youth is gaining ground in other directions. From what, in the true style of his time, he calls 'the harmonious Chanting of the feathered Tribes,' he infers that speech is the 'method used among men to communicate their minds in conversing one with another'; and from the ignis fatuus and the glow-worm he learns something, though not as yet much, of fire and light. He also gets a little practical experience well worth recording. A couple of bottles, saved by his father from the wreck, have been standing all these years untouched on a shelf in the cottage. By accident one is broken and Autonous tastes the contents, which prove to be 'a most delicious and heady sort of Wine.' He is delighted, straightway opens the other bottle, and, sad to relate, gets drunk. Having quite by himself discovered the nature of God, he now, quite by himself, discovers the nature of intoxication. It is by this time apparent, I think, that Autonous is an unusually wise young fellow. Finding how ill the potations make him, he very properly throws 'the remainder of this beautiful Liquor, Bottle and all, into the Sea.'
During the feverish affection brought on by his bout, he walks a good deal at night, and is lucky enough (for thus, in the order of Providence, does good grow out of evil) to see the moon in eclipse. This phenomenon fills him with 'exceeding Amazement,' and for a time he does not know 'what to make of it.' But he is not the youth to be long puzzled over a little thing like an eclipse. Presently an eclipse of the sun occurs—seemingly for his personal benefit. Upon this, he sets to work in earnest, and soon clears up all the difficulty. Considering how long it took for the race at large to learn the real nature of an eclipse, we may regard this as one of our philosopher's most remarkable performances.
His continued study of animals—'some of which,' as he sagely remarks, 'afforded an excellent Pattern of Prudence and Industry, for the Imitation of Men'—leads to no less important results. Observing the beavers, in particular, he remarks 'with what true Policy every distinct Community' is 'governed under its peculiar Monarch'—the only wonder being that he did not infer from his investigations the principles of the Hanoverian Succession. Their methods of building houses and dams, of laying up supplies for the winter and of gnawing down trees with their teeth, specially delight him; and from their example, and that of the dog, he learns to swim; thus becoming acquainted with 'fresh matter for wonder 5 in the shape of fish. He now devotes a good deal of time to the contents of the cottage, and takes note of 'two or three knives and forks,' and a hatchet, the sharpness of which suggests a use similar to that which the beavers made of their teeth in cutting trees. Hammer and a bag of nails, a rusty sword, a bow, a silver tankard and some other utensils are also discovered by him, but these he confesses that he was never 'so ingenious' as to turn to account. But he learns the color and malleability of several metals, and as, by hacking at various articles with the chopper, he deprives them 'of the forms in which he found them,' so he concludes, by one of his rapid processes of reasoning, that 'they must by some like Operation'— by some human power and effort, he presumably means—'have been first wrought into the same.'
In this part of his story, Autonous of course depends a good deal on the then familiar theory that all art arose from observation and imitation of nature—a theory which often appears in the literature of the time and which will be at once recognized by readers of Dryden and Pope.
A large chest and a couple of boxes, hitherto neglected, are now ransacked by our inquiring young friend. Much of their contents merely puzzles him; but he is highly pleased to discover books, white paper, some lead-pencils, pens, an inkstand, a magnifying glass, a case of mathematical instruments, a fan, a small looking-glass, a gold watch and a snuff-box. These form his playthings for some time and, little by little, he gets to understand the properties of glass and of the magnifier, the peculiar properties of which he finds to be due 'to convexity/ But, above all, he is enraptured by the fan, on which is painted a landscape, with several figures in his 'own shape.' Two in particular rivet his attention—'a comely Pair,' who seem 'wholly taken up with the Contemplation of each other.' They are 'seated under the Umbrage of a spreading Beech,' and he notes that 'their whole Bodies, save their Faces and Hands,' are 'hid from Sight under much the same sort of Coverings' as he had found 'in the Chest and Boxes.' One of these figures he concludes to be the male, the other the female; and upon the latter he gazes 'with more than common delight,' very gallantly, as well as very properly, concluding 'that the sex to which she belongs must be a masterpiece of nature's workmanship.' But the growth of tender sentiment does not here interfere (as it is occasionally known to do) with severer studies. Autonous—though he confesses that, this may be judged 'quite above my capacity'—becomes 'in some Degree' acquainted with the pencils and paper, the books and instruments; and by dint of pothering over a volume of mathematics he gleans 'the Principles of that Science,' becoming quite familiar with the use and form of figures. All this happens about his fifteenth or sixteenth year, about which time he begins to make various improvements in and about the cottage, laying out the garden in imitation of the landscape on the fan, repairing the fences, clearing bushes and shrubs, and generally substituting order for confusion.
All this while Autonous is busy with the 'Contemplation of himself and ripens apace into a metaphysician. He soon distinguishes between mind and matter, the former of which he recognizes as the 'only and proper self,' and by watching closely the procedure of the mind, actually reaches some notion of the doctrine of the association of ideas. Sleep, with its phenomenon of unconsciousness and dreams, also engages his attention, and while he is occupied with these mysterious matters, it happens that his dog is killed by a beaver. This was Autonous's first introduction to death. Reasoning over this occurrence, he advances step by step to the thought of dissolution and the immortality of the soul. We may suppose that he is really grieved over the loss of his faithful companion, but of this he says very little. And we have heard of other philosophers who, preoccupied with such questions as God, freedom and immortality, have had small energy to spare for ordinary mundane affairs.
Having followed Autonous in some detail up to this point, we shall probably express no great surprise when we learn of his further achievements, practical and intellectual. Passing over such feats as the invention of a sun-dial and the fashioning of a quadrant, we come at length to an important discovery which is made by simple accident. One day, while he is chopping down a tree, his hatchet strikes fire, some chips are ignited and he burns his fingers. Of course, he goes to work to experiment on this new element, fire, and in his pursuit of knowledge under difficulties, not only nearly burns down his cottage, but does, in fact, destroy a good deal of property and a number of animals. In this way he learns very effectually that fire, though a good servant, is a bad master. Indirectly, another consequence follows. His alarming adventure rather oddly gives him 'the first sad experience of the severe Lashes of a self-condemning Conscience'; a trouble compared with which he finds that all his other sorrows were* as nothing. With such a youth as Autonous, the remote results of this discovery may be easily anticipated. An 'inward Sense of guilt and shame' arises; he begins to realize the "natural Depravity and Perverseness' of his temper; and a new idea— the idea of Duty—takes shape in his mind. He begins to reflect on the 'great Disorders of the Soul,' of which other creatures on the island seem to know nothing, and comes slowly to feel that the world is 'nothing else but a black scene' of 'wickedness and impiety.' Having thought out for himself the principles of natural religion, our young theologian is, as we see, on the high-road to Christianity. Man by nature, he concludes, is in an 'indigent and imperfect State,' and is evidently so placed that he may be kept in a due sense of dependence on God. Hence the need of 'some Supernatural means' by which God must have made known His will to men; hence the inevitableness of prayer and supplication; and hence the necessity of a future life, with rewards and punishments, as the logical completion of the scheme of salvation.
The long course of Autonous's education is now complete, and there is nothing left for him but to be rescued and brought into human society. He is now, we remember, at the end of his twenty-first year, and our obvious comment is that he is well advanced for his age. With his return to civilized life, the story properly closes; but the author of the second work—the 'History of Automathes'—adds something on his own account to clinch the moral. The immense progress which the youth was able, by himself, to make was not, we are asked to recollect, due to inward natural capacity. Had he been thrown entirely on his own resources after his father's departure—had he, that is, been deprived of the various aids his father left behind him—he would inevitably have perished, or, surviving, have sunk to the level of the brutes. In such a condition the race at large would have remained in default of assistance from without. Hence, argues the author, civilization must have depended, at the first, upon supernatural revelation. Particularly must this have been the case, he further insists— though the history of Autonous (or Automathes) hardly sustains the contention—with all religious knowledge. We must, therefore, assume a primeval revelation to all men, shadows and survivals of which are to be found in heathen mythologies and extra-Christian speculations.
It is almost a pity, we are tempted to say, as we lay the strange little book aside, that Autonous was rescued just when he was. Having on his own account discovered so many things which it has taken humanity thousands of years to find out, he might, had he been left alone, have pushed his researches into who knows what fresh domains of science, theoretical and applied. Or perhaps, it may be suggested, his achievements were, after all, due to his peculiar conditions—to abandon a child on an uninhabited island may, in other words, be the very best way of developing his faculties. In an age which has already gone wild over educational theories, some one may be glad to take this idea under consideration.
More serious comment is unnecessary. Our brief outline will have sufficed to show the extravagance of Autonous's story, the clumsiness of its machinery and its general lack of plausibility. Its further weakness as a culture-study—the introduction of too many human aids to mental growth—will also be equally apparent; though this is probably referable to the author's realization of the impossibility of getting on without such assistance, as testified in the actual case of the then famous Wild Boy of Germany. But the little book does open up a number of fascinating questions, and, in closing it, we may well ask why, in these days of scientific and psychological fiction, some novelist in search of fresh material does not try his hand on what is surely a not uninteresting or unfruitful theme.
- 'Autonous' occupies 117 pages; 'Automathes,' 284. The difference is due partly to Kirkby' tendency to amplification, and partly to a long critical introduction containing a good deal of political disquisition, not at all to the point, and incorporating the machinery of a manuscript discovered in a cylinder, which adds neither to the clearness nor to the interest of the subsequent narrative. (Of course, as we do not know who wrote 'Autonous' there is the chance that this was a first draft of the later and longer book, by Kirkby himself. But this does not seem likely.)
- See 'Annus mirabilis,' Sec 155; 'Essay on Man,' Epistle III.
- It will be observed that by a striking oversight (whether intentional or not I cannot say) not a word is said about the question of language. Autonous clearly did not evolve this by himself, though, as we have seen, he had arrived at the idea of intercourse through speech. He must, therefore, on his return to civilization, have been in the condition of a dumb philosopher unable, till taught, to put his thoughts into language.
- Compare Dryden, 'Introduction to Religio Laici.'