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Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure Edward Carpenter

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Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure

by Edward Carpenter

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The State is the actually existing realised moral life. For it is the unity of the universal essential Will with that of the individual, and this is "Morality."—Hegel.

A criminal is literally a person accused—accused, and in the modern sense of the word convicted, of being harmful to Society. But is he there in the dock, the patch-coated brawler or burglar, really harmful to Society? is he more harmful than the mild old gentleman in the wig who pronounces sentence upon him? That is the question. Certainly he has infringed the law: and the law is in a sense the consolidated public opinion of Society: but if no one were to break the law, public opinion would ossify, and Society would die. As a matter of fact Society keeps changing its opinion. How then are we to know when it is right and when it is wrong? The Outcast of one age is the Hero of another. In execration they nailed Roger Bacon's manuscripts out in the sun and rain, to rot crucified upon planks—his bones lie in an unknown and[Pg 144] unhonoured grave—yet to-day he is regarded as a pioneer of human thought. The hated Christian holding his ill-famed love-feasts in the darkness of the catacombs has climbed up to the throne of S. Peter and the world. The Jew moneylender whom Front-de-Boeuf could torture with impunity is become a Rothschild—guest of princes and instigator of commercial wars; and Shylock is now a highly respectable Railway Bondholder. And the Accepted of one age is the Criminal of the next. All the glories of Alexander do not condone in our eyes for his cruelty in crucifying the brave defenders of Tyre by thousands along the sea-shore; and if Solomon with his thousand wives and concubines were to appear in London to-morrow, even our most frivolous circles would be shocked, and Brigham Young by contrast seem a domestic model. The judge pronounces sentence on the prisoner now, but Society in its turn and in the lapse of years pronounces sentence on the judge. It holds in its hand a new canon, a new code of morals, and consigns its former representative and the law which he administered to a limbo of contempt.

It seems as if Society, as it progresses from point to point, forms ideals—just as the individual does. At any moment each person, consciously or unconsciously, has an ideal in his mind toward which he is working (hence the importance of literature). Similarly Society has an ideal in its mind. These ideals are tangents or vanishing points of the [Pg 145]direction in which Society is moving at the time. It does not reach its ideal, but it goes in that direction—then, after a time, the direction of its movement changes, and it has a new ideal.

When the ideal of Society is material gain or possession, as it is largely to-day, the object of its special condemnation is the thief—not the rich thief, for he is already in possession and therefore respectable, but the poor thief. There is nothing to show that the poor thief is really more immoral or unsocial than the respectable money-grubber; but it is very clear that the money-grubber has been floating with the great current of Society, while the poor man has been swimming against it, and so has been worsted. Or when, as to-day, Society rests on private property in land, its counter-ideal is the poacher. If you go in the company of the county squire-archy and listen to the after-dinner talk you will soon think the poacher a combination of all human and diabolic vices; yet I have known a good many poachers, and either have been very lucky in my specimens or singularly prejudiced in their favour, for I have generally found them very good fellows—but with just this one blemish that they invariably regard a landlord as an emissary of the evil one! The poacher is as much in the right, probably, as the landlord, but he is not right for the time. He is asserting a right (and an instinct) belonging to a past time—when for hunting purposes all land was held in common—or to a time in the future when such or similar rights shall be restored.[Pg 146] Cæsar says of the Suevi that they tilled the ground in common and had no private lands, and there is abundant evidence that all early human communities, before they entered on the stage of modern civilisation, were communistic in character. Some of the Pacific Islanders to-day are in the same condition. In those times private property was theft. Obviously the man who attempted to retain for himself land or goods, or who fenced off a portion of the common ground and—like the modern landlord—would allow no one to till it who did not pay him a tax—was a criminal of the deepest dye. Nevertheless the criminals pushed their way to the front, and have become the respectables of modern Society. And it is quite probable that in like manner the criminals of to-day will push to the front and become the respectables of a later age.

The ascetic and monastic ideal of early Christian and mediæval ages is now regarded as foolish, if not wicked; and poverty, which in many times and places has been held in honour as the only garb of honesty, is condemned as criminal and indecent. Nomadism—if accompanied by poverty—is criminal in modern Society. To-day the gipsy and the tramp are hunted down. To have no settled habitation, or worse still, no place to lay your head, are suspicious matters. We close even our outhouses and barns against the son of man, and so to us the son of man comes not. And yet—at one time and in one stage of human progress—the nomadic state is the rule; and the[Pg 147] settler is then the criminal. His crops are fired and his cattle driven off. What right has he to lay a limit to the hunting grounds, or to spoil the wild free life of the plains with his dirty agriculture?

As to the marriage relation and its attendant moralities, the forms are numerous and notorious enough. Public opinion seems to have varied through all phases and ideals, and yet there is no indication of finality. Modern investigations show that in primitive human societies the affinities admitted or barred in marriage are most various—the relation of brother and sister being even in cases allowed; in the present day such a bond as the last-mentioned would be considered inhuman and monstrous.[34] Polyandry prevails among one people or at one time, polygyny prevails among another people or at another time. In Central Africa to-day the chief offers you his wife as a mark of hospitality, in India the native Prince keeps her hidden even from his most intimate guest. Among the Japanese, public opinion holds young women—even of good birth—singularly free in their intercourse with men, till they are married; at Paris they are free after. In the Greek and Roman antiquity marriage seems, with[Pg 148] some brilliant exceptions, to have been a prosaic affair—mostly a matter of convenience and housekeeping—the woman an underling—little of the ideal attaching to the relationship of man and wife. The romance of love went elsewhere. The better class of free women or Hetairai were those who gave a spiritual charm to the passion. They were an educated and recognised body, and possibly in their best times exercised a healthy and discriminating influence upon the male youth. The respectful treatment of Theodota by Socrates and the advice which he gives her concerning her lovers: to keep the insolent from her door, and to rejoice greatly when the accepted succeed in anything honourable, indicates this. That their influence was at times immense the mere name of Aspasia is sufficient to show; and if Plato in the Symposium reports correctly the word of Diotima, her teaching on the subject of human and divine love was probably of the noblest and profoundest that has ever been given to the world.

With the influx of the North-men over Europe came a new ideal of the sexual relation, and the wife mounted more into equality with her husband than before. The romance of love, however, still went mainly outside marriage, and may, I believe, be traced in two chief forms—that of Chivalry, as an ideal devotion to simple Womanhood; and that of Minstrelsy, which took quite a different hue, individual and sentimental—the lover and his mistress (she in most cases the wife of another),[Pg 149] the serenade, secret amour, etc.—both of which forms of Chivalry and Minstrelsy contain in themselves something new and not quite familiar to antiquity.

Finally in modern times the monogamic union has risen to pre-eminence—the splendid ideal of an equal and life-long attachment between man and wife, fruitful of children in this life, and hopeful of continuance beyond—and has become the great theme of romantic literature, and the climax of a thousand novels and poems. Yet it is just here and to-day, when this ideal after centuries of struggle has established itself, and among the nations that are in the van of civilisation—that we find the doctrine of perfect liberty in the marriage relationship being most successfully preached, and that the communalisation of social life in the future seems likely to weaken the family bond and to relax the obligation of the marriage tie.

If the Greek age, splendid as it was in itself and in its fruits of human progress, did not hold marriage very high, it was partly because the ideal passion of that period, and one which more than all else inspired it, was that of comradeship, or male friendship carried over into the region of love. The two figures of Harmodius and Aristogiton stand at the entrance of Greek history as the type of this passion, bearing its fruit (as Plato throughout maintains is its nature) in united self-devotion to the country's good. The heroic Theban legion, the "sacred band," into which[Pg 150] no man might enter without his lover—and which was said to have remained unvanquished till it was annihilated at the battle of Chæronæa—proves to us how publicly this passion and its place in society were recognised; while its universality and the depth to which it had stirred the Greek mind are indicated by the fact that whole treatises on love, in its spiritual aspect, exist, in which no other form of the sentiment seems to be contemplated; and by the magnificent panorama of Greek statuary, which was obviously to a large extent inspired by it. In fact the most remarkable Society known to history, and its greatest men, cannot be properly considered or understood apart from this passion; yet the modern world scarcely recognises it, or if it recognises, does so chiefly to condemn it.[35]

Other instances might be quoted to show how differently moral questions are regarded in one age and another—as in the cases of Usury, Magic, Suicide, Infanticide, etc. On the whole we pride ourselves (and justly I believe) on the general advance in humanity; yet we know that to-day the merest savages can only shudder at a civilisation whose public opinion allows—as among us—the rich to wallow in their wealth, while the[Pg 151] poor are systematically starving; and it is certain that the vivisection of animals—which on the whole is approved by our educated classes (though not by the healthier sentiment of the uneducated)—would have been stigmatised as one of the most abominable crimes by the ancient Egyptians[36]—if, that is, they could have conceived such a practice possible at all.

But not only do the moral judgments of mankind thus vary from age to age and from race to race, but—what is equally remarkable—they vary to an extraordinary degree from class to class of the same society. If the landlord class regards the poacher as a criminal, the poacher, as already hinted, looks upon the landlord as a selfish ruffian who has the police on his side; if the respectable shareholder, politely and respectably subsisting on dividends, dismisses navvies and the frequenters of public-houses as disorderly persons, the navvy in return despises the shareholder as a sneaking thief. And it is not easy to see, after all, which is in the right. It is useless to dismiss these discrepancies by supposing that one class in the nation possesses a monopoly of morality and that the other classes simply rail at the virtue they cannot attain to, for this is obviously not the case. It is almost a commonplace, and certainly a fact that cannot be contested, that every class—however sinful or outcast in the eyes of others—contains within its ranks a large proportion of generous, noble,[Pg 152] self-sacrificing characters; so that the public opinion of one such class, however different from that of others, cannot at least be invalidated on the above ground. There are plenty of clergymen at this moment who are models of pastors—true shepherds of the people—though a large and increasing section of society persist in regarding priests as a kind of wolves in sheep's clothing. It is not uncommon to meet with professional thieves who are generous and open-handed to the last degree, and ready to part with their last penny to help a comrade in distress; with women living outside the bounds of conventional morality who are strongly religious in sentiment, and who regard atheists as really wicked people; with aristocrats who have as stern material in them as quarry-men; and even with bondholders and drawing-room loungers who are as capable of bravery and self-sacrifice as many a pitman or ironworker. Yet all these classes mentioned have their codes of morality, differing in greater or lesser degree from each other; and again the question forces itself upon us: Which of them all is the true and abiding code?

It may be said, with regard to this variation of codes within the same society, that, though various codes may exist at the same time, one only is really valid, namely, that which has embodied itself in the law—that the others have been rejected because they were unworthy. But, when we come to look into this matter of law, we see that the plea can hardly be maintained. Law [Pg 153]represents from age to age the code of the dominant or ruling class, slowly accumulated, no doubt, and slowly modified, but always added to and always administered by the ruling class. To-day the code of the dominant class may perhaps best be denoted by the word Respectability—and if we ask why this code has to a great extent overwhelmed the codes of the other classes and got the law on its side (so far that in the main it characterises those classes who do not conform to it as the criminal classes), the answer can only be: Because it is the code of the classes who are in power. Respectability is the code of those who have the wealth and the command, and as these have also the fluent pens and tongues, it is the standard of modern literature and the press. It is not necessarily a better standard than others, but it is the one that happens to be in the ascendant; it is the code of the classes that chiefly represent modern society; it is the code of the Bourgeoisie. It is different from the Feudal code of the past, of the knightly classes, and of Chivalry; it is different from the Democratic code of the future—of brotherhood and of equality; it is the code of the Commercial age—and its distinctive watchword is property.

The respectability of to-day is the respectability of property. There is nothing so respectable as being well-off. The Law confirms this: everything is on the side of the rich; justice is too expensive a thing for the poor man. Offences against the person hardly count for so much as[Pg 154] those against property. You may beat your wife within an inch of her life and only get three months; but if you steal a rabbit, you may be "sent" for years. So again, gambling by thousands on Change is respectable enough, but pitch and toss for half-pence in the streets is low, and must be dealt with by the police; while it is a mere commonplace to say that the high-class swindler is "received" in society from which a more honest but patch-coated brother would infallibly be rejected. As Walt Whitman has it, "There is plenty of glamour about the most damnable crimes and hoggish meannesses, special and general, of the feudal and dynastic world over there, with its personnel of lords and queens and courts, so well-dressed and handsome. But the people are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred."

Thus we see that though there are, for instance in the England of to-day, a variety of classes and a variety of corresponding codes of public opinion and morality, one of these codes, namely that of the ruling class whose watchword is property, is strongly in the ascendant. And we may fairly suppose that in any nation from the time when it first becomes divided into well-marked classes this is or has been the case. In one age—the commercial age—the code of the commercial or money-loving class is dominant; in another—the military—the code of the warrior class is dominant; in another—the religious—the code of the priestly class; and so on. And even[Pg 155] before any question of division into classes arises, while races are yet in a rudimentary and tribal state, the utmost diversity of custom and public opinion marks the one from the other.

What, then, are we to conclude from all these variations (and the far greater number which I have not mentioned) of the respect or stigma attaching to the same actions, not only among different societies in different ages or parts of the world, but even at any one time among different classes of the same society? Must we conclude that there is no such thing as a permanent moral code valid for all time; or must we still suppose that there is such a thing—though society has hitherto sought for it in vain?

I think it is obvious that there is no such thing as a permanent moral code—at any rate as applying to actions. Probably the respect or stigma attaching to particular classes of actions arose from the fact that these classes of actions were—or were thought to be—beneficial or injurious to the society of the time; but it is also clear that this good or bad name once created clings to the action long after the action has ceased in the course of social progress to be beneficial in the one case, or injurious in the other; and indeed long after the thinkers of the race have discovered the discrepancy. And so in a short time arises a great confusion in the popular mind between what is really good or evil for the race and what is reputed to be so—the bolder spirits who try to separate the two having to atone for this [Pg 156]confusion by their own martyrdom. It is also pretty clear that the actions which are beneficial or injurious to the race must by the nature of the case vary almost indefinitely with the changing conditions of the life of the race—what is beneficial in one age or under one set of conditions being injurious in another age or under other circumstances—so that a permanent or ever-valid code of moral action is not a thing to be expected, at any rate by those who regard morality as a result of social experience, and as a matter of fact is not a thing that we find existing. And, indeed, of those who regard morals as intuitive, there are few who have thought about the matter who would be inclined to say that any act in itself can be either right or wrong. Though there is a superficial judgment of this kind, yet when the matter comes to be looked into, the more general consent seems to be that the rightness or wrongness is in the motive. To kill (it is said) is not wrong, but to do so with murderous intent is; to take money out of another person's purse is in itself neither moral nor immoral—all depends upon whether permission has been given, or on what the relations between the two persons are; and so on. Obviously there is no mere act which under given conditions may not be justified, and equally obvious there is no mere act which under given conditions may not become unjustifiable. To talk, therefore, about virtues and vices as permanent and distinct classes of actions is illusory: there is no such distinction, except so far as a superficial and transient public[Pg 157] opinion creates it. The theatre of morality is in the passions, and there are (it is said) virtuous and vicious passions—eternally distinct from each other.

Here, then, we have abandoned the search for a permanent moral code among the actions; on the understanding that we are more likely to find such a thing among the passions. And I think it would be generally admitted that this is a move in the right direction. There are difficulties however here, and the matter is not one which renders itself up at once. Though, vaguely speaking, some passions seem nobler and more dignified than others, we find it very difficult, in fact impossible, to draw any strict line which shall separate one class, the virtuous, from the other class, the vicious. On the whole we place Prudence, Generosity, Chastity, Reverence, Courage among the virtues—and their opposites, as Rashness, Miserliness, Incontinence, Arrogance, Timidity, among the vices; yet we do not seem able to say that Prudence is always better than Rashness, Chastity than Incontinence, or Reverence than Arrogance. There are situations in which the less honoured quality is the most in place; and if the extreme of this is undesirable, the extreme of its opposite is undesirable too. Courage, it is commonly said, must not be carried over into foolhardiness; Chastity must not go so far as the monks of the early Church took it; there is a limit to the indulgence of the instinct of Reverence. In fact the less dignified passions are necessary [Pg 158]sometimes as a counterbalance and set-off to the more dignified, and a character devoid of them would be very insipid; just as among the members of the body, the less honoured have their place as well as the more honoured, and could not well be discarded.

Hence a number of writers, abandoning the attempt to draw a fixed line between virtuous and vicious passions, have boldly maintained that vices have their place as well as virtues, and that the true salvation lies in the golden mean. The [Greek: epieikeia] and [Greek: sôphrosunê] of the Greeks seem to have pointed to the idea of a blend or harmonious adjustment of all the powers as the perfection of character. Plutarch says (Essay on Moral Virtue), "This, then, is the function of practical reason following nature, to prevent our passions either going too far or too short.... Thus setting bound to the emotional currents, it creates in the unreasoning part of the soul moral habits which are the mean between excess and deficiency."

The English word "gentleman" seems to have once conveyed a similar idea. And Emerson, among others, maintains that each vice is only the "excess or acridity of a virtue," and says "the first lesson of history is the good of evil."

According to this view rightness or wrongness cannot be predicated of the passions themselves, but should rather be applied to the use of them, and to the way they are proportioned to each other and to circumstances. As, farther back, we left[Pg 159] the region of actions to look for morality in the passions that lie behind action, so now we leave the region of the passions to look for it in the power that lies behind the passions and gives them their place. This is a farther move in the same direction as before, and possibly will bring us to a more satisfactory conclusion. There are still difficulties, however, the chief ones lying in the want of definiteness which necessarily attaches to our dealings with these remoter tracts of human nature; and in our own defective knowledge of these tracts.

For these reasons, and as the subject is a complex and difficult one, I would ask the reader to dwell for a few minutes longer on the considerations which show that it is really as impossible to draw a fixed line between moral and immoral passions as it is between moral and immoral actions, and which therefore force us, if we are to find any ground of morality at all, to look for it in some further region of our nature.

Plato in his allegory of the soul, in the Phædrus, though he apparently divides the passions which draw the human chariot into two classes, the heavenward and the earthward—figured by the white horse and the black horse respectively—does not recommend that the black horse should be destroyed or dismissed, but only that he (as well as the white horse) should be kept under due control by the charioteer. By which he seems to intend that there is a power in man which stands above and behind the passions,[Pg 160] and under whose control alone the human being can safely move. In fact, if the fiercer and so-called more earthly passions were removed, half the driving force would be gone from the chariot of the human soul. Hatred may be devilish at times—but, after all, the true value of it depends on what you hate, on the use to which the passion is put. Anger, though inhuman at one time, is magnificent at another. Obstinacy may be out of place in a drawing-room, but it is the latest virtue on a battle-field, when an important position has to be held against the full brunt of the enemy. And Lust, though maniacal and monstrous in its aberrations, cannot in the last resort be separated from its divine companion, Love. To let the more amiable passions have entire sway notoriously does not do: to turn your cheek, too literally, to the smiter, is (pace Tolstoi) only to encourage smiting; and when society becomes so altruistic that everybody runs to fetch the coal-scuttle, we feel sure that something has gone wrong. The white-washed heroes of our biographies, with their many virtues and no faults, do not please us. We have an impression that the man without faults is, to say the least, a vague, uninteresting being—a picture without light and shade—and the conventional semi-pious classification of character into good and bad qualities (as if the good might be kept and the bad thrown away) seems both inadequate and false.

What the student of human nature rather has to do is not to divide the virtues (so-called) from[Pg 161] the vices (so-called), not to separate the black horse and the white horse, but to find out what is the relation of the one to the other—to see the character as a whole, and the mutual interdependence of its different parts—to find out what that power is which constitutes it a unity, whose presence and control makes the man and all his actions "right," and in whose absence (if it is really possible for it to be entirely absent) the man and his actions must be "wrong."

What we call vices, faults, defects, appear often as a kind of limitation: cruelty, for instance, as a limitation of human sympathy, prejudice as a blindness, a want of discernment; but it is just these limitations—in one form or another—which are the necessary conditions of the appearance of a human being in the world. If we are to act or live at all we must act and live under limits. There must be channels along which the stream is forced to run, else it will spread and lose itself aimlessly in all directions—and turn no mill-wheels. One man is disagreeable and unconciliatory—the directions in which his sympathy goes out to others are few and limited—yet there are situations in life (and everyone must know them) when a man who is able and willing to make himself disagreeable is invaluable: when a Carlyle is worth any number of Balaams.

Sometimes again vices, etc., appear as a kind of raw material from which the other qualities have to be formed, and without which, in a sense, they could not exist. Sensuality, for instance, underlies[Pg 162] all art and the higher emotions. Timidity is the defect of the sensitive imaginative temperament. Bluntness, stupid candor, and want of tact are indispensable in the formation of certain types of Reformers. But what would you have? Would you have a rabbit with the horns of a cow, or a donkey with the disposition of a spaniel? The reformer has not to extirpate his brusqueness and aggressiveness, but to see that he makes good use of these qualities; and the man has not to abolish his sensuality, but to humanise it.

And so on. Lecky, in his "History of Morals," shows how in society certain defects necessarily accompany certain excellences of character. "Had the Irish peasants been less chaste they would have been more prosperous," in his blunt assertion, which he supports by the contention that their early marriages (which render the said virtue possible) "are the most conspicuous proofs of the national improvidence, and one of the most fatal obstacles to industrial prosperity." Similarly he says that the gambling table fosters a moral nerve and calmness "scarcely exhibited in equal perfection in any other sphere"—a fact which Bret Harte has finely illustrated in his character of Mr. John Oakhurst in the "Outcasts of Poker Flat;" also that "the promotion of industrial veracity is probably the single form in which the growth of manufactures exercises a favorable influence upon morals;" while, on the other hand, "Trust in Providence, content and resignation in extreme poverty and suffering, the most genuine[Pg 163] amiability, and the most sincere readiness to assist their brethren, an adherence to their religious opinions which no persecutions and no bribes can shake, a capacity for heroic, transcendent, and prolonged self-sacrifice, may be found in some nations, in men who are habitual liars and habitual cheats." Again he points out that thriftiness and forethought—which, in an industrial civilisation like ours, are looked upon as duties "of the very highest order"—have at other times (when the teaching was "take no thought for the morrow") been regarded as quite the reverse, and concludes with the general remark that as society advances there is some loss for every gain that is made, and with the special indictment against "civilisation" that it is not favorable to the production of "self-sacrifice, enthusiasm, reverence, or chastity."

The point of all which is that the so-called vices and defects—whether we regard them as limitations or whether we regard them as raw materials of character, whether we regard them in the individual solely or whether we regard them in their relation to society—are necessary elements of human life, elements without which the so-called virtues could not exist; and that therefore it is quite impossible to separate vices and virtues into distinct classes with the latent idea involved that one class may be retained and the other in course of time got rid of. Defects and bad qualities will not be treated so—they clamour for their rights and will not be denied; they effect a [Pg 164]lodgment in us, and we have to put up with them. Like the grain of sand in the oyster, we are forced to make pearls of them.

These are the precipices and chasms which give form to the mountain. Who wants a mountain sprawling indifferently out on all sides, without angle or break, like the oceanic tide-wave of which one cannot say whether it is a hill or a plain? And if you want to grow a lily, chastely white and filling the air with its fragrance, will you not bury the bulb of it deep in the dirt to begin with?

Acknowledging, then, that it is impossible to hold permanently to any line of distinction between good and bad passions, there remains no course for us but to accept both, and to make use of them—redeeming them, both good and bad, from their narrowness and limitation by so doing—to make use of them in the service of humanity. For as dirt is only matter in the wrong place, so evil in man consists only in actions or passions which are uncontrolled by the human within him, and undedicated to its service. The evil consists not in the actions or passions themselves, but in the fact that they are inhumanly used. The most unblemished virtue erected into a barrier between one self and a suffering brother or sister—the whitest marble image, howsoever lovely, set up in the Holy Place of the temple of Man, where the spirit alone should dwell—becomes blasphemy and a pollution.

Wherein exactly this human service consists[Pg 165] is another question. It may be, and, as the reader would gather, probably is, a matter which at the last eludes definition. But though it may elude exact statement, that is no reason why approximations should not be made to the statement of it; nor is its ultimate elusiveness of intellectual definition any proof that it may not become a real and vital force within the man, and underlying inspiration of his actions. To take the two considerations in order. In the first place, as we saw from the beginning, the experience of society is continually leading it to classify actions into beneficial and harmful, good and bad; and thus moral codes are formed which eat their way from the outside into the individual man and become part of him. These codes may be looked upon as approximations in each age to a statement of human service; but, as we have seen, they are by the nature of the case very imperfect; and since the very conditions of the problem are continually changing, it seems obvious that a final and absolute solution of it by this method is impossible. The second way in which man works towards a solution is by the expansion and growth of his own consciousness, and is ultimately by far the most important—though the two methods have doubtless continually to be corrected by each other. In fact, as man actually forms a part of society externally, so he comes to know and feel himself a part of society through his inner nature. Gradually, and in the lapse of ages, through the development of his sympathetic relation with his[Pg 166] fellows, the individual man enters into a wider and wider circle of life; the joys and sorrows, the experiences, of his fellows become his own joys and sorrows, his own experiences; he passes into a life which is larger than his own individual life; forces flow in upon him which determine his actions, not for results which return to him directly, but for results which can only return to him indirectly and through others; at last the ground of humanity, as it were, reveals itself within him, the region of human equality—and his actions come to flow directly from the very same source which regulates and inspires the whole movement of society. At this point the problem is solved. The growth has taken place from within; it is not of the nature of an external compulsion, but of an inward compunction. By actual consciousness the man has taken on an ever-enlarging life, and at last the life of humanity, which has no fixed form, no ever-valid code; but is itself the true life, surpassing definition, yet inspiring all actions and passions, all codes and forms, and determining at last their place.

It is the gradual growth of this supreme life in each individual which is the great and indeed the only hope of Society—it is that for which Society exists: a life which so far from dwarfing individuality enhances immensely its power, causing the individual to move with the weight of the universe behind him—and exalting what were once his little peculiarities and defects into the splendid manifestations of his humanity.

[Pg 167]

To return then for a moment to the practical bearing of this on the question before us, we see that so soon as we have abandoned all codes of morals there remains nothing for us but to put all our qualities and defects to human use, and to redeem them by so doing. Our defects are our entrances into life, and the gateway of all our dealings with others. Think what it is to be plain and homely. The very word suggests an endearment, and a liberty of access denied to the faultlessly handsome. Our very evil passions, so called, are not things to be ashamed of, but things to look straight in the face and to see what they are good for—for a use can be found for them, that is certain. The man should see that he is worthy of his passion, as the mountain should rear its crest conformable to the height of the precipice which bounds it. Is it women? let him see that he is a magnanimous lover. Is it ambition? let him take care that it be a grand one. Is it laziness? let it redeem him from the folly of unrest, to become heaven-reflecting, like a lake among the hills. Is it closefistedness? let it become the nurse of a true economy.

The more complicated, pronounced, or awkward the defect is the finer will be the result when it has been thoroughly worked up. Love of approbation is difficult to deal with. Through sloughs of duplicity, of concealment, of vanity, it leads its victim. It sucks his sturdy self-life, and leaves him flattened and bloodless. Yet once mastered, once fairly torn out, cudgeled, and left[Pg 168] bleeding on the road (for this probably has to be done with every vice or virtue some time or other), it will rise up and follow you, carrying a magic key round its neck, meek and serviceable now, instead of dangerous and demoniac as before.

Deceit is difficult to deal with. In some sense it is the worst fault that can be. It seems to disorganise and ultimately to destroy the character. Yet I am bold to say that this defect has its uses. Severely examined perhaps it will be found that no one can live a day free from it. And beyond that—is not "a noble dissimulation" part and parcel of the very greatest characters: like Socrates, "the white soul in a satyr form"? When the divine has descended among men has it not always, like Moses, worn a veil before its face? and what is Nature herself but one long and organised system of deception?

Veracity has an opposite effect. It knits all the elements of a man's character—rendering him solid rather than fluid; yet carried out too literally and pragmatically it condenses and solidifies the character overmuch, making the man woodeny and angular. And even of that essential Truth (truth to the inward and ideal perfection) which more than anything else perhaps constitutes a man—it is to be remembered that even here there must be a limitation. No man can in act or externally be quite true to the ideal—though in spirit he may be. If he is to live in this world and be mortal, it must be by virtue of some partiality, some defect.

[Pg 169]

And so again—since there is an analogy between the Individual and Society—may we not conclude that as the individual has ultimately to recognise his so-called evil passions and find a place and a use for them, society also has to recognise its so-called criminals and discern their place and use? The artist does not omit shadows from his canvas; and the wise statesman will not try to abolish the criminal from society—lest haply he be found to have abolished the driving force from his social machine.[37]

From what has now been said it is quite clear that in general we call a man a criminal, not because he violates any eternal code of morality—for there exists no such thing—but because he violates the ruling code of his time, and this depends largely on the ideal of the time. The Spartans appear to have permitted theft because they thought that thieving habits in the community fostered military dexterity and discouraged the accumulation of private wealth. They looked upon the latter as a great evil. But to-day the accumulation of private wealth is our great good and the thief is looked upon as the evil. When however we find, as the historians of to-day teach us, that society is now probably passing through a parenthetical stage of private property from a stage of communism in the past to a stage of more highly developed communism in the future,[Pg 170] it becomes clear that the thief (and the poacher before-mentioned) is that person who is protesting against the too-exclusive domination of a passing ideal. Whatever should we do without him? He is keeping open for us, as Hinton I think expresses it, the path to a regenerate society, and is more useful to that end than many a platform orator. He it is that makes Care to sit upon the Crupper of Wealth, and so, in course of time, causes the burden and bother of private property to become so intolerable that society gladly casts it down on common ground. Vast as is the machinery of Law, and multifarious the ways in which it seeks to crush the thief, it has signally failed, and fails ever more and more. The thief will win. He will get what he wants, but (as usual in human life!) in a way and in a form very different from what he expected.

And when we regard the thief in himself, we cannot say that we find him less human than other classes of society. The sentiment of large bodies of thieves is highly communistic among themselves; and if they thus represent a survival from an earlier age, they might also be looked upon as the precursors of a better age in the future. They have their pals in every town, with runs and refuges always open, and are lavish and generous to a degree to their own kind. And if they look upon the rich as their natural enemies and fair prey, a view which it might be difficult to gainsay, many of them at any rate are animated by a good[Pg 171] deal of the Robin Hood spirit, and are really helpful to the poor.

I need not I think quote that famous passage from Lecky in which he shows how the prostitute, through centuries of suffering and ill-fame, has borne the curse and contempt of Society in order that her more fortunate sister might rejoice in the achievement of a pure marriage. The ideal of a monogamic union has been established in a sense directly by the slur cast upon the free woman. If, however, as many people think, a certain latitude in sexual relations is not only admissible but, in the long run, and within bounds, desirable, it becomes clear that the prostitute is that person who against heavy odds, and at the cost of a real degradation to herself, has clung to a tradition which, in itself good, might otherwise have perished in the face of our devotion to the splendid ideal of the exclusive marriage. There has been a time in history when the prostitute (if the word can properly be used in this connection) has been glorified, consecrated to the temple-service and honoured of men and gods (the hierodouloi of the Greeks, the kodeshoth and kodeshim of the Bible, etc.) There has also been a time when she has been scouted and reviled. In the future there will come a time when, as free companion, really free from the curse of modern commercialism, and sacred and respected once more, she will again be accepted by society and take her place with the rest.

And so with other cases. On looking back[Pg 172] into history we find that almost every human impulse has at some age been held in esteem and allowed full play; thus man came to recognise its beauty and value. But then, lest it should come (as it surely would) to tyrannise over the rest, it has been dethroned, and so in a later age the same quality is scouted and banned. Last of all it has to find its perfect human use and to take its place with the rest. Up to the age of Civilisation (according to writers on primitive Society) the early tribes of mankind, though limited each in their habits, were essentially democratical in structure. In fact, nothing had occurred to make them otherwise. Each member stood on a footing of equality with the rest; individual men had not in their hands an arbitrary power over others; and the tribal life and standard ruled supreme. And when, in the future and on a much higher plane, the true Democracy comes, this equality which has so long been in abeyance will be restored, not only among men but also, in a sense, among all the passions and qualities of manhood: none will be allowed to tyrannise over others, but all will have to be subject to the supreme life of humanity. The chariot of Man instead of two horses will have a thousand; but they will all be under control of the charioteer. Meanwhile it may not be extravagant to suppose that all through the Civilisation-period the so-called criminals are keeping open the possibility of a return to this state of society. They are preserving, in a rough and unattractive husk[Pg 173] it may be, the precious seed of a life which is to come in the future; and are as necessary and integral a part of society in the long run as the most respected and most honoured of its members at present.

The upshot then of it all is that "morals" as a permanent code of action have to be discarded. There exists no such permanent code. One age, one race, one class, one family, may have a code which the users of it consider valid, but only they consider it valid, and then only for a time. The Decalogue may have been a rough and useful ready-reckoner for the Israelites; but to us it admits of so many exceptions and interpretations that it is practically worthless. "Thou shalt not steal." Exactly; but who is to decide, as we saw at the outset, in what "stealing" consists? The question is too complicated to admit of an answer. And when we have caught our half-starved tramp "sneaking" a loaf, and are ready to condemn him, lo! Lycurgus pats him on the back, and the modern philosopher tells him that he is keeping open the path to a regenerate society! If the tramp had also been a philosopher, he would perhaps have done the same act not merely for his own benefit but for that of society, he would have committed a crime in order to save mankind.

There is nothing left but Humanity. Since there is no ever-valid code of morals we must sadly confess that there is no means of proving ourselves right and our neighbours wrong. In[Pg 174] fact the very act of thinking whether we are right (which implies a sundering of ourselves, even in thought, from others) itself introduces the element of wrongness; and if we are ever to be "right" at all, it must be at some moment when we fail to notice it—when we have forgotten our apartness from others and have entered into the great region of human equality. Equality—in that region all human defects are redeemed; they all find their place. To love your neighbour as yourself is the whole law and the prophets; to feel that you are "equal" with others, that their lives are as your life, that your life is as theirs—even in what trifling degree we may experience such things—is to enter into another life which includes both sides; it is to pass beyond the sphere of moral distinctions, and to trouble oneself no more with them. Between lovers there are no duties and no rights; and in the life of humanity, there is only an instinctive mutual service expressing itself in whatever way may be best at the time. Nothing is forbidden, there is nothing which may not serve. The law of Equality is perfectly flexible, is adaptable to all times and places, finds a place for all the elements of character, justifies and redeems them all without exception; and to live by it is perfect freedom. Yet not a law: but rather as said, a new life, transcending the individual life, working through it from within, lifting the self into another sphere, beyond corruption, far over the world of Sorrow.

The effort to make a distinction between acting[Pg 175] for self and acting for one's neighbor is the basis of "morals." As long as a man feels an ultimate antagonism between himself and society, as long as he tries to hold his own life as a thing apart from that of others, so long must the question arise whether he will act for self or for those others. Hence flow a long array of terms—distinctions of right and wrong, duty, selfishness, self-renunciation, altruism, etc. But when he discovers that there is no ultimate antagonism between himself and society; when he finds that the gratification of every desire which he has or can have may be rendered social, or beneficial to his fellows, by being used at the right time and place, and on the other hand that every demand made upon him by society will and must gratify some portion of his nature, some desire of his heart—why, all the distinctions collapse again; they do not hold water any more. A larger life descends upon him, which includes both sides, and prompts actions in accordance with an unwritten and unimagined law. Such actions will sometimes be accounted "selfish" by the world; sometimes they will be accounted "unselfish"; but they are neither, or—if you like—both; and he who does them concerns himself not with the names that may be given to them. The law of Equality includes all the moral codes, and is the standpoint which they cannot reach, but which they all aim at.

Judged by this final standard then, it may doubtless fairly be said—since we all fall short[Pg 176] of it—that we are all criminals, and deserve a good hiding; and even that some of us are greater criminals than others. Only of this real criminality the actual moral and legal codes afford but ineffectual tests. I may be a far worse or more self-included ("idiotic" or brutal) man than you, but the mere fact that I have violated the laws and been clapped into prison does not prove it. There may be, probably is, a real and eternal difference represented by the words Right and Wrong, but no statement that we can make will ever quite avail to define it. One use, however, of all these laws and codes in the past, imperfect though they were, may have been to gradually excite the consciousness in the individual of his opposition to society, and so prepare the way for a true reconcilement. As Paul says, "I had not known sin, but by the law," and, if we had not been cudgeled and bruised for centuries by this rough bludgeon of social convention, we should not now be so sensitive as we are to the effect of our actions upon our neighbours, nor so ready for a social life in the future which shall be superior to law.

Of course, the ultimate reconcilement of the individual with society—of the unit Man with the mass-Man—involves the subordination of the desires, their subjection to the true self. And this is a most important point. It is no easy lapse that is here suggested, from morality into a mere jungle of human passion, but a toilsome and long ascent—involving for a time at any rate a [Pg 177]determined self-control—into ascendancy over the passions; it involves the complete mastery, one by one, of them all, and the recognition and allowance of them only because they are mastered. And it is just this training and subjection of the passions—as of winged horses which are to draw the human chariot—which necessarily forms such a long and painful process of human evolution. The old moral codes are a part of this process; but they go on the plan of extinguishing some of the passions—seeing that it is sometimes easier to shoot a restive horse than to ride him. We however do not want to be lords of dead carrion, but of living powers; and every steed that we can add to our chariot makes our progress through creation so much the more splendid, providing Phoebus indeed hold the reins, and not the incapable Phaeton.

And by becoming thus one with the social self, the individual, instead of being crushed, is made far vaster, far grander than before. The renunciation (if it must be so called) which he has to accept in abandoning merely individual ends is immediately compensated by the far more vivid life he now enters into. For every force of his nature can now be utilised. Planting himself out by contrast he stands all the firmer because he has a left foot as well as a right, and when he acts, he acts not half-heartedly as one afraid, but, as it were, with the whole weight of Humanity behind him. In abandoning his exclusive individuality he becomes for the first time a real[Pg 178] and living individual; and in accepting as his own the life of others he becomes aware of a life in himself that has no limit and no end. That the self of any one man is capable of an infinite gradation from the most petty and exclusive existence to the most magnificent and inclusive seems almost a truism. The one extreme is disease and death, the other is life everlasting. When the tongue for example—which is a member of the body—regards itself as a purely separate existence for itself alone, it makes a mistake, it suffers an illusion, and descends into its pettiest life. What is the consequence? Thinking that it exists apart from the other members, it selects food just such as shall gratify its most local self, it endeavours just to titillate its own sense of taste; and living and acting thus, ere long it ruins that very sense of taste, poisons the system with improper food, and brings about disease and death. Yet, if healthy, how does the tongue act? Why, it does not run counter to its own sense of taste, or stultify itself. It does not talk about sacrificing its own inclinations for the good of the body and the other members; but it just acts as being one in interest with them and they with it. For the tongue is a muscle, and therefore what feeds it feeds all the other muscles; and the membrane of the tongue is a prolongation of the membrane of the stomach, and that is how the tongue knows what the stomach will like; and the tongue is nerves and blood, and so the tongue may act for nerves and blood all over the body, and so on.[Pg 179] Therefore the tongue may enter into a wider life than that represented by the mere local sense of taste, and experiences more pleasure often in the drinking of a glass of water which the whole body wants, than in the daintiest sweetmeat which is for itself alone.

Exactly so man in a healthy state does not act for himself alone, practically cannot do so. Nor does he talk cant about "serving his neighbors," etc. But he simply acts for them as well as for himself, because they are part and parcel of his life—bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; and in doing so he enters into a wider life, finds a more perfect pleasure, and becomes more really a man than ever before. Every man contains in himself the elements of all the rest of humanity. They lie in the background; but they are there. In the front he has his own special faculty developed—his individual façade, with its projects, plans and purposes: but behind sleeps the Demos-life with far vaster projects and purposes. Some time or other to every man must come the consciousness of this vaster life.

The true Democracy, wherein this larger life will rule society from within—obviating the need of an external government—and in which all characters and qualities will be recognised and have their freedom, waits (a hidden but necessary result of evolution) in the constitution of human nature itself. In the pre-Civilisation period these vexed questions of "morals" practically did not exist; simply because in that period the individual[Pg 180] was one with his tribe and moved (unconsciously) by the larger life of his tribe. And in the post-Civilisation period, when the true Democracy is realised, they will not exist, because then the man will know himself a part of humanity at large, and will be consciously moved by forces belonging to these vaster regions of his being. The moral codes and questionings belong to Civilisation, they are part of the forward effort, the struggle, the suffering, and the temporary alienation from true life, which that term implies.[38]


[34] Yet there is no doubt that lasting and passionate love may exist between two persons thus nearly related. The danger to the health of the offspring from occasional in-breeding of the kind appears to arise chiefly from the accentuation of infirmities common to the two parents. In a state of society free from the diseases of the civilisation-period, such a danger would be greatly reduced.

[35] Modern writers fixing their regard on the physical side of this love (necessary no doubt here, as elsewhere, to define and corroborate the spiritual) have entered their protest as against the mere obscenity into which the thing fell—for instance in the days of Martial—but have missed the profound significance of the heroic attachment itself. It is, however, with the ideals that we are just now concerned and not with their disintegration.

[36] In the later Egyptian centuries vivisection apparently became an approved practice.

[37] The derivation of the word "wicked" seems uncertain. May it be suggested that it is connected with "wick" or "quick," meaning alive?

[38] For further on the same subject see the last chapter, infra, on "The New Morality."

[Pg 181]

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