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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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CUSTOM

"Whatever is off the hinges of custom is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; though how unreasonably, for the most part, God knows."—Montaigne.

Every human being grows up inside a sheath of custom, which enfolds it as the swathing clothes enfold the infant. The sacred customs of its early home, how fixed and immutable they appear to the child! It surely thinks that all the world in all times has proceeded on the same lines which bound its tiny life. It regards a breach of these rules (some of them at least) as a wild step in the dark, leading to unknown dangers.

Nevertheless its mental eyes have hardly opened ere it perceives, not without a shock, that whereas in the family dining-room the meat always precedes the pudding, below-stairs and in the cottage the pudding has a way of coming before the meat; that, whereas its father puts the manure on the top of his seed-potatoes in spring, his neighbor invariably places his potatoes on top of the manure. All its confidence in the sanctity[Pg 207] of its home life and the truth of things is upset. Surely there must be a right and a wrong way of eating one's dinner or of setting potatoes, and surely, if any one, "father" or "mother" must know what is right. The elders have always said (and indeed it seems only reasonable) that by this time of day everything has been so thoroughly worked over that the best methods of ordering our life—food, dress, domestic practices, social habits, etc., have long ago been determined. If so, why these divergencies in the simplest and most obvious matters?

And then other things give way. The sacred seeming-universal customs in which we were bred turn out to be only the practices of a small and narrow class or caste; or they prove to be confined to a very limited locality, and must be left behind when we set out on our travels; or they belong to the tenets of a feeble religious sect; or they are just the products of one age in history and no other. And the question forces itself upon us, Are there really no natural boundaries? has not our life anywhere been founded on reason and necessity, but only on arbitrary habit? What is more important than food, yet in what human matter is there more unaccountable divergence of practice? The Highlander flourishes on oatmeal, which the Sheffield ironworker would rather starve than eat; the fat snail which the Roman country gentleman once so prized now crawls unmolested in the Gloucestershire peasant's garden; rabbits are taboo in Germany; frogs are unspeakable[Pg 208] in England; sauer-kraut is detested in France; many races and gangs of people are quite certain they would die if deprived of meat, others think spirits of some kind a necessity, while to others again both these things are an abomination. Every country district has its local practices in food, and the peasants look with the greatest suspicion on any new dish, and can rarely be induced to adopt it. Though it has been abundantly proved that many of the British fungi are excellent eating, such is the force of custom that the mushroom alone is ever publicly recognised, while curiously enough it is said that in some other countries where the claims of other agarics are allowed the mushroom itself is not used! Finally, I feel myself (and the gentle reader probably feels the same) that I would rather die than subsist on insects, such is the deep-seated disgust we experience towards this class of food. Yet it is notorious that many races of respectable people adopt a diet of this sort, and only lately a book has been published giving details of the excellent provender of the kind that we habitually overlook—tasty morsels of caterpillars and beetles, and so forth! And indeed, when one comes to think of it, what can it be but prejudice which causes one to eat the periwinkle and reject the land-snail, or to prize the lively prawn and proscribe the cheerful grasshopper?

It is useless to say that these local and other divergencies are rooted in the necessities of the localities and times in which they occur. They[Pg 209] are nothing of the kind. For the most part they are mere customs, perhaps grown originally out of some necessity, but now perpetuated from simple habit and inherent human laziness. This can perhaps best be illustrated by going below the human to the kingdom of the animals. If customs are strong among men they are far stronger among animals. The sheep lives on grass, the cat lives on mice and other animal food. And it is generally assumed that the respective diets are the most "natural" in each case, and those on which the animals in question will readiest thrive, and indeed that they could not well live on any other. But nothing of the kind. For cats can be bred up to live on oatmeal and milk with next to no meat; and a sheep has been known to get on very comfortably on a diet of port wine and mutton chops! Dogs, whose "natural" food in the wild state is of the animal kind, are undoubtedly much healthier (at any rate in the domestic state) when kept on farinaceous substances with little or no meat, and indeed they take so kindly to a vegetable diet that they sometimes become perfect nuisances in a garden—eating strawberries, gooseberries, peas, etc., freely off the beds when they have once learned the habit. Any one, in fact, who has kept many pets knows what an astonishing variety of food they may be made to adopt, though each animal in the wild state has the most intensely narrow prejudices on the subject, and will perish rather than overstep the customs of its tribe. Thus pheasants[Pg 210] will eat fern-roots in winter when snow covers the ground, but the grouse "don't eat fern-roots," and die in consequence. A wolf of an inquiring turn of mind would probably find strawberries and peas as good food as a dog does, but it is practically certain that any ordinary member of the genus would perish in a garden full of the same if deprived of his customary bones.

All this seems to indicate what an immensely important part mere custom plays in the life of men and animals. The main part of the power which man acquires over the animals depends upon his establishing habits in them which, once established, they never think of violating: and the almost insuperable nature of this force in animals throws back light on the part it plays in human life.

Of course, I am not contending in the above remarks upon food that there is no physiological difference between a dog and a sheep in the matter of their digestive organs, and that the one is not by the nature of its body more fitted for one kind of food than the other; but rather that we should not neglect the importance of mere habit in such matters. Custom changed first; the change of physiological structure followed slowly after. What happened was probably something like this. Some time in the far back past a group of animals, driven perhaps by necessity, took to hunting in packs in the woods; it developed a modified physical structure in consequence, and special habits which in the course of time became[Pg 211] deeply fixed in the race. Another group saved its life by taking to grazing. Grass is poor food; but it was the only chance this group had, and in time it got so accustomed to eating grass that it could not imagine any other form of diet, and at first would refuse even oysters when placed in its way! Another group saw an opening in trees; it developed a long neck and became the giraffe. But the fact that the giraffe lives on leaves, and the sheep on grass, and the wolf on animal matter, and that custom is in each so strong that at first the creature will refuse any other kind of diet, does not of itself prove that that diet is the best or most physiologically suitable for it. In other words, it is an assumption to suppose that "adaptation to environment" is the sole or even the main factor in the constitution of well-marked varieties or genera; for this is to neglect (among other things) the force of mere use or wont, which has about the same import in race-growth that momentum has in dynamics; and causes the race, once started in any direction, to maintain its line of movement—and often in despite of its environment—even for thousands of years.

Returning to man we see him enveloped in a myriad customs—local customs, class customs, race customs, family customs, religious customs; customs in food, customs in clothing, customs in furniture, form of habitation, industrial production, art, social and municipal and national life, etc.; and the question arises, Where is the grain of necessity which underlies it all? How much[Pg 212] in each case is due to a real fitness in nature, and how much to mere otiose habit! The first thing that meets my eye in glancing out of the window is a tile on a neighboring roof. Why are tiles made S-shaped in some localities and flat in others? Surely the conditions of wind and rain are much the same in all places. Perhaps far back there was a reason, but now nothing remains but—custom. Why do we sit on chairs instead of on the floor, as the Japanese do, or on cushions like the Turk? It is a custom, and perhaps it suits with our other customs. The more we look into our life and consider the immense variety of habit in every department of it—even under conditions to all appearances exactly similar—the more are we impressed by the absence of any very serious necessity in the forms we ourselves are accustomed to. Each race, each class, each section of the population, each unit even, vaunts its own habits of life as superior to the rest, as the only true and legitimate forms; and peoples and classes will go to war with each other in assertion of their own special beliefs and practices; but the question that rather presses upon the ingenuous and inquiring mind is, whether any of us have got hold of much true life at all?—whether we are not rather mere multitudinous varieties of caddis-worms shuffled up in the cast-off skins and clothes and débris of those who have gone before us, and with very little vitality of our own perceptible within? How many times a day do we perform an action that is authentic[Pg 213] and not a mere mechanical piece of repetition? Indeed, if our various actions and practices were authentic and flowing from the true necessity, perhaps we shouldn't quarrel with each other over them so often as we do.

And then to come to the subject of morals. These also are customs—divergent to the last degree among different races, at different times, or in different localities; customs for which it is often difficult to find any ground in reason or the "fitness of things." Thieving is supposed to be discountenanced among us, yet our present-day trade-morality sanctions it in a thousand different forms; and the respectable usurer (who can hardly be said to be other than a thief) takes a high place at the table of life. To hunt the earth for game has from time immemorial been considered the natural birthright and privilege of man, until the landlord class (whom wicked Socialists now denounce!) invented the crime of poaching and hanged men for it. As to marriage customs, in different times and among different peoples, they have been simply innumerable. And here the sense of inviolability in each case is most powerful. The severest penalties, the most stringent public opinion, biting deep down into the individual conscience, enforce the various codes of various times and places; yet they all contradict each other. Polygamy in one country, polyandry in the next; brother and sister marriage allowed at one time, marriage with your mother's cousin forbidden at another;[Pg 214] prostitution sacred in the temples of antiquity, trampled under foot in the gutters of our great cities of to-day; monogamy respectable in one land, a mark of class-inferiority in another; celibacy scorned by some sections of people, accepted as the highest state by others; and so on.

What are we to conclude from all this? Is it possible, once we have fairly faced the immense variety of human life in every department of arts, manners, and morals—a variety, too, existing in a vast number of cases under conditions to all intents and purposes quite similar—is it possible ever again to suppose that the particular practices which we are accustomed to are very much better (or, indeed, very much worse) than the particular practices which others are accustomed to? We have been born, as I said at first, into a sheath of custom which enfolds us with our swaddling-clothes. When we begin to grow to manhood we see what sort of a thing it is which surrounds us. It is an old husk now. It does not bear looking into; it is rotten, it is inconsistent, it is thoroughly indefensible; yet very likely we have to accept it. The caddis-worm has grown to its tube and cannot leave it. A little spark of vitality amid a heap of dead matter, all it can do is to make its dwelling a little more convenient in shape for itself, or (like the coral insect) to prolong its growth in the most favourable direction for those that come after. The class, the caste, the locality, the age in which we were born has determined our form of life, and in that form very[Pg 215] likely we must remain. But a change has come over our minds. The vauntings of earlier days we abandon. We, at any rate, are no better than anybody else, and at best, alas! are only half alive.

If these, then, are our conclusions, is it not with justice that children and early races keep so rigidly to the narrow path that custom has made for them? Have they not an instinctive feeling that to forsake custom would be to launch out on a trackless sea where life would cease to have any special purpose or direction, and morality would be utterly gulfed? Custom for them is the line of their growth; it is the coral-branch from the end of which the next insect builds; it is the hardening bark of the tree-twig which determines the direction of the growing shoot. It may be merely arbitrary, this custom, but that they do not know; its appearance of finality and necessity may be quite illusive; but the illusion is necessary for life, and the arbitrariness is just what makes one life different from another. Till he grows to manhood, the human being, he cannot do without it.

And when he grows to manhood, what then? Why he dies, and so becomes alive. The caddis-fly leaves his tube behind and soars into the upper air; the creature abandons its barnacle existence on the rock and swims at large in the sea. For it is just when we die to custom that, for the first time, we rise into the true life of humanity; it is just when we abandon all prejudice of our own[Pg 216] superiority over others, and become convinced of our entire indefensibleness, that the world opens out with comrade faces in all directions; and when we perceive how entirely arbitrary is the setting of our own life, that the whole structure collapses on which our apartness from others rests, and we pass easily and at once into the great ocean of freedom and equality.

This is, as it were, a new departure for man, for which even to-day the old world, overlaid with myriad customs now brought into obvious and open conflict with each other, is evidently preparing. The period of human infancy is coming to an end. Now comes the time of manhood and true vitality.

Possibly this is a law of history, that when man has run through every variety of custom a time comes for him to be freed from it—that is, he uses it indifferently according to his requirements, and is no longer a slave to it; all human practices find their use, and none are forbidden. At this point, whenever reached, "morals" come to an end and humanity takes its place—that is to say, there is no longer any code of action, but the one object of all action is the deliverance of the human being and the establishment of equality between oneself and another, the entry into a new life, which new life when entered into is glad and perfect, because there is no more any effort or strain in it; but it is the recognition of oneself in others, eternally.

Far as custom has carried man from man,[Pg 217] yet when at last in the ever-branching series the complete human being is produced, it knows at once its kinship with all the other forms. "I have passed my spirit in determination and compassion round the whole earth, and found only equals and lovers." More, it knows its kinship with the animals. It sees that it is only habit, an illusion of difference, that divides; and it perceives after all that it is the same human creature that flies in the air, and swims in the sea, or walks biped upon the land.


[Pg 218]

The two following chapters—though not part of the original work—are included in the present edition because they form continuations or expansions of the chapters which criticise modern Science and modern Morality respectively. The chapter entitled "A Rational and Humane Science" is in fact a reprint of an address given before the Humanitarian League in London in 1896. It was first included in the present volume in 1906. The chapter entitled "The New Morality" is, with slight alterations, a reprint of an article which appeared in the Albany Review in September, 1907, under the title "Morality under Socialism"; and it now appears in the present book for the first time.


[Pg 219]

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