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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 tendency of the Evolution Theory, as it penetrates human thought, is to rub out lines—the old lines of formal classification. We no longer now put in a class apart those animals which have horns or cloven hooves, because we find that continuous descent and close kinship weave relations which are not bounded by horns or hooves. And, for a not dissimilar reason, modern thought, based on the theory of evolution, is tending to rub out the hard and fast lines between moral Right and Wrong—the old formal classifications of actions as some in their nature good, and some in their nature bad.

The Eastern, or at least Indian, thought and religion rubbed out these lines long ago. Its philosophy indeed was founded on a theory of Evolution—the continuous evolution or emanation of the Many from the One. It could not therefore regard any class of beings or creatures as essentially bad, or any class of actions as essentially wrong, since all sprang from a common Root. The only essential evil was ignorance (avidya)—that is, the fact of the[Pg 244] being or creature not knowing or perceiving its emanation from, or kinship with, the One—and of course any action done under this condition of avidya, however outwardly correct, was essentially wrong; while on the other hand all actions done by beings fully realising and conscious of their union with the One were necessarily right.

Of this attitude towards Right and Wrong there are abundant instances in the Upanishads. The choice of the path does not lie between Good and Bad, as in the Pilgrim's Progress, but it lies above and in a region transcending them both. "By the serenity of his thoughts a man blots out all actions, whether good or bad."[42] "He does not distress himself with the thought, Why did I not do what is good? Why did I do what is bad?"[43] All religions indeed, by the very fact of their being religions, have indicated a sphere above morality, to which their followers shall and must aspire. What else is St. Paul's reiterated charge to escape from the dominion of sin and law, into the glorious liberty of the children of God? And in all ages the great mystics—those who stand near the fountain-sources of evolution and emanation—have seen and said the same. Says Spinoza:—"With regard to good and evil, these terms indicate nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions[Pg 245] which we form from the comparison of one thing with another. For one and the same thing may at the same time be both good and evil, or indifferent."[44]

Here indeed, in these pregnant words, we come upon the very root of the matter. A thing, an action, may be called good or bad in respect to a certain purpose or object; but in itself, No. Wine may be good for the encouragement of sociability, but may be bad for the liver. The Sabbath-day may be pronounced a beneficial institution from some points of view, but not from others. A scrupulous respect for private property may certainly be a help to settled social life; but the practice of thieving—as recommended by Plato—may be very useful to check the lust of private riches. To speak of wine as in its nature good or bad is manifestly absurd; and the same of a pious respect for private property or the Sabbath-day. These things are good under certain conditions or for certain purposes, and bad under other conditions or for other purposes. But of course it belongs and goes with the brute externalising tendency of the mind, to stereotype the actual material thing—which should be only the vehicle of the spirit—and give it a character and a cult as good or bad. The Sabbath ceases to be made for man, and man is made for the Sabbath. Law, Custom, Pharisaism, and Self-righteousness spring up and usurp the sphere of morality, and all the histories of savage[Pg 246] and civilised nations, with their endless fetishes and taboos and superstitions and ceremonies, and caste-marks and phylacteries, and petty regulations and proprieties,—including bitter scorn and persecution of those who do not fulfil them,—are but illustrations of this process.

All the prophets and saviours of the world have been for the Spirit as against the letter—and the teachings of all religions have in their turn become literalised and fossilised! Perhaps there has been no greater anti-literal than Jesus of Nazareth, and yet perhaps no religion has become more a thing of forms and dogmas than that which passes under his name. Even his counsels of Gentleness and Love—which one would indeed have thought might escape this process—have been corrupted into mere prescriptions of morality, such as those of Non-resistance, and of philanthropic Altruism.

It seems strange indeed that so great a man as Tolstoy should have lent himself to this process—to the pinning down of the excellent spirit of Christ (who by the way was man enough to drive the money-changers out of the Temple) to a mere formula, as one might pin a dragon-fly to a labelled card—Thou shalt not use Violence: thou shalt not Resist! And all the while to cleave to a formula only means to admit the evil in some other shape which the formula does not meet—to forswear the stick only means to resort to rebuke and sarcasm in self-defence, which may inflict more pain and a deeper scar, and in some[Pg 247] cases more injury, than the stick; or if self-defence in any shape is quite forsworn then that only means to resign and abandon one's place in the world completely.

And the same of the somewhat spooney Altruism, which was at one time much recommended as the maxim of conduct. For all the while it is notorious that the specially altruistic people are as a rule painfully dull and uninteresting, and afford far less life and charm to those around them than many who are frankly egotistic; and so by following a formula of Altruism it seems they wreck the very work they set before themselves to do—namely, that of making the world brighter!

Against these weaknesses of Christianity Nietzsche was a healthy reaction. It was he insisted on the terms "good" and "bad" being restored to their proper use, as terms of relation—"good" for what? "bad" for what? But his reaction against maudlin altruism and non-resistance led him towards a pitfall in the opposite direction, towards the erection of the worship of Force almost into a formula, Thou shalt use Violence, thou shalt Resist. His contempt for the feeble and the spooney and the knock-kneed and the humbug is very delightful and entertaining, and, as I say, healthy in the sense of reaction; but one does not get a very clear idea what the strength which Nietzsche glorifies is for, or whither it is going to lead. His blonde beasts and his laughing lions may represent the Will to Power; but Nietzsche seems to have felt, himself, that this[Pg 248] latter alone would not suffice, and so he passed on to his discovery or invention of the Beyond-man,—i.e. of a childlike being who, without argument, affirms and creates, and before whom institutions and conventions dissolve, as it were of their own accord.[45] This was a stroke of genius; but even so it leaves doubtful what the relation of such Beyond-men to each other may be, and whether, if they have no common source of life, their actions will not utterly cancel and destroy each other.

The truth is that Nietzsche never really penetrated to the realisation of that farther state of consciousness in which the deep underlying unity of man with Nature and his fellows is perceived and felt. He saw apparently that there is a life and an inspiration of life beyond all technical good and evil. But for some reason—partly because of the natural difficulty of the subject, partly perhaps because the Eastern outlook was uncongenial to his mind—he never found the solution which he needed; and his outline of the Superman remains cloudy and uncertain, vague and variously interpreted by followers and critics.

The question arises, What do we need? We are to-day, in this matter, in a somewhat parlous state. The old codes of Morality are moribund; the Ten Commandments command only a very[Pg 249] qualified assent; the Christian religion as a real inspiration of practical life and conduct is dead; the social conventions and Mrs. Grundy remain, feebly galling and officious. What are we to do? Are we to bolster up the old codes, in which we have largely ceased to believe, merely in order to have a code?—or are we to let them go?

Of course, if we have decided what the final purpose or life of Man is, then we may say that what is good for that purpose is finally "good," and what is bad for that purpose is finally "evil." The Eastern philosophy, as I have said, deciding that the final purpose of Man is identification with Brahm, declares all actions to be evil (even the most saintly) which are done by the self as separate from Brahm; and all actions as good which are done in the condition of vidya or conscious union. But here, though a final good and evil are allowed and acknowledged, as existing respectively in the conditions of vidya or avidya, those conditions altogether escape any external rule or classification.

Mr. Gilbert Chesterton, taking up this subject not long ago in a criticism[46] of Mr. Orage's little book on Nietzsche, said that all this talk about "beyond good and evil" was nonsense; that we must have some code; and that in effect, any code, even a bad one, was better than none. And one sees what he means. It is perfectly true, in a sense, that the harness, the shafts, and the[Pg 250] blinkers keep a large part of the world on the beaten road and out of the ditch, and that folk are always to be found who, rather than use their higher faculties, will rely on these external guides; but to encourage this kind of salvation by blinkers seems the very reverse of what ought to be done; and one might even ask whether salvation by such means is salvation at all—whether the ditch were not better!

Besides, what can we do? It is not so much that we are deliberately abandoning the codes as that they are abandoning us. With the gradual infiltration of new ideas, of Eastern thought, of Darwinian philosophy, of customs and creeds of races other than our own, with Bernard Shaw lecturing on the futility of the Ten Commandments, and so forth, it is not difficult to see that in a short while it will be impossible to rehabilitate any of the ancient codes or to give them a sanction and a sense of awe in the public mind. If with Gilbert Chesterton we should succeed in bolstering up such a thing for a time—well, it will only be for a time.

And the question is, whether the time has not really come for us to stand up—like sensible men and women—and do without rules; whether we cannot trust ourselves at last to throw aside the blinkers. The question is whether we cannot realise that solid and central life which underlies and yet surpasses all rules. For truly, if we cannot do this, our state is pitiable—having ceased to[Pg 251] believe in the letter of Morality, and yet unable to find its spirit!

It is here, then, that the New Morality comes in, as more or less clearly understood and expressed by the progressive sections to-day. Modern Socialism, in effect, taking up a position in its way somewhat similar to that of Eastern philosophy, says: Morality in its essence is not a code, but simply the realisation of the Common Life;[47] and that is a thing which is not foreign and alien to humanity, but very germane and natural to it—a thing so natural that without doubt it would be more in evidence than it is, did not the institutions and teachings of Western civilisation tend all along to deny and disguise it. To liberate this instinct of the Common Life, freeing it from hard and cramping rules, and to let it take its own form or forms—grafted on and varied of course by the personal and selective element of Affection and Sympathy—is the hope that lies before the world to-day for the solution of all sorts of moral and social problems.

And the more this position is thought over, the more, I believe, will it commend itself. The sense of organic unity, of the common welfare, the instinct of Humanity, or of general helpfulness, are things which run in all directions through the very fibre of our individual and social life—just as they do through that of the gregarious animals.[Pg 252] In a thousand ways: through heredity and the fact that common ancestral blood flows in our veins—though we be only strangers that pass in the street; through psychology, and the similarity of structure and concatenation in our minds; through social linkage, and the necessity of each and all to the others' economic welfare; through personal affection and the ties of the heart; and through the mystic and religious sense which, diving deep below personalities, perceives the vast flood of universal being—in these and many other ways does this Common Life compel us to recognise itself as a fact—perhaps the most fundamental fact of existence.

To teach this simple foundational fact and what flows from it to every child—not only as a theory, but as a practical habit and inspiration of conduct—is not really difficult, but easy. Children, having this sense woven into their very being, grow up in the spirit and practical habitude of it, and from the beginning possess the inspiration of what we call Morality—far more effectually indeed than copy-book maxims can provide. Respect for truth, consideration towards parents and elders, respect for the reasonable properties, dignities, conveniences of others, as well as for one's own needs and dignities, become perfectly natural and habitual. And that this is no mere hypothesis the example of Japan has lately shown where every young thing is brought up so far drenched in the sentiment of community that to give one's life for one's country is looked upon[Pg 253] as a privilege.[48] The general lines, I say, of morality would be secure, and much more secure than they now are, if we could only bring the children up in an educational and practical atmosphere of that solidarity which as a matter of fact is demanded to-day by socialism and the economic movement generally.

And on this ground-work, as I have hinted, Personal Affection and Sympathy would build a superstructure of their own; they would outline a society as much more beautiful, powerful and closely knit than the present one founded on the Cash-nexus, as, say, the Athenian society of the time of Pericles was superior to that of the Lapithæ who first bitted and bridled the horse.

While the general Life, equal, pervasive, and in a sense undifferentiated, is a great fact which has to be acknowledged; so this personal Love and Affection, choosing, selecting, and giving outline and form to that life, is equally a fact, equally undeniable, equally sacred—and one which has to be taken in conjunction with the other.

I say equally sacred: because there has been a tendency (no doubt due to certain causes) to look upon personal affection, in its various phases from slight inclinations of sympathy to the stronger compulsions of passion, as something rather [Pg 254]dubious in character, at best an amiable weakness not to be encouraged. Tolstoy, in one of his writings, figures the case of a little household in days of famine not really having bread enough for their own wants. Then a stranger child comes to the door and pleads for food. Tolstoy suggests that the mother ought to take the scanty crust from her own child to feed the stranger withal, or at least to share the food equally between the two children. But such a conclusion seems to me doubtful.

Whatever "ought" may mean in such a connexion, we know pretty well that such never will be the rule of human life, we may almost say never can be; perhaps we should be equally justified in saying, never "ought" to be. For obviously there must be preferences, selections. Our affections, our affinities, our sympathies, our passions, are not given us for nothing. It is not for nothing that every individual person, every tree, every animal has a shape, a shape of its own. If it were not so the world would be infinitely, inconceivably, dull. Yet to ask that a mother should in all cases treat strange children exactly the same as her own, that a man from the oceanic multitude should single out no special or privileged friends, but should love all alike, is to ask that these folk in their mental and moral nature should become as jellyfish—of no distinct shape or satisfaction to themselves or any one else. Profound and indispensable as is the Law of Equality—the law, namely, that there is a[Pg 255] region within all beings where they touch to a common and equal life—the other law, that of Individual predilection, is equally indispensable. Try to reduce all to the one motive of the general interest, and you might have a perfect morality, but a morality woodeny, hard and dull, without form and feature. Try to dispense with this, and to found society on individual affection and love, and on individual initiative, without morals, and you would have a flighty, unstable thing, without consistency or backbone.

My contention, then, is that our hope for the future society lies in its embodiment of these two great principles jointly: (1) the recognition of the Common Life as providing the foundation-element of general morality, and (2) the recognition of Individual Affection and Expression—and to a much greater degree than hitherto—as building up the higher groupings and finer forms of the structure. And in proportion as (1) provides a solider basis of morals than we have hitherto had, so will it be possible to give to (2) a width of scope and freedom of action hitherto untried or untrusted. Conjointly with the strengthening of these principles of Solidarity and Affection in society must of course come the strengthening of Individuality—the right and the desire of every being to preserve and develop its own proper shape, and so to add to the richness and interest of life—and this involves the right of Resistance, and (once more) the relegation of the formula of non-resistance into the background.

[Pg 256]

These considerations, however, are leading us too far afield, and away from the special subject of our paper. I mention them chiefly in order to show that while we are considering Morality as a foundation-element of Society, it must never be lost sight of that it is not the only element, and that it would be comparatively senseless and useless unless grafted on and complemented and completed by the others.

The method of the New Morality, then, will be to minimise formulæ, and (except as illustrations) to use them sparely; and to bring children up—and so indirectly all citizens—in such conditions of abounding life and health that their sympathies, overflowing naturally to those around, will cause them to realise in the strongest way their organic part in the great whole of society—and this not as an intellectual theory, so much as an abiding consciousness and foundation-fact of their own existence. Make this the basis of all teaching. Make them realise—by all sorts of habit and example—that to injure or deceive others is to injure themselves—that to help others somehow satisfies and fortifies their own inner life. Let them learn, as they grow up, to regard all human beings, of whatever race or class, as ends in themselves—never to be looked upon as mere things or chattels to be made use of. Let them also learn to look upon the animals in the same light—as beings, they too, who are climbing the great ladder of creation—beings with whom also we humans have a common spirit and interest.[Pg 257] And let them learn to respect themselves as worthy and indispensable members of this great Body. Thus will be established a true Morality—a morality far more searching, more considerate of others, more adaptive and more genuine than that of the present day—a morality, we may say, of common-sense.

For it may indeed be said that Morality—taking a downright and almost physiological view of it—is simply abundance of life. That is, that when a man has so abounding and vital an inner nature that his sympathies and activities overflow the margin of his own petty days and personal advantage, he is by that fact entering the domain of morality. Before that time and while limited to the personal organism, the creative life in each being is either non-moral like that of the animals, or simply selfish like that of the immature man; but when it overflows this limit it necessarily becomes social, and moves to the support and consideration of the neighbour. Having formerly found its complete activity in the sustentation of the personal self it now spreads its helpful energies into the lives of the other selves around. Altruism, in fact, in its healthy forms, is the overflow of abounding vitality. It is a morality without a code, and happily free from limiting formulæ.[49]

[Pg 258]

And if it be again said that a morality of this kind, which rests on a principle and a mental attitude only, is a danger, let us pause for a moment to consider how much more dangerous is one which rests on formulæ. If morality without a code is a serious matter, how much more serious is one which is nailed up within a code! For looking back on history it would sometimes seem that the black-and-white, the this-thing-right-and-that-thing-wrong morality has been the most wicked thing in the world. It has been an excuse for all the most devilish deeds and persecutions imaginable. A formula of the Sabbath-day, a formula about Witchcraft, a formula of Marriage (regardless of the real human relation), a formula concerning Theft (regardless of the dire need of the thief)—and burnings, hangings, torturings without mercy! The terrible thing about this Right-and-Wrong morality is not only that it leads to these dreadful reprisals; but that it brands upon the victim as well as upon the oppressor the fatuous notions that a certain thing is right or wrong, and that what one has to do is to save oneself—two notions both of which are directly contrary to true Morality. A boy tells a verbal lie—perhaps through fear, perhaps through inadvertence. He has broken a formula and is immediately caned. Moral: he will keep to verbal truth afterwards—however mean or insidious it may be—and be pharisaically self-satisfied; but he will never realise that the importance of truth and lies rests not in the words,[Pg 259] but in the confidence and mutual trust which they either create or destroy. The peculiarly English worship of Duty is open to the same objection. "Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds," and splendid as is the conception and practice of Duty, as a self-oblivious inspiration and enthusiasm, it becomes a truly revolting thing when it takes the all-too-common form "I have done my Duty, I'm all right!" "I am going to do my Duty, whatever becomes of you." Can anything be imagined more disintegrating to society, more certain to split it up into a dustheap of self-regarding units, than a formula of this kind? "It is my painful Duty to condemn you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead," says the Judge to the wretched girl who, in a frenzy of despair, has drowned her baby. What he really means is that while he perfectly recognises the monstrosity of the Law which he has sworn to administer, and the soul-killing effect on the girl which his sentence may have, yet in order to save himself from the risk or the wrong of breaking that Law, he is willing and ready to pronounce that sentence. "It is my duty to burn you," says the Inquisitor to the heretic; and the implication is really, "I am afraid that if I do not burn you I shall get burnt myself, in the next world."

The sooner an end can be made of this sort of morality, the better—which under the cloak of public advantage or benefit is only thinking about self-promotion and self-interest, either in this[Pg 260] world or the next, and which truly is calculated not to further human solidarity but to destroy it. It runs and trickles through all of modern society, poisoning the well-springs of affection, this morality which, having paid its domestic servants their regular wages, is quite satisfied with itself, and expects them to do their duty in return, but is silent about their real needs and welfare; which treats its wage-workers as simple machines for the grinding out of profits, and lifts its eyebrows in serene surprise when they retaliate against such treatment; which can only regard a criminal as a person who has broken a formula, and in return must be punished according to a formula; and a pig as an animal for which you provide reasonable provender and a stye, and which in return you are entitled to eat. Pharisaical, self-centred and self-interested, materialistic to the last degree, and really senseless in its outlook, this current morality is indeed, and very seriously, a public peril.

Thou shalt not steal: an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat.

Keep within the code, within the letter; always speak the nominal truth (whoever may suffer thereby); keep up the accepted formulæ of marriage and the sex-relation (though hearts may be bleeding and perishing); pay every respect to property, and so forth; and you may have the gratification of being looked upon as a bulwark of society. But none the less it is probable[Pg 261] that you are undermining and corrupting that society to the core. Your outlook is merely on the surface, while you are condoning deep-seated ill.

Of course the New Morality—to look within, to feel and refer to the needs of others almost as instinctively as to one's own, to refuse to regard any thing as in itself good or bad, and to look upon all beings, oneself included, as ends in themselves and not as a means of personal self-advancement and glorification—while it is the more natural, is also the more difficult in a sense, as providing no set pattern or rule. But surely the time has arrived for its adoption. It is the morality which must underlie the freer, more varied forms of the society of the future; and it is the only escape from the corruption of the old order.

To take particular examples. Truth, in word or act, is—we all feel—very important, very fundamental. It is the basis of the common understanding of which I have spoken. It is the basis of the expression of oneself, and of the recognition of others. Any one who is deeply imbued with the consciousness of the common life will necessarily have a deep respect for the Truth; he will also have a deep respect for the Life, the Property, the good Name, the Affections, and so forth, of others, as well as for his own similar attributes. He will not be able to say, as a formula: I will never deceive another (tell a lie); I will never take the life of others, man or animal (kill); and so on, because he knows[Pg 262] there are situations in which that very Life arising within him, or even his own absolute necessity, will demand such actions, will compel him to the performance of them; but all the same he will in his ordinary existence carry out the principle which underlies these formulæ, and much more thoroughly, probably, than the formulæ themselves would demand.

Similarly about such matters as sexual morality. There are outcries against Lady-Godiva-shows and living statuary—apparently because folk are afraid of such things rousing the passions. No doubt the things may act that way. But why, we may ask, should people be afraid of rousing passions which, after all, are the great driving forces of human life? Clearly it is because they think the other forces which should guide these passions or give them a helpful and useful direction are too weak. And in this last respect they are right. The guiding and inhibiting forces in our present society are feeble—because they consist only in a few conventional formulæ, which are rapidly being undermined. We are generating steam in a boiler which is already cankered with rust. The cure is not to cut off the passions, or to be weakly afraid of them, but to find a new, sound, healthy engine of general morality and common-sense within which they will work. And this is what in the future we must try to do.

This morality, this organic, vital, almost physiological morality of the common life—which[Pg 263] means a quick response of each unit to the needs of the other units, and much the same in the body politic as health means in the physical body—must underlie and be the basis of the societies of the future. It will mean the liberation of a thousand and one instincts, desires and capacities which since our childhood's days have lain buried within us, concealed and ignored because we have thought them wrong or unworthy, when really all they have wanted has been recognition and the opportunity to become healthy by recognition—by the process in fact of balancing against each other, and against opposing and complementary elements, and so finding their places in the Whole. On this new Morality of acceptance and recognition and wide-reaching redemption, it will be possible, as I have already said, to graft not only a stronger expression of individuality all round, but also a higher and more varied and more gracious life of personal affection—which now alas! lies like a thing wounded and half dead. Its establishment will, I take it, mean the oncoming of a society which will liberate personal affection and love—will liberate forces hitherto artificially crippled because their liberation would tear our current morality of formulæ to mere rags and tatters. It means, I take it, the oncoming of a society whose main motive will no longer be the struggle for Bread (since that is ruled out by the enormous growth of our wealth-producing powers), but the desire for the satisfaction of the Heart—thus preparing no doubt new[Pg 264] and unforeseen difficulties and sufferings, yet filling life with such beautiful things that the motives of greed and the mean pursuit of money, which now weigh upon the world, will be like an evil nightmare of the Past from which the dawn delivers us.


[42] Maitrayana-Brahmana-Upanishad, vi. 34, 4.

[43] Taittiriyaka-Up, ii. 9, etc.

[44] Spinoza's Ethic, part iv.

[45] It must be remembered that Nietzsche supposes three stages of the spirit—(1) the Camel, (2) the Lion, and (3) the Child. And the Beyond-man properly corresponds to the last stage.

[46] Daily News, December 29, 1906.

[47] I need hardly say that this does not mean, as Nietzsche so often and sardonically suggests, the realisation of the common-place life, but something very different.

[48] Many Japanese committed suicide on account of not being allowed to join in the Russian War. See also Lafcadio Hearn's description of the habitual dignity and courtesy of the youth of Japan.—Life and Letters, vol. i, pp. 12, 113.

[49] This morality, indeed, may be said to be implicit in much of the teaching of Christ; yet, curiously enough, it has never been seriously adopted by the Churches. And as to the regard for animals as ends in themselves, the Roman Catholic Church, I believe, positively repudiates any such attitude.

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click here for the page with links to e-book and audio downloads of Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure by Edward Carpenter

eBook and audio downloads for Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure by Edward Carpenter include: pdf, Open eBook, OEB, ePub & audio book MP3