Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/November 1880/The Development of Political Institutions I

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 18 November 1880  (1880) 
The Development of Political Institutions I
By Herbert Spencer






THOUGHT and feeling can not be completely dissociated. Each emotion has a more or less distinct framework of ideas; and each group of ideas is more or less suffused with emotion. There are, however, great differences between their degrees of combination under both of these aspects. We have some feelings which are vague from lack of intellectual definition; and others to which clear shapes are given by the associated conceptions. At one time our thoughts are distorted by the passion running through them; and at another time it is difficult to detect in them a trace of liking or . disliking. Manifestly, too, in each particular case these components of the mental state may be varied in their proportions. The ideas being the same, the emotion joined with them may be greater or less; and it is a familiar truth that the correctness of the judgment formed depends, if not on the absence of emotion, still, on that balance of emotions which negatives excess of any one.

Especially is this so in matters concerning human life. There are two ways in which men's actions, individual or social, may be regarded. We may consider them as groups of phenomena to be analyzed, and the laws of their dependence ascertained; or, considering them as causing pleasures or pains, we may associate with them approbation or reprobation. Dealing with its problems intellectually, we may regard conduct as always the result of certain forces; or dealing with its problems morally, and considering its outcome as in this case good and in that case bad, we may allow now admiration, and now indignation, to fill our consciousness. Obviously, it must make a great difference in our conclusions whether, as in the one case, we regard men's doings as those of alien creatures, which it merely concerns us to understand; or whether, as in the other case, we regard them as the doings of creatures like ourselves, with whose lives our own lives are bound up, and whose behavior arouses in us, directly and sympathetically, feelings of love and hate.

In "The Study of Sociology," I have described in detail the various perversions produced in men's judgments by their emotions. Examples are given showing how fears and hopes betray them into false estimates; how impatience prompts unjust condemnations; how in this case antipathy, and in that case sympathy, distorts belief. The truth that the bias of education and the bias of patriotism severally warp men's convictions, is enforced by many illustrations. And it is pointed out that the more special forms of bias—the class bias, the political bias, the theological bias—each produces a strong predisposition toward this or that view of public affairs.

Here let me emphasize the conclusion that in pursuing our sociological inquiries, and especially those on which we are now entering, we must, as much as possible, exclude whatever emotions the facts are calculated to excite, and attend solely to the interpretation of the facts. There are several groups of phenomena, in contemplating which either contempt, or disgust, or indignation, tends to arise, but must be restrained.

Instead of passing over as of no account, or else regarding as purely mischievous, the superstitions of the primitive man, we must inquire what part they play in social evolution; and must be prepared, if need be, to recognize their usefulness. Already we have seen that the belief which prompts the savage to bury valuables with the corpse and carry food to the grave has a natural genesis; that the propitiation of plants and animals and the "worship of stocks and stones" are not gratuitous absurdities; and that slaves are sacrificed at funerals in pursuance of an idea which seems rational to uninstructed intelligence. Presently we shall have to consider in what way the ghost-theory has operated politically; and, if we should find reason to conclude that it has been an indispensable aid to social evolution, we must be ready to accept the conclusion.

Knowledge of the miseries that have for countless ages been everywhere caused by the antagonisms of societies must not prevent us from recognizing the all-important part which these antagonisms have played in civilization. Shudder as we must at the cannibalism which all over the world in early days was a sequence of war; shrink as we may from the thought of those immolations of prisoners which have, tens of thousands of times, followed battles between wild tribes; read as we do with horror of the pyramids of heads and the whitening bones of slain peoples left by barbarian invaders; hate, as we ought, the militant spirit which is even now among ourselves prompting base treacheries and brutal aggressions—we must not let our feelings blind us to the proofs we meet with, that intersocial conflicts have furthered the development of social structures.

Moreover, dislikes to governments of certain kinds must not prevent us from seeing their fitnesses to their circumstances. Though rejecting the common idea of glory, and declining to join soldiers and schoolboys in applying the epithet "great" to conquering despots, we detest despotism; though we regard their sacrifices of their own peoples and of alien peoples in pursuit of universal dominion as gigantic crimes—we must yet recognize the benefits occasionally arising from the social consolidations they achieve. Neither the massacres of subjects which Roman emperors directed, nor the assassinations of relatives habitual among potentates in the East, nor the impoverishment of whole nations by the excessive exactions of tyrants, must so prejudice us as to prevent appreciation of the benefits which have, under certain conditions, resulted from the unlimited power of the supreme man. Nor must the remembrances of torturing implements, and oubliettes, and victims built into walls, shut out from our minds the evidence that abject submission of the weak to the strong, however unscrupulously enforced, has in some times and places been necessary.

So, too, with the associated ownership of man by man. Absolute condemnation of slavery must be withheld, even if we accept the tradition repeated by Herodotus, that to build the Great Pyramid relays of a hundred thousand slaves toiled for twenty years; or even if we find it true that, of the serfs compelled to work at the building of St. Petersburg, three hundred thousand perished. Though aware that the unrecorded sufferings of men and women held in bondage are beyond imagination, we must, nevertheless, preserve a mental state receptive of such evidence as there may be that benefits have resulted.

In brief, trustworthy interpretations of social arrangements imply an almost passionless consciousness. Though feeling can not and ought not to be excluded from the mind when otherwise contemplating them, yet it ought to be excluded when contemplating them as natural phenomena to be understood in their causes and effects.


Maintenance of this mental attitude will be furthered by keeping before ourselves the truth that in human actions the absolutely bad may be relatively good, and the absolutely good may be relatively bad.

Though it has become a commonplace that the institutions under which one race prospers will not answer for another, the recognition of this truth is by no means adequate. Men who have lost faith in "paper constitutions," nevertheless advocate a policy toward inferior races, implying the belief that civilized social forms can with advantage be imposed on uncivilized peoples; that the arrangements which seem to us vicious are vicious for them; and that they would benefit by institutions—domestic, industrial, or political—akin to those which we find beneficial. But acceptance of the truth that the type of a society is determined by the natures of its units, forces on us the corollary that a régime intrinsically of the lowest may yet be the best possible under primitive conditions.

Otherwise stating the matter, we must not substitute our developed code of conduct, which predominantly concerns private relations, for the undeveloped code of conduct which predominantly concerns public relations. Now that life is generally occupied in peaceful intercourse with fellow-citizens, ethical ideas refer chiefly to actions between man and man; but, in early stages, while the occupation of life was mainly in conflicts with adjacent societies, such ethical ideas as existed referred almost wholly to intersocial actions: men's deeds were judged by their direct bearings on tribal welfare. And since preservation of the society takes precedence of individual preservation, as being a condition to it, we must, in considering social phenomena, interpret good and bad rather in their earlier senses than in their later senses; and so must regard as relatively good that which furthers survival of the society, great as may be the suffering inflicted on individuals.


Another of our ordinary conceptions has to be much widened before we can rightly interpret political evolution. The words "civilized" and "savage" must have given to them meanings differing greatly from those which are current. That broad contrast usually drawn wholly to the advantage of the men who form advanced nations, and to the disadvantage of the men who form single groups, a better knowledge obliges us profoundly to qualify. Characters are to be found among rude peoples which compare well with those of the best among cultivated peoples. With little knowledge, and but rudimentary arts, there in some cases go virtues which might shame those among ourselves whose education and polish are of the highest.

Surviving remnants of some primitive races in India have natures in which truthfulness seems to be organic. Not only to the surrounding Hindoos, higher intellectually and relatively advanced in culture, are they in this respect far superior, but they are superior to Europeans. Of certain of these Hill peoples it is remarked in India that their assertions may always be accepted with perfect confidence; which is more than can be said of diplomatists who intentionally delude, or ministers who make false statements concerning cabinet transactions. As having this trait may be named the Santals, of whom Hunter says, "They were the most truthful set of men I ever met"; and, again, the Sowrahs, of whom Shortt says: "A pleasing feature in their character is their complete truthfulness. They do not know how to tell a lie." Notwithstanding their sexual relations of a primitive and low type, even the Todas are described as considering "falsehood one of the worst of vices." Though Metz says that they practice dissimulation toward Europeans, yet he recognizes this as a trait consequent upon their intercourse with Europeans; and this judgment coincides with one given to me by an Indian civil servant concerning other Hill tribes, originally distinguished for their veracity, but who are rendered less veracious by contact with the whites. So rare is lying among these aboriginal races when unvitiated by the "civilized," that, of those in Bengal, Hunter singles out the Tipperahs as "the only Hill tribe in which this vice is met with."

Similarly in respect of honesty, some of those peoples classed as inferior read lessons to those classed as superior. Of the Todas just named, ignorant and degraded as they are in some respects, Harkness says, "I never saw a people, civilized or uncivilized, who seemed to have a more religious respect for the rights of meum and tuum." The Marias (Gonds), "in common with many other wild races, bear a singular character for truthfulness and honesty." Among the Khonds "the denial of a debt is a breach of this principle, which is held to be highly sinful. 'Let a man,' say they, 'give up all he has to his creditors.'" The Santal, who "never thinks of making money by a stranger," prefers to have "no dealings with his guests; but when his guests introduce the subject he deals with them as honestly as he would with his own people. . . he names the true price at first." The Lepchas "are wonderfully honest, theft being scarcely known among them." And the Bodo and Dhimáls are "honest and truthful in deed and word." Colonel Dixon dilates on the "fidelity, truth, and honesty" of the Carnatic aborigines; and they show "an extreme and almost touching devotion when put upon their honor." And Hunter asserts of the Chakmás, that "crime is rare among these primitive people. . . . Theft is almost unknown."

So it is, too, with the general virtues of these and sundry other uncivilized tribes. The Santal "possesses a happy disposition," is "sociable to a fault," "courteous," but "at the same time firm and free from cringing"; and, while the "sexes are greatly devoted to each other's society," the women are "exceedingly chaste." The Bodo and Dhimáls are "full of amiable qualities, and almost entirely free from such as are unamiable." The Lepcha, "cheerful, kind, and patient," is described by Dr. Hooker as a most "attractive companion"; and Dr. Campbell gives "an instance of the effect of a very strong sense of duty on this savage." In like manner, from accounts of certain of the Malayo-Polynesian societies, and certain of the Papuan societies, may be given instances showing in high degrees sundry traits which we ordinarily associate only with a human nature that has been long subject to the discipline of civilized life and the teachings of a superior religion. One of the latest testimonies is that of Signor D'Albertis, who describes certain New Guinea people he visited (near Yule Island) as strictly honest, "very kind," "good and peaceful," and who, after disputes between villages, "are as friendly as before, bearing no animosity"; but of whom the Rev. W. G. Lawes, commenting on Signor D'Albertis's communication to the Colonial Institute, says that their good-will to the whites is being destroyed by the whites' ill-treatment of them: the usual history.

Contrariwise, in various parts of the world, men of several types yield proofs that societies relatively advanced in organization and culture may yet be barbarous in their ideas, sentiments, and usages. The Feejeeans, described by Dr. Pickering as among the most intelligent of unlettered peoples, are among the most ferocious. "Intense and vengeful malignity strongly marks the Feejeean character." Lying, treachery, theft, and murder are with them not criminal, but honorable; infanticide is immense in extent; strangling the sickly habitual; and they sometimes cut up while alive the human victims they are going to eat. Nevertheless they have a "complicated and carefully conducted political system"; well-organized military forces; elaborate fortifications; a developed agriculture with succession of crops and irrigation; a considerable division of labor; a separate distributing agency with incipient currency; and a skilled industry which builds canoes that carry three hundred men. Take again an African society, Dahomey. We find there a finished system of classes, six in number; complex governmental arrangements with officials always in pairs; an army divided into battalions, having reviews and sham-fights; prisons, police, and sumptuary laws; an agriculture which uses manure and grows a score kinds of plants; moated towns, bridges, and roads with turnpikes. Yet along with this comparatively high social development there goes what we may call organized criminality. Wars are made to get skulls with which to decorate the royal palace; hundreds of subjects are killed when the king dies; and five hundred are annually slaughtered to carry messages to the other world. Described as cruel and bloodthirsty, liars and cheats, the people are "void either of sympathy or gratitude, even in their own families," so that "not even the appearance of affection exists between husband and wife, or between parents and children." The New World, too, furnished, when it was discovered, like evidence. Having great cities of one hundred and eighty thousand houses, the Mexicans had also cannibal gods, whose idols were fed on warm, reeking, human flesh, thrust into their mouths—wars being made purposely to supply victims for them; and with skill to build stately temples, big enough for ten thousand men to dance in their courts, there went the immolation of twenty-five hundred persons annually, in Mexico and adjacent towns alone, and of a far greater number throughout the country at large. Similarly, in the populous Central American states, sufficiently civilized to have a developed system of calculation, a regular calendar, books, maps, etc., there were like extensive sacrifices of prisoners, slaves, children, whose hearts were torn out and offered palpitating on altars, and who, in other cases, were flayed alive and their skins used as dancing dresses by the priests.

Nor need we seek in remote regions or among alien races for proofs that there does not exist a necessary connection between the social types classed as civilized and those higher sentiments which we commonly associate with civilization. The mutilations of prisoners exhibited on Assyrian sculptures are not surpassed in cruelty by any we find among the most bloodthirsty of wild races; and Rameses II, who delighted in having himself sculptured on temple-walls throughout Egypt as holding a dozen captives by the hair, and striking off their heads at a blow, slaughtered during his conquests more human beings than a thousand chiefs of savage tribes put together. The tortures inflicted on captured enemies by red Indians are not greater than were those inflicted of old on felons by crucifixion, or on suspected rebels by sewing them up in the hides of slaughtered animals, or on heretics by smearing them over with combustibles and setting fire to them. The Damaras, described as so utterly heartless that they laugh on seeing one of their number killed by a wild beast, are not worse than were the Romans, who made such elaborate provisions for gratifying themselves by watching wholesale slaughters in their arenas. If the numbers destroyed by the hordes of Attila were not equaled by the numbers which the Roman armies destroyed at the conquest of Selucia, and by the numbers of the Jews massacred under Hadrian, it was simply because the occasions did not permit. The cruelties of Nero, Gallienus, and the rest may compare with those of Genghis and Timour; and, when we read of Caracalla that, after he had murdered twenty thousand friends of his murdered brother, his soldiers forced the Senate to place him among the gods, we are shown that in the Roman people there was a ferocity not less than that which deifies the most sanguinary chiefs among the worst of savages. Nor. did Christianity greatly change matters. Throughout mediæval Europe political offenses and religious dissent brought on men carefully devised agonies equaling if not exceeding any inflicted by the most brutal of barbarians.

Startling as the truth seems, it is yet a truth to be recognized, that increase of humanity does not go on pari passu with civilization; but that, contrariwise, the earlier stages of civilization necessitate a relative inhumanity. Among tribes of primitive men, it is the more brutal rather than the more kindly who succeed in those conquests which effect the earliest social consolidations; and, through many subsequent stages of social evolution, unscrupulous aggression outside of the society and cruel coercion within are the habitual concomitants of political development. The men of whom the better organized societies have been formed were at first, and long continued to be, nothing else but the stronger and more cunning savages; and even now, when freed from those influences which superficially modify their behavior, they prove themselves to be little better. If, on the one hand, we contemplate the utterly uncivilized Wood-Veddahs, who are described as "proverbially truthful and honest," "gentle and affectionate," "obeying the slightest intimation of a wish, and very grateful for attention or assistance," and of whom Pridham remarks, "What a lesson in gratitude and delicacy even a Veddah may teach!" and then if, on the other hand, we contemplate our own recent acts of international brigandage, accompanied by the slaughter of thousands who have committed no wrong against us—accompanied, too, by perfidious breaches of faith and by the killing of prisoners in cold blood—we can not but admit that, between the types of men classed as uncivilized and civilized, the differences are not necessarily of the kind commonly supposed. Whatever relation exists between moral nature and social type is not such as to imply that the social man is in all respects emotionally superior to the pre-social man.


"How is this conclusion to be reconciled with the conception of progress?" most readers will ask. "How is civilization to be justified if, as is thus implied, some of the highest of human attributes are exhibited in greater degrees by wild people who live scattered in pairs in the woods, than by the members of a vast, well-organized nation, having marvelously elaborated arts, extensive and profound knowledge, and multitudinous appliances to welfare?" The answer to this question will best be conveyed by an analogy.

As carried on throughout the animate world at large, the struggle for existence has been an indispensable means to evolution. Not simply do we see that, in the competition among individuals of the same kind, survival of the fittest has from the beginning furthered production of a higher type, but we see that to the unceasing warfare between species are mainly due both growth and organization. Without universal conflict there would have been no development of the active powers. The organs of perception and of locomotion have been little by little evolved during the interaction of pursuers and pursued. Improved limbs and senses have furnished better supplies to the viscera, and improved visceral structures have insured a better supply of aerated blood to the limbs and senses; while a higher nervous system has at each stage been required for duly coordinating the actions of these more complex structures. Among predatory animals death by starvation and among animals preyed upon death by destruction have carried off the least favorably modified individuals and varieties. Every advance in strength, speed, agility, or sagacity in creatures of the one class, has necessitated a corresponding advance in creatures of the other class; and without never-ending efforts to catch and to escape, with loss of life as the penalty for failure, the progress of neither could have been achieved.

Mark now, however, that while this merciless discipline of nature, "red in tooth and claw," has been essential to the evolution of sentient life, its persistence through all time with all creatures must not be inferred. The high organization evolved by and for this universal conflict is not necessarily for ever employed to like ends: the resulting power and intelligence admit of being far otherwise employed. Not for offense and defense only are the inherited structures useful, but for various other purposes; and these various other purposes may finally become the exclusive purposes. The myriads of years of warfare which have developed the powers of all lower types of creatures have bequeathed to the highest type of creature the powers now used by him for countless objects besides those of killing and avoiding being killed. His teeth and nails are but little employed in fight; and his mind is not ordinarily occupied in devising ways of destroying other creatures, or guarding himself from injury by them.

Similarly with social organisms. We must recognize the truth that the struggle for existence between societies has been instrumental to their evolution. Neither the consolidation and reconsolidation of small social groups into large ones, nor the organization of such compound and doubly compound groups, nor the concomitant developments of all those aids to a wider and higher life which civilization has brought, would have been possible without intertribal and international conflicts. Social coöperation is initiated by joint defense and offense; and from the coöperation thus initiated all kinds of coöperations have arisen. Inconceivable as have been the horrors caused by this universal antagonism which, beginning with the chronic hostilities of small hordes tens of thousands of years ago, has ended in the occasional vast battles of immense nations, we must nevertheless admit that without them the world would still have been inhabited only by men of feeble types, sheltering in caves and living on wild food.

But now observe that the intersocial struggle for existence which has been indispensable in evolving societies will not necessarily play in the future a part like that which it has played in the past. Recognizing our indebtedness to war for forming great communities and developing their structures, we may yet infer that the acquired powers, available for other activities, will lose their original activities. While conceding that without these perpetual bloody strifes civilized societies could not have arisen, and that an adapted form of human nature, fierce as well as intelligent, was a needful concomitant, we may at the same time hold that, such societies having been produced, the brutality of nature in their units which was necessitated by the process, ceasing to be necessary with the cessation of the process, will disappear. While the benefits achieved during the predatory period remain a permanent inheritance, the evils, social and individual, entailed by it will decrease and slowly die out.

Thus, then, contemplating social structures and actions from the evolution point of view, we may preserve that calmness which is needful for scientific interpretation of them, without losing our powers of feeling moral reprobation or approbation.


To these preliminary remarks respecting the mental attitude to be preserved by the student of political institutions, a few briefer ones must be added respecting the subject-matters he has to deal with.

If societies were all of the same species, and differed only in their stages of growth and structure, comparisons would disclose clearly the course of evolution; but unlikenesses of type among them, here great and there small, obscure the results of such comparisons.

Again, if each society grew and unfolded itself without the intrusion of additional factors, interpretation would be relatively easy; but the complicated processes of development are frequently recomplicated by sudden changes in the sets of factors. Now the size of the social aggregate is all at once increased or decreased by annexation or by loss of territory; and now the average character of its units is changed by the coming in of another race as conquerors or as slaves; while, as a further incident of this change, new social relations are superposed on the old. In many cases, the repeated overrunnings of societies by one another, the minglings of peoples and institutions, the breakings up and reaggregations, so destroy the continuity of normal changes as to make it extremely difficult if not impossible to draw conclusions.

Once more, change in the average mode of life pursued by a society, now increasingly warlike and now increasingly industrial, initiates metamorphoses: changed activities generate changes of structures. Hence, there have to be distinguished those progressive rearrangements which belong to the further development of one social type, from those caused by the commencing development of another social type. The lines of an organization adapted to a mode of activity that has ceased, or has been long suspended, begin to fade, and are traversed by the increasingly definite lines of an organization adapted to the mode of activity which has replaced it; and error may result from mistaking traits which belong to the one for those which belong to the other.

Hence we may infer that, out of the complex and confused evidence, only the larger truths are likely to emerge with clearness. While anticipating that certain general conclusions are to be positively established, we may anticipate that more special ones can be alleged only as probable.

Happily, however, as we shall eventually see, those general conclusions admitting of positive establishment are the conclusions of most value for guidance.

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  1. The references to facts cited in this article and succeeding ones will be given when the articles reappear in their permanent shape. Allusions here and there occurring in them, to matters not before the reader, must be understood as consequent on their continuity with writings already published.