Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/January 1873/The Study of Sociology VI
|←Notes||Popular Science Monthly Volume 2 January 1873 (1873)
The Study of Sociology VI
By Herbert Spencer
|Spontaneous Movements in Plants→|
IF you watch the management of a child by a mother of small capacity, you may be struck by the inability she betrays to imagine the child's thoughts and feelings. Full of energy which he must expend in some way, and eager to see every thing, her little boy is every moment provoking her by his restlessness. The occasion is perhaps a railway journey. Now he strives to look out of the window; and now, when forbidden to do that, climbs on the seats, or meddles with the small luggage. "Sit still," "Get down, I tell you," "Why can't you be quiet?" are the commands and expostulations she utters from minute to minute partly, no doubt, to prevent the discomfort of fellow-passengers. But, as you will see at other times, when no such motive comes into play, she endeavors to repress these childish activities mainly out of regard for what she thinks propriety, and does it without any adequate recognition of the penalties she inflicts. Though she herself lived through this phase of extreme curiosity—this early time when almost every object passed has the charm of novelty, and when the overflowing energies generate a painful irritation if pent up; yet now she cannot believe how keen is the desire for seeing which she balks, and how difficult is the maintenance of that quietude on which she insists. Conceiving her child's consciousness in terms of her own consciousness, and feeling how easy it is to sit still and not look out of the window, she ascribes his behavior to mere perversity.
I recall this and kindred experiences to the reader's mind, for the purpose of exemplifying a necessity and a difficulty. The necessity is that, in dealing with other beings and interpreting their actions, we are obliged to represent their thoughts and feelings in terms of our own. The difficulty is that, in so representing them, we can never he more than partially right, and are frequently very wrong. The conception which any one frames of another's mind, is inevitably more or less after the pattern of his own mind—is automorphic; and in proportion as the mind of which he has to frame a conception differs from his own, his automorphic interpretation is likely to be wide of the truth.
That measuring other person's actions by the standards our own thoughts and feelings furnish, often causes misconstruction, is indeed a truth familiar even to the vulgar. But while among members of the same society, having natures nearly akin, it is seen that automorphic explanations are often erroneous, it is not seen with due clearness how much more erroneous such explanations commonly are, when the actions are those of men of another race, to whom the kinship in nature is comparatively remote. We do, indeed, perceive this, if the interpretations are not our own; and if both the interpreters and the interpreted are distant in thought and nature from ourselves. When, as in early English literature, we find Greek history conceived in terms of feudal institutions, and the heroes of antiquity spoken of as princes, knights, and squires, it becomes clear to us that the ideas concerning ancient civilization must have been utterly wrong. When we find Virgil adopted by Dante as his guide, and named elsewhere as one among the prophets who visited the cradle of Christ— when an illustrated psalter gives scenes from the life of Christ in which there repeatedly figures a castle with a portcullis—when even the Crucifixion is described by Langland in the language of chivalry, so that the man who pierced Christ's side with a spear is considered as a knight who disgraced his knighthood—when we read of the Crusaders calling themselves "vassals of Christ;" we need no further proof that by carrying their own sentiments, and ideas, and habits, to the interpretation of social arrangements and transactions among the Jews, our ancestors were led into absurd misconceptions. But we do not recognize the fact that in virtue of the same tendency we are ever framing conceptions which, if not so grotesquely untrue, are yet very wide of the truth. How difficult it is to imagine mental states remote from our own so correctly that we can understand how they issue in individual actions, and consequently in social actions, an instance will make manifest.
The feeling of vague wonder with which he received his first lessons in the Greek mythology, will most likely be dimly remembered by every reader. If not in words, still in an inarticulate way, there passed through him the thought that belief in such stories was unaccountable. When, afterward, he read in books of travels details of the amazing superstitions of this or that race of savages, there was joined with a sense of the absurdity of such superstitions, more or less of astonishment at their acceptance by any human beings, however ignorant or stupid. That the people of a neighboring tribe had descended from ducks, that rain resulted when certain deities began to spit upon the earth, that the island lived upon had been pulled up from the bottom of the ocean by one of their gods, whose hook got fast when he was fishing—these and countless beliefs equally laughable seem to him to imply an irrationality near to insanity. He interprets them automorphically—carrying with him not simply his own faculties developed to a stage of complexity considerably beyond that reached by the faculties of the savage, but also the modes of thinking in which he was brought up, and the stock of information he has acquired. Usually it never occurs to him to do otherwise. Even if he attempts to look at things from the savage's point of view, he most likely fails entirely; and, if he succeeds at all, it is but very partially. Yet only by seeing things as the savage sees them can his ideas be understood, his behavior accounted for, and the resulting social phenomena explained. These seemingly-strange superstitions are quite natural—quite rational, in a certain sense, in their respective times and places. The laws of intellectual action are the same for civilized and uncivilized. The difference is in complexity of faculty and amount of knowledge accumulated and generalized. Given reflective powers developed only to that lower degree in which they are possessed by the aboriginal man—given his small stock of ideas, collected in a narrow area of space, and not added to by records extending through time—given his impulsive nature incapable of patient inquiry; and these seemingly-monstrous beliefs of his become in reality the most feasible explanations he can find of surrounding things. Yet even after seeing that this must be so, it is not easy to think, from the savage's point of view, clearly enough to follow the effects of his ideas on his acts, through all the relations of life, social and other.
A parallel difficulty stands in the way of rightly conceiving character remote from our own, so as to see how it issues in conduct. We may best recognize our inability in this respect by observing the converse inability of other races to understand our characters, and the acts they prompt.
In like manner Captain Speke tells us:
But while by instances like these we are shown that our characters are in a large measure incomprehensible by races remote in nature from ourselves, the correlative fact that their sentiments and motives cannot be rightly conceived by us, is one perpetually overlooked in our sociological interpretations. Feeling, for instance, how natural it is to take an easier course in place of a more laborious course, and to adopt new methods that are proved to be better methods, we are somewhat puzzled on finding the Chinese stick to their dim paper-lamps, though they admire our bright argand-lamps, which they do not use if given to them; or on finding that the Hindoos prefer their rough primitive tools after seeing that our greatly-improved tools do more work with less effort. And, on descending to races yet more remote in civilization, we still oftener discover ourselves wrong when we suppose that under given conditions they will act as we should act. Here, then, is a subjective difficulty of a serious kind. Properly to understand any fact in social evolution, we have to see it as resulting from the joint actions of individuals having certain natures. We cannot so understand it without understanding their natures; and this, even by care and effort, we are able to do but very imperfectly. Our interpretations must be in a greater or less degree automorphic; and yet automorphism perpetually misleads us.
One would hardly suppose, a priori, that untruthfulness would habitually coexist with credulity. Rather our inference might be, that, in virtue of the tendency above enlarged upon, people most given to make false statements must be people most inclined to suspect statements made by others. Yet somewhat anomalously, as it seems, habitual veracity very generally goes with inclination to doubt evidence; and extreme untrustworthiness of assertion often has, for its concomitant, readiness to accept the greatest improbabilities on the slenderest testimony. If you compare savage with civilized, or compare the successive stages of civilization, you find untruthfulness and credulity decreasing together; until you reach the modern man of science, who is at once exact in his statements and critical respecting the evidence on which facts are alleged. The converse relation to that which we see in the man of science is even now very startlingly presented in the East, where greediness in swallowing fictions goes along with superfluous telling of falsehoods. An Egyptian prides himself in a clever lie, uttered even without motive; and a dyer will even ascribe the failure in fixing one of his colors to the not having been successful in a deception. Yet so great is the readiness to believe improbabilities that Mr. St. John, in his "Two Years' Residence in a Levantine Family," narrates how, when the "Arabian Nights' Entertainments" was being read aloud, and when he hinted that the stories must not be accepted as true, there arose a strong protest against such skepticism—the question being asked, "Why should a man sit down and write so many lies?"
I point out this union of seemingly-inconsistent traits, not because of the direct bearing it has on the argument, but for the sake of its indirect bearing. For I have here to dwell awhile on the misleading effects of certain mental tendencies which similarly appear very unlikely to coexist, and which yet do habitually coexist. I refer to the belief which, even while I write, I find repeated in the leading journal, that "the deeper a student of history goes, the more does he find man the same in all time;" and to the quite opposite belief embodied in current politics, that human nature may be readily altered. These two beliefs, which ought to cancel one another but do not, originate two classes of errors in sociological speculation; and nothing like correct conclusions in Sociology can be drawn until they have been rejected, and replaced by a belief which reconciles them—the belief that human nature is indefinitely modifiable, but that no modification of it can be brought about rapidly. We will glance at the errors to which each of these beliefs leads.
While it was held that the stars are fixed and that the hills are ever-lasting, there was a certain congruity in the notion that man continues unchanged from age to age; but now when we know that all stars are in motion, and that there are no such things as everlasting hills—now that we find all things throughout the Universe to be in a ceaseless flux, it is time for this crude conception of human nature to disappear out of our social conceptions; or rather—it is time that its disappearance should be followed by that of the many narrow notions respecting the past and the future of society, which have grown out of it, and which linger notwithstanding the loss of their root. For, avowedly by some and tacitly by others, it continues to be thought that the human heart is as "desperately wicked" as it ever was, and that the state of society hereafter will be very much like the state of society now. If, when the evidence has been piled mass upon mass, there comes a reluctant admission that aboriginal man, of troglodyte or kindred habits, differed somewhat from man as he was during feudal times, and that the customs and sentiments and beliefs he had in feudal times imply a character appreciably unlike that which he has now—if, joined with this, there is a recognition of the truth that along with these changes in man there have gone still more conspicuous changes in society; there is, nevertheless, an ignoring of the implication that hereafter man and society will continue to change, until they have diverged as widely from their existing types as their existing types have diverged from those of the earliest recorded ages. It is true that among the more cultured, the probability, or even the certainty, that such transformations will go on, may be granted; but the granting is but nominal, the admission does not become a factor in the conclusions drawn. The first discussion on a political or social topic reveals the tacit assumption that in times to come society will have a structure substantially like its existing structure. If, for instance, the question of domestic service is raised, it mostly happens that its bearings are considered wholly in reference to those social arrangements which exist around us; only a few proceed on the supposition that these arrangements are probably but transitory. It is so throughout. Be the subjects industrial organization, or class-relations, or rule by fashion, the belief which practically, moulds the conclusions, if not the belief theoretically professed, is, that, whatever changes they may undergo, our institutions will not cease to be recognizably the same. Even those who have, as they think, deliberately freed themselves from this perverting tendency—even M. Comte and his disciples, believing in an entire transformation of society, nevertheless betray an incomplete emancipation; for the ideal society believed in by them, is one under regulation by a hierarchy essentially akin to hierarchies such as man-kind have known. So that everywhere, more or less, sociological thinking is impeded by the difficulty of constantly bearing in mind that the social states toward which mankind are being carried are probably as little conceivable by us as our present state was conceivable by a Norse pirate and his followers.
Note, now, the contrary difficulty, which appears to be surmountable by scarcely any of our parties, political and philanthropic, from the highest to the lowest—the difficulty of understanding that human nature, though indefinitely modifiable, can be modified but very slowly; and that all laws and institutions and appliances, which count on getting from it within a short time much better results than present ones, will inevitably fail. If we glance over the programmes of societies, and sects, and schools of all kinds, from Rousseau's disciples in the French Convention down to the members of the United Kingdom Alliance, from the adherents of the Ultramontane propaganda down to the enthusiastic advocates of an education exclusively secular, we find in them one common trait. They are all pervaded by the conviction, now definitely expressed and now taken as a self-evident truth, that there needs but this kind of instruction or that kind of discipline, this mode of repression or that system of culture, to bring society into a very much better state. Here we read that "it is necessary completely to refashion the people whom one wishes to make free:" the implication being that a refashioning is practicable. There it is taken as self-evident that, when you have taught children what they ought to do to be good citizens, they will become good citizens. Elsewhere it is held to be a truth beyond question that, if by law temptations to drink are removed from men, they will not only cease to drink, but thereafter cease to commit crimes. And yet the delusiveness of all such hopes is obvious enough to any one not blinded by an hypothesis, or carried away by an enthusiasm. The fact, often pointed out to Temperance-fanatics, that some of the soberest nations in Europe yield a proportion of crime higher than our own, might suffice to show them that England would not be suddenly moralized if they carried their proposed restrictions into effect. The superstition that good behavior is to be forthwith produced by lessons learned out of school-books, which was long ago statistically disproved, would, but for preconceptions, be utterly dissipated by observing to what a slight extent knowledge affects conduct—by observing that the dishonesty implied in the adulterations of tradesmen and manufacturers, in fraudulent bankruptcies, in bubble-companies, in "cooking" of railway accounts and financial prospectuses, differs only in form, and not in amount, from the dishonesty of the uneducated—on observing how amazingly little the teachings given to medical students affect their lives, and how even the most experienced medical men have their prudence scarcely at all increased by their information. Similarly, the Utopian ideas which come out afresh along with every new political scheme, from the "paper-constitutions" of the Abbe Sieyès down to the just-published programme of M. Louis Blanc, and from agitations for vote-by-ballot up to those who have a republic for their aim, might, but for this tacit belief we are contemplating, be extinguished by the facts perpetually and startlingly thrust on our attention. Again and again for three generations has France been showing to the world how impossible it is essentially to change the type of a social structure by any rearrangement wrought out through a revolution. However great the transformation may for a time seem, the original thing reappears in disguise. Out of the nominally-free government set up, a new despotism arises, different from the old by having a new shibboleth and new men to utter it; but identical with the old in the determination to put down opposition, and in the means used to this end. Liberty, when obtained, is forthwith surrendered to an avowed autocrat; or, as we have seen within this year, it is allowed to lapse into the hands of one who claims the reality of autocracy without its title. Nay, the change is, in fact, even less; for the regulative organization which ramifies throughout French society continues unaltered by these changes at the governmental centre. The bureaucratic system persists equally under Imperialist, Constitutional, and Republican arrangements. As the Due d'Audriffret-Pasquier pointed out, "Empires fall, Ministers pass away, but Bureaux remain." The aggregate of forces and tendencies embodied, not only in the structural arrangements holding the nation together, but in the ideas and sentiments of its units, is so powerful that the excision of a part, even though it be the governmental centre, is quickly followed by the substitution of a like part. It needs but to recall the truth exemplified some chapters back, that the properties of the aggregate are determined by the properties of the units, to see at once that, so long as the characters of citizens remain substantially unchanged, there can be no substantial change in the political organization which has slowly been evolved by them.
This double difficulty of thought, with the double set of delusions fallen into by those who do not surmount it, is, indeed, naturally associated with the once-universal, and still-general, belief that societies arise by manufacture, instead of arising, as they do, by evolution. Recognize the truth that aggregates of men, like other aggregates, grow, and acquire their structural characters through a process of modification upon modification, and there are excluded these antithetical errors that man remains the same and that man is readily alterable; and along with exclusion of these errors comes admission of the inference that the changes which have brought social arrangements to a form so different from past forms will in future carry them on to forms as different from those now existing. Once become habituated to the thought of a continuous unfolding of the whole and of each part, and these misleading ideas disappear. Take a word and observe how, while changing, it gives origin in course of time to a family of words, each changing member of which similarly has progeny; take a custom, as that of giving eggs at Easter, which has now developed in Paris into the fashion of making expensive presents of every imaginable kind enclosed in imitation-eggs, becoming at length large enough to contain a brougham, and which entails so great a tax that people go abroad to evade it; take a law, once quite simple and made to meet a special case, and see how it eventually, by successive additions and changes, grows up into a complex group of laws, as, out of two statutes of William the Conqueror came our whole system of statutes regulating land-tenure; take a social appliance, like the press, and see how from the news-letter, originally private and written, and then assuming the shape of a printed fly-leaf to a written private letter, there has, little by little, evolved this vast assemblage of journals and periodicals, daily, weekly, general, and local, that have, individually and as an aggregate, grown in size while growing in heterogeneity—do this, and do the like with all other established institutions, agencies, products, and there will come naturally the conviction that now, too, there are various germs of things which will in the future develop in ways no one imagines and take shares in profound transformations of society and of its members—transformations that are hopeless as immediate results, but certain as ultimate results.
Try to fit a hand with five fingers into a glove with four. Your difficulty aptly parallels the difficulty of putting a complex conception into a mind not having an adequately complex faculty. In proportion as the several terms and relations which make up a thought become numerous and varied, there must be brought into play numerous and varied parts of the intellectual structure, before the thought can be comprehended; and, if some of these parts are wanting, only fragments of the thought, and not the thought as a whole, can be taken in. Consider an instance. What is meant by the ratio of A to B may be explained to a boy, by drawing a short line A and a long line B, telling him that A is said to bear a small ratio to B; and then, after lengthening the line A, telling him that A is now said to bear a larger ratio to B. But suppose I have to explain what is meant by saying that the ratio of A to B is equal to the ratio of C to D. This conception is much more complex: instead of two different quantities and one relation, there are four different quantities and three relations. To understand the proposition, the boy has to think of A and B and their difference, and, without losing his intellectual grasp of these, he has to think of C and D and their difference, and, without losing his intellectual grasp of these, he has to think of the two differences as each having a like relation to its pair of quantities. Thus the number of terms and relations to be kept before the mind is such as to imply the cooperation of many more agents of thought, any of which being absent, the proposition cannot be understood: the boy must be older before he will understand it, and, if uncultured, will probably never understand it at all. Pass now to a conception of still greater complexity—say that the ratio of A to B varies as the ratio of C to D. Far more numerous things have now to be represented in consciousness with approximate simultaneity. A and B have to be thought of as not constant in their lengths, but as one or both of them changing in their lengths, so that their difference is indefinitely variable. Similarly with C and D. And then the variability of the ratio in each case being duly conceived in terms of lines that lengthen and shorten, the thing to be understood is, that whatever difference any change brings about between A and B, the relation it bears to one or other of them is always like that which the difference simultaneously arising between C and D bears to one or other of them. The greater multiplicity of ideas required for mentally framing this proposition evidently puts it further beyond the reach of faculties not developed by appropriate culture, or not capable of being so developed. And as the type of proposition becomes still more involved, as it does when two such groups of dependent variables are compared and conclusions drawn, it begins to require a grasp that is easy only to the disciplined mathematician.
One who does not possess that complexity of faculty which, as we here see, is requisite for the grasping of a complex conception, may, in cases like these, become conscious of his incapacity; not from perceiving what it is that he lacks, but from perceiving that, by another person, results can be achieved which he cannot achieve. But, where no such thing as the verifying of exact predictions comes in to prove to one of inferior faculty that his faculty is inferior, he is usually unaware of the inferiority. To imagine a higher mode of consciousness is in some degree to have it; so that, until he has it in some degree, he cannot really conceive of its existence. An illustration or two will make this clear.
Take a child on your knee, and, turning over with him some engravings of landscapes, note what he observes. "I see a man in a boat," says he, pointing. "Look at the cows coming down the hill." "And see, there is a little boy playing with a dog." These and other such remarks, mostly about the living objects in each view, are all you get from him. Never by any chance does he utter a word respecting the scene as a whole. There is an absolute unconsciousness of any thing to be observed, or to be pleased with, in the combination of wood and water and mountain. And, while the child is entirely without this complex æsthetic consciousness, you see that he has not the remotest idea that such a consciousness exists in others, but is wanting in himself. Take, now, a case in which a kindred defect is betrayed by an adult. You have, perhaps, in the course of your life, had some musical culture, and can recall the stages through which you have passed. In early days a symphony was a mystery, and you were somewhat puzzled to find others applauding it. An unfolding of musical faculty, that went on slowly through succeeding years, brought some appreciation, and now these complex musical combinations, which once gave you little or no pleasure, give you more pleasure than any others. Remembering all this, you begin to suspect that your indifference to certain still more involved musical combinations may arise from incapacity in you, and not from defects in them. See, on the other hand, what happens with one who has undergone no such series of changes—say, an old naval officer, whose life at sea kept him out of the way of concerts and operas. You hear him occasionally confess, or rather boast, how much he enjoys the bagpipes. While the last cadences of a sonata, which a young lady has just played, are still in your ears, he goes up to her and asks whether she can play "Polly, put the kettle on," or "Johnny comes marching home." And then, when concerts are talked about at table, he seizes the occasion for expressing his dislike of classical music, and scarcely conceals his contempt for those who go to hear it. On contemplating his mental state, you see that, along with absence of the faculty for grasping complex musical combinations, there goes no consciousness of the absence—there is no suspicion that such complex combinations exist, and that other persons have faculties for appreciating them.
And now for the application of this general truth to our subject. The conceptions with which sociological science is concerned are complex beyond all others. In the absence of faculty having a corresponding complexity, they cannot be grasped. Here, however, as in other cases, the absence of an adequately complex faculty is not accompanied by any consciousness of incapacity. Rather do we find that, in proportion to the deficiency in the required kind of mental grasp, there is an extreme confidence of judgment on sociological questions, and a ridicule of those who, after long discipline, begin to perceive what there is to be understood, and how difficult is the right understanding of it. A simple illustration of this will prepare the way for more involved illustrations.
A few months ago, the Times gave us an account of the last achievement in automatic printing—the "Walter Press," by which its own immense edition is thrown off in a few hours every morning. Suppose a reader of the description, adequately familiar with mechanical details, follows what he reads step by step with full comprehension perhaps making his ideas more definite by going to see the apparatus at work and questioning the attendants? Now he goes away considering he understands all about it. Possibly, under its aspect as a feat in mechanical engineering, he does so. Possibly also, under its biographical aspect, as implying in Mr. Walter and those who cooperated with him certain traits, moral and intellectual, he does so. But under its sociological aspect he has no notion of its meaning, and does not even suspect that it has a sociological aspect. Yet, if he begins to look into the genesis of the thing, he will find that he is but on the threshold of the full explanation. On asking not what is its proximate but what is its remote origin, he finds, in the first place, that this automatic printing-machine is lineally descended from other automatic printing-machines, which have undergone successive developments—each presupposing others that went before: without cylinder printing-machines long previously used and improved, there would have been no "Walter Press." He inquires a step further, and discovers that this last improvement became possible only by the help of papier-mâché stereotyping, which, first employed for making flat plates, afforded the possibility of making cylindrical plates. And tracing this back, he finds that plaster-of-paris stereotyping came before it, and that there was another process before that. Again he learns that this highest form of automatic printing, like the many less-developed forms preceding it, depended for its practicability on the introduction of rollers for distributing ink, instead of the hand-implements used by "printer's devils" fifty years ago—which rollers, again, could never have been made fit for their present purposes, without the discovery of that curious elastic compound out of which they are cast. And then, on tracing the more remote antecedents, he finds an ancestry of hand printing-presses, which, through generations, had been successively improved. Now, perhaps, he thinks he understands the apparatus, considered as a sociological fact. Far from it. Its multitudinous parts, which will work together only when highly finished and exactly adjusted, came from machine-shops, where there are varieties of complicated, highly-finished engines for turning cylinders, cutting out wheels, planing bars, and so forth; and on the preexistence of these the existence of this printing-machine depended. If he inquires into the history of these complex automatic tools, he finds they have severally been, in the slow course of mechanical progress, brought to their present perfection by the help of preceding complex automatic tools of various kind, that cooperated to make their component parts—each larger, or more accurate, lathe or planing-machine having been made possible by preexisting lathes and planing-machines, inferior in size or exactness. And so if he traces back the whole contents of the machine-shop, with its many-different instruments, he comes in course of time to the blacksmith's hammer and anvil, and even, eventually, to still ruder appliances. The explanation is now completed, he thinks. Not at all. No such process as that which the "Walter Press" shows us was possible until there had been invented, and slowly perfected, a paper-machine capable of making miles of paper without break. Thus there is the genesis of the paper-machine involved, and that of the multitudinous appliances and devices that preceded it, and are at present implied by it. Have we now got to the end of the matter? No; we have just glanced at one group of the antecedents. All this development of mechanical appliances—this growth of the iron-manufacture, this extensive use of machinery made from iron, this production of so many machines for making machines—has had for one of its causes the abundance of the raw materials, coal and iron; has had for another of its causes the insular position which has favored peace and the increase of industrial activity. There have been moral causes at work too. Without that readiness to sacrifice present ease to future benefit, which is implied by enterprise, there would not only have never arisen the machine in question, but there would never have arisen the multitudinous improved instruments and processes that have made it possible. And, beyond the moral traits which enterprise presupposes, there are those presupposed by efficient cooperation. Without mechanical engineers who fulfilled their contracts tolerably well, by executing work accurately, neither this machine itself nor the machines that made it could have been produced; and, without artisans having considerable conscientiousness, no master could insure accurate work. Try to get such products out of an inferior race, and you will find defective character an insuperable obstacle. So, too, will you find defective intelligence an insuperable obstacle. The skilled artisan is not an accidental product, either morally or intellectually. The intelligence needed for making a new thing is not everywhere to be found; nor is there everywhere to be found the accuracy of perception and nicety of execution without which no complex machine can be so made that it will act. Exactness of finish in machines has developed pari passu with exactness of perception in artisans. Inspect some mechanical appliance made a century ago, and you may see that, even had all other requisite conditions been fulfilled, want of the requisite skill in workmen would have been a fatal obstacle to the production of an engine requiring so many delicate adjustments. So that there are implied in this mechanical achievement, not only our slowly-generated industrial state, with its innumerable products and processes, but also the slowly-moulded moral and intellectual natures of masters and workmen. Has nothing: now been forgotten? Yes, we have left out a whole division of all-important social phenomena—those which we group as the progress of knowledge. Along with the many other developments that have been necessary antecedents to this machine, there has been the development of Science. The growing and improving arts of all kinds have been helped up, step after step, by those generalized experiences, becoming ever wider, more complete, more exact, which make up what we call Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, etc. Without a considerably developed Geometry, there could never have been the machines for making machines; still less this machine that has proceeded from them. Without a developed Physics, there would have been no steam-engine to move these various automatic appliances, primary and secondary; nor would the many implied metallurgic processes have been brought to the needful perfection. And, in the absence of a developed Chemistry, many of the requirements, direct and indirect, could not have been adequately fulfilled. So that, in fact, this organization of knowledge which began with civilization had to reach something like its present stage, before such a machine could come into existence, supposing all other prerequisites to be satisfied. Surely we have now got to the end of the history. Not quite; there yet remains an essential factor. No one goes on year after year spending thousands of pounds, and much time, and persevering through disappointment and anxiety, without a strong motive: the "Walter Press" was not a mere tour de force. Why, then, was it produced? To meet an immense demand with great promptness—to print, with one machine, 16,000 copies per hour. Whence arises this demand? From an extensive reading public, brought in the course of generations to have a keen morning-appetite for news of all kinds—merchants who need to know the latest prices at home and the latest telegrams from abroad; politicians who must learn the result of last night's division, be informed of the latest diplomatic move, and read the speeches at a meeting; sporting-men who look for the odds and the result of yesterday's race; ladies who want to see the births, marriages, and deaths. And, on asking the origin of these many desires to be satisfied, they prove to be concomitants of our social state in general—its trading, political, philanthropic, and other activities; for, in societies where these are not dominant, the demand for news of various kinds rises to no such intensity. See, then, how enormously involved is the genesis of this machine, as a sociological phenomenon. A whole encyclopædia of mechanical inventions—some dating from the earliest times—go to the explanation of it. Thousands of years of discipline, by which the impulsive, improvident nature of the savage has been evolved into a comparatively self-controlling nature, capable of sacrificing present ease to future good, are presupposed. There is presupposed the equally long discipline by which the inventive faculty, almost wholly absent in the savage, has been evolved, and by which accuracy, not even conceived by the savage, has been cultivated. And there is further presupposed the slow political and social progress, at once cause and consequence of these other changes, that has brought us to a state in which such a machine finds a function to fulfil.
The complexity of a sociological fact, and the difficulty of adequately grasping it, will now perhaps be more apparent. For as in this case there has been a genesis, so has there been in every other case, be it of institution, arrangement, custom, belief, etc.; but while in this case the genesis is comparatively easy to trace, because of the comparatively concrete character of process and product, it is in other cases difficult to trace, because the factors are mostly not of a sensible kind. And yet only when the genesis has been traced—only when the various antecedents of all orders have been observed in their coöperation, generation after generation, through past social states—is there reached that interpretation of a fact which makes it a part of sociological science, properly understood. If, for instance, the true meaning of such phenomena as those presented by trade-combinations is to be seen, it is needful to go back to those remote old English periods when analogous causes produced analogous results. As Brentano points out:
Then, having studied the successive forms of such organizations in relation to the successive industrial states, there have to be observed the ways in which they are severally related to other phenomena of their respective times—the political institutions, the class distinctions, the family arrangements, the modes of distribution and degrees of intercourse between localities, the amounts of knowledge, the religious beliefs, the morals, the sentiments, the customs, the ideas. Considered as parts of a nation, having structures that form parts of its structure and actions that modify and are modified by its actions, these trade-societies can have their full meanings perceived only when they are studied in their serial genesis through many centuries, and their changes considered in relation to simultaneous changes throughout the social organism. And even then there remains the deeper inquiry—How does it happen that in nations of certain types no analogous institutions exist, and that in nations of other types the analogous institutions have taken forms more or less different?
That phenomena so involved cannot be seen as they truly are, even by the highest intelligence at present existing, is tolerably manifest. And it is manifest also that a Science of Society is likely for a long time hence to be recognized by but few; since not only is there in most cases an absence of faculty complex enough to grasp its complex phenomena, but there is mostly an absolute unconsciousness that there are any such complex phenomena to be grasped.
To the want of a due complexity of conceptive faculty, there has to be added, as a further difficulty, the want of due plasticity of conceptive faculty. The general ideas of nearly all men have been framed out of experiences gathered within comparatively narrow areas; and general ideas so framed are far too rigid readily to admit the multitudinous and varied combinations of facts which Sociology presents. The child of Puritanic parents, brought up in the belief that Sabbath-breaking brings after it all kinds of transgressions, and having had pointed out, in the village or small town that formed his world, various instances of this connection, is somewhat perplexed in after-years, when acquaintance with more of his countrymen has shown him exemplary lives joined with non-observance of the Sunday. When he adds to his experiences by Continental travel, and finds that the best people of foreign societies disregard injunctions which he once thought essential to right conduct, he still further widens his originally small and stiff conception. Now, the process thus exemplified, in a single belief of a comparatively superficial kind, has to be gone through with numerous beliefs of deeper kinds, before there can be reached the flexibility of thought required for dealing properly with sociological phenomena. Not in one direction, but in nearly all directions, we have to learn that those connections of social facts which we commonly regard as natural, and even necessary, are not at all necessary, and often have no particular naturalness. On contemplating past social states, we are continually reminded that many arrangements, and practices, and convictions, that seem matters of course, are very modern; and we are continually forgetting that many things we now regard as impossible were quite possible a few centuries ago. Still more, on studying societies alien in race as well as in stage of civilization, we perpetually meet with things not only contrary to every thing we should have thought probable, but even such as we should have scarcely hit upon in trying to conceive the most unlikely and even impossible things.
Take in illustration the varieties of domestic relations. That monogamy is not the only kind of marriage, we are, indeed, early taught by our Bible-lessons. But though the conception of polygamy is thus made somewhat familiar, it does not occur to us that polyandry is also a possible arrangement; and we are surprised on first learning that it not only exists, but was once extremely general. When we contemplate these marital institutions unlike our own, we cannot at first imagine that they can be practised with a sense of propriety like that with which we practise ours. Yet Livingstone narrates that, in a tribe bordering one of the Central African lakes, the women were quite disgusted on hearing that in England a man has only one wife. This is a feeling by no means peculiar to them.
Again, one would suppose that, as a matter of course, monogamy, polygamy, and polyandry, in its several varieties, exhausted the possible forms of marriage. An utterly unexpected form is furnished us by one of the African tribes. Marriage, among them, is for so many days in the week—commonly for four days in the week, which is said to be "the custom in the best families:" the wife during the off days being regarded as an independent woman who may do what she pleases. We are little surprised, too, on reading that, by some of the hill-tribes of India, unfaithfulness on the part of the husband is held to be a grave offence, but unfaithfulness on the part of the wife a trivial one. We assume, as self-evident, that good usage of a wife by a husband implies, among other things, absence of violence; and hence it seems scarcely imaginable that in some places the opposite criterion holds. Yet it does so among the Tartars.
A statement which might be rejected as incredible, were it not for the analogous fact that, among the South African races, a white master who does not thrash his men is ridiculed and reproached by them as not worthy to be called a master. Among domestic customs, again, who, if he had been set to imagine all possible anomalies, would have hit upon that which is found among the Basques, and has existed among other races the custom that on the birth of a child the husband goes to bed and receives the congratulations of friends, while his wife returns to her household work? Or who, among the results of having a son born, would dream of that which occurs among some Polynesian races, where the father is forthwith dispossessed of his property, and becomes simply a guardian of it on behalf of the infant? The varieties of filial relations and of accompanying sentiments continually show us things equally strange, and at first sight equally unaccountable. It seems hardly credible that it should anywhere be thought a duty on the part of children to bury their parents alive. Yet it is so thought among the Fijians; of whom we read also that the parents thus put out of the way, go to their graves with smiling faces. Scarcely less incredible does it seem that a man's affection should be regarded as more fitly shown toward the children of others than toward his own children. Yet the Hill-tribes of India supply an example:
"The philoprogenitiveness of philosophical Europe is a strange idea, as well as term, to the Nair of Malabar, who learns with his earliest mind that his uncle is a nearer relation to him than his father, and consequently loves his nephew much more than his son."
When, in the domestic relations, we meet with such varieties of law, of custom, of sentiment, of belief, thus indicated by a few examples which might be indefinitely multiplied, it may be imagined how multitudinous are the seeming incongruities presented among the social relations at large. To be made conscious of these, however, it is not needful to study uncivilized tribes, or alien races partially civilized. If we look back to the earlier stages of European societies, we find abundant proofs that social phenomena do not necessarily hang together in those ways which our daily experiences show us. Religious conceptions may be taken in illustration.
The grossness of these among civilized nations, as they at present exist, might, indeed, prepare us for their still greater grossness during old times. When, close to Boulogne, one passes a crucifix, at the foot of which lies a mouldering heap of crosses, made of two bits of lath nailed together, deposited by passers-by in the expectation of Divine favor to be so gained, one cannot but have a sense of strangeness on glancing at the adjacent railway, and on calling to mind the achievements of the French in science. Still more one may marvel on finding, as in Spain, a bull-fight got up in the interests of the Church—the proceeds being devoted to a "Holy House of Mercy!" And yet, great as seem the incongruities between religious beliefs and social states now displayed, more astonishing incongruities are disclosed on going far back. Consider the conceptions implied by sundry mystery-plays; and remember that they were outgrowths from a theory of the Divine government, which men were afterward burnt for rejecting; Payments of wages to actors are entered thus
"Imprimis, to God, ija
"Even the Virgin's conception is made a subject for ribaldry; and in the Coventry collection we have a mystery, or play, on the subject of her pretended trial. It opens with the appearance of the somnour, who reads a long list of offences that appear in his book; then come two 'detractors' who repeat certain scandalous stories relating to Joseph and Mary, upon the strength of which they are summoned to appear before the ecclesiastical court. They are accordingly put upon their trial, and we have a broad picture of the proceedings in such a case," etc.
Again, on looking into the illuminated missals of old times, there is revealed to us a mode of conceiving Christian doctrine which it is difficult to imagine as current in a civilized or even semi-civilized society: instance the ideas implied by a highly-finished figure of Christ, from whose wounded side a stream of wafers spouts on to a salver held by a priest. Or take a devotional book of later date—a printed psalter, profusely illustrated with woodcuts representing incidents in the life of Christ. Page after page exhibits ways in which his sacrifice is utilized after a perfectly material manner. Here are shown vines growing out of his wounds, and the grapes these vines bear are being devoured by bishops and abbesses. Here the cross is fixed on a large barrel, into which his blood falls in torrents, and out of which there issue jets on to groups of ecclesiastics. And here, his body being represented in a horizontal position, there rise, from the wounds in his hands and feet, fountains of blood, which priests and nuns are collecting in buckets and jars. Nay, even more astonishing is the mental state implied by one of the woodcuts, which tries to aid the devotional reader in conceiving the Trinity, by representing three persons standing in one pair of boots! Quite in harmony with these astoundingly-gross conceptions are the conceptions implied in the popular literature. The theological ideas that grew up in times when Papal authority was supreme, and before the sale of indulgences had been protested against, may be judged from a story contained in the Folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm, called "The Tailor in Heaven." Here is an abridged translation:
These examples, out of multitudes that might be given, show the wide limits of variation within which social phenomena range. When we bear in mind that, along with theological ideas that now seem little above those of savages, there went (in England) a political constitution having outlines like the present, an established body of laws, a regular taxation, an emancipated working-class, an industrial system of considerable complexity, with the general intelligence and mutual trust implied by social coöperations so extensive and involved, we see that there are possibilities of combination far more numerous than we are apt to suppose. There is proved to us the need for greatly enlarging those stock-notions which are so firmly established in us by daily observations of surrounding; arrangements and occurrences.
We might, indeed, even if limited to the evidence which our own society at the present time supplies, greatly increase the plasticity of our conceptions, did we contemplate the facts as they really are. Could we nationally, as well as individually, "see ourselves as others see us," we might find at home seeming contradictions, sufficient to show us that what we think necessarily-connected traits are by no means necessarily connected. We might learn from our own institutions, and books, and journals, and debates, that while there are certain constant relations among social phenomena, they are not the relations commonly supposed to be constant; and that, when from some conspicuous characteristic we infer certain other characteristics, we may be quite wrong. To aid ourselves in perceiving this, let us, varying a somewhat trite mode of representation, consider what might be said of us by an independent observer, living in the far future—supposing his statements translated into our cumbrous language.
"Though the diagrams used for teaching make every child aware that many thousands of years ago the earth's orbit began to recede from its limit of greatest eccentricity; and though all are familiar with the consequent fact that the glacial epoch, which has so long made a large part of the northern hemisphere uninhabitable, has passed its climax; yet it is not universally known that, in some regions, the retreat of glaciers has lately made accessible tracks long covered. Amid moraines and under vast accumulations of detritus, have been found here ruins, there semi-fossilized skeletons, and in some places, even records, which, by a marvellous concurrence of favorable conditions, have been so preserved that parts of them remain legible. Just as our automatic quarrying-engines occasionally turn up fossil cephalopods, so little injured that drawings of them are made with the sepia taken from their own ink-bags; so here, by a happy chance, there have come down to us, from a long-extinct race of men, those actual secretions of their daily life, which furnish coloring-matter for a picture of them. By great perseverance our explorers have discovered the key to their imperfectly-developed language; and in course of years have been able to put together facts yielding us faint ideas of the strange peoples who lived there during the last preglacial period.
"A report just issued refers to a time called by these peoples the middle of the nineteenth century of their era; and it concerns a nation of considerable interest to us—the English. Though until now no traces of this ancient nation were known to exist, yet there survived the names of certain great men it produced—one a poet whose range of imagination and depth of insight are said to have exceeded those of all who went before him; the other, a man of science, of whom, profound as we may suppose in many other respects, we know definitely this, that to all nations then living, and that have since lived, he taught how the Universe is balanced. What kind of people the English were, and what kind of civilization they had, have thus always been questions exciting curiosity. The facts disclosed by this report are scarcely of the kind anticipated. Search was first made for traces of these great men, who, it was supposed, would be conspicuously commemorated. Little was found, however. It did, indeed, appear that the last of them, who revealed to mankind the constitution of the heavens, had received a name of honor like that which they gave to a successful trader who presented an address to their monarch; and besides a tree planted in his memory, a small statue to their great poet had been put up in one of their temples, where, however, it was almost lost among the many and large monuments to their fighting chiefs. Not that commemorative structures of magnitude were never erected by the English. Our explorers discovered traces of a gigantic one, in which, apparently, persons of distinction and deputies from all nations were made to take part in honoring some being—man he can scarcely have been. For it is difficult to conceive that any man could have had a worth transcendent enough to draw from them such extreme homage, when they thought so little of those by whom their name as a race has been saved from oblivion. Their distribution of monumental honors was, indeed, in all respects remarkable. To a physician named Jenner, who, by a mode of mitigating the ravages of a horrible disease, was said to have rescued many thousands from death, they erected a memorial statue in one of their chief public places. After some years, however, repenting them of giving to this statue so conspicuous a position, they banished it to a far corner of one of their suburban gardens, frequented chiefly by children and nursemaids; and, in its place, they erected a statue to a great leader of their fighters—one Napier, who had helped them to conquer and keep down certain weaker races. The reporter does not tell us whether this last had been instrumental in destroying as many lives as the first had saved; but he remarks: 'I could not but wonder at this strange substitution among a people who professed a religion of peace.' Not, however, that this was an exceptional act, out of harmony with their usual acts: quite the contrary. The records show that, to keep up the remembrance of a great victory gained over a neighboring nation, they held for many years an annual banquet, much in the spirit of the commemorative scalp-dances of still more barbarous peoples; and there was never wanting a priest to ask on the banquet a blessing from one they named the God of love. In some respects, indeed, their code of conduct seemed not to have advanced beyond, but to have gone back from, the code of a still more ancient people from whom their creed was derived. One of the laws of this ancient people was, 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth;' but sundry laws of the English, especially those concerning acts that interfered with some so-called sports of their ruling classes, inflicted penalties which imply that their principle had become 'a leg for an eye, and an arm for a tooth.' The relations of their creed to the creed of this ancient people are indeed difficult to understand. They had at one time cruelly persecuted this ancient people—Jews they were called—because that particular modification of the Jewish religion, which they, the English, nominally adopted, was one which the Jews would not adopt. And yet, marvellous to relate, while they tortured the Jews for not agreeing with them, they substantially agreed with the Jews. Not only, as above instanced, in the law of retaliation did they outdo the Jews, instead of obeying the quite opposite principle of the teacher they worshipped as divine, but they obeyed the Jewish law, and disobeyed this divine teacher in other ways—as in the rigid observance of every seventh day, which he had deliberately discountenanced. Though they were angry with those who did not nominally believe in Christianity (which was the name of their religion), yet they ridiculed those who really believed in it; for some few people among them, nicknamed Quakers, who aimed to carry out Christian precepts instead of Jewish precepts, they made butts for their jokes. Nay, more; their substantial adhesion to the creed they professedly repudiated was clearly demonstrated by this, that in each of their temples they fixed up in some conspicuous place the ten commandments of the Jewish religion, while they rarely fixed up the two Christian commandments which were to replace them. 'And yet,' says the reporter, after dilating on these strange facts, 'though the English were greatly given to missionary enterprises of all kinds, and though I sought diligently among the records of these, I could find no trace of a society for converting the English people from Judaism to Christianity.' This mention of their missionary enterprises introduces other remarkable anomalies. Being anxious to get adherents to this creed which they adopted in name, but not in fact, they sent out men to various parts of the world to propagate it—one part, among others, being that subjugated territory above named. There the English missionaries taught the gentle precepts of their faith; and there the officers employed by their government exemplified these precepts—one of the exemplifications being that, to put down a riotous sect, they took fifty out of sixty-six who had surrendered, and, without any trial, blew them from the guns, as they called it—tied them to the mouths of cannon, and shattered their bodies to pieces. And then, curiously enough, having thus taught and thus exemplified their religion, they expressed great surprise at the fact that the only converts their missionaries could obtain among these people were hypocrites and men of characters so bad that no one would employ them.
"Nevertheless, these semi-civilized English had their good points. Odd as must have been the delusion which made them send out missionaries to inferior races, who were always ill used by their sailors and settlers, and eventually extirpated by them, yet, on finding that they spent annually a million of their money in missionary and allied enterprises, we cannot but see some generosity of motive in them. They country was dotted over with hospitals and almshouses, and institutions for taking care of the diseased and indigent; and their towns were overrun with philanthropic societies, which, without saying any thing about the wisdom of their policy, clearly implied good feeling. They expended in the legal relief of their poor as much as, and at one time more than, a tenth of the revenue raised for all national purposes. One of their remarkable deeds was that, to get rid of a barbarous institution of those times, called slavery, under which, in their colonies, certain men held complete possession of others, their goods, their bodies, and practically even their lives, they paid down twenty millions of their money. And not less striking was the fact that, during a war between two neighboring nations, they contributed large sums, and sent out many men and women, to help in taking care of the wounded and assisting the ruined.
"The facts brought to light by these explorations are thus extremely instructive. Now that, after tens of thousands of years of discipline, the lives of men in society have become so harmonious—now that character and conditions have little by little grown into adjustment, we are apt to suppose that congruity of institutions, conduct, sentiments, and beliefs, is necessary. "We think it almost impossible that, in the same society, there should be daily practised principles of quite opposite kinds; and it seems to us scarcely credible that men should have, or profess to have, beliefs with which their acts are absolutely irreconcilable. Only that extremely rare disorder, insanity, could explain the conduct of one who, knowing that fire burns, nevertheless thrusts his hand into the flame; and to insanity also we should ascribe the behavior of one who, professing to think a certain course morally right, pursued the opposite course. Yet the revelations yielded by these ancient remains show us that societies could hold together notwithstanding: what we should think a chaos of conduct and of opinion. Nay, more, they show us that it was possible for men to profess one thing and do another, without betraying a consciousness of inconsistency. One piece of evidence is curiously to the point. Among their multitudinous agencies for beneficent purposes, the English had a 'Naval and Military Bible Society'—a society for distributing copies of their sacred book among their professional fighters on sea and land; and this society was subscribed to, and chiefly managed by, leaders among these fighters. It is, indeed, suggested by the reporter, that for these classes of men they had an expurgated edition of their sacred book, from which the injunctions to 'return good for evil,' and 'to turn the cheek to the smiter,' were omitted. It may have been so; but, if not, we have a remarkable instance of the extent to which conviction and conduct may be diametrically opposed, without any apparent perception that they are opposed. We habitually assume that the distinctive trait of humanity is rationality, and that rationality involves consistency; yet here we find an extinct race (unquestionably human, and regarding itself as rational) in which the inconsistency of conduct and professed belief was as great as can well be imagined. Thus we are warned against supposing that what now seems to us so natural was always natural. We have our eyes opened to an error which has been getting confirmed among us for these thousands of years, that social phenomena and the phenomena of human nature necessarily hang together in the ways we see around us."
Before summing up what has been said under the title of "Subjective Difficulties—Intellectual," I may remark that this group of difficulties is separated from the group of objective difficulties, dealt with in the last chapter, rather for the sake of convenience than because the division can be strictly maintained. In contemplating difficulties of interpretation—phenomena being on the one side and intelligence on the other—we may, as we please, ascribe failure either to the inadequacy of the intelligence or to the involved nature of the phenomena. The difficulty is subjective or objective according to our point of view. But the difficulties above set forth arise in so direct a way from conspicuous defects of human intelligence, that they may be, more appropriately than the preceding ones, classed as subjective.
So regarding them, then, we have to beware, in the first place, of this tendency to automorphic interpretation; or rather, having no alternative but to conceive the natures of other men in terms such as our own feelings and ideas furnish, we have to beware of the errors likely hence to arise—discounting our conclusions as well as we can. Further, we must be on our guard against the two opposite prevailing errors respecting Man, and against the sociological errors arising from them: we have to get rid of the two beliefs that human nature is unchangeable, and that it is easily changed; and we have, instead, to become familiar with the conception of a human nature that is changed in the slow succession of generations by social discipline. Another obstacle not to be completely surmounted by any, and to be partially surmounted by but few, is that resulting from the want of intellectual faculty complex enough to grasp the extremely complex phenomena which Sociology deals with. There can be no complete conception of a sociological fact, considered as a component of Social Science, unless there are present to thought all its essential factors; and the power of keeping them in mind with due clearness, as well as in their proper proportions and combinations, has yet to be reached. Then beyond this difficulty, only to be in a measure overcome, there is the further difficulty, not, however, by any means so great, of enlarging the conceptive capacity, so that it may admit the widely divergent and extremely various combinations of social phenomena. That rigidity of conception produced in us by experiences of our own social life, in our own time, has to be exchanged for a plasticity that can receive with ease, and accept as natural, the countless different combinations of social phenomena utterly unlike, and sometimes exactly opposite to, those we are familiar with. Without such a plasticity there can be no proper understanding of coexisting social states allied to our own, still less of past social states, or social states of alien civilized races and races in early stages of development.
- Warton's "History of English Poetry," vol. ii., p. 57, note.
- Burton's "Scinde," vol. ii., p. 13.
- Speke's "Journal of Discovery of Source of the Nile," p. 85.
- See pp. 79 and 127.
- "Summary of the Moral Statistics of England and Wales." By Joseph Fletcher, Esq., one of her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools.
- Reeves, "History of English Law," vol. i., pp. 34-36 (second edition).
- Brentano's "Introduction to Early English Guilds," p. cxiv.
- Lubbock's "Prehistoric Times," p. 344 (first edition).
- Mrs. Atkinson's "Recollections of Tartar Steppes," p. 220.
- Quoted in McLennan's "Primitive Marriage," p. 187.
- Burton's "History of Sindh," p. 244.
- Wright's "Essays on Archæology," vol. ii., pp. 175, 176.
- ii., 184.
- But four copies of this psalter are known to exist. The copy from which I made this description is contained in the splendid collection of Mr. Henry Huth.
- "Kinder-und-Hausmarchen," by William and James Grimm, larger edition (1870), pp. 140-142.