Popular Science Monthly/Volume 4/December 1873/Radicalism, Conservatism, and the Transition of Institutions

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 4 December 1873  (1873) 
Radicalism, Conservatism, and the Transition of Institutions
By Herbert Spencer






OF readers who have accompanied me thus far, probably some think that the contents of these papers go beyond the limits implied by their title. Under the head Study of Sociology, so many sociological questions have been incidentally discussed, that the science itself has been in a measure dealt with while dealing with the study of it. Admitting this criticism, my excuse must be that the fault, if it is one, has been scarcely avoidable. Nothing to much purpose can be said about the study of any science without saying a good deal about the general and special truths it includes, or what the expositor holds to be truths. To write an essay on the study of astronomy, in which there should be no direct or implied conviction respecting the Copernican theory of the solar system, nor any such recognition of the law of gravitation as involved acceptance or rejection of it, would be a task difficult to execute, and, when executed, probably of little value. Similarly with Sociology— it is next to impossible for the writer who points out the way toward its truths to exclude all tacit or avowed expressions of opinion about those truths, and, were it possible to exclude such expressions of opinion, it would be at the cost of those illustrations needed to make his exposition effective.

Such must be, in part, my defense for having set down many thoughts which the title of this work does not cover. Especially have I found myself obliged thus to transgress, by representing the study of sociology as the study of evolution in its most complex form. It is clear that, to one who considers the facts societies exhibit as having had their origin in supernatural interpositions, or in the wills of individual ruling men, the study of these facts will have an aspect wholly unlike that which it has to one who contemplates them as generated by processes of growth and development continuing through centuries. Ignoring, as the first view tacitly does, that conformity to law, in the scientific sense of the word, which the second view tacitly asserts, there can be but little community between the methods of inquiry proper to them respectively. Continuous causation, which in the one case there is little or no tendency to trace, becomes, in the other case, the chief object of attention; whence it follows that there must be formed wholly different ideas of the appropriate modes of investigation. A foregone conclusion respecting the nature of social phenomena is thus inevitably implied in any suggestions for the study of them.

While, however, it must be admitted that throughout these articles there runs the assumption that the facts, simultaneous and successive, which societies present, have a genesis no less natural than the genesis of facts of all other classes, it is not admitted that this assumption was made unawares, or without warrant. At the outset, the grounds for it were examined. The notion, widely accepted in name, though not consistently acted upon, that social phenomena differ from phenomena of most other kinds, as being under special providence, we found to be entirely discredited by its expositors; nor, when closely looked into, did the great-man-theory of social affairs prove to be more tenable. Besides finding that both these views, rooted as they are in the ways of thinking natural to primitive men, would not bear criticism, we found that even their defenders continually betrayed their beliefs in the production of social changes by natural causes—tacitly admitted that after certain antecedents certain consequents are to be expected—tacitly admitted, therefore, that some prevision is possible, and therefore some subject-matter for science.

From these negative justifications for the belief that sociology is a science, we turned to the positive justifications. We found that every aggregate of units, of any order, has certain traits necessarily determined by the properties of its units. Hence it was inferable, a priori, that, given the natures of the men who are their units, and certain characters in the societies formed are predetermined—other characters being determined by the coöperation of surrounding conditions. The current assertion, that sociology is not possible, implies a misconception of its nature. Using the analogy supplied by a human life, we saw that just as bodily development, and structure, and function, furnish subject-matter for biological science, though the events set forth by the biographer go beyond its range, so, social growth, and the rise of structures and functions accompanying it, furnish subject-matter for a science of society, though the facts with which historians fill their pages mostly yield no material for science. Thus conceiving the scope of the science, we saw, on comparing rudimentary societies with one another, and with societies in different stages of progress, that they do present certain common traits of structure and of function, as well as certain common traits of development. Further comparisons, similarly made, opened large questions, such as that of the relation between social growth and organization, which form parts of this same science—questions of transcendent importance, compared with those occupying the minds of politicians and writers of history.

The difficulties of the Social Science next drew our attention. We saw that in this case, though in no other case, the facts to be observed and generalized by the student are exhibited by an aggregate of which he forms a part. In his capacity of inquirer, he should have no inclination toward one or other conclusion respecting the phenomena to be generalized; but, in his capacity of citizen, helped to live by the life of his society, embedded in its structures, sharing in its activities, breathing its atmosphere of thought and sentiment, he is partially coerced into such views as favor harmonious cooperation with his fellow-citizens. Hence immense obstacles to the social science, unparalleled by those standing in the way of any other science.

From considering thus generally these causes of error, we turned to consider them specially. Under the head of Objective Difficulties, we glanced at those many ways in which evidence collected by the sociological inquirer is vitiated. That extreme untrustworthiness of witnesses which results from carelessness, or fanaticism, or self-interest, was illustrated; and we saw that, in addition to the perversions of statement hence arising, there are others which arise from the tendency there is for some kinds of evidence to draw attention, while evidence of opposite kinds, much larger in quantity, draws no attention. Further, it was shown that the nature of sociological facts, each of which is not observable in a single object or act, but is reached only through registration and comparison of many objects and acts, makes the perception of them harder than that of other facts. It was pointed out that the wide distribution of social phenomena in space greatly hinders true apprehensions of them; and it was also pointed out that another impediment, even still greater, is consequent on their distribution in time—a distribution such that many of the facts to be dealt with take centuries to unfold, and can be grasped only by combining in thought multitudinous changes that are slow, involved, and not easy to trace.

Beyond these difficulties which we grouped as distinguishing the science itself, objectively considered, we saw that there are other difficulties, conveniently to be grouped as subjective, which are also great. For the interpretation of human conduct as socially displayed, every one is compelled to use, as a key, his own nature—ascribing to others thoughts and feelings like his own; and yet, while this automorphic interpretation is indispensable, it is necessarily more or less misleading. Very generally, too, a subjective difficulty arises from the lack of intellectual faculty complex enough to grasp these social phenomena, which are so extremely involved. And, again, very few have by culture gained that plasticity of faculty requisite for conceiving and accepting those immensely-varied actualities which societies in different times and places display, and those multitudinous possibilities to be inferred from them.

Nor, of subjective difficulties, did these exhaust the list. From the emotional as well as from the intellectual part of the nature, we saw that there arise obstacles. The ways in which beliefs about social affairs are perverted, by intense fears and excited hopes, were pointed out. We noted the feeling of impatience, as another common cause of misjudgment. A contrast was drawn showing, too, what perverse estimates of public events men are led to make by their sympathies and antipathies—how, where their hate has been aroused, they utter unqualified condemnations of ill-deeds for which there was much excuse, while, if their admiration is excited by vast successes, they condone inexcusable ill-deeds immeasurably greater in amount. And we also saw that, among the distortions of judgment caused by the emotions, have to be included those immense ones generated by the sentiment of loyalty to a personal ruler, or to a ruling power otherwise embodied.

These distortions of judgment caused by the emotions, thus indicated generally, we went on to consider specially—treating of them as different forms of bias. Though, during education, understood in a wide sense, many kinds of bias are commenced or given, there is one which our educational system makes especially strong—the double bias in favor of the religions of enmity and of amity. Needful as we found both of these to be, we perceived that among the beliefs about social affairs, prompted now by the one and now by the other, there are glaring incongruities; and that scientific conceptions can be formed only when there is a compromise between the dictates of pure egoism and the dictates of pure altruism, for which they respectively stand.

We observed, next, the warping of opinion which the bias of patriotism causes. Recognizing the truth that the preservation of a society is made possible only by a due amount of patriotic feeling in citizens, we saw that this feeling inevitably disturbs the judgment when comparisons between societies are made, and that the data required for Social Science are thus vitiated; and we saw that the effort to escape this bias, leading as it does to an opposite bias, is apt to vitiate the data in another way. While finding the class-bias to be no less essential, we found that it no less inevitably causes one-sidedness in the conceptions of social affairs. Noting how the various sub-classes have their specialties of prejudice corresponding to their class-interests, we noted, at greater length, how the more general prejudices of the larger and more widely-distinguished classes prevent them from forming balanced judgments. That in politics the bias of party interferes with those calm examinations by which alone the conclusions of Social Science can be reached, scarcely needed pointing out. We observed, however, that, beyond the political bias under its party-form, there is a more general political bias—the bias toward an exclusively-political view of social affairs, and a corresponding faith in political instrumentalities. As affecting the study of Social Science, this bias was shown to be detrimental as directing the attention too much to the phenomena of social regulation, and excluding from thought the activities regulated, constituting an aggregate of phenomena far more important.

Lastly, we came to the theological bias, which, under its general form and under its special forms, disturbs in various ways our judgments on social questions. Obedience to a supposed divine command being its standard of rectitude, it does not ask concerning any social arrangement whether it conduces to social welfare, so much as whether it conforms to the creed locally established. Hence, in each place and time, those conceptions about public affairs which the theological bias fosters, tend to diverge from the truth in so far as the creed then and there accepted diverges from the truth. And besides the positive evil thus produced, there is a negative evil, due to discouragement of the habit of estimating actions by the results they eventually cause—a habit which the study of Social Science demands.

Having thus contemplated in general and in detail the difficulties of the Social Science, we turned our attention to the preliminary discipline required. Of the conclusions reached so recently, the reader scarcely needs reminding. Study of the sciences in general having been pointed out as the proper means of generating fit habits of thought, it was shown that the sciences especially to be attended to are those treating of Life and of Mind. There can be no understanding of social actions without some knowledge of human nature; there can be no deep knowledge of human nature without some knowledge of the laws of Mind; there can be no adequate knowledge of the laws of Mind without knowledge of the laws of Life. And, that knowledge of the laws of Life, as exhibited in Man, may be properly grasped, attention must be given to the laws of Life in general.

What is to be hoped from such a presentation of difficulties and such a programme of preparatory studies? Who, in drawing his conclusions about public policies, will be made to hesitate by remembering the many obstacles that stand in the way of right judgments? Who will think it needful to fit himself by inquiries so various and so extensive? Who, in short, will be led to doubt any of the inferences he has drawn, or be induced to pause before he draws others, by consciousness of these many liabilities to error arising from want of knowledge, want of discipline, and want of duly-balanced sentiments?

To these questions there can be but the obvious reply—a reply which the foregoing chapters themselves involve—that very little is to be expected. The implication throughout the argument has been that for every society, and for each stage in its evolution, there is an appropriate mode of feeling and thinking; and that no mode of feeling and thinking not adapted to its degree of evolution, and to its surroundings, can be permanently established. Though not exactly, still approximately, the average opinion in any age and country is a function of the social structure in that age and country. There may be, as we see during times of revolution, a considerable incongruity between the ideas that become current and the social arrangements which exist, and are, in great measure, appropriate; though even then the incongruity does but mark the need for a readjustment of institutions to character. While, however, those successive compromises, which, during social evolution, have to be made between the changed natures of citizens and the institutions evolved by ancestral citizens, imply disagreements, yet these are but partial and temporary—in those societies, at least, which are developing and not in course of dissolution. For a society to hold together, the institutions that are needed and the conceptions that are generally current must be in tolerable harmony. Hence, it is not to be expected that modes of thinking on social affairs are to be in any considerable degree changed by whatever may be said respecting the Social Science, its difficulties, and the required preparations for studying it.

The only reasonable hope is, that here and there one may be led, in calmer moments, to remember how largely his beliefs about public matters have been made for him by circumstances, and how probable it is that they are either untrue or but partially true. When he reflects on the doubtfulness of the evidence which he generalizes, collected hap-hazard from a narrow area—when he counts up the perverting sentiments fostered in him by education, country, class, party, creed—when, observing those around, he sees that, from other evidence selected to gratify sentiments partially unlike his own, there result unlike views—he may occasionally recollect how largely mere accidents have determined his convictions. Recollecting this, he may be induced to hold these convictions not quite so strongly; may see the need for criticism of them with a view to revision; and, above all, may be somewhat less eager to act in pursuance of them.

While the few to whom a Social Science is conceivable may, to some degree, be thus influenced by what is said concerning the study of it, there can, of course, be no effect on the many to whom such a science seems an absurdity, or an impiety, or both. The feeling ordinarily excited, by the proposal to deal scientifically with these most complex phenomena, is like that which was excited in ancient times by the proposal to deal scientifically with phenomena of simpler kinds. As Mr. Grote writes of Socrates:

"Physics and astronomy, in his opinion, belonged to the divine class of phenomena, in which human research was insane, fruitless, and impious."[2]
And as he elsewhere writes respecting the attitude of the Greek mind in general:
"In his" (the early Greek's) "view, the description of the sun, as given in a modern astronomical treatise, would have appeared not merely absurd, but repulsive and impious: even in later times, when the positive spirit of inquiry had made considerable progress, Anaxagoras and other astronomers incurred the charge of blasphemy for dispersonifying Hêlios, and trying to assign invariable laws to the solar phenomena."[3]

That a likeness exists between the feeling then displayed respecting phenomena of inorganic Nature and the feeling now displayed respecting phenomena of Life and Society, is manifest. The ascription of social actions and political events entirely to natural causes, thus leaving out Providence as a factor, seems, to the religious mind of our day, as seemed to the mind of the pious Greek the dis personification of Hêlios and the interpretation of the celestial motions otherwise than by immediate divine agency. As was said by Mr. Gladstone, in a speech made shortly after the publication of the second chapter of this volume:

"I lately read a discussion on the manner in which the raising up of particular individuals occasionally occurs in great crises of human history, as if some sacred, invisible power had raised them up and placed them in particular positions for special purposes. The writer says that they are not uniform, but admits that they are common—so common and so remarkable that men would be liable to term them providential in a pre-scientific age. And this was said without the smallest notion apparently in the writer's mind that he was giving utterance to anything that could startle or alarm—it was said as a kind of commonplace. It would seem that in his view there was a time when mankind, lost in ignorance, might, without forfeiting entirely their title to the name of rational creatures, believe in a Providence, but that since that period another and greater power has arisen under the name of science, and this power has gone to war with Providence, and Providence is driven from the field—and we have now the happiness of living in the scientific age, when Providence is no longer to be treated as otherwise than an idle dream."[4]

Of the mental attitude, very general beyond the limits of the scientific world, which these utterances of Mr. Gladstone exemplify, he has since given further illustration; and, in his anxiety to check a movement he thinks mischievous, has so conspicuously made himself the exponent of the anti-scientific view, that we may fitly regard his thoughts on the matter as typical. In an address delivered by him at the Liverpool College, and since republished with additions, he says:

"Upon the ground of what is termed evolution, God is relieved of the labor of creation; in the name of unchangeable laws, He is discharged from governing the world."

This passage proves the kinship between Mr. Gladstone's conception of things and that entertained by the Greeks to be even closer than above alleged; for its implication is, not simply that the scientific interpretation of vital and social phenomena as conforming to fixed laws is repugnant to him, but that the like interpretation of inorganic phenomena is repugnant. In common with the ancient Greek, he regards as irreligious any explanation of Nature which dispenses with immediate divine superintendence. He appears to overlook the fact that the doctrine of gravitation, with the entire science of physical astronomy, is open to the same charge as this which he makes against the doctrine of evolution; and he seems not to have remembered that throughout the past each further step made by Science has been denounced for reasons like those which he assigns.[5]

It is instructive to observe, however, that, in these prevailing conceptions expressed by Mr. Gladstone, which we have here to note as excluding the conception of a Social Science, there is to be traced a healthful process of compromise between old and new. For, as, in the current conceptions about the order of events in the lives of persons, there is a partnership, wholly illogical though temporarily convenient, between the ideas of natural causation and of providential interference, so, in the current political conceptions, the belief in divine interpositions goes along with, and by no means excludes, the belief in a natural production of effects on society by natural agencies set to work. In relation to the occurrences of individual life, we displayed our national aptitude for thus entertaining mutually-destructive ideas, when an unpopular prince suddenly gained popularity by outliving certain abnormal changes in his blood, and when, on the occasion of his recovery, providential aid and natural causation were unitedly recognized by a thanksgiving to God and a baronetcy to the doctor. And, similarly, we see that, throughout all our public actions, the theory which Mr. Gladstone represents, that great men are providentially raised up to do things God has decided upon, and that the course of affairs is supernaturally ordered thus or thus, does not in the least interfere with the passings of measures calculated to achieve desired ends in ways classed as natural, and nowise modifies the discussion of such measures on their merits, as estimated in terms of cause and consequence. While the prayers with which each legislative sitting commences show a nominal belief in an immediate divine guidance, the votes with which the sitting ends, given in pursuance of reasons which the speeches assign, show us a real belief that the effects will be determined by the agencies set to work.

Still it is clear that the old conception, while it qualifies the new but little in the regulating of actions, qualifies it very much in the formation of theories. There can be no complete acceptance of Sociology as a science so long as the belief in a social order not conforming to natural law survives. Hence, as already said, considerations touching the study of Sociology, not very influential even over the few who recognize a Social Science, can have scarcely any effects on the great mass to whom a Social Science is an incredibility.

I do not mean that this prevailing imperviousness to scientific conceptions of social phenomena is to be regretted. As implied in a foregoing paragraph, it is part of the required adjustment between existing opinions and the forms of social life at present requisite. With a. given phase of human character there must, to maintain equilibrium, go an adapted class of institutions, and a set of thoughts and sentiments in tolerable harmony with those institutions. Hence, it is not to be wished that, with the average human nature we now have, there should be a wide acceptance of views natural only to a more highly-developed social state, and to the improved type of citizen accompanying such a state. The desirable thing is, that a growth of ideas and feelings tending to produce modification shall be joined with a continuance of ideas and feelings tending to preserve stability. And it is one of our satisfactory social traits, exhibited in a degree never before paralleled, that along with a mental progress which brings about considerable changes, there is a devotion of thought and energy to the maintenance of existing arrangements, and creeds, and sentiments — an energy sufficient even to reinvigorate some of the old forms and beliefs that were decaying. When, therefore, a distinguished statesman, anxious for human welfare as he ever shows himself to be, and holding that the defense of established beliefs must not be left exclusively to its "standing army" of "priests and ministers of religion," undertakes to combat opinions at variance with a creed he thinks essential, the occurrence may be taken as adding another to the many signs of a healthful condition of society. That, in our day, one in Mr. Gladstone's position should think as he does, seems to me very desirable. That we should have for our working-king one in whom a purely-scientific conception of things had become dominant, and who was thus out of harmony with our present social state, would probably be detrimental, and might be disastrous.

For it cannot be too emphatically asserted that this policy of compromise, alike in institutions, in actions, and in beliefs, which especially characterizes English life, is a policy essential to a society going through the transitions caused by continued growth and development. The illogicalities and the absurdities to be found so abundantly in current opinions and existing arrangements are those which inevitably arise in the course of perpetual readjustments to circumstances perpetually changing. Ideas and institutions proper to a past social state, but incongruous with the new social state that has grown out of it, surviving into this new social state they have made possible, and disappearing only as this new social state establishes its own ideas and institutions, are necessarily, during their survival, in conflict with these new ideas and institutions—necessarily furnish elements of contradiction in men's thoughts and deeds. And yet, as, for the carrying on of social life, the old must continue so long as the new is not ready, this perpetual compromise is an indispensable accompaniment of a normal development. Its essentialness we may see on remembering that it equally holds throughout the evolution of an individual organism. The structural and functional arrangements during growth are never quite right: always the old adjustment for a smaller size is made wrong by the larger size it has been instrumental in producing—always the transition-structure is a compromise between the requirements of past and future, fulfilling in an imperfect way the requirements of the present. And this, which is shown clearly enough where there is simple growth, is shown still more clearly where there are metamorphoses. A creature which leads at two periods of its existence two different kinds of life, and which, in adaptation to its second period, has to develop structures that were not fitted for its first, passes through a stage during which it possesses both partially—during which the old dwindles while the new grows: as happens, for instance, in creatures that continue to breathe water by external branchiæ during the time they are developing the lungs that enable them to breathe air. And thus it is with the changes produced by growth in societies, as well as with those metamorphoses accompanying change in the mode of life—especially those accompanying change from the predatory to the industrial life. Here, too, there must be transitional stages during which incongruous organizations coexist: the first remaining indispensable until the second has grown up to its work. Just as injurious as it would be to an amphibian to cut off its branchiæ before its lungs were well developed, so injurious must it be to a society to destroy its old institutions before the new have become well-organized enough to take their places.

Non-recognition of this truth characterizes too much the reformers, political, religious, and social, of our own time; as it has characterized those-of past times. On the part of men eager to rectify wrongs and expel errors, there is still, as there ever has been, so absorbing a consciousness of the evils caused by old forms and old ideas, as to permit no consciousness of the benefits these old forms and old ideas have yielded. This partiality of view is, in a sense, necessary. There must be division of labor here as elsewhere: some who have the function of attacking, and who, that they may attack effectually, must feel strongly the viciousness of that which they attack; some who have the function of defending, and who, that they may be good defenders, must over-value the things they defend. But while this one-sidedness has to be tolerated, as in great measure unavoidable, it is in some respects to be regretted. Though, with grievances less serious and animosities less intense than those which existed here in the past, and which exist still abroad, there go mitigated tendencies to a rash destructiveness on the one side, and an unreasoning bigotry on the other, yet even in our country and age there are dangers from the want of a due both-sidedness. In the speeches and writings of those who advocate various political and social changes, there is so continuous a presentation of injustices, and abuses, and mischiefs, and corruptions, as to leave the impression that, for securing a wholesome state of things, there needs nothing but to set aside present arrangements. The implication seems ever to be that all who occupy places of power, and form the regulative organization, are alone to blame for whatever is not as it should be, and that the classes regulated are blameless. "See the injuries which these institutions inflict on you," says the energetic reformer. "Consider how selfish must be the men who maintain them to their own advantage and your detriment," he adds; and then he leaves to be drawn the manifest inference that, were these selfish men got rid of, all would be well. Neither he nor his audience recognizes the facts that regulative arrangements are essential; that the arrangements in question, along with their many vices, have some virtues; that such vices as they have do not result from an egoism peculiar to those who uphold and work them, but result from a general egoism—an egoism no less decided in those who complain than in those complained of. Inequitable government can be upheld only by the aid of a people correspondingly inequitable, in its sentiments and acts. Injustice cannot reign, if the community does not furnish a due supply of unjust agents. No tyrant can tyrannize over a people save on condition that the people is bad enough to supply him with soldiers who will fight for his tyranny and keep their brethren in slavery. Class-supremacy cannot be maintained by the corrupt buying of votes, unless there are multitudes of voters venal enough to sell their votes. It is thus everywhere and in all degrees—misconduct among those in power is the correlative of misconduct among those over whom they exercise power.

And, while, in the men who urge on changes, there is an unconsciousness that the evils they denounce are rooted in the nature common to themselves and other men, there is also an unconsciousness that amid the things they would throw away there is much worth preserving. This holds of beliefs more especially. Along with the destructive tendency there goes but little constructive tendency. The criticisms made, imply that it is requisite only to dissipate errors, and that it is needless to insist on truths. It is forgotten that, along with forms which are bad, there is a large amount of substance which is good. And those to whom there are addressed condemnations of the forms, unaccompanied by the caution that there is a substance to be preserved in higher forms, are left, not only without any coherent system of guiding beliefs, but without any consciousness that one is requisite.

Hence the need, above admitted, for an active defense of that which exists, carried on by men convinced of its entire worth; so that those who attack may not destroy the good along with the bad.

And here let me point out, specifically, the truth already implied, that studying Sociology scientifically leads to fairer appreciations of different parties, political, religious, and other. The conception initiated and developed by Social Science is at the same time radical and conservative—radical to a degree beyond any thing which current radicalism conceives; conservative to a degree beyond any thing conceived by present conservatism. When there has been adequately seized the truth that societies are products of evolution, assuming, in their various times and places, their various modifications of structure and function, there follows the conviction that what, relatively to our thoughts and sentiments, were arrangements of extreme badness, had fitnesses to conditions which made better arrangements impracticable: whence comes a tolerant interpretation of past tyrannies at which even the bitterest Tory of our own days would be indignant. On the other hand, after observing how the processes that have brought things to their present stage are still going on, not with a decreasing rapidity indicating approach to cessation, but with an increasing rapidity that implies long continuance and immense transformations, there follows the conviction that the remote future has in store forms of social life higher than any we have imagined: there comes a faith transcending that of the radical, whose aim is some reorganization admitting of comparison to organizations which exist. And while this conception of societies as naturally evolved, beginning with small and simple types which have their short existences and disappear, advancing to higher types that are larger, more complex, and longer-lived, coming to still higher types like our own, great in size, complexity, and duration, and promising types transcending these in times after existing societies have died away—while this conception of societies implies that in the slow course of things changes almost immeasurable in amount are possible, it also implies that but small amounts of such changes are possible within short periods.

Thus, the theory of progress disclosed by the study of Sociology as science is one which greatly moderates the hopes and the fears of extreme parties. After clearly seeing that the structures and actions throughout a society are determined by the properties of its units, and that (external disturbances apart) the society cannot be substantially and permanently changed, it becomes easy to see that great alterations cannot suddenly be made to much purpose. And when both the party of progress and. the party of resistance perceive that the institutions which at any time exist are more deeply rooted than they supposed—when the one party perceives that these institutions, imperfect as they are, have a temporary fitness, while the other party perceives that the maintenance of them, in so far as it is desirable, is in great measure guaranteed by the human nature they have grown out of—there must come a diminishing violence of attack on one side, and a diminishing perversity of defense on the other. Evidently, so far as a doctrine can influence general conduct (which it can do, however, in but a comparatively small degree), the doctrine of evolution, in its social applications, is calculated to produce a steadying effect, alike on thought and action.

If, as seems likely, some should propose to draw the seemingly awkward corollary that, it matters not what we believe or what we teach, since the process of social evolution will take its own course in spite of us, I reply that, while this corollary is in one sense true, it is in another sense untrue. Doubtless, from all that has been said, it follows that, supposing surrounding conditions continue the same, the evolution of a society cannot be in any essential way diverted from its general course; though it also follows (and here the corollary is at fault) that the thoughts and actions of individuals, being natural factors that arise in the course of the evolution itself, and aid in further advancing it, cannot be dispensed with, but must be severally valued as increments of the aggregate force producing change. But, while the corollary is even here partially misleading, it is, in another direction, far more seriously misleading. For, though the process of social evolution is, in its general character, so far predetermined that its successive stages cannot be antedated, and that hence no teaching or policy can advance it beyond a certain normal rate, which is limited by the rate of organic modification in human beings, yet it is quite possible to perturb, to retard, or to disorder the process. The analogy of individual development again serves us. The unfolding of an organism, after its special type, has its approximately uniform course, taking its tolerably definite time; and no treatment that may be devised will fundamentally change or greatly accelerate these: the best that can be done is to maintain the required favorable conditions. But it is quite easy to adopt a treatment which shall dwarf, or deform, or otherwise injure: the processes of growth and development maybe, and very often are, hindered or deranged, though they cannot be artificially bettered. Similarly with the social organism. Though by maintaining favorable conditions there cannot be more good done than that of letting social progress go on unhindered, yet an immensity of mischief may be done in the way of disturbing and distorting and repressing, by policies carried out in pursuance of erroneous conceptions. And thus, notwithstanding first appearances to the contrary, there is a very important part to be played by a true theory of social phenomena.

A few words to those who think these general conclusions discouraging, may be added. Probably the more enthusiastic, hopeful of great ameliorations in the state of mankind, to be brought about rapidly by propagating this belief or initiating that reform, will feel that a doctrine negativing their sanguine anticipations takes away much of the stimulus to exertion. If large advances in human welfare can come only in the slow process of things, which will inevitably bring them, why should we trouble ourselves?

Doubtless it is true that, on visionary hopes, rational criticisms have a depressing influence. It is better to recognize the truth, however. As, between infancy and maturity, there is no short cut by which there maybe avoided the tedious process of growth and development through insensible increments, so there is no way from the lower forms of social life to the higher, but one passing through small successive modifications. If we contemplate the order of Nature, we see that everywhere vast results are brought about by accumulations of minute actions. The surface of the earth has been sculptured by forces which in the course of a year produce alterations scarcely anywhere visible. Its multitudes of different organic forms have arisen by processes so slow, that, during the periods our observations extend over, the results are in most cases inappreciable. We must be content to recognize these truths and conform our hopes to them. Light falling upon a crystal is capable of altering its molecular arrangements, but it can do this only by a repetition of impulses almost innumerable: before a unit of ponderable matter can have its rhythmical movements so increased by successive ethereal waves as to be detached from its combination and in another way arranged, millions of such ethereal waves must successively make infinitesimal additions to its motion. Similarly, before there arise, in human nature and human institutions, changes having that permanence which makes them an acquired inheritance for the human race, there must go innumerable recurrences of the thoughts, and feelings, and actions, conducive to such changes. The process cannot be abridged, and must be gone through with due patience.

Thus, admitting that for the fanatic some wild anticipation is needful as a stimulus, and recognizing the usefulness of his delusion as adapted to his particular nature and his particular function, yet the man of higher type must be content with greatly-moderated expectations, while he perseveres with undiminished efforts. He has to see how comparatively little can be done, and yet to find it worth while to do that little: so uniting philanthropic energy with philosophic calm.

  1. Concluding article of the series on the "Study of Sociology."
  2. "History of Greece," vol. i., p. 498.
  3. "History of Greece," vol. i., p. 466.
  4. Morning Post, May 15, 1872.
  5. In the appendix to his republished address, Mr. Gladstone, in illustration of the views he condemns, refers to that part of "First Principles" which, treating of the reconciliation of Science and Religion, contends that this consists in a united recognition of an Ultimate Cause which, though ever present to consciousness, transcends knowledge. Commenting on this view, he says: "Still it vividly recalls to mind an old story of the man who, wishing to be rid of one who was in his house, said: 'Sir, there are two sides to my house, and we will divide them; you shall take the outside.'" This seems to me by no means a happily-chosen simile, since it admits of an interpretation exactly opposite to the one Mr. Gladstone intends. The doctrine he combats is that Science, unable to go beyond the outsides of things, is forever debarred from reaching, and even from conceiving, the power within them; and, this being so, the relative positions of Religion and Science may be well represented by inverting the application of his figure.