Progress and Poverty (George)/Chapter XXIV
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Chapter XXIV: The law of human progress
Chapter XXIV The law of human progress
However man may have originated, all we know of him is as man - just as he is now to be found.
There is no record or trace of him in any lower condition than that in which savages are still to be met. By whatever bridge he may have crossed the wide chasm that now separates him from the brutes, there remains of it no vestige. Between the lowest savages of whom we know and the highest animals, there is an irreconcilable difference - a difference not merely of degree but of kind.
Many of the characteristics, actions and emotions of man are exhibited by the lower animals; but man, no matter how low in the scale of humanity, has never yet been found destitute of one thing of which no animal shows the slightest trace, a clearly recognizable but almost undefinable something which gives him the power of improvement.
The beaver builds a dam, and the bird a nest, and the bee a cell; but while beavers' dams and birds' nests and bees' cells are always constructed on the same model, the house of the man passes from the rude hut of leaves and branches to the magnificent mansion replete with modern conveniences. The dog can to a certain extent connect cause and effect and may be taught some tricks; but his capacity in these respects has not been a whit increased during all the ages he has been the associate of improving man, and the dog of civilization is not a whit more accomplished or intelligent than the dog of the wandering savage. We know of no animal that uses clothes, or cooks its food, or makes itself tools or weapons, or has an articulate language. But men who do not do such things have never yet been found, or heard of, except in fable. That is to say, man, wherever we know him, exhibits this power - the capacity to supplement what nature has done for him by what he does for himself. And, in fact, so inferior is the physical endowment of man, that there is no part of the world where without this faculty he could maintain an existence.
Man everywhere and at all times exhibits this faculty. But the degree in which he makes use of it greatly varies. Between the rude canoe and the steamship, between the roughly carved wooden idol and the breathing marble of Grecian art, between savage knowledge and modern science, there is an enormous difference.
The varying degrees in which this faculty is used cannot be ascribed to differences in original capacity. The most highly improved peoples of the present day were savages within historic times, and we meet with the widest differences between peoples of the same stock. Nor can they be wholly ascribed to differences in physical environment; the cradles of learning and the arts are now in many cases tenanted by barbarians. All these differences are evidently connected with social development. Beyond perhaps the veriest rudiments, it becomes possible for man to improve only as he lives with his fellows. All these improvements, therefore, in man's powers and condition we summarize in the term civilization. Men improve as they become civilized, or learn to cooperate in society.
What is the law of this improvement? By what common principle can we explain the different stages of civilization at which different communities have arrived? In what does the progress of civilization essentially consist, that we may say of varying social adjustments that this favours it, and that does not; or explain why an institution or condition that may at one time advance it may at another time retard it?
The evolutionary theory
The prevailing belief is that the progress of civilization is a development or evolution, in the course of which man's powers are increased and his qualities improved by the operation of causes similar to those that are relied upon as explaining the genesis of species, namely, the survival of the fittest and the hereditary transmission of acquired qualities. In other words, the belief is that civilization is the result of forces that slowly change the character and improve and elevate the powers of man; and that this improvement tends to go on increasingly to a higher and higher civilization.
But the moment that those who hold this theory of progression, which seems so natural to us amid an advancing civilization, look around the world, they come against an enormous fact - the fixed, petrified civilizations. How, upon the theory that human progress is the result of general and continuous causes, shall we account for the civilizations that have progressed so far and then stopped? It cannot be said of the Hindoo and of the Chinese that our superiority is the result of a longer education; that we are, as it were, the grown men of nature, while they are the children. The Hindoos and the Chinese were civilized when we were savages. They had great cities, highly organized and powerful governments, literatures, philosophies, polished manners, considerable division of labour, large commerce and elaborate arts, when our ancestors were wandering barbarians, living in huts and skin tents. While we have progressed from this savage state, they have stood still.
The most fixed and petrified of all civilizations of which we know anything was that of Egypt, where even art finally assumed a conventional and inflexible form. But we know that behind this must have been a time of life and vigour - a freshly developing and expanding civilization, such as ours is now - or the arts and sciences could never have been carried to such a pitch. And recent excavations have brought to light from beneath what we before knew of Egypt an earlier Egypt still - in statues and carvings, which instead of a hard and formal type beam with life and expression, and show art struggling, ardent, natural and free, the sure indication of an active and expanding life.
If progress be the result of fixed laws, inevitable and eternal, which impel men forward, how shall we account for those arrested civilizations? It is not merely that men have gone so far on the path of progress and then stopped; it is that men have gone far on the path of progress and then gone back. It is not merely an isolated case that thus confronts the theory - it is the universal rule. Every civilization that the world has yet seen has had its period of vigorous growth, of arrest and stagnation; its decline and fall. Of all the civilizations that have arisen and flourished, there remain only those that have been arrested, and our own, which is not yet as old as were the pyramids when Abraham looked upon them - while behind the pyramids were twenty centuries of recorded history.
That our own civilization has a broader base, is of a more advanced type, moves quicker and soars higher than any preceding civilization is undoubtedly true; but in these respects it is hardly more in advance of the Greco-Roman civilization than that was in advance of Asiatic civilization; and if it were, that would prove nothing as to its permanence and future advance, unless it be shown that it is superior in those things which caused the ultimate failure of its predecessors.
In truth, nothing could be further from explaining the facts of universal history than the theory that civilization is the result of a course of natural selection which operates to improve and elevate the powers of man. Civilization has arisen at different times, in different places, and has progressed at different rates, which is not inconsistent with the theory, for it might result from the unequal balancing of impelling and resisting forces. But absolutely inconsistent with this theory is the fact that progress has nowhere been continuous, but has everywhere been brought to a standstill or has retrogressed. For if progress operated to fix an improvement in man's nature and thus to produce further progress, though there might be occasional interruption, yet the general rule would be that progress would be continuous - that advance would lead to advance, and civilization develop into higher civilization.
Not merely the general rule, but the universal rule, is the reverse of this. The earth is the tomb of dead empires, no less than of dead men. Instead of progress fitting men for greater progress, every civilization that was as vigorous and advancing in its time, as ours is now, has of itself come to a stop. Over and over again art has declined, learning sunk, power waned and population become sparse - until the remnants of people who had built great temples and mighty cities, turned rivers and pierced mountains, cultivated the earth like a garden and introduced the utmost refinement into the minute affairs of life, were squalid barbarians who had lost even the memory of what their ancestors had done and regarded the surviving fragments of former grandeur as the work of genii or the mighty race before the Flood. "Even this, O Rome, must one day be thy fate!" wept Scipio over the ruins of Carthage; and Macaulay's picture of the New Zealander musing upon the broken arch of London Bridge appeals to the imagination even of those who see cities rising in the wilderness and help to lay the foundations of new empires. And so when we erect a public building, we make a hollow in the largest corner stone and carefully seal within it some mementos of our day, looking forward to the time when our works shall be ruins and ourselves forgotten.
The theory that civilization advances by changes wrought in the nature of man fails to explain the facts, for in every case it is not the race that has been educated and hereditarily modified by the old civilization that begins the new, but a fresh race coming from a lower level. It is the barbarians of the one epoch who have been the civilized men of the next, to be in their turn succeeded by fresh barbarians. Heretofore it has always been the case that men under the influences of civilization, though at first improving, afterwards degenerate. Every civilization that has been overwhelmed by barbarians has really perished from internal decay.
Individuals and nations
Shall we therefore say that there is a national or race life as there is an individual life - that every social aggregate has, as it were, a certain amount of energy, the expenditure of which necessitates decay? This is an old and widespread idea that may be seen constantly cropping out incongruously in the writings of the expounders of the development philosophy. But while its members are constantly reproduced in all the fresh vigour of childhood, a community cannot grow old, as does a man, by the decay of its powers. While its aggregate force must be the sum of the forces of its individual components, a community cannot lose vital power unless the vital powers of its components are lessened. Yet in the common analogy that likens the life power of a nation to that of an individual lurks the recognition of an obvious truth - the truth that the obstacles that finally bring progress to a halt are raised by the course of progress and that what has destroyed all previous civilizations has been the conditions produced by the growth of civilization itself.
Differences in civilization - their causes
In any large community we may see, as between different classes and groups, differences of the same kind as those existing between communities which we speak of as differing in civilization differences of knowledge, belief, custom, taste and speech, which in their extremes among people of the same race, living in the same country, show differences almost as great as those between civilized and savage communities. As all stages of social development, from the Stone Age up, are yet to be found in contemporaneously existing communities, so in the same country and in the same city are to be found, side by side, groups that show similar diversities. In such countries as England and Germany children of the same race, born and reared in the same place, will grow up speaking tile language differently, holding different beliefs, following different customs and showing different tastes; and even in such a country as the United States differences of the same kind, though not of the same degree, may be seen between different circles or groups.
But these differences are certainly not innate. No baby is born a Methodist or a Catholic, or to drop its aitches or to sound them. All the differences that distinguish different groups or circles are derived from association within these circles.
The Janissairies were made up of youths torn from Christian parents at an early age, but they were none the less fanatical Moslems and they none the less exhibited all the Turkish traits. The Jesuits and other orders show distinct character, but it is certainly not perpetuated through hereditary transmissions. And even such associations as schools or regiments, where the components remain but a short time and are constantly changing, exhibit general characteristics which are the result of mental impressions perpetuated through association.
It is this body of traditions, beliefs, customs, laws, habits and associations, which arise in every community and surround every individual, that is the great element in determining national character. It is this, rather than hereditary transmission, that makes the Englishman differ from the Frenchman, the German from the Italian and the American from the Chinese. It is in this way that national traits are preserved, extended, or altered.
Physical and mental attributes
A race of men with no greater mental activity than the animals - men who only ate, drank, slept and propagated - might, I doubt not, by careful treatment and selection in breeding be made in course of time to exhibit as great diversities in bodily shape and character as have been produced by similar means in the domestic animals. But there are no such men; and in men as they are, mental influences, acting through the mind upon the body, would constantly interrupt the process. In all probability men have been upon the earth longer than many species of animals. They have been separated from each other under differences of Climate that produce the most marked differences in animals, and yet the physical differences between the different races of men are hardly greater than the difference between white horses and black horses - they are certainly nothing like as great as between dogs of the same sub-species, as, for instance, the different varieties of the terrier or spaniel. And even as to these physical differences between races of men, it is held by those who account for them by natural selection and hereditary transmission that they were brought out when man was much nearer the animal - that is to say, when he had less mind.
And if this be true of the physical constitution of man, in how much higher degree is it true of his mental constitution? All our physical parts we bring with us into the world; but the mind develops afterwards.
Take a number of infants born of the most highly civilized parents and transport them to an uninhabited country. Suppose them in some miraculous way to be sustained until they come of age to take care of themselves, and what would you have? More helpless savages than any we know of. They would have fire to discover; the raciest tools and weapons to invent; language to construct. They would, in short, have to stumble their way to the simplest knowledge such as the lowest races now possess, just as a child learns to walk. That they would in time do all these things I have not the slightest doubt, for all those possibilities ar latent in the human mind just as the power of walking is latent in the human frame, but I do not believe they would do them any better or worse, any slower or quicker, than the children of barbarian parents placed in the same conditions. Given the very highest mental powers that exceptional individuals have ever displayed, and what could mankind be if one generation were separated from the next by an interval of time, as are the seventeen-year locusts? One such interval would reduce mankind, not to savagery, but to a condition compared with which savagery, as we know it, would seem civilization.
Essential similarities in human nature
And reversely, suppose a number of savage infants, unknown to the mothers (for even this would be necessary to make the experiment a fair one), could be substituted for as many children of civilization, can we suppose that growing up they would show any difference? I think no one who has mixed much with different peoples and classes will think so. The great lesson that is thus learned is that "human nature is human nature all the world over." And this lesson, too, may be learned in the library. I speak not so much of the accounts of travellers, for the accounts given of savages by the civilized men who write books are very often just such accounts as savages might give of us could they make flying visits and then write books; I speak of those mementos of the life and thought of other times and other peoples, which, translated into our language of today, are like glimpses of our own lives and gleams of our own thought. The feeling they inspire is that of the essential similarity of men. "This," says Emanuel Deutsch - "this is the end of all investigation into history or art. They were even as we are."
Modern man and his precursors
There is no warrant for assuming mental improvement in the race within any time of which we have knowledge. Can modern civilization show greater poets, artists, architects, philosophers, rhetoricians, statesmen or soldiers than the ancient? There is no use in recalling names; every schoolboy knows them. For our models and personifications of mental power we go back to the ancients. If we can suppose Homer or Virgil, Demosthenes or Cicero, Alexander, Hannibal or Caesar, Plato or Lucretius, Euclid or Aristotle, as entering this life again, can we suppose they would show any inferiority to the men of today? Or if we take any period since the classic age, even the darkest, or any previous period of which we know anything, shall we not find men who in the conditions and degree of knowledge of their times showed mental power of as high an order as men show now? And among the less advanced races do we not today, whenever our attention is called to them, find men who in their conditions exhibit mental qualities as great as civilization can show? Did the invention of the railway, coming when it did, prove any greater inventive power than did the invention of the wheelbarrow when wheelbarrows were not? We of modern civilization are raised far above those who have preceded us and those of the less advanced races who are our contemporaries. But it is because we stand on a pyramid, not that we are taller. What the centuries have done for us is not to increase our stature, but to build up a structure on which we may plant our feet.
The part heredity plays
I do not mean to say that all men possess the same capacities, or are mentally alike, any more than I mean to say that they are physically alike. Among the countless millions that have come and gone on this earth, there probably never were two that either physically or mentally were exact counterparts. Nor yet do I mean to say that there are not as clearly marked race differences in mind as there are clearly marked race differences in body. I do not deny the influence of heredity in transmitting peculiarities of mind in the same way, and possibly to the same degree, as bodily peculiarities are transmitted. Nevertheless there is, it seems to me, a common standard and natural symmetry of mind as there is of body, towards which all deviations tend to return. The conditions under which we fall may produce such distortions as the Flatheads produce by compressing the heads of their infants or the Chinese by binding their daughters' feet. But as Flathead babies continue to be born with naturally shaped heads and Chinese babies with naturally shaped feet, so does nature seem to revert to the normal mental type. A child no more inherits his father's knowledge than he inherits his father's glass eye or artificial leg; the child of the most ignorant parents may become a pioneer of science or a leader of thought.
The differences between the people of communities in different places and at different times, which we call differences of civilization, are not differences that inhere in the individuals, but differences that inhere in the society. They are not differences resulting from differences in the units, but they are differences resulting from the - conditions under which these units are brought within the society.
I take the explanation of the differences that distinguish communities to be this: That each society, small or great, necessarily weaves for itself a web of knowledge, beliefs, customs, language, tastes, institutions and laws. Into the web woven by each society (or rather, into these webs, for each community above the simplest is made up of minor societies that overlap and interlace each other) the individual is received at birth and continues until his death. This is the matrix in which mind unfolds and from which it takes its stamp. This is the way in which custom, and religions, and prejudices, and tastes, and languages, grow up and are perpetuated. This is the way skill is transmitted and knowledge is stored up, and the discoveries of one time are made the common stock and stepping-stone of the next. Though this is what often offers the most serious obstacles to progress, it is this that makes progress possible. It is this that enables any schoolboy in our time to learn in a few hours more of the universe than Ptolemy knew, and places the most humdrum scientist far above the level reached by the giant mind of Aristotle. This is to the race what memory is to the individual. Our wonderful arts, our far-reaching science, our marvellous inventions - they have come through this.
Human progress goes on as the advances made by one generation are in this way secured as the common property of the next and made the starting-point for new advances.
Mental power the motor of progress
What then is the law of human progress - the law that must explain clearly and definitely why, though mankind started presumably with the same capacities and at the same time, there now exist such wide differences in social development? It is not difficult to discover such a law. I do not pretend to give it scientific precision but merely to point it out.
The incentives to progress are the desires inherent in human nature - the desire to gratify the wants of the animal nature, the wants of the intellectual nature and the wants of the sympathetic nature; the desire to be, to know, and to do - desires that short of infinity can never be satisfied, as they grow by what they feed on.
Mind is the instrument by which man advances and by which each advance is secured and made the ground for new advances. Mental power, therefore, is the motor of progress, and men tend to advance in proportion to the mental power that is expended in progression - the mental power that is devoted to the extension of knowledge, the improvement of methods and the betterment of social conditions.
There is a limit to the work a man can do with his mind, as there is to the work he can do with his body; therefore the mental power that can be devoted to progress is only what is left after what is required for non-progressive purposes. These non-progressive purposes in which mental power is consumed may be classified as maintenance and conflict. By maintenance I mean not only the support of existence, but the keeping up of the social condition and the holding of advances already gained. By conflict I mean not merely warfare and preparation for warfare, but all expenditure of mental power in seeking the gratification of desire at the expense of others, and in resistance to such aggression.
To compare society with a boat - her progress through the water will depend not upon the exertion of her crew, but upon the exertion devoted to propelling her. This will be lessened by any expenditure of force required for bailing, or any expenditure of force in fighting among themselves, or in pulling in different directions. The Essentials of Progress
In a separated state the whole powers of man are required to maintain existence. Mental power is set free for higher uses only by the association of men in communities, which permits the division of labour and all the economies that come with the cooperation of increased numbers. Therefore association is the first essential of progress.
Improvement becomes possible as men come together in peaceful association, and the wider and closer this association is, the greater are the possibilities of improvement. And as the wasteful expenditure of mental power in conflict becomes greater or less as the moral law which accords to each an equality of rights is ignored or is recognized, so equality (or justice) is the second essential of progress.
Thus association in equality is the law of progress.
Association frees mental power for expenditure in improvement, and equality (or justice, or freedom, for the terms here signify the same thing - the recognition of the moral law) prevents the dissipation of this power in fruitless struggles.
Man is social in his nature. He does not require to be caught and tamed in order to induce him to live with his fellows. The utter helplessness with which he enters the world, and the long period required for the maturity of his powers, necessitate the family relation; and that, as we may observe, is wider, and in its extensions is stronger, among the ruder than among the more cultivated peoples. The first societies are families, expanding into tribes, still holding a mutual blood relationship even when they have become great nations claiming a common descent.
Men tend to progress just as they come closer together. By cooperation with each other they increase the mental power that may be devoted to improvement, but just as conflict is provoked, or association develops inequality of condition and power, this tendency to progression is lessened, checked, and finally reversed.
Why Rome fell
Long before Goth or Vandal had broken through the cordon of the legions, even while her frontiers were advancing, Rome was dead at the heart. Great estates had ruined Italy. Inequality had dried up the strength and destroyed the vigour of the Roman world. Government became despotism, which even assassination could not temper; patriotism became servility; vices the most foul flouted themselves in public; literature sank to puerilities; learning was forgotten; fertile districts became waste without the ravages of war-everywhere inequality produced decay, political, mental, moral and material. The barbarism that overwhelmed Rome came not from without, but from within. It was the necessary product of the system that had substituted slaves and colonii for the independent husbandmen of Italy and had carved the provinces into estates for senatorial families.
The basis of civilization
In all its details, as in its main features, the rise and growth of European civilization illustrates the truth that progress goes on just as society tends toward closer association and greater equality. Civilization is cooperation. Union and liberty are its factors. The great extension of association - not alone in the growth of larger and denser communities, but in the increase of commerce and the manifold exchanges that knit each community together and link them with other though widely separated communities - the growth of international and municipal law; the advances in security of property and of person, in individual liberty and towards democratic government; advances, in short, towards the recognition of the equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is this that makes our modern civilization so much greater, so much higher, than any that has gone before. It is these that have set free the mental power that has rolled back the veil of ignorance that hid all but a small portion of the globe from man's knowledge; the mental power that has measured the orbits of the circling spheres and bids us see moving, pulsing life in a drop of water; that has opened to us the ante-chamber of nature's mysteries and read the secrets of a long-buried past; has harnessed in our service physical forces beside which man's efforts are puny, and has increased productive power by a thousand great inventions.
Repulsive views on war and slavery
In that spirit of fatalism to which I have alluded as pervading current literature, it is the fashion to speak even of war and slavery as means of human progress. But war, which is the opposite of association, can only aid progress when it prevents further war or breaks down anti-social carriers that are themselves passive war. As for slavery, I cannot see how it could ever have aided in establishing freedom. From the very rudest state in which man can be imagined, freedom, the synonym of equality, has been the stimulus and condition of progress. Slavery never did and never could aid improvement. Whether the community consists of a single master and a single slave or of thousands of masters and millions of slaves, slavery necessarily involves a waste of human power. For not only is slave labour less productive than free labour, but the power of masters is likewise wasted in holding and watching their slaves, and is called away from directions in which real improvement lies. From first to last, slavery, like every other denial of the natural equality of men, has hampered and prevented progress. Just in proportion as slavery plays an important part in the social organization, so does improvement cease. That slavery in the classical world was so universal is undoubtedly the reason why the mental activity which so polished literature and refined art never hit on any of the great discoveries and inventions that distinguish modern civilization. In a slave-holding community the upper classes may become luxurious and polished; but never inventive. Whatever degrades the labourer and whatever robs him of the fruits of his toil stifles the spirit of invention and forbids the utilization of inventions and discoveries even when made.
To freedom alone is given the spell of power which summons the genii in whose keeping are the treasures of earth and the viewless forces of the air. The law of human progress, what is it but the moral law? just as social adjustments promote justice, just as they acknowledge the equality of right between man and man, just as they ensure to each the perfect liberty which is bounded only by the equal liberty of every other, must civilization advance. Just as they fail in this, must advancing civilization come to a halt and recede.