Society cannot remain stationary. It must either go forward or backward. It is a living organism, composed of living active members, who are always doing something, both in their individual and collective capacities. Every act done, either by individuals or by the social body, has some influence on the existing state of society; advances or obstructs the general movement; makes a portion of mankind better or worse; brings them nearer to, or removes them farther from, their true destinies, as determined by the eternal laws of God. There is no middle ground here. If men are not advancing, they are retrograding; if society is not improving, we are certain that it does not stand still.
But the great question is, how it advances? What are the laws and characteristics of its progress? When a change is made in the state of any thing, how do we know that such a change has been for the better? By what signs do we distinguish an onward from a retrograde movement? Great changes are constantly taking place in the forms of matter, in the lives of men, in the constitution of states, in the whole structure and working of society. The elements, the passions, discoveries in literature, in art, all produce stupendous revolutions in human affairs. How do we know, that these various changes are for better or for worse, or that they carry us towards perfection or imperfection?
There is a characteristic, there is a positive internal sign, by which we may detect whether a change in any object has raised it to a higher place of existence, or depressed it to a lower. The mark is this: Its approach to a more or less compact organization. The simple principle of organization, i. e. the adjustment of a variety of parts to a unity of end or result, is the test and measure of perfection in any sphere of existence.
By this is meant, that a thing or movement is greater or less, better or worse, an advance or a retrogradation, just in the degree in which the organization of its parts is more or less perfect. If it has no organization, it exists on an exceedingly low plane of creation, in fact, on the very lowest plane; but the more complete, intricate, and perfect its organization, the more eminent, excellent, and good it is.
The perfection of an organism depends upon two things: first, that there shall be a great variety of parts; and, secondly, that these parts shall act harmoniously towards one end. Where there are few parts, or where those parts, if many, do not co-operate to the same ends, the organization is incomplete, just in the degree in which the conditions are violated.
Thus the vegetable kingdom is said to be higher in the order of nature than the mineral, and the animal than the vegetable. But why higher? Why, in the scale of creation, or the classifications of science, is the tree placed in a more elevated rank than the stone, the lion than the tree, or man higher than all? Simply, because the organization in these cases respectively is more and more complete. The mineral kingdom is a mere aggregation or conglomeration of particles held together by the simplest power of attraction; as any one may discover, who takes a friable stone in his hand, or knocks a gem into pieces with a hammer. Again, the vegetable kingdom, though composed essentially of the same matter as the earthy, exhibits a more compact structure and more perfect forms. Its members cannot be fried in the hands, nor broken by a hammer. The relation of part to part is more intricate and compact, and the attractive power by which they are united exhibits a greater arid more subtle cohesion. Then, the animal kingdom, still composed of the same essential matter, shows a still more compact structure, still more perfect forms ; and its parts are bound by higher powers of attraction, which even resist the attractions of the lower spheres, till man, finally, the summit of all the kingdoms, though made up of the same materials, walks abroad the most complex and concentrated of all structures, the most harmonious and beautiful of all forms. The progress of nature, therefore, from one kingdom to another, from a lower rank in creation to a higher, consists in a gradual passage from a loose and irregular organization to one more complicated and concentric.
Again, if you take any of the natural kingdoms separately, to consider the relative rank of its different members, we shall find the distinction of degree marked by the same principle. In the mineral region, for instance, the grain of sand may be regarded as one of its lowest forms, and the crystal one of the highest; because the former exhibits no traces of organization; while the latter splits into regular mathematical figures, thereby showing a tendency, or mute prophecy, of an organic arrangement of parts.
So, in the vegetable kingdom, mosses and lichens, which are found growing loosely upon the rocks, are among the simplest, and therefore lowest, elements of it; while among the highest is the firm-knit and lordly oak, whose organization has given it a grace of outline which painters envy, and a strength of structure that defies the blasts of a hundred years. Or take, finally, the animal kingdom, with its first rude specimens of animals, almost formless, almost without parts and without powers as the oyster; and ascend gradually through worms, reptiles, fishes, birds, quadrupeds, up to man, do we not find one invariable character of progress all along the ascent, in the increasing compactness, delicacy, and finish of the organization?
But further: even in the growth of the individual members of any one of these kingdoms, this fact is strikingly exemplified. The bird, for example, begins in the lowest phases of its life as a soft, pulpy, formless mass, which can be kept together only by a rude external shell, called the egg; then a small spot or knot is formed in this, and after a while shoots out a single tendril; next another knot is formed, which shoots out another tendril; till the whole egg begins at last to assume the appearance of a network of knots and tendrils. At a subsequent period in the formation, these points condense, and fill out, when a chick is formed, having a remote resemblance to a bird, but without plumage; too weak to move, and not very pleasing to the sight. In the end, as the organization is perfected, this chick grows into the imperial eagle, whose pinions waft him across the loftiest Alleganies, and whose eye gazes undaunted into the mid-day sun. And so too man, whose outset and lowest state after birth is that of the flabby, puling, defenceless, unknowing, almost unconscious infant, becomes in his highest state—each step being marked by a more and more complete organic development—the giant, whose single arm levels the mountains, whose far-reaching intellect discovers worlds millions of miles away in the depths of space, whose imperious will uplifts and dashes together nations in tempestuous conflicts. What marks the difference externally between the poor idiot, who cries "pall-lal" upon the highways, and the myriad-minded Shakspeare, who talks, in his immortal utterances, to the universal heart of all ages? The degree of difference in their respective physical and spiritual organizations. The greatest of men is known, in that he is the most highly organized of men. The progress of each of us towards a nobler standard of humanity is marked by the growing perfection of our organisms. When we raise ourselves to higher intellectual power, we feel that our intellectual forces have been trained, disciplined, adjusted, or, in a word, organized. When we reach loftier moral eminences, we feel that we have received fresh accessions of strength, chiefly through the better organization of our spiritual powers.
But here we arrive at another step in our argument. We have seen that one invariable characteristic attends all the developments of the natural world, in their transitions from a lower to a higher place; and the next question is, Whether the same characteristic does not accompany the advances of society? History shows us conclusively, that nations and bodies of men are in a process of constant change; and it is universally conceded, also, that in many respects this change has been for the better. The passage from barbarism to civilization is called a social advancement. One nation is often said to be ahead of other nations in its attainments. There is great talk, too, everywhere, of the progress of the human species; of the improvement of society; of the gradual advancement of man to a more elevated existence. What does such language mean? What are the marks and sign of this progress We answer, the same as have been shown to exist in the natural world,—the successive steps of nations or societies to a more and more perfect organization.
The first or simplest state of society, known to our annals, is the savage state, where the members of it subsist in almost complete isolation and independence. Indeed, the bonds of union between them are so rude, that they can hardly be said to possess society at all. They are rather an aggregation, like the particles of a mineral, than a society, like the elements of a plant. Such plans of general government as they have are exceedingly imperfect; and, except occasionally in cases of war and public festivals, they engage in no concerted or unitary actions. The individual is every thing; society, nothing. He pitches his tent where he pleases; cares for nobody, and has nobody to care for him; is without fixed property; and, save a sort of wild friendship which he indulges for his wife or the members of his tribe, is almost without affections. Of course, it is in vain to look for any social organization among these solitary roamers of the wilderness. It is only in the next state of society above this,—which is called the patriarchal,—that traces of organization begin to be clearly seen. Men unite in certain family compacts for mutual defence and assistance. The will of the patriarch is constituted a species of common law; the ties of consanguinity give rise to more or less compact settlements; the members of the tribes acknowledge a controlling head, and submit to regular processes of government. The wild and roaming independence of the savage is surrendered for more compact and regular social relations. Then the barbaric nation arises, where the patriarch of one united family grows into the king or monarch of many united families. The savage horde, before merged into the patriarchal clan, is further consolidated into the barbaric nation. The rude and arbitrary regulations of the previous state are converted into settled laws and a constitutional polity. The adjustment of the power of the government, and the relations of different classes of the people to each other, become more compact, and at the same time more complex. Men are brought into more intimate connections, get more and more mutually dependent, have broader interests in common, and act more frequently in concert. In a word, they are more highly organized. But, after a time, the people rise into greater power as an element of government, which assumes a more definite and responsible shape; industry and wealth, which serve to bind distant nations, are prodigiously developed; men unite more closely, not merely for purposes of Avar, but to cultivate the innumerable arts of peace; laws are digested into complete systems; the industrial and social relations and interests of various classes are consolidated; all the arrangements of society grow more intimate and complex. The universal life of man has more aims in common; all the members of the state feel more closely bound to each other, and act more often and more in concert for comprehensive ends. This state of society is the one in which we live, and is denominated Civilization. It is the last term to which society has yet attained.
Now, who will deny that there is a vast interval between the rude social condition of the savage in his hut, to that of the merchant-prince of England or the United States? Who will deny, that the passage from one to the other denotes a great progress? Yet we have seen, that each step is marked and demonstrated by nearer approaches to a high organization. The change has been a change in organic development. Civilization is better than barbarism, barbarism than patriarchalism, patriarchalism better than savageness,—simply because they are respectively better organized. The degree of organization marks the degree of excellence. This is the universal fact in all the gradations of nature, and in all the advances of humanity.
It is the fortune of the people of the United States, that they see nations springing up almost every day. Our extensive Western frontier is a cradle of infant commonwealths. The whole process of social growth is there laid open to us, as natural growth was in the patent hatching machine, or Eccolobean, exhibited a few years since. We see the first germ deposited in the form perhaps of a single family; we see this family spread out into numerous branches, or other families moving in to unite with it, till the desert and the solitary place blossoms into a flourishing and many-columned city.
Now, what are the successive steps of this progress from the wild wilderness to the thriving mart, from the distant and lonely log-cabin of the prairie to the thronged and temple-covered metropolis? What are the indications of the gradual advance of the settlement from almost savage isolation and insecurity to the peace, wealth, comfort, and refinement of civilized union? The answer is plain: first, gradual increase in the number of the families or persons; and, second, a corresponding multiplication and interweaving of their various relations; or, in other words, their nearer and nearer approach to complete organization.
The original squatter, we know, lives for a while alone, cultivating a narrow patch of ground for food, and shooting his habiliments for the most part from the trees. He is poor, dependent, and half-wild; his own farmer, miller, merchant, mechanic, and governor. He builds his own house, raises his own wheat, makes his own tools, keeps his own store, argues his own causes, teaches his own school. He is without society,—the merest fraction of man.
The first possibility of improvement which comes to him is when he is joined by a few other persons, who relieve him at once of a portion of the laborious tasks and anxieties he was before compelled to undertake, and whose very presence acts upon him as stimulus to a more wholesome activity. He is no longer his own blacksmith, carpenter, tailor, or tradesman. The functions of these, he finds, are better discharged by some of his neighbors, who are willing to exchange the results of their labors for the products of his, whereby he gets more for a less exertion. But both parties soon discover, that there are a great many objects which can be attained only by working in common. Accordingly, they lend a hand to each other in felling forests, erecting houses, and cutting roads. As the population multiplies, the occasions for their mutual assistance increase. They combine their judgments and energies for a greater variety and a more extensive range of purposes. They discuss plans of general usefulness; they lay out streets for their little town; they put up a church and a school-house; they club their funds for the purchase of a library; they organize societies for mutual improvement; they institute tribunals to decide disputes; or, in manifold other modes, they contribute to the general defence and security.
If, now, we suppose a similar town to have grown up not far off, we shall see the two establishing an intercourse between themselves, and combining to construct roads, endow colleges, and accomplish other undertakings convenient to the public good: their internal ties, as they spread, exhibit the same tendency to union which marked their previous internal arrangements. Other towns, again, spring up, which still further multiply and complicate their respective relations. From time to time, the union is rendered more definite and complete, a regular code of laws determines the relations of the respective communities and of their members respectively, and a constitutional government is finally instituted. Thus the single family of the squatter has grown first into a settlement, then into a village, then a township, then a county, next a state, and at last a federated republic. At each step, the relations of the people have extended, multiplied, and complicated. Their union has been strengthened; they have been brought nearer together; they have had more interests and more labors in common; isolation has given place to concentration; rude independence to regulated dependence; the centrifugal tendency of individuals restrained by the centripetal tendencies of society; and transient expedients and loose arrangements, one by one, have been supplanted by a solid and permanent organic unity. Wealth, comfort, refinement, and substantial happiness have, of course, kept pace with the organic movement.
The question at this day is, whether men have even here reached the limit of social progress; whether the principle of social organization is susceptible of any higher applications than it has hitherto received; whether our civilization is the last stage of social improvement; whether the fact of progress is destined to any higher triumphs in the future, similar to those which have illustrated the past. Is it extravagant to anticipate a time when the tendency to union shall have been perfected; when the whole organization of society shall have been rendered more compact and harmonious? Will God suddenly suspend the great law of providential development?
Organization is not life, but it is the sign of life; and the degree and perfection of organization is the test of life.
- The above article is an extract from an unpublished course of Lectures, which may yet see the light as a whole.