Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/433

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.



much has been destroyed as makes him weary, he ought to drop down and go to sleep on the high-road, if the argument be worth much! As a matter of fact, of course, a man may destroy a great deal more of the supply of either brain or muscular tissue than he ought to destroy, before the process of reparation begins, just as he may live for days of comparative starvation on a great deal less food than he needs to keep his system in health, or even on the flesh he has made in past days. The brain-work done under such conditions may not be quite as sound, but yet it may draw a certain hectic fire from the glow of anxiety, which, to many a taste, would more than replace the defective soundness of thought. Indeed, the writer of the Times article admits anxiety as one of the causes of ill-health, through its effect in preventing sleep and proper nutrition; and why, if it prevents sleep, should it not prevent the sleepiness which alone prevents the destruction of more nervous tissue than is desirable at any one time? The writer is hardly consistent with himself; but we mention his argument, not for its own sake, but because his able paper represents the rise of a physiological school of ethics, which is, as we believe, gaining rapid ground and doing a great deal to supplant a true ethical doctrine. The real drift of all this skilful argument, partly indorsed by the Lancet, against the possibility of overworking the brain, is to strike a blow at the root of all ethics—the limited freedom of the human will. The physiologists, want to identify moral action so completely with the physiological, conditions of moral action, as to represent all life as the mere result of the growth and destruction of tissue, and as containing no provision for any real alternative choice at all. If a man can't overwork, as this writer says, but can very easily underwork, and can be overworried by any involuntary spring of care, the natural inference would seem to be that the secret of what looks like "will" in life is really not "will" at all, but some involuntary emotion which plays our actions as we play chessmen; and hence the rules of right action will have more and more to be sought in the manipulation of the influences to which our bodies and tastes are subjected, rather than in useless appeals to the will to do what the will has no power to do.

What would be the kind of ethics which would spring out of such a theory? We find traces of it in plenty of medical journals, and pretty distinct traces in the able paper on "Brain-work and Longevity" itself. "One who is insulted or offended," said the writer, "feels an instantaneous impulse to attack the offender. A mere brute, whether human or bestial, acts upon the impulse without reflection. A man may either act upon it after reflection, or restrain himself, and perhaps go peacefully away. If so, he will probably bang the door after him; and will feel better for doing it. A child or a woman will obtain the same relief from a gush of tears. In either case, the imprisoned force is discharged, is gone out from the system. Whatever maybe the nature of an emotion, its repression is hurtful; but the repres-