Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/September 1872/Civilization as Accumulated Force

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By L. DUMONT.[1]

THE word civilization is of somewhat indefinite meaning. It were easy to say which of the two is the more civilized, a European or a New-Caledonian savage. But, when we have to assign their respective ranks to two civilized nations, the case is more difficult. Each philosopher has his own definition of civilization. One will say that civilization is the social fact of the increase of wealth. But even though we take the word wealth in its widest sense, it will not include all the elements of civilization, and especially it will not include those which have their seat in man himself, such as moral and physical development. Then an accident, such as conquest, might enrich a nation, without advancing it in civilization.

Guizot makes civilization depend chiefly on political institutions. According to him, it is the perfectionment of civil life, the development of society, and of the relations of man with man. But he admits that we must also take into account individual life, the inner life of man and his development intellectually, socially, and morally. In his History, however, Guizot almost altogether disregards this element, so that we may consider his work as merely an excellent history of political progress under constitutional monarchy.

Buckle's History is the antithesis of Guizot's. Here the individual is every thing; institutions nothing, or even hinderances. The state, according to Buckle, is a resultant, not a principal. Buckle also denies that religion is a factor in working out the problem of civilization. These views, at first warmly opposed, are now more favorably received.

But since he deduced civilization neither from religion nor from political constitutions, how did he account for it? He defined it to consist in the supremacy of intellectual laws over physical laws. The history of Europe, as he read it, is simply a series of victories gained by man over Nature; whereas, the domination of Nature over man causes the irremedial decadence of Oriental nations.

We will not deny the justice and truth of this line of observation. The contest between man and the outer world, the conquests of science, the subjection of all the forces of Nature to man's will—these are truths as clear as day. And yet we do not believe that they constitute the sum total of civilization. Men are brought face to face, not alone with Nature, but also with one another. We have to adapt ourselves, not alone to physical forces, but we have also to adapt ourselves to one another; in a word, we find in civilization, in progress, a social as well as a physical element. Side by side with the conquests of humanity over the remainder of the universe, there is a progress in morals, and in the relations between man and man—between one society and another. Civilization is impossible without freedom and security, and these can exist only in virtue of social institutions.

All the theories we have been considering contain an admixture of truth and error; and they are all imperfect, being true in what they affirm, but erroneous in what they exclude from consideration. We have, therefore, to discover a formula which, while it applies equally to all these facts, and sums them up in a more general notion, shall show their intimate connection and their close association with one another.


Civilization is the result of previous progress. Progress is a movement; it is, so to speak, dynamical. Civilization is a state, it is static. It is not the work of the present moment; it is rather that which the present inherits from the past, in the way of science, art, discovery, wealth, customs. In a society which is in process of civilization, each generation finds a certain store of the elements of civilization at hand. The scientific researches of the past have not to be commenced anew; its discoveries and industrial processes we have but to learn and to perpetuate. Agriculture has made progress, cities have been built, roads constructed, and society organized. Finally, we have language ready formed, and race instincts, and moral and intellectual qualities, more or less developed. So that we may regard civilization as the sum of human enjoyment at a given moment, which is at hand without the necessity of going in search of it. Or, in philosophical language, we say that civilization is an accumulation of force in the race, or for the race.

We have used the word force, and this calls for an explanation. Modern philosophy is inclined to see nothing but forces in the universe. Those things which we regard as material are but forces, or combinations of force. Light, heat, solidity, weight, and movement of every kind, are forces: life is an organization of force, and society an organization of living forces. The same is to be said of will, ideas, sensations, truth, right, science.

We may regard man as an aggregation of forces, physiological, intellectual, and moral. This aggregation is susceptible of perfectionment, its component parts becoming mutually better adjusted, or the combination becoming more complex. In either case the result will be an enlargement of the faculties and an increase of the individual's power.

But let us pursue this subject further. This system of forces which we call man is surrounded by forces which are unintelligent. He enters into competition with these, and turns them to his own advantage, appropriates them, and thus, as it were, projects his own personality outward. By the aid of science he makes Nature subject to him, and renders the most sterile soil productive. Mountains are tunnelled, and seas joined together. These and similar splendid achievements are not accomplished by the native forces of man, yet they bear the marks of man's handiwork; and the forces which did bring them about were in subjection to him. Though these forces, then, cannot be properly called human forces, still they are humanized, and it is the accumulation of both these kinds of force that makes up civilization.

It were inexact to say that this accumulation is a creation of force. Man does not create, he only transforms. Production implies only adapting things to our use. Therefore, when we speak of production, we imply only a new direction given to forces already active. But man is also a consumer of the wealth he acquires and of his own powers. In order, therefore, that he may accumulate, production must be in excess of consumption. Every act we perform involves an expenditure of muscular or intellectual energy; and the same is true with regard to the implements we employ for our work. If, however, by such expenditure we render available for human uses what before was unserviceable, and if this acquisition is of greater value than the outlay, there is a clear profit for humanity. Yet this gain has no value as a civilizing element, except in so far as it puts man in the way of making new products, whether by augmenting the power of his organs or faculties, by putting in his hands a new implement, by leading to some useful discovery, or by affecting favorably political relations, which in turn react upon production and upon progress in general.

This excess of production over consumption is not the only source of power. There is another which is of equal importance, and that is the perfecting of organization, whether among the forces which make up the individual, the society, or the race. Here, again, there is no creation, but only utilization of force. This organic adaptation diminishes friction, and permits the utilization of forces which else would be wasted. Organization, furthermore, brings together like capacities, and enables them to combine their strength, and thus forces which separately would be weak, being united, produce great results. In thus grouping together like forces, the first step is to detach them from those which are dissimilar, and consequently a perfect organization leads to the separation of faculties, the localization of functions, and the division of labor. We now proceed to confirm our inductions by particular applications of them to actual facts. And, first, we will consider those elements of civilization which are extrinsic to man. We can more easily understand the world around us than the interior phenomena of the mind, and the study of these external phenomena will furnish us with many analogies to guide us in the study of the more recondite internal phenomena.


The word capital is employed to denote the sum of external forces accumulated by man, and which he can use for new productions. We do not, however, agree with certain contemporaneous economists who say that capital is only labor accumulated. This definition, though plausible, is inexact, and besides it involves a dangerous confusion of ideas, and has supplied the socialists with a portion of their arguments against capital, civilization, and political economy itself.

No doubt capital is an accumulation, but not an accumulation of labor; it is not even the product of labor. Though Proudhon ("Manuel du Speculateur") defines capital to be "labor accumulated," he contradicts himself a few lines farther on, when he says, "The first capital is given gratis to man by Nature." Most of the precious metals possess a value in excess of the cost of production; the difference represents a portion of capital which does not come from labor, and the value of which is regulated simply by the law of demand and supply. Capital, then, is not always the product of labor, nor does labor, even when accumulated, always produce capital. There is such a thing as destructive labor, as, for instance, under the rule of the Commune in Paris. There is also such a thing as unproductive labor, as when thousands of working-men are employed for weeks together in preparations for fêtes, illuminations, and the like. An author may spend years in writing a work which no man will read or buy. He surely does not produce capital. Finally, if capital were in reality only labor accumulated, would not the complaint of the socialists be justified when they clamor against society for its iniquity in making the workers non-capitalists, while the capitalists are not workers?

It is better to regard capital as the condition of labor, and not its product. As for the origin of capital, to fix it precisely, we need only apply the general formula already given, according to which capital represents the excess of production over consumption. It means savings, therefore, or, if you wish, accumulated savings. One begins to acquire capital, not by labor, but rather by saving the products, whether of labor or of Nature. Hence it follows that a just distribution of capital must be based, not on the amount of labor, but on the amount of saving; and this is about the state of things existing in the present social order, allowance being made for some imperfections. The spendthrift wastes his capital; and he alone produces it, or increases it, who can save. Many persons, who are not at all socialists, discourage saving, and judge it better to expend capital than to consume it. It is true that expenditure in some measure benefits our contemporaries; yet only at the expense of society in the future; whereas, saving contributes to the future growth of civilization, though doing some little injury to the present generation. Now, shall we sacrifice the present for the future, or shall we compromise the future in order to alleviate the misery and suffering of the present? Let us put an hypothesis which, though impracticable, still may be supposed. Suppose France were to resolve to use up all her wealth in one day. During that one day all Frenchmen might have all sorts of enjoyment. But the morrow!

We must remember that the race is in process of development, and is never at any moment what it will be. The present is nothing. To insure progress, the first requisite is that capital should increase. Here is a quantity of grain which might subsist a family for one day: save it, turn it to account, and it will produce food for millions. Such is the benefit of saving, and this is the secret of material civilization, which is itself the result of foresight and of past privations. The nations which are at the head of material civilization are those whose institutions have most favored saving, by their respect for private property, and the safeguards they threw around capital. Unhappily, in modern European legislation, there are still to be found enactments which are nothing better than attacks upon the rights and liberties of capital. If a man has to save not alone for himself, but also for others, his economy will be more strict than if he had to save for himself alone. If you do away with the right of freely disposing of property, a man will take care to consume all his capital, rather than let it fall into the hands of those for whose benefit he has no mind to accumulate.

The accumulation of capital is often regarded with alarm, which, however, is baseless. We must not forget that capital is only the means of production, and that consequently it must always be profitably employed, else all its value is gone. Where capital is abundant, the capitalist is constrained to lend it at reasonable rates, and to go in search of labor, in order to find an advantageous investment. On the other hand, when there is but little capital, then labor must go in search of the capitalist, and pay him whatever interest he requires. Thus, individual property and the liberty of disposal are upheld by the very arguments that socialists bring to overturn them. The chief benefit of these institutions is to make accumulation of capital possible: this the socialists regard as an injury, for their aim is absolute equality, and they make small account of the interests of civilization. But we who regard civilization as the great aim of humanity find no more difficulty with inequality of capital than with inequality of wages. Some workmen get ten or twenty times as much pay as others, and some save ten or twenty times as much as others. If the capitalist has only to preserve what others have accumulated, or what has come to him by gift or inheritance, does not the workman in like manner profit by his capital of health and intellectual faculties, which he owes partly to inheritance and partly to his education, in order to demand higher pay?

In no country is the habit of saving so general as in France, and this is the securest basis of our prosperity and civilization. The French have been unjustly charged with prodigality; but the reproach should be confined to that quartier of Paris which lies between the Champs Elysées and the Faubourg Montmartre. Without these bounds, all France is steady and industrious. A very moderate estimate puts the annual increase of wealth in France at three milliards of francs. Unfortunately, however, we lose much of the benefit of this saving as a nation by embarking in ruinous adventures. The national debt, which will soon be twenty milliards, has doubled within twenty years. Though we make an annual increase of capital to the amount of three milliards, we annually burden posterity with a debt of a half milliard. Another and more serious defect of the French nation is, that this saving tends to check population; and this fact leads us to consider another element of civilization, viz., the value of the individual.


As regards civilization, we may consider man from a threefold point of view: the numerical quantity of the population; the duration of human force, that is, longevity; and the intensity of this force, that is, the development of the organs and faculties.

Man being a combination of forces, does it follow that an increase of population is an accumulation of human forces, and so an element of civilization? As the increase of wealth favors the increase of population, so the latter reacts on the former by increasing the number of producers, and especially by favoring the division of labor. Consequently, a country's well-being requires a just equilibrium between the sum of the capital and the number of inhabitants. An increase of population ought not to lead to a loss in capital, nor ought the increase of capital, by saving, lead to diminished population. In the former case, the country would become impoverished; in the latter it would decay. The latter is the case with France, where the population is far less than the immense resources of the country would justify. While Saxony doubles its population in 45 years, England in 49, Prussia in 54, Russia in 56, Würtemberg and Switzerland in 114, France requires more than 198. There is reason to suppose that Great Britain, which now has 26,000,000, will, in 50 years, have 52,000,000; Germany, 60,000,000; and Russia, over 100,000,000; but France, unless there occur a change, will have no more than 45,000,000. At the beginning of this century, the annual increase of population in France was 175,000, now it is only 132,000 souls. Far from peopling our colonies, we find the very soil of France gradually encroached on by an immigration of the neighboring nations.

The reasons for this are numerous. The restrictions laid on the father of a family in France are greater than in most countries. Then the education Frenchwomen get has an influence. Marriages are not fewer than hitherto, but are contracted at a later period of life. In Catholic countries there is less moral freedom but more licentiousness than in Protestant countries. In the latter, marriage is rendered easy and spontaneous by the greater freedom of social relations between the sexes; but in France marriage is a matter of calculation, and marriages are generally contracted with the aid of go-betweens. Another cause is that habits of industry and especially individual enterprise are not at all in France in proportion with the national wealth. While in England a man generally acquires capital with a view to better his condition as a producer, a Frenchman's study is to retire from business, and leave to a very small family the means of living without work. We have also in France a large proportion of the poorer classes who flock into the great cities to live by public assistance. We have by no means exhausted all the resources of our soil, and there are 20,000,000 acres of waste land. Though in France the population increases more slowly than in other European nations, the average duration of life is greater. The higher the average duration of life, the greater the accumulation of productive forces. The reason why war is so fatal to civilization, even among the conquerors, is that it destroys those who are at the age most favorable for production.

We have now to consider the third element of civilization, as found in man himself, and this is the most important of all, namely, the intensity of force. Two equal quantities of individuals will not in the same space of time produce equally, for each may not possess the same energy, the same intensity of life or force. Individual values are determined by the development of organs, functions, and faculties, which come in part from exercise and culture, and in part from inheritance. On the one hand, we have the habits acquired by the individual, which are modified by his surroundings; and, on the other hand, we have habits rooted in the family, nation, or race, and which become hereditary. The latter is called an instinct, and embraces all those sentiments which men have in common, their intensity being in proportion with the social progress which produced them. The influence of these inherited sentiments is very great, though it is frequently overlooked. If a man is what he is as distinct from all others in virtue of individual development and personal character, we are men having our specific and race character from inheritance. We are possessed of the apparatus of vision, hearing, language, circulation, digestion, because these functions are so many habits that have become essential to the human race.

These habits and instincts are not all good, for vices too are habits. This means only that the action of our organs and faculties sometimes takes a direction unfavorable to society or humanity. The body has its diseases, the understanding its errors, and the will its vices. Entire races have sometimes depraved instincts, which forbid their advancing beyond a certain degree of civilization, while others fail to attain that intellectual development which is the condition of all ulterior progress. Now, what is the criterion for determining what habits are good and favorable for civilization? We need only apply our general formula, and then we shall see that those habits have a civilizing influence which tends to increase man's forces, the power of his faculties, his value as an intellectual or material producer. On the contrary, those habits which have a tendency to deprave the individual, weaken his faculties, or efface his moral instincts, are vices which, when generalized and transmitted, whether by education or by inheritance, lead a people toward decay, decrepitude, and extinction. The ideas, instincts, and moral habits of the individual, are ever in competition, and, when this competition tends toward perfection, the element which wins in the struggle always gains power by selection.

It was the fashion during the eighteenth century to regard the faculties of the civilized man as inferior to those of the savage. Experience has not confirmed this. What certain organs have lost in one direction, they have got back in another. If our senses have a narrow range, they have gained in firmness of perception. The senses of touch and of taste are in the civilized man extremely subtile. Our power of vision has not a very great range, but we can peruse for many hours together the printed page, a thing which the eye of the savage could never do. If our ear cannot detect the stealthy approach of a wild beast, it can appreciate the nicest shades of difference in musical notes. We cannot climb trees, but a clerk seated at his desk does more work with his hand in one day than a savage in a twelvemonth. Finally, the muscular force of certain Indian tribes has been proved by the dynamometer to be very considerably less than that of English and French sailors.

There are faculties which appear to arise full grown, so to speak, when civilization has reached a certain stage, and which do not exist, even in germ, among savages. Such are the faculties of literary and artistic taste. The savage has no leisure for the pleasures of the imagination. A Molière, a Rembrandt, or a Mozart, would have to expend all his energy under such circumstances in procuring the bare necessaries of life. The fine arts are subordinated to the development of the other elements of civilization, but they may also be regarded as the best expression and the most exact measure of the state of a society. A few examples will explain our meaning:

How has architecture advanced? Men at first dwelt in hollow trees, in caves, or beneath any chance shelter. Next, they constructed rude houses of stones, branches, or sods. It was only at a later period that they could think of symmetry or regularity. Then came all kinds of ornamentation. At last they came to erect structures without direct utility, for aesthetic purposes merely, such as columns, porticoes, and the like. And so each increase of wealth in a society is followed by a corresponding progress in arts which are rather pleasing than useful. The same holds with respect to literature. At first, men would interchange only thoughts of immediate utility. Next they came imperceptibly to adorn their speech, and then arose history, religion, morality, philosophy, adorned with all the charms of versification, music, and poesy. It was only at a later period that poetry appeared in its own individual character, on the stage, or in the story, as the form in which pure fiction was to be cast, having as its aim to please the imagination, without reference to history, religion, or utility. In a word, art and poetry spring from a superabundance of intellectual energy, and from an exuberance of ideal force.

The culture of science, as viewed with reference to civilization, is the same thing as the development of the understanding. At first view, we might suppose that scientific truths, when once discovered, constitute a sort of capital, which may be stored up. But this is not the case, for science has no real value, except as it is present in the consciousness of the thinker, and it is inseparable from the exercise of the faculties. Science in books is of no importance for civilization. We will not speak of the immense importance of intellectual development, which Buckle regarded as the very essence of civilization. The mode of this development is a question for a theory of progress. It consists principally of an enlarging adaptation of ideas to external facts, and to one another; and the most natural explanation will be given when we apply Darwin's admirable inductions to the formation of ideas.

The French have boasted that they were the leaders of civilization in virtue of their intellectual superiority. But the Germans and English make the same pretensions. Yet the French mind appears to hold preeminent rank in certain respects, as for instance in taste for the beautiful, for grace, and for elegance. The country which produced Moliére is now the only one that has a theatre worthy of the name; our painters are the first in the world; and in France alone are the refinements of an exquisite taste exhibited in the minor details of every-day life. We owe all this to the æsthetic influence of the capital.

The French mind also excels in all the lively and brilliant qualities of imagination. Still, it must be admitted that these qualities are blended with very grave defects. The philosophical faculties are in some degree weakened by the development of taste, and the refinement of the imagination often hinders the cultivation of the reason. We have, to be sure, some men of great distinction in all the sciences, but it cannot be gainsaid that instruction is not as wide-spread in France as in Germany; and moral science is far more backward here than in England. We have no taste for consecutiveness, method, long deduction, or patient analyses.

These defects expose us to grave dangers in political life especially, and this brings us to the consideration of social relations and institutions as they have a bearing upon civilization.


There are two things to be considered in the social order, viz., the rights of individuals, and the system of institutions guaranteeing them. As the definition of these rights depends on the development of the race in their ideas, morals, instincts, etc., we need but refer to what we have already said on the development of organs and faculties, to show how far these rights extend. But the case is different with governmental institutions which derive force not from the progress of individuals, but from the evolution of society, and the historic development of the nation. In times of order and tranquillity we are disposed to reduce governmental functions to the minimum. For this reason, prosperity sometimes leads to decadence. When the government is weakened, the nation compromises its civilization, and lies open either to anarchy or conquest, or both. Governmental progress is never made by radical destruction or suppression of established order, with a view to evolve a new organization, giving up historic advantages. Gradual modification is the condition of true progress, for no constitution or organization is of any value, unless it is the work of ages.

In order to guarantee security and respect for individual rights, the government derives a certain amount of force from the nation, and this force makes up the power of the state. The value of a government is to be estimated by the difference between what it costs and the benefits it secures. If we would know what is the value of French political institutions, for instance, we have only to estimate the value of our present capital, and compare it with what we should have were our institutions at an end. Hence, we see that political institutions are a true civilizing force, as yielding an excess of utility over expenditure.

A political society is an organism, and the individuals may be regarded as elementary cellules. Social progress consists in the increasing adaptation of individuals, which results from the separation of functions and the division of labor. Just as, in the lower grades of the physiological scale, one organ will discharge many very diverse functions, so, in the more imperfect forms of society, the government discharges every kind of office, as that of the soldier, priest, school-master, tutor, manufacturer, agriculturist, merchant, banker. The great problem is, to determine what is to be done by the state, what by other forces. The government will be more effective in proportion as it is freed from the embarrassment of diverse functions.

From this point of view we should say that France has departed from the path of progress in two directions: First, her revolutions have unduly weakened the government; second, public opinion has unduly favored the extension of governmental interference. The result of the first is, that no government in France is sufficiently strong; the result of the second, that government is entangled in affairs from which it were better freed, and every schemer and visionary is clamoring for government assistance to work out his plans.

Every ephemeral constitution we have had, has to-day a factious party ready to do battle for it. Thus, every administration finds itself surrounded with a coalition of minorities. Time alone can give authority to any constitution.

Not less serious are the consequences of Utopianism which would shape the state according to every fantastic notion. All forms of socialism strive to enlarge the action of society; and communism, its latest development, seeks to absorb the individual in the state. Governments have often unconsciously yielded to the influence of these dreams, as we see where they favor protection, state interference in religious matters, and in the direction of art and science, etc.

The university, too, is to blame for our disasters. Its metaphysics and worship of forms give rise to dreams of Utopia and all manner of illusions. We had little better than illusions to oppose to the sternly practical science of Germany. It is Utopian ideas that have produced, after a disastrous war, another crisis more serious still. Only solid, positive education can avert such disasters. England has opposed to fanciful dreams the serious study of political economy. Germany has profoundly studied the historical sciences, and has cultivated a searching criticism as well as the natural sciences. But France has followed an ideal, without regard to facts, and the result is, that every thing is in a state of disorder.

Present disaster may bring France to her senses, and induce her to start from different principles.

  1. Translated from the Revue Scientifique, by J. Fitzgerald, A. M.