Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/February 1873/Brain-Work and the Emotions

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AMONG the legitimate solaces of the toils of the modern biologist, there should certainly be reckoned the grim delight which he were less than human if he did not feel in terrifying Mrs. Grundy. Merely to hear a Huxley or a Spencer shout "Boh!" to a flock of the terrified orthodox is amusing, but to the man himself who makes it the fun must be even perilously fascinating. Doubtless, there is some danger of carrying the joke too far. One has heard of a philosopher, who, when courteously asked by a company of the most intelligent of the London clergy to explain some of the principal points of conflict between scientific data and conventional religious theory, began his speech by bluntly telling his audience that he was going to relate important facts, but that his hearers were such unimportant people that he did not care a button whether they believed the facts or not. Such rudeness gives even more pain to the truly scientific mind than it inflicts upon the immediate sufferers.

However, there really is legitimate amusement to be had, and even much good to be done, by the biologist, in shocking the theoretical prejudices of the metaphysicians. The irony of Von Hutten, and the delicate wit of Erasmus, when exposing the intellectual contemptibility of the opponents of the Reformation, were not more truly helpful to the progress of humanity, than are the assaults of those physiologists and physicists who are even now smashing the crockeryware of the metaphysicians and kicking the fragments about with a fury that one can easily see is partly fun. As for that large section of the clergy who persist in looking at the phenomena of mind only through the spectacles of Hamilton and Mansel, there really is no way of dealing with them at all except that of pelting them with incessant ridicule. It is inexpressibly comical, and yet provoking, to hear them keep chattering about the tendency of modern biology to degrade our ideas respecting mind; for one has only to look back some fifty or sixty years to remember the days when mind was considered exclusively the domain of theologians and metaphysicians, and mental diseases were treated according to "high priori" notions instead of medical science. One would think that the cruel and shameful failure of that old system, and the striking benefits that at once accrued to the mentally afflicted when physicians boldly declared that the mind could only be successfully treated by treating the brain—one would think that these and many other similar things would have taught the metaphysicians modesty; but such is not the case. It was but four years since that the Archbishop of York delivered himself of a most presumptuous and densely ignorant attack on modern biological speculation, and was promptly castigated by Dr. Maudsley. To this day, the typical clergyman—we do not speak of such exceptionally liberal men as one often meets in London—holds as firmly as ever to the belief that all discussions of moral perversion, which deal with it from the side of mere bodily organization and health, are an insult to religion a—lapse into the black gulf of what he calls "materialism."

It is not with such persons, however, that we are now concerned, but rather with a class of writers, truly liberal and full of culture, who, nevertheless, cannot get over what seems to them the hopeless divergence between recent physiological doctrines and any systematic teaching of the "higher ethics." To this estimable class belongs the writer of a thoughtful article in the Spectator, on "Nervous Health and Moral Health." His text is the recent discussion originated by a remarkable leader in the Times, which declared that brain-work does not kill, but that brain-worry—especially stifled emotion—is the really fatal agent in nearly all cases where overwork gets credited with a death. Let us repeat here that the experience of medical men undoubtedly shows that this is no fancy, but (with comparatively trifling exceptions) an important general fact. The Spectator does not venture to deny this statement altogether, but, accepting it provisionally as correct, argues that such teaching would lead to dangerous results, unless we acknowledged that what is good merely for nervous health may be bad for moral health, and vice versa. We certainly cannot admit this, and we believe that the fears of the Spectator as to modern physiology leading to bad ethics are quite groundless.

To the writer in the Spectator the danger seems to be that medical philosophers are proposing to extinguish human emotion, and reduce all men to a dead level of intelligent but selfish complacency, reaching the same point, for the sake of preserving health, as Goethe aimed at for the sake of preserving perfect artistic culture—or "sweetness and light," as Mr. Matthew Arnold would call it. We cannot, of course, stand sponsors for the original writer in the Times; but we cannot see that this was what he intended to say; and, at any rate, this is not the voice of modern physiology as we understand it. What the physiological psychologists do affirm is this: That, whereas serious and calm intellectual work is only very slowly destructive to the nervous health, emotion, unless directed into proper channels, is highly destructive to the stability of the nervous system. And they further say that the conventional ideas as to the propriety and utility of certain kinds of emotional excitement do visibly bear, in the experience of medical men, the very worst fruit possible. They do not say, as the Spectator hints, that the emotion of repentance for real guilt is a thing to be shunned; but they declare that the habit of self-torturing introspection, which the clergy and teachers are especially earnest in recommending as a means of spiritual purification, is so far from promoting the existence of a really high and pure standard of ethics, that it ruins both body and soul, in the majority of cases, wherever it is applied on the large scale. More especially they believe that the habit of inducing unnecessary emotional excitement, in young persons who are just entering the dangerous period of commencing sexual life, is so morally and physically injurious to a large number of individuals, that it may well be questioned whether those individuals might not have been more safely left in total neglect and ignorance. We suspect the writer in the Spectator little knows—for no one but a medical man can know—the terribly doubly-edged character of all those more powerful emotions which he believes are so exalting in their effects upon the spiritual nature. Here and there, it is true, we do find some one of such stern Roman nature that he can take a torturing emotion into the recesses of his heart, and discipline himself by the pain which its repression causes, and by that pain alone. But, for the common race of man, it seems to be the duty of the physiologist to insist first, that the immature and tender system of the young should never be exposed to the influence of any avoidable emotion, unless it be such as can be freely and harmlessly expressed, and in particular that self-invented spiritual tortures should be absolutely interdicted; and secondly, that older persons, who must be exposed to disturbing emotions, should at least be encouraged by all means to balance painful with pleasing and refining feelings, and, above all, to have confidence in the really soothing and strengthening character of regular fairly strenuous intellectual work, and the favorable influence which is exerted, even upon moral character, by the substitution of productive labor for the fluctuations of sterile excitement.—London Lancet.