Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/August 1889/Mr Mallock on Optimism

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AS, in olden time, a certain Lars Porsena, of Clusium, swore by the great gods that his friends the Tarquins, who had been expelled from Rome for gross misconduct, "should suffer wrong no more," so, in our own day, Mr. Mallock, of "Is Life worth Living?" seems to have sworn a great oath that the beliefs which the republic of modern thought has for good cause expelled from its borders shall by his powerful arm be restored to their old tyranny over human life. He therefore brings up his forces, draws lines of circumvallation, and prepares to conquer and capture the whole host of liberal thinkers, and either put them logically to the edge of the sword or force them back into the ancient slavery. The enterprise is not lacking in audacity, and, to do Mr. Mallock justice, he seems to be a writer of no little courage and of infinite jest. His sword-practice is always brilliant; and, if he could only induce his opponents to stand exactly where he makes his passes and slashes, there is no question that he would do for them completely enough. As it is, we see the gleam of the weapon; but, somehow or other, the foe does not fall, and we begin to perceive that he was never quite in the line of the strokes.

In furtherance of the purpose above indicated, Mr. Mallock has contributed two apparently powerful articles to the "Fortnightly Review"—one on "The Scientific Bases of Optimism," and the other on "Cowardly Agnosticism." We shall briefly examine the first of these to-day, and, perhaps, with the editor's kind permission, may take up the second at a later date. "Optimism," in Mr. Mallock's view, is the essential creed of all the modern schools of thought, whether Unitarians or Deists, followers of Spencer, followers of Matthew Arnold, or followers of Auguste Comte. All of these, whatever some of them may say to the contrary, really unite in worshiping Humanity; and Mr. Mallock undertakes to show them how foolish their worship is, and how mutually contradictory are the ideas on which it is founded. Let us take a brief but careful survey of Mr. Mallock's argument.

"The religious doctrine of Humanity," says this agile writer, asserts that the facts of history have a meaning, that they follow a certain rational order, and that, taken as a whole, they have been, are, and will be always, working together—though it may be very slowly—to improve the kind of happiness possible for the human being, and to increase the numbers by whom such happiness will be enjoyed. To affirm this, however, is, by implication, to affirm that a natural element in human character is sympathy, and that not only is this feeling far stronger and wider than has usually been supposed, but it is capable even now, when once the idea of progress has been apprehended, of inspiring the individual to work for the progress in which he shares, and is sure to acquire, as time goes on, a strength incalculably greater. It is because the religion of humanity takes (as he says) such a cheerful view of things in general that Mr. Mallock rechristens it "the creed of Optimism." All the holders of that creed believe, we are told, "that the human lot has something in it which makes it, in the eyes of all who can see clearly, a thing to be acquiesced in, not merely with resignation but devoutness." This is the idea which Mr. Mallock undertakes to dispel by showing (1) that the doctrine of a steady progress in human affairs is not proved; (2) that sympathy is not the powerful emotion that optimists take it to be; (3) that admitting progress to be a reality, and sympathy to be all that it is claimed to be, the thought of the miseries humanity had endured in the past would poison all the satisfaction resulting from its improved condition in the present and its brilliant prospects for the future; (4) that the more we dwell upon the practical perpetuity of the human race the more is individual influence dwarfed in comparison; (5) that it is difficult to imagine what form or character the happiness we anticipate for our posterity can take, seeing that the absence of pain is merely negative in its character, and that the idea of an abundance of creature comforts is not one that can give pleasure to any human being capable of any high conception of life; finally, (6) that if we are to see any meaning in life we must follow a light which is not that of science—the light of theological faith.

Such is the argument of our opponent, supported throughout, it must be admitted, by more or less aptly chosen instances and an abundance of plausible rhetoric. The question is, How does it affect, how does it touch, any vital issue of the present time? Is it true that there exists in the world to-day a "creed of optimism" held in common by a number of otherwise divergent schools of thought, and that the elements of that creed are as described by Mr. Mallock? To this question we venture to give a negative answer. It is quite possible that individuals here and there may have constructed for themselves some such metaphysical creed as the above; but to say that any large number of representative thinkers of our time could be got to take their stand on the propositions formulated and criticised by Mr. Mallock is to state what we are confident is not the case.

The situation to-day is simply this: A theological creed which had descended to our age from very early times has been found, when examined from the historical point of view, to be as little proof against criticism as the moral, political, and scientific ideas of the same period. The considerations which moved our ancestors to belief do not and can not move us; and, therefore, so far as the theology in question furnished an interpretation of the world or a guide to conduct, men who can not now accept it are compelled to look around for other canons, other sanctions, other modes of arriving at truth. The thinkers of this age have not deliberately made this situation for themselves. The change has come, upon the whole, very gradually; and human beings are every day being born into an atmosphere in which the ideas that were current in the earlier centuries simply can not live unless in some manner artificially protected. The difference between our time and the former age consists mainly in this, that educated men have now something like an adequate idea of what knowledge is, and of what proof is, and that they have got into the way of asking for proof before they yield belief. That this was not formerly the case—that men believed for the most fantastic and ridiculous reasons—could be abundantly proved if necessary; but surely it is not necessary. The task, then, which is assigned by dogmatic theology to this generation is to believe without those aids to belief which the more habitual supernaturalism of our more ignorant ancestors supplied. Some try to do it and succeed, making ends meet by ways and means best known to themselves. Some try and do not succeed; and some feel dispensed from trying at all. Monotheism it must be remembered was not a special revelation to mankind. There are good grounds for the belief that, in every case it has resulted from the consolidation of an antecedent polytheism; while polytheism itself has been a delusion forced upon men's minds by the countless activities in nature which they have been powerless to explain to themselves in any other way. The time has come at length when, as an explanation of nature, monotheism itself has lost its virtue; not because there are not many dark problems still to be solved, but because monotheism is recognized as rather the assumption of a solution than a solution. Men, even those who view things in this light, may still be theists, but intelligent men at least are not theists merely because they can not understand everything in nature. Their reasons are of a different order.

Instead, therefore, of there being anything in the condition of men's minds to-day or in the average philosophy of the time to provoke ridicule or hostile comment, there is much that calls for every allowance and consideration. The science, the history, the philosophy, the political and social organization of the past are discredited. Its theology is discredited, too, and men are engaged in a strenuous effort to lay new foundations and rear worthier superstructures in every department of thought. The workers, happily for themselves and for the world, are not all brigaded and dragooned by the voice of authority, and therefore they are not all working on the same lines; but they are working, and their sincere labors will not be in vain.

The question, however, at present is whether the various liberal schools referred to by Mr. Mallock stand committed to the new dogmatic system which he has described. The first thing that strikes a careful reader of his article is that he has not given a single quotation from any leader of modern thought indicating acceptance of the views in question—a thing which it would certainly have been easy to do if these views were, as he maintains, fundamental with them all. It is an illusion into which a man easily falls, whose own thought has run in dogmatic lines, to suppose that others must have constructed for themselves a philosophical or logical framework of equal rigidity. The truth can not, therefore, be too often repeated that the essential mark of modern thought is the taking of the world just as it is, and the reduction of all theories more or less to the rank of working hypotheses. Whether the changes in human affairs support the theory of a great secular drift toward better conditions is a question to be decided simply according to the evidence, which can hardly under any circumstances be of a demonstrative character in the full sense. The simple fact that men have the power of rationally adapting means to ends is enough to prompt to effort and inspire hope, for in this power lies the key to the highest possibilities of advancement. He who knows can, and, as long as this is the case, the path of knowledge will be the upward path. Knowledge, to be sure, is sometimes abused. Why? For want of more knowledge. There may come periods in the history of a people when the virtue of such knowledge as they possess has become exhausted, and when in the rude school of experience they may have to learn other practical lessons as the necessary condition of further advance; but how all this may be is a matter for which no individual man is responsible, and one who should wait to devise a practical philosophy for himself until he had cast the horoscope of humanity would not be wise. The late Mr. Arnold thought he had discovered clear traces of "a power, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness"; but he did not wait for the formulation of that discovery, if such it was, before striving to order his own life on principles of righteousness. And if some one comes forward and points out, as one critic at least of Mr. Arnold did, that whether "the power" is making for righteousness or not depends upon the stage of a nation's development, there being periods when the general forces make rather for unrighteousness, no one is obliged, even though he may regard the criticism as pertinent and well-founded, to abandon his previously adopted plan of life.

If, therefore, Mr. Mallock would really make the position of an independent, non-theological thinker of the present day untenable, he must show, not that the theory of progress in general is without logical support, but that, taking the world as it is known to us, there is no support outside of theology for intellectual or moral effort. Let Mr. Mallock show that, because we can not share his views in regard to the government of the world, we can not desire the good of our neighbor or draw the distinction which the poet draws between "a higher and a lower," and we shall at once acknowledge our situation to be a very serious one. It is simply because he can not show anything of the kind that he adopts his present tactics, which are to saddle on the liberal schools doctrines which they do not hold, and then to attack those doctrines with his heaviest logical ordnance. In regard to the doctrine of progress, Mr. Spencer is perhaps the most authorized exponent of modern ideas, and how far he is from maintaining it in anything like an absolute form may be gathered from his works at large and very conclusively from the eighth chapter of the first volume of his "Principles of Sociology." A quotation or two may be permitted: "If, on the one hand, the notion that savagery is caused by lapse from civilization is irreconcilable with the evidence, there is, on the other hand, inadequate warrant for the notion that the lowest savagery has always been as low as it is now. It is quite possible, and, I believe, highly probable, that retrogression has been as frequent as progression. . . . Of all existing species of animals, if we include parasites, the greater number have retrograded from a structure to which their remote ancestors had once advanced. . . . So with super-organic evolution. Though, taking the entire assemblage of societies, evolution may be held to be inevitable as an ultimate effect of the co-operating factors, intrinsic and extrinsic, acting on them all through indefinite periods of time; yet it can not be held inevitable in each particular society or even probable. . . . Direct evidence forces this conclusion on us. Lapse from higher civilization to lower civilization, made familiar during school days, is further exemplified as our knowledge widens."

Any candid person can judge from these passages how far Mr. Spencer must be from basing any theory of human conduct upon the abstract notion of the progress of the human race. His moral system, as is well known, has nothing to do either with a general theory of progress or with the sympathetic interest which individual men may take now or hereafter in the fortunes of humanity at large. If we turn to another writer of very "advanced" opinions, but whose standpoint differs materially from Mr. Spencer's —Dr. Maudsley—we find that he too lays no great stress upon the idea of progress, and very fully recognizes the many evidences of retrogression which history and natural history alike present. "It admits of no doubt" he says in one place, "that a law of degeneration is manifest in human events; that each individual, each family, each nation, may take an upward course of evolution or a downward course of degeneracy. Noteworthy" (he adds) "is the fact that, when the organism—individual, social, or national—has reached a certain state of complex evolution, it inevitably breeds changes in itself which disintegrate and in the end destroy it."[1] Turn now to Mr. Leslie Stephen, a writer as free from all theological prepossessions as either Mr. Spencer or Dr. Maudsley. Far from making the assumptions which Mr. Mallock attributes to the whole liberal school, he criticises some of those assumptions in terms that resemble very closely those used by Mr. Mallock himself. For example, he tells us that, while speculations in regard to a future Utopia for human society "may be useful in defining an end toward which all well-wishers to their fellows may desire to act," such speculations are nevertheless rash, and do not solve the difficulty for us, inasmuch as "the knowledge—if we could attain the knowledge—that our descendants would be better off than ourselves would not disprove the existence of the present evil," Pushing the objection further, he says: "We can not tell that progress will be indefinite. It seems rather that science points to a time at which all life upon the planet must become extinct, and the social organism may, according to the familiar analogy, have its natural old age and death."[2]

There is no use in taking up space with further citations. The fact is, we would not, at this moment, know to what writer of the several schools of thought referred to by Mr. Mallock we could turn, to find that dogmatic assumption of progress which he says is characteristic of them all. What characterizes them all is a manly determination not to despair of the fortunes of humanity because the former monopolizers of spiritual authority have suffered an abatement of their prerogatives and now expend a large portion of their energy in anathematizing the tendencies of the age. What further characterizes them all is a conviction that morality and happiness must have sources independent of human institutions and abstract philosophies, and that, certainly, neither demonstrable falsehoods nor unverified theories of any kind can be their absolutely necessary conditions. Mr, Leslie Stephen expresses this well when he says: "It may be said that the whole history of the world and its inhabitants represents a problem of stupendous magnitude. . . . We work out the problem by living, or rather we work out our own little bit of the problem. We are utterly incompetent to grasp the whole or to rise above it, and say why such and such data must have been given, and what will be the further stages of the process. But when we once recognize the fact that the problem is being worked out, we see that an answer is actually given in some degree by the very facts before us. That is really the nature of the change in the point of view implied in the acceptance of the evolution theory."[3]

Having thus shown to how large an extent Mr. Mallock has drawn upon his imagination in regard to the importance assigned in modern ethical theories to the idea of progress, it is easy to show that what he has said on the subject of sympathy is equally destitute of foundation. The emancipated modern thinker tries to take stock of human nature as it is: the age for constructing ideals of a purely imaginative kind has passed. We want to ascertain just how much sympathy there is in average human nature, so that we may know what we have to depend on. We want to discover also how far the quantity now existing admits of increase. Auguste Comte studied this question closely; and, far from unduly magnifying the sympathetic element in human nature, he continually speaks of it as being very weak in comparison with the egoistic, and therefore requiring all the re-enforcement we can give it. His whole system is an elaborate effort to draw out sympathy and make it more widely and powerfully operative in human affairs. For this purpose his followers think it right and profitable to dwell much upon the history of the human race, and to bring into strong relief the organic dependence of the individual upon society at large. Many who, perhaps, would not care to acknowledge any obligations to Comte, are to-day doing the same thing—so much so that the prominence given to the thought of society as an organic whole, infusing its own larger life into its individual members, may be said to be an especial note of the present age. If it be asked what object there can be in quickening sympathy between a man and his fellows, the answer is, the promotion of more harmonious social action, resulting in economy of force and increase of happiness. Upon this point Mr Mallock seems to be all astray, owing doubtless to the too abstract manner in which he chose to treat the question. He seems to think that the whole effect of sympathy is confined to the mental representation of others' pains and pleasures. He forgets, apparently, that it has its natural outcome in action; and that, except as a basis for action, there would be no useful purpose in cultivating it. This is the true and obvious answer to his paradoxical contention that an increase of sympathy could not make for happiness, seeing that if, on the one hand, it enabled us to enter more heartily into the joys of others, it would, on the other, bring home to us more poignantly their sorrows. We can not increase sympathy with mankind at large without strengthening the sense of duty and prompting to deeds which—whether they take the form of promoting happiness or averting misery—will themselves be a source of blessedness to the doers. What is wanted is simply such a development of sympathy as will best subserve the interests of society; and Mr. Mallock's idea that a power of sympathy sufficient to prompt men to lead virtuous lives would also be sufficient to fill them with anguish at the thought of all the past sufferings of mankind, is altogether fanciful and hollow.

An assumption which vitiates much of Mr Mallock's reasoning on this whole subject is that right conduct is, in the human sphere, a kind of rare and frail exotic, requiring the services of a theological gardener and the warm, heavy-laden atmosphere of some ecclesiastical hot-house in order to live at all. But that is a view which we are under no obligation to accept, and which the facts of life are very far from suggesting. Why should the relations of man with man be, in their own nature, everlastingly wrong? Surely there is sunlight enough, and air enough, and earth enough, and water enough, for a good many of us to live together on this earth in peace and concord and mutual helpfulness! Surely men have need of one another, and it is difficult to imagine how they could long work together without the development in their minds of the conception of justice. In point of fact, the idea of justice is in the world and has been in it in one form or another for many ages. The task that is set before us to-day, with our widened experience and deepened reflection, is to realize that idea more and more perfectly in all social relations. Why should we wish to do it? Because we know that justice is good, and because our sympathies, aided by a certain diffused feeling of self-interest, prompt us to strive for the perfecting of society. But, apart from all voluntary or deliberate effort, the idea of justice acts as a powerful leaven in the society into which it enters, and we may hope that by and by it will leaven the whole lump. When Mr. Mallock says that "the problem is to construct a life of superlative happiness," he makes a complete misstatement so far as any problem contemplated by the thinkers he criticises is concerned. Theologians promise a life of superlative happiness in another world, but non-theological reformers are more moderate in their expectations. What the fortunes of the human race may be in the far-distant future they do not undertake to predict. They may sometimes, like the poet, dream their dream of good; but, if so, it is a good such as the conditions of human nature and its environment are capable of supplying. It is hard to understand how Mr. Mallock could bring himself to make such a statement as that just quoted. Admitting that theologians attack the problem of "constructing a life of perfect happiness," does it follow that the liberal thinkers of the present day must follow them on that ground, like the magicians of Pharaoh, imitating, to the best of their considerable ability, the miracles of Moses and Aaron? It would be much to Mr. Mallock's benefit if he could only be persuaded, once for all, that the distinguishing mark of the whole evolutionary school is that they take the world as they find it, and expect no more from it than it is adapted to render. If human history as a whole is predestined to be a failure, that is none of their affair; they are not in the business of insuring worlds or universes or even civilizations. All they can say—and this they do on the ground of experience—is that, taking the world and the human consciousness as they are, there seems to be one line of conduct which best subserves human interests; and which, therefore, they will both follow themselves and recommend to others. That line consists in practicing the lessons that Nature and history have taught us, using our faculties for the acquisition of real knowledge and our powers of foresight for a wise adjustment of present action to future needs and results. If the man who is filthy spurns this humble, unpretentious philosophy, and determines to be filthy still, he must be allowed to exercise his preference, as he has done under other dispensations. Wisdom will still be justified of her children, though the gospel of science should be hid to them that are lost.

Mr. Mallock is much concerned over what the future of humanity will be if his principles do not prevail. He can not "feel any pleasure in the thought of a Humanity 'shut up in infinite content,' when once it had secured itself three meals a day, and smiling every morning a satisfied smile at the universe, its huge lips shining with fried eggs and bacon." Well, if the time should ever come when humanity has nothing to be satisfied with save abundance of food and a good digestion, Mr. Mallock's delicately chosen image may be in some measure realized; but why it should be necessary to imagine such a future for society, merely because knowledge is growing and superstition waning, it is not easy to say. Why should not "knowledge grow from more to more," and yet "more of reverence in us dwell," so that—

". . . mind and heart, according well,
May make one music as before,
But vaster"?

It is hard to conceive any reason except such as might be supplied by the petulance of a disappointed partisan. Mr. Mallock would fain persuade us that, save on his principles, life is not worth living; but, despite his elaborate argumentation, the modern world, while departing ever more widely from his favorite principles, goes on living and enjoying life. Hence these tears, and these savage diatribes against an imaginary dogmatic optimism on the part of his opponents. To him they perhaps seem optimists, as not sharing his pessimism; to their own apprehension they are simply children of their age, listening to its teachings with earnest attention and trying to utter the message they receive.

What, after all, would Mr. Mallock have us do? He says that there is no evidence of any meaning or of any general progressive movement in human history—none that "would be accepted either in physical or philosophical science." Yet he wants us to believe on some a priori ground, which he is prepared to present, that life has a meaning and does exhibit progress. If we will only accept the light that he offers, we shall see that "life is full of august meanings"; but that light, he plainly tells us, is not the light, of science. In the same way he offers to invest with infinite significance and value any little services we may render to humanity—services which, considered simply as offered by man to man, would not be worth taking into any kind of account. The method in this case is to bring our offering to Christ, who "judges it by the effort and the intention." The altar of humanity, then, is not a sanctifying altar; and men must be assured of a high rating for their sacrifices before they will be content to make them. "The love of humanity without faith to enlighten it, and nothing to justify it beyond what science can show, is as absurd as the love of Titania for Bottom." The reply to this is that long before what Mr. Mallock speaks of as "faith" was known in the world the nobler spirits among men had a love for humanity, and were further ennobled, not made ridiculous, by their love. From the commencement of history, indeed, down to the present day, there has been but one way of being noble, and that has been by caring for one's fellow-men. That way some have found out in an eminent degree, and multitudes in a lesser degree, without any aid from theological fancies. In the present day, when the laws of social development and the true relations of individual life are so much better understood than formerly, there ought to be, and there is, much more to nourish in individuals a rational regard for the general welfare. The love of Titania, whether for Bottom or for Oberon, supplies no apt illustration here, since the case is not one calling for romantic love, but simply for loyal devotion to a recognized source of good—to that higher life of society without which the individual life would wither and starve.

Mr. Mallock's terms are too hard. Much as we might wish to read those "august meanings," much as we might wish to feel that our gifts to humanity received instant recognition and sympathetic appraisement, if it is a question of reinstating the Tarquins of ecclesiasticism, we must forego those visions; we must look within for our reward. Better to face a sterile universe than submit to a spiritual tyranny. But to us the universe is not sterile, nor is life without meanings which might almost be pronounced "august." The theological solution of the problem is simply an adjournment: the next world is to clear up the mysteries of this. The scientific solution may be summed up in the word "adaptation." There is a law in things which slowly reveals itself to careful observation; and just as that law is read, learned, marked, and obeyed, does human life grow in value and more and more carry its own justification within itself. "It doth not yet appear what we shall be" is a saying very applicable to the future of our race upon the earth. Supposing it possible that religion should in the future take the form of an earnest study of the laws of life and cf morality, personal and social, who can forecast the glory that might yet be revealed in this despised humanity of ours? And who would not feel, in presence of such a transfiguration, that it was "good for us to be here"? If anything will thus transfigure society, we venture to affirm that it will be science pursued in a religious spirit—that is, regarded as a ministry of truth and good to mankind. There is a force available here that is at present little understood. It may possibly never be understood by more than a few: no one can answer for that; but it is impossible not to hope that some day, for a religion based on relics and texts, on myths and traditions, on dogma and ritual, on barren erudition at one end of the scale, boisterous sentiment at the other, and infinite mystification throughout, may be substituted one founded on the truth of nature and directed with undivided aim to the perfecting of humanity. Already we see, here and there, how much of pure happiness the right adjustment of human relations can create; and we do not see why the law, by virtue of which such happiness is produced, should not become more widely known and more faithfully observed. It is the habit of the self-styled orthodox to fling all the failures of the universe at our heads, as if we had produced them, or were at least specially responsible for explaining them. The habit is an idle one: the responsibility is not ours; but now that the light of scientific—that is, of verifiable—truth has come into the world, we do hold ourselves responsible for bearing witness to it, and causing it to shine as widely as possible. And, as we are not answerable for the past, neither do we assume to control or predict the future. We see merely a duty in the present, a duty the performance of which will bring peace, tranquillity, and security. This is not optimism, but it is in every man's power to make it a religion

  1. "Body and Will," p. 238.
  2. "Science of Ethics," p. 444.
  3. "Science of Ethics," p. 34.