Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/May 1895/Kidd on Social Revolution

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TO want to say something and to have something to say are two very different things. Mr. Benjamin Kidd, when he took in hand to write a book on Social Evolution, wanted very badly to say something; but whether he really had anything to say is a question upon which we can hardly imagine his own mind, now that he has had time to think over it, is fully made up. Yet when the book first appeared many persons thought that it was freighted with some important message. There was something so impressive and oracular in the manner of the writer, such an evident conviction on his own part that, like the poet invoked by Clough, he had to come to reveal to "trembling thinkers on the brink (who) shiver and know not how to think" just what was and is the matter with them, that the reader had to be more than usually forearmed against illusion not to find himself taking Mr. Kidd very seriously indeed, and reading into his pages all the high significance that was meant to be there but was not. The book, we are free to confess, is not an everyday one. It has a certain baffling quality which bespeaks a peculiar order of mind in its author. It is interesting to read: the style is good; the language is strong; the thoughts seem to have some substance; the author gives one the impression that he is working steadily forward to some important, or what ought to be an important, conclusion; and yet, when we come to ask ourselves what the main purpose of the book is, and what proposition of any importance it has established, it is uncommonly difficult to pass from interrogation to affirmation. It gives one the impression of a system with a shifting center of gravity. The author at once champions science and disparages it, exalts religion and denies it any footing in common sense; makes progress depend upon the unchecked action of natural selection, and again declares that its most important factor is the "ultra-rational" sanction which religion supplies for right action; condemns socialism as unscientific and totally incompatible with the continued progress of civilization, and again presents as his ideal of the social state, and as the form to which it is surely tending, something which it is difficult to distinguish from socialism; commiserates mankind for being involved in a perpetual struggle for existence, and yet looks forward joyfully to a condition of struggle which he says will be more "intense" than anything the past has witnessed. It is possible that Mr. Kidd sees some way in his own mind of bringing these apparently contradictory views into harmony; but the general impression left on a careful reader of his book will be that his literary art includes the supreme accomplishment, to speak metaphorically, of riding two horses at the same moment in opposite directions.

Unfortunately, all readers are not careful, and some are prejudiced. These are days in which the glib littérateur talks about "the bankruptcy of science"; and Mr. Kidd, though he does not use the phrase, has done not a little to give countenance to the silly idea. Science, he tells us, has made such a distressing bungle in its treatment of religion, shown such hopeless incompetency, such amazing blindness, in connection with the whole subject! Alas! why did not Mr. Kidd appear a little earlier upon the scene, in order to prevent this painful scandal? He is a man of science—at least, he discourses with the air of one—and it is too bad that "science" should have incurred all this discredit when help was so near at hand. One might be disposed to ask whether science has not redeemed its character through the discoveries of Mr. Kidd, were it not that the latter is evidently indisposed to let his work go to the credit of science. Achilles has come out of his tent and mingled in the fray; but he does not want his mighty deeds to swell the glory of the Grecian name; rather would he flout the Greeks for the sorry figure they cut before he intervened. But, if Mr. Kidd's achievements are not to be passed to the credit of science, to what account are they to be credited? "Alone I did it" is a proud boast, but still we may ask, in what character? What is science if it is not organized and correlated knowledge? If Mr. Kidd has really helped to organize and correlate our knowledge on the subject of religion he has done a good thing; but Science must really claim that by so doing he has extended her boundaries and added to her conquests. And so the historian of nineteenth-century thought will say, if, when the complete work of the century comes to be narrated and appraised, "Kidd on Social Evolution" shall have managed to escape Libitina.

Let us, however, examine with a little attention Mr. Kidd's alleged discoveries, and let us see how far, if at all, science has been at fault in the matter.

It is charged that science "has no answer" to the question, What is the meaning, what is the function of religion in social development? It is asserted that "contemporary literature may be searched almost in vain for evidence of any true realization of the fact" that religious beliefs "must have some immense utilitarian function to perform" in the evolution of society. What are we to say to this? Simply that Mr. Kidd is not well informed on the subject of which he writes. We shall not be accused of diverging very far from the highroad of science, of betaking ourselves to any very obscure or devious paths, if we venture to quote on this point Dr. Henry Maudsley, author of a number of well-known works on mental physiology. Let us, then, turn to his work on Body and Will, republished in this country eleven years ago, and see what we can find bearing on this very question. On page 208 we read: "It is most necessary to bear in mind that forms and ceremonies, stereotyped propositions, articles of faith, and dogmas of theology do not constitute the essence of religion, but its vesture, and that, apart from all such forms and modes of interpretation, it responds to an eternal need of human sentiment. For it is inspired by the moral sentiments of humanity and rests on the deep foundations of sacrifice of self, devotion to the kind, the heroism of duty, pity for the poor and suffering, and faith in the triumph of good. It appeals to and is the outcome of the heart, not of the understanding; and so goes down into lower depths than the fathom line of the understanding can sound; for the intellect is aristocratic and the heart democratic, knowledge puffing up, but love uniting and building up, and the true social problem is to democratize the intellect through the heart. It is the deep fusing feeling of human solidarity, in whatsoever doctrines and ceremonies it may be organized for the time, that is religion in its truest sense; for it is in the social organism what the heart is in the bodily organism, and, when it ceases to beat in conscience, death and corruption ensue." Dr. Maudsley did not sound a trumpet before him that all the world might suspend its ordinary business in order to admire his originality, because he knew enough to know that, while what he was saying was well worth saying, it was not so very original after all. But after reading the above-quoted sentences from so well known a writer, what are we to think of Mr. Kidd's statement that "contemporary literature may be searched almost in vain" for any true recognition of the "utilitarian function of religion in the evolution of society"? And what great degree of originality can we attribute to the definition of religion which, after an elaborate preamble, Mr. Kidd delivers to us: "A religion is a form of belief providing an ultra-rational sanction for that large class of conduct in the individual where his interests and the interests of the social organism are antagonistic, and by which the former are rendered subordinate to the latter in the general interests of the evolution which the race is undergoing." Whatever is true in this definition is expressed in simpler and stronger phraseology by Dr. Maudsley. Whatever meaning there is in the word "ultrarational" is better expressed, it seems to us, in Dr. Maudsley's declaration that "it (religion) appeals to and is the outcome of the heart, not the understanding, and so goes down into lower depths than the fathom line of the understanding can sound"; while, as regards the furnishing of a sanction for actions performed in the interests of society, the language of Maudsley, who says that religion rests on "the deep foundation of sacrifice of self, devotion to the kind, the heroism of duty," surely covers the whole ground. On the next page to that in which these expressions occur we find the following: "Any one who looks forward with a light heart to the overthrow of Christianity might do well to consider what can ever adequately replace it merely as a social and humanizing force." We turn another page and read: "In him (the founder of Christianity) was the birth of the greatest social force that has ever arisen to modify human evolution"; and the paragraph ends with the declaration that if humanity is to progress, "it will, as heretofore, draw from a source within itself, deeper than knowledge, the inspiration to direct and urge it on the path of its destiny."

Now, we venture to say that Mr. Kidd has nowhere in his book put the case for the social utility of religion more strongly than it has been put in these passages and many others which we might quote from one of the most advanced of modern scientific thinkers. But Dr. Maudsley, as we have already hinted, does not, in what he says on this subject, take up any very peculiar position. Mr. Spencer fully recognizes religion as an indispensable source of moral control in early stages of society, and as one that can ill be discarded even in our own day. He believes that it will be progressively purified of all doctrines that are not essential to it, and that it will abide as an ineradicable consciousness of a power behind phenomena, in and by which all things exist. Schopenhauer declared that the metaphysical impulse of the human race, that by which it seeks to formulate those transcendent truths that are of the substance of religious belief, is no less fundamental in human nature than the scientific impulse; and the later Schopenhauerians, like Prof. Paul Deussen, whose excellent little book on Metaphysics has lately been given to the world in an English dress, use language which might be supposed to have been specially intended to forestall what Mr. Kidd evidently regards as his most striking and original utterances. Take the following passages, for example, from Prof. Deussen: "For opposed to the natural and egoistic actions, affirming the will to life, are certain actions which show a diametrically opposed striving. The only explanation of these actions is that the actor always sacrifices in them, to a certain extent, his own individual and limited existence by expanding his ego beyond the bounds of his individuality, recognizing his own self in others." "In investigating the action of man, which is, in general, an expression of the affirmation of the will to life, we meet a series of actions which are, in the natural order of things, inconceivable, being diametrically opposed to this world and its laws, contradicting these in every sense, and, as it were, totally unhinging them. These phenomena are the deeds of a genuine morality." "Thus the totality of human action appears as the expression of two opposed currents—one, egoistic, affirming, mundane; the other, ascetic, denying (i. e., self-denying), supramundane." "We may denote faith as that which has as its inevitable result morality." It is impossible for any one who has read these passages and many similar ones to be much startled when he is informed by Mr. Kidd that "throughout its existence (viz., of the social organism) there is maintained within it a conflict of two opposing forces: the disintegrating principle represented by the rational self-assertiveness of the individual units; the integrating principle represented by a religious belief, providing a sanction for social conduct, which is always necessarily ultra-rational."

The fact is that the conception of religion as an influence constraining men to identify their own good with that of the community apart from all calculations of selfish interest is one very generally entertained in the present day, and not less, certainly, by men of science than by others. It lies at the basis of Feuerbach's remarkable book on The Essence of Christianity. It is clearly expressed in one or two of the late Prof. Clifford's essays; it can be traced in the writings of the late Prof. Tyndall and of Prof. Huxley; probably it would be difficult to discover an intellectual region of any note in which it is not more or less distinctly accepted.

But, says Mr. Kidd, "Science from an early stage in her career has been engaged in a personal quarrel" with successive religious systems. The quarrel "has developed into a bitter feud." Yet, instead of investigating this historic antagonism in a scientific spirit, and asking "whether it was not connected with some deep-seated law of social development," Science "seems to have taken up, and to have maintained, down to the present time, the extraordinary position that her only concern with them is to declare that they are without any foundation in reason." Now this seems to us, to speak plainly, not only an incorrect but a very nonsensical statement. Science has only antagonized religion in so far as demonstrable scientific errors have been put forward as essential parts of this or that religious system. And it was not science, be it remembered, that insisted that such errors were essential to the integrity of religion; it was religion, as represented by its official expounders, that took up this position. It was not Galileo who said that religion could not exist if the Ptolemaic system of astronomy were overthrown; it was the Church. All Galileo asked was leave to establish a purely scientific theory. It was not the founders of modern geology who insisted that religion must stand or fall with belief in a six-days creation; it was their opponents, the uncompromising partisans of a traditional theology. It was not Darwin or Spencer who said that religion could not withstand the shock of the evolution theory—the latter said expressly that it could and would—it was again the party that spoke in the name of religion. If a certain number of scientific men were carried away by the vehement assertions of the champions of religion into believing and speaking as if religion itself were about to be involved in the ruin of the erroneous views which had formed part of its popular presentment, can we wonder at it? And if to-day the impression is widespread that religion has been shaken and discredited by the advance of science, on whom must the blame chiefly rest? Without doubt on those who, not distinguishing between the accidents of religion and its essence, fought a losing battle with science on matters that were wholly within the jurisdiction of the latter.

Science, Mr. Kidd says, has lost sight of the main question, which is not whether religious beliefs have "any foundation in reason," but whether they "have a function to perform in the evolution of society." This again is incorrect; science has not lost sight of this question, but on the contrary has of late years devoted a large amount of attention to it. Never was it so clearly recognized as it is to-day that beliefs may have no foundation in reason, and yet have a more or less important "function to perform in the evolution of society." The proofs of this are so abundant that it seems a waste of time to produce them. But for very specific statements take the following from Vignoli's work on Myth and Science, published in the International Scientific Series: "Man rises in the social scale by means of his superstitious and religious feelings, which act as a stimulus and symbol, so far as he subjects his animal and perverse instincts to the precepts which he imagines to be expressed by these myths" (page 106). And again (page 321), "The problem of myth is transformed into the problem of civilization." Turning to a very recent work, Mr. Havelock Ellis's The New Spirit, we find the author asking, "What is the nature of the impulse that underlies, and manifests itself in, that sun worship, Nature worship, fetich worship, ghost worship to which. . . we may succeed in reducing religious phenomena?" Here is the very question which Mr. Kidd says modern science does not face. "What is Mr. Ellis's answer?—"The supreme expression of the religious consciousness lies always in an intuition of union with the world, under whatever abstract or concrete names the infinite not-self may be hidden. . . . It comes in the guise of a purification of egoism, a complete renunciation of the limits of individuality—of all the desires and aims that seem to converge in the single personality—and a joyous acceptance of what has generally seemed an immense external Will now first dimly or clearly realized. . . . It is this intuition which is the 'emptiness' of Lao-tsze, the freedom from all aims that center in self." When one has been reading things of this kind from day to day for years, it is a little provocative of fatigue to find Mr. Kidd attaching so much importance to formulas of his own devising that are essentially of the same significance.

But possibly Mr. Kidd, it may be suggested, states the function of religious beliefs much more definitely than has ever been done before, and throws new and vivid light upon their origin and rationale. We can not see that there is the least foundation for such a claim. We are told by this author that religion is essentially an "ultra-rational sanction" for actions which, though injurious to the individual, are beneficial to the community. Is any light whatever thrown on the nature of religion by calling it an "ultra-rational sanction"? The term "ultra-rational" is essentially negative. We understand from it that religion is a sanction with which reason has nothing to do. What we want to know is, What has to do with it? Whence is its authority derived? How far are rational beings bound or compelled to recognize and bow to it? Is it something like the law of gravitation that no one can resist, or is it a mere habit of mind that can be outgrown, perverted, or destroyed? If all that Mr. Kidd has to tell us of the nature of religion is that it is a sanction, and that reason has nothing to do with it, or rather that it is contrary to reason, we certainly have not much to thank him for. Far more are our thanks due to Hegel and Feuerbach and Comte, to Spencer and Martineau and Arnold, to Muller and Reville and Caird, who all, from their several points of view, have endeavored to explain what religion is and to define its place in the sum of human powers and faculties. The time is not far distant, Mr. Kidd says, when Science will "look back with shamefacedness to the attitude in which she has addressed herself to one of the highest problems in history"; but we fail to see either what Science has to be shamefaced about, or what Mr. Kidd has himself done to mark out better lines for the action of Science in the future. Science finds, we are told, mankind holding "beliefs which she asserts have no foundation in reason; and Science has not done the right thing in the premises. What on earth, then, should Science have done? Should Science have refrained from criticising the errors in regard to plain matters of fact which she found incorporated with popular religious creeds? So far as we can judge, Mr. Kidd himself seems to have benefited from such criticisms. In regard to the doctrine of evolution, he is a stalwart of the stalwarts. His faith, anticipating proof, has even taken hold of the extreme theory of Weismann and pressed it into the service of his sociological speculations. But the doctrine of evolution is precisely the one to which the religious world found it most difficult to reconcile itself, and one which, indeed, it is impossible to hold without at least a tacit criticism of views formerly considered as essential to religious faith. Did Mr. Kidd win his present position for himself without antagonizing the religious instincts and convictions of the mass of his fellow-men? If he did, it must have been because other men prepared the way for him; for certainly, not without much tribulation, has Science established its claim to judge freely and according to evidence of things within its ken. The world, we are informed, no longer takes the interest it once would have done in such attacks as Prof. Huxley has lately been making on certain orthodox beliefs. Well, if so, we must regard it as a good sign; for it can only mean that the world—that is to say, the thinking world—looks upon Prof. Huxley's labors as a little superfluous. Still, it is well to remember that even to-day the energetic professor's attack on the miracle of the Gadarene swine has been warmly repelled by eminent ecclesiastical authorities.

It would really be interesting to know Mr. Kidd's precise views as to the etiquette to be observed by "science" in its relations with religious systems which take under their patronage and vouch for gross scientific or historical errors. If science does not criticise such things, who or what is going to do it? If no one does it, what chance is there that religion will ever shake itself free from such accretions? Will the several priesthoods of the world see to it that the faiths they represent are progressively purified from error? In the last two centuries of the Roman Republic and the first two of the Empire, the question how to treat foreign cults, which were seeking a foothold in Rome itself, was a serious one for the state. Mr. Kidd was not present to caution the Roman Senate against rash action, or to point out that the great question was not whether these cults did or did not involve material errors, but what bearing religious systems in general had on the development of society; consequently the Senate had simply to follow its own best lights. "These Bacchic rites," says a recent writer, "of undoubtedly Oriental origin, and for centuries common enough in Greece and Asia Minor, were apparentlyintroduced into Etruria by a Greek adventurer, and from there spread with extreme rapidity both in Italy and Rome. At first women only were admitted into the secret associations which formed the basis of the cult; the initiation took place by day, and the meetings were only held three times a year. But all this was now changed; men were initiated as well as women; the initiated were to be under twenty years of age. Meetings were held five times in every month, and took place under the secrecy of night. The inevitable enormities did not fail to follow, and the Bacchic associations became hotbeds not only of moral corruption, but of civil crimes such as forgery and murder and even of political conspiracy."[1] Attention having been called to these abuses, the Senate acted vigorously, and the Bacchic rites were stamped out with great severity (b. c. 188). A century later, the same writer tells us, the Roman Government was confronted with the Isis cult, but was not able to deal with it in the same energetic fashion, owing to the fact that the national religion had largely lost its hold upon the people. "Mysterious rites of initiation," we read, "sensuous music, a worship crowded with symbolism no less awe-inspiring that it was imperfectly or not at all understood; and above all, a system of expiatory and purificatory rites in which there was enough of asceticism to satisfy the craving for something personal in religion, and enough of license to attract the crowd in its non-religious moods, all these things made the population of Rome peculiarly susceptible to the influence of cults like the Egyptian."[2]

What bearing have these historical instances, it may be asked, on the subject in hand? A tolerably direct bearing, we think, as tending to show that if there is anything that needs to be watched and criticised, anything the claims of which to prescribe conduct or to limit knowledge need to be challenged and examined, it is precisely religion in its varying forms and phases. Religion, to go back to Mr. Kidd's definition, provides an ultra-rational sanction for socially useful actions; but when, let us ask, has religion been content with enjoining the performance of such actions on the strength of its ultra-rational sanction? It is true that an apostle has beautifully said, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world"; but this is merely the utterance of a profound individual intuition, not the expression of what, historically, religion has ever been. How vehemently the most earnest exponents of religion have repudiated the idea that it could be identified with morality, in however comprehensive a form, need not be insisted on.

To do justice to science it is not necessary to represent it as the unfailing minister of truth, or to assign to it any absolute character whatever. The less we deal in personifications and abstractions the better, when historical or social problems are demanding solution. To understand the function of science in the world we have simply to remind ourselves that man possesses a faculty of comparison and judgment by which he is compelled to recognize, unless overmastered by his imagination, likeness or unlikeness, equality or inequality, agreement or disagreement, in the things which occupy his attention. The exercise of this faculty leads to classification, which, in the higher form of generalization, is the source and vital principle of all knowledge. The more knowledge man acquires, the more certainly he can interpret and correlate the data of sense. Among his impressions and inferences there is a continual struggle as to which shall survive; and those which, by their deeper conformity to unchanging facts, assert their viability, go to form the tissue of what we call science. To talk, therefore, of what "science" does or does not do is very apt to be misleading. Science is like a coral reef, built up of innumerable accretions, the result of the life processes of organic bodies. We may from one point of view define science as the enduring products of man's intellectual activity. That the history of science should be largely a record of errors and failures follows of necessity from the fact that the work of science consists essentially in the attacking of ever-new problems with more or less inadequate means of investigation. But the very failures of science are necessary to its successes; and it never turns aside from its main function and purpose of harmonizing, consolidating, and extending human knowledge. Its permanent relation to religion can thus easily be understood. Religion, appealing to imagination and resting more or less upon myth, incorporates in its creed statements or assumptions which fall within the domain of science, and which, if inacurate, the latter is obliged to challenge; but there is no necessary hostility between the scientific impulse to know that which can be known and the religious impulse to worship a Power that can not be known, and to frame higher sanctions for life than those of the market place and the law courts. Religion, which is essentially emotional, is slow to recognize the rights of science; and science, in the conflicts which ensue, is in danger of overlooking the fact that religion is something more than a misinterpretation of the world and of history.

The signs of the times all give us reason to hope, however, that a better modus vivendi than the past has ever known is about to be arrived at. Religion is more and more withdrawing from the disputed territory of facts historical and physical, and saying in effect to Science: "I am no longer your rival on this ground; so now tell us freely all you know about the world and its origin, about man and his descent; tell us whence we sprang, how we have come to be as we are, with such thoughts and instincts, such hopes and fears, such aspirations and superstitions as you wot of; and what the future is to which we may look forward. Tell us if you can the raison d'être of this universe. Henceforth I shall not dispute with you one single verifiable fact; so now deliver to the world a free, untrammeled message; tell us all the truth you know." Thus challenged, Science becomes solemn under a new sense of responsibility, and its thoughtful reply might be: "I see but in part, I know but in part. I pass through my hands the successive links of a chain, but the beginning of the chain and the end are not only beyond my vision but beyond the flight of my strongest thought. I organize knowledge, I minister to the physical and intellectual wants of men; whatever a finite faculty of judgment is capable of, I may hope to accomplish; but if man has a craving to know his relation to the universe, I can not determine it; if he wants a higher motive than expediency (in the widest sense) for his actions, I can not supply it; if he craves to believe in an Infinite Goodness, I can not demonstrate it for him; if he longs for a life beyond the present, I can not assure him that such a longing will be realized. Here, then, is your province, with which I engage not to interfere; and if, while I increase man's power over the energies of physical Nature, you can raise him to a nobler self-control and a higher sense of moral dignity; if you can satisfy his emotional longings and place his whole life on something more than an empirical foundation, then shall I reverence your work and recognize that I am but your humbler yoke-fellow in the service of the race."

We have reached the limits of our space, and find that we have only dealt with one point of the book under review. In our opinion, however, it is the most important point, as being the one that was most calculated to lead the general reader astray. We should have wished to devote two or three pages to what we consider the very faulty account Mr. Kidd gives of the function of the intellect in connection with social progress; but that, if it is to be done at all, must be done some other day.


The only industry in the hamlet of Nova Varos, Sandjack of Novi Bazar, is the manufacture of carpets and rugs. Every girl, on marriage, takes one or more rugs and a large painted chest to her husband. For this reason each house makes its own rugs, and each house uses what it makes.
  1. E. G. Hardy, Christianity and the Roman Government, p. 10.
  2. Hardy, as above, p. 13.