The Tyranny of Shams/Chapter VI
IDOLS OF THE HOME
Among the claims of reconstruction which the insurgent literature of our time puts forward, none, perhaps, so startles and inflames the Conservative as the demand for a reform of the family. Criticism of this institution is, in fact, so severely punished or so slanderously misrepresented that it is usually exercised in the more or less impersonal form of the drama or novel. It happens, however, that the drama or the novel is now quite the most effective means of inoculating millions with critical ideas, and at least half the more brilliant novelists and dramatists of Europe employ their art for this purpose, or reflect some such sentiments in their work. Hence the outcry about the “unclean novel”: which is usually far cleaner than the Old Testament, but more critical. Positivism had assured us that this institution would be transferred intact to a human foundation, and Murillo’s “Holy Family” hung reverently over the hearths of the new pagans. Now, half in fear and half in exultation, the clergy cry that humanism has betrayed its moral poison and its social menace.
Our favourite phrase here is the saying that the family is the foundation of the State. If one patiently considered the matter, one would discover that the divine right of kings was once regarded with equal confidence as the indispensable foundation of the State. It may very well be that the divine duty of the family is no less open to reconsideration. It might be noticed that the change from aristocracy to democracy was at one time hailed with lurid prophecy even by distinguished moralists and sociologists, yet this change has led to greater efficiency and prosperity. We might perceive that the Christian dogmas were once thought vital to our welfare, and it may be that the Christian ethic is in some points as disputable as the Christian dogmas. Few reflect on these matters, and the writer who criticises the family is denounced with peculiar bitterness. Quite certainly that tomb of dead civilisations yawns ominously before us if we lend ear to this kind of rebel. The family is so plainly indispensable an institution that it must be protected from criticism: lest we be tempted to dispense with it.
I propose, however, to make a critical study of the family. Indeed, I venture to say at once that our ideal of the family is so encrusted with ancient superstitions that it pressingly invites the critical attention of our age: that the family is the foundation of the State only in an historical sense, not in the sense that a State cannot be based on any other procreative arrangement: and that the cloak of superstition and rhetoric that we have put about it has covered for ages, and still covers, an appalling amount of vice, hypocrisy, and misery. My point of view has been stated. The affairs of this planet must be run by men for men. The supreme aim must be to lighten the burden of suffering which we inherit from a less intelligent and less humane past. Any creed, code, or institution which forbids progress on these lines must be assailed.
The first and most damnable superstition in regard to the family is the claim that marriage ought to be indissoluble. In its strict form this belief is held only by Roman Catholics, and by a section of the Church of England which was only partially reformed in the sixteenth century and has a strange ambition to disavow even that limited reform. But the most insidious mischief of this old ideal is that it has embedded deep in our minds the feeling that, although indissoluble marriage is an intolerable yoke, we must be very chary and niggardly in granting relief. This feeling we ascribe to a wise concern for our social welfare, whereas it is due to the subconscious tyranny of the old superstition. Recently we have seen the strange spectacle of a non-Christian moralist standing amongst our bishops to bar the way of reform: seeking to prolong, in the name of humanity, a superstition that darkens the homes of a large part of humanity. The bishops may have smiled.
A distinguished sociological writer, Mr. L. Hobhouse, in classifying forms of marriage, says, with unconscious humour: “Marriage is indissoluble among the Andamanese, some Papuans of New Guinea, at Watubela, at Lampong in Sumatra, among the Igorrotes and Italones of the Philippines, the Veddahs of Ceylon, and in the Romish Church.” One trusts that the Roman (and Anglican) Catholics like the company they keep; the peoples enumerated by Mr. Hobhouse are the very lowest and least intelligent savages known to science. The Church of Rome has long boasted that its ideal of indissoluble union is the final and culminating point of human wisdom in regard to the family. It now appears that indissoluble marriage was the most primitive human tradition, and was discarded by the Roman and all other civilisations when they passed from childhood to manhood.
Sociologists have been accustomed to say that monogamy was gradually developed out of promiscuity. This was mere speculation, and Professor Westermarck and other recent authorities rightly dissent. The institution is older than humanity. We find monogamic family life among the anthropoid apes and amongst the lowest peoples, which represent early man; and many writers on prehistoric man now contend that we find him passing from family to social life, not in the reverse way. When the last Ice Age forced men to live in caves, and the scattered families clung together and formed large social groups, the family life was modified, and few of the higher tribes maintained the primitive form. Réclus tells of a Khond who, on hearing of the monogamous life of the wild Veddahs of Ceylon, exclaimed in disgust: “They live like the apes.”
We may assume that little hardship arises from incompatibility of temperament among the Igorrotes or the Veddahs, and there is no need to describe the eccentric forms of marriage which arose among higher savages. None of the great civilisations of the past entertained the idea of indissoluble marriage. The clergy, of course, know nothing of the real line of evolution, and (as Bishop Diggle has done) they represent the Roman system as a comparative refinement of early promiscuity, on which Christianity was to make the final advance. The precious testimony of Juvenal is invoked (against the warning of all modern historians): and we are expected to shudder because St. Jerome tells us of a Roman lady who had been married a score of times. It is not stated what harm was done to the lady, or to anybody else, or whether she was a freak in her generation. It is enough, as Mrs. Humphry Ward knows, to say that divorce is frequent anywhere, and thousands of hands will rise to heaven: what the precise social consequences are the thousand of heads seem to regard as irrelevant.
I have read most of the literature of the Roman Imperial period, and have found that the greater part of the statements made about it by clerical moralists are rubbish. Every serious student knows that it was precisely the more rigid and intolerable earlier form of Roman marriage (the confarreatio) which led to laxity in the early Empire; that the Roman Lawyers of the first and second centuries, who relaxed marriage, were among the most conscientious that the legal world has ever produced; and that in the time of St. Jerome—an embittered and intensely puritanical priest, who says worse things about his sacerdotal colleagues than he does about the pagans—we have the solid testimony of such documents as the Letters of Symmachus and the instructive Saturnalia of Macrobius to show that the family life of the pagans was generally healthy, sober, and harmonious. There is not a particle of proof that Roman society suffered because of the facility of divorce, or generally abused this facility.
But the misrepresentation of Roman morals is light in comparison with the misrepresentation of later Christian morals. Christianity took its ideal from the Jews. Amongst this partially civilised people marriage had been made easy for the male by the retention of polygamy, and it was not customary to consult the feelings of the woman. In the course of time Greek influence entered Judæa, and the Rabbis held learned debates on marriage and divorce. Both the stricter and the laxer view found expression in the New Testament and in early Christian literature, but a celibate priesthood obtained supreme power in Europe and the stricter view was enforced. The moral consequences were disastrous. While the Roman Curia, which could always find a flaw in the marriage of a wealthy man, was enriched, Europe was degraded, and sexual immorality became general. It is enough to recall that a tradition of looseness, in strict correspondence with the law of indissoluble marriage, survives from the ages of faith to our own time in the Latin countries. Some have spoken of “the hot southern blood” and cast the blame on the climate. I would invite the informed moralist to run his eye over the map of the earth, and ask himself whether chastity increases, or the sex-organs lose vitality, in proportion as nations are removed from the Equator. It is a ludicrous effort of Catholics to conceal the evils of indissoluble marriage. Until the Reformation sexual laxity was the same all over Europe.
In England the old priest-made law was retained after the Reformation, and laxity of morals was general. Except for a very few wealthy people, divorce was impossible until 1857, when a slender measure of reform was wrested from the clergy. This, the present law of England, a miserable compromise with religious prejudice and a permanent source of vice and misery, puts English legislation on an important aspect of “the foundation of the State” below that of any other civilised community. Instead of ridding themselves entirely of clerical influence, and directing civic life on civic grounds, our legislators looked still to ancient Judæa, and substituted the less stringent view of the Rabbis for the more stringent. The legendary leader of a rude Arab tribe had granted divorce for adultery, and the English nation of the nineteenth century followed his example. The result was the most stupid and mischievous law of marriage outside the sphere of the Holy Catholic Church.
English people are proud of their national concern for purity, yet they tolerate, and their priests defend as something sacred, a state of law which is medieval in its crudeness and barbarity. When two people have obeyed our counsel to marry early, and they discover that they have misjudged each other, we tell them that there is no relief for them unless they commit adultery: which, when it is committed, we brand as the darkest sin. To the husband we give the further injunction that he must be cruel to his wife before we will release him. We then, although we take especial pride in the “cleanness” of our press and literature, print whole columns about their conduct in suspicious situations,—sometimes entitling the account, in large type, to attract attention, “A Horrible Case,”—and we ask each other whether England is not in a state of decay and contracting the continental spirit. If there are any who do not choose to commit adultery, or do not choose to have their servants bribed to describe their conduct for the entertainment of the public, we grant them a legal permit to be happy and vicious, or miserable and virtuous, for the remainder of their lives: the thing we call a judicial separation.
This extraordinary situation is certainly a slight improvement on indissoluble marriage, but the pride of our bishops and puritans in it is peculiar. One may not expect them to take into account the suffering which hundreds of thousands endure under the law, but the adultery to which it leads would seem to be a proper subject for their consideration. As a rule, they entreat us to maintain religion, whether it be true or no, in the name of morality: here they ask us to maintain immorality in the name of religion,—in the name of a supposed Christian precept,—and we obey even more readily. When a Royal Commission recommends that our law be brought into line with the law of other civilised nations, they burn with indignation and inspire a Minority Report: a remarkable mixture of contradictions, worthless quotations, and irrelevant rhetoric. The question of immorality they shirk; and to the unhappiness which large numbers of our people endure under the present law they are so insensitive that they hardly mention it.
Such consequences are to be expected as long as we borrow our social legislation from an ancient polygamous nation with a great disdain for women. It is said, however, as usual, that our social interest coincides with the supposed command of Christ. We have here one of the most singular confusions of the whole controversy. Marriage is held to be the foundation of the State, because it is believed to be the surest way to supply it with citizens. This duty of procreation is, in fact, the only feature which disposes priests to give their blessing to so distasteful a thing as sexual union. Yet when a majority of the Commissioners recommend that people should be free to remarry if the desertion, cruelty, insanity, or imprisonment of one spouse defrauds the State of its supply of little citizens, the bishops raise their crosiers. Even so ascetic and anti-feminist a divine as St. Augustine could not deny that a man had a right to take a concubine when his wife proved sterile. Our divines speak much more fervently than St. Augustine did of our social interest, yet they forbid us to consult it.
In sum, we have generally rejected the view that marriage ought to be indissoluble, and we pride ourselves on curbing the influence of priests; but our whole attitude toward divorce is shaped by the old superstition and the clergy. In the name of that superstition we condemn large numbers of our fellow-citizens to live in deep and acute misery. Which of our social interests would be prejudiced by granting relief to the man or woman whose life is embittered by the desertion, incurable insanity, cruelty, or criminal conduct of his or her partner? The suggestion is preposterous; and, if we do not grant this relief, adultery is in their case a venial offence, if not a right.
Some explain that they fear “the thin edge of the wedge.” As if wedges had a way of pressing deeper by their own weight, once we have admitted them! If England chooses to grant these reforms, and no others, she need not be deterred by empty phrases. But I believe that the alert and resolute race which is coming will go much further than this. Before many generations, if not in ours, there will be divorce for incompatibility of temperament in every civilised country. Men and women will be divorced, after due delay, because they wish, or when one of them can show grave cause to separate from the other. Ill-informed people express a concern about the children or the social consequences. They do not take the trouble to inquire what happens in some of the American States, or in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, where there is long and ample experience of divorce by mutual consent. The social consequences are just what any unprejudiced person would expect: happier homes, and more healthily engendered and reared children. But the puritan does not want to inquire: he is not sincere. Would he agree to divorce by mutual consent where there are no children or where either or both parents make adequate provision for them? He would not. I will, however, return later to the question of children.
Europe will be far happier when some such humane law as the Danish is generally adopted, and, after a few years’ separation, the discontented are free to remarry. But no one who is acquainted with the tendency and influence of modern literature can fancy that this will be the last state of the old ideal of the family. From the first years when men were free to declare their opinions without fear of the stake, writers of great power have claimed the right of what has come to be called “free love.” Some would abolish marriage, but the normal shape of the demand is that men and women shall be free to love and beget children whether or no they ask the blessing of Church or State. By the latter part of the eighteenth century, when Goethe took a concubine on the pagan model, many of the first literary men in Europe pressed this demand, and it is sustained by some of the most brilliant writers in every country to-day. The movement exhibits the slow and steady growth characteristic of reforms which eventually triumph. It is no mere bubble on the surface of our effervescent life; it is the new intelligence of the race examining the old traditions.
Moralists, lay and clerical, have a preposterous way of representing this as a surging of selfish passion against the barriers which human experience or superhuman wisdom has erected. There is, it is true, much in our rebellious literature itself which misrepresents the movement. You get the impression that, as the eighteenth century questioned the divine right of kings and the nineteenth century that of priests, the twentieth century is challenging the divine right of moralists. But this is due to the common practice of giving a narrow meaning to the word “immorality.” Goethe and Swinburne became zealous for “morality,” but they never altered their opinions on “free love.” Sudermann and Anatole France and Perez Galdòs and d’Annunzio, G. B. Shaw and T. Hardy and E. Carpenter and H. G. Wells, are sincere moralists: they inculcate honour, truthfulness, kindliness, and justice as firmly as our bishops, and more effectively than most of our clergy. It is not morality that stands at the bar. The real question is whether any sound moral principle implies that marriage alone sanctions sex-union: whether social good or social evil would result from an alteration of our standards.
This is a quite natural and legitimate question, and any healthy-minded person ought to be able to discuss it without hysteria or vituperation. Christian moralists have made some very grave mistakes during the last thousand years. Humility and disdain of the flesh were for centuries extolled by them as the supreme virtues: cruelty was classified as a venial offence. Already the bulk of our divines reject the virtue of asceticism, and they forbear to press on the modern world the kind of humility which turns the other cheek, or the other pocket, to the hooligan. They discover that social justice has been singularly neglected by their predecessors, and they begin to suspect that war or sweating may be worse than unbelief or Sabbath-breaking. It is not at all unnatural to inquire whether there may not also be some element of error in their sex-ethic.
We do not go far in such an inquiry before our suspicion is confirmed. The evolution of the virtue of chastity may some day be traced by a cold scientific investigator, and in its earlier stages it will prove extremely interesting. It is primarily connected with an ancient superstition or “tabu” in regard to sex-life: the kind of primitive and unreasoning feeling which once drove women to the temples of Ishtar in parts of the East, and still survives, baldly and ludicrously, in the “purification” process to which a recent mother must submit in the Roman and Anglican Churches. This old idea that there was something “unclean” or mysterious about sex-life, was more or less discarded when men passed out of the barbaric stage, but it quite evidently survived in part in the virtue of purity. A man or woman, it was thought, had a certain mystic superiority if he or she did not use the organs of sex. Hence the widespread veneration of Vestal Virgins, Pythagorean and Serapean recluses, priestesses of Isis, Aztec and Christian nuns. I call attention particularly to the notion that these celibates were in some sense superior to their fellows, because it shows clearly the connection with the older idea of a mystic uncleanness about sex. There is, of course, no rational ground for this superstition, though even philosophers have entertained it. There is a large and elegant literature about it, from the Enneads of Plotinus to Bulwer Lytton’s Zanoni or the works of Miss Corelli.
Most of us see quite clearly the barbaric strain lingering in this admiration of virginity, but we do not perceive how far our virtue of purity is a compromise with this ancient superstition. I mean that, together with sound elements which I will discuss presently, the sentiment of purity or chastity retained a good deal of the old irrational view of sex. Luther boldly attacked the theoretical asceticism of the medieval Church, but in the end Protestantism compromised with the old tradition. This again is quite plainly seen when we reflect on the way in which Church people, and many of our modern mystics and feminists, breathe the word “lust.” It means merely pleasure in sexual intercourse, but it has to be mentioned as rarely as possible, and with downcast eyes and an air of very distinct disapproval. The impression is conveyed that it is a thing invented by the devil, but reluctantly permitted by the Almighty because the race had to be maintained. The blessing of the Church made it a barely permissible luxury. We have only to reflect that “lust” does not mean unwedded love, but sexual pleasure or desire under any conditions, to recognise the trail of the old tabu over the whole range of these sentiments.
In the nineteenth century the evolution of morals took a strange turn. Neither clergy nor laity had before that time, speaking generally, observed chastity in practice, but the rise of non-Christian critics in the eighteenth century had compelled the clergy to be more faithful to their own precepts. This (and the growth of such movements as Wesleyanism) led to more concern about virtue, and when the English Agnostic school arose its leaders were taunted by the clergy with a wish to rationalise or alter morality. By a natural reaction they cultivated a particular zeal for virtue, and accepted the old code in its entirety. Those moralists who appealed to a “categorical imperative” or an “intuition” had no difficulty in doing this. Indeed, any man who to-day accepts the Stoic idea of morality, or the aesthetic idea (that virtue is so beautiful that we must cultivate it), has as much right as the Christian to profess a regard for chastity. There ensued a kind of rivalry of virtue between the clergy and the new pagans. It has ended in the curious spectacle of our modern clergy, whose historical knowledge is both slender and peculiar, claiming that their Churches are the most faithful preachers of purity the world has ever known, while Agnostic moralists indignantly dispute their supposed monopoly.
The extreme complexity of this evolution, and the fact that few of us reflect critically at all on our moral sentiments, must excuse me for making this lengthy analysis. It shows that our conception of chastity still contains a large amount of the old non-rational tradition, and that any man or woman who declines (as so many do to-day) to bow to mystic and obscure commands has a right to examine it closely. In one of my works (Life of G. J. Holyoake, ii. 65) I have shown that so sensitive a moralist as J. S. Mill admitted this. Obviously, the precept of purity or chastity has a totally different basis from all the other recognised moral precepts. These others are invariably social laws, and the transgression of them is invariably a social hurt. Life itself furnishes the reply if a man asks why he ought to be just, kind, and truthful: the answer is not so obvious when he asks why he ought to be chaste.
This will become very much clearer if we examine our resentment of “immoral” actions. In the majority of cases we condemn them on moral principles quite apart from chastity. Europe has in this respect been lamentably misled by its professional moralists, and we can hardly be surprised that in practice it so largely ignored them. It is quite plain that a man or woman who has married on the usual terms—mutual fidelity—and they remain unaltered, is bound by honour and justice to observe the contract. Adultery is in such a case (the usual case) condemned by moral principles which have a very much clearer basis than chastity. Again, justice sternly forbids a man to inflict, or run the risk of inflicting, grave injury on a woman by causing her to have a child in a social order which will heavily punish her for doing so. Here also there is a firm reason, apart from chastity, for moral resentment. When we eliminate these other moral sentiments from our condemnation of immoral acts, there is certainly no social ground of resentment left; and, as I said, I am not arguing against a Stoic or aesthetic or theological view. Socially, it would be an enormous improvement if we kept this analysis in mind. If moralists talked less about “vice,” which has an academic sound, and more about “crime” and honour, there would be less suffering in the world. The experience of two thousand years has not commended the Church’s practice of denouncing vice when it ought to have appealed to a man’s sense of honour or justice. It put the accent on the wrong syllable. Many a man will shrink from an act which is unjust, or may involve cruelty, if he is accustomed to regard it as such. He is not so effectively intimidated by terms like virtue and vice, which require a whole moral philosophy or theology to invalidate them.
But I am not for a moment contending that this removal of the accent from one syllable to another leaves the law as it was. It is, on the contrary, the very essence of my contention that the law must, in the real interest of men and women, be altered and that a large amount of ethical tyranny, which has no justification, must be abandoned. Let me first put, with entire candour, what seems to me to be the only rational reconstruction of sex-morality on a social basis, and then we may regard the reasons for advocating it.
It is, as I said, clear that if a man or woman marries on a strict monogamous contract, and holds his or her partner to that contract, there is a plain obligation of justice to adhere to it. If, on the other hand, a man and woman choose to marry on any other understanding, or choose to grant each other (as is now frequently done) a greater liberty than the contract implies, their behaviour is entirely their own concern, and no moralist who takes his stand on purely social grounds has anything to say to it. In regard to unmarried intercourse, it is further plain that a man commits an immoral or anti-social act who entails on an unmarried woman the grave injury which child-bearing does entail in our social order generally. It must, however, be recognised that guilt is in this case entirely relative to circumstances. Where public opinion does not make a pariah of such a woman, where no risk of suffering is involved, such an act of “free love” is no concern of the social moralist. Hence, if two people of mature intelligence, making a just provision for possible children, choose to live together without marriage, it is entirely their own concern; and if any woman, strong and judicious enough to take the responsibility of her acts, chooses love without marriage, it is her own concern.
If there seems to be an unfamiliar coldness and deliberation about this defence of “licence,” it is enough to recall the familiar circumstances. One cannot, as a rule, inquire dispassionately into this subject without raising an hysterical storm. The clergy and other puritans accuse a man of the basest and most selfish motives; they seem, indeed, so incapable of understanding that a man may plead for this moral reconstruction on motives at least as unselfish and elevated as their own that their obtuseness does little credit to their own moral physiognomy. They make fanatical appeals to undiscriminating prejudice, repeat silly phrases about “passion” and “farmyard morals,” and rely on intimidation. The consequence is, that ordinary folk openly bow to their rhetoric and secretly ignore it. Any properly observant person can find out in a week to what extent London observes the virtue of purity. It is then left to rebellious poets and novelists and other artists to make fiery onslaughts on the tyranny: to speak of virtue as “the ash of a burnt-out fire,” to chant “the roses and raptures of vice,” or to say scornfully with Blake:
"And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.”
Therefore I have chosen to apply to the issue the cold deductive processes with which experience as a professor of moral philosophy has made me familiar. As I said, the Christian is free to observe his supposed divine command, the Stoic may bow to a mystic and inscrutable law, the moral aesthete may enthuse over the charm of virtue; but I maintain that the sociological or utilitarian view of morals, which is now generally accepted by the vast number of people who have ceased to be Christian, cannot control sex-relations in any other sense than this. A man must avoid injustice and hardship: a woman must use her discretion. Indeed, as the clergy and the puritans now take their stand commonly on social grounds, these social considerations are effective against them.
But the question is not merely academic. These cold and severe deductions are very properly opposed to the heated phraseology and sentimentality of Conservatives, who profess to be concerned about our social welfare, but I am really pleading for the greater happiness of the race, the lessening of hypocrisy, the curtailment of a system of prostitution which makes the lives of so many women end in horror. With all their talk about our “social welfare,” the clergy and their puritan supporters are in this respect the gravest disturbers and restricters of our social welfare; and the insolence with which they assail every attempt at reform is ludicrous in view of their own record and gravely prejudicial to the advance of human happiness. It is not a question of abolishing marriage, or of interfering with the liberty of any. At one moment the clergy represent marriage as so beneficent, so solidly established in the hearts of our people, that only a morbid sensualist ever assails it; and the next moment they suggest, in effect, that if we relax our coercion, people will abandon marriage in such numbers that the social order will be over-whelmed. Let us have sincerity and liberty.
But neither is it a question of spreading a gospel of “free love,” in the perverse sense in which the clergy conceive such a gospel. The considerations I have given above should make this plain enough. It is a question of securing freedom and love for the hundreds of thousands of mature women who cannot marry, or who do not choose to enter upon the very precarious experiment of surrendering their privacy and independence: a question of breaking the tyranny of an old superstition which, by means of public opinion, forbids so many women to have the child they desire to have, or the share of happiness from which they are excluded: a question of putting an end to a vast amount of needless suffering and privation and hypocrisy. The State would gain rather than lose by this freedom: it is the Church only that would suffer. Thousands of women already hold these views, as the open circulation of the Freewoman (a few years ago) and of our bolder novelists shows. The feeling gains ground yearly, and the time is approaching when that seal of ignominy which our priest-made law puts on the “illegitimate” child will be removed, and men and women will cease to speak of “lust.” Sex-pleasure has no more taint than any other, and the notion that it is justified only as an accompaniment to the begetting of children, or to lessen the risk of adultery, is childishly irrational and generally insincere. Laws there must be: but the laws must be made for men, not men for the laws. It is time that Europe shook off the conceptions of conduct which were imposed on it by impotent monks like Gregory VII., and framed its own rules in accordance with the new and healthier attitude toward life. Asceticism is a commercial speculation—the sacrifice of earth for a double share of heaven—which we have no longer reason to appreciate.
The progress of this view will be assisted by two contemporary reforms of received opinion. One regards the economic dependence of woman on man, which I will discuss later. I need only recall here that some of the worst evils of our marriage-system—the scheming and bartering and linking for life—are due to this dependence. The other reform is the widespread and increasing rejection of the old idea that a woman must bear as many children as nature will permit her to have.
There is amongst us a disgusting amount of hypocrisy in regard to this question. The majority of educated people of all classes, even many of the clergy, now practise artificial limitation of the family, yet we proceed on the fiction that this is a disreputable practice. We turn into pornographic dépôts the shops which sell contraceptives, and we allow an antiquated law to be drastically enforced against men who would be decent purveyors of the things we use in secret. We have talked, and read journalistic articles, about “the dwindling population of France” for twenty years, though it is only within the last year or so that it has even slightly decreased; and the birth-rate alone shows that London and Berlin and every other great city are rapidly approaching the condition of Paris. We listen without protest to the lamentations of half-informed faddists on the limitation of the birth-rate in ancient Rome (where the practice was confined to a few, and proved an excellent means of saving the State by ridding it of a worn-out nobility) or the medieval republics of Italy. And while we perpetrate these and a hundred other follies, we know that the majority of us who are educated and unprejudiced find the practice humane and commendable. We would, it seems, rather leave frail girls to the mercy of quacks and dangerous operators than tell them openly what better-educated ladies do to avoid conception.
Yet we have not here even the excuse of an antique religious command. The Catholic Church, it is true, severely condemns the use of contraceptives, but one finds that its prohibition is based merely on the reasoning of medieval celibates. With those who argue that the practice is “against nature” one hardly needs to discuss. Half the distinctive things of civilisation are “against nature,” nor is there any reason why we should not depart from the ways of that ancient and unintelligent dame. Hardly less foolish is the alarm about our dwindling birth-rate. With every industry and profession already much overcrowded, we do not act very intelligently in censuring the modern restriction of production. But these are, to a great extent, either wholly insincere expressions or confused repetitions of ancient prejudices. In France, where a society arose for the checking of the practice, it was found that the members had an average of one child and a half in each family. A similar census among the writers and associations which attack Malthusianism in England might yield an instructive result.
One can understand the hostility to Malthusianism—or, rather, Neo-Malthusianism, since Malthus’s idea of restricting population by avoiding intercourse is unnecessarily heroic—in a country like Australia, which urgently requires population; though even in Australia the opposition is futile. One can understand such hostility in a land which has universal conscription, and neighbours with a superior army; though I have elsewhere pointed out the sensible and natural way to settle this difficulty. But it is quite irrational in such a city as London. Five-sixths of us, it has been demonstrated, do not attend church or take our code of life meekly from the clergy, as our fathers did; our labour-market is, in every division, enormously overcrowded; and our army is not affected by the dwindling birth-rate. Why, in these circumstances, should the women of England be asked to undergo the pain and sickness and weariness of a yearly birth, and wear out their lives in the rearing of a large family? Men have, as a rule, too little appreciation of the terrible burden they lay on their wives, but their own interest at least ought to weigh with them. Why be constrained to find the resources for rearing and educating a large family when a smaller family will give better chances to the children and conduce to the happiness of the home?
To these questions the only answer is an irrational outpouring of antique rhetoric. It is mere “lust” to have commerce without children: it is “selfish” to wish to live in greater comfort by restricting the family: it is “unnatural.” The man who would lessen the suffering of his companion in life, and obtain greater advantages and more loving care for his children by restricting their number, may smile at the futility of this kind of rhetoric. But it is surely time, in the second decade of the twentieth century, to meet it with a frank and curt declaration that we have, and will use, a right to any pleasure which this life affords, provided it hurt no one. The last trace of asceticism should be trodden underfoot. The medieval clergy were a body of a few fanatics leading an army of hypocrites. Their ideas have no place in our life. Love and joy and comradeship are in themselves as much ours as the scent of the rose or the flavour of wine. It is time that we echoed defiantly the sneering words of the apostle, and said: Yes, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. We are not likely to forget that life has other pleasures, of culture and art, besides those of the palate or of love. The supreme commandment is, as old Egypt said: “Thou shalt make no man weep.” The supreme virtue is to quicken the hearts of men with joy and fill their minds with truth. And the time will come when the clergy, reading aright for the first time the life of the ages of faith, will say: “We never insisted on our theoretical asceticism until those dour sceptics of the nineteenth century compelled us: the Middle Ages were the ages of liberty.”
The clergy are, in fact, in a dilemma. The cry of the hour is “social consequences.” There is a vast amount of doleful recalling of dead civilisations and prediction of coming woe; though England was never before so prosperous, solid, and free from crime. But dogmas have worn so thin that we must be pressed to maintain them, even if they are false, on social grounds. The answer is quite simple. If any social quality or rule of conduct is necessary for our welfare and happiness in this world, we need no dogmatic foundation for it. Men will see that virtue is its own reward. And if any rule of conduct in the Christian code is not based upon the actual exigencies of life, there will be no social consequences if we disregard it. The superstitions I have assailed belong to this latter category.
But a campaign against the artificial restriction of the birth-rate has recently been inaugurated on what are thought to be serious social grounds, and this leads me to a third and last reform which the family will undergo. I refer to the Eugenic movement. Let me first explain why this hostility of Eugenists to the restriction of the birth-rate seems a needless and illogical complication of their aims.
This hostility is usually expressed in the form of a fear that the restriction of births among the “better class” and unrestricted increase of the “lower class” must lead to deterioration. One would think that the proper remedy of this would be to recommend prudential restriction to the mass of the workers, as the Malthusian League endeavours to do. It is a strange social idealism which would urge over-production all round, with its train of domestic and industrial evils, instead of urging restriction all round. It would also be interesting to learn the average number of children to a family among these zealous Eugenists, and whether they do not find middle-class professions as overcrowded as the manual industries are. At all events, since it is now impossible to induce educated mothers to return to the virtuous and exacting industry of their Victorian predecessors, the best thing would be to educate the masses in a common-sense view of maternity and of their own interest.
It will suffice here, however, to deal with the saner side of the Eugenic movement. It proposes to eliminate bad human stock and promote the mating of good stocks. These are those who find it a degradation to introduce “the methods of the breeder” into human affairs, but the objection is merely silly. The methods of the modern breeder are an expression of intelligence, improving on nature; these old-fashioned folk would have us disregard the persuasion of intelligence and retain the crude methods of unintelligent nature. The serious question is: Is the Eugenic proposal sound and practicable?
As far as positive Eugenics, or the selection of good human stocks for breeding, is concerned, the recent evolution of the movement seems to show that no firm and practicable proposal can yet be formulated. The truth is that the movement is greatly enfeebled by a general reliance on disputed theories of heredity. Some Eugenists rely on Weismann’s theory: some on the Mendelist theory. They do not realise that scientific men are by no means agreed upon these theories, and it is a serious mistake to build on either. In England most of our biologists are Weismannists (in a broad sense), but there is more hostility to the theory in Germany and the United States, and both theories have lately had to confront grave difficulties. Any Eugenic proposal which is based on a theory of heredity must be regarded with reserve. The dogmatic statements of Professor Karl Pearson, for instance, in regard to the impossibility of altering by education the innate qualities of a child are entirely unwarranted. Heredity is still a mystery: and the relative importance of heredity and environment (or nature and nurture) is not yet determined.
Detaching the element of theory, we have a plain proposal to eradicate tainted stocks from the human garden and promote the growth of the sounder. As I have said, the positive proposal to breed has not yet been put before us in a practicable or discussable form. This is largely because Eugenists fear to alarm the public by pointing out how it affects the position of marriage. There are, however, many other difficulties. The extraordinary diversity among children of the same parents warns us that we cannot count on the result of mating human beings, with their infinitely more complex nervous systems, as we can count on the issue of mating sheep or dogs. The mediocrity of the living children of our ablest men of the last generation, even when the mother was an excellent mate, is another circumstance to be considered. We do not yet know the points to breed for, and there is no constancy of result. Eugenists sometimes refer to the physical or mental superiority of one class of children over another, but in this they do not attempt to distinguish between the effect of environment and the natural endowment. Positive Eugenics is not yet beyond the stage of research. Such research, if conducted without academic prejudice (which is too apparent in many Eugenic papers), is of very great service; and, if ever a firm proposal lies before us, we may trust that rhetorical phrases and clerical prejudices will not be allowed to bar the way.
In the case of negative Eugenics we are nearer agreement. Here again, however, research is not always candid. Inquiries have been made into the lineage of American criminals, and the large percentage of criminals in one family is held to indicate a tainted stock: it is not sufficiently noticed that they all lived in the same crime-breeding environment. Other Eugenists try to intimidate us with the cry that lunacy and crime are increasing rapidly: whereas (as I showed in the Hibbert Journal, April 1912) there is no proved increase of lunacy and no increase of crime, in proportion to the growth of population. These methods bring discredit on the Eugenic proposals. It is, however, now agreed that certain diseases, including certain forms of mental disease, are transmissible, and common-sense suggests that we should prevent their transmission. It is well to bear in mind, however, that these things affect only a fraction of the community. As is the case with every new social proposal, Eugenics is being pressed as a panacea; and it appeals to many as a fascinating method of healing our social maladies without touching the present distribution of wealth. It is one subsidiary remedy among the hundred which modern civilisation needs to apply. By all means let us discover what “tainted stocks,” if any, there are amongst us; and let us have the elementary courage and intelligence to extinguish them, by the isolation, painless destruction, or sterilisation of their representatives.
The future of the family seems not obscure. Malthusian and Eugenic proposals will alter much of the crudeness and stupidity of the old family ideal, and ease of divorce will remove the blight it has put on many a home. Hundreds of thousands bless marriage with gratitude and sincerity: tens of thousands curse it with equal sincerity. Let there be liberty and life for all. For a modern legislature to ignore a vast amount of vice and misery, and be guided by the ancient formula of a celibate priesthood, is one of the most lamentable features of our civilisation. And the unbiased social student may look without concern on the growth of extra-matrimonial love. There is no interest of the State which forbids it, nor any sound principle of morals. The woman of the future will be her own mistress, responsible neither to priest nor moralist in this respect. If she chooses, she will marry; but she will not sacrifice half the joy of life because she cannot, or does not choose to, venture upon the experiment of domestic intimacy.