« AnteriorContinuar »
The same accusation against our age sometimes takes a more general form: it is alleged that our energies are diminishing, that ordinary and average men have not the quick determination nowadays which they used to have when the world was younger, that not only do not committees and parliaments act with rapid decisiveness but that no one now so acts; and I hope that in fact this is true, for according to me it proves that the hereditary barbaric impulse is decaying and dying out. So far from thinking the quality attributed to us a defect, I wish that those who complain of it were far more right than I much fear they are. Still, certainly, eager and violent action is somewhat diminished, though only by a small fraction of what it ought to be; and I believe that this is in great part due, in England at least, to our government by discussion, which has fostered a general intellectual tone, a diffused disposition to weigh evidence, a conviction that much may be said on every side of everything which the elder and more fanatic ages of the world wanted. This is the real reason why our energies seem so much less than those of our fathers. When we have a definite end in view, which we know we want and which we think we know how to obtain, we can act well enough: the campaigns of our soldiers are as energetic as any campaigns ever were; the speculations of our merchants have greater promptitude, greater audacity, greater vigor than any such speculations ever had before. In old times a few ideas got possession of men and communities, but this is happily now possible no longer: we see how incomplete these old ideas were; how almost by chance one seized on one nation and another on another; how often one set of men have persecuted another set for opinions on subjects of which neither, we now perceive, knew anything. It might be well if a greater number of effectual demonstrations existed among mankind: but while no such demonstrations exist, and while the evidence which completely convinces one man seems to another trifling and insufficient, let us recognize the plain position of inevitable doubt; let us not be bigots with a doubt and persecutors without a creed. We are beginning to see this, and we are railed at for so beginning: but it is a great benefit, and it is to the incessant prevalence of detective discussion that our doubts are due ; and much of that discussion is due to the long existence of a government requiring constant debates, written and oral.
This is one of the unrecognized benefits of free government, one of the modes in which it counteracts the excessive inherited impulses of humanity. There is another also for which it does the same, but which I can only touch delicately, and which at first sight will seem ridiculous. The most successful races, other things being equal, are those which multiply the fastest : in the conflicts of mankind, numbers have ever been a great power; the most numerous group has always had an advantage over the less numerous, and the fastest breeding group has always tended to be the most numerous. In consequence, human nature has descended into a comparatively uncontentious civilization with a desire far in excess of what is needed; with a “felt want," as political economists would say, altogether greater than the “real want.” A walk in London is all which is necessary to establish this: “the great sin of great cities” is one vast evil consequent upon it. And who is to reckon up how much these words mean, - how many spoiled lives, how many broken hearts, how many wasted bodies, how many ruined minds, how much misery pretending to be gay, how much gayety feeling itself to be miserable, how much after mental pain, how much eating and transmitted disease ? And in the moral part of the world, how many minds are racked by incessant anxiety, how many thoughtful imaginations which might have left something to mankind are debased to mean cares, how much every successive generation sacrifices to the next, how little does any of them make of itself in comparison with what might be! And how many Irelands have there been in the world where men would have been contented and happy if they had only been fewer; how many more Irelands would there have been if the intrusive numbers had not been kept down by infanticide and vice and misery! How painful is the conclusion that it is dubious whether all the machines and inventions of mankind “have yet lightened the day's labor of a human being”! They have enabled more people to exist, but these people work just as hard and are just as mean and miserable as the elder and the fewer.
But it will be said of this passion, just as it was said of the passion of activity, Granted that it is in excess, how can you say, how on earth can any one say, that government by discussion can in any way cure or diminish it? Cure this evil that government certainly will not; but tend to diminish it I think it does and may. To show that I am not making premises to support a conclusion so abnormal, I will quote a passage from Mr. Spencer, the philosopher who has done most to illustrate this subject :
“That future progress of civilization which the never-ceasing pressure of population must produce will be accompanied by an enhanced cost of individuation, both in structure and function; and more especially in nervous structure and function. The peaceful struggle for existence in societies ever growing more crowded and more complicated must have for its concomitant an increase of the great nervous centers in mass, in complexity, in activity. The larger body of emotion needed as a fountain of energy for men who have to hold their places and rear their families under the intensifying competition of social life is, other things equal, the correlative of larger brain. Those higher feelings presupposed by the better self-regulation which in a better society can alone enable the individual to leave a persistent posterity are, other things equal, the correlatives of a more complex brain; as are also those more numerous, more varied, more general, and more abstract ideas which must also become increasingly requisite for successful life as society advances. And the genesis of this larger quantity of feeling and thought, in a brain thus augmented in size and developed in structure, is, other things equal, the correlative of a greater wear of nervous tissue and greater consumption of materials to repair it; so that both in original cost of construction and in subsequent cost of working, the nervous system must become a heavier tax on the organism. Already the brain of the civilized man is larger by nearly thirty per cent. than the brain of the savage; already too it presents an increased heterogeneity, especially in the distribution of its convolutions; and further changes like these which have taken place under the discipline of civilized life, we infer will continue to take place. But everywhere and always, evolution is antagonistic to procreative dissolution. Whether it be in greater growth of the organs which subserve self-maintenance, whether it be in their added complexity of structure, or whether it be in their higher activity, the abstraction of the required materials implies a diminished reserve of materials for race maintenance.
And we have seen reason to believe that this antagonism between individuation and genesis becomes unusually marked where the nervous system is concerned, because of the costliness of nervous structure and function. In $ 346 was pointed out the apparent connection between high cerebral development and prolonged delay of sexual maturity; and in s 366, 367 the evidence went to show that where exceptional fertility exists there is sluggishness of mind, and that where there has been during education excessive expenditure in mental action, there frequently follows a complete or partial infertility. Hence the particular kind of further evolution which man is hereafter to undergo is one which, more than any other, may be expected to cause a decline in his power of reproduction.
This means that men who have to live an intellectual life, or who can be induced to lead one, will be likely not to have so many children as they would otherwise have had. In particular cases this may not be true: such men may even have many children,they may be men in all ways of unusual power and vigor; but they will not have their maximum of posterity, — will not have so many as they would have had if they had been careless or thoughtless men: and so, upon an average, the issue of such intellectualized men will be less numerous than those of the unintellectual.
*“Principles of Biology," Vol. il., 8 374.
Now, supposing this philosophical doctrine to be true, - and the best philosophers, I think, believe it,
its application to the case in hand is plain. Nothing promotes intellect like intellectual discussion, and nothing promotes intellectual discussion so much as government by discussion. The perpetual atmosphere of intellectual inquiry acts powerfully, as every one may see by looking about him in London, upon the constitution both of men and women. There is only a certain quantum of power in each of our race; if it goes in one way it is spent, and cannot go in another. The intellectual atmosphere abstracts strength to intellectual matters; it tends to divert that strength which the circumstances of early society directed to the multiplication of numbers: and as a polity of discussion tends above all things to produce an intellectual atmosphere, the two things which seemed so far off have been shown to be near, and free government has in a second case been shown to tend to cure an inherited excess of human nature.
Lastly, a polity of discussion not only tends to diminish our inherited defects, but also, in one case at least, to augment a heritable excellence. It tends to strengthen and increase a subtle quality or combination of qualities singularly useful in practical life; a quality which it is not easy to describe exactly, and the issues of which it would require not a remnant of an essay, but a whole essay, to elucidate completely. This quality I call animated moderation.
If any one were asked to describe what it is which distinguishes the writings of a man of genius who is also a great man of the world from all other writings, I think he would use these same words, “animated moderation”; he would say that such writings are never slow, are never excessive, are never exaggerated; that they are always instinct with judgment, and yet that judgment is never a dull judgment; that they have as much spirit in them as would go to make a wild writer, and yet that every line of them