The Cause of Human Nature
The Cause of Human Nature.
I remember reading with absorbing interest the speech delivered by Senator Seward protesting with scholarly eloquence against the intervention of Russia in the Hungarian struggle for independence. His opening sentence, quoted from an address of Washington's to the Continental Congress, yet lingers in my mind. " Let it be remembered," exclaimed Washington, " that the cause for which America has contended has ever been the cause of human nature." A broad, free stroke, painting with masterly confidence, as I must believe, the sublime endeavor of the future of our nationality, doing this no less faithfully than it recorded the achievement of the past. The end, the commanding purpose, unchangeable; the means, the ways, the methods of procedure, varying, improving with the advancing intelligence, with the moral elevation, of the people. There is what scientists call the law of modifications, to which lives of individuals and of nations are alike subject; a law ever dividing mankind, with whom the movement is in part voluntary, into radical and conservative; the one party pressing eagerly forward, fearless, full of belief in the necessity and wisdom of the change; the other, reluctant, cautious, afraid,—content to bear, the ills we have, convinced that we can only fly to others we know not of.
It may be contended that the world has always in some form or other devoted itself to the cause of human nature. Does not every one, the most selfish of us, do this? If you look out for number one, O friend! is not that a look out for human nature?
I shall not attempt to remove the discussion from the plane of pure, unadulterated, unmitigated if you please, selfishness. But I shall insist that you shall be selfish in the most intelligent or scientific fashion. If you are going to stand for human nature as represented by your own individual, private interests, do yourself
the honor not to think meanly of yourself, but claim all there is of you, assert your title to the well-nigh infinite possibilities, which is your prerogative. When you do this, you will find—what ? Simply that no man can live to himself alone. Let him sever the root that connects him with the race, and he will most assuredly wither away, and find himself at length dwarfed and wrecked, here on this bank and shoal of time. In the good providence of his being there are mystic chords of love and friendship which shoot out like tendrils to entwine themselves about the lives of his fellow-creatures, wherever he may wander over the habitable globe. Let him draw all these sacred lines of hope and succor in unto himself, coiling them round about his own heart. What has he done? Strangled his life at the fountain! In other words, he has acted like a fool; he has asserted that there is no common humanity, no essential unity of the spirit of man in the evolution of his nature, his thought, his aspiration, his well-being in the world. "The human race," said Pascal, "is as one man who never dies, but is always advancing toward perfection." To be wise, mankind must perceive, realize, accept their mutual dependence, find the glory of " each in all, all in each."
Notice a few facts. Go to your histories. Where are the civilizations of the antique world? Perished. Why? They each and every one represented, not the endeavor of the whole, but the struggle of parts; each seeking the triumph of its own individual power and happiness, aside from, if not at the expense of, every other. No civilization thus limited, sundered from the race-life, could be carried to full success, or retain the results it had achieved. It met its foe in the outlying barbarism, which, when the favorable moment came, overwhelmed it in confusion and destruction.
But we need not retrace the steps of time. The present, passing hour brings illustration on illustration. Indeed, the newspapers are full of them; yea, do they not live on them? Where will you turn your gaze not to see the struggle going on? Individuals and races dissevered and bent on private aggrandizement, and yet a whole world crying peace, peace, when there is no peace, nor can be any. For isolated prosperity, every partial advance of culture, leaves behind the old-time foe,—the non-prosperous, the uncultured, the barbarism that is lurking, savage, jealous, envious, malignant, for the good chance it is sure to get to wreak its vengeance. Perchance I do injustice now. Perhaps the barbarism is in high places. Perhaps it is civilization masked under the disfigurations of want and suffering that is climbing up from the gutter. Pass the thought by. Still remains the fact that no form of selfishness which does not shape itself after the broad pattern of the whole race has any full claim to intelligence or a scientific recognition.
I understand very well the force that lies in the modern formula of the "survival of the fittest." I enter no dissent to the general doctrine of evolution. On the contrary, I joyfully affirm it. I think, however, that there can be an exception taken to the form of Mr. Herbert Spencer's recent restatement of it. After describing the state of universal warfare maintained throughout the lower creation, and showing that an average of benefit results from it, he proceeds with the following passage:
The development of the higher creation is a progress toward a form of being capable of a happiness undiminished by these drawbacks. It is in the human race that this consummation is to be accomplished. Civilization is the last stage of its accomplishment. And the ideal man is the man in whom all the conditions of that accomplishment are fulfilled.
Thus far, well and good. But he continues:
Meanwhile, the well-being-of existing humanity and the unfolding of it into this ultimate perfection are both secured by the same beneficent, though severe, discipline to which the animate creation at large is subject: a discipline which is pitiless in the working out of good: a felicity-pursuing law which never swerves for the avoidance of partial and temporary suffering. The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong which leave so many in shallows and in miseries, are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence.
One cannot ascribe to a man like Mr. Spencer any ill-will toward his fellow-men, however incompetent, or
imprudent, or even vicious, they may appear to him to be. He would be glad if they were less incompetent, less imprudent, less vicious. He wishes them no harm; but their non-survival is imperative. " Forbearance will tend to fill the world with those to whom life will bring most pain, and tend to keep out of it those to whom life will bring most pleasure."
My point of criticism, which I am forced to give in briefest limits, is this: The form of this statement omits the consideration that it is a most difficult, if not impossible, diagnosis of human nature as illustrated by individuals and classes which the practical world is thus enjoined to make. "Meanwhile," he says; that is, before the " higher creation is accomplished," the sure discipline of weeding out the unfittest must go on. I raise the question*are we to enter upon a crusade of the fit against the unfit? Alas! is it not precisely here, if we go deep enough, that all the evil lies? There is the saying of Christ, "Judge not, lest ye be judged," which it appears to me it will be well for the world to hold in greater and greater reverence. And Shakspere's outburst I commend to you, in that passage between Hamlet and Polonius, which I must quote from memory.
Hamlet. See that the players are well bestowed.
Polonim. Ay, my lord; I will treat them after their deserts.
Hamlet. Much better, sir. Treat every man after his deserts, and who shall 'scape whipping?
Exactly. And here I catch what appears to be a higher interpretation of the law that the fit alone shall survive, and perceive that it is quite in harmony with that spirit of universal brotherhood dawning over the earth, by which the higher civilization can alone be guided.
The Revolution, said Napoleon, means a chance for all. I call that the modern spirit,—the democracy that shall save the world,—a chance for all to survive by some redeeming trait or quality inherent in all. Why not follow out the line of evolution which has brought us to so many assurances of our universal commonweal, and declare boldly that there is in each and all the promise and the potency of somewhat fit to survive? Can we not thus amplify the doctrine, and yet stick to fact, so that it will read the survival of the fittest in every individual? Already you have done something in this line by the establishment of your asylums for the idiotic and the deaf and dumb. A change of front, truly; a veritable new era inaugurated, if you but carry the thought into all your institutions and customs.
Thus, then, let us continue to say: By the force of traditions and opportunity America is dedicated to a vindication of the cause of human nature. After the pattern set in the mount of her own transfiguration, let her go forward proclaiming "all men are created free and equal, and endowed with inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."