The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 4
Lecture IX. On the Past, Present, and Prospective Conditions of Society
Lecture IX. On the Past, Present, and Prospective Conditions of Society.
The question considered, Why are vicious or weak persons sometimes found prosperous, while the virtuous and talented enjoy no worldly distinction—Individuals honoured and rewarded according as they display qualities adapted to the state of the society in which they live—Mankind hitherto animated chiefly by the selfish faculties—Prospective improvement of the moral aspect of society—Retrospect of its previous conditions—Savage, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial stages; and qualities requisite for the university of individuals in each—Dissatisfaction of moral and intellectual minds with the present state of society—Increasing tendency of society to honour and reward virtue and intelligence—Artificial impediments to this—Hereditary titles and entails—Their bad effects—Pride of ancestry, rational and irrational—Aristocratic feeling in America and Europe—Means through which the future Improvement of society may be expected—Two views of the proper objects of human pursuit; one representing man's enjoyments as principally animal, and the other as chiefly moral and intellectual—The selfish faculties at present paramount in society—Consequences of this—Keen competition of individual interests, and its advantages and disadvantages—Present state of Britain unsatisfactory.
In the last Lecture we. considered the origins of society, of the division of labour, and of differences of rank. I proceed to discuss an objection which may be urged against some of the views then stated—namely, that occasionally persons of defective moral principle, though of considerable talent,—and, in other instances, weak and indolent men, are found in possession of high rank and fortune, while able, good, and enlightened individuals stand low in the scale of public honour. Let us endeavour to investigate the cause of this anomaly, and inquire whether the evil admits of a remedy.
Man is endowed with two great classes of faculties, so different in their nature, desires, and objects, that he appears almost like two beings conjoined in one: I refer to the animal propensities and moral sentiments. All the propensities have reference to self-sustenance, self-gratification, or self-aggrandizement, and do not give rise to a single feeling of disinterested love or regard for the happiness of other beings. Even the domestic affections, when acting independently of the moral sentiments, prompt us to seek only a selfish gratification, without regard to the welfare of the beings who afford it. Examples of this kind may be met with, every day, in the seductions, and temporary alliances, of individuals of strong animal passions and deficient morality. We observe, also, that parents deficient in intellect, in their ecstasies of fondness for their offspring, inspired by Philoprogenitiveness, often spoil them, and render them miserable; which is just indulging their own affections, without enlightened regard for the welfare of their objects. When Combativeness and Destructiveness are active, it is to assail other individuals, or to protect ourselves against their aggressions. When Acquisitiveness is pursuing its objects, the appropriation of property to ourselves is its aim. When Self-Esteem inspires us with its emotions, we are prompted to place ourselves, and our own interests and gratifications, first in all our considerations. When Love of Approbation is supremely active, we desire esteem, glory, praise, or advancement, as public acknowledgments of our own superiority over other men. Secretivness and Cautiousness, from which arise savoir faire and circumspection, are apt allies of the selfish desires. All these feelings are necessary to the subsistence of the individual or the race, are good in themselves, and produce beneficial results when directed by the higher faculties. But, nevertheless, self-gratification is their primary object, and the advantages conferred by them on others follow only as secondary consequences of their actions.
The other class of faculties alluded to, is that of the moral sentiments, Benevolence, Veneration, and Conscientiousness; these take a loftier, a more dis-interested and beneficent range. Benevolence desires to diffuse universal happiness. It is not satisfied with mere self-enjoyment. As long as it sees a sentient being miserable, whom it could render happy, it desires to do so; and its own satisfaction is not complete till that be accomplished. Veneration desires to invest with esteem, and treat with deference page 48 and respect, every human being who manifests virtue and wisdom; and to adore the Creator as the fountain of universal perfection. Conscientiousness desires to introduce and maintain an all-pervading justice, a state of society in which the merits of the humblest individuals shall not be overlooked, but shall be appreciated and rewarded; and in which the pretensions of the egotist and the ambitious shall be circumscribed within the limits of their real deserts.
There are certain faculties which may be regarded as auxiliaries of these. Ideality desires to realize the excellent and the beautiful, in every object and action. It longs for a world in which all things shall be fair, and lovely, and invested with the most perfect attributes of form, colour, proportion, and arrangement, and in which the human mind shall manifest only dispositions in harmony with such a scene. Wonder desires the new and the untried, and serves to urge us forward in our career of improvement; while the sentiment of Hope smooths and gilds the whole vista of futurity presented to the mind's eye; representing every desire as possible to be fulfilled, and every good as attainable.
The intellectual faculties are the servants equally of both orders of faculties. Our powers of observation and reflection may be employed in perpetrating the blackest crimes, or performing the most beneficent actions, according as they are directed by the propensities, or by the moral sentiments.
We have seen, that among these faculties there are several which render man a social being; and we find him, accordingly, living in society, in all circumstances and in all stages of refinement. Society does not all at once attain the highest degree of virtue, intelligence, and refinement. Like the individual, it passes through stages of infancy, youth, full vigour, and decay. Hence it has different standards at different times, by which it estimates the qualities of its individual members. In the rudest state, the selfish faculties have nearly unbridled sway,—rapine, fraud, tyranny, and violence prevail; while, on the other hand, among a people in whom the moral sentiments are vigorous, private advantage is pursued with a constant respect to the rights of other men. In the former state of society, we should naturally expect to see selfish, ambitious, and unprincipled men, who are strong in mind and body, in possession of the highest rank and greatest wealth; because, in the contention of pure selfishness, such qualities alone are fitted to succeed. In a society animated by the moral sentiments and intellect as the governing powers, we should expect to find places of the highest honour and advantage occupied by the most moral, intelligent, and useful members of the community; because these qualities would be most esteemed. The former state of society characterizes all barbarous nations; and the latter, which is felt by well-constituted minds to be the great object of human desire, has never yet been fully realized. By many, the idea of realizing it is regarded as Utopian; by others, its accomplishment is believed possible; by all, it is admitted to be desirable. It is desired, because the moral sentiments exist, and instinctively long for the reign of justice, good will, refinement, and enjoyment, and are grieved by the suffering which so largely abounds in the present condition of humanity.
The question is an important one, Whether man be destined to proceed, in this world, for an indefinite time, constantly desiring pure and moral Institutions, yet ever devoting himself to inferior objects,—to the unsatisfying labours of misdirected selfishness, vanity, and ambition: or whether he will, at length, be permitted to realize his loftier conceptions and enter on a thoroughly rational state of existence.
The fact of the higher sentiments being constituent elements of our nature, seems to warrant us In expecting an illimitable improvement in the condition of society. Unless our nature had been fitted to rise up to the standard which these faculties desire to reach, we may presume that they would not have been bestowed on us. They cannot have been intended merely to dazzle us with phantom illusions of purity, intelligence, and happiness, which we are destined ever to pursue in vain.
But what encouragement does experience afford for trusting that under any future social arrangements rank will be awarded only to merit? Man is a progressive being, and, in his social institutions, he ascends through the scale of his faculties, very much as an individual does, in rising from infancy to manhood. In his social capacity he commences with institutions and pursuits related almost exclusively to the simplest of his animal desires, and his most obvious intellectual perceptions.
Men, in their early condition, are described by historians as savages, wandering amidst wide-spreading forests, or over extensive savannas, clothed in the skins of animals, drawing their chief sustenance from the chase, and generally waging bloody wars with their neighbours. This is the outward manifestation of feeble intellect and Constructiveness, of dormant Ideality, very weak moral sentiments, and active propensities. The skulls of savage nations present indications of a corresponding development of brain.* In this condition there is little distinction of rank, except the superiority conferred on individuals by age, energy, or courage; and there is no division of labour, or diversity of employment, except that the most painful and laborious duties are imposed on the women. All stand so near the bottom of the scale, that there is yet little scope for social distinctions.
In the next stage, we find men congregated into tribes, possessed of cattle, and assuming the aspect of a community, although still migratory in their habits. This state implies the possession of implements and utensils fabricated by means of ingenuity and industry; also a wider range of social attachment, and so much of moral principle as to prompt individuals to respect the property of each other in their own tribe. This is the pastoral condition, and it proclaims an advance in the development of Intellect, Constructiveness, Adhesiveness, and the Moral Sentiments. In this stage, however, of the social progress, there is still a very imperfect manifestation of the moral and intellectual faculties. Acquisitiveness, unenlightened by intellect, and undirected by morality, desires to acquire wealth by plunder rather than by industry; and the intellectual faculties have not yet comprehended the advantages of manufactures and commerce. In this stage, men regard neighbouring tribes as their natural enemies,—make war on them, spoil their substance, murder their males, and carry their females and children into captivity. They conceive that they crown themselves with glory by these achievements.
In such a state of society, it is obvious that those individuals who possess, in the highest degree, the qualities most useful to the community, and most esteemed according to their standard of virtue, will be advanced to the highest rank, with all its attendant advantages and honours. Great physical strength, a large brain and active temperament, with predominating Combativeness, Destructiveness, Self-Esteem, Love of Approbation, and Firmness, with a very limited portion of morality and reflecting intellect, will carry an individual to the rank of a chief cr leader of his countrymen.page 49
The next step in the progress of society, is the agricultural condition; and this implies a still higher evolution of intellect and moral sentiment. To sow in spring with a view of reaping in autumn, requires not only economy and prudence in preserving stores and stock, and the exercise of ingenuity in fabricating implements of husbandry, but a stretch of reflection embracing the whole intermediate period and a subjugation of the impatient animal propensities to the intellectual powers. To insure to him who sows, that he shall also reap, requires a general combination in defence of property, and a practical acknowledgment of the claims of justice, which indicate decided activity in the moral sentiments. In point of fact, the brains of nations who have attained to this condition are more highly developed in the moral and intellectual regions, than those of savage tribes.
In order to reach the highest rank in this stage of society, individuals must possess a greater endowment of reflecting intellect and moral sentiment, in proportion to their animal propensities, than was necessary to attain supremacy in the pastoral state.
When nations become commercial, and devote themselves to manufactures, their pursuits demand the activity of still higher endowments, together with extensive knowledge of natural objects, and their relations and qualities. In this condition, arts and sciences are sedulously cultivated; processes of manufacture of great complexity, and extending over, a long period of time, are successfully conducted; extensive transactions between individuals, living often in different hemispheres, and who probably never saw each other personally, are carried on with regularity, integrity, and despatch; laws, regulating the rights and duties of individuals engaged in the most complicated transactions, are enacted; and this complicated social machinery moves, on the whole, with a smoothness and regularity which are truly admirable. Such a scene is a high manifestation of moral and intellectual power; and man, in this condition, appears, for the first time, invested in his rational character. 'Observation shews that the organs of the superior faculties develope themselves more fully in proportion to the advances of civilization, and that they are de facto largest in the most moral and enlightened nations.
This is the stage at which society has arrived in our day, in a great part of Europe, and in the United States of America. In other parts of the globe the inferior conditions still appear. But even in the most advanced nations, the triumph of the rational portion of man's nature is incomplete. Our institutions, manners, desires, and aspirations, still partake, to a great extent, of the characteristics of the propensities. Wars from motives of aggrandizement or ambition; unjust, and sometimes cruel laws; artificial privileges in favour of classes or individuals; restrictions calculated to impede general prosperity for the advantage of a few; inordinate love of wealth; overweening ambition; and many other inferior desires, still flourish in vigour among us. In such a state of society, it is impossible that the virtuous and intelligent alone should reach the highest social stations.
In Britain, that individual is fitted to be most successful in the career of wealth and its attendant advantages, who possesses vigorous health, industrious habits, great selfishness, a powerful intellect, and just so much of the moral feelings as to serve for the profitable direction of his inferior powers. This combination of endowments renders self-aggrandizement, the leading impulse to action. It provides sufficient intellect to attain the object in view, and morality enough to restrain every desire which would tend to defeat it. A person so constituted feels his faculties to be in harmony with his external condition: he has no lofty aspirations after either goodness or enjoyment which the state of society does not permit him to realize; he is satisfied to dedicate his undivided energies to the active business of life, and is generally successful. He acquires wealth and distinction, stands high in social esteem, transmits respectability and abundance to his family, and dies in a good old age.
Although his mind does not belong to the highest order; yet, being in harmony with external circumstances, and little annoyed by the imperfections which exist around him, he is one of that class which, in the present social condition of Britain, is reasonably happy. We are in that stage of our moral and intellectual progress which corresponds with the supremacy of the above-mentioned combination of faculties. In savage times, the rude, athletic warrior was the chief of his tribe; and he was also probably the most happy, because he possessed, in the greatest degree, the qualities necessary for success, and was deficient in all the feelings which, in his circumstances, could not obtain gratification. If he had had Benevolence, Ideality, Veneration, and Conscientiousness also largely developed, he would have been unhappy, by the aspirations after higher objects and conditions which they would have introduced into his mind. The same rule holds good in our own case. Those individuals who have either too little of the selfish propensities or too much of the moral feelings, are neither successful nor happy in the present state of British society. The former cannot successfully maintain their ground, in the great struggle for property which is going on around them; while the latter, although they may be able to keep their places in the competition for wealth, are constantly grieved by the misery and imperfection which they are compelled to witness, but cannot remove. They have the habitual consciousness, also, that they are labouring for the mere means of enjoyment, without ever reaching enjoyment itself; and that their lives are spent, as it were, in a vain show or a feverish dream.
In these examples, we observe that society has been slowly but regularly advancing towards elevating virtue and intelligence to public honour; and we may reasonably hope that, in proportion to the increase of knowledge, especially of the law which renders moral and intellectual attainment indispensable to the highest enjoyment, will the tendency to do homage to virtue increase. The impediments to a just reward of individual merit, do not appear to be inherent in human nature, but contingent. There are, however, artificial impediments to the accomplishment of this end, among which stand conspicuous hereditary titles of honour.
The feudal kings of Europe early acquired, or assumed, the power of conferring titles of honour and dignity on men of distinguished qualities, as a mark of approbation of their conduct, and as a reward for their services to the state. As reason and morality urge no objections to a title of honour being conferred on a man who has done an important service to his country, the practice of ennobling individuals was easily introduced. The favoured peer, however, naturally loved his offspring; and without considering any consequences beyond his own gratification, he induced the king to add a right of succession, in favour of his children, to the dignities and privileges conferred on himself. We now know that if he himself had really been one of Nature's nobility, and if he had allied himself to a partner, also possessing high qualities of brain and general constitution, and if the two had lived habitually in accordance with the natural laws, he would have transmitted his noble nature to his children; and they, having the stamp page 50 of native dignity upon them, would have needed no patent from an earthly sovereign, to maintain them in their father's rank. But this law of Nature being then unknown; or the noble, perhaps, having attained to distinction by one or two distinguished qualities merely, which were held in much esteem in his own day, and being still deficient in many high endowments; or having from passion, love of wealth, ambition, or some other unworthy motive, married an inferior partner, he is conscious that he cannot rely on his children inheriting natural superiority, and he there-fore desires, by artificial means, to preserve to them for ages, the rank, wealth, titles, and power, which he has acquired, and which Nature intended to be the rewards in every generation solely of superior endowments. The king grants a right of succession to the titles and dignity; and Parliament authorizes the father to place his estates under entail: By these means, his heirs, however profligate, imbecile, and unworthy of honour and distinction, are enabled to hold the highest rank in society, to exercise the privileges of hereditary legislators, and to receive the revenues of immense estates, which they may squander or devote to the most immoral of purposes. In these instances, legislators have directly contradicted Nature. All this, you will perceive, is following out the principle, that individual aggrandizement is the great object of each successive occupant of this world. These measures, however, are not successful. They are productive, often, of misery; as every one knows who has observed the wretched condition of many nobles and heirs of entail, whose profligacy and imbecility render them unfit for their artificial station.
In regard to society at large, this practice produces baneful effects. A false standard of consideration is erected; the respect and admiration of the people are directed away from virtue and intelligence to physical grandeur and ostentation, and low objects of ambition are presented to the industrious classes of every grade. When extraordinary success in trade raises the banker or merchant to great wealth, instead of devoting it, and the talents by means of which it was acquired, to the improvement and elevation of the class from which he has sprung, he becomes ashamed of his origin, is fired with the ambition of being created a noble, and is generally found wielding his whole energies, natural and acquired, in the ranks of the aristocracy against the people. If the distinctions instituted by Nature were left to operate, the effect would be that the people would, as a general rule, venerate in others, and themselves desire, the qualities most estimable according to their own moral and intellectual perceptions; the standard of consideration would be rectified and raised in proportion to their advance in knowledge and wisdom; and a great obstruction to improvement, created by artificial and hereditary rank, would be removed.
We are told that in the United States of America, where no distinct class of nobility exists, aristocratic feelings, and all the pride of ancestry, are at least as rampant as in England, in which the whole framework of society is constituted in reference to the ascendency of an ancient and powerful aristocracy; and I see no reason to doubt the statement. Differences of rank were instituted when the Creator bestowed the mental organs in different degrees on different men, and rendered them all improvable by education. It is natural and beneficial, therefore, to esteem and admire Nature's nobility; men greatly gifted with the highest qualities of our nature, and who have duly cultivated and applied them. The Creator, also, in conferring on man the power to transmit, by means of his organization, his qualities and condition to his offspring, has laid the foundation for our admiration of a long line of illustrious ancestors:—This direction of ambition may become a strong assistant to morality and reason, in inducing men to attend to the organic laws in their matrimonial alliances, and in their general conduct through life. According to the doctrines expounded in a previous lecture, if two persons, of high mental and bodily qualities, were to marry, to observe the natural laws during their lives, to rear a family, and to train them also to yield steady obedience to these laws in their conduct,—the result would be, that the children would inherit the superior qualities of their parents, hold the same high rank in the estimation of society, be prosperous in life, and form specimens of human nature in its best form and condition. If these children, again, observed the organic laws in their marriages, and obeyed them in their lives, the tendency of nature would still be to transmit, in an increasing ratio, their excellent endowments to their children; and there is no ascertained limit to this series. It would be a just gratification to Self-Esteem, to belong to a family which could boast of a succession of truly noble men and women, descending through ten or twelve generations; and it would be an object of most legitimate ambition to be admitted to the honour and advantages of an alliance with it. This is the direction which the natural sentiments of family pride and admiration of ancestry will take, whenever the public intellect is enlightened concerning the laws of our constitution. In times past, we have seen these two sentiments acting as blindly and perniciously as Veneration does, when, in the absence of all true knowledge, it expends itself in preposterous superstitions. It, however, is always performing its proper function of venerating, and is ready to take a better direction when it receives illumination; and the same will hold good with the two feelings in question.
At a time when war and rapine were the distinguishing occupations of nobles, men were proud of their descent from a great warrior, perhaps a border chieftain, who was only really a thief and a robber on a great scale. At present great self-congratulation is experienced by many individuals, because they are descended from a family which received a patent of nobility five hundred years ago, and has since been maintained, by means of entails, in possession of great wealth, although during the intervening period their annals have commemorated as many profligates, and imbeciles, as wise and virtuous men. Many commoners, also, who have inherited sound brains and respectable characters from their own obscure but excellent ancestors, are ashamed of their humble birth, and proud of an alliance with a titled family, although feeble and immoral. But all this is the result of a misdirection of Veneration and Love of Approbation, which increasing knowledge will assuredly bring to a close. It indicates an infatuation of vanity, compared with which, wearing bones in the nose, and tatooing the skin, are harmless and respectable customs. If, in a country like Britain, a family have preserved property and high social consideration for successive centuries, without a patent of nobility, and without entails, its members must have possessed sound understandings, and respectable morality; and they are, therefore, really worthy of respect: The fact that there are several (I might say many) such families, is a proof that the objects aimed at by charters of hereditary rank and entails may be better and more effectually attained by obedience to the laws of organization.
It forms no argument against these views, that in America there is as jealous a distinction of ranks, and as strong an admiration of ancestry, as in Britain; because these feelings are admitted to be na page 51 tural, while it is certain that the mass of American society is not better informed in regard to their proper direction, than our own countrymen. The founders of the American republic, however, were great and enlightened men, and they conferred a boon of the highest value on their posterity, when, by prohibiting artificial hereditary ranks and titles, they withdrew the temptations to misdirected ambition which they inevitably present. In America the field is left clear for the operation of reason and morality, and we may hope that, in time, ambition will take a sounder direction, corresponding with the increase of knowledge. In our own country, the law not only obstructs reason, but adds a mighty impulse to our natural liability to err.
We thus account for the fact, that the best of men do not always attain the highest stations and richest social rewards, first, by the circumstance of society being progressive,—of its being yet only in an early stage of its career, and of its honouring in every stage those qualities which it prizes most highly at the time, although they may be low in the scale of moral and intellectual excellence; and secondly, by the impediments, to a right adjustment of social honours, presented by the institution of artificial hereditary dignities and entails.
It is an interesting inquiry, Whether society is destined to remain for ever in its present or in some analogous state, or to advance to a more perfect condition of intelligence, morality, and happiness; and if the latter be a reasonable expectation, by what means its improvement is likely to be accomplished. In considering these questions, I shall attempt to dissect and represent with some minuteness, the principles which chiefly characterize our present social condition, and then compare them with our faculties, as revealed by-the physiology of the brain. We shall, by this means, discover to what class of faculties our existing institutions are most directly related. If they gratify our highest powers, we may regard ourselves as having approached the limits of improvement permitted by our nature; if they do not gratify these, we may hope still to advance.
There are two views of human nature relating to this subject, both of which are plausible, and may be supported by many facts and arguments. The first is, that man is merely a superior animal, destined to draw his chief enjoyments from a regulated activity of his animal nature, adorned by such graces as are compatible with its supremacy. Life, for example, may be regarded as given to us that we may enjoy the pleasures of sense, of rearing a family, of accumulating wealth, of acquiring distinction, and also of gratifying the intellect and imagination by literature, science, and the arts. According to this view, self-interest, individual aggrandizement, and intellectual attainment, would be the leading motives of all sensible men during life; and the moral faculties would be used chiefly to control and direct these selfish propensities in seeking their gratifications, so as to prevent them from unduly injuring their neighbours, and endangering their own prosperity. There would be no leading moral object in life: our enjoyments would not necessarily depend on the happiness and prosperity of our fellow-men; and the whole duty of the higher sentiments would be to watch over and direct the lower propensities, so as to prevent them from defeating their own aims.
The other view is, that man is essentially a rational and moral being, destined to draw his chief happiness from the pursuit of objects related directly to his moral and intellectual faculties; the propensities acting merely as the servants of the sentiments, to maintain and assist them while pursuing their high and beneficent behests. History represents man, in past ages, as having been ever in the former condition; either openly pursuing the gratification of the propensities, as the avowed and only object of life, or merely curbing them so far as to enable him to obtain higher satisfaction from them, but never directly pursuing moral ends or universal happiness as the chief object of his existence. This also is our present condition.
Even in civilized communities, each individual who is not born to hereditary fortune, must necessarily enter into a vivid competition for wealth, power, and distinction, with all who move in his own sphere. Life is spent in one incessant struggle. We initiate our children into the system, at the very dawn of their intelligence. We place them in classes at school, and offer them marks of merit, and prizes to stimulate their ambition; and we estimate their attainments, not by the extent of useful knowledge which they have gained, but according to the place which they hold in relation to their fellows. It is proximity to the station of dux that is the grand distinction, and this implies the marked inferiority of all below the successful competitor.
On entering into the business of life, the same system is pursued. The manufacturer taxes his invention and his powers of application to the utmost, that he may outstrip his neighbours in producing better and cheaper commodities, and reaping a greater profit than they; the trader keeps his shop open earlier and later, and promises greater bargains than his rival, that he may attract an increased number of customers. If a house is to be built, or a steam-engine fitted up, a specification, or a minute description of the object wanted, is drawn up; copies are presented to a number of tradesmen; they make offers to execute it for a certain sum and the lowest offerer is preferred. The extent of difference in these offers is enormous. I was one of several public commissioners, who received offers for building a bridge, the highest of which amounted to L.21,036, and the lowest to L.13,749. Of six offers which I received for building a house, the highest was L.1975, and the lowest L.1500. Differences equally great have been met with in tenders for furnishing machinery and works of various kinds. I have made inquiries to ascertain whence these differences arose, and found them accounted for by the following causes:—Sometimes an offer is made by a tradesman who knows himself to be insolvent; who, therefore, has nothing to lose; but who is aware that the state of his affairs is not publicly known, so that his credit is still good. As long as he can proceed in trade, he obtains the means of supporting and educating his family, and every year passed in accomplishing this object is so much gained. He can preserve his trade only by obtaining a regular succession of employment, and he secures this by under-bidding every man who has a shilling of capital to lose. Bankruptcy is the inevitable end of this career, and the men who have property ultimately sustain the loss arising from this unjust and pernicious course of action; but it serves the purpose for a time, and this is all that the individual who pursues it regards. Another and a more legitimate cause of low bidding is the reverse of this. A trader has accumulated capital, and buys every article at the cheapest rate with ready money;—he is frugal, and spends little money in domestic expenses; he is active and sharp in his habits and temper, and exacts a great deal of labour from his workmen in return for their wages. By these three circumstances combined, he is enabled to underbid every rival who is inferior to him in any one of them. I am informed that the cost of production to a master-tradesman thus qualified, compared with that to one in other circumstances and of more expensive habits and lax dispositions, differs to the extent of from 15 to 20 per cent.page 52
Viewed on the principle that the object of life is self-aggrandizement, all this order of proceeding appears to be proper and profitable. But if you trace out the moral effects of it, they will be found extremely questionable.
The tendency of the system is to throw an accumulating burden of mere labour on the industrious classes. I am told that in some of the great machine-manufactories in the west of Scotland, men labour for sixteen hours a-day, stimulated by additions to their wages in proportion to the quantity of work which they produce. Masters who push trade on a great scale, exact the most energetic and long-continued exertion from all the artisans whom they employ. In such circumstances, man becomes a mere labouring animal. Excessive muscular action drains off the nervous energy from his brain; and when labour ceases sleep ensues, unless the artificial stimulus of intoxicating liquors be applied, as it generally is in such instances, to rouse the dormant mental organs and confer a temporary enjoyment. To call a man who passes his life in such a routine of occupation—eating, sleeping, labouring, and drinking—a Christian, an immortal being, preparing, by | his exertions here, for an eternity hereafter, to be passed in the society of pure, intelligent, and blessed spirits,—is a complete mockery. He is preparing for himself a premature grave, in which, benumbed in all the higher attributes of his nature, he shall be laid exhausted with toil, more like a jaded and ill-treated horse than a human being. Yet this system pervades every department of practical life in these Islands. If a farm be advertised to be let, tenants compete with each other in bidding high rents, which, when carried to excess, can be paid only by their converting themselves and their servants into labouring animals, bestowing on the land the last effort of their strength and skill, and resting satisfied with very little enjoyment from it in return.
By the competition of individual interests, directed to the acquisition of property and the attainment of distinction, the practical members of society are not only powerfully stimulated to exertion, but actually forced to submit to a most jading, laborious, and endless course of toil; in which neither time, opportunity, nor inclination, is left for the cultivation and enjoyment of the higher powers of the mind.
The order and institutions of society are framed in harmony with this principle. The law prohibits men from using force and fraud in order to acquire property, but sets no limits to their employment of all other means. Our education and mode of transacting mercantile business, support the same system of selfishness. It is an approved maxim, that secrecy is the soul of trade; and each manufacturer and merchant pursues his speculations secretly, so that his rivals may know as little as possible of the kind and quantity of goods which he is manufacturing, of the sources whence he draws his materials, or the channels by which he disposes of his products. The direct advantage of this system is, that it confers a superiority on the man of acute and extensive observation and profound sagacity. He contrives to penetrate many of the secrets which are attempted, though not very successfully, to be kept; and he directs his own trade and manufacture, not always according to the current in which his neighbours are floating, but rather according to the results which he foresees will take place from the course which they are following; and then the days of their adversity become those of his prosperity. The general effect of the system, however, is, that each trader stretches his capital, his credit, his skill, and his industry, to produce the utrar possible quantity of goods, under the idea, that the more he manufactures and sells, the more profit he will reap. But as all his neighbours are animated by the same spirit, they manufacture as much as possible also; and none of them knows certainly how much the other traders in his own line are producing, or how much of the commodity in which he deals the public will really want, pay for, and consume, within any specific time. The consequence is, that a superfluity of goods is produced; the market is glutted; prices fall ruinously low,—and all the manufacturers who have proceeded on credit, or who have limited capital, become bankrupt, and the effects of their rash speculations fall on their creditors. They are, however, excluded from trade for a season,—the other manufacturers restrict their operations; the operatives are thrown idle, or their wages are greatly reduced. The surplus commodities are at length consumed, demand revives, prices rise, and the rush towards production again takes place; and thus in all trades the pendulum oscillates, generation after generation, first towards prosperity, then to the equal balance, then towards adversity,—back again to equality, and once more to prosperity.
The ordinary observer perceives in this system what he considers to be the natural, the healthy, and the inevitable play of the constituent elements of human nature. He discovers many advantages attending it, and some evils; but these he regards as inseparable from all that belongs to mortal man. The competition of individual interests, for example, he assures us, keeps the human energies alive, and stimulates all to the highest exercise of their bodily and mental powers; whence abundance of every article that man needs, is poured into the general treasury of civilized life, even to superfluity. We are all interested, he continues, in cheap production; and although we apparently suffer by an excessive reduction in the prices of our own commodities, the evil is transitory, and the ultimate effect is unmixed good, for all our neighbours are running the same career of over-production with ourselves. While we are reducing our shoes to a ruinously low price, the stocking-maker is doing the same with his stockings, and the hat-maker with his hats; and after we all shall have exchanged article for article, we shall still obtain as many pairs of stockings, and as many hats, for any given quantity of shoes, as ever; so that the real effect of competition is to render the nation richer, to enable it to maintain more inhabitants, or to provide for those it possesses more abundantly, without rendering any individuals poorer. The evils attending the rise and fall of fortunes, the heartbreaking scenes of bankruptcy, and the occasional degradation of one family and elevation of another, they regard as storms in the moral, corresponding to those in the physical world; which, although inconvenient to the individuals whom they overtake, are, on the whole, beneficial, by stirring and purifying the atmosphere: and, regarding this life as a mere pilgrimage to a better, they view these incidental misfortunes as means of preparation for a higher sphere.
This representation has so much of actual truth in it, and such an infinite plausibility, that it is somewhat adventurous to question its soundness; yet I am forced to do so, or to give up my best and brightest hope of human nature and its destinies. In making these remarks, of course I blame no individuals; it is the course of action which I condemn. Individuals are as much controlled by the social system in which they live, as a raft is by the current in which it floats.
In all the systems which I have described, you will discover no motives higher than those furnished page 53 by the propensities regulated by justice, animating the competing members of society in their evolutions. The grand object of each is to gain as much wealth, and, as its consequence, as much power and distinction to himself as possible; he pursues this object without any direct regard to his neighbour's interest or welfare; and no high moral or intellectual aim elevates, ennobles, or adorns his career. The first effect is, that he dedicates his whole powers and energies to the production of the mere means of living, and he forces all his fellows to devote their lives to precisely the same pursuits. If leisure for moral and intellectual cultivation be necessary to the enjoyment of a rational, a moral, and a religious being, this is excluded; for the labour is incessant during six days of the week, the effect of which is to benumb his faculties on the seventh. If the soft play of the affections; if the enjoyment of the splendid loveliness of nature and the beauties of art; if the expansion of the intellect in the pursuits of science; if refinement of manners; if strengthening and improving the tone and forms of our physical frames; and if the adoration, with minds full of knowledge and souls melting with love, of our most bounteous Creator, constitute the real objects of human life in this world—the end for which we live; and if the fulfilment of this end be the only rational idea of preparation for a higher state of existence; then the system of action which we have contemplated, when viewed as the leading object of human life, appears stale, barren, and unprofitable. It no doubt supports the activity of our minds and bodies, and surrounds us with innumerable temporal advantages, not to be lightly valued; but its benefits end there. It affords an example of the independence of the several natural laws. The system is one in which the mind and body are devoted for ten or twelve hours a-day, on six days in the week, to the production of those useful and ornamental, articles which constitute wealth; and in this object we are eminently successful. Verily we have our reward; for no nation in the world possesses so much wealth as Britain; none displays such vast property in the possession of individuals; none approaches her in the general splendour of living; and none in the multitude of inhabitants who live in idleness and luxury on the accumulated fruits of industry. But still, with all the dazzling advantages which Britain derives from her wealth, she is very far from being happy. Her large towns are overrun with pauperism and heathenism; and in many English counties, even the agricultural population has lately been engaged in burning corn-stacks and farm-offices, out of sheer misery and discontent. The overwrought manufacturers are too frequently degraded by intemperance, licentiousness, and other forms of vice. In the classes distinguished by industry and morality, the keen competition for employment and profit imposes excessive labour and anxiety on nearly all; while the higher classes are often the victims of idleness, vanity, ambition, vice, ennui, and a thousand attendant sufferings of body and. mind. The pure, calm, dignified, and lasting felicity which our higher feelings pant for, and which reason whispers ought to be our aim, is seldom or never attained.
The present condition of society, therefore, does not seem to be the most perfect which human nature is capable of reaching: hitherto man has been progressive, and there is no reason to believe that he has yet reached the goal. In the next lecture will be stated some grounds for expecting brighter prospects in future.
* Strong evidence of this fact is presented in Dr Morton's work on the character and crania of the native American Indians.