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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Eternalism: A Theory of Infinite Justice (circa 1902)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A review of a 1902 book of the same title written by Orlando Jay Smith. The manuscript from which this transcription is drawn is part of the Alfred Russel Wallace collection at the Natural History Museum (London), item WP7/87/1. Item WP7/87/2 in the same collection is an envelope with the following words written on it: "Mss. Review -- 'Eternalism' -- McClures Mag. -- £25". One assumes from this that Wallace was paid by McClure's Magazine to provide the review, but apparently it was never published. This is not surprising. Both the magazine and the author were from the Boston area, and McClure's editors were probably shocked by the way Wallace tore into one of their native sons (not to mention the length of the review and the esoteric nature of the subject, certainly not their usual fare). To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/Eternalism.htm

     In a volume under the above title Mr. Orlando J. Smith has made a bold effort to solve the great problem of the Universe. The deepest thinkers in all ages have attempted the same task, and all alike have failed to convince more than a few enthusiastic disciples, while to most of their readers they have introduced more difficulties than they have solved. And this result was to be anticipated when we consider that the questions discussed involve the Absolute, the Infinite, the Eternal--the fundamental nature of Matter and of Life, the origin and relations of Man and God.

     The author of this work treats the subject from a somewhat different point of view from most of his predecessors since he professedly founds his arguments upon data furnished by modern science, and especially upon the most advanced ethical conceptions. He possesses also a terse and forcible style, states his opinions and sets forth his arguments with all the resources of rhetoric, and continually supports his views by quotations from the best known writers of all ages. He is also very sure of his own conclusions, continually asserts that such and such things must be, and again and again quotes the opinions of scientific men and the conclusions of "science" as sufficient to settle the question, in apparent ignorance that these very conclusions are not accepted by some of the most eminent thinkers of the present day. These characteristics will doubtless impress many of his readers and lead them to believe that the great problem is solved at last; while those who are more accustomed to deal with such questions, and are not prepared to accept assertions and opinions in the place of established facts and logical deductions, will probably consider that no new light has been thrown upon the main problem and that the author's theory introduces so many intellectual and moral difficulties as to be almost unthinkable and altogether inadmissible.

     There is much in Mr. Smith's criticism of the teachings of both religion and agnosticism with which one can wholly agree, but these are comparatively unimportant as compared with the fundamental assumptions on which his own theory is based, and it is to these that we will now address ourselves.

     One of the main questions is raised in the very first page of the preface, where he asks-- "If God or Nature has created a criminal, can we acquit the Creator of accountability for the criminal? Has not the soul which has been created vicious been deeply wronged?" And at p. 25 he enforces this view as follows:-- "Our conception of the worst forms of wrong may be found in the basest manifestations of hate, cruelty, lust, ingratitude, treachery. But these inequities and atrocities pale in comparison with the deeper and blacker wrong done by a Creative Power which could place the stain of crime, the stamp of debauchery, the brand of dishonour, upon a helpless human soul, which, if it could have had a choice, might have been innocent, noble, and good." Hence he concludes:-- "Justice cannot be built upon a foundation of injustice, nor can morality be built upon a foundation of immorality. If God or Nature has created one soul good and another bad, then God or Nature has been unjust. If God or Nature has created a vicious, base, or depraved creature, then God or Nature has been immoral." This is strongly put, and it is enforced again and again with varied illustrations, and as it is the very foundation stone of the whole argument it is necessary to examine it a little more closely, and to ask the question-- Is this true? Are men born good or bad, virtuous or vicious, criminals or philanthropists?

     Strange to say the author wholly ignores the view held by many of our greatest writers and thinkers, that no such sharp distinctions exist. They hold that there is no human faculty or propensity which is not good in its use, bad only in its excess or abuse; and that whether any of these faculties, even when in excess, shall be beneficially used or hurtfully abused is very largely, perhaps wholly, a question of education, of social conditions, and of temptation. A man of the highest rank, wealth, and education, is said to have been, in early life, an absolute kleptomaniac, who could not resist the temptation to pocket small articles when visiting. The propensity was known and guarded against by his friends and servants so as to produce no unpleasant results; but a similar propensity in a poor man struggling hard for a bare subsistence would almost inevitably lead to his becoming an habitual thief, and to his spending the greater part of his life in prison as a confirmed and hopeless criminal. In a rational state of society, in which all had equal opportunities of education and refinement with active employment and all the necessaries and comforts of life, such a propensity, even in its extreme form, would be a matter rather of amusement than of severe condemnation, while when less exaggerated in its development it would lead to that love of collecting objects of interest, which, in the naturalist, the antiquary, or the bibliophile, is looked upon as worthy of admiration. Our irrational and degrading social system which compels thousands of women to marry as the only means of living with a certain amount of independence, and which also compels thousands to steal or to degrade themselves in other ways in order to avoid starvation, has directly caused an abnormal development of the selfish and sensual propensities of civilised mankind. Society itself creates vice and crime, and then accuses God or Nature of doing so. Herbert Spencer has shown good reason for believing that in all classes of society from the highest to the lowest there is, broadly speaking, an equal proportion of what are generally termed good and bad characters, but that, owing to their different surroundings and temptations, the bad qualities of each are manifested in different ways the very same qualities often leading in the one case to wealth and position, in the other to destitution and crime. Impartially compared, Jack Sheppard the Highwayman was morally superior to Napoleon the Emperor.

     From the point of view here suggested our author's fundamental assumption is shown to be erroneous. If society would provide a true system of moral intellectual and physical education for all, would see that every individual had equal opportunities for the proper use and development of all their faculties, and if the social environment were such as to remove all temptation to crime while affording every inducement to right action, it would probably be found that there were no bad men or women, none that were irremediably vicious, and that the endless diversities of character were, each in its proper place and exercising its proper function, beneficial to the social organism. We should then see that it was not God or Nature, but man himself that had been unjust to his fellow man, and that all alike were capable of living happy and useful lives. The whole assumption of undeserved injustice arising from the diversity of human character thus falls to the ground.

     It is upon this unproved allegation of widespread injustice that Mr. Smith founds his amazing theory, that the "individual human soul is beginningless and endless, unlimited, eternal"; and further that each one has made his own character during his previous existences; that he-- "has had beginningless time and opportunity for development in the past"; that-- "In all vital respects man is free. He rises as he wills or descends as he wills." And, again, that:-- "The individual is the architect, repairer, builder, and maker of his own nature. If his soul be mean, it is the hovel which he has made for himself; if it be noble, it is a palace of his own building."

     But not only is the individual man held to be eternal in the past as well as in the future, but matter with its atoms, its forces and its laws, is equally eternal and self-existent. He declares that-- "the Order of Nature was as it is now before this globe was, before our solar system--that it is without beginning or end--that it needs no repairing, no tinkering--that it is just, perfect, and changeless."

     Perceiving, however, that this view of the eternal past existence of man ever self-developing his own nature is inconsistent with the doctrine of his evolution from a lower animal form, and ultimately from a primitive monad, at a period which, though geologically remote, is a mere lightning-flash in duration as compared with infinite past time, the author explains that he does-- "not admit that the soul of the individual has evolved upon the same definite lines as the human race in its physical development on this earth; to do so would be an admission that the destiny of the individual is controlled from without, which is the theory of Fatalism not of Eternalism." But he never seems to have grasped the enormous difficulties and problems involved in this theory, combined with eternal preexistence as an individualised human soul in a succession of material bodies. Let us briefly consider a few of these difficulties.

     First, are these human souls with an eternal past limited in number or infinite? Have they in this infinite past been diverging from a once existing state of equality or were they always unequal? If the latter there was evidently a primitive injustice, which the author's most cumbrous theory was devised to obviate. If the former, we must ask, has a material organisation been always necessary for their development, for the self-creation of their own diverse natures? If it has been necessary, then, as the author assumes that the material universe with its constitution and laws has also been eternal and unchangeable, we have to ask, how has the needful correspondence been attained between these totally distinct realms of existence, so that the one shall provide a sufficiency of soulless living bodies whenever the myriads of bodiless souls require them. The more this problem is considered the more difficult it becomes. The facts of evolution on the earth show us that among the millions of diverging branches of the great tree of life, only one of the most recent (that which produced the anthropoid apes) was in a direction which could possibly produce a human body--a body suited for the development of a human soul. If therefore at almost any stage during the process of evolution the particular branch which was ultimately to produce man's body, had become extinct, then man would never have been developed. Mr. Smith however seems to be unaware of this aspect of evolution since he declares his belief that "There is, doubtless, on this Earth no living thing so low that it may not, through Nature's unceasing changes and opportunities, reach the form of man,"--a statement which no instructed evolutionist can accept. There might be some possibility of ensuring the production of suitable soulless bodies for the bodiless souls ever seeking to inhabit them, if some form of guidance to the process of evolution (analogous to that of man's guidance leading to the production of special breeds of animals) were admitted. But Mr. Smith shuts out this possibility by his positive statement (p. 173) "Since there has been no Creation, design is impossible. And since everything is subject to law chance is impossible."

     We are therefore strictly limited to two independent forms of existence from all eternity--the universe of matter with its forces and laws, and the universe of individual souls which he defines as-- "the real man, the I, the actual self." This soul can exist independently of a body, but, apparently, needs a body for its self-development--why, is nowhere explained or even suggested. Nor is it explained why these two eternal and independent forms of existence should or could have any relation with each other, so that the particular form the one may take at a particular time is essential to the other, if neither "design" nor "chance" is admitted. Things which are self-existent from eternity, and whose essential natures as "soul" and "matter" are unchangeable, cannot definite [[define? --Ed.]] a relation to each other except from "design." Anything else is really unthinkable.

     And this brings us to another self-contradiction in this theory of Eternalism, the impossibility of finding any place in it for God, whose existence as a third co-equal eternalism is yet assumed throughout the whole book! At page 234, God is even defined as-- "the Supreme Power or Principle of Rightness which is manifest to us only in the Order of Nature," and that this Order of Nature "is without beginning or end--that it is just, perfect, and changeless." But if God is manifest in the order of nature, which order is eternal, and is just, perfect and changeless, then either God is Nature, as has been maintained by thinkers in all ages, or is an absolutely powerless nonentity, neither of which conclusions are suggested by the author; while the existence from eternity of myriads of free and independent human souls whose characters and destiny are wholly in their own power, is quite inconsistent with the coexistence of any being with the attributes of Deity. In order to save God's justice the first attribute of Godhead--power--is taken away from him.

     I have now dealt with the two fundamental ideas of Mr. Smith's book, and have shown that neither of them has been supported by adequate evidence or by logical reasoning. The supposed injustice of God or Nature involved in the diverse characters of men has not been proved to exist, except so far as it is caused by man's own ignorance and misconduct. It is "man's inhumanity to man" that "makes countless thousands mourn," and this evil is therefore temporary and remediable; while a future life in which we shall experience the natural results of our conduct here, and where there are endless opportunities for development and progress, seems quite sufficient to satisfy the demands of justice.

     The cumbrous and almost grotesque idea that each soul has existed as one continuous human individuality from eternity, and, having freedom, has each created its own character through innumerable successive lives in bodies which have been developed quite independently, is not only beset with endless difficulties but has not produced that perfect justice claimed, since the author admits that the virtuous are often unhappy and the vicious happy. He thus implies that their respective characters have changed from what they were in previous lives. Here again is contradiction, since if those who were once bad have, by struggle and effort made themselves good, they of all men deserve happiness far more than others who have been born good for countless generations. But the book is so full of disputable statements, inconsistencies, and errors, that it would require a volume of equal size to examine and disprove them. As a new and pretentious theory of the Universe it must be pronounced a complete failure.

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Copyright: Alfred Russel Wallace Literary Estate.

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