Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
We most of us believe that we, the higher races, have progressed and are progressing. If so, there must be some state of perfection, some ultimate goal, which we may never reach, but to which all true progress must bring us nearer. What is this [[p. 456]] ideally perfect social state towards which mankind ever has been, and still is tending? Our best thinkers maintain that it is a state of individual freedom and self-government, rendered possible by the equal development and just balance of the intellectual, moral, and physical parts of our nature,--a state in which we shall each be so perfectly fitted for a social existence, by knowing what is right, and at the same time feeling an irresistible impulse to do what we know to be right, that all laws and all punishments shall be unnecessary. In such a state every man would have a sufficiently well-balanced intellectual organization to understand the moral law in all its details, and would require no other motive but the free impulses of his own nature to obey that law.
Now it is very remarkable that among people in a very low stage of civilization we find some approach to such a perfect social state. I have lived with communities of savages in South America and in the East, who have no laws or law courts but the public opinion of the village freely expressed. Each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellow, and any infraction of those rights rarely or never takes place. In such a community, all are nearly equal. There are none of those wide distinctions, of education and ignorance, wealth and poverty, master and servant, which are the product of our civilization; there is none of that wide-spread division of labour, which, while it increases wealth, produces also conflicting interests; there is not that severe competition and struggle for existence, or for wealth, which the dense population of civilized countries inevitably creates. All incitements to great crimes are thus wanting, and petty ones are repressed, partly by the influence of public opinion, but chiefly by that natural sense of justice and of his neighbour's right which seems to be, in some degree, inherent in every race of man.
Now, although we have progressed vastly beyond the savage state in intellectual achievements, we have not advanced equally in morals. It is true that among those classes who have no wants that cannot be easily supplied, and among whom public opinion has great influence, the rights of others are fully respected. It is true, also, that we have vastly extended the sphere of those rights, and include within them all the brotherhood of man. But it is not too much to say, that the mass of our populations have not at all advanced beyond the savage code of morals, and have in many cases sunk below it. A deficient morality is the great blot of modern civilization, and the greatest hindrance to true progress.
During the last century, and especially in the last thirty years, our intellectual and material advancement has been too quickly achieved for us to reap the full benefit of it. Our mastery over the forces of nature has led to a rapid growth of population, and a vast accumulation of wealth; but these have brought with them such an amount of poverty and crime, and [[p. 457]] have fostered the growth of so much sordid feeling and so many fierce passions, that it may well be questioned, whether the mental and moral status of our population has not on the average been lowered, and whether the evil has not overbalanced the good. Compared with our wondrous progress in physical science and its practical applications, our system of government, of administering justice, of national education, and our whole social and moral organization, remains in a state of barbarism.1 And if we continue to devote our chief energies to the utilizing of our knowledge of the laws of nature with the view of still further extending our commerce and our wealth, the evils which necessarily accompany these when too eagerly pursued, may increase to such gigantic dimensions as to be beyond our power to alleviate.
We should now clearly recognize the fact, that the wealth and knowledge and culture of the few do not constitute civilization, and do not of themselves advance us towards the "perfect social state." Our vast manufacturing system, our gigantic commerce, our crowded towns and cities, support and continually renew a mass of human misery and crime absolutely greater than has ever existed before. They create and maintain in life-long labour an ever-increasing army, whose lot is the more hard to bear by contrast with the pleasures, the comforts, and the luxury which they see everywhere around them, but which they can never hope to enjoy; and who, in this respect, are worse off than the savage in the midst of his tribe.
This is not a result to boast of, or to be satisfied with; and, until there is a more general recognition of this failure of our civilization--resulting mainly from our neglect to train and develop more thoroughly the sympathetic feelings and moral faculties of our nature, and to allow them a larger share of influence in our legislation, our commerce, and our whole social organization--we shall never, as regards the whole community, attain to any real or important superiority over the better class of savages.
This is the lesson I have been taught by my observations of uncivilized man. I now bid my readers--Farewell!
Those who believe that our social condition approaches perfection will think the above word harsh and exaggerated, but it seems to me the only word that can be truly applied to us. We are the richest country in the world, and yet nearly one-twentieth of our population are parish paupers, and one-thirtieth known criminals. Add to these, the criminals who escape detection, and the poor who live mainly, or partly, on private charity (which, according to Dr. Hawkesley, expends seven millions sterling annually in London alone), and we may be sure that more than [[p. 458]] ONE-TENTH of our population are actually Paupers and Criminals. Both these classes we keep idle or at unproductive labour, and each criminal costs us annually in our prisons more than the wages of an honest agricultural labourer. We allow over a hundred thousand persons known to have no means of subsistence but by crime, to remain at large and prey upon the community, and many thousand children to grow up before our eyes in ignorance and vice, to supply trained criminals for the next generation. This, in a country which boasts of its rapid increase in wealth, of its enormous commerce and gigantic manufactures, of its mechanical skill and scientific knowledge, of its high civilization and its pure Christianity,--I can but term a state of social barbarism. We also boast of our love of justice, and that the law protects rich and poor alike, yet we retain money fines as a punishment, and make the very first steps to obtain justice a matter of expense--in both cases a barbarous injustice, or denial of justice to the poor. Again, our laws render it possible, that, by mere neglect of a legal form, and contrary to his own wish and intention, a man's property may all go to a stranger, and his own children be left destitute. Such cases have happened through the operation of the laws of inheritance of landed property; and that such unnatural injustice is possible among us, shows that we are in a state of social barbarism. One more example to justify my use of the term, and I have done. We permit absolute possession of the soil of our country, with no legal rights of existence on the soil to the vast majority who do not possess it. A great landholder may legally convert his whole property into a forest or a hunting-ground, and expel every human being who has hitherto lived upon it. In a thickly-populated country like England, where every acre has its owner and its occupier, this is a power of legally destroying his fellow-creatures; and that such a power should exist, and be exercised by individuals, in however small a degree indicates that, as regards true social science, we are still in a state of barbarism.