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One of my all-time favorite books is Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics. I am re-reading it with a group of students this weekend. There are too many passages to quote, but I thought I would make you cough up your Cheerios by sharing this passage. He is discussing a lemma (proof?) that human beings are different today than in the past, and as a rule are constantly changing. Enjoy! But not in a boiling cauldron!

Strange indeed would it be, if, in the midst of this universal mutation, man alone were constant, unchangeable. But it is not so. He also obeys the law of indefinite variation. His circumstances are ever altering; and he is ever adapting himself to them. Between the naked houseless savage, and the Shakspeares and Newtons of a civilized state, lie unnumbered degrees of difference. The contrasts of races in form, colour, and feature, are not greater than the contrasts in their moral and intellectual qualities. That superiority of sight which enables a Bushman to see further with the naked eye than a European with a telescope, is fully paralleled by the European’s more perfect intellectual vision. The Calmuck in delicacy of smell, and the red Indian in acuteness of hearing, do not excel the white man more than the white man excels them in moral susceptibility. Every age, every nation, every climate, exhibits a modified form of humanity; and in all times, and amongst all peoples, a greater or less amount of change is going on.

There cannot indeed be a more astounding instance of the tenacity with which men will cling to an opinion in spite of an overwhelming mass of adverse evidence, than is shown in this prevalent belief that human nature is uniform. One would have thought it impossible to use eyes or ears without learning that mankind vary indefinitely, in instincts, in morals, in opinions, in tastes, in rationality, in everything. Even a stroll through the nearest museum would show that some law of modification was at work. Mark the grotesque frescos of the Egyptians, or the shadowless drawings of the Chinese. Does the contrast between these and the works of European artists indicate no difference in the perceptive powers of the races? Compare the sculptures of Athens with those of Hindostan or Mexico. Is not a greater sense of beauty implied by the one than the others? But, passing to the more significant facts supplied by historians and travellers, what are we to think on reading that the Greeks and Romans had a deity to sanction and patronise every conceivable iniquity? or when we hear of Polynesian tribes who believe that their gods feed upon the souls of the departed? Surely the characters indicated by such conceptions of Divinity differ somewhat from ours! Surely too we may claim some essential superiority over those Tartars who leave infirm parents to die of hunger in the desert; and over those Feejee islanders, amongst whom members of the same family have to keep watch against each other’s treachery. It is not the custom of an Englishman to dine, like a Carrib, upon a roasted captive; or even as the Abyssinian, on a quivering slice from the haunch of a live ox. Neither does he, like a red Indian, delight in the writhing of a victim at the stake; nor, like a Hindoo, burn his wife that her spirit may haunt his enemy.

What one respect is there in which it can be asserted that human nature is always the same? Is it in rationality? Why, Anaxagoras had to fly his country for having blasphemously asserted that the sun was not the chariot of the deity Helios: whilst amongst ourselves a child often puzzles its seniors by the question—Who made God? Is it in justice? No: badly as the moderns have treated slaves, they have never, like the Spartans, encouraged their young warriors to waylay and assassinate helots for practice. Is it in honesty? If so, how come we to read that “piracy was the exercise, the trade, the glory, and the virtue of the Scandinavian youth;” whilst amongst ourselves privateering, even in time of war, is disapproved? Is it in want of mercy? Not so: for much as Austrian butcheries have lately disgraced Europe, they have not paralleled the doings of Gengis Khan, who signalized his first victory by casting seventy prisoners into cauldrons of boiling water; or of Timour, who massacred 100,000 Indian prisoners, and erected a pyramid of 90,000 human heads on the smoking ruins of Bagdad; or of Attila, who totally extirpated and erased seventy cities. Is it in vindictiveness? Why no: for whilst we are told of the Begum Sumroo, that having ordered one of her dancing girls to be bricked up in a vault, she had her bed placed over it, that she might listen to her victim’s dying moans; we find our own Queen requesting, much to her credit, that the man who fired at her should not be flogged. Where now is the sameness? It is not in actions as we see. Is it then in manners and opinions? Certainly not. Society in our day would hardly receive a lady or gentleman known to have poisoned an enemy: in Italy, however, there was a time when disgrace did not attach to such. No family would now follow the example of the Visconti, and choose the viper for an armorial bearing. Nor could we in the nineteenth century, find a match to that German captain of mercenaries, who in silver letters labelled himself—“Duke Werner, Lord of the great Company; the enemy of mercy, of pity, and of God.”

3 Responses to “Weekend Reading: Things One May Not Contemplate in Polite Company”

  1. chuck martel says:

    It’s really a tragedy that the ideas of Spencer have been relegated to a kind of eddy in contemporary intellectual thought.

  2. Harry says:

    Hey, everything’s relative, right?

    I remember as a new teenager being allowed to watch the Tonight Show. Jack Paar had William F. Buckley on. Parr asked Buckley when we should deal with or send money to some third-world regime. Buckley’s answer was, “When they stop eating each other.”

  3. Rod says:

    “and over those Feejee islanders, amongst whom members of the same family have to keep watch against each other’s treachery. ”

    Don’t let Veejay play golf with Bill Clinton.

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