Edward Carpenter.

Civilisation: its cause and cure : and other essays online

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First Edition, June 1889; Second Edition, December 1890
Third Edition, November 1893 ; Fourth Edition, July 1895
Fifth Edition, September 1897; Sixth Edition, October 1900
Seventh Edition, July 1902; Eighth Edition, March 1903
Ninth Edition, January 1906 ; Tenth Edition, January 1908
Eleventh Edition, October 1910 ; Twelfth Edition, Dec. 1912
Thirteenth Edition, Aug. 1914 ; Fourteenth Edition, June 1916.

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The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting for
civilisation, or is he past it, and mastering it ? WHITMAN.

WE find ourselves to-day in the midst of a somewhat peculiar
state of society, which we call Civilisation, but which even to
the most optimistic among us does not seem altogether desir-
able. Some of us, indeed, are inclined to think that it is a kind
of disease which the various races of man have to pass through
as children pass through measles or whooping cough ; but if it
is a disease, there is this serious consideration to be made, that
while History tells us of many nations that have been attacked
by it, of many that have succumbed to it, and of some that are
still in the throes of it, we know of no single case in which a
nation has fairly recovered from and passed through it to a
more normal and healthy condition. In other words the
development of human society has never yet (that we know of)
passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in
the process we call Civilisation ; at that stage it has alwayi
succumbed or been arrested.



Of course it may at first sound extravagant to use the word
disease in connection with Civilisation at all, but a little
thought should show that the association is not ill-grounded.
To take the matter on its physical side first, I find that in
MullhalPs Dictionary of Statistics the number of accredited
doctors and surgeons in the United Kingdom is put at over
23,000. If the extent of the national sickness is such that we
require 23,000 medical men to attend to us, it must surely be
rather serious ! And they do not cure us. Wherever we
look to-day, in mansion or in slum, we see the features and hear
the complaints of ill-health ; the difficulty is really to find a
healthy person. The state of the modern civilised man in this
respect our coughs, colds, mufflers, dread of a waft of chill air,
<fec. is anything but creditable, and it seems to be the fact
that, notwithstanding all our libraries of medical science, our
knowledges, arts, and appliances of life, we are actually less
capable of taking care of ourselves than the animals are.
Indeed, talking of animals, we are as Shelley I think points
out fast depraving the domestic breeds. The cow, the horse,
the sheep, and even the confiding pussy-cat, are becoming ever
more and more subject to disease, and are liable to ills which
Mi their wilder state they knew not of. And finally the savage
races of the earth do not escape the baneful influence.
Wherever Civilisation touches them, they die like flies from
the small-pox, drink, and worse evils it brings along with it ;
and often its mere contact is sufficient to destroy whole races.

But the word Disease is applicable to our social as well as to
our physical condition. For as in the body disease arises
from the loss of the physical unity which constitutes Health,
and so takes the form of warfare or discord between the various
parts, or of the abnormal development of individual organs, or
the consumption of the system by predatory germs and growths ;
so in our modern life we find the unity gone which constitutes


true society, and in its place warfare of classes and Individuals,
abnormal development of some to the detriment of others, and
consumption of the organism by masses of social parasites. If
the word disease is applicable anywhere, I should say it is-
both In its direct and its derived sense to the civilised
societies of to-day.

Again, mentally, Is not our condition anything but satis
factory \ I am not alluding to the number and importance of
the lunatic asylums which cover our land, nor to the fact that
maladies of the brain and nervous system are now so com-
mon ; but to the strange sense of mental unrest which marks
our populations, and which amply justifies Ruskin's cutting
epigram : that our two objects in life are, " Whatever we
have to get more ; and wherever we are to go somewhere
else." This sense of unrest , of disease, penetrates down even
Into the deepest regions of man's being into his moral nature
disclosing itself there, as it has done in all nations notably
at the time of their full civilisation, as the sense of Sin. All
down the Christian centuries we find this strange sense of
inward strife and discord developed, In marked contrast to the
naive insouciance of the pagan and primitive world ; and, what
is strangest, we even find people glorying in this consciousness
which, while it may be the harbinger of better things to
come, is and can be in itself only the evidence of loss of unity
and therefore of ill-health, in the very centre of human life.

Of course we are aware with regard to Civilisation that the
word is sometimes used in a kind of ideal sense, as to indicate
a state of future culture towards which we are tending the
implied assumption being that a sufficiently long course of top
hats and telephones will in the end bring us to this ideal con-
dition ; while any little drawbacks in the process, such as we
have just pointed out, are explained as being merely accidental
and temporary. Men sometimes speak of civilising and


ennobling influences as if the two terms were interchangeable,
and of course if they like to use the word Civilisation in thia
sense they have a right to ; but whether the actual tendencies
of modern life taken in the mass are ennobling (except in a
quite indirect way hereafter to be dwelt upon) is to say the
least a doubtful question. Any one who would get an idea of
the glorious being that is as a matter of fact being turned out
by the present process should read Mr. Kay Robinson's article
in the Nineteenth Century for May, 1883, in which he pro-
phesies (quite solemnly and in the name of science) that the
human being of the future will be a toothless, bald, toeless
creature with flaccid muscles and limbs almost incapable of
locomotion !

Perhaps it Is safer on the whole not to use the word
Civilisation in such ideal sense, but to limit its use (as is done
to-day by all writers on primitive society) to a definite
historical stage through which the various nations pass, and
in which we actually find ourselves at the present time.
Though there is of course a difficulty in marking the com-
mencement of any period of historical evolution very definitely,
yet all students of this subject agree that the growth of
property and the ideas and institutions flowing from it did at
a certain point bring about such a change in the structure of
human society that the new stage might fairly be distinguished
from the earlier stages of Savagery and Barbarism by a
separate term. The growth of wealth, it is shown, and with
it the conception of private property, brought on certain very
definite new forms of social life ; it destroyed the ancient
system of society based upon the gens, that is, a society of
equals founded upon blood-relationship, and introduced a
society of classes founded upon differences of material posses-
sion ; it destroyed the ancient system of mother-right and
Inheritance through the female line, and turned the woman


Into the property of the man; it brought with it private
ownership of land, and so created a class of landless aliens,
and a whole system of rent, mortgage, interest, <fec. ; it intro-
duced slavery, serfdom and wage-labor, which are only
various forms of the dominance of one class over another ; and
to rivet these authorities it created the State and the police-
man. Every race that we know, that has become what we
call civilised, has passed thro' these changes ; and though the
details may vary and have varied a little, the main order of
change has been practically the same in all cases. We are
justified therefore in calling Civilisation a historical stage,
whose commencement dates roughly from the division of
lociety into classes founded on property, and the adoption of
^lass-government. Lewis Morgan in his Ancient Society adds
the invention of writing and the consequent adoption of
written History and written Law ; Engels in his Ursprung der
Familic, det Privat-cigenthums und des Stoat* points out the
importance of the appearance of the Merchant, even in his
most primitive form, as a mark of the civilisation-period ;
while the French writers of the last century made a good
point in inventing the term nations policies (policemanised
nations) as a substitute for civilioed nations ; for perhaps there
is no better or more universal mark of the period we are con-
sidering, and of its social degradation, than the appearance of
the crawling phenomenon in question. [Imagine the rage of
any decent North American Indians if they had been told they
required policemen to keep them in order !]

If we take this historical definition of Civilisation, we shall
see that our English Civilisation began hardly more than a
thousand years ago, and even so the remains of the more
primitive society lasted long after that. In the case of
Rome if we reckon from the later times of the early kings
down to the fall of Rome we have again about a thousand


years. The Jewish civilisation from David and Solomon
downwards lasted with breaks somewhat over a thousand
fears ; the Greek civilisation less ; the Egyptian considerably
more ; but the important points to see are, first, that the
process has been quite similar in character in these various
(and numerous other) cases, 1 quite as similar in fact as the
course of the same disease in various persons ; and secondly
that in no case, as said before, has any nation come through
and passed beyond this stage ; but that in most cases it has
succumbed soon after the main symptoms had been developed.

But it will be said, It may be true that civilisation regarded
as a stage of human history presents some features of disease ;
but is there any reason for supposing that disease in some form
or other was any less present in the previous stage that of
Barbarism 1 To which I reply, I think there is good reason.
Without committing ourselves to the unlikely theory that the
M noble savage " was an ideal human being physically or in any
other respect, and while certain that in many points he was
decidedly inferior to the civilised man, I think we must allow
him the superiority in some directions ; and one of these was
his comparative freedom from disease. Lewis Morgan, who
grew up among the Iroquoia Indians, and who probably knew
the North American natives as well as any white man has ever
done, says (in his Ancient Society, p. 45), " Barbarism ends
with the production of grand Barbarians." And though there
are no native races on the earth to-day who are actually in the
latest and most advanced stage of Barbarism 2 ; yet if we take
the most advanced tribes that we know of such as the said
Iroquois Indians of twenty or thirty years ago, some of the
Kaffir tribes round Lake Nyassa in Africa, now (and possibly
for a few years more) comparatively untouched by civilisation,

1 For proof I must refer the reader to Eugels, or to his own studies
of history.

1 Say like the Homeric Greek*, or the Spartan* of the Lycurgus period.


or the tribes along the river Uaupes, 30 or 40 years back, of
Wallace's Travels on the Amazon all tribes in what Morgan
would call the middle stage of Barbarism we undoubtedly in
each case discover a fine and (which is our point here) healthy
people. Captain Cook in his first Voyage says of the natives
of Otaheite, " We saw no critical disease during our stay upon
the island, and but few instances of sickness, which were
accidental fits of the colic ; " and, later on, of the New Zeal-
anders, " They enjoy perfect and uninterrupted health. In all
our visits to their towns, where young and old, men and
women, crowded about us .... we never saw a single person
who appeared to have any bodily complaint, nor among the
numbers we have seen naked did we once perceive the slight-
est eruption upon the skin, or any marks that an eruption had
left behind." These are pretty strong words. Of course
diseases exist among such peoples, even where they have
never been in contact with civilisation, but I think we may
say that among the higher types of savages they are rarer, and
nothing like so various and so prevalent as they are in our
modern life ; while the power of recovery from wounds (whi^h
are of course the most frequent form of disablement) is gen-
erally admitted to be something astonishing. Speaking of the
Kaffirs, J. G. Wood says, " Their state of health enables them
to survive injuries which would be almost instantly fatal to any
civilised European." Mr. Frank Gates in his Diary 1 mentions
the case of a man who was condemned to death by the king.
He was hacked down with axes, and left for dead. " What
must have been intended for the coup de grace was a cut in
the back of the head, which bad chipped a large piece out of
the skull, and must have been meant to cut the spinal cord
where it joins the brain. It had however been made a little
higher than this, but had left such a wound as I should have

i Matabeb Land and the Victoria Falls, p. 209.


thought that no one could have survived . . . when I held the
lanthorn to investigate the wound I started back in amaze-
ment to see a hole at the base of the skull, perhaps two inches
long and an inch and a half wide, and I will not venture to
say how deep, but the depth too must have been an affair of
inches. Of course this hole penetrated into the substance of
the brain, and probably for some distance. I dare say a
mouse could have sat in it." Yet the man was not so much
disconcerted. Like Old King Cole, "He asked for a pipe
and a drink of brandy," and ultimately made a perfect re-
covery ! Of course it might be said that such a story only
proves the lowness of organisation of the brains of savages ;
but to the Kaffirs at any rate this would not apply ; they are
a quick-witted race, with large brains, and exceedingly acute
in argument, as Colenso found to his cost. Another point
which indicates superabundant health is the amazing animal
spirits of these native races ! The shouting, singing, dancing
kept up nights long among the Kaffirs are exhausting merely
to witness, while the graver North American Indian exhibits
a corresponding power of life in his eagerness for battle or his
stoic resistance of pain. 1

Similarly when we come to consider the social life of the
wilder races however rudimentary and undeveloped it may
be the almost universal testimony of students and travelers
is that within its limits it is more harmonious and compact
than that of the civilised nations. The members of the tribe
are not organically at warfare with each other ; society is not
divided into classes which prey upon each other ; nor it it

1 A similar physical health and power of life are also developed among
Europeans who have lived for long periods in more native conditions.
It is not to our race, which is probably superior to any in capacity,
but to the state in which we lire that we must ascribe our defect ia
this particular matter.


consumed by parasites. There is more true social unity, less
of disease. Though the customs of each tribe are rigid, ab-
surd, and often frightfully cruel, 1 and though all outsiders
are liable to be regarded as enemies, yet within those limit*
the members live peacefully together their pursuits, their
work, are undertaken in common, thieving and violence are
rare, social feeling and community of interest are strong. " In
their own bands Indians are perfectly honest. In all my in-
tercourse with them I have heard of not over half-a-dozen
cases of such theft. But this wonderfully exceptional honesty
extends no further than to the members of his immediate
band. To all outside of it, the Indian is not only one of the
most arrant thieves in the world, but this quality or faculty is
held in the highest estimation." (Dodge, p. 64.) If a man
set out on a journey (this among the Kaffirs) " he need not
trouble himself about provisions, for he is sure to fall in with
some hut, or perhaps a village, and is equally sure of obtain-
ing both food and shelter." 3 "I have lived," says A. R.
Wallace in his Malay Archipelago (vol. II. p. 460), " with
communities in South America and the East, who have no
laws or law courts, but the public opinion of the village . . .
yet each man scrupulously respects the rights of his fellows,
and any infraction of those rights rarely 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 out
civilisation." Indeed this community of life in the early
societies, this absence of division into classes, and of the con-
trast between rich and poor, is now admitted on all sides as
a marked feature of difference between the conditions of the
primitive and of civilised man. 8

1 See Col. Dodge's Our Wild Indians.
Wood's Natural History of Man. 3 See Appendix.


Lastly, with regard to the mental condition of the Barbarian,
probably no one will be found to dispute the contention that
he is more easy minded and that his consciousness of Sm is less
developed than in his civilised brother. Our unrest is the
penalty we pay for our wider life. The missionary retires
routed from the savage in whom he can awake no sense of
his supreme wickedness. An American lady had a servant,
a negro-woman, who on one occasion asked leave of absence
for the next morning, saying she wished to attend the
Holy Communion? "I have no objection," said the mis-
tress, " to grant you leave ; but do you think you ought
to attend Communion ? You know you have never said
you were sorry about that goose you stole last week."
" Lor* missus," replied the woman, " do ye think I'd let
an old goose stand betwixt me and my Blessed Lord and
Master ? " But joking apart, and however necessary for man's
ultimate evolution may be the temporary development of this
consciousness of Sin, we cannot help seeing that the condition
of the mind in which it is absent is the most distinctively
healthy ; nor can it be concealed that some of the greatest
works of Art have been produced by people like the earlier
Greeks, in whom it was absent ; and could not possibly have
been produced where it was strongly developed.

Though as already said, the latest stage of Barbarism, i.e.,
that just preceding Civilisation, is unrepresented on the earth
to-day, yet we have hi the Homeric and other dawn-literature
of the various nations indirect records of this stage ; and these
records assure us of a condition of man very similar to,
though somewhat more developed than, the condition of the
existing races I have mentioned above. Besides this, we have
in the numerous traditions of the Golden Age, 1 legends of the
Fall, <kc., a curious fact which suggests to us that a great
uumber of races in advancing towards Civilisation were con-
1 Se Appendix.


scious at some point or other of having lost a primitive con-
dition of ease and contentment, and that they embodied this
consciousness, with poetical adornment and licence, in im-
aginative legends of the earlier Paradise. Some people in-
deed, seeing the universality of these stories, and the remark-
able fragments of wisdom embedded in them and other
extremely ancient myths and writings, have supposed that
there really was a general prehistoric Eden-garden or Atlantis ;
but the necessities of the case hardly seem to compel this
supposition. That each human soul however bears within it-
self some kind of reminiscence of a more harmonious and
perfect state of being, which it has at some time experienced,
seems to me a conclusion difficult to avoid ; and this by itself
might give rise to manifold traditions and myths.

HOWEVER all this may be, the question Immediately before us
having established the more healthy, though more limited,
condition of the pre-civilisation peoples is, why this lapse or
fall 1 What is the meaning of this manifold and intensified
manifestation of Disease physical, social, intellectual, and
moral f what is its place and part in the great whole of human
evolution t

And this involves us in a digression, which must occupy a
few pages, on the nature of Health.

When we come to analyse the conception of Disease, physical
or mental, in society or in the individual, it evidently means,
as already hinted once or twice, loss of unity. Health, there-
fore, should mean unity, and it is curious that the history of
the word entirely corroborates this idea. As is well known,
the words health, whole, holy, are from the same stock ; an<f
they indicate to us the fact that fax back in the past those who


created this group of words had a conception of the meaning
of Health very different from ours, and which they embodied
unconsciously in the word itself and its strange relatives.

These are, for instance, and among others : heal, hallow, hale,
holy, whole, wholesome ; German heilig, Heiland (the Saviour) j
Latin salus (as in salutation, salvation) ; Greek kalos ; also
compare hail ! a salutation, and, less certainly connected, the
root hal, to breathe, as in inhale, exhale French haleine
Italian and French alma and ame (the soul) ; compare the
Latin spiritus, spirit or breath, and Sanskrit atman, breath or

Wholeness, holiness ..." if thine eye be single, thy whole
body shall be full of light." ..." thy faith hath made thee
whole. 11

The idea seems to be a positive one a condition of the body
In which it is an entirety, a unity a central force maintaining
that condition ; and disease being the break-up or break-down
of that entirety into multiplicity.

The peculiarity about our modern conception of Health is
that it seems to be a purely negative one. So impressed are
we by the myriad presence of Disease so numerous its
dangers, so sudden and unforetellable its attacks that we
have come to look upon health as the mere absence of the
same. As a solitary spy picks his way through a hostile camp
at night, sees the enemy sitting round his fires, and trembles
at the crackling of a twig beneath his feet so the traveled
thro' this world, comforter in one hand and physic-bottle in the
other, must pick his way, fearful lest at any time he disturb
the sleeping legions of death thrice blessed if by any means,
steering now to the right and now to the left, and thinking
only of his personal safety, he pass by without discovery to the
other side.

Health with us is a negative thing. It is a neutralisation of


opposing dangers. It is to be neither rheumatic nor gouty,
consumptive nor bilious, to be untroubled by head-ache, back-
ache, heart-ache or any of the " thousand natural shocks that
flesh is heir to." These are the realities. Health is the mere
negation of them.

The modern notion, and which has evidently in a very
subtle way penetrated the whole thought of to-day, is that the
essential fact of life is the existence of innumerable external
forces, which, by a very delicate balance and difficult to main-
tain, concur to produce Man who in consequence may at any
moment be destroyed again by the non-concurrence of those
forces. The older notion apparently is that the essential fact

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Online LibraryEdward CarpenterCivilisation: its cause and cure : and other essays → online text (page 1 of 15)