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conceptions adequate to cover the facts, in the appreciation of
the period when they were entertained. The circumstance that
presently either the known facts, thus covered, received addi-
tions which the conception could no longer be made to cover,
or else that, owing to the quickening and information of this
appreciation, it became visible that the facts were not explained,
as had been supposed, can be no reason why we should simply
look and step on, without examination and without discussion,
as the long array of stripped hypotheses and discrowned
assumptions, of ghostly theories and shrunken conceptions, is
made to pass before our eyes.

It is worth while to indicate in a general way the goal,
towards which speculations upon the significance of history,
and the conditions of stable society, have been pretty uniformly
tending. A glance at the course which speculation has run in
other objects of thought would give us a just idea what to
expect, where the object of thought has been the nature, and
the causes, of the growth and succession of states of society,
"We all know that in physical science the most general expres-
sion for the advance that has taken place, is that it consists in
the progressive reduction, under an ascertainable and con-
nected order, of facts which once seemed capricious, irregular,


and isolated. The same expression would serve to denote the
general character of the movement of thought in, what for men
must always be, the true master-science. Ilere also progress
has consisted in the gradual substitution of conceptions of an
order appreciable by reason, and consistent with the general
form of the rest of our knowledge, for the tacit acceptance of a
theory of inscrutable accidents, ostensibly veiled under a variety
of respectable designations. Meditation in the light of con-
clusions arrived at in the more exact sciences, displaces the
prepossessions of theologians, who, while forced to perceive that
the creator of the universe permits its physical phenomena to
order themselves in a system whose unvarying rules we can
find out, yet have been reluctant to concede that this supreme
being follows the same method in the phenomena of human
nature and society. A similar displacement is eflPected, by
equally sure steps, of these other prepossessions, which, perhaps
in order to confer a factitious dignity on man, attributed to
him an occult faculty of Will, existing mysteriously apart from
the rest of his mental constitution, sovereign, absolute, not to be
counted upon, nor accounted with, itself amenable to no order,
and therefore putting to rout the idea of order among the entire
class of facts in which it is an element. That each state of
society is what it is, and comes where it does, owing to the
operation of ordered causes — this is the conception, which
supersedes the theological explanation of such states and
their historical succession by the unascertainable and irregular
volitions of a superior being ; and the metaj)hysical explanation
by the capricious, uncaused, and incalculable energy of the
volitions of men.

It would be alike unphilosophical and ungratefid to deny
that each of the two decaj'ed or decaying notions of the method
of social advance has, in its season, been productive both of


exalted character and lieroic conduct. The conviction that
they were instruments in the hands of God, moved directly,
specially, personally, and each moment, by the breath of his
will, has inspired men with a fervid enthusiasm to which the
world owes some of those achievements, whose eifects have been
most valuable and permanent, and the tradition of which it
would be least willing to let die. The conviction, again, of his
own personal sovereignty, implied in what is called the freedom
of the will, has to an equal degree with the virtually necessarian
belief in a series of special providences, evoked that lofty and
exhilarating acceptance of responsibility, which vivid conscious-
ness of power breeds in fine natures. That, as a moral stimulus,
the new belief will prove inferior to these two, there is no
reason to expect, but the contrary. Here, however, we are only
concerned with the scientific tenability of the three conceptions,
and the circumstances of their transformation.

This, then, is one of the changes which we may count upon
finding in the progress of political thought ; the gradual
admission into social speculation of the idea of a systematic,
connected, and ascertainable order among the facts with which
it is conversant ; the introduction of the notion of Law, in a
word, as applicable to states of society.

If we consider what a state of society is, we shall easily
discover a second tendency, which might be reasonably expected
to rise and make a way for itself. ' What is called a state of
society,' Mr. Mill says, ' is the simultaneous state of all the
greater social facts or phenomena. Such are the degree of
knowledge and of intellectual and moral culture existing in the
community, and in every class of it ; the state of industry, of
wealth and its distribution ; the habitual occupations of the
community ; their division into classes, and the relation of
those classes to one another ; the common beliefs which they


entertain on all the subjects most important to mankind, and
the degree of assurance with which those beliefs are held ;
their tastes and the character and degree of their aesthetic
development ; their form of government, and the more im-
portant of their laws and customs. The condition of all these
things and of many more which will readily suggest themselves,
constitute the state of society or the state of civilization at any
given time.' ^ By those who live in our day, and are com-
petent to have an opinion, this fact of the multiplicity of con-
ditions which characterises any state of society but the very
rudest, is accepted as an elementary truth. But the failure to
perceive how many facts enter into the composition of a social
state, is the root of the impotence of most speculation upon
society, and explains also most of those disastrous repulses
which have attended the efforts of ardent practical reformers.
Thinkers and innovating statesmen have almost uniformly for-
gotten that, to reconstruct or to move society, it is necessary to
touch not one, but a whole group of conditions ; that the social
order does not work in a single line, — a form of government, a
certain set of religious beliefs or ecclesiastical institutions, a
body of positive laws, or any other isolated circumstance, — but
along a broad row of parallel grooves. It is true that to
modify some of the most important of these manifold conditions
is to modify all the others ; but the first modification can only
be judicious in practice or sound in theory, when the entire
group of leading circumstances is steadily kept in sight, and
the habit of keeping them thus in sight is one of the latest
acquisitions in social philosophy. If Aristotle had lived now,
he would not have thought it adequate to explain the identity
of the State as consisting in identity of constitution ; or, at any

(1) System of Logic, Bk. VI. Ch. x. § 2. ' Of the Inverse Deductive or
Historical Method.'


rate, lie would hardly liave thouglit the question that could be
rightly answered in this sense worth proposing for settlement.^
The identity of a State depends upon identity in many more
points than mere form of civil polity.

The inevitable power of mere phraseology has had a great
deal to do with this erroneous disposition to look at sets of
social phenomena in isolation. Just as the terms, Matter,
Form, Cause, and the rest, led the early physicists into unpro-
fitable thinking, so such terms as Government, Law, King,
Democracy, are apt to lead men, insufl&ciently on their guard,
into contemplating the objects which they denote, as separate
and independent, rising up and oj^erating from inherent
qualities of their own, without reference to all those other
conditions of the society, its religion, its wealth, its manners,
its historic tradition, which compose the surrounding medium.
The student of history sees only too much of this tendency, to
ignore the number of facts which every social inquirer would
now feel bound to take into full account. Meanwhile, it is
enough to premise that, along with a recognition of the truth
of there being an order among the phenomena of human nature
and society, there comes in a consciousness of the wide collec-
tion of circumstances and conditions which constitute that

From this second characteristic of the long transition from
a wrong method to a right one, there flows a third of the
greatest practical importance. As soon as it is perceived that
the law of states of society is the order of the relations among a
considerable number of social circumstances, then those abstract
and universal propositions about government and polity, which
form the staple of political thought, exclusively down to the
time of Montesquieu, and very largely including one of the
(1) Politics, Bk. III. Ch. iii.


most considerable names of all, down to the Revolution, are
abandoned in favour of narrower propositions, of a strictly
relative and provisional quality. Men detect tbe absurdity of
debating upon the best form of government, for instance, when
tbey bave been made to see that tbe form of government is only
one of many conditions in which the welfare of a commimity is
bound up, that these conditions are found in a great many
various degrees of development, and therefore that the supe-
riority of one form of government over another varies with the
changes in the surrounding circumstances. No government is
best in the abstract, without reference to the intellectual
development of a community, the degree of public cohesiveness
which it has reached, the amount of social virtue which may be
counted upon, and a number of other considerations. And in
the same way with laws, they are gradually divested of the
associations of sovereign power and influence, which are in early
times attributed to them, and they are seen to depend for
influence upon their harmony with the group of other con-
ditions. Hence all propositions about laws assume the same
relative complexion which belongs to propositions about forms
of government. In religion, again, where people have been most
apt to insist iipon finding absolute and universal truth, the
same current of thought, the same perception of the close con-
nection which binds all the social facts together, exposes the
unmistakable way in which belief in this exalted region still
depends, for the possibility of its prevailing, upon the degree of
its conformity to, and compatibility with, the other intellectual
and moral conditions of the time.

This way of thinking brings us close to that historic con-
ception of society, which is the final result of the various
positive tendencies of investigation, one or two of which we
have just tried to characterise. The precise source of the asso-


ciation of ideas of organic growth witli progressive societies,
and up to a certain point with stationary societies also, forms
or^ of the most interesting sides of the history of European
thought in the eighteenth century. There can he little douht
that the philosophy which traced our ideas to the gradual com-
bination of simple impressions upon the sensations, in the
extremely material form in which it became assimilated in
French thought, tended to generate a mental association be-
tween the vegetative growth of man, and the rise of his various
intellectual and moral ideas and faculties ; and this association
would very naturally tend to spread the notion of a corre-
sponding kind of growth among the ideas, habits, and institu-
tions of collective societies. Apart from this movement,
however, it was impossible that writers like Montesquieu and
Voltaire should stimulate and partly gratify a curiosity as to
the religion, government, and customs of unfamiliar com-
munities, without setting men to think about the different
stages of civilisation which had been reached by different
societies ; and this idea of comparison, added to a recognition of
the number of social facts into which the difference extended,
might well engender a willingness to think of that simul-
taneous impulse, communicating itself to so many circumstances
in corresponding proportion, as something analogous to the
process which, working uniformly throughout the organism, we
know in vegetative development as growth.

This, then, is the Historic conception ; a reference of every
state of society to a particidar stage in the evolution of its
general conditions. To understand the growth and relative
position of one element, it is necessary to observe all the rest.
Ideas of law, of virtue, of religion, of the physical universe, of
the social union, of history, all march in a harmonious and
interdependent order. And this order is the result of the action


of human faculties upon outward circumstances, of tlie reaction
of circumstances on the human faculties, of the transmission of
improvements in our aptitudes, and of the constant removal,
further and yet further, of the mental posts from which suc-
cessive generations commence their advance forth into the
regions of the unknown.

We may now turn back from this final stage to the more
special subject of the present essay, some of the conceptions,
namely, of social progress that were entertained by the two
most illustrious of ancient thinkers. We have seen, in its
larger traits, the shape in which the dynamical side of social
philosophy ends, and may the more intelligently examine its
earliest beginning.


In primitive times we may well believe the intelligence of
men to be satisfied with the same sort of explanation of the
facts of society, as that which contents them in reference to facts
that are more impressive to the elementary senses. This
explanation is theological, and in such stages of civilisation,
for they deserve to be called civilised in comparison with
the prolonged night that has preceded, the chief ingredients
in the the social state, like all other things, are aj)prehended
either as manifestations, or actual embodiments, of so many divi-
nities. The Gi*^ks, in the earlier times, not only conceived
the sun, and the earth, and the winds as divine persons, but
they understood each Themis, or judgment of the king, to be a
special inspiration breathed into his mind by the god. It was
not merely Field-labour and Sowing that the oldest Romans
represented to themselves as gods ; by the side of Ops and
Saturnus, in this infant theology, there was a place for the social
virtues of Faithfulness and Concord. Every act and ever} - con-

X 2


dition had its religious aspect ; and this remains true, in pro-
portion to the nearness of the community to fetishist belief.
One elementary system included and shaped the entire body
of these pristine notions, and everything that men saw or
thought about was subjected to this organic unity of inter-

It would be more truly descriptive to say that thought, in
its later and more correct sense, had no existence in primitive
ages. Explanations are sought for, not to satisfy an intellectual
appetite for knowledge, but to appease the excited emotions ;
and none have anj^ chance of being accepted, nor indeed of
being offered, which do not harmonise with the apprehensive,
disquieted, and expectant temper, which is characteristic of a
society in the rudest theological phase. ' The sentiment of
curiosity as it then existed,' says Mr. Grote, describing the
state of the early Greek mind, ' was only secondary and deri-
vative, arising out of some of the strong primary or personal
sentiments, — fear or hope, antipathy or sympathy, — impres-
sion of present weakness, — unsatisfied appetites and long-
ings, — wonder and awe under the presence of the terror-
striking phenomena of nature.'^ In other words, intelligence
is aroused from its primal torpor, not by its own spontaneously
working force, but stimulated by an extreme inquietude of the

This is one reason why there is much leH play of intelli-
gence in the earlier epochs about social facts, such as laws,
origin of the community, and the like, than about other objects.^

(1) Grote's Flato, i. p. 2.

(2) Mr. Maine, indeed, holds {Ancient Law, p. 361) that 'as soon as the mind
makes its first conscious efforts towards generalisation, the concerns of everyday-
life are the first to press for inclusion within general rules and comprehensive
formulas,' and that the earliest intellectual exercise to which a young nation
devotes itself is the study of its laws. This may have a certain truth with


For there is no associatiou of wondci", hope, or longing, about
the relations of society.

Still, so far as man in the early stage of union has any
germs of social conceptions, they S2)ring from the same soil, and
are guided by the same dominant influences of mental climate,
as his ideas upon external nature. The only difference is that,
as social conceptions come last under the influence of curiosity
and examination, they are the last in which men shake off the
hold of the system that gave these conceptions form and colour.
Whole generations of physical specidators came and went, and
substituted scientific theories for the personal agency of the
gods, before a feeling arose of the necessity of a similar trans-
formation in regard to the social order. Thales began to ask
questions about the Cosmos, two centuries before Plato and
Aristotle made their attempts to solve some of the problems
connected with the organisation of human communities.

It is true that the earliest germs of social philosophy may
be traced to as remote a time, as the origin of purely phj^sical
inquiry. Thales was himself one of the Seven Wise Men, and
while he apparently was most remarkable for his theories
of the material universe, others of them acquired their fame as
sages by broad generalisations upon life, society, and conduct.
But these precepts were mainly j)rudential, the records and
conclusions of individual experience, the register of observations
of the ways of the world.-' They were practical rather than
theoretical, wisdom rather than philosophy. That they should
have suggested themselves to their authors, and been treasured
up by all who heard them, is not at all incompatible with an

reference to the Romans, who were for so long ahsorljed by the pressing exigencies
of their military position, and thus acquired that habit of practical interest in
everyday concerns which always distinguished them ; but is it a true account of
the order of intellectual activity at Athens ?

(1) Grote's Greece, Part II c. xxix. (vol. iii. p. S2).


unbroken incuriosity as to the conditions which led to such
maxims being true. They mark no decisive step forward, such
as, in physics, was involved in the famous speculation of Thales,
which dethroned the divine Oceanus as the father of things,
and installed in his stead the notion of Water as the universal
and indispensable quality of all matter. In the sayings of the
Wise Men there was no unconsciously revolutionary turning
away from the gods, and this turning away is the test of the
establishment of philosophy in one department of inquiry and
in all.

Of the other ancients, we know that the doctrine of Pytha-
goras, who is supposed to have flourished in the latter half of
the sixth century, was held to have a certain direct social
bearing. And in two points, by all accounts, he manifested
what was unhappily a precocious amount of elevated and
humane feeling. He apparently did not disdain female disciples.
And, through his remarkable doctrine of metempsychosis, he was
able to introduce a noble idea of duty in connection with our
relations to the lower animals, a region of morals in which
opinion even now needs so urgently to be stimulated.^

Democritus, again, who came a century later, is believed to
have in some sort anticipated the great encyclopcedic concep-
tion of Aristotle, and he must therefore have included in his
teaching some more or less distinctly formed social theory. In
this case it is possible that he is entitled to the glory of having
been the first to hold the lamp of speculation to politics. But
the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ are too far oflF, and
their history is too dim, for us to know these things with any

(1) See M. Comte's Phil. Pos., vol. v. p. 68, where tlie writer describes the
important influence exerted by Fetishism, both directly in leading to the pre-
servation, in a stage when destructive impulses preponderate, of useful species,
and indirectly in contributing to soften the human character.


certainty or precision. Practically it is ^yitll the writings of
Plato tliat a history of social philosophy ■would have to begin.
In them we find the earliest record of deliberate thinking about
the origin, growth, tendencies, and best organisation, of the
political union. The name of Socrates, whose intellectual
originalitj"- and vigour only matched the ardent interest he had
in men, marks the starting point of social speculation. So far as
we can now ascertain, it was he who first applied analysis, not
only to such received conceptions as Knowledge and Virtue, but
also to the current ideas about government, legislation, and the
succession of political states. Previously to his introduction of
a searching dialectic, which divided and distributed the objects
of speculation, inquirers had sought for, what in modern phra-
seology would be called, some single general law, some one com-
prehensive formula, which might cover or explain the entire
phenomena of the universe. The method of Socrates put an
end to this search, assuredly bootless then, and perhaps to
prove vain always, for a single expression in which the smn of
knowable things, the one arcanum of manifold forces, may be
resumed and resolved. He separated politics, as well as ethics,
from the physical inquiries with which they had heretofore
been improperly mixed, and in doing so expressly constituted
them a specific object of speculation, with a proper standard and
a matter of its own. The significance of such a step, simple
and obvious as it may seem to those who have once seen it
taken, or inherited Tinconsciously and without efibrt the fruits
of its having been taken, cannot be over-rated. To conceive
society, the various sentiments associated with it, the relations
and duties flowing from it, as the fit object of systematic medi-
tation and scientific treatment, was perhaps be}'X)nd comparison
the most important advance ever made in the intellectual pro-
gress of the race. If we consider the vital efiects of mere


terms and phrases upon tlie expansiveness of thought, the
benefits of Socratic methods in that direction only, by pro-
moting some accuracy, variety, and definiteness in political
speech, will seem superlative.

The high social feeling, which constitutes the greatest
glory of Socrates, is thus remarkable for being systematic and
regulated, as distinguished from that mere philanthropic or
vague humanity, which, however creditable to the benevolence
of the individual who is animated by it, is often so purely
mischievous to the community. Mr. Grote has dwelt with a
just emphasis on this distinctive quality of the first social
philosopher. ' That " the proper study of mankind is man,"
Socrates was the first to proclaim. He recognised the secuiity
and haftpiness of man both as the single end of study, and as
the limiting principle whereby it ought to be circumscribed.'^
This mood is so familiar to us now, that we cannot without a
certain vigorous efibrt of imagination do adequate justice to the
force of mind implied in the first clear recognition, both of the
wellbeing of man as the object of theoretic contemjDlation, and
of the subordinate and auxiliary relation in w^hich all other
sciences stand to the science of society.

Online LibraryJohn MorleyCritical miscellanies → online text (page 24 of 29)