Robert Dale Owen.

Moral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question online

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Braver, he who controls himself!"

It is a noble sentiment, and very appropriate to the present dis-


To one other argument it were not, perhaps, worth
while to advert, but that it has been already speciously
used to excite popular prejudice. It has been said, that
to recommend to mankind prudential restraint in cases
where children cannot be provided for, is an insult to
the poor man ; since all ought to be so circumstanced
that they might provide amply for the largest family.
Most assuredly all ought to be so circumstanced ; but all
are not. And there would be just as much propriety in
bidding a poor man go and take by force a piece of Saxo-
ny broadcloth from his neighbour's store, because he
ought to be able to purchase it, as to encourage him to
go on producing children, because he ought to have
wherewithal to support them. Let us exert every nerve
to correct the injustice and arrest the misery that results
from a vicious order of things ; but, until we have done
so, let us not, for humanity's sake, madly recommend
that which grievously aggravates the evil ; which in-
creases the burden on the present generation, and
threatens with neglect and ignorance the next.

And now, let my readers pause. Let them review
the various arguments I have placed before them. Let
them reflect how intimately the instinct of which I treat
is connected with the social welfare of society. Let them
bear in mind, that just in proportion to its social influ-
ence, is it important that we should know how to con-
trol and govern it ; that, when we obtain such control,
we may save ourselves and, what we ought to prize
much more highly, may save our companions and our
offspring, from suffering or misery ; that, by such know-
ledge, the young may form virtuous connexions, instead
of becoming profligates or ascetics ; that, by it, early
marriage is deprived of its heaviest consequences, and
seduction of its sharpest sting ; that, by it, man may be


saved from moral ruin, and woman from desolating dis-
honour; that by it the first pure affections may be sooth-
ed and satisfied, instead of being thwarted or destroyed -
let them call to mind all this, and then let them say,
whether the possession of such control be not a blessing
to man.




It now remains, after having spoken of the desirabili-
ty of obtaining control over the instinct of reproduction, to
speak of its practicability.

As, in this world, the value of labour is too often esti-
mated almost in proportion to its inutility, so, in physical
science, contested questions seem to have attracted at-
tention and engaged research, almost in the inverse ratio
of their practical importance. We have a hundred learn-
ed hypotheses for one decisive practical experiment. We
have many thousands of volumes written to explain fan-
ciful theories, and scarcely as many dozens to record as-
certained facts.

It is not my intention, in discussing this branch of
the subject, to examine the hundred ingenious theories
of generation which ancient and modern physiologists
have put forth. I shall not enquire whether the fu-
ture human being owes its first existence, as Hippo-
crates and Galen asserted, and Buffon very ingeniously
supports, to the union of two life-giving fluids, each a
sort of extract of the body of $ie parent, and composed
of organic particles similar to the future offspring ; or


xvhether, as Harvey and Haller teach, the embryo reposes
in the ovum until vivified by the seminal fluid, or perhaps
only by the aura seminalis ; or whether, according to
the theories of Leuvenhoeck and Boerhaave, the future
man first exists as a spermatic animalcula, for which
the ovum becomes merely the nourishing receptacle ; or
whether, as the ingenious Andry imagines, a vivifying
worm be the more correct hypothesis ; or whether, final-
ly, as Perault will have it,* the embryo beings (too won-
derfully organized to be supposed the production of any
mere physical phenomenon) must be imagined to come
directly from the hands of the Creator, who has filled the
universe with these little germs, too minute, indeed, to
exercise all the animal functions, but still self-existent,
and awaiting only the insinuation of some subtle essence
into their microscopic pores, to come forth as human be-
ings. Still less am I inclined to follow Hippocrates and
Tertullian in their enquiries, whether the soul is merely
introduced into the foetus, or pre-exists in the semen, and
becomes, as it were, the architect of its future residence,
the body ;t or to attempt a refutation of the hypothesis
of the metaphysical naturalist, t who asserts, (and adduces
the infinite indivisibility of matter in support of the as-
sertion,) that the actual germs of the whole human race,
and of all that are yet to be born, existed in the ovaria
of our first mother, Eve. I leave these and fifty other
hypotheses as ingenious and as useless, to be discussed by

* See " Histoire de P Academic des Sciences," for the year 1679,
page 279.

t Hippocrates positively asserts this latter hypothesis, and is
outrageous against all sceptics in his theory. In his work on
diet, he tells us, " Si quis non credat animam animcz misceri,
demens est." Tertullian warmly supports the orthodoxy of this

J Bonner, I believe.


those who seem to make it a point of honour to leave no
fact unexplained by some imagined theory ; and I de- '
scend at once to the terra firma of positive experience
and actual observation.

It is exceedingly to be regretted that mankind did not
spend some small portion, at least, of the time and in-
dustry which has been wasted on theoretical researches,
in collecting and collating the actual experience of hu-
man beings. But this task, too difficult for the ignorant,
has generally been thought too simple and common-
place for the learned. To this circumstance, joined to
the fact, that it is not thought fitting or decent for hu-
man beings freely to communicate their personal expe-
rience on the important subject now under considera-
tion to these causes are attributable the great arid other-
wise unaccountable ignorance which so strangely pre-
vails, even sometimes among medical men, as to the
power which man may possess over the reproductive in-
stinct. Many physicians will positively deny that man
possesses any such power. And yet, if the thousandth
part of the talent and research had been employed to in-
vestigate this momentous fact, which has been turned
to the building up of idle theories, no commonly intelli-
gent individual could well be ignorant of the truth.

I have taken great pains to ascertain the opinions of
the most enlightened physicians of Great Britain and
France on this subject ; (opinions which popular preju-
dice will not permit them to offer publicly in their works ;)
and they all concur in admitting, what the experience of
the French nation positively proves, that man may
have a perfect control over this instinct ; and that men
and women may, without any injury to health, or the
slightest violence done to the moral feelings, and with
but small diminution of the pleasure which accompanies


the gratification of the instinct, refrain at will from be-
coming parents. It has chanced to me, also, to win the
confidence of several individuals, who have communica-
ted to me, without reserve, their own experience ; and
all this has been corroborative of the same opinion.

Thus, though I pretend not to speak positively to the
details of a subject, which will then only be fully un-
derstood when men acquire sense enough simply and
unreservedly to discuss it, I may venture to assure my
readers, that the main fact is incontrovertible. I shall
adduce such facts in proof of this as may occur to me in
the course of this investigation.

However various and contradictory the different theo-
ries of generation, almost all physiologists are agreed,
that the entrance of the sperm itself (or of some volatile
particles proceeding from it) into the uterus, must precede
conception. This it was that probably first suggested
the possibility of preventing conception at will.

Among the modes of preventing conception which may
have prevailed in various countries, that which has been
adopted, and is now universally practised, by the cultiva-
ted classes on the continent of Europe, by the French, the
Italians, and, I believe, by the Germans and Spaniards,
consists of complete withdrawal, on the part of the man,
immediately previous to emission. This is : in all cases ^
effectual. It may be objected, that the practice requires
a mental effort and a partial sacrifice. I reply, that, in
France, where men consider this, (as it ought ever to be
considered, when the interests of the other sex require it,)
a point of honour all young men learn to make the
necessary effort ; and custom renders it easy and a mat-
ter of course. As for the sacrifice, shall a trifling (and
it is but a very trifling) diminution of physical enjoy-



nient be suffered to outweigh the most important con-
siderations connected with the permanent welfare of
those who are the nearest and dearest to us ? Shall it
be suffered to outweigh the risk of incurring heavy and
sacred responsibilities, ere we are prepared to meet and
fulfil them ? Shall it be suffered to outweigh a regard
for the comfort, the well-being in some cases the life,
of those whom we profess to love ? The most selfish
will hesitate deliberately to reply, in the affirmative, to
such questions as these. A cultivated young French-
man, instructed as he is, even from his infancy, careful-
ly to consult, on all occasions, the wishes, and punc-
tiliously to care for the comfort and welfare, of the gentler
sex, would learn almost with incredulity, that, in other
countries, there are men to be found, pretending to cul-
tivation, who were less scrupulously honourable on this
point than himself. You could not offer him a greater
insult than to presuppose the possibility of his forgetting
himself so far, as thus to put his own momentary gratifi-
cation, for an instant, in competition with the wish or
the well-being of any one to whom he professed regard
or affection.*

I know it will be argued, that men in the mass are

* A Frenchman belonging to the cultivated classes, would as
soon bear to be called a coward, as to be accused of causing the
pregnancy of a woman, who did not desire it ; and that, too, whe-
ther the matrimonial law had given him legal rights over her per-
son or not. Such an imputation, if substantiated, would shut him
out for ever from all decent society ; and most properly so. It is
a perfect barbarity, and ought to be treated as such.

When we begin to look to genuine morality, instead of empty
or offensive forms, these are the principles of honour we shall im-
plant in our children's minds : and then we shall have a world
.of courtesy and kindness, instead of a scene of legal outrage, or
hypocritical profession.


not sufficiently moral to adopt this recommendation ;
because they will not make any voluntary sacrifice of
animal enjoyment, however trifling. I do not see that.
Hundreds of voluntary sacrifices are daily made to fa-
shion to public opinion. Let but public opinion bear
on this point in other countries, as it does among the
more enlightened classes in France, and similar effects
will be produced.

Besides, the matter is a trifle. The mere act of ani-
mal satisfaction, counts with any man of commonly cul-
tivated feelings, as but a small item in the aggregate of
enjoyment which satisfied affection affords ; and, surely,
whether that act be at all times attended with the utmost
degree of physical pleasure or not, must, even with the
selfish, be a secondary and unimportant consideration.
His moral sentiments must be especially weak or uncul-
tivated, who will not admit, that it is the gratification of
the social feelings the repose of the affections which,
at all times, constitutes the chief charm of human in-

The least injurious among the present checks to popu-
lation, celibacy, is a mortification of the affections, a vio-
lence done to the social feelings, sometimes a sacrifice
even of the health. Not one of these objections can be
urged to the trifling restraint proposed.

As to the cry which prejudice may raise against it as
being unnatural, it is just as unnatural (and no more so)
as to refrain, in a sultry summer's day, from drinking,
perhaps, more than a pint of water at a draught, which
prudence tells us is enough, while inclination would bid
us drink a quart. All thwarting of any human wish or
impulse may, in one sense, be called unnatural ; it is
not, however, ofttimes the less prudent and proper, on
that account.


As to the practical efficacy of this simple preventive^
the experience of France, where it is universally prac-
tised, might suffice in proof. I know, at this moment,
several , married persons who have told me, that, after
having had as many children as they thought prudent,
they had for years employed this check, with perfect
success. For the satisfaction of my readers, I will select
one particular instance.

I knew personally and intimately for many years a
young man of strict honour, in whose sincerity I ever
placed perfect confidence, and who confided to me the
particulars of his situation. He was just entering on life,
with slender means, and his circumstances forbade him
to have a large family of children. He, therefore, having
consulted with his young wife, practised this restraint, I
believe for about eighteen months, and with perfect suc-
cess. At the expiration of that period, their situation be-
ing more favourable, they resolved to become parents ; and,
in a fortnight after, the wife found herself pregnant.
My friend told me, that though he felt the partial priva-
tion a little at first, a few weeks' habit perfectly reconciled
him to it ; and that nothing but a deliberate conviction
that he might prudently now become a ^parent, and a
strong desire on his wife's part to have a child, induced
him to alter his first practice. 1 believe I was the only
one among his friends to whom he ever communicated
the real state of the case : and I doubt not there are, even
in this country, hundreds of similar cases which the
world never learns any thing about. Hence the doubts
and ignorance which exist on the subject.

I add another instance. A few weeks since, a re-
spectable and very intelligent father of a family, about
thirty-five years of age, who resides west of the moun-
j called at our office. Conversation turned on the


present subject, and I expressed to him my conviction,
that this check was effectual. He told me he could speak
from personal experience. He had married young, and
soon had three children. These he could support in
comfort, without running into debt or difficulty ; but,
the price of produce sinking in his neighbourhood, there
did not appear a fair prospect of supporting a large fami-
ly. In consequence, he and his wife determined to
limit their offspring to three. They have accordingly
employed the above check for seven or eight years ; have
had no more children ; and have been rewarded for their
prudence by finding their situation and prospects im-
proving every year. He confirmed an opinion I have
already expressed, by stating, that custom completely
reconciled him to any slight privation he might at first
have felt. I asked him, whether his neighbours gene-
rally followed the same practice. He replied, that he
could not tell ; for he had not thought it prudent to speak
with any but his own relations on the subject, one or
two of whom, he knew, had profited by his advice, and
afterwards expressed to him their gratitude for the im-
portant information.

It is unnecessary farther to multiply instances. The
fact that this check is in common practice, and univer-
sally known to be efficacious, in France, is alone suffi-
cient evidence of its practicability and safety.

I can readily imagine, that there are men, who, in
part from temperament, but much more from the con-
tinued habit of unrestrained indulgence, may have so
little command over their passions, as to find difficulty
in practising it ; and some, it may be, who will declare
it to be impossible. If any there be to whom it is im-
possible, (which I very much doubt,) I am at least con-
vinced that the number is exceedingly small; not a



fiftieth part of those who may at first imagine such to
be their case.

I may add, that partial withdrawal, though recom-
mended in a letter published in Carlile's Republican, is
not an infallible preventive of conception.

Other modes of prevention have been employed,* but
this is at once the most simple, and the most efficacious ;
the only one, or nearly so, employed by the cultivated
among European nations ; and the only one I here
venture to recommend. From all I have heard, as
well from physicians as from private individuals, it is, as
regards health, at the least, perfectly innocent : it has
been even said to produce upon the human system an
effect similar to that of temperance in diet ; but whether
there be truth in this hypothesis I know not. As re-
regards any moral impropriety in its use, enough, me-
thinks, has already been said, to convince all except
those who will not be convinced, that to employ it, in
all cases where prudence or the well-being of our com-
panions requires it, is an act of practical virtue.

It may be said, and said truly, that this check places
the power chiefly in the hands of the man, and not,

* One of these modes, that of the sponge, is particularly recommend-
ed in Carlile's " Every Woman's Book." I do not allude to it in the
text : because I believe it to be of doubtful efficacy ; and, more certainly,
physically disagreeable in its effects ; and because I feel convinced, that
the selfish of either sex will adopt no expedient, while the well-disposed
will adopt the best in preference. Carlile supposes this to be the check
common among the cultivated classes in France. In this he is mistaken.
It is not employed, and scarcely known there. Had Carlile had an op-
portunity of conversing with French physicians, he would have satis-
factorily ascertained this fact.

I also pass over all allusion to the baudruche, which is every way in-
convenient, and is chiefly used to guard against syphilis. I do not write
to facilitate, but, on the contrary, effectually to prevent, the degrading
intercourse of which it is intended to obviate the penalty.


where it ought to be, in those of the woman. She, who
is the sufferer, is not secured against the culpable care-
lessness, or perhaps the deliberate selfishness, of him who
goes free and unblamed, whatever may happen. To
this, the reply is, that the best and only effectual defence
for women is to refuse connexion with any man void of
honour. An (almost omnipotent) public opinion would
thus be speedily formed ; one of immense moral utility,
by means of which the man's social reputation would be
placed, as it should be, in the keeping of women, whose
moral tact and nice discrimination in such matters is far
superiour to ours. How mighty and how beneficent the
power which such an influence might exert, and how
essentially and rapidly it might conduce to the gradual,
but thorough extirpation of those selfish vices, legal and
illegal, which now disgrace and brutify our species, it is
difficult even to imagine.

In the silent, but resistless progress of human im-
provement, such a change is fortunately inevitable. We
are gradually emerging from the night of blind prejudice
and of brutal force ; and, day by day, rational liberty
and cultivated refinement, win an accession of power.
Yiolence yields to benevolence, compulsion to kindness,
the letter of law to the spirit of justice : and, day by day,
men and women become more willing, and better pre-
pared, to entrust the most sacred duties (social as well as
political) more to good feeling and less to idle form
more to moral and less to legal keeping.

It is no question Avhether such reform will come : no
human power can arrest its progress. How slowly or
how rapidly it may come, is a question ; and depends,
in some degree, on adventitious circumstances. Should
this little book prove one among the number of circum-
stances to accelerate, however slightly, that progress, its


author will be repaid, ten times over, for any trifling la-
bour it may have cost him.

In conclusion, it may be useful to state to the reader
the following facts : A knowledge of this and other
checks to population has been, for many years, exten-
sively disseminated in most of the populous towns in
Great Britain ; not only through the medium of "Every
Woman's Book," but, previously to its publication, by
hundreds of thousands of handbills, which were gratui-
tously distributed from benevolent motives. The men
who were first instrumental in making them known in
England, are all elderly men, fathers of families of chil-
dren grown up to be men and women ; men of unim-
peachable integrity, and of first rate moral character;
many of them men of science, and some of them known
as the first political economists and philanthropists of the
age. Besides the allusion to the subject already given
from the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is adverted to in
Mill's " Elements of Political Economy ;" in Place's " Il-
lustrations of the Principle of Population ;" in Thomp-
son's " Distribution of Wealth," and probably in other
works with which I am unacquainted. It was also
(disguisedly) broached in several English newspapers,
and was preached in lectures to the labouring classes, by
a most benevolent man, at Leeds. I do not believe the
subject has ever been touched upon, in one single in-
stance, except by men of irreproachable moral character,
and generally of high standing in society. The chief
difference between this little treatise, and the allusions
made by the distinguished authors above mentioned, is,
that what public opinion would only permit them to in-
sinuate, I venture to say plainly.

My readers may implicitly depend on the accuracy of


the facts I have stated. Though, in the present state
of public opinion, I may not, for obvious reasons, give
names in proof, yet it is evident that I cannot have the
shadow of a motive to mislead or deceive. I shall con-
sider it a favour if any individuals who can adduce,/rom
personal experience^ facts connected with this subject,
will communicate them to me.

Note. The enlightened Condorcet, in his well-known " Esquisse
des progres de I 'esprit humain," very distinctly alludes to the
eafety arid facility with which population might be restrained, " if
reason should but keep pace with the arts and sciences, and if the
idle prejudices of superstition should cease to shed over human
morals an austerity corrupting and degrading, not purifying or
elevating." See his Esquisse, pages 285 to 288, Paris Ed. 1822.

Malthus (see his " Essays on Population," Book 3, chap. 1)
" professes not to understand" the French philosopher. No French-
man could misunderstand him.




That most practical of philosophers, Franklin, inter-
prets chastity to mean, the regulated and strictly tem-
perate satisfaction^ without injury to others, of those
desires which are natural to all healthy adult beings.
In this sense, chastity is the first of virtues, and one most
rarely practised, either by young men or by married per-
sons, even when the latter most scrupulously conform
to the letter of the law. *

The promotion of such chastity is the chief object of
the present work. It is all-important for the welfare of
our race, that the reproductive instinct should never be
selfishly indulged ; never gratified at the expense of the
well-being of our companions. A man who, in this
matter, will not consult, with scrupulous deference, the
slightest wishes of the other sex ; a man who will ever
put his desires in competition with theirs, and who will
prize more highly the pleasure he receives than that he
may be capable of bestowing such a man appears to

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Online LibraryRobert Dale OwenMoral physiology; or, A brief and plain treatise on the population question → online text (page 5 of 7)