Samuel Butler.

Selections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal online

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I have never professed to be the originator of the theory connecting
heredity with memory. I knew I knew so little that I was in great
trepidation when I wrote all the earlier chapters of "Life and Habit." I
put them paradoxically, because I did not dare to put them otherwise. As
the book went on, I saw I was on firm ground, and the paradox was
dropped. When I found what Professor Hering had done, I put him forward
as best I could at once. I then learned German, and translated him,
giving his words in full in "Unconscious Memory;" since then I have
always spoken of the theory as Professor Hering's.

Mr. Romanes says that "the theory in question forms the backbone of all
the previous literature on instinct by the above-named writers (not to
mention their numerous followers) and is by all of them elaborately
stated as clearly as any theory can be stated in words." Few except Mr.
Romanes will say this. I grant it ought to have formed the backbone "of
all previous literature on instinct by the above-named writers," but when
I wrote "Life and Habit" it was not understood to form it. If it had
been, I should not have found it necessary to come before the public this
fourth time during the last seven years to insist upon it. Of course the
theory is not new - it was in the air and bound to come; but when it came,
it came through Professor Hering of Prague, and not through those who,
great as are the services they have rendered, still did not render this
particular one of making memory the keystone of their system. Mr.
Romanes now says: "Why, of course, that's what they were meaning all the
time." Perhaps they were, but they did not say so, and
others - conspicuously Mr. Romanes himself - did not understand them to be
meaning what he now discovers that they meant. When Mr. Romanes attacked
me in _Nature_, January 27, 1881, he said I had "been anticipated by
Professor Hering," but he evidently did not understand that any one else
had anticipated me; and far from holding, as he now does, that "the
theory in question forms the backbone of all the previous" writers on
instinct, and "is by all of them elaborately stated as clearly as any
theory can be stated in words," he said (in a passage already quoted)
that it was "interesting, if advanced merely as an illustration, but to
imagine that it maintains any truth of profound significance, or that it
can possibly be fraught with any benefit to science, is absurd."
Considering how recently Mr. Romanes wrote the words just quoted, he has
soon forgotten them.

I do not, as I have said already, and never did, claim to have originated
the theory I put forward in "Life and Habit." I thought it out
independently, but I knew it must have occurred to many, and had probably
been worked out by many, before myself. My claim is to have brought it
perhaps into fuller light, and to have dwelt on its importance, bearings,
and developments with some persistence, and to have done so without much
recognition or encouragement, till lately. Of men of science, Mr. A. R.
Wallace and Professor Mivart gave me encouragement, but no one else has
done so. I sometimes saw, as in the Duke of Argyll's case, and in Mr.
Romanes' own, that men were writing at me, or borrowing from me, but with
the two exceptions already made, and that also of the Bishop of Carlisle,
not one of the literary and scientific notables of the day so much as
mentioned my name while making use of my work.

A few words more, and I will bring these remarks to a close, Mr. Romanes
says I represent "the phenomena of memory as occurring throughout the
inorganic world." This implies that I attribute all the phenomena of
memory as we see them in animals to such things as stones and gases. Mr.
Romanes knows very well that I have never said anything which could
warrant his attempting to put the absurdity into my mouth which he here
tries to do. The reader who wishes to see what I do maintain upon this
subject will find it on pp. 216-218 of the present volume.



Talking of legs, as I went through the main street of Dalpe an old lady
of about sixty-five stopped me, and told me that while gathering her
winter store of firewood she had had the misfortune to hurt her leg. I
was very sorry, but I failed to satisfy her; the more I sympathised in
general terms, the more I felt that something further was expected of me.
I went on trying to do the civil thing, when the old lady cut me short by
saying it would be much better if I were to see the leg at once; so she
showed it me in the street, and there, sure enough, close to the groin
there was a swelling. Again I said how sorry I was, and added that
perhaps she ought to show it to a medical man. "But aren't _you_ a
medical man?" said she in an alarmed manner. "Certainly not, ma'am,"
replied I. "Then why did you let me show you my leg?" said she
indignantly, and pulling her clothes down, the poor old woman began to
hobble off; presently two others joined her, and I heard hearty peals of
laughter as she recounted her story. A stranger visiting these out-of-
the-way villages is almost certain to be mistaken for a doctor. What
business, they say to themselves, can any one else have there, and who in
his senses would dream of visiting them for pleasure? This old lady had
rushed to the usual conclusion, and had been trying to get a little
advice gratis.

* * * * *

The little objects looking like sentry-boxes that go all round Prato
Church contain rough modern frescoes representing, if I remember rightly,
the events attendant upon the crucifixion. These are on a small scale
what the chapels on the sacred mountain of Varallo are on a large one.
Small single oratories are scattered about all over the Canton Ticino,
and indeed everywhere in North Italy, by the road-side, at all halting-
places, and especially at the crest of any more marked ascent, where the
tired wayfarer, probably heavy laden, might be inclined to say a naughty
word or two if not checked. The people like them, and miss them when
they come to England. They sometimes do what the lower animals do in
confinement when precluded from habits they are accustomed to, and put up
with strange makeshifts by way of substitute. I once saw a poor Ticinese
woman kneeling in prayer before a dentist's show-case in the Hampstead
Road; she doubtless mistook the teeth for the relics of some saint. I am
afraid she was a little like a hen sitting upon a chalk egg, but she
seemed quite contented.

Which of us, indeed, does not sit contentedly enough upon chalk eggs at
times? And what would life be but for the power to do so? We do not
sufficiently realise the part which illusion has played in our
development. One of the prime requisites for evolution is a certain
power for adaptation to varying circumstances, that is to say, of
plasticity, bodily and mental. But the power of adaptation is mainly
dependent on the power of thinking certain new things sufficiently like
certain others to which we have been accustomed for us not to be too much
incommoded by the change - upon the power, in fact, of mistaking the new
for the old. The power of fusing ideas (and through ideas, structures)
depends upon the power of _con_fusing them; the power to confuse ideas
that are not very unlike, and that are presented to us in immediate
sequence, is mainly due to the fact of the impetus, so to speak, which
the mind has upon it. It is this which bars association from sticking to
the letter of its bond; for we are in a hurry to jump to a conclusion on
the first show of plausible pretext, and cut association's statement of
claim short by taking it as read before we have got through half of it.
We "get it into our notes, in fact," as Mr. Justice Stareleigh did in
Pickwick, and having got it once in, we are not going to get it out
again. This breeds fusion and confusion, and from this there come new

So powerful is the impetus which the mind has continually upon it that we
always, I believe, make an effort to see every new object as a repetition
of the object last before us. Objects are so varied and present
themselves so rapidly, that as a general rule we renounce this effort too
promptly to notice it, but it is always there, and as I have just said,
it is because of it that we are able to mistake, and hence to evolve new
mental and bodily developments. Where the effort is successful, there is
illusion; where nearly successful but not quite, there is a shock and a
sense of being puzzled - more or less, as the case may be; where it so
obviously impossible as not to be pursued, there is no perception of the
effort at all.

Mr. Locke has been greatly praised for his essay upon human
understanding. An essay on human misunderstanding should be no less
interesting and important. Illusion to a small extent is one of the main
causes, if indeed it is not the main cause, of progress, but it must be
upon a small scale. All abortive speculation, whether commercial or
philosophical, is based upon it, and much as we may abuse such
speculation, we are, all of us, its debtors.

* * * * *

I know few things more touching in their way than the porch of Rossura
Church: it is dated early in the last century, and is absolutely without
ornament; the flight of steps inside it lead up to the level of the floor
of the church. One lovely summer Sunday morning passing the church
betimes, I saw the people kneeling upon these steps, the church within
being crammed. In the darker light of the porch, they told out against
the sky that showed through the open arch beyond them; far away the eye
rested on the mountains - deep blue, save where the snow still lingered. I
never saw anything more beautiful - and these forsooth are the people whom
so many of us think to better by distributing tracts about Protestantism
among them!

I liked the porch almost best under an aspect which it no longer
presents. One summer an opening was made in the west wall, which was
afterwards closed because the wind blew through it too much and made the
church too cold. While it was open, one could sit on the church steps
and look down through it on to the bottom of the Ticino valley; and
through the windows one could see the slopes about Dalpe and Cornone.
Between the two windows there is a picture of austere old S. Carlo
Borromeo with his hands joined in prayer.

It was at Rossura that I made the acquaintance of a word which I have
since found very largely used throughout North Italy. It is pronounced
"chow" pure and simple, but is written, if written at all, "ciau" or
"ciao," the "a" being kept very broad. I believe the word is derived
from "schiavo," a slave, which became corrupted into "schiao," and
"ciao." It is used with two meanings, both of which, however, are
deducible from the word slave. In its first and more common use it is
simply a salute, either on greeting or taking leave, and means, "I am
your very obedient servant." Thus, if one has been talking to a small
child, its mother will tell it to say "chow" before it goes away, and
will then nod her head and say "chow" herself. The other use is a kind
of pious expletive, intending "I must endure it," "I am the slave of a
higher power." It was in this sense I first heard it at Rossura. A
woman was washing at a fountain while I was eating my lunch. She said
she had lost her daughter in Paris a few weeks earlier. "She was a
beautiful woman," said the bereaved mother, "but - chow. She had great
talents - chow. I had her educated by the nuns of Bellinzona - chow. Her
knowledge of geography was consummate - chow, chow," &c. Here "chow"
means "pazienza," "I have done and said all that I can, and must now bear
it as best I may."

I tried to comfort her, but could do nothing, till at last it occurred to
me to say "chow" too. I did so, and was astonished at the soothing
effect it had upon her. How subtle are the laws that govern consolation!
I suppose they must ultimately be connected with reproduction - the
consoling idea being a kind of small cross which _re-generates_ or _re-
creates_ the sufferer. It is important, therefore, that the new ideas
with which the old are to be crossed should differ from these last
sufficiently to divert the attention, and yet not so much as to cause a
painful shock.

There should be a little shock, or there will be no variation in the new
ideas that are generated, but they will resemble those that preceded
them, and grief will be continued; there must not be too great a shock or
there will be no illusion - no confusion and fusion between the new set of
ideas and the old, and in consequence there will be no result at all, or,
if any, an increase in mental discord. We know very little, however,
upon this subject, and are continually shown to be at fault by finding an
unexpectedly small cross produce a wide diversion of the mental images,
while in other cases a wide one will produce hardly any result. Sometimes
again, a cross which we should have said was much too wide will have an
excellent effect. I did not anticipate, for example, that my saying
"chow" would have done much for the poor woman who had lost her daughter:
the cross did not seem wide enough: she was already, as I thought,
saturated with "chow." I can only account for the effect my application
of it produced by supposing the word to have derived some element of
strangeness and novelty as coming from a foreigner - just as land which
will give a poor crop, if planted with sets from potatoes that have been
grown for three or four years on this same soil, will yet yield
excellently if similar sets be brought from twenty miles off. For the
potato, so far as I have studied it, is a good-tempered, frivolous plant,
easily amused and easily bored, and one, moreover, which if bored, yawns

I may say in passing that the tempers of plants have not been
sufficiently studied; and what little opinion we have formed about their
dispositions is for the most part ill formed. The sulkiest tree that I
know is the silver beech. It never forgives a scratch. - There is a tree
in Kensington gardens a little off the west side of the Serpentine with
names cut upon it as long ago as 1717 and 1736, which the tree is as
little able to forgive and forget as though the injury had been done not
ten years since. And the tree is not an aged tree either.


Our inventions increase in geometrical ratio. They are like living
beings, each one of which may become parent of a dozen others - some good
and some ne'er-do-weels; but they differ from animals and vegetables
inasmuch as they not only increase in a geometrical ratio, but the period
of their gestation decreases in geometrical ratio also. Take this matter
of Alpine roads for example. For how many millions of years was there no
approach to a road over the St. Gothard, save the untutored watercourses
of the Ticino and the Reuss, and the track of the bouquetin or the
chamois? For how many more ages after this was there not a mere
shepherd's or huntsman's path by the river-side - without so much as a log
thrown over so as to form a rude bridge? No one would probably have ever
thought of making a bridge out of his own unaided imagination, more than
any monkey that we know of has done so. But an avalanche or a flood once
swept a pine into position and left it there; on this a genius, who was
doubtless thought to be doing something very infamous, ventured to make
use of it. Another time a pine was found nearly across the stream, but
not quite; and not quite, again, in the place where it was wanted. A
second genius, to the horror of his fellow-tribesmen - who declared that
this time the world really would come to an end - shifted the pine a few
feet so as to bring it across the stream and into the place where it was
wanted. This man was the inventor of bridges - his family repudiated him,
and he came to a bad end. From this to cutting down the pine and
bringing it from some distance is an easy step. To avoid detail, let us
come to the old Roman horse-road over the Alps. The time between the
shepherd's path and the Roman road is probably short in comparison with
that between the mere chamois track and the first thing that can be
called a path of men. From the Roman we go on to the mediaeval road with
more frequent stone bridges, and from the mediaeval to the Napoleonic

The close of the last century and the first quarter of this present one
was the great era for the making of carriage-roads. Fifty years have
hardly passed, and here we are already in the age of tunnelling and
railroads. The first period, from the chamois track to the foot road,
was one of millions of years; the second, from the first foot road to the
Roman military way, was one of many thousands; the third, from the Roman
to the mediaeval, was perhaps a thousand; from the mediaeval to the
Napoleonic, five hundred; from the Napoleonic to the railroad, fifty.
What will come next we know not, but it should come within twenty years,
and will probably have something to do with electricity.

It follows by an easy process of reasoning that after another couple of
hundred years or so, great sweeping changes should be made several times
in an hour, or indeed in a second, or fraction of a second, till they
pass unnoticed as the revolutions we undergo in the embryonic stages, or
are felt simply as vibrations. This would undoubtedly be the case but
for the existence of a friction which interferes between theory and
practice. This friction is caused partly by the disturbance of vested
interests which every invention involves, and which will be found
intolerable when men become millionaires and paupers alternately once a
fortnight - living one week in a palace and the next in a workhouse, and
having perpetually to be sold up, and then to buy a new house and
refurnish, &c. - so that artificial means for stopping inventions will be
adopted; and partly by the fact that though all inventions breed in
geometrical ratio, yet some multiply more rapidly than others, and the
backwardness of one art will impede the forwardness of another. At any
rate, so far as I can see, the present is about the only comfortable time
for a man to live in, that either ever has been or ever will be. The
past was too slow, and the future will be much too fast.

The fact is (but it is so obvious that I am ashamed to say anything about
it) that science is rapidly reducing time and space to a very
undifferentiated condition. Take lamb: we can get lamb all the year
round. This is perpetual spring; but perpetual spring is no spring at
all; it is not a season; there are no more seasons, and being no seasons,
there is no time. Take rhubarb, again. Rhubarb to the philosopher is
the beginning of autumn, if indeed the philosopher can see anything as
the beginning of anything. If any one asks why, I suppose the
philosopher would say that rhubarb is the beginning of the fruit season,
which is clearly autumnal, according to our present classification. From
rhubarb to the green gooseberry the step is so small as to require no
bridging - with one's eyes shut, and plenty of cream and sugar, they are
almost indistinguishable - but the gooseberry is quite an autumnal fruit,
and only a little earlier than apples and plums, which last are almost
winter; clearly, therefore, for scientific purposes rhubarb is autumnal.

As soon as we can find gradations, or a sufficient number of uniting
links between two things, they become united or made one thing, and any
classification of them must be illusory. Classification is only possible
where there is a shock given to the senses by reason of a perceived
difference, which, if it is considerable, can be expressed in words. When
the world was younger and less experienced, people were shocked at what
appeared great differences between living forms; but species, whether of
animals or plants, are now seen to be so united, either inferentially or
by actual finding of the links, that all classification is felt to be
arbitrary. The seasons are like species - they were at one time thought
to be clearly marked, and capable of being classified with some approach
to satisfaction. It is now seen that they blend either in the present or
the past insensibly into one another, much as Mr. Herbert Spencer shows
us that geology and astronomy blend into one another, {265} and cannot be
classified except by cutting Gordian knots in a way which none but plain
sensible people can tolerate. Strictly speaking, there is only one
place, one time, one action, and one individual or thing; of this thing
or individual each one of us is a part. It is perplexing, but it is
philosophy; and modern philosophy, like modern music, is nothing if it is
not perplexing.

A simple verification of the autumnal character of rhubarb may, at first
sight, appear to be found in Covent Garden Market, where we can actually
see the rhubarb towards the end of October. But this way of looking at
the matter argues a fatal ineptitude for the pursuit of true philosophy.
It would be "the most serious error" to regard the rhubarb that will
appear in Covent Garden Market next October as belonging to the autumn
then supposed to be current. Practically, no doubt, it does so, but
theoretically it must be considered as the first-fruits of the autumn (if
any) of the following year, which begins before the preceding summer (or,
perhaps, more strictly, the preceding summer but one - and hence, but any
number), has well ended. Whether this, however, is so or no, the rhubarb
can be seen in Covent Garden, and I am afraid it must be admitted that to
the philosophically minded there lurks within it a theory of evolution,
and even Pantheism, as surely as Theism was lurking in Bishop Berkeley's

To return, however, to Calonico. The _curato_ was very kind to me. We
had long talks together. I could see it pained him that I was not a
Catholic. He could never quite get over this, but he was very good and
tolerant. He was anxious to be assured that I was not one of those
English who went about distributing tracts, and trying to convert people.
This of course was the last thing I should have wished to do; and when I
told him so, he viewed me with sorrow but henceforth without alarm.

All the time I was with him I felt how much I wished I could be a
Catholic in Catholic countries, and a Protestant in Protestant ones.
Surely there are some things which like politics are too serious to be
taken quite seriously. _Surtout point de zele_ is not the saying of a
cynic, but the conclusion of a sensible man; and the more deep our
feeling is about any matter, the more occasion have we to be on our guard
against _zele_ in this particular respect. There is but one step from
the "earnest" to the "intense." When St. Paul told us to be all things
to all men he let in the thin end of the wedge, nor did he mark it to say
how far it was to be driven.

I have Italian friends whom I greatly value, and who tell me they think I
flirt just a trifle too much with "_il partito nero_," when I am in
Italy, for they know that in the main I think as they do. "These
people," they say, "make themselves very agreeable to you, and show you
their smooth side; we, who see more of them, know their rough one.
Knuckle under to them, and they will perhaps condescend to patronise you;
have any individuality of your own, and they know neither scruple nor
remorse in their attempts to get you out of their way. '_Il prete_' they
say, with a significant look, '_e sempre prete_.' For the future let us
have professors and men of science instead of priests."

I smile to myself at this last, and reply, that I am a foreigner come
among them for recreation, and anxious to keep clear of their internal
discords. I do not wish to cut myself off from one side of their
national character - a side which, in some respects, is no less
interesting than the one with which I suppose I am on the whole more
sympathetic. If I were an Italian, I should feel bound to take a side;
as it is, I wish to leave all quarrelling behind me, having as much of
that in England as suffices to keep me in good health and temper.

In old times people gave their spiritual and intellectual sop to Nemesis.
Even when most positive, they admitted a percentage of doubt. Mr.
Tennyson has said well, "There lives more doubt" - I quote from memory - "in

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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 18 of 23)