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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Online LibrarySamuel ButlerSelections from previous works, with remarks on G. J. Romanes' Mentl evolution in animals, and A psalm of Montreal → online text (page 2 of 23)
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household would become subordinate to the family doctor, who would
interfere between man and wife, between master and servant, until the
doctors should be the only depositaries of power in the nation, and have
all that we hold precious at their mercy. A time of universal
dephysicalisation would ensue; medicine-vendors of all kinds would abound
in our streets and advertise in all our newspapers. There is one remedy
for this, and one only. It is that which the laws of this country have
long received and acted upon, and consists in the sternest repression of
all diseases whatsoever, as soon as their existence is made manifest to
the eye of the law. Would that that eye were far more piercing than it

"But I will enlarge no further upon things that are themselves so
obvious. You may say that it is not your fault. The answer is ready
enough at hand, and it amounts to this - that if you had been born of
healthy and well-to-do parents, and been well taken care of when you were
a child, you would never have offended against the laws of your country,
nor found yourself in your present disgraceful position. If you tell me
that you had no hand in your parentage and education, and that it is
therefore unjust to lay these things to your charge, I answer that
whether your being in a consumption is your fault or no, it is a fault in
you, and it is my duty to see that against such faults as this the
commonwealth shall be protected. You may say that it is your misfortune
to be criminal; I answer that it is your crime to be unfortunate.

"I do not hesitate therefore to sentence you to imprisonment, with hard
labour, for the rest of your miserable existence. During that period I
would earnestly entreat you to repent of these wrongs you have done
already, and to entirely reform the constitution of your whole body. I
entertain but little hope that you will pay attention to my advice; you
are already far too abandoned. Did it rest with myself, I should add
nothing in mitigation of the sentence which I have passed, but it is the
merciful provision of the law that even the most hardened criminal shall
be allowed some one of the three official remedies, which is to be
prescribed at the time of his conviction. I shall therefore order that
you receive two tablespoonfuls of castor-oil daily, until the pleasure of
the court be further known."

When the sentence was concluded, the prisoner acknowledged in a few
scarcely audible words that he was justly punished, and that he had had a
fair trial. He was then removed to the prison from which he was never to
return. There was a second attempt at applause when the judge had
finished speaking, but as before it was at once repressed; and though the
feeling of the court was strongly against the prisoner, there was no show
of any violence against him, if one may except a little hooting from the
bystanders when he was being removed in the prisoners' van. Indeed,
nothing struck me more during my whole sojourn in the country, than the
general respect for law and order.


I write with great diffidence, but it seems to me that there is no
unfairness in punishing people for their misfortunes, or rewarding them
for their sheer good luck: it is the normal condition of human life that
this should be done, and no right-minded person will complain at being
subjected to the common treatment. There is no alternative open to us.
It is idle to say that men are not responsible for their misfortunes.
What is responsibility? Surely to be responsible means to be liable to
have to give an answer should it be demanded, and all things which live
are responsible for their lives and actions should society see fit to
question them through the mouth of its authorised agent.

What is the offence of a lamb that we should rear it, and tend it, and
lull it into security, for the express purpose of killing it? Its
offence is the misfortune of being something which society wants to eat,
and which cannot defend itself. This is ample. Who shall limit the
right of society except society itself? And what consideration for the
individual is tolerable unless society be the gainer thereby? Wherefore
should a man be so richly rewarded for having been son to a millionaire,
were it not clearly provable that the common welfare is thus better
furthered? We cannot seriously detract from a man's merit in having been
the son of a rich father without imperilling our own tenure of things
which we do not wish to jeopardise; if this were otherwise we should not
let him keep his money for a single hour; we would have it ourselves at
once. For property _is_ robbery, but then we are all robbers or would-be
robbers together, and have found it expedient to organise our thieving,
as we have found it to organise our lust and our revenge. Property,
marriage, the law; as the bed to the river, so rule and convention to the

But to return. Even in England a man on board a ship with yellow fever
is held responsible for his mischance, no matter what his being kept in
quarantine may cost him. He may catch the fever and die; we cannot help
it; he must take his chance as other people do; but surely it would be
desperate unkindness to add contumely to our self-protection, unless,
indeed, we believe that contumely is one of our best means of
self-protection. Again, take the case of maniacs. We say that they are
irresponsible for their actions, but we take good care, or ought to take
good care, that they shall answer to us for their insanity, and we
imprison them in what we call an asylum (that modern sanctuary!) if we do
not like their answers. This is a strange kind of irresponsibility. What
we ought to say is that we can afford to be satisfied with a less
satisfactory answer from a lunatic than from one who is not mad, because
lunacy is less infectious than crime.

We kill a serpent if we go in danger by it, simply for being such and
such a serpent in such and such a place; but we never say that the
serpent has only itself to blame for not having been a harmless creature.
Its crime is that of being the thing which it is: but this is a capital
offence, and we are right in killing it out of the way, unless we think
it more dangerous to do so than to let it escape; nevertheless we pity
the creature, even though we kill it.

But in the case of him whose trial I have described above, it was
impossible that any one in the court should not have known that it was
but by an accident of birth and circumstances that he was not himself
also in a consumption; and yet none thought that it disgraced them to
hear the judge give vent to the most cruel truisms about him. The judge
himself was a kind and thoughtful person. He was a man of magnificent
and benign presence. He was evidently of an iron constitution, and his
face wore an expression of the maturest wisdom and experience; yet for
all this, old and learned as he was, he could not see things which one
would have thought would have been apparent even to a child. He could
not emancipate himself from, nay, it did not even occur to him to feel,
the bondage of the ideas in which he had been born and bred. So was it
with the jury and bystanders; and - most wonderful of all - so was it even
with the prisoner. Throughout he seemed fully impressed with the notion
that he was being dealt with justly: he saw nothing wanton in his being
told by the judge that he was to be punished, not so much as a necessary
protection to society (although this was not entirely lost sight of), as
because he had not been better born and bred than he was. But this led
me to hope that he suffered less than he would have done if he had seen
the matter in the same light that I did. And, after all, justice is

I may here mention that only a few years before my arrival in the
country, the treatment of all convicted invalids had been much more
barbarous than now; for no physical remedy was provided, and prisoners
were put to the severest labour in all sorts of weather, so that most of
them soon succumbed to the extreme hardships which they suffered; this
was supposed to be beneficial in some ways, inasmuch as it put the
country to less expense for the maintenance of its criminal class; but
the growth of luxury had induced a relaxation of the old severity, and a
sensitive age would no longer tolerate what appeared to be an excess of
rigour, even towards the most guilty; moreover, it was found that juries
were less willing to convict, and justice was often cheated because there
was no alternative between virtually condemning a man to death and
letting him go free; it was also held that the country paid in
recommittals for its overseverity; for those who had been imprisoned even
for trifling ailments were often permanently disabled by their
imprisonment; and when a man has been once convicted, it was probable he
would never afterwards be long off the hands of the country.

These evils had long been apparent and recognised; yet people were too
indolent, and too indifferent to suffering not their own, to bestir
themselves about putting an end to them, until at last a benevolent
reformer devoted his whole life to effecting the necessary changes. He
divided illnesses into three classes - those affecting the head, the
trunk, and the lower limbs - and obtained an enactment that all diseases
of the head, whether internal or external, should be treated with
laudanum, those of the body with castor-oil, and those of the lower limbs
with an embrocation of strong sulphuric acid and water. It may be said
that the classification was not sufficiently careful, and that the
remedies were ill chosen; but it is a hard thing to initiate any reform,
and it was necessary to familiarise the public mind with the principle,
by inserting the thin end of the wedge first: it is not therefore to be
wondered at that among so practical a people there should still be some
room for improvement. The mass of the nation are well pleased with
existing arrangements, and believe that their treatment of criminals
leaves little or nothing to be desired; but there is an energetic
minority who hold what are considered to be extreme opinions, and who are
not at all disposed to rest contented until the principle lately admitted
has been carried further.


On my return to the drawing-room, I found the ladies were just putting
away their work and preparing to go out. I asked them where they were
going. They answered with a certain air of reserve that they were going
to the bank to get some money.

Now I had already collected that the mercantile affairs of the
Erewhonians were conducted on a totally different system from our own; I
had however gathered little hitherto, except that they had two distinct
commercial systems, of which the one appealed more strongly to the
imagination than anything to which we are accustomed in Europe, inasmuch
as the banks conducted upon this system were decorated in the most
profuse fashion, and all mercantile transactions were accompanied with
music, so that they were called musical banks though the music was
hideous to a European ear.

As for the system itself I never understood it, neither can I do so now:
they have a code in connection with it, which I have no doubt they
themselves understand, but no foreigner can hope to do so. One rule runs
into and against another as in a most complicated grammar, or as in
Chinese pronunciation, wherein I am told the slightest change in
accentuation or tone of voice alters the meaning of a whole sentence.
Whatever is incoherent in my description must be referred to the fact of
my never having attained to a full comprehension of the subject.

So far however as I could collect anything certain, they appeared to have
two entirely distinct currencies, each under the control of its own banks
and mercantile codes. The one of them (the one with the musical banks)
was supposed to be _the_ system, and to give out the currency in which
all monetary transactions should be carried on. As far as I could see,
all who wished to be considered respectable, did keep a certain amount of
this currency at these banks; nevertheless, if there is one thing of
which I am more sure than another it is that the amount so kept was but a
very small part of their possessions. I think they took the money, put
it into the bank, and then drew it out again, repeating the process day
by day, and keeping a certain amount of currency for this purpose and no
other, while they paid the expenses of the bank with the other coinage. I
am sure the managers and cashiers of the musical banks were not paid in
their own currency. Mr. Nosnibor used to go to these musical banks, or
rather to the great mother bank of the city, sometimes but not very
often. He was a pillar of one of the other kind of banks, though he held
some minor office also in these. The ladies generally went alone; as
indeed was the case in most families, except on some few great annual

I had long wanted to know more of this strange system, and had the
greatest desire to accompany my hostess and her daughters. I had seen
them go out almost every morning since my arrival, and had noticed that
they carried their purses in their hands, not exactly ostentatiously, yet
just so as that those who met them should see whither they were going. I
had never yet been asked to go with them myself.

It is not easy to convey a person's manner by words, and I can hardly
give any idea of the peculiar feeling which came upon me whenever I saw
the ladies in the hall, with their purses in their hands, and on the
point of starting for the bank. There was a something of regret, a
something as though they would wish to take me with them, but did not
like to ask me, and yet as though I were hardly to ask to be taken. I
was determined however to bring matters to an issue with my hostess about
my going with them, and after a little parleying and many inquiries as to
whether I was perfectly sure that I myself wished to go, it was decided
that I might do so.

We passed through several streets of more or less considerable houses,
and at last turning round a corner we came upon a large piazza, at the
end of which was a magnificent building, of a strange but noble
architecture and of great antiquity. It did not open directly on to the
piazza, there being a screen, through which was an archway, between the
piazza and the actual precincts of the bank. On passing under the
archway we found ourselves upon a green sward, round which there ran an
arcade or cloister, while in front of us uprose the majestic towers of
the bank and its venerable front, which was divided into three deep
recesses and adorned with all sorts of marbles and many sculptures. On
either side there were beautiful old trees wherein the birds were busy by
the hundred, and a number of quaint but substantial houses of singularly
comfortable appearance; they were situated in the midst of orchards and
gardens, and gave me an impression of great peace and plenty.

Indeed it had been no error to say that this building was one which
appealed to the imagination; it did more - it carried both imagination and
judgment by storm. It was an epic in stone and marble; neither had I
ever seen anything in the least comparable to it. I was completely
charmed and melted. I felt more conscious of the existence of a remote
past. One knows of this always, but the knowledge is never so living as
in the actual presence of some witness to the life of bygone ages. I
felt how short a space of human life was the period of our own existence.
I was more impressed with my own littleness, and much more inclinable to
believe that the people whose sense of the fitness of things was equal to
the upraising of so serene a handiwork, were hardly likely to be wrong in
the conclusions they might come to upon any subject. My feeling
certainly was that the currency of this bank must be the right one.

We crossed the sward and entered the building. If the outside had been
impressive the inside was even more so. It was very lofty and divided
into several parts by walls which rested upon massive pillars; the
windows were filled with glass, on which had been painted the principal
commercial incidents of the bank for many ages. In a remote part of the
building there were men and boys singing; this was the only disturbing
feature, for as the gamut was still unknown, there was no music in the
country which could be agreeable to a European ear. The singers seemed
to have derived their inspirations from the songs of birds and the
wailing of the wind, which last they tried to imitate in melancholy
cadences which at times degenerated into a howl. To my thinking the
noise was hideous, but it produced a great effect upon my companions, who
professed themselves much moved. As soon as the singing was over the
ladies requested me to stay where I was, while they went inside the place
from which it had seemed to come.

During their absence certain reflections forced themselves upon me.

In the first place, it struck me as strange that the building should be
so nearly empty; I was almost alone, and the few besides myself had been
led by curiosity, and had no intention of doing business with the bank.
But there might be more inside. I stole up to the curtain, and ventured
to draw the extreme edge of it on one side. No, there was hardly any one
there. I saw a large number of cashiers, all at their desks ready to pay
cheques, and one or two who seemed to be the managing partners. I also
saw my hostess and her daughters and two or three other ladies; also
three or four old women and the boys from one of the neighbouring
Colleges of Unreason; but there was no one else. This did not look as
though the bank was doing a very large business; and yet I had always
been told that every one in the city dealt with this establishment.

I cannot describe all that took place in these inner precincts, for a
sinister-looking person in a black gown came and made unpleasant gestures
at me for peeping. I happened to have in my pocket one of the musical
bank pieces, which had been given me by Mrs. Nosnibor, so I tried to tip
him with it; but having seen what it was, he became so angry that it was
all I could do to pacify him. When he was gone I ventured to take a
second look, and saw Zulora in the very act of giving a piece of paper
which looked like a cheque to one of the cashiers. He did not examine
it, but putting his hand into an antique coffer hard by, he pulled out a
quantity of dull-looking metal pieces apparently at random, and handed
them over without counting them; neither did Zulora count them, but put
them into her purse and departed. It seemed a very singular proceeding,
but I supposed that they knew their own business best, at any rate Zulora
seemed quite satisfied, thanked him for the money, and began making
towards the curtain: on this I let it drop and retreated to a reasonable

Mrs. Nosnibor and her daughters soon joined me. For some few minutes we
all kept silence, but at last I ventured to remark that the bank was not
so busy to-day as it probably often was. On this Mrs. Nosnibor said that
it was indeed melancholy to see what little heed people paid to the most
precious of all institutions. I could say nothing in reply, but I have
ever been of opinion that the greater part of mankind do approximately
know where they get that which does them good. Mrs. Nosnibor went on to
say that I must not imagine there was any want of confidence in the bank
because I had seen so few people there; the heart of the country was
thoroughly devoted to these establishments, and any sign of their being
in danger would bring in support from the most unexpected quarters. It
was only because people knew them to be so very safe, that in some cases
(as she lamented to say in Mr. Nosnibor's) they felt that their support
was unnecessary. Moreover these institutions never departed from the
safest and most approved banking principles. Thus they never allowed
interest on deposit, a thing now frequently done by certain bubble
companies, which by doing an illegitimate trade had drawn many customers
away; and even the shareholders were fewer than formerly, owing to the
innovations of these unscrupulous persons.

It came out by and by that the musical banks paid little or no dividend,
but divided their profits by way of bonus on the original shares once in
every three hundred and fifty years; and as it was now only two hundred
years since there had been one of these distributions, people felt that
they could not hope for another in their own time and preferred
investments whereby they got some more tangible return; all which, she
said, was very melancholy to think of.

Having made these last admissions, she returned to her original
statement, namely, that every one in the country really supported the
bank. As to the fewness of the people, and the absence of the
able-bodied, she pointed out to me with some justice that this was
exactly what we ought to expect. The men who were most conversant about
the stability of human institutions, such as the lawyers, men of science,
doctors, statesmen, painters, and the like, were just those who were most
likely to be misled by their own fancied accomplishments, and to be made
unduly suspicious by their licentious desire for greater present return,
which was at the root of nine-tenths of the opposition, by their vanity,
which would prompt them to affect superiority to the prejudices of the
vulgar, and by the stings of their own conscience, which was constantly
upbraiding them in the most cruel manner on account of their bodies,
which were generally diseased; let a person's intellect be never so
sound, unless his body were in absolute health, he could form no judgment
worth having on matters of this kind. The body was everything: it need
not perhaps be such a _strong_ body (she said this because she saw I was
thinking of the old and infirm-looking folks whom I had seen in the
bank), but it must be in perfect health; in this case, the less active
strength it had the more free would be the working of the intellect, and
therefore the sounder the conclusion. The people, then, whom I had seen
at the bank were in reality the very ones whose opinions were most worth
having; they declared its advantages to be incalculable, and even
professed to consider the immediate return to be far larger than they
were entitled to; and so she ran on, nor did she leave off till we had
got back to the house.

She might say what she pleased, but her manner was not one that carried
much conviction; and later on I saw signs of general indifference to
these banks that were not to be mistaken. Their supporters often denied
it, but the denial was generally so couched as to add another proof of
its existence. In commercial panics, and in times of general distress,
the people as a mass did not so much as even think of turning to these
banks. A few individuals might do so, some from habit and early
training, some from hope of gain, but few from a genuine belief that the
money was good; the masses turned instinctively to the other currency. In
a conversation with one of the musical bank managers I ventured to hint
this as plainly as politeness would allow. He said that it had been more
or less true till lately; but that now they had put fresh stained glass
windows into all the banks in the country, and repaired the buildings,
and enlarged the organs, and taken to talking nicely to the people in the
streets, and to remembering the ages of their children and giving them
things when they were ill, so that all would henceforth go smoothly.

"But haven't you done anything to the money itself?" said I timidly.

To this day I do not know exactly what the bank-manager said, but it came
to this in the end - that I had better not meddle with things that I did
not understand.

On reviewing the whole matter, I can be certain of this much only, that
the money given out at the musical banks is not the current coin of the
realm. It is not the money with which the people do as a general rule
buy their bread, meat, and clothing. It is like it; some coins very like
it; and it is not counterfeit. It is not, take it all round, a spurious
article made of base metal in imitation of the money which is in daily
use; but it is a distinct coinage which, though I do not suppose it ever
actually superseded the ordinary gold, silver, and copper, was probably

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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 2 of 23)