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 3 of 23)
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issued by authority, and was intended to supplant those metals. Some of
the pieces were really of exquisite beauty; and some were, I do verily
believe, nothing but the ordinary currency, only that there was another
head and name in place of that of the commonwealth. And here was one of
the great marvels; for those who were most strongly in favour of this
coinage maintained, and even grew more excited if they were opposed here
than on any other matter, that the very self-same coin with the head of
the commonwealth upon it was of little if any value, while it became
exceedingly precious it stamped with the other image.

Some of the coins were plainly bad; of these last there were not many;
still there were enough for them to be not uncommon. These were entirely
composed of alloy; they would bend easily, would melt away to nothing
with a little heat, and were quite unsuited for a currency. Yet there
were few of the wealthier classes who did not maintain that even these
coins were genuine good money, though they were chary of taking them.
Every one knew this, so they were seldom offered; but all thought it
incumbent upon them to retain a good many in their possession, and to let
them be seen from time to time in their hands and purses. Of course
people knew their real value exceedingly well; but few, if any, dared to
say what that value was; or if they did, it would be only in certain
companies or in writing in the newspapers anonymously. Strange! there
was hardly any insinuation against this coinage which they would not
tolerate and even applaud in their daily papers; and yet, if the same
thing were said without ambiguity to their faces - nominative case verb
and accusative being all in their right places, and doubt impossible - they
would consider themselves very seriously and justly outraged, and accuse
the speaker of being unwell.

I never could understand, neither can I do so now, why a single currency
should not suffice them; it would seem to me as though all their dealings
would have been thus greatly simplified; but I was met with a look of
horror if ever I dared to hint at it. Even those who to my certain
knowledge kept only just enough money at the musical banks to swear by,
would call the other banks (where their securities really lay) cold,
deadening, paralysing, and the like. I noticed another thing moreover
which struck me greatly. I was taken to the opening of one of these
banks in a neighbouring town, and saw a large assemblage of cashiers and
managers. I sat opposite them and scanned their faces attentively. They
did not please me; they lacked, with a few exceptions, the true
Erewhonian frankness; and an equal number from any other class would have
looked happier and better men. When I met them in the streets they did
not seem like other people, but had, as a general rule, a cramped
expression upon their faces which pained and depressed me.

Those who came from the country were better; they seemed to have lived
less as a separate class, and to be freer and healthier; but in spite of
my seeing not a few whose looks were benign and noble, I could not help
asking myself concerning the greater number of those whom I met, whether
Erewhon would be a better country if their expression were to be
transferred to the people in general. I answered myself emphatically,
no. A man's expression is his sacrament; it is the outward and visible
sign of his inward and spiritual grace, or, want of grace; and as I
looked at the majority of these men, I could not help feeling that there
must be a something in their lives which had stunted their natural
development, and that they would have been more healthily-minded in any
other profession.

I was always sorry for them, for in nine cases out of ten they were well-
meaning persons; they were in the main very poorly paid; their
constitutions were as a rule above suspicion; and there were recorded
numberless instances of their self-sacrifice and generosity; but they had
had the misfortune to have been betrayed into a false position at an age
for the most part when their judgment was not matured, and after having
been kept in studied ignorance of the real difficulties of the system.
But this did not make their position the less a false one, and its bad
effects upon themselves were unmistakable.

Few people would speak quite openly and freely before them, which struck
me as a very bad sign. When they were in the room every one would talk
as though all currency save that of the musical banks should be
abolished; and yet they knew perfectly well that even the cashiers
themselves hardly used the musical bank money more than other people. It
was expected of them that they should appear to do so, but this was all.
The less thoughtful of them did not seem particularly unhappy, but many
were plainly sick at heart, though perhaps they hardly knew it, and would
not have owned to being so. Some few were opponents of the whole system;
but these were liable to be dismissed from their employment at any
moment, and this rendered them very careful, for a man who had once been
cashier at a musical bank was out of the field for other employment, and
was generally unfitted for it by reason of that course of treatment which
was commonly called his education. In fact it was a career from which
retreat was virtually impossible, and into which young men were generally
induced to enter before they could be reasonably expected, considering
their training, to have formed any opinions of their own. Few indeed
were those who had the courage to insist on seeing both sides of the
question before they committed themselves to either. One would have
thought that this was an elementary principle, - one of the first things
that an honourable man would teach his boy to do; but in practice it was
not so.

I even saw cases in which parents bought the right of presenting to the
office of cashier at one of these banks, with the fixed determination
that some one of their sons (perhaps a mere child) should fill it. There
was the lad himself - growing up with every promise of becoming a good and
honourable man - but utterly without warning concerning the iron shoe
which his natural protector was providing for him. Who could say that
the whole thing would not end in a life-long lie, and vain chafing to

I confess that there were few things in Erewhon which shocked me more
than this.


I heard what follows not from Arowhena, but from Mr. Nosnibor and some of
the gentlemen who occasionally dined at the house: they told me that the
Erewhonians believe in pre-existence; and not only this (of which I will
write more fully in the next chapter), but they believe that it is of
their own free act and deed in a previous state that people come to be
born into this world at all.

They hold that the unborn are perpetually plaguing and tormenting the
married (and sometimes even the unmarried) of both sexes, fluttering
about them incessantly, and giving them no peace either of mind or body
until they have consented to take them under their protection. If this
were not so - this is at least what they urge - it would be a monstrous
freedom for one man to take with another, to say that he should undergo
the chances and changes of this mortal life without any option in the
matter. No man would have any right to get married at all, inasmuch as
he can never tell what misery his doing so may entail forcibly upon his
children who cannot be unhappy as long as they remain unborn. They feel
this so strongly that they are resolved to shift the blame on to other
shoulders; they have therefore invented a long mythology as to the world
in which the unborn people live, what they do, and the arts and
machinations to which they have recourse in order to get themselves into
our own world.

I cannot think they seriously believe in this mythology concerning pre-
existence; they do and they do not; they do not know themselves what they
believe; all they know is that it is a disease not to believe as they do.
The only thing of which they are quite sure is that it is the pestering
of the unborn, which causes them to be brought into this world, and that
they would not be here if they would only let peaceable people alone.

It would be hard to disprove this position, and they might have a good
case if they would only leave it as it stands. But this they will not
do; they must have assurance doubly sure; they must have the written word
of the child itself as soon as it is born, giving the parents indemnity
from all responsibility on the score of its birth, and asserting its own
pre-existence. They have therefore devised something which they call a
birth formula - a document which varies in words according to the caution
of parents, but is much the same practically in all cases; for it has
been the business of the Erewhonian lawyers during many ages to exercise
their skill in perfecting it and providing for every contingency.

These formulae are printed on common paper at a moderate cost for the
poor; but the rich have them written on parchment and handsomely bound,
so that the getting up of a person's birth formula is a test of his
social position. They commence by setting forth, That whereas A. B. was
a member of the kingdom of the unborn, where he was well provided for in
every way, and had no cause of discontent, &c. &c., he did of his own
wanton restlessness conceive a desire to enter into this present world;
that thereon having taken the necessary steps as set forth in laws of the
unborn kingdom, he set himself with malice aforethought to plague and
pester two unfortunate people who had never wronged him, and who were
quite contented until he conceived this base design against their peace;
for which wrong he now humbly entreats their pardon. He acknowledges
that he is responsible for all physical blemishes and deficiencies which
may render him answerable to the laws of his country; that his parents
have nothing whatever to do with any of these things; and that they have
a right to kill him at once if they be so minded, though he entreats them
to show their marvellous goodness and clemency towards him by sparing his
life. If they will do this he promises to be their most abject creature
during his earlier years, and indeed unto his life's end, unless they
should see fit in their abundant generosity to remit some portion of his
service hereafter. And so the formula continues, going sometimes into
very minute details, according to the fancies of family lawyers, who will
not make it any shorter than they can help.

The deed being thus prepared, on the third or fourth day after the birth
of the child, or as they call it, the "final importunity," the friends
gather together, and there is a feast held, where they are all very
melancholy - as a general rule, I believe quite truly so - and make
presents to the father and mother of the child in order to console them
for the injury which has just been done them by the unborn. By and by
the child himself is brought down by his nurse, and the company begin to
rail upon him, upbraiding him for his impertinence and asking him what
amends he proposes to make for the wrong that he has committed, and how
he can look for care and nourishment from those who have perhaps already
been injured by the unborn on some ten or twelve occasions; for they say
of people with large families, that they have suffered terrible injuries
from the unborn; till at last, when this has been carried far enough,
some one suggests the formula, which is brought forth and solemnly read
to the child by the family straightener. This gentleman is always
invited on these occasions, for the very fact of intrusion into a
peaceful family shows a depravity on the part of the child which requires
his professional services.

On being teased by the reading and tweaked by the nurse, the child will
commonly fall a-crying, which is reckoned a good sign as showing a
consciousness of guilt. He is thereon asked, Does he assent to the
formula? on which, as he still continues crying and can obviously make no
answer, some one of the friends comes forward and undertakes to sign the
document on his behalf, feeling sure (so he says) that the child would do
it if he only knew how, and that he will release the present signer from
his engagement on arriving at maturity. The friend then inscribes the
signature of the child at the foot of the parchment, which is held to
bind the child as much as though he had signed it himself. Even this,
however, does not fully content them, for they feel a little uneasy until
they have got the child's own signature after all. So when he is about
fourteen these good people partly bribe him by promises of greater
liberty and good things, and partly intimidate him through their great
power of making themselves passively unpleasant to him, so that though
there is a show of freedom made, there is really none, and partly they
use the offices of the teachers in the Colleges of Unreason, till at
last, in one way or another, they take very good care that he shall sign
the paper by which he professes to have been a free agent in coming into
the world, and to take all the responsibility of having done so on to his
own shoulders. And yet, though this document is in theory the most
important which any one can sign in his whole life, they will have him
commit himself to it at an age when neither they nor the law will for
many a year allow any one else to bind him to the smallest obligation, no
matter how righteously he may owe it, because they hold him too young to
know what he is about.

I thought this seemed rather hard, and not of a piece with the many
admirable institutions existing among them. I once ventured to say a
part of what I thought about it to one of the Professors of Unreason. I
asked him whether he did not think it would do serious harm to a lad's
principles, and weaken his sense of the sanctity of his word, and of
truth generally, that he should be led into entering upon an engagement
which it was so plainly impossible he should keep even for a single day
with tolerable integrity - whether, in fact, the teachers who so led him,
or who taught anything as a certainty of which they were themselves
uncertain, were not earning their living by impairing the truth-sense of
their pupils. The professor, who was a delightful person, seemed
surprised at the view I took, and gave me to understand, perhaps justly
enough, that I ought not to make so much fuss about a trifle. No one, he
said, expected that the boy either would or could do all that he
undertook; but the world was full of compromises; and there was hardly
any engagement which would bear being interpreted literally. Human
language was too gross a vehicle of thought - thought being incapable of
absolute translation. He added, that as there can be no translation from
one language into another which shall not scant the meaning somewhat, or
enlarge upon it, so there is no language which can render thought without
a jarring and a harshness somewhere - and so forth; all of which seemed to
come to this in the end, that it was the custom of the country, and that
the Erewhonians were a conservative people; that the boy would have to
begin compromising sooner or later, and this was part of his education in
the art. It was perhaps to be regretted that compromise should be as
necessary as it was; still it was necessary, and the sooner the boy got
to understand it the better for himself. But they never tell this to the

From the book of their mythology about the unborn I made the extracts
which will form the following chapter.


The Erewhonians say it was by chance only that the earth and stars and
all the heavenly worlds began to roll from east to west, and not from
west to east, and in like manner they say it is by chance that man is
drawn through life with his face to the past instead of to the future.
For the future is there as much as the past, only that we may not see it.
Is it not in the loins of the past, and must not the past alter before
the future can do so?

They have a fable that there was a race of men tried upon the earth once,
who knew the future better than the past, but that they died in a
twelvemonth from the misery which their knowledge caused them. They say
that if any were to be born too prescient now, he would die miserably,
before he had time to transmit so peace-destroying a faculty to

Strange fate for man! He must perish if he get that, which he must
perish if he strive not after. If he strive not after it he is no better
than the brutes, if he get it he is more miserable than the devils.

Having waded through many chapters like the above, I came at last to the
unborn themselves, and found that they were held to be souls pure and
simple, having no actual bodies, but living in a sort of gaseous yet more
or less anthropomorphic existence, like that of a ghost; they have thus
neither flesh nor blood nor warmth. Nevertheless they are supposed to
have local habitations and cities wherein they dwell, though these are as
unsubstantial as their inhabitants; they are even thought to eat and
drink some thin ambrosial sustenance, and generally to be capable of
doing whatever mankind can do, only after a visionary ghostly fashion, as
in a dream. On the other hand, as long as they remain where they are
they never die - the only form of death in the unborn world being the
leaving it for our own. They are believed to be extremely numerous, far
more so than mankind. They arrive from unknown planets, full grown, in
large batches at a time; but they can only leave the unborn world by
taking the steps necessary for their arrival here - which is, in fact, by

They ought to be a happy people, for they have no extremes of good or ill
fortune; never marrying, but living in a state much like that fabled by
the poets as the primitive condition of mankind. In spite of this,
however, they are incessantly complaining; they know that we in this
world have bodies, and indeed they know everything else about us, for
they move among us whithersoever they will, and can read our thoughts, as
well as survey our actions at pleasure. One would think that this should
be enough for them; and indeed most of them are alive to the desperate
risk which they will run by indulging themselves in that body with
"sensible warm motion" which they so much desire; nevertheless, there are
some to whom the _ennui_ of a disembodied existence is so intolerable
that they will venture anything for a change; so they resolve to quit.
The conditions which they must accept are so uncertain, that none but the
most foolish of the unborn will consent to take them; and it is from
these and these only that our own ranks are recruited.

When they have finally made up their minds to leave, they must go before
the magistrate of the nearest town and sign an affidavit of their desire
to quit their then existence. On their having done this, the magistrate
reads them the conditions which they must accept, and which are so long
that I can only extract some of the principal points, which are mainly
the following: -

First, they must take a potion which will destroy their memory and sense
of identity; they must go into the world helpless, and without a will of
their own; they must draw lots for their dispositions before they go, and
take it, such as it is, for better or worse - neither are they to be
allowed any choice in the matter of the body which they so much desire;
they are simply allotted by chance, and without appeal, to two people
whom it is their business to find and pester until they adopt them. Who
these are to be, whether rich or poor, kind or unkind, healthy or
diseased, there is no knowing; they have, in fact, to entrust themselves
for many years to the care of those for whose good constitution and good
sense they have no sort of guarantee.

It is curious to read the lectures which the wiser heads give to those
who are meditating a change. They talk with them as we talk with a
spendthrift, and with about as much success.

"To be born," they say, "is a felony - it is a capital crime, for which
sentence may be executed at any moment after the commission of the
offence. You may perhaps happen to live for some seventy or eighty
years, but what is that, in comparison with the eternity which you now
enjoy? And even though the sentence were commuted, and you were allowed
to live for ever, you would in time become so terribly weary of life that
execution would be the greatest mercy to you. Consider the infinite
risk; to be born of wicked parents and trained in vice! to be born of
silly parents, and trained to unrealities! of parents who regard you as a
sort of chattel or property, belonging more to them than to yourself!
Again, you may draw utterly unsympathetic parents, who will never be able
to understand you, and who will thwart you as long as they can to the
utmost of their power (as a hen when she has hatched a duckling), and
then call you ungrateful because you do not love them, or parents who may
look upon you as a thing to be cowed while it is still young, lest it
should give them trouble hereafter by having wishes and feelings of its

"In later life, when you have been finally allowed to pass muster as a
full member of the world, you will yourself become liable to the
pesterings of the unborn - and a very happy life you may be led in
consequence! For we solicit so strongly that a few only - nor these the
best - can refuse us; and yet not to refuse is much the same as going into
partnership with half a dozen different people about whom one can know
absolutely nothing beforehand - not even whether one is going into
partnership with men or women, nor with how many of either. Delude not
yourself with thinking that you will be wiser than your parents. You may
be an age in advance of _them_, but unless you are one of the great ones
(and if you are one of the great ones, woe betide you), you will still be
an age behind your children.

"Imagine what it must be to have an unborn quartered upon you, who is of
a different temperament to your own; nay, half a dozen such, who will not
love you though you may tell them that you have stinted yourself in a
thousand ways to provide for their well-being, - who will forget all that
self-sacrifice of which you are yourself so conscious, and of whom you
may never be sure that they are not bearing a grudge against you for
errors of judgment into which you may have fallen, but which you had
hoped had been long since atoned for. Ingratitude such as this is not
uncommon, yet fancy what it must be to bear! It is hard upon the
duckling to have been hatched by a hen, but is it not also hard upon the
hen to have hatched the duckling?

"Consider it again, we pray you, not for our sake but for your own. Your
initial character you must draw by lot; but whatever it is, it can only
come to a tolerably successful development after long training; remember
that over that training you will have no control. It is possible, and
even probable, that whatever you may get in after life which is of real
pleasure and service to you, will have to be won in spite of, rather than
by the help of, those whom you are now about to pester, and that you will
only win your freedom after years of a painful struggle, in which it will
be hard to say whether you have suffered most injury, or inflicted it.

"Remember also, that if you go into the world you will have free will;
that you will be obliged to have it, that there is no escaping it, that
you will be fettered to it during your whole life, and must on every
occasion do that which on the whole seems best to you at any given time,
no matter whether you are right or wrong in choosing it. Your mind will
be a balance for considerations, and your action will go with the heavier
scale. How it shall fall will depend upon the kind of scales which you
may have drawn at birth, the bias which they will have obtained by use,
and the weight of the immediate considerations. If the scales were good
to start with, and if they have not been outrageously tampered with in
childhood, and if the combinations into which you enter are average ones,
you may come off well; but there are too many "ifs" in this, and with the
failure of any one of them your misery is assured. Reflect on this, and
remember that should the ill come upon you, you will have yourself to

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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 3 of 23)