William Withington.

The Growth of Thought As Affecting the Progress of Society online

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Produced by Jared Fuller


By William Withington.



Part I.

Life Defined. Intellectual Culture and Intellectual Life,
Distinguished. Human Life, a Problem. The Evil to be Managed.
Self-Love Considered under a Three-fold Aspect. Three Agencies for
meliorating the Human Condition. The Growth of Thought, Slow; and oft
most in unexpected quarter.

Part II.

Welfare as dependent on the Social Institutions. Limited Aim of the
Received Political Economy. An Enlightened Policy but the Effective
Aim at managing Self-Love, directed towards Present Goods, vulgarly
understood. The Political Fault of the Papacy. Its Substantial
Correction by the Reformation. Republicanism carried from Religion
into Legislation; still without a clear perception of its Principle.
Its Progress accordingly Slow.

Part III.

Philosophy the Second Agency for promoting General Welfare, as the
Educator of Self-Love; the Corrector of mistaken apprehensions of
Temporal Good; the Revealer of the ties which bind the Members of the
Human Family to One Lot, to suffer or rejoice together. Progress in
estimating Life.

Part IV.

Mightier Influences yet needed, to contend with the Powers of Evil.
Supplied by Man's recognizing the whole of his Being; the extent of his
Duties; the Duration of his Existence. Religion, supplying the defects
of the preceding Agencies; Considered in nine particulars.


Recapitulation. Suggestions to Christian Ministers.


A contemporary thus reveals the state of mind, through which he has
come to the persuasion of great insight into the realities, which stand
behind the veil: "What more natural, more spontaneous, more imperative,
than that the conditions of his future being should press themselves on
his anxious thought! Should we not suppose, the 'every third thought
would be his grave,' together with the momentous realities that lie
beyond it? If man is indeed, as Shakespeare describes him, 'a being of
large discourse, looking before and after,' we could scarcely resist
the belief, that, when once assured of the possibility of information
on his head, he would, as it were, _rush_ to the oracle, to have his
absorbing problems solved, and his restless heart relieved of its load
of uncertain forebodings."* [Bush's Statement of Reasons, &c.,
p. 12.]

Not less frequently or intensely, the writer's mind has turned to the
problem of applying know truth to the present, reconciling self-love
with justice and benevolence, and vindicating to godliness, the promise
of the life that now is. If, meanwhile, he has been "intruding into
those things which he hath not seen," like affecting an angelic
religion, - then it were hardly possible but that he should mistake
fancy for fact. But if his inquiries have been into what it is
given to know, then he cannot resist the belief, that some may derive
profit from the results of many fearfully anxious years, here
compressed within a few pages. He might have further compressed, just
saying: Mainly, political wisdom is the management of self-love;
civilization is the cultivation of self-love; the excrescenses of
civilization are the false refinements of self-love; while unselfish
love is substantial virtue, - the end of the commandments, - the
fulfilling of the law: Or, he might have enlarged indefinitely; more
especially might have been written on practically applying the
principles to the advancement of society. He may yet produce something
of the kind. Of the substance of the following pages he has only to
say, that, if false, the falsehood has probably become too much a part
of his nature to be ever separated. As to such minor considerations,
as logical arrangement and the niceties of style, he asks only the
criticism due to one, whose hands have been necessitated to guide the
plough oftener than the pen, through the best years of life.

The Growth of Thought, As Affecting the Progress of Society.

Part I.


The meditation on human life - on the contrast between what _is_, and
what _might be_, on supposing a general concurrence to make the best of
things-yields emotions both painful and pleasing; - painful for the
demonstrations every where presented, of a love of darkness, rather
than light; pleasing, that the worst evils are seen to be so
remediable; and so clear the proofs of a gradual, but sure progress
towards the remedy.

The writer is not very familiar with those authors, who have so much to
say on the problem of life - the question, What is life? He supposes
them to follow a train of thought, something like this: The life of a
creature is that perfection and flourish of its faculties, of which its
constitution is capable, and which some of the race are destined to
reach. Thus, the life of the lion is realized, when the animal ranges
undisputed lord of the sunny desert; finds sufficiency of prey for
himself and offspring, which he raises to inherit dominion; lives the
number of years he is capable of enjoying existence, and then closes
it, without excessive pains, lingering regrets, or fearful

Life differs from happiness. It is supposable, that the lion, tamed
and petted, trained to feed somewhat after man's chosen manner, may be
as happy as if at liberty in his native range. But such happiness is
not the animal's life; since this implies the kind of happiness proper
to the creature's constitution, in distinction from that induced by
forced habits.

To happiness add knowledge and intellectual culture, and all together
do not realize the idea of life. The tame lion may be taught many
arts, assimilating him to the intelligence of man; but these remove him
so much further from his appropriate life. Thus there may be a
cultivated intelligence, which constitutes no part of the creature's
life; and this without considering the same as a moral agent.

Macauley remarks, that the Jesuits seem to have solved the problem, how
far intellectual culture may be carried, without producing intellectual
emancipation. I suppose it would be only varying the expression of his
thought to say, Jesuitical education strikingly exemplifies, how much
intellectual culture may be superinduced upon the mind, without
awakening intellectual life - without developing a spontaneous aptness
to appreciate, seek, find, embrace the truth. The head is filled with
the thoughts of others-many ascertained facts and just conclusions. It
can reason aright in the circles of thought, where it has been trained
to move; but elsewhere, no spontaneous activity - no self-directed power
of thinking justly on new emergencies and questions not yet settled by
rule - no spring within, from which living waters flow.

The difference between intellectual culture and intellectual life
appears in the fact, that in regard to those mastering ideas, which to
after times mark one age as in advance of the preceding, the classical
scholars, the scientific luminaries, the constitutional expounders of
the day, are quite as likely to be behind the general sense of the age,
as to be in advance.

The question, What is human life? arises on a contemplation like this:
There is no difficulty in determining the life of all the other tenants
of earth; unless, indeed, those which man has so long and so
universally subjected to his purposes, that the whereabouts, or indeed
the existence of the original stock, remains in doubt. The inferior
animals, left to themselves in favorable circumstances, manifest one
development, attain to one flourish, live the same life, from
generation to generation. Man may superinduce upon them what he
calls _improvements_, because they better fit them for _his_ purposes.
But said improvements are never transmitted from generation to its
successor; left to itself, the race reverts to proper life, the same it
has lived from the beginning.

Man here presents a singular exception to the general rule of earth's
inhabitants. The favorite pursuits of one age are abandoned in the
next. This generation looks back on the earnest occupations of a
preceding, as the adult looks back on the sports and toys of childhood.
It is more than supposable, that the planning for the chances of
office, the competition for making most gain out of the least
productiveness - these earnest pursuits of the men of this age - in the
next will be resigned to the children of larger growth; just as are
now resigned the trappings of military glory. Where then is the human
mind ultimately to fix? Where is man to find so essentially his good,
as to fix his earnest pursuit in one direction, in which the race is
still to hold on? Such seems to be the question, What is life?

The elements of that darkness, which excludes the light of life, may be
considered as these three: First, the excessive preponderance of
self-love, as the ruling motive of human conduct. Secondly, the
short-sightedness of self-love, in magnifying the present, at the cost
of the distant future. And, Thirdly, the grossness of self-love, in
preferring of present goods the vulgar and the sensible, to the refined
and more exquisitely satisfactory. And there are three ways, in which
we may attempt the abatement of existing evils; or, there are three
agencies we may call in for this purpose.

In the first place, leaving individuals to the operation of the common
motives, we may labor at the social institutions, to adjust them to the
rule, that, each seeking his own, after the common apprehension of
present interests, may do so consistently with acting the part of a
good citizen - contributing something to the general welfare; or, at
least, not greatly detracting therefrom. Here, the agency employed,
the Greeks would have called by a name, from which we have derived the
word _politics_; which word, from abuse, has well nigh lost its
original sense, _The science of social welfare_. _Policy_, we might
say, for want of an exacter word.

The second way, in which we may seek the same result, is, to inculcate
juster apprehensions of present good - to inform and refine self-love;
to show, that the purest of present enjoyments, are like the loaves and
fishes distributed by divine hands, multiplying by division and
participation - the best of all being such as none can enjoy fully, till
they become the common property of the race. For want of a more
accurately defined term, the agent here introduced may be called
Philosophy; understanding by the term, the search, what would be the
conduct and preferences of a truly wise man, dispassionately seeking
for himself the best enjoyment of this life, uninformed of another to

Or, thirdly, we may seek to infuse a nobler principle than self-love,
however refined - even the charity, whose essence is, to love one's
neighbor as one's self; while, at the same time, this life being
earnestly contemplated as but the introductory part of an immense
whole, additional security is provided for the coincidence of interest
with duty. In a word, the third agency to be employed is _Religion_.

The whole subject thus sketched is one of which the writer is not
aware, that it has been distinctly defined, as a field for thought and
investigation. He has little to learn from the successes or the
failures of predecessors. Be this his excuse for seeming prosy and
dull; possibly for mistakes and crudities. He has the doubly
difficulty of attempting to turn thought into trains to which it is
not accustomed; and yet of offering no results so profound as to have
escaped other observers; or so sublime as to be the due prize of
genius, venturing where few can soar. If he offers any thoughts new,
just, and important, they have rather been overlooked for their
simplicity and obviousness. One may dive too deep for that which
floats on the surface. Here are to be expected none of the splendid
results, which dazzle in the popular sciences. The cultivator of this
field can hope only to favor, imperceptibly it may be, the growth of
thoughts and sentiments, tending slowly to work out a better condition
of the human family. And he begs to commend that advice of Lacon,
which himself has found so profitable: "In the pursuit of knowledge,
follow it, wherever it is to be found; like fern, it is the produce of
all climates; and like coin, its circulation is not restricted to any
particular class. * * * * Pride is less ashamed of being ignorant, than
of being instructed; and she looks too high to find that, which very
often lies beneath her. Therefore condescend to men of low estate, and
be for wisdom, that which Alcibiades was for power." (Vol. I., p.

The difficulty with us Americans, in the way of being instructed, has
been, that too proud, as if already possessed of the fullness of
political wisdom, we have withal cherished a self-distrust, forbidding
us to harmonize our institutions and modes of thinking into conformity
with our work and altered situation. We have seen the British nation,
choosing by the accident of birth a baby for its future sovereign, and
training it in a way the least possible calculated to favor relations
of acquaintance and sympathy with varied wants of the many; and our
first impression, I fear, has been our last: What drivellers!
Obstinately blind to the clearest lights of common sense! Whereas
wiser for us would it be, to derive from the spectacle these general
conclusion: that hard is it for the human mind to proceed in advance
of ideas received and fashionable; that the so-called independent and
original thinkers - leaders of public sentiment-are such as anticipate
by a little the general progress of thought, as our hill-tops catch
first by a little the beams of the rising sun, before they fill the
intervening valleys; that men's superiority in profound thought or
liberal ideas, in one direction, affords no security for their
attaining to mediocrity in others; and that one familiar with the
history of thought, may pronounce, with moral certainty, that such and
such ideas were never entertained in such or such society, where due
preparation did not exist. As we may confidently say, No mountain-top
can tower high enough, to catch the sunbeams at midnight; with equal
confidence we may say of many ideas now familiar as school-boy truths:
no intellect in ancient Greece or Rome soared high enough above the
mass to grasp them.

Part II.

Welfare as Dependent on Policy.

As generally at all points, so the materialism of the age particularly
appears, in that the political economists take _wealth_, defining their
science in the vulgar acceptation, rather than in the good old English
sense, _welfare_, _well-being_. If they occasionally venture a remark
of a more liberal bearing on the general subject of public welfare;
such is the exception to the general rule. Money, with its equivalents
and exchangeables, is their usual theme in treating of wealth; thought
the common use of the word economy might suggest a higher science. For
he does not exhaust our idea of a good economist, who manages to have
at command abundant materials for rendering home happy; while, for lack
of wisdom to turn such materials to account, that home may be less
happy than the next-door neighbor's, where want is hardly staved off.
We exact, for fulfilling that character, wisdom in using the material
means - provision for physical, intellectual, and moral training of the
household - the just apportionment between labor and recreation-the
true contentment, which frets not at present imperfection, while it
still presses on to that perfection conceived to be attainable. Our
writers on political economy would do well, to give the word as liberal
a latitude of sense, as it legitimately assumes, when used in its
primitive meaning of _household management_.

But, rather than attempt to raise a scientific term so much above its
received sense, I use another word, and say, Policy must begin with the
admission, that self-love is the mightiest mover of human conduct; and
not a self-love enlightened, deep, calculating, directed to the sources
of fullest contentment; but following the groveling estimate, that
riches, power, office, ease, being the object of envy or admiration,
are the chief goods of life.

Every business man admits, that his security for men's conduct must be
found in their self-interest. He admits thus much practically, so for
as his own business is concerned; the exceptions being so rare, as not
to justify neglect of the general rule. Yet, neither business men nor
politicians grasp the principle clearly, nor consequently apply it
consistently. And he who would make a new application of it, is met
with charges of great uncharitableness.

This backwardness to generalize a rule, found so necessary practically
to be followed, may be resolved into that flattering conceit of human
dignity, which is yielded reluctantly, inch by inch, as plain
demonstration wrests it away. And further, self-love conceals itself,
because generally it operates first to pervert the judgment. The
consciousness of preferring private interest to worthier
considerations, is too painful to be endured. The man therefore
strives, but too successfully, to misrepresent the case to himself.
He contrives to make that seem right, which tends to his own advantage.
But though indirect, the operation of self-love is none the less sure.
Whether the individual be any the less blamable, because self-love
assumes this disguise, is not now to be considered.

There are individuals, to whom implicit confidence in their unguarded
honesty, proves but an added motive to be more tremulously sensitive,
not to abuse such confidence. There are, whom respect for their
calling binds wholly to more carefulness, to prove worthy of such
respect. So always if one is thoroughly pervaded with the right
spirit. But dealing with bodies of men, as men yet are, these two
rules should shape political institutions and social relations.

First, so far as men can command confidence and respect, for the sake
of birth, calling, or office, so far they are relieved from the
necessity of seeking the same by personal qualifications; and
accordingly a body of men so protected, will perceptibly fall short
of the average, in the staple elements of respectability.

Respect for station or calling so ample is here meant, as to satisfy
the average desire of approbation. The extent, to which this is
satisfied by the respect paid by the child, to the parent, for the
relation's sake, is so moderate, as one of the elements tending to the
formation of character, that it may be expected to operate generally as
it universally would, where the right spirit fully reigns. The remark
holds good, with moderate abatement, in the relation of teacher and

In the infancy of the Christian church, the relation between pastor and
flock was closely analogous to that between parents and children. On
the one side were men of a disinterested and paternal spirit, so
earnestly living the new life hid with Christ in God, that hardly the
possibility could be conceived of a desire to exalt and magnify self,
over the ignorance and degradation of their spiritual charge. On the
other side were men, children in knowledge, incapable of estimating the
ministry simply after the consciousness of benefits received. We are
not then to condemn the arrangement, which clothed the ministry with an
official dignity, the office being revered independently of the claims
of the man; nor to wonder, if the arrangement outlived the necessity,
or passed the bounds of moderation; or if it was not fully calculated,
the danger, lest men of the primitive spirit yield places to those of
an inferior stamp; and how truly eternal vigilance is the cost, at
which all things here must be saved from their tendencies to
deterioration. Accordingly the history of the Papacy for centuries
has been, that its ministers are sure of unbounded respect from the
populace, independently of their personal claims. The consequence is,
that while a few are thus moved to heroic and almost angelic devotion
to the spiritual good of their flocks, the many would never command
respect for what they are as men.

Similar remarks may be applied to the infancy of civil society. The
prevalence of monarchy and aristocracy has been too universal, to be
charged wholly upon force or chance. And yet in the origin, rational
considerations can hardly be supposed to have been distinctly
entertained. Still there may have been a dim consciousness of thoughts
like these: It is so necessary that civil rulers be at all events
respected, and so uncertain how to secure due respect to men meriting
it, that we must invest a class of men with a factitious official
dignity, and take the risk - rather the certainty - of its proving, in
most cases, a cover for personal unworthiness, some degrees below the
ordinary standard of humanity. If there existed a dim consciousness of
such reasoning, it might have been well entertained.

The second rule of Policy - the master maxim of political wisdom - is,
that no class of men must be expected to concur heartily, for
extirpating the evils, from which its own revenues and importance are
derived. Speaking of men acting in a body, there is no room for the
many exceptions, necessarily admitted to the rule, that with the
individual self-love is the ruling motive. The individual sometimes
yields to nobler considerations, than the calculations of self-interest.
In the corporation, the _esprit du corps_ - the clannish
spirit - is sure to master it over public spirit. Devotion to the
honor, aggrandizement, wealth and power of the order, company, or
corporation, is more sure to control their acts as individuals. It is
less liable to self-rebuke for conscious meanness. It looks somewhat
more like the public spirit which ought to be. It is less liable to
occasional counteractions from impulses of honor, humanity, or regard
to reputation.

Accordingly a body of men, so constituted as to find its best flourish
short of the perfection of the whole social system, will inevitably,
sooner or later, prove an obstacle to the onward march of improvement.

A corporation is not necessarily a grievance and a sore on the body
politic. If it can have its full flourish, without let to the progress
of society, it may be harmless or beneficent.

"_Sooner or later_;" be this condition marked, in estimating the
spiritual policy of Rome. The body of reverends, which mediates
between God and men, finds its best flourish, in just such degree of
popular intelligence as suffices for comprehending the specious
arguments, on which rest the claims of Holy Mother Church; and such
amount of conscientiousness as galls the offender, till he has
purchased absolution. More intelligence generally prevailing, and
better appreciation of the divine law as a living rule of duty, would
abate the awe in which the priesthood is held, and diminish the
revenues accruing from mediating between offending man and his offended
Maker. But Christianity found the world sunk below this moderate
standard of intelligence and morals. The best flourish of the
priesthood required in the people cultivation of understanding and
conscience, up to the point of caring for their account in heaven's
record. So the faulty relation between priesthood and people did not
at once appear in the results; and, accordingly, the weight of the
qualification, _sooner or later_.

But in the early growth of society, considerations like the above have
been little attended to, compared with the obvious advantages of the
division of labor. As ordinarily each handicraft is best exercised by
those earliest and steadiest in their devotion to the trade; so it is
argued, universally, that the several departments of the public service
will be best attended to, by being left to their respective trades,
guilds, faculties, orders, or corporations, each strictly guarded from
unhallowed intrusion. So religion has been left to its official
functionaries, prescribing articles of belief and terms of salvation by
a divine right, - legislation to princes and nobles, equally claiming by
the same right to give law in temporals; and so of other general

Now a movement has been slowly going on, through some centuries, for
working society into conformity with a rational rule; a rule not
overlooking the advantages of the division of labor, but taking in too
such qualifying considerations as the healthful stimulus of free

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Online LibraryWilliam WithingtonThe Growth of Thought As Affecting the Progress of Society → online text (page 1 of 4)