Wednesday, 20 November 2013


According to the author of a work which is just now making some stir in literary circles we are entitled to believe that our civilisation will escape the fate of its ancient predecessors and endure indefinitely. The ground on which Mr. Benjamin Kidd holds this cheering creed is set out with a great array of facts and a wealth of suggestive illustration, in a work which may be regarded as a sequel to his well known "Social Evolution." Further study, he tells us, has only strengthened hie conviction as to the fundamental causes underlying the rise and downfall of civilisations, and in "Principles of Western Civilisation" he strives to prove their existence by reference to their operation in Europe and America. His main thesis, as every reader of his previous work knows, is that human evolution is not, as Buckle supposed, primarily intellectual, but moral. While he insists, as emphatically as Herbert Spencer, that human society is an organism subject to all the natural laws which govern the development of organisms, he regards it as something more than a product of unconscious natural forces. Man is distinguished from the beast by what is called "reason;" but reason, as Mr. Kidd understands it, so far from being the guiding principle in human development, has rather tended to fetter it, and in the struggle for existence to expose to inevitable defeat any race under its sway. For reason is self regarding, whereas the nations which have progressed are precisely those which are least permeated by the self-regarding instinct. They are the nations whose ideal is to be found, not in "present," but "projected" efficiency, or, in Mr. Kidd's words, they are the nations which have risen to a comprehension of needs "beyond the limits of the content of their existing consciousness." The phrase is a trifle cryptic as it stands, but the reader who has mastered Mr. Kidd's somewhat portentous volume is not left in much doubt as to his meaning. As an evolutionist he sees that the "cosmic process" is one that is concerned with the future, that is careful of the type and careless of the single life. The race that will outlive and outgrow all others is the race which at the cost of present stress and trouble will, conforming to the process we see even now in operation in the biological world, have projected its efficiency into the future. Among the various forms of life, with every increase in complexity of structure and differentiation in function, the demands of the offspring on the parent become ever more exacting. The young who among the lower forms are, after leaving the egg, abandoned without further parental care, are found among the higher forms receiving more and more sustenance from the parent. So in any human society that is to endure, the burdens of parenthood must ever tend to grow, and the claims of future generations upon the present generation must become ever more exacting.

Mr. Kidd has no difficulty in showing that it was through Christianity that the idea of "living for the future" came into the world. The ten great civilisations known to history, which have perished so completely as in some cases to have left scarcely a trace behind, had no conception of this idea, and in the case of two, those of Greece and Rome, the interest of the existing generation was obviously the guiding principle. In Rome this principle found expression in military glory. Among the Greeks, though they could boast of the campaigns of Alexander, the inveterate spirit of locality, which prevented them from coalescing into a single powerful State, drove the genius of the people to find other expression. But among the Greeks, as among the Romans, the popular ideals were related to the present and the visible, the difference being that while the Romans were occupied with the formulation of systems of military and civil government, the Greeks thought and felt in stone or marble. Both nations fell through a deficiency in morale and not through any lack of knowledge or intelligence. An unenlightened selfishness, related to the interests of the present, decreed in Rome the practice of infanticide. A wise regard for "projected efficiency" would have shown the folly of regarding the outlying states of the Empire as fit subjects for exploitation. The material and political grandeur of the Roman Empire was immense, but the sources of the grandeur were false and demoralising. The gorgeousness of the Caesars and the wealth of the Roman aristocracy were maintained with money wrung from the oppressed provinces, and when trouble beset the Empire there was no cement but force to make the parts cohere. The difference between the Roman Empire and our own is apparent at a glance, and illustrates very fairly what Mr. Kidd means by "projected efficiency." If States and communities are to grow and flourish, they must have room to grow and flourish in. There must be no restriction of environment, and it is plain that the essential condition is realised to the full in the British idea of self-government and equal rights for all. It is only by this freedom that play can be given to the variations of which the fittest must, by an imperative law of nature, survive.

The history of western civilisation, as interpreted by Mr. Kidd's principle, resolves itself into the struggle of the human intellect to find deliverance from the "ascendency of the present." With the rise of Christianity we see the gradual dawn of a consciousness of something incapable of expression in the terms of the Roman statute-book, or of the stone or marble of the Greeks. We see what Kant called the  "transcendental" element in the human mind, breaking through the fetters of nationality and of human law, and we see attempts to curb this spirit by subordinating it to the requirements of the existing State. But the spirit will not be bound; and its revolt is seen in the Reformation, and in that yearning for religious freedom which in English-speaking communities in America and Australia broke the alliance between Church and State. It is in virtue of the spirit in matters religious, political, and social, that the Anglo-Saxon race has gained and will retain the lead. It is illustrated in the sphere of politics by that system of party government which assumes that there is no fixed standard of human government suited to all times and circumstances, but that truth is to be conceived as the "net result of forces and standards apparently in themselves opposed and conflicting." The same principle has yet to express itself fully in the economic world, which is the stage where in some distant future the "few great systems of social order" then remaining will engage in that final struggle which will determine the question of the fittest. It is towards that struggle that the thoughts of educational reformers are now directed, and it will go hard with the nation whose "projected efficiency" is impaired by shortsighted attempts to subordinate the interests of the future to those of the present. But while opposing the schemes of Marx and others to stereotype society in moulds of their own, Mr. Kidd insists that the "competition" which is the essential condition of human progress, as it is of evolution generally, shall be "free" indeed. While the State is conceived as "a mere irresponsible and almost brainless Colossus, organised primarily towards the end of securing men in possession of what they have obtained in an uncontrolled scramble for gain divorced of all sense of responsibility to their fellows," projected efficiency will still lack its essential condition.

The Advertiser 4 April 1902, 

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