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BOSTON QUARTERLY REVIEW.
- Social Evils, AND THEIR REMEDY.
We have never pretended, and we do not now pretend, to be able to point out any specific remedy for social evils, or to show how a series of causes may be put in operation, which shall prevent their recurrence.
In the greater part of what we have written in the pages of this Journal, as well as elsewhere, on the subject of social evils, our main purpose has been to bring the subject itself distinctly before the minds of those among us, who give tone to thought and direction to affairs, and to engage them in its serious and earnest consideration. The remedy itself we have expected only as the result of time, and the general activity of the public mind directed to its discovery.
But the subject has finally begun to arrest the attention of the community. Throughout the whole length and breadth of the land, men's minds are busy with it. The problem has come up, and will not down till its solution, at least to a partial extent, is found. We may, then, now desist from our efforts to provoke discussion, and proceed to discuss. The audience is assembled, and a calm, dispassionate, philosophical discussion will now be listened to with eagerness and respect.
Though we confess, in the outset, that we have no VOL. IV. NO. III.
specific remedy for social evils to bring forward, yet we feel competent to indicate the method the inquirer must take in order to find one, and the law by which it is to be applied. And this we proceed now to do, as briefly and as clearly as we can.
The end the Reformer contemplates, and seeks to gain, is the production of harmony, the realization of order in the bosom of the individual, between the various elements and tendencies of his nature, and in the bosom of society, between its several members, and between its members and itself.
The power which we have for accomplishing this end is our activity, or free-agency. This power may or may not be adequate, but it is all that we have, and we can go no further than it can carry us.
But we may make of our activity a two-fold application, and realize the end sought, directly, by efforts to control the appetites and passions; and indirectly, through institutions, by efforts to make them bear on our passivity, and, so far as we are passive beings, aid in moulding us into the sort of beings we should be.
Moral and religious teachers rely chiefly on the first application of free-agency. They proceed on the ground, that direct efforts of free-will in the interior of man are adequate to the realization of order, let external institutions and influences be what they may. They have proceeded on this ground for six thousand years, and with results, which ought ere this to have convinced them that they were guilty of some mistake. appetites and passions, from which all disturbing forces proceed, there is at work an activity, which, strictly speaking, is not our activity, and which ours can at best control only to a limited extent. “Evil communications corrupt good manners." Institutions, moral, religious, social, civil, and political, have an almost irresistible influence in determining our characters. Within certain limits they are absolute, and mould us in spite of ourselves. Instead, then, of exhorting men to be what they ought to be, or wasting ourselvesin fruitless efforts to make them what they ought to be, in
spite of these institutions, against the resistance they offer, we should modify, alter, or reconstruct them, so that they shall aid in the production and maintenance of the individual character desired.
We cannot carry the river over the mountain, for the law of gravitation is against us; but we can tunnel the mountain, and then the same law of gravitation which before was against us, will operate in our favor, and cause the river to flow in the direction we wish it to flow.
In plain words, the doctrine we would lay down is this : Individual character is the result of the combined action of free-will and necessity, and is to be made what it should be mainly by the efforts of free-will not to overcome necessity, but to avail itself of necessity; as in constructing a mill we avail ourselves of the law of gravitation to drive our machinery. The problem to be solved, then, is, how to modify institutions, whose action on us is that of necessity, so that they shall always aid the growth of individual virtue and happiness.
This problem can never be completely solved. The harmony, the order we are in pursuit of, may be approximated, but we are far from believing that it can ever be fully attained. There is a necessary antagonism in human nature itself, which must forever balk and baffle our wisest and most strenuous efforts to realize perfect peace and harmony in either the bosom of the individual, or in that of society. Man is in his nature a limited, that is, an incomplete, an imperfect being. He has in him elements of growth, of progress, but not of perfection. He can, then, never become, in the strict sense of the word, a perfect being. If he could, he could become God. Society has its root in human nature, and can never surpass the capabilities of that nature. These capabilities reach to progress, but not to perfection; consequently, while we may hope for a continued progress of society towards perfection, we must forever despair of its attaining to perfection.
Man has a two-fold nature. One set of instincts and faculties, which centre in himself, and another set,
whose centre is out of himself. By the first set, he is an individual, is affected by what immediately concerns himself, and induced to look out for himself, to assert and maintain his own personal rights, interests, and dignity. By the second, he is rendered social, capable of binding himself by love and duty to others, and of becoming self-denying, disinterested, and heroic. Between these two sets of instincts and faculties, there is, and there must be, in the very nature of things, antagonism; consequently, the struggle, the combat, the victory, the defeat. This antagonism will reproduce itself in society, and render the struggle there as permanent and as fierce as it is in the bosom of the individual.
Both of these sets of instincts and faculties, or elements of our being, are in their nature indestructible and essential to man. The individual element, the abuse of which is selfishness, is not less essential to man than the social, disinterested, or heroic. It is the element of liberty and of progress. If destroyed, or denied its legitimate scope, the individual is no longer regarded ; his well-being is neglected; all individuality expires; society becomes supreme, and exerts the most absolute and galling sway over all her members. On the other hand, if we destroy or neglect the social element, the disinterested, the heroic, we have no social bond, no union, no coöperation, no mutual assistance, no protection for even individuality itself. For all individuality being exclusive, infinitely repellant to every other individuality, each would seek its own gratification at the expense of another; one would prey upon another, the stronger would oppress the weaker, and we should have but one unvarying scene of wrongs and outrages, tyranny and slavery, anarchy, confusion, and war.
Every scheme of reform which overlooks or neglects either of these elements, as well as every scheme which proposes a perfection beyond the capabilities of human nature, must prove abortive, and be merely a monument to the want of practical wisdom in its author.
This fact Reformers are prone to overlook. For ourselves, we have never yet seen a scheme proposed for
either individual or social reform, that did not either neglect one or the other of these elements, or contemplate a perfection, to which neither human nature nor human society can attain.
Mr. Fourier has given us an example of a scheme of this latter sort. His scheme, as ably and faithfully developed in Mr. Brisbane's interesting and valuable volume on the Social Destiny of Man, is ingenious and striking, and at first view attractive, and even plausible. He recognises the antagonism which actually obtains in both the individual and society, and proposes to get rid of it by harmonizing the passions. His scheme may, therefore, be called a scheme of passional harmonies, to be produced not by denying, destroying, or subduing the passions, but by affording to each its legitimate gratification. This would, no doubt, succeed, were man only a perfect being, or capable of becoming perfect. Were he so made, that all his passions could be gratified, and so that he would always be satisfied when the passions had attained their special gratification, a scheme of passional harmony might be contemplated with some degree of practical wisdom, as well as with enthusiastic hope ; but man, from the very fact, that he is and always must be imperfect, incomplete, is incapable of having all his passions harmonized. He is a musical instrument, that can neither be put nor kept in perfect tune. He was made for progress. Progress consists in overcoming disharmony; and unless it is one day to cease, implies that disharmony can never be entirely overcome.
Moreover, each passion seeks its own special gratification, and can rarely obtain it without thwarting another. It is impossible, for instance, to harmonize benevolence and the love of accumulation ; for one finds its gratification in giving away, the other in acquiring and hoarding. Nature, again, is no economist. She secures her ends by an excessive expenditure of means. The end she proposes to secure by any given passion is always good and sacred, but in order to secure it, she lavishes the passion in excess. Take the passion of