Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure; and Other Essays

Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure; and Other Essays

Edward Carpenter
Edward Carpenter

Author: Carpenter, Edward, 1844-1929
Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure; and Other Essays
Transcriber’s Note:

Obvious typographic errors have been corrected.





First Edition, June 1889; Second Edition, December 1890;
Third Edition, November 1893; Fourth Edition, July 1895;
Fifth Edition, September 1897; Sixth Edition, October 1900;
Seventh Edition, July 1902; Eighth Edition, March 1903;
Ninth Edition, January 1906; Tenth Edition, January 1908;
Eleventh Edition, October 1910; Twelfth Edition, Dec. 1912;
Thirteenth Edition, Aug. 1914; Fourteenth Edition, June 1916;
Fifteenth Edition, Sept. 1917; Complete Edition, Jan. 1921
(All rights reserved)


In looking over this volume, first published in 1889, with a view to a final Edition, I am glad to note that after all there is not much in it requiring alteration. Considering that the original issue took place more than 30 years ago, I had thought that the great changes in scientific and philosophic thought which have taken place during that period would probably have rendered “out of date” a good deal of the book.
As a matter of fact, the first paper—that on Civilisation—was given as a lecture before the Fabian Society, in 1888; and I shall not easily forget the furious attacks which were made upon it on that occasion. The book—published as a whole in 1889—came in for a very similar reception from the press-critics. They slated it to the top of their bent—except in those not unfrequent cases when they ignored it as almost beneath notice. The whole trend of the thought of the time was against its conclusions; and it is perhaps worth while to recall these facts in order to measure how far we have travelled in these 30 years. For to-day (I think we may say) these conclusions are generally admitted as correct; and the views which seemed so hazarded and precarious at the earlier date are now fairly accepted and established.
The word Civilisation has undoubtedly during this period suffered an ominous change of color. It is no longer an easy term denoting all that is ideal and delightful in social life, but on the contrary, carries with it a sense of doubt and of criticism, as of something that is by no means accepted yet, but is rather on its trial—if not actually condemned!
I am sorry to note, however, that the suggestion made more than once in the course of my book—namely that the term (Civilisation) should properly be given an historical instead of ideal value, as applicable to a certain period only in the history of each people, has not yet been generally taken up. Yet a paper by some more competent person than myself on the definite marks and signs of the civilisation-period in History—their first appearance in the course of human progress and evolution, and their probable disappearance again at a later stage—would be greatly interesting and instructive.
My little essay on this subject was written at the time of its composition with a good deal of imaginative élan; and is of course open to criticism on that side, as being mainly enthusiastic in character and only slenderly supported by exact data, proofs, historical illustrations, analogies, and so forth. But to largely alter or amend the essay without seriously crippling it would be impossible; and though the form may be hurried or inadequate, yet as far as the actual contents and conclusions are concerned I still adhere to them absolutely, and believe that time will show them to be fully justified.
With regard to my views on Modern Science the last quarter of a century has curiously corroborated them. For while on the one hand—as expected—the progress in actual discovery and application of observed facts has been enormous, the theories on the other hand about all these things have receded more and more into the background, and have passed almost out of sight. While knowing, for instance, infinitely more about electrical actions and adaptations than we did, we seem to be if anything further off than ever from any valid theory of what Electricity is. The same with regard to Heat and Light, to Astronomical, Biological and Geological “laws,” and so forth. On such matters Modern Science is on the verge of confessing itself bankrupt, but not wishing to do that, it keeps a discreet silence.
The Atom, which I ventured (to the disgust of my scientific friends) to make fun of 30 years ago, has now exploded of itself as thoroughly as a German “coal-box”; and the fixed Chemical Elements of older days have of late dissolved into protean vapours and emanations, ions and electrons, impossible to follow through their endless transformations. As to the numerous “Laws of Nature” which in the nineteenth century we were just about to establish for all eternity, it is only with the greatest difficulty that any of these can now be discovered—most of them having got secreted away into the darkness of ancient text-books: where they lead forlorn and sightless existences, like the fish in the caves of Kentucky.
Here again—in my chapters on Science—though some expressions remain which are now out of date, I have thought it best to leave them as originally written: the meanings and general conclusions being still valid and as they were. It will be seen that the general drift of these chapters is to point the moral that the true field of science is to be found in Life, and that the best way to know things is to experience their meaning and to identify oneself with them through Action. From a study on these principles will ultimately emerge a Science truly humane and creative, masterful, and capable of building a true home for men—instead of the feverish, spectral and self-deluding thing which has usurped the name up to now.
Something the same will happen with the conception of Morality. The abstract codes on this subject, which have wrought so much havoc by their fatal intrusion on the field of human Life, are rapidly fading away. These ghosts, like the ghosts of Nature’s “Laws,” are receiving their quietus. And the general outline which was suggested in “The Defence of Criminals” has now been traced more positively in the chapter on “The New Morality” inserted at the end of the present volume. Morality has at last to become truly human, and the real expression of our organic need. Man has to be liberated from the cramps and suppressions and fixations which have hitherto paralysed him in the moral field. He has to emerge from the swathing bands of his pupal stage into the free air of heaven, and to become in the highest sense self-determining and creative.
Thus three things, (1) the realisation of a new order of Society, in closest touch with Nature, and in which the diseases of class-domination and Parasitism will have finally ceased; (2) the realisation of a Science which will no longer be a mere thing of the brain, but a part of Actual Life; and (3) the realisation of a Morality which will signalise and express the vital and organic unity of man with his fellows—these three things will become the heralds of a new era of humanity—an era which will possibly prefer not to call itself by the name of Civilisation.
In order to corroborate and confirm the first paper in the book an Appendix has now been added containing notes and data on the life and customs of many “uncivilised” peoples; for much of which Appendix I am indebted to the assistance of my widely-read and resourceful friend, E. Bertram Lloyd.
E. C.
December, 1920.


Preface To Complete Edition 7
Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure 15
Modern Science: A Criticism 79
The Science of the Future: A Forecast 120
Defence of Criminals: A Criticism of Morality 143
Exfoliation: Lamarck versus Darwin 181
Custom 206
A Rational and Humane Science 219
The New Morality 243
  Appendix—being Notes on Some of the
Characteristics and Customs of
Pre-Civilised Peoples


The friendly and flowing savage, who is he? Is he waiting
for civilisation, or is he past it, and mastering it?—Whitman.
We find ourselves to-day in the midst of a somewhat peculiar state of society, which we call Civilisation, but which even to the most optimistic among us does not seem altogether desirable. Some of us, indeed, are inclined to think that it is a kind of disease which the various races of man have to pass through—as children pass through measles or whooping cough; but if it is a disease, there is this serious consideration to be made, that while History tells us of many nations that have been attacked by it, of many that have succumbed to it, and of some that are still in the throes of it, we know of no single case in which a nation has fairly recovered from and passed through it to a more normal and healthy condition. In other words the development of human society has never yet (that we know of) passed beyond a certain definite and apparently final stage in the process we call Civilisation; at that stage it has always succumbed or been arrested.
Of course it may at first sound extravagant to use the word disease in connection with Civilisation at all, but a little thought should show that the association is not ill-grounded. To take the matter on its physical side first, I find that in Mullhall’s Dictionary of Statistics (1884) the number of accredited doctors and surgeons in the United Kingdom is put at over 23,000. If the extent of the national sickness is such that we require 23,000 medical men to attend to us, it must surely be rather serious! And they do not cure us. Wherever we look to-day, in mansion or in slum, we see the features and hear the complaints of ill-health; the difficulty is really to find a healthy person. The state of the modern civilised man in this respect—our coughs, colds, mufflers, dread of a waft of chill air, &c.—is anything but creditable, and it seems to be the fact that, notwithstanding all our libraries of medical science, our knowledges, arts, and appliances of life, we are actually less capable of taking care of ourselves than the animals are. Indeed, talking of animals, we are—as Shelley I think points out—fast depraving the domestic breeds. The cow, the horse, the sheep, and even the confiding pussy-cat, are becoming ever more and more subject to disease, and are liable to ills which in their wilder state they knew not of. And finally the savage races of the earth do not escape the baneful influence. Wherever Civilisation touches them, they die like flies from the small-pox, drink, and worse evils it brings along with it, and often its mere contact is sufficient to destroy whole races.
But the word Disease is applicable to our social as well as to our physical condition. For as in the body disease arises from the loss of the physical unity which constitutes Health, and so takes the form of warfare or discord between the various parts, or of the abnormal development of individual organs, or the consumption of the system by predatory germs and growths; so in our modern life we find the unity gone which constitutes true society, and in its place warfare of classes and individuals, abnormal development of some to the detriment of others, and consumption of the organism by masses of social parasites. If the word disease is applicable anywhere, I should say it is—both in its direct and its derived sense—to the civilised societies of to-day.
Again, mentally, is not our condition most unsatisfactory? I am not alluding to the number and importance of the lunatic asylums which cover our land, nor to the fact that maladies of the brain and nervous system are now so common; but to the strange sense of mental unrest which marks our populations, and which amply justifies Ruskin’s cutting epigram: that our two objects in life are, “Whatever we have—to get more; and wherever we are—to go somewhere else.” This sense of unrest, of disease, penetrates down even into the deepest regions of man’s being—into his moral nature—disclosing itself there, as it has done in all nations notably at the time of their full civilisation, as the sense of Sin.[1] All down the Christian centuries we find this strange sense of inward strife and discord developed, in marked contrast to the naive insouciance of the pagan and primitive world; and, what is strangest, we even find people glorying in this consciousness—which, while it may be the harbinger of better things to come, is and can be in itself only the evidence of loss of unity, and therefore of ill-health, in the very centre of human life.
Of course we are aware with regard to Civilisation that the word is sometimes used in a kind of ideal sense, as to indicate a state of future culture towards which we are tending—the implied assumption being that a sufficiently long course of top hats and telephones will in the end bring us to this ideal condition; while any little drawbacks in the process, such as we have just pointed out, are explained as being merely accidental and temporary. Men sometimes speak of civilising and ennobling influences as if the two terms were interchangeable, and of course if they like to use the word Civilisation in this sense they have a right to; but whether the actual tendencies of modern life taken in the mass are ennobling (except in a quite indirect way hereafter to be dwelt upon) is, to say the least, a doubtful question. Any one who would get an idea of the glorious being that is as a matter of fact being turned out by the present process should read Mr. Kay Robinson’s article in the Nineteenth Century for May, 1883, in which he prophesies (quite solemnly and in the name of science) that the human being of the future will be a toothless, bald, toeless creature with flaccid muscles and limbs almost incapable of locomotion!
Perhaps it is safer on the whole not to use the word Civilisation in such ideal sense, but to limit its use (as is done to-day by all writers on primitive society) to a definite historical stage through which the various nations pass, and in which we actually find ourselves at the present time. Though there is of course a difficulty in marking the commencement of any period of historical evolution very definitely, yet all students of this subject agree that the growth of property and the ideas and institutions flowing from it did at a certain point bring about such a change in the structure of human society that the new stage might fairly be distinguished from the earlier stages of Savagery and Barbarism by a separate term. The growth of Wealth, it is shown, and with it the conception of Private Property, brought on certain very definite new forms of social life; it destroyed the ancient system of society based upon the gens, that is, a society of equals founded upon blood-relationship, and introduced a society of classes founded upon differences of material possession; it destroyed the ancient system of mother-right and inheritance through the female line, and turned the woman into the property of the man; it brought with it private ownership of land, and so created a class of landless aliens, and a whole system of rent, mortgage, interest, etc.; it introduced slavery, serfdom and wage-labour, which are only various forms of the dominance of one class over another; and to rivet these authorities it created the State and the policeman. Every race that we know, that has become what we call civilised, has passed through these changes; and though the details may vary and have varied a little, the main order of change has been practically the same in all cases. We are justified therefore in calling Civilisation a historical stage, whose commencement dates roughly from the division of society into classes founded on property and the adoption of class-government. Lewis Morgan in his Ancient Society adds the invention of writing and the consequent adoption of written History and written Law; Engels in his Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats points out the importance of the appearance of the Merchant, even in his most primitive form, as a mark of the civilisation-period; while the French writers of the last century made a good point in inventing the term nations policées (policemanised nations) as a substitute for civilised nations; for perhaps there is no better or more universal mark of the period we are considering, and of its social degradation, than the appearance of the crawling phenomenon in question. [Imagine the rage of any decent North American Indians if they had been told they required policemen to keep them in order!]
If we take this historical definition of Civilisation, we shall see that our English Civilisation began hardly more than a thousand years ago, and even so the remains of the more primitive society lasted long after that. In the case of Rome—if we reckon from the later times of the early kings down to the fall of Rome—we have again about a thousand years. The Jewish civilisation from David and Solomon downwards lasted—with breaks—somewhat over a thousand years; the Greek civilisation less; the series of Egyptian civilisations which we can now distinguish lasted altogether very much longer; but the important points to see are, first, that the process has been quite similar in character in these various (and numerous other) cases,[2] quite as similar in fact as the course of the same disease in various persons; and secondly that in no case, as said before, has any nation come through and passed beyond this stage; but that in most cases it has succumbed soon after the main symptoms had been developed.
But it will be said, It may be true that Civilisation regarded as a stage of human history presents some features of disease; but is there any reason for supposing that disease in some form or other was any less present in the previous stage—that of Barbarism? To which I reply, I think there is good reason. Without committing ourselves to the unlikely theory that the “noble savage” was an ideal human being physically or in any other respect, and while certain that in many points he was decidedly inferior to the civilised man, I think we must allow him the superiority in some directions; and one of these was his comparative freedom from disease. Lewis Morgan, who grew up among the Iroquois Indians, and who probably knew the North American natives as well as any white man has ever done, says (in his Ancient Society, p. 45), “Barbarism ends with the production of grand Barbarians.” And though there are no native races on the earth to-day who are actually in the latest and most advanced stage of Barbarism;[3] yet, if we take the most advanced tribes that we

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