Review of Primitive Civilizations
Primitive Civilizations. By E. J. SIMCOX. Macmillan & Co., pp. x+576+554. $10.00.
Miss SIMCOX has evidently lavished labor and patience upon these two large, compact, and admirable volumes, and the result is a book which for interest to the student of social institutions may be compared with Spencer's Principles of Sociology, and Westermarck's History of Human Marriage. But it resembles these works perhaps less than it differs from them. Westermarck is a master in polemics on a question of origins where it is too much to ask that any single thesis be accepted as covering every case, and confines himself to a single aspect of the life-process ; Spencer is boundlessly suggestive but frequently tangential and sometimes preposterous, limiting himself neither geographically nor chronologically in his search for materials to illustrate his views of the interworking of social forces in the aggregate. Miss Simcox's plan is a compromise between these two. She has considered the Egyptian,
( 505) Babylonian, what she calls for convenience the Syro-Phoenician and Lybo-Phoenician, and the Chinese civilizations, avowedly with the purpose of outlining the history of ownership in these archaic communities ;but industrial, militant and social conditions are treated with great fullness, and the position of women receives at every turn especial attention. Miss Simcox has shown throughout a fine enthusiasm for her difficult task, and feels that the two volumes scantly suffice for her purpose. "A sketch of English history and social growth," she says at the close of her second volume, "compressing the records of 800 years into half as many pages is apt to repel by the dullness that comes of brevity. A survey of five times as many centuries would need to be ten times as long to become less tedious; and the charitable reader is entreated to believe that the foregoing pages might have seemed shorter if they had been a great deal more numerous."
To the sociologist, who has the threefold task of finding his facts, reading his ideals out of the facts, and carrying the ideals over into action, this work is of great value, and especially so since its author is not merely a compiler of facts, but a searcher to whom the significance of the process underlying the facts is all-important. Miss Simcox thinks we have been superficial and contemptful in our views of the great civilizations of the East, and considers that the irritable West may learn a lesson from their permanence. She is obviously qualified to speak in this connection, and we give some space to the quotation of her words.
" Past nations lived their life as their fate and choice determined, with no view certainly to the instruction of. posterity ; and hence the truth of history must be distorted if we study it exclusively with a view to the lessons to be learnt from it for our own profit. It is only after reading the history of Egypt or China as disinterested students, that we can trust ourselves to generalize as to the conditions of the stability and conservatism, which we began by recognizing as the common feature of the great primitive civilizations. Knowing better than Cicero how great nations may not only decline in fortune, but actually cease to exist, we cannot doubt that there must have been `wisdom and breeding' in any people whose life has endured for two, three, or four thousand years. We have seen that the same kind of qualities enable tribes as well as nations to flourish unchangingly for ages, so it is clear that this longevity does not depend upon political organization. The widest generalization that our facts seem to warrant is that it depends
( 506) upon the prevalence among the people of a temperament, which, when undisturbed by foreign elements, inspires a theoretical and practical adoption of the homely doctrine, ' Live and let live.'
In the communities of the West, we weed out our social failures, we throw them—or let them sink—into what we call the residuum. Our social residuum lives and propagates its species in a medium as well prepared for the growth of anti-social vices as the hay tea or chicken broth in which amateurs of microbes cultivate their disease germs. But the man of science calls cultivation successful if the virus grows milder and less fatal in each generation. His media are sterilized by the most elaborate precautions ; everything in which the germs of disease delight, not merely morbid matter, dirt, decay, but even healthy atoms of animal or vegetable substance, which, having been alive, are subject to decomposition, are to be excluded, saving just such a simple minimum as may serve to keep the microbe alive and multiplying. Small wonder that under this treatment it grows less virulent, it is tamed until it becomes a harmless inoculant, and might in time lose all its power to infect. But we, instead, plant the children of our social failures in a soil where their parents' vices and defects must become intensified, and where every kind of quality and propensity injurious to the individual and to society must develop. The children of drunkards, nurtured in the lowest depths of city squalor, have their hereditary craving for alcohol stimulated by chronic hunger, exhaustion, and foul air. . . . We pay covetousness its wages in the same coin as skill, and we visit feebleness with the same industrial penalties as crime . . . . We ridicule the idea of making occupation hereditary, yet we acquiesce in the propagation of classes in which one generation has nothing to bequeath to the next save bad health, bad habits, and general incapacity for wholesome and service-able living.
" We acquiesce in all this not as morally right or practically expedient, but as the natural or necessary consequence of the free play of individual enterprise in the struggle for existence. And, so far the heterogeneous society of the West can be said to guide its conduct by any creed, it is probably inspired by a kind of faith in the healing power of freedom. There is no new thing under the sun, and English Liberalism agrees with Chinese Taoism : 'There is such a thing as letting mankind alone ; there has never been such a thing as governing mankind.' Philosophical Anarchism is the logical outcome of the
( 507) optimistic doctrine that the best possible world will be made by leaving every one at liberty to do the best he can for himself. . . .
"It is a foolish fatalism to assume that everything which occurs naturally must occur necessarily, or that nothing new can become natural. Every historical occurrence is at once natural and necessary, in the sense of being necessarily due to causes naturally operating on existing minds under existing conditions. But men act under the influence of felt desires, and the unforeseen results of their action are sometimes inconsistent with the ends intentionally aimed at ; and this discovery itself is a natural motive for a change of action. The malign influence exercised in the middle of the present century, by the accepted doctrines of political economy, lay exactly in the encouragement they gave to the delusion that all natural tendencies were unalterable, even by experience revealing new evils consequent on their operation.
"We agree with Mencius that there is no difference between killing a man with a sword, and letting him die because we do not know how to regulate the struggle for existence; and there is no general disposition to repudiate the everlasting obligations which are due by man to man.'The problem has reached the intellectual stage, and we need men of science to show how the felt obligations may be met almost more than moral teaching to rouse the sense of duty. . . . On the face of it, it does not appear to be a more complicated problem to apply the principles of righteousness to the ramifications of trade and industry than to apply the principles of pure mathematics to the construction of the Forth Bridge. All that is needed is that our moralists should acquaint themselves as fully and precisely with the facts of industry and commerce as our mathematicians do with the properties of matter. The processes of the operative, the manufacturer, the warehouseman, the carrier, the merchant, and the retailer must be put under the micro-scope, and every detail of them examined under the dry light of disinterested science, when much that is unfit to face the pencil of the recorders will at once shrink out of existence. . . . Human needs, human instincts, and human perceptions do not alter in their nature, and the dislocations of intricate social adjustments, which follow from the natural course of historic development, will not prove beyond the skill of social surgery to reduce, if the need is recognized for encyclopaedic wisdom in the professors of the healing art.
"To combine progress and stability, it is necessary, not to prevent all change of status on the part of individuals, but to establish laws and
( 508) customs which shall make it impossible for large classes to contract themselves into an intolerably painful or injurious status; or for individuals to enter into contracts, however personally advantageous, which will in effect tend to produce such a result for the other parties concerned. . . . And in an age which has accomplished such marvels in the way of self-adjusting machinery and compensating balances as the present, it should not be impossible to assign the limits within which individual liberty of action must be confined in order to secure to the individual himself the supreme good of dwelling in a community without victims.
"The course natural to the multitudes is to make things, to contract marriages of affection, to revere the wisdom of the wise, who succeed in interpreting those laws of heaven and earth which regulate the satisfaction of human instincts. And the pursuance of this course holds out, unless human nature has altered in 5000 years, the best prospect of social and economic welfare to the multitudes of the West, as well as to the ancient nations, versed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and the learning of the Chaldeans."
W. I. THOMAS.