Earth-Hunger and Other Essays - William Sumner - darmowy ebook

"Now it has seemed to me, in my own experience with Sumner, and in my teaching, that such an attitude toward the questions of societal life is, for the young at least, the one best adapted to open—wrench open, if you will—the gates of the mind and introduce the impulse to independent thinking. I do not mean at all that this result is to be attained by an unresisting acceptance of the forcefully expressed opinions of a compelling reasoner; in fact, I believe that, in the case of Sumner, many a man has been goaded to think things out for himself for very rage at the conclusive manner in which Sumner used to dispose of some of his pet or traditional notions. Sometimes such a man came to agree with Sumner; again he believed that he had won the right not to assent—but in either case there had come to him an awakening in the matter of his own mental powers and life. This is why so many men who have eventually come to dissent from Sumner's positions, yet look back upon him as an intellectual awakener. The difficult thing about getting a vision in the large is in the attainment of an elevated plane of thought; if someone can lift you to it, you will find room enough there to range away from the exact spot upon which you were originally set down. It is the "lift" which is crucial—and that it is which only the strong and positive man, who has wrought himself up beyond the pull of the trivial and traditional, can give." - A.G. Keller

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by William Sumner

Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett

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LIBERTY  1887-1889






























I was born at Paterson, N. J., October 30, 1840. My father, Thomas Sumner, was born at Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, England, May 6, 1808. He came to the United States in 1836. My mother was Sarah Graham. She was born in Oldham, England, in 1819, and was brought to the United States by her parents in 1825. She died when I was eight years old. This is about all I know of my ancestry. My father told me that he had seen his own great-grandfather, who was a weaver in Lancashire. They were all artisans and members of the wages class. It is safe to say that I am the first of them who ever learned Latin and algebra. My grandfather had a good trade, which was ruined by machinery. On account of this family disaster, my father was in every respect a self-educated man, and was obliged to come to America. His principles and habits of life were the best possible. His knowledge was wide, and his judgment excellent. He belonged to the class of men, of whom Caleb Garth in Middlemarch is the type. In early life I accepted, from books and other people, some views and opinions which differed from his. At the present time, in regard to those matters, I hold with him and not with the others.

In the year after I was born my father went prospecting through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. He came back convinced that, if a man would live as poorly and educate his children as badly in the East as he would  have to in the West, he could do as well in the East. He moved to New England, lived in New Haven a year or two, and settled in Hartford about 1845. I was educated in the public schools of that city. I was clerk in a store for two years, but went back to school to prepare for college.

After graduating I went at once to Europe. I passed the winter of 1863-64 in Geneva, Switzerland, studying French and Hebrew. In April, 1864, I went to Göttingen, where I studied ancient languages and history. In April, 1866, I went to Oxford, where I studied Anglican theology. In that year I was elected tutor at Yale and entered upon the duties in September.

I was ordained Deacon in the Protestant Episcopal Church at Trinity Church, New Haven, December 27, 1867. I resigned the tutorship in March, 1869, to become assistant to the Rector of Calvary Church, New York City. From September, 1870, to September, 1872, I was Rector of the Church of the Redeemer, at Morristown, N. J.

In June, 1872, I was elected Professor of Political and Social Science in Yale College. My life has been spent since that time in trying to fulfil the duties of that position. From 1873 to 1876 I was an alderman of the city of New Haven. In 1876 I was one of the “visiting statesmen,” who were sent to New Orleans to try to find out what kind of a presidential election they had in Louisiana in that year. This is the whole of my experience in politics. I found out that I was likely to do more harm in politics than almost any other kind of man, because I did not know the rules of the game and did not want to learn them. Therefore, the adepts at it could play with me in more senses than one. My experience, however, has been very valuable to me. It has enabled  me to gauge the value of the talk we hear about “civics” and “citizenship.” I turned back to the studies connected with my college position, and have devoted myself entirely to them. Those studies have expanded so rapidly and greatly that I have been compelled during the whole thirty-two years to narrow the range of my work more and more. I have renounced one branch after another in order to concentrate my efforts on what I could hope to master. In this process I have had to throw away a great amount of work, which I could never hope to finish. When I was fifty years old I broke down in health. I have only partly recovered, and have been obliged to limit my interests as much as possible to the college work. I am now trying to bring into form for publication the results of my studies in the science of society. If life and strength hold out, this will be the sum of what I shall have accomplished. The life of a professor is so simple and monotonous that I know of no other “history” of it that is possible, than what I have just written. No other life could have been so well suited to my taste as this. My relations with students and graduates have always been of the pleasantest, and I think that there can be few relations in life which can give greater satisfaction than these.


Our respected friend, in honor of whom we are met to-day, furnishes me the first illustration of the sentiment you have offered me. I remember him as he used to visit the schools of Hartford forty-five or fifty years ago when I was a boy in one of them. We schoolboys were familiar with his figure and I recall him distinctly as we used to see him. Our teachers honored him and taught us to honor him. In some way which we did not understand he embodied the care and providence which was giving us our schooling. We then attributed to him more patriarchal dignity perhaps than he then deserved. We know now that he first introduced some system and regularity, some economy of time and money, into the old happy-go-lucky system of the district schools, but my mind goes back with more affection and reverence still to the man who, in my childhood, seemed to be the responsible moving agent of the whole school system. We thought that he would not work for us unless he loved us and he seemed to have a fatherly care for all the school children in the State. He never spoke to me and I presume never let his eyes rest on me, but I have to thank him for a part of the inspiration which has entered into my life and work. I am a part of his unconscious success.

This case leads us to reflect how much of this kind of success every faithful worker in the cause of education wins without knowing it; and is it not the best success of all? We warn ourselves and we are warned by all our critics that education is something far different from  schooling. Unfortunately they do not necessarily go together. Unfortunately also our people are pinning their faith on schooling. The faith in book-learning is one of the superstitions of the nineteenth century and it enters for a large part into the bequest which the nineteenth century is about to hand over to the twentieth. On the walls of our schoolroom our teacher had pasted up in large letters: “Knowledge is power.” Yes, that is what knowledge is. It is power and nothing more. As a power it is like wealth, talent, or any power, that is, it is without any moral element whatever. The moral question always comes in when we ask, in respect to the man who has power: What will he do with it? It is so of wealth. The man who has it can realize purposes which are entirely impossible to the man who has it not. What purposes will the holder of wealth choose? If he chooses one set of purposes he may bring things to pass which the rest of us can only dream of and wish for. If he chooses another set of purposes, he will be only so much the greater curse to himself and all around him than he would be if he were poor. The same is true of talent. The same is true of any other power. It is true of knowledge. The man who has it is equipped for action both with tools and weapons. What will he do with it? If he so chooses he may, by virtue of it, be far more useful to himself, his children, and his country than he would be without it, but if he chooses otherwise, he may simply be a far more efficient and harmful rascal than he would be without it. This is why it is simply a crude and empty superstition to believe that a knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography makes good husbands and fathers and citizens. It does not. There is no connection of cause and effect. In truth, half-culture is one of the great curses of our time. Half-culture makes man volatile  and opinionated. It makes them the easy victims of fads and fallacies and makes them stubborn in adhering to whims which they have taken up. It makes them impervious to reason and argument because they hold to their pet ideas with a pertinacity which has a great deal of vanity in it. It makes them quick to talk and slow to think or study. We sometimes rejoice in the amount of reading that our people do in newspapers, magazines, and light literature, and we are multiplying libraries and reading-rooms with an easy confidence that it is all in the right direction. It is like other human devices, however; it is in the main good, but it is not all good. There is one disturbing reflection which we must take earnestly to heart. If a people’s desire for literary food is met by light literature, it is satisfied and put at rest by light literature, and then there is no desire or energy to get anything better. The argument against novel reading which we used to hear forty years ago, has almost entirely died out, but it had some sense in it, on this ground if no other. The consumption of vast masses of diluted literary food destroys the tone of the intellect and the moral stamina also.

Such observations and reflections as these force us back again to our resources of moral strength. Where do they lie? Without disparaging the value of homiletical instruction and exhortation, it will be admitted by everybody that it takes character above everything else to make character. Here is where the personality of the teacher has a transcendent function in connection with imparting book-learning. The school educates the teacher quite as much as it educates the scholars. The life and work together under forms which involve discipline and orderly co-operation cannot go on without friction which tells upon both parties. The incidents  of the schoolroom easily provoke the temper or the vanity, the jealousy or the rancor of the teacher. Who does not know what pitiless critics scholars are, how sharply they detect evidences of human weakness, and what severe standards they employ? Even parents are exposed to no such criticism. They are shielded, and presumptions are created in their favor which teachers do not enjoy. When it comes to demands upon character there is no profession and no relation in life which makes such heavy demands as teaching.

It would, of course, be absurd to make superhuman demands on teachers, and exaggerated demands could have no other effect than to discourage. Such is not the point to which my thoughts tend. On the contrary I have in mind, in what I say, the encouraging fact that a faithful teacher who is always trying to do the best possible is sure to enjoy a large measure of success of which he or she is not conscious. When I look back to my own school-days I know that two or three of my teachers had decisive effect upon my character and career, yet I have no reason to suppose that any one of them knew that it was so or was to be so. We had one teacher whom I never saw put in a difficult position but what he extricated himself from it in such a way that we all felt that that was just the right way to act in an emergency of that kind. That is the way in which character is educated by character. Its fruits are abundant, and the crop of them is produced over and over again for many a year afterwards, and it is planted and gathered by many workers over many fields.

I was led into this line of thought by my recollections of our honored guest. I think that the reflections I have suggested may be welcome to him in the retrospect of a long career, during which, no doubt, he has had many failures and disappointments to lament. Like all the rest of us he has, no doubt, felt that the results of his labors were not what he hoped for and had a fair right to expect. Let me assure him that there has been more fruition than he has been aware of. It is the chief purpose of this meeting to assure him of it and to give him that explicit proof of it to which he is entitled.


I have undertaken the duty of addressing you for a few moments in order to welcome you to this society and also to make some suggestions which seem appropriate to the beginning of your connection with it. What we expect this society to do for you is, that it shall confirm your devotion to true science and help to train you in scientific methods of thought and study.

Let us begin by trying to establish a definite idea of what science is. The current uses of the term are both very strict and very loose or vague. Some people use the term as a collective term for the natural sciences; others define science as orderly knowledge. Professor Karl Pearson, in his Grammar of Science, does not offer any definition of science, but he tells the aim of science and its function.

“The classification of facts and the formation of absolute judgments upon the basis of this classification—judgments independent of the idiosyncrasies of the individual mind—is peculiarly the scope and method of modern science.The scientific man has above all things, to strive at self-elimination in his judgments, to provide an argument which is as true for each individual mind as for his own. The classification of facts, the recognition of their sequence and relative significance is the function of science, and the habit of forming a judgment upon those facts unbiased by personal feeling is characteristic of what we shall term the scientific frame of mind.” These  statements we may gladly accept so far as they go, but they are not definitions of science.

I should want to make the definition of science turn upon the methodemployed, and I would propose as a definition: knowledge of reality acquired by methods which are established in the confidence of men whose occupation it is to investigate truth. In Pearson’s book, he refers constantly to the opinions and methods of scientific scholars as the highest test of truth. I know of no better one; I know of none which we employ as constantly as we do that one; and so I put it in the definition. I propose to define science as knowledge of reality because “truth” is used in such a variety of senses. I do not know whether it is possible for us ever to arrive at a knowledge of “the truth” in regard to any important matters. I doubt if it is possible. It is not important. It is the pursuit of truth which gives us life, and it is to that pursuit that our loyalty is due.

What seems to me most important is that we should aim to get knowledge of realities, not of phantasms or words. By a phantasm I mean a mental conception which is destitute of foundation in fact, and of relations to the world of the senses. In the Middle Ages all men pursued phantasms; their highest interest was in another world which was a phantasm, and they were anxious about their fate in that world. They tried to provide for it by sacraments and rites which were fantastic in their form, and in their assumed relation to the desired end. They built up a great church corporation and endowed it with a large measure of control of human affairs so that it could provide for welfare in the other world. It had special functions which were fantastic with reference to the end which they were to accomplish because they contained no rational connection between means and  ends. All the societal power which the church did not have was given to the Emperor, because in a certain text of Scripture mention was made of “two swords.” The historical period was spent in a war between the Pope and the Emperor to see which should rule the other. The Crusades were an attempt to realize a great phantasm. Chivalry and the devotion to women were phantasms. The societal system was unreal; it assumed that men were originally in a state of slavery and that all rights which they had were due to gift from some sovereign. It resulted that only two men in the world, the Pope and the Emperor, had original and independent rights. The relation of classes, parties, and corporations in the society was therefore both loose and complicated. It is amazing to notice the effect of all this attention to unrealities on all the products of the Middle Ages. People had no idea of reality. Their poetry dealt with arbitrary inventions and demanded of the reader that he should accept tiresome conventions and stereotyped forms. They formed ideas of Cathay such as we meet with in the Arabian Nights, and they were ready to believe that there might be, in Cathay, any animal form which anybody’s imagination could conceive, and any kind of a human figure, for instance, one with a countenance on the elbows or the knees. Theologians quarreled about whether Jesus and his disciples abjured property and lived by beggary, and whether the blood which flowed from the side of Jesus remained on earth or was taken up to heaven with him. The most noticeable fact is that all the disputants were ready to go to the stake, or to put the other party to the stake, according as either should prove to have the power. It was the rule of the game as they understood it and played it. It was another striking manifestation of the temper of the times that within  a few days after the capture of Antioch, the poets in the several divisions of the successful army began to write the history of the conflict, not according to facts, but each glorifying the great men of his own group by ascribing to them great deeds such as the current poetry ascribed to legendary heroes. What could more strikingly show the absence of any notion of historic reality?

Now, if you compare our world of ideas with that of the Middle Ages, the greatest difference is that we want reality beyond everything else. We do not demand the truth because we do not know where or how to get it. We do not want rationalism, because that is only a philosophy, and it has limitations like any other philosophy. We do not demand what is natural or realistic in the philosophical sense, because that would imply a selection of things, in operation all the time, before the things were offered to us. In zoology and anthropology we want to know all forms which really exist, but we have no patience with invented and imaginary forms. In history we do not allow documents to be prepared which will serve a purpose; to us, such documents would have the character of lies. That they would be edifying or patriotic does not excuse them. Probably modern men have no harder task than the application of the historic sense to cases in those periods of history when it was not thought wrong to manufacture such documents as one’s cause required.

The modern study of nature has helped to produce this way of looking at things, and the way of looking at things has made science possible. I want to have the notion of science built on this thirst for reality, and respond to it at every point. There may be knowledge of reality whose utility we do not know, but it would be overbold for any one to say that any knowledge of reality is useless.

Since our ancestors devoted so much attention to phantasms and left us piles of big books about them, one great department of science must be criticism, by which we discern between the true and the false. There is one historical case of this requirement which always rises before my mind whenever I think of the need of criticism—that is witch-persecution. Although the church had a heavy load of blame for this frightful abuse, yet the jurists were more to blame. As to the church also, the Protestants, especially the Puritans of Scotland, were as bad as the Roman Catholics. Witch-persecution is rooted in demonism, which is the oldest, widest, and most fundamental form of religion. Whenever religion breaks down there is always produced a revival of demonism. The developments of it may be traced from early Chaldæa. It was believed that demons and women fell in love and begot offspring. Nightmare, especially in the forms experienced on mountains, led to notions of midnight rides, and Walpurgis-Nacht assemblies; then the notion of obscene rites was added. It was believed that witches could provoke great storms and convulsions of nature; all remarkable instances of calamity or good luck, especially if it affected one or a few, were ascribed to them. Especially hail-storms and tornadoes, which sometimes destroy crops over a very limited area, but spare all the rest, were thought to be their work. It was believed that they could transfer good crops from their neighbors’ fields to their own. Here we see how phantasms grow. The bulls of popes summed up and affirmed the whole product as fact. Then, too, all the apparatus of pretended investigation and trial which the Inquisition had developed was transferred to the witch-trials. As women chiefly were charged with witchcraft, the result was that all this accumulation of superstition,  folly, and cruelty was turned against them. If we try to form an idea of the amount of suffering which resulted, our hearts stand still with horror.

Now there are some strong reasons for the faith in witchcraft. Everybody believed that witches existed, that they could enter into contracts with demons, and could get supernatural aid to carry out their purposes in this world. All the accused witches believed this. It was held to be wicked to make use of witches or demons, but it was believed that there were possible ways of accomplishing human purposes by employing them. Consequently when men or women wanted wealth, or office, or honor, or great success, or wanted to inspire love, or to gratify hate, envy, and vengeance, or wanted children, or wanted to prevent other people from having children, this way was always supposed to be open. No doubt very many of them tried it, at least in homely and silly ways—when put to the torture they confessed it. Then, too, somnambulism, dreams, and nightmare took forms which ran on the lines of popular superstition, and many a woman charged with witchcraft did not know but she had been guilty of it to some extent and without conscious knowledge. Again, the Scripture argument for demonism and witchcraft was very strong. It was this pitfall which caught the Protestants; how could they deny that there are any witches when the Bible says: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Witches were persons who had gone over to the side of Satan and his hosts in their war on God; they were enemies of the human race. The deductions from the primary fantastic notion of demons were all derived on direct and indisputable lines, and those deductions ruled the thought of Christian Europe for five hundred years.

What was wanted to put a stop to the folly and wickedness  was criticism. The case shows us that we men, including the greatest and best of us, may fall at any time under the dominion of such a mania, unless we are trained in methods of critical thinking. A series of great sceptics from Montaigne to Voltaire met the witch doctrines with scorn and derision. They were not afraid to deny the existence of demons. It appears also that the so-called common-sense of the crowd revolted at the absurdities of witchcraft. Every person who was executed as a witch named, under torture, others, who were then arrested, tortured, and executed; each of these named others, and so the witch-judges found that they were driven on, by judicial execution of the most cruel form, to depopulate a whole territory. It was a critical revolt when they saw this construction of their own conduct and turned against it. When we read the story we are amazed that good and honest men could have gone on for centuries inflicting torture of the extremest kind on old women without the bit of critical reflection which should have led them to ask themselves what they were doing.

Let us not make the mistake of supposing that all follies and manias of this kind are permanently overcome and need not be feared any longer. The roots of popular error are ineradicable; they lie at the bottom of human nature; they can produce new growth and new fruits at any time. In this twentieth century the probable line on which the deductions will be drawn is in politics and civil institutions. The modern world has rejected religious dogmatism, but it has taken up a great mass of political dogmatism, and this dogmatism is intertwined with the interests of groups of men. If you accept the political dogmas of the eighteenth century and begin to build deductions on them you will reach a construction as absurd and false as that of witchcraft. The only security  is the constant practise of critical thinking. We ought never to accept fantastic notions of any kind; we ought to test all notions; we ought to pursue all propositions until we find out their connection with reality. That is the fashion of thinking which we call scientific in the deepest and broadest sense of the word. It is, of course, applicable over the whole field of human interests, and the habit of mind which insists on finding realities is the best product of an education which may be properly called scientific. I have no doubt that, in your lifetime, you will see questions arise out of popular notions and faiths, which will call for critical thinking such as has never been required before, especially as to social relations, political institutions, and economic interests.

Here I may notice, in passing, the difference between science and religion in regard to the habits of thought which each encourages. No religion ever offers itself except as a complete and final answer to the problems of life. No religion ever offers itself as a tentative solution. A religion cannot say: I am the best solution yet found, but I may be superseded tomorrow by new discoveries. But that is exactly what every science must say. Religions do not pretend to grow; they are born complete and fully correct and our duty in regard to them is to learn them in their integrity. Hence Galton says that “the religious instructor, in every creed, is one who makes it his profession to saturate his pupils with prejudice.”

Every science contains the purpose and destiny of growth as one of its distinguishing characteristics; it must always be open to re-examination and must submit to new tests if such are proposed. Consequently the modes and habits of thought developed by the study of  science are very different from those developed by the study of religion. This is the real cause, I think, of the antagonism between science and religion which is vaguely felt in modern times, although the interest is lacking which would bring the antagonism into an open conflict. I cannot believe that this attitude will remain constant. I am prepared to believe that some of you may live to see new interest infused into our traditional religion which will produce an open conflict. At present scientific methods are largely introduced into history, archæology, the comparison of religions, and Biblical interpretation, where their effect is far more destructive than the mass of people yet know. When the antagonism develops into open conflict, parties will take sides. It is evident that the position of the parties on all the great faiths and interests of men will differ very widely and that each position will have to be consistent with the fundamental way of looking at the facts of life on which it is founded. It does not seem possible that a scientist and a sacramentarian could agree about anything.

There is another form of phantasm which is still in fashion and does great harm, that is, faith in ideals. Men who rank as strong thinkers put forward ideals as useful things in thought and effort. Every ideal is a phantasm; it is formed by giving up one’s hold on reality and taking a flight into the realm of fiction. When an ideal has been formed in the imagination the attempt is made to spring and reach it as a mode of realizing it. The whole process seems to me open to question; it is unreal and unscientific; it is the same process as that by which Utopias are formed in regard to social states, and contains the same fallacies; it is not a legitimate mental  exercise. There is never any correct process by which we can realize an ideal. The fashion of forming ideals corrupts the mind and injures character. What we need to practise, on the contrary, is to know, with the greatest exactitude, what is, and then plan to deal with the case as it is by the most approved means.

Let me add a word about the ethical views which go with the scientific-critical way of looking at things. I have mentioned already our modern view of manufactured documents, which we call forged. In regard to history it seems to me right to say that history has value just on account of the truth which it contains and not otherwise. Consequently the historian who leaves things out, or puts them in, for edifying, patriotic, or other effect, sins against the critical-scientific method and temper which I have described. In fact, patriotism is another root of non-reality, and the patriotic bias is hostile to critical thinking.

It must be admitted that criticism is pessimistic. I say that it must be admitted, because, in our time, optimism is regarded as having higher merit and as a duty; that which is pessimistic is consequently regarded as bad and wrong. That is certainly an error. Pessimism includes caution, doubt, prudence, and care; optimism means gush, shouting, boasting, and rashness. The extreme of pessimism is that life is not worth living; the extreme of optimism is that everything is for the best in the best of worlds. Neither of these is true, but one is just as false as the other. The critical temper will certainly lead to pessimism; it will develop the great element of loss, disaster, and bad luck which inheres in all human enterprises. Hence it is popularly considered to consist in fault-finding. You will need to guard against an excess of it, because if you yield to it, it will lame your energies  and deprive you of courage and hope. Nevertheless I cannot doubt that the popular feeling in our time and country needs toning down from a noisy and heedless optimism. Professor Giddings, a few years ago, made a very interesting analysis and classification of books published in this country, from which he thought that he proved, statistically, that the temper of our people now is between ideo-emotional and dogmatic-emotional. By ideo-emotional he means inquiring or curious, and convivial; by dogmatic-emotional he means domineering and austere. We must notice, as limiting this test, that the book-market can bear testimony only to the taste of the “reading public,” which is but a very small part of the population, and does not include the masses. Professor Giddings found that 50 per cent of the books published aimed to please and appealed to emotion or sentiment; 40 per cent aimed to convert, and appealed to belief, ethical emotion, or self-interest; 8 per cent aimed to instruct, were critical, and appealed to reason. The other 2 per cent contained all the works of high technical or scientific value, lost really in an unclassifiable residuum. This means that our literature is almost entirely addressed to the appetite for romance and adventure, probable or improbable, to sentimentalism, to theoretical interest in crime, marital infelicity, and personal misfortune, and to the pleasure of light emotional excitement, while a large part of it turns on ethical emotion and ignorant zeal in social matters. This accords with the impression one gets from the newspapers as to what the people like. The predominance of the emotional element in popular literature means that people are trained by it away from reality. They lose the power to recognize truth. Their power to make independent  ethical judgments is undermined, and all value is taken out of their collective opinion on social and political topics. They are made day-dreamers, or philistines, or ready victims of suggestion, to be operated upon by religious fakers, or politicians, or social innovators. What they need is criticism, with all the pessimism which it may bring in its train. Ethics belong to the folkways of the time and place; they can be kept sound and vigorous only by the constant reaction between the traditional rule and the individual judgment. What we must have, on this domain also, is a demand for reality and a trained power to perceive the relation between all human interests and the facts of reality at the time existing.

These are the ideas which it seemed to me most desirable to suggest to you at this moment when you are joining this society. I hope that you will here, by your work, your influence on each other, and all the exercises of the society, develop your zeal for scientific truth, and all the virtues of mind and character which common pursuit of reality may be expected to produce. We cannot welcome you to grand halls and old endowments. You cannot carry on your work under fine paintings, with beautiful furniture, or a rich society library. I will say frankly that I wish you could do so; I wish that we had all the accumulations of time and money which such conveniences would present. I do not doubt, however, that your youth and zeal will suffice for you and we expect that you will make up for all deficiencies by your earnest work. It should be the spirit with which you enter the society to make your connection with it tell on your education. You have been selected as men of earnest purpose and industry. You can do much for each other. Common interest in the same line of work will draw you together. I wish you all prosperity and success.


The most important limiting condition on the status of human societies is the ratio of the number of their members to the amount of land at their disposal. It is this ratio of population to land which determines what are the possibilities of human development or the limits of what man can attain in civilization and comfort.

Unoccupied land has been regarded by at least one economist as a demand for men, using “demand” in the technical economic sense. I should not like to be understood as accepting that view. Wild land or nature cannot be personified as wanting labor—it is not even an intelligible figure of speech. Much less can we think of economic demand as predicable of land or nature. Economic demand is a phenomenon of a market, and it is unreal unless it is sustained by a supply offered in the market in exchange for the thing demanded. If it is really nature that we have in mind, then the globe rolled on through space for centuries on centuries without a laborer upon it. The bare expanse of its surface was the scene of growth, change, and destruction in endless series, and nature was perfectly satisfied. Nature means nothing but the drama of forces in action, and it is only a part of our vain anthropomorphism that we think of its operation as “progressive” in proportion as they tend towards a state of things which will suit us men better than some other state. It is an excessive manifestation of the same sentiment to talk  of wild land as a demand for men. The desert of Sahara makes no demand for men; but nature is fully as well satisfied to make a Sahara, where such is the product of her operations, as to make the wheat fields of Iowa or Dakota. Even in Iowa and Dakota, nature offers men no wages for labor. There are the land, the sunshine, and the rain. If the men know how to use those elements to get wheat there, and if they will work hard enough for it, they can get it and enjoy it; if not, they can lie down and die there on the fertile prairie, as many a man did before the industrial organization had expanded widely enough to embrace those districts. Nature went on her way without a throb of emotion or a deviation by a hair’s breadth from the sequence of her processes.

It is by no means in the sense of any such rhetorical flourish or aberration that I say that the widest and most controlling condition of our status on earth is the ratio of our numbers to the land at our disposal. This ratio is changing all the time on account of changes which come about either in the numbers of the men or in the amount of the land. The amount of the land, again, is not a simple arithmetical quantity. As we make improvements in the arts a single acre is multiplied by a new factor and is able to support more people. All the improvements in the arts, of whatever kind they are, have this effect, and it is by means of it that, other things remaining the same, they open wider chances for the successive generations of mankind to attain to comfort and well-being on earth. All our sciences tell on the same ratio in the same way. Their effect is that by widening our knowledge of the earth on which we live, they increase our power to interpose in the play of the forces of nature and to modify it to suit our purposes and preferences. All the developments of our social organization have the same effect.  We are led by scientific knowledge, or driven by instinct, to combine our efforts by co-operation so that we can make them more efficient,—and “more efficient” means getting more subsistence out of an acre, so that we can support more people, or support the same number on a higher grade of comfort. This alternative must be borne in mind throughout the entire discussion of our subject. When we have won a certain power of production, we can distribute it in one of two ways: we can support a greater number or we can support the same number better; or we can divide it between the two ways, employing a part in each way.

Here comes in what we call the “standard of living.” A population of high intelligence, great social ambition, and social self-respect or vanity will use increased economic power to increase the average grade of comfort, not to increase the numbers. The standard of living is a grand social phenomenon, but the phrase has been greatly abused by glib orators and philosophers. The standard of living does not mean simply that we all vote, that we are fine fellows and deserve grand houses, fine clothes, and good food, simply as a tribute to our nobility. The men who start out with the notion that the world owes them a living generally find that the world pays its debt in the penitentiary or the poorhouse. Neither is the standard of living an engine which economists and reformers can seize upon and employ for their purposes. The standard of living is a kind of industrial honor. It costs a great deal to produce it and perhaps still more to maintain it. It is the fine flower of a high and pure civilization and is itself a product or result, not an instrumentality. If by careful education and refined living a man has really acquired a high sense of honor, you can appeal to it, it is true, and by its response it furnishes  a most effective security for wide-reaching principles of action and modes of behavior; but the more anyone appreciates honor in character, the less he likes to invoke it loudly or frequently. It is too delicate to be in use every day. It is too modest to be talked about much. If a man brags of his honor you know that he has not got much, or that it is not of the right kind.

It is so with the standard of living. The social philosopher who realizes what it is, knows that he must not use it up. It is not to be employed as a means for economic results. On the contrary, to cultivate a high standard of living is the highest end for which economic means can be employed. For a high standard of living costs, and it costs what it is hardest for men to pay, that is, self-denial. It is not a high standard of living for a man to be so proud that he will not let his children go barefoot, incurring debts for shoes which he never intends to pay for; the question is whether he will go without tobacco himself in order to buy them. The standard of living is, therefore, an ethical product; and a study of the way in which it is produced out of social and economic conditions is useful to sweep away a vast amount of easy and empty rhetoric about the relations of ethical and economic phenomena, by which we are pestered in these days. The standard of living reacts on the social organism in the most effective manner, not by any mystical or transcendental operation, but in a positive way and as a scientific fact. It touches the relation of marriage and the family and through them modifies the numbers of the population; that is, it acts upon that side of the population-to-land ratio which we are considering.

Let us not fail to note, in passing, how economic, ethical, and social forces act and react upon each other. It is only for academical purposes that we try to separate  them; in reality they are inextricably interwoven. The economic system and the family system are in the closest relation to each other and there is a give and take between them at every point. What we call “ethical principles” and try to elevate into predominating rules for family and economic life are themselves only vague and inconclusive generalizations to which we have been led, often unconsciously, by superficial and incompetent reflection on the experiences which family and economic life, acting far above and beyond our criticism or control, have suggested to us.

So far we have seen that all the discoveries and inventions by which we find out the forces of Nature and subjugate them to our use, in effect increase the supporting power of the land, and that the standard of living, by intelligently ordering the way in which we use our added power, prevents the dispersion of it in the mere maintenance of a greater number.

It must further be noticed that all our ignorances, follies, and mistakes lessen the supporting power of the land. They do not prevent numbers from being born, but they lessen the fund on which those who are born must live, or they prevent us from winning and enjoying what the means at our disposal are really able to produce. All discord, quarreling, and war in a society have this effect. It is legitimate to think of Nature as a hard mistress against whom we are maintaining the struggle for existence. All our science and art are victories over her, but when we quarrel amongst ourselves we lose the fruits of our victory just as certainly as we should if she were a human opponent. All plunder and robbery squander the fund which has been produced by society for the support of society. It makes no difference whether the plunder and robbery are legal or illegal in form. Every violation of  security of property and of such rights as are recognized in society has the same effect. All mistakes in legislation, whether sincere and innocent or dictated by selfish ambition and sordid greed, have the same effect. They rob the people of goods that were fairly theirs upon the stage of civilization on which they stood. All abuses of political power, all perversion of institutions, all party combinations for anti-social ends have the same effect. All false philosophies and mistaken doctrines, although it may take a long time to find out which ones are false, still have the same effect. They make us cast away bread and seize a stone.

All the old institutions which have outlived their usefulness and become a cover for abuses and an excuse for error, so that the wars and revolutions which overthrow them are a comparative good, must also be regarded as clogs which fetter us in our attempts to grasp what our knowledge and labor have brought within our reach. In short, all these evils and errors bring upon us penalties which consist in this: that while with the amount of land at our disposal, its productiveness being what it is, and the power of our arts being what it is, and our numbers being what they are, we might reach a certain standard of well-being, yet we have fallen short of it by just so much as the effect of our ignorances, follies, and errors may be. We can express the effect of our mis-doing and mis-thinking by regarding it as so much subtracted from the resources and apparatus with which we are carrying on the struggle for existence. We make the mistakes, in large part, because we cannot convince ourselves what is error and what is truth. The element of loss and penalty which I have described is the true premium which is offered us for finding out where the truth lies. The greatest good we can expect from our scientific investigations  and from our education is to free us from these errors and to save us from these blunders. In this view, it is certain that a correct apprehension of social facts and laws would advance the happiness of mankind far more than any discovery of truth about the order of physical nature which we could possibly make.

From one point of view, history may be regarded as showing the fluctuations in the ratio of the population to the land. The population of Greece underwent a very great reduction, during the three centuries before the Christian era, from the numbers which lived in great prosperity in the heroic period of the fifth century before Christ. The reasons for this have never been very satisfactorily ascertained, but it may have been through the laziness and general worthlessness of the population. The population of the Italian peninsula decreased at a high ratio during the period of the Roman empire, and great areas of land went out of cultivation. The Roman system, after stimulating the whole Roman world to high prosperity by giving peace and security, next used up and exhausted the whole world, including Italy. In western Europe, the cultivated area and the population increased and decreased together during the whole feudal period, according as anarchy and violence or peace and security prevailed for periods and over areas. We may regard the maintenance of a great number in high comfort on a given area as the standard towards which success in solving economic and social problems is carrying us, or from which we are falling away when we fail to solve the problems of the time correctly. Taking wide sweeps of history, it is possible to see the “tides in the affairs of men” which are marked by these ebbs and flows of the population against the areas of waste land.

It was the existence of waste land in the countries of  western Europe during the Middle Ages that was all the time influencing the fate of the servile classes. The waste had high importance in the manor system; but as slow improvements were brought about in agriculture, the importance of the waste declined. The lord desired to increase his income by reducing it to tillage, and for this purpose he created tenures upon it on behalf of young men of the servile class, the terms of which were easier than those of the ancient and traditional tenures; or he allowed tenants to create petty holdings out of the waste on special terms which gave them a chance to win capital. However slight the claims were which the servile classes had upon the waste by law and custom, nevertheless the mass of wild land existing in and through the country was in fact a patrimony of theirs; its economic effect upon their status and future was a thing which no laws or customs could cut off. The wars, famines, and pestilences which decimated their ranks were a blessing to those who survived and who found themselves possessed of a monopoly of labor over against a superabundance of land. That is the economic status which gives the laborer control of the market and command of the situation.

It was this state of things which freed the servile classes of France, England, and northern Italy. An advance in the arts by several great inventions greatly assisted the movement. The rise of the dynastic states, establishing civil institutions with greater security, peace, and order, worked in the same direction. The Church had been preaching doctrines for a dozen centuries which were distinctly unfavorable to servitude, and which did avail to produce conscientious misgivings and erratic acts hostile to servitude. The influence of these teachings is not to be denied, but it was trifling compared with the great economic changes which have been mentioned, in  bringing about the emancipation of the servile classes. Here we have the reason for the earth hunger of the mass of mankind. It is that the condition of things which favors the masses, always assuming that the guarantees of peace and order allow of industrial development, is one in which the area of land is large in proportion to the population. The servile classes contributed little to their own emancipation except a dull and instinctive pushing or shirking by which they were enabled to win whatever amelioration of their status the changes in motion might bring to them. Often their prejudices, ignorance, and stupidity led them to oppose their own interest and welfare. It was the educated and middle classes which, by thought and teaching, wrought out all the better knowledge and, so far as human wit had anything to do with it,—which indeed was not to any great extent—broke the way for a new order of things; and these classes, too, acted in general selfishly or short-sightedly.

In any true philosophy of the great social changes, especially the emancipation of the servile classes at the end of the Middle Ages in the leading nations of western Europe, we must look upon the new power of production of the means of subsistence from the soil, in proportion to the numbers who were to share it, as the true explanation of those changes. The living men had won new power, new command over the conditions of life. They might abuse or waste that power, but when they had it, their greater welfare could be no great mystery. The expansion of life in every social domain did upset ideas and philosophies. It produced a religious and ecclesiastical revolution and entailed upon the civilized world religious wars which produced a vast squandering of the new power—for all history teaches us that it is idle to hope that added power will be employed simply to go forward to simple and direct blessing of mankind. On the contrary, men are sure to go to fighting over it in one relation or another. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were full of wars which are interpreted in one way or another according to their immediate aspects, but which really were struggles of men, families, classes, and parties for the possession, control, and advantage of the new economic power. It is, however, a great and instructive fact to notice that, although the labor class knew least about the case, had least share in it, and were least considered by the active parties in it, they won the most by it. Everybody was working for them, not out of love for them, or out of intention, but because it was not possible to help it.

Here we must be on our guard against a fallacy which is almost universal in connection with this matter. It is constantly denied, especially by reformers and revolutionists, that the labor class has won anything by the developments of modern civilization. It appears that the basis for this assertion is the fact that there were peasant, labor, and pauper classes centuries ago and that there are such still. A moment’s reflection shows that this is no proof. It would be necessary to show that these classes are now the descendants of persons who formed the same classes in former centuries. Such is not the case. The merchants and bankers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were of humble origin. As they came out of the towns of that period, there is every reason to believe that, if their ancestry were traceable, we should find that they had sprung, two or three centuries earlier, from servile or menial origin. After enriching themselves, they bought land and “founded families.” They formed alliances, as soon as possible, with offshoots of the feudal nobility. The modern nobility of England and France  has never been feudal. It is really a class of enriched citizens who have retired and become landholders, so that their power is in wealth. They have, therefore, with few exceptions, come up from the lower, and in the great majority of cases from the lowest, classes, as would be seen if the ancestral stream were followed far enough back. Having once passed the barrier, they are counted and count themselves amongst the nobles; and since the noble class, as a class, has continued, the movement of emancipation, enfranchisement, and enrichment, which has been acting on the labor class through its most efficient families, is lost sight of. There has been a counter-movement which is also almost universally unknown or ignored—that of impoverished families and persons of the nobility down into the ranks of trade and labor.