Janus in Modern Life - W. M. Flinders Petrie - ebook

Janus in Modern LifeByW. M. Flinders Petrie

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Janus in Modern Life


W. M. Flinders Petrie

Table of Contents








"There are two roads to reformation for mankind—one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others; the former is the more unmistakable, the latter the less painful.... For it is history, and history alone, which, without involving us in actual danger, will mature our judgment, and prepare us to take right views, whatever may be the crisis or the posture of affairs."



These papers essay an understanding of some of the various principles which underlie the course of political movements in the present age. There is no attempt at introducing any considerations which are not familiar to every intelligent person, nor any comparisons with other instances which are not already well known in history. Why considerations which seem so obvious when stated, should yet not be familiar, may perhaps be due to the estrangement between science and corporate life, which is an unhappy feature of a time of transition both in education and in motives.

The point of view here is that of public and general conditions and not of private variations of beliefs. Such moral factors, though all important to the individual, are not so much the subject of the direct physical causes and effects which are here considered. Similarly the beneficial result of private benevolence is not added to these considerations, because it is largely outside of the effects of conduct, and finds its good in amending or neutralising the evil consequences of various actions. It will always have its scope, but in opposition to, rather than in concert with, the direct effects which we are here to consider.

Too often the objections to various new views are based upon some sentiment of one party, rather than upon the reason which is common to all parties. Here, on the contrary, the aim is to consider the natural consequences of various actions, apart from personal opinion, and therefore on a common ground which all readers can equally accept.

The position of a partisan or an advocate has been avoided so far as possible. No doubt to many of the statements and deductions here, one party or another would cry, Anathema. As a whole the results are more in accord with Individualism than with Collectivism; but an attempt is made to trace what are the limits of a Collectivism that may not involve deleterious consequences. It may seem a fault to many minds that no cut and dried definite system or course of action is advocated; many people prefer a medicine which is guaranteed to relieve all their complaints, instead of a physiological research on the obscure causes of their troubles. But, if we are to advance, we must study the diseases of bodies politic with the same disinterestedness, and somewhat of the same unfeeling temper, as that of the physiologist in dealing with "animated nature." Such a line of study will be useless to the politician, so long as he is an opportunist or a placeman; and useless to the socialist, so long as he refuses to learn by the experience of others.

The present time seems to most people so infinitely more important to them than the past or future, that they are impatient at the introduction of comparisons which seem to reflect upon their immediate judgment, or of anticipations which would check their present gratification. They forget that it is only a fiction to speak of the present, an infinitely thin division between what has been and that which will be. Every step of the past has been a present, living, urgent, imperative, to the whole world; and every such present has been entirely conditioned by its past, just as the future to us is conditioned by our present. If any race now cares to learn somewhat from its own past, and that of others, it may benefit its own future; if it prefers a blind selfishness, a better race will be welcomed to its place.

Janus, who looked to the past and to the future, was the god whose temple stood always open during war, that he might bring peace upon earth. And in our day it is only the view of the past and the future which can warn us of evils to come, and save us from violence and confusion.


In considering or designing any kind of work the first and most essential condition is the quality of material that has to be used. "You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." And what is true materially is true also mentally; the character of a people is the essential basis of all their institutions and government. If we intend to consider what improvements are possible, or what degradations may occur, we must treat the matter entirely as a question of character. "For forms of Government let fools contest, whate'er is best administered is best," and the administration depends upon the character of the people. We see on all sides that races of a low character necessarily pass, by the force of events, under the domination of other races who have a higher or stronger character. It is the quality of the race which is the most essential and determining factor in its history. That every nation has the kind of government which it deserves, is an old remark, which implies that its character determines its fate. The diligent but cautious Scot; the slovenly Slovene; the self-deceived Gaul; the tediously complete and logical German; these all show the manner in which their administration is the product of the individual character. Further, happiness is essentially dependent upon character, and is—by comparison—determined by character alone, almost apart from external circumstances.

It is therefore a matter of the first importance to consider how character is produced or modified. Possibly to some it may appear presumptuous to apply to the mind those natural laws which it is now generally agreed apply to bodily development. Yet even the probabilities of chance distribution may be shown to apply to the varieties of mind; both by rough observation in general, and also by a test case quantitatively applied (see Religion and Conscience in Ancient Egypt). A feeling against this treatment of the mind by material law is based on the idea that it implies an absence of free-will. But, to take an illustration, a railway company may be certain of carrying very closely the same number of passengers each day, without in the least embarrassing the free-will of any passenger as to whether or no he will travel. Let us notice, therefore, how the various principles of physical modification are applicable also to mental change. Whether it may be that changes take place by the inheritance of acquired characteristics, or whether they occur solely by accidental variation which proves beneficial, is a much debated question which is not requisite for us to settle here. It is agreed that in the physical life of all animals it may be seen that: (1) Favourable variations give a determining advantage to one individual over another, or to one more than another against a common enemy; (2) Useful variations tend to be maintained in successive generations; (3) Artificial conditions tend to produce variation; (4) Greater variability accompanies unusual developments; (5) Growth is directed and encouraged by use; and (6), as the total activity is limited, therefore disuse causes atrophy and degradation, by favouring of parts more used. To these follows the important corollary (7): Variation being only of benefit where there is competition in which it gives an advantage, its improvements will cease to be maintained in the absence of competition; it is only competition which makes improved variations permanent. For instance, if there were no carnivora the swifter deer would not have found their pace a benefit, and there would be no sufficient cause for their attaining their present swiftness. In place of looking on selection as merely a struggle we must look on it as the sole physical means of permanent elevation, the motor which has raised every species to its present point of ability.

To these principles common to all organic nature must be added another which is almost peculiar to man alone. We often hear that environment is the determinant of the nature of both animals and man. But the distinctive quality of man is the subjection of the environment to the ruling faculty; man is not necessarily conditioned by his environment, but a direct measure of his civilisation is the extent to which he creates his own conditions. Other communal animals, as the ant, the bee, or the beaver, have anticipated this to some extent; but in man alone can the ruling faculty rise to an entire reversal of almost every condition of environment.

The mental equivalents of these physical modifications are obviously true in common experience and in historical example.

(1) That a favourable variation of mind gives a determining advantage needs no illustration, as every sharp and able man of business has shown this in all ages.

(2) That mental qualities are inherited has been pretty generally recognised, and the work of Galton on Hereditary Genius has enforced this by statistical example. But the historical consequences have not been sufficiently noticed; for it is obviously possible by selective action to increase or diminish not only the bodily activity but also the mental ability seen in the whole community. The series of proscriptions of all the leading men of Rome, alternately on one side and then on the other, from Marius down to Octavius, was so disastrous a drain of political ability, that only the Julian family was left; and there was never an able emperor of Roman ancestry after that line was extinct. The expulsion of the Huguenots from France drained it of the active middle class minds, and left the great gap in the continuity of sympathy which made the Revolution possible. The later expulsion or extermination also of the active upper class minds drained that land of nearly all the hereditary ability of the race: the consequence has been to leave at the present day a nation of mediocrities, among whom there is but a fraction of the genius seen in Germany and England on either side of it. Almost every leading name is that of a foreigner, as for instance Waddington, Zurlinden, Eiffel, Reinach, Rothschild, Gambetta, Maspero. Another very important consideration is that sporadic ability is not inherited in the same manner as long continued family ability. Not a single Roman Emperor who rose solely from his individual powers left a worthy and capable son. The Gordians were a good senatorial family, and ran through three generations on the throne. In England the same thing is seen. The main source of new men of ability is from sturdy Puritan or Quaker stocks that have long practised self-denial and hard work; old families with long traditions of public service continue usually on the same line of ability; but the nouveaux riches who have sprung forward on some lucky speculation or trade enterprise usually go hopelessly to pieces in the next generation. The longer a useful type has been maintained the more stable it is.

(3) That artificial conditions tend to produce variation is obvious in every civilisation. The more intense is the artificiality of life, the greater are the extremes of ability and incompetence, of riches and poverty, accompanying it. It is often a problem to kind hearts that there should be such misery and degradation side by side with the ease and welfare of civilisation. The answer is that it is inevitable, because the very same artificiality which gives scope to the capable to rise, equally gives scope for the incapable to fall. Every chance, every opening, every benefit attainable by exertion, is a means of advance to him who uses it; but it is accompanied by equal chances of failure, equal openings to loss, equal injuries resulting from sloth, which are the equally sure means of degradation for those who have not the wit or energy to avoid them. The "submerged tenth" is the inevitable complement of the leading tenth.

(4) Greater variability of mind accompanies unusual development; this is seen in the great outbursts of mental activity which have occurred along with external expansion in the times of Elizabeth and of Victoria. Or in earlier times the growth of Greek literature following the Periclean expansion, or of Roman literature with the Augustan settlement of the world.

(5) Mental growth is directed and encouraged by use. This fact is so obvious that it is proverbial, as in the saying, "The mind grows by what it feeds upon." All mental training and teaching recognise this, but it is true in later life as well as in youth. It is well known how in the least civilised races small children are as advanced—or more so—than in higher races. The Australian is said to come to a standstill at ten or twelve years old. The Egyptian seldom advances mentally after sixteen. A low-class Englishman does not improve after twenty or so. A capable man will continue to expand till thirty or forty. And the man of the greatest capacity will continue to grow mentally, and assimilate new lines of thought, until seventy or eighty.

Thus the greater the power of use and the activity of the mind, the longer will it continue to grow. This may well be regarded as one of the main tests of a great mind; and it is strictly in accord with the system of the well-known embryonic changes passing from lower to higher stages, and continuing to grow in development into higher and higher types. The savage ceased to grow mentally even while in childhood; the sage continues the expansion of mind to extreme old age.

(6) Disuse of mind causes atrophy and degradation. This principle is one of the most important of all in its practical bearings. The familiar figure of the later Merovings, the rois fainéants, is an historical example: freed from all necessity of thought by the assiduity of the mayors of the palace, the family mind atrophied further in each generation, until the king became a puppet without volition in royal affairs. The same working may be seen in the upper classes of many countries, where the spur of the necessity of action ceases. Within a century of the cessation of the Moorish wars the chivalry of Spain began to atrophy; the same was seen in a century after the cessation of civil war in France. In England the strong tradition of training for the public careers in the civil and military services and parliament, has saved the upper classes more than elsewhere. But a rich family without active interests almost always shows atrophy of mind. There is a fine saying of Mencius, "Those whom God destines for some great part, He first chastens by suffering and toil." The same tendency to atrophy is equally seen in the lower classes, when the necessity of self-help is removed. And many of the modern movements have been of a degrading tendency, leading to the holding back of the capable and the artificial help of the incapable. It is obvious that if persons have retrograded and got into difficulties, they are presumably less capable than those around them. If then they are relieved independently of their own exertions, their incapacity is fostered and they retrograde still further. To compensate them for their incapacity by relief works, by farm colonies, by outdoor relief doles, by maintenance of their children, will inevitably lead to further atrophy of mind. The doctrine of equality of wages in a trade is a double injury, it encourages the most incapable man that can possibly squeeze into the trade, and it discourages the capable man who is worth far more than the average. It must tend to drive capable men out of the trades which they might have raised by their example and stimulus, into other lines where capacity can still earn its value. The mental atrophy that has come over ordinary workmen is appalling, at least in the region of London. In case after case, the common sense and intelligence seems to have been entirely lost, and the grossest blunders will be made by well-paid men; and it is safe to say that in most business a really capable and active man can do from three to six times as much as the average workman, beside avoiding the loss of time by mistakes. In short a certified ease of conditions, and absence of direct penalties of incapacity, has atrophied the ordinary working mind to a point which is dangerously low in comparison with that of other races. The remedy lies in training the incapable by a stern discipline of gradually teaching them the maximum that they can perform in the day, with good direction and avoidance of bad conditions. After a couple of years of such intensive training they should be drafted into ordinary factories, with the warning that if they fall out of work again, another year's compulsory hard training will be the result.