Has History a Meaning? By Benjamin Farrington (1950)
This is another lecture given by Benjamin Farrington, who I consider to be a nearly lost great scholar of socialism. Farrington's text below is unedited.
When the late R. G. Collingwood felt he might die without having time to write all his books he set out, in his moving and important Autobiography, those ideas of his by which he set most store. Among these the most valuable are his ideas about history. He compared the position of history in the twentieth century to that of natural science in the seventeenth. He gave it as his opinion that we might be standing on the threshold of an age in which history would be as important for the world as natural science had been between 1600 and 1900, "If that is the case..." he added (and the more I thought about it the likelier it seemed) "...the wise philosopher would concentrate with all of his might on the problems of history, at whatever cost, and do his share in laying the foundations of the future."
I do not agree with all Collingwood's views on history, but I do not think he was wrong in his estimate of its comparative importance in our day. Nor do I suppose recent advances in nuclear physics would have altered his views. They certainly have not altered mine. Recent advances in history, revealing to us with a startling clearer insight what the nature of civilization is, might, if they were more widely understood, give us the little bit of extra wisdom which would induce us to continue with the experiment rather than destroy it.
Before I come to grips with my subject I must try to make clear in what sense I speak of history having a meaning. All I can imply by the phrase is what is so happily indicated in the title of one Chairman's best known books, What Happened in History. That inspired phrase reveals just what it is that is so exciting and important about history in the twentieth century. Now for the first time it is possible to take a synoptic view of the whole course of human history. Now, therefore, it is for the first time possible to describe what happened in history. In place of a myth about man's origin and destiny we have a sober history and a responsible choice. My purpose in this paper is no more that to sketch the stages by which this transformation in human consciousness came about. My unquenchable conviction is that if we thought more, and with more imagination, about facts which now begin to be familiar to all, we should become wiser.
The transformation in our historical consciousness of which I speak began, like the scientific revolution, in the seventeenth century. Being a more fundamental change it has taken place more slowly. In his recent delightful book on the modern scientific revolution in thought, Professor Butterfield coins a vivid and striking phrase about the great theoretical developments that then took place. He observes that it was not so much a few special solutions of more or less familiar problems that were achieved. Rather, he says, the whole mental framework seemed to be renewed. For such great changes, he says, something more was necessary than the discovery of a few new facts. What was necessary was to put on a new thinking-cap.
Now this, as I have said, strikes me as a very happy expression to convey the really fundamental changes of outlook that were taking place at this time. Unfortunately, however, Professor Butterfield altogether omits to tell us where these new thinking-caps are to be obtained. Let us therefore try to repair this omission. My suggestion is that these new thinking-caps, though they must be assumed by individuals are not made by them. Only great men can wear them with an air, but no great man can make one. They are made by society. They are the work of countless thousand obscure men and women with no pretensions at all to a personal place in what is called the history of thought. They belong, in short, to those collective representations which perhaps nobody has done more to help us understand than the French sociologist Durkheim. These collective representations, which make up all our distinctly human knowledge, are, says Durkheim, "the result of an immense co-operation, which stretches out not only into space but into time as well. To make them, a multitude of minds have associated, united and combined their ideas and sentiments; for them long generations have accumulated their experience and their knowledge. A special intellectual activity is therefore concentrated in them which is infinitely richer and more complex than that of the individual."
It was ideas of this order and this origin that in the seventeenth century were creating the modern out of the medieval consciousness. Not only the religious, but also the scientific and historical consciousness were radically transformed. Everywhere the philosopher scientists, such as Stevin (1548-1620) in the low countries Galileo (1564-1642) in Italy, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in England, Descartes (1596-1650) in France began to promulgate new views of the world. While there is considerable variety in their views they all lead to a common result, for each of them had donned the new thinking cap supplied by the new age. The age demanded the creation of a new kind of science which should differ from ancient and medieval science in being applicable to industry. Each of these four great men in his individual way supplied the common need.
History also had to be born again. In the countries of the Reform the only way convincingly to demonstrate the corruption of the Papacy was to discover and reveal what the form and face of the Church in the first centuries of Christianity had truly been. Hence an immense historical effort. Hence also the conscious posing of the question, what is historical truth? And how does it differ from revealed truth, from metaphysical truth, from mathematical truth? This is the fundamental question of the modern mind. To this was added the impulse given by the revival of roman law, itself occasioned by the re-emergence of bourgeois forms of property. The result was the appearance of the great pioneer works of political philosophy, like those of Grote (1583-1645) in Holland, Hobbes (1588-1679) and Selden (1584-1654) in England, and Pufendorf (1632-16940 in Germany. In these writings modern man began the effort to understand the origins and development of civil society. We shall return to them in a moment.
Meantime let us turn to the work of two Frenchmen to which immense importance attaches. Bossuet (1627 - 1704) was consciously fighting on the side of feudal reaction, but Comte was not wrong in recognizing in his Discourse on Universal History " the first powerful effort made to disclose a connection and logical sequence in the seemingly confused mass of human facts." The consequences of this endeavor were far reaching. Bossuet was concerned to exalt the role of Providence in human history. But he was a student of Polybius, and in his search for secondary causes he was glad to learn from him. In the main he looks for the explanation of human history in human events themselves, and reduces the action of God to that of an occasional and exceptional intervention. There is a conflict in his mind between the divine and human elements in history. This resulted in his famous aphorism, which is full of the promise of fresh historical insight, that 'God made sacred history and Man made the profane.' We shall meet this distinction again.
The problem of the reconciliation of the roles of God and man in history also receives curious illustration in the life work of Tillemont (1637-1698), the historian to whom Gibbon makes such handsome acknowledgement without, however, over stating his debt. Tillemont, the fellow-pupil of Racine in the secular history only as an aid to the divine. In order to establish a firm chronological framework for his studies in ecclesiastical history he set himself to compose a History of the Emperors and Other Princes who reigned during the first six centuries of the church. Ironically enough the chronological framework, which caused orthodoxy no headaches, made much smoother progress that the Church history. Thus the main theme of secular history, the history of the Roman Empire, disengaged itself from the history of the Church and entered upon its independent existence. The writing of sacred history and the writing of profane history, the recording what God had done and the recording what man had done, became independent activities. Historical truth was disengaging itself from theological truth. The way was open for Gibbon.
These brief references to the development of science and history in the seventeenth century have been necessary to provide a background for the all -important figure of Vico (1668-1744), to whom we now must turn. First a word or two about his relation to the science of the time. Cartesianism was at its height. The culmination of this way of thought is often fixed at 1686, the year of publication of Fontenelle's Plurality of Worlds. Vico was eighteen at the time. A Catholic, living in Catholic Naples, he was steeped in the views of the orthodox opponents of the new philosophy, and Cartesianism was not the least of the many problems that vexed the soul of that lonely and tormented genius. In the end he emerged perhaps as the profoundest critic of that system known to history. The blows which he dealt it may still be said, after more than two hundred years, to be increasing in effect. For Decartes, as we know, the world in the last analysis was reduced to space and motion. Organic life was reduced to mechanism. The key to the understanding of nature was mathematics, especially geometry, and nature was the only really important subject of knowledge. Traditional knowledge, historical knowledge, was swept aside. In its place there emerged the modern scientific conception of man and nature-- man with his mathematical brain gradually piecing out of the mathematical laws in accordance with which nature works. For completeness we may throw in the geometer God who made both mind and nature. Many felt dissatisfaction with this world-view. To give the dissatisfaction philosophical expression was the work of Vico.
You will remember that Descartes, when he recommended the policy of universal doubt, found that the one thing which he could not doubt was the existence of his own mind. Vico's criticism was directed first against the famous "Cogito ergo sum" itself. Of this he remarks that the experience expressed in the phrase simply serves to convince us of the existence of the mind but tells us nothing of its nature or powers. Secondly, he argues that the mathematical sciences only possess their certainty for us because they are the construction of our own minds. Man understands mathematics because he himself has made it. Thirdly, he argues that just as mathematics is a historical and still developing product of the human mind, so also the rest of human consciousness, which goes far beyond the mere mathematical consciousness, is an historical product can only be understood as such. Descartes was thus grievously wrong to suppose that the character of the human mind could be revealed by an act of intuition. That was a naive and superficial view. The human mind can only be known by studying it as it has externalized itself in the manifold achievement of mankind in history. The Mind for Descartes was a sort of ready-made calculating machine to be applied to the digestion of the facts of nature. For Vico the mind was an end-product of the history of human society. Accordingly for Vico the all-important knowledge was that which Descartes brushed aside -- namely the institutions and he deeds of men and the languages in which their record is enshrined. Against Descartes's assertion of the claims of the natural sciences he asserted the claims of history, and looked upon history as the first and proper field for the exercise of the scientific faculty. In this connection we begin to feel the full force of Vico's dictum that what man has himself made is what is true for him. Verum factum. He applied this first to mathematics, explaining their certainty by the fact that men invented them. He now uses the same principle to decide the issue between himself and Descartes as to whether nature or history was the proper field for the exercise of man's scientific powers. Nature, said Vico, is the work of God and it is not to be supposed that man shall ever understand it. But history is the creation of man himself. This, therefore, man can hope to comprehend. Thus was the nature of historical truth boldly asserted and defined.
In his reaction from Descartes, Vico had gone too far. Asserting the claim of history to be the subject-matter of science he had been too ready to abandon nature to the realm of the incomprehensible. It may be admitted that he never understood the interaction man and nature. But in his assertion of the claim of history to be the subject-matter of science he was profoundly original. Nor was he content merely to assert the importance of the historical studies of antiquity or of his own day as against the shallowness and bias of Descartes. He went far beyond his. By the critical principles he disclosed he made of history what he was fully entitled to call by the proud name of the New Science. Naples in Vico's days was a centre of legal studies and the historical philosophy of Vico arose from the study of law. In this connection Flint, who wrote nearly seventy years ago but is still one of Vico's best interpreters, has some excellent observations. "The study of law" he writes "for a man who brings to it, as Vico did, a large mind and he right spirit, is one of the grandest possible. Jurisprudence is in intimate connection with theology, ethics, politics, history, and philology. It receives light from, and sheds light on, all general philosophy and also most every special science. The knowledge of Roman Law implies a knowledge of the language, the literature, the history, the genius and ideas of he Roman people well is to have possession of the chief key to the understanding of the civil and political history of humanity. Vico would never have accomplished the work he did had he not acquired a profound and comprehensive acquaintance with Roman law."
As a superb master of legal studies, Vico was a student of the great pioneer works in jurisprudence of the gerations preceding his own. As an inhabitant of a Catholic city, and a conscious champion of the thought of Catholic Italy, he might be expected to view with a critical eye the works in political science of Gotius, Selden, Hobbes, and Pufendorf, which had proceeded from the countries of the Reform. Critical, indeed, he is, but in no narrow sectarian spirit. He detects in these pioneers of political science a fundamental weakness of the same sort as he had detected in Descartes. Descartes had accepted his own highly trained mathematical mind without criticism as a datum of intuition, regarding as a metaphysical and irreducible entity which was in fact a product of history. The founders of political philosophy, urged Vico, have been equally uncritical. Describing the origins of states and nations they have unhesitatingly ascribed these first steps in human history to philosophers like themselves. "Philosophers", complained Vico "have meditated on human nature as refined by religion and laws, not on the human nature out of which came laws." Hence their fundamental error. "Grotius, Selden and Pufendorf" continues Vico "constitute the Law of Nature out of the reasoned maxims of moral philosophers and theologians. In fact it grew along with the customs of the peoples." The origins of society are obscure" Vico says again, "because it has been ordained by nature that men at first did things by a certain human instinct without full consciousness. Only subsequently, and very much later, they began to apply reflection and by reasoning on the effects to contemplate things in their causes." Vico, then, rejects the ancient traditions in accordance with which Zoraster is said to have founded the civilization of Assyria, Hermes Trismegistus that of Egypt, Orpheus that of Greece. No, says Vico, civilizations were made by the people themselves in the course of the working out of their blind instinctive political life. "In all that long dark night of shadows" he concludes "there is one clear beam of light: that the world of the Gentile Nations has been certainly made by man."
This principle of Vico's that Man Makes Himself, this principle that the consciousness of man at every epoch is an historical product to be understood only in the light of historical science -- this principle constitutes one of the great landmarks in the history of thought. It announces the death of metaphysical thinking and the dawn of historical thinking. It suggests the possibility that man who has so far made himself by a blind instinctive process may come by reflection on what he has so far done to such an improved understanding as would enable him henceforth to proceed with a little more tact, insight, deliberation, and conscious purpose.
It will be readily understood that this first inspired working-out of the thesis that the course of human history is to be interpreted by laws drawn from the study of history itself, and not as the unfolding of the mind of God, could not proceed without some discomfort in the mind of a man who, if not quite an orthodox Catholic, still made no breach with the Church, and seems in his inmost heart to have rendered her in many respects a loyal obedience. How did Vico reconcile his position as a Catholic with the view that history is a science which reveals he natural laws of the development of human society? We have already seen Bossuet's difficulties with the rival claims of science and Providence, and his final compromise solution, that God made sacred history and man profane. A similar division of the two spheres had enabled Tillemont to write the history of the Church as the record of the finger of God in human affairs and the history of the Empire as a secular phenomenon. Along similar lines Vico found the solution to his problem. He confined providential history to the Jews. this left him with all of the rest of history as the field for the application of the principles of his new science. For this reason he falls foul of our great Hebraist, Selden, accusing him of overstating the role of Hebrews in universal history. For this reason also he is careful, as you may have noticed, to confine the action of his science of history to the Gentile nations.
It might be thought that Vico's new viewpoint, once disengaged and expounded, would quickly make its way and win firm acceptance. Far from it. Even as yet the battle is only joined and the issue is still in doubt. Summing up his method Vico expressed himself thus: "The order of ideas must follow the order of things. This was the order of things: first the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next villages, next the cities, and finally the academies." The expression is epigrammatic but the thought is clear. By the forests means the food gathering stage, man's almost animal life. By the huts he means the institution of marriage and the family. By the villages, division of labour and the beginnings of social organization. By the cities, fully developed political life and, as he expounds at length, class divided society. By the academies, learned leisure and the opportunity to reflect upon the process of civilization. Thus for Vico the history of mind was identified with the history of society. The forests, the huts, the villages, the cities and the academies -- this is the order of ideas. He was the true founder of social psychology or of the sociology of knowledge.
Unhappily it is a familiar experience in the history of thought that the very growth of knowledge itself brings with it possibilities of confusion unknown to an earlier age. Vico had clearly posed the historical problem how brute-man had become civilized man, and he had clearly indicated the source from which the answer must be sought. But when the modern sciences of archeology and anthropology had been born, of which Vico knew nothing, and when they had begun to expand Vico's absurdly short time-scale and fill up the stages of progress from savagery to civilization by their picture of progress in the techniques of production and in the various patterns of organisation of society, a pernicious error showed its head,the battle against which has still to be fought and won. Vico had clearly taught that we must read the story of man's mental progress in the record of his social institutions. But once Darwin had propounded his theory of biological evolution of the various animal forms, it began to be imagined that the development of the human mind from savagery to civilisation must also be explained as a process of biological evolution. Originating in the highest quarters, this pernicious error has crept into all sorts of corners not only of the popular, but of the scientific imagination, till we are no longer surprised to find apparently competent biologists seeking to explain phonetic phenomena on the basis of genetics.
For these and similar confusions must lay some of the blame on so great a figure in the anthropological world as the late J. G. Frazer. The author of the Golden Bough died less than ten years ago, but on the true nature of the sociology of knowledge he is much less clear than Vico. Like Vico, Frazer sees the mind of modern man as the result of a long process of historical development, but he confuses this development with biological evolution. It is worth a little trouble to appreciate the nature of his error on this point, for his error is precisely that which renders historical studies practically useless.
In his Folklore in the Old Testament, Frazer defines his sphere of enquiry thus: "Modern researches into early history of man, conducted on different lines, have converged with almost irresistible force on the conclusion, that all civilized races have at some period or other emerged from a state of savagery resembling more or less closely the sat in which many backward races have continued to the present time." Then he goes on to define his method: "The instrument for the detection of savagery under civilisation is the comparative method, which applied to the human mind, enables us to trace man's intellectual and moral evolution, just as, applied to the human body, it enables us to trace his physical evolution from lower forms of animal life. There is, in short, a Comparative Anatomy of the mind as well as of the body, and it promises to be no less fruitful of far reaching consequences, not merely speculative, but practical, for the future of humanity."
What Frazer meant by Comparative Anatomy of the mind is further elucidated by other passages in his writings. Thus in an essay on The Scope and Method of Mental Anthropology he tells us: "It is a corollary of the development theory that, simultaneously with the evolution of man's body out of the body of the lower animals, his mind has undergone a parallel evolution, gradually improving from perhaps bare sensation to the comparatively high level of intelligence to which civilized races have at present attained." Here the nature of his thought is unmistakable. Primitive minds are capable only of bare sensation. Civilised minds, as a result of a process of evolution are capable of a comparatively high level of intelligence. Intellectual and moral progress are part of the evolutionary process. Civilisation is not distinguished from biological evolution. There is nothing here to correspond to Vico's sequence of forests, huts, villages, cities, and academies. There is nothing here in common with Durkheim's collective representations, which originating in society, form at once the basis of our moral and intellectual development. There is no connection between the mind and society whatsoever. To quote again: "The central problem of mental anthropology is to trace that evolution of the human mind which has accompanied the evolution of he human body from earliest times." It is not surprising that after such a start Frazer goes on to discuss social institutions on the basis of animal instincts,seeking the origin of society itself in the gregarious instinct of the hunting pack and describing the institution of property as an instinct. In this way he rendered himself incapable of thought on social questions, and it is legitimate to wonder what on earth were the far-reaching consequences, not merely speculative but practical, for the future of humanity, which he expected to flow from the further development of the new science of Comparative Anatomy of the mind.
To us it appears that they could not but be disastrous. If the knowledge of history is ever to have any practical consequences for us, then the connections which it displays between character and institutions must be translatable into political programmes. For instance, if we should be concerned to bring forward a backward native population along the path to civilization, it ought to be clear to us from history that certain policies would conducive to that end. If the population could be securely based on the land; if they could be instructed in an improved technique of agriculture and in the subsidiary techniques of such a mode of life; if literacy should be encouraged and the learning imparted should be closely related to the progress made in practical things; if the connection between a successful exploitation of their natural resources and their political and social institutions should be made plain -- and these are lessons which it ought not to be beyond the wit of civilised man to devise -- we might expect in a could of generations an intellectual and moral transformation. For the followers of Frazer, however, such projects would be meaningless. All he could do, I presume, would be to organise a series of intelligence tests to find out what nature had been doing in the way of biological evolution, before deciding, in the consecrated phrase, whether the subjects of the periodic test were fit for self government.
Or again, suppose it should be decided to engage in an all-out struggle for peace; the wise social psychologist, observing the intimate connection between war and the structure of society, would treat the problem of war as a political problem and seek to banish the threat of war by extirpating its roots in society -- a difficult, but not hopeless, enterprise. The follower of Frazer, on the other hand, harnessed to the belief that there is an instinct for war and an instinct for peace, inherited from our animal past and now going though some mysterious process of evolution which he does not understand and cannot control, would be reduced to folding his hands and waiting till nature had done her beneficent work. Bedeviled by such a pernicious creed we could not, even if we would, exert ourselves in any worthy and effective way in this great crisis of our country and our race. How salutary it is for our generation that a work so influential as our Chairman's "What Happened in History" should take special heed to distinguish the roles of biological evolution and cultural tradition in the development of man. "A baby" he writes "does not inherit at birth a physical mechanism of nerve-paths stamped in the germ-plasm of the race and predisposing it to make automatically and instinctively the appropriate body movements. It is born heir to a social tradition."
This point of view, launched upon the world two hundred years ago by Vico, is now most systematically cultivated by Marxist thinkers. Such, at least, is the opinion of the two American sociologists who have in recent years enriched the republic of letters by their magnificent editions of the two chief works of Vico -- the Autobiography and the New Science. In their brilliant introduction to the former of these, an introduction designed to serve also for the second, they attempt assess the influence Vico has had on the development of historical science among the different nations of the modern world and come in the end to the conclusion that its real future lies not with any particular nation but with the international movement of Marxism.
The absorption and completion of the thought of Vico by Marx is a familiar fact in the history of thought. Apart from te evidence of the Correspondence, the proof lies in a familiar footnote to capital, which I now proceed to quote. "Darwin" he writes " has interested us in the history of Nature's technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology discloses man's mode of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the modes of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion even that fails to take account of this material basis, is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the early core of the misty creations of religion, than conversely, it is to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestrialised forms of those relations. The latter method is the only materialistic and, therefore, the only scientific one. The weak points in the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism that excludes history and its process, are at once evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions of its spokesmen, whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own speciality."
As is characteristic of the thought of Marx, this footnote is so packed with ideas that you have found it, I am sure, difficult to follow, and there is far more in it than I can attempt to expound at this stage of my paper. Two points only I wish to emphasise, two points in which Marx fills conspicuous gaps left by Vico. First Vico, occupying himself principally with political institutions, omitted any adequate account of the economic basis of life. Marx directing our attention to technology, to the productive organs of man, the organs that form the material basis of all social organisation, provided the central thread of history, the thread on which Vico's forests, huts, villages, and cities must be strung if they are to be brought into a real vital sequence. In the second place, Marx bridges the great gulf set by Vico between man-made history and God created nature; for Marxism discloses the essential process of history as an interpenetration between man and nature resulting from the progress of technology. Natural science arises from this interpenetration. It is a form of consciousness resulting from man's active effort to assimilate and humanise his environment. But it does not exist in isolation from the other forms of consciousness, which have been formed in the course of development of man's social and political life. Much of the present confusion in the formulation of our scientific ideas seems to arise from the failure to observe that the only notions we can carry with us to the interpentration of newly observed facts are such as continually arise in the social world, which is the primary source of all of the ideas we have.
The intimate historical connection between our social and our scientific thinking demands for its adequate handling the development of a type of logic with which we are yet insufficiently familiar. Vico saw clearly that while mathematics might avail to describe the movements of matter in space, its usefulness for the material with which he was concerned was much less. He had to describe how brute-man from whom civilisation had originally sprung, had created such mighty institutions as tribe and nation, city and state, property and law, public assemblies, art religion, poetry and philosophy. Hegel agreed with him that mathematical logic was inadequate for the handling of such concepts, and he had discarded not only mathematical but formal logic, showing how a true logic must take its form as well as its content from the material it seeks to organise. So was developed the dialectic which was destined, with continuous refinements, to become the characteristic method of Marxist thought. Obviously a method of thought which seeks however tentatively to comprehend the process by which man has transformed himself from a savage into a farmer and a smith, into a soldier and a merchant, into a magician and a priest, into a philosopher and a scientist, into a poet, a hero, or a martyr, to mention butt a few of the myriad metamorphoses of man -- obviously such a method of thought cannot content itself with adding two and two.
In making these discursive remarks on the emergence in the last three hundred years of a new sense of the importance of history, I have had in the back of my mind Moncure Conway's preoccupation with the problem of ethics. The connection, as I see it, is this. In medieval times truth, which comprehended rules of right and wrong, was essentially a matter of revelation. But a world which had fallen into dispute on the meaning of revelation, and had seen oceans of blood shed in support of conflicting views, became gradually disenchanted with revealed truth and sought for another kind of truth in history. The divine plan fell into the background and human purposes came to occupy the front of the stage. Once Time had been of little in comparison with Eternity, but now eternity was swallowed up in Time. Eternal truths began to seem neither true not eternal as a wider acquaintance with other places and other times disclosed the immense variety of what has passed for truth together with its obvious impermanence. The thought which was expressed on one side of the Atlantic in verses as, "Our little systems have their day, They have their day and cease to be, and on the other, at even greater length, in the following style. Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious? Having pried through the strata, analysed to a hair, counsel'd with doctors and calculated close, I find no sweeter fat that sticks to my own bones." found sober philosophical expression in Loisy's simple words: "As for a truly universal religion, history has not yet seen one, a common conscience of humanity with a common religious ideal never having yet formed itself up to this day."
In the absence of any common human aim to replace the lost divine one, men tried all sorts of expedients, among which one of the most pervasive and the most foolish has been to look for the basis of a human morality in the animal kingdom from which man has biologically descended. For this reason one can be grateful that Professor Hogben in his last year's Memorial Lecture took occasion to stress the uniqueness in the animal kingdom of human society. Human morality, in any worthy sense of the term, has its basis not in our animal nature but in the historical act by which man liftted himself out of the animal kingdom and constituted human society.
But if it be true that the basis of human morality is not to be found in his animal nature, it is also true that human morality is not, and by its nature cannot be, a purely individual thing. There is no such thing as a human individual apart from human society, and there is no human morality apart from society. We may take it as a verdict of history that morals and politics cannot be disjoined.
In a famous paper On Human Liberty Martin Luther maintained the contrary opinion. He asserted that the soul will not be touched or affected if the body is mal-treated and the person subjected to another man's power. This is an assertion of the exclusive and absolute importance of the inner life of the spirit, In the manner of the ancient Stoics, which seems very noble. But this position was taken up by the Stoics in antiquity only when they abandoned all struggle against the institution of slavery.
Similarly, Luther in his day, in proclaiming the doctrine of inner freedom, was abandoning the cause of the peasants. He seemed to be asserting the independence of the morality of he individual from social conditions. In reality, like the Stoics of old, he was not escaping from society but assuming a negative attitude, a coward's attitude, to it. Hegel, discussing the point did not hesitate to describe Luther's argument as a piece of senseless sophistical reasoning. He agreed, of course, that the position described by Luther is theoretically possible. A man in fetters can have a free mind. But this is only possible for a man already fully spiritually developed and even then it is true only in regard to himself. A man in fetters has no freedom in regard to others. He can only be described as free if he actually and concretely exists as free. Inner freedom, asserts Hegel, is only a transitory stage in the struggle for achieving outer freedom. Such must be the ethos of those who find the basis of human morality in the historical fact that there is no humanity apart from society.
If we seek, then, to avail ourselves of the guidance of history in providing a basis for a system of morals, our starting-point must be, not the individual, but society. Our attention must be directed to the origin, which is only another way of saying the function, of the great institutions man has created and in creating which has himself become man. We are, as we none of us can forget, living in times in which we may either destroy humanity or advance to a world organisation in which there would for the first time exist that common human conscience of which Loisy spoke. If we are to achieve the latter step, we must think and think again of the meaning and purpose of our social institutions. We must regard it as a life and death matter, as Collingwood did, to come to what clarity we can about the great public purposes that are serve by the institutions we maintain.
To this end I would reform education in the sense of making it the primary purpose of the education of every educable person to make them conscious of the nature, functioning, and purposes of the institutions maintained by the society into which they are born. I could not myself conceive of this being done without a liberal admixture of the classics of Marxism; but if this be not acceptable, let it be done in whatever way those in authority for the moment think best. It would have a liberalising effect if we could have a generation trained to a sense of full responsibility with regard to the functioning of society, however imperfect to begin with the text-books and teachers might be.
To be more specific, what I have in mind is this. I should like every adult member of society to have been trained to think about the origin, function, and destiny of the State; about the origin, function, and destiny of the State; about the origin, function, and destiny of the various forms of property; and similarly, about religion and about law. I should like consideration of poetry, art and architecture to be raised in a similar historical and functional way, and to be connected with the life of society and not only with the names of the artists but of the institutions they served. I think there should be instruction about the institutions of marriage and the family, and I think this is just as important as the sex education now imparted in accordance with a system which has the inconvenience of including a fundamental branch of morality among the biological sciences, a small symptom of the present disorganization of our moral life. I would have everybody instructed in the history and functioning of our parliamentary system and our organs of local government. I would explain simply to everybody, in so far as such mysteries are allowed to be made public, what goes on in Banks, Chambers of Commerce, and other organs of our financial system, including the Stock Exchange. I would try to make clear the place in the scheme of things of such institutions as the University, Law, Medicine and Engineering; and I should try to present all these things in an historical setting. I think that in an historical setting. I think that this way the minds of young people might be filled with public purpose, filled also with the sense of what had been achieved in the short period of civilisation; made conscious that these institutions have not fallen from the sky, but have been made by social man. I think that in this way men might be taught to treasure their their civilised inheritance more, to feel a deeper sense of responsibility before it; and that as they came to realize how the very existence of the human race, both in a material and in a moral sense, depends on the maintenance of these institutions and their improvement and better functioning, they might come to contemplate their past with a renewed sense of awe and their future with a renewed zest and enthusiasm.
Delivered at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, W.C.I. on April 18, 1950
Published as the Conway Memorial Lecture by the South Place Ethical Society, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, W.C.I