The Course of Humane Progress in the Past
THE importance of names, not only as indicating the source of certain moral sentiments, but also as reacting in turn, according as they are well or ill constructed, on the minds of those who use them, has long been admitted. I am afraid the term “Humanitarianism” is not altogether a very happy or satisfactory compound. It is true that it begins auspiciously, by placing in its forefront so catholic and expressive a word as humanity; but having done this, it proceeds to disfigure its human aspect, like a centaur or a mermaid, by taking unto itself a series of formless and ungainly suffixes, until it finally “tails off” into that most unprepossessing of all terminations – an -ism. There is, moreover, an unfortunate ambiguity attaching to words of this class. The connection between human and humane is, indeed, of deep and natural significance, humaneness being felt to be essentially a property of humankind; but here the scholar steps in, and, claiming for himself the title of humanist, would see in the “Humanities,” as he calls them, nothing more than the study of polite literature; while the theologist, on his part, would interpret “humanitarian” as one who denies the divinity of Christ. I wish, therefore, at the outset to avow that by humanitarianism I mean nothing more and nothing less than the study and practice of humane principles – of compassion, love, gentleness, and universal benevolence.
If the word, in the sense in which I use it, is associated in the minds of any of my readers with “sickly sentimentality,” I ask them to divest themselves of all such prejudice, until we have had time to look more closely into the principle in question.
The existence of this principle, by whatever name we may choose to call it, has not escaped the notice of philosophers, from Aristotle to the present time. Here is a concise definition given by Wollaston in his Religion of Nature, published in 1759. “There is something in human nature, resulting from our very make and constitution, which renders us obnoxious to the pains of others, causes us to sympathize with them, and almost comprehends us in their case. It is grievous to see or hear (and almost to hear of) any man, or even any animal whatever, in torture.” It will be seen that the definition I have adopted is based on an intuitive appeal to consciousness, rather than on the utilitarian view of morals as a product of social life; there is, however, no need here to discuss the differences of the two schools of ethics, intuitive and utilitarian, on this point, since the principle itself is sufficiently recognized by both. Whether we follow Butler, in his assertion that compassion is “an original, distinct, particular, affection in human nature,” (1) or Hobbes, in his contrary contention, that it is “imagination, or fiction of future calamity to ourselves, proceeding from the sense of another man’s calamity,” (2) the result is much the same to the modern humanitarian, who is convinced that, in this question, natural feelings and the promptings of an enlightened self-interest must work towards the same end, so that it practically matters little whether the original motive-power is to be attributed to benevolence or
selfishness. “All that the intuitive moralist asserts,” says Lecky, in his History of European Morals, “is that we know by nature that there is a distinction between humanity and cruelty, that the first belongs to the higher or better part of our nature, and that it is our duty to cultivate it.”
But this view of humanity, as belonging to our higher nature, implies also the recognition of a lower nature, of which cruelty is a part. There appear to be two diverse and antagonistic impulses in the human mind, the one prompting to injury and destruction, the other to gentleness and love; while civilization itself is a record of the partial extinction of the baser element and the gradual development of the nobler. I would further premise that if humanity is to be regarded as a rational and consistent principle, to which civilized men may appeal with full confidence in its ultimate triumph and acceptance, it must rest on broad, firm grounds, and include, not men only, but all sentient beings, within the scope of its benevolence. “It is abundantly evident,” says Lecky, “both from history and from present experience, that the instinctive shock, or natural feelings of disgust, caused by the sight of the sufferings of men, is not generically different from that which is caused by the sight of the sufferings of animals.” “At one time,” says the same authority, “the benevolent affections embrace merely the family; soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity; and finally its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.”
We see, therefore, that humanitarianism, in this large sense of far reaching benevolence, means something more than “philanthropy,” on the one hand, or “kindness to animals,”
on the other; yet, important as the question is acknowledged to be, it is unfortunately a fact, that, with a few notable exceptions, writers on morals have not shown an inclination to discuss it very thoroughly, or fully to face the conclusions which it seems to indicate; they have bequeathed to us tomes of learned disquisitions on various interesting speculations, while they have for the most part stood aloof from a subject which might afford a substantial basis for a practical system of morals. Here, however, it may be well, before entering on a consideration of modern humanitarianism, to glance backward and take a brief historical retrospect of the progress of that principle to which the humanitarian appeals.
Passing over, as mythical, the legends of the Golden Age (which, however, at least show that the idea of gentleness and humanity was in existence in very early times), we find the first definite inculcation of love and compassion for all sentient beings in the doctrines of Buddha, some five hundred years before the Christian era. “He who is humane,” says the Buddhist canon, “does not kill; this principle is imperishable.” Buddha himself, in the legends that have collected round his name, is represented as both preaching and practicing “love to all that live”; though the regenerating influences of the faith seem to have been somewhat deadened and restricted, in the later Buddhist church, by a despondent and pessimistic view of life and an excessive proneness to ritual observances. Almost contemporaneous with the rise of Buddhism in the East, and bearing a close resemblance to it in many of its doctrines, was the system established by Pythagoras in the West, which, though based on religious and social grounds rather than humanitarian, included among its ordinances the injunction “not to kill or injure any innocent
animal,” while the doctrine of metempsychosis, which was a vital point in the Pythagorean, as well as in the Buddhist philosophy, must have extended human sympathies by creating a link, not only between man and man, but between mankind and the rest of animated Nature.
Whether the teaching of Pythagoras exercised much permanent influence on subsequent Greek thought, as regards this question of humaneness, appears doubtful; but the natural humanity of the Greek temperament, as compared with that of other nations of antiquity, has often been the subject of remark. The Greek felt an instinctive repugnance to cruelty, bloodshed, and tyranny – a feeling which finds expression in many passages of Hellenic history and literature, and is illustrated by the significant fact that among the altars erected by the Athenians for the worship of various deities there was one sacred to Compassion. It is true that this gentleness was aesthetic rather than moral and that many terrible instances of cruelty and oppression might be quoted to the contrary from the records of the Peloponnesian wars. “With all their intellect and all their subtlety,” says a recent authority, (1) “the Greeks were wanting in heart. Their humanity was spasmodic, not constant. Their kindness was limited to friends and family, and included no chivalry to foes or to helpless slaves.” Nevertheless, after the conquests of Alexander and the consequent spread of civilization, this Greek humanity became distinctly cosmopolitan; and it was possibly to Greek influence that the Essenes – that strange Jewish sect whose history is still a matter of conjecture – owed somewhat of the singularly humane and benevolent spirit of their institutions. To the
Essenes belongs the honour of having been the first who condemned, deliberately and on principle, the practice of slavery; they were themselves both communists and vegetarians; and, ascetics though they were, anticipated in an extraordinary degree some of the best features of modern humanitarianism. “They had in many respects,” says a writer in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “reached the very highest elevation attained by the ancient world; they were just, humane, benevolent, and spiritually minded.”
The Romans were by nature far less humane than the Greeks, their policy as a
conquering nation being to maintain, at whatever cost to their general
character, a high standard of personal courage and hardihood, as exemplified in
the typical instance of Cato the Censor, who, whatever his other virtues may
have been, was assuredly not conspicuous for humanity. The two curses of the
Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto,
was the forerunner of many humane sentiments, concerning both mankind and the lower creation, which may be found scattered through the works of Lucretius, Cicero, Virgil, Ovid,
and all the writers of the Augustan era. But it was reserved for two philosophers of the first century to preach, in Latin and Greek respectively, in a fuller and more consistent form, the doctrine of compassion. Seneca’s ethical writings, and especially his essay on Clemency, were thoroughly steeped in humanitarian feeling; he condemned the harshness of masters to slaves, the inhuman treatment of criminals, the horrors of the Colosseum, and the cruel gluttony of the Roman table. Plutarch, developing still further the same line of reasoning, treated of the whole subject of man’s relations to the lower animals with tenderness and an insight far in advance of the ordinary thought of the present day. “He was probably,” says Lecky, “the first writer who advocated very strongly humanity to animals on the broad grounds of universal benevolence, as distinguished from the Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration. (...) He urges that duty with an emphasis and a detail to which no adequate parallel can, I believe, be found in the Christian writings for at least seventeen hundred years.”
This brings us to a consideration of the influence exercised by the Christian religion on the ethics of humanity. The failure of the Pagan philosophers in this, as in other branches of moral science, had been due to no lack of personal wisdom and virtue on their part, but rather to their inability to supply any direct motive and quickening impulse, which should make humaneness the property, not of the select few, but of the less cultured many. This impulse was now, to some extent, supplied by the rise of a religion which, as regards mankind, was a gospel of love, peace, and good-will, though, as regards the lower animals, it was far less liberal and consistent than the
morality of Plutarch and Pythagoras. The sacredness of human life, which was one of the fundamental doctrines of the early Christians, was instrumental in leading to the abolition or mitigation of much human suffering; the Church, at any rate in its earlier stages, gave no sanction to the barbarities of warfare and capital punishment, while it strongly condemned the practice of infanticide, so common under the Roman Empire, and laboured to mitigate the condition of slaves and prisoners, by recognizing the natural equality of all human beings. The institution of hospitals, in the West, was due to Christian influence, and charity, though not unknown to the Pagan world, was now organized and practised as it had never been before, and on principles which might put to shame much of the bastard almsgiving of modern times. “Some of the Fathers,” says Lecky, “proclaimed charity to be a matter, not of mercy, but of justice, maintained that all property is based on usurpation, that the earth by right is common to all men, and that no man can claim a superabundant supply of its goods, except as an administrator for others.” (1) Finally, the greatest and most unquestionable service rendered by the Christian Church to the cause of humanity, was the abolition of the gladiatorial contests in the Roman amphitheatre, with all their attendant horrors and bloodshed.
Under the Churchdom of the Middle Ages, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, there was little progress in any sort of humaneness. The militant and tyrannical spirit of established Christianity, with its theological dogmatising, its “holy” wars, its cruel persecutions, its religious intolerance, and monstrous fiction of an eternal hell hereafter, was a
grievous deterioration from the benign gentleness of its Founder; while
the harsh and morbid asceticism of mediaeval thought contrasted unfavourably
with the humane philosophy of such men as Seneca and Plutarch. “It should seem,”
says a modern writer, (1) “as if the primitive Christians,
by laying so much stress upon a future life, in contradistinction to this life, and placing
the lower creatures out of the pale of hope, placed them at the same time out of
the pale of sympathy, and thus laid the foundation for this utter disregard of
animals in the light of our fellow-creatures.” The Catholic Church has at no
period made adequate recognition of the rights of animals – the hermit-legends
being all that it can claim in this direction during the Middle ages; and even
the influence of the hermits over the animals they tamed was used to point a
religious rather than a humane moral. St. Francis of
When the curtain rises, after this interval of a thousand
years, on the drama of moral progress, we see at first a “revival of learning” in literature and science rather than in humane feeling; it is to the humanist rather than to the humanitarian that the Renaissance belongs. The age was a rough and cruel one, full of wars and plunderings, tortures and persecutions, inhumanity to man and beast, oppressive forest laws, and savage pastimes; it was, moreover, at this period that the System of negro-slavery began to come into existence; while, in Descartes’ theory, that animals are devoid of consciousness, was found a fresh excuse for their remorseless ill-usage. Nevertheless – since there is really a vital connection between humanity and humanism – there are many traces in the Renaissance literature of a reviving advocacy of the principle of compassion; More and Erasmus condemn the folly and cruelty of sport; humane sentiments are common in the writings of Shakespeare and Bacon; the essays of Montaigne in particular, breathe almost the spirit of eighteenth century humanitarianism. For not until the eighteenth century can we discover a deliberate and systematic recognition of humanitarian ethics – the eighteenth century was the age of “sensibility”; of the claims of man on man; of growing pity for the victims of war, pestilence, famine, and oppression; of a more humane and gentler tone in every branch of life. This tone is predominant in the works of a long list of poets of this epoch: Thomson, Gay, Pope, Goldsmith, Shenstone, Blake, Burns, and Cowper. Nor were the philosophers behindhand, Voltaire especially, as the chief exponent of the new gospel, declaring that “without humanity, that virtue which comprehends all virtues, the name of philosopher would be little deserved.” (1)
The agitation to abolish the slave-trade, commencing in the latter half of the eighteenth century and attaining its purpose in 1807, was one of a large number of similar philanthropic movements, which, from that time to this, have done much to humanize modern life, and to mitigate the harshness of various social institutions where cruelty had previously existed unchecked and almost unnoticed. From the date when Beccaria published his work On Crimes and Punishments in 1764, and Howard, a few years later, made his first inspection of prisons, public attention was attracted to the inhumanities of the Penal Code, with its frequent sentences of capital punishment or transportation for comparatively venial crimes; and it began to be recognized that the legislator’s object should be, not the degradation, but the reclamation, of the criminal. Lunacy also, which before the eighteenth century had been regarded as a species of diabolic possession or malice prepense on the part of the lunatic, now for the first time excited the pity of society; and madmen, instead of being burnt for witchcraft or chained and tortured like wild-beasts, were treated as suffering fellow-beings. The Factory Acts, again, are another and later example of the working of the same humane spirit; while the Poor Laws (though their present administration is too much in the interests of the wealthy classes, and forms an exception to the general humanitarianism of the age) were at least humane in their origin. Nor have the benefits of this great humanitarian movement of the last hundred and fifty years been restricted to mankind alone. Bentham, one of the most earnest advocates of animal’ rights, asserted boldly that “the question is not can they reason? Nor can they speak? But can they suffer?” And in 1822 the English Parliament, by the passing of “Martin’s Act,” inaugurated a
new and important chapter in the history of humanity, by conceding the principle that the non-human races have a claim to legislative protection – a precedent which has since been emphasized by a series of similar enactments.
To enumerate the humane writers of a period where all are more or less tinged with humanitarian sentiment, is neither desirable nor possible; it must be stated, however, that in the writings of Schopenhauer humanitarianism has attained its fullest and most philosophical development. In his Foundation of Morality he takes as his moral basis “a compassion without limits, which unites us with all living beings”; in this, he adds, “we have the most solid, the surest guarantee of morality.” On this underlying sentiment of Compassion he grounds the two cardinal virtues of Justice and Love – the former a negative, the latter an active, principle; the one restraining us from doing injury and wrong, the other prompting us to help, succour, and relieve. Whether Schopenhauer be correct in the exact position he assigns to Justice and Love in their relation to Compassion, is open to question; but it seems certain that the sense of compassion and the sense of justice are in some measure akin; the pity which the humanitarian feels for suffering is usually evoked by, or connected with, the belief that this suffering is undeserved – in other words, it is a protest against the injustice of destiny or man. The humanitarian movement is thus founded on natural sympathy, and this being so, it will be advanced, and not retarded, by the doctrine of evolution, which tends to restore, on a scientific basis, the old Pythagorean notion of the unity of man with Nature, and the sense of universal fellowship and brotherhood. “The doctrine of metempsychosis,” says Strauss, (1)
“knits men and beasts together here [in the East], and unites the whole of Nature in one sacred and mysterious bond. It is remarkable that at present a deeper sympathy with the animal world should have arisen among the more civilized nations, which manifests itself here and there in societies for the prevention of cruelty to animal. It is thus apparent that what on the one hand is the product of modern science – the giving up of the spiritualistic isolation of man from Nature – reveals itself simultaneously through the channel of popular sentiment.”
NOTES (to Part I)
(4:1) Sermon on “Compassion.”
(4:2) Human Nature, IX, 10.
(7:1) Prof. Mahaffy, in his Social
(10:1) History of European Morals, II, 86.
(11:1) Mrs. Jameson, Book of Thoughts, Memories, and Fancies (1854).
(12:1) Quoted in Mr. Howard Williams’ Ethics of Diet (Heywood, 1883), a work to which I am indebted for many of the facts above mentioned.
(14:1) The Old Faith and the New, p. 234, translated by Mathilde Blind.