LETTER 241. TO JOHN MORLEY. Down, March 24th, 1871.
From the spirit of your review in the "Pall Mall Gazette" of my last book, which has given me great pleasure, I have thought that you would perhaps inform me on one point, withholding, if you please, your name.
You say that my phraseology on beauty is "loose scientifically, and philosophically most misleading." (241/1. "Mr. Darwin's work is one of those rare and capital achievements of intellect which effect a grave modification throughout all the highest departments of the realm of opinion...There is throughout the description and examination of Sexual Selection a way of speaking of beauty, which seems to us to be highly unphilosophical, because it assumes a certain theory of beauty, which the most competent modern thinkers are too far from accepting, to allow its assumption to be quite judicious...Why should we only find the aesthetic quality in birds wonderful, when it happens to coincide with our own? In other words, why attribute to them conscious aesthetic qualities at all? There is no more positive reason for attributing aesthetic consciousness to the Argus pheasant than there is for attributing to bees geometric consciousness of the hexagonal prisms and rhombic plates of the hive which they so marvellously construct. Hence the phraseology which Mr. Darwin employs in this part of the subject, though not affecting the degree of probability which may belong to this theory, seems to us to be very loose scientifically, and philosophically most misleading."--"Pall Mall Gazette.") This is not at all improbable, as it is almost a lifetime since I attended to the philosophy of aesthetics, and did not then think that I should ever make use of my conclusions. Can you refer me to any one or two books (for my power of reading is not great) which would illumine me? or can you explain in one or two sentences how I err? Perhaps it would be best for me to explain what I mean by the sense of beauty in its lowest stage of development, and which can only apply to animals. When an intense colour, or two tints in harmony, or a recurrent and symmetrical figure please the eye, or a single sweet note pleases the ear, I call this a sense of beauty; and with this meaning I have spoken (though I now see in not a sufficiently guarded manner) of a taste for the beautiful being the same in mankind (for all savages admire bits of bright cloth, beads, plumes, etc.) and in the lower animals. If the blue and yellow plumage of a macaw (241/2. "What man deems the horrible contrasts of yellow and blue attract the macaw, while ball-and-socket-plumage attracts the Argus pheasant"-- "Pall Mall Gazette," March 21st, 1871, page 1075.) pleases the eye of this bird, I should say that it had a sense of beauty, although its taste was bad according to our standard. Now, will you have the kindness to tell me how I can learn to see the error of my ways? Of course I recognise, as indeed I have remarked in my book, that the sense of beauty in the case of scenery, pictures, etc., is something infinitely complex, depending on varied associations and culture of the mind. From a very interesting review in the "Spectator," and from your and Wallace's review, I perceive that I have made a great oversight in not having said what little I could on the acquisition of the sense for the beautiful by man and the lower animals. It would indeed be an immense advantage to an author if he could read such criticisms as yours before publishing. At page 11 of your review you accidentally misquote my words placed by you within inverted commas, from my Volume II., page 354: I say that "man cannot endure any great change," and the omitted words "any great" make all the difference in the discussion. (241/3. "Mr. Darwin tells us, and gives us excellent reasons for thinking, that 'the men of each race prefer what they are accustomed to behold; they cannot endure change.' Yet is there not an inconsistency between this fact and the other that one race differs from another exactly because novelties presented themselves, and were eagerly seized and propagated?")
Permit me to add a few other remarks. I believe your criticism is quite just about my deficient historic spirit, for I am aware of my ignorance in this line. (241/4. "In the historic spirit, however, Mr. Darwin must fairly be pronounced deficient. When, for instance, he speaks of the 'great sin of slavery' having been general among primitive nations, he forgets that, though to hold a slave would be a sinful degradation to a European to-day, the practice of turning prisoners of war into slaves, instead of butchering them, was not a sin at all, but marked a decided improvement in human manners.") On the other hand, if you should ever be led to read again Chapter III., and especially Chapter V., I think you will find that I am not amenable to all your strictures; though I felt that I was walking on a path unknown to me and full of pitfalls; but I had the advantage of previous discussions by able men. I tried to say most emphatically that a great philosopher, law-giver, etc., did far more for the progress of mankind by his writings or his example than by leaving a numerous offspring. I have endeavoured to show how the struggle for existence between tribe and tribe depends on an advance in the moral and intellectual qualities of the members, and not merely on their capacity of obtaining food. When I speak of the necessity of a struggle for existence in order that mankind should advance still higher in the scale, I do not refer to the MOST, but "to the MORE highly gifted men" being successful in the battle for life; I referred to my supposition of the men in any country being divided into two equal bodies--viz., the more and the less highly gifted, and to the former on an average succeeding best.
But I have much cause to apologise for the length of this ill-expressed letter. My sole excuse is the extraordinary interest which I have felt in your review, and the pleasure which I have experienced in observing the points which have attracted your attention. I must say one word more. Having kept the subject of sexual selection in my mind for very many years, and having become more and more satisfied with it, I feel great confidence that as soon as the notion is rendered familiar to others, it will be accepted, at least to a much greater extent than at present. With sincere respect and thanks...
LETTER 242. TO JOHN MORLEY. Down, April 14th .
As this note requires no answer, I do not scruple to write a few lines to say how faithful and full a resume you have given of my notions on the moral sense in the "Pall Mall," and to make a few extenuating or explanatory remarks. (242/1. "What is called the question of the moral sense is really two: how the moral faculty is acquired, and how it is regulated. Why do we obey conscience or feel pain in disobeying it? And why does conscience prescribe one kind of action and condemn another kind? To put it more technically, there is the question of the subjective existence of conscience, and there is the question of its objective prescriptions. First, why do I think it obligatory to do my duty? Second, why do I think it my duty to do this and not do that? Although, however, the second question ought to be treated independently, for reasons which we shall presently suggest, the historical answer to it, or the various grounds on which men have identified certain sorts of conduct with duty, rather than conduct of the opposite sorts, throws light on the other question of the conditions of growth of the idea of duty as a sovereign and imperial director. Mr. Darwin seems to us not to have perfectly recognised the logical separation between the two sides of the moral sense question. For example, he says (i. 97) that 'philosophers of the derivative school of morals formerly assumed that the foundation of morality lay in a form of Selfishness; but more recently in the Greatest Happiness principle.' But Mr. Mill, to whom Mr. Darwin refers, has expressly shown that the Greatest Happiness principle is a STANDARD, and not a FOUNDATION, and that its validity as a standard of right and wrong action is just as tenable by one who believes the moral sense to be innate, as by one who holds that it is acquired. He says distinctly that the social feelings of mankind form 'the natural basis of sentiment for utilitarian morality.' So far from holding the Greatest Happiness principle to be the foundation of morality, he would describe it as the forming principle of the superstructure of which the social feelings of mankind are the foundation. Between Mr. Darwin and utilitarians, as utilitarians, there is no such quarrel as he would appear to suppose. The narrowest utilitarian could say little more than Mr. Darwin says (ii. 393): 'As all men desire their own happiness, praise or blame is bestowed on actions and motives according as they tend to this end; and, as happiness is an essential part of the general good, the Greatest Happiness principle INDIRECTLY serves as a NEARLY safe standard of right and wrong.' It is perhaps not impertinent to suspect that the faltering adverbs which we have printed in italics indicate no more than the reluctance of a half-conscious convert to pure utilitarianism. In another place (i. 98) he admits that 'as all wish for happiness, the Greatest Happiness principle will have become a most important secondary guide and object, the social instincts, including sympathy, always serving as the primary impulse and guide.' This is just what Mr. Mill says, only instead of calling the principle a secondary guide, he would call it a standard, to distinguish it from the social impulse, in which, as much as Mr. Darwin, he recognises the base and foundation."--"Pall Mall Gazette," April 12th, 1871.) How the mistake which I have made in speaking of greatest happiness as the foundation of morals arose, is utterly unintelligible to me: any time during the last several years I should have laughed such an idea to scorn. Mr. Lecky never made a greater blunder, and your kindness has made you let me off too easily. (242/2. In the first edition of the "Descent of Man," I., page 97, Mr. Lecky is quoted as one of those who assumed that the "foundation of morality lay in a form of selfishness; but more recently in the 'greatest happiness' principle." Mr. Lecky's name is omitted in this connection in the second edition, page 120. In this edition Mr. Darwin makes it clearer that he attaches most importance to the social instinct as the "primary impulse and guide.") With respect to Mr. Mill, nothing would have pleased me more than to have relied on his great authority with respect to the social instincts, but the sentence which I quote at [Volume I.] page 71 ("if, as is my own belief, the moral feelings are not innate, but acquired, they are not for that reason less natural") seems to me somewhat contradictory with the other words which I quote, so that I did not know what to think; more especially as he says so very little about the social instincts. When I speak of intellectual activity as the secondary basis of conscience, I meant in my own mind secondary in period of development; but no one could be expected to understand so great an ellipse. With reference to your last sentence, do you not think that man might have retrograded in his parental, marriage, and other instincts without having retrograded in his social instincts? and I do not think that there is any evidence that man ever existed as a non- social animal. I must add that I have been very glad to read your remarks on the supposed case of the hive-bee: it affords an amusing contrast with what Miss Cobbe has written in the "Theological Review." (242/3. Mr. Darwin says ("Descent of Man" Edition I., Volume I., page 73; Edition II., page 99), "that if men lived like bees our unmarried females would think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers." Miss Cobbe remarks on this "that the principles of social duty would be reversed" ("Theological Review," April 1872). Mr. Morley, on the other hand, says of Darwin's assertion, that it is "as reassuring as the most absolute of moralists could desire. For it is tantamount to saying that the foundations of morality, the distinctions of right and wrong, are deeply laid in the very conditions of social existence; that there is in face of these conditions a positive and definite difference between the moral and the immoral, the virtuous and the vicious, the right and the wrong, in the actions of individuals partaking of that social existence.") Undoubtedly the great principle of acting for the good of all the members of the same community, and therefore the good of the species, would still have held sovereign sway.
(243/1. Sir Joseph Hooker wrote (August 5th, 1871) to Darwin about Lord Kelvin's Presidential Address at the Edinburgh meeting of the British Association: "It seems to me to be very able indeed; and what a good notion it gives of the gigantic achievement of mathematicians and physicists!--it really made one giddy to read of them. I do not think Huxley will thank him for his reference to him as a positive unbeliever in spontaneous generation--these mathematicians do not seem to me to distinguish between un-belief and a-belief. I know no other name for the state of mind that is produced under the term scepticism. I had no idea before that pure Mathematics had achieved such wonders in practical science. The total absence of any allusion to Tyndall's labours, even when comets are his theme, seems strange to me.")