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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsLuck Or Cunning? - Chapter 11. The Way Of Escape
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Luck Or Cunning? - Chapter 11. The Way Of Escape Post by :Nikhilinxs Category :Nonfictions Author :Samuel Butler Date :May 2012 Read :2713

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Luck Or Cunning? - Chapter 11. The Way Of Escape

CHAPTER XI. The Way of Escape

To sum up the conclusions hitherto arrived at. Our philosophers have made the mistake of forgetting that they cannot carry the rough-and-ready language of common sense into precincts within which politeness and philosophy are supreme. Common sense sees life and death as distinct states having nothing in common, and hence in all respects the antitheses of one another; so that with common sense there should be no degrees of livingness, but if a thing is alive at all it is as much alive as the most living of us, and if dead at all it is stone dead in every part of it. Our philosophers have exercised too little consideration in retaining this view of the matter. They say that an amoeba is as much a living being as a man is, and do not allow that a well-grown, highly educated man in robust health is more living than an idiot cripple. They say he differs from the cripple in many important respects, but not in degree of livingness. Yet, as we have seen already, even common sense by using the word "dying" admits degrees of life; that is to say, it admits a more and a less; those, then, for whom the superficial aspects of things are insufficient should surely find no difficulty in admitting that the degrees are more numerous than is dreamed of in the somewhat limited philosophy which common sense alone knows. Livingness depends on range of power, versatility, wealth of body and mind--how often, indeed, do we not see people taking a new lease of life when they have come into money even at an advanced age; it varies as these vary, beginning with things that, though they have mind enough for an outsider to swear by, can hardly be said to have yet found it out themselves, and advancing to those that know their own minds as fully as anything in this world does so. The more a thing knows its own mind the more living it becomes, for life viewed both in the individual and in the general as the outcome of accumulated developments, is one long process of specialising consciousness and sensation; that is to say, of getting to know one's own mind more and more fully upon a greater and greater variety of subjects. On this I hope to touch more fully in another book; in the meantime I would repeat that the error of our philosophers consists in not having borne in mind that when they quitted the ground on which common sense can claim authority, they should have reconsidered everything that common sense had taught them.

The votaries of common sense make the same mistake as philosophers do, but they make it in another way. Philosophers try to make the language of common sense serve for purposes of philosophy, forgetting that they are in another world, in which another tongue is current; common sense people, on the other hand, every now and then attempt to deal with matters alien to the routine of daily life. The boundaries between the two kingdoms being very badly defined, it is only by giving them a wide berth and being so philosophical as almost to deny that there is any either life or death at all, or else so full of common sense as to refuse to see one part of the body as less living than another, that we can hope to steer clear of doubt, inconsistency, and contradiction in terms in almost every other word we utter. We cannot serve the God of philosophy and the Mammon of common sense at one and the same time, and yet it would almost seem as though the making the best that can be made of both these worlds were the whole duty of organism.

It is easy to understand how the error of philosophers arose, for, slaves of habit as we all are, we are more especially slaves when the habit is one that has not been found troublesome. There is no denying that it saves trouble to have things either one thing or the other, and indeed for all the common purposes of life if a thing is either alive or dead the small supplementary residue of the opposite state should be neglected as too small to be observable. If it is good to eat we have no difficulty in knowing when it is dead enough to be eaten; if not good to eat, but valuable for its skin, we know when it is dead enough to be skinned with impunity; if it is a man, we know when he has presented enough of the phenomena of death to allow of our burying him and administering his estate; in fact, I cannot call to mind any case in which the decision of the question whether man or beast is alive or dead is frequently found to be perplexing; hence we have become so accustomed to think there can be no admixture of the two states, that we have found it almost impossible to avoid carrying this crude view of life and death into domains of thought in which it has no application. There can be no doubt that when accuracy is required we should see life and death not as fundamentally opposed, but as supplementary to one another, without either's being ever able to exclude the other altogether; thus we should indeed see some things as more living than others, but we should see nothing as either unalloyedly living or unalloyedly non-living. If a thing is living, it is so living that it has one foot in the grave already; if dead, it is dead as a thing that has already re-entered into the womb of Nature. And within the residue of life that is in the dead there is an element of death; and within this there is an element of life, and so ad infinitum-- again, as reflections in two mirrors that face one another.

In brief, there is nothing in life of which there are not germs, and, so to speak, harmonics in death, and nothing in death of which germs and harmonics may not be found in life. Each emphasizes what the other passes over most lightly--each carries to its extreme conceivable development that which in the other is only sketched in by a faint suggestion--but neither has any feature rigorously special to itself. Granted that death is a greater new departure in an organism's life, than any since that congeries of births and deaths to which the name embryonic stages is commonly given, still it is a new departure of the same essential character as any other-- that is to say, though there be much new there is much, not to say more, old along with it. We shrink from it as from any other change to the unknown, and also perhaps from an instinctive sense that the fear of death is a sine qua non for physical and moral progress, but the fear is like all else in life, a substantial thing which, if its foundations be dug about, is found to rest on a superstitious basis.

Where, and on what principle, are the dividing lines between living and non-living to be drawn? All attempts to draw them hitherto have ended in deadlock and disaster; of this M. Vianna De Lima, in his "Expose Sommaire des Theories transformistes de Lamarck, Darwin, et Haeckel," {150a} says that all attempts to trace une ligne de demarcation nette et profonde entre la matiere vivante et la matiere inerte have broken down. {150b} Il y a un reste de vie dans le cadavre, says Diderot, {150c} speaking of the more gradual decay of the body after an easy natural death, than after a sudden and violent one; and so Buffon begins his first volume by saying that "we can descend, by almost imperceptible degrees, from the most perfect creature to the most formless matter--from the most highly organised matter to the most entirely inorganic substance." {150d}

Footnote {150a} Paris, Delagrave, 1886.

Footnote {150b} Page 60.

Footnote {150c} "OEuvre completes," tom. ix. p. 422. Paris, Garnier freres, 1875.

Footnote {150d} "Hist. Nat.," tom. i., p. 13, 1749, quoted "Evol. Old and New," p. 108.

Is the line to be so drawn as to admit any of the non-living within the body? If we answer "yes," then, as we have seen, moiety after moiety is filched from us, till we find ourselves left face to face with a tenuous quasi immaterial vital principle or soul as animating an alien body, with which it not only has no essential underlying community of substance, but with which it has no conceivable point in common to render a union between the two possible, or give the one a grip of any kind over the other; in fact, the doctrine of disembodied spirits, so instinctively rejected by all who need be listened to, comes back as it would seem, with a scientific imprimatur; if, on the other hand, we exclude the non-living from the body, then what are we to do with nails that want cutting, dying skin, or hair that is ready to fall off? Are they less living than brain? Answer "yes," and degrees are admitted, which we have already seen prove fatal; answer "no," and we must deny that one part of the body is more vital than another--and this is refusing to go as far even as common sense does; answer that these things are not very important, and we quit the ground of equity and high philosophy on which we have given ourselves such airs, and go back to common sense as unjust judges that will hear those widows only who importune us.

As with the non-living so also with the living. Are we to let it pass beyond the limits of the body, and allow a certain temporary overflow of livingness to ordain as it were machines in use? Then death will fare, if we once let life without the body, as life fares if we once let death within it. It becomes swallowed up in life, just as in the other case life was swallowed up in death. Are we to confine it to the body? If so, to the whole body, or to parts? And if to parts, to what parts, and why? The only way out of the difficulty is to rehabilitate contradiction in terms, and say that everything is both alive and dead at one and the same time--some things being much living and little dead, and others, again, much dead and little living. Having done this we have only got to settle what a thing is--when a thing is a thing pure and simple, and when it is only a congeries of things--and we shall doubtless then live very happily and very philosophically ever afterwards.

But here another difficulty faces us. Common sense does indeed know what is meant by a "thing" or "an individual," but philosophy cannot settle either of these two points. Professor Mivart made the question "What are Living Beings?" the subject of an article in one of our leading magazines only a very few years ago. He asked, but he did not answer. And so Professor Moseley was reported (Times, January 16, 1885) as having said that it was "almost impossible" to say what an individual was. Surely if it is only "almost" impossible for philosophy to determine this, Professor Moseley should have at any rate tried to do it; if, however, he had tried and failed, which from my own experience I should think most likely, he might have spared his "almost." "Almost" is a very dangerous word. I once heard a man say that an escape he had had from drowning was "almost" providential. The difficulty about defining an individual arises from the fact that we may look at "almost" everything from two different points of view. If we are in a common-sense humour for simplifying things, treating them broadly, and emphasizing resemblances rather than differences, we can find excellent reasons for ignoring recognised lines of demarcation, calling everything by a new name, and unifying up till we have united the two most distant stars in heaven as meeting and being linked together in the eyes and souls of men; if we are in this humour individuality after individuality disappears, and ere long, if we are consistent, nothing will remain but one universal whole, one true and only atom from which alone nothing can be cut off and thrown away on to something else; if, on the other hand, we are in a subtle philosophically accurate humour for straining at gnats and emphasizing differences rather than resemblances, we can draw distinctions, and give reasons for subdividing and subdividing, till, unless we violate what we choose to call our consistency somewhere, we shall find ourselves with as many names as atoms and possible combinations and permutations of atoms. The lines we draw, the moments we choose for cutting this or that off at this or that place, and thenceforth the dubbing it by another name, are as arbitrary as the moments chosen by a South-Eastern Railway porter for leaving off beating doormats; in each case doubtless there is an approximate equity, but it is of a very rough and ready kind.

What else, however, can we do? We can only escape the Scylla of calling everything by one name, and recognising no individual existences of any kind, by falling into the Charybdis of having a name for everything, or by some piece of intellectual sharp practice like that of the shrewd but unprincipled Ulysses. If we were consistent honourable gentlemen, into Charybdis or on to Scylla we should go like lambs; every subterfuge by the help of which we escape our difficulty is but an arbitrary high-handed act of classification that turns a deaf ear to everything not robust enough to hold its own; nevertheless even the most scrupulous of philosophers pockets his consistency at a pinch, and refuses to let the native hue of resolution be sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, nor yet fobbed by the rusty curb of logic. He is right, for assuredly the poor intellectual abuses of the time want countenancing now as much as ever, but so far as he countenances them, he should bear in mind that he is returning to the ground of common sense, and should not therefore hold himself too stiffly in the matter of logic.

As with life and death so with design and absence of design or luck. So also with union and disunion. There is never either absolute design rigorously pervading every detail, nor yet absolute absence of design pervading any detail rigorously, so, as between substances, there is neither absolute union and homogeneity, not absolute disunion and heterogeneity; there is always a little place left for repentance; that is to say, in theory we should admit that both design and chance, however well defined, each have an aroma, as it were, of the other. Who can think of a case in which his own design--about which he should know more than any other, and from which, indeed, all his ideas of design are derived--was so complete that there was no chance in any part of it? Who, again, can bring forward a case even of the purest chance or good luck into which no element of design had entered directly or indirectly at any juncture? This, nevertheless, does not involve our being unable ever to ascribe a result baldly either to luck or cunning. In some cases a decided preponderance of the action, whether seen as a whole or looked at in detail, is recognised at once as due to design, purpose, forethought, skill, and effort, and then we properly disregard the undesigned element; in others the details cannot without violence be connected with design, however much the position which rendered the main action possible may involve design--as, for example, there is no design in the way in which individual pieces of coal may hit one another when shot out of a sack, but there may be design in the sack's being brought to the particular place where it is emptied; in others design may be so hard to find that we rightly deny its existence, nevertheless in each case there will be an element of the opposite, and the residuary element would, if seen through a mental microscope, be found to contain a residuary element of ITS opposite, and this again of ITS opposite, and so on ad infinitum, as with mirrors standing face to face. This having been explained, and it being understood that when we speak of design in organism we do so with a mental reserve of exceptis excipiendis, there should be no hesitation in holding the various modifications of plants and animals to be in such preponderating measure due to function, that design, which underlies function, is the fittest idea with which to connect them in our minds.

We will now proceed to inquire how Mr. Darwin came to substitute, or try to substitute, the survival of the luckiest fittest, for the survival of the most cunning fittest, as held by Erasmus Darwin and Lamarck; or more briefly how he came to substitute luck for cunning.

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