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Civilisation In Danger (1908)
Social Levelling, Aristocracy, Suffrage, Science and Class - An Essay by René L. Gérard
I found this essay in an obscure old publication called the Hibbert Journal, which in its day was an important scholarly work. Founded in 1902 and ceasing in 1968, it was known as: A Quarterly Review of Religion, Theology and Philosophy and attracted big names such as William James. Here I’ve republished a fascinating piece by an unknown Belgian sociologist called René L. Gérard (NOT René Girard!) about the danger to civilisation as it looked to him in 1908. I hope you find it interesting.
CIVILISED humanity at the present moment is undergoing profound transformations. Hardly fifty years ago it was composed of a certain number of groups that were easily recognised and possessed strongly marked characteristics: national groups to begin with, and local groups at a later stage. Each population, attached to its own soil, had its own clearly cut features, both physical and intellectual. Further, within the limits of every community, the various social classes, sharply differentiated from one another and clearly subordinated in their ranks, mingled but little, and were kept apart by their mode of life, education, and even dress.
All this is now tending to disappear. Little by little, democratic pressure on the one hand, material progress on the other, are tending to reduce the intervals. More and more nations and classes are mingling together. What will issue from this chaos, and what will be the civilised humanity of the future ? It is too early to offer a prediction, though it is possible to indicate certain changes which have even now begun.
What I here propose to sketch is the process of social levelling and its consequences. By social levelling is meant the gradual disappearance of human inequalities. I suggest that this process is to-day equally apparent from the material, the intellectual, and the moral point of view. The advantages to be expected from such a transformation are so plain that it would be superfluous to point them out. But, on the other hand, dangers are involved which, though perhaps more remote and less clearly discerned, are none the less extremely serious.
In brief, there is reason to fear that the process of social levelling may have for its result a state of universal mediocrity. And this would mean the ruin of our civilisation. The object of the present article is to call attention to this peril, and then to indicate the reasons for hoping that we shall be able to escape it.
I. SOCIAL UNIFORMITY.
A. Material. — A stranger arriving in Europe for the first time would surely be unable to distinguish, among the crowds which throng our streets on Sunday, masters from servants, rulers from ruled. Diversity of costume, which once served to indicate diversity of condition, and made it possible to distinguish at a glance, for example, the soldier from the lawyer, the peasant from the bourgeois, is almost completely effaced. All classes of society are clothed indiscriminately in garments of one type, and even in the remoter country districts, where, until recently, the costumes of the past still survived, the uniform dress of the modern man has reduced originality and diversity to the rank of a souvenir.
In another direction, the low price of manufactures makes it possible to introduce, even into poor homes, almost all the articles of furniture formerly reserved for the houses of the privileged classes. There is no essential difference of composition between the furnishing of an artisan's parlour and that of a financier. Many working men, both English and American, have drawing-rooms exactly modelled, with piano included, upon the drawing-rooms of well-to-do citizens.
Evidence of the same levelling process is displayed in the forms of amusement. In former times, with the exception of public spectacles, processions, shows, or such like, each class in society had its own forms of amusement ; the pleasures of the court were not those of the city, while theatrical performances and musical entertainments were still confined in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to a very limited public, which sufficed to fill the narrow spaces provided for their accommodation.
To-day there are no public entertainments save those which are intended for the world at large. Whether the entertainment provided takes the form of the drama, music, or sport, the crowd is invited, and its presence is indispensable for both financial and moral success.
It may therefore be said with truth that, from a material point of view, uniformity has succeeded to the variety of the past. Outwardly at least, man has become impersonal. The man whom we are going to meet round the next turning is no longer soldier, magistrate, artisan, but, quite simply, the man of to-day.
B. Intellectual. — In the intellectual sphere the same phenomenon of uniformity stands revealed. Go back a century and a half and you find that instruction, even of an elementary kind, was reserved for a select few. A man who could read and write, a clerk, could gain his living as a public writer by conducting the correspondence of the illiterate for a payment in return. To-day, on the contrary, instruction is compulsory in most countries of Europe, and will doubtless become so before long in all of them. Further, all young people who are not compelled to earn their living at once pass through colleges, gymnasia, or other institutions of secondary education. Even the universities, thanks among other things "to the system of grants in usage everywhere, are widely open to all and have ceased to be the preserves of an aristocracy. It follows from this that the possession of knowledge is no longer a mark of superiority. Henceforth it is the possession, if not of all, at least of most.
Education having ceased to be a mark of superiority, has ceased also to be a weapon in the daily struggle for existence. The state of not being ignorant, or even that of possessing a moderate endowment of general knowledge, is a minor advantage in the gaining of a livelihood. It avails no longer to be acquainted with many things; it is more advantageous to know only one, but to know it thoroughly and to concentrate upon it. In other words, specialisation is necessary.
Specialisation arises, on the one hand, from the new extension of human knowledge, and on the other from the needs of the economic struggle. Not only are our brains hopelessly incapable of absorbing the accumulated gains of science, but the necessity of remunerative work prevents even those who desire to do so from paying attention to that which lies outside the particular business by which they live. Specialisation there- fore will increase in exact proportion to the further growth of human knowledge.
It is easily foreseen that what remains of that general culture which has no direct utility, in the curriculum of institutions for secondary and even higher education, is destined to disappear. The programme of the "humanities" is nothing more than a mongrel compromise between the old ideal of encyclopaedic knowledge, extending to all things human, and the practical necessities of the hour. What sense is there in designating "classe de podsie" "classe de rhetorique" as the higher college classes, on leaving which young men are supposed to be equipped for the battle in a community which cares next to nothing for poetry and fine diction? The study of Latin and Greek as it is understood nowadays — one may deplore the fact but not disguise it — would have been suppressed already if, in these matters as in so many others, the public authorities were not following the movement instead of guiding it.
The result of these conditions is the following. As instruction spreads, culture diminishes.
A cultivated man is one who, whether or no he has made a special study of one branch of knowledge, is not entirely ignorant of any. He is a man to whom no expression of human intelligence or feeling is a matter of indifference, because his mind is opened wide enough to comprehend its bearings and to appreciate the effort involved. He is the man to whom, according to the saying of a Latin writer, "Nothing human is alien"
To produce such men was the object of the education of the past.
English education, which remains in its essential outlines an education of luxury and privilege, intended to form statesmen and a brilliant elite rather than practical men, still keeps close to this ancient ideal. The English ideal is not embodied in the engineer, the savant, the specialist, but in the man who is good all round, equally distinguished by his physical development and by the vigour of his intellect. Thus it is the degree of Master of Arts which marks the goal of his studies. Formerly it was the one and only degree conferring upon its possessor the investiture of encyclopaedic knowledge ; it is still the principal degree which gives access to responsible positions both in the Church and in education.
In Belgium and in France all that remains of this earlier type of education, as we have seen, is a number of ill- constructed programmes and phrases which have lost their meaning— "humanites, rhetorique, baccalaureat"
In Germany the remnant is even smaller. The programme of education is already developed in accordance with the needs of the economic strife, and the term "Realschulen" applied to an important class of educational institutions, indicates with sufficient clearness that in them the brain of youth is not fed on dreams nor adorned with superfluous ideas.
Speaking generally, it may therefore be said that the cultivated man, as he has been described, is disappearing. In pro- portion as the individual develops along the path he has chosen as the means to his end, the level of general knowledge descends through sheer want of opportunity. Henceforth culture is to be a luxury; even the intellectual toilers no longer possess the leisure demanded by culture, which they sometimes despise. Even the graduates of universities, outside their own special subject, are often deficient in intellectual curiosity and the power of comprehension. And for this reason they, like their servants and the neighbouring shopkeepers, are slaves to their daily paper.
For the great majority of modern men, if we except certain professional occupations, the daily paper is the only reading and the guide of opinion.
The daily paper is doubtless a kind of food easily digested by the mind, but of inferior nutritive power. Newspapers are indeed commercial enterprises first and foremost. Their success depends on pleasing the crowd, and to please the crowd you must needs put yourself at its level, which is of course the level of mediocrity.
It follows that the newspaper, outside of the general news which it is intended to spread, is frequently a deplorable dis- play of banality if not of stupidity. The editor keeps an open shop for convenient impersonal opinions which will agree with everybody and be accepted without shock or effort by minds so seemingly different as that of a working man, of a university graduate, or of a landed proprietor.
The newspaper plays in the world of ideas a part analogous to that of a great ready-made clothing establishment in the world of material things. Just as garments, boots, and hats are turned out in tens of thousands of uniformly repeated copies for the nameless crowd, so the Press is an industry for manufacturing opinions all complete at the average measure of the brains for which it works.
It is therefore an accurate statement that, alongside of the levelling process in things material, our age is producing an intellectual uniformity by substituting an instruction freely distributed among all in place of the culture reserved for a minority.
C. Moral Uniformity. — The man of to-day is deliberately living in the present. The influence of religions, which formerly detached so many minds from their immediate cares, is gradually diminishing. Even those whose emotional sensibility demands the consolations which religion offers, do not allow their convictions to interfere with their practical life. They also feel obscurely that before hoping for a better existence we must adapt ourselves to that of the present. To live the life of the present, to hold that it has no end beyond itself, that it is an end and not a means — such, at least in practice if not in theory, is the attitude of today.
It is good indeed to love life, and the whole of life. One ought indeed to fulfil life with such intensity as not to leave it without exhausting its emotions. The desire to be happy is the strongest incentive to our activity. And a purely human ethic in exalting that desire becomes fertile.
Unfortunately, in a time like the present, when, as we have seen, everybody has his share of education, everybody pretends to have opinions, and upon every subject. It follows that opinions run wild in the streets and get plentifully soiled by their dirt.
This is what has happened to the theory which is based upon the merely human ideal.
For the crowds the idea of happiness never extends beyond a limited circle of immediate and tangible satisfactions which can be bought with money. Since the fight for happiness is necessary and legitimate, they have drawn the inevitable conclusion that, in order to succeed, all means are justified, and success is the sole measure of the value of actions. Success under its most brutal form, which is monetary success, has almost be- come the exclusive object of universal endeavour. The modern ideal, instead of being merely human, has become utilitarian.
This mode of feeling is not new: mediocrity is eternal. But perhaps it has never been so nearly universal, and certainly it is the first time in history that utilitarianism has transformed itself into a dogma and become dominant everywhere.
To-day, indeed, utilitarian interests are not merely the foundation of the conduct of individuals ; they rule even the politics of nations. These fight no longer for territory but for markets. They are less anxious to subjugate new countries to their power than to find in them a mart for their productions. Up-to-date monarchs look for their inspiration to the bank rather than to the army. Wars arise from the economic rivalries of peoples and not from the ambitious rivalries of kings. The collective ideal is therefore the same as the individual ideal — to get rich as soon as possible, and by every available means.
An example will show how this new conception is generalised. As in private life admiration and respect are accorded to those who have succeeded financially, so a kind of unanimous agreement has proclaimed the United States and Germany to be the first nations of the world. England and Belgium still hold an honourable place in the prize-lists of this competition. France, on the contrary, is regarded as irremediably fallen, and certain of her own writers have been the first to announce her decadence. This is significant ; for the United States and Germany are the nations which, before all others, are making money. In the society of nations they axe parvenus, and it is precisely this which wins for them universal admiration.
It may therefore be fairly said that utilitarian interests are on the eve of causing all that lies beyond them to be forgotten. In the collective life the principal elements which compose the greatness of a people, which uphold the level of its civilisation arid confer value on its intellectual and artistic work, are being neglected. In the individual life nobody troubles to ask himself whether, in a civilisation turned exclusively in the direction of wealth, there remains any longer a place for art or beauty, or even for happiness. Men deliberately forget that the gratification of material wants does not achieve the happiness of a being who is really civilised, and that the Greeks, who held the first place among the peoples for intelligence and for art, were probably also the happiest of them all.
It is just here that the influence of this intellectual and moral uniformity which I have tried to describe is most plainly revealed. To offer resistance to the general tendency would be indeed the task of an aristocracy, since disinterested thought is a luxury, and because, further, the leisure and freedom of mind which material independence confers are almost indispensable for its cultivation.
Under the influence of this levelling process the so-called governing classes have ceased to be higher classes. They seem to have renounced the speech which becomes an elite in order that they may follow the example of the crowd.
Since the crowd has become the dominant social power the attitude of these classes towards it may be summed up in two words — Abdication and Toadyism. Their politics, in presence of the claims of the masses, which every day become more and more explicit, bear a strange resemblance to that of those members of the Convention who, under the Reign of Terror, in voting against their own convictions for the condemnation of Louis XVI., unwittingly signed their own sentence of death. If the social uniformity towards which we are advancing with ever swifter steps should one day be fully attained, it will owe its realisation to the suicide of the old aristocracies.
What remains of these old aristocracies, indeed, has but little concern in maintaining its intellectual supremacy, or in constituting itself as a social force and setting an effective example. The only effective aristocracy that survives is that of money, and it cares for nothing save augmenting its wealth or spending it without intelligence. The highest class to-day is a mere plutocracy.
To sum up, we may say that, in material respects, the levelling of society is especially evident in the slow ascent of the masses to better conditions. In moral and intellectual respects, on the contrary, it is being realised by the lowering of the elite to a uniform level with all the rest.
II. THE CONSEQUENCES.
The consequence of what has been described is the possible disappearance, after a relatively short interval, of every kind of social superiority. Indeed, a governing class never abases itself with impunity : an aristocracy, whose sole superiority to the masses which it professes to lead is that of money, is doomed Bankruptcy such as this would be no subject for regret were it not to be feared that the slough of equality, in reducing the inequalities of fortune, may at the same time swallow up art and culture, which are civilisation itself.
This fear is not illusory, and it may even be asserted that the movement has begun. The origin of the movement is the decay of general culture caused by increasing specialisation. Democratic pressure accelerates its progress. It is indeed strictly logical that the passion for uniformity should assail not only superiority of fortune or position, but every kind of superiority whatsoever. The outcome is seen in the pretence of democratising thought, literature, and art. People are coming to regard elegance and refinement as marks of degeneration, and luxury, even when intelligent, as a crime against the masses. Not only has the name of aristocrat become a term of reproach, but "intellectual" is equally discredited. Even beauty, to have an excuse, must be collective, and it has become the fashion to treat the beauty of woman as a means to that of the race.
And yet every great achievement in civilisation is the work of higher individuals rather than of masses, and genius is of all things the most anti-democratic.
If the actual tendency increases, humanity will probably pass through a stage of sordid ugliness. An age of vulgarity is the logical outcome of an age of uniformity, and universal mediocrity is but another name for the levelling of society.
To get a foretaste of this reign of universal mediocrity towards which our civilisation is drifting, it will suffice to take a walk any Sunday afternoon in certain districts on the outskirts of London. Here are to be seen interminable streets bordered by little houses built on the same model, with the identical bow-window and the same miniature garden indefinitely repeated. Here one meets, not working men, but frequent and similar groups of unpretending and respectable bourgeois, all dressed in precisely the same manner. Nothing disturbs the ennui of these streets — no shop, no public-house for these neighbourhoods are absolutely peaceful. And one reflects that nothing will ever break the grey monotony of the existence which keeps its even tenor in such surroundings. The vision rises of lives perfectly regulated, exempt from surprises, well protected from catastrophe, but hopelessly closed against the entry of great emotions. One feels on all sides the presence of small intelligences, honourable and upright and furnished with practical common sense, but absolutely impervious to every great idea and to the highest type of culture. No doubt such an impression is superficial, but it serves to suggest clearly enough what civilisation would be were all social inequalities abolished, and the level attained of that material, intellectual, and moral equality the first signs of which have just been indicated.
III. MEANS OF DEFENCE.
One cannot but conclude that such uniformity would be fatal to human happiness. And on that account means must be sought to resist its coming.
Material uniformity is perhaps inevitable; perhaps it is even desirable, on condition that it comes about by raising the condition of the masses, and not by the abasement of those who govern them. One could contemplate without regret an age when wealth would be unknown, provided that distress were unknown also.
Nevertheless it is essential to preserve an aristocracy. A civilisation without aristocracy is of inferior type; it is the civilisation of bees or ants, not of human beings. For the more mankind realises the perfection of its capacities the more complex it becomes and the more highly individualised and differentiated. To suppress inequalities is therefore to revert to lower forms. It is as though, in the manifold efflorescence of human nature, one were to replace the complexity and variety of the rose — result of the patient efforts of many gene- rations— by the simple uniformity of the primitive eglantine.
But, in order to survive, the aristocracy of the future must support its claims on superiority of talent and of character rather than on the privilege of birth or on money. It must deliberately endeavour to be, before all else, an aristocracy of the intellect.
The aristocracy of the intellect exists already, but it lacks cohesion and is unconscious of the necessity of fighting to avoid being submerged by the democratic flood. It fails to see that the prerogatives of talent and merit being left undefended are slowly approaching the verge of extinction. It is almost always silent, even when it would be fitting to make itself heard.
It is not too late to establish a strong combination of forces in opposition to universal mediocrity. In this endeavour the help of writers and artists would be essential, but upon one condition — they must be men of culture rather than specialists.
Just as, in the world of business, there exist machines for making money — Octave Mirbeau has immortalised this type in Isidore — so there exist also machines for making books and machines for painting. From them no help can be derived.
But for genuine artists who live in the work which they create, an active part may be reserved. For the diverse activities of man must be understood and appreciated before the attempt can be made to guide them. In this respect it is more important to judge wisely than to have learnt much, and therefore culture is of more value than information — in particular, the specialised information of to-day. The aristocracy of the future, if it would survive, must be an aristocracy of feeling and of manners as much as, and more than, an aristocracy of intellect.
From this point of view it is obvious that women will be able to render valuable assistance in defending the rights of culture in the midst of our utilitarian civilisation. Distinctly inferior to man in point of intelligence, woman is probably his superior in respect of feeling and the fineness of her perceptions. Ignorance is natural to her, but equally natural is the gift of rapid assimilation. She easily acquires what Molierhas justly called claries de tout; and this enables her to discuss with charm even those matters of which she has no exact knowledge.
The culture she can claim, somewhat superficial though it may be, answers to certain deep needs of her nature. She is ill-content with a shabby environment and the lack of wide horizon. Even when circumstances impose such limitations upon her, she seeks to escape from them by means of the imagination. Her dream is often commonplace and sometimes dangerous, like that of Mme. Bovary ; but none the less it lifts her beyond herself, and equally beyond her male companion, whom she far surpasses by her illimitable craving for the ideal.
Hence it comes to pass that every form of activity which answers to this need of the ideal, and which is derived from it, finds in woman an ally and a sympathiser. For this reason art and literature, in particular, have in women their most attentive public and their firmest friends.
Notwithstanding this, woman has not herself produced any work of the first eminence. But she is the inspirer of it in others, and, in the deepest sense, it is for her that man does his work. She understands, or rather she feels, that each endeavour to refine and perfect the sensitiveness of our nature draws us nearer to herself and expands her empire; and therefore her suffrages are instinctively given to all who succeed in that attempt.
The more perfect the social state becomes, and the more human nature is enriched on its sensitive side, the more will the influence of woman increase. Woman, who in inferior states of civilisation is a slave, has raised herself little by little to the position of greatest power in contemporary society Woman has therefore a direct interest in resisting the ruin of art and culture, of which she is the chief benefactress. For, in a civilisation purely utilitarian, positive and uniform, whence luxury and leisure had alike been banished, she would be hopelessly condemned by her economic inferiority to a subordinate position.
The aristocracy of the intellect, artists, women — such are the social forces which may combine for the defence of the menaced culture of mankind. The time has not yet come to despair of the future of civilisation. Art and beauty, which constitute its essence, have still too many lovers to be regarded as the objects of a fatal threat. None the less we need to be on our guard; for the perils here indicated are very real, and they increase from day to day.
Civilisations are more apt to perish by slow decadence than by sudden catastrophes, as the civilisations of Arabia and China bear witness. An analogous fate is perhaps reserved for our own. Our civilisation is being sustained by the rapid advance of science, which continually opens new realms for our aspirations. But let the day arrive when social inequalities shall have disappeared, and individual initiative will forthwith come to an end. Science herself will be arrested. This would mean a gradual stagnation, until the day when some fresh wave of life propelled from without would come to revive our dying energies and rouse them to fresh dreams.
To find a new dream ! The world has grown so old and become so cramped in spirit that the task is difficult. Were it not better to save from dying the flame we have kept burning even till now, and which, if tended by pious hands, may yet give forth a beauteous light