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THE CLOSE OF AN ERA
It would be impossible for any informed observer at the present time, in the midst of our Western civilisation, to remain altogether unconscious of the character and dimensions of a vast process of change which, beneath the outward surface of events, is in progress in the world around us. The great controversies, scientific and religious, which filled the nineteenth century, have broadened out far beyond the narrow boundaries within which the specialists imagined them to be confined. The older antagonists in many of these controversies still continue, as they will doubtless continue to the end, to confront each other in the same attitudes of opposition as at the beginning. But the general mind is no longer closely engaged with the past aspects of these disputes. It is becoming more and more preoccupied with the larger problems beyond, which the new knowledge has brought fully into view, and with the immense social and political issues which are now seen to be ultimately involved.
The precursor of every great period of social and political reconstruction has invariably been, as John Stuart Mill has pointed out, “a great change in the opinions and modes of thinking of society.”] There is no era in Western history which can offer any parallel in this respect to the period in which we are living. There is no department of knowledge dealing with man in society, however authoritative its traditions, however exclusive and self-contained its position, which is not separated now by an immense interval from its standpoint fifty years ago.
The modern doctrine of evolution is only the last of a long chain of sequences. But the changes which it has already effected in the tendencies of the deeper processes of thought altogether exceed in import any previously experienced. Even its general results have a significance which immediately arrests the attention of the thoughtful observer. The final aspect of authority and completeness which it has given to the work accomplished by a set of revolutionary tendencies in thought, which for four centuries have struggled with the most conservative elements in our civilisation, has so profoundly influenced the average mind, that the culminating effect of the revolution has been felt almost as if the meaning of the whole movement had been compressed into the lifetime of a single generation. The Western intellect has, as it were, passed at last through the initiatory phase of what Hegel called the terrible discipline of self-knowledge. The tendencies which John Addington Symonds beheld slowly transforming our civilisation — the audacious speculation, the bold explanatory studies, the sound methods of criticism, the free range of the intellect over every field of knowledge1 — have all but accomplished the first stage of their work.
1 System of Logic, by John Stuart Mill, vi. c. x.
The extraordinary reach of the changes which the evolutionary doctrine is, to all appearance, destined to accomplish is not as yet fully perceived by any school of thought. But, if the attempt be made to grasp the application of what we may now distinguish to be one of its central principles, some general idea may be obtained of the remarkable character of the results towards which our Western world is rapidly moving.
Hitherto nearly all the systems of political and social philosophy that have controlled the mind of our civilisation, and all the schemes of human conduct and of human interest which they have involved, have had one leading feature in common. They have been all considered, in effect, to revolve round a fixed and central principle; namely, the interests of the existing individuals considered either separately as individuals, or collectively as members of political society. But the point of view in all these attempts has been altered by a revolution, the significance of which is without any parallel in the history of thought. For what we are coming to see is that, if we accept the law of Natural Selection as a controlling principle in the process of our social evolution, we must, by inherent necessity, also accept it as operating in the manner in which, in the long run, it produces the largest and most effective results. Our attention throughout the course of human history has been concentrated hitherto on the interests of the individuals who for the time being comprised what we
i The Renaissance in Italy, by John Addington Symonds, vol. vii. c. xiv.
call society. Yet what we are now brought to see is that the overwhelming weight of numbers, as of interests, in the evolutionary process, is never in the present. It is always in the future. It is not the interests of those existing individuals with which all our systems of thought and of political science have concerned themselves, but the interests of the future, which weight the meaning of the evolutionary process in history. We are, in other words, brought face to face with the fact that, in the scientific formula of the life of any existing type of social order destined to maintain its place in the future, the interests of these existing individuals, with which we have been so preoccupied, possess no meaning, except so far as they are included in, and are subordinate to, the interests of a developing system of social order the overwhelming proportion of whose members are still in the future.
Never before has a principle of such reach in the social sciences emerged into view. We look at all the processes of our civilisation in an entirely new light. How far we are carried beyond all existing theories of the phenomenon of modern democracy is at once apparent. For in nearly all these theories the observer perceives that he is always in the presence of the same fact. The intellectual outlook everywhere shuts down around him along one definite line, namely, that which marks the horizon bounding the interests included within the limits of the political consciousness of the existing individuals. Almost all the systems of political and social theory, which endeavoured during the nineteenth century to formulate for us the principles behind the unfolding of the processes of Western democracy, have been constructed bodily within this narrow foreground. Through all the literature which has come down to us from the Revolution in France, through nearly all the present literature of the social revolt in Germany, through all the theories of that school of social philosophy long dominant in England, developed by Bentham, Austin, James Mill, Stewart, Malthus, Grote, Ricardo, and J. S. Mill, there runs one fundamental conception into which all others are ultimately fitted ; namely, that the science of society is the science of the interests of those capable at any particular moment of exercising the rights of universal suffrage, and that the interest of society is always the same thing as the interest of the individuals comprised within the limits of its political consciousness.
Yet what we see now is that the theory of society as a whole has been lifted to an entirely different plane. For if there is one principle more than another which the evolutionary hypothesis tends to set forth in a clear light it is that the forces which are shaping the development of progressive peoples are not primarily concerned with these interests at all. The winning peoples who now inherit the world are they whose history in the past has been the theatre of the operation of principles the meaning of which must have at every point transcended the meaning of the interests of those who at any time comprised the existing members of society. Nay, more, the people in the present who are already destined to inherit the future are not they whose institutions revolve round any ideal schemes of the interests of existing members of society. They are simply the peoples who