A PROBLEM IN CIVILIZATION

BY BROOKS ADAMS

Original version can be found here The Atlantic : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

ALTHOUGH, probably, from the beginning of time men have pondered upon the nature of thought and the mechanism of the mind, such speculations, while they have remained abstractions, have roused in some of us only a languid interest. Within the last decade, however, step by step and very reluctantly, I have been led to suspect that not only the tranquility of life, but the coherence of society itself, may hinge upon our ability to modify, more or less radically, our methods of thinking; and, as I tend toward this conclusion, I look at these questions more seriously.

For my purpose I think I may define civilization as being tantamount to centralization, for, however much idealists may dispute that centralization and true civilization have anything in common, they will hardly deny that the massing of population is the salient feature of our age. Furthermore it is an economic axiom that, other things being equal, the cost of administration increases faster than the increase of the human mass to be administered; but if this proposition should be questioned it is easy to prove. Centralized life is relatively costly because of its complexity, and in proportion to its complexity. In 1800, in the United States, a population of 5,308,000 spent $11,308,000, or about $2.14 each, for national purposes. In 1900, according to the Statistical Abstract, the rate per capita had risen to $7.75. That is, a growing density had increased the load which the Union imposed on each individual three and a half times. At points of high concentration, as in large cities, the increase is greater. When Boston became a city, in 1822, she had a population of 44,000 and a tax-levy of $140,000, or at the rate of about $3.20 per head. Now, with a population of 600,000, the rate approximates $30.

Evidently, to meet this rising expenditure the earning power of the community must be proportionately increased, just as the earning power of any industrial consolidation must be increased, either by larger output or by suppression of waste, to meet the cost of maintaining a complex plant in proportion to its complexity. It follows from this economic law, that, as civilization advances, unless the scientific or inventive qualities which enable men to create wealth, or to suppress waste, gain in at least an equal ratio to the progress of centralization, a centralizing community must perish from inanition if it cannot live by plunder. This I take to have been the fate of Rome. The Romans paid the cost of centralization by robbing others until conquest ceased ; then, not being scientific, they could not turn to industry, and, being unable to meet their taxes by agriculture alone, they starved.

To me the evidence is conclusive that a similar catastrophe impended over Europe toward the end of the Middle Ages. At the close of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, society appeared to

be sinking under a crushing load; and if the mediaeval mind had been as rigid as the Roman mind, I conclude that the subsequent history of the West would have somewhat resembled Roman history. Being more elastic, it responded to the pressure of its environment; and I never tire of contemplating the amazing phenomenon of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when men, consciously and deliberately, addressed them- selves to the task of artificially creating an intelligence which should be able to despoil nature on a gigantic scale.

After the Liberals had been at work upon their intellectual problem for nearly a generation, Bacon, in his Novum Organum, undertook to present a formula by which the new mind could be produced in bulk. Stated in its simplest terms, he proposed scientific specialization, and the proposition was received as a great and original discovery, although it had been advanced quite as lucidly four hundred years before by the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon. Apart, however, from Francis Bacon’s originality, the fact remains that, during the lifetime of Francis Bacon, society did undertake to set in motion a new energy in the shape of specialized mind, and the correlation of the dates which mark the incubation and the liberation of this energy, and the social revolution which followed upon its liberation, are to me wonderfully suggestive.

Born in 1561, Lord Bacon published his Novum Organum in 1620. Galileo, three years younger, fell into the hands of the Inquisition for maintaining the heresy that the earth moved, and died in 1642 within a year of the birth of Newton. Newton and Leibnitz, who might have been the grandsons of Bacon and Galileo, born in 1642 and 1646, died respectively in 1727 and 1716, and with them the period of incubation closed. None of these four men had advanced to the point of specialization at which they applied science very readily to the arts. The age of the inventors was to come.

Matthew Boulton, Watt’s partner, was born in 1728, Watt himself in 1736, Wedgwood in 1730, and the list might be extended indefinitely. The ‘industrial revolution’ began when these men reached maturity. It is generally dated from 1760, when the flying shuttle was perfected and coal was successfully applied to smelting. Adam Smith, who expounded the philosophy of the ‘industrial revolution’ itself, as Bacon had expounded the philosophy of the inductive thought which wrought the revolution, was born in 1723.

Assuming that the year 1760 approximately marks the point when the specialized scientific mind began decisively to predominate in the movement of civilization, there can be no question that, decade by decade, since that epoch, the impulsion given society by the forces set in action by applied science has gathered volume, until now it sweeps before it our laws and institutions, and we seem to be unable to adjust these to the new conditions. Ours is the converse of the Roman predicament. The Romans could conquer and administer, but they could not create wealth fast enough to pay the cost of centralization. We are abundantly inventive and can create wealth, but we cannot control the energy which we liberate. Why we fail is the problem which perplexes me.
I am doubtful whether our apparent lack of intellectual power is due to some inherent and insuperable infirmity of the mind, in other

words, whether the limit of administrative thought has been reached, or whether it is due to defective education. Meanwhile, the difficulty is palpable. Our laws and institutions are a series of generalizations resting on premises which were true a century ago in the early stages of the ‘industrial revolution,’ but which have ceased to be true since scientific thought began to pass into its more advanced phases after the year 1870. The curve which has been described by civilization since the ‘industrial revolution* began has been very clearly marked. The first effect of applied science was to accelerate consolidation, to increase correspondingly the cost of administration, and, there- fore, to enforce a social unification which should diminish waste. I suppose that no one now, looking back calmly, can doubt that by 1775 the consolidation of the thirteen English colonies scattered along the Atlantic coast of this continent had become a necessity; the only question at issue was whether the consolidating mass should Centre at a point in Europe or America.

The same pressure wrought on France. The cost of a centralizing civilization could no longer be de- frayed under the diversity of local institutions inherited from the Middle Ages, and a simplified system had to be introduced which should reduce waste. The inertia being considerable, the first step was to remove the reactionary classes who created friction. The second was to unify the heterogeneous provinces under a comprehensive code of law. This work was done by a very remarkable generation of men led by Napoleon. The revolution in America, having encountered less resistance than the revolution in France, was less violent and consequently less drastic, but it

served its purpose in producing an administrative mechanism which has answered the needs of the population for above a century; and I apprehend that the peaceful organization of the national government in 1789 must always rank as one of the capital achievements of our race. In this point of view what immediately concerns us is to examine the cast of mind which carried through this readjustment, in order to ascertain whether modern education favors or discourages the type; for this type must be the in- carnation of the administrative energy which makes society cohere.

Prior to the French Revolution, intellectual specialization had not gone so far that a scientific man might not be also a soldier, or a lawyer, or a man of business, and sometimes all three. Carnot was such a man; so was Franklin ; and so was Washington. It would be easy to name scores of others; but in America, at least, they all seem to have been educated before the beginning of the nineteenth century. I will take Washington as my illustration, because I assume that it will hardly be disputed that without Washing- ton it would have been impossible to have adopted the Constitution, and to have afterward set the administrative mechanism in motion peacefully.

There is no mystery touching the source of Washington’s strength. It lay in the balance of his mind. He measured to perfection the relation which facts bore to one another, and he could do so because he was not a specialist. The weakness of the specialist is a certain distortion of judgment caused by an education which unduly accentuates a single series of phenomena. Washington had great breadth of vision because of great experience. From his boyhood he was thrown into close relations with the iron industry of Maryland and Virginia as a youth he taught himself to be a land surveyor and a practical geographer, afterward fitting himself to be an engineer. By service in the field he learned to be a soldier, rising regularly to the highest commands; fortune made him a farmer, a man of business, and even a manufacturer, while events plunged him into politics.

As an engineer and geographer, in fine as a scientist, Washington inferred that the United States could cohere as a unit only provided the passes between the Atlantic and the Mississippi Valley were made easier than the waterway from the interior to the Gulf. Years before the revolutionary war he had matured his plans for a canal across the Alleghanies to connect the Ohio with the Potomac; and though he laid aside his project when he assumed command of the army, he took it up again with the peace, and organized a canal company. To build his canal he needed concessions from four states, and he projected a convention to consider his proposals. The failure of this convention led to the calling of another which framed the Constitution. Over this assembly Washington presided, and he thus came logically to the presidency of the United States.
If we try now to imagine ourselves attempting to reorganize our society somewhat as it was organized in 1789, we shall probably admit to ourselves that we should look in vain for a General Washington, and yet I strongly suspect that the emergency is pressing. I give my reasons for so thinking.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, and the social readjustment which occupied the next half-century was the effect of the advance in applied science which produced Adam Smith. Speaking generally, that effect was to reduce the obstructions offered to movement by time and space, and to fuse society into compact masses.

What is interesting to us is to perceive that our ancestors mistook that which was evidently an ephemeral phase for a condition of stable equilibrium. The Middle Age was a period of regulated monopoly; the century from 1770 to 1870 was, practically, a period of free competition and Adam Smith assumed that this competition was nor- mal and would be permanent, and that its effect would be to produce what he called a ‘natural price’; that is, a price at which the average man could sell at a reasonable profit.

The difficulty is that, in our universe, so far as we know, there is no such thing as a stable equilibrium. There is only change; and competition, by the process of elimination of the weak, led inexorably to monopoly. Taking human history altogether, I apprehend that monopoly is rather the natural condition of mankind than competition, for, to go no further than the beginning, an organized social system can exist on no other foundation than monopoly. Justice must be a monopoly. There can be no competition in justice.

That the state, and not the citizen, shall punish wrong, is the first principle of civilization.
Yet although, as we can now see, the evolution of monopoly from competition was inevitable, it had not been foreseen, much less provided for, and it paralyzed the nineteenth- century intelligence; for in less than a single generation, the whole vital movement of the age passed beyond the domain of law. How this happened is simple enough, but the effects are infinitely complex, and go to the root of our social and political system. Modern society, as reorganized after the French Revolution, posited, as its fundamental principle, that if buyer and seller were left free, they would come together, substantially what Adam Smith called the ‘natural price”; if one man asked more than a normal profit for his goods, another would be content with less for the same article. The supposition being, that there would always be more than one seller, or, as we say, an open market.

Since 1870 these conditions have vanished as utterly as have the conditions of the Stone Age. Competition has exterminated the weak until monopoly is left as the survivor; and with the advent of monopoly, buying and selling passes out of the region of contract into the domain of grant, which involves legal conceptions foreign to our notions. Men contract who stand upon an equality and whose minds are free. That is to say, men contract when they have a choice. Grant precludes choice, except the choice of abstinence, which is often impossible. For example, if a person wishes to buy a ton of coal he may ask a price, but if he does not like the price named by the dealer he has no redress, for the price of coal is fixed by monopoly. He must pay what is asked, or go without. So with transportation, there is no choice among carriers. When this occurs, in legal phrase, the individual has fallen under a servitude, and is in a position akin to serfdom unless there is some tribunal open to him which has juris- diction over the prices charged by monopolists, as the railway commissions have jurisdiction over rates.
Speaking generally, no such tribunals exist among us, and the result is turmoil, as we see daily in strikes, and in the demand that monopolies be suppressed by law, and monopolists punished as criminals. But the monopoly is a natural phenomenon, as inexorable as the steam, the electricity , and the explosives which have created it under the guidance of the scientific mind.

To attack monopoly is to attack the vital principle of our civilization. We may destroy monopoly, but with it we shall destroy civilization itself. The alternatives are, to bring monopoly under the jurisdiction of the courts, or else for the monopolist to enroll an armed police which shall enforce his will upon the majority without their consent. Setting aside the armed government as being only supposable after a period of confusion which lies beyond the province of the lawyer or the teacher, we have remaining the possibility that the courts shall fix prices as a means of keeping the peace; for with- out such tribunals discontent must, probably, increase, although increase in discontent need not imply that monopoly is inherently extortionate.

Discontent must increase because disputes will arise, and where one party to a dispute must accept without appeal the decision of his adversary he will be discontented. Impartial tribunals are a prerequisite to consent by the governed. Without impartial tribunals there can only be force or chaos.

I have in mind another illustration of the manifold directions in which the advance of scientific thought works to dissolve the ancient social system. From the dawn of civilization until now, the family has been the social unit, and the foundation upon which the social structure has rested. The family has been the incarnation of the principle of order. The” members of the family have been responsible to the head of the family, who has maintained discipline; and the head of the family has been responsible to the state. When Napoleon evolved the empire out of the chaos of the French Revolution, this was the

fundamental legal conception which he insisted upon having embodied in his code.
The same conditions that have produced the monopoly have dissolved the family. Through divorce modern women assert, and practically exercise, the right of living with what men they please, as long as they please, and changing when they please, repudiating all obligation to any one but themselves. The result has been the dissolution of the family in the sense that parental authority has nearly ceased as a constraining force in society. But parental authority has always been the source of all authority, and the foundation upon which has rested the sanction of all coercive law.

As the instinct of obedience is weakened by the decay of parental authority, so must the administration of the criminal law decay, and it has decayed until the President of the United States has told us that it is a disgrace to our civilization. And Mr. Taft spoke the truth. Perhaps there has never been a civilized society in the world which has manifested, save during some acute spasm, such lawlessness, when measured by contempt for the police and the magistrate, as American society today. And as the punishment for crime grows slow and uncertain, so does private vengeance increase. It is said that now lynching’s are more numerous than executions for homicide.
I wish to make my meaning plain. I do not say that an orderly and cohesive society cannot be organized under the scientific conditions which have created trusts, and which have dissolved the family; but I do say that such a society cannot be administered under an effete code of law. Law is the frame which contains society, as its banks contain a river; and if the flow of a river be increased a thousand fold, the banks must be altered to correspond, or there will be flood overwhelming in proportion to the uncontrolled energy generated.

These are the premises from which I start to consider the problem of mod- ern education. That problem I take to be the production of an administrative mind, bearing the same relation to the present administrative mind that the present scientific mind bears to the scientific mind of the seventeenth century.


Taking our institutions as they are, constructed with a view to minimize the action of society in its corporate capacity, and considering the scope of the readjustment which would be needed to develop a central intelligence which could satisfactorily regulate prices in food, fuel, clothing, metals, building-materials, transportation, labor, and a thousand other commodities, we perceive the magnitude of the task. And yet this fixing of prices is as naught compared with the gigantic effort of welding society into a mass which shall exercise upon each individual an authority equivalent to that exercised by the father in the family, when order was maintained by the parent under the old civilization, which is dead.


If we approach the modern system of education from this standpoint, a little observation of the young suffices to raise doubts as to its efficacy. Touching the regulation of prices alone: if we are to breed a generation of men capable of adjusting our institutions to this strain, they must be men with a much greater power of dealing with relations than we possess, for the question of prices is a question of relation. To do such work, men must be trained to deal with vast masses of detail very rapidly, by eliminating the immaterial, and by generalizing from widely extended premises. My observation leads me to

surmise that modern education discourages the power of generalization or in other words, impairs intellectual energy. It seems to be becoming steadily a greater effort to think. I have pondered much upon this phenomenon, which to me is marked, and I am inclined to believe that it is a logical effect of our methods of training.

I take it that it will be admitted that the capacity of the mind is finite; that the mind can contain only so much thought. We can, for example, remember and use a certain number of words; beyond that number if we learn a new word we must forget an old one. Of course, the capacity of the individual is very variable, but all individuals have some limit. No mind is infinite.

Suppose now we conceive of the mind as a mechanism, part motor and part receptacle: it follows that the larger you make the receptacle, the feebler, because the smaller, must be the motor. That is, I apprehend, what modern education does. We use the mind rather as a warehouse than as a seat of combustion, ignoring its highest function as a machine. We have attempted to reduce the learner to passivity, while he is crammed to repletion with facts.

No one can read the biographies of men like Webster and Franklin and not note their inordinate thirst for knowledge and their greed for books. No one can have had much acquaintance with a modern institution of learning and not have remarked the satiety of the modern mind. In practice I know that I begin with my law students by trying to induce them to forget. To empty the mind, as it were, in order that the machinery may act. The modern mind always affects me as a mechanism so choked with rubbish that friction arrests movement. The waste seems tome prodigious and growing. Hence the peculiar intellectual inertia of our age.

I am far from being dogmatic either as to my premises or my conclusions, but I am inclined to suspect that, unless we can nearly re- verse our present methods in order to suppress waste and thereby gain in elasticity, within another generation grave results will supervene. To handle our society so that its enormous mass shall be cohesive, and not disintegrate like a handful of grains of sand, men must learn to deal with relations, and not with isolated, unconnected facts. Science would be paralyzed with no better tool than arithmetic.

Comparatively speaking, our administrative- thought is arithmetical, and yet we are dealing hourly with infinite energy applied by scientists through the higher mathematics. That energy, to be con- trolled by law, must be regulated by men whose minds work upon an equivalent plane, and this can be done, in my judgment, only when we have learned to suppress details, and work through sequences of relations, or on a standard equivalent to algebra. I see no other means by which the waste of intellectual powers can be reduced to a point which will make the administration of modern society possible.

3 thoughts on “A PROBLEM IN CIVILIZATION

  1. I do love the manner in which you have presented this particular concern and it does indeed offer us a lot of fodder for thought. On the other hand, coming from everything that I have observed, I only wish when the feedback pile on that men and women stay on issue and in no way embark upon a soap box associated with the news of the day. Yet, thank you for this exceptional piece and whilst I can not necessarily agree with the idea in totality, I respect the point of view.

    Like

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