Edward Carpenter To-day February 1889

Defence of Criminals – Criticism of Immorality I

Source: To-day February 1889, pp. 31-41.;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A criminal is literally a person accused – accused, and in the modern sense of the word convicted, of being harmful to society. But is he there in the dock, the patch-coated brawler or burglar, really harmful to society? is he more harmful than the mild old gentleman in the wig who pronounces sentence upon him? That is the question. Certainly he has infringed the law: and the law is in a sense the consolidated public opinion of society: but if no one were to break the law public opinion would ossify, and society would die. As a matter of fact society keeps changing its opinion. How then are we to know when it is right and when it is wrong? The Outcast of one age is the Hero of another. In execration they nailed Roger Bacon’s manuscripts out in the sun and rain, to rot crucified upon planks – his bones lie in an unknown and unhonoured grave – yet to-day he is regarded as a pioneer of human thought. The hated Christian holding his ill-famed love-feasts in the darkness of the catacombs has climbed on to the throne of S. Peter and the world. The Jew money-lender whom Front-de-Boeuf could torture with impunity is become a Rothschild – guest of princes and instigator of commercial wars; and Shylock is now a highly respectable Railway Bondholder. And the Accepted of one age is the Criminal of the next. All the glories of Alexander do not condone in our eyes for his cruelty in crucifying the brave defenders of Tyre by thousands along the sea-shore; and if Solomon with his thousand wives and concubines were to appear in London to-morrow, even our most frivolous circles would be shocked, and Brigham Young by contrast seem a domestic model. The judge pronounces sentence on the prisoner now, but society in its turn and in the lapse of years pronounces sentence on the judge. It holds in its hand a new canon, a new code of morals, and consigns its former representative and the law which he administered to a limbo of contempt.

It seems as if Society, as it progresses from point to point, forms ideals – just as the individual does. At any moment each person, consciously or unconsciously, has an ideal in his mind toward which he is working (hence the importance of literature). Similarly Society has an ideal in its mind. These ideals are tangents or vanishing points of the direction in which Society is moving at the time. It does not reach its ideal, but it goes in that direction – then, after a time, the direction of its movement changes, and it has a new ideal.

When the ideal of Society is material gain or possession, as it is largely to-day, the object of its special condemnation is the thief – not the rich thief, for he is already in possession and therefore respectable, but the poor thief. There is nothing to show that the poor thief is really more immoral or unsocial than the respectable money-grubber; but it is very clear that the money-grubber has been floating with the great current of Society, while the poor man has been swimming against it, and so has been worsted. Or when, as to-day, Society rests on private property in land, its counter-ideal is the poacher. If you go in the company of the county squirearchy and listen to the after-dinner talk you will soon think the poacher a combination of all human and diabolic vices; yet I have known a good many poachers, and either have been very lucky in my specimens or singularly prejudiced in their favour, for I have always found them very good fellows – but with just this one blemish that they invariably regard a landlord as an emissary of the evil one! The poacher is as much in the right, probably, as the landlord, but he is not right for the time. He is asserting a right (and an instinct) belonging to a past time – when for hunting purposes all land was held in common – or to a time in the future when such or similar rights shall be restored. Caesar says of the Suevi that they tilled the ground in common, and had no private lands, and there is abundant evidence that all early human communities before they entered on the stage of modern civilisation were communistic in character. Some of the Pacific Islanders to-day are in the same condition. In those times private property was theft. Obviously the man who attempted to retain for himself land or goods, or who fenced off a portion of the common ground and – like the modern landlord – would allow no one to till it who did not pay him a tax – was a criminal of the deepest dye. Nevertheless the criminals pushed their way to the front, and have become the respectables of modern society. And it is quite probable that in like manner the criminals of to-day will push to the front and become the respectables of a later age.

The ascetic and monastic ideal of early Christian and mediaeval ages is now regarded as foolish, if not wicked; and poverty, which in many times and places has been held in honour as the only garb of honesty, is condemned as criminal and indecent. Nomadism – if accompanied by poverty – is criminal in modern society. To-day the gipsy and the tramp are hunted down. To have no settled habitation, or worse still (like him of Nazareth) no place to lay your head, are suspicious matters. We close even our outhouses and barns against the son of man, and so to us the son of man comes not. And yet – at one time and in one stage of human progress – the nomadic state is the rule; and the settler is then the criminal. His crops are fired and his cattle driven off. What right has he to lay a limit to the hunting grounds, or to spoil the wild free life of the plains with his dirty agriculture?

As to the marriage relation and its attendant moralities, the forms are numerous and notorious enough. Public opinion seems to have varied through all phases and ideals, and yet there is no indication of finality. Late investigations show that at an early period in all human societies the marriage tie is very promiscuous – the relation of brother and sister in this respect being rather the rule than the exception; in the present day such a bond as the last-mentioned would be considered inhuman and monstrous.[1] Polyandry prevails among one people or at one time, polygamy prevails among another people or at another time. In Central Africa to-day the chief offers you his wife as a mark of hospitality, in India the native Prince keeps her hidden, even from his most intimate guest. Among the Japanese, public opinion holds young women – even of good birth – singularly free in their intercourse with men, till they are married; at Paris they are free after. In the Greek and Roman antiquity marriage seems with some brilliant exceptions to have been a prosaic affair – mostly a matter of convenience and housekeeping – the woman an underling – little of the ideal attaching to the relationship of man and wife. The romance of love went elsewhere. The better class of free women or Hetaerae were those who gave a spiritual charm to the passion. They were an educated and recognised body, and possibly in their best times exercised a healthy and discriminating influence upon the male youth. The respectful treatment of Theodota by Socrates, and the advice which he gives her, concerning her lovers: to keep the insolent from her door, and to rejoice greatly when the accepted succeed in anything honourable, indicates this. That their influence was at times immense the mere name of Aspasia is sufficient to show; and if Plato in the Symposium reports correctly the words of Diotima, her teaching on the subject of human and divine love was probably the noblest and profoundest that has ever been given to the world.

With the influx of the North-men over Europe came a new ideal of the sexual relation, and the wife mounted more into equality with the husband than before. The romance of love, however, still went mainly outside marriage, and may I believe be traced in two chief forms – that of Chivalry, as a chaste and ideal devotion to pure Womanhood ; and that of Minstrelsy, which took quite a different hue, individual and sentimental – the lover and his mistress (she as often as not the wife of another), the serenade, secret amour, & c. – both of which forms of Chivalry and Minstrelsy contain in themselves something new and not quite familiar to antiquity.

Finally in modern times the monogamic union has risen to pre-eminence – the splendid ideal of an equal and life-long attachment between man and wife, fruitful of children in this life, and hopeful of continuance beyond – and has become the great theme of romantic literature, and the climax of a thousand novels and poems. Yet it is just here and to-day, when this ideal after centuries of struggle has established itself, and among the nations that are in the van of civilisation – that we find the doctrine of perfect liberty in the marriage relationship being most successfully preached, and that the communalisation of social life in the future seems likely to weaken the family bond and to relax the obligation of the marriage tie.

If the Greek age, splendid as it was in itself and in its fruits to human progress, did not hold marriage very high, it was partly because the ideal passion of that period, and one which more than all else inspired it, was that of comradeship, or male friendship carried over into the region of love. The two figures of Harmodius and Aristogiton stand at the entrance of Greek history as the type of this passion, bearing its fruit (as Plato throughout maintains is its nature) in united self-devotion to the country’s good. The heroic Theban legion, the “sacred band,” into which no man might enter without his lover – and which was said to have remained unvanquished till it was annihilated at the battle of Chaeronaea – proves to us how publicly this passion and its place in society were recognised; while its universality and the depth to which it had stirred the Greek mind are indicated by the fact that whole treatises on love, in its spiritual aspect, exist, in which no other form of the sentiment seems to be contemplated; and by the magnificent panorama of Greek statuary, which was obviously to a large extent inspired by it. In fact the most remarkable Society known to history, and its greatest men, can not be properly considered or understood apart from this passion; yet the modern world scarcely recognises it, or if it recognises, does so chiefly to condemn it[2].

Other instances might be quoted to show how differently moral questions are regarded in one age and another – as in the case of Usury, Magic, Suicide, Infanticide, & c. On the whole we pride ourselves (and justly I believe) on the general advance in humanity; yet we know that to-day the merest savages can only shudder at a civilisation whose public opinion allows – as amongst us – the rich to wallow in their wealth while the poor are systematically starving; and it is certain that Vivisection – which on the whole is approved by our educated classes (though not by the healthier sentiment of the uneducated) – would have been stigmatised as one of the most abominable crimes by the ancient Egyptians – if, that is, they could have conceived such a practice possible at all.

But not only do the moral judgments of mankind thus vary from age to age and from race to race, but – what is equally remarkable – they vary to an extraordinary degree from class to class of the same society. If the landlord class regards the poacher as a criminal, the poacher as already hinted looks upon the landlord as a selfish ruffian who has the police on his side; if the respectable shareholder, politely and respectably subsisting on dividends, dismisses navvies and the frequenters of public-houses as disorderly persons; the navvy in return despises the shareholder as a sneaking thief. And it is not easy to see, after all, which is in the right. It is useless to dismiss these discrepancies by supposing that one class in the nation possesses a monopoly of morality and that the other classes simply rail at the virtue they cannot attain to, for this is obviously not the case. It is almost a commonplace, and certainly a fact that cannot be contested, that every class – however sinful or outcast in the eyes of others – contains within its ranks a large proportion of generous, noble, self-sacrificing characters; so that the public opinion of one such class, however different from that of others, cannot at least be invalidated on the above ground. There are plenty of clergymen at this moment who are models of pastors – true shepherds of the people – though a large and increasing section of society persist in regarding priests as a kind of wolves in sheep’s clothing. It is not uncommon to meet with professional thieves who are generous and open-handed to the last degree, and ready to part with their last penny to help a comrade in distress; with women living outside the bounds of conventional morality who are strongly religious in sentiment, and who regard atheists as really wicked people; with aristocrats who have as stern material in them as quarry-men; and even with bondholders and drawing-room loungers who are as capable of bravery and self-sacrifice as many a pitman or ironworker. Yet all these classes mentioned have their codes of morality, differing in greater or lesser degree from each other; and again the question forces itself upon us: Which of them all is the true and abiding code?

It may be said, with regard to this variation of codes within the same society, that though various codes may exist at the same time, one only is really valid, namely that which has embodied itself in the law – that the others have been rejected because they were unworthy. But when we come to look into this matter of law we see that the plea can hardly be maintained. Law represents from age to age the code of the dominant or ruling class, slowly accumulated, no doubt, and slowly modified, but always added to and always administered by the ruling class. To-day the code of the dominant class may perhaps best be denoted by the word Respectability – and if we ask why this code has to a great extent overwhelmed the codes of the other classes and got the law on its side (so far that in the main it characterises those classes who do not conform to it as the criminal classes), the answer can only be: Because it is the code of the classes who are in power. Respectability is the code of those who have the wealth and the command, and as these have also the fluent pens and tongues, it is the standard of modern literature and the press. It is not necessarily a better standard than others, but it is the one that happens to be in the ascendant; it is the code of the classes that chiefly represent modern society; it is the code of the Bourgeoisie. It is different from the Feudal code of the past, of the knightly classes, and of Chivalry; it is different from the Democratic code of the future – of brotherhood and of equality; it is the code of the Commercial age and its distinctive watchword is – property.

The Respectability of to-day is the respectability of property. There is nothing so respectable as being well-off. The Law confirms this: everything is on the side of the rich; justice is too expensive a thing for the poor man. Offences against the person hardly count for so much as those against property. You may beat your wife within an inch of her life and only get three months; but if you steal a rabbit, you may be “sent” for years. So again gambling by thousands on Change is respectable enough, but pitch and toss for halfpence in the streets is low, and must be dealt with by the police; while it is a mere commonplace to say that the high-class swindler is “received” in society from which a more honest but patch-coated brother would infallibly be rejected. As Walt Whitman has it “There is plenty of glamour about the most damnable crimes and hoggish meannesses, special and general, of the feudal and dynastic world over there, with its personnel of lords and queens and courts, so well-dressed and handsome. But the people are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred.”

Thus we see that though there are for instance in the England of to-day a variety of classes, and a variety of corresponding codes of public opinion and morality, one of these codes, namely that of the ruling class whose watchword is property, is strongly in the ascendant. And we may fairly suppose that in any nation from the time when it first becomes divided into well-marked classes this is or has been the case. In one age – the commercial age – the code of the commercial or money-loving class is dominant; in another – the military – the code of the warrior class is dominant; in another – the religious – the code of the priestly class; and so on. And even before any question of division into classes arises, while races are yet in a rudimentary and tribal state, the utmost diversity of custom and public opinion marks the one from the other.

What, then, are we to conclude from all these variations (and the far greater number which I have not mentioned) of the respect or stigma attaching to the same actions, not only among different societies in different ages or parts of the world, but even at anyone time among different classes of the same society? Must we conclude that there is no such thing as a permanent moral code valid for all time; or must we still suppose that there is such a thing – though society has hitherto sought for it in vain?

I think it is obvious that there is no such thing as a permanent moral code – at any rate as applying to actions. Probably the respect or stigma attaching to particular classes of actions arose from the fact that these classes of actions were – or were thought to be – beneficial or injurious to the society of the time; but it is also clear that this good or bad name once created clings to the action long after the action has ceased in the course of social progress to be beneficial in the one case, or injurious in the other; and indeed long after the thinkers of the race have discovered the discrepancy. And so in a short time arises a great confusion in the popular mind between what is really good or evil for the race and what is reputed to be so – the bolder spirits who try to separate the two having to atone for this confusion by their own martyrdom. It is also pretty clear that the actions which are beneficial or injurious to the race must by the nature of the case vary almost indefinitely with the changing conditions of the life of the race – what is beneficial in one age or under one set of conditions being injurious in another age or under other circumstances – so that a permanent or ever-valid code of moral action is not a thing to be expected, at any rate by those who regard morality as a result of social experience, and as a matter of fact is not a thing that we find existing. And, indeed, of those who regard morals as intuitive, there are few who have thought about the matter who would be inclined to say that any act in itself can be either right or wrong. Though there is a superficial judgment of this kind, yet when the matter comes to be looked into the more general consent seems to be that the rightness or wrongness is in the motive. To kill (it is said) is not wrong, but to do so with murderous intent is; to take money out of another person’s purse is in itself neither moral or immoral – all depends upon whether permission has been given, or on what the relations between the two persons are; and so on. Obviously there is no mere act which under given conditions may not be justified, and equally obviously there is no mere act which under given conditions may not become unjustifiable. To talk, therefore, about virtues and vices as permanent and distinct classes of actions is illusory; there is no such distinction, except so far as a superficial and. transient public opinion creates it. The theatre of morality is in the passions, and there are (it is said) virtuous and vicious passions – eternally distinct from each other.

Here, then, we have abandoned the search for a permanent moral code among the actions; on the understanding that we are more likely to find such a thing among the passions. And I think it would be generally admitted that this is a move in the right direction. There are difficulties however here, and the matter is not one which renders itself up at once. Though, vaguely speaking, some passions seem nobler and more dignified than others, we find it very difficult, in fact impossible, to draw any strict line which shall separate one class, the virtuous, from the other class, the vicious. On the whole we place Prudence, Generosity, Chastity, Reverence, Courage, among the virtues – and their opposites, as Rashness, Miserliness, Incontinence, Arrogance, Timidity, among the vices; yet we do not seem able to say that Prudence is always better than Rashness, Chastity than Incontinence, or Reverence than Arrogance. There are situations in which the less honoured quality is the most in place; and if the extreme of this is undesirable, the extreme of its opposite is undesirable too. Courage, it is commonly said, must not be carried over into foolhardiness; Chastity must not go so far as the monks of the early Church took it, there is a limit to the indulgence of the instinct of Reverence. In fact the less dignified passions are necessary sometimes as a counterbalance and set-off to the more dignified, and a character devoid of them would be very insipid; just as among the members of the body, the less honoured have their place as well as the more honoured, and could not well be discarded[3].

Hence a number of writers, abandoning the attempt to draw a fixed line between virtuous and vicious passions, have boldly maintained that vices have their place as well as virtues, and that the true salvation lies in the golden mean. The speika and sjoeouuh of the Greeks seem to have pointed to the idea of a blend or harmonious adjustment of all the powers as the perfection of character. On a Greek memorial tablet at Naples [The sentence ends here in the original. – transcriber. who apologises for any errors in the Greek of the above paragraph.]

The English word “gentleman” seems to have once conveyed a similar idea. And Emerson, among others, maintains that each vice is only the “excess or acridity of a virtue,” and says “the first lesson of history is the good of evil.”

According to this view rightness or wrongness cannot be predicated of the passions themselves, but should rather be applied to the use of them, and to the way they are proportioned to each other and to circumstances. As, farther back, we left the region of actions to look for morality in the passions (in the Museum I think) is the following inscription: – “To Aste, for a memorial of her gentleness, Daphnis framed this – having loved her dearly in life, and longing for her now she is dead.” that lie behind action, so now we leave the region of the passions to look for it in the power that lies behind the passions and gives them their place. This is a farther move in the same direction as before, and possibly will bring us to a more satisfactory conclusion. There are still difficulties, however – the chief ones lying in the want of definiteness which necessarily attaches to our dealings with these remoter tracts of human nature; and in our own defective knowledge of these tracts.

For these reasons, and as the subject is a complex and difficult one, I would ask the reader to dwell for a few minutes longer on the considerations which show that it is really as impossible to draw a fixed line between moral and immoral passions as it is between moral and immoral actions, and which therefore force us if we are to find any ground of morality at all, to look for it in some further region of our nature.

Plato in his allegory of the soul – in the Phaedrus – though he apparently divides the passions which draw the human chariot into two classes, the heavenward and the earthward – figured by the white horse and the black horse respectively – does not recommend that the black horse should be destroyed or dismissed, but only that he (as well as the white horse) should be kept under due control by the charioteer. By which he seems to intend that there is a power in man which stands above and behind the passions, and under whose control alone the human being can safely move. In fact if the fiercer and so-called more earthly passions were removed, half the driving force would be gone from the chariot of the human soul. Hatred may be devilish at times – but after all the true value of it depends on what you hate, on the use to which the passion is put. Anger, though inhuman at one time is magnificent and divine at another. Obstinacy may be out of place in a drawing-room, but it is the latest virtue on a battle-field when an important position has to be held against the full brunt of the enemy. And Lust, though maniacal and monstrous in its aberrations, cannot in the last resort be separated from its divine companion, Love. To let the more amiable passions have entire sway notoriously does not do: to turn your cheek, too literally, to the smiter, is (pace Tolsti) only to encourage smiting; and when society becomes so altruistic that everybody runs to fetch the coal-scuttle we feel sure that something has gone wrong. The white-washed heroes of our biographies with their many virtues and no faults do not please us. We have an impression that the man without faults is, to say the least, a vague, uninteresting being – a picture without light and shade – and the conventional semi-pious classification of character into good and bad qualities (as if the good might be kept and the bad thrown away) seems both inadequate and false.

What the student of human nature rather has to do is not to divide the virtues (so-called) from the vices (so-called), not to separate the black horse and the white horse, but to find out what is the relation of the one to the other – to see the character as a whole, and the mutual interdependence of its different parts – to find out what that power is which constitutes it a unity, whose presence and control makes the man and all his actions “right,” and in whose absence (if it is really possible for it to be entirely absent) the man and his actions must be “wrong.”

What we call vices, faults, defects, appear often as a kind of limitation: cruelty for instance as a limitation of human sympathy, prejudice as a blindness, a want of discernment; but it is just these limitations – in one form or another – which are the necessary conditions of the appearance of a human being in the world. If we are to act or live at all we must act and live under limits. There must be channels along which the stream is forced to run, else it will spread and lose itself aimlessly in all directions – and turn no mill-wheels. One man is disagreeable and unconciliatory – the directions in which his sympathy goes out to others are few and limited – yet there are situations in life (and everyone must know them) when a man who is able and willing to make himself disagreeable is invaluable: when a Carlyle is worth any number of Balaams.

(To be concluded)

1. Yet there is no doubt that lasting and passionate love may exist between two persons thus nearly related. The danger to the health of the offspring from occasional in-breeding of the kind appears to arise chiefly from the accentuation of infirmities common to the two parents. In a state of society free from the diseases of the civilisation-period, such a danger would be greatly reduced – and this may partly serve to explain the extensive admission of this custom in savagery.

2. Modern writers fixing their regard on the physical side of this love (necessary no doubt here, as elsewhere, to define and corroborate the spiritual) have entered their protest as against the mere obscenity into which the thing fell – for instance in the days of Martial – but have missed the profound significance of the heroic attachment itself. It is, however, with the ideals that we are just now concerned and not with their disintegration.

3. Of course by enlarging indefinitely the definition of any virtue – say Reverence – the word might be got to cover and include all those cases in which its opposite Arrogance (as commonly understood) is desirable. But by that time the word would really have lost its definition, and would have ceased to be of any practical use.