Edward Carpenter To-day March 1889

Defence of Criminals – Criticism of Immorality II

Source: To-day March 1889, pp. 61-71;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Sometimes again vices, & c., appear as a kind of raw material from which the other qualities have to be formed and without which, in a sense, they could not exist. Sensuality, for instance, underlies all art and the higher emotions. Timidity is the defect of the sensitive imaginative temperament. Bluntness, stupid candour and want of tact are indispensable in the formation of certain types of Reformers. But what would you have? Would you have a rabbit with the horns of a cow, or a donkey with the disposition of a spaniel? The reformer has not to extirpate his brusqueness and aggressiveness, but to see that he makes good use of these qualities; and the man has not to abolish his sensuality but to redeem it.

And so on. Lecky, in his “History of Morals,” shows how in society certain defects necessarily accompany certain excellencies of character. “Had the Irish peasants been less chaste they would have been more prosperous” is his blunt assertion -which he supports by the contention that their early marriages (which render the said virtue possible) “are the most conspicuous proofs of the national improvidence, and one of the most fatal obstacles to industrial prosperity.” Similarly, he says that the gambling table fosters a moral nerve and calmness “scarcely exhibited in equal perfection in any other sphere” – a fact which Bret Harte has finely illustrated in his character of Mr. John Oakhurst in the “Outcasts of Poker Flat;” also that “the promotion of industrial veracity is probably the single form in which the growth of manufactures exercises a favourable influence upon morals;” while on the other hand, “Trust in Providence, content and resignation in extreme poverty and suffering, the most genuine amiability and the most sincere readiness to assist their brethren, an adherence to their religious opinions which no persecutions and no bribes can shake, a capacity for heroic, transcendent and prolonged self-sacrifice, may be found in some nations, in men who are habitual liars and habitual cheats.” Again he points out that thriftiness and forethought – which, in an industrial civilisation like ours, are looked upon as duties “of the very highest order” – have at other times (when the teaching was “take no thought for the morrow,” been regarded as quite the reverse, and concludes with the general remark that as society advances there is some loss for every gain that is made, and with the special indictment against “civilisation” that it is not favourable to the production of “self-sacrifice, enthusiasm, reverence or chastity.”

The point of all which is that the so-called vices and defects – whether we regard them as limitations or whether we regard them as raw materials of character, whether we regard them in the individual solely or whether we regard them in their relation to society – are necessary elements of human life, elements without which the so-called virtues could not exist; and that therefore it is quite impossible to separate vices and virtues into distinct classes with the latent idea involved that one class may be retained and the other in course of time got rid of. Defects and bad qualities will not be treated so – they clamour for their rights and will not be denied; they effect a lodgement in us, and we have to put up with them. Like the grain of sand in the oyster, we are forced to make pearls of them.

These are the precipices and chasms which give form to the mountain. Who wants a mountain sprawling indifferently out on all sides, without angle or break, like the oceanic tide-wave of which one cannot say whether it is a hill or a plain? And if you want to grow a lily, chastely white and filling the air with its fragrance, will you not bury the bulb of it deep in the dirt to begin with?

Acknowledging then that it is impossible to hold permanently to any distinction between good and bad passions, there remains nothing for it but to accept both, and to make use of them – redeeming them, both good and bad, from their narrowness and limitation by so doing-to make use of them in the service of humanity. For as dirt is only matter in the wrong place, so evil in man consists only in actions or passions which are uncontrolled by the human within him, and undedicated to its service. The evil consists not in the actions or passions themselves, but in the fact that they are inhumanly used. The most unblemished virtue erected into a barrier between oneself and a suffering brother or sister – the whitest marble image, howsoever lovely, set up in the Holy Place of the temple of Man, where the spirit alone should dwell – becomes blasphemy and a pollution.

Wherein exactly this human service consists is another question. It may be, and as the reader would gather, probably is, a matter which at the last eludes definition. But though it may elude exact statement, that is no reason why approximations should not be made to the statement of it; nor is its ultimate elusiveness of intellectual definition any proof that it may not become a real and vital force within the man, and underlying inspiration of his actions. To take the two considerations in order; in the first place, as we saw from the beginning, the experience of society is continually leading it to classify actions into beneficial and harmful, good and bad; and thus moral codes are formed which eat their way from the outside into the individual man and become part of him. These codes may be looked upon as approximations in each age to a statement of human service: but, as we have seen, they are by the nature of the case very imperfect; and since the very conditions of the problem are continually changing, it seems obvious that a final and absolute solution of it by this method is impossible. The second way in which man works towards a solution is by the expansion and growth of his own consciousness, and is ultimately by far the most important – though the two methods have doubtless continually to be corrected by each other. In fact as man actually forms a part of society externally, so he comes to know and feel himself a part of society through his inner nature. Gradually, and in the lapse of ages, through the development of his sympathetic relation with his fellows, the individual man enters into a wider and wider circle of life – the joys and sorrows, the experiences, of his fellows become his own joys and sorrows, his own experiences – he passes into a life which is larger than his own individual life – forces flow in upon him which determine his actions, not for results which return to him directly, but for results which can only return to him indirectly and through others; at last the ground of humanity as it were reveals itself within him, the region of human equality – and his actions come to flow directly from the very same source which regulates and inspires the whole movement of society. At this point the problem is solved. The growth has taken place from within; it is not of the nature of an external compulsion, but of an inward compunction. By actual consciousness the man has taken on an ever-enlarging life, and at last the life of humanity, which has no fixed form, no ever-valid code; but is itself the true life, surpassing definition, yet inspiring all actions and passions, all codes and forms, and determining at last their place.

It is the gradual growth at this supreme life in each individual which is the great and indeed the only hope of Society – it is that for which Society exists: a life which so far from dwarfing individuality enhances immensely its power, causing the individual to move with the weight of the universal behind him – and exalting what were once his little peculiarities and defects into the splendid manifestations of his humanity.

To return then for a moment to the practical bearing at this on the question before us, we see that so soon as we have abandoned all codes of morals there remains nothing for us but to put all our qualities and defects to human use, and to redeem them by so doing. Our defects are our entrances into life, and the gateway of all our dealings with others. Think what it is to be plain and homely. The very word suggests an endearment, and a liberty of access denied to the faultlessly handsome. Our very evil passions, so-called, are not things to be ashamed of, but things to look straight in the face and to see what they are good for – for a use can be found for them, that is certain. The man should see that he is worthy of his passion, as the mountain should rear its crest conformable to the height of the precipice which bounds it. Is it women? let him see that he is a magnanimous lover. Is it ambition? let him take care that it be a grand one. Is it laziness? let it redeem him from the folly of unrest, to become heaven-reflecting like a lake among the hills. It is closefistedness? let it become the nurse of a true economy.

The more complicated, pronounced or awkward the defect is the finer will be the result when it has been thoroughly worked up. Love of approbation is difficult to deal with. Through Sloughs of duplicity, of concealment, of vanity, it leads its victim. It sucks his sturdy self-life, and leaves him flattened and bloodless. Yet once mastered, once fairly torn out, cudgelled, and left bleeding on the road (for this probably has to be done with every vice or virtue some time or other) – it will rise up and follow you, carrying a magic key round its neck – meek and serviceable now instead of dangerous and demoniac as before.

Deceit is difficult to deal with. In some sense it is the worst fault that can be. It seems to disorganise and ultimately to destroy the character. Yet I am bold to say that this defect has its uses. Severely examined perhaps it will be found that no one can live a day free from it. And beyond that – is not “a noble dissimulation” part and parcel of the very greatest characters: like Socrates, “the white soul in satyr form"? When the divine has descended among men has it not always like Moses worn a veil before its face? and what is Nature herself but one long and organised system of deception?

Veracity has an opposite effect. It knits all the elements of a man’s character – rendering him solid rather than fluid; yet carried out too literally and pragmatically it condenses and solidifies the character overmuch, making the man woodeny and angular. And even of that essential Truth (truth to the inward and ideal perfection) which more than anything else perhaps constitutes, a man – it is to be remembered that even here there must be a limitation. No man can in act or externally be quite true to the ideal – though in spirit he may be. If he is to live in this world and be mortal, it must be by virtue of some partiality, some defect.

And so again – since there is an analogy between the individual and society – may we not conclude that as the individual has ultimately to recognise his so-called evil passions and find a place and a use for them, society also has to recognise its so-called criminals and discern their place and use? The artist does not omit shadows from his canvas; and the wise statesman will not try to abolish the criminal from society – less haply he be found to have abolished the driving force from his social machine.[1]

From what has now been said it is quite clear that the criminal is not a criminal because he violates any eternal code of morality – for there exists no such thing – but because he violates the ruling code of his time, and this depends largely on the ideal of the time. The Spartans appear to have permitted theft because they thought that thieving habits in the community fostered military dexterity and discouraged the accumulation of private wealth. They looked upon the latter as a great evil. But to-day the accumulation of private wealth is our great good and the thief is looked upon as the evil. When, however, we find, as the historians of to-day teach us, that society is now probably passing through a parenthetical stage of private property from a stage of communism in the past to a stage of more highly developed communism in the future, it becomes clear that the thief (and the poacher before-mentioned) is that person who is protesting against the too exclusive domination of a passing ideal. What ever should we do without him? He is keeping open for us, as Hinton I think expresses it, the path to a regenerate society, and is more useful to that end than many a platform orator. He it is that makes Care to sit upon the crupper of Wealth, and so, in course of time, causes the burden and bother of private property to become so intolerable that society gladly casts it down on common ground. Vast as is the machinery of Law, and multifarious the ways in which it seeks to crush the thief, it has signally failed, and fails ever more and more. The thief will win. He will get what he wants, but (as usual in human life!) in a way and in a form very different from what he expected.

And when we regard the thief in himself, we cannot say that we find him less human than other classes of society. The sentiment of large bodies of thieves is highly communistic among themselves; and if they thus represent a survival from an earlier age, they might also be looked upon as the precursors of a better age in the future. They have their pals in every town, with runs and refuges always open, and are lavish and generous to a degree to their own kind. And if they look upon the rich as their natural enemies and fair prey, a view which it might be difficult to gainsay, many of them at any rate are animated by a good deal of the Robin Hood spirit, and are really helpful to the poor.

I need not I think quote that famous passage from Lecky in which he shows how the prostitute, through centuries of suffering and ill-fame, has borne the curse and contempt of society in order that her more fortunate sister might rejoice in the achievement of a pure marriage. The ideal of a monogamic union has been established in a sense directly by the slur cast upon the free woman. If, however, as many people think, a certain latitude in sexual relations is not only admissible but in the long run, and within bounds, desirable, it becomes clear that the prostitute is that person who against heavy odds, and at the cost of a real degradation to herself, has clung to a tradition which, in itself good, might otherwise have perished in the face of our devotion to the splendid ideal of the exclusive marriage. There has been a time in history when the prostitute (if the word can properly be used in this connection) has been glorified, consecrated to the temple-service and honoured of men and gods (the hierodouloi of the Greeks, the kodeshoth and kodeshim of the Bible, & c.) There has also been a time when she has been scouted and reviled. In the future there will come a time when, as free companion, really free from the curse of modern commercialism, and sacred and respected once more, she will again be accepted by society and take her place with the rest.

And so with other cases. On looking back into history we find that almost every human impulse has at some age been held in esteem and allowed full play; thus man came to recognise its beauty and value. But then lest it should come (as it surely would) to tyrannise over the rest, it has been dethroned, and so in a later age the same quality is scouted and banned. Last of all it has to find its perfect human use and to take its place with the rest. Up to the age of civilisation (according to Lewis Morgan[2]) the early tribes of mankind, though limited each in their habits, were essentially democratical in structure. In fact nothing had occurred to make them otherwise. Each member stood on a footing of equality with the rest; no man had in his hands an arbitrary power over others; and the tribal life and standard ruled supreme. And when, in the future and on a much higher plane, the true Democracy comes, this equality which has so long been in abeyance will be restored, not only among men but also, in a sense, among all the passions and qualities of manhood, none will be allowed to tyrannise over others, but all will have to be subject to the supreme life of humanity. The chariot of Man, instead of two horses will have a thousand; but they will all be under control of the charioteer. Meanwhile it may not be extravagant to suppose that all through the civilisation-period the so-called criminals are keeping open the possibility of a return to this state of society. They are preserving, in a rough and unattractive husk it may be, the precious seed of a life which is to come in the future; and are as necessary and integral a part of society in the long run as the most respected and most honoured of its members at present.

The upshot, then, of it all is that “morals” as a code of action have to be discarded. There exists no such code, at any rate for permanent use. One age, one race, one class, one family, may have a code which the users of it consider valid, but only they consider it valid, and they only for a time. The Decalogue may have been a rough and useful ready-reckoner for the Israelites; but to us it admits of so many exceptions and interpretations that it is practically worthless. “Thou shalt not steal.” Exactly; but who is to decide, as we saw at the outset, in what “stealing” consists? The question is too complicated to admit of an answer. And when we have caught our half-starved tramp taking a loaf, and are ready to condemn him, lo! Lycurgus pats him on the back, and the modern philosopher tells him that he is keeping open the path to a regenerate society! If the tramp had also been a philosopher he would, perhaps, have done the same act not merely for his own benefit but for that of society, he would have committed a crime in order to save mankind.

There is nothing left but Humanity. Since there is no ever-valid code of morals we must sadly confess that there is no means of proving ourselves right and our neighbours wrong. In fact the very act of thinking whether we are right (which implies a sundering of ourselves, even in thought, from others) itself introduces the element of wrongness; and if we are ever to be “right,” at all, it must be at some moment when we fail to notice it – when we have forgotten our apartness from others and have entered into the great region of human equality. Equality – in that region all human defects are redeemed; they all find their place. To love your neighbour as yourself is the whole law and the prophets; to feel that you are “equal” with others, that their lives are as your life, that your life is as theirs – even in what trifling degree we may experience such things – is to enter into another life which includes both sides; it is to pass beyond the sphere of moral distinctions, and to trouble oneself no more with them. Between lovers there are no duties and no rights; and in the life of humanity, there is only an instinctive mutual service expressing itself in whatever way may be best at the time. Nothing is forbidden, there is nothing which may not serve. The law of Equality is perfectly flexible, is adaptable to all times and places, finds a place for all the elements of character, justifies and redeems them all without exception; and to live by it is perfect freedom. Yet not a law; but rather, as said, a new life, transcending the individual life, working through it from within, lifting the self into another sphere, beyond corruption, far over the world of sorrow.

The effort to make a distinction between acting for self and acting for one’s neighbour is the basis of “morals.” As long as a man feels an ultimate antagonism between himself and society, as long as he tries to hold his own life as a thing apart from that of others, so long must the question arise whether he will act for self or for those others. Hence flow a long array of terms – distinctions of right and wrong, duty, selfishness, self-renunciation, altruism, etc. But when he discovers that there is no ultimate antagonism between himself and society; when he finds that the gratification of every desire which he has or can have may be rendered social, or beneficial to his fellows, by being used at the right time and place, and on the other hand that every demand made upon him by society will and must gratify some portion of his nature, some desire of his heart – why, all the distinctions collapse again; they do not hold water any more. A larger life descends upon him, which includes both sides, and prompts actions in accordance with an unwritten and unimagined law. Such actions will sometimes be accounted “selfish” by the world; sometimes they will be accounted “unselfish”; but they are neither, or – if you like – both; and he who does them concerns himself not with the names that may be given to them. The law of Equality includes all the moral codes, and is the stand-point which they cannot reach, but which they all aim at.

Of course this reconcilement of the individual with society – of the unit man with the mass-Man – involves the subordination of the desires, their subjection to the true Man. And this is a most important point. It is no easy lapse that is here suggested, from morality into a mere jungle of human passion; but a toilsome and long ascent, involving for a time at any rate the severest self-control into ascendancy over the passions; it involves the complete mastery, one by one, of them all; and the recognition and allowance of them only because they are mastered. And it is just this training and subjection of the passions – as of winged horses which are to draw the human chariot – which necessarily forms such a long and painful process of human evolution. The old moral codes are a part of this process; but they go on the plan of extinguishing some of the passions – seeing that it is sometimes easier to shoot a restive horse than to ride him. We however do not want to be lords of dead carrion but of living powers; and every steed that we can add to our chariot makes our progress through creation so much the more splendid, providing Phoebus indeed hold the reins, and not the incapable Phaeton.

And by becoming thus one with the social self, the individual instead of being crushed is made far vaster, far grander than before. The renunciation (if it must be so called) which he has to accept in abandoning merely individual ends is immediately compensated by the far more vivid life he now enters into. For every force of his nature can now be utilised. Planting himself out by contrast he stands all the firmer because he has a left foot as well as a right, and when he acts, he acts not halfheartedly as one afraid, but as it were with the whole weight of humanity behind him. In abandoning his exclusive individuality he becomes for the first time a real and living individual; and in accepting as his own the life of others he becomes aware of a life in himself that has no limit and no end. That the self of anyone man is capable of an infinite gradation from the most petty and exclusive existence to the most magnificent and inclusive seems almost a truism. The one extreme is disease and death, the other is life everlasting. When the tongue for example – which is a member of the body – regards itself as a purely separate existence for itself alone, it makes a mistake, it suffers an illusion, and descends into its pettiest life. What is the consequence? Thinking that it exists apart from the other members, it selects food just such as shall gratify its most local self; it endeavors just to titillate its own sense of taste: and living and acting thus, ere long it ruins that very sense of taste, poisons the system with improper food, and brings about disease and death. Yet if healthy how does the tongue act? Why, it does not run counter to its own sense of taste, or stultify itself. It does not talk about sacrificing its own inclinations for the good of the body and the other members; but it just acts as being one in interest with them and they with it. For the tongue is a muscle, and therefore what feeds it feeds all the other muscles; and the membrane of the tongue is a prolongation of the membrane of the stomach, and that is how the tongue knows what the stomach will like; and the tongue is nerves and blood, and so the tongue may act for nerves and blood all over the body, and so on. Therefore the tongue may enter into a wider life than that represented by the mere local sense of taste, and experiences more pleasure often in the drinking of a glass of water which the whole body wants, than in the daintiest Sweetmeat which is for itself alone.

Exactly so man in a healthy state does not act for himself alone, practically cannot do so. Nor does he talk cant about “serving his neighbours” & c. But he simply acts for them as well as for himself, because they are part and parcel of his life – bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh; and in doing so he enters into a wider life, finds a more perfect pleasure, and becomes more really a man than ever before. Every man contains in himself the elements of all the rest of humanity. They lie in the background; but they are there. In the front he has his own special faculty developed – his individual facade, with its projects, plans and purposes: but behind sleeps the demos-life with far vaster projects and purposes. Some time or other to every man must come the consciousness of this vaster life.

The true Democracy, wherein this larger life will rule society from within – obviating the need of an external government – and in which all characters and qualities will be recognised and have their freedom, waits (a hidden but necessary result of evolution) in the constitution of human nature itself. In the pre-civilisation period these vexed questions of “morals” practically did not exist; simply because in that period the individual was one with his tribe and moved (unconsciously) by the larger life of his tribe. And in the post-civilisation period, when the true Democracy comes again, they will not exist, because then the man will know himself a part of humanity at large, and will be consciously moved by forces belonging to these vaster regions of his being. The moral codes and questionings belong to Civilisation, they are part of the struggle, the suffering, and the alienation from true life, which that term implies.


1. The derivation of the word “wicked” seems uncertain. May it be suggested that it is connected with “wick” or “quick” meaning alive?

2. See “Ancient Society,” passim.