Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I.: preliminary. - Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CHAPTER I.: preliminary. - Herbert Spencer, Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology 
Political Institutions, being Part V of the Principles of Sociology (The Concluding Portion of Vol. II) (London: Williams and Norgate, 1882).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
§ 434. Thought and feeling cannot be completely dissociated. Each emotion has a more or less distinct framework of ideas; and each group of ideas is more or less suffused with emotion. There are, however, great differences between their degrees of combination under both of these aspects. We have some feelings which are vague from lack of intellectual definition; and others to which clear shapes are given by the associated conceptions. At one time our thoughts are distorted by the passion running through them; and at another time it is difficult to detect in them a trace of liking or disliking. Manifestly, too, in each particular case these components of the mental state may be varied in their proportions. The ideas being the same, the emotion joined with them may be greater or less; and it is a familiar truth that the correctness of the judgment formed, depends, if not on the absence of emotion, still, on that balance of emotions which negatives excess of any one.
Especially is this so in matters concerning human life. There are two ways in which men’s actions, individual or social, may be regarded. We may consider them as groups of phenomena to be analyzed, and the laws of their dependence ascertained; or, considering them as causing pleasures or pains, we may associate with them approbation or reprobation. Dealing with its problems intellectually, we may regard conduct as always the result of certain forces; or, dealing with its problems morally, and recognizing its outcome as in this case good and in that case bad, we may allow now admiration and now indignation to fill our consciousness. Obviously, it must make a great difference in our conclusions whether, as in the one case, we study men’s doings as those of alien creatures, which it merely concerns us to understand; or whether, as in the other case, we contemplate them as the doings of creatures like ourselves, with whose lives our own lives are bound up, and whose behaviour arouses in us, directly and sympathetically, feelings of love or hate.
In an ancillary work, The Study of Sociology, I have described the various perversions produced in men’s judgments by their emotions. Examples are given showing how fears and hopes betray them into false estimates; how impatience prompts unjust condemnations; how in this case antipathy, and in that case sympathy, distorts belief. The truth that the bias of education and the bias of patriotism severally warp men’s convictions, is enforced by many illustrations. And it is pointed out that the more special forms of bias—the class bias, the political bias, the theological bias—each originates a predisposition towards this or that view of public affairs.
Here let me emphasize the conclusion that in pursuing our sociological inquiries, and especially those on which we are now entering, we must, as much as possible, exclude whatever emotions the facts are calculated to excite, and attend solely to the interpretation of the facts. There are several groups of phenomena in contemplating which either contempt, or disgust, or indignation, tends to arise but must be restrained.
§ 435. Instead of passing over as of no account, or else regarding as purely mischievous, the superstitions of the primitive man, we must inquire what part they play in social evolution; and must be prepared, if need be, to recognize their usefulness. Already we have seen that the belief which prompts the savage to bury valuables with the corpse and carry food to the grave, has a natural genesis; that the propitiation of plants and animals, and the “worship of stocks and stones,” are not gratuitous absurdities; and that slaves are sacrificed at funerals in pursuance of an idea which seems rational to uninstructed intelligence. Presently we shall have to consider in what way the ghost-theory has operated politically; and if we should find reason to conclude that it has been an indispensable aid to political progress, we must be ready to accept the conclusion.
Knowledge of the miseries which have for countless ages been everywhere caused by the antagonisms of societies, must not prevent us from recognizing the all-important part these antagonisms have played in civilization. Shudder as we must at the cannibalism which all over the world in early days was a sequence of war—shrink as we may from the thought of those immolations of prisoners which have, tens of thousands of times, followed battles between wild tribes—read as we do with horror of the pyramids of heads and the whitening bones of slain peoples left by barbarian invaders—hate, as we ought, the militant spirit which is even now among ourselves prompting base treacheries and brutal aggressions; we must not let our feelings blind us to the proofs that inter-social conflicts have furthered the development of social structures.
Moreover, dislikes to governments of certain kinds must not prevent us from seeing their fitnesses to their circumstances. Though, rejecting the common idea of glory, and declining to join soldiers and school-boys in applying the epithet “great” to conquering despots, we detest despotism—though we regard their sacrifices of their own peoples and of alien peoples in pursuit of universal dominion as gigantic crimes; we must yet recognize the benefits occasionally arising from the consolidations they achieve. Neither the massacres of subjects which Roman emperors directed, nor the assassinations of relatives common among potentates in the East, nor the impoverishment of whole nations by the exactions of tyrants, must so revolt us as to prevent appreciation of the benefits which have, under certain conditions, resulted from the unlimited power of the supreme man. Nor must the remembrances of torturing implements, and oubliettes, and victims built into walls, shut out from our minds the evidence that abject submission of the weak to the strong, however unscrupulously enforced, has in some times and places been necessary.
So, too, with the associated ownership of man by man. Absolute condemnation of slavery must be withheld, even if we accept the tradition repeated by Herodotus, that to build the Great Pyramid relays of a hundred thousand slaves toiled for twenty years; or even if we find it true that of the serfs compelled to work at the building of St. Petersburg, three hundred thousand perished. Though aware that the unrecorded sufferings of men and women held in bondage are beyond imagination, we must be willing to receive such evidence as there may be that benefits have resulted.
In brief, trustworthy interpretations of social arrangements imply an almost passionless consciousness. Though feeling cannot and ought not to be excluded from the mind when otherwise contemplating them, yet it ought to be excluded when contemplating them as natural phenomena to be understood in their causes and effects.
§ 436. Maintenance of this mental attitude will be furthered by keeping before ourselves the truth that in human actions the absolutely bad may be relatively good, and the absolutely good may be relatively bad.
Though it has become a common-place that the institutions under which one race prospers will not answer for another, the recognition of this truth is by no means adequate. Men who have lost faith in “paper constitutions,” nevertheless advocate such conduct towards inferior races, as implies the belief that civilized social forms can with advantage be imposed on uncivilized peoples; that the arrangements which seem to us vicious are vicious for them; and that they would benefit by institutions—domestic, industrial, or political—akin to those which we find beneficial. But acceptance of the truth that the type of a society is determined by the natures of its units, forces on us the corollary that a régime intrinsically of the lowest, may yet be the best possible under primitive conditions.
Otherwise stating the matter, we must not substitute our developed code of conduct, which predominantly concerns private relations, for the undeveloped code of conduct, which predominantly concerns public relations. Now that life is generally occupied in peaceful intercourse with fellow-citizens, ethical ideas refer chiefly to actions between man and man; but in early stages, while the occupation of life was mainly in conflicts with adjacent societies, such ethical ideas as existed referred almost wholly to inter-social actions: men’s deeds were judged by their direct bearings on tribal welfare. And since preservation of the society takes precedence of individual preservation, as being a condition to it, we must, in considering social phenomena, interpret good and bad rather in their earlier senses than in their later senses; and so must regard as relatively good, that which furthers survival of the society, great as may be the suffering inflicted on its members.
§ 437. Another of our ordinary conceptions has to be much widened before we can rightly interpret political evolution. The words “civilized” and “savage” must have given to them meanings differing greatly from those which are current. That broad contrast usually drawn wholly to the advantage of the men who form large nations, and to the disadvantage of the men who form simple groups, a better knowledge obliges us profoundly to qualify. Characters are to be found among rude peoples which compare well with those of the best among cultivated peoples. With little knowledge and but rudimentary arts, there in some cases go virtues which might shame those among ourselves whose education and polish are of the highest.
Surviving remnants of some primitive races in India, have natures in which truthfulness seems to be organic. Not only to the surrounding Hindoos, higher intellectually and relatively advanced in culture, are they in this respect far superior; but they are superior to Europeans. Of certain of these Hill peoples it is remarked that their assertions may always be accepted with perfect confidence; which is more than can be said of manufacturers who use false trade-marks, or of diplomatists who intentionally delude. As having this trait may be named the Santáls, of whom Hunter says, “they were the most truthful set of men I ever met;” and, again, the Sowrahs, of whom Shortt says, “a pleasing feature in their character is their complete truthfulness. They do not know how to tell a lie.” Nothwithstanding their sexual relations of a primitive and low type, even the Todas are described as considering “falsehood one of the worst of vices.” Though Metz says that they practise dissimulation towards Europeans, yet he recognizes this as a trait consequent on their intercourse with Europeans; and this judgment coincides with one given to me by an Indian civil servant concerning other Hill tribes, originally distinguished by their veracity, but who are rendered less veracious by contact with the whites. So rare is lying among these aboriginal races when unvitiated by the “civilized,” that, of those in Bengal, Hunter singles out the Tipperahs as “the only hill-tribe in which this vice is met with.”
Similarly in respect of honesty, some of these peoples classed as inferior read lessons to those classed as superior. Of the Todas just named, ignorant and degraded as they are in some respects, Harkness says, “I never saw a people, civilized or uncivilized, who seemed to have a more religious respect for the rights of meum and tuum.” The Marias (Gonds), “in common with many other wild races, bear a singular character for truthfulness and honesty.” Among the Khonds “the denial of a debt is a breach of this principle, which is held to be highly sinful. ‘Let a man,’ say they, ‘give up all he has to his creditors.’” The Santál prefers to have “no dealings with his guests; but when his guests introduce the subject he deals with them as honestly as he would with his own people:” “he names the true price at first.” The Lepchas “are wonderfully honest, theft being scarcely known among them.” And the Bodo and Dhimáls are “honest and truthful in deed and word.” Colonel Dixon dilates on the “fidelity, truth, and honesty” of the Carnatic aborigines, who show “an extreme and almost touching devotion when put upon their honour.” And Hunter asserts of the Chakmás, that “crime is rare among these primitive people.… Theft is almost unknown.”
So it is, too, with the general virtues of these and sundry other uncivilized tribes. The Santál “possesses a happy disposition,” is “sociable to a fault,” and while the “sexes are greatly devoted to each other’s society,” the women are “exceedingly chaste.” The Bodo and the Dhimáls are “full of amiable qualities.” The Lepcha, “cheerful, kind, and patient,” is described by Dr. Hooker as a most “attractive companion;” and Dr. Campbell gives “an instance of the effect of a very strong sense of duty on this savage.” In like manner, from accounts of certain Malayo-Polynesian societies, and certain Papuan societies, may be given instances showing in high degrees sundry traits which we ordinarily associate only with a human nature that has been long subject to the discipline of civilized life and the teachings of a superior religion. One of the latest testimonies is that of Signor D’Albertis, who describes certain New Guinea people he visited (near Yule Island) as strictly honest, “very kind,” “good and peaceful,” and who, after disputes between villages, “are as friendly as before, bearing no animosity;” but of whom the Rev. W. G. Lawes, commenting on Signor D’Albertis’ communication to the Colonial Institute, says that their goodwill to the whites is being destroyed by the whites’ ill-treatment of them: the usual history.
Contrariwise, in various parts of the world men of several types yield proofs that societies relatively advanced in organization and culture, may yet be inhuman in their ideas, sentiments, and usages. The Fijians, described by Dr. Pickering as among the most intelligent of unlettered peoples, are among the most ferocious. “Intense and vengeful malignity strongly marks the Fijian character.” Lying, treachery, theft, and murder, are with them not criminal, but honourable; infanticide is immense in extent; strangling the sickly habitual; and they sometimes cut up while alive the human victims they are going to eat. Nevertheless they have a “complicated and carefully - conducted political system;” well-organized military forces; elaborate fortifications; a developed agriculture with succession of crops and irrigation; a considerable division of labour; a separate distributing agency with incipient currency; and a skilled industry which builds canoes that carry three hundred men. Take again an African society, Dahomey. We find there a finished system of classes, six in number; complex governmental arrangements with officials always in pairs; an army divided into battalions, having reviews and sham fights; prisons, police, and sumptuary laws; an agriculture which uses manure and grows a score kinds of plants; moated towns, bridges, and roads with turnpikes. Yet along with this comparatively high social development there goes what we may call organized criminality. Wars are made to get skulls with which to decorate the royal palace; hundreds of subjects are killed when a king dies; and great numbers are annually slaughtered to carry messages to the other world. Described as cruel and blood-thirsty, liars and cheats, the people are “void either of sympathy or gratitude, even in their own families;” so that “not even the appearance of affection exists between husband and wife, or between parents and children.” The New World, too, furnished when it was discovered, like evidence. Having great cities of 120,000 houses, the Mexicans had also cannibal gods, whose idols were fed on warm, reeking, human flesh, thrust into their mouths—wars being made purposely to supply victims for them; and with skill to build vast and stately temples, there went the immolation of two thousand five hundred persons annually, in Mexico and adjacent towns alone, and of a far greater number throughout the country at large. Similarly in the populous Central American States, sufficiently civilized to have a developed system of calculation, a regular calendar, books, maps, &c., there were extensive sacrifices of prisoners, slaves, children, whose hearts were torn out and offered palpitating on altars, and who, in other cases, were flayed alive and their skins used as dancing-dresses by the priests.
Nor need we seek in remote regions or among alien races, for proofs that there does not exist a necessary connexion between the social types classed as civilized and those higher sentiments which we commonly associate with civilization. The multilations of prisoners exhibited on Assyrian sculptures are not surpassed in cruelty by any we find among the most bloodthirsty of wild races; and Rameses II., who delighted in having himself sculptured on temple-walls throughout Egypt as holding a dozen captives by the hair, and striking off their heads at a blow, slaughtered during his conquests more human beings than a thousand chiefs of savage tribes put together. The tortures inflicted on captured enemies by Red Indians are not greater than were those inflicted of old on felons by crucifixion, or on suspected rebels by sewing them up in the hides of slaughtered animals, or on heretics by smearing them over with combustibles and setting fire to them. The Damaras, described as so heartless that they laugh on seeing one of their number killed by a wild beast, are not worse than were the Romans, who gratified themselves by watching wholesale slaughters in their arenas. If the numbers destroyed by the hordes of Attila were not equalled by the numbers which the Roman armies destroyed at the conquest of Selucia, and by the numbers of the Jews massacred under Hadrian, it was simply because the occasions did not permit. The cruelties of Nero, Gallienus, and the rest, may compare with those of Zingis and Timour; and when we read of Caracalla, that after he had murdered twenty thousand friends of his murdered brother, his soldiers forced the Senate to place him among the gods, we are shown that in the Roman people there was a ferocity not less than that which deifies the most sanguinary chiefs among the worst of savages. Nor did Christianity greatly change matters. Throughout Mediæval Europe, political offences and religious dissent brought on men carefully-devised agonies equalling if not exceeding any inflicted by the most brutal of barbarians.
Startling as the truth seems, it is yet a truth to be recognized, that increase of humanity does not go on pari passu with civilization; but that, contrariwise, the earlier stages of civilization necessitate a relative inhumanity. Among tribes of primitive men, it is the more brutal rather than the more kindly who succeed in those conquests which effect the earliest social consolidations; and through many subsequent stages unscrupulous aggression outside of the society and cruel coercion within, are the habitual concomitants of political development. The men of whom the better organized societies have been formed, were at first, and long continued to be, nothing else but the stronger and more cunning savages; and even now, when freed from those influences which superficially modify their behaviour, they prove themselves to be little better. If, on the one hand, we contemplate the utterly uncivilized Wood-Veddahs, who are described as “proverbially truthful and honest,” “gentle and affectionate,” “obeying the slightest intimation of a wish, and very grateful for attention or assistance,” and of whom Pridham remarks— “What a lesson in gratitude and delicacy even a Veddah may teach!” and then if, on the other hand, we contemplate our own recent acts of international brigandage, accompanied by the slaughter of thousands who have committed no wrong against us—accompanied, too, by perfidious breaches of faith and the killing of prisoners in cold blood; we must admit that between the types of men classed as uncivilized and civilized, the differences are not necessarily of the kinds commonly supposed. Whatever relation exists between moral nature and social type, is not such as to imply that the social man is in all respects emotionally superior to the pre-social man.∗
§ 438. “How is this conclusion to be reconciled with the conception of progress?” most readers will ask. “How is civilization to be justified if, as is thus implied, some of the highest of human attributes are exhibited in greater degrees by wild people who live scattered in pairs in the woods, than by the members of a vast, well-organized nation, having marvellously-elaborated arts, extensive and profound knowledge, and multitudinous appliances to welfare?” The answer to this question will best be conveyed by an analogy.
As carried on throughout the animate world at large, the struggle for existence has been an indispensable means to evolution. Not simply do we see that in the competition among individuals of the same kind, survival of the fittest, has from the beginning furthered production of a higher type; but we see that to the unceasing warfare between species is mainly due both growth and organization. Without universal conflict there would have been no development of the active powers. The organs of perception and of locomotion have been little by little evolved during the inter-action of pursuers and pursued. Improved limbs and senses have furnished better supplies to the viscera, and improved visceral structures have ensured a better supply of aerated blood to the limbs and senses; while a higher nervous system has at each stage been called into play for co-ordinating the actions of these more complex structures. Among predatory animals death by starvation, and among animals preyed upon death by destruction, have carried off the least-favourably modified individuals and varieties. Every advance in strength, speed, agility, or sagacity, in creatures of the one class, has necessitated a corresponding advance in creatures of the other class; and without never-ending efforts to catch and to escape, with loss of life as the penalty for failure, the progress of neither could have been achieved.
Mark now, however, that while this merciless discipline of Nature, “red in tooth and claw,” has been essential to the progress of sentient life, its persistence through all time with all creatures must not be inferred. The high organization evolved by and for this universal conflict, is not necessarily for ever employed to like ends. The resulting power and intelligence admit of being far otherwise employed. Not for offence and defence only are the inherited structures useful, but for various other purposes; and these various other purposes may finally become the exclusive purposes. The myriads of years of warfare which have developed the powers of all lower types of creatures, have bequeathed to the highest type of creature the powers now used by him for countless objects besides those of killing and avoiding being killed. His limbs, teeth and nails are but little employed in fight; and his mind is not ordinarily occupied in devising ways of destroying other creatures, or guarding himself from injury by them.
Similarly with social organisms. We must recognize the truth that the struggles for existence between societies have been instrumental to their evolution. Neither the consolidation and re-consolidation of small groups into large ones; nor the organization of such compound and doubly compound groups; nor the concomitant developments of those aids to a higher life which civilization has brought; would have been possible without inter-tribal and inter-national conflicts. Social cooperation is initiated by joint defence and offence; and from the cooperation thus initiated, all kinds of cooperations have arisen. Inconceivable as have been the horrors caused by this universal antagonism which, beginning with the chronic hostilities of small hordes tens of thousands of years ago, has ended in the occasional vast battles of immense nations, we must nevertheless admit that without it the world would still have been inhabited only by men of feeble types, sheltering in caves and living on wild food.
But now observe that the inter-social struggle for existence which has been indispensable in evolving societies, will not necessarily play in the future a part like that which it has played in the past. Recognizing our indebtedness to war for forming great communities and developing their structures, we may yet infer that the acquired powers, available for other activities, will lose their original activities. While conceding that without these perpetual bloody strifes, civilized societies could not have arisen, and that an adapted form of human nature, fierce as well as intelligent, was a needful concomitant; we may at the same time hold that such societies having been produced, the brutality of nature in their units which was necessitated by the process, ceasing to be necessary with the cessation of the process, will disappear. While the benefits achieved during the predatory period remain a permanent inheritance, the evils entailed by it will decrease and slowly die out.
Thus, then, contemplating social structures and actions from the evolution point of view, we may preserve that calmness which is needful for scientific interpretation of them, without losing our powers of feeling moral reprobation or approbation.
§ 439. To these preliminary remarks respecting the mental attitude to be preserved by the student of political institutions, a few briefer ones must be added respecting the subject-matters he has to deal with.
If societies were all of the same species and differed only in their stages of growth and structure, comparisons would disclose clearly the course of evolution; but unlikenesses of type among them, here great and there small, obscure the results of such comparisons.
Again, if each society grew and unfolded itself without the intrusion of additional factors, interpretation would be relatively easy; but the complicated processes of development are frequently re-complicated by changes in the sets of factors. Now the size of the social aggregate is all at once increased or decreased by annexation or by loss of territory; and now the average character of its units is altered by the coming in of another race as conquerors or as slaves; while, as a further effect of this event, new social relations are superposed on the old. In many cases the repeated overrunnings of societies by one another, the minglings of peoples and institutions, the breakings up and re-aggregations, so destroy the continuity of normal processes as to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to draw conclusions.
Once more, modifications in the average mode of life pursued by a society, now increasingly warlike and now increasingly industrial, initiate metamorphoses: changed activities generate changes of structures. Consequently there have to be distinguished those progressive re-arrangements caused by the further development of one social type, from those caused by the commencing development of another social type. The lines of an organization adapted to a mode of activity which has ceased, or has been long suspended, begin to fade, and are traversed by the increasingly-definite lines of an organization adapted to the mode of activity which has replaced it; and error may result from mistaking traits belonging to the one for those belonging to the other.
Hence we may infer that out of the complex and confused evidence, only the larger truths will emerge with clearness. While anticipating that certain general conclusions are to be positively established, we may anticipate that more special ones can be alleged only as probable.
Happily, however, as we shall eventually see, those general conclusions admitting of positive establishment, are the conclusions of most value for guidance.
[∗]What the social man, even of advanced race, is capable of, has been again shown while these lines are standing in type To justify the destruction of two African towns in Batanga, we are told that their king, wishing to have a trading factory established, and disappointed with the promise of a sub-factory, boarded an English schooner, carried off Mr. Govier, the mate, and refusing to release him when asked, “threatened to cut the man’s head off” : a strange mode, if true, of getting a trading factory established. Mr. Govier afterwards escaped; not having been ill-treated during his detention. Anchoring the Boadicea and two gunboats off Kribby’s Town ( “King Jack’s” residence), Commodore Richards demanded of the king that he should come on board and explain: promising him safety, and threatening serious consequences in case of refusal. Not trusting the promise, the king failed to come. Without ascertaining from the natives whether they had any reason for laying hands on Mr. Govier, save this most improbable one alleged by our people, Commodore Richards proceeded, after some hours’ notice, to clear the beach with shells, to burn the town of 300 houses, to cut down the natives’ crops, and to destroy their canoes; and then, not satisfied with burning “King Jack’s” town, went further south and burnt “King Long - Long’s” town. These facts are published in the Times of September 10, 1880. In an article on them, this organ of English respectability regrets that “the punishment must seem, to the childish mind of the savage, wholly disproportionate to the offence:” implying that to the adult mind of the civilized it will not seem disproportionate. Further, this leading journal of ruling classes who hold that, in the absence of established theological dogn as, there would be no distinction between right and wrong, remarks that “if it were not for the dark shadow cast over it by this loss of life” [of two of our men], “the whole episode would be somewhat humorous.” Doubtless, after the “childish mind of the savage” has accepted the “glad tidings” brought by missionaries of “the religion of love,” there is humour, somewhat of the grimmest, perhaps, in showing him the practice of this religion by burning his house. Comments on Christian virtues, uttered by exploding shells, may fitly be accompanied by a Mephistophelian smile. Possibly the king, in declining to trust himself on board an English ship, was swayed by the common Negro belief that the devil is white.