By a chance discovery, I am induced to devote my life to the pursuit of evil.
On my return to the store, I suffered a reverse so severe that I hesitate even to narrate it. It gives me no pleasure to do so, except insofar as I recall that my triumph will be so much more complete for my having overcome an adversity that, in the end, changed the course of my life in a way that brought unfathomable benefit to me.
In short, because I do not wish to be long, my father utterly repudiated my negotiation with the firm of Cargill Bros. All my explanations, calculations, demonstrations, and remonstrations were in vain: he could not bring himself to spend that amount of money, and nothing would persuade him to do so. He insisted that I must wire Cargill Bros. in the morning and cancel the order, and in this ridiculous intransigence he persisted adamantly, finally telling me in so many words, “I forbid you to spend that much money.”
My sisters were simply delighted at my reversal. My father, who could never bring himself to be really angry with me, attempted to be pleasant through supper; I picked morosely at whatever Viola had boiled for the evening, and Viola and Camellia chattered incessantly and with uncontrollable glee.
“Really, Father,” Viola said with her mouth full of boiled something-or-other, “what can you expect? You knew he was a noodle when you sent him out there.”
This was a remark of unprecedented wit, to judge by its effect on Camellia, who spewed potatoes all over the table in front of her.
“You might as well have sent the cat,” Viola continued.
“Or the goldfish,” Camellia added helpfully, spewing more potatoes.
“Could you please pass the butter, Galahad?” my father inquired politely, as if he had not heard my sisters at all,—which probably was the case, his little mind being unable even to acknowledge the existence of whatever it could not comprehend, and my sisters’ antipathy toward me being foremost among the things my father’s mind could not comprehend. And this was how the rest of supper went: my sisters unrelenting in their attacks, and my father even more unrelenting in his pleasantness, which I honestly do believe was worse than the attacks of my sisters. I excused myself as early as I could, and retired to my attic.
Here again I sank into the profoundest depths of despair. At every turn my best plans were frustrated by the ignorance and folly of those around me. Must it not always be thus? My father was an oaf who did not understand the scale of modern business—but that was not a new discovery. To-morrow I should have to humiliate myself by sending a cable to Cargill Bros. canceling the order I had made, and then I should never again be taken seriously at that plant. Again I asked myself, what did I have to live for? It was not the particular reversal that was impossible, but rather the certainty that it would not be the last. There was a great world that lay beyond the little store on Wood-street, but my father could not see it, because he did not understand it. If my every attempt to break out into that world must be thwarted by my father’s ignorance and timidity, then how could I grasp that imperial destiny that surely awaited me? And without the anticipation of that destiny, how was my life tolerable? But the result of my considerations was again the same: no matter how many different methods of ending my life occurred to me, each one was either impossible in my circumstances or too unpleasant to consider for more than a moment.
I felt a maddening impotence; there was simply nothing I could do. So I picked up a magazine and began to read.
The Gentleman’s Cabinet! Dear reader, the time has come when that humble publication must take its place on our stage—must stand before the footlights, speak its lines, and advance our plot. How patiently it has been waiting on my little table, the one in the dormer with the old Windsor chair beside it—waiting to grant me its great revelation!
Yes, I took up the magazine, and, having exhausted the major articles, turned to the “literary” section in the back, where lesser hacks reviewed the works of greater hacks. Here I read a review of “Emmett Palgrave,” the most recent novel by Mrs. Burton, who was then in great esteem, though I doubt whether a single one of her works is still in print to-day. I had intended to retire after that, but my melancholy state of mind was likely to prevent me from sleeping, and the title of the next review caught my eye:
THE WICKEDEST MAN IN FRANCE.
Well! That indeed was a distinction. I knew nothing of France, of course, beyond what I had read; but all sources seemed to concur in describing France as a country of extraordinary wickedness. I believe my school geography, in the map of Europe, had simply engraved the word “WICKED” across the northwestern corner of the continent. In popular literature, France was not merely wicked: it was the source and wellspring of wickedness, a sun of wickedness from which rays of wickedness shone on an otherwise virtuous world. And, of course, like every good American boy, I had in unguarded moments wished that I could be in France, where the women were so unspeakably wicked that their most characteristic acts always took place between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another:—although, of course, I immediately repudiated that desire as unbecoming a virtuous young man. Now, if a man could be the wickedest man in France, then he must be very wicked indeed; and he must be a great deal more interesting to read about than the insipidly virtuous hero of Mrs. Burton’s novel, which the reviewer had praised as tending to the improvement of youth—a reviewer’s kind way of saying that it was the sort of book no one would willingly pick up. I began to read this new review, which was not at all favorable, with sleepy and half-closed eyes; but I was soon wide awake. But why tell you, dear reader, about the review, when I can reproduce the review itself? I have preserved the magazine with as much care as a Mahometan might use in preserving his Alcoran:—for it is my holy text, and the foundation of my religion, though it has not the spare elegance of other holy texts. I copy it here and relish every word, although the reviewer plainly had no notion of the import of the work he undertook to review. Here it is, then, or at least the salient parts of it—for I shall copy while it is yet a joy, but cease when it becomes a labor.
THE WICKEDEST MAN IN FRANCE.
For all of history, men have questioned whether it is better to prohibit books that tend toward evil, or to suffer them to remain, and refute them. We speak not of books of obvious depravity, whose only aim is to excite concupiscence; but rather of those works which present an argument, the tendency of which, if it is followed to its conclusion, is to entice men to wickedness, and in a word to make wrong seem right. The general consensus of American and English thought has been that such books are to be allowed, on the grounds that their refutation will surely be forthcoming, if liberty of thought is granted equally to the wicked and the virtuous. It thus becomes the duty of good Christian writers to expose the specious and faulty reasoning by which wrong is made to seem right. Whatever moralists may say of the state of literature in our own era, it is at least beyond question that virtue never lacks defenders; and, if their works are sometimes less read than the works they refute, that is perhaps a fault to be laid at the feet of the readers, rather than charged to the writers’ account.
Dear reader, I must break in here for a moment. If the works of the moralists are less read than the moralists themselves would desire, what right have they to complain of their readers? Write a book worth reading, and it will be read; but you give people stale bread to eat, and wonder that they prefer cake!
When we come to the work of the Comte de Baucher, however, the ordinary Christian writer finds himself at a loss. His business hitherto has been to make it plain where arguments go astray: to show how that which was presented as tending toward the good tends rather toward evil. Since it is acknowledged that good is to be sought and evil shunned, the debate is thus won, and the moral writer emerges crowned with the laurels of victory.
But there can be no such victory against the Comte. That his philosophy tends toward evil is not an accusation in his eyes. He has called his book A la Recherche du mal—The Pursuit of Evil—and in it he argues, not that evil is good, but that the superior man chooses evil, in accordance with the dictates of nature.
Here again I break in for a moment to point out how wonderfully this paragraph is calculated to make me prick up my ears. One thing I had grown to regard as certain was that I was, in the words attributed to the Comte de Baucher, a superior man. My difficulties were not in any lack of intellect or natural ability; they all came from the inferiority and stupidity of the obstacles that stood in my way—among which the foremost was my father, whose tiny mind was incapable of comprehending a great opportunity, simply because it was great, and there was no room in his mind for great things. The words “superior man,” therefore, caught my attention, and, as the arguments in the first lines of the review had predisposed me to think of the reviewer as a man of no very keen intellect, I began to take the side of the Comte, as one who had something to say to the superior man. Ye simpering moralists, and ye pandering preachers who speak to us in apostrophe as “ye,” see how quickly you mine your own lines, and destroy the virtue you would build up!
This is plainly not a proposition that can be refuted merely by saying that it tends toward evil: for if we said so, the Comte would be justified in replying, “Et alors?” Indeed, if evil is not to be shunned, it is difficult to see on what grounds the Comte can be refuted at all.
Our noble author begins with Creation; or, rather, he begins by denying Creation, which he dismisses at once as a superfluous hypothesis. The universe, he says, came to be through collision and accretion of primordial matter according to natural laws. The primary law of nature in this universe is not one of Newton’s famous discoveries, but rather what the Comte calls the Law of Relative Strength, which may be briefly stated thus: The stronger invariably destroys or subsumes the weaker. Such is the law among stars and planets; such is the law in the mineral kingdom; such, most notably, is the law among living creatures. The Comte gives two chapters to the operation of this law in nature, but such profligacy is hardly necessary. Big rocks crush little rocks to atoms, and larger creatures eat smaller ones; there you have his observations in epitome.
When the Comte comes to consider human history, he finds the same principle at work everywhere. A chapter on human origins is of the most speculative turn imaginable, and yet the Comte presents his speculations as established truths. The wild surmises of Darwin, which many of our most eminent authors have entirely refuted, are here accepted as unquestioned facts of science. In the time before recorded history (for it is hardly necessary to say that the Comte does not accept the inspired works of Moses as genuine history), the Comte imagines the Law of Relative Strength operating in such a way that the stronger man compels the weaker to do his bidding; and, having thus subsumed, so to speak, the strength of the weaker man in his own, employs this combined strength to subsume the strength of another man, and so on, until he has formed a tribe of men who act under his authority, and whose combined strength he calls upon to carry out his will. Thus he sees the beginning of human society, not as an association for mutual advantage, but simply as the result of one man’s pride.
Here it seems clear to me that the reviewer misunderstands the argument. It is not pride that is at work, but necessity. If the world is so ordered that the law of relative strength obtains—a proposition that struck me as undeniable from the moment I heard it—then it is as inevitable that men should collide as that any other form of matter must collide; and then the stronger must either destroy or subsume the weaker. There are degrees of strength in any group of men, and the strongest, by repeated clashes with rivals, must at last take his place. It is not a question of justice so much as a certainty of physics.
But what of that moral sense which distinguishes men from beasts? Whence did that arise, and does it not refute the Comte’s assertion that all human relations are merely the result of many collisions between stronger and weaker?
This brings us to what appears to be the core of the Comte’s new system of philosophy. Moral precepts, he would have us understand, are not eternal truths of nature; nor are they laws given to us by a higher and wiser power. They are tools or weapons by which the strong control the weak, and the greater the lesser. There is more than one sort of strength: intellectual vigor often prevails over mere physical power. The strong-minded have devised moral principles in order to enslave the weak-minded, even when the latter are men of great bodily strength. One may be pardoned for surmising that the Comte de Baucher is not a very healthy physical specimen.
This feeble attempt at a sly dig in no way undermines the argument, which is well-nigh unassailable.—I really had no intention of interrupting so often, but I can hardly be expected to hold back the thoughts I have kept to myself for thirty years as I ruminated on these things. The indulgent reader will forgive me—or, if he will not, then he may find himself a dime novel that will hold his attention.
As an example of the way in which those of strong mind make use of moral precepts in order to bend the weak-minded to their will, the Comte devotes an entire chapter to the Mosaic law. This he finds riddled with absurdities and extravagances that can have no other purpose, so he says, than to keep the great mass of the Israelites in subjection to Moses, Aaron, and their successors. The Decalogue, which philosophers have often praised as the sublimest expression of the universal moral law, becomes, on the Comte’s reading, an arbitrary catalogue of offenses against the authority of the superior men who have subjected Israel to their rule. Thus the first commandments enjoin exclusive worship of the God of Israel, and obedience to him, not because such a being exists and is good, but because religion was the source of Moses and Aaron’s power over the tribes, and any admixture of foreign religions must weaken that power. The Comte praises the wisdom and rhetorical skill of Moses: “for,” he says, “the man who can slaughter thousands of his own people, and teach them ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ must be extraordinarily persuasive.” He devotes most of the rest of this chapter to the provisions of the law that seem most absurd to him, and delights in counting up the number of occasions on which a sacrifice will be required—a sacrifice that the priest shall eat, so that Moses was able to assure perpetual abundance, not merely for himself, but for his entire tribe, at the expense of the others.
In short, without giving any compelling reason for doing so, the Comte rejects divine revelation as a myth, and not merely a myth but a deliberate fabrication, by which the superior man—in this case Moses—assured himself of a full stomach.
The rest of the Hebrew Scriptures are treated in a separate chapter, which is not worth summarizing here, except to say that the kings and prophets whom the sacred authors regard as virtuous seem to come out as the villains of the piece: men who, when the people had tasted liberty, enslaved them again, and drove the inferior rabble back to that worship on which the power of the superior men rested.
Once again, our reviewer has mistaken the argument. It is perfectly true that the “good” kings of the Old Testament forced the people back into servitude; but that makes them the heroes of the tale, not the villains. To one who has correctly understood the philosophy of Baucher—as I seemed to do the moment I heard his ideas—a hero is a man who bends other men to his will.
What, then, of the New Testament? Does not the figure of Christ, the meek and mild Savior who went to the Cross without offering the feeblest resistance to his persecutors, amply refute the proposition that the Christian religion is merely an imposition of the will of the strong upon the weak?
Here our noble author rather disappoints us.
He did not disappoint me! I clearly remember reading the lines that follow with a beating heart and an inescapable sense that hidden truths were being opened up to me. But let the reviewer carry on, and I shall interrupt him again if it amuses me to do so.
Instead of dealing squarely with the historical fact of the Incarnation, the Comte dismisses the entire life of Jesus as a fiction. Making that assumption—which we hope we may be permitted to doubt—the Comte proceeds to show how excellently the Christian religion is contrived for the purpose of keeping the powerful secure in their privileges. The poor are encouraged to believe that their poverty carries with it a special blessedness, that he who desires riches courts eternal damnation in the life to come, when the first shall be last and the last first. It goes without saying, of course, that the Comte admits no such futurity; he admires, however, what he calls “the audacity of the deception,” by which not only are the poor induced to bear their lot with contentment, but also many accidentally wealthy men of inferior intellect are persuaded to sell all they have and seek poverty—leaving, of course, the superior men in possession of the good things of this life.
Now supposing all this to be true, would it not be the greatest folly for the Comte—who plainly believes himself one of these superior men who alone know the truth—to reveal these things to all and sundry? Here the Comte makes a most ingenious argument. It is no risk to the superior man, says he, to publish such a book as this, because it will reveal nothing to inferior minds. They will not see what they do not understand.
Is it necessary for me to mention that I thought of my father here?
Doubtless the book will come to the notice of a few inferior men, but few of them will read it, and of those few none will accept its truths. Such is the weakness of the inferior mind that, even when facing the undeniable truth, it prefers to retreat to its comfortable falsehoods. Only the superior mind will grasp the truth of what the Comte has written; the others will employ all their feeble powers to refute these truths; and will believe themselves to have done so, though all reason and logic be against them, because to admit that they have not succeeded would be to admit that every belief which they had been taught since early childhood to regard as inviolable, is false. This is an admission a man can make only at a point of crisis, when the beliefs by which he has regulated his life have brought him to an impasse.
Since the Comte himself has brought up the subject, and since we are at a natural division in his book, we may take this opportunity to inquire——
No, I shall not copy this next page or two. Our reviewer indulges in more sarcasm than I can stomach in narrating the life of the Comte—which, briefly, runs thus: he had an imbecile for a father, was miserable in school, and very early displayed all the signs of a superior intellect, which found no encouragement in his circle of acquaintances. I do not believe it is necessary for me to remark how closely the Comte’s early life seemed to resemble my own life up to this point.
For the Comte, his “point of crisis” came when he was rejected by a woman. Our reviewer amuses himself, if not his readers, with remarks on the character of a Frenchman, and how different the philosophy of Baucher might have been had the woman been of that yielding character supposed to be so common in France. But is there any passion stronger than love, or lust if you prefer? and is there anything other than strong disappointment that can bring a man to the point of psychological crisis? It is, at any rate, sufficient to say that, whatever the opinion of the reviewer, I felt drawn to this Comte de Baucher as to a kindred spirit.
Let us resume the review two pages later.
Leaving the historical section behind, we come now to the second, and mercifully final, portion of the book, which the author facetiously labels “The Ethics of the Superior Man,” but which may more accurately be called a frontal attack on ethics.
We are first taken through the many different ethical systems, philosophical and religious, by which men have regulated their conduct, and shown their fundamental identity. This is not a new observation: many other writers have pointed out the similarities in the ethical content of various religious and philosophical systems, and have found in that similarity evidence of an objective moral truth. This is not, however, the conclusion our present author draws. His survey of ethical systems consumes no fewer than three chapters, and takes him as far as China in his search for corroborative material; but, in the end, we are prepared for his great conclusion, which is that the similarity of all the ethical systems derives, not from natural moral law, but from the operation of the Law of Relative Strength in the human sphere. In short, all ethical systems are imposed by the strong upon the weak, and their purpose is to keep the weak in subjection to the strong—the inferior to the superior. How this subjection is variously accomplished the Comte describes in two more chapters; but we may summarize them by saying that prophets and philosophers have taught honesty and gentleness the world over, not because those things are good in themselves, but because it is convenient for the superior man that his inferiors should be honest and gentle. That is a truth of nature: since even the inferior man is, to some extent, an intellectual being, the dominance of the strong over the weak must take an intellectual form as well as a physical form. The superior man, in other words, must control the beliefs of his inferiors, as the surest means of controlling their actions.
But if ethical systems have no purpose but to keep the inferior man subject to the superior, then what are the ethics of the superior man? He has none. This is the conclusion to which the whole work has been tending, and therefore it can in no wise be called unexpected. Yet it is still something of a surprise to see it stated so baldly. The inferior man must attempt to weigh his actions against any number of ethical standards; the superior man, on the other hand, asks himself one question only: Will this tend to my advantage? No crime is beyond him, if he can but persuade himself that it will make him happier, or wealthier, or more powerful. The good of inferior men does not enter into the question, because they are inferior: they are materials, which he uses for his benefit or his pleasure, as he would use any other material. The superior man owes allegiance to no one: the state exists because it is useful that his inferiors should be governed, but the state no more governs the superior man than a fence governs the wind. He does what he pleases and takes what he desires;—and this sort of behavior, which we should not tolerate in a child three years old, is the very mark of his superiority! Obedience to the law, or to the precepts of religion, is, on the other hand, the badge of inferiority. The inferior man shows his inferiority in his obedience, for by obeying he acknowledges a power superior to himself.
In short, the conclusion, not only of this chapter but of the entire work, is that the superior man proves his superiority by choosing what is commonly called evil. He rejects the religion and the ethics of the inferior men who surround him. He takes the course of action best calculated to lead to his own advantage, and if that choice demands that he rob or kill his inferior neighbors, he does not hesitate to carry it out. It is the mark of his superiority that he refuses to acknowledge any law or principle as standing above him.
As I read these lines, I was keenly aware that the scales were falling from my eyes. I was not converted all at once, but for the first time I began to understand my own life. All my existence had been bound by rules and laws which I had done my utmost to obey; yet at school (by instructors and older boys) and at home (by sisters) I had been subjected to all the most degrading punishments, no matter how scrupulously obedient I was. For what reason? I had always thought that, if I could somehow be even more obedient, more perfectly virtuous, I might have avoided the unjust punishments; yet, at the same time, I always felt all too sharply the injustice of them. Now, at last, I was free from the whims of instructors, but I had my father’s ignorant intransigence to plague me instead—which was more of a burden, because there was no set end to it. Plainly I had the advantage in education, as well as natural intellect;—yet I must submit to the unfounded whims of an ignorant oaf, merely because he was my father.—But why? Because law and tradition said that I must. Should I submit to law and tradition? Or was not that certainty I felt deep in my soul—the irrepressible knowledge of my own superiority—was it not, I say, the signal that such things as law and tradition existed far below me?
These things are called evil, not because they are so in any absolute sense, but because it is convenient for great men that lesser men should be kept in check by their own consciences, leaving the great man, who has no conscience and does not acknowledge the existence of such a thing, in control of the power and possessions of this world.
The Comte gives us a number of examples of great men who (he says) had chosen evil and prospered. Not all are men commonly held up for admiration. Alexander was, perhaps, a great man, and not without admirable qualities. The same may be said of Augustus. But when our noble author points out Nero, whose reign makes such a vivid impression in the pages of Gibbon, as an object of admiration, and indeed of emulation, we are compelled to acknowledge that the argument is at least novel, if not altogether convincing. In the Comte’s view of Roman history, which differs in certain essential particulars from that of Gibbon, Nero was a capable emperor under whose rule the Empire prospered, and whose notorious excesses are pardonable because they did not tend to his own disadvantage. Even Nero’s suicide, in our noble author’s view, is not a failure. Having lived for many years with “unlimited liberty of action,” as our author calls it, he foresaw the restriction of that liberty, and therefore took it upon himself to end a life that was no longer worth living—for the superior man, who in everything chooses is own way, does not hesitate to choose death when he cannot have the life of his own choosing as he would choose to live it.
This, then, is the essence of the Comte’s philosophy: that morals and ethics are matters for the small and weak; that the great and strong wilfully choose evil, obeying the fundamental law of the universe; and that this deliberate choice of evil is the mark by which we recognize the superior man.
It is hardly necessary to say that the reception of A la Recherche du mal was not uniformly favorable. In France,——
Here the reviewer relates how the book was received in France, where the government of the hour quickly banned it; and in England, where the anonymous translation was greeted with derision, but nevertheless sold out its first run in just a few months. The book had not yet been printed in the United States, and as far as I know still has not been printed here. I took no interest in the reviewer’s patriotic pride in the relative virtue of American publishers. To me, the philosophy of Baucher is not something that needs the approval of the American publishers in order to be true. Baucher’s propositions are self-evidently correct. One has only to hear them stated to know that they are true—if, of course, one has a superior mind. This was the overwhelming sense I felt on hearing them: there was nothing, it seemed, that could refute them. I leap over the account of various small-minded attempts to prohibit the book, and the various equally small-minded attempts by imbecilic divines to refute it, and we come to the conclusion of the review.
Perhaps, however, each one of us is more capable of refuting the arguments of the Comte than the ablest divines. For they must prove by reason what is proved already in our own hearts. Each of us is born with a conscience, and that inner voice, if we will but listen, tells us that the Comte is wrong. Virtue is not merely for the weak; on the contrary, vice is a weakness, which only strength can overcome. Conscience tells us that the great man is great precisely to the degree that he is virtuous: that to be honest and obedient is an unfailing mark of strong character. Our strength is given to those of us who are strong so that we may render assistance to the weak, not so that we may destroy or “subsume” them. The way that our Savior has shown us is the truly superior way—a way that requires strength, but strength “made perfect” in weakness. This is what we know to be true, because conscience, implanted in us by our Creator to be our infallible guide, speaks the truth to us in the inner recesses of our souls.——
And so on: it blethers on for a page and a half more, but without adding to the argument. I can say only that I listened attentively and assiduously, and I heard no voice of conscience telling me that traditional Christian ethical doctrines were objectively true. All I heard was the complaint of my own soul, which told me that I was enslaving myself to the folly and stupidity of an ignorant oaf, and demanded to know why I allowed myself to be treated in that manner. I could not formulate a satisfactory answer. I knew, in this case, what was the reasonable course; I knew also that my father’s objections were unfounded; yet I had been prepared to allow my father to blight our joint prospects forever, and to prevent me from realizing my quite reasonable ambitions.
Now, however, I had a different way of looking at things. I had been prepared to obey my father, because I had been taught that I must obey my father. But if it were true that I was the superior being I had always known myself to be, then what business had I obeying my father, when I knew him to be wrong? There was, I said to myself, much thought ahead of me.
In fact I was completely incorrect in that prognostication. I woke in the middle of the night to hear the bells of St. Peter’s striking two, and I understood, having somehow worked it out in my sleep, that I must take my place as a superior being. I was ready to be a great man, and to embrace the doctrines of Baucher. I was ready to give myself wholly to evil.