CHAPTER I -- THE BURDEN OF CIVILIZATION
CIVILIZATION is the flowering of the human species. It
is both a recent and a fragile thing. The first glimmering
of genuine civilization appeared only eight or ten
thousand years ago. This might seem a long time. It
does not seem so long when we remember that behind
civilization's dawn lies a vast night of barbarism, of
savagery, of bestiality, estimated at half a million years,
since the ape-man shambled forth from the steaming
murk of tropical forests, and, scowling and blinking, raised
his eyes to the stars.
Civilization is complex. It involves the existence of
human communities characterized by political and social
organization; dominating and utilizing natural forces;
adapting themselves to the new man-made environment
thereby created; possessing knowledge, refinement,
arts, and sciences; and (last, but emphatically not least)
composed of individuals capable of sustaining this elaborate
complex and of handing it on to a capable posterity.
This last consideration is, in fact, the crux of the whole
matter; the secret of success, the secret, likewise, of
those tragic failures which perplex and sadden the student
of history. Man's march athwart the ages has been,
not a steady advance, but rather a slow wandering, now
breasting sunlit heights, yet anon plunging into dank
swamps and gloomy valleys. Of the countless tribes of
men, many have perished utterly while others have
stopped by the wayside, apparently incapable of going
forward, and have either vegetated or sunk into decadence.
Man's trail is littered with the wrecks of dead
civilizations and dotted with the graves of promising
peoples stricken by an untimely end.
Sharp and insistent comes the query: Why? Civilization
seems so good a thing! It means relative protection
from the blind and cruel forces of nature; abolition of
the struggle against savage beasts and amelioration of
the struggle between men; opportunity for comfort,
leisure, and the development of the higher faculties.
Why, then, do we find so many branches of the human
species never attaining -- never really striving after --
these eminently desirable boons? Also (yet more noteworthy!)
why do we find still other stocks, after having
attained civilization, losing it and falling back to the
lower levels of barbarism or even of savagery?
Mysterious though this may at first sight appear, there
is, nevertheless, an answer: Those stagnant or decadent
peoples could not bear the burden of civilization. For
civilization is a burden as well as a benefit. This is
inevitable in a universe governed by laws which decree
that something may not come out of nothing. Civilization
is not a cause but an effect -- the effect of sustained
human energy; and this energy, in turn, springs from the
creative urge of superior germ-plasm. Civilization is
thus fundamentally conditioned by race. In any
particular people, civilization will progress just so far as
that people has the capacity to further it and the ability
to bear the correlative burden which it entails. When
this crucial point is reached, the civilization of that people
either stagnates or retrogrades. Exactly how the process
works becomes clear by a glance at human history.
When the ape-man emerged from utter animality, he
emerged with empty hands and an almost empty head.
Ever since that far-off day, man has been filling both
hands and head -- his hands with tools, his head with
ideas. But the filling has proceeded most unequally,
because capacity has varied greatly among the different
branches of mankind. Whether all human varieties
spring from a single original stock we do not know. What
we do know is that the human species early appears divided
into a number of different varieties contrasting
markedly both in physical features and mental capacities.
Thus differentiated and ever further differentiating,
mankind plodded the long, long trail leading from bestiality
to savagery, from savagery to barbarism, and from barbarism
to civilization. Slowly the empty hands and heads
began to fill. The hands grasped chance sticks
and stones, then trimmed clubs and chipped flints, then
a combination of the twain. These same hands presently
fashioned the skins of beasts to clothe the body's
nakedness against the cold, kindled fires for warmth and
roasted food, modeled clay for pottery, tamed wild
creatures into domestic animals. And behind the hand was
the brain, not merely making these purely material inventions
but also discovering others of a higher order,
like speech or even non-material concepts from which
sprang the rudiments of social and political existence.
All this occurred while man was still a savage. With
the next stage -- barbarism -- came fresh discoveries, like
agriculture and the smelting of metals, together with a
variety of new ideas (especially the momentous art of
writing), which brought mankind to the threshold of
Now it is obvious that at this stage of his development
man was a vastly different creature from the bestial being
of earlier times. Starting from naked destitution and
brutish ignorance, man had gradually gathered to himself
an increasing mass of tools, possessions, and ideas.
This made life much more comfortable and agreeable.
But it also made life much more complex. Such a life
required vastly more effort, intelligence, and character
than had the instinctive, animal existence of primeval
days. In other words, long before the dawn of true
civilization, the burden of progress had begun to weigh upon
Indeed, even the first light burdens had in some cases
proved too heavy to be borne. Not all branches of
the human species attained the threshold of civilization.
Some, indeed, never reached even the limits of savagery.
Existing survivals of low-type savage man, such as the
Bushmen of South Africa and the Australian "Black-fellows,"
have vegetated for countless ages in primeval
squalor and seem incapable of rising even to the level
of barbarism, much less to that of civilization. It is
fortunate for the future of mankind that most of these
survivals from the remote past are to-day on the verge of
extinction. Their persistence and possible incorporation
into higher stocks would produce the most depressive
and retrogressive results.
Much more serious is the problem presented by those
far more numerous stocks, which, while transcending the
plane of mere savagery, have stopped at some level of
barbarism. Not only have these stocks never originated
a civilization themselves, but they seem constitutionally
incapable of assimilating the civilization of
others. Deceptive veneers of civilization may be
acquired, but reversion to congenital barbarism ultimately
takes place. To such barbarian stocks belong many of
the peoples of Asia, the American Indians, and the
African negroes. These congenital barbarians have always
been dangerous foes of progress. Many a promising
civilization has been ravaged and ruined by barbarians
without the wit to rebuild what they had destroyed. To-day,
the progress of science may have freed our own civilization
from the peril of armed conquest by barbarian
hordes; nevertheless, these peoples still threaten us with
the subtler menace of "pacific penetration." Usually
highly prolific, often endowed with extraordinary physical
vigor, and able to migrate easily, owing to modern
facilities of transportation, the more backward peoples
of the earth tend increasingly to seek the centres of
civilization, attracted thither by the high wages and easier
living conditions which there prevail. The influx of such
lower elements into civilized societies is an unmitigated
disaster. It upsets living standards, socially sterilizes
the higher native stocks, and if (as usually happens in
the long run) interbreeding occurs, the racial foundations
of civilization are undermined, and the mongrelized
population, unable to bear the burden, sinks to a lower
So much for savagery and barbarism. Now what
about civilization? For the last eight or ten thousand
years civilizations have been appearing all the way from
Eastern Asia to Europe and North Africa. At first these
civilizations were local -- mere points of light in a vast
night of barbarism and savagery. They were also isolated;
the civilizations of Egypt, Chaldea, India, and
China developing separately, with slight influence upon
each other. But gradually civilizations spread, met,
interacted, synthesized. Finally, in Europe, a great
civilizing tide set in, first displaying itself in the "Classic"
civilization of Greece and Rome, and persisting
down to the "Western Civilization" of our days.
A remarkable fact about civilization is its intensification
of features already observed on the savage and barbarian
planes. The civilized man has vastly more security,
power, opportunity, comfort, leisure, than has the
barbarian or savage; he has amassed a wealth of
instruments, possessions, and ideas infinitely transcending
the paltry hoards of earlier days; he lives in a "man-made"
environment astoundingly different from the
"state of nature." This is especially true of modern
Western civilization. Our civilization may be inferior
to others in some respects. It may lack the beauty of
the Greek, the durability of the Chinese, the spirituality
of the Mediaeval. But in dynamic energy, in mastery
over the forces of nature, and in all-round efficiency it
far transcends anything the world has ever seen.
In fact, within the past century we have broken the
age-old tempo of material progress and have leaped
clear over into a new self-made world. Down to a trifle
over a century ago man's material progress had been a
gradual -- a very gradual -- evolution. His tools, though
more numerous, were mainly elaborations of those discovered
by his remote ancestors. A few instruments like
the printing press and the mariner's compass were about
the only notable innovations. Man's control over natural
resources had likewise not greatly expanded. With the
exception of gunpowder, he had tapped no new sources
of material energy since very ancient times. His chief
source of power was muscle, animal and human (do we
not still reckon in "horse-power"?), and, for the rest, he
filled his sails with the breeze and turned clumsy water-
wheels by using brooks and streams. But the ancients
had done all these things. As for methods of communication,
they had, if anything, deteriorated. In the year
1800, there was no system of highways which equalled
the Roman roads, no posting-service as quick as Caesar's,
no method of signaling which could compare with the
semaphore "telegraphy" of the Persians, and probably
no ship which could not have been overhauled by a
Phoenician galley in a moderate sea.
Suddenly, astoundingly, all was changed. The hidden
forces of nature yielded themselves wholesale, as though
at the wave of a magician's wand. Steam, electricity,
petrol, and a whole series of mysterious "rays" and
"waves" gave man powers of which he had not even
dreamed. These powers were promptly harnessed to
innumerable machines which soon transformed every
phase of human existence. Production and transportation
were alike revolutionized, distance was well-nigh
abolished, and the very planet shrunk to the measure of
human hands. In other words, man suddenly entered a
new material world, differing not merely in degree but in
kind from that of his grandfathers.
Now all of this inspired modern man with that spirit of
confidence and optimistic hope in an illimitably glorious
future which characterized the greater part of the nineteenth
century. And yet, a little reflection and a modicum
of historical knowledge should have made intelligent
persons do some hard thinking. Modern civilization was
not the first civilization. It was merely the last of a long
series of civilizations which had bloomed gloriously -- and
had then stagnated, decayed, or utterly perished. Furthermore,
save for a few exceptional cases where civilizations
were uprooted in their prime by a blast of foreign
conquest, the basic cause of disaster was always a decline
or breakdown from within.
Here, obviously, was food for thought. And, as a
matter of fact, a large number of thoughtful persons
gave the matter their earnest consideration. Was our
glorious modern civilization ultimately destined to be
"one with Nineveh or Tyre"? So it might seem: unless,
perchance, ours turned out to be the "exception
which proves the rule." But what, then, was this "rule"
which foredoomed all civilizations to eventual decline?
Despite much theorizing, the answers are not convincing.
Certain thinkers elaborated "The Law of Civilization
and Decay." This fatalistic theory asserted that
civilizations, like individuals, have their cycle of youth,
maturity, senescence, and death. But what was the
cycle? Some civilizations, like those of Egypt and China,
endured for thousands of years, others for centuries;
still others for a few brief generations. Obviously, no
statistical curve could be plotted, and the idea was
discredited. Of course, other theories were elaborated.
The ruin of civilizations was variously ascribed to luxury,
vice, town life, irreligion, and much more besides. Yet
all these theories somehow failed to satisfy. They might
be shown to have been contributing causes in particular
cases, but they could not account universally for the
phenomena of declining civilization.
Within the past two decades, however, the rapid progress
of biological knowledge has thrown a flood of light
on this vexed question, and has enabled us to frame a
theory so in accordance with known facts that is seems
to offer substantially the correct answer.
And this answer is that, in the last analysis, civilization
always depends upon the qualities of the people who
are the bearers of it. All these vast accumulations of
instruments and ideas, massed and welded into marvelous
structures rising harmoniously in glittering majesty, rest
upon living foundations -- upon the men and women who
create and sustain them. So long as those men and
women are able to support it, the structure rises, broad-
based and serene; but let the living foundations prove
unequal to the task, and the mightiest civilization sags,
cracks, and at last crashes down into chaotic ruin.
Civilization thus depends absolutely upon the quality of
its human supporters. Mere numbers mean nothing. The
most brilliant civilization the world has ever seen arose
in Athens -- a tiny community where the number of free-
men (i.e., genuine Athenians) numbered perhaps 50,000
all told. We therefore see that, for civilization to arise
at all, a superior human stock is first necessary; while to
perfect, or even to maintain that civilization, the human
stock must be kept superior. And these are requirements
more exacting than might be imagined. Surveying
human history, we find that superior stocks are the
exception rather than the rule. We have already seen
how many races of men have never risen above the planes
of savagery or barbarism, while relatively few races have
shown the ability to create high and enduring civilizations.
Furthermore, even inside the superior racial groups
there exists a similar differentiation. When we speak of
a "superior race" we do not imply that all the members
of that race stand on the same lofty plane. Of course,
the average level runs higher than do the averages of
less favored races. But besides this statistical consideration
there is the even more important fact that within
the higher group itself there exist a relatively large number
of very superior individuals, characterized by unusual
energy, ability, talent, or genius. It is this elite which
leavens the group and initiates progress. Here, again, we
see the supreme importance of quality. In no human
society has the percentage of really superior individuals
even been large -- in fact, their percentage has been always
statistically negligible. Their influence, however, has
been incalculable. Athens was not made up of Platos or
Xenophons: it had its quota of dullards, knaves, and
fools -- as is vividly shown in the immortal satires of
Aristophanes. Yet the dynamic power of its elite made
Athens the glory of the world, and only when the Athenian
stock ceased to produce superiors did Athens sink
Thus we see that civilization depends absolutely upon
quality, while quality, in turn, depends upon inheritance.
Environment may bring out all there is in a man, but
heredity predetermines what there is to bring. We now
begin to see the fallacy of such fatalistic notions as "The
Law of Civilization and Decay." Civilizations, unlike
living organisms, have no appointed cycle of life and
death. Given a high-type stock producing an adequate
quota of superior individuals, and a civilization might
Why, then, has this never occurred? It has not
occurred mainly because of three destructive tendencies
which have always, sooner or later, brought civilizations
to decline and ruin. These tendencies are: (1) the
tendency to structural overloading; (2) the tendency to
biological regression; (3) the tendency to atavistic
revolt. Here are the three grim Nemeses that have dogged
the footsteps of the most promising peoples. Let us
consider them in turn.
We have observed how civilizations, as they progress,
inevitably become more complex. Each succeeding generation
elaborates the social environment of the past,
makes fresh additions, and passes on to the next generation,
which repeats the process in turn. This ability
to transmit social acquirements, both material and mental,
is one of the chief points marking man off from the
animals. It has, in fact, been happily termed "social
heredity." Because of "social heredity" each human
generation is able to start at a higher environment level,
and is not forced, like the animals, to depend upon
instinct and blind experience. Indeed, "social heredity"
forms the basis of all those theories which assert that
environment is the chief factor in human progress and
which minimize true (i.e., biological) heredity as a minor
or even negligible factor.
These "environmentalist" arguments, however, omit
one essential fact which vitiates their conclusions. This
fact is that, while hereditary qualities are implanted in
the individual with no action on his part, social acquirements
are taken over only at the cost of distinct effort.
How great this effort may become is easily seen by the
long years of strenuous mental labor required in modern
youth to assimilate the knowledge already gained by
adults. That old saying, "There is no royal road to
learning," illustrates the hard fact that each successive
generation must tread the same thorny path if the
acquirements of the past are to be retained. Of course,
it is obvious that the more acquirements increase, the
longer and steeper the path must be. And this raises the
query: May there not come a point where the youthful
traveller will be unable to scale the height -- where the
effort required will be beyond his powers?
Well, this is precisely what has happened numberless
times in the past. It is happening to multitudes of
individuals about us every day. When it occurs on a
sufficiently grand scale we witness those social regressions
of entire communities which we call a "decline in civilization."
A "decline in civilization" means that the
social environment has outrun inherited capacity.
Furthermore, the grim frequency of such declines throughout
history seems to show that in every highly developed
society the increasingly massive, complex superstructure
of civilization tends to overload the human foundations.
Now why does this overloading in high civilizations
always tend to take place? For the very simple reason
that the complexity (and, therefore, the burden) of a
civilization may increase with tremendous rapidity to an
inconceivable degree; whereas the capacity of its human
bearers remains virtually constant or positively declines.
The sobering truth was until recently obscured by the
wide-spread belief (first elaborated about a century ago
by the French scientist Lamarck) that acquired characteristics
were inherited. In other words, it used to be
thought that the acquirements of one generation could
be passed on by actual inheritance to the next.
Lamarcks's theory excited enthusiastic hopes, and young
men contemplating matrimony used to go in for "high
thinking" in order to have brainy sons, while expectant
mothers inspired their months of gestation by reading
the classics, confident that their offspring would be born
with a marked taste for good literature. To-day this
amiable doctrine is exploded, virtually all biologists now
agreeing that acquired characteristics are not inherited.
An abundant weight of evidence proves that, during
the entire historic period at any rate, mankind has made
no racial progress in either physical power or brain
capacity. The skeletal remains of the ancients show them
to have possessed brains and bodies fully equal to our
own. And these anatomical observations are confirmed
by the teachings of history. The earliest civilized peoples
of whom we have any knowledge displayed capacities,
initiative, and imagination quite comparable to ours. Of
course, their stock of social experience was very much
less than ours, but their inherent qualities cannot be
deemed inferior. Certainly these ancient peoples
produced their full share of great men. Can we show greater
philosophers than Plato or Aristotle, greater scientists
than Archimedes or Ptolemy, greater generals than Caesar
or Alexander, greater poets than Homer or Hesiod, greater
spiritual guides than Buddha or Jesus? Surely, the peoples
who produced such immortal personalities ranked
not beneath us in the biological scale.
But if this is not so; if even the highest human types have
made no perceptible biological advance during the last
ten thousand years; what does this mean? It means
that all the increasingly vast superstructures of civilization
which have arisen during those millennia have
been raised on similar human foundations. It means
that men have been called upon to carry heavier loads
with no correlative increase of strength to bear them.
The glitter of civilization has so blinded us to the inner
truth of things that we have long believed that, as a
civilization progressed, the quality of the human stock
concerned in building it progressed too. In other words,
we have imagined that we saw an improving race, whereas
all we actually saw was a race expressing itself under
A dangerous delusion this! Especially for us, whose
civilization is the most complex the world has ever seen,
and whose burden is, therefore, the heaviest ever borne.
If past civilizations have crushed men beneath the load,
what may happen to our civilization, and ourselves?
Our analysis has thus far shown that civilizations tend
toward structural overloading, both from their own
increasing complexity and also from the influence of other
civilizations, which add sudden strains and stresses
hitherto unknown. Even if this were the only danger
to which civilizations were exposed, the matter would
be serious enough. But the problem is more complex.
We have already indicated that other destructive tendencies
exist. To the second of these tendencies -- biological
regression -- let us now turn.
Up to this point we have viewed civilization mainly in
its structural aspect. We have estimated its pressure
upon the human foundations, and have provisionally
treated these foundations as fixed quantities. But that
is only one phase of the problem, because civilization
exerts upon its living bearers not merely mechanical, but
also vital influences of the profoundest significance. And,
unfortunately, these total influences are mainly of a
destructive character. The stern truth of the matter is
that civilization tends to impair the innate qualities of
its human bearers; to use up strong stocks; to unmake
those very racial values which first enabled a people to
undertake its civilizing task.
Let us see how this comes about.
Consider, first, man's condition before the advent of
civilization. Far, far back in its life history the human
species underwent a profound differentiation. Fossil
bones ten of thousands of years old, show mankind already
divided into distinct races differing markedly not
merely in bodily structure but also in brain capacity,
and hence in intelligence. This differentiation probably
began early and proceeded rapidly, since biology teaches
us that species are plastic when new, gradually losing
this plasticity as they "set" with time and development.
However, at the rate it proceeded, differentiation
went on for untold ages, operating not only between
separate races but also within the various stocks, so that
each stock came to consist of many "strains" varying
considerably from one another in both physical and mental
Now the fate of these strains depended, not upon
chance, but upon the very practical question whether
or not they could survive. And since man was then living
in the "state of nature," qualities like strength,
intelligence, and vigor were absolutely necessary for life,
while weakness, dullness, and degeneracy spelled speedy
death. Accordingly, individuals endowed with the former
qualities survived and bred freely, whereas those
handicapped by the latter qualities perished oftener and
left fewer offspring. Thus, age after age, nature imposed
upon man her individually stern but racially beneficent
will; eliminating the weak, and preserving and multiplying
the strong. Surely, it is the most striking proof
of human differentiation that races should display such
inequalities after undergoing so long a selective process
so much the same.
However, differentiated mankind remained, and at
last the more gifted races began to create civilizations.
Now civilization wrought profound changes, the most
important of which was a modification of the process of
selection for survival. So long as man was a savage, or
even a barbarian, nature continued to select virtually
unhindered according to her immemorial plan -- that of
eliminating the weak and preserving the strong. But
civilization meant a change from a "natural" to a more
or less artificial, man-made environment, in which natural
selection was increasingly modified by "social" selection.
And social selection altered survival values all along the
line. In the first place, it enabled many weak, stupid,
and degenerate persons to live and beget children who
would have certainly perished in the state of nature, or
even on the savage and barbarian planes. Upon the
strong the effect of social selection was more subtle but
equally important. The strong individual survived even
better than before -- but he tended to have fewer children.
The reason for this lessened fecundity of the superior
was that civilization opened up to them a whole new
range of opportunities and responsibilities. Under
primitive conditions, opportunities for self-expression were
few and simple, the most prized being desirable mates
and sturdy offspring. Among savages and barbarians
the choicest women and many children are the acknowledged
perquisites of the successful, and the successful are
those men endowed with qualities like strength, vigor,
and resourceful intelligence, which are not only essential
for continued survival under primitive conditions, but
which are equally essential for the upbuilding and
maintenance of civilization. In short, when a people enters
the stage of civilization it is in the pink of condition,
because natural selection has for ages been multiplying
superior strains and eliminating inferiors.
Such was the high biological level of the selected stocks
which attained the plane of civilization. But, as time
passed, the situation altered. The successful superiors
who stood in the vanguard of progress were alike allured
and constrained by a host of novel influences. Power,
wealth, luxury, leisure, art, science, learning,
government -- these and many other matters increasingly
complicated life. And, good or bad, temptations or
responsibilities, they all had this in common: that they tended
to divert human energy from racial ends to individual
and social ends.
Now this diverted energy flowed mainly from the
superior strains in the population. Upon the successful
superior, civilization laid both her highest gifts and her
heaviest burdens. The effect upon the individual was, of
course, striking. Powerfully stimulated, he put forth his
inherited energies. Glowing with the fire of achievement,
he advanced both himself and his civilization. But, in
this very fire, he was apt to be racially consumed.
Absorbed in personal and social matters, racial matters
were neglected. Late marriage, fewer children, and
celibacy combined to thin the ranks of the successful,
diminish the number of superior strains, and thus gradually
impoverish the race.
Meanwhile, as the numbers of the superior diminished,
the numbers of the inferior increased. No longer ruthlessly
weeded by natural selection, the inferior survived
Here, then, was what had come to pass: instead of
dying off at the base and growing at the top, civilized
society was dying at the top and spreading out below.
The result of this dual process was, of course, as disastrous
as it was inevitable. Drained of its superiors, and saturated
with dullards and degenerates, the stock could no
longer support its civilization. And, the upper layers of
the human foundation having withered away, the civilization
either sank to a lower level or collapsed in utter
ruin. The stock had regressed, "gone back," and the
civilization went back too.
Such are the workings of that fatal tendency to biological
regression which has blighted past civilizations. Its
effects on our civilization and the peculiar perils
which these entail will be discussed in subsequent chapters.
One further point should, however, be here noted.
This is the irreparable character of racial impoverishment.
Once a stock has been thoroughly drained of its
superior strains, it sinks into permanent mediocrity, and
can never again either create or support a high civilization.
Physically, the stock may survive; unfortunately
for human progress, it only too often does survive, to
contaminate better breeds of men. But mentally and
spiritually it is played out and can never revive -- save,
perchance, through some age-long process of biological
restoration akin to that seen in the slow reforesting of
a mountain range stripped to the bare rock.
We have observed that civilizations tend to fall both
by their own increasing weight and by the decay of their
human foundations. But we have indicated that there
exists yet another destructive tendency, which may be
termed "atavistic revolt." Let us see precisely what
Civilization depends upon superior racial stocks. But
stocks are made up of individuals, who, far from being
precisely equal, differ widely in qualities and capacities.
At one end of the human scale are a number of superior
individuals, at the other end a number of inferior
individuals, while between the two extremes stands the
mass of intermediate individuals, who likewise grade up
or down the scale.
Of course, these "superiors," "inferiors," and
"intermediates," are not parked off by clear-cut lines; on the
contrary, they shade imperceptibly into each other, and
between the classes there lie intermediate zones composed
of "border-line" individuals whose exact classification
is hard to determine. Nevertheless, these classes
do exist, just as day and night exist. At dawn or twilight,
we cannot say of any particular minute: "This is
day, and next minute will be night." Yet day and night
are facts of transcendent importance, and we accordingly
grade the hours into categories of light and darkness
which, though slightly arbitrary, are essentially true.
Now, among our human categories we have observed
that progress is primarily due to the superiors. It is
they who found and further civilizations. As for the
intermediate mass, it accepts the achievements of its
creative pioneers. Its attitude is receptive. This
receptivity is due to the fact that most of the intermediate
grades are near enough to the superiors to understand
and assimilate what the superiors have initiated.
But what about the inferiors? Hitherto we have not
analyzed their attitude. We have seen that they are
incapable of either creating of furthering civilization,
and are thus a negative hindrance to progress. But the
inferiors are not mere negative factors in civilized life;
they are also positive -- in an inverse, destructive sense.
The inferior elements are, instinctively or consciously,
the enemies of civilization. And they are its enemies,
not by chance, but because they are more or less
uncivilizable. We must remember that the level of society
never coincides with the levels of its human units.
The social level is a sort of compromise -- a balance of
constituent forces. This very fact implies that the
individuals must be differentially spaced. And so it is.
Superior individuals stand above the social level; sometimes
far above that level -- whence the saying about men
"ahead of their times." But what about men "behind
their times"? They have always been numerous, and,
the higher the civilization, the more of them there are
apt to be.
The truth is that as a civilization advances it leaves
behind multitudes of human beings who have not the
capacity to keep pace. The laggards, of course, vary
greatly among themselves. Some are congenital savages
or barbarians; men who could not fit into any civilization,
and who consequently fall behind from the start.
There are not "degenerates"; they are "primitives,"
carried over into a social environment in which they do
not belong. They must be clearly distinguished from
the true degenerates: the imbecile, the feeble-minded,
the neurotic, the insane -- all those melancholy waste-
products which every living species excretes but which
are promptly extirpated in the state of nature, whereas
in human societies they are too often preserved.
Moreover, besides primitives and degenerates, civilization
by its very advance automatically condemns fresh
multitudes to the ranks of the "inferior." Just as "primitives"
who would be quite at home in savage or barbarian
environments are alien to any sort of civilization, so, many
individuals who rub along well enough in civilization's
early phases have neither the wit nor the moral fibre to
meet the sterner demands of high, complex civilizations.
Most poignant of all is the lot of the "border-liners: --
those who just fail to achieve a social order, which they
can comprehend but in which they somehow cannot succeed.
Such are the ranks of the inferior -- the vast army of
the unadaptable and the incapable. Let me again
emphasize that "inferior" does not necessarily mean
"degenerate." The degenerate are, of course, included, but
the word "inferior" is a relative term signifying "below"
or "beneath," in this case meaning persons beneath
or below the standard of civilization. The word inferior
has, however, been so often employed as a synonym for
degenerate that it tends to produce confusion of thought,
and to avoid this I have coined a term which seems to
describe collectively all those kinds of persons whom I
have just discussed. This term is The Under-Man -- the
man who measures under the standards of capacity and
adaptability imposed by the social order in which he
lives. And this term I shall henceforth employ.
Now how does the Under-Man look at civilization?
This civilization offers him few benefits and fewer hopes.
It usually affords him little beyond a meagre subsistence.
And, sooner or later, he instinctively senses that he is
a failure; that civilization's prizes are not for him. But
this civilization, which withholds benefits, does not
hesitate to impose burdens. We have previously stated that
civilization's heaviest burdens are borne by the superior.
Absolutely, this is true; relatively the Under-Man's
intrinsically lighter burdens feel heavier because of his
innate incapacity. The very discipline of the social order
oppresses the Under-Man; it thwarts and chastises him
at every turn. To wild natures society is a torment,
while the congenital caveman, placed in civilization, is
always in trouble and usually in jail.
All this seems inevitable. But, in addition to
these social handicaps, the Under-Man often suffers from
the action of better-placed individuals who take advantage
of his weakness and incapacity to exploit him and
drive him down to social levels even lower than those
which he would normally occupy.
Such is the Under-Man's unhappy lot. Now, what is
his attitude toward that civilization from which he has
so little to hope? What but instinctive opposition and
discontent? These feelings, of course, vary all the way
from dull, unreasoning dislike to flaming hatred and
rebellion. But, in the last analysis, they are directed not
merely against imperfections in the social order, but
against the social order itself. This is a point which is
rarely mentioned, and still more rarely understood. Yet
it is the meat of the whole matter. We must realize
clearly that the basic attitude of the Under-Man is an
instinctive and natural revolt against civilization. The
reform of abuses may diminish the intensity of social
discontent. It may also diminish the numbers of the
discontented, because social abuses precipitate into the
depths many persons who do not really belong there;
persons who were innately capable of achieving the social
order if they had had a fair chance. But, excluding all
such anomalous cases, there remains a vast residue of
unadaptable, depreciated humanity, essentially uncivilizable
and incorrigibly hostile to civilization. Every
society engenders within itself hordes of savages and
barbarians, ripe for revolt and ever ready to pour forth
In normal times these elements of chaos go almost
unperceived. Civilization automatically evolves strong
social controls which keep down the antisocial elements.
For one thing, the civilized man instinctively supports
his civilization, just as the Under-Man instinctively
opposes it; and when civilization is threatened, its
supporters instantly rise in its defense. Again society
maintains a permanent standing army (composed of
policemen, soldiers, judges, and others), which is usually
quite capable of keeping order. The mere presence of
this standing army deters the antisocial elements from
mass action. Desperate individuals, of course, break
forth into crime, but society hunts them down and
eliminates them by prison and the scaffold.
The Under-Man may thus be controlled. But he remains;
he multiplies; he bides his time. And, now and
then, his time comes. When a civilization falters beneath
its own weight and by the decay of its human foundations;
when its structure is shaken by the storms of war,
dissension, or calamity; then the long-repressed forces
of atavistic revolt gather themselves together for a
And (noteworthy fact!) such revolts usually have able
leaders. That is what makes them so formidable. This
revolutionary officers-corps is mainly composed of three
significant types: the "border-liner," the "disinherited,"
and the "misguided superior." Let us consider them in
We have already noted the "border-liner," the man
who cannot quite "make good." We have seen how hard
is his lot and how hotly he turns against that social order
which he just fails to achieve. Most of such persons fail
because of some fatal defect -- a taint of character or
a mental "twist." In other respects they may be very
superior, and possess brilliant talents which they can use
against society with powerful effect.
We have also noted the "disinherited," the man innately
capable of civilized success but cast into the
depths by social injustice or individual wrong-doing.
Deprived of their birthright, the disinherited are like-wise
apt to be bitter foes of society. They enlist gladly
in the army of chaos (where they do not really belong),
and if they possess marked talents they may be very
Lastly, there is the "misguided superior." He is a
strange phenomenon! Placed by nature in the van of
civilization, he goes over to its enemies. This seems
inexplicable. Yet it can be explained. As the Under-Man
revolts because civilization is so far ahead of him, so the
misguided superior revolts because it is so far behind.
Exasperated by its slow progress, shocked at its faults,
and erroneously ascribing to mankind in general his own
lofty impulses, the misguided superior dreams short cuts
to the millennium and joins the forces of social revolt,
not realizing that their ends are profoundly different
even though their methods may be somewhat the same.
The misguided superior is probably the most pathetic
figure in human history. Flattered by designing scoundrels,
used to sanctify sinister schemes, and pushed forward
as a figurehead during the early stages of revolutionary
agitation, the triumph of the revolution brings
him to a tragic end. Horrified at sight of barbarism's
unmasked face, he tries to stay its destructive course.
In vain! The Under-Man turns upon his former champion
with a snarl and tramples him into the mud.
The social revolution is now in full swing. Such
upheavals are profoundly terrible. I have described them
as "atavistic." And that is just what they are -- "throw
backs" to a far lower social plane. The complex fabric
of society, slowly and painfully woven, is torn to tatters;
the social controls vanish, and civilization is left naked to
the assaults of anarchy. In truth, disruption goes deeper
still. Not only is society in the grip of its barbarians,
but every individual falls more or less under the sway of
his own lower instincts. For, in this respect, the
individual is like society. Each of us has within him an
"Under-Man," that primitive animality which is the
heritage of our human, and even our prehuman, past.
This Under-Man may be buried deep in the recesses of
our being; but he is there, and psychoanalysis informs
us of his latent power. This primitive animality,
potentially present even in the noblest natures, continuously
dominates the lower social strata, especially the pauper,
criminal, and degenerate elements -- civilization's "inner
barbarians." Now, when society's dregs boil to the top,
a similar process takes place in individuals, to whatever
social level they may belong. In virtually every member
of the community there is a distinct resurgence of the
brute and the savage, and the atavistic trend thus
becomes practically universal.
This explains most of the seemingly mysterious
phenomena of revolution. It accounts for the mental
contagion which infects all classes; the wild elation with
which the revolution is at first hailed; the way in which
even well-poised men throw themselves into the stream,
let it carry them whither it lists, and commit acts which
they afterward not only cannot explain but cannot even
remember. General atavistic resurgence also accounts
for the ferocious temper displayed, not merely by the
revolutionists, but by their counter-revolutionary
opponents as well. However much they may differ in their
principles, "Reds" and "Whites" display the same
savage spirit and commit similar cruelties. This is because
society and the individual have been alike rebarbarized.
In time the revolutionary tempest passes. Civilized
men will not forever endure the misrule of their own
barbarians; they will not lastingly tolerate what Burke
rightly termed the tyranny of a "base oligarchy." Sooner
or later the Under-Man is again mastered, new social
controls are forged, and a stable social order is once more
But -- what sort of social order? It may well be one
inferior to the old. Of course, few revolutions are wholly
evil. Their very destructiveness implies a sweeping away
of old abuses. Yet at what a cost! No other process is
so terribly expensive as revolution. Both the social and
the human losses are usually appalling, and are frequently
irreparable. In his brief hour, the Under-Man does his
work. Hating not merely civilization but also the civilized,
the Under-Man wreaks his destructive fury on individuals
as well as on institutions. And the superior are
always his special targets. His philosophy of life is ever
a levelling "equality," and he tries to attain it by lopping
off all heads which rise conspicuously above his own.
The result of this "inverse selection" may be such a
decrease of superior persons that the stock is permanently
impoverished and cannot produce the talent and energy
needed to repair the destruction which the revolutionary
cataclysm has wrought. In such cases civilization has
suffered a mortal wound and declines to a permanently
This is especially true of higher civilizations. The more
complex the society and the more differentiated the stock,
the graver the liability to irreparable disaster. Our own
civilization is a striking example. The destruction to-day
being wrought by the social revolution in Russia, great
as it is, would pale beside the far greater destruction
which such an upheaval would produce in the more advanced
societies of western Europe and America. It
would mean nothing short of ruin, and would almost
infallibly spell permanent decadence. This grim peril to
our civilization and our race future we will carefully
examine in subsequent chapters.
So ends our preliminary survey. We have sketched
man's ascent from bestiality through savagery and
barbarism to civilized life.* We have considered the basic
reasons for his successes and his failures. Let us now
pass to a more detailed examination of the great factors
in human progress and decline, with special reference to
the possibilities and perils of our own civilization.
* For an excellent historical survey of racial movements, see Madison
Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (Fourth Revised Edition with
Documentary Supplement), New York, 1921.
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