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Modern History Sourcebook:
Thomas Henry Huxley:
The Struggle for Existence, 1888

In the strict sense of the word "nature," it denotes the sum of the phenomenal world, of that which has been, and is, and will be; and society, like art, is therefore a part of nature. But it is convenient to distinguish those parts of nature in which man plays the part of immediate cause, as something apart; and, therefore, society, like art, is usefully to be considered as distinct from nature. It is the more desirable, and even necessary, to make this distinction, since society differs from nature in having a definite moral object; whence it comes about that the course shaped by the ethical man---the member of society or citizen---necessarily runs counter to that which the nonethical man---the primitive savage, or man as a mere member of the animal kingdom---tends to adopt. The latter fights out the struggle for existence to the bitter end, like any other animal; the former devotes his best energies to the object of setting limits to the struggle.

In the cycle of phenomena presented by the life of man, the animal, no more moral end is discernible than in that presented by the lives of the wolf and of the deer. However imperfect the relics of prehistoric men may be, the evidence which they afford clearly tends to the conclusion that, for thousands and thousands of years, before the origin of the oldest known civilizations, men were savages of a very low type. They strove with their enemies and their competitors; they preyed upon things weaker or less cunning than themselves; they were born, multiplied without stint, and died, for thousands of generations, alongside the mammoth, the urus, the lion, and the hyena, whose lives were spent in the same way; and they were no more to be praised or blamed on moral grounds than their less erect and more hairy compatriots.

As among these, so among primitive men, the weakest and stupidest went to the wall, while the toughest and shrewdest, those who were best fitted to cope with their circumstances, but not the best in any other sense, survived. Life was a continual free fight, and beyond the limited and temporary relations of the family, the Hobbesian war of each against all was the normal state of existence. The human species, like others, plashed and floundered amid the general stream of evolution, keeping its head above water as it best might, and thinking neither of whence nor whither.

The history of civilization---that is, of society---on the other hand, is the record of the attempts which the human race has made to escape from his position. The first men who substituted the state of mutual peace for that of mutual war, whatever the motive which impelled them to take that step, created society. But, in establishing peace, they obviously put a limit upon the struggle for existence. Between the members of that society, at any rate, it was not to be pursued a outrance. And of all the successive shapes which society has taken, that most nearly approaches perfection in which the war of individual against individual is most strictly limited. The primitive savage, tutored by Istar, appropriated whatever took his fancy, and killed whomsoever opposed him, if he could. On the contrary, the ideal of the ethical man is to limit his freedom of action to a sphere in which he does not interfere with the freedom of others; he seeks the common weal as much as his own; and, indeed, as an essential part of his own welfare. Peace is both end and means with him; and he founds his life on a more or less complete self-restraint, which is the negation of the unlimited struggle for existence. He tries to escape from his place in the animal kingdom, founded on the free development of the principle of nonmoral evolution, and to establish a kingdom of man, governed upon the principle of moral evolution. For society not only has a moral end, but in its perfection, social life, is embodied morality.

But the effort of ethical man to work toward a moral end by no means abolished, perhaps has hardly modified, the deep-seated organic impulses which impel the natural man to follow his non-moral course. One of the most essential conditions, if not the chief cause, of the struggle for existence, is the tendency to multiply without limit, which man shares with all living things. It is notable that "increase and multiply" is a commandment traditionally much older than the ten; and that it is, perhaps, the only one which has been spontaneously and ex animo obeyed by the great majority of the human race. But, in civilized society, the inevitable result of such obedience is the re-establishment, in all its intensity, of that struggle for existence---the war of each against all---the mitigation or abolition of which was the chief end of social organization....

Historians point to the greed and ambition of rulers, to the reckless turbulence of the ruled, to the debasing effects of wealth and luxury, and to the devastating wars which have formed a great part of the occupation of mankind, as the causes of the decay of states and the foundering of old civilizations, and thereby point their story with a moral. No doubt immoral motives of all sorts have figured largely among the minor causes of these events. But beneath all this superficial turmoil lay the deep-seated impulse given by unlimited multiplication....

In the ancient world, and in a large part of that in which we live, the practice of infanticide was, or is, a regular and legal custom; famine, pestilence, and war were and are normal factors in the struggle for existence, and they have served, in a gross and brutal fashion, to mitigate the intensity of the effects of its chief cause.

But, in the more advanced civilizations, the progress of private and public morality has steadily tended to remove all these checks. We declare infanticide murder and punish it as such; we decree, not quite so successfully, that no one shall die of hunger; we regard death from preventible causes of other kinds as a sort of constructive murder, and eliminate pestilence to the best of our ability; we declaim against the curse of war, and the wickedness of the military spirit, and we are never weary of dilating on the blessedness of peace and the innocent beneficence of industry. In their moments of expansion, even statesmen and men of business go thus far. The finer spirits look to an ideal civitas Dei; a state when, every man having reached the point of absolute self-negation and having nothing but moral perfection to strive after, peace will truly reign, not merely among nations but among men, and the struggle for existence will be at an end.

Whether human nature is competent, under any circumstances, to reach, or even seriously advance toward, this ideal condition, is a question which need not be discussed. It will be admitted that mankind has not yet reached this stage by a very long way, and my business is with the present. And that which I wish to point out is that, so long as the natural man increases and multiplies without restraint, so long will peace and industry not only permit, but they will necessitate, a struggle for existence as sharp as any that ever went on under the regime of war....

There are now 36,000,000 of people in our British islands, and every year considerably more than 300,000 are added to our numbers. That is to say, about every hundred seconds, or so, a new claimant to a share in the common stock of maintenance presents him or herself among us. At the present time, the produce of the soil does not suffice to feed half its population. The other moiety has to be supplied with food which must be bought from the people of food-producing countries. That is to say, we have to offer them the things which they want in exchange for the things we want. And the things they want and which we can produce better than they can are mainly manufactures---industrial products.

The insolent reproach of the first Napoleon had a very solid foundation. We not only are, but, under penalty of starvation, we are bound to be, a nation of shopkeepers. But other nations also lie under the same necessity of keeping shop, and some of them deal in the same goods as ourselves. Our customers naturally seek to get the most and the best in exchange for their produce. If our goods are inferior to those of our competitors, there is no ground, compatible with the sanity of the buyers, which can be alleged why they should not prefer the latter. And, if that result should ever take place on a large and general scale, five or six millions of us would soon have nothing to eat....

Judged by an ethical standard, nothing can be less satisfactory than the position in which we find ourselves. In a real, though incomplete, degree we have attained the condition of peace which is the main object of social organization; and, for argument's sake, it may be assumed that we desire nothing but that which is in itself innocent and praiseworthy---namely, the enjoyment of the fruits of honest industry. And lo! in spite of ourselves, we are in reality engaged in an internecine struggle for existence with our presumably no less peaceful and well-meaning neighbors. We seek peace and we do not ensue it. The moral nature in us asks for no more than is compatible with the general good; the nonmoral nature proclaims and acts upon that fine old Scottish family motto, "Thou shalt starve ere I want." Let us be under no illusions, then. So long as unlimited multiplication goes on, no social organization which has ever been devised, or is likely to be devised, no fiddle-faddling with the distribution of wealth, will deliver society from the tendency to be destroyed by the reproduction within itself, in its intensest form, of that struggle for existence the limitation of which is the object of society. And however shocking to the moral sense this eternal competition of man against man and of nation against nation may be; however revolting may be the accumuladon of misery at the negative pole of society, in contrast with that of monstrous wealth at the positive pole; this state of things must abide, and grow continually worse, so long as Ishtar holds her way unchecked. It is the true riddle of the Sphinx; and every nation which does not solve it will sooner or later be devoured by the monster itself has generated.

To this end, it is well to look into the necessary condidons of our salvation by works. They are two, one plain to all the world and hardly needing insistence; the other seeming1y not so plain, since too often it has been theoretically and practically left out of sight. The obvious condition is that our produce shall be better than that of others. There is only one reason why our goods should be preferred to those of our rivals---our customers must find them better at the price. That means that we must use more knowledge, skill, and industry in producing them, without a proportionate increase in the cost of production; and, as the price of labor constitutes a large element in that cost the rate of wages must be restricted within certain limits. It is perfectly true that cheap production and cheap labor are by no means synonymous; but it is also true that wages cannot increase beyond a certain proportion without destroying cheapness. Cheapness, then, with, as part and parcel of cheapness a moderate price of labor, is essential to our success as competitors in the markets of the world.

The second condition is really quite as plainly indispensable as the first, if one thinks seriously about the matter. It is social stability. Society is stable, when the wants of its members obtain as much satisfaction as, life being what it is, common sense and experience show may be reasonably expected. Mankind, in general, care very little for forms of government or ideal considerations of any sort; and nothing really stirs the great muldtude to break with custom and incur the manifest perils of revolt except the belief that misery in this world, or damnation in the next, or both, are threatened by the continuance of the state of things in which they have been brought up. But when they do attain that conviction, society becomes as unstable as a package of dynamite, and a very small matter will produce the explosion which sends it back to the chaos of savagery.

It needs no argument to prove that when the price of labor sinks below a certain point, the worker infallibly falls into that condition which the French emphatically call la misere---a word for which I do not think there is any exact English equivalent. It is a condition in which the food, warmth, and clothing which are necessary for the mere maintenance of the functions of the body in their normal state cannot be obtained; in which men, women, and children are forced to crowd into dens wherein decency is abolished and the most ordinary conditions of healthful existence are impossible of attainment; in which the pleasures within reach are reduced to bestiality and drunkenness in which the pains accumulate at compound interest in the shape of starvation, diease, stunted development, and moral degradation; in which the prospect of even steady and honest industry is a life of unsuccessful battling with hunger, rounded by a pauper's grave.

That a certain proportion of the members of every great aggregation of mankind should constantly tend to establish and populate such a slough of despond as this is inevitable, so long as some people are by nature idle and vicious, which others are disabled by sickness or accident, or thrown upon the world by the death of their breadwinner. So long as that proportion is restricted within tolerable limits, it can be dealt with; and, so far as it arises only from such causes, its existence may and must be patiently borne. But, when the organization of society, instead of mitigating this tendency, tends to continue and intensify it; when a given social order plainly makes for evil and not for good, men naturally enough begin to think it high time to try an experiment. The animal man, finding that the ethical man has landed him in such a slough, resumes his ancient sovereignty, and preaches anarchy; which is, substantially, a proposal to reduce the social cosmos to chaos, and begin the brute strugg1e for existence once again.

Any one who is acquainted with the state of the population of all great industrial centers, whether in this or other countries, is aware that, amidst a large and increasing body of that population, la misere reigns supreme. I have no pretensions to the character of a philanthropist and I have a special honor of all sorts of sentimental rhetoric; I am merely trying to deal with facts, to some extent within my own knowledge, and further evidenced by abundant testimony, as a naturalist, and I take it to be a mere plain truth that throughout industial Europe, there is not a single large manufacturing city which is free from a vast mass of people whose condition is exactly that described; and from a still greater mass who, living just on the edge of the social swamp, are liable to be precipitated into it by any lack of demand for their produce. And, with every addition to the population, the multitude already sunk in the pit and the number of the host sliding toward it continually increase.

Argumentation can hardly be needful to make it clear that no society in which the elements of  decomposition are thus swiftly and surely accumulating can hope to win in the race of industries. Intelligence, knowledge, and skill are undoubtedly conditions of success; but of what avail are they likely to be unless they are backed up by honesty, energy, good will, and all the physical and moral faculties that go to the making of manhood, and unless they are stimulated by hope of such reward as men may fairly look to? And what dweller in the slough of want, dwarfed in body and soul, demoralized, hopeless, can reasonably be expected to possess these qualities?

Any full and permanent development of the productive powers of an industrial population, then, must be compatible with and, indeed, based upon a social organization which will secure a fair amount of physical and moral welfare to that population; which will make for good and not for evil. Natural science and religious enthusiasm rarely go hand in hand, but on this matter their concord is complete; and the least sympathetic of naturalists can but admire the insight and the devotion of such social reformers as the late Lord Shaftesbury, whose recently published Life and Letters gives a vivid picture of the condition of the working classes fifty years ago, and of the pit which our industry, ignoring these plain truths, was then digging under its own feet.

There is, perhaps, no more hopeful sign of progress among us, in the last half-century, than the steadily increasing devotion which has been and is directed to measures for promoting physical and moral welfare among the poorer classes. Sanitary reformers, like most other reformers whom I have had the advantage of knowing, seem to need a good dose of fanaticism, as a sort of moral coca, to keep them up to the mark, and, doubtless, they have made many mistakes; but that the endeavor to improve the condition under which our industrial population live, to amend the drainage of densely peopled streets, to provide baths, washhouses, and gymnasia, to facilitate habits of thrift, to furnish some provision for instruction and amusement in public libraries and the like, is not only desirable from a philanthropic point of view, but an essential condition of safe industrial development, appears to me to be indisputable. It is by such means alone, so far as I can see, that we can hope to check the constant gravitation of industrial society toward la misere, until the general progress of intelligence and morality leads men to grapple with the sources of that tendency. If it is said that the carrying out of such arrangements as those indicated must enhance the cost of production, and thus handicap the producer in the race of competition, I venture, in the first place, to doubt the fact; but if it be so, it results that industrial society has to face a dilemma, either alternative of which threatens destruction. 


Source:

From: Thomas H. Huxley, Evolution and Ethics, and Other Essays, (London, 1894), pp. 202-218.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.


This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November 1998
halsall@fordham.edu