« PreviousContinue »
The development of language between its savage and cultured stages has been made in its details, scarcely in its principle. It is not too much to say that half the vast defect of language as a method of utterance, and half the vast defect of thought as determined by the influence of language, are due to the fact that speech is a scheme worked out by the rough and ready application of material metaphor and imperfect analogy, in ways fitting rather the barbaric education of those who formed it, than our own. Language is one of those intellectual departments in which we have gone too little beyond the savage stage, but are still as it were hacking with stone celts and twirling laborious friction-fire. Metaphysical speculation, again, has been one of the potent influences on human conduct, and although its rise, and one may almost say also its decline and fall, belong to comparatively civilized ages, yet its connexion with lower stages of intellectual history may to some extent be discerned. For example, attention may be recalled to a special point brought forward in this work, that one of the greatest of metaphysical doctrines is a transfer to the field of philosophy from the field of religion, made when philosophers familiar with the conception of object-phantoms used this to provide a doctrine of thought, thus giving rise to the theory of ideas. Far more fully and distinctly, the study of the savage and barbaric intellect opens to us the study of Mythology. The evidence here brought together as to the relation of the savage to the cultured mind in the matter of mythology has, I think, at any rate demonstrated this. With a consistency of action so general as to amount to mental law, it is proved that among the lower races all over the world the operation of outward events on the inward mind leads not only to statement of fact, but to formation of myth. It gives no unimportant clues to the student of mental history, to see by what regular processes myths are generated, and how, growing by wear and increasing in value at secondhand, they pass into pseudohistoric legend. Poetry is full of myth, and he who will
understand it analytically will do well to study it ethnographically.. In so far as myth, seriously or sportively meant, is the subject of poetry, and in so far as it is couched in language whose characteristic is that wild and rambling metaphor which represents the habitual expression of savage thought, the mental condition of the lower races is the key to poetry—nor is it a small portion of the poetic realm which these definitions cover. History, again, is an agent powerful and becoming more powerful, in shaping men's minds, and through their minds their actions in the world ; now one of the most prominent faults of historians is that, through want of familiarity with the principles of mythdevelopment, they cannot apply systematically to ancient legend the appropriate tests for separating chronicle from myth, but with few exceptions are apt to treat the mingled mass of tradition partly with undiscriminating credulity and partly with undiscriminating scepticism. Even more injurious is the effect of such want of testing on that part of traditional or documentary record which, among any section of mankind, stands as sacred history. It is not merely that in turning to the index of some book on savage tribes, one comes on such a suggestive heading as this, “ Religion-sce Mythology.” It is that within the upper half of the scale of civilization, among the great historic religions of the world, we all know that between religion and religion, and even to no small extent between sect and sect, the rratives which to one side are sacred history, may seem to the other mythic legend. Among the reasons which retard the progress of religious history in the modern world, one of the most conspicuous is this, that so many of its approved historians demand from the study of mythology always weapons to destroy their adversaries' structures, but never tools to clear and trim their own. It is an indispensable qualification of the true historian that he shall be able to look dispassionately on myth as a natural and regular product of the human mind, acting on appropriate facts in a manner suited to the intellectual state of the people producing it,
and that he shall treat it as an accretion to be deducted from professed history, whenever it is recognized by the tests of being decidedly against evidence as fact, and at the same time clearly explicable as myth. It is from the ethnographic study of savage and barbaric races that the knowledge of the general laws of myth-development, required for the carrying out of this critical process, may be best or must necessarily be gained.
The two vast united provinces of Morals and Law have been as yet too imperfectly treated on a general ethnographic scheme, to warrant distinct statement of results. Yet thus much may be confidently said, that where the ground has been even superficially explored, every glimpse reveals treasures of knowledge. It is already evident that inquirers who systematically trace each department of moral and legal institutions from the savage through the barbaric and into the civilized condition of mankind, thereby introduce into the scientific investigations of these subjects an indispensable element which merely theoretical writers are apt unscrupulously to dispense with. The law or maxim which a people at some particular stage of its history might have made fresh, according to the information and circumstance of the period, is one thing. The law or maxim which did in fact become current among them by inheritance from an earlier stage, only more or less modified to make it compatible with the new conditions, is another and far different thing. Ethnography is required to bridge over the gap between the two, a very chasm where the arguments of moralists and legists are continually falling in, to crawl out maimed and helpless. Within modern grades of civilization this historical method is now becoming more and more accepted. It will not be denied that English law has acquired, by modified inheritance from past ages, a theory of primogeniture and a theory of real estate which are so far from being products of our own times that we must go back to the middle ages for anything like a satisfactory explanation of them; and as for more absolute
survival, did not Jewish disabilities stand practically, and the wager of battle nominally, in our law of not many years back? But the point to be pressed here is, that the development and survival of law are processes that did not first come into action within the range of written codes of comparatively cultured nations. Admitted that civilized law requires its key from barbaric law; it must be borne in mind that the barbarian lawgiver too was guided in judgment not so much by first principles, as by a reverent and often stupidly reverent adherence to the tradition of earlier and yet ruder ages.
Nor can these principles be set aside in the scientific study of moral sentiment and usage. When the ethical systems of mankind, from the lowest savagery upward, have been analyzed and arranged in their stages of evolution, then ethical science, no longer vitiated by too exclusive application to particular phases of morality taken unreasonably as representing morality in general, will put its methods to fair trial on the long and intricate world-history of right and wrong.
In concluding a work of which full half is occupied by evidence bearing on the philosophy of religion, it may well be asked, how does all this array of facts stand toward the theologian's special province ? That the world sorely needs new evidence and method in theology, the state of religion in our own land bears witness. Take English Protestantism as a central district of opinion, draw an ideal line through its centre, and English thought is seen to be divided as by a polarizing force extending to the utmost limits of repulsion. On one side of the dividing line stand such as keep firm hold on the results of the 16th century reformation, or seek yet more original canons from the first Christian ages; on the other side stand those who, refusing to be bound by the doctrinal judgments of past centuries, but introducing modern science and modern criticism as new factors in theological opinion, are eagerly pressing toward a reformation. Outside these narrower limits, extremer
partizans occupy more distant ground on either side.
On the one hand the Anglican blends gradually into the Roman scheme, a system so interesting to the ethnologist for its maintenance of rites more naturally belonging to barbaric culture; a system so hateful to the man of science for its suppression of knowledge, and for that usurpation of intellectual authority by a sacerdotal caste which has at last reached its climax, now that an aged bishop can judge, by infallible inspiration, the results of researches whose evidence and methods are alike beyond his knowledge and his mental grasp. On the other hand, intellect, here trampled under foot of dogma, takes full revenge elsewhere, even within the domain of religion, in those theological districts where reason takes more and more the command over hereditary belief, like a mayor of the palace superseding a nominal king. In yet farther ranges of opinion, religious authority is simply deposed and banished, and the throne of absolute reason is set up without a rival even in name ; in secularism the feeling and imagination which in the religious world are bound to theological belief, have to attach themselves to a positive natural philosophy, and to a positive morality which shall of its own force control the acts of men. Such, then, is the boundless divergence of opinion among educated citizens of an enlightened country, in an age scarcely approached by any former age in the possession of actual knowledge and the strenuous pursuit of truth as the guiding principle of life. Of the causes which have brought to pass so perplexed a condition of public thought, in so momentous a matter as theology, there is one, and that a weighty one, which demands mention here. It is the partial and one-sided application of the historical method of enquiry into theological doctrines, and the utter neglect of the ethnographical method which carries back the historical into remoter and more primitive regions of thought. Looking at each doctrine by itself and for itself, as in the abstract true or untrue, theologians close their eyes to the instances which history is ever holding up before them, that one phase