Victorian Hypocrisy


FROM 1837 to 1901, as we all know, a woman was the Queen of England. From 1837 to 1901, all good English and American magazines, newspapers, and novels, were edited with the idea of pleasing women, of being suitable to the home, and of meeting the eyes of young persons without doing harm. Conversation, likewise, for all decent people, was guarded, and cultivated adults did not talk even among themselves in a way unsuitable for the ears of young people. Of course men, among themselves, were never so careful; nevertheless the conversation of a group of English or American gentlemen during most of that period was such as Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, and Spaniards dubbed ‘ hypocritical.’

Suddenly this has changed.

What caused this prevailing tone of protection and solicitude through those sixty years and more? Was it hypocrisy? And what was its consequence? Did it have any effect upon actual behavior? Did it benefit in any way the three generations which submitted to it, and shall we lose anything by this startling change which has rapidly come over magazine, newspaper, novel, and conversation since Queen Victoria died?

Definitely in America, since about 1898, when the Lexow Vice Committee’s activities were openly reported in the New York newspapers, youth has been increasingly treated as a negligible portion of the reading public, the home has ceased to be protected by editors, and women are supposed to read whatever men read. That young girl’s witticism, ‘These are books I would not let my mother read,’ had been perpetrated already in the late nineties. Parents must now contrive and enforce a new procedure to protect youth if it is to be kept fresh and sound-hearted. Publishers’ etiquette and even drawing-room etiquette have ceased to help, — for woman has suddenly been taken out of the category of the sheltered, and youth, which shared her cloister, is overlooked.

By a curious irony the commanding word ‘Victorian’ has come to connote flabby and futile, prudish and trite, grandmotherly and sentimental. ‘Victorian, in sooth! What stuff is this of which to make victors!’ The epoch has been divided into hopelessly uninteresting periods — Early-Victorian, Middle-Victorian, and Later-Victorian: the first, the sentimental period; the second, the trite period; and the third, the futile period. This view of the nineteenth century was pronounced in the late nineties by it-matters-not-whom. It was hailed with delight and gayly reëchoed back and forth among the prevalent writers and talkers of the day. A wasted century, grown old along with the frumpy Queen who dominated it, seemed to them much miscalled by that ludicrously sentimental name, dotingly chosen for her at her coronation.

This is one view. Here is another. This talking of a whole era as if its men were cast in one mould like dolls from a factory is easy but inaccurate. For of course we all know that, by Galton’s law of natural production, there are at each epoch (that is to say, in any given year) five groups among sincere, highly developed persons, in each of which great men may appear.

Group A is very small: it comprises the seers, who see ahead, and around, above, below; always they are two generations ahead of their own time; they arouse the youth who are to be the A’s and B’s of the next, generation. Group B is the numerous advance guard, the van, not actually ahead, but seeming a little in advance; its members spread the ideas of the seers who aroused their own youth, and invent, for the fulfillment of those good tidings, new customs that embody them. Group C is the great mass of earnest pilgrims, — the many who keep fully abreast of the times; their foremost ranks are indistinguishable from the van, but they follow, in general, ideas inspired by the great ones of their fathers’ youth and customs crystallized by their own fathers. Somewhat they are all touched and swayed by the van of their own time. Not infrequently they even struggle in a rush of enthusiasm to keep up with it. On the whole, however, they incline to seek to teach to their children by rote whatever they learned, and their hindermost members are indistinguishable from members of the next group, D, the numerous reluctants, who are always a little behind; these are moved mostly by the ideals of their great-grandfathers, and would cling if they could to the customs set by their grandfathers: that is, they have taken implicitly what was taught them by rote in their youth, and have been untouched by the great ones of their own youth. Last comes Group E, the stragglers and adventurers who are frankly without inspiration for a pilgrimage, but are in it for what they can get out of it; they call the enthusiasm of the others ‘hypocrisy and cant.’

Besides all these sincere persons, of course, there is another body, not really on pilgrimage at all. These are they (who shall say how many?) who are moved simply by a weak desire to make life easy for themselves. They conform outwardly, so far as need be, for comfort and a quiet life; and the rest of the time they simply follow their primitive selfish impulses. These are the real hypocrites, though they, also, call all enthusiasts hypocrites. They are definitely more often moved by jealousy than by admiration, by suspicion than by faith.

Furthermore, in addition to all these persons who are measurably on a par in development, there are irregular companies innumerable. Even in the most forward communities of the most forward nations you always find individuals and groups who reproduce in actual personal development the men of any previous evolutional era you may be looking for: cave-men, tentdwellers, Romans, mediæval barbarians, children of the Renaissance, gentlemen of the eighteenth century, all dwelling in New York, all using electric lights, and wearing tan shoes, and speaking some part of the English language. They dwell in one spot in the three dimensions of space, but in the fourth dimension of time, there, where the pilgrims are marching, these groups and individuals arc so far apart as to be often out of sight of each other.

Frequently even one and the same man (less frequently a woman) is in different eras in different aspects, and seldom are whole families all in the same evolutional group. Curiously too, among people belonging actually in racial development all to the same evolutional era, you will find one and another who have stopped in personal development, wholly or in some portion, at five years old — at eleven — at seventeen — or at thirty, and so forth. Few indeed go on developing a year’s worth for every year they live; hence, at seventy, few have gained seventy years of experience and growth.

These people often appear to be really in different evolutional eras, because in a sketchy sort of way the development of the individual follows the development of the race. So it happens that frequently when a man does not live up to the mass-standards and calls them hypocritical, he belongs really to an earlier age, or has not yet grown up.

Therefore it is clear that when we talk of the ‘present generation’ we generally mean a comparatively small fraction of the whole nation. We mean either the van or the main body (or both taken together) of the dominant minds, the sincere, highly developed people who voice their ideas and form public opinions and conduct.

Now, in any given year, the present generation which dominates it has already passed its thirtieth birthday. Thus, though a new generation is born every thirty years, each generation lives sixty years at the very least, and no generation begins to dominate before itself is thirty years old and the next generation has begun to be born.

When Victoria, a girl of eighteen, came to the throne, the ‘present generation’ was the Early-Victorian, born about 1780. Her own generation, the Mid-Victorian, was born about 1810. The next, the Late-Victorian, began (with her own children) about 1840, and the next, the Post-Victorian, now the present generation, saw the world first about 1870, let us say.

A generation’s ideas and customs, its dreams and achievements, thoughts and fulfillments, lie recorded in its best literature, where the few great ones and their lesser voiceful brothers have said their say. These, in the Victorian age, were poets, novelists, and essayists. Taking one of each sort for each generation we may fairly choose for the Early-Victorians, Wordsworth, Scott, and Hazlitt; for the Mid-Victorians, Tennyson, Dickens, and Carlyle; for the Late-Victorians, Browning, George Eliot, and Huxley; and for the PostVictorians, perhaps Masefield, Wells, and Shaw. (Not the much greater Kipling, because he is a young Late-Victorian, a‘lap-over’ — born in 1865 at the very end of his own generation, but really too early to be Post-Victorian.)

In order to understand the epoch from its youth up, we must include one more generation, the Pre-Victorian, which formed the youth of the EarlyVictorian. This is perhaps the most influential of all the five. And here we cannot take prose-writers, for the novel and the essay were still toddling, and earnest men still used poetry to speak their burning thoughts. Goethe, Byron, and Shelley, these were the men who gave greatest impetus to the Victorian era.

Byron roused the dormant power of personal passion in men’s hearts. Shelley disclosed above their heads the wondrous spheres on spheres of disembodied beauty, pure fire of freedom, and love of spiritual perfections. Goethe drew forth woman, dazzled and breathless with the joy of a new-found soul, and showed her a wide expanse of splendid possibility. Chivalry had nominally queened her, but never had voice of man given her such breadth and richness and spirituality of infinite meaning. Even in her own innermost secret dreams there had not been a faint mirage of such significance for herself. Germany accepted it as a dream and an allegory; but America, being in the habit of practical performance promptly sequent on each ideal, acted upon her belief, and England strove to do so, too.

On such soaring magniloquent ideas, bred of the French Revolution, were the Early-Victorians formed. By such personalities were they dominated. Under this triple inspiration to personal passion, flame-like spirituality, and the magnification of woman, the EarlyVictorians developed; and lo, at the moment when they were most dominant, a lovely, modest young girl ascended an actual throne in the first kingdom of the world and became an arbiter of manners for all English-speaking peoples.


What manners had the Early-Victorians beheld in their youth? In 1810, a young lady in New York’s best society refused to spend the winter in New York because, being lately betrothed, she must wear a large miniature of the young gentleman round her neck and endure coarse and embarrassing jokes whenever she appeared. General Washington may be seen, in the pencil sketches by John Trumbull, comfortably sitting in church with his arm around a young lady’s waist, nor was she kith or kin to him. Read the familiar memoirs of the reign of George IV, infer what the manners and conversation must then have been, and ask yourself seriously how comfortable you would have felt in the midst of them.

The Early-Victorians thought these manners unfit for the presence of a young girl. They adjusted their demeanor to shield her. In consequence, there arose from the court of Victoria an expectation of decorum, serene and assured, for every man or woman of sensitive fibre. A winnowing wind, with quiet, gleaning hand of selection and rejection, passed over all England and America, through every drawingroom and across every printing-press, gently up and down the thoroughfare. No one even smoked on the streets. Without outcry or indignation the change was wrought, and decent folk could go about unabashed. Of course, indecency and cruelty, barbarism and selfishness, did not suddenly die: they lived, and thought the change an awful bore. Delicacy, sympathy, civilization, and generosity were the accepted standard, and those who by nature had them or longed to have them, found encouragement all about. And so the Early-Victorians impressed propriety upon the rising generation of MidVictorians.

Then, when the Mid-Victorians came to live their own lives, of course, they put into detailed practice the ideas and lessons they had learned from the Pre-Victorians and the EarlyVictorians. Religion, ethics, philosophy, poetry, and philanthropy were their chief interests. They took themselves seriously, — as all of us do. The accomplishment of the Mid-Victorians was substantial, but perhaps the most amazing thing about them was that their van actually impressed its standards on the many in its own generation. This was the fruitage of what Shelley, Byron, and Goethe had planted. By their fruits they may be known. They did their work, — passed the Reform Bill in England, freed the slaves in America, made intemperance a disgrace, established a general expectation toward betterment, and recorded in novel, poem, and essay their innumerable aspirations and discoveries. It was a marvelous harvest-home. Then first, through niceties and restrictions, women and girls could go freely among even strange men, wrapped in their delicate reserve, and gradually because of decorums so quietly conceived and enforced, the free intellectual and business intercourse of men and women became serenely possible.

Thus were created those fine products of the Victorian age which have made the noble liberty of American women possible; they are the unchartered guild of modern gentlemen. Even today, though so much fine work has been marred, no man, looking round a roomful or a carful of people, knows how many such men may be in it. And because he cannot guess how many there are who will resent indecency, no man not in liquor dares openly to insult or annoy a woman. This multiplied perhaps, the band of hypocrites, for ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue’; there came to be prevalent a recognition that however inconvenient and unnatural good conduct may be for one’s self, it is liked by the race at large — in others, at least.

But the total strength of a potent tendency cannot be measured by counting noses. We must ask, not what per cent were vicious or virtuous, but how strong was the influence of each. The contribution of each age to future progress depends upon the vigor of the van. It is they always who set the standard. If they create hypocrites by setting a standard of achievement so high that others of their time can only talk about it and pretend to it, then their contribution is indeed notable. What they do breaks the record. Then the astonishing happens. Just as in athletics and horse-trotting the record of one generation becomes in a mysterious process of development the commonplace of the next, so the standard of the van in any one age tends presently to become the practice of the many.

The enforcement of those nice maxims of civilized society has actually increased the number of more civilized persons in the rising generation. Granting that about four in each nice family grow up nice, we get the number of nice people doubled in each generation, — that is, eight times as many now as when Victoria came to the throne.

Thus they did their splendid work, did those Mid-Victorians. Devotedly they raised their children in a shielded atmosphere as in an enchanted garden, taught them new inhibitions, and hoped to see in them the return of the Golden Age. Their impressive conviction, their large passionate way of believing, carried assurance to the young minds which they formed, and the main body of Late-Victorians grew up implicitly trusting in what they had been so generously taught. But these Late-Victorians did not understand the primitive simple reasons for their own niceties, and therefore had not a live fire of conviction in their action. Inevitably, their children, the PostVictorians, looked and doubted. The religious sanction which had been used to enforce action on the unwilling and weak-willed, had concealed the practical reasons. Therefore, when religion slackened as it did, the children said, ‘There is no reason.’ And because they did not know why their parents were silent on so many subjects, they supposed the subjects must be thought disgraceful; yet that could not be disgraceful which was so natural. They had been taught to reverence nature.

When the Mid-Victorians had seen their ideals of character blossoming in each other, they had been exuberantly appreciative. But their children, bred to think such character simply a duty, were ‘disillusioned’ when they discovered that every one has faults. Introspection was a new method in 1830. By 1870 it had become worn and unwholesome. At last, beginning to grow up in the ’90’s, the Post-Victorians announced that, ‘The ten commandments are mere conventionalities.’ The reason they said this so boldly and unexpectedly is after all not far to seek. One lesson which the Mid-Victorians had taught passionately was the principle of individual liberty. This their children, the Late-Victorians, believed implicitly. Seeing no slaves to free, for they mostly were unobservant of the laboring world, they applied the sacred principle of liberty to the nearest persons at hand: they freed their own children.


At this inopportune moment, — or shall we call it opportune? — science, urged on by the Darwinian theory, shook a finger of doubt in the face of every creed, and every code. It was then that the Late-Victorians lost confidence because they had not understood what had been taught them. They sighed: ‘We do not know what is true; we will teach our children nothing; we will leave each to work out his own personality; we will impress our views, our hopes, our ancient faiths, on no man, —not even on a child. Only, pray God, we may not lose hold upon our own faith before our time has come to die!’ So they have struggled on; some have won out; some have fainted by the way; some have taken up with the new ignorance and tried to be happy, self-confident, and materialistic. What the parents did, the schools did also, and throughout all America, at any rate, the greater part of a whole generation abjured responsibility.

Certes, it is the first generation, since time was, that sought not to impart a rule of life to its offspring. All animals so impart. It is a law of nature. Nor could this generation really break the law, earnestly as it tried. By the strength of its determination not to impress itself on others, it did so impress itself. It not only taught that ‘ it is presumption to tell another what he must do,’ but carried conviction of sincerity by practicing it.

This is another view of the nineteenth century. How did a century which can sincerely be so described, get to be called sentimental, trite, and futile, grandmotherly, prudish, and flabby? How can a century which nurtured sweeter manners and finer morals, which elevated woman and cultivated sympathetic imagination, be so derided. Who so described it? The latest Late-Victorians and the earliest Post-Victorians; those children who were set adrift, some thirty years or so ago, — ‘because no man is wise enough to direct the life of another.’

The children born in the ’70’s, ’80’s, and ’90’s are now Post-Victorian men and women in early middle life, who begin to feel that dominance belongs to them. What will they do with it? By what power, and with what leave, will they dominate? What is their creed and code? The mass of them have been bred to ‘develop their own personality,’ they have learned to question every creed and code, every custom and convention, from the veriest primeval truism to the latest ingenious error. They have no manual of principles, arranged by genus or species, and divided into essential, non-essential, subordinate, and principal, — healthful, harmless, and noxious, — by which they may identify a new specimen in ideas and even approximate to a guess at its probable value. They have not even an arrangement of pegs and boxes with samples and labels pasted on each, by which they may sort out new notions as a grocer does, and know at least where to find them again. In consequence, they are singularly open to believe the assertions of any one who speaks with assurance and thinks he knows what he is talking about. They have been cast out naked into the wide universe by scrupulous, unnatural parents who imagined they were obedient to the command of the gods and were doing a splendid service to civilization. Perhaps they were.

These Post-Victorians go unimpeded. They have a single creed, the brotherhood of man; and a single code, the duty of service. The creed is identical with that of the French Revolution. The call of the French Revolution was to insistence on individual rights. This insistence worked out completely all the good it could do through two generations, until in the third, among the Late-Victorians, it came to a reductio ad absurdum, ‘Every man, every woman, even every child, has the personal right to choose his own life and to live after his own convictions according to his own impulses.’ Then the mass of serious persons in America were back at an inclination which would have swiftly slid us down again into savagery.

But belief in the brotherhood of man and in the call to personal service doubtless will save us, — as it saved the world before, when primitive Christianity rescued what ancient civilization had proved incompetent to save. In fulfilling the one duty of service we shall continue to progress. But how is the present generation to know what is true service?

Most women in polite society just now have no clear principles; ‘I wonder,’ — ‘I guess,’ — ’I think,’ — ‘I wish I knew,’ ‘ I have a theory,’ are their commonest phrases in expressing ideas, and ‘I believe ’ has come to mean ‘I think it likely.’ Perhaps most men in the same society are equally vague in their minds, though their habit of speech continues more positive. Said an intelligent, sweet-natured, cleanliving, loyal Episcopalian youth not long ago, ‘The creed? What do I mean when I say “I believe”?‘ — (Thoughtfully and carefully.) — ‘I mean, “I believe with all my heart and soul and mind” the first article. And after that — in the others — I mean gradually less and less; it “peters out,” till toward the end it just means “May be it’s so.”’

In general the characteristic mental attitude in educated America to-day ranges from a ‘restless neutrality to an anxious credulity,’ through a more or less troubled incertitude. The crystal clarity of opinion, the passionate conviction of belief, habitual in the MidVictorian, burns now only in single persons. The community mind has it not. Then earnest men knew, they were certain; and what men thought, women thought too. Then ‘I believe’ was a ringing, convinced credo; now it is a tentative puto, a sort of pragmatic willingness to believe. The serious minded of the present day have not lost faith — they never had it. They were not given a chance to have it.


Do the surviving Late-Victorians, the present still-young generation of grandparents, realize that around them moves and works a whole generation which does not know Emerson, never read Tennyson, has not heard of Mrs. Gaskell, and despises George Eliot? Every book which inspired the MidVictorians is ‘outworn,’ it is ‘a back number’ to the Post-Victorians. What have they read? They may have read Trollope, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy, those doubting Late-Victorians. Many of them have read nothing published before 1890, and practically none go back of 1870. This means that they have read chiefly what is expounded by Wells, Shaw, Chesterton, Galsworthy, and Masefield, not to mention Robert W. Chambers. Now, such literature, coming into the reader’s mind after what preceded it, frequently took its place as refreshing and novel. But suppose you have read nothing else, what has Meredith or Hardy to tell you about the conduct of your own affairs, what precious secrets of civilization do they transmit? How will Wells, Shaw, and Galsworthy do for rulers of life? What laws do they expound? What inspirations do they offer?

This generation has not even been bred to throw over tradition. It has no idea what traditions are. Since about 1880, the general confusion of thought seems to have kept careful thinkers silent. In the ’90’s the stragglers, adventurers, and irresponsibles of the latest Late-Victorian era were the conspicuous writers of books, and now in the first years of the Post-Victorian era the same condition seems still to prevail.

Oscar Wilde, for instance, began about 1890, in a truly Late-Victorian manner, to invade the helpless fold of the ignorant Late-Victorian generation. A Late-Victorian straggler and adventurer he was; decadent we may rightly call him, for he was of the generation which saw the last rays of the great light still gleaming and he might have followed the gleam. Kipling did. Stevenson did. But they said old things; he said a new thing. The practical outcome of his subversive point of view translated by himself, not into pretty words but into primitive practice, terrified the British public; but it is doubtful whether most people in cultivated England really understood what had happened or saw the direct relation between his iridescent words and his obviously ugly deeds. The fact is that in deeds there are few kinds to choose from, and once one gives up the better, one is promptly landed in the worse.

Oscar Wilde is only an instance. He was the first of the Paradoxians, those purveyors of the preposterous. But quantities of his like, garbed in the vocabulary of innocence and idealism, are still cheapening and befouling life’s aspect to-day by the same little trick. Here are hypocrites indeed. But exactly what were the hypocrisies of which the Victorians seemed so guilty in 1890 odd ? They were guilty of laying down such maxims as these: —

Not to speak of what is disagreeable, unless one must in order to serve a good purpose.

Not to speak of what is private and sacred, except among one’s nearest friends or on special occasions.

Not to choose, among the many forms of expression suited to any thought, that form which will rouse in one’s hearers disquieting emotions.

Not to introduce, by one’s phrasing, aspects of a subject which cannot properly be considered by all present; that is, in general society, not to call a disagreeable thing by a disagreeable name or describe carefully a disagreeable act, but to mention it, if you must, in such terms as will not rouse unpleasant sensations.

Not to assume positions, make noises and gestures, use perfumes and costumes, which will set people thinking and feeling things irrelevant or unsuitable to the whole company.

Not to make a jest upon things serious or sacred.

All these are axiomatic maxims of civilized society. These and their like were the Victorian hypocrisies. What was their purpose? Their purpose was to embody in actual conduct those dreams of perfection which had so captured their youthful imaginations, —

Do noble things — not dream them all day long.

Byron, Shelley, and Goethe worded the thoughts, felt the emotions, beheld the visions, but they did not live the life. It took — as it always must take — two generations to fit real life to the vision. For life is not thoughts and emotion. Life is what we do: it is our conduct with its consequences upon ourselves to-morrow or next year, and upon others immediately or next year or in the next generation.


This conduct is our real life which determines our total happiness and success, because it determines the treatment we get from our fellows and from the insensate world. To each man, by an illusion of interior optics, his own real life appears to be, not what we see him doing, but what he feels himself feeling — his own invisible sensations, emotions, aspirations, and satisfactions. He is to himself the centre of a weblike universe, and every least nerve-message that comes to him is, by a necessity of his soul’s unity, equally interesting and exciting to him. But this subjectiveness is not life; it is existence. Life is conduct; it is growth and betterment ; it is what follows the emotion and desire; it is effort and achievement or failure. Unless we do the things, we cannot get beyond to seek further things. As far back as man began, he has thought and felt delicately. The Mid-Victorians set out to do delicately. It is this doing the things that makes us grow up.

The youthful human creature cannot disentangle himself from himself, his physical being from his spiritual. ‘Most of the things he thinks he knows, he ought to know he only thinks.’ When he grows up he will understand this. But the youthful mood is primitive; to it, time is not, cause and consequence are not. This is because naturally or animally we regard everything as durable. ‘Now is to be eternity’ in my childish, animal, æsthetic mood of mind. A child treats a toy as if it were made of iron and his nurse as if she could not tire, and his own joys and sorrows and fears as if they could never end.

Thus there are two things which can never be understood by the man or woman who has not yet got beyond the æsthetic, sensory, animal stage. One is the deceptiveness of himself to himself, and the other is the illusiveness of language. The complexity of humanity and the insufficience of the symbol are both invisible to him. This made it hard for the Victorians to see their own absurdities and makes it hard for the Post-Victorians to see their forerunners’ excellences. When we grow up in our minds, we have had experience. We remember and we compare our various memories. We have tried experiments and we understand the complexities of human affairs. But a youthful incapacity to separate cause from effect, and attendant circumstance from both, together with an unripe dependence upon words and aspects, has made the injudicious read stupidity, coldness, and narrowness into the motive force of Victorian manners, Puritan principles, and Quaker practice. Stupid, cold, and narrow many of those manners and principles, and much of that practice, prove to have been; but it was because of restricted information, not because of deficient intelligence or feel ing. The Victorian spirit, like the Puritan spirit, and the Quaker spirit, was intrinsically sincere.

It has been set down as Victorian hypocrisy that ‘ they talked a lot of fustian about wedded bliss, when everyone knows that marriage is a sorry makeshift.’ Yet to many married couples, then as well as now, wedded bliss was a sober everyday fact. Except for that ‘fustian,’ the way to civilized marriage would never have been found out. It took far more universal hold than ever the French Revolutionary principles did, and Dickens was more widely read than Rousseau had ever been. The same process which created the truly happy equal marriage fostered also self-control, self-sacrifice (we call it self-devotion now, or personal service), ennobling friendship, personal reserve, modesty in riches, purity without asceticism, and several other excellent realities. Victorian notions of relative human values and of excellence in conduct were incontrovertibly correct. And any one who thinks them trite would better try how easy it would be to put them in practice. No truth is or ever can be trite to any one who uses it: this is a truism.

Of course the rapid and widespread raising of standards increased abnormally, among the Mid-Victorians, the number of persons who conformed without understanding and who pretended to be appreciative when they really were blankly acceptant. Hence, there was much said and done which was in truth grandmotherly, sentimental, flabby and trite, futile and prudish, as well as very much that was hypocritical. But the spirit of the age was highly sincere.

Still, even the sincere, able thinkers had of course a full share of the characteristically human capacity to fool themselves. Like all mankind before them, they frequently confused the word with the thing, took the symbol for the thing signified, and failed to distinguish between that part of the world which man has created and that part which exists independently of him. Their notion that a thing must be so because it ought to be so, was a mistake, not a sham. All self-absorbed people make this same mistake. Thinking does make some things so,—subjective things, all the things mental and physical which the mind rules,■—but the insensate world cannot be ruled that way. As an instance of the results of subjective methods being carried into objective life we have what their children, the Late-Victorians, produced in philosophy and religion, — Pragmatism and Christian Science.

Each of these is a sincere effort to mingle the new scientific truths with the old faiths. They are thought out and expounded in the Mid-Victorian manner — subjectively — through sentiment and discernment, through introspection and from the inner consciousness. Pragmatism, seeing that science prognosticates nothing, assumes that there is nothing to prognosticate, and says, * ’t is thinking makes it so/ Christian Science, following the same general line of reasoning, comes to the same conclusion with different results. Both forget that ninety-nine one-hundredths of the universe goes on without regard to man’s existence or what he thinks — and that ninety-nine one-hundredths of his own personal life develops without consulting his consciousness.


The worst Victorian hypocrisy, of course, is held to be prudishness: that is, unwillingness to speak or write of physical sex in any aspect. The MidVictorians had a repulsion for the subject. Every one over forty years old today knows how strong that repulsion was. How strange it already looks! But they were right, in their time. Sex is the most conspicuous, the most picturesque, the most enduring of all facts, except self. As the ’80’s discovered, man is endowed for evolution by unescapable, indestructible primitive instincts — self-preservation and racepreservation. He has also, be it noted, an equally indefeasible thirst for perfection, but this escaped the notice of those early observers. Looked at animally, æsthetically, childishly, personally (call it what you will), self-preservation becomes self-protection in all its forms, physical and emotional, verging always upon rank selfishness; while race-preservation, or the instinct to reproduction, becomes self-gratification.

Sex is not only unescapable and omnipresent, but the nerve-sensations which impel to reproduction are the only ones which can be set in full motion by imaginary stimuli. Therefore the Mid-Victorians were right; the Puritans, the Quakers, were right. In order to make progress, to get beyond the old recurrent eddies of mental association the attention of at least two whole generations must be diverted from this subject which had been so persistently conspicuous since man was a mere mollusk. Gross preoccupation with self-preservation had already been driven from completely blocking the road of attention, by outward physical alterations — chiefly by the growth of trade; moreover, it was being pushed aside by interest and morality. But this other must be put in due subordination from within, because its origin is from within. It must make room for the hunger and thirst and lust after perfection. Men had to be cured of the habitual impression, natural to a selfcentred consciousness, that women were always thinking about men, and were aware of the effect on men of their every little action. Women had to be released from the idea that they existed to subserve men. Abstinence must come before temperance. To take men’s minds effectually off the subject as an all-absorbing interest, they must be prevented from talking about it or in other ways referring to it. It must become not only subordinate, but subconscious. No danger of killing it. It is primitive and unescapable. So long as no man can be born into the world without its exercise by man and woman, so long must every man and woman born inherit it in all its pure intensity.

All this the Mid-Victorians darkly but convincingly discerned. They knew nothing of conscious or subconscious, of attention, inhibition, association of ideas, tendency of emotion to expression, reflex action, or vasomotor nerves. They only knew that Christ commanded them to crucify the flesh, that salvation came through faith and self-sacrifice, and that self-control was essential to a virtuous life. What they knew, they knew from the personal observation of themselves and their forebears. What they said, and the explanations they gave, were in the vocabulary and atmosphere of religion and emotion. They had learned to feel that all which was disagreeable must be concealed. The idea that it all might be destroyed or turned to good had not occurred to them. They drew the form of their ideas from the Bible, — the early chapters of Genesis and the epistles of St. Paul.

They were steeped in the Bible, but they never questioned or analyzed it. The Old Testament was to them an oracle. The epistles of Paul were a voice from Heaven. In the third chapter of Genesis we of to-day recognize Jehovah, the Lord God, a God conceived by man’s fear and weariness, discouragement and bewilderment — who curses two primal instincts, reproduction and self-preservation, and wholly overlooks this third and strongest of all, the love of perfection.

In the first, chapter, however, is God, the everlasting Father, the omnipotent, the timeless One. We know that He has appeared in all ages to all sound, sane, large natures, because they were balanced and in tune with the universe, and that He pressed for recognition close on the borders of all men’s consciousness. But along with the splendid vigor of Jewish faith and conscience, along with the wonderful tenderness and self-consecration of early Christian vision and rapture, our grandparents absorbed the antique ignorance and superstition of false science. The ancients knew a great deal about the quality of virtue, but very little about the cause of vice. Neither the origin of good and evil, nor their relation to character, did those worthies understand at all. Nor have we more than begun to know much more, though it is now nineteen centuries since Paul thought and wrote, so magnificently, seeing through a glass darkly.

So the Puritans and the Quakers were as right as they could possibly have been. Serious people are often right even when their explanations and excuses are wrong; the Mid-Victorians themselves often said, ‘A good man’s life is better than his creed!’ The bourgeoise Queen was right; Victorian ‘hypocrisy’ was right, at bottom.


Civilization consists in thought and conduct. In thought it is achieved through ever clearer and clearer symbols. In conduct it is achieved through wiser and ever wiser inhibitions. Civilization is man’s contribution to progress, and he has accomplished it by persistently using his two original inventions, his only two, — tools and morals.

Morals, as every one knows, consist in preventing yourself from following a natural impulse because you wish to avoid its secondary consequences. That is, the moral code is a call to the exercise of innumerable inhibitions. Without inhibition, no civilization!

Ordinary tools, the outward material tools of manufacture and transportation and consumption, are only a small and insignificant part of the tools which have created civilization. Man’s really great tools are his symbols. These are various: there are words, the symbols of ideas, of memories, generalizations, and abstractions; and there are letters, figures, diagrams, and so forth, which are the symbols of words; and there are customs or manners which are the symbols of feelings and purposes. Symbols are the stimuli to thought and memory. Symbols, too, body forth ideas which never yet man saw or can see but with the eye of the mind. Without symbols neither art nor science could exist. Art is not man’s original device. The whole creation loves beauty, strives for it, produces it. But representative art — this is man’s own contribution. He invented these symbols of drawing and painting and sculpture and music, which bring to our minds what we have seen or felt before, or wish to have seen and felt.

Science, too, is not of man. The whole natural world evolves by using scientific truth. But the words and signs by which man represents his knowledge of truth, by which he conveys it to other men and condenses it and enlarges it — these are his own inventions.

No more is invention peculiar to man. The natural world is constantly inventing. The bird invents his nest — the tiger invented his claws — each new upward form in evolution was once the happy invention of some ‘sport,’ some genius among its kind. Even his love of perfection, his passionate searching after God, is not man’s own, not his alone. He shares that, insatiable yearning with every atom of the universe, every cell of his own flesh, every drop in the ocean.

But love, caritas (not eros or philos), that offspring of imagination and memory which created the desire for the good of others and which prompts to virtue and morality, this is man’s own, — and by it he is building civilization slowly and blunderingly, for it is his own invention and it runs on quite without aid from the evolutional forces of the universe. He maintains it by the force of his own firm will, it is his own creation. He has chosen it. So soon as his will falters, it slips from him. The cat cannot, when she ceases to care to be a cat, slip back into an invertebrate; but a man, so soon as he ceases by one tittle to care to be civilized, slips back just so far into a savage. Does the sudden change from Victorian reserve to a heterogeneous vocabulary and behavior mean that we are tired of trying to be civilized? Are we ready to slip back a bit? We easily endorse the abolition of spontaneous murder and wholesale drunkenness, but does not the inhibition of spontaneous talk and of wholesale selfishness seem too much trouble? Are we going back to the hearty vulgarity of the Pre-Victorian English, or are we crossing over to the narrow, monotonous cynicism of the traditional French? Can the Continentals hail us as converts? Or are we perhaps issuing from a good into a better custom, from a pious into a scientific reverence which will continue decency and reserve, not because they veil what is profane, but because they protect what is sacred?

Every one who looks about him without, excitement, must see the answer. Conversation is still guarded among decent people, but with a larger propriety and a more comprehending reserve. Books, magazines, and newspapers, the best, of them, are more reverent and more just than ever before. Conduct? We cannot say so much for conduct just now, but we may reasonably expect it to follow presently.

Science, that other familiar fruit of the nineteenth century, which even the decadent whippersnappers have never dared deride, has laid its calm firm hand upon us. The scientists were the seers of the Mid-Victorian era. Freed by the doctrine of personal liberty to speak as they thought, they spoke impersonal truths learned from watching, not themselves, but nature, and thereby they inspired a new epoch in man’s history. Just as the effect of Goethe and Byron and Shelley was not publicly felt till thirty years had passed, so the effect of Darwin, Pasteur, and Mendel was not publicly felt for thirty years. Then its first manifestations were in agnosticism and materialism, and, among the lesser minds, in scoffing and despair. Even now, after sixty years, the scientific method is still young, and is making many ridiculous mistakes, but it is old enough to be the method of the dominating generation, and already it is giving us a new vocabulary. In order to talk about the ills that flesh is heir to, and about the disorders of the social fabric, — in fact, about ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil,’—we need no longer draw from a vocabulary indicating wholly personal or moral or religious or emotional aspects. The cool phraseology of impersonal fact is at our disposal, unexciting, intellectual, impartial. In this language we can instruct our children, discuss conditions, and contrive remedies, without once brushing upon those sensitive nerve-ends in our brain which carry thrills down our spines, contract our diaphragms, and all over our bodies set vibrating uselessly sensations which, reinvading our minds we know not whence, make us believe that emotions have visited us.

Religion, ethics, philosophy, and philanthropy to-day are ceasing, for the van, and presently will cease for the many, to be emotional and personal, subjective and sensational. They have taken on the universality of science, releasing men into the joy and power of infinite expansion.

Who may be the seers of the present era none can guess — the seers always belong in spirit to the next generation. But the van to-day consists of those persons who by fair fortune have not lost hold on tradition, who were not set adrift by their parents, or who, being set adrift, chanced to have a compass in their boat.

In this Post-Victorian age, the stragglers and adventurers have been the first to speak vividly upon its problems. The reluct ants have had much to say. Small men, too, have rushed in where the great ones felt themselves unready to speak; and such have chattered much. Some of this much-speaking is truth, much is nonsense, and most of it is sufficiently sparkling and musically well said to capture the untrained ear of the many. The van is beginning to be heard, but has not yet reached full maturity. This strong scientific light makes the world, the old, old world, look so ‘ new and all.’ The wonder and the mystery, the glory and the dream are not less, they are more. But with what words and phrases shall it be worshiped! All the old warm words were made to symbolize that old world in the old personal way; the new words are all impersonal, colorless, precise, — perfect for the purpose of quiet instruction and calm discussion, but not fit for poetry. We must go to Emerson, the great, free, forward seer of Darwin’s own generation, if we would find poetry adequate to our new conceptions. As well as could be, in the old way, he has phrased it. Anon will come another, in a new way.

Indeed, regarded cosmically, no harm at all has been done; a natural sequence has been followed, another turn of the spiral has been gone about, and the race, a whole generation in our part of the world, is learning one more lesson — a truth which single wise men have known for ages: no man liveth to himself or dieth to himself. But regarded humanly, individually, domestically,— as the pathetic biography of our own children and grandchildren, or of ourselves and our friends,—much harm and suffering, confusion, and failure have been wrought; many things still remain to be adjusted. ‘L’homme arrive novice a chaque age.’

Of course with every generation the gaps in actual custom between the evolutional groups of men tend to grow wider. The problem is, not how to insure advance, but how to help bring up the many of Group C more rapidly and surely without so much individual loss, and how to get at the unsorted groups of people who are far behind the times. The first is the problem of the educated parent. The second is the problem of the social worker, and is quite another story.


Parents must again become responsible. Serious parents must now contrive and enforce a new procedure to protect youth from its natural errors, and to guard it from the misapprehensions of the uncivilized in our midst. To keep ourselves and our children fresh and sound-hearted we must exercise vigorous open-eyed choice, and accustom them cheerfully and eagerly to do the same.

The impatient uncomprehending Post-Victorian thinks reserve is used for things we are ashamed to speak of. ‘What is there to be ashamed of in sex?’ he demands. Nothing to be ashamed of (except its perversion), but much which is too sacred, personal, delicate, potent, and marvelous to be mentioned at random. ‘What is the use,’ says the critic, ‘of getting up a lot of sentimental talk about virtue when we all know perfectly well that human nature is but so-so?’ Nevertheless, unselfishness, loyalty, delicacy of feeling, generosity, reverence, truthfulness, and self-command are, as a matter of fact, more admirable, and more acceptable to the world, than greed, jealousy, scoffing, roughness, meanness, deceit, and irritability, common as these latter undeniably are. Moreover, those modern oracles, the neuropathists and psychiatrists, unanimously assert that these virtues are the qualities which men need to protect them from the nervous disorders which beset our generation.

A child’s mind is, as it were, a precious vessel formed of the most delicate material. Outside, it is finite and has been carefully protected by evolution in the bony encasement of the skull. Inside, it is infinite, and has by nature no protection at all. Experience is to be used by it for nourishment and growth. In the natural world, experience comes higgledy-piggledy, without regard to its effect upon this tender human thing. Nature goes by law. But man is a creature of choice — and the young of man cannot safely receive into its mind the raw, hard, heterogeneous material of natural experience. First must the mind be carefully and firmly lined all round, close and soft up against the sensitive nerves, with an elastic transparent protection of noblest truth blended from the experience of all the long ages through which man has been watching and choosing; then, when the precious vessel has been as carefully protected by human choice on its spiritual side as by natural evolution on its physical side, then may and must the child come wholly to make his own choice, to store up his own experience for further nourishment and growth, and to devote himself to the duty of personal service.

This is the century of choice, the wonder-point of man’s individual achievement. This is the country of freedom, the wonder-spot of man’s individual liberty. Every one of us who is Americanized is free for the pursuit of perfection. We have life and liberty; self-preservation no longer need absorb us. We are freed, if we choose, from the pressing consciousness of physical sex. We are free to discover and follow the things which are more excellent, to pursue happiness with the only snares that ever capture it.

For our children, too, we must choose, and we must help them choose, until they have captured for themselves the secret qualities of essential and nonessential, subordinate and principal, healthful, harmless, and noxious, so that they are qualified as independent experts and may set forth to make further discoveries and gain their own experience. We owe it to them to give them as perfectly as we can all of good that the past has had, and all of wisdom that it has learned. We must not expect our children to believe that a thing is true, or to follow a rule as good, simply because we tell them it is, or give it to them. They are born as ignorant as the first cave-dwellers, though they are as capable as civilized men. With this fine capability they have to go through in twenty years all the experience that man has acquired in twenty thousand years. Of this experience they have time to learn the merely primitive part by actual encounter, but most of it is compacted into symbols, — based on these simple physical experiences. We must give them the chance to learn what is true and what is good by the shortest proofs, and to become so reasonable that they can accept a course of reasoning as an experience without having to waste the time to prove it physically; that is, they must learn to experience vicariously through symbols, else they are not civilized. Seeing the symbol, they must apprehend the aspect symbolized, never taking the symbol for the thing and never shirking the inhibitions which are necessary to gain the good they see. Thus only can they learn what is true service.

Then we need not worry, though all the reluctants tremble at our temerity, and the stragglers, adventurers, and camp-followers call us ‘hypocrites’!