Echoes and Fragments: Edward Carpenter’s progressive philosophy

With the most unappealing of the nominally “progressive” schools in the limelight, it’s sometimes hard to recall any of the others, but, of course, mutualism, as the “anarchism of approximations,” is another claimant to the label (and there has been some overlap of the traditions in figures like Golden Rule Jones.) I’ve been arguing that the original mutualist project of “synthesizing” or “harmonizing” individualism and socialism was replaced by a wide spectrum of less comprehensive approaches, all of which addressed some part of the larger project, and which therefore have something to say to anyone attempting to take up that original task. One of the necessities at this stage of my project is to start to show some of those lines of development. With regard to “progress,” and the relation of the “old” and the “new,” it might, for example, be interesting to compare this passage from Edward Carpenter’s “Civilisation: It’s Cause and Cure” with the dynamic laid out in Proudhon’s “Contradictions” and “Philosophy of Progress.”

Men often ask about the new Architecture—what, and of what sort, it is going to be. But to such a question there can be no answer till a new understanding of life has entered into people’s minds, and then the answer will be clear enough. For as the Greek Temples and the Gothic Cathedrals were built by people who themselves lived but frugally as we should think, and were ready to dedicate their best work and chief treasure to the gods and the common life; and as to-day when we must needs have for ourselves spacious and luxurious , villas, we seem to be unable to design a decent church or public building; so it will not be till we once more find our main interest and life in the life of the community and the gods that a new spirit will inspire our architecture. Then when our Temples and Common Halls are not designed to glorify an individual architect or patron, but are built for the use of free men and women, to front the sky and the sea and the sun, to spring out of the earth, companionable with the trees and the rocks, not alien in spirit from the sunlit globe itself or the depth of the starry night—then I say their form and structure will quickly determine themselves, and men will have no difficulty in making them beautiful. And similarly with the homes or dwelling places of the people. Various as these may be for the various wants of men, whether for a single individual or for a family, or for groups of individuals or families, whether to the last degree simple, or whether more or less ornate and complex, still the new conception, the new needs of life, will necessarily dominate them and give them form by a law unfolding from within.

In such new human life then—its fields, its farms, its workshops, its cities—always the work of man perfecting and beautifying the lands, aiding the efforts of the sun and soil, giving voice to the desire of the mute earth—in such new communal life near to nature, so far from any asceticism or inhospitality, we are fain to see far more humanity and sociability than ever before: an infinite helpfulness and sympathy, as between the children of a common mother. Mutual help and combination will then have become spontaneous and instinctive: each man contributing to the service of his neighbor as inevitably and naturally as the right hand goes to help the left in the human body—and for precisely the same reason. Every man—think of it!—will do the work which he likes, which he desires to do, which is obviously before him to do, and which he knows will be useful, without thought of wages or reward; and the reward will come to him as inevitably and naturally as in the human body the blood flows to the member which is exerting itself. All the endless burden of the adjustments of labour and wages, of the war of duty and distaste, of want and weariness, will be thrown aside—all the huge waste of work done against the grain will be avoided; out of the endless variety of human nature will spring a perfectly natural and infinite variety of occupations, all mutually contributive; Society at last will be free and the human being after long ages will have attained to deliverance.

This is the Communism which Civilisation has always hated, as it hated Christ. Yet it is inevitable; for the cosmical man, the instinctive elemental man accepting and crowning nature, necessarily fulfils the universal law of nature. As to External Government and Law, they will disappear; for they are only the travesties and transitory substitutes of Inward Government and Order. Society in its final state is neither a Monarchy, nor an Aristocracy nor a Democracy, nor an Anarchy, and yet in another sense it is all of these. It is an Anarchy because there is no outward rule, but only an inward and invisible spirit of life; it is a Democracy because it is the rule of the Mass-man, or Demos, in each unit man; it is an Aristocracy because there are degrees and ranks of such inward power in all men; and it is a Monarchy because all these ranks and powers merge in a perfect unity and central control at last. And so it appears that the outer forms of government which belong to the Civilisation-period are only the expression in separate external symbols of the facts of the true inner life of society.

And just as thus the various external forms of government during the Civilisation-period find their justification and interpretation in the ensuing period, so will it be with the mechanical and other products of the present time; they will be taken up, and find their proper place and use in the time to come. They will not be refused; but they will have to be brought into subjection. Our locomotives, machinery, telegraphic and postal systems; our houses, furniture, clothes, books, our fearful and wonderful cookery, strong drinks, teas, tobaccos; our medical and surgical appliances; high-faluting sciences and philosophies, and all other engines hitherto of human bewilderment, have simply to be reduced to abject subjection to the real man. All these appliances, and a thousand others such as we hardly dream of, will come in to perfect his power and increase his freedom; but they will not be the objects of a mere fetish-worship as now. Man will use them, instead of their using him. His real life will lie in a region far beyond them. But in thus for a moment denying and “mastering” the products of Civilisation, will he for the first time discover their true value, and reap from them an enjoyment unknown before.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.