Transmutation of Virtues into Vices, Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Transmutation of Virtues into Vices
Charles Erskine Scott Wood

I believe a very tolerable essay could be written on the transmutation of virtues into vices—perhaps it has been done. There is no new thing under the sun—a saying I give little adherence to. Proverbs, maxims and such generalizations would find the lie every day, if it were looked for. There is much new under the sun—and it is not impossible that some day an editor may have a principle, and a great daily tell the truth. This old world Is ever new—that Is the fascination of it. Not only new to each of us who opens his eyes for the first time upon the panorama and frets across the stage his brief moment—but in truth new—new lands, new life, new thoughts. And there is the very core of the matter—new thoughts.

People talk of unchanging human nature—eternally the same. Human nature is changing as much as the human body did and probably much more and faster than the human body is now changing, though It is dangerous to speculate on evolution In which millions of years are minutes. The body has adapted itself to its present environment, and little change may be expected unless the environment changes; but the environment of mind and thought is constantly changing before our very eyes, and human nature is changing with it.

Does anyone fancy that we have the human nature of the cave dwellers? Gentlemen whose conception of justice was appetite and the might to gratify It; who did not on occasion hesitate to eke out the scant subsistence of a non-prosperous administration by devouring their grandmothers and other weak antiques; and quite right, too, from the view point of nature. We ourselves must admit that we would rather have the cave dwelling paterfamilias and his amiable mate preserve the divine spark for transmission to us, by recourse to grandpa or grandma as a larder rather than that by self-denial and literal self-sacrifice, all human life should become extinct and we ourselves be barred from our succession to this wonderful world of nickel-in-the-slot drama and tinhorn tragedy.

There Is no doubt that, as we picture the cave gentleman at his necessitous or perhaps diplomatic meal with bloody front gnawing the raw bones of his mother-in-law,—nephew, grandfather, or whichever relative his taste and an overruling providence decreed should be removed from their midst to his; we realize that we of to-day have progressed In our nature; even an editor has a somewhat different cannibalistic method, and presumably a different nature.

But those who cling to the absolute unchanging quality of human nature will say: Take an editor, even the greatest, and put him on a raft in mid-ocean—the reader will understand that this Is wholly hypothetical God forbid that any editor, even the greatest, should In fact be put on a raft in mid-ocean and the world left rocking In chaos—take an editor, the objector will say (as If the editor were a worm,) and put him on a raft In mid-ocean with one other and no food and he will devour his companion as relishfully as did our late lamented ancestor of the cave.

The world is full of the self-sacrifice of the strong for the weak. Common sailors have said good-bye to a comrade and let go the support too frail for both.

It was Greenwood, I think, who shut himself in the leaking air-lock of the Hudson river tunnel to drown rather than drown the four or five laborers he had put through to safety. It is a pity to forget the names of such heroes—greater than those of war—but after all the name is not so material; the important fact is that human nature furnishes such examples—many of them. Cave-dwelling human nature furnished not one.

The cave gentleman’s effort at charity was doubtless to crush the skull of the sufferer with a stone-—a method having certainly some advantages over ours, but as a whole we have progressed in conception and intention.

But we need not harry too cruelly the shades of our cave ancestors who lived the truly simple life. The historic ancients of the really splendid civilizations of Greece and Rome did not have the emotions of pity for humanity and dumb brutes as we have them, nor the sense of duty toward the unfortunate as we have It. Nay, there are whole nations to-day who have not developed into their natures the sense of brotherhood of man and kinship with animals. ‘ Where we find but so much as one example of a new trait’ in human nature, that gives us a right to claim it to our credit.

It is perfectly true that the evolution of a finer human nature or soul builds upon fundamentals. While the desire to live is a general human instinct, there will be the desire to eat and enjoy life, out of which must come the struggle for comfort and joy, and from this struggle, of necessity, selfishness. Selfishness is the most desirable thing in the world. It is the electrifying spark, the vital emotion. It Is a virtue and yet behold how the virtue of the cave-dweller, when the great essential was that life should not vanish from the planet and that the fittest should survive, becomes thw vice of our time when the mentally predatory and by no means fittest are crushing those who, because of loftier ideals or simpler honesty are open to exploitation.

Altruism, or thought for others, self-sacrifice, unselfishness has been developed by the Christian impulse into the chiefest of the virtues. If you have not this then are you but as sounding brass or tinkling cymbal.

Yet what a vice this virtue may become. How many unselfish wives do we see being devoured by selfish husbands, or husbands by wives; patient daughters wearing out their lives in subjection to demanding mothers. Lives of men and women literally sucked dry by good, virtuous, loving, selfish vampires. When what every life craves is freedom—free, free to live its own life in its own way, giving expression to all which bubbles up from within.

It matters nothing at all if there be a heaven where the selfish will be punished and the unselfish rewarded. Let heaven take care of itself. No one has a right to ask another to give up his individuality In this world, to lose his quota of present joy and trust to a heavenly reward. It is not a fair bargain.

I do not say to the leeches: Be less selfish. Do not suck dry these lives about you. It would be a useless appeal, for such is their nature; but I do say to the victims (in some hope that I may be heard because of the fundamental instinct” of selfishness within us all): Be more selfish—your life was given, to you to live. Live it. Draw the line between a just attention to others and your essential duty to yourself. Let living be reciprocal. Let the parasites upon you also give. If all cannot be unselfish, then let all be selfish.

The word has got an ugly meaning—people pretend to recoil from the trait it expresses—none recoil more than those very ones who are sucking the lives of others. My own irritation Is not so much with the selfish ones who rule, who master, who override, who demand, who receive and who absorb—they are at least following their natures—as with the unselfish ones who do not oppose to this selfishness an equal selfishness; who stifle because of what I think is a false Ideal, the natural desire to live their own lives. I do not believe, they are following their natures so much as their Ideals of duty. Whatever may come hereafter, this world is all we know. It stands upon its own footing, and no person has a right to absorb the life of another, and no person has a right to let his individuality and his life-expression and life-longings be absorbed by another. His highest duty, higher than any other possible, for it is to the race as well as to himself. Is to live his own life in his own way to the very fullness thereof.

The virtues as well as the vices have their root in selfishness. It is the parent stock; and what are virtues and what are vices will always be open to dispute. Pride is a virtue as self-respect; it is a vice as exaggerated self-esteem. Love may be a vice and hate a virtue, so these names go masquerading under different guises, according to the motive, the object and the degree. Of the primal instincts—offshoots from selfishness—jealousy is the one which I cannot find virtuous in any degree. In the form of parental solicitude it may be accepted, but the variety which we have developed in the sex relation is wholly bad.

It is brutal and unintellectual, prolific of much misery, narrowing to life and debasing to the soul.

I have heard people actually defend jealousy by saying it is common to the brutes, that the dog, the cat, the horse show jealousy. Curious recommendation. I have no doubt the late lamented cave-dweller, in his impulse to sex supremacy, slaughtered his rivals precisely as one Captain Hains has recently done, though the gallant Captain is additionally the victim of an artificial development called “Honor.” The sense of ownership of his mate in the savage can be understood, especially as he bought her—but just how a man’s honor is blotted by any act of another of which he had no knowledge, I cannot comprehend. My honor is in my own keeping; and to my way of thinking an unfaithful wife can be left to her choice with greater honor than to commit murder for her sake.

I write these impressions too hurriedly ever to be thorough (and by the way they are in no sense the editorials of this magazine, but my personal impressions for what they may be worth). What I intend to offer as food for better and deeper thought than mine is that selfishness, self-interest, measurement by the scale of self, self-gratification is the root of all impulses and human attributes, and unless we are to believe Nature (or God) all wrong, we cannot believe selfishness to be wrong. That in fact the same trait may be a virtue or a vice according to the circumstances of application, and that it is by no means a virtue to crush out ourselves idolatrously before the unchecked selfishness of another or others—rather it is the highest duty to live our lives according to the deep longings thereof—for the longings are of God and no man can say what great good may come to the world from their full and free expression.

The world is full of idols; we bow down to them and worship them, and though they are senseless images, we ourselves are not so, and it is by our own conceptions which we accept as coming from the idol that we enslave ourselves. Let our conceptions therefore be just. Measure them more by ourselves and our rights to life and in life, and we will find that much which we have called duty, honor, obedience, self-sacrifice, are fetiches, and the whole world will be juster and saner and happier—I truly believe far, far happier when they are overthrown.

SOURCE: The Pacific Monthly. XX (1908) 454-455.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.