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A First Year in Canterbury Settlement With Other Early Essays

Lucubratio Ebria

page 186

Lucubratio Ebria

“Lucubratio Ebria,” like “Darwin Among the Machines,” has already appeared in The Note-Books of Samuel Butler with a prefatory note by Mr. Festing Jones, explaining its connection with Erewhon and Life and Habit. I need therefore only repeat that it was written by Butler after his return to England and sent to New Zealand, where it was published in the Press on July 29, 1865.

Lucubratio Ebria
[From the Press, 29 July, 1865.]

There is a period in the evening, or more generally towards the still small hours of the morning, in which we so far unbend as to take a single glass of hot whisky and water. We will neither defend the practice nor excuse it. We state it as a fact which must be borne in mind by the readers of this article; for we know not how, whether it be the inspiration of the drink or the relief from the harassing work with which the day has been occupied or from whatever other cause, yet we are certainly liable about this time to such a prophetic influence as we seldom else experience. We are rapt in a dream such as we ourselves know to be a dream, and which, like other dreams, we can hardly embody in a distinct page 187 utterance. We know that what we see is but a sort of intellectual Siamese twins, of which one is substance and the other shadow, but we cannot set either free without killing both. We are unable to rudely tear away the veil of phantasy in which the truth is shrouded, so we present the reader with a draped figure, and his own judgment must discriminate between the clothes and the body. A truth’s prosperity is like a jest’s, it lies in the ear of him that hears it. Some may see our lucubration as we saw it, and others may see nothing but a drunken dream or the nightmare of a distempered imagination. To ourselves it is the speaking with unknown tongues to the early Corinthians; we cannot fully understand our own speech, and we fear lest there be not a sufficient number of interpreters present to make our utterance edify. But there! (Go on straight to the body of the article.)

The limbs of the lower animals have never been modified by any act of deliberation and forethought on their own part. Recent researches have thrown absolutely no light upon the origin of life—upon the initial force which introduced a sense of identity and a deliberate faculty into the world; but they do certainly appear to show very clearly that each species of the animal and vegetable kingdom has been moulded into its present shape by chances and changes of many millions of years, by chances and changes over which the creature modified had no control whatever, and concerning whose aim it was alike unconscious and indifferent, by forces which seem insensate to the pain which they inflict, but by whose inexorably beneficent cruelty the brave and strong keep page 188 coming to the fore, while the weak and bad drop behind and perish. There was a moral government of this world before man came near it—a moral government suited to the capacities of the governed, and which unperceived by them has laid fast the foundations of courage, endurance, and cunning. It laid them so fast that they became more and more hereditary. Horace says well fortes creantur fortibus et bonis, good men beget good children; the rule held even in the geological period; good ichthyosauri begot good ichthyosauri, and would to our discomfort have gone on doing so to the present time had not better creatures been begetting better things than ichthyosauri, or famine or fire or convulsion put an end to them. Good apes begot good apes, and at last when human intelligence stole like a late spring upon the mimicry of our semi- simious ancestry, the creature learnt how he could of his own forethought add extra-corporaneous limbs to the members of his own body, and become not only a vertebrate mammal, but a vertebrate machinate mammal into the bargain.

It was a wise monkey that first learned to carry a stick, and a useful monkey that mimicked him. For the race of man has learned to walk uprightly much as a child learns the same thing. At first he crawls on all fours, then he clambers, laying hold of whatever he can; and lastly he stands upright alone and walks, but for a long time with an unsteady step. So when the human race was in its gorilla-hood it generally carried a stick; from carrying a stick for many million years it became accustomed and modified to an upright position. The stick wherewith it had learned to walk would now serve to beat its younger page 189 brothers, and then it found out its service as a lever. Man would thus learn that the limbs of his body were not the only limbs that he could command. His body was already the most versatile in existence, but he could render it more versatile still. With the improvement in his body his mind improved also. He learnt to perceive the moral government under which he held the feudal tenure of his life—perceiving it he symbolised it, and to this day our poets and prophets still strive to symbolise it more and more completely.

The mind grew because the body grew; more things were perceived, more things were handled, and being handled became familiar. But this came about chiefly because there was a hand to handle with; without the hand there would be no handling, and no method of holding and examining is comparable to the human hand. The tail of an opossum is a prehensile thing, but it is too far from his eyes; the elephant’s trunk is better, and it is probably to their trunks that the elephants owe their sagacity. It is here that the bee, in spite of her wings, has failed. She has a high civilisation, but it is one whose equilibrium appears to have been already attained; the appearance is a false one, for the bee changes, though more slowly than man can watch her; but the reason of the very gradual nature of the change is chiefly because the physical organisation of the insect changes, but slowly also. She is poorly off for hands, and has never fairly grasped the notion of tacking on other limbs to the limbs of her own body, and so being short lived to boot she remains from century to century to human eyes in statu quo. Her body never becomes machinate, whereas this new phase of organism page 190 which has been introduced with man into the mundane economy, has made him a very quicksand for the foundation of an unchanging civilisation; certain fundamental principles will always remain, but every century the change in man’s physical status, as compared with the elements around him, is greater and greater. He is a shifting basis on which no equilibrium of habit and civilisation can be established. Were it not for this constant change in our physical powers, which our mechanical limbs have brought about, man would have long since apparently attained his limit of possibility; he would be a creature of as much fixity as the ants and bees; he would still have advanced, but no faster than other animals advance.

If there were a race of men without any mechanical appliances we should see this clearly. There are none, nor have there been, so far as we can tell, for millions and millions of years. The lowest Australian savage carries weapons for the fight or the chase, and has his cooking and drinking utensils at home; a race without these things would be completely feræ naturae and not men at all. We are unable to point to any example of a race absolutely devoid of extra- corporaneous limbs, but we can see among the Chinese that with the failure to invent new limbs a civilisation becomes as much fixed as that of the ants; and among savage tribes we observe that few implements involve a state of things scarcely human at all. Such tribes only advance pari passu with the creatures upon which they feed.

It is a mistake, then, to take the view adopted by a previous correspondent of this paper, to consider the machines as identities, to animalise them and to page 191 anticipate their final triumph over mankind. They are to be regarded as the mode of development by which human organism is most especially advancing, and every fresh invention is to be considered as an additional member of the resources of the human body. Herein lies the fundamental difference between man and his inferiors. As regard his flesh and blood, his senses, appetites, and affections, the difference is one of degree rather than of kind, but in the deliberate invention of such unity of limbs as is exemplified by the railway train—that seven-leagued foot which five hundred may own at once—he stands quite alone.

In confirmation of the views concerning mechanism which we have been advocating above, it must be remembered that men are not merely the children of their parents, but they are begotten of the institutions of the state of the mechanical sciences under which they are born and bred. These things have made us what we are. We are children of the plough, the spade, and the ship; we are children of the extended liberty and knowledge which the printing press has diffused. Our ancestors added these things to their previously existing members; the new limbs were preserved by natural selection and incorporated into human society; they descended with modifications, and hence proceeds the difference between our ancestors and ourselves. By the institutions and state of science under which a man is born it is determined whether he shall have the limbs of an Australian savage or those of a nineteenth-century Englishman. The former is supplemented with little save a rug and a javelin; the latter varies his physique with the changes of the season, with age and with advancing page 192 or decreasing wealth. If it is wet he is furnished with an organ which is called an umbrella and which seems designed for the purpose of protecting either his clothes or his lungs from the injurious effects of rain. His watch is of more importance to him than a good deal of his hair, at any rate than of his whiskers; besides this he carries a knife and generally a pencil case. His memory goes in a pocket-book. He grows more complex as he becomes older and he will then be seen with a pair of spectacles, perhaps also with false teeth and a wig; but, if he be a really well-developed specimen of the race, he will be furnished with a large box upon wheels, two horses, and a coachman.

Let the reader ponder over these last remarks and he will see that the principal varieties and sub-varieties of the human race are not now to be looked for among the negroes, the Circassians, the Malays, or the American aborigines, but among the rich and the poor. The difference in physical organisation between these two species of man is far greater than that between the so-called types of humanity. The rich man can go from here to England whenever he feels inclined, the legs of the other are by an invisible fatality prevented from carrying him beyond certain narrow limits. Neither rich nor poor as yet see the philosophy of the thing, or admit that he who can tack a portion of one of the P. and O. boats on to his identity is a much more highly organised being than one who cannot. Yet the fact is patent enough, if we once think it over, from the mere consideration of the respect with which we so often treat those who are richer than ourselves. We observe men for the page 193 most part (admitting, however, some few abnormal exceptions) to be deeply impressed by the superior organisation of those who have money. It is wrong to attribute this respect to any unworthy motive, for the feeling is strictly legitimate and springs from some of the very highest impulses of our nature. It is the same sort of affectionate reverence which a dog feels for man, and is not infrequently manifested in a similar manner.

We admit that these last sentences are open to question, and we should hardly like to commit ourselves irrecoverably to the sentiments they express; but we will say this much for certain, namely, that the rich man is the true hundred-handed Gyges of the poets. He alone possesses the full complement of limbs who stands at the summit of opulence, and we may assert with strictly scientific accuracy that the Rothschilds are the most astonishing organisms that the world has ever yet seen. For to the nerves or tissues, or whatever it be that answers to the helm of a rich man’s desires, there is a whole army of limbs seen and unseen attachable; he may be reckoned by his horse-power, by the number of foot-pounds which he has money enough to set in motion. Who, then, will deny that a man whose will represents the motive power of a thousand horses is a being very different from the one who is equivalent but to the power of a single one?

Henceforward, then, instead of saying that a man is hard up, let us say that his organisation is at a low ebb, or, if we wish him well, let us hope that he will grow plenty of limbs. It must be remembered that we are dealing with physical organisations only. We do page 194 not say that the thousand-horse man is better than a one-horse man, we only say that he is more highly organised and should be recognised as being so by the scientific leaders of the period. A man’s will, truth, endurance, are part of him also, and may, as in the case of the late Mr. Cobden, have in themselves a power equivalent to all the horse-power which they can influence; but were we to go into this part of the question we should never have done, and we are compelled reluctantly to leave our dream in its present fragmentary condition.