"The difference between progression and stationary inaction," says one of our
greatest living writers, "is one of the great secrets which science has yet to
penetrate." I am sure I do not pretend that I can completely penetrate it; but it
undoubredly seems to me that the problem is on the verge of solution, and that scientific
succeses in kindred fields by analogy suggest some principles which wholly remove many of
its difficulties, and indicate the sort of way in which those which remain may hereafter
be removed too.
But what is the problem? Common English, I might perhaps say common civilized thought,
ignores it. Our habitual instructors, our ordinary conversation, our inevitable and
ineradicable prejudices tend to make us think that "Progress" is the normal fact
in human society, the fact which we should expect to see, the fact which we should be
surprised if we did not see. But history refutes this. The ancients had no conception of
progress; they did not so much as reject the idea; they did not even entertain the idea.
Oriental nations are just the same now. Since history began they have always been what
they are. Savages again, do not improve; they hardly seem to have the basis on which to
build, much less the material to put up anything worth having. Only a few nations, and
those of European origin, advance; and yet these think---seem irresistibly compelled to
think---such advance to be inevitable, natural, and eternal. Why then is this great
In solving, or trying to solve, the question, we must take notice of this remarkable
difference, and explain it too, or else we may be sure our principles are utterly
incomplete, and perhaps altogether unsound. But what then is that solution, or what are
the principles which tend toward it? Three laws, or approximate laws, may, I think, be
laid down, with only one of which I can deal in this paper, but all three of which it will
be best to state, that it may be seen what I am aiming at.
First. In every particular state of the world, those nations which are strongest tend
to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peculiarities the strongest tend to be
Secondly. Within every particular nation the type or types of character then and there
most attractive tend to prevail; and the most attractive, though with exceptions, is what
we call the best character.
Thirdly. Neither of these competitions is in most historic conditions intensified by
extrinsic forces, but in some conditions, such as those now prevailing in the most
influential part of the world, both are so intensified.
These are the sort of doctrines with which, under the name of "natural
selection" in physical science, we have become familiar; and as every great
scientific conception tends to advance its boundaries and to be of use in solving problems
not thought of when it was started, so here, what was put forward for mere animal history
may, with a change of form but an identical essence, be applied to human history.
The discussion of these three principles cannot be kept quite apart except by pedantry;
but it is almost exclusively with the first---that of the competition between nation and
nation, or tribe and tribe (for I must use these words in their largest sense, and so as
to include every cohering aggregation of human beings---that I can deal now; and even as
to that I can but set down a few principal considerations.
The profess of the military art is the most conspicuous, I was about to say the most
showy, fact in human history. Ancient civilization may be compared with modern in many
respects, and plausible arguments constructed to show that it is better; but you cannot
compare the two in military power. Napoleon could indiputably have conquered Alexander;
our Indian army would not think much of the Retreat of the Ten Thousand.... Taken as a
whole and allowing for possible exceptions, the aggregate fighting power of mankind has
grown immensely, and has been growing continuously since we knew anything about it....
The cause of this military growth is very plain. The strongest nation has always been
conquering the weaker; sometimes even subduing it, but always prevailing over it. Every
intellectual gain, so to speak, that a nation possessed was in the earliest times made use
of---was invested and taken out---in war; all else perished. Each nation tried constantly
to be the stronger, and so made or copied the best weapons; by conscious and unconscious
imitation each nation formed a type of character suitable to war and conquest. Conquest
improved mankind by the intermixture of strengths; the armed truce, which was then called
peace, improved them by the competition of training and the consequent creation of new
power. Since the long-headed men first drove the short-headed men out of the best land in
Europe, all European history has been the history of the superposition of the more
military races over the less military---of the efforts, sometimes successful, sometimes
unsuccessful, of each race to get more military; and so the art of war has constantly
Man, being the strongest of all animals, differs from the rest; he was obliged to be
his own domesticator; he had to tame himself. And the way in which it happened was that
the most obedient, the tamest tribes are, at the first stage in the real struggle for
life, the strongest and the conquerors. All are very wild then; the animal vigor, the
savage virtue of the race has died out in none, and all have enough of it. But what makes
one tribe---one incipient tribe, one bit of a tribe---to differ from another is their
relative faculty of coherence. The slightest symptom of legal development, the least
indication of a military bond, is then enough to turn the scale. The compact tribes win,
and the compact tribes are the tamest. Civilization begins because the beginning of
civilization is a military advantage....
The problem is, why do men progress? And the answer suggested seems to be that they
progress when they have a certain sufficient amount of variability in their nature, This
seems to be the old style of explanation by occult qualities.... But the explanation is
not so absurd. It says: "The beginning of civilization is marked by an intense
legality; that legality is the very condition of its existence, the bond which ties it
together; but that legality---that tendency to impose a settled customary yoke upon all
men and all actions---if it goes on, kills out the variability implanted by nature, and
makes different men and different ages facsimiles of other men and other ages, as we see
them so often. Progress is only possible in those happy cases where the force of legality
has gone far enough to bind the nation together, but not far enough to kill out all
varieties and destroy nature's perpetual tendency to change." The point of the
solution is not the invention of an imaginary agency, but an assignment of comparative
magnitude to two known agencies....
But how far are the strongest nations really the best nations? How far is excellence in
war a criterion of other excellence? I cannot answer this now fully, but three or four
considerations are very plain. War, as I have said, nourishes the "preliminary"
virtues [of valor, veracity, the spirit of obedience, and the habit of discipline], and
this is almost as much as to say that there are virtues which it does not nourish. All
which may be called "grace" as well as virtue it does not nourish; humanity,
charity, a nice sense of the rights of others, it certainly does not foster. The
insensibility to human suffering, which is so striking a fact in the world as it stood
when history first reveals it, is doubtless due to the warlike origin of the old
civilization. Bred in war, and nursed in war, it could not revolt from the things of war,
and one of the principal of these is human pain. Since war has ceased to be the moving
force in the world, men have become more tender one to another, and shrink from what they
used to inflict without caring; and this not so much because men are improved (which may
or may not be in various cases), but because they have no longer the daily habit of
war---have no longer formed their notions upon war, and therefore are guided by thoughts
and feelings which soldiers as such--soldiers educated simply by their trade---are too
hard to understand.
Very like this is the contempt for physical weakness and for women which marks early
society too. Thc noncombatant population is sure to fare ill during the ages of combat.
But these defects, too, are cured or lessened; women have now marvellous means of winning
their way in the world; and mind without muscle has far greater force than muscle without
mind. These are some of the afterchanges in the interior of nations, of which the causes
must be scrutinized, and I now mention them only to bring out how many softer growths have
now half hidden the old and harsh civilization which war made.
But it is very dubious whether the spirit of war does not still color our morality far
too much. Metaphors from law and metaphors from war make most of our current moral
phrases, and a nice examination would easily explain that both rather vitiate what both
often illustrate. The military habit makes man think far too much of definite action, and
far too little of brooding meditation. Life is not a set campaign, but an irregular work,
and the main forces in it are not overt resolutions but latent and half-involuntary
promptings. The mistake of military ethics is to exaggerate the conception of discipline,
and so to present the moral force of the will in a barer form than it ever ought to take.
Military morals can direct the axe to cut down the tree, but it knows nothing of the quiet
force by which the forest grows.
What has been said is enough, I hope, to bring out that there are many qualities and
many institutions of the most various sort which give nations an advantage in military
competition; that most of these and most warlike qualities tend principally to good; that
the constant winning of these favored competitors is the particular mode by which the best
qualities wanted in elementary civilization are propagated and preserved.