Numero Uno—“Montesquieu was one of the great political philosophers of the Enlightenment. Insatiably curious and mordantly funny, he constructed a naturalistic account of the various forms of government, and of the causes that made them what they were and that advanced or constrained their development. He used this account to explain how governments might be preserved from corruption. He saw despotism, in particular, as a standing danger for any government not already despotic, and argued that it could best be prevented by a system in which different bodies exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and in which all those bodies were bound by the rule of law. This theory of the separation of powers had an enormous impact on liberal political theory, and on the framers of the constitution of the United States of America. …
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, was born on January 19th, 1689 at La Brède, near Bordeaux, to a noble and prosperous family. He was educated at the Oratorian Collège de Juilly, received a law degree from the University of Bordeaux in 1708, and went to Paris to continue his legal studies. On the death of his father in 1713 he returned to La Brède to manage the estates he inherited, and in 1715 he married Jeanne de Lartigue, a practicing Protestant, with whom he had a son and two daughters. In 1716 he inherited from his uncle the title Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu and the office of Président à Mortier in the Parlement of Bordeaux, which was at the time chiefly a judicial and administrative body. For the next eleven years he presided over the Tournelle, the Parlement’s criminal division, in which capacity he heard legal proceedings, supervised prisons, and administered various punishments including torture. During this time he was also active in the Academy of Bordeaux, where he kept abreast of scientific developments, and gave papers on topics ranging from the causes of echoes to the motives that should lead us to pursue the sciences.
In 1721 Montesquieu published the Persian Letters, which was an instant success and made Montesquieu a literary celebrity. (He published the Persian Letters anonymously, but his authorship was an open secret.) He began to spend more time in Paris, where he frequented salons and acted on behalf of the Parlement and the Academy of Bordeaux. During this period he wrote several minor works: Dialogue de Sylla et d’Eucrate (1724), Réflexions sur la Monarchie Universelle (1724), and Le Temple de Gnide(1725). In 1725 he sold his life interest in his office and resigned from the Parlement. In 1728 he was elected to the Académie Française, despite some religious opposition, and shortly thereafter left France to travel abroad. After visiting Italy, Germany, Austria, and other countries, he went to England, where he lived for two years. He was greatly impressed with the English political system, and drew on his observations of it in his later work.
On his return to France in 1731, troubled by failing eyesight, Montesquieu returned to La Brède and began work on his masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws. During this time he also wrote Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and of their Decline, which he published anonymously in 1734. In this book he tried to work out the application of his views to the particular case of Rome, and in so doing to discourage the use of Rome as a model for contemporary governments. Parts of Considerations were incorporated into The Spirit of the Laws, which he published in 1748. Like the Persian Letters, The Spirit of the Laws was both controversial and immensely successful. Two years later he published a Defense of the Spirit of the Laws to answer his various critics. Despite this effort, the Roman Catholic Church placed The Spirit of the Laws on the Index of Forbidden Books in 1751. In 1755, Montesquieu died of a fever in Paris, leaving behind an unfinished essay on taste for the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert.
Montesquieu’s two most important works are the Persian Letters and The Spirit of the Laws. While these works share certain themes — most notably a fascination with non-European societies and a horror of despotism — they are quite different from one another, and will be treated separately.
The Persian Letters is an epistolary novel consisting of letters sent to and from two fictional Persians, Usbek and Rica, who set out for Europe in 1711 and remain there at least until 1720, when the novel ends. When Montesquieu wrote the Persian Letters, travellers’ accounts of their journeys to hitherto unknown parts of the world, and of the peculiar customs they found there, were very popular in Europe. While Montesquieu was not the first writer to try to imagine how European culture might look to travellers from non-European countries, he used that device with particular brilliance.
Many of the letters are brief descriptions of scenes or characters. At first their humor derives mostly from the fact that Usbek and Rica misinterpret what they see. Thus, for instance, Rica writes that the Pope is a magician who can “make the king believe that three are only one, or else that the bread one eats is not bread, or that the wine one drinks is not wine, and a thousand other things of the same kind” (Letter 24); when Rica goes to the theater, he concludes that the spectators he sees in private boxes are actors enacting dramatic tableaux for the entertainment of the audience. In later letters, Usbek and Rica no longer misinterpret what they see; however, they find the actions of Europeans no less incomprehensible. They describe people who are so consumed by vanity that they become ridiculous, scholars whose concern for the minutiae of texts blinds them to the world around them, and a scientist who nearly freezes to death because lighting a fire in his room would interfere with his attempt to obtain exact measurements of its temperature.
Interspersed among these descriptive letters are the Persians’ reflections on what they see. Usbek is particularly given to such musings, and he shares many of Montesquieu’s own preoccupations: with the contrast between European and non-European societies, the advantages and disadvantages of different systems of government, the nature of political authority, and the proper role of law. He also seems to share many of Montesquieu’s views. The best government, he says, is that “which attains its purpose with the least trouble”, and “controls men in the manner best adapted to their inclinations and desires” (Letter 80). He notes that the French are moved by a love of honor to obey their king, and quotes approvingly the claim that this “makes a Frenchman, willingly and with pleasure, do things that your Sultan can only get out of his subjects by ceaseless exhortation with rewards and punishments” (Letter 89). While he is vividly aware of the importance of just laws, he regards legal reform as a dangerous task to be attempted “only in fear and trembling” (Letter 129). He favors religious toleration, and regards attempts to compel religious belief as both unwise and inhumane. In these reflections Usbek seems to be a thoughtful and enlightened observer with a deep commitment to justice.
However, one of the great themes of the Persian Letters is the virtual impossibility of self-knowledge, and Usbek is its most fully realized illustration. Usbek has left behind a harem in Persia, in which his wives are kept prisoner by eunuchs who are among his slaves. Both his wives and his slaves can be beaten, mutilated, or killed at his command, as can any outsider unfortunate enough to lay eyes on them. Usbek is, in other words, a despot in his home. From the outset he is tortured by the thought of his wives’ infidelity. It is not, he writes, that he loves his wives, but that “from my very lack of feeling has come a secret jealousy which is devouring me” (Letter 6). As time goes on problems develop in the seraglio: Usbek’s wives feud with each other, and the eunuchs find it increasingly difficult to keep order. Eventually discipline breaks down altogether; the Chief Eunuch reports this to Usbek and then abruptly dies. His replacement is clearly obedient not to Usbek but to his wives: he contrives not to receive any of Usbek’s letters, and when a young man is found in the seraglio he writes: “I got up, examined the matter, and found that it was a vision” (Letter 149). Usbek orders another eunuch to restore order: “leave pity and tenderness behind. … Make my seraglio what it was when I left it; but begin by expiation: exterminate the criminals, and strike dread into those who contemplated becoming so. There is nothing that you cannot hope to receive from your master for such an outstanding service” (Letter 153). His orders are obeyed, and “horror, darkness, and dread rule the seraglio” (Letter 156). Finally, Roxana, Usbek’s favorite wife and the only one whose virtue he trusted, is found with another man; her lover is killed, and she commits suicide after writing Usbek a scathing letter in which she asks: “How could you have thought me credulous enough to imagine that I was in the world only in order to worship your caprices? that while you allowed yourself everything, you had the right to thwart all my desires? No: I may have lived in servitude, but I have always been free. I have amended your laws according to the laws of nature, and my mind has always remained independent” (Letter 161). With this letter the novel ends.
The Persian Letters is both one of the funniest books written by a major philosopher, and one of the bleakest. It presents both virtue and self-knowledge as almost unattainable. Almost all the Europeans in the Persian Letters are ridiculous; most of those who are not appear only to serve as a mouthpiece for Montesquieu’s own views. Rica is amiable and good-natured, but this is largely due to the fact that, since he has no responsibilities, his virtue has never been seriously tested. For all Usbek’s apparent enlightenment and humanity, he turns out to be a monster whose cruelty does not bring him happiness, as he himself recognizes even as he decides to inflict it. His eunuchs, unable to hope for either freedom or happiness, learn to enjoy tormenting their charges, and his wives, for the most part, profess love while plotting intrigues. The only admirable character in the novel is Roxana, but the social institutions of Persia make her life intolerable: she is separated from the man she loves and forced to live in slavery. Her suicide is presented as a noble act, but also as an indictment of the despotic institutions that make it necessary.
Montesquieu’s aim in The Spirit of the Laws is to explain human laws and social institutions. This might seem like an impossible project: unlike physical laws, which are, according to Montesquieu, instituted and sustained by God, positive laws and social institutions are created by fallible human beings who are “subject … to ignorance and error, [and] hurried away by a thousand impetuous passions” (SL 1.1). One might therefore expect our laws and institutions to be no more comprehensible than any other catalog of human follies, an expectation which the extraordinary diversity of laws adopted by different societies would seem to confirm.
Nonetheless, Montesquieu believes that this apparent chaos is much more comprehensible than one might think. On his view, the key to understanding different laws and social systems is to recognize that they should be adapted to a variety of different factors, and cannot be properly understood unless one considers them in this light. Specifically, laws should be adapted “to the people for whom they are framed…, to the nature and principle of each government, … to the climate of each country, to the quality of its soil, to its situation and extent, to the principal occupation of the natives, whether husbandmen, huntsmen or shepherds: they should have relation to the degree of liberty which the constitution will bear; to the religion of the inhabitants, to their inclinations, riches, numbers, commerce, manners, and customs. In fine, they have relations to each other, as also to their origin, to the intent of the legislator, and to the order of things on which they are established; in all of which different lights they ought to be considered” (SL 1.3). When we consider legal and social systems in relation to these various factors, Montesquieu believes, we will find that many laws and institutions that had seemed puzzling or even perverse are in fact quite comprehensible.
Understanding why we have the laws we do is important in itself. However, it also serves practical purposes. Most importantly, it will discourage misguided attempts at reform. Montesquieu is not a utopian, either by temperament or conviction. He believes that to live under a stable, non-despotic government that leaves its law-abiding citizens more or less free to live their lives is a great good, and that no such government should be lightly tampered with. If we understand our system of government, and the ways in which it is adapted to the conditions of our country and its people, we will see that many of its apparently irrational features actually make sense, and that to ‘reform’ these features would actually weaken it. Thus, for instance, one might think that a monarchical government would be strengthened by weakening the nobility, thereby giving more power to the monarch. On Montesquieu’s view, this is false: to weaken those groups or institutions which check a monarch’s power is to risk transforming monarchy into despotism, a form of government that is both abhorrent and unstable.
Understanding our laws will also help us to see which aspects of them are genuinely in need of reform, and how these reforms might be accomplished. For instance, Montesquieu believes that the laws of many countries can be made be more liberal and more humane, and that they can often be applied less arbitrarily, with less scope for the unpredictable and oppressive use of state power. Likewise, religious persecution and slavery can be abolished, and commerce can be encouraged. These reforms would generally strengthen monarchical governments, since they enhance the freedom and dignity of citizens. If lawmakers understand the relations between laws on the one hand and conditions of their countries and the principles of their governments on the other, they will be in a better position to carry out such reforms without undermining the governments they seek to improve.
Montesquieu holds that there are three types of governments: republican governments, which can take either democratic or aristocratic forms; monarchies; and despotisms. Unlike, for instance, Aristotle, Montesquieu does not distinguish forms of government on the basis of the virtue of the sovereign. The distinction between monarchy and despotism, for instance, depends not on the virtue of the monarch, but on whether or not he governs “by fixed and established laws” (SL 2.1). Each form of government has a principle, a set of “human passions which set it in motion” (SL 3.1); and each can be corrupted if its principle is undermined or destroyed.
In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They may govern through ministers, or be advised by a senate, but they must have the power of choosing their ministers and senators for themselves. The principle of democracy is political virtue, by which Montesquieu means “the love of the laws and of our country” (SL 4.5), including its democratic constitution. The form of a democratic government makes the laws governing suffrage and voting fundamental. The need to protect its principle, however, imposes far more extensive requirements. On Montesquieu’s view, the virtue required by a functioning democracy is not natural. It requires “a constant preference of public to private interest” (SL 4.5); it “limits ambition to the sole desire, to the sole happiness, of doing greater services to our country than the rest of our fellow citizens” (SL 5.3); and it “is a self-renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful” (SL 4.5). Montesquieu compares it to monks’ love for their order: “their rule debars them from all those things by which the ordinary passions are fed; there remains therefore only this passion for the very rule that torments them. … the more it curbs their inclinations, the more force it gives to the only passion left them” (SL 5.2). To produce this unnatural self-renunciation, “the whole power of education is required” (SL 4.5). A democracy must educate its citizens to identify their interests with the interests of their country, and should have censors to preserve its mores. It should seek to establish frugality by law, so as to prevent its citizens from being tempted to advance their own private interests at the expense of the public good; for the same reason, the laws by which property is transferred should aim to preserve an equal distribution of property among citizens. Its territory should be small, so that it is easy for citizens to identify with it, and more difficult for extensive private interests to emerge.
Democracies can be corrupted in two ways: by what Montesquieu calls “the spirit of inequality” and “the spirit of extreme equality” (SL 8.2). The spirit of inequality arises when citizens no longer identify their interests with the interests of their country, and therefore seek both to advance their own private interests at the expense of their fellow citizens, and to acquire political power over them. The spirit of extreme equality arises when the people are no longer content to be equal as citizens, but want to be equal in every respect. In a functioning democracy, the people choose magistrates to exercise executive power, and they respect and obey the magistrates they have chosen. If those magistrates forfeit their respect, they replace them. When the spirit of extreme equality takes root, however, the citizens neither respect nor obey any magistrate. They “want to manage everything themselves, to debate for the senate, to execute for the magistrate, and to decide for the judges” (SL 8.2). Eventually the government will cease to function, the last remnants of virtue will disappear, and democracy will be replaced by despotism.
In an aristocracy, one part of the people governs the rest. The principle of an aristocratic government is moderation, the virtue which leads those who govern in an aristocracy to restrain themselves both from oppressing the people and from trying to acquire excessive power over one another. In an aristocracy, the laws should be designed to instill and protect this spirit of moderation. To do so, they must do three things. First, the laws must prevent the nobility from abusing the people. The power of the nobility makes such abuse a standing temptation in an aristocracy; to avoid it, the laws should deny the nobility some powers, like the power to tax, which would make this temptation all but irresistible, and should try to foster responsible and moderate administration. Second, the laws should disguise as much as possible the difference between the nobility and the people, so that the people feel their lack of power as little as possible. Thus the nobility should have modest and simple manners, since if they do not attempt to distinguish themselves from the people “the people are apt to forget their subjection and weakness” (SL 5.8). Finally, the laws should try to ensure equality among the nobles themselves, and among noble families. When they fail to do so, the nobility will lose its spirit of moderation, and the government will be corrupted.
In a monarchy, one person governs “by fixed and established laws” (SL 2.1). According to Montesquieu, these laws “necessarily suppose the intermediate channels through which (the monarch’s) power flows: for if there be only the momentary and capricious will of a single person to govern the state, nothing can be fixed, and, of course, there is no fundamental law” (SL 2.4). These ‘intermediate channels’ are such subordinate institutions as the nobility and an independent judiciary; and the laws of a monarchy should therefore be designed to preserve their power. The principle of monarchical government is honor. Unlike the virtue required by republican governments, the desire to win honor and distinction comes naturally to us. For this reason education has a less difficult task in a monarchy than in a republic: it need only heighten our ambitions and our sense of our own worth, provide us with an ideal of honor worth aspiring to, and cultivate in us the politeness needed to live with others whose sense of their worth matches our own. The chief task of the laws in a monarchy is to protect the subordinate institutions that distinguish monarchy from despotism. To this end, they should make it easy to preserve large estates undivided, protect the rights and privileges of the nobility, and promote the rule of law. They should also encourage the proliferation of distinctions and of rewards for honorable conduct, including luxuries.
A monarchy is corrupted when the monarch either destroys the subordinate institutions that constrain his will, or decides to rule arbitrarily, without regard to the basic laws of his country, or debases the honors at which his citizens might aim, so that “men are capable of being loaded at the very same time with infamy and with dignities” (SL 8.7). The first two forms of corruption destroy the checks on the sovereign’s will that separate monarchy from despotism; the third severs the connection between honorable conduct and its proper rewards. In a functioning monarchy, personal ambition and a sense of honor work together. This is monarchy’s great strength and the source of its extraordinary stability: whether its citizens act from genuine virtue, a sense of their own worth, a desire to serve their king, or personal ambition, they will be led to act in ways that serve their country. A monarch who rules arbitrarily, or who rewards servility and ignoble conduct instead of genuine honor, severs this connection and corrupts his government.
In despotic states “a single person directs everything by his own will and caprice” (SL 2.1). Without laws to check him, and with no need to attend to anyone who does not agree with him, a despot can do whatever he likes, however ill-advised or reprehensible. His subjects are no better than slaves, and he can dispose of them as he sees fit. The principle of despotism is fear. This fear is easily maintained, since the situation of a despot’s subjects is genuinely terrifying. Education is unnecessary in a despotism; if it exists at all, it should be designed to debase the mind and break the spirit. Such ideas as honor and virtue should not occur to a despot’s subjects, since “persons capable of setting a value on themselves would be likely to create disturbances. Fear must therefore depress their spirits, and extinguish even the least sense of ambition” (SL 3.9). Their “portion here, like that of beasts, is instinct, compliance, and punishment” (SL 3.10), and any higher aspirations should be brutally discouraged.
Montesquieu writes that “the principle of despotic government is subject to a continual corruption, because it is even in its nature corrupt” (SL 8.10). This is true in several senses. First, despotic governments undermine themselves. Because property is not secure in a despotic state, commerce will not flourish, and the state will be poor. The people must be kept in a state of fear by the threat of punishment; however, over time the punishments needed to keep them in line will tend to become more and more severe, until further threats lose their force. Most importantly, however, the despot’s character is likely to prevent him from ruling effectively. Since a despot’s every whim is granted, he “has no occasion to deliberate, to doubt, to reason; he has only to will” (SL 4.3). For this reason he is never forced to develop anything like intelligence, character, or resolution. Instead, he is “naturally lazy, voluptuous, and ignorant” (SL 2.5), and has no interest in actually governing his people. He will therefore choose a vizier to govern for him, and retire to his seraglio to pursue pleasure. In his absence, however, intrigues against him will multiply, especially since his rule is necessarily odious to his subjects, and since they have so little to lose if their plots against him fail. He cannot rely on his army to protect him, since the more power they have, the greater the likelihood that his generals will themselves try to seize power. For this reason the ruler in a despotic state has no more security than his people.
Second, monarchical and republican governments involve specific governmental structures, and require that their citizens have specific sorts of motivation. When these structures crumble, or these motivations fail, monarchical and republican governments are corrupted, and the result of their corruption is that they fall into despotism. But when a particular despotic government falls, it is not generally replaced by a monarchy or a republic. The creation of a stable monarchy or republic is extremely difficult: “a masterpiece of legislation, rarely produced by hazard, and seldom attained by prudence” (SL 5.14). It is particularly difficult when those who would have both to frame the laws of such a government and to live by them have previously been brutalized and degraded by despotism. Producing a despotic government, by contrast, is relatively straightforward. A despotism requires no powers to be carefully balanced against one another, no institutions to be created and maintained in existence, no complicated motivations to be fostered, and no restraints on power to be kept in place. One need only terrify one’s fellow citizens enough to allow one to impose one’s will on them; and this, Montesquieu claims, “is what every capacity may reach” (SL 5.14). For these reasons despotism necessarily stands in a different relation to corruption than other forms of government: while they are liable to corruption, despotism is its embodiment.
Montesquieu is among the greatest philosophers of liberalism, but his is what Shklar has called “a liberalism of fear” (Shklar, Montesquieu, p. 89). According to Montesquieu, political liberty is “a tranquillity of mind arising from the opinion each person has of his safety” (SL 11.6). Liberty is not the freedom to do whatever we want: if we have the freedom to harm others, for instance, others will also have the freedom to harm us, and we will have no confidence in our own safety. Liberty involves living under laws that protect us from harm while leaving us free to do as much as possible, and that enable us to feel the greatest possible confidence that if we obey those laws, the power of the state will not be directed against us.
If it is to provide its citizens with the greatest possible liberty, a government must have certain features. First, since “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it … it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power” (SL 11.4). This is achieved through the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government. If different persons or bodies exercise these powers, then each can check the others if they try to abuse their powers. But if one person or body holds several or all of these powers, then nothing prevents that person or body from acting tyrannically; and the people will have no confidence in their own security.
Certain arrangements make it easier for the three powers to check one another. Montesquieu argues that the legislative power alone should have the power to tax, since it can then deprive the executive of funding if the latter attempts to impose its will arbitrarily. Likewise, the executive power should have the right to veto acts of the legislature, and the legislature should be composed of two houses, each of which can prevent acts of the other from becoming law. The judiciary should be independent of both the legislature and the executive, and should restrict itself to applying the laws to particular cases in a fixed and consistent manner, so that “the judicial power, so terrible to mankind, … becomes, as it were, invisible”, and people “fear the office, but not the magistrate” (SL 11.6).
Liberty also requires that the laws concern only threats to public order and security, since such laws will protect us from harm while leaving us free to do as many other things as possible. Thus, for instance, the laws should not concern offenses against God, since He does not require their protection. They should not prohibit what they do not need to prohibit: “all punishment which is not derived from necessity is tyrannical. The law is not a mere act of power; things in their own nature indifferent are not within its province” (SL 19.14). The laws should be constructed to make it as easy as possible for citizens to protect themselves from punishment by not committing crimes. They should not be vague, since if they were, we might never be sure whether or not some particular action was a crime. Nor should they prohibit things we might do inadvertently, like bumping into a statue of the emperor, or involuntarily, like doubting the wisdom of one of his decrees; if such actions were crimes, no amount of effort to abide by the laws of our country would justify confidence that we would succeed, and therefore we could never feel safe from criminal prosecution. Finally, the laws should make it as easy as possible for an innocent person to prove his or her innocence. They should concern outward conduct, not (for instance) our thoughts and dreams, since while we can try to prove that we did not perform some action, we cannot prove that we never had some thought. The laws should not criminalize conduct that is inherently hard to prove, like witchcraft; and lawmakers should be cautious when dealing with crimes like sodomy, which are typically not carried out in the presence of several witnesses, lest they “open a very wide door to calumny” (SL 12.6).
Montesquieu’s emphasis on the connection between liberty and the details of the criminal law were unusual among his contemporaries, and inspired such later legal reformers as Cesare Beccaria.
Montequieu believes that climate and geography affect the temperaments and customs of a country’s inhabitants. He is not a determinist, and does not believe that these influences are irresistible. Nonetheless, he believes that the laws should take these effects into account, accommodating them when necessary, and counteracting their worst effects.
According to Montesquieu, a cold climate constricts our bodies’ fibers, and causes coarser juices to flow through them. Heat, by contrast, expands our fibers, and produces more rarefied juices. These physiological changes affect our characters. Those who live in cold climates are vigorous and bold, phlegmatic, frank, and not given to suspicion or cunning. They are relatively insensitive to pleasure and pain; Montesquieu writes that “you must flay a Muscovite alive to make him feel” (SL 14.2). Those who live in warm climates have stronger but less durable sensations. They are more fearful, more amorous, and more susceptible both to the temptations of pleasure and to real or imagined pain; but they are less resolute, and less capable of sustained or decisive action. The manners of those who live in temperate climates are “inconstant”, since “the climate has not a quality determinate enough to fix them” (SL 14.2). These differences are not hereditary: if one moves from one sort of climate to another, one’s temperament will alter accordingly.
A hot climate can make slavery comprehensible. Montesquieu writes that “the state of slavery is in its own nature bad” (SL 15.1); he is particularly contemptuous of religious and racist justifications for slavery. However, on his view, there are two types of country in which slavery, while not acceptable, is less bad than it might otherwise be. In despotic countries, the situation of slaves is not that different from the situation of the despot’s other subjects; for this reason, slavery in a despotic state is “more tolerable” (SL 15.1) than in other countries. In unusually hot countries, it might be that “the excess of heat enervates the body, and renders men so slothful and dispirited that nothing but the fear of chastisement can oblige them to perform any laborious duty: slavery is there more reconcilable to reason” (SL 15.7). However, Montesquieu writes that when work can be done by freemen motivated by the hope of gain rather than by slaves motivated by fear, the former will always work better; and that in such climates slavery is not only wrong but imprudent. He hopes that “there is not that climate upon earth where the most laborious services might not with proper encouragement be performed by freemen” (SL 15.8); if there is no such climate, then slavery could never be justified on these grounds.
The quality of a country’s soil also affects the form of its government. Monarchies are more common where the soil is fertile, and republics where it is barren. This is so for three reasons. First, those who live in fruitful countries are more apt to be content with their situation, and to value in a government not the liberty it bestows but its ability to provide them with enough security that they can get on with their farming. They are therefore more willing to accept a monarchy if it can provide such security. Often it can, since monarchies can respond to threats more quickly than republics. Second, fertile countries are both more desirable than barren countries and easier to conquer: they “are always of a level surface, where the inhabitants are unable to dispute against a stronger power; they are then obliged to submit; and when they have once submitted, the spirit of liberty cannot return; the wealth of the country is a pledge of their fidelity” (SL 18.2). Montesquieu believes that monarchies are much more likely than republics to wage wars of conquest, and therefore that a conquering power is likely to be a monarchy. Third, those who live where the soil is barren have to work hard in order to survive; this tends to make them “industrious, sober, inured to hardship, courageous, and fit for war” (SL 18.4). Those who inhabit fertile country, by contrast, favor “ease, effeminacy, and a certain fondness for the preservation of life” (SL 18.4). For this reason, the inhabitants of barren countries are better able to defend themselves from such attacks as might occur, and to defend their liberty against those who would destroy it.
These facts give barren countries advantages that compensate for the infertility of their soil. Since they are less likely to be invaded, they are less likely to be sacked and devastated; and they are more likely to be worked well, since “countries are not cultivated in proportion to their fertility, but to their liberty” (SL 18.3). This is why “the best provinces are most frequently depopulated, while the frightful countries of the North continue always inhabited, from their being almost uninhabitable” (SL 18.3).
Montesquieu believes that the climate and geography of Asia explain why despotism flourishes there. Asia, he thinks, has two features that distinguish it from Europe. First, Asia has virtually no temperate zone. While the mountains of Scandinavia shelter Europe from arctic winds, Asia has no such buffer; for this reason its frigid northern zone extends much further south than in Europe, and there is a relatively quick transition from it to the tropical south. For this reason “the warlike, brave, and active people touch immediately upon those who are indolent, effeminate and timorous; the one must, therefore, conquer, and the other be conquered” (SL 17.3). In Europe, by contrast, the climate changes gradually from cold to hot; therefore “strong nations are opposed to the strong; and those who join each other have nearly the same courage” (SL 17.3). Second, Asia has larger plains than Europe. Its mountain ranges lie further apart, and its rivers are not such formidable barriers to invasion. Since Europe is naturally divided into smaller regions, it is more difficult for any one power to conquer them all; this means that Europe will tend to have more and smaller states. Asia, by contrast, tends to have much larger empires, which predisposes it to despotism.
Of all the ways in which a country might seek to enrich itself, Montesquieu believes, commerce is the only one without overwhelming drawbacks. Conquering and plundering one’s neighbors can provide temporary infusions of money, but over time the costs of maintaining an occupying army and administering subjugated peoples impose strains that few countries can endure. Extracting precious metals from colonial mines leads to general inflation; thus the costs of extraction increase while the value of the extracted metals decreases. The increased availability of money furthers the development of commerce in other countries; however, in the country which extracts gold and silver, domestic industry is destroyed.
Commerce, by contrast, has no such disadvantages. It does not require vast armies, or the continued subjugation of other peoples. It does not undermine itself, as the extraction of gold from colonial mines does, and it rewards domestic industry. It therefore sustains itself, and nations which engage in it, over time. While it does not produce all the virtues — hospitality, Montesquieu thinks, is more often found among the poor than among commercial peoples — it does produce some: “the spirit of commerce is naturally attended with that of frugality, economy, moderation, labor, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule” (SL 5.6). In addition, it “is a cure for the most destructive prejudices” (SL 20.1), improves manners, and leads to peace among nations.
In monarchies, Montesquieu believes, the aim of commerce is, for the most part, to supply luxuries. In republics, it is to bring from one country what is wanted in another, “gaining little” but “gaining incessantly” (SL 20.4). In despotisms, there is very little commerce of any kind, since there is no security of property. In a monarchy, neither kings nor nobles should engage in commerce, since this would risk concentrating too much power in their hands. By the same token, there should be no banks in a monarchy, since a treasure “no sooner becomes great than it becomes the treasure of the prince” (SL 20.10). In republics, by contrast, banks are extremely useful, and anyone should be allowed to engage in trade. Restrictions on which profession a person can follow destroy people’s hopes of bettering their situation; they are therefore appropriate only to despotic states.
While some mercantilists had argued that commerce is a zero-sum game in which when some gain, others necessarily lose, Montesquieu believes that commerce benefits all countries except those who have nothing but their land and what it produces. In those deeply impoverished countries, commerce with other countries will encourage those who own the land to oppress those who work it, rather than encouraging the development of domestic industries and manufacture. However, all other countries benefit by commerce, and should seek to trade with as many other nations as possible, “for it is competition which sets a just value on merchandise, and establishes the relation between them” (SL 20.9).
Montesquieu describes commerce as an activity that cannot be confined or controlled by any individual government or monarch. This, in his view, has always been true: “Commerce is sometimes destroyed by conquerors, sometimes cramped by monarchs; it traverses the earth, flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breathe” (SL 21.5). However, the independence of commerce was greatly enhanced when, during the medieval period, Jews responded to persecution and the seizure of their property by inventing letters of exchange. “Commerce, by this method, became capable of eluding violence, and of maintaining everywhere its ground; the richest merchant having none but invisible effects, which he could convey imperceptibly wherever he pleased” (SL 21.20). This set in motion developments which made commerce still more independent of monarchs and their whims.
First, it facilitated the development of international markets, which place prices outside the control of governments. Money, according to Montesquieu, is “a sign which represents the value of all merchandise” (SL 22.2). The price of merchandise depends on the quantity of money and the quantity of merchandise, and on the amounts of money and merchandise that are in trade. Monarchs can affect this price by imposing tariffs or duties on certain goods. But since they cannot control the amounts of money and merchandise that are in trade within their own countries, let alone internationally, a monarch “can no more fix the price of merchandise than he can establish by a decree that the relation 1 has to 10 is equal to that of 1 to 20” (SL 22.7). If a monarch attempts to do so, he courts disaster: “Julian’s lowering the price of provisions at Antioch was the cause of a most terrible famine” (SL 22.7).
Second, it permitted the development of international currency exchanges, which place the exchange rate of a country’s currency largely outside the control of that country’s government. A monarch can establish a currency, and stipulate how much of some metal each unit of that currency shall contain. However, monarchs cannot control the rates of exchange between their currencies and those of other countries. These rates depend on the relative scarcity of money in the countries in question, and they are “fixed by the general opinion of the merchants, never by the decrees of the prince” (SL 22.10). For this reason “the exchange of all places constantly tends to a certain proportion, and that in the very nature of things” (SL 22.10).
Finally, the development of international commerce gives governments a great incentive to adopt policies that favor, or at least do not impede, its development. Governments need to maintain confidence in their creditworthiness if they wish to borrow money; this deters them from at least the more extreme forms of fiscal irresponsibility, and from oppressing too greatly those citizens from whom they might later need to borrow money. Since the development of commerce requires the availability of loans, governments must establish interest rates high enough to encourage lending, but not so high as to make borrowing unprofitable. Taxes must not be so high that they deprive citizens of the hope of bettering their situations (SL 13.2), and the laws should allow those citizens enough freedom to carry out commercial affairs.
In general, Montesquieu believes that commerce has had an extremely beneficial influence on government. Since commerce began to recover after the development of letters of exchange and the reintroduction of lending at interest, he writes:
it became necessary that princes should govern with more prudence than they themselves could ever have imagined; for great exertions of authority were, in the event, found to be impolitic … We begin to be cured of Machiavelism, and recover from it every day. More moderation has become necessary in the councils of princes. What would formerly have been called a master-stroke in politics would be now, independent of the horror it might occasion, the greatest imprudence. Happy is it for men that they are in a situation in which, though their passions prompt them to be wicked, it is, nevertheless, to their interest to be humane and virtuous. (SL 21.20)
Religion plays only a minor part in the Spirit of the Laws. God is described in Book 1 as creating nature and its laws; having done so, He vanishes, and plays no further explanatory role. In particular, Montesquieu does not explain the laws of any country by appeal to divine enlightenment, providence, or guidance. In the Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu considers religions “in relation only to the good they produce in civil society” (SL 24.1), and not to their truth or falsity. He regards different religions as appropriate to different environments and forms of government. Protestantism is most suitable to republics, Catholicism to monarchies, and Islam to despotisms; the Islamic prohibition on eating pork is appropriate to Arabia, where hogs are scarce and contribute to disease, while in India, where cattle are badly needed but do not thrive, a prohibition on eating beef is suitable. Thus, “when Montezuma with so much obstinacy insisted that the religion of the Spaniards was good for their country, and his for Mexico, he did not assert an absurdity” (SL 24.24).
Religion can help to ameliorate the effects of bad laws and institutions; it is the only thing capable of serving as a check on despotic power. However, on Montesquieu’s view it is generally a mistake to base civil laws on religious principles. Religion aims at the perfection of the individual; civil laws aim at the welfare of society. Given these different aims, what these two sets of laws should require will often differ; for this reason religion “ought not always to serve as a first principle to the civil laws” (SL 26.9). The civil laws are not an appropriate tool for enforcing religious norms of conduct: God has His own laws, and He is quite capable of enforcing them without our assistance. When we attempt to enforce God’s laws for Him, or to cast ourselves as His protectors, we make our religion an instrument of fanaticism and oppression; this is a service neither to God nor to our country.
If several religions have gained adherents in a country, those religions should all be tolerated, not only by the state but by its citizens. The laws should ‘require from the several religions, not only that they shall not embroil the state, but that they shall not raise disturbances among themselves.’ While one can try to persuade people to change religions by offering them positive inducements to do so, attempts to force others to convert are ineffective and inhumane. In an unusually scathing passage, Montesquieu also argues that they are unworthy of Christianity, and writes: ‘if anyone in times to come shall dare to assert, that in the age in which we live, the people of Europe were civilized, you (the Inquisition) will be cited to prove that they were barbarians; and the idea they will have of you will be such as will dishonor your age, and spread hatred over all your contemporaries.'”
“Roxana to Usbek–
Yes, I have deceived you; I have led away your eunuchs: I have made sport of your jealousy; and I have known how to turn your frightful seraglio into a place of pleasure and delight.
I am at the point of death; the poison courses through my veins: for what should I do here, since the only man who bound me to life is no more? I die; but my spirit shall not pass unaccompanied: I have dispatched before me those sacrilegious gaolers who spilt the sweetest blood in the world.
How could you think that I was such a weakling as to imagine there was nothing for me in the world but to worship your caprices; that while you indulged all your desires, you should have the right to thwart me in all mine? No: I have lived in slavery, and yet always retained my freedom: I have remodeled your laws upon those of nature; and my mind has always maintained its independence.
You ought to thank me, then, for the sacrifice I made you; for having sunk so low as to seem to be yours; for having, like a coward, hidden in my heart what I ought to have published to all the earth; finally, for having profaned virtue, by permitting my submission to your humours to be called by that name.
You were amazed never to find in me the transports of love: had you known me better you would have found all the violence of hate.
For a long time you have had the satisfaction of believing that you had conquered a heart like mine: now we are both delighted: you thought me deceived, and I have deceived you.
Doubtless such a letter as this you little expected to receive. Can it be possible that after having overwhelmed you with affliction I shall still force you to admire my courage? But all is ended now; the poison destroys me, my strength leaves me, my pen drops from my hand; even my hate grows weaker: I die.” “Baron de Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat,” by Hilary Bok , & Persian Letters, “Letter 161,” by Montesquieu
Numero Dos—“The woods were as the Indians had left them, but the boys who were playing there did not realize, until many years afterwards, that they had moved in as the Indians moved out. Perhaps, if these boys had known that they were the first white boys to use the Indians’ playgrounds, the realization might have added zest to the make-believe of their games; but probably boys between seven and fourteen, when they play at all, play with their fancies strained, and very likely these little boys, keeping their stick-horse livery-stable in a wild-grape arbour in the thicket, needed no verisimilitude. The long straight hickory switches—which served as horses—were arranged with their butts on a rotting log, whereon some grass was spread for their feed. Their string bridles hung loosely over the log. The horsemen swinging in the vines above, or in the elm tree near by, were preparing a raid on the stables of other boys, either in the native lumber town a rifle-shot away or in distant parts of the woods. When the youngsters climbed down, they straddled their hickory steeds and galloped friskily away to the creek and drank; this was part of the rites, for tradition in the town of their elders said that whoever drank of Sycamore Creek water immediately turned horse thief. Having drunk their fill at the ford, they waded it and left the stumpy road, plunging into the underbrush, snorting and puffing and giggling and fussing and complaining—the big ones at the little ones and the little ones at the big ones—after the manner of mankind.When they had gone perhaps a half-mile from the ford, one of the little boys, feeling the rag on his sore heel slipping and letting the rough woods grass scratch his raw flesh, stopped to tie up the rag. He was far in the rear of the pack when he stopped, and the boys, not heeding his blat, rushed on and left him at the edge of a thicket near a deep-rutted road. His cry became a whimper and his whimper a sniffle as he worked with the rag; but the little fingers were clumsy, and a heel is a hard place to cover, and the sun was hot on his back; so he took the rag in one hand and his bridle in the other, and limped on his stick horse into the thick shade of a lone oak tree that stood beside the wide dusty road. His sore did not bother him, and he sat with his back against the tree for a while, flipping the rag and making figures in the dust with the pronged tail of his horse. Then his hands were still, and as he ran from tune to tune with improvised interludes, he droned a song of his prowess. Sometimes he sang words and sometimes he sang thoughts. He sank farther and farther down and looked up into the tree and ceased his song, chirping instead a stuttering falsetto trill, not unlike a cricket’s, holding his breath as long as he could to draw it out to its finest strand; and thus with his head on his arm and his arm on the tree root, he fell asleep.
The noon sun was on his legs when he awoke, and a strange dog was sniffing at him. As he started up, he heard the clatter of a horse’s feet in the road, and saw an Indian woman trotting toward him on a pony. In an instant he was a-wing with terror, scooting toward the thick of the woods. He screamed as he ran, for his head was full of Indian stories, and he knew that the only use Indians had for little boys was to steal them and adopt them into the tribe. He heard the brush crackling behind him, and he knew that the woman had turned off the road to follow him. A hundred yards is a long way for a terror-stricken little boy to run through tangled underbrush, and when he had come to the high bank of the stream, he slipped down among the tree roots[Pg 3] and tried to hide. His little heart beat so fast that he could not keep from panting, and the sound of breaking brush came nearer and then stopped, and in a moment he looked up and saw the squaw leaning over the bank, holding to the tree above him. She smiled kindly at him and said:—
“Come on, boy—I won’t hurt you. I as scared of you as you are of me.”
She bent over and took him by the arm and lifted him to her. She got on her pony and put him on before her and soothed his fright, as they rode slowly through the wood to the road, where they came to a great band of Indians, all riding ponies.
It seemed to the boy that he had never imagined there were so many people in the whole world; there was some parley among them, and the band set out on the road again, with the squaw in advance. They were but a few yards from the forks of the road, and as they came to it she said:—
“Boy—which way to town?”
He pointed the way and she turned into it, and the band followed. They crossed the ford, climbed the steep red clay bank of the creek, and filed up the hill into the unpainted group of cabins and shanties cluttered around a well that men, in 1857, knew as Sycamore Ridge. The Indians filled the dusty area between the two rows of gray houses on either side of the street, and the town flocked from its ten front doors before half the train had arrived. The last door of them all to open was in a slab house, nearly half a mile from the street. A washing fluttered on the clothes-line, and the woman who came out of the door carried a round-bottomed hickory-bark basket, such as might hold clothes-pins. Seeing the invasion, she hurried across the prairie, toward the town. She was a tall thin woman, not yet thirty, brown and tanned, with a strong masculine face, and as she came nearer one could see that she had a square firm jaw, and great kind gray eyes that lighted her countenance from a serene soul. Her sleeves rolled far above her elbows revealed arms used to[Pg 4] rough hard work, and her hands were red from the wash-tub. As she came into the street, she saw the little boy sitting on the horse in front of the squaw. Walking to them quickly, and lifting her arms, as she neared the squaw’s pony, the white woman said:—
“Why, Johnnie Barclay, where have you been?”
The boy climbed from the pony, and the two women smiled at each other, but exchanged no words. And as his feet touched the ground, he became conscious of the rag in his hand, of his bleeding heel, of his cramped legs being “asleep”—all in one instant, and went limping and whining toward home with his mother, while the Indians traded in the store and tried to steal from the other houses, and in a score of peaceful ways diverted the town’s attention from the departing figures down the path.
That was the first adventure that impressed itself upon the memory of John Barclay. All his life he remembered the covered wagon in which the Barclays crossed the Mississippi; but it is only a curious memory of seeing the posts of the bed, lying flat beside him in the wagon, and of fingering the palm leaves cut in the wood. He was four years old then, and as a man he remembered only as a tale that is told the fight at Westport Landing, where his father was killed for preaching an abolition sermon from the wagon tongue. The man remembered nothing of the long ride that the child and the mother took with the father’s body to Lawrence, where they buried it in a free-state cemetery. But he always remembered something of their westward ride, after the funeral of his father. The boy carried a child’s memory of the prairie—probably his first sight of the prairie, with the vacant horizon circling around and around him, and the monotonous rattle of the wagon on the level prairie road, for hours keeping the same rhythm and fitting the same tune. Then there was a mottled memory of the woods—woods with sunshine in them, and of a prairie flooded with sunshine on which he played, now picking flowers, now playing house under the limestone ledges, now, after a rain, following little rivers down rocky draws, and finding sunfish and[Pg 5] silversides in the deeper pools. But always his memory was of the sunshine, and the open sky, or the deep wide woods all unexplored, save by himself.
The great road that widened to make the prairie street, and wormed over the hill into the sunset, always seemed dusty to the boy, and although in after years he followed that road, over the hills and far away, when it was rutty and full of clods, as a child he recalled it only as a great bed of dust, wherein he and other boys played, now battling with handfuls of dust, and now running races on some level stretch of it, and now standing beside the road while a passing movers’ wagon delayed their play. The movers’ wagon was never absent from the boy’s picture of that time and place. Either the canvas-covered wagon was coming from the ford of Sycamore Creek, or disappearing over the hill beyond the town, or was passing in front of the boys as they stopped their play. Being a boy, he could not know, nor would he care if he did know, that he was seeing one of God’s miracles—the migration of a people, blind but instinctive as that of birds or buffalo, from old pastures into new ones. All over the plains in those days, on a hundred roads like that which ran through Sycamore Ridge, men and women were moving from east to west, and, as often has happened since the beginning of time, when men have migrated, a great ethical principle was stirring in them. The pioneers do not go to the wilderness always in lust of land, but sometimes they go to satisfy their souls. The spirit of God moves in the hearts of men as it moves on the face of the waters.
Something of this moving spirit was in John Barclay’s mother. For often she paused at her work, looking up from her wash-tub toward the highway, when a prairie schooner sailed by, and lifting her face skyward for an instant, as her lips moved in silence. As a man the boy knew she was thinking of her long journey, of the tragedy that came of it, and praying for those who passed into the West. Then she would bend to her work again; and the washerwoman’s child who took the clothes she washed in his little wagon with the cottonwood log wheels, across[Pg 6] the commons into the town, was not made to feel an inferior place in the social system until he was in his early teens. For all the Sycamore Ridge women worked hard in those days. But there were Sundays when the boy and his mother walked over the wide prairies together, and she told him stories of Haverhill—of the wonderful people who lived there, of the great college, of the beautiful women and wise men, and best of all of his father, who was a student in the college, and they dreamed together—mother and child—about how he would board at Uncle Union’s and work in the store for Uncle Abner—when the boy went back to Haverhill to school when he grew up.
On these excursions the mother sometimes tried to interest him in Mr. Beecher’s sermons which she read to him, but his eyes followed the bees and the birds and the butterflies and the shadows trailing across the hillside; so the seed fell on stony ground. One fine fall day they went up the ridge far above the town where the court-house stands now, and there under a lone elm tree just above a limestone ledge, they spread their lunch, and the mother sat on the hillside, almost hidden by the rippling prairie grass, reading the first number of the Atlantic Monthly, while the boy cleared out a spring that bubbled from beneath a rock in the shade, and after running for a few feet sank under a great stone and did not appear again. As the mother read, the afternoon waned, and when she looked up, she was astonished to see John standing beside the rock, waist deep in a hole, trying to back down into it. His face was covered with dirt, and his clothes were wet from the falling water of the spring that was flowing into the hole he had opened. In a jiffy she pulled him out, and looking into the hole, saw by the failing sunlight which shone directly into the place that the child had uncovered the opening of a cave. But they did not explore it, for the mother was afraid, and the two came down the hill, the child’s head full of visions of a pirate’s treasure, and the mother’s full of the whims of the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.[Pg 7]
The next day school began in Sycamore Ridge,—for the school and the church came with the newspaper, Freedom’s Banner,—and a new world opened to the boy, and he forgot the cave, and became interested in Webster’s blue-backed speller. And thus another grown-up person, “Miss Lucy,” came into his world. For with children, men and women generically are of another order of beings. But Miss Lucy, being John Barclay’s teacher, grew into his daily life on an equality with his dog and the Hendricks boys, and took a place somewhat lower than his mother in his list of saints. For Miss Lucy came from Sangamon County, Illinois, and her father had fought the Indians, and she told the school as many strange and wonderful things about Illinois as John had learned from his mother about Haverhill. But his allegiance to the teacher was only lip service. For at night when he sat digging the gravel and dirt from the holes in the heels of his copper-toed boots, that he might wad them with paper to be ready for his skates on the morrow, or when he sat by the wide fireplace oiling the runners with the steel curly-cues curving over the toes, or filing a groove in the blades, the boy’s greatest joy was with his mother. Sometimes as she ironed she told him stories of his father, or when the child was sick and nervous, as a special favour, on his promise to take the medicine and not ask for a drink, she would bring her guitar from under the bed and tune it up and play with a curious little mouse-like touch. And on rare occasions she would sing to her own shy maidenly accompaniment, her voice rising scarcely higher than the wind in the sycamore at the spring outside. The boy remembered only one line of an old song she sometimes tried to sing: “Sleeping, I dream, love, dream, love, of thee,” but what the rest of it was, and what it was all about, he never knew; for when she got that far, she always stopped and came to the bed and lay beside him, and they both cried, though as a child he did not know why.
So the winter of 1857 wore away at Sycamore Ridge, and with the coming of the spring of ’58, when the town was formally incorporated, even into the boy world there[Pg 8] came the murmurs of strife and alarms. The games the boys played were war games. They had battles in the woods, between the free-state and the pro-slavery men, and once—twice—three times there marched by on the road real soldiers, and it was no unusual thing to see a dragoon dismount at the town well and water his horse. The big boys in school affected spurs, and Miss Lucy brought to school with her one morning a long bundle, which, when it was unwrapped, disclosed the sword of her father, Captain Barnes, presented to him by his admiring soldiers at the close of the “Black Hawk War.” John traded for a tin fife and learned to play “Jaybird” upon it, though he preferred the jew’s-harp, and had a more varied repertory with it. Was it an era of music, or is childhood the period of music? Perhaps this land of ours was younger than it is now and sang more lustily, if not with great precision; for to the man who harks back over the years, those were days of song. All the world seemed singing—men in their stores and shops, women at their work, and children in their schools. And a freckled, barefooted little boy with sunburned curly hair, in home-made clothes, and with brown bare legs showing through the rips in his trousers, used to sit alone in the woods breathing his soul into a mouth-organ—a priceless treasure for which he had traded two raccoons, an owl, and a prairie dog. But he mastered the mouth-organ,—it was called a French harp in those days,—and before he had put on his first collar, Watts McHurdie had taught the boy to play the accordion. The great heavy bellows was half as large as he was, but the little chap would sit in McHurdie’s harness shop of a summer afternoon and swing the instrument up and down as the melody swelled or died, and sway his body with the time and the tune, as Watts McHurdie, who owned the accordion, swayed and gyrated when he played. Mrs. Barclay, hearing her son, smiled and shook her head and knew him for a Thatcher; “No Barclay,” she said, “ever could carry a tune.” So the mother brought out from the bottom of the trunk her yellow-covered book, “Winner’s Instructor on the Guitar,” and taught the child[Pg 9] what she could of notes. Thus music found its way out of the boy’s soul.
One day in the summer of 1860, as he and his fellows were filing down the crooked dusty path that led from the swimming hole through the dry woods to the main road, they came upon a group of horsemen scanning the dry ford of the Sycamore. That was the first time that John Barclay met the famous Captain Lee. He was a great hulk of a man who, John thought, looked like a pirate. The boys led the men and their horses up the dry limestone bed of the stream to the swimming hole—a deep pool in the creek. The coming of the soldiers made a stir in the town. For they were not “regulars”; they were known as the Red Legs, but called themselves “The Army of the Border.” Under Captain J. Lord Lee—whose life afterwards touched Barclay’s sometimes—”The Army of the Border,” being about forty in number, came to Sycamore Ridge that night, and greatly to the scandal of the decent village, there appeared with the men two women in short skirts and red leggins, who were introduced at Schnitzler’s saloon as Happy Hally and Lady Lee. “The Army of the Border,” under J. Lord and Lady Lee,—as they were known,—proceeded to get bawling drunk, whereupon they introduced to the town the song which for the moment was the national hymn of Kansas:—
“Am I a soldier of the boss,
A follower of Jim Lane?
Then should I fear to steal a hoss,
Or blush to ride the same.”
As the night deepened and Henry Schnitzler’s supply of liquor seemed exhaustless, the Army of the Border went from song to war and wandered about banging doors and demanding to know if any white-livered Missourian in the town was man enough to come out and fight. At half-past one the Army of the Border had either gone back to camp, or propped itself up against the sides of the buildings in peaceful sleep, when the screech of the brakes on the wheels of the stage was heard half a mile away as it[Pg 10]lumbered down the steep bank of the Sycamore, and then the town woke up. As the stage rolled down Main Street, the male portion of Sycamore Ridge lined up before the Thayer House to see who would get out and to learn the news from the gathering storm in the world outside. As the crowd stood there, and while the driver was climbing from his box, little John Barclay, white-faced, clad in his night drawers, came flying into the crowd from behind a building.
“Mother—” he gasped, “mother—says—come—mother says some one come quick—there’s a man there—trying to break in!” And finding that he had made himself understood, the boy darted back across the common toward home. The little white figure kept ahead of the men, and when they arrived, they found Mrs. Barclay standing in the door of her house, with a lantern in one hand and a carbine in the crook of her arm. In the dark, somewhere over toward the highway, but in the direction of the river, the sound of a man running over the ploughed ground might be heard as he stumbled and grunted and panted in fear. She shook her head reassuringly as the men from the town came into the radius of the light from her lantern, and as they stepped on the hard clean-swept earth of her doorway, she said, smiling:
“He won’t come back. I’m sorry I bothered you. Only—I was frightened a little at first—when I sent Johnnie out of the back door.” She paused a moment, and answered some one’s question about the man, and went on, “He was just drunk. He meant no harm. It was Lige Bemis—”
“Oh, yes,” said Watts McHurdie, “you know—the old gang that used to be here before the town started. He’s with the Red Legs now.”
“Well,” continued Mrs. Barclay, “he said he wanted to come over and visit the sycamore tree by the spring.”
The crowd knew Lige and laughed and turned away. The men trudged slowly back to the cluster of lights that marked the town, and the woman closed her door, and she and the child went to bed. Instead of sleeping, they[Pg 11] talked over their adventure. He sat up in bed, big-eyed with excitement, while his mother told him that the drunken visitor was Lige Bemis, who had come to revisit a cave, a horse thief’s cave, he had said, back of the big rock that seemed to have slipped down from the ledge behind the house, right by the spring. She told the boy that Bemis had said that the cave contained a room wherein they used to keep their stolen horses, and that he tried to move the great slab door of stone and, being drunk, could not do so.
When the men of Sycamore Ridge who left the stage without waiting to see what human seed it would shuck out arrived at Main Street, the stage was in the barn, the driver was eating his supper, and the passenger was in bed at the Thayer House. But his name was on the dog-eared hotel register, and it gave the town something to talk about as Martin Culpepper was distributing the mail. For the name on the book was Philemon R. Ward, and the town after his name, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Every man and woman and most of the children in Sycamore Ridge knew who Philemon Ward was. He had been driven out of Georgia in ’58 for editing an abolition newspaper; he had been mobbed in Ohio for delivering abolition lectures; he had been led out of Missouri with a rope around his neck, and a reward was on his head in a half-dozen Southern states for inciting slaves to rebellion. His picture had been in Harper’s Weekly as a General Passenger Agent of the Underground Railway. Naturally to Sycamore Ridge, where more than one night the town had sat up all night waiting for the stage to bring the New York Tribune, Philemon R. Ward was a hero, and his presence in the town was an event. When the little Barclay boy heard it at the store that morning before sunrise, he ran down the path toward home to tell his mother and had to go back to do the errand on which he was sent. By sunrise every one in town had the news; men were shaken out of their morning naps to hear, “Philemon Ward’s in town—wake up, man; did you hear what I say? Philemon Ward came to town last[Pg 12] night on the stage.” And before the last man was awake, the town was startled by the clatter of horses’ hoofs on the gravel road over the hill south of town, and Gabriel Carnine and Lycurgus Mason of Minneola came dashing into the street and yelling, “The Missourians are coming, the Missourians are coming!”
The little boy, who had just turned into Main Street for the second time, remembered all his life how the news that the Minneola men brought, thrilled Sycamore Ridge. It seemed to the boy but an instant till the town was in the street, and then he and a group of boys were running to the swimming hole to call the Army of the Border. The horse weeds scratched his face as he plunged through the timber cross-lots with his message. He was the first boy to reach the camp. What they did or what he did, he never remembered. He has heard men say many times that he whispered his message, grabbed a carbine, and came tearing through the brush back to the town.
All that is important to know of the battle of Sycamore Ridge is that Philemon Ward, called out of bed with the town to fight that summer morning, took command before he had dressed, and when the town was threatened with a charge from a second division of the enemy, Bemis and Captain Lee of the Red Legs, Watts McHurdie, Madison Hendricks, Oscar Fernald, and Gabriel Carnine, under the command of Philemon Ward, ran to the top of the high bank of the Sycamore, and there held a deep cut made for the stage road,—held it as a pass against a half-hundred horsemen, floundering under the bank, in the underbrush below, who dared not file up the pass.
The little boy standing at the window of his mother’s house saw this. But all the firing in the town, all the forming and charging and skirmishing that was done that hot August day in ’60, either he did not see, or if he saw it, the memory faded under the great terror that gripped his soul when he saw his mother in danger. Ward in his undershirt was standing by a tree near the stage road above the bank. The firing in the creek bed had stopped. His back was toward the town, and then, out of some[Pg 13] place dim in the child’s mind—from the troop southwest of town perhaps—came a charge of galloping horsemen, riding down on Ward. The others with him had found cover, and he, seeing the enemy before him and behind him, pistol in hand, alone charged into the advancing horsemen. It was all confused in the child’s mind, though the histories say that the Sycamore Ridge people did not know Ward was in danger, and that when he fell they did not understand who had fallen. But the boy—John Barclay—saw him fall, and his mother knew who had fallen, and the wife of the Westport martyr groaned in anguish as she saw Freedom’s champion writhing in the dust of the road like a dying snake, after the troop passed over him. And even when he was a man, the boy could remember the woe in her face, as she stooped to kiss her child, and then huddling down to avoid the bullets, ran across the field to the wounded man, with dust in his mouth, twitching in the highway. Bullets were spitting in the dust about her as the boy saw his mother roll the bleeding man over, pick him up, get him on her back with his feet trailing on the earth beside her, and then rising to her full height, stagger under her limp burden back to the house. When she came in the door, her face and shoulders were covered with blood and her skirt ripped with a bullet.
That is all of the battle that John Barclay ever remembered. After that it seemed to end, though the histories say that it lasted all the long day, and that the fire of the invaders was so heavy that no one from the Ridge dared venture to the Barclay home. The boy saw his mother lay the unconscious man on the floor, while she opened the back door, and without saying a word, stepped to the spring, which was hidden from the road. She put her knee, her broad chest, and her strong red hand to the rock and shoved until her back bowed and the cords stood out on her neck; then slowly the rock moved till she could see inside the cave, could put her leg in, could squirm her body in. The morning light flooded in after her, and in the instant that she stood there she saw dimly a great room, through which the spring trickled. There were hay inside, and candles and saddles; in another minute she had the wounded man in the cave and was washing the dirt from him. A bullet had ploughed its way along his scalp, his body was pierced through the shoulder, and his leg was broken by a horse’s hoof. She did what she could while the shooting went on outside, and then slipped out, tugged at the great rock again until it fell back in its place, and knowing that Philemon Ward was safe from the Missourians if they should win the day, she came into the house. Then as the mocking clouds of the summer drouth rolled up at night, and belched forth their thunder in a tempest of wind, the besiegers passed as a dream in the night. And in the morning they were not.” William Allen White, A Certain Rich Man, Chapter One
Numero Tres—“Fortunately, a richer, more effective understanding and practice of democracy are nascent worldwide: Democracy is coming to be understood not as set system but as a dynamic set of system characteristics already proving effective in a range of human settings, from local communities to global politics.
Living Democracy is not a new ‘ism,’ blueprint, or utopian end-state vision. It is an evolving ethos enabling us not simply to right a particular injustice but to create more inclusive ways of making decisions. Continually incorporating new experience, Living Democracy is a synergistic, generative work in progress. In this sense and more, Living Democracymight best be understood as the social analogue of ecology itself.
Life-enhancing values guide this dynamic unfolding. Among them are inclusion, mutual accountability and fairness, which have emerged in widely disparate cultures. Striving to manifest these values, Living Democracy is a culture of attitudes, expectations and norms that increasingly enhance life in community—including the well-being of nonhuman cohabitants of our small planet.
Democracy’s core values are effective in economic and cultural life as well as political life. The market, for example, ceases to be an absolute that supersedes our values; it becomes a tool for realizing our values by creating healthy societies. Businesses still respond to market cues, but with formal accountability for the consequences of their actions. Citizens assume responsibility for deciding what is and is not allocated by the market as well as for the impact of their marketplace choices on the health of their communities and the planet.
Democracy is a learned art. Humans are innately social beings but born lacking specific skills of effective participation. So Living Democracy is deliberately taught—and practiced—just like playing the piano or reading. Schools, businesses, and community institutions attend to the teaching of such democratic arts as active listening, creative conflict through negotiation and mediation, and mentoring and reflecting on experience.
More than dispersing power, Living Democracy creates power. Taken to its Latin root, posse, power means ‘to be able.’ Living Democracy creates power by enabling more people to act on their values and interests. It widens the circle of problem solvers. Engaging those most directly affected, Living Democracy expands creative, problem-solving power because it taps the experience and insight of people closest to the problem, the creativity engendered when diverse perspectives meet, and the commitment to action that people willingly make when they ‘own’ and are a valued part of the plan. In contrast to failing Thin Democracies today, Living Democracykeeps the goal of equal voice foremost as citizens strive to remove the power of concentrated wealth from governance and to infuse the power of citizens’ voices into governance and economic life.Four Global Changes Making Possible Living Democracy’s Emergence
▪A revolution in human dignity as more and more cultures awaken to innate human rights.
▪Ecological consciousness revealing the interconnectedness of all life.
▪Awareness of global ecocide to which Thin Democracy contributes and cannot reverse.
▪A communications revolution empowering citizen movements, democratizing knowledge, and enhancing transparency in decision making.” Frances Moore Lappe, “Living Democracy–Five Characteristics ”
1. What Is The Singularity?
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater-than-human intelligence. Science may achieve this breakthrough by several means (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):
Computers that are ‘awake’ and superhumanly intelligent may be developed. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is ‘yes,’ then there is little doubt that more intelligent beings can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
Large computer networks and their associated users may ‘wake up’ as superhumanly intelligent entities.
Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.
The first three possibilities depend on improvements in computer hardware. Progress in hardware has followed an amazingly steady curve in the last few decades. Based on this trend, I believe that the creation of greater-than-human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. (Charles Platt has pointed out that AI enthusiasts have been making claims like this for thirty years. Just so I’m not guilty of a relative-time ambiguity, let me be more specific: I’ll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.)
What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale. The best analogy I see is to the evolutionary past: Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work — the world acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct what-if’s in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection could. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals.
This change will be a throwing-away of all the human rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye — an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever) will likely happen in the next century.
It’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the Singularity” for the purposes of this piece). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules, a point that will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs until the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens, it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In the 1950s very few saw it: Stan Ulam1 paraphrased John von Neumann as saying:
One conversation centered on the ever-accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he is thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed.)
The 1960s saw recognition of some of the implications of superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good2 wrote:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. . . . It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make.
Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but he does not pursue its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the sort he describes would not be humankind’s “tool” — any more than humans are the tools of rabbits, robins, or chimpanzees.
Through the sixties and seventies and eighties, recognition of the cataclysm spread. Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact. After all, the “hard” science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable . . . soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Posthuman domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.
What about the coming decades, as we slide toward the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine sapience will have good press. After all, until we have hardware as powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we’ll be able to create human-equivalent (or greater) intelligence. (There is the farfetched possibility that we could make a human equivalent out of less powerful hardware — if we were willing to give up speed, if we were willing to settle for an artificial being that was literally slow. But it’s much more likely that devising the software will be a tricky process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If so, then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen until after the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than humans’ natural equipment.)
But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt by science-fiction writers will be perceived in other creative endeavors. (I have heard thoughtful comicbook writers worry about how to create spectacular effects when everything visible can be produced by the technologically commonplace.) We will see automation replacing higher- and higher-level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Put another way: the work that is truly productive is the domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the coming of the Singularity, we will see the predictions of true technological unemployment finally come true.
Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace.
And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected — perhaps even by the researchers involved (“But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters . . .”). If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly awakened.
And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Posthuman era. And for all my technological optimism, I think I’d be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years’ remove . . . instead of twenty.
2. Can the Singularity Be Avoided?
Well, maybe it won’t happen at all: sometimes I try to imagine the symptoms we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to develop. There are the widely respected arguments of Penrose3 and Searle4 against the practicality of machine sapience. In August 1992, Thinking Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate “How We Will Build a Machine That Thinks.” As you might guess from the workshop’s title, the participants were not especially supportive of the arguments against machine intelligence. In fact, there was general agreement that minds can exist on nonbiological substrates and that algorithms are of central importance to the existence of minds. However, there was much debate about the raw hardware power present in organic brains. A minority felt that the largest 1992 computers were within three orders of magnitude of the power of the human brain. The majority of the participants agreed with Hans Moravec’s estimate5 that we are ten to forty years away from hardware parity. And yet there was an other minority who conjectured that the computational competence of single neurons may be far higher than generally believed. If so, our present computer hardware might be as much as ten orders of magnitude short of the equipment we carry around in our heads. If this is true (or for that matter, if the Penrose or Searle critique is valid), we might never see a Singularity. Instead, in the early ’00s we would find our hardware performance curves beginning to level off — because of our inability to automate the design work needed to support further hardware improvements. We’d end up with some very powerful hardware, but without the ability to push it further. Commercial digital signal processing might be awesome, giving an analog appearance even to digital operations, but nothing would ever “wake up” and there would never be the intellectual runaway that is the essence of the Singularity. It would likely be seen as a golden age . . . and it would also be an end of progress. This is very like the future predic ted by Gunther Stent,6 who explicitly cites the development of transhuman intelligence as a sufficient condition to break his projections.
But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat” and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue. The competitive advantage — economic, military, even artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that forbidding such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.
Eric Drexler has provided spectacular insights about how far technical improvement may go.7 He agrees that superhuman intelligences will be available in the near future. But Drexler argues that we can confine such transhuman devices so that their results can be examined and used safely.
I argue that confinement is intrinsically impractical. Imagine yourself locked in your home with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with a way to escape. I call this “fast thinking” form of superintelligence “weak superhumanity.” Such a “weakly superhuman” entity would probably burn out in a few weeks of outside time. “Strong superhumanity” would be more than cranking up the clock speed on a human-equivalent mind. It’s hard to say precisely what “strong superhumanity” would be like, but the difference appears to be profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight? Many speculations about superintelligence seem to be based on the weakly superhuman model. I believe that our best guesses about the post-Singularity world can be obtained by thinking on the nat ure of strong superhumanity. I will return to this point.
Another approach to confinement is to build rules into the mind of the created superhuman entity. I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered versions (so human competition would favor the development of the more dangerous models).
If the Singularity can not be prevented or confined, just how bad could the Posthuman era be? Well . . . pretty bad. The physical extinction of the human race is one possibility. (Or, as Eric Drexler put it of nanotechnology: given all that such technology can do, perhaps governments would simply decide that they no longer need citizens.) Yet physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility. Think of the different ways we relate to animals. A Posthuman world would still have plenty of niches where human-equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. (A strongly superhuman intelligence would likely be a Society of Mind8 with some very competent components.) Some of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital signal processing. Others might be very humanlike, yet with a onesidedness, a dedication that would put them in a mental hospital in our era. Though none of these creatures mi ght be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new environment to what we call human now.
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of humans’ natural competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet: we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions, to make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is:
3. Other Paths to the Singularity
When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings, they are usually imagining an AI project. But as I noted at the beginning of this article, there are other paths to superhumanity. Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than AI, yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized for what it is by its developers. But every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the team of a Ph.D. human and good computer workstation (even an off-net workstation) could probably max any written intelligence test in existence.
And it’s very likely that IA is a much easier road to the achievement of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest development problems have already been solved. Building up from within ourselves ought to be easier than figuring out what we really are and then building machines that are all of that. And there is at least conjectural precedent for this approach. Cairns-Smith9 has speculated that biological life may have begun as an adjunct to still more primitive life based on crystalline growth. Lynn Margulis (in 10 and elsewhere) has made strong arguments that mutualism is a great driving force in evolution.
Note that I am not proposing that AI research be ignored. AI advances will often have applications in IA, and vice versa. I am suggesting that we recognize that in network and interface research there is something as profound (and potentially wild) as artificial intelligence. With that insight, we may see projects that are not as directly applicable as conventional interface and network design work, but which serve to advance us toward the Singularity along the IA path.
Here are some possible projects that take on special significance, given the IA point of view:
Human/computer team automation: Take problems that are normally considered for purely machine solution (like hillclimbing problems), and design programs and interfaces that take advantage of humans’ intuition and available computer hardware. Considering the bizarreness of higher-dimensional hillclimbing problems (and the neat algorithms that have been devised for their solution), some very interesting displays and control tools could be provided to the human team member.
Human/computer symbiosis in art: Combine the graphic generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans. Of course, an enormous amount of research has gone into designing computer aids for artists. I’m suggesting that we explicitly aim for a greater merging of competence, that we explicitly recognize the cooperative approach that is possible. Karl Sims has done wonderful work in this direction.11
Human/computer teams at chess tournaments: We already have programs that can play better than almost all humans. But how much work has been done on how this power could be used by a human, to get something even better? If such teams were allowed in at least some chess tournaments, it could have the positive effect on IA research that allowing computers in tournaments had for the corresponding niche in AI.
Interfaces that allow computer and network access without requiring the human to be tied to one spot, sitting in front of a computer. (This aspect of IA fits so well with known economic advantages that lots of effort is already being spent on it.)
More symmetrical decision support systems. A popular research/product area in recent years has been decision support systems. This is a form of IA, but may be too focused on systems that are oracular. As much as the program giving the user information, there must be the idea of the user giving the program guidance.
Local area nets to make human teams more effective than their component members. This is generally the area of “groupware”; the change in viewpoint here would be to regard the group activity as a combination organism.
In one sense, this suggestion’s goal might be to invent a “Rules of Order” for such combination operations. For instance, group focus might be more easily maintained than in classical meetings. Individual members’ expertise could be isolated from ego issues so that the contribution of different members is focused on the team project. And of course shared databases could be used much more conveniently than in conventional committee operations.
The Internet as a combination human/machine tool. Of all the items on the list, progress in this is proceeding the fastest. The power and influence of the Internet are vastly underestimated. The very anarchy of the worldwide net’s development is evidence of its potential. As connectivity, bandwidth, archive size, and computer speed all increase, we are seeing something like Lynn Margulis’ vision of the biosphere as data processor recapitulated, but at a million times greater speed and with millions of humanly intelligent agents (ourselves).
The above examples illustrate research that can be done within the context of contemporary computer science departments. There are other paradigms. For example, much of the work in artificial intelligence and neural nets would benefit from a closer connection with biological life. Instead of simply trying to model and understand biological life with computers, research could be directed toward the creation of composite systems that rely on biological life for guidance, or for the features we don’t understand well enough yet to implement in hardware. A longtime dream of science fiction has been direct brain-to-computer interfaces. In fact, concrete work is being done in this area:
Limb prosthetics is a topic of direct commercial applicability. Nerve-to-silicon transducers can be made. This is an exciting near-term step toward direct communication.
Direct links into brains seem feasible, if the bit rate is low: given human learning flexibility, the actual brain neuron targets might not have to be precisely selected. Even 100 bits per second would be of great use to stroke victims who would otherwise be confined to menu-driven interfaces.
Plugging into the optic trunk has the potential for bandwidths of 1 Mbit/second or so. But for this, we need to know the fine-scale architecture of vision, and we need to place an enormous web of electrodes with exquisite precision. If we want our high-bandwidth connection to add to the paths already present in the brain, the problem becomes vastly more intractable. Just sticking a grid of high-bandwidth receivers into a brain certainly won’t do it. But suppose that the high-bandwidth grid were present as the brain structure was setting up, as the embryo developed. That suggests:
Animal embryo experiments. I wouldn’t expect any IA success in the first years of such research, but giving developing brains access to complex simulated neural structures might, in the long run, produce animals with additional sense paths and interesting intellectual abilities.
I had hoped that this discussion of IA would yield some clearly safer approaches to the Singularity (after all, IA allows our participation in a kind of transcendence). Alas, about all I am sure of is that these proposals should be considered, that they may give us more options. But as for safety — some of the suggestions are a little scary on their face. IA for individual humans creates a rather sinister elite. We humans have millions of years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light. Much of that deadliness may not be necessary in today’s world, one where losers take on the winners’ tricks and are coopted into the winners’ enterprises. A creature that was built de novo might possibly be a much more benign entity than one based on fang and talon.
The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our most deeply held notions of being. I think a closer look at the notion of strong superhumanity can show why that is.
4. Strong Superhumanity and the Best We Can Ask For
Suppose we could tailor the Singularity. Suppose we could attain our most extravagant hopes. What then would we ask for? That humans themselves would become their own successors, that whatever injustice occurred would be tempered by our knowledge of our roots. For those who remained unaltered, the goal would be benign treatment (perhaps even giving the stay-behinds the appearance of being masters of godlike slaves). It could be a golden age that also involved progress (leaping Stent’s barrier). Immortality (or at least a lifetime as long as we can make the universe survive) would be achievable.
But in this brightest and kindest world, the philosophical problems themselves become intimidating. A mind that stays at the same capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape loop than a person. To live indefinitely long, the mind itself must grow . . . and when it becomes great enough, and looks back . . . what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was originally? The later being would be everything the original was, but vastly more. And so even for the individual, the Cairns-Smith or Lynn Margulis notion of new life growing incrementally out of the old must still be valid.
This “problem” about immortality comes up in much more direct ways. The notion of ego and self-awareness has been the bedrock of the hardheaded rationalism of the last few centuries. Yet now the notion of self-awareness is under attack from the artificial intelligence people. Intelligence Amplification undercuts our concept of ego from another direction. The post-Singularity world will involve extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages. What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when self-awareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration? These are essential features of strong superhumanity and the Singularity. Thinking about them, one begins to feel how essentially strange and different the Posthuman era will be — no matter how cleverly and benignly it is brought to be.
From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams: a time unending, where we can truly know one another and understand the deepest mysteries. From another angle, it’s a lot like the worst-case scenario I imagined earlier.
In fact, I think the new era is simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil. That frame is based on the idea of isolated, immutable minds connected by tenuous, low-bandwith links. But the post-Singularity world does fit with the larger tradition of change and cooperation that started long ago (perhaps even before the rise of biological life). I think certain notions of ethics would apply in such an era. Research into IA and high-bandwidth communications should improve this understanding. I see just the glimmerings of this now; perhaps there are rules for distinguishing self from others on the basis of bandwidth of connection. And while mind and self will be vastly more labile than in the past, much of what we value (knowledge, memory, thought) need never be lost. I think Freeman Dyson has it right when he says, ‘God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.’” Vernor Vinge, “Technological Singularity:”