5.04.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Thomas Huxley, Circa 1894.
2. Ernest Hemingway, 1952.
3. Amos Oz, 1996.
Numero Uno“The discourse on ‘Evolution and Ethics,’ reprinted in the first half of the present volume, was delivered before the University of Oxford, as the second of the annual lectures founded by Mr. Romanes: whose name I may not write without deploring the untimely death, in the flower of his age, of a friend endeared to me, as to so many others, by his kindly nature; and justly valued by all his colleagues for his powers of investigation and his zeal for the advancement of knowledge.  I well remember, when Mr. Romanes’ early work came into my hands, as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society, how much I rejoiced in the accession to the ranks of the little army of workers in science of a recruit so well qualified to take a high place among us.


It was at my friend’s urgent request that I agreed to undertake the lecture, should I be honoured with an official proposal to give it, though I confess not without misgivings, if only on account of the serious fatigue and hoarseness which public speaking has for some years caused me; while I knew that it would be my fate to follow the most accomplished and facile orator of our time, whose indomitable youth is in no matter more manifest than in his penetrating and musical voice.  A certain saying about comparisons intruded itself somewhat importunately.

And even if I disregarded the weakness of my body in the matter of voice, and that of my mind in the matter of vanity, there remained a third difficulty.  For several reasons, my attention, during a number of years, has been much directed to the bearing of modern scientific thought on the problems of morals and of politics, and I did not care to be diverted from that topic.  Moreover, I thought it the most important and the worthiest which, at the present time, could engage the attention even of an ancient and renowned University.

But it is a condition of the Romanes foundation that the lecturer shall abstain from treating of either Religion or Politics; and it appeared to me that, more than most, perhaps, I was bound to act, not merely up to the letter, but in the spirit, of that prohibition.  Yet Ethical Science is, on all sides, so entangled with Religion and Politics that the lecturer who essays to touch the former without coming into contact with either of the latter, needs all the dexterity of an egg-dancer; and may even discover that his sense of clearness and his sense of propriety come into conflict, by no means to the advantage of the former.

I have little notion of the real magnitude of these difficulties when I set about my task; but I am consoled for my pains and anxiety by observing that none of the multitudinous criticisms with which I have been favoured and, often, instructed, find fault with me on the score of having strayed out of bounds.

Among my critics there are not a few to whom I feel deeply indebted for the careful attention which they have given to the exposition thus hampered; and further weakened, I am afraid, by my forgetfulness of a maxim touching lectures of a popular character, which has descended to me from that prince of lecturers, Mr. Faraday. He was once asked by a beginner, called upon to address a highly select and cultivated audience, what he might suppose his hearers to know already. Whereupon the past master of the art of exposition emphatically replied “Nothing!”

To my shame as a retired veteran, who has all his life profited by this great precept of lecturing strategy, I forgot all about it just when it would have been most useful. I was fatuous enough to imagine that a number of propositions, which I thought established, and which, in fact, I had advanced without challenge on former occasions, needed no repetition.

I have endeavoured to repair my error by prefacing the lecture with some matter—chiefly elementary or recapitulatory—to which I have given the title of “Prolegomena” I wish I could have hit upon a heading of less pedantic aspect which would have served my purpose; and if it be urged that the new building looks over large for the edifice to which it is added, I can only plead the precedent of the ancient architects, who always made the adytum the smallest part of the temple.

If I had attempted to reply in full to the criticisms to which I have referred, I know not what extent of ground would have been covered by my pronaos. All I have endeavoured to do, at present, is to remove that which seems to have proved a stumbling-block to many—namely, the apparent paradox that ethical nature, while born of cosmic nature, is necessarily at enmity with its parent. Unless the arguments set forth in the Prolegomena, in the simplest language at my command, have some flaw which I am unable to discern, this seeming paradox is a truth, as great as it is plain, the recognition of which is fundamental for the ethical philosopher.

We cannot do without our inheritance from the forefathers who were the puppets of the cosmic process; the society which renounces it must be destroyed from without. Still less can we de with too much of it; the society in which it dominates must be destroyed from within.

The motive of the drama of human life is the necessity, laid upon every man who comes into the world, of discovering the mean between self-assertion and self-restraint suited to his character and his circumstances. And the eternally tragic aspect of the drama lies in this: that the problem set before us is one the elements of which can be but imperfectly known, and of which even an approximately right solution rarely presents itself, until that stern critic, aged experience, has been furnished with ample justification for venting his sarcastic humour upon the irreparable blunders we have already made.

I have reprinted the letters on the “Darkest England” scheme, published in the “Times” of December, 1890, and January, 1891; and subsequently issued, with additions, as a pamphlet, under the title of “Social Diseases and Worse Remedies,” because, although the clever attempt to rush the country on behalf of that scheme has been balked, Booth’s standing army remains afoot, retaining all the capacities for mischief which are inherent in its constitution. I am desirous that this fact should be kept steadily in view; and that the moderation of the clamour of the drums and trumpets should not lead us to forget the existence of a force, which, in bad hands, may, at any time, be used for bad purposes.

In 1892, a Committee was “formed for the purpose of investigating the manner in which the moneys, subscribed in response to the appeal made in the book entitled ‘In Darkest England and the Way out,’ have been expended.” The members of this body were gentlemen in whose competency and equity every one must have complete confidence; and in December, 1892, they published a report in which they declare that, “with the exception of the sums expended on the ‘barracks’ at Hadleigh,” the moneys in question have been “devoted only to the objects and expended in the methods set out in that appeal, and to and in no others.”

Nevertheless, their final conclusion runs as follows: “(4) That whilst the invested property, real and personal, resulting from such Appeal is so vested and controlled by the Trust of the Deed of January 30th, 1891, that any application of it to purposes other than those declared in the deed by any ‘General’ of the Salvation Army would amount to a breach of trust, and would subject him to the proceedings of a civil and criminal character, before mentioned in the Report, ADEQUATE LEGAL SAFEGUARDS DO NOT AT PRESENT EXIST TO PREVENT THE MISAPPLICATION OF SUCH PROPERTY.”

The passage I have italicised forms part of a document dated December 19th, 1892. It follows, that, even after the Deed of January 30th, 1891, was executed, “adequate legal safeguards” “to prevent the misapplication of the property” did not exist. What then was the state of things, up to a week earlier, that is on January 22nd, 1891, when my twelfth and last letter appeared in the “Times”? A better justification for what I have said about-the want of adequate security for the proper administration of the funds intrusted to Mr. Booth could not be desired, unless it be that which is to be found in the following passages of the Report (pp. 36 and 37):—

“It is possible that a ‘General’ may be forgetful of his duty, and sell property and appropriate the proceeds to his own use, or to meeting the general liabilities of the Salvation Army. As matters now stand, he, and he alone, would have control over such a sale. Against such possibilities it appears to the Committee to be reasonable that some check should be imposed.”

Once more let it be remembered that this opinion given under the hand of Sir Henry James, was expressed by the Committee, with the Trust Deed of 1891, which has been so sedulously flaunted before the public, in full view.

The Committee made a suggestion for the improvement of this very unsatisfactory state of things; but the exact value set upon it by the suggestors should be carefully considered (p.37).

“The Committee are fully aware that if the views thus expressed are carried out, the safeguards and checks created will not be sufficient for all purposes absolutely to prevent possible dealing with the property and moneys inconsistent with the purposes to which they are intended to be devoted.”

In fact, they are content to express the very modest hope that “if the suggestion made be acted upon, some hindrance will thereby be placed in the way of any one acting dishonestly in respect of the disposal of the property and moneys referred to.”

I do not know, and, under the circumstances, I cannot say I much care, whether the suggestions of the Committee have, or have not, been acted upon.  Whether or not, the fact remains that an unscrupulous ‘General’ will have a pretty free hand, notwithstanding ‘some’ hindrance.

Thus, the judgment of the highly authoritative, and certainly not hostile, Committee of 1892, upon the issues with which they concerned themselves is hardly such as to inspire enthusiastic confidence.  And it is further to be borne in mind that they carefully excluded from their duties ‘any examination of the principles, government, teaching, or methods of the Salvation Army as a religious organization, or of its affairs’ except so far as they related to the administration of the moneys collected by the ‘Darkest England’ appeal.

Consequently, the most important questions discussed in my letters were not in any way touched by the Committee.  Even if their report had been far more favourable to the ‘Darkest England’ scheme than it is; if it had really assured the contributors that the funds raised were fully secured against malversation; the objections, on social and political grounds, to Mr. Booth’s despotic organization, with its thousands of docile satellites pledged to blind obedience, set forth in the letters, would be in no degree weakened.  The ‘sixpennyworth of good’ would still be out-weighed by the ‘shillingsworth of harm;’ if indeed the relative worth, or unworth, of the latter should not be rated in pounds rather than in shillings.

What would one not give for the opinion of the financial members of the Committee about the famous Bank; and that of the legal experts about the proposed ‘tribunes of the people?’ …


It may be safely assumed that, two thousand years ago, before Caesar set foot in southern Britain, the whole country-side visible from the windows of the room in which I write, was in what is called ‘the state of nature.’  Except, it may be, by raising a few sepulchral mounds, such as those which still, here and there, break the flowing contours of the downs, man’s hands had made no mark upon it; and the thin veil of vegetation which overspread the broad-backed heights and the shelving sides of the coombs was unaffected by his industry.  The native grasses and weeds, the scattered patches of gorse, contended with one another for the possession of the scanty surface soil; they fought against the droughts of summer, the frosts of winter, and the furious gales which swept, with unbroken force, now from the Atlantic, and now from the North Sea, at all times of the year; they filled up, as they best might, the gaps made in their ranks by all sorts of underground and overground animal ravagers.  One year with another, an average population, the floating balance of the unceasing struggle for existence among the indigenous plants, maintained itself.  It is as little to be doubted, that an essentially similar state of nature prevailed, in this region, for many thousand years before the coming of Caesar; and there is no assignable reason for denying that it might continue to exist through an equally prolonged futurity, except for the intervention of man.

Reckoned by our customary standards of duration, the native vegetation, like the ‘everlasting hills’ which it clothes, seems a type of permanence.  The little Amarella Gentians, which abound in some places to-day, are the descendants of those that were trodden underfoot, by the prehistoric savages who have left their flint tools, about, here and there; and they followed ancestors which, in the climate of the glacial epoch, probably flourished better than they do now.  Compared with the long past of this humble plant, all the history of civilized men is but an episode.

Yet nothing is more certain than that, measured by the liberal scale of time-keeping of the universe, this present state of nature, however it may seem to have gone and to go on for ever, is but a fleeting phase of her infinite variety; merely the last of the series of changes which the earth’s surface has undergone in the course of the millions of years of its existence.  Turn back a square foot of the thin turf, and the solid foundation of the land, exposed in cliffs of chalk five hundred feet high on the adjacent shore, yields full assurance of a time when the sea covered the site of the ‘everlasting hills;’ and when the vegetation of what land lay nearest, was as different from the present Flora of the Sussex downs, as that of Central Africa now is.*  No less certain is it that, between the time during which the chalk was formed and that at which the original turf came into existence, thousands of centuries elapsed, in the course of which, the state of nature of the ages during which the chalk was deposited, passed into that which now is, by changes so slow that, in the coming and going of the generations of men, had such witnessed them, the contemporary, conditions would have seemed to be unchanging and unchangeable.

    * See “On a piece of Chalk” in the preceding volume of these
Essays (vol. viii. p. 1).

But it is also certain that, before the deposition of the chalk, a vastly longer period had elapsed; throughout which it is easy to follow the traces of the same process of ceaseless modification and of the internecine struggle for existence of living things; and that even when we can get no further [4] back, it is not because there is any reason to think we have reached the beginning, but because the trail of the most ancient life remains hidden, or has become obliterated.

Thus that state of nature of the world of plants which we began by considering, is far from possessing the attribute of permanence. Rather its very essence is impermanence. It may have lasted twenty or thirty thousand years, it may last for twenty or thirty thousand years more, without obvious change; but, as surely as it has followed upon a very different state, so it will be followed by an equally different condition. That which endures is not one or another association of living forms, but the process of which the cosmos is the product, and of which these are among the transitory expressions. And in the living world, one of the most characteristic features of this cosmic process is the struggle for existence, the competition of each with all, the result of which is the selection, that is to say, the survival of those forms which, on the whole, are best adapted, to the conditions which at any period obtain; and which are, therefore, in that respect, and only in that respect, the fittest.* The acme reached by the cosmic [5] process in the vegetation of the downs is seen in the turf, with its weeds and gorse. Under the conditions, they have come out of the struggle victorious; and, by surviving, have proved that they are the fittest to survive.

* That every theory of evolution must be consistent not merely with progressive development, but with indefinite persistence in the same condition and with retrogressive modification, is a point which I have insisted upon repeatedly from the year 1862 till now. See Collected Essays, vol. ii. pp. 461-89; vol. iii. p. 33; vol. viii. p. 304. In the address on “Geological Contemporaneity and Persistent Types” (1862), the paleontological proofs of this proposition were, I believe, first set forth.

That the state of nature, at any time, is a temporary phase of a process of incessant change, which has been going on for innumerable ages, appears to me to be a proposition as well established as any in modern history.

Paleontology assures us, in addition, that the ancient philosophers who, with less reason, held the same doctrine, erred in supposing that the phases formed a cycle, exactly repeating the past, exactly foreshadowing the future, in their rotations. On the contrary, it furnishes us with conclusive reasons for thinking that, if every link in the ancestry of these humble indigenous plants had been preserved and were accessible to us, the whole would present a converging series of forms of gradually diminishing complexity, until, at some period in the history of the earth, far more remote than any of which organic remains have yet been discovered, they would merge in those low groups among which the Boundaries between animal and vegetable life become effaced.*

    * “On the Border Territory between the Animal and the Vegetable
Kingdoms,” Essays, vol. viii. p. 162

[6] The word “evolution,” now generally applied to the cosmic process, has had a singular history, and is used in various senses.* Taken in its popular signification it means progressive development, that is, gradual change from a condition of relative uniformity to one of relative complexity; but its connotation has been widened to include the phenomena of retrogressive metamorphosis, that is, of progress from a condition of relative complexity to one of relative uniformity.

As a natural process, of the same character as the development of a tree from its seed, or of a fowl from its egg, evolution excludes creation and all other kinds of supernatural intervention. As the expression of a fixed order, every stage of which is the effect of causes operating according to definite rules, the conception of evolution no less excludes that of chance. It is very desirable to remember that evolution is not an explanation of the cosmic process, but merely a generalized statement of the method and results of that process. And, further, that, if there is proof that the cosmic process was set going by any agent, then that agent will be, the creator of it and of all its products, although supernatural intervention may remain strictly excluded from its further course.

So far as that limited revelation of the nature of things, which we call scientific knowledge, has [7] yet gone, it tends, with constantly increasing emphasis, to the belief that, not merely the world of plants, but that of animals; not merely living things, but the whole fabric of the earth; not merely our planet, but the whole solar system; not merely our star and its satellites, but the millions of similar bodies which bear witness to the order which pervades boundless space, and has endured through boundless time; are all working out their predestined courses of evolution.

* See “Evolution in Biology,” Essays, vol. ii. p. 187

With none of these have I anything to do, at present, except with that exhibited by the forms of life which tenant the earth. All plants and animals exhibit the tendency to vary, the causes of which have yet to be ascertained; it is the tendency of the conditions of life, at any given time, while favouring the existence of the variations best adapted to them, to oppose that of the rest and thus to exercise selection; and all living things tend to multiply without limit, while the means of support are limited; the obvious cause of which is the production of offspring more numerous than their progenitors, but with equal expectation of life in the actuarial sense. Without the first tendency there could be no evolution. Without the second, there would be no good reason why one variation should disappear and another take its place; that is to say there would be no selection. Without the [8] third, the struggle for existence, the agent of the selective process in the state of nature, would vanish.*

* Collected Essays, vol. ii. passim.

Granting the existence of these tendencies, all the known facts of the history of plants and of animals may be brought into rational correlation. And this is more than can be said for any other hypothesis that I know of. Such hypotheses, for example, as that of the existence of a primitive, orderless chaos; of a passive and sluggish eternal matter moulded, with but partial success, by archetypal ideas; of a brand-new world-stuff suddenly created and swiftly shaped by a supernatural power; receive no encouragement, but the contrary, from our present knowledge. That our earth may once have formed part of a nebulous cosmic magma is certainly possible, indeed seems highly probable; but there is no reason to doubt that order reigned there, as completely as amidst what we regard as the most finished works of nature or of man.** The faith which is born of knowledge, finds its object in an eternal order, bringing forth ceaseless change, through endless time, in endless space; the manifestations of the cosmic energy alternating between phases of potentiality and phases of explication. It may be that, as Kant suggests,*** every cosmic [9] magma predestined to evolve into a new world, has been the no less predestined end of a vanished predecessor.

    **Ibid., vol. iv. p. 138; vol. v. pp. 71-73.
***Ibid., vol. viii. p. 321.


Three or four years have elapsed since the state of nature, to which I have referred, was brought to an end, so far as a small patch of the soil is concerned, by the intervention of man. The patch was cut off from the rest by a wall; within the area thus protected, the native vegetation was, as far as possible, extirpated; while a colony of strange plants was imported and set down in its place. In short, it was made into a garden. At the present time, this artificially treated area presents an aspect extraordinarily different from that of so much of the land as remains in the state of nature, outside the wall. Trees, shrubs, and herbs, many of them appertaining to the state of nature of remote parts of the globe, abound and flourish. Moreover, considerable quantities of vegetables, fruits, and flowers are produced, of kinds which neither now exist, nor have ever existed, except under conditions such as obtain in the garden; and which, therefore, are as much works of the art of man as the frames and glasshouses in which some of them are raised. That the “state of Art,” thus created in the state of nature by man, is sustained by and dependent on him, would at once become [10] apparent, if the watchful supervision of the gardener were withdrawn, and the antagonistic influences of the general cosmic process were no longer sedulously warded off, or counteracted. The walls and gates would decay; quadrupedal and bipedal intruders would devour and tread down the useful and beautiful plants; birds, insects, blight, and mildew would work their will; the seeds of the native plants, carried by winds or other agencies, would immigrate, and in virtue of their long-earned special adaptation to the local conditions, these despised native weeds would soon choke their choice exotic rivals. A century or two hence, little beyond the foundations of the wall and of the houses and frames would be left, in evidence of the victory of the cosmic powers at work in the state of nature, over the temporary obstacles to their supremacy, set up by the art of the horticulturist.

It will be admitted that the garden is as much a work of art,* or artifice, as anything that can be mentioned. The energy localised in certain human bodies, directed by similarly localised intellects, has produced a collocation of other material bodies which could not be brought about in the state of nature. The same proposition is true of all the

* The sense of the term “Art” is becoming narrowed; “work of Art” to most people means a picture, a statue, or a piece of bijouterie; by way of compensation “artist” has included in its wide embrace cooks and ballet girls, no less than painters and sculptors,

[11] works of man’s hands, from a flint implement to a cathedral or a chronometer; and it is because it is true, that we call these things artificial, term them works of art, or artifice, by way of distinguishing them from the products of the cosmic process, working outside man, which we call natural, or works of nature. The distinction thus drawn between the works of nature and those of man, is universally recognized; and it is, as I conceive, both useful and justifiable.


No doubt, it may be properly urged that the operation of human energy and intelligence, which has brought into existence and maintains the garden, by what I have called “the horticultural process,” is, strictly speaking, part and parcel of the cosmic process. And no one could more readily agree to that proposition than I. In fact, I do not know that any one has taken more pains than I have, during the last thirty years, to insist upon the doctrine, so much reviled in the early part of that period, that man, physical, intellectual, and moral, is as much a part of nature, as purely a product of the cosmic process, as the humblest weed.*

    * See “Man’s Place in Nature,” Collected Essays, vol. vii., and
“On the Struggle for Existence in Human Society” (1888), below.

But if, following up this admission, it is urged [12] that, such being the case, the cosmic process cannot be in antagonism with that horticultural process which is part of itself—I can only reply, that if the conclusion that the two are, antagonistic is logically absurd, I am sorry for logic, because, as we have seen, the fact is so. The garden is in the same position as every other work of man’s art; it is a result of the cosmic process working through and by human energy and intelligence; and, as is the case with every other artificial thing set up in the state of nature, the influences of the latter, are constantly tending to break it down and destroy it. No doubt, the Forth bridge and an ironclad in the offing, are, in ultimate resort, products of the cosmic process; as much so as the river which flows under the one, or the seawater on which the other floats. Nevertheless, every breeze strains the bridge a little, every tide does something to weaken its foundations; every change of temperature alters the adjustment of its parts, produces friction and consequent wear and tear. From time to time, the bridge must be repaired, just as the ironclad must go into dock; simply because nature is always tending to reclaim that which her child, man, has borrowed from her and has arranged in combinations which are not those favoured by the general cosmic process.

Thus, it is not only true that the cosmic energy, working through man upon a portion of [13] the plant world, opposes the same energy as it works through the state of nature, but a similar antagonism is everywhere manifest between the artificial and the natural. Even in the state of nature itself, what is the struggle for existence but the antagonism of the results of the cosmic process in the region of life, one to another?*

* Or to put the case still more simply. When a man lays hold of the two ends of a piece of string and pulls them, with intent to break it, the right arm is certainly exerted in antagonism to the left arm; yet both arms derive their energy from the same original source.


Not only is the state of nature hostile to the state of art of the garden; but the principle of the horticultural process, by which the latter is created and maintained, is antithetic to that of the cosmic process. The characteristic feature of the latter is the intense and unceasing competition of the struggle for existence. The characteristic of the former is the elimination of that struggle, by the removal of the conditions which give rise to it. The tendency of the cosmic process is to bring about the adjustment of the forms of plant life to the current conditions; the tendency of the horticultural process is the adjustment of the conditions to the needs of the forms of plant life which the gardener desires to raise.

The cosmic process uses unrestricted multiplication [14] as the means whereby hundreds compete for the place and nourishment adequate for one; it employs frost and drought to cut off the weak and unfortunate; to survive, there is need not only of strength, but of flexibility and of good fortune.

The gardener, on the other hand, restricts multiplication; provides that each plant shall have sufficient space and nourishment; protects from frost and drought; and, in every other way, attempts to modify the conditions, in such a manner as to bring about the survival of those forms which most nearly approach the standard of the useful or the beautiful, which he has in his mind.

If the fruits and the tubers, the foliage and the flowers thus obtained, reach, or sufficiently approach, that ideal, there is no reason why the status quo attained should not be indefinitely prolonged. So long as the state of nature remains approximately the same, so long will the energy and intelligence which created the garden suffice to maintain it. However, the limits within which this mastery of man over nature can be maintained are narrow. If the conditions of the cretaceous epoch returned, I fear the most skilful of gardeners would have to give up the cultivation of apples and gooseberries; while, if those of the glacial period once again obtained, open asparagus beds would be superfluous, and the training of fruit [15] trees against the most favourable of mouth walls, a waste of time and trouble.

But it is extremely important to note that, the state of nature remaining the same, if the produce does not satisfy the gardener, it may be made to approach his ideal more closely. Although the struggle for existence may be at end, the possibility of progress remains. In discussions on these topics, it is often strangely forgotten that the essential conditions of the modification, or evolution, of living things are variation and hereditary transmission. Selection is the means by which certain variations are favoured and their progeny preserved. But the struggle for existence is only one of the means by which selection may be effected. The endless varieties of cultivated flowers, fruits, roots, tubers, and bulbs are not products of selection by means of the struggle for existence, but of direct selection, in view of an ideal of utility or beauty. Amidst a multitude of plants, occupying the same station and subjected to the same conditions, in the garden, varieties arise. The varieties tending in a given direction are preserved, and the rest are destroyed. And the same process takes place among the varieties until, for example, the wild kale becomes a cabbage, or the wild Viola tricolor, a prize pansy.



The process of colonisation presents analogies to the formation of a garden which are highly instructive. Suppose a shipload of English colonists sent to form a settlement, in such a country as Tasmania was in the middle of the last century. On landing, they find themselves in the midst of a state of nature, widely different from that left behind them in everything but the most general physical conditions. The common plants, the common birds and quadrupeds, are as totally distinct as the men from anything to be seen on the side of the globe from which they come. The colonists proceed to put an end to this state of things over as large an area as they desire to occupy. They clear away the native vegetation, extirpate or drive out the animal population, so far as may be necessary, and take measures to defend themselves from the re-immigration of either. In their place, they introduce English grain and fruit trees; English dogs, sheep, cattle, horses; and English men; in fact, they set up a new Flora and Fauna and a new variety of mankind, within the old state of nature. Their farms and pastures represent a garden on a great scale, and themselves the gardeners who have to keep it up, in watchful antagonism to the old regime. Considered as a whole, the colony is a composite unit introduced into the old state of nature; and, [17] thenceforward, a competitor in the struggle for existence, to conquer or be vanquished.

Under the conditions supposed, there is no doubt of the result, if the work of the colonists be carried out energetically and with intelligent combination of all their forces. On the other hand, if they are slothful, stupid, and careless; or if they waste their energies in contests with one another, the chances are that the old state of nature will have the best of it. The native savage will destroy the immigrant civilized man; of the English animals and plants some will be extirpated by their indigenous rivals, others will pass into the feral state and themselves become components of the state of nature. In a few decades, all other traces of the settlement will have vanished.


Let us now imagine that some administrative authority, as far superior in power and intelligence to men, as men are to their cattle, is set over the colony, charged to deal with its human elements in such a manner as to assure the victory of the settlement over the antagonistic influences of the state of nature in which it is set down. He would proceed in the same fashion as that in which the gardener dealt with his garden. In the first place, he would, as far as possible, put a [18] stop to the influence of external competition by thoroughly extirpating and excluding the native rivals, whether men, beasts, or plants. And our administrator would select his human agents, with a view to his ideal of a successful colony, just as the gardener selects his plants with a view to his ideal of useful or beautiful products.

In the second place, in order that no struggle for the means of existence between these human agents should weaken the efficiency of the corporate whole in the battle with the state of nature, he would make arrangements by which each would be provided with those means; and would be relieved from the fear of being deprived of them by his stronger or more cunning fellows. Laws, sanctioned by the combined force of the colony, would restrain the self-assertion of each man within the limits required for the maintenance of peace. In other words, the cosmic struggle for existence, as between man and man, would be rigorously suppressed; and selection, by its means, would be as completely excluded as it is from the garden.

At the same time, the obstacles to the full development of the capacities of the colonists by other conditions of the state of nature than those already mentioned, would be removed by the creation of artificial conditions of existence of a more favourable character: Protection against extremes of heat and cold would [19] be afforded by houses and clothing; drainage and irrigation works would antagonise the effects of excessive rain and excessive drought; roads, bridges, canals, carriages, and ships would overcome the natural obstacles to locomotion and transport; mechanical engines would supplement the natural strength of men and of their draught animals; hygienic precautions would check, or remove, the natural causes of disease. With every step of this progress in civilization, the colonists would become more and more independent of the state of nature; more and more, their lives would be conditioned by a state of art. In order to attain his ends, the administrator would have to avail himself of the courage, industry, and co-operative intelligence of the settlers; and it is plain that the interest of the community would be best served by increasing the proportion of persons who possess such qualities, and diminishing that of persons devoid of them. In other words, by selection directed towards an ideal.

Thus the administrator might look to the establishment of an earthly paradise, a true garden of Eden, in which all things should work together towards the well-being of the gardeners: within which the cosmic process, the coarse struggle for existence of the state of nature, should be abolished; in which that state should be replaced by a state of art; [20] where every plant and every lower animal should be adapted to human wants, and would perish if human supervision and protection were withdrawn; where men themselves should have been selected, with a view to their efficiency as organs for the performance of the functions of a perfected society. And this ideal polity would have been brought about, not by gradually adjusting the men to the conditions around them, but by creating artificial conditions for them; not by allowing the free play of the struggle for existence, but by excluding that struggle; and by substituting selection directed towards the administrator’s ideal for the selection it exercises.


But the Eden would have its serpent, and a very subtle beast too. Man shares with the rest of the living world the mighty instinct of reproduction and its consequence, the tendency to multiply with great rapidity. The better the measures of the administrator achieved their object, the more completely the destructive agencies of the state of nature were defeated, the less would that multiplication be checked.

On the other hand, within the colony, the enforcement of peace, which deprives every man of the power to take away the means of existence from another, simply because he is the stronger, [21] would have put an end to the struggle for existence between the colonists, and the competition for the commodities of existence, which would alone remain, is no check upon population.

Thus, as soon as the colonists began to multiply, the administrator would have to face the tendency to the reintroduction of the cosmic struggle into his artificial fabric, in consequence of the competition, not merely for the commodities, but for the means of existence. When the colony reached the limit of possible expansion, the surplus population must be disposed of somehow; or the fierce struggle for existence must recommence and destroy that peace, which is the fundamental condition of the maintenance of the state of art against the state of nature.

Supposing the administrator to be guided by purely scientific considerations, he would, like the gardener, meet this most serious difficulty by systematic extirpation, or exclusion, of the superfluous. The hopelessly diseased, the infirm aged, the weak or deformed in body or in mind, the excess of infants born, would be put away, as the gardener pulls up defective and superfluous plants, or the breeder destroys undesirable cattle. Only the strong and the healthy, carefully matched, with a view to the progeny best adapted to the purposes of the administrator, would be permitted to perpetuate their kind.



Of the more thoroughgoing of the multitudinous attempts to apply the principles of cosmic evolution, or what are supposed to be such, to social and political problems, which have appeared of late years, a considerable proportion appear to me to be based upon the notion that human society is competent to furnish, from its own resources, an administrator of the kind I have imagined. The pigeons, in short, are to be their own Sir John Sebright.* A despotic government, whether individual or collective, is to be endowed with the preternatural intelligence, and with what, I am afraid, many will consider the preternatural ruthlessness, required for the purpose of carrying out the principle of improvement by selection, with the somewhat drastic thoroughness upon which the success of the method depends. Experience certainly does not justify us in limiting the ruthlessness of individual “saviours of society”; and, on the well-known grounds of the aphorism which denies both body and soul to corporations, it seems probable (indeed the belief is not without support in history) that a collective despotism, a mob got to believe in its own divine right by demagogic missionaries, would be capable of more thorough [23] work in this direction than any single tyrant, puffed up with the same illusion, has ever achieved. But intelligence is another affair. The fact that “saviours of society” take to that trade is evidence enough that they have none to spare. And such as they possess is generally sold to the capitalists of physical force on whose resources they depend. However, I doubt whether even the keenest judge of character, if he had before him a hundred boys and girls under fourteen, could pick out, with the least chance of success, those who should be kept, as certain to be serviceable members of the polity, and those who should be chloroformed, as equally sure to be stupid, idle, or vicious. The “points” of a good or of a bad citizen are really far harder to discern than those of a puppy or a short-horn calf; many do not show themselves before the practical difficulties of life stimulate manhood to full exertion. And by that time the mischief is done. The evil stock, if it be one, has had time to multiply, and selection is nullified.

* Not that the conception of such a society is necessarily based upon the idea of evolution. The Platonic state testifies to the contrary.


I have other reasons for fearing that this logical ideal of evolutionary regimentation—this pigeon-fanciers’ polity—is unattainable. In the absence of any such a severely scientific administrator as we have been dreaming of, human society [24] is kept together by bonds of such a singular character, that the attempt to perfect society after his fashion would run serious risk of loosening them. Social organization is not peculiar to men. Other societies, such as those constituted by bees and ants, have also arisen out of the advantage of co-operation in the struggle for existence; and their resemblances to, and their differences from, human society are alike instructive. The society formed by the hive bee fulfils the ideal of the communistic aphorism “to each according to his needs, from each according to his capacity.” Within it, the struggle for existence is strictly limited. Queen, drones, and workers have each their allotted sufficiency of food; each performs the function assigned to it in the economy of the hive, and all contribute to the success of the whole cooperative society in its competition with rival collectors of nectar and pollen and with other enemies, in the state of nature without. In the same sense as the garden, or the colony, is a work of human art, the bee polity is a work of apiarian art, brought about by the cosmic process, working through the organization of the hymenopterous type.

Now this society is the direct product of an organic necessity, impelling every member of it to a course of action which tends to the good of the whole. Each bee has its duty and none [25] has any rights. Whether bees are susceptible of feeling and capable of thought is a question which cannot be dogmatically answered. As a pious opinion, I am disposed to deny them more than the merest rudiments of consciousness.* But it is curious to reflect that a thoughtful drone (workers and queens would have no leisure for speculation) with a turn for ethical philosophy, must needs profess himself an intuitive moralist of the purest water. He would point out, with perfect justice, that the devotion of the workers to a life of ceaseless toil for a mere subsistence wage, cannot be accounted for either by enlightened selfishness, or by any other sort of utilitarian motives; since these bees begin to work, without experience or reflection, as they emerge from the cell in which they are hatched. Plainly, an eternal and immutable principle, innate in each bee, can alone account for the phenomena. On the other hand, the biologist, who traces out all the extant stages of gradation between solitary and hive bees, as clearly sees in the latter, simply the perfection of an automatic mechanism, hammered out by the blows of the struggle for existence upon the progeny of the former, during long ages of constant variation.

    * Collected Essays, vol. i., “Animal Automatism”; vol. v.,
“Prologue,” pp. 45 et seq.



I see no reason to doubt that, at its origin, human society was as much a product of organic necessity as that of the bees.* The human family, to begin with, rested upon exactly the same conditions as those which gave rise to similar associations among animals lower in the scale. Further, it is easy to see that every increase in the duration of the family ties, with the resulting co-operation of a larger and larger number of descendants for protection and defence, would give the families in which such modification took place a distinct advantage over the others. And, as in the hive, the progressive limitation of the struggle for existence between the members of the family would involve increasing efficiency as regards outside competition.

But there is this vast and fundamental difference between bee society and human society. In the former, the members of the society are each organically predestined to the performance of one particular class of functions only. If they were endowed with desires, each could desire to perform none but those offices for which its organization specially fits it; and which, in view of the good of the whole, it is proper it should do. So long as a new queen does not make her appearance, rivalries, and competition are absent from the bee polity.

* Collected Essays, vol v., Prologue, pp. 50-54,

[27] Among mankind, on the contrary, there is no such predestination to a sharply defined place in the social organism. However much men may differ in the quality of their intellects, the intensity of their passions, and the delicacy of their sensations, it cannot be said that one is fitted by his organization to be an agricultural labourer and nothing else, and another to be a landowner and nothing else. Moreover, with all their enormous differences in natural endowment, men agree in one thing, and that is their innate desire to enjoy the pleasures and to escape the pains of life; and, in short, to do nothing but that which it pleases them to do, without the least reference to the welfare of the society into which they are born. That is their inheritance (the reality at the bottom of the doctrine of original sin) from the long series of ancestors, human and semi-human and brutal, in whom the strength of this innate tendency to self-assertion was the condition of victory in the struggle for existence. That is the reason of the aviditas vitae*—the insatiable hunger for enjoyment—of all mankind, which is one of the essential conditions of success in the war with the state of nature outside; and yet the sure agent of the destruction of society if allowed free play within.

* See below. Romanes’ Lecture, note 7.

The check upon this free play of self-assertion, or natural liberty, which is the necessary condition for the origin of human society, is the product [28] of organic necessities of a different kind from those upon which the constitution of the hive depends. One of these is the mutual affection of parent and offspring, intensified by the long infancy of the human species. But the most important is the tendency, so strongly developed in man, to reproduce in himself actions and feelings similar to, or correlated with, those of other men. Man is the most consummate of all mimics in the animal world; none but himself can draw or model; none comes near him in the scope, variety, and exactness of vocal imitation; none is such a master of gesture; while he seems to be impelled thus to imitate for the pure pleasure of it. And there is no such another emotional chameleon. By a purely reflex operation of the mind, we take the hue of passion of those who are about us, or, it may be, the complementary colour. It is not by any conscious “putting one’s self in the place” of a joyful or a suffering person that the state of mind we call sympathy usually arises; * indeed, it is often contrary to one’s sense of [29] right, and in spite of one’s will, that “fellow-feeling makes us wondrous kind,” or the reverse. However complete may be the indifference to public opinion, in a cool, intellectual view, of the traditional sage, it has not yet been my fortune to meet with any actual sage who took its hostile manifestations with entire equanimity. Indeed, I doubt if the philosopher lives, or ever has lived who could know himself to be heartily despised by, a street boy without some irritation. And, though one cannot justify Haman for wishing to hang Mordecai on such a very high gibbet, yet, really, the consciousness of the Vizier of Ahasuerus, as he went in and out of the gate, that this obscure Jew had no respect for him, must have been very annoying.**

* Adam Smith makes the pithy observation that the man who sympathises with a woman in childbed, cannot be said to put himself in her place. (“The Theory of the Moral Sentiments,” Part vii. sec. iii. chap. i.) Perhaps there is more humour than force in the example; and, in spite of this and other observations of the same tenor, I think that the one defect of the remarkable work in which it occurs is that it lays too much stress on conscious substitution, too little on purely reflex sympathy.

** Esther v. 9-13. “. . . but when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, that he stood not up, nor moved for him, he was full of indignation against Mordecai. . . . And Haman told them of the glory of his riches . . . and all the things wherein the king had promoted him . . . Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king’s gate.” What a shrewd exposure of human weakness it is!

It is needful only to look around us, to see that the greatest restrainer of the anti-social tendencies of men is fear, not of the law, but of the opinion of their fellows. The conventions of honour bind men who break legal, moral, and religious bonds; and, while people endure the extremity of physical pain rather than part with life, shame drives the weakest to suicide.

Every forward step of social progress brings [30] men into closer relations with their fellows, and increases the importance of the pleasures and pains derived from sympathy. We judge the acts of others by our own sympathies, and we judge our own acts by the sympathies of others, every day and all day long, from childhood upwards, until associations, as indissoluble as those of language, are formed between certain acts and the feelings of approbation or disapprobation. It becomes impossible to imagine some acts without disapprobation, or others without approbation of the actor, whether he be one’s self, or any one else. We come to think in the acquired dialect of morals. An artificial personality, the “man within,” as Adam Smith* calls conscience, is built up beside the natural personality. He is the watchman of society, charged to restrain the anti-social tendencies of the natural man within the limits required by social welfare.

    * “Theory of the Moral Sentiments,” Part iii. chap. 3. On the
Influence and Authority of Conscience.


I have termed this evolution of the feelings out of which the primitive bonds of human society are so largely forged, into the organized and personified sympathy we call conscience, the ethical process.* So far as it tends to

* Worked out, in its essential features, chiefly by Hartley and Adam Smith, long before the modern doctrine of evolution was thought of. See Note below, p. 45.

[31] make any human society more efficient in the struggle for existence with the state of nature, or with other societies, it works in harmonious contrast with the cosmic process. But it is none the less true that, since law and morals are restraints upon the struggle for existence between men in society, the ethical process is in opposition to the principle of the cosmic process, and tends to the suppression of the qualities best fitted for success in that struggle.*

* See the essay “On the Struggle for Existence in Human Society” below; and Collected Essays, vol. i. p. 276, for Kant’s recognition of these facts.

It is further to be observed that, just as the self-assertion, necessary to the maintenance of society against the state of nature, will destroy that society if it is allowed free operation within; so the self-restraint, the essence of the ethical process, which is no less an essential condition of the existence of every polity, may, by excess, become ruinous to it.

Moralists of all ages and of all faiths, attending only to the relations of men towards one another in an ideal society, have agreed upon the “golden rule,” “Do as you would be done by.” In other words, let sympathy be your guide; put yourself in the place of the man towards whom your action is directed; and do to him what you would like to have done to yourself under the circumstances. However much one may admire the generosity of such a rule of [32] conduct; however confident one may be that average men may be thoroughly depended upon not to carry it out to its full logical consequences; it is nevertheless desirable to recognise the fact that these consequences are incompatible with the existence of a civil state, under any circumstances of this world which have obtained, or, so far as one can see, are, likely to come to pass.

For I imagine there can be no doubt that the great desire of every wrongdoer is to escape from the painful consequences of his actions. If I put myself in the place of the man who has robbed me, I find that I am possessed by an exceeding desire not to be fined or imprisoned; if in that of the man who has smitten me on one cheek, I contemplate with satisfaction the absence of any worse result than the turning of the other cheek for like treatment. Strictly observed, the “golden rule” involves the negation of law by the refusal to put it in motion against law-breakers; and, as regards the external relations of a polity, it is the refusal to continue the struggle for existence. It can be obeyed, even partially, only under the protection of a society which repudiates it. Without such shelter, the followers of the “golden rule” may indulge in hopes of heaven, but they must reckon with the certainty that other people will be masters of the earth.

What would become of the garden if the [33] gardener treated all the weeds and slugs, and birds and trespassers as he would like to be treated, if he were in their place?


Under the preceding heads, I have endeavoured to represent in broad, but I hope faithful, outlines the essential features of the state of nature and of that cosmic process of which it is the outcome, so far as was needful for my argument; I have contrasted with the state of nature the state of art, produced by human intelligence and energy, as it is exemplified by a garden; and I have shown that the state of art, here and elsewhere, can be maintained only by the constant counteraction of the hostile influences of the state of nature. Further, I have pointed out that the “horticultural process,” which thus sets itself against the “cosmic process” is opposed to the latter in principle, in so far as it tends to arrest the struggle for existence, by restraining the multiplication which is one of the chief causes of that struggle, and by creating artificial conditions of life, better adapted to the cultivated plants than are the conditions of the state of nature. And I have dwelt upon the fact that, though the progressive modification, which is the consequence of the struggle for existence in the state of nature, is at an end, such modification may still be effected [34] by that selection, in view of an ideal of usefulness, or of pleasantness, to man, of which the state of nature knows nothing.

I have proceeded to show that a colony, set down in a country in the state of nature, presents close analogies with a garden; and I have indicated the course of action which an administrator, able and willing to carry out horticultural principles, would adopt, in order to secure the success of such a newly formed polity, supposing it to be capable of indefinite expansion. In the contrary case, I have shown that difficulties must arise; that the unlimited increase of the population over a limited area must, sooner or later, reintroduce into the colony that struggle for the means of existence between the colonists, which it was the primary object of the administrator to exclude, insomuch as it is fatal to the mutual peace which is the prime condition of the union of men in society.

I have briefly described the nature of the only radical cure, known to me, for the disease which would thus threaten the existence of the colony; and, however regretfully, I have been obliged to admit that this rigorously scientific method of applying the principles of evolution to human society hardly comes within the region of practical politics; not for want of will on the part of a great many people; but because, for one reason, there is no hope that mere human beings will ever possess enough intelligence to select the fittest. And I [35] have adduced other grounds for arriving at the same conclusion.

I have pointed out that human society took its rise in the organic necessities expressed by imitation and by the sympathetic emotions; and that, in the struggle for existence with the state of nature and with other societies, as part of it, those in which men were thus led to close co-operation bad a great advantage.* But, since each man retained more or less of the faculties common to all the rest, and especially a full share of the desire for unlimited self-gratification, the struggle for existence within society could only be gradually eliminated. So long as any of it remained, society continued to be an imperfect instrument of the struggle for existence and, consequently, was improvable by the selective influence of that struggle. Other things being alike, the tribe of savages in which order was best maintained; in which there was most security within the tribe and the most loyal mutual support outside it, would be the survivors.

* Collected Essays, vol. v., Prologue, p. 52.

I have termed this gradual strengthening of the social bond, which, though it arrest the struggle for existence inside society, up to a certain point improves the chances of society, as a corporate whole, in the cosmic struggle—the ethical process. I have endeavoured to show that, when the ethical process has advanced so far as to secure [36] every member of the society in the possession of the means of existence, the struggle for existence, as between man and man, within that society is, ipso facto, at an end. And, as it is undeniable that the most highly civilized societies have substantially reached this position, it follows that, so far as they are concerned, the struggle for existence can play no important part within them.* In other words, the kind of evolution which is brought about in the state of nature cannot take place.

* Whether the struggle for existence with the state of nature and with other societies, so far as they stand in the relation of the state of nature with it, exerts a selective influence upon modern society, and in what direction, are questions not easy to answer. The problem of the effect of military and industrial warfare upon those who wage it is very complicated.

I have further shown cause for the belief that direct selection, after the fashion of the horticulturist and the breeder, neither has played, nor can play, any important part in the evolution of society; apart from other reasons, because I do not see how such selection could be practised without a serious weakening, it may be the destruction, of the bonds which hold society together. It strikes me that men who are accustomed to contemplate the active or passive extirpation of the weak, the unfortunate, and the superfluous; who justify that conduct on the ground that it has the sanction of the cosmic process, and is the only way of ensuring the progress of the race; who, if [37] they are consistent, must rank medicine among the black arts and count the physician a mischievous preserver of the unfit; on whose matrimonial undertakings the principles of the stud have the chief influence; whose whole lives, therefore, are an education in the noble art of suppressing natural affection and sympathy, are not likely to have any large stock of these commodities left. But, without them, there is no conscience, nor any restraint on the conduct of men, except the calculation of self-interest, the balancing of certain present gratifications against doubtful future pains; and experience tells us how much that is worth. Every day, we see firm believers in the hell of the theologians commit acts by which, as they believe when cool, they risk eternal punishment; while they hold back from those which am opposed to the sympathies of their associates.


That progressive modification of civilization which passes by the name of the “evolution of society,” is, in fact, a process of an essentially different character, both from that which brings about the evolution of species, in the state of nature, and from that which gives rise to the evolution of varieties, in the state of art.

There can be no doubt that vast changes have taken place in English civilization since the reign [38] of the Tudors. But I am not aware of a particle of evidence in favour of the conclusion that this evolutionary process, has been accompanied by any modification of the physical, or the mental, characters of the men who have been the subjects of it. I have not met with any grounds for suspecting that the average Englishmen of to-day are sensibly different from those that Shakspere knew and drew. We look into his magic mirror of the Elizabethan age, and behold, nowise darkly, the presentment of ourselves.

During these three centuries, from the reign of Elizabeth to that of Victoria, the struggle for existence between man and man has been so largely restrained among the great mass of the population (except for one or two short intervals of civil war), that it can have had little, or no, selective operation. As to anything comparable to direct selection, it has been practised on so small a scale that it may also be neglected. The criminal law, in so far as by putting to death or by subjecting to long periods of imprisonment, those who infringe its provisions, prevents the propagation of hereditary criminal tendencies; and the poor-law, in so far as it separates married couples, whose destitution arises from hereditary defects of character, are doubtless selective agents operating in favour of the non-criminal and the more effective members of society. But the proportion of the population which they influence [39] is very small; and, generally, the hereditary criminal and the hereditary pauper have propagated their kind before the law affects them. In a large proportion of cases, crime and pauperism have nothing to do with heredity; but are the consequence, partly, of circumstances and, partly, of the possession of qualities, which, under different conditions of life, might have excited esteem and even admiration. It was a shrewd man of the world who, in discussing sewage problems, remarked that dirt is riches in the wrong place; and that sound aphorism has moral applications. The benevolence and open-handed generosity which adorn a rich man, may make a pauper of a poor one; the energy and courage to which the successful soldier owes his rise, the cool and daring subtlety to which the great financier owes his fortune, may very easily, under unfavourable conditions, lead their possessors to the gallows, or to the hulks. Moreover, it is fairly probable that the children of a “failure” will receive from their other parent just that little modification of character which makes all the difference. I sometimes wonder whether people, who talk so freely about extirpating the unfit, ever dispassionately consider their own history. Surely, one must be very “fit,” indeed, not to know of an occasion, or perhaps two, in one’s life, when it would have been only too easy to qualify for a place among the “unfit.”

[40] In my belief the innate qualities, physical, intellectual, and moral, of our nation have remained substantially the same for the last four or five centuries. If the struggle for existence has affected us to any serious extent (and I doubt it) it has been, indirectly, through our military and industrial wars with other nations.


What is often called the struggle for existence in society (I plead guilty to having used the term too loosely myself), is a contest, not for the means of existence, but for the means of enjoyment. Those who occupy the first places in this practical competitive examination are the rich and the influential; those who fail, more or less, occupy the lower places, down to the squalid obscurity of the pauper and the criminal. Upon the most liberal estimate, I suppose the former group will not amount to two per cent. of the population. I doubt if the latter exceeds another two per cent.; but let it be supposed, for the sake of argument, that it is as great as five per cent.*

* Those who read the last Essay in this volume will not accuse me of wishing to attenuate the evil of the existence of this group, whether great or small.

As it is only in the latter group that any thing comparable to the struggle for existence in the state of nature can take place; as it is [41] only among this twentieth of the whole people that numerous men, women, and children die of rapid or slow starvation, or of the diseases incidental to permanently bad conditions of life; and as there is nothing to prevent their multiplication before they are killed off, while, in spite of greater infant mortality, they increase faster than the rich; it seems clear that the struggle for existence in this class can have no appreciable selective influence upon the other 95 per cent. of the population.

What sort of a sheep breeder would he be who should content himself with picking out the worst fifty out of a thousand, leaving them on a barren common till the weakest starved, and then letting the survivors go back to mix with the rest? And the parallel is too favourable; since in a large number of cases, the actual poor and the convicted criminals are neither the weakest nor the worst.

In the struggle for the means of enjoyment, the qualities which ensure success are energy, industry, intellectual capacity, tenacity of purpose, and, at least, as much sympathy as is necessary to make a man understand the feelings of his fellows. Were there none of those artificial arrangements by which fools and knaves are kept at the top of society instead of sinking to their natural place at the bottom,* the struggle for the means [42] of enjoyment would ensure a constant circulation of the human units of the social compound, from the bottom to the top and from the top to the bottom. The survivors of the contest, those who continued to form the great bulk of the polity, would not be those “fittest” who got to the very top, but the great body of the moderately “fit,” whose numbers and superior propagative power, enable them always to swamp the exceptionally endowed minority.

* I have elsewhere lamented the absence from society of a machinery for facilitating the descent of incapacity. “Administrative Nihilism.” Collected Essays, vol. i. p. 54.

I think it must be obvious to every one, that, whether we consider the internal or the external interests of society, it is desirable they should be in the hands of those who are endowed with the largest share of energy, of industry, of intellectual capacity, of tenacity of purpose, while they are not devoid of sympathetic humanity; and, in so far as the struggle for the means of enjoyment tends to place such men in possession of wealth and influence, it is a process which tends to the good of society. But the process, as we have seen, has no real resemblance to that which adapts living beings to current conditions in the state of nature; nor any to the artificial selection of the horticulturist.

[43] To return, once more, to the parallel of horticulture. In the modern world, the gardening of men by themselves is practically restricted to the performance, not of selection, but of that other function of the gardener, the creation of conditions more favourable than those of the state of nature; to the end of facilitating the free expansion of the innate faculties of the citizen, so far as it is consistent with the general good. And the business of the moral and political philosopher appears to me to be the ascertainment, by the same method of observation, experiment, and ratiocination, as is practised in other kinds of scientific work, of the course of conduct which will best conduce to that end.

But, supposing this course of conduct to be scientifically determined and carefully followed out, it cannot put an end to the struggle for existence in the state of nature; and it will not so much as tend, in any way, to the adaptation of man to that state.  Even should the whole human race be absorbed in one vast polity, within which ‘absolute political justice’ reigns, the struggle for existence with the state of nature outside it, and the tendency to the return to the struggle within, in consequence of over-multiplication, will remain; and, unless men’s inheritance from the ancestors who fought a good fight in the state of nature, their dose of original sin, is rooted out by some method at present unrevealed, at any rate to disbelievers in supernaturalism, every child born into the world will still bring with him the instinct of unlimited self-assertion.  He will have to learn the lesson of self-restraint and renunciation.  But the practice of self-restraint and renunciation is not happiness, though it may be something much better.

That man, as a ‘political animal’ is susceptible of a vast amount of improvement, by education, by instruction, and by the application of his intelligence to the adaptation of the conditions of life to his higher needs, I entertain not the slightest doubt.  But so long as he remains liable to error, intellectual or moral; so long as he is compelled to be perpetually on guard against the cosmic forces, whose ends are not his ends, without and within himself; so long as he is haunted by inexpugnable memories and hopeless aspirations; so long as the recognition of his intellectual limitations forces him to acknowledge his incapacity to penetrate the mystery of existence; the prospect of attaining untroubled happiness, or of a state which can, even remotely, deserve the title of perfection, appears to me to be as misleading an illusion as ever was dangled before the eyes of poor humanity.  And there have been many of them.

That which lies before the human race is a constant struggle to maintain and improve, in opposition to the State of Nature, the State of Art of an organized polity; in which, and by which, man may develop a worthy civilization, capable of maintaining and constantly improving itself, until the evolution of our globe shall have entered so far upon its downward course that the cosmic process resumes its sway; and, once more, the State of Nature prevails over the surface of our planet.”    Thomas Huxley, “Evolution & Ethics–Prolegomena;” in Evolution & Ethics & Other Essays, Preface and Chapter One, Circa 1894

"Oldmansea" by Source.
“Oldmansea” by Source.

Numero Dos“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.   In the first forty days a boy had been with him.   But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.   It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast.  The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck.  The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.  The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords.  But none of these scars were fresh.   They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.

Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.

‘Santiago,’ the boy said to him as they climbed the bank from where the skiff was hauled up.  ‘I could go with you again.   We’ve made some money.’

The old man had taught the boy to fish and the boy loved him.

‘No,’ the old man said.  ‘You’re with a lucky boat.   Stay with them.’

“But remember how you went eighty-seven days without fish and then we caught big ones every day for three weeks.”

“I remember,” the old man said. “I know you did not leave me because you doubted.”

“It was papa made me leave. I am a boy and I must obey him.”

“I know,” the old man said. “It is quite normal.”

“He hasn’t much faith.”

“No,” the old man said. “But we have. Haven’t we?”

“Yes,” the boy said. “Can I offer you a beer on the Terrace and then we’ll take the stuff home.”

“Why not?” the old man said. “Between fishermen.”

They sat on the Terrace and many of the fishermen made fun of the old man and he was not angry. Others, of the older fishermen, looked at him and were sad. But they did not show it and they spoke politely about the current and the depths they had drifted their lines at and the steady good weather and of what they had seen. The successful fishermen of that day were already in and had butchered their marlin out and carried them laid full length across two planks, with two men staggering at the end of each plank, to the fish house where they waited for the ice truck to carry them to the market in Havana. Those who had caught sharks had taken them to the shark factory on the other side of the cove where they were hoisted on a block and tackle, their livers removed, their fins cut off and their hides skinned out and their flesh cut into strips for salting.

When the wind was in the east a smell came across the harbour from the shark factory; but today there was only the faint edge of the odour because the wind had backed into the north and then dropped off and it was pleasant and sunny on the Terrace.

“Santiago,” the boy said.

“Yes,” the old man said. He was holding his glass and thinking of many years ago.

“Can I go out to get sardines for you for tomorrow?”

“No. Go and play baseball. I can still row and Rogelio will throw the net.”

“I would like to go. If I cannot fish with you, I would like to serve in some way.”

“You bought me a beer,” the old man said. “You are already a man.”

“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?”

“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”

“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. I can remember you throwing me into the bow where the wet coiled lines were and feeling the whole boat shiver and the noise of you clubbing him like chopping a tree down and the sweet blood smell all over me.”

“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”

“I remember everything from when we first went together.”

The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.

“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”

“May I get the sardines? I know where I can get four baits too.”

“I have mine left from today. I put them in salt in the box.”

“Let me get four fresh ones.”

“One,” the old man said. His hope and his confidence had never gone. But now they were freshening as when the breeze rises.

“Two,” the boy said.

“Two,” the old man agreed. “You didn’t steal them?”

“I would,” the boy said. “But I bought these.”

“Thank you,” the old man said. He was too simple to wonder when he had attained humility. But he knew he had attained it and he knew it was not disgraceful and it carried no loss of true pride.

Tomorrow is going to be a good day with this current,” he said.

“Where are you going?” the boy asked.

“Far out to come in when the wind shifts. I want to be out before it is light.”

“I’ll try to get him to work far out,” the boy said. “Then if you hook something truly big we can come to your aid.”

“He does not like to work too far out.”

“No,” the boy said. “But I will see something that he cannot see such as a bird working and get him to come out after dolphin.”

“Are his eyes that bad?”

“He is almost blind.”

“It is strange,” the old man said. “He never went turtle-ing. That is what kills the eyes.”

“But you went turtle-ing for years off the Mosquito Coast and your eyes are good.”

“I am a strange old man.”

“But are you strong enough now for a truly big fish?”

“I think so. And there are many tricks.”

“Let us take the stuff home,” the boy said. “So I can get the cast net and go after the sardines.”

They picked up the gear from the boat. The old man carried the mast on his shoulder and the boy carried the wooden box with the coiled, hard-braided brown lines, the gaff and the harpoon with its shaft. The box with the baits was under the stern of the skiff along with the club that was used to subdue the big fish when they were brought alongside. No one would steal from the old man but it was better to take the sail and the heavy lines home as the dew was bad for them and, though he was quite sure no local people would steal from him, the old man thought that a gaff and a harpoon were needless temptations to leave in a boat.

They walked up the road together to the old man’s shack and went in through its open door. The old man leaned the mast with its wrapped sail against the wall and the boy put the box and the other gear beside it. The mast was nearly as long as the one room of the shack. The shack was made of the tough bud-shields of the royal palm which are called guano and in it there was a bed, a table, one chair, and a place on the dirt floor to cook with charcoal. On the brown walls of the flattened, overlapping leaves of the sturdy fibered guano there was a picture in color of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and another of the Virgin of Cobre. These were relics of his wife. Once there had been a tinted photograph of his wife on the wall but he had taken it down because it made him too lonely to see it and it was on the shelf in the corner under his clean shirt.

“What do you have to eat?” the boy asked.

“A pot of yellow rice with fish. Do you want some?”

“No. I will eat at home. Do you want me to make the fire?”

“No. I will make it later on. Or I may eat the rice cold.”

“May I take the cast net?”

“Of course.”

There was no cast net and the boy remembered when they had sold it. But they went through this fiction every day. There was no pot of yellow rice and fish and the boy knew this too.

“Eighty-five is a lucky number,” the old man said. “How would you like to see me bring one in that dressed out over a thousand pounds?”

“I’ll get the cast net and go for sardines. Will you sit in the sun in the doorway?”

“Yes. I have yesterday’s paper and I will read the baseball.”

The boy did not know whether yesterday’s paper was a fiction too. But the old man brought it out from under the bed.

“Perico gave it to me at the bodega,” he explained.

“I’ll be back when I have the sardines. I’ll keep yours and mine together on ice and we can share them in the morning. When I come back you can tell me about the baseball.”

“The Yankees cannot lose.”

“But I fear the Indians of Cleveland.”

“Have faith in the Yankees my son. Think of the great DiMaggio.”

“I fear both the Tigers of Detroit and the Indians of Cleveland.”

“Be careful or you will fear even the Reds of Cincinnati and the White Sox of Chicago.”

“You study it and tell me when I come back.”

“Do you think we should buy a terminal of the lottery with an eighty-five? Tomorrow is the eighty-fifth day.”

“We can do that,” the boy said. “But what about the eighty-seven of your great record?”

“It could not happen twice. Do you think you can find an eighty-five?”

“I can order one.”

“One sheet. That’s two dollars and a half. Who can we borrow that from?”

“That’s easy. I can always borrow two dollars and a half.”

“I think perhaps I can too. But I try not to borrow. First you borrow. Then you beg.”

“Keep warm old man,” the boy said. “Remember we are in September.”

“The month when the great fish come,” the old man said. “Anyone can be a fisherman in May.”

“I go now for the sardines,” the boy said.

When the boy came back the old man was asleep in the chair and the sun was down. The boy took the old army blanket off the bed and spread it over the back of the chair and over the old man’s shoulders. They were strange shoulders, still powerful although very old, and the neck was still strong too and the creases did not show so much when the old man was asleep and his head fallen forward. His shirt had been patched so many times that it was like the sail and the patches were faded to many different shades by the sun. The old man’s head was very old though and with his eyes closed there was no life in his face. The newspaper lay across his knees and the weight of his arm held it there in the evening breeze. He was barefooted.

The boy left him there and when he came back the old man was still asleep.

“Wake up old man,” the boy said and put his hand on one of the old man’s knees.

The old man opened his eyes and for a moment he was coming back from a long way away. Then he smiled.

“What have you got?” he asked.

“Supper,” said the boy. “We’re going to have supper.”

“I’m not very hungry.”

“Come on and eat. You can’t fish and not eat.”

“I have,” the old man said getting up and taking the newspaper and folding it. Then he started to fold the blanket.

“Keep the blanket around you,” the boy said. “You’ll not fish without eating while I’m alive.”

“Then live a long time and take care of yourself,” the old man said. “What are we eating?”

“Black beans and rice, fried bananas, and some stew.”

The boy had brought them in a two-decker metal container from the Terrace. The two sets of knives and forks and spoons were in his pocket with a paper napkin wrapped around each set.

“Who gave this to you?”

“Martin. The owner.”

“I must thank him.”

“I thanked him already,” the boy said. “You don’t need to thank him.”

“I’ll give him the belly meat of a big fish,” the old man said. “Has he done this for us more than once?”

“I think so.”

“I must give him something more than the belly meat then. He is very thoughtful for us.”

“He sent two beers.”

“I like the beer in cans best.”

“I know. But this is in bottles, Hatuey beer, and I take back the bottles.”

“That’s very kind of you,” the old man said. “Should we eat?”

“I’ve been asking you to,” the boy told him gently. “I have not wished to open the container until you were ready.”

“I’m ready now,” the old man said. “I only needed time to wash.”

Where did you wash? the boy thought. The village water supply was two streets down the road. I must have water here for him, the boy thought, and soap and a good towel. Why am I so thoughtless? I must get him another shirt and a jacket for the winter and some sort of shoes and another blanket.

“Your stew is excellent,” the old man said.

“Tell me about the baseball,” the boy asked him.

“In the American League it is the Yankees as I said,” the old man said happily.

“They lost today,” the boy told him.

“That means nothing. The great DiMaggio is himself again.”

“They have other men on the team.”

“Naturally. But he makes the difference. In the other league, between Brooklyn and Philadelphia I must take Brooklyn. But then I think of Dick Sisler and those great drives in the old park.”

“There was nothing ever like them. He hits the longest ball I have ever seen.”

“Do you remember when he used to come to the Terrace? I wanted to take him fishing but I was too timid to ask him. Then I asked you to ask him and you were too timid.”

“I know. It was a great mistake. He might have gone with us. Then we would have that for all of our lives.”

“I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing,” the old man said. “They say his father was a fisherman. Maybe he was as poor as we are and would understand.”

“The great Sisler’s father was never poor and he, the father, was playing in the big leagues when he was my age.”

“When I was your age I was before the mast on a square rigged ship that ran to Africa and I have seen lions on the beaches in the evening.”

“I know. You told me.”

“Should we talk about Africa or about baseball?”

“Baseball I think,” the boy said. “Tell me about the great John J. McGraw.” He said Jota for J.

“He used to come to the Terrace sometimes too in the older days. But he was rough and harsh-spoken and difficult when he was drinking. His mind was on horses as well as baseball. At least he carried lists of horses at all times in his pocket and frequently spoke the names of horses on the telephone.”

“He was a great manager,” the boy said. “My father thinks he was the greatest.”

“Because he came here the most times,” the old man said. “If Durocher had continued to come here each year your father would think him the greatest manager.”

“Who is the greatest manager, really, Luque or Mike Gonzalez?”

“I think they are equal.”

“And the best fisherman is you.”

“No. I know others better.”

Qué va,” the boy said. “There are many good fishermen and some great ones. But there is only you.”

“Thank you. You make me happy. I hope no fish will come along so great that he will prove us wrong.”

“There is no such fish if you are still strong as you say.”

“I may not be as strong as I think,” the old man said. “But I know many tricks and I have resolution.”

“You ought to go to bed now so that you will be fresh in the morning. I will take the things back to the Terrace.”

‘Good night then.   I will wake you in the morning.’

‘You’re my alarm clock,’ the boy said.

‘Age is my alarm clock,’ the old man said.  ‘Why do old men wake so early?   Is it to have one longer day?’

‘I don’t know,’ the boy said.  ‘All I know is that young boys sleep late and hard.’

‘I can remember it,’ the old man said.  ‘I’ll waken you in time.’

‘I do not like for him to waken me. It is as though I were inferior.’

‘I know.’

‘Sleep well, old man.’

The boy went out. T hey had eaten with no light on the table and the old man took off his trousers and went to bed in the dark.  He rolled his trousers up to make a pillow, putting the newspaper inside them.  He rolled himself in the blanket and slept on the other old newspapers that covered the springs of the bed.”    Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea; a selection, 1952

Numero Tres“Amos Oz lives in Arad, a small new town of twenty-two thousand inhabitants, built in 1961 in the Negev Desert.  To reach him, I took the bus from Jerusalem to Beersheba, then another to Arad.  At the bus station everyone knew his house, and a man directed me to it: uphill along a wide tree-lined road flanked with medium-sized apartment buildings in white sandstone, to the top, where rows of family houses back onto the desert in lateral streets.  Roses and huge feathery chrysanthemums grow in his front garden, shaded by a peppertree.

Amos Oz speaks perfect English, with a slight accent.  The clipped, well-rounded sentences, clearly enunciated, indicate the punctuation, as if he were writing.  He was born Amos Klausner in 1939 to a family of scholars who had emigrated from Russia in the early 1920s and later settled in Jerusalem.  At fifteen he left home for Kibbutz Hulda, where he lived until a few years ago, when his younger son’s asthma made the move to Arad necessary—the clean desert air alleviates his condition.  Oz studied philosophy and literature at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and later fought as a reserve soldier in the 1967 Six-Day War in Sinai and on the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Apart from a dozen novels and some collections of short stories, he has published three books of essays, mostly concerned with the Arab-Israeli conflict.  He is one of the earliest activists of the Peace Now movement, advocating a compromise between the two communities based on mutual acceptance and cooperation, and the sharing of land.

When he began to publish his work he took the name Oz, meaning strength.  He met his wife Nily at the kibbutz, when they were both fifteen.  They have two daughters who have grown up and married, and a teenage son—’the child of our old age’—who lives with them.  Nily runs the International Artists’ Colony in Arad, where artists from all over the world live and work for a period of eight months.

Amos Oz is a professor of Hebrew literature at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheba, and has been visiting professor at universities in Britain and the United States.  He is much in demand for lectures and conferences, last year traveling to several European countries—France, Poland, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, among others.

‘He looks like Mel Gibson,’ his London publisher suggested.  Oz has turquoise-blue eyes, short blondish hair, and a gentle smile.  His courtesy and courtly manners, his acute intelligence and knowledge, made the afternoon I spent with him a delight.  It took place in December 1994.


Your traveling schedule is formidable. Yet you produce books at regular intervals. How do you divide your time? First during the year, and then daily?


The first rule is never to travel when I’m pregnant with a book. I tend not to travel abroad when I’m writing, and even within this country I limit myself to three or four times a year. It doesn’t always work out, but that is my pattern. As for my day, I start at six a.m. with a forty-minute walk in the desert, summer and winter.


Does it ever snow in the desert?


Oh yes, every two or three years. And then you should see the expression on the faces of the camels crossing the desert! That is when I understand the real meaning of the word bewilderment! But even without snow, it is bitterly cold in winter, a savage place at dawn, when stormy winds seem determined to sweep away the whole town into the desert. But walking alone knocks things into proportion. If later on I read in the morning papers that some politician has said this or that will never happen, I know that this or that is going to last forever, that the stones out there are laughing, that in this desert, which is unchanged for thousands of years, a politician’s never is like . . . a month? Six months? Thirty years? Completely insignificant.

I then have my coffee and come down to this room, sit at my desk, and wait. Without reading, listening to music, or answering the phone. Then I write, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a paragraph—in a good day, half a page. But I am here at least seven or eight hours every day. I used to feel guilty about an unproductive morning, especially when I lived on the kibbutz, and everyone else was working—plowing fields, milking cows, planting trees. Now I think of my work as that of a shopkeeper: it is my job to open up in the morning, sit, and wait for customers. If I get some, it is a blessed morning, if not, well, I’m still doing my job. So the guilt has gone, and I try to stick to my shopkeeper’s routine. Chores like answering letters, faxes, and telephone calls are squeezed in an hour before lunch or dinner.

Perhaps poets and short-story writers can work with a different pattern. But writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.


What about the evenings? Arad doesn’t seem crackling with exciting nightlife. It seems fast asleep even on this sunny afternoon.


Don’t you believe it! It is an exciting little place: three restaurants and three banks, a brand-new shopping mall, a barbershop, and a bookstore. We have had an influx of overqualified Russian Jews in recent years. We say that if a Russian arrives who is not carrying a violin, it’s only because he or she is a pianist. So we have good concerts.

Sometimes I come down here after dinner and read what I have written during the day. I demolish mercilessly, to start again the next morning. Sometimes I go out and sit myself at the local parliament: a couple of benches at the café where people argue about the meaning of life, the significance of history, or the real intention of God, and that’s my favorite pastime.


When do you fit in your journalism?


I write articles not because I’m asked to, but because I’m filled with rage. I feel I have to tell my government what to do and, sometimes, where to go. Not that they listen. Then I drop everything and write an essay, which is always published here first, then picked up by The New York Times, or England’s Guardian or another publication. You see, I’m not a political analyst or commentator. I write from a sense of injustice and my revolt against it. But I can write an article only when I agree with myself one hundred percent, which is not my normal condition—normally I’m in partial disagreement with myself and can identify with three or five different views and different feelings about the same issue. That is when I write a story, where different characters can express different views on the same subject. I have never written a story or a novel to make people change their minds about anything—not once. When I need to do this, I write an essay, or an article. I even use two different pens, as a symbolic gesture: one to tell stories, the other to tell the government what to do with itself. Both, by the way, are very ordinary ballpoint pens, which I change every three weeks or so.

Unlike stories, articles are written in one burst, over six or seven hours. It is like having a quarrel with my wife—we scream and shout and later make up. We live in a Fellini movie, not an Ingmar Bergman one: anything is better than silence and sulking and making each other feel guilty. I act upon the same principle in politics.


How do you write? Standing at that lectern, like Hemingway, or sitting down? Do you write in longhand or with a word processor?


I write in longhand. That machine on my desk [a word processor] is for typing out, not composing. For years I had my portable typewriter on which I typed the final draft, so that others could read it. Now I do the same on the word processor. I don’t even edit on it, but rewrite and rewrite in longhand. After many drafts I finally type it out. The word processor is, for me, nothing but a typewriter, only you don’t have to use Typex to erase or correct a mistake.

I walk round the room, then stand by the lectern and put down a sentence, and walk round again. I sway between the desk and the lectern.


You have chosen to write in Hebrew, which is important for two reasons. The first is that it is the official language and therefore bound with the national identity . . .


Oh no, I have never chosen Hebrew. I was born into it. It is my native tongue. I dream and laugh and curse in Hebrew. And I have said many times that I’m a chauvinist only in respect of the language, and that even if I had to part with this country, I would never part with the language. I feel for the language everything that perhaps I don’t always feel for the country.


The second reason is that Hebrew is a sacred language, a language of revelation, a language in which God has spoken, like Arabic and Sanskrit. It is both a challenge and a responsibility to use it. Yet modern Hebrew is said to be only a hundred years old, and has been invented by poets like Bialik and other early writers. Could you not have written in English?


No, I could not. Hebrew is the language in which I think, count, laugh, and make love. It is part of my being. But you are right, as a spoken language it was as dead as ancient Greek or Latin. It had an old literature, and a medieval literature, but no everyday currency. It was used for religious rituals and scholarly exchanges among Jews of various countries. It also had some high-flown poetry written in the Middle Ages by Jews in Muslim Spain who loved Hebrew but didn’t speak it in everyday life.

So Hebrew was revived here a hundred years ago, but not as a result of an ideological decision, which cannot be done—no argument or decision could make the Canadians suddenly start speaking Korean or Japanese. The reason why Hebrew was revived here is because it was the only language the Jews coming from all over the world had in common. The Oriental Jews spoke Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Ladino (a Spanish dialect), while the European Jews spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish. The only language in which they could communicate—to ask directions in the street, to rent a flat or a shop—was the prayer book Hebrew.

But for me the revival of Hebrew occurred when the first boy said to the first girl “I love you” in Hebrew. Or was it the girl who said it to the boy? This had not happened for seventeen centuries. I hope that boy and girl had their way with each other and lived happily ever after—they deserved to, for having revived the language. Yet it couldn’t have happened if there had not already existed a significant body of literature in Hebrew, a literature that contained, surprisingly, several modern sensibilities. People like Bialik, Brenner, Berdichevsky, Mendele—names that mean nothing to you or your readers—but I’m standing on their shoulders.

On the other hand, Hebrew is like a volcano, like Elizabethan English. I’m not implying that our poets are all Shakespeare, rather that the language is erupting like a volcano; it is happening all the time. So writing in Hebrew is a wonderful challenge.

You said it is the language of revelation. You are right. Think of playing a piece of chamber music inside a cathedral—you have to be very careful with the acoustics, otherwise you may produce a lot of echoes you don’t want. You have to use words that have prophetic and mystical connotations to describe a little pocket-money disagreement between parents and children. You don’t want to bring in Isaiah and Psalms and Mount Sinai. So you are always tiptoeing on a minefield. If sometimes you want to produce an explosion, then it is easily done—by introducing a weighty word in the middle of a prosaic sentence. I have a feeling that I work with a wonderful musical instrument.


The creation of an academy at the inception of the State of Israel must have helped bring the language up to date, making it adequate for expressing what you call “modern sensibilities.” Do you think it was important? Or would the language have evolved anyway?


It was important to establish Hebrew. There was first a committee, which later became the Academy of Hebrew Language, of which I’m a proud member. It deals with the need to create modern terminology, but cannot, of course, control the language, which as I said is like a gushing crater, with an organic life of its own.


There are other famous modern Hebrew writers: the Nobel Prize winner S. Y. Agnon, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, among others. It seems that writers are taken very seriously in this country. In the West commercial considerations play an important role. As a result, Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” seems to apply here more than with us. Is that the case?


We have a somewhat different tradition. In the West, at least in English-speaking countries, writers, even great writers and poets, are usually regarded primarily as entertainers. They can be fine, subtle, deep, but still they are entertainers. Even Shakespeare is regarded as a magnificent, perhaps the greatest, entertainer. By contrast, in the Judeo-Slavic tradition, writers are regarded as prophets. This can be a terrible burden, for unlike the prophets I don’t hear voices from above, and I don’t think I’m any more equipped to be a prophet—to foresee the future or serve as the people’s conscience—than an American or a British writer. Yet there is a huge expectation here, and so it is also in Russia or Poland.

Perhaps we can start to examine the word fiction, which does not exist in Hebrew. The academy has invented bidayon to translate the English word, but in bookstores you won’t find my works or any other novelist’s under that title. You will find them under the title siporet, which means narrative prose. That is a bit more decent, because fiction has a ring of lying about it, the opposite of truth. In my view this is nonsense: why should James Joyce, who took the trouble of literally measuring how many steps there were between the bar and the mailbox on the street corner, or Tolstoy, who studied the minutest details of the Battle of Borodino, be regarded as fiction writers, while the most banal journalist using such clichés as “the boiling cauldron of the Middle East” be regarded as a nonfiction writer? The novelist has no political aim but is concerned with truth, not facts. As I say in one of my essays, sometimes the worst enemy of truth is fact. I’m a writer of narrative prose, siporet, but I’m not a prophet or a guide, nor am I an inventor of “fiction.”


Yet your work is very much rooted in the realities of Israel today, and you do tell the people and the government what is right and what is wrong . . .


Because our lives are soaked with history. History is not something on the TV screens, or overseas, or in the Congress or the House of Commons, it is everywhere, and it penetrates the most intimate tissues of life. To give an example: during the recent Gulf War, we were issued gas masks against chemical bombs. My son who is asthmatic and can hardly breathe had to wear one. We were sitting, shut tight in a sealed bedroom, wearing these ghastly masks, looking like monsters, our most private intimacy invaded by a threat from two thousand miles away. So you see, we can’t get away from the realities. People use moments in the country’s history to measure time: I got married just before the Six Day War, they say. Or, My daughter was born the day Sadat came to Israel.


What language did you speak at home? Did your parents speak Russian or just Hebrew?


My father was from Odessa originally and had emigrated to Vilnius, Lithuania, which at that time was part of Poland; my mother was from Ukraine. Their languages were Russian or Polish. They met in Jerusalem, as students at the Hebrew University. My father knew sixteen languages and spoke ten of them, and my mother knew seven or eight languages too. They spoke Russian when they didn’t want me to understand, otherwise they insisted on using only Hebrew. They feared that if I learned any European language I might be tempted to go back to Europe, which they regarded as deadly for Jews. They themselves had a love-hate relationship with it, as after an unrequited love: they loved Europe, but Europe kicked them out. They left in the nick of time, otherwise I would not be sitting here talking to you.


Your parents came from that area that used to change hands between Poland and Russia, and where anti-Semitism was more virulent than perhaps elsewhere in Europe. But isn’t anti-Semitism part of the fabric of European civilization?


I have said that the image of the Jew is a segment of the European-Christian imagination, in every sense. There is the wonderful, adorable Jew who is almost superhuman, who suffers so much and excels. Then there is the terrible, diabolical Jew who destroys everything in devious ways. The common denominator between these two types of Jew—the good and the bad—is that neither is regarded as individual, both are forever representatives of their race.


Do you think that the creation of Israel has got rid of that image? I notice here that people, especially young Israelis, are not at all like European Jews, self-conscious about being apart, but just people, like anyone else in the world.


I don’t know. It was certainly one of its purposes. It is time to dissociate the relationship between the Jews and the Christian Europe and create a different, more balanced relationship. A neighborly relationship, a come-and-have-a-cup-of-coffee relationship, not an everlasting host-guest relationship, which is bad for both the guest and the host. Even when the guest has become a prominent member of the family, marrying the son or the daughter of the host. Even when the Jew has become more fluent in the language, traditions and culture of the country than the “natives.”


Your work is very much rooted in Israel, from the first stories and the novel Elsewhere, Perhaps, which depicted the life of the kibbutz, to Fima, the latest to appear in English. They arouse controversy for that reason. In a sense the chief protagonist in your books is the land of Israel. Your position is that a homeland cannot be denied to the Palestinians any more than it could be denied to Jews. So what is the solution?


The Arab world still spends twenty to twenty-five billion dollars on armaments per year. Why? The point is that the Palestinians are here, and that they won’t go away. And the Israelis are here, and they won’t go away either. So they are two peoples claiming the same piece of land, the same house. They cannot share it, so they have to divide it. I think it is urgent for the Palestinians in the occupied territories to conduct free, internationally supervised elections, and whoever is elected should represent them and run their government. It will be the first time they will have a legitimate representative government.


What if the free elections bring in the extremists?


Even Hamas might become part of the democratic political machinery and behave responsibly, or we might be back to square one, and have a clear knowledge that there is no chance of conducting business with them. If that should happen, we will have to proceed with a unilateral partition, saying, You don’t want to negotiate with us? Very well, we divide: you take this bedroom, we take the other, you take this bathroom and we take the other. It is like dividing a flat, turning it into a semidetached house.


In the meantime, there is the question of human rights: the left accuses you of not taking a strong stand on this and condemn the treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli occupied forces.


It is a question of diagnosis. The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis is not a civil rights issue, but an international dispute. We have not conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in order to deprive the Palestinians of their human rights (they never had many of those), nor in order to give them their human rights. We conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip because Israel was attacked in 1967, and threatened with extinction. Once our security is safeguarded, we ought to go away from the Palestinian areas and let them be. Palestinian human rights is a Palestinian problem.


But the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis during the intifada is what Israel’s human rights people have in mind.


It is an illusion to think that there can be a rosy military occupation. It is like a friendly rape—a contradiction in terms. I have invested every ounce of my energy in finding ways to terminate the occupation, not to improve it, because I don’t think that if only the occupation were nicer it would resolve anything. We don’t need to improve the way we rule over them; we need to stop ruling over them. So in some ways my attitude has been more radical than that of the human rights people. They have regarded the issue as a clash between two communities, or two social classes, while I have always considered it an international dispute between two different nations. Therefore I have not wasted any time trying to introduce certain American left-wing concepts such as regarding the Palestinians as our black Americans, or proposing that all we need is a system of yellow buses and integration. I don’t waste time on these irrelevancies.


You mean people like Chomsky and other left-wing campus intellectuals?


Chomsky has always been dogmatic on the Middle East conflict. A few years ago in Germany I met some left-wing intellectuals who were enthusiastically pro-Saddam Hussein. I wondered why? They said because he represented a poor third world nation standing up to American domination. I explained to them that Saddam represented a country far richer than Sweden. How come? they asked. I said that in terms of income-per-capita, Iraq is richer than Sweden. They said, But we see Iraqis living in hovels, in abject poverty. I said that if Sweden decided to have the third biggest army in the world, the Swedes too would be living in hovels. I told them that in truth they loved Saddam because he is a friend of Qaddafi, who is a friend of Fidel Castro, who was once married to Che Guevara, and Che was Jesus Christ, and Jesus is love, therefore we have to love Saddam.


Nevertheless, the idea is that if reasonable people of both sides sat together, they could find a solution. Have you met Hanane Achraoui, for example? She seems a very intelligent and reasonable person.


I have met hundreds of Palestinians, not necessarily in the happy sense of unison of hearts, but on a pragmatic basis. It is another misconception of the West: they assume that the Israelis and the Palestinians need to get to know each other better. I get invitations from well-meaning institutions in America to go and spend a wonderful weekend with a number of Palestinians in order that we may get to know and like each other, and whissht, the conflict will go away! Like group therapy or marriage counseling. As if the Arab-Israeli conflict were just a misunderstanding. I have news for them: there is no misunderstanding between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We both want the same piece of land because we both regard it as ours. This provides for a perfect understanding, and for a bitter conflict. As I said, it is justice against justice—a perfect tragedy.

It must be resolved through a painful compromise, and not through having coffee together. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples regarding the same little country as their own and only homeland. We need to divide it. We need to work out a mutually acceptable compromise.


What did you read as a child and as an adolescent?


Some of those Hebrew writers of a hundred years ago I mentioned earlier were also compulsive translators, and had translated the great nineteenth-century Russians who were a source of inspiration to many of them, and also German, French, English, and Scandinavian authors. I read like a maniac all of them—there was nothing else to do.


Who were the authors that left a lasting impression or triggered off your own vocation?


When I was nine or ten, I read Zionist books about the glories of the ancient kingdoms of Israel. I decided to become a terrorist against the British Mandate; I built an intercontinental rocket with the wreck of a refrigerator and the relic of a motorcycle. My plan was to aim this rocket at Buckingham Palace, then send a letter to the King of England saying, Either you get out of my country or off you go! I was an intifada child against the British—I threw stones at British soldiers and shouted, Go home. So my early reading was nationalistic, in the spirit of third world freedom-fighting: books about the Italian Risorgimento, like De Amicis’s Heart, about little children who save their country by some heroic deed or self-sacrifice. Later I discovered the Russians, in particular Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and above all, Chekhov. I felt Chekhov must have come from our neighborhood in Jerusalem, no one had ever captured those little paralyzed work reformers who use big words as he did.


What about the American writers? Your work has often been likened to Faulkner’s, in that he was rooted in the American South, in his own area, Yoknapatawpha County, yet has a universal appeal.


There are three American writers who have become very important to me: Melville, Sherwood Anderson, and Faulkner, in that order. I admire other American writers, but those three are the ones I would single out in American literature.


When did you decide to become a writer? After you had bombed Buckingham Palace?


There was no contradiction between the two activities: I could be a terrorist and write. My father was writing fiery illicit pamphlets against the perfidious Albion, calling the British every name in the book, quoting Shelley and Keats and Byron to prove how hypocritical and unjust they were. At the same time he was a great Anglophile, as the following anecdote illustrates. In 1947 there was a curfew and a house-to-house search. My father was asked by the Jewish underground to hide a couple of Molotov cocktails in our home; it was risky, as there was a death penalty for terrorist activities. Our apartment was tiny and choking with thousands of books, and my father hid the explosives behind some books on a shelf, and told us about it so that we didn’t set them off by mistake. The British arrived—I still have a vivid memory of the incident—they wore khaki shorts down to their knees and khaki socks up to their knees and in between their knees were exposed, white as snow on the Alps. The officer was extremely polite and, apologizing profusely for the inconvenience, began the search with a couple of soldiers. We were terrified. They evidently thought my father was too bookish to be a terrorist and searched perfunctorily. As they turned to go, the officer made some polite remark about the books and asked if there were any interesting English ones. That set my father off: How do you mean, sir? Of course we have English books! he said, and began to pull out one English classic after another. My mother and I were petrified, lest having forgotten about the explosives, he might suddenly expose them or cause an explosion, while he was showing off. The reason we survived was that he had hidden the explosives behind Russian books—with the anarchists and terrorists of nineteenth-century Russia—Bakunin, Nechaev, Kropotkin, Dostoyevsky.


Your mother died when you were thirteen, and you left home for the kibbutz at fifteen. Why?


I rebelled against my father and the bookish atmosphere of the house. I wanted a different life. I thought I would carry out the revolution my father talked about but didn’t do anything to create. I didn’t give a fig about school or university—I wanted to be a tractor driver, like the ones in Soviet movies, working all day and drinking and making wild love to kibbutz girls all night. It happened, to some extent, but what did not happen was getting away from books.


When did you start writing?


I had always written, ever since I had learned the alphabet at the age of five. I invented little stories. I wrote at school, and when I was a tractor driver in the kibbutz and when I was in the army. The turning point came when I became conscious that I was born to write, and decided to be a writer. A couple of poems and short stories I had written while working in cotton fields were published and well-received. So I applied for a one-day-per-week dispensation from farmwork to write. Now everyone could have claimed he or she was an artist and asked for release from manual work. A committee had to decide who was a genuine artist and who was not. They said if we grant a day off to Oz, how can we refuse it to the next applicant? There was an old man—the age I’m now—who said, Maybe this young man has talent, maybe he is a future Tolstoy, but he is much too young. Let him work in the fields until he is forty, then he’ll have something to write about. Luckily he was overruled, and I was told that I could have one day a week, provided I worked doubly hard on other days, which I did. But I was focused—I thought about what I was writing all the while I was working in the fields. On writing days I wrote twelve, even fifteen hours a day.


The result was your first collection of short stories, Where the Jackals Howl. Did you decide to write short stories, before tackling a novel, as a kind of training, the way an athlete does?


I needed quick satisfaction. I was very young and didn’t have the patience and wisdom to play long games. I decided to write short stories, because it is a craft that gets you there in a short time. I could work on a story in my head, then sit down and write it in one day. Incidentally, I can no longer do this. I have a different pace.


Do you think you will go back to the genre?


I might. I do from time to time even now, but not in the same way—under the rhythm of teenage sexuality, with a tremendous drive and an unquenchable thirst for immediate satisfaction. Now I write a first draft, rewrite it, come back to it and work on a particular point, change this or that section and chisel away all the superfluous stuff.


After that first book you went to university. Why? And why did you choose philosophy?


The kibbutz sent me to university because they needed teachers. My father said you never see an advertisement in a newspaper saying, Wanted: a philosopher! So I thought I might as well study something that nobody wanted. But I was lucky: I caught the tail end of the generation of great philosophers teaching at Jerusalem University. The spirit of Martin Buber was still there, as were Gershom Scholem and Bergman and others. Jerusalem was then a bastion of central European thought, from Germany and Prague. But I was reading philosophy while coping with generalizations, because I was a storyteller. When in a discussion about ethics the professor said, by way of illustration, The first time Ruth met David, my mind wandered off, and I began to imagine a story around their meeting. But I managed to get fair grades and finish my degree.


What was the curriculum? What did you read?


Plato, Aristotle, Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas . . . but I specialized in Spinoza.


Spinoza is perhaps the greatest political thinker. Was it politics that attracted you to him?


Not especially. He created these ice palaces of pure logic, which were the crystallization of emotions that at that time fascinated me. It was like music; he was closer to classical music than any other philosopher. He turned me on, like Bach.


In A Perfect Peace, you say that Spinoza is not against hope, that on the contrary he “specifically stresses the idea of human freedom.” That we are free to accept the “laws underlying the inevitable.” This is an interesting existential position, and you once had a long conversation with Ben-Gurion, who also was inspired by Spinoza. Can you elaborate on that?


What I meant was that there is a perfect balance in Spinoza between observation and action, in that observation does not lead to passivity and fatalism—you don’t have to discard your intellect in order to take action. Most philosophers believe that you have to give up something for the sake of something else: either reason or emotion, either this or that . . .

I was a young soldier and read something Ben-Gurion had written about Spinoza, and I wrote him a letter in which I strongly objected to his interpretation of the philosopher. To my surprise his secretary rang and summoned me to his office the next day at dawn. Imagine being summoned by the queen, or the president of the United States. Ben-Gurion had tremendous prestige and charisma, though a tiny man with a huge head. He paced up and down and tore my arguments to pieces, sharp as a razor.


Spinoza acknowledged the divinity of Christ, and was excommunicated by the Jewish religious establishment, the sin of apostasy being one of the most heinous in Judaism. I don’t think that his conversion to Christianity was tactical—he really believed in it. What do you think of that? Have you been tempted by Christianity?


Spinoza never converted to Christianity. He was excommunicated by the Jewish religious leaders of Amsterdam, but never became a Christian. As for me, I am fascinated by Jesus, one of the greatest Jews of all times, but I have never been tempted by Christianity. Jesus himself, who had never crossed himself, never in his life seen nor could see the inside of a church, might or might not, if he lived longer, have had a taste for this or that Christian church. Or he might have kept his distance.


Going back to your own writing. Often the most solidly rooted works of art are the most universal. The great Russians are an example: Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, couldn’t be anything but Russian, yet we all recognize ourselves in their characters and predicaments. But in your novels, one gets the impression that the real protagonist is Israel—the land, the people, the history. One favorite in the West is My Michael, which is the story of the relationship between Hannah, an Israeli woman, and two Arab men in the aftermath of the Suez crisis. It is read as an expression of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Do you consciously set out to incarnate an idea?


You know, if you write in a troubled part of the world, everything is interpreted allegorically. If I wrote a story about a mother, a father and their daughter, a critic would say that the father represents the government, the mother, the old values, and the daughter the shattered economy! If Moby-Dick was written in South America today under the name of Vargas Llosa, people would say it is about dictatorship. If it were written in South Africa by Nadine Gordimer, it would be interpreted as the conflict between the blacks and the whites. In Russia the whale would be Stalin, in the Middle East the novel would be about Israelis chasing Palestinians or vice versa. So that is the price you pay for writing in a trouble spot. But I always start with a group of characters. Then they tell their story. I never wrote a political allegory, or a novel of ideas.


Nonetheless you have said that the Arab-Israeli conflict is a tragedy because both are right in their claims to the land—“it is justice against justice.”


Oh, yes, in an essay. But my novels are not about justice. I’ll tell you a Hasidic story from the Middle Ages, about a rabbi who in his capacity as a judge has to pass a verdict between two claims for the same goat. He listens carefully to both claimants, then he decrees that they are both right. His wife says, Dear Husband, it is impossible, you can’t divide a goat; either it belongs to X or to Y, they can’t both be right. The rabbi scratches his head and says, You know, dear Wife, you too are right!

I am that rabbi. If I had to tell you in one word what my work is about, I would say family. I find the family the most mysterious institution, and the most unlikely, paradoxical, contradictory. We have been hearing prophesies about the death of the family for centuries. And look how it has survived religions and ideologies and regimes and historical changes. Father, mother, brothers, and sisters, and what goes on among them. This idea makes me realize that many conflicts in the world can be conceived in family terms: a perpetual rotation of love and hatred, jealousy and solidarity, happiness and misery. This rotation is in almost every one of my novels. It is a family in which everybody is in conflict with everybody else and everybody is right, just as in the story of the rabbi and the goat. The son is right because the father is tyrannical, the father is right because the son is lazy and disrespectful, the mother is right because son and father are exactly alike and deserve each other, and the daughter is right who can’t stand the atmosphere and has left the house. Yet they all love each other. So I sometimes see the international conflicts through the perspective of the family.


Tolstoy says all happy families are alike, the unhappy ones are unhappy in different ways . . .


With due respect to Tolstoy, I think it is the opposite. There are half a dozen clichés of unhappy families, but each happy family—and these are really rare—is unique. I’m fascinated by happy families.


There is a noticeable change in your last few novels, both in form and content. For example the penultimate one to appear in England, Black Box, is epistolary. Why did you suddenly decide on this form?


By accident. I meant to begin the novel with a letter from a woman to her ex-husband, whom she had divorced seven years previously. They have a son whom the husband has renounced completely, and the ex-wife wants to arrange a meeting between them. So I thought I would start with her letter. But then the husband answered back, a correspondence started between them, and gradually other characters wrote letters, and it went on, beyond my control, until the end. It is a mistake to think that the novelist is God Almighty and can do anything he wants. At some point the characters take over. The novelist can put his foot down and say, I refuse to take that direction, but he cannot tell his characters who to be and how to unravel their stories. Black Box evolved into an epistolary novel because the characters wanted it that way. I have to add that it is a dreadfully difficult form, especially now that people just pick up the phone and never bother to write, so that the form has little credibility. In this case as the characters didn’t talk to each other, writing letters was the answer. I mean who writes letters now? A husband and wife who have had a row, and don’t speak, they leave little notes on the refrigerator or the sideboard; children who have gone away but write to their parents, whom they can’t stand, to ask for money. So letters become a medium of intimacy and detachment at the same time. It is also a good way of putting thoughts across without being interrupted in midsentence, which is what happens in family arguments. As I said I always start with a bunch of characters.


Another new aspect of your latest novels is the erotic element. Is it because you yourself have reached the midlife point, when one begins to ask questions about basic aspects of life?


The erotic has always been present in my work. There are not many explicitly sexual scenes, but there is an erotic electricity. I don’t think it is something that suddenly surfaces in my recent books.


How long does it take for your novels to appear in the West after publication in Israel?


Usually it takes two years for a book to be translated, depending on how quickly Nicholas de Lange, my translator, works, and on how long the production takes. The new one will be called “Don’t Call it Night.” It is about middle-age love, and about childlessness. It takes place in a small desert town not unlike Arad. Two middle-age people have been living together for many years but have no children . . . But I’m not giving you the whole plot!


What about the novel you are writing now?


I never talk about it—one mustn’t expose pregnancy to X rays, it can damage the baby.


You are still young and have a substantial body of work behind you. Do you ever think about death?


I’m fifty-seven, and in Israel that is no longer young.  It means I’m older than my country.  Of course I think of death.  I wouldn’t have an intoxicated enjoyment of life if I didn’t think of death every day.  I think of death, but even more I think of the dead.  Thinking of the dead is preparing for one’s own death.  Because those dead people exist only in my memory, my longing, my ability to reconstruct a bygone moment, almost a P roustian recapturing of precise gestures, which might have occurred fifty years ago. One day I spent hours quietly reconstructing a ten-minute episode of my childhood: a room with six people in it, and I am the only one still alive.  Who was sitting where?  Who was saying what?  Then I thought, I’m keeping those people alive for as long as I can, in my heart, my head or my writing.  If when I die someone will keep me alive in the same way, it will be a fair deal.


After fifty, death can come any time . . . Readiness is all, as Hamlet said.


I’d rather it came fifty years from now.  I love life and enjoy it tremendously, but part of that enjoyment is that my life is populated with the dead as well as the living.  If death arrived tonight, it would find me angry and unwilling, but not unprepared.”    Amos Oz, “An Interview;” Paris Review, 1996