Flexford House, | near Guildford.
March 30. 1871.
The objections wh. I ventured to make to your use of the word
Beauty, as applied to the preferences of Birds and other non-human
creatures, are not fundamentally more than differences of vocabulary.
What they come to is perhaps this; The sense of Beauty in man is a
synthesis of certain heterogeneous elements, including not merely
peculiarities of visual sensation, wh. he might share with an Argus
pheasant, but also intellectual associations, wh. the pheasant
cannot have. Beauty for us men contains a notional or rational
element—while in lower creatures it must be a simple
sensation. Hence it seemed to me that you were taking a word with a
rational feature in its connotation, and employing it of creatures in
whom there is no scientific warrant for assuming that kind of
rationality to lie at the bottom of their preferences.
Again, this attribution of æsthetic sentiment, identical with ours,
to birds &c. appears misleading from my point of view, because it
tends to discourage the Association method of analysis and explanation
with respect to our sense of the beautiful. For instance, the writer
in the `Spectator' found in your account of the preferences of the
female pheasant an instant argument for a divinely implanted sense
of beauty in birds and men; only this divine gift becomes weakened
and blurred in men, until they acquire conscious knowledge of the
laws of harmony in colour and so forth. It wd. be very hard to
hold you responsible for the inferences wh. others may choose to
draw from what you write. Still I was not surprised at this line of
argumentation, because I felt that your attribution of aesthetic faculty
proper, to birds and the rest, implies a certain absoluteness in the
beautiful, an objective absoluteness, wh. is not compatible with
the Associational analysis. The fact that the female Argus pheasant admires ball and socket
plumage, and that cultivated men admire it too, is in my eyes an
accidental coincidence; the taste of men being resolvable into
various elements, and that of the pheasant being no more, so far as
our knowledge goes, than an inexplicable caprice, or not a taste at
all in the strictest sense. Association may explain our finding beauty
in the song of the nightingale, but I wd. submit that we have
no evidence that gratified sense of beauty is the source of pleasure
in the female nightingale. We need a neutral word wh. shall at once cover
the preference of the Argus pheasant and of the terrible Condor;
and wh. shall not prejudge the philosophical question of the
origin and composition of human preferences in colour, sound, form &c.
The omission of the word `great' is a serious fault, and I much
regret that such an error shd. have accidentally found its way
into my paper. Should you not, however, be disposed to admit that
even small changes seem very repugnant to savages? I do not quite
realise to myself how, exactly, it was that this proved tenacity
to use and wont in matters of physical preference, has come
upon what must, at all events, have been a far wider tolerance of
novelty & variation.
With reference to the third point to wh. you allude, I had
already read more than twice or thrice your 5th. chapter,
and I ought, no doubt, I now think, to have expounded what you say
there—as a commentary explaining what you say at the end of the book
I cannot help thinking, however,—and I hope you will not Deem
me too presumptuous for saying so—that you are inclined to prolong
the operation of Natural Selection into times and conditions wh.
belong of right to what I should call Social Selection—i.e. the
selection by a community, through its current opinion, laws,
institution, traditional usages, and so forth, of certain qualities
and ideals of character, for admiration. The physical quality of the
individual atom will be unimportant. The community is the organism,
the unit. And the transmission is not physical, from father to son,
but `in the air' from generation to generation. That there are
physical conditions cannot be doubted. But within the society itself,
the characteristic habits of thought, rules of conduct, &c. are
acquired through the non-physical medium of opinion, positive law &c. In the competition between integral and independent societies,
wh. are even in Europe more or less in a state of nature, the
principle of Natural Selection wd. of course resume.
I have put this in a very crude and slovenly manner—partly
because I am ashamed to be writing to a person whose time is so
valuable, at this inordinate length. Perhaps I may find occasion by and
by to set out my notions more clearly in print, when I will venture to
forward the result to you.
With many apologies for the length of my letter, and with
profound respect, | I beg to remain, | Your's very faithfully, | John Morley.