This is my interpretation of the ethics of Darwin. Darwin does not give us a theory of ethics, — or rather, so far as he does, I should have something to say in criticism of it; but he does a greater service, I almost think, than if he had given us a perfect theory, — he shows how ethics work in the world. It is a great and consoling belief that the powers of Nature are on the side of man's struggles after justice and a perfect good. The Mighty Power, hid from our gaze by the thin screen of Nature and of Nature's laws, is not in love with you or me, but it is with our struggles after a perfect right, for to them it gives fruition, — and they are the salt that keeps the earth from spoiling, and their effect is undying, while all else is being thwarted, cut short, and passes away. Every brave act we do, and every true word we utter helps to build up human life here on the earth, and every mean act and false word tend to pull it down and destroy it. I have spoken of peoples and nations, — let us not think that these are things too large for individual actions to count upon. The fate of a nation depends at last, not on kings or parliaments or legislatures, but on the lives and characters of the individual men and women who compose it. " The well-being of the State depends upon the well-doing of its individual members."1 We think we are not responsible for the evil and wrong there are in society, — we are, to the extent that we submit to them. A great wrong cannot be done by a community unless there is the spirit of wrong, or of tolerance for wrong, widespread among its members. Each one of us, no matter how unimportant we seem, counts as a factor in the public sentiment from which good things or bad are born. Frederick W. Robertson — that tender and strenuous spirit too soon passed away from earth — said: " There are current maxims in Church and in State, in society, in trade, in law, to which we yield obedience. For this obedience every one is responsible. For instance, in trade and in the profession of law every one is the servant of practices the rectitude of which his heart can only half approve; every one complains of them, yet all are involved in them. Now, when such sins reach their climax, as in the case of national bankruptcy or an unjust acquittal, there may be some who are in a special sense the actors in the guilt; but evidently for the bankruptcy each member of the community is responsible in that degree and so far as he has himself acquiesced in the duplicities of public dealing. Every careless juror, every unrighteous judge, every false witness, has done his part in the reduction of society to that state in which the monster injustice has been perpetrated." 1 Yes, you do count; and the only difference is that you may count in those influences that help to build man up here on the earth, or in those that tend to weaken and undo him. You may build on the sands, and the floods will come and wash your work away; or on the rock, and your work will stand forever. You may help to make a nation of money-getters, close, hard, contemptuous of the weak, sacrificing honor and shame and the sense of humanity, even life itself, for the sake of amassing riches, only, to see the nation, if you could live on, crumble and disintegrate, and its wealth in ruins; or you may cast your lot with those who would be lovers of their kind, who would rather see justice done than amass riches, who would be clean in life, and honor woman and protect the defenceless; and if you do not win the nation to your side, you, or those who follow after you, will form the saving remnant, by whom and through whom a new and wiser nation may arise. Men trying to rear States without justice in their hearts are like Sisyphus rolling his giant stones up hill, only to see them pulled down again by natural gravity; and when one sees them anxious, striving, thinking with laws and constitutions and courts and armies to buttress themselves about, laboring so with their destiny, one thinks of poor Sisyphus in Homer's lines, heaving and straining, the sweat the while pouring down his limbs, and the dust rising upward from his head. "Wash ye, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; seek justice, relieve the oppressed," is the voice of Natural Selection as well as of Israel's God. Otherwise man's work is vanity, and all the labor and pain of it are for nothing; the great God of the world will not allow it to stand.
1 Robertson's Sermons, Third Series, p. 147.
1 Statement of Principles of Chicago Society for Ethical Culture.
I permit myself two remarks in closing. Think of the Athenian race, whose average ability Francis Galton, another writer who has followed in Darwin's wake, says 1 was nearly two grades higher than our own; that is, as much as our race is above that of the African negro. Why did this marvellously-gifted race decline? Galton says, because of social immorality; because, in plain language, marriage became unfashionable and was avoided, and courtesans held sway. Now, every man to-day, whether actually immoral or not, who has light thoughts of woman, who is not indignant when she is dishonored, who lets light jests pass his lips or lewd thoughts linger in his mind, helps to swell the tide of our social immorality, for he helps to make the atmosphere in which it grows. Acts do not come from nothing; they come from thoughts and words, and what we hear others say, — from a thousand and one nameless things that seem in themselves to count for nothing.
1 Hereditary Genius, p. 343.
On the other hand, let us not imagine that the quiet homely virtues, the graces of the heart, count for nothing with the great powers of Nature with which we deal. Never let us think that physical strength is everything; it is not everything, even in the animal world. Professor Everett has beautifully said, that to the powers of natural selection "the delicate, the graceful, the tender, the beautiful are as dear as the fierce and the strong. It was the great law of natural selection itself that taught the nightingale to sing, and that painted the hummingbird with his changeful hues. It is this that whispers to the timid hare to flee, and this that binds the gentle sheep together in their harmless federation." The gentler virtues all count in humanity's struggle for existence. As there are no light thoughts of human suffering that do not help to make men cruel, so there are no sympathy and pity that do not help to draw men nearer together, and make them stronger in any time of danger or distress. Quiet fortitude in a mother makes brave sons and daughters. Love in peace makes heroism in times of danger. Selfishness disintegrates and disorganizes; love builds up and welds together. Nations stand not on dollars, not on armies, not on police, but on righteousness ; and if unrighteousness becomes rampant in a community, not all its dollars or its police will save it. You and I count, living quiet, inconspicuous lives as we do. Oh, let us count for good, for purity, for unselfishness, — for all that makes human life strong and stable on the earth!