From our archives, March 1877: “Social Despotism”
It is nearly two hundred and fifty years since Galileo was arraigned before an assemblage of ignorant monks in the Roman Inquisition, and compelled to renounce the doctrines and theories he had maintained. Since then two hundred and fifty years of civilization have rolled away; two hundred and fifty years of social and moral progress; two hundred and fifty years of striving for liberty of opinion and utterance. It would seem to be a rational and almost necessary consequence of such enormous growth; that no spirit of intolerance or social despotism should be found within our borders. But it needs neither a critical nor a cynical observer of the times to see that the tyranny of custom over opinion, of institutions over ideas, obtains in a remarkable degree, even among the most enlightened and nominally liberal. In every age of the world, aggressive Thought has fought the battle hand to hand with despotic Custom in the great struggle for progress. And it has won brilliant victories, though often defeated and imprisoned, often put to the rack by this social tyrant. Nor is he yet dethroned. The scepter of prejudice is still held out to a skeptical throng of followers equally tyrannical.
This social despotism, if we may so call it, manifests itself in a variety of ways. Perhaps the most prevalent type, and one directly illustrative of what we have already said, is the almost universal hostility to the introduction of a new idea. Let there be a new and radical departure from established custom in the world of literature, of science, of religion, or in any department of thought. Let this new idea be thrown out into the world, and mark its effects. A few will receive and carefully criticize it, examine its claims to acceptance, candidly concede those claims when well founded, and as candidly deny them when not so. A far greater portion will stop neither to examine nor criticise, but will at once denounce it as absurd, impossible, subversive of established principles, and destructive to truth. They practically make a literal application of Solomon’s words: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done.”
It is against this spirit that leaders in reform and progress have contended in all ages. Galileo met it. Fulton met it. The missionary Cary met it. Webster and Sumner met it. Examples are not wanting to prove the universal truth of the statement. As a consequence, truth, instead of being promoted, is often defeated, and progress is retarded,–for it requires not only genius to create an idea, but moral heroism to advance and maintain it; and few men are so heroic as to be willing to suffer social ostracism for the sake of benefiting the world.
Closely allied to this type is the antagonism to the unfortunate possessor of what society calls a hobby,–a term commonly regarded as nearly synonymous with monomania and infatuation. Let such a one discourse upon his favorite theme and suggest ideas never so brilliant, and the hearer turns away with the pitying exclamation, “Poor fellow, it’s his hobby!” Probably a more abused class never lived. A man under a sudden inspiration may discover a new idea and be induced to give it to the world, and he may suffer only temporary ostracism; but the man with a hobby is under a perpetual ban. And yet nothing is more unjust. Such men may indeed intrude themselves and their hobby at improper times and in unsuitable places, but they are by no means to be denounced as lunatics. True, there are so-called hobbies which are to be denounced. They do not deserve the name, and one must carefully distinguish between the counterfeit and the genuine. But it is the men with the real, true hobbies who have been foremost in the progress of the world.
George Stephenson had a hobby; and when he declared before a committee of the British Parliament that a locomotive could be made to run from twenty to thirty miles an hour, one of the members of that august body suggested that Mr. Stephenson was an appropriate subject for a lunatic asylum. But the vast network of rails, all over the world, with their lightning express trains is a grand attestation to the soundness of his hobby. Again, what was it but a hobby that Cyrus W. Field possessed, when he declared that it was possible to sink a cable to the ocean’s bed, and thus join the hands of two great continents in fraternal grasp?–an idea at first scouted as impossible as the boast of Puck that he would girdle the earth in forty minutes.
Examples of such men and such hobbies are innumerable. Men with such hobbies are patient men, persevering men, men deserving the gratitude of mankind.
These are only two types of social tyranny. There are others; but these perhaps serve best to illustrate the fact that, although there is a universal cry for liberty of thought and speech, yet the world is full of prejudice, conceit, and hostility to new principles that are subversive of the old. When this prejudice and hostility are removed, we may look for grander progress and a greater promotion of truth and right.