Life and Habit
by Samuel Butler
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We conclude, therefore, that the small, structureless, impregnate ovum from which we have each one of us sprung, has a potential recollection of all that has happened to each one of its ancestors prior to the period at which any such ancestor has issued from the bodies of its progenitors—provided, that is to say, a sufficiently deep, or sufficiently often-repeated, impression has been made to admit of its being remembered at all.

Each step of normal development will lead the impregnate ovum up to, and remind it of, its next ordinary course of action, in the same way as we, when we recite a well-known passage, are led up to each successive sentence by the sentence which has immediately preceded it.

And for this reason, namely, that as it takes two people "to tell" a thing—a speaker and a comprehending listener, without which last, though much may have been said, there has been nothing told—so also it takes two people, as it were, to "remember" a thing—the creature remembering, and the surroundings of the creature at the time it last remembered. Hence, though the ovum immediately after impregnation is instinct with all the memories of both parents, not one of these memories can normally become active till both the ovum itself, and its surroundings, are sufficiently like what they respectively were, when the occurrence now to be remembered last took place. The memory will then immediately return, and the creature will do as it did on the last occasion that it was in like case as now. This ensures that similarity of order shall be preserved in all the stages of development, in successive generations.

Life, then, is faith founded upon experience, which experience is in its turn founded upon faith—or more simply, it is memory. Plants and animals only differ from one another because they remember different things; plants and animals only grow up in the shapes they assume because this shape is their memory, their idea concerning their own past history.

Hence the term "Natural History," as applied to the different plants and animals around us. For surely the study of natural history means only the study of plants and animals themselves, which, at the moment of using the words "Natural History," we assume to be the most important part of nature.

A living creature well supported by a mass of healthy ancestral memory is a young and growing creature, free from ache or pain, and thoroughly acquainted with its business so far, but with much yet to be reminded of. A creature which finds itself and its surroundings not so unlike those of its parents about the time of their begetting it, as to be compelled to recognise that it never yet was in any such position, is a creature in the heyday of life. A creature which begins to be aware of itself is one which is beginning to recognise that the situation is a new one.

It is the young and fair, then, who are the truly old and the truly experienced; it is they who alone have a trustworthy memory to guide them; they alone know things as they are, and it is from them that, as we grow older, we must study if we would still cling to truth. The whole charm of youth lies in its advantage over age in respect of experience, and where this has for some reason failed, or been misapplied, the charm is broken. When we say that we are getting old, we should say rather that we are getting new or young, and are suffering from inexperience, which drives us into doing things which we do not understand, and lands us, eventually, in the utter impotence of death. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of little children.

A living creature bereft of all memory dies. If bereft of a great part of memory, it swoons or sleeps; and when its memory returns, we say it has returned to life.

Life and death, then, should be memory and forgetfulness, for we are dead to all that we have forgotten.

Life is that property of matter whereby it can remember. Matter which can remember is living; matter which cannot remember is dead.

LIFE, THEN, IS MEMORY. The life of a creature is the memory of a creature. We are all the same stuff to start with, but we remember different things, and if we did not remember different things we should be absolutely like each other. As for the stuff itself of which we are made, we know nothing save only that it is "such as dreams are made of."

I am aware that there are many expressions throughout this book, which are not scientifically accurate. Thus I imply that we tend towards the centre of the earth, when, I believe, I should say we tend towards to the centre of gravity of the earth. I speak of "the primordial cell," when I mean only the earliest form of life, and I thus not only assume a single origin of life when there is no necessity for doing so, and perhaps no evidence to this effect, but I do so in spite of the fact that the amoeba, which seems to be "the simplest form of life," does not appear to be a cell at all. I have used the word "beget," of what, I am told, is asexual generation, whereas the word should be confined to sexual generation only. Many more such errors have been pointed out to me, and I doubt not that a larger number remain of which I know nothing now, but of which I may perhaps be told presently.

I did not, however, think that in a work of this description the additional words which would have been required for scientific accuracy were worth the paper and ink and loss of breadth which their introduction would entail. Besides, I know nothing about science, and it is as well that there should be no mistake on this head; I neither know, nor want to know, more detail than is necessary to enable me to give a fairly broad and comprehensive view of my subject. When for the purpose of giving this, a matter importunately insisted on being made out, I endeavoured to make it out as well as I could; otherwise—that is to say, if it did not insist on being looked into, in spite of a good deal of snubbing, I held that, as it was blurred and indistinct in nature, I had better so render it in my work.

Nevertheless, if one has gone for some time through a wood full of burrs, some of them are bound to stick. I am afraid that I have left more such burrs in one part and another of my book, than the kind of reader whom I alone wish to please will perhaps put up with. Fortunately, this kind of reader is the best-natured critic in the world, and is long suffering of a good deal that the more consciously scientific will not tolerate; I wish, however, that I had not used such expressions as "centres of thought and action" quite so often.

As for the kind of inaccuracy already alluded to, my reader will not, I take it, as a general rule, know, or wish to know, much more about science than I do, sometimes perhaps even less; so that he and I shall commonly be wrong in the same places, and our two wrongs will make a sufficiently satisfactory right for practical purposes.

Of course, if I were a specialist writing a treatise or primer on such and such a point of detail, I admit that scientific accuracy would be de rigueur; but I have been trying to paint a picture rather than to make a diagram, and I claim the painter's license "quidlibet audendi." I have done my utmost to give the spirit of my subject, but if the letter interfered with the spirit, I have sacrificed it without remorse.

May not what is commonly called a scientific subject have artistic value which it is a pity to neglect? But if a subject is to be treated artistically—that is to say, with a desire to consider not only the facts, but the way in which the reader will feel concerning those facts, and the way in which he will wish to see them rendered, thus making his mind a factor of the intention, over and above the subject itself—then the writer must not be denied a painter's license. If one is painting a hillside at a sufficient distance, and cannot see whether it is covered with chestnut-trees or walnuts, one is not bound to go across the valley to see. If one is painting a city, it is not necessary that one should know the names of the streets. If a house or tree stands inconveniently for one's purpose, it must go without more ado; if two important features, neither of which can be left out, want a little bringing together or separating before the spirit of the place can be well given, they must be brought together, or separated. Which is a more truthful view, of Shrewsbury, for example, from a spot where St. Alkmund's spire is in parallax with St. Mary's—a view which should give only the one spire which can be seen, or one which should give them both, although the one is hidden? There would be, I take it, more representation in the misrepresentation than in the representation—"the half would be greater than the whole," unless, that is to say, one expressly told the spectator that St. Alkmund's spire was hidden behind St. Mary's— a sort of explanation which seldom adds to the poetical value of any work of art. Do what one may, and no matter how scientific one may be, one cannot attain absolute truth. The question is rather, how do people like to have their error? than, will they go without any error at all? All truth and no error cannot be given by the scientist more than by the artist; each has to sacrifice truth in one way or another; and even if perfect truth could be given, it is doubtful whether it would not resolve itself into unconsciousness pure and simple, consciousness being, as it were, the clash of small conflicting perceptions, without which there is neither intelligence nor recollection possible. It is not, then, what a man has said, nor what he has put down with actual paint upon his canvass, which speaks to us with living language—IT IS WHAT HE HAS THOUGHT TO US (as is so well put in the letter quoted on page 83), by which our opinion should be guided;—what has he made us feel that he had it in him, and wished to do? If he has said or painted enough to make us feel that he meant and felt as we should wish him to have done, he has done the utmost that man can hope to do.

I feel sure that no additional amount of technical accuracy would make me more likely to succeed, in this respect, if I have otherwise failed; and as this is the only success about which I greatly care, I have left my scientific inaccuracies uncorrected, even when aware of them. At the same time, I should say that I have taken all possible pains as regards anything which I thought could materially affect the argument one way or another.

It may be said that I have fallen between two stools, and that the subject is one which, in my hands, has shown neither artistic nor scientific value. This would be serious. To fall between two stools, and to be hanged for a lamb, are the two crimes which -

"Nor gods, nor men, nor any schools allow."

Of the latter, I go in but little danger; about the former, I shall know better when the public have enlightened me.

The practical value of the views here advanced (if they be admitted as true at all) would appear to be not inconsiderable, alike as regards politics or the well-being of the community, and medicine which deals with that of the individual. In the first case we see the rationale of compromise, and the equal folly of making experiments upon too large a scale, and of not making them at all. We see that new ideas cannot be fused with old, save gradually and by patiently leading up to them in such a way as to admit of a sense of continued identity between the old and the new. This should teach us moderation. For even though nature wishes to travel in a certain direction, she insists on being allowed to take her own time; she will not be hurried, and will cull a creature out even more surely for forestalling her wishes too readily, than for lagging a little behind them. So the greatest musicians, painters, and poets owe their greatness rather to their fusion and assimilation of all the good that has been done up to, and especially near about, their own time, than to any very startling steps they have taken in advance. Such men will be sure to take some, and important, steps forward; for unless they have this power, they will not be able to assimilate well what has been done already, and if they have it, their study of older work will almost indefinitely assist it; but, on the whole, they owe their greatness to their completer fusion and assimilation of older ideas; for nature is distinctly a fairly liberal conservative rather than a conservative liberal. All which is well said in the old couplet -

"Be not the first by whom the new is tried, Nor yet the last to throw the old aside."

Mutatis mutandis, the above would seem to hold as truly about medicine as about politics. We cannot reason with our cells, for they know so much more than we do that they cannot understand us;— but though we cannot reason with them, we can find out what they have been most accustomed to, and what, therefore, they are most likely to expect; we can see that they get this, as far as it is in our power to give it them, and may then generally leave the rest to them, only bearing in mind that they will rebel equally against too sudden a change of treatment, and no change at all.

Friends have complained to me that they can never tell whether I am in jest or earnest. I think, however, it should be sufficiently apparent that I am in very serious earnest, perhaps too much so, from the first page of my book to the last. I am not aware of a single argument put forward which is not a bona fide argument, although, perhaps, sometimes admitting of a humorous side. If a grain of corn looks like a piece of chaff, I confess I prefer it occasionally to something which looks like a grain, but which turns out to be a piece of chaff only. There is no lack of matter of this description going about in some very decorous volumes; I have, therefore, endeavoured, for a third time, to furnish the public with a book whose fault should lie rather in the direction of seeming less serious than it is, than of being less so than it seems.

At the same time, I admit that when I began to write upon my subject I did not seriously believe in it. I saw, as it were, a pebble upon the ground, with a sheen that pleased me; taking it up, I turned it over and over for my amusement, and found it always grow brighter and brighter the more I examined it. At length I became fascinated, and gave loose rein to self-illusion. The aspect of the world seemed changed; the trifle which I had picked up idly had proved to be a talisman of inestimable value, and had opened a door through which I caught glimpses of a strange and interesting transformation. Then came one who told me that the stone was not mine, but that it had been dropped by Lamarck, to whom it belonged rightfully, but who had lost it; whereon I said I cared not who was the owner, if only I might use it and enjoy it. Now, therefore, having polished it with what art and care one who is no jeweller could bestow upon it, I return it, as best I may, to its possessor.

What am I to think or say? That I tried to deceive others till I have fallen a victim to my own falsehood? Surely this is the most reasonable conclusion to arrive at. Or that I have really found Lamarck's talisman, which had been for some time lost sight of?

Will the reader bid me wake with him to a world of chance and blindness? Or can I persuade him to dream with me of a more living faith than either he or I had as yet conceived as possible? As I have said, reason points remorselessly to an awakening, but faith and hope still beckon to the dream.


{2} But I may say in passing that though articulate speech and the power to maintain the upright position come much about the same time, yet the power of making gestures of more or less significance is prior to that of walking uprightly, and therefore to that of speech. Not only is gesticulation the earlier faculty in the individual, but it was so also in the history of our race. Our semi-simious ancestors could gesticulate long before they could talk articulately. It is significant of this that gesture is still found easier than speech even by adults, as may be observed on our river steamers, where the captain moves his hand but does not speak, a boy interpreting his gesture into language. To develop this here would complicate the argument; let us be content to note it and pass on.

{3} Nevertheless, the smallness of the effort touches upon the deepest mystery of organic life—the power to originate, to err, to sport, the power which differentiates the living organism from the machine, however complicated. The action and working of this power is found to be like the action of any other mental and, therefore, physical power (for all physical action of living beings is but the expression of a mental action), but I can throw no light upon its origin any more than upon the origin of life. This, too, must be noted and passed over.

{4} How different from the above uncertain sound is the full clear note of one who truly believes:-

"The Church of England is commonly called a Lutheran church, but whoever compares it with the Lutheran churches on the Continent will have reason to congratulate himself on its superiority. It is in fact a church sui generis, yielding in point of dignity, purity and decency of its doctrines, establishment and ceremonies, to no congregation of christians in the world; modelled to a certain and considerable extent, but not entirely, by our great and wise pious reformers on the doctrines of Luther, so far as they are in conformity with the sure and solid foundation on which it rests, and we trust for ever will rest—the authority of the Holy Scriptures, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." ("Sketch of Modern and Ancient Geography," by Dr. Samuel Butler, of Shrewsbury. Ed. 1813.)

This is the language of faith, compelled by the exigencies of the occasion to be for a short time conscious of its own existence, but surely very little likely to become so to the extent of feeling the need of any assistance from reason. It is the language of one whose convictions are securely founded upon the current opinion of those among whom he has been born and bred; and of all merely post-natal faiths a faith so founded is the strongest. It is pleasing to see that the only alterations in the edition of 1838 consist in spelling Christians with a capital C and the omission of the epithet "wise" as applied to the reformers, an omission more probably suggested by a desire for euphony than by any nascent doubts concerning the applicability of the epithet itself.

{5} Or take, again, the constitution of the Church of England. The bishops are the spiritual queens, the clergy are the neuter workers. They differ widely in structure (for dress must be considered as a part of structure), in the delicacy of the food they eat and the kind of house they inhabit, and also in many of their instincts, from the bishops, who are their spiritual parents. Not only this, but there are two distinct kinds of neuter workers—priests and deacons; and of the former there are deans, archdeacons, prebends, canons, rural deans, vicars, rectors, curates, yet all spiritually sterile. In spite of this sterility, however, is there anyone who will maintain that the widely differing structures and instincts of these castes are not due to inherited spiritual habit? Still less will he be inclined to do so when he reflects that by such slight modification of treatment as consecration and endowment any one of them can be rendered spiritually fertile.


{1} Although the original edition of "Life and Habit" is dated 1878, the book was actually published in December, 1877.


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