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Ancient Eugenics

The Thought of Socrates

Nevertheless, if eugenics had ever taken a prominent place in Athenian thought, it would have furnished a richer mine of parody than the fantastic obscenity of the Ecclesiazusae. It is commonly held that Socrates suggested all the thought and philosophy of the succeeding centuries. We should expect, therefore, to find some cartography, as it were, of eugenics paving the way for the fuller imaginings of his pupil Plato. If we regard Xenophon as the only trustworthy source for the oral teachings of Socrates, we may seek in the "Memorabilia" for these earlier adumbrations.

We find the old question of nature and nurture, and with it an attempt to solve the problems of heredity. How is it, asks Hippias, "that parents of good stock do not always produce children as good?" To put the dilemma in a modern form, Why is it that personal value is not necessarily the same as reproductive value? And the answer which Socrates suggests is an answer which has been given to the same question today." Good stock is not everything; both parents must be equally in their prime." The apparent anomalies which children present in not reproducing the qualities of their parents only serve to reveal the presence of particular conditions, and among those conditions must be included the changes which organism undergoes by reason of advancing age.

There are other conditions also. Eugenics begins earlier than birth; the unborn child must be protected by bestowing due care on the future mother. A man, says Socrates, has a twofold duty: towards his wife, to cherish her who is to raise up children along with him, and towards children yet unborn, to provide them with things which he thinks will contribute to their well-being. The fatal handicap may have already begun in the starving or overworking of the mother.

But congenital ability must be emphasized by education: Socrates is deeply impressed with the evils of its neglect both on the physical and spiritual side. The Athenians, not content with neglecting a good habit, laugh to scorn those who are careful in the matter. When will the Athenians pay strict attention to the body? While Euripides denounces the baneful effect of the great athletic festivals, Socrates laments the indifference which could produce an Epigones.

It is no aesthetic view of morals which makes Socrates insist on the need of physical training: he is concerned rather with the effect of ill-health upon the mind: the reasoning powers suffer atrophy: ill health may expel all knowledge from a man.

There must be moral education no less than physical training. "Corruptio optimi pessima" is the warning of Socrates as well as of Plato. The youth with the best natural endowments will, if trained, prove superlatively good. Leave him untrained, and he will become, not merely evil, but degenerate beyond hope of reclaim. The very magnificence of his character makes it impossible to restrain him.

In the Socratic treatment of eugenic questions there are traces of that individualistic spirit which, neglecting social aspects and regarding only personal consequences, led on in logical succession to abnegation of marriage and offspring. It is not mere momentary desire, says Socrates, which influences human beings in the production of children; nothing is plainer than the pains we take to seek out wives who shall bear us the finest children. And the penalty for error is the penalty, not of human, but of Divine law. What worse calamity can befall a man than to produce misbegotten children! And so with training: because the city has instituted no public military training there is no need to neglect it in private. No demonstration of a self- incurred penalty is likely to appeal to the degenerate or feeble-minded

Critias, the pupil of Socrates, seems to have advocated something like a Spartan system of eugenics. "I begin with man's birth, showing how he may become best and strongest in body, if the father trains and undergoes hardship, and the future mother is strong and also trains. " But a complete development along Spartan lines begins with Plato, and Socrates led not only to Plato, but to Cynic and Cyrenaic individualism.

Nevertheless, the incivism of the cynic, bringing with it the belief in a self-centered and isolated self, never involved, like the later asceticism, the entire uprooting of all sexual desire. The wise man will marry for the sake of children, associating with the most comely. Antisthenes employed analogy from animal life, but it served only to point the cry of abandonment of cities and civilization, and return to the simple and primitive. The Cyrenaic no less is *{Greek word cannot be represented}, and equally an egotist; but complete negation of social duties and actualization of despair was only possible when Greece had lost forever the ideal of the city state.

The Eugenics of Plato

Sparta conceived the first system of practical eugenics; the first formulation in theory belongs to Plato. Archytas of Tarentum, Phaleas of Chalcedon, and Hippodamus, the Haussman of the Piraeus, may have anticipated the Platonic communism: the Platonic eugenics is based on no utopia, but on a living and successful community. The scheme of the Republic, though it owes a little to contemporary thought, something also to contemporary science, is most of all a speculative development of the Spartan system. In this respect one cannot speak of the Platonic Republic as the perfection of the laws of Lycurgus; nor can it be truly said that if Lycurgus had only put his scheme in writing, it would have appeared far more chimerical than the Platonic.

But the Platonic dialogues, and on a higher scale the concise lecture notes of Aristotle, are not the mere exfoliation of a finished product of thought, but a gradual development. One idea devours another; there is thesis and antithesis, and the final synthesis, if achieved at all, is found at the end and not at the beginning. When Plato came to formulate a positive scheme of eugenics, his Spartan model seemed to show him that infanticide in some form was inevitable, when there was no knowledge to control the vagaries of nature. It was the ancient solution of the problem of heredity, and is still the solution of the breeder who "breeds a great many and kills a great many." So the issue of inferior parents and defective children born of good stock are to be "hidden away." Concealment is the Platonic euphemism for infanticide.

There are two types whom Plato would condemn to natural elimination --the victims of constitutional ill-health, and the victims of selfindulgence. Refused medical aid, they are allowed to linger on, but there is no hint of segregation or custodial care to exclude them from parenthood. Under the later eugenic scheme it is clear that the offspring of any such unions would have been ruthlessly exterminated: there was no place in the Platonic Republic for the "unkempt" man, glorying in a pedigree of congenital ailment. Today the limitations of our knowledge render restrictive measures possible only in the case of the feeble-minded.

But apart from the physical degenerate, there is the moral degenerate, no mere encumbrance to society, but an active force for evil. No law of nature operates for his elimination; therefore, like the lower desires of the soul which cannot be tamed to service under the higher self, his growth must be stopped. Society has no course but to put him out of the way. The modern treatment of the morally incurable is humaner than the Platonic, yet lacking in humanity. We pity degeneracy when it takes the form of disease, but when it takes the form of immorality or crime we blame and we punish. The habitual criminal is no less a victim of heredity than the prisoner in Erewhon, "convicted of the great crime of labouring under pulmonary consumption."

Plato bases his constructive scheme on that analogy of the breeder which has formed the premises, latent or confessed, for all constructive eugenics from the days of Lycurgus. "What very first-rate men our rulers ought to be," says Socrates, "if the analogy of animal holds good with regard to the human race!" Glaucon, accepting the analogy literally and without limitation, justifies the harshest strictures that have been levelled against any such conception of eugenics. In the Platonic Republic, though not in Sparta, there is a race of supermen, the breeders of the human kingdom, arbitrarily interfering with natural instinct in order to produce a noble stock. Plato, recognizing that even in Greece there were limits set to the sphere of the legislator, and unable to appeal to the cogency of assured knowledge to support his philosophic imperatives, resorts instead to childish subterfuge, "an ingenious system of lots."

But compulsion, or guidance, however veiled, is foredoomed to failure in the case of an institution which can only rest on inclination or an innate sense of duty. Moreover, "custom is lord of all," and custom can only be modified gradually and in the course of centuries: it is only the thinnest surface layer with which the legislator can tamper. No social reform or political progress can be effected by the arbitrary creation of institutions to which there are no answering ideas: external coercion with no correspondent reaction can achieve no permanent good. The basis of law is subjective. Even modern eugenists recognized that, if there were to be eugenics by legislation, the eugenic ideal must first be absorbed into the conscience of the nation.

The Spartan system of "compliances" developed into a system whereby the best of both sexes were to be brought together as often as possible, and the worst as infrequently as possible. Greater liberty is to be allowed to the brave warrior, but a liberty within restricted limits, and the concession is not for the sake of the individual, but for the good of the state. Plato is the slave of his analogy.

As at Sparta, there is regulation of the marriage age, a commonplace of contemporary thought, and therefore an inevitable feature of any eugenic system. The parents must be in their prime of life: this period is defined as twenty years in a woman, thirty in a man. A woman may bear children to the state till she is forty; a man beginning at twenty-five, when he has passed "the first sharp burst of life," may continue to beget children until he is fifty-five. For both in man and woman these years are the prime of physical as well as of intellectual vigour. In Sparta we hear of no definite regulation concerning those who have passed their prime, beyond exclusion from child-bearing. Plato' s treatment of the problem is "the only point in this part of the Republic which is in any sense immoral, and a point upon which modern ethics may well censure the highest Greek morals."

As to that second problem, the selection of qualities to select for, Plato, like Sparta, chose physique, but chose it because he believed that soul and body are racial attributes that are linked in inheritance. There is no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines beauty of soul and beauty of form. Physical and intellectual vigour ripen simultaneously. Modern eugenists no less hold it a legitimate working hypothesis that the vehicle of mental inheritance is at bottom material. There is a further requirement that parents should as far as possible be of similar nature.

There is no mention in the Republic of that care for the future mother which was a feature of the Spartan system. But there is a twofold scheme of education adapted for the development of other qualifies than the merely physical, the first diverging little from the customary education of the day, and then that second formulation which was to culminate in the knowledge of the good itself. Once he had shaken himself free from the military ideals of Sparta, Plato, concerned no longer to write a tract for the times, ends by building an ideal city where only gods or sons of gods could live.

In this scheme of education it is recognized that environment no less than heredity plays a part in the development of the individual. The banks of the stream must be cleansed as well as its source. Good environment is the keystone of the Platonic system; its essence is "nurture." The young citizen is like an animal at pasture; from the things all about him he assimilates good and evil, and what he gathers from his environment becomes embodied in his character. A gifted soul in vitiated surroundings is like a rare exotic sown in unfavourable soil; gradually losing its true nature: it sinks at last to the level of its surroundings. But after all "Nature is greatest." There are lower desires which no good influence can ever spiritualize. Education can only turn to the light the intrinsic capacities of the soul.

The relative influence of these two factors has been expressed in much the same terms today. Men have a considerable capacity for being moulded by environment, no small susceptibility to the influences of education and early training. But these influences operate in a circumscribed sphere. There is in the brain at birth a proclivity towards certain directions rather than others: to this original inherited capacity environment can add nothing; it can only develop or frustrate it. The modern socialist who contends that all men should and can be made equal would find no friend in Plato any more than in modern eugenists.

The Platonic conception of marriage implies an irrational universe. Personal inclination is to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Nevertheless, Plato recognized the power of "myriad voices" of opinion. In the case of marriages, births, and patrimonies he swerves from the rules laid down for the former commonwealth by making marriages an affair of individuals, and the business of the suitors themselves private." He realizes that legal compulsion in such matters would arouse anger and ridicule. Therefore, like modem eugenists, he would trust to the power of public opinion.

The state is to be monogamous, and, as in Sparta and the Republic, there is regulation of the marriage age. A woman is to marry between the ages of sixteen and twenty, a man not earlier than twenty-five or thirty, and not later than thirty-five. The period of child-bearing is to last for ten years; at the end of that period, if there are no children and the parents are free from censure, honourable divorce is to be conceded.

As at Sparta, there is to be care for the future child, set on a wider basis of science. There are times when incontinence, ill-health, moral delinquency of any kind leave their impress upon the mind or body of the offspring. Parents must bear in mind that they are handing down the torch of life to future generations.

Eugenics is being studied from the point of view of medical science. Already in the Republic Plato had owed something to the teaching of Hippocrates, and in this discussion of prenatal influences we may trace a further debt. To form a child from birth to the best constitution, first of all care must be taken of the seed itself, then of food, drink, exercise, quiet, sleep, desires, and other things, all of which Plato has carefully studied.

The educational scheme of the Laws is a very different thing from that of the Republic. Pitched at a level which makes it possible for all, it leads to no final knowledge of the good. There are public infant schools, but education is to cease after the age of six. Besides gymnastic and music, there is some training in the sciences, but the ideal is Pythagorean rather than Platonic.

No less than in the Republic, in the Laws Plato recognizes that education by itself cannot achieve everything. Men well educated become good men: without gymnastic and other education neither soul nor body will ever be of much account. But a fortunate nature is as necessary as a good education, and those of the Athenians who become good men become good without constraint by their own natures. Only a few can achieve perfect happiness, and these are they who, divine and temperate, and gifted with all other virtues by nature, have also received everything which good education could impart.

In addition to education and heredity, Plato, influenced, perhaps, by the treatise of Hippocrates, recognizes the influence of material environment. There is a difference in places, and some beget better men and others worse. Some places are subject to strange and fatal influences by reason of diverse winds and violent heats or the character of the waters. Again, there is the character of the food supplied by the earth, which not only affects the bodies of men for good or evil, but produces the same result on their souls. But geographic environment cannot produce a given type of mind any more than education: it can only foster or thwart heredity. It merely determines what shall actually be by selective destruction of the incompatible. As to the negative aspect of this scheme, Plato would segregate the madman and expel the pauper. The madman is not to be seen in the city, but the responsibility rests upon the relatives, not upon the state. If they fail in their duty, the law will punish them. The treatment of the insane was a difficult problem in an age when there were no asylums.

There is another problem, also, which has assumed far larger proportions today owing to the growth of humanitarian sentiment -- and the enormous numbers of the modern state. Plato has a simple and ruthless way with the pauper. In a properly constituted state the righteous man will not be allowed to starve: there is no excuse for the beggar. "If such a one be found, he shall be driven out of the market-place, out of the city, out of the land, that the state may be purged of such a creature." When a city is small, there is no difficulty in maintaining the poor; such a prohibition might have been enforced without difficulty in an ancient state. Some may approve of the simple thoroughness of the Platonic method, but the complexity of modern conditions has rendered its adoption impossible.

In the eyes of the modern socialist, unemployed and unemployable alike are the victims of the social system: to the eugenist, the chronic pauper is often the victim of heredity. With increased genetic knowledge the modern state may be purged of the pauper more slowly, but no less surely, than the Platonic state of the Laws.

Plato, moreover, recognized bodily or mental defects as a bar to marriage, though not viewing the question from its eugenic aspect. He is concerned with the parents, and not with the children. The law does not forbid marriage with an orphan who is suffering from some defect; it merely refrains from compulsion. Modern eugenists, concerned with classifying such defects into transmissible and non-transmissible, regard the question from a different viewpoint. In the matter of inspection to decide the fitness of age for marriage there is something of the idea which came to life again in More's "Utopia" and Campanella's "City of the Sun."

Even in this endeavor to sacrifice ideals to possibilities there is still the apriorism of the visionary. There is more humanity, more concession to the infirmities of human nature, but little that comes within the scope of practical action. Neither the legislation of the Republic nor the precepts of the Laws could have ever realized the Platonic dream of eugenics.


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