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X: Charity

Prehistoric times were no golden age in which peace and charity reigned throughout the earth, but within the primitive home the woman must have played her natural part of peacemaker; while her curse may well have been the primal sanction against the shedding of kinly blood, even if her lamentations did much to stimulate blood-revenge. So, too, endo-cannibalism, cutting for the dead, and blood-brotherhood are rites making for consciousness of kind. As contrasted with a just but heartless legalism, charity gives freely without insisting on reciprocity.

A CONCLUDING lecture must somehow conclude; and an argument which reserves its last word for the subject of charity can surely claim to be received in a like spirit. Not that civilized folk must suppose themselves to have a monopoly of that crowning virtue. The primitive world is less uncharitable than is sometimes believed. Our present object, however, is not to evaluate savage charity considered in itself, but rather to observe how its quality is affected by its historical connexion with religion. Now we who profess a religion of charity might be tempted to assume offhand that only good could result from such an association. But history is more concerned with deeds than with professions; nor does Christianity provide the only type of human religion. Actually the religious record displays a chequered pattern of white and black; and the clue to this unedifying fact is to be found in the ambivalence of religious emotion. After all, the touch-stone of charity lies in the question: ‘Is it peace or war, O my neighbour?’ Now the natural man will sometimes fight like a tiger. But the religious man is apt to fight like a fiend.

In old days the problem whether the state of nature, that is, the pre-civil condition of mankind, was a state of universal war or of universal peace would provoke hot debate among the philosophers. Hobbes says one thing, Rousseau the opposite; while Locke, less given to rhetoric than either of the others, is inclined to compromise, but on the whole gives a lead to Rousseau. When more modern thinkers, with better information at their disposal, offer to pronounce on a point so nearly touching the honour of our race, they are prone to be tendencious, and so remain unconvincing. Their one-sidedness provokes the suspicion that this writer is at heart a pacifist, and that one an upholder of the supremacy of the big blonde beast. For the impartial verdict of history is, surely, that human nature is neither good nor bad but mixed; and the same estimate holds of every activity that issues forth from that common matrix of mingled clay and flame. Pre-eminently, then, does it apply to religion, which of all our activities is by far the most central and comprehensive.

I would ask you, then, to imagine Neanderthal man in his cave-home. His temper may have been uncertain, and he may have snarled even over his supper. Yet he was doubtless loyal enough to his own folk; who, when they were full of the meat that he had brought in, snuggled together not ungratefully by the fire that he knew how to kindle and keep alive. As for the rest of his kind, he would probably not like the smell of them, and would duly flourish his club at them and show his canines. But was he much troubled with neighbours? Europe must have been very thinly populated in those days, to judge by the distribution and contents of the known Mousterian sites; and one may suspect that a living specimen of Homo primigenius was nearly as rare a spectacle along the banks of the ancient Thames or Somme as nowadays is a gorilla amid the forests of the Congo. On the other hand, in Upper Palaeolithic times there was more society for those who could appreciate it. One cannot be sure, of course, that the shelters which honeycomb the valley-walls of the Vézère in Dordogne were occupied contemporaneously; but so many burrows seem to imply a warren, and the chances are that, like the Eskimo, these later cavemen were well on their way to become villagers and almost townsfolk. Such close aggregation may, of course, have been seasonal; the people scattering for the summer hunting and, when the cold came on, re-assembling to eat down their hoards, as also to hold ceremonies to bring back better weather and more game. Yet, continuous or not, it was a wider and richer social life, a notable enlargement of the original fire-circle.

Even so, all was not peace, if one can read the signs aright. True, along the Vézère nothing survives to suggest fighting, unless it be a suspicious hole in a Cro-Magnon lady’s head—a mere by-product, I dare say, of divorce proceedings, or of funeral custom. Further South, however, the Capsians have left us battle-pictures full of spirit. There cannot, indeed, be the least doubt about the whole-heartedness with which they shoot arrows into one another from bows of formidable size until, at any rate as the artist would have us believe, the victims are more like porcupines than men. These same Capsians were probably intruders from Africa; so that a defender of the priority of amity to enmity might be disposed to belittle war as a secondary effect of immigration. Yet, however far we go back in human history, we must constantly postulate, and can often prove, migration. But how gratuitous would be the assumption that new settlers invariably found bare lots to occupy without dispute; seeing that early movements of peoples are confined to natural corridors where constriction immediately leads to crowding. Add that, as far as pre-history can take us, man is already a meat-eater and a killer—one, moreover, who is capable of standing up to fierce beasts which, as compared with his fellow men, were, if not so subtle-brained, at least more heavily armed. Or, again, in reply to the argument that war involves organization and must therefore have evolved late, it can be urged that hunting too involves organization. Nay, the very shortcomings of the primitive hunter’s armament made it all the more imperative that he should imitate the methods of the wolf-pack. That rival hordes of men would never clash and have it out is too much to believe, if, restraining sentiment, one gives the probable facts their due weight. If, then, the pacifist cannot extract the admission that he wants out of pre-history, he has lost his case; for history is a witness on the other side. The evidence concerning the civilized peoples with literary records shows decisively that they come from fighting stocks, and that the non-combatant elements, if any, have enjoyed none of the prevailing culture except the scraps. Such, then, is human nature seen in retrospect. Yet that it can be improved by education, until charity comes finally to her own, is at least the hope of the future. For charity is home-worthiness. If men could be made to feel and behave as if they were at home in the wide world and in the universe, they would not want to fight any longer; for fighting in the home has been a great taboo, as far as ever human history goes back.

Now it is historically as well as otherwise true that charity begins at home. As an historical statement, however, this needs to be justified by adding that the primitive home in its earliest forms is more or less uni-parental. The typical savage belongs either to his mother’s or to his father’s people, and, one may be pretty sure, originally to his mother’s. Parental instinct in the female is a more straightforward affair than in the male, and, biologically speaking, the family is older than religion. For the degree of its evolution may be roughly measured by the retardation that has taken place in the attainment of puberty; and this with human beings is a lengthy process involving a fosterage equally protracted. Instinct, however, merely preforms intelligence. It but furnishes a rough scheme on which man’s conscious experience gradually refines and improves. Mother-right, then, in the extremest forms known to us has become a moral institution. At the same time we find it already permeated with religious feeling, which on the whole raises the significance to a higher level, though in its ambivalent way it provokes extravagances as well as exaltations. Thus the mother, who is essential woman, is at once holy and unclean. Much that need not be repeated here has been written about the disabilities incurred by her for no better reason than that all saw in her the proximate and, as they long thought, the sole source of family as identified with the blood-tie. But the complementary fact has been somewhat overlooked, namely, that, being pre-eminently taboo and having mana in like proportion, she was in a strong position to exert a will of her own; and I believe that the will of the essential woman is for peace in the home, and that is to say for charity.

Thus, in native Australia it is always the woman who plays the peace-maker. When rival bucks are at loggerheads, she rushes in between them and they stop—for no dog bites the lady-dog—and besides, since bravery is first-cousin to bluff, it may be that secretly they are only too glad to do so. Further, when different groups ingeminate war to the last flint-knife, off go the women as ambassadors to patch up the squabble; and even that rude chivalry respects their sacrosanct character. How much more, then, must the Mother be potent for peace within her own fire-circle! To disobey her is to feel accursed; for by right of her position she is high-priestess of the religion and laws of the blood. Now it was suggested in a previous lecture that, away back in the beyond of history, she may have initiated exogamy by insisting on chaste relations among camp-mates, partly from a nascent sense of the decencies of life, but partly also and perhaps chiefly in order to suppress murderous jealousies at all costs. Be this as it may, we have no knowledge of the time when it was not a bed-rock principle of human society that the blood of the brotherhood is sacred and must not be shed; and that brotherhoods are but enlarged motherhoods is at least more likely than not. So unthinkable, indeed, is such a sin, that primitive law rarely makes provision for dealing with it. Indeed, the fear of thus rendering oneself abominable and outcast beyond all redemption is sufficient sanction to keep the passions of the wildest savage in check. Call it instinct—the law of the wolf-pack—and you most certainly are under the mark. Not to mention the fact that parental care would seem to be much more strongly developed in our race than any gregarious tendency that it may likewise possess, the very inviolability of the law against shedding kinly blood proclaims it a taboo—an organized curse; and I believe that there is a mother’s curse at the back of it. For whose blood is it that cries out for divine vengeance if it is not ultimately hers?

But if it is only intestine and so to speak consanguine murder that provokes the divine vengeance of the Furies—those Erinyes whom more than once Homer definitely identifies with a mother’s curses—what of the murder done by a stranger which almost as automatically incurs human vengeance in the shape of retaliation by the kin? For the three fundamental laws of blood-fellowship are these: no incest; no internal bloodshed; and blood for blood against the rest of the world. Nor is this third law much less binding, if at all, than the other two. The nearest thing to conscience exhibited by an Australian native is, perhaps, the sense of dissatisfaction at a good deed left undone which comes over him if he has been somehow prevented from avenging a kinsman’s death; and that though he blindly imputes the disaster to the evil magic of alien persons unknown. It certainly is no mere blood-lust that inspires him; but a righteous indignation prompting him to a truly religious duty. Who, then, was originally responsible for the sacred obligation? Once more, I suggest that it was the woman; even if by so doing I make it appear that her charity not only begins at home but ends there. I am not merely thinking of that most repulsive plate in Spencer and Gillen which figures the Illapurinja or avenging woman; who, despite her sex, is allowed to carry a churinga as a badge of her sacred office. I rely rather on the universal law of human life that ‘men must work and women must weep’. It is always the latter who take the lead in the frenzied lamentations so characteristic of the funeral rites of the savage. No doubt custom has to some extent formalized them; and yet for the fashion to have arisen they must have come from the heart in the first instance. Now in Australia it is a common insult for one native to taunt another with not having gashed himself for the dead as deeply as he might. How much more effectively, then, if only because they could not be answered with a blow, must the women be able to pour scorn on the warriors who could look upon their dead and let the matter rest—for there could be no resting for the hapless dead if they did. But even bravest Hector feared what the Trojan women might say.

It would be impracticable here, though not irrelevant, to consider systematically the manifold features of what might be termed the religion of the blood-tie. Moreover, were it so possible we should have to give the religious that wide connotation that equates it with the ceremonial in all its more serious aspects; for our present interest is in the emotional side of religion, and ceremony is its chosen instrument for kindling and propagating psychic infection in the crowd. Nay, we should be driven to explore the inward meaning of an entire stage of human society, namely, the totemistic; for the clan-totem is essentially a name signifying that the kinsfolk are, as the Australian native puts it, ‘all-one-flesh’; flesh, blood, mana, and soul being but successive refinements of the same sentiment and idea. Thus to the anthropologist endo-cannibalism is not simply disgusting, because he can perceive the underlying principle of kindly feeling that seeks expression in this crude act of communion. To participate in the virtues of the departed hero, and to neutralize the aggressive disposition of a ghost loth to go off by himself, are, I think, but secondary interpretations springing from the root-notion that to eat of the dead is to eat with them. Or, again, the rite of cutting for the dead, which in itself might seem to be meant entirely for their benefit—and undoubtedly the motive of revitalizing the corpse by sprinkling it literally or metaphorically with the blood of the mourners is a real one, being borne out by the custom of administering youthful blood to the old and feeble—is but a special form of a wider practice of blood-exchange. Witness the fact that, if an Australian youth opens his veins for the sake of a decrepid elder, the latter in his prime had already done the same for many a novice at initiation, baptizing him so copiously with the mystic water of life that the donor was ready to faint before he thought of desisting. Not to dwell further on old-world ceremonies, for a close examination of which our nerves are too delicate—or, shall we say, not sufficiently robust?—blood-brotherhood is a custom with a distribution as wide as its significance is deep; the life-and-death attachment of an Orestes to a Pylades, or of David for Jonathan being its echo in sacred story. But blood-brotherhood and milk-brotherhood are ultimately one, even if blood prevails in ritual as the more procurable medium of expression. Aristotle in the Politics has not forgotten that clansmen are men of the same milk—‘homo-galacts’. Here, then, at least there can be nothing to offend our taste. Religious symbolism has said its last word when it conceives charity as the mother’s milk of human kindness.

Now I have purposely dwelt, anthropologist fashion, on the far-off beginnings of things, and have done such prolonged obeisance before the shrine of the Mothers that it is high time to take some notice of fatherhood—after-thought though it would seem to have been in the social and mental history of our race. A father in the social sense of the term may be defined as a domesticated human male. Whether his domestication was anterior to that of the other useful animals is uncertain, though it is perhaps more certain that it has never been so complete. Woman may have succeeded in taming the dog by petting him as a puppy, to judge by the way the young dingo responds to feminine endearments. But to tame the husband vicariously by petting the pledges of their mutual passions was a far less effective way of bringing the former into subjection. After all, he is first and foremost his mother’s son, and his wife is but the daughter of his mother-in-law, of Her-who-must-be-avoided. Starting thus as the furtive lover, such affection as he might feel towards his wife—and some tenderness might on biological analogy be expected to enter into even a cave-man’s wooing—would necessarily be of a sneaking kind. He has little chance of cultivating it in her home where her big brothers do their best to make him feel small and out of it. Nay, his very children are more theirs than his, and are hardly more disposed than their elders to extend their charity towards him. Nor, when custom at length permits him to carry off the wife to his own people, is it to a home of his own so much as to his mother’s home that she unwillingly is led. We have only to think of the Bantu custom whereby the mother and sisters of the husband ceremoniously insult the new-come bride, partly to break her in, but partly too, it would seem, to work off their natural repressions. No doubt the change from matrilocal to patrilocal marriage makes for male dominance in the long run; but at first one uni-parental system has but given way to another, and the bi-parental family is still a long way in the offing. The transported wife trails her kinship with her and breeds little aliens in the camp of the stranger. Her husband has got her services but not her spiritual allegiance. Conversely, she has no call or right to mother him; and she teaches her children to be loving towards herself, but at most to fear and respect their common lord and master.

Thoroughly unstable, however, is the compromise between mother-right and father-right that occurs when marriage is patrilocal but kinship remains matrilineal. An allegiance divided between the moral claims of scattered blood-mates and the physical supremacy of the father as the man on the spot must break down one way or the other, and in the long run it is authority that prevails over sentiment. The new order maintains a nominal continuity of principle with the old by identifying family as before with the name. But the gentile patronymic could never acquire the mystic significance of the name that stood for mother’s blood. Though it eventually took over the entire stock of implications, exogamy, the ban on mutual slaughter and the duty of communal revenge, the emotional basis had shifted from a semi-biological stir of the blood to a sociological convention. The change, like any other major process of history, was perhaps inevitable and has certainly proved irreversible. It paved the way towards ever wider forms of social union, from gens to tribe and eventually from city-state to nation. A stable legalism founded on paternal discipline once and for all displaced the tumultuous régime of mother-love reinforced by the shrill sanction of mother-rage. But the new charity was, in Aristotle’s phrase, watery; for, as water is to blood, so is any kind of law-made civism to a home-made consciousness of kin. Not until a long process of social evolution has established the bi-parental family by bringing about the legal and moral equality of husband and wife, does the home resume its archetypal function as a nursery of the gentler feelings. A one-sided patriarchalism is always harsh—even in its religion, which, being typically a manes-worship, imputes a father’s imperiousness to the forefathers, and figures them with ghostly rods in their hands. The Bantu expects his ancestors to fight on his side; but he likewise regards their arbitrary and so to speak freakish chastisements as the cause of half his troubles. The Roman observes the sacred rites of the gens with cold correctness, and thinks possessively not only of the wife who, as his law puts it, is fast in his hand, but even in regard to his Lares and Penates who are essentially guardians of his property. But perhaps it is to China that we must look for the apotheosis of the patriarchal idea. Of course in an area of such dense population the gentile organization has gone. By a remarkable survival, however, it is still prohibited to marry within the patronymic; and yet there are only some four hundred of these surnames to be shared among almost as many millions of souls. But though the individual family has thus become the social unit, and though an intensive cult of ancestors might almost be said to have given it the status of a religious order, it immobilizes and interns the woman; and, presumably for this reason, becomes the school of a morality that is ceremonious, intellectual, and rather heartless. In short, too much insistence on father-right may account for the arrested development to be perceived not only in China but to some extent also in the pagan world of the Greeks and Romans; for in both cases their entire philosophy of life looks no further than to a tranquillity of the mind, while a charity of the soul remains beyond its horizon.

It is, unfortunately, not possible here to examine in full detail the ethics of the early home as it warmly gathers round the hearth of charity, that is to say, the mothering principle. Perhaps enough has been said to illustrate its negative and disciplinary side which is summed up in the precept: ‘Let us not quarrel among ourselves.’ It has been shown how not only the taboo on intestine homicide, but even the exogamic law that fighting about women is indecent except outside, may be regarded as special applications of this rule. It only remains to add in this context that the prohibition against internal bickering is so obviously salutary that society in its later and wider developments never goes back on the injunction. One has only to think of the serious view which is always and everywhere taken of slander. Burmese law, for instance, is said to recognize and punish twenty-seven distinct kinds. Nay, just because in primitive times the rest of the world is conceived as hostile, it is plain to all that there is no room for hostility within the limits of natal and tribal association. Thus Powers tells of the Pomo of California that they had two chiefs, a war-chief and a peace-chief. The latter must be some wise old man who had done with war, and his function was to adjust disputes and to keep angry passions, and in particular sexual jealousy, within strict bounds. Moreover, on this point religion is in entire sympathy with law. For instance, Miss Fletcher in her interesting account of the Sioux ghost-lodge explains how necessary it is to abstain from quarrels in its vicinity—or, as an Ancient Roman would say, favere linguis; among other reasons because ghosts have a delicate constitution and hate any disturbance of the air.

But the primitive ethics of charity may also be said to have a positive side, of which the purport is contained in the broad commandment: ‘Give freely.’ In the cave-home this must virtually have meant the same thing as ‘Eat fair’. The Arunta rubs his stomach with a sacred stone in order to soften his feelings and make him more generous in the distribution of food. Such a fact indicates that the extreme generosity displayed, as all observers testify, by the savage hunter in this respect is not entirely spontaneous, but is a product of management—doubtless such management as a mother has still occasionally to exercise in the course of a nursery tea. Here or hereabouts, then, is to be sought the secret of that give-and-take which is so marked a feature of the simpler type of human society. It can almost be said to know no other law of property than ‘Share and share alike’. Now we confirmed individualists are only too ready to insist that such a sentiment can be carried too far. When Darwin’s Fuegian friend Jimmy Button tore all his European clothes to rags in order that his friends might participate in his finery, he offered up the decencies of civilization on the altar of a presartorial morality. Such undiscriminating liberality undoubtedly does not make for that independence of effort which is needed for an age of competition. For the Samoan, Turner writes: ‘The entire tribe or clan was his bank.’ Is it not more than a coincidence if the Samoan ranks low among the world’s workers? Yet this is to look at the matter from a European point of view; such as is only too apt to overlook the altogether festive delight with which the same Samoan enters into the communal job of setting up a house or hollowing out a canoe. It is, in short, anachronistic to estimate the pros and cons of primitive collectivism—it is hardly a communism—from the standpoint of an advanced ethics. This is based largely on the idea of justice, and is suitable for widespread communities that actually are held together less by love than by economic advantage. Quite otherwise is it with the mothering principle, which makes little or no distinction between the useful and the useless units of the brood, being rather by ancient instinct impelled to be patient with the helpless. Far more than justice, or even equity, charity is long-suffering. It is emotional rather than rational, feminine rather than male, because it hopes against hope and is reckless of results. Charity is the pelican who feeds her young from her own vitals and gives without return. Thus charity is more than liberality. The self-display of the profuse is recompensed with honour at the least, while the giver of a potlatch even expects to be repaid in kind and in effect is but putting out his money at interest. But charity, which is not of the head but of the heart, or, one might even say, of the womb, has no gain in prospect unless it be the good of the race; and this is felt immanently here and now, rather than projected by thought on to the mists of the future.

It remains to connect charity with self-sacrifice, if it can be done without forcing the historical facts. We have seen that it may well have been woman, always so prone to indulge in the luxury of grief, who initiated the practice of cutting for the dead. The institution of sacrifice has many roots, but this is one of them. Even if we prefer to regard suttee as rather a tragedy of patriarchalism, a sort of suicide on the part of the widow left desolate among strangers and with no better alternative than to be handed over to her husband’s brother, we have evidence in the self-scarifications and self-mutilations of very primitive folk such as the Australians that religious custom seized on these moments of emotional abandon to formalize them as part of a fixed tribute paid to the memory of their dead. Now that the woman should give her blood for the sake of the living is nature’s law; but that she should give it on behalf of a corpse gone for ever cold is, biologically speaking, a sheer aberration. It is waste, in any but a religious sense, to gash oneself over a grave; just as it is waste on a larger scale to shoot a hundred and fifty horses—as was done at the funeral of a Blackfoot chief—or to destroy even larger numbers of human beings in one fell slaughter, as used to happen in Tropical Africa when the last honours were paid to some great king. Contemplating such unhappy things the anthropologist is more ready to think of cruelty—a subject with which we have already dealt—than of fair charity in relation to the blood-sacrifice in any form; even if, thanks largely to the gift-theory of sacrifice, its motive is gradually sublimated until it is viewed as the oblation to God of a pure heart. It seems better, then, to argue that it was not of their charity that the mothers of the blood-kin cut themselves for their lost brethren and sons, but rather of their temporary despair—a morbid tendency from which they were recalled by the need of giving their wantonly lacerated breasts to their hungry offspring. For if self-sacrifice looks away from the life of this world, charity must ever look towards it, throwing itself with no less abandon into the task of nursing and educating it forward. It is no sacrifice of the mother to suckle her child. Nay, it is the nearest thing to communion on God’s earth, and may therefore stand as the perfect symbol of peaceful and bountiful love, as it might be not only in the Communion of Saints, but likewise among us poor human beings. Charity is no late message sent down to civilized folk from heaven. It is something that whispers in the very life-blood of the race; as if it were the tender voice of the Earth-mother bidding us remember that we are all her children.