Man's Place & Powers

Epigraph to Book I

Though but an atom midst immensity,
  Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand

I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth -
  On the last verge of mortal being stand

Close to the realms where angels have their birth
  Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!

The chain of being is complete in me -
  In me is matter's last gradation lost,

And the next step is spirit - Diety!
  I can command the lightning, and am dust!

- Bowring's translation of Dershavin

This book was transcribed into HTML by Dan Sullivan, and was underwritten by The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, publisher of Henry George's works.

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Henry George
The Science of Political Economy
Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy

Chapter II
Man, His Place and Powers

Showing Our Relations to the Globe, and the Qualities That Enable Us to Extend Our Knowledge of It and Our Powers on It

Man's earliest knowledge of his habitat - How that knowledge grows, and what civilized men now know of it - The essential distinction between man and other animals - In this lies his power of producing and improving.

We awake to consciousness to find ourselves, clothed in flesh, and in company with other like beings, resting on what seems to us a plane surface. Above us, when the clouds do not conceal them, the sun shines by day and the moon and stars by night. Of what this place is, and of our relations to it, the first men probably knew little more than is presented to us in direct consciousness, little more in fact than the animals know; and, individually, we ourselves could know little more. But the observations and reflections of many succeeding men, garnered and systematized, enable us of the modern civilization to know, and with the eyes of the mind almost to see, things to which the senses untaught by reason are blind.
By the light of this gathered knowledge we behold ourselves, the constantly changing tenants of the exterior of a revolving sphere, circling around a larger and luminous sphere, the sun, and beset on all sides by depths of space, to which we can neither find nor conceive of limits. Through this immeasurable space revolve myriads of luminous bodies of the nature of our sun, surrounded, it is confidently inferred from the fact that we know it to be the case with our sun, by lesser, non-luminous bodies that have in them their centers of revolution.

Our sun, but one, and far from one of the largest, of countless similar orbs, is the center of light and heat and revolution to eight principal satellites (having in their turn satellites of their own), as well as to an indefinite number of more minute bodies known to us as asteroids and of more erratic bodies called comets. Of the principal satellites of the sun, the third in point of distance from it, and the fourth in point of size, is our earth. It is in constant movement around the sun, and in constant revolution on its own axis, while its satellite, the moon, also revolving on its own axis, is in constant movement around it. The sun itself, revolving too on its own axis, is, with all its attendant bodies, in constant movement around some, probably moving, point in the universe which astronomers have not yet been able to determine.

Thus we find ourselves, on the surface of a globe seemingly fixed, but really in constant motion of so many different kinds that it would be impossible with our present knowledge to make a diagram indicating its real movement through space at any point - a globe large to us, yet only as a grain of sand on the sea-shore compared with the bodies and spaces of the universe of which it is a part. We find ourselves on the surface of this ceaselessly moving globe, as passengers, brought there in utter insensibility, they know not how or whence, might find themselves on the deck of a ship, moving they know not where, and who see in the distance similar ships, whether tenanted or how tenanted they can only infer and guess. The immeasurably great lies beyond us, and about and beneath as the immeasurably small. The microscope reveals infinitudes no less startling to our minds than does the telescope.

Here we are, depth upon depth about us, confined to the bottom of that sea of air which envelops the surface of this moving globe. In it we live and breathe and are constantly immersed. Were our lungs to cease taking in and pumping out this air, or our bodies relieved of its pressure, we should die.

Small as our globe seems in the light of astronomy, it is not really of the whole globe that we are tenants, but only of a part of its surface. Above this mean surface, men have found it possible only with the utmost effort and fortitude to ascend something less than seven miles; below it our deepest mining shafts do not pierce a mile. Thus the extreme limits in depth and height to which man may occasionally adventure, though not permanently live, are hardly eight miles. In round numbers the globe is 8000 miles in diameter. Thus the skin of the thinnest-skinned apple gives no idea of the relative thinness of the zone of perpendicular distance to which man is confined. And three fourths of the surface of the globe at its junction with the air is covered by water, on which, though man may pass, he cannot dwell; while considerable parts of what remain are made inaccessible by ice. Like a bridge of hair is the line of temperature that we must keep. Investigators tell us of the existence of temperatures thousands of degrees above zero and thousands of degrees below zero. But man's body must maintain the constant level of a fraction over 98 degrees above zero. A rise or fall of seven degrees either way from this level and he dies. With the permanent rise or fall of a few more degrees in the mean temperature of the surface of the globe it would become uninhabitable by us.

And while all about us, even what seems firmest, is in constant change and motion, so is it with ourselves. These bodies of ours are in reality like the flame of a gas-burner, which has continuous and defined form, but only as the manifestation of changes in a stream of succeeding particles, and which disappears the moment that stream is cut off. What there is real and distinctive in us is that to which we may give a name but cannot explain nor easily define - that which gives to changing matter and passing motion the phase and form of man. But our bodies and our physical powers themselves, like the form and power of the gas-flame, are only passing manifestations of that indestructible matter and eternally pulsing energy of which the universe so far as it is tangible to us is made up. Stop the air that every instant is drawn through our lungs and we cease to live. Stop the food and drink that serve to us the same purpose as coal and water to the steam-engine, and, as certainly, if more slowly, the same result follows.

In all this, man resembles the other animals that with him tenant the superficies of the same earth. Physically he is merely such an animal, in form and structure and primary needs closely allied to the mammalia, with whose species he is zoologically classified. Were man only an animal he would be but an inferior animal. Nature has not given him the powers and weapons which enable other animals readily to secure their food. Nor yet has she given him the covering which protects them. Had he like them no power of providing himself with artificial clothing, man could not exist in many of the regions he now inhabits. He could live only in the most genial and equable parts of the globe.

But man is more than an animal. Though in physical equipment he may in nothing surpass, and in some things fall below other animals, in mental equipment he is so vastly superior as to take him out of their class, and to make him the lord and master of them all - to make him veritably, of all that we may see, "the roof and crown of things." And what more clearly perhaps than all else indicates the deep gulf which separates him from all other animals is that he alone of all animals is the producer, or bringer forth, and in that sense a maker. In this is a difference which renders the distinction between the highest animal and the lowest man one not of degree but of kind, and which, linked with the animals though he be, justifies the declaration of the Hebrew Scripture, that man is created in the likeness of the All-Maker.

Consider this distinction: We know of no race of men so low that they do not raise fruits or vegetables, or domesticate and breed animals; that do not cook food; that do not fashion weapons; that do not construct habitations; that do not make for themselves garments; that do not adorn themselves or their belongings with ornamentation; that do not show at least the rude beginnings of drawing and painting and sculpture and music. In all the tribes of animated nature below man there is not the slightest indication of the power thus shown. No animal save man ever kindled a fire or cooked a meal, or made a tool or fashioned a weapon.

It is true that the squirrel hides nuts; that birds build nests, that the beaver dams streams; that bees construct combs, in which they store the honey they extract from flowers; that spiders weave webs; that one species of ants are said to milk insects of another kind. All this is true, just as it is also true that there are birds whose melody far surpasses the best music of the savage, and that on tribes below man nature lavishes an adornment of attire that in taste as well as brilliancy surpasses the meretricious adornments of primitive man.

But in all this there is nothing akin to the faculties which in these things man displays. What man does, he does by taking thought, by consciously adjusting means to ends. He does it by adapting and contriving and experimenting and copying; by effort after effort and trial after trial. What he does, and his ways of doing it, vary with the individual, with social development, with time and place and surroundings, and with what he sees others do.

But the squirrel hides its nuts; the birds after their orders build their nests, and in due time force their young to fly; the beaver constructs its dam; the bees store their honey; the spiders weave, and the ants do the work of their societies, without taking thought, without toilsomely scheming for the adapting of means to ends, without experimenting or copying or improving. What they do of such things, they do not as originators who have discovered how to do it; nor yet as learners or imitators or copyists. They do it, first as well as last, unfalteringly and unalteringly, forgetting nothing and improving in nothing. They do it, not by reason but by instinct; by an impulse inhering in their nature which prompts them without perplexity or trial on their part to go so far, but gives them no power to go farther. They do it as the bird sings or the dog barks, as the hen sits on her eggs or the chick picks its way from the shell to scratch the ground.

Nature provides for all living things beneath man by implanting in them blind, strong impulses which at proper times and seasons prompt them to do what it is necessary they should do. But to man she grants only such impellings of instinct as that which prompts the mother to press the newborn babe to her breast and the babe to suckle. With exceptions such as these, she withdraws from man her guiding power and leaves him to himself. For in him a higher power has arisen and looks out on the world - a power that separates him from the brute as clearly and as widely as the brute is separated from the clod; a power that has in it the potency of producing, of making, of causing things to be; a power that seeks to look back into a past ere the globe was, and to peer into a future when it will cease to exist; a power that looks on Nature's show with curiosity like that with which an apprentice might scan a master's work, and will ask why tides run and winds blow, and how suns and stars have been put together; a power that in its beginnings lacks the certainty and promptness of instinct, but which, though infinitely lower in degree, must yet in some sort be akin to that from which all things proceed.

As this power, which we call reason, rises in man, nature withdraws the light of instinct and leaves him to his own devices - to rise or fall, to soar above the brute or to sink lower. For as the Hebrew Scriptures have phrased it, his eyes are opened and before him are good and evil. The ability to fall, no less than the ability to rise - the very failures and mistakes and perversities of man - show his place and powers. There is among the brutes no drunkenness, no unnatural vice, no waste of effort in accomplishing injurious results, no wanton slaughter of their own kind, no want amid plenty. We may conceive of beings in the form of man, who, like these animals, should be ruled by such clear and strong instincts that among them also there would be no liability to such perversions. Yet such beings would not be men. They would lack the essential character and highest powers of man. Fitted perfectly to their environment they might be happy in a way. But it would be as the full-fed hog is happy. The pleasure of making, the joy of overcoming, the glory of rising, how could they exist for such beings? That man is not fitted for his environment shows his higher quality. In him is that which aspires - and still aspires.

Endowed with reason, and deprived, or all but deprived, of instinct, man differs from other animals in being the producer. Like them, for instance, he requires food. But while the animals get their food by taking what they find, and are thus limited by what they find already in existence, man has the power of getting his food by bringing it into existence. He is thus enabled to obtain food in greater variety and in larger quantity. The amount of grass limits the number of wild cattle, the amount of their prey limits the number of the carnivora; but man causes grasses and grains and fruits to grow where they did not grow before; he breeds animals on which he feeds. And so it is with the fulfillment of all his wants; the satisfaction of all his desires. By the use of his animal powers, man can cover perhaps as much ground in a day as can a horse or a dog; he can cross perhaps about as wide a stream. But by virtue of the power that makes him the producer he is already spanning continents and oceans with a speed, a certainty and an ease that not even the birds of most powerful wing and swiftest flight can rival.

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