Anticipations and Survivals

Ahad Ha'am


Students of jurisprudence know (and who knows so well as the Jew?) that the laws and statutes of every nation are not all observed and obeyed at all times in the same degree; that in all countries and in all ages there are certain laws, be they new or old, which are perfectly valid according to the statue book, and are yet disregarded by those who administer justice, and are wholly or largely ineffective in practice.

If one examines a law of this kind, one will always find that its spirit is opposed to the spirit that prevails at the time in the moral and political life of society. If it is a new law, it will be found to have come into existence before its time, to have been the work of lawgivers whose spiritual development was in advance of that of the general body of society. If it is an old law, we shall find that its day is past, that society in its spiritual development has left behind it the spirit of those old lawgivers. In either case, this particular law, being out of harmony with the spirit that governs the progress of life in that particular age, may be valued and honored like all the other laws, but has no power to make itself felt in practice.

And yet reformers act quite rightly when they anticipate the course of events, and put laws on the statue book before the time has come when they can be practically effective; and conservatives also act rightly when they secure the survival in the statute books of laws whose time has gone by. Both parties know that they are doing good service, each for its own cause. They both understand that the spirit of society moves in a circle, now forwards, now backwards, and that in this circular movement it may arrive, sooner or later, at the stage of development that these laws represent. When that time comes, it will be a matter of importance whether the laws are there in readiness or not. If they are, the spirit of society will quickly enter into them, as a soul enters into a body, and will inform them with life, and make them active forces, while they will be for the spirit a definite, material form, through which its preeminence will be secured. But if there is not this material form waiting for the spirit to enter into it; if the spirit is compelled to wander bodiless until it can create for itself a new corporeal vesture, then there is danger that, before the spirit can gain a firm footing where it desires to stay, the wheel may turn again, and the favorable moment be lost.

This is true not only of written laws and statues, but also of the unwritten ideas and judgments of the human mind. In every age you will find certain isolated beliefs and opinions, out of all relation to the ruling principles on which the life of that age is built. They lie hidden in a water-tight compartment of the mind, and have no effect whatever on the course of practical life. Ideas such as these are mostly survivals, inherited from earlier generations. In their own time they were founded on current conceptions and actual needs of life; but gradually the spirit of society has changed: the foundations on which these ideas rested have been removed, and the ideas stand by a miracle. Their appearance of life is illusory: it is no real life of motion and activity, but the passive life of an old man whose "moisture is gone, and his natural force abated." Anthropologists (such as Tylor and many after him) have found aged creatures of this description in every branch of life; and they live sometimes to a remarkable age.

So much for the survivals. But there are here also anticipations, children who have not reached their full strength--ideas born in the minds of a few men of finer mould, who stand above their generation, and whom favoring circumstances have enabled to disseminate their ideas, and to win acceptance for them, before their time: that is, before the age is fully able to understand and assimilate them. These ideas, being only learned parrot-wise, and being out of harmony with the prevailing spirit, are left, like the survivals, outside the sphere of active forces. Their life is that of the babe and the suckling. Grown men fondle them, take pleasure in their childish prattle, sometimes play with them; but never ask their advice on a practical question.

And yet, so long as the breath of life remains in them, there is hope both for the anticipations and for the survivals: for the one in the forward march of the spirit, for the other in its backward trend. And so here also we must say that philosophers have done well to work for the dissemination of their new opinions, or the strengthening of the old opinions to which they have been attached, without caring whether the age was fit to receive them, whether it received them for their own sake or for the sake of something else, whether it could find in them a mode of life and a guide in practice. These philosophers know that a live weakling is better than a dead Hercules; that so long as an idea lives in the human mind, be it but in a strange and distorted form, be its life but a passive life confined to some dim, narrow chamber of the mind-- so long it may hope in the fulness of time to find its true embodiment; so long it may hope, when the right day dawns, to fill the souls of men, to become the living spirit that informs all thoughts and all actions.

For an instance of an anticipation, take the idea of the Unity of God among the Jews in the period of the Judges and the Kings, until the Babylonian Exile.

Hume and his followers have proved conclusively that what first aroused man to a recognition of his Creator was not his wonder at the beauty of nature and her marvels, but his dread of the untoward accidents of life. Primitive man, wandering about the earth in search of food, without shelter from the rain or protection against the cold, persecuted unsparingly by the tricks of nature and by wild beasts, was not in a position to take note of the laws of creation, to gaze awe-struck at the beauty of the world, and to ponder the question "whether such a world could be without a guide." [Midrash, Lek Leka, 39]. All his impulses, feelings and thoughts were concentrated on a single desire, the desire for life; in the light of that desire he saw but two things in all nature--good and evil: that which helped and that which hindered in his struggle for existence. as for the good, he strove to extract from it all possible benefit, without much preliminary thought about its source. But evil was more common and more readily perceptible than good: and how escape from evil? This question gave his mind no rest; it was this question that first awoke in him, almost unconsciously, the great idea that every natural phenomenon has a lord, who can be appeased by words and won over by gifts to hold evil in check. Yes, and also--the idea developed of itself--to bestow good. Thus all the common phenomena of nature became gods, in more or less close contact with hum an life and happiness; the earth became as full of deities as nature of good things and evil.

But it was not only from nature and her blind forces that primitive man had to suffer. The hand of his fellow-man too was against him. In those days there were no states or kingdoms, no fixed rules of life or ordinances of justice. The human race was divided into families, each living its own life, and each engaged in an endless war of extinction with its neighbor. The evil cased by man to man was sometimes even more terrible than the hostility of nature. And her also man sought and found help in a divine power; only in this case he did not turn to the gods of nature, who were common to himself and his enemies. Each family looked for help to its own special god, a god who had no care in the world but itself, no purpose but to protect it from its enemies. Thus, when in course of time these families grew into nations living a settled life, and the war of man against man took on a more general form; when the individual man was able to sit at peace with his household in the midst of his people, and the process of merciless destruction was carried on by nation against nation, not by family against family: then the family gods disappeared, or sank to the level of household spirits; but their place was filled by national gods, one god for each nation, whose function it was to watch over it in time of peace, and to punish its enemies in time of war.
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Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon c 1912, Jewish Publication Society of America