Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 8. His Substitution of the Evolutionary Myth for the Old Theology

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 8. His Substitution of the Evolutionary Myth for the Old Theology

What primarily attracted Fiske to the evolutionary philosophy was precisely that which made that philosophy so popular, the easy way in which it could serve as a universal key to open up a comprehensive view on every subject of human interest. Despite his services to popular science, Fiske was not himself a scientific investigator. His knowledge of biology was second-hand, neither extensive nor very accurate, and even less can be said about his knowledge of physics. But he was widely read in history, in which he was always primarily interested. The evolutionary philosophy appealed to him above all as a clue to the tangled, complicated mass of facts that constitutes human history. Like Buckle, Fiske wanted to eliminate the marvellous or catastrophic view of history and reduce it to simple laws. In his historic writings, however, he does not seem to have used the evolutionary philosophy to throw new light on past events, and in his actual historic representation his dramatic instinct gave full scope to the part of great men, to issues of battles, and to like incidents.

The extent to which Fiske as a philosopher was dominated by traditional views is best seen when we ask for the ethical and political teaching of his evolutionary philosophy. Only a few pages of the Cosmic Philosophy are devoted to this topic, and the results do not in any respect rise above the commonplace. He naïvely accepts the crude popular analysis which makes morality synonymous with yielding to the “dictates of sympathy” instead of to the “dictates of selfishness.” The conception of evolution as consisting of slow, imperceptible changes—thus ignoring all saltations or mutations—is made to support the ordinary conservative aversion for radical change. The philosophy of Voltaire and the encyclopædists is sweepingly condemned as socially subversive; and against Comte it is maintained that society cannot be organized on the basis of scientific philosophy, not even the evolutionary philosophy. Statesmen should study history, but men cannot be taught the higher state of civilization; they can only be bred in it. Just how the latter process is to take place we are not told. Fiske left nothing of a theory of education. He belittles the importance of social institutions and concludes by making social salvation depend upon a change of heart in individual men—quit in the tradition of the Protestant theology which he had inherited.

Fiske was not an original or a logically rigorous thinker, and his knowledge of the history of science and philosophy was by no means adequate; but he was a remarkably lucid, vigorous, and engaging writer who had no fear of repeating the same point. His Cosmic Philosophy went through sixteen editions, and this, as well as his other books, which sold by the thousands, undoubtedly exerted wide influence. Thus he greatly aided the spread of the Berkeleian argument that all we know of matter is states of consciousness, and at the same time of the argument (really inconsistent with this) for a psychical parallelism according to which matter and mind from parallel streams of causality without one causing the other. But above all, he made fashionable the evolutionary myth according to which everything has a function, evolves, and necessarily passes through certain stages. Thus he also introduced a new intellectual orthodoxy according to which the elect pride themselves on following the “dynamic” rather than the “static” point of view.