Page images

is as infinite in his smallest as in his greatest works, and the apparent exceptions from that rule can nearly all be traced to the influence of abnormal circumstances. Our own interference with the order of Nature has caused the discords in the harmony of creation which furnish the chief arguments of pessimism. The winter torrents which devastate the valleys of Southern France with a fury which Condorcet calls the "truculence of a vainly worshiped heaven," flowed in harmless brooks till the hand of man destroyed the protecting forests that absorbed and equalized the drainage of the Alpine slopes; the same imprudence has turned the gardens of the East into deserts, and obstructed with sand-bars the channels of once navigable rivers. The wanton extermination of wood-birds has revenged itself by insect plagues. Consumption, that cruel scourge of the human race, is the direct consequence of the folly which makes us prefer the miasma of our tenement prisons to the balm of God's free air. We are too apt to confound the results of our sins against Nature with the original arrangements of Providence. But the strangest instance of that mistake is the fallacy which has long biased our dealings with the curse of the alcohol habit. Drunkards plead their inability to resist the promptings of an imperious appetite. Their friends lament the antagonism of nature and duty, the weakness of the flesh frustrating the resolves of a willing spirit. Even temperance orators dwell on the dangers of "worldly temptations," of "selfish, sensual indulgences," as if the alcohol habit were the result of an innate propensity-deplorable in its collateral conse


quences, but withal entitled to the compromising concessions which ascetic virtue owes to the cravings of an impetuous natural instinct. In other words, we palliate a flagrant crime against the physical laws of God, as if Nature herself had lured us to our ruin; the votaries of alcohol plead their ignorance, as if the Providence that warns us against the sting of a tiny insect, and teaches the eye to protect itself against a mote of dust, had provided no adequate safeguards against the greatest danger to health and happiness.

And yet those safeguards would abundantly answer their protective purpose if persistent vice had not almost deadened the faculty of understanding the monitions of our physical conscience. It is true that the stimulant-thirst of the confirmed drunkard far exceeds the urgency of the most impetuous instincts; but by that very excessiveness and persistence the fargone development of the alcohol habit proves what the mode of its incipience establishes beyond the possibility of a doubt-namely, the radical difference of its characteristics from those of a natural appetite. For

1. Under normal circumstances the attractiveness of alimentary substances is proportioned to the degree of their healthfulness and their nutritive value. To the children of Nature all hurtful things are repulsive, all beneficial things attractive. Providence has endowed our species with a liberal share of the protective instinct that teaches our dumb fellowcreatures to select their proper food, and even in this age of far-gone degeneration the dietetic predilections of children and primitive men might furnish the cri

teria of a general food-reform. No creature is misled by an innate craving for unwholesome food, nor by an instinctive aversion to wholesome substances. Our natural repugnance to nearly all kinds of "medicines," i. e., virulent stimulants, has already begun to be recognized as a suggestive illustration of that rule. A child's hankering after sweetmeats is only an apparent exception, for, as Dr. Schrodt observes, the conventional diet of our children is so deficient in saccharine elements that instinct constantly strives to supply an unsatisfied want. Human beings fed chiefly on fruit-syrups would instinctively hanker after farinaceous substances. The savages of our northwestern prairies are as fond of honey as their grizzly neighbors. Nurslings, deprived of their mothers' milk, instinctively appreciate the proper component parts of artificial surrogates. Sailors in the tropics thirst after fruit, after refrigerating fluids, after fresh vegetables. In the arctic seas they crave calorific food— oil or fat.

But in no climate of this earth is man afflicted with an instinctive hankering after alcohol. To the palate of an unseduced boy rum is as repulsive as corrosive sublimate. I do not speak only of the sons of nature-abiding parents, but of the children of vice, left to the guidance of their enfeebled but not intentionally perverted instincts. The intuitive bias even of such is in the direction of total abstinence from all noxious stimulants, for Nature has willed that all her creatures should begin the pilgrimage of life from beyond the point where the roads of purity and vice dvierge. In their projects for the abolition of the

stimulant habit, temperance people are, indeed, rather inclined to underrate the difficulties of a total cure of a confirmed poison-vice, but equally apt to overrate the difficulty of total prevention. The supposed effects of an innate predisposition can generally be traced to the direct influence of a vicious education. Jean Jacques Rousseau expressed. his conviction that a fondness for intoxicating liquors is nearly always contracted in the years of immaturity, when the deference to social precedents is apt to overcome the warnings of instinct; but that those who have escaped or not yielded to the temptations of that period would ever afterward be safe. Dr. Zimmerman, too, admits that "home influences are too often mistaken for hereditary influences." And boy-topers are not always voluntary converts. The year before I left my native town (Brussels) I found a drunken lad on the platform of the railway-depot, and carried him to the house of a medical friend, who put him to bed and turned him over to a policeman the next morning. The little fellow was recognized as an old offender, but when the court was going to send him to a house of correction my friend offered to take him back, and, on condition of keeping him away from his parents, was permitted to take care of him, and finally made him his office-boy. His parents were ascertained to be both habitual drunkards, but their son (aged eleven years) showed no inclination to follow their example, and voluntarily abstained from the light wines which now and then made their appearance on the doctor's table-though he never missed an opportunity to rejoin his old playmates, and, as his patron expressed it,

"was a dangerous deal too smart to be intrusted with the collection of bills." Six months after his last scrape I found him alone in the doctor's office, where he had collected a private library of picture-papers and illustrated almanacs. "What made you get so drunk last Easter?" I asked him; "are you so fond of brandy?

"Nenni, mais pa m'en fit prendre,” he replied— "father made me drink it."

[ocr errors]

2. The instinctive aversion to any kind of poison can be perverted into an unnatural craving after the same substance. Poisons are either repulsive or insipid. Arsenic, sugar-of-lead, and antimony belong to the latter class. To the first-born children of earth certain mineral poisons were decidedly out-of-the-way substances, against which Nature apparently thought it less necessary to provide special safeguards. But, though less repulsive than other poisons, such substances are never positively attractive, and often (like verdigris, potassium, etc.) perceptibly nauseous. Vegetable poisons are either nauseous or intensely bitter. Hasheesh is more unattractive than turpentine. Opium is acrid caustic. Absinthe (wormwood-extract) is as bitter as gall. Instinct resists the incipience of an insidious second nature.

But that instinct is plastic. If the warnings of our physical conscience remain unheeded, if the offensive substance is again and again forced upon the unwilling stomach, Nature at last chooses the alternative of compromising the evil, and, true to her supreme law of preserving existence at any cost, prolongs even a wretched life by adapting the organism to the exi

« PreviousContinue »