Many who read CM’s earlier volumes and then come to volume 6 note the more subdued tone. In the earlier books she at times makes me very uncomfortable with her almost Messianic view of education and its role in improving the entire human race, generation after generation.
The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke, fills in some background information on this very topic. To sum up what he said: Darwin popularized the belief that history is a series of advances as life progresses from less to more perfect. Victorians in general swooped down on this idea and made it their own. This is what contributed, too, to the incredible interest Victorians had in nature. Nature study was all the rage- this book reproduces a cartoon published in Victorian England: a large group of people are walking along the heath, all of them head down, bottoms up, as they explore=). Since the Victorians picked up on the idea that all of history is this series of advances from less to more perfect, they were indeed incredibly optimistic about the future.
But in Germany, these ideas had other consequences. Hegel picked up the idea and utilized it to ‘prove’ that Germany had produced the greatest men in history because of her superiority (survival of the fittest). Then a naturalist named Haekel took these ideas and fused them into what would later become the backbone of Nazi thought, the twin ideas of Aryan racial superiority and aggression as part of the natural order of things. Fierce and furious competition for survival was simply the way the world worked, including the political world.
Haekel issued a book of his ideas in 1899. The Riddle of the Universe was an immediate best-seller; evoking Germany’s pagan past, the fatherland, and the result of Darwinian struggle for survival being the inevitability of struggle between peoples. In 1906 he founded the Monist league, which united eugenicists, biologists, theolgians, literary figures and politicians and sociologists (and, incidentally, borrowed liberally from the eugenics movement in America). Since the German intellectuals and leaders were so taken with the idea that _nations_ as well as species are in a constant struggle for survival, it followed that they viewed all other nations as aggressive and other national acts as hostile towards herself, and that she was not adverse to war- viewing it as simply part of the natural order of things in a country’s necessary fight for supremacy. It’s interesting looking at the two different directions taken by two groups, both of whom accepted some part of Darwin’s theories. Ideas do have consequences, but on the other hand, an idea is not responsible for those who believe in it. Doesn’t it seem like a good example of CM’s principle about reason not being an infallible guide?
Germany’s ‘take’ on the ideas initially publicized by one of her own sons was quite a shock to the Britons, in more ways than one.