Story type: Essay
“Alas, how easily things go wrong!” says Dr. George MacDonald. And all the world over, when things do go wrong, the natural and instinctive desire of the human animal is–to find a scapegoat. When the great French nation in the lump embarks its capital in a hopeless scheme for cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, and then finds out too late that Nature has imposed insuperable barriers to its completion on the projected scale–what does the great French nation do, in its collective wisdom, but turn round at once to rend the directors? It cries, “A Mazas!” just as in ’71 it cried “Bazaine a la lanterne!” I don’t mean to say the directors don’t deserve all they have got or ever will get, and perhaps more also; I don’t mean to deny corruption extraordinary in many high places; as a rule the worst that anybody alleges about anything is only a part of what might easily be alleged if we were all in the secret. Which of us, indeed, would ‘scape whipping? But what I do mean is, that we should never have heard of Reinach or Herz, of the corruption and peculation, at all if things had gone well. It is the crash that brought them out. The nation wants a scapegoat. “Ain’t nobody to be whopped for this ‘ere?” asked Mr. Sam Weller on a critical occasion. The question embodies the universal impulse of humanity.
Tracing the feeling back to its origin, it seems due to this: minds of the lower order can never see anything go wrong without experiencing a certain sense of resentment; and resentment, by its very nature, desires to vent itself upon some living and sentient creature, by preference a fellow human being. When the child, running too fast, falls and hurts itself, it gets instantly angry. “Naughty ground to hurt baby!” says the nurse: “Baby hit it and hurt it.” And baby promptly hits it back, with vicious little fist, feeling every desire to revenge itself. By-and-by, when baby grows older and learns that the ground can’t feel to speak of, he wants to put the blame upon somebody else, in order to have an object to expend his rage upon. “You pushed me down!” he says to his playmate, and straightway proceeds to punch his playmate’s head for it–not because he really believes the playmate did it, but because he feels he must have some outlet for his resentment. When once resentment is roused, it will expend its force on anything that turns up handy, as the man who has quarrelled with his wife about a question of a bonnet, will kick his dog for trying to follow him to the club as he leaves her.
The mob, enraged at the death of Caesar, meets Cinna the poet in the streets of Rome. “Your name, sir?” inquires the Third Citizen. “Truly, my name is Cinna,” says the unsuspecting author. “Tear him to pieces!” cries the mob; “he’s a conspirator!” “I am Cinna the poet,” pleads the unhappy man; “I am not Cinna the conspirator!” But the mob does not heed such delicate distinctions at such a moment. “Tear him for his bad verses!” it cries impartially. “Tear him for his bad verses!”
Whatever sort of misfortune falls upon persons of the lower order of intelligence is always met in the same spirit. Especially is this the case with the deaths of relatives. Fools who have lost a friend invariably blame somebody for his fatal illness. To hear many people talk, you would suppose they were unaware of the familiar proposition that all men are mortal (including women); you might imagine they thought an ordinary human constitution was calculated to survive nine hundred and ninety-nine years unless some evil-disposed person or persons took the trouble beforehand to waylay and destroy it. “My poor father was eighty-seven when he died; and he would have been alive still if it weren’t for that nasty Mrs. Jones: she put him into a pair of damp sheets.” Or, “My husband would never have caught the cold that killed him, if that horrid man Brown hadn’t kept him waiting so long in the carriage at the street corner.” The doctor has to bear the brunt of most such complaints; indeed, it is calculated by an eminent statistician (who desires his name to remain unpublished) that eighty-three per cent. of the deaths in Great Britain might easily have been averted if the patient had only been treated in various distinct ways by all the members of his family, and if that foolish Dr. Squills hadn’t so grossly mistaken and mistreated his malady.
The fact is, the death is regarded as a misfortune, and somebody must be blamed for it. Heaven has provided scapegoats. The doctor and the hostile female members of the family are always there–laid on, as it were, for the express purpose.
With us in modern Europe, resentment in such cases seldom goes further than vague verbal outbursts of temper. We accuse Mrs. Jones of misdemeanours with damp sheets; but we don’t get so far as to accuse her of tricks with strychnine. In the Middle Ages, however, the pursuit of the scapegoat ran a vast deal further. When any great one died–a Black Prince or a Dauphin–it was always assumed on all hands that he must have been poisoned. True, poisoning may then have been a trifle more frequent; certainly the means of detecting it were far less advanced than in the days of Tidy and Lauder Brunton. Still, people must often have died natural deaths even in the Middle Ages–though nobody believed it. All the world began to speculate what Jane Shore could have poisoned them. A little earlier, again, it was not the poisoner that was looked for, but his predecessor, the sorcerer. Whoever fell ill, somebody had bewitched him. Were the cattle diseased? Then search for the evil eye. Did the cows yield no milk? Some neighbour, doubtless, knew the reason only too well, and could be forced to confess it by liberal use of the thumb-screw and the ducking-stool. No misfortune was regarded as due to natural causes; for in their philosophy there were no such things as natural causes at all; whatever ill-luck came, somebody had contrived it; so you had always your scapegoat ready to hand to punish. The Athenians, indeed, kept a small collection of public scapegoats always in stock, waiting to be sacrificed at a moment’s notice.
More even than that. Go one step further back, and you will find that man in his early stages has no conception of such a thing as natural death in any form. He doesn’t really know that the human organism is wound up like a clock to run at best for so many years, or months, or hours, and that even if nothing unexpected happens to cut short its course prematurely, it can only run out its allotted period. Within his own experience, almost all the deaths that occur are violent deaths, and have been brought about by human agency or by the attacks of wild beasts. There you have a cause with whose action and operation the savage is personally familiar; and it is the only one he believes in. Even old age is in his eyes no direct cause of death; for when his relations grow old, he considerately clubs them, to put them out of their misery. When, therefore, he sees his neighbour struck down before his face by some invisible power, and writhing with pain as though unseen snakes and tigers were rending him, what should he naturally conclude save that demon or witch or wizard is at work? and if he cares about the matter at all, what should he do save endeavour to find the culprit out and inflict condign punishment? In savage states, whenever anything untoward happens to the king or chief, it is the business of the witch-finder to disclose the wrong-doer; and sooner or later, you may be sure, “somebody gets whopped for it.” Whopping in Dahomey means wholesale decapitation.
Now, is it not a direct survival from this primitive state of mind that entails upon us all the desire to find a scapegoat? Our ancestors really believed there was always somebody to blame–man, witch, or spirit–if only you could find him; and though we ourselves have mostly got beyond that stage, yet the habit it engendered in our race remains ingrained in the nervous system, so that none but a few of the naturally highest and most civilised dispositions have really outgrown it. Most people still think there is somebody to blame for every human misfortune. “Who fills the butcher’s shops with large blue flies?” asked the poet of the Regency. He set it down to “the Corsican ogre.” For the Tory Englishmen of the present day it is Mr. Gladstone who is most often and most popularly envisaged as the author of all evil. For the Pope, it is the Freemasons. There are just a few men here and there in the world who can see that when misfortunes come, circumstances, or nature, or (hardest of all) we ourselves have brought them. The common human instinct is still to get into a rage, and look round to discover whether there’s any other fellow standing about unobserved, whose head we can safely undertake to punch for it.
“It’s all the fault of those confounded paid agitators.”