Margaret Sanger, "The Vision of George Drysdale," Aug 1923.

Published Article. Source: Birth Control Review, Aug. 1923, 198-201, 210 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm S70:1011 .


The Vision of George Drysdale

By Margaret Sanger

The central point in the new psychology as interpreted by Freud and his disciples is the shifting of this science away from the intellectual to the instinctive; and the derivation of the more complex activities from lower centers, closely akin to those present in other animals than man. This, as we know, represents the tremendous achievement of modern psychological thought. It means the reduction of the mental to psycho-physiological terms. It brings psychology into line with the organic sciences and establishes an actual working relationship between psychology and physiology. Thanks to Freud, we have now a purely naturalistic theory of mental evolution, free from any mixture of the theological, the metaphysical or the supernatural.

George Drysdale sought in 1854--that is nearly 70 years ago--to make the effort to free social science and economics from its traditional metaphysical and political prejudices. He attempted to substitute human values for theoretical ones. Practically fifty years before the publication of Freud's studies (notably the initial one on hysteria), George Drysdale realized that there could be no true development in psychology without a thorough knowledge of sexual instinct in the human race. This emphasis on sexual values is to be found in his consideration of physical and mental health, in his insistence upon a true feminism and his transference of social values from the remote and problematical future into the health and joy of living individuals.

Drysdale insisted upon the unity of body and mind, the identity of matter and spirit. Truly there is nothing new in the idea of the healthy mind and the healthy body; but with his peculiar and original presentation, George Drysdale revivifies this old truth and suggests the modern theories of Cannon and Crile. He did this by beginning with a plea for reverence for the human body. Practically all the sufferings of mankind, he thought, were derived from lack of reverence for the human body; mystical religions and superstitions and especially the dogmas of the Christian Church kill all human reverence for physical laws. Our life in this world was looked upon as a vale of tears, and it was useless to cherish aspirations after physical excellence. Beauty of form, that imperishable source of joy and stamp of nobility, seemed to Drysdale, under the cruel yoke of the Church, to have perished from Occidental civilization. But he held this to be one of the most glorious ideals to be perpetuated through successive generations, to be worshiped as an object for our reverence and constant endeavor. He did not look upon physical beauty from the Christian point of view, as a dangerous gift which might mislead men from the path of virtue. He thought that men had become obsessed by the intellect. Physical strength had been held in such slight estimation by those who cultivated the intellect that the race was gradually deteriorating.

This young man who said all he had to say in his twenties, this anonymous genius, looked upon bodily health as the proof of a virtuous physical life. Realizing that our bodily and mental interests are inseparably bound together and that no part of us can rise or fall without influencing the entire mental and physical organism, he nevertheless insisted that the first essential was a sound body. He claimed that our body cannot be diseased without our mind becoming so likewise. Physical evil induces moral evil. The conduct of our physical life is just as difficult as that of our moral one. To live a virtuous physical life deserves as great admiration and praise as to live a moral one. It is the basis of the only true ethics. The body is just as high an aim in man as the spirit. "If you do not wish to live a physical virtuous, that is a healthy life, you are an immoral being; if you do, there is but one way to do it--study the laws of health and obey them. Physical virtue is as lofty an aim for man as moral virtue, and no man can be called good who does not combine and aspire equally after both."

"The Elements of Social Science" circulated in many editions in the sixties and seventies, yet it is almost impossible to find any reference to it in Victorian literature. Nevertheless, when we read such remarks as these, it is impossible not to believe that Samuel Butler had absorbed some of Drysdale's wisdom as the basis of his "Erewhon." This thought comes to us especially when we discover such things as this in Drysdale's book: "To break the physical law is just as culpable as to break a moral one, and therefore all physical diseases must be regarded as sin, and as little in the one case as in the other can ignorance be received as an excuse." Or when he says, "No man whose body is diseased, whether hereditarily or individually, can be regarded as a virtuous being."

George Drysdale based his whole argument for Birth Control upon thorough knowledge and reverence for our bodies and our biological instincts. Yet he realized that physical strength and development implies as well mental strength and development. Beauty of form, physical strength and activity as well as health, he reiterated throughout this remarkable book, should be sought after and valued no less than beauty and power of mind. Is the development of the brain to be the supreme object of man's aspirations? A fuller wisdom will show us, Drysdale answers, that we must value equally all our parts, since no one can thrive alone. Ugliness and bodily imperfection and deformity are always marks of sin. This may be racial sin or eugenic crime, for morality is not limited to the individual. Imperfection and deformity are the surest signs that error has been committed, by some one, somewhere. Drysdale realized, on the other hand, that there is no royal road to health, and that health is not obtained by pouring medicine down the throat. This is as true for spiritual health as for physical.

Sexual science for Drysdale becomes the key to the door through which humanity must pass to attain mental and physical health, self-reliance, freedom and independence. There have been few things in the past from which humanity has suffered more than from the degrading, irreverent feelings of mystery and shame that have been attached to the generative and excretory organs. The former have been regarded, he tells us, like their corresponding mental passions, as something of lower and baser nature, tending to degrade man by their physical appetites. But again and again he tells us that we cannot take a debasing view of any part of our own humanity without becoming degraded in our whole being. He declares that it would be hard to enumerate all evils that have flowed from this unhappy view of our physical functions. Physical functions and influences partake of true beauty to this understanding. Most of our miseries, he declares, have been due to the neglect of their health and disease, while their misfortunes have called forth sneers and reproaches rather than that vision, pity and aid which should wait upon all error, physical as well as moral. "Before the calm eyes of nature, flimsy veils of morbid modesty and shame vanish like a dream, and when she demands penalty for broken laws, such excuses die away on the lip of the offender."

Reverence, especially physical reverence, is our great need. Surely these words are as true today as they were in that far-off Victorian age. It is this lack of physical reverence, Drysdale insists, that degrades men in their various pursuits. It is this lack of reverence for all of human and physical activity that makes us look down upon one phase of human endeavor and up to some pursuit which possesses no great dignity.

One is led to the belief, in delving into this mine of fertile suggestions and psychology, that Drysdale, writing this book in the very gold of youth and mental vigor, was singularly free from the inhibitions and mental prejudices of his period. One is again and again amazed at his curious and almost inexplicable modernity. The socialism of William Morris and his followers has today a curiously Victorian taint. The Utopias of the nineteenth century surprise us with their tinge of mental provincialism; instead of truly picturing any society of the future, they are usually curiously like the society in which other authors have lived. Few minds can project themselves out of their environment either temporally or socially. Bernard Shaw speaks of the "future-piercing" quality in the work of Samuel Butler. It is this quality we find in much purer form in the singular book of George Drysdale's. Reacting violently and vigorously from the narrow Puritanism of the social conventions of Scotland, Drysdale's mind had not been warped or prisoned by the mental and social prejudices of the eighteen-fifties. As he expressed himself in this book, he is singularly free from unconscious fears and suppressions. It is surprising, in the years following the publication of the "Elements of Social Science," in those years of theoretical discussion and Darwinian controversy, in those years of the gradual crystallization of humanitarian and social thought, in those years of the rise of the new "Science," that this book should apparently have made so little impression. Had they followed Ibsen and Nietzsche or Freud, the ideas of Drysdale might not be so worthy of attention, but in considering them, we should remember always that this book was published in 1854, when psychology, with all its new and revolutionary ideas, was hardly dreamed of.

The elasticity of Drysdale's mind is strikingly illustrated in his avoidance of all those threadbare clichés that creep into the writings of much more pretentious figures. In the well-balanced mind, he knows that destructive and skeptical workings must keep pace with constructive ones. Progress is not essentially a matter of the "constructive," as we are being told over and over again. Skepticism or destructiveness is likewise a great and beneficent power, which nature has given to enable us ever to preserve over the sense of infinity. "The weapons of destruction will be to those who reverence and learn to use them most powerful for the service of mankind. Skepticism and all the destructive forces are not toys for the young mind to play with, until it obtains a settled faith--but glorious privileges to be carried with us and constantly exercised for knowledge and experiment throughout life, acting in continual harmony with the constructive powers." Practically seventy years before our modern psycho-analysts, Drysdale pointed out the devastating and withering blight of mental fear upon human and social development. He realized, as well as any of us today, that fear in one sphere of human activity can poison every other sphere. Freedom in any one sphere of mental activity is dependent upon freedom in all. Under the restrictions of Christian theology and sentimental romanticism, he asserted, the mind as well as the body had deteriorated in vigor and energy. A morbid effeminacy pervaded all the moral atmosphere of the nineteenth century. "There is a want of healthy enjoyment of life, as must always be the case when the natural pleasures of the senses are disparaged, a want of self-reliance, of mental vigor, courage, in the mental character of all of us." He protested against the pervading timidity in declaring real convictions in the most important matters, especially on sexual love, which was, in that age, the most interdicted subject. "A sort of doleful spiritual whine meets our ear on every side, as if man, the mightiest and most glorious of nature's presents exists only on sufferance, and were too vile to deserve anything but sorrow and humility."

Have we made much real advance in this respect? Today, as in 1854, fear of the opinion of others is one of the most prevalent of all evils among us. This fear, as Drysdale pointed out, is perhaps more destructive than any other to sincerity and honesty of character. Today, as when they were first written by this forgotten pioneer, these words have lost none of their bitter truth: "we are afraid of departing from the beaten track of conventionalism for fear of encouraging the odium of our neighbours. How unlike is this to the manliness and self-reliance of those who have dared death and torture rather than disguise their principles."

Sorrow, self-abasement, irresolution, despondency or despair, which were the prominent marks of those early Victorian poets and writers, were ample evidence for Drysdale of a diseased state of society, especially when he compared them with the manly vigor and health, and pagan enjoyment of life which characterize the authors of the Elizabethan age. The great necessity for the mind as well as the body, he reiterated, is not piety, nor tenderness, nor humility, nor spiritual fervor, but self-reliance, energy and active enjoyment of life.

George Drysdale was one of the few idealists of his period who was not a victim to the illusion of progress so fallaciously drawn from the Darwinian hypothesis. Courageous optimist as he was, fired with the sublime vison of a healthy and expressive humanity, nevertheless he declared that there had been as yet no real progress in human society. In the first place, the long Calvary of the human race had been the unending fight against mental and physical starvation. In the second place, all individual happiness had been built upon the misery of others. He compared mankind to a forest of trees too thickly planted. All needs must suffer more or less, but the more robust struggle upward, and in so doing destroy their weaker neighbors. Any of us who have greater talents or energies, more robust minds or bodies, who are born in more comfortable circumstances, struggle on to the possession of all the contested blessings of life, and in so doing we destroy those who are weaker. We have not yet outgrown the age of mutual destruction. Our feeble and futile struggles against overpopulation, all our charities, our philanthropies, our campaigns against epidemics and famines, most of our efforts are submerged in a constantly rising flood of superfluous humanity. To George Drysdale, morality, medicine, religion, law, politics, are all solemn farces played before the eyes of men, imposing, pompous and dazzling ceremonies, serving but to divert attention from the awful tragedies behind the scenes. He was absolutely certain that unless we attain some other solution of this great social problem, world society must forever continue as it has ever been, a confusion of wrongs and misery. He knew that to the poor the progress of mankind is a hollow lie. He declared that prosperity was based upon their toil, their sufferings, their ruin, "the self-congratulations of the more fortunate part of mankind on the vast progress of civilization are a constant insult to the poor and suffering and are as foundationless as they are unfeeling. The least we can do to those suffering from the want of food, love and leisure, is not to insult their misery by vain boasts of the advances of human happiness." Readers of Dean Inge's recent Romanes address on the "Idea of Progress" and Mr. Bury's essay on the same subject, may see that Drysdale expressed similar ideas about seventy years ago.

Another suggestive idea put forward by Drysdale was in pointing out that the loudest supporters of our present system and the most persistent opponents of the idea of Birth Control are in general the most deeply ignorant on sexual matters and on the nature and laws of the sexual organs. Such people, he asserted, are most deeply infected with mental fear and that morbid delicacy which absolutely unfits anyone from handling these questions with profit. "They trust blindly to authority for the rules they blindly lay down, perfectly unaware of the awful and complicated nature of the subject they are dealing with so confidently, and of the horrible evils their unconsidered statements are attended with. They themselves break through the most fundamentally important moral laws daily in utter unconsciousness of the misery they are causing to their fellows. The clergy among us are noted for the large size of their families"--seventy years has marked a change in this respect!--"whereas the Roman Catholic clergy who err as much on the other side by the great natural sin of celibacy are usually the men who are to expound to us the natural laws of sexual morality. It is not from want of will, for the zeal and devotion of many of their members in the service of mankind is beyond all praise; but from want of knowledge."

In another way he preceded the technique of modern psycho-analysis. This was in pointing out the dangers and the menace of sexual repression and inhibition in the creation of "complexes" and psychic compulsions as the basis of "neuroses" and "psychoses." In his time, as in our own, sexual disgust was the surest evidence of that morbidity which enters as a peculiar element in our judgements upon all sexual matters. The sexual inhibition blinds and binds us, he pointed out, and deprives us of the charity and moderation we should possess on other subjects as well. He saw thus that the misery of all sexual sufferers was doubled. He saw that these victims had to endure, not only the natural burden of their disease, but also the unnatural disgust attaching to them. He saw these inhibitions constantly poisoning all relations between the sexes, creating impotence, perverting sentiments and diminishing enjoyment both in married and unmarried life. This morbidity, he pointed out, was the cause of much bitterness and destruction of the pleasures of others. Even more than religious injuries, sexual disgust, he pointed out, has made men take contemptuous and abhorrent views of their fellow creatures. Those today who are trying to fight and prevent the spread of the great venereal plagues, and who are trying to educate the rising generation in sex and social hygiene, might well go back to Drysdale for the deepest and most concise statement of their problem, especially when he says: "Verily the generative organs have been amply revenged for the neglect and irreverence with which they have been treated."

Again and again our great pioneer warns us that it is impossible for us to attain a calm and earnest investigation of the real facts of any problem until we free ourselves from sexual prejudices which are so violent and vehement in every country. He directs our attention to the state of sex woes today, when the fearful amount of prostitution and venereal disease are the most crying signals of social shipwreck. When we try to break through the impenetrable ignorance which surrounds the subject, when we try rationally to meet all the headlong and emotional sentimentality which confronts any calm discussion of a sexual nature, we must admit that there must be some great error somewhere which accounts for so much misery. Today, as in Drysdale's day, love, instead of being one of the sweetest blessings of life, seems, indeed, rather to be a curse, to such immoral evils and misery does it give rise. Drysdale directs us to review our code of sexual morality, to try it by the grand touchstone of science. He finds it a chaos of theories on which no two persons are agreed, and in which human nature itself has been almost entirely left out of sight, with authority and blind prejudice stepping in to take its place. In all the legislation, all the statutes, all the efforts which have been made to frame the codes restricting or eradicating this phase of human life, Drysdale declares that physical as well as mental health has been absolutely disregarded. The ground is strewn with the victims of our sex codes. Our morality, the inheritance of centuries in which man thought in theoretical, metaphysical and religious terms, is now morbid, suitable neither to our convictions nor to our mode of living.

Drysdale was one of the first to tell us that in the solution of social problems and social difficulties, in the reconstruction or recreation of the society of the future, we must learn to consider the infinite importance of the fate of every single individual. We do not live and die for ourselves alone, but everyone is a part of the whole of humanity, and if we could understand all the wants and requirements of our own being, we would understand those of all mankind. We are all too ready to sacrifice the interests of the individual for what is falsely called the general good. No good can be done which does not include the good of every being in the universe. The real interest of every individual will invariably be found, if we search deeply and patiently enough, to be inseparably bound up with those of all mankind.

In this day of the enactment and enforcement of every type of restrictive legislation, in the tremendous increase of the power of separate individuals over ever-increasing masses of humanity, in the religious, political and industrial fields, the argument is always put forward that certain individuals must suffer for the good of the whole. Drysdale must have foreseen the advent of this unhappy day, because some of his most impressive words bear upon this subject. "If by sacrifice, we mean the happiness of any individual," he asks, "which of us is safe? Are we not all individuals and essentially implicated in every question which involves the rights and duties of any human being? Every single case of disease is of infinite importance to one individual, viz., to the sufferer, but of no less real importance to us as also individuals liable ourselves and our children and others to the same evils. The old ideas and theories must fall if these unjustly stand in the way of his cure."


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Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project


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