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KWAIDAN: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Lafcadio Hearn) online

Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan


By digging in the neighborhood of the pillar, he soon found a number of large jars full of gold coin. The discovery of this treasure made him a very rich man.

Afterwards he often tried to listen to the conversation of Ants. But he was never again able to hear them speak. The ointment of the goddess had opened his ears to their mysterious language for only a single day.


Now I, like that Chinese devotee, must confess myself a very ignorant person, and naturally unable to hear the conversation of Ants. But the Fairy of Science sometimes touches my ears and eyes with her wand; and then, for a little time, I am able to hear things inaudible, and to perceive things imperceptible.


For the same reason that it is considered wicked, in sundry circles, to speak of a non-Christian people having produced a civilization ethically superior to our own, certain persons will not be pleased by what I am going to say about ants. But there are men, incomparably wiser than I can ever hope to be, who think about insects and civilizations independently of the blessings of Christianity; and I find encouragement in the new Cambridge Natural History, which contains the following remarks by Professor David Sharp, concerning ants:--

"Observation has revealed the most remarkable phenomena in the lives of these insects. Indeed we can scarcely avoid the conclusion that they have acquired, in many respects, the art of living together in societies more perfectly than our own species has; and that they have anticipated us in the acquisition of some of the industries and arts that greatly facilitate social life."

I suppose that a few well-informed persons will dispute this plain statement by a trained specialist. The contemporary man of science is not apt to become sentimental about ants or bees; but he will not hesitate to acknowledge that, in regard to social evolution, these insects appear to have advanced "beyond man." Mr. Herbert Spencer, whom nobody will charge with romantic tendencies, goes considerably further than Professor Sharp; showing us that ants are, in a very real sense, ethically as well as economically in advance of humanity,-- their lives being entirely devoted to altruistic ends. Indeed, Professor Sharp somewhat needlessly qualifies his praise of the ant with this cautious observation:--

"The competence of the ant is not like that of man. It is devoted to the welfare of the species rather than to that of the individual, which is, as it were, sacrificed or specialized for the benefit of the community."

-- The obvious implication,-- that any social state, in which the improvement of the individual is sacrificed to the common welfare, leaves much to be desired,-- is probably correct, from the actual human standpoint. For man is yet imperfectly evolved; and human society has much to gain from his further individualization. But in regard to social insects the implied criticism is open to question. "The improvement of the individual," says Herbert Spencer, "consists in the better fitting of him for social cooperation; and this, being conducive to social prosperity, is conducive to the maintenance of the race." In other words, the value of the individual can be only in relation to the society; and this granted, whether the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of that society be good or evil must depend upon what the society might gain or lose through a further individualization of its members... But as we shall presently see, the conditions of ant-society that most deserve our attention are the ethical conditions; and these are beyond human criticism, since they realize that ideal of moral evolution described by Mr. Spencer as "a state in which egoism and altruism are so conciliated that the one merges into the other." That is to say, a state in which the only possible pleasure is the pleasure of unselfish action. Or, again to quote Mr. Spencer, the activities of the insect-society are "activities which postpone individual well-being so completely to the well-being of the community that individual life appears to be attended to only just so far as is necessary to make possible due attention to social life,... the individual taking only just such food and just such rest as are needful to maintain its vigor."

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