Eugenics Yesterday and Today (4): Historical Constants

June 17, 2020
Ideal view of the Acropolis and the Areopagus in Athens, by Leo von Klenze (1846).

It is now possible, having described its practices, to describe the characteristics of pre-Christian eugenics. Human nature being the same everywhere and at all times, it is not surprising to note the relationship of historical eugenics with the aberrations (re) appearing in modern times.

The Omnipotence of the State

It is a constant of the ancient civilizations: eugenics in all its amplitude appeared and could develop only within the framework of an omnipotent State where individual freedom was nonexistent.

The historian Fustel de Coulanges drew up an exact picture: “The city had been founded upon a religion, and constituted like a church. Hence its strength; hence, also, its omnipotence and the absolute control which it exercised over its members. In a society established on such principles, individual liberty could not exist. The citizen was subordinate in everything, and without any reserve, to the city; he belonged to it body and soul… There was nothing independent in man; his body belonged to the state and was devoted to its defense... His fortune was always at the disposal of the state.”

“Private life did not escape this omnipotence of the state. The Athenian law, in the name of religion, forbade man to remain single. Sparta punished not only those who remained single, but those who married late… The state was under no obligation to suffer any of its citizens to be deformed. It therefore commanded a father to whom such a son was born, to have him put to death. This law is found in the ancient codes of Sparta and of Rome.”

“The ancients, therefore, knew neither liberty in private life, liberty in education, nor religious liberty. The human person counted for very little against that holy and almost divine authority which was called country or the state. The dangerous maxim that the safety of the state is the supreme law, was the work of antiquity. It was then thought that law, justice, morals, everything should give way before the interests of the country” (Cicero, On the Laws, Book III).

From this conception were to flow different types of population regulation.

Quantitative Regulation

State regulation of the population is mainly the work of Greek cities. For political, economic or purely eugenic reasons, these cities gave themselves up to a draconian limitation of births. They are the ones who really invented “zero growth” that the moderns would take over. It was the law established by Lycurgus and it is the ideal advocated by Plato and Aristotle.

Gustave Glotz, a historian of ancient Greece, gave the reason for such behavior: “They thought they were obeying an inevitable necessity. The soil of Greece did not seem capable of feeding one man more than it did. From the remotest antiquity and until the Roman conquest, the cities and the Greek villages, tight against each other in small States, packed on a not very fertile territory, were too narrow and too poor for a too dense population. The indefinite excess of births over deaths, complicated by the ever increasing arrivals of barbarian slaves, the unlimited multiplication of mouths to feed in a country where annual crops and acquired wealth were very limited: this is the evil against which Greece always had to struggle. She was fighting, always fighting against population growth, when she realized one day that she has been deserted.”

The Birth Rate

Such a policy can only lead to depopulation. This is attested by contemporaries like Polybius: “ If, then, anyone had advised our sending to ask the gods in regard to this, what we were to do or say in order to become more numerous and better fill our cities,—would he not have seemed a futile person, when the cause was manifest and the cure in our own hands?”

“Our men have become perverted to a passion for show and money and the pleasures of an idle life, and accordingly either not marrying at all, or, if they did marry, refusing to rear the children that were born, or at most one or two out of a great number, for the sake of leaving them well off or bringing them up in extravagant luxury. For this evil grew upon us rapidly, and without attracting attention.”

“For when there are only one or two sons, it is evident that, if war or pestilence carries off one, the houses must be left heirless: and, like swarms of bees, little by little the cities become sparsely inhabited and weak. On this subject there is no need to ask the gods how we are to be relieved from such a curse: for any one in the world will tell you that it is by the men themselves if possible changing their objects of ambition; or, if that cannot be done, by passing laws for the preservation of infants” (Polybius’ Histories, Book 37).

There were salutary reactions, but they were too late. Fernand Auburtin, who devoted himself to practical studies of the social economy, reports some attempts at “natalist politics”: “The sources of life having dried up, the state found itself powerless and disarmed. Lacedemonian legislation, returning to this culpable and fatal error, exempted the father of three children from military service and the father of four children from all taxes. These measures came too late to react usefully against ingrained habits. Sparta, according to Xenophon, had fallen, by the number of its inhabitants, to the last rank of the cities of Greece. In one hundred and fifty years, from 480 to 330 BC, it had lost seven eighths of its population. Around this last period, Aristotle wrote: “This country, capable of supplying 1,500 horsemen and 30,000 hoplites [foot soldiers], has barely a thousand fighters. Also, the state could not bear a single setback, and it was the scarcity of men that killed it.”

“Finally, the evil had reached such a point in the second century of the Christian era that the whole of Greece, according to Plutarch, could not have raised 3,000 hoplites, an amount equal to what the city of Megara alone had previously sent to the Battle of Plataea.”

This evil also reached Rome, despite the policy for growth which it had implemented: “Rome had always encouraged large families. But as the spoils of the vanquished nations flowed into Rome, morals became corrupt; having become the capital of the world, she no longer saw any enemies to fear. She made slaves work her lands, and felt less and less of a need to have sons to defend her. Old Cato already advised the proprietor not to scatter his fortune. This maxim was only too well followed. The considerable number of singles and the constantly increasing number of divorces led to a decrease in the population which two censuses reveal to us: one which took place in the year 594 of Rome (159 BC); the other, the year 622 (131 BC). In this generation gap, the number of citizens—the only ones counted by the census, excluding women, children, emancipated, and slaves—had fallen from 338,000 to 318,000.”

Qualitative Regulation

Another type of regulation concerns the progress of the race, which presupposes the separation into different classes or castes, which not only includes the distinction between masters and slaves, but a separation between superior and inferior citizens. They viewed it as necessary to ensure the sustainability of the best and let inferior men disappear by not raising their children. According to Plato, this measure must be hidden: “and all this must be brought about without being noticed by anyone except the rulers, so that our herd of guardians remains as free from dissension as possible” (Plato’s Republic, V, 459e).

This principle leads to an elitism intended to maintain the purity or the improvement of the race by assuring the support of the best parents. It promotes the elimination of the abnormal or inferior child, and promotes possible improvement in trying to obtain superior men. He tends to consider man as any animal when it comes to reproduction, and to completely despise human life when it does not fall within defined standards and prescribed canons.

Thus testifies Plutarch: “the laws of other nations seemed to him (Lycurgus) very absurd and inconsistent, where people would be so solicitous for their dogs and horses as to exert interest and to pay money to procure fine breeding, and yet kept their wives shut up, to be made mothers only by themselves, who might be foolish, infirm, or diseased” (Lives: Lycurgus). Plato uses the same reasoning. (op.cit. 459a)

Procreation as a Social Function

A direct consequence of the omnipotence of the state, procreation is the subject of positive eugenics laws. Because if begetting children amounts to giving them to the State, it would be normal for the latter to be able to legislate on everything related to this function, from the quality of people to the season of unions by way of the age for procreation, the number of children, the organization of marriages, of pregnancy, etc. It justifies negative eugenics: since the citizen only uses the procreative function to provide other citizens to the city, it is granted the right to select these as it pleases and to reject those which, according to it, will be of no use.

In addition, the state may, without directly imposing the murder of the children, act in such a way that the parents are pushed into it. For example, Plato suggests that by not helping parents to raise children considered to be superfluous, or even devaluing a too fertile motherhood in the eyes of the masses. This was the case in Rome at the beginning of its decline.

This picture of pagan societies allows us to take the measure of eugenics before Christianity came to restore the mores of fallen humanity. Compared to our time, it allows us to verify the word of Ecclesiastes: “Nothing under the sun is new” (1:10).  Men, when they reject revelation, always fall into the same mistakes and the worst excesses.