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A.O. Kime Articles:

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The 19th Century and the Evolution of Thought

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Endearing the mentality of the 19th century

(5th edition [re-edit] - Feb 2014) by A.O. Kime
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There is evidence that the mind-set, and thus the thought processes, of humans evolve... a different mentality seems to have existed between centuries. At least this seems apparent in western civilizations. During the 19th century, and especially during the American Civil War (1861-1865), people viewed things differently than they do today.

Note: There are two ways to look at the prevailing mentality of a given century… one can either focus on the differences between centuries or focus on the amount of thinking that goes unchanged as does the article Merry-go-round of logic. Both have an interesting story to tell.

While most people probably already assumed these differences existed, they may not realize the extent... or what these differences mean. However I'm limited to speaking of western cultures only and the Caucasian mind mainly, I can't say what might have changed within other races. I can't say, for example, how the Chinese view things today versus a time in their past. I am not intimate with their culture nor, say, of the Arabs. Likewise I have no idea of the South American mind or that of the Africans... and people from Bangladesh may still think like their ancestors, but I don't know. I can only speak of western cultures generally but of the Americans, I can specifically.

With some researching effort, one can recognize the different attitudes within each century, each unique, chronicled at least as far as Herodotus (the first ‘historian'—circa 450 BC). Actually though, this might only give one a rough idea. To get the truest picture, someone really needs to belong to the culture they are researching. For example, someone from Tibet could never prepare an accurate essay on the Polynesians. At any rate, for comparison purposes, clues exist about attitudes during the reign of King Edward, under Louis XVI in France or perhaps even during the siege of Troy as depicted by Homer. Poignantly, even cave-art reveals clues as to the mentality of cavemen. The pictures they drew reflect their thoughts. However, this article is more about the differences between the 19th and 20th centuries in America.

Treasured books

Since there were relatively fewer books published during the 19th century than the 20th, it might seem to explain why books held so much value back then. Throwing a book away was once thought an unthinkable act. Actually, there was a greater reason books were so treasured during the 19th century… most of them were exceptional, better than those of today, more insightful, more profound and generally excelled in literary quality. Unlike today, they weren’t subjected to being hacked to pieces by a publisher for sales purposes, nor were they under the auspices of political correctness, nor were they written by conformists… conformism and plastic attitudes weren’t prevalent during the 19th century. Even their scientific books were marvelous, although now obviously out-of-date. They were as a scientific book should be... written so even laymen could understand.

Around the world there were great novels written during the 19th century… War and Peace by Tolstoy (1865); Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1862); Vanity Fair by Thackeray (1847); The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane (1895), Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) are just a few examples... and of course there was also Charles Dickens, Henry Beers, R.C. Jebb and Charles Darwin. So, if you really want to be amazed, or enlightened, or entertained… read a book published in the 19th century when wit and intellectuals were commonplace.

Equally moving was the extent of 'formal courtesy' during the 19th century, clearly evident in the archives. I’ve witnessed this myself in reading a letter my great-great Grandfather wrote my great-great Grandmother (his wife) during the Civil War which began “Dear Mrs. Braxton”. It wasn’t colloquially “hi honey” or anything like that. How mannerisms have changed too.

Interestingly, there were also a few differences in the English language. For example, ‘tomorrow’ was spelled ‘to-morrow’ (or ‘morrow’), ‘today’ was ‘to-day’ and ‘clue’ was ‘clew’. Also, like the Canadians and British still do, the use of the letter ‘u’ in several words was commonplace (colour, labour, etc.) Of course, the Americans later dropped it... perhaps as another parting shot at the British.

The Civil War and Who Goes There?

While there were dozens of notable books written about the Civil War during the latter part of the 19th century, one in particular was Who Goes There? by B.K. Benson although it wasn’t published until 1901. Nonetheless, perhaps it highlights the biggest difference… the willingness to express one’s intimate political views. Taking nothing for granted and reassessing everything down to the bare-bones was perhaps also characteristic. In contrast - except for the 1960s - most people during the 20th century were tight-lipped about the dangers to freedom… apparently to avoid coming across like a radical. After all, it wasn't politically correct to vocalize publicly about lost freedoms and rights.

Today however (21st century) it's becoming a different story... exemplified by the political activism of the Tea Party. And, more and more Americans can now see the great dangers in political correctness - a societal concoction dreamt-up in late 20th century (circa 1970). The growing candidness of today - derived from a dimmer view of silence - is just more evidence the collective mindset evolves. Sanity soon to be reclaimed?

Now, whether or not the following thoughts were typical, that is, representing the prevailing attitude during the Civil War, or typical for the character in the book, Jones Berwick, a Civil War spy who lost his memory… an author from the same era suggests it was typical.

The following is an excerpt from page 319 of the book Who Goes There?:

---- "Then I thought of General Lee; what force could it be that sustained him at this moment? If not now, at least shortly, he would give orders which must result in the death of thousands; it was enough to craze a general. How could he, reputed so good, give such orders? Could any success atone for so much disaster? What could be in the mind of General Lee to make him consent to such sacrifice? It must be that he feels forced; he cannot do it willingly. Would it not be preferable to give up the contest—to yield everything, rather than plunge the people of two nations into despair and horror over so many wasted lives? For so many stricken homes? For widows, orphans, poverty, ruin? What is it that sustains General Lee? It is, it must be, that he is a mere soldier and simply obeying orders. Orders from whom? President Davis. Then President Davis is responsible for all of this? On him falls the burden? No. What then? The country.

And what is this thing that we call the country? Land? People? What is land? I have no land. I have no people, so far as I know. But, supposing that I have people and land—what is the country for which we fight? Will the enemy take our people, and take our land, if we do not beat them back? Yes, they will reduce our people to subjection. I shall become a dependent upon them. I shall become constrained in my liberties; part of my labour will go to them against my will. My property, if I have any, will be taken from me in some way—perhaps confiscated, if not wholly, at least in a measure, by laws of the conquerors. I shall not be free.

But am I now free? If we drive back the enemy, shall I be free? Yes, I shall be free, rightly free, free to aid the country, and to get aid from the country. I shall be part of the country and can enjoy my will, because I will be part of my country and to help build up her greatness and sustain and improve her institutions.

Institutions? What is an institution? We say government is an institution. What is a government? Is it a body of men? No. What is it, then? Something formed by the people for their supposed good, a growth, a development—a development of what? Is it material? No, it is moral; it is soul—then I thought I could see what is meant by the country and by her institutions. The country is the spirit of the nation—and it is deathless. It is not doomed to subjection; take the land—enslave the people—and yet will that spirit live and act and have a body. Let our enemies prevail over our armies; let them destroy; yet shall all that is good in our institutions be preserved even by our enemies; for a true idea is imperishable and nothing can decay but the false.

Then why fight? Because the true must always war against the false. The false and the true are enemies. But why kill the body in order to spread, or even maintain, the truth? Will the truth be better or stronger by that?

Perhaps—yet no. War is evil and not good, and it is only by good that evil can be overcome. But if our enemies come upon us, must we not fight? The country wishes peace. Our enemies bring war. Must we submit? We cannot submit. Submission to disgrace is repugnant to the spirit of the nation; death is better than submission. But killing, is it not crime? Is crime better than submission? No; submission is better than crime. But is not submission also a crime? At least it is an infringement of the law of the nation’s spirit. The crime must be opposed by crime? To avoid the crime of submission we must commit the crime of killing? It seems so—but why? But why? Ah! yes: I think I see; it is because the spirit of the nation is not equal to the spirit of the world. The world-idea forbids killing and forbids submission, and demands life and freedom for all; the spirit of the nation is not so unselfish; the spirit of the nation exalts so-called patriotism; the world-spirit raises high the principle of philanthropy universal. The country has not developed the world-idea, and will not, except feebly; but she will at last, and will be loyal to the spirit of the world. Then, unless I am sustained by a greater power, I cannot go contrary to the spirit of the South. I must kill and must be killed.

But can I stand the day of battle? Have I not argued myself into a less readiness to kill? Will these thoughts or fancies—coming to me I know not whence, and bringing to me a mental disturbance incomprehensible and unique—comfort me in the hour of danger? Will not my conscience force me to be a coward? Yet cowardice is worse than death." ---

B.K. Benson's mention of "world-idea" and "world-spirit" indicates idealism was also in the air. Conversely, there isn't much idealism around anymore... and it seems to be fading into extinction. Only a few, it seems, try to keep it alive. With government into every aspect of our lives today, and exerting itself evermore, the absence of idealism is a sign of resignation.

While none of these notable differences prove the human mind is genetically evolving, at least they demonstrate how much the mind is affected by society. Sociologists have long recognized this but if the confines of society can produce effects just as dramatic as if the mind can physically mutate, then society has recreated, and continues to recreate, the mind of man.

From the attempts to control man, shepherd him, manage his habits, influence what is tasteful and what isn't, forcing him to live in a world of propaganda, rhetoric, spin, pretense and hypocrisy, it will do nothing more than degrade society as a whole. It is social suicide. Honor and truthfulness are now less prevalent, the interests of society have grown more shallow, and demeanors have evolved from the sturdiness of an oak to pliable plastic. Tighter constraints may equate to more control for the authorities but a police state can only produce a society of rats.

A.O. Kime

"A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly it has preferred to banish." John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Last modified: 03/10/16