Excerpts from George M. Beard, American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences (New York, 1881), pp. 96-129.

 
The causes of American nervousness are complicated, but are not beyond analysis: First of all modern civilization. The phrase modern civilization is used with emphasis, for civilization alone does not cause nervousness. The Greeks were certainly civilized, but they were not nervous, and in the Greek language there is no word for that term. The ancient Romans were civilized, as judged by any standard. Civilization is therefore a relative term, and as such is employed throughout this treatise. The modern differ from the ancient civilizations mainly in these five elements-- steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women. When civilization, plus these five factors, invades any nation, it must carry nervousness and nervous diseases along with it.

Civilization Very Limited in Extent

All that is said here of American nervousness refers only to a fraction of American society; for in America, as in all lands, the majority of the people are muscle-workers rather than brain-workers; have little education, and are not striving for honor, or expecting eminence or wealth. All our civilization hangs by a thread; the activity and force of the very few make us what we are as a nation; and if, through degeneracy, the descendants of these few revert to the condition of their not very remote ancestors, all our haughty civilization would be wiped away. With all our numerous colleges, such as they are, it is a rarity and surprise to meet in business relations with a college-educated man.

A late writer, Dr. Arthur Mitchell, has shown that if, of the population of Scotland, a few thousands were destroyed or degenerated and their places unsupplied, the nation would fall downward to barbarism. To a somewhat less degree this is true of all lands, including our own land. Of our fifty millions of population, but a few millions have reached that elevation where they are likely to be nervous. In the lower orders, the classes that support our dispensaries and hospitals, in the tenements of our crowded cities, and even on farms in the country, by the mountain side -- among the healthiest regions, we find, now and then, here and there cases of special varieties of nervous disease, such as hay-fever, neurasthenia, etc.; but the proportion of diseases of this kind among these people is much smaller than among the in-door-living and brain-working classes, although insanity of the incurable kind is more common among the lower or the middle than in the very highest classes.

Edison's electric light is now sufficiently advanced in an experimental direction to give us the best possible illustration of the effects of modern civilization on the nervous system. An electric machine of definite horse-power, situated at some central point, is to supply the electricity needed to run a certain number of lamps-say one thousand, more or less. If an extra number of lamps should be interposed in the circuit, then the power of the engine must be increased; else the light of the lamps would be decreased, or give out. This has been mathematically calculated, so that it is known, or believed to be known, by those in charge, just how much increase of horse-power is needed for each increase in the number of lamps. In all the calculations, however widely they may differ, it is assumed that the force supplied by any central machine is limited, and cannot be pushed beyond a certain point; and if the number of lamps interposed in the circuit be increased, there must be a corresponding increase in the force of the machine. The nervous system of man is the centre of the nerve-force supplying all the organs of the body. Like the steam engine, its force is limited, although it cannot be mathematically measured -- and, unlike the steam engine, varies in amount of force with the food, the state of health and external conditions, varies with age, nutrition, occupation, and numberless factors. The force in this nervous system can, therefore, be increased or diminished by good or evil influences, medical or hygienic, or by the natural evolutions -- growth, disease and decline; but none the less it is limited; and when new functions are interposed in the circuit, as modern civilization is constantly requiring us to do, there comes a period, sooner or later, varying in different individuals, and at different times of life, when the amount of force is insufficient to keep all the lamps actively burning; those that are weakest go out entirely, or, as more frequently happens, burn faint and feebly --they do not expire, but give an insufficient and unstable light -- this is the philosophy of modem nervousness.

The invention of printing, the extension of steam power into manufacturing interests and into means of conveyance, the telegraph, the periodical press, the political machinery of free countries, the religious excitements that are the sequels of Protestantism -- the activities of philanthropy, made necessary by the increase of civilization, and of poverty, and certain forms of disease -- and, more than all, perhaps, the heightening and extending complexity of modern education in and out of schools and universities, the inevitable effect of the rise of modern science and the expansion of history in all its branches -- all these are so many additional lamps interposed in the circuit, and are supplied at the expense of the nervous system, the dynamic power of which has not correspondingly increased.

Necessary Evils of Specialization

One evil, and hardly looked for effect of the introduction of steam, together with the improved methods of manufacturing of recent times, has been the training in special departments or duties -- so that artisans, instead of doing or preparing to do, all the varieties of the manipulations needed in the making of any article, are restricted to a few simple exiguous movements, to which they give their whole lives -- in the making of a rifle, or a watch, each part is constructed by experts on that part. The effect of this exclusive concentration of mind and muscle to one mode of action, through months and years, is both negatively and positively pernicious, and notably so, when re-enforced, as it almost universally is, by the bad air of overheated and ill-ventilated establishments. Herein is one unanticipated cause of the increase of insanity and other diseases of the nervous system among the laboring and poorer classes. The steam engine, which would relieve work, as it was hoped, and allow us to be idle, has increased the amount of work done a thousand fold; and with that increase in quantity there has been a differentiation of quality and specialization of function which, so far forth, is depressing both to mind and body. In the professions-- the constringing power of specialization is neutralized very successfully by general culture and observation, out of which specialties spring, and by which they are supported; but for the artisan there is no time, or chance, or hope, for such redeeming and antidotal influences.


Clocks and Watches -- Necessity of Punctuality

The perfection of clocks and the invention of watches have something to do with modern nervousness, since they compel us to be on time, and excite the habit of looking to see the exact moment, so as not to be late for trains or appointments. Before the general use of these instruments of precision in time, there was a wider margin for all appointments; a longer period was required and prepared for, especially in travelling -- coaches of the olden period were not expected to start like steamers or trains, on the instant -- men judged of the time by probabilities, by looking at the sun, and needed not, as a rule, to be nervous about the loss of a moment, and had incomparably fewer experiences wherein a delay of a few moments might destroy the hopes of a lifetime. A nervous man cannot take out his watch and look at it when the time for an appointment or train is near, without affecting his pulse, and the effect on that pulse, if we could but measure and weigh it, would be found to be correlated to a loss to the nervous system. Punctuality is a greater thief of nervous force than is procrastination of time. We are under constant strain, mostly unconscious, oftentimes in sleeping as well as in waking hours, to get somewhere or do something at some definite moment. Those who would relieve their nervousness may well study the manners of the Turks, who require two weeks to execute a promise that the Anglo-Saxon would fulfil in a moment. In Constantinople indolence is the ideal, as work is the ideal in London and New York; the follower of the Prophet is ashamed to be in haste, and would apologize for keeping a promise. There are those who prefer, or fancy they prefer, the sensations of movement and activity to the sensations of repose; but from the standpoint only of economy of nerve-force all our civilization is a mistake; every mile of advance into the domain of ideas, brings a conflict that knows no rest, and all conquests are to be paid for, before delivery often, in blood and nerve and life. We cannot have civilization and have anything else, the price at which nature disposes of this luxury being all the rest of her dornain.

 
The Telegraph

The telegraph is a cause of nervousness the potency of which is little understood. Before the days of Morse and his rivals, merchants were far less worried than now, and less business was transacted in a given time; prices fluctuated far less rapidly, and the fluctuations which now are transmitted instantaneously over the world were only known then by the slow communication of sailing vessels or steamships; hence we might wait for weeks or months for a cargo of tea from China, trusting for profit to prices that should follow their arrival; whereas, now, prices at each port are known at once all over the globe. This continual fluctuation of values, and the constant knowledge of those fluctuations in every part of the world, are the scourges of business men, the tyrants of trade -- every cut in prices in wholesale lines in the smallest of any of the Western cities, becomes known in less than an hour all over the Union; thus competition is both diffused and intensified. Within but thirty years the telegraphs of the world have grown to half a million miles of line, and over a million miles of wire -- or more than forty times the circuit of the globe. In the United States there were, in 1880, 170,103 miles of line, and in that year 33,255,991 messages were sent over them.

 
Effect of Noise on the Nerves

The relation of noise to nervousness and nervous diseases is a subject of not a little interest; but one which seems to have been but incidentally studied.

The. noises that nature is constantly producing -- the moans and roar of the wind, the rustling and trembling of the leaves and swaying of the branches, the roar of the sea and of waterfalls, the singing of birds, and even the cries of some wild animals -- are mostly rhythmical to a greater or less degree, and always varying if not intermittent; to a savage or to a refined ear, on cultured or uncultured brains, they are rarely distressing, often pleasing, sometimes delightful and inspiring. Even the loudest sounds in nature, the roll of thunder, the howling of storms, and the roar of a cataract like Niagara --save in the exceptional cases of idiosyncrasy -- are the occasions not of pain but of pleasure, and to observe them at their best men will compass the globe.

Many of the appliances and accompaniments of civilization, on the other hand, are the causes of noises that are unrhytbmical, unmelodious and therefore annoying, if not injurious; manufactures, locomotion, travel, house-keeping even, are noise-producing factors, and when all these elements are concentred, as in great cities, they maintain through all the waking and some of the sleeping hours, an uninterrnittent vibration in the air that is more or less disagreeable to all, and in the case of an idiosyncrasy or severe illness may be unbearable and harmful. Rhythmical, melodious, musical sounds are not only agreeable, but when not too long maintained are beneficial, and may be ranked among our therapeutical agencies.

Unrhythrnical, harsh, jarring sounds, to which we apply the term noise, are, on the contrary, to a greater or less degree, harmful or liable to be harmful; they cause severe molecular disturbance. . . A professional gentleman whom I know, says that the noise of the elevated railway trains in New York city are so harassing to him that he never goes on the avenue where these trains run unless compelled to do so; the effect he declares is rasping, exasperating, amounting to positive pain; and yet this man is not only well, but is remarkably tough and wiry, capable of bearing confinement and long and severe application. . . .

 
Railway Travelling and Nervousness

Whether railway travelling is directly the cause of nervous disease is a question of not a little interest. Reasoning deductively, without any special facts, it would seem that the molecular disturbance caused by travelling long distances, or living on trains as an employee, would have an unfavorable influence on the nervous system.

In practice this seems to be found; that in some cases -- probably a minority of those who live on the road -- functional nervous symptoms are excited, and there are some who are compelled to give up this mode of life.

A German physician has given the name "Fear of Rail- way Travelling," to a syrnptom that is observed in some who have become nervously exhausted by long residence on trains; they become fearful of taking a journey on the cars, mainly from the unpleasant sensations caused by the vibrating motions of the train.

That railway travel, though beneficial to some, is sometimes injurious to the nerve system of the nervous, is demonstrable all the time in my patients; many while travelling by rail suffer from the symptoms of sea-sickness and with increase of nervousness.

 
Rapid Development and Acceptance of New Ideas

The rapidity with which new truths are discovered, accepted and popularized in modem times is a proof and result of the extravagance of our civilization.

Philosophies and discoveries as well as inventions which in the Middle Ages would have been passed by or dismissed with the murder of the author, are in our time -- and notably in our country -- taken up and adopted, in innumerable ways made practical -- modified, developed, actively opposed, possibly overthrown and displaced within a few years, and all of necessity at a great expenditure of force.

The experiments, inventions, and discoveries of Edison alone have made and are now making constant and exhausting draughts on the nervous forces of America and Europe, and have multiplied in very many ways, and made more complex and extensive, the tasks and agonies not only of practical men, but of professors and teachers and students everywhere; the simple attempt to master the multitudinous directions and details of the labors of this one young man with all his thousands and thousands of experiments and hundreds of patents and with all the soluble and insoluble physical problems suggested by his discoveries would itself be a sufficient task for even a genius in science; and any high school or college in which his labors were not recognized and the results of his labors were not taught would be patronized only for those who prefer the eighteenth century to the twentieth.

On the mercantile or practical side the promised discoveries and inventions of this one man have kept millions of capital and thousands of capitalists in suspense and distress on both sides of the sea. In contrast with the gradualness of thought movement in the Middle Ages, consider the dazzling swiftness with which the theory of evolution and the agnostic philosophy have extended and solidified their conquests until the whole world of thought seems hopelessly subjected to their autocracy. I once met in society a young man just entering the silver decade, but whose hair was white enough for one of sixty, and he said that the color changed in a single day, as a sign and result of a mental conflict in giving up his religion for science. Many are they who have passed, or are yet to pass through such conflict, and at far greater damage to the nerve centres.

 
Increase in Amount of Business in Modern Times

The increase in the amount of business of nearly all kinds in modem times, especially in the last half century, is a fact that comes right before us when we ask the question, Why nervousness is so much on the increase? Of business, as we modems understand the term, the ancient world knew almost nothing; the commerce of the Greeks, of which classical histories talk so much, was more like play -- like our summer yachting trips -- than like the work or commerce of today.

Manufacturers, under the impulses of steam-power and invention, have multiplied the burdens of mankind; and railways, telegraphs, canals, steamships, and the utilization of steam-power in agriculture, and in handling and preparing materials for transportation, have made it possible to transact a hundred-fold more business in a limited time than even in the eighteenth century; but with an increase rather than a decrease in business transactions. Increased facilities for agriculture, manufactures, and trades have developed sources of anxiety and of loss as well as profit, and have enhanced the risks of business; machinery has been increased in quantity and complexity, some parts, it is true, being lubricated by late inventions, others having the friction still more increased. . . .

 

Buying on a Margin vs. Gambling

The custom of buying on a margin that has lately grown so much in popularity is more exciting to the nervous system than ordinary gambling, which it in a measure displaces, in these two respects --

First, the gambler risks usually all that he has; while the stock buyer risks very much more than he has.

Secondly. The stock buyer usually has a certain commercial, social, and religious position, which is thrown into the risk, in all his ventures; whereas, the ordinary gambler has nothing to lose but his money.

For these reasons it is quite clear that gambling -- formerly far more prevalent than now -- is less pernicious in its action on the nervous system, than buying stocks on a margin.

 
Increased Capacity for Sorrow -- Love and Philanthropy

Capacity for disappointment and sorrow has increased with the advance of civilization. Fineness of organization, which is essential to the development of the civilization of modern times, is accompanied by intensified mental susceptibility. . . .

Organized philanthropy is wholly modem, and is the offspring of a higher evolved sympathy wedded to a form of poverty that could only arise out of the inequalities of civilization. Philanthropy that is sincere suffers more than those it hopes to save; for while "charity creates much of the misery that it relieves, it does not relieve all the misery that it creates."


Repression of Emotion

One cause of the increase of nervous diseases is that the conventionalities of society require the emotions to be repressed, while the activity of our civilimtion gives an unprecedented freedom and opportunity for the expression of the intellect; the more we feel the more we must restrain our feelings. This repression of emotion and expression of reason, when carried to a high degree, as in the most active nations, tend to exhaustion, the one by excessive toil and friction, the other by restraining and shutting up within the mind those feelings which are best relieved by expression. Laughter and tears are safety-valves; the savage and the child laugh or cry when they feel like it -- and it takes but little to make them feel like it; in a high civilization like the present, it is not polite either to laugh or to cry in public; the emotions which would lead us to do either the one or the other, thus turn in on the brain and expend themselves on its substance; the relief which should come from the movements of muscles in laughter and from the escape of tears in crying is denied us; nature will not, however, be robbed; her loss must be paid and the force which might be expended in muscular actions of the face in laughter and on the whole body in various movements reverberates on the brain and dies away in the cerebral cells.

Constant inhibition, restraining normal feelings, keeping back, covering, holding in check atomic forces of the Americans to rise out of the position in which they were born, whatever that may be, and to aspire to the highest possibilities of fortune and glory. In the older countries, the existence of classes and of nobility, and the general contexture and mechanism of society, make necessary so much strenuous effort to rise from poverty and paltriness and obscurity, that the majority do not attempt or even think of doing anything that their fathers did not do: thus trades, employments, and professions become the inheritance of families, save where great ambition is combined with great powers. There is a spirit of routine and spontaneous contentment and repose, which in America is only found among the extremely unambitious. In travelling in Europe one is often amazed to find individuals serving in menial, or at least most undignified positions, whose appearance and conversation show that they are capable of nobler things than they will ever accomplish. In this land, men of that order, their ambition once aroused, are far more likely to ascend in the social scale. Thus it is that in all classes there is a constant friction and unrest -- a painful striving to see who shall be highest; and, as those who are at the bottom may soon be at the very top, there is almost as much stress and agony and excitement among some of the lowest orders as among the very highest. . . .

The experiment attempted on this continent of making every man, every child, and every woman an expert in politics and tbeology--is one of the costliest of experiments with living human beings, and has been drawing on our surplus energies with cruel extravagance for one hundred years.

Protestantism, with the subdivision into sects which has sprung from it, is an element in the causation of the nervous diseases of our time.

No Catholic country is very nervous, and partly for this -- that in a Catholic nation the burden of religion is carried by the church. In Protestant countries this burden is borne by each individual for himself; hence the doubts, bickerings, and antagonisms between individuals of the same sect and between churches, most noticeable in this land, mind and body, is an exhausting process, and to this process all civilization is constantly subjected.

A modern philosopher of the most liberal school, states that he hates to hear one laugh aloud, regarding the habit, as he declares, a survival of barbarism.

 
Domestic and Financial Trouble

Family and financial sorrows, and secret griefs of various kinds, are very commonly indeed the exciting cause of neurasthenia. In very many cases where overwork is the assigned cause -- and where it is brought prominently into notice, the true cause, philosophically, is to be found in family broils or disappointments, business failures or mishaps, or some grief that comes very near to one, and, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be very serious.

The savage has no property and cannot fail; he has so little to win of wealth or possessions, that he has no need to be anxious. If his wife does not suit he divorces or murders her; and if all things seem to go wrong he kills himself.

 
Politics and Religion

There are two institutions that are almost distinctively American -- political elections and religious revivals; for although in other countries both these institutions exist, yet they are far less numerous and far less exacting, and have far less influence than in America. Politics and religion appeal mostly to the emotional nature of men, and have little to do with the intellect, save among the leaders; and in consequence, the whole land is at times agitated by both these influences, to a degree which, however needful it may be, is most exciting to the nervous temperament.

 
Liberty as a Cause of Nervousness

A factor in producing American nervousness is, beyond dispute, the liberty allowed, and the stimulus given, to where millions of excellent people are in constant disagreement about the way to heaven . . . .


Habit of Forethought

Much of the exhaustion connected with civilization is the direct product of the forethought and foreworry that makes civilization possible. In coming out of barbarism and advancing in the direction of enlightenment the first need is care for the future. . . This forecasting, this forethinking, discounting the future, bearing constantly with us not only the real but imagined or possible sorrows and distresses, and not only of our own lives but those of our families and of our descendants, which is the very essence of civilization as distinguished from barbarism, involves a constant and exhausting expenditure of force. Without this forecasting, this sacrifice of the present to the future, this living for our posterity, there can be no high civilization and no great achievement; but it is, perhaps, the chief element of expense in all the ambitious classes, in all except the more degraded orders of modern society. We are exhorted, and on hygienic grounds very wisely, not to borrow trouble -- but were there no discounting of disappointment, there would be no progress. . .