INHERITED PAST

To the very young the world seems an unprecedented novelty. It seems scarcely older than their own memories, which are few and short, and their own experience, which is necessarily limited and confined. Through education our experience becomes immeasurably widened; we can vicariously live through the experiences of other people through hearing or reading, and can acquire the racial memory which goes back as far as the records of history, or anthropological research. As we grow older we come to learn that our civilization has a history; that our present has a past. This past extends back through the countless eons before man walked upright. The past of human life on earth goes back itself over nearly half a million years. With this long past, the present is continuous, being as it were, additional pages in process of being written.
But we inherit the past in a more vital sense. We inherit ways of thought and action, social systems, scientific and industrial methods, manners and morals, educational bequests and ideals, all that we have and are. Without these, each generation would have to start anew. If the whole of existing society were destroyed, and a newborn generation could be miraculously preserved to maturity, its members would have to start on the same level, with the same ignorances, uncertainties, and impotences as primitive savages. The cultural achievements of the past, which we inherit chiefly as social habits, are obviously not transmitted to us physically, as are the original human traits. They are not in our blood; they are acquired like other habits, through contact with others and through repeated practice.
We are thus to a very large extent conditioned by the past. It is as if we had inherited a fortune composed of various kinds of properties, houses, books, automobiles, warehouses, musical instruments, and in addition, trade concessions, business secrets, formulas, methods, and good-will. Our activities will be limited in measure by the extent of the property, its constituent items, and the repair in which we keep it. We may squander or mis invest our principal, as when we use scientific knowledge for dangerous or dubious aims, for example, for conquest or rapine. We may add to it, as in the development of the sciences and industrial arts. We may, so to speak, live on the income. Such is the case when a society ceases to be progressive, and fails to add anything to a highly developed traditional culture. Again we may have inherited “white elephants,” which may be of absolutely no use to us, encumbrances of which we cannot easily rid ourselves, influential ideas which are no longer adequate to our present situation, obsolete emotions, methods, or institutions. We may allow our cultural inheritance, through bad education, to fall into disrepair and decay.
Since we are so dependent on the past, our attitude toward it, which in turn determines the use we make of it, is of the most crucial significance. The living past is composed of habits, traditions, values, which are vivid and vital issues to those who practice them. Traditions, customs, or social methods come to have intrinsic values; they become the center of deep attachments and strong passion.
History may, in general, be said to reveal that, whatever the imperfections of our own age, we have immeasurably improved in many pronounced respects over conditions earlier than our own. The idealized picture of the Middle Ages with its guardsmen and its courtly knights and ladies, is coming, with increasing historical information, to seem insignificant and untrue in comparison with the unspeakable hardships of the mass of men, the evil social and sanitary conditions, the plagues and pestilences which were as much a part of it. The picture of the ideally gentle and benevolent attitude of the master to his slaves is by no means regarded as a typical picture of conditions of slave labor. We know, positively, on the other hand, that our medicine and surgery, our scientific and industrial methods, our production and our resources are incomparably greater than those of any earlier period in history, as are the possibilities of the control of Nature still unrealized.
In social life, generally, there are fixed forms for given occasions, forms of address, greeting, conversation, and clothes, all that commonly goes under the name of the “conventions” or “proprieties.” In law, as is well known, there is developed sometimes to an almost absurd degree a ritual of procedure. In religion, traditional values become embodied in fixed rituals of music, processional, and prayer. In education, especially higher education, there has developed a fairly stable tradition in the granting of degrees, the elements of a curriculum, the forms of examination, and the like. To certain types of mind, fixed forms in all these fields have come to be regarded as of intrinsic importance. Love of “good form,” the classicist point of view at its best, may develop into sheer pedantry and Pharisaism, an insistence on the fixed form when the intent is changed or forgotten, a regard for the letter rather than the spirit of the law. In a large number of cases, the fixed modes of life and practice which are our inheritance come to be regarded as symbols of eternal and changeless values. Thus many highly intelligent men find ritual in religion and traditional customs in education or in social life freighted with symbolic significance, and any infringement of them as almost sacrilegious in character.
Change, again, may be discouraged by those who hold, with more or less sincerity, that no good can come of it. Such a position may, and frequently is, maintained by those in whom fortunate accident of birth, favored social position, exuberant optimism, or a stanch and resilient faith, induces the belief that the social order and social practices, education, law, customs, economic conditions, science, art, et al., are completely satisfactory. Like Pippa, in Browning’s poem, they are satisfied that “God’s in His Heaven; all’s right with the world.” That there are no imperfections, in manners, politics, or morals, in our present social order, that there are no improvements which good-will, energy, and intelligence can effect, few will maintain without qualification. To do so implies, when sincere, extraordinary blindness to the facts, for example, of poverty and disease, which, though they do not happen to touch a particular individual, are patent and ubiquitous enough. In the face of undeniable evils the position that the ways we have inherited are completely adequate to our contemporary problems cannot be ingenuously maintained.
The position more generally expounded by the opponents of change is that our present modes of life give us the best possible results, considering the limitations of nature and human nature, and that the customs, institutions, and ideas we now have are the fruits of a ripe, a mellow, and a time-tested wisdom, that any radical innovations would, on the whole, put us in a worse position than that in which we find ourselves. Persons taking this attitude discount every suggested improvement on the ground that, even though intrinsically good, it will bring a host of inevitable evils with it, and that, all things considered, we had better leave well enough alone. Some extreme exponents of this doctrine maintain that whatever evils are ours are our own fault, that fault consisting in a lapse from the accustomed ancient ways. To continue without abatement the established ways is the surest road to happiness. Education, social customs, political organization, these are sound and wholesome as they are; and modification means interference with the works and processes of reason.
Genuine opposition to change arises from those who fear the instability which it implies. Continuation in established ways makes for integration, discipline, and stability. It makes possible the converging of means toward an end, it cumulates efforts resulting in definite achievement. In so far as we do accomplish anything of significance, we must move along stable and determinate lines; we must be able to count on the future. It has already been pointed out that it is man’s docility to learning, his long period of infancy which makes his eventual achievements possible. But it is man’s persistence in the habits he has acquired that is in part responsible for his progress. In individual life, the utility of persistence, and concentration of effort upon a definite piece of work, have been sufficiently stressed by moralists, both popular and professional. “A rolling stone gathers no moss,” is as true psychologically as it is physically. Any outstanding accomplishment, whether in business, scholarship, science, or literature, demands perseverance in definite courses of action. We are inclined, and usually with reason, to suspect the effectiveness of a man who has half a dozen professions in half as many years. Such vacillations produce whimsical and scattered movements; but they are fruitless in results; they literally “get nowhere.”
The other extreme is represented by the position that old things are bad because they are old, and new things good because they are new. This is illustrated in an extreme though trivial form by faddists of every kind. There are people who chiefly pride themselves on being up-to-the-minute, and exhibit an almost pathological fear of being behind the times. This thirst for the novel is seen on various levels, from those who wear the newest styles, and dine at the newest hotels, to those who make a point of reading only the newest books, hearing only the newest music, and discussing the latest theories. For such temperaments, and more or less to most people, there is an intrinsic glamor about the word “new.” The physical qualities that are so often associated with newness are carried over into social and intellectual matters, where they do not so completely apply. The new is bright and unfrayed; it has not yet suffered senility and decay. The new is smart and striking; it catches the eye and the attention. Just as old things are dog-eared, worn, and tattered, so are old institutions, habits, and ideas. Just as we want the newest books and phonographs, the latest conveniences in housing and sanitation, so we want the latest modernities in political, social, and intellectual matters. Especially about new ideas, there is the freshness and infinite possibility of youth; every new idea is as yet an unbroken promise. It has not been subjected to the frustrations, disillusions, and compromises to which all theory is subjected in the world of action. Every new idea is an experiment, a possibility, a hope. It may be the long-awaited miracle; it may be the prayed-for solution of all our difficulties.
The past is, by its ruthless critics, conceived not infrequently as enchaining or enslaving. Particularly, the radical insists, are men enslaved by habits of thought, feeling, and action which are totally inadequate to our present problems and difficulties. War-like emotions, he points out, may have been useful in an earlier civilization, but are now a total dis utility. Belief in magic may have been an asset to primitive man in his ignorance; it is not to modern man with his science. The institution of private property may have had its values in building up civilization; its utility is over. We still make stereotyped and archaic reactions where the situation has utterly changed. The institutions, ideas, and habits of the past are at once so compelling and so obsolete that we must make a clear break with the past; we must start with a clean slate. To continue, so we are told, is merely going further and further along the wrong paths; it is like continuing with a broken engine, or without a rudder.
That both positions just discussed are extreme, goes without saying. The past is neither all good nor all bad; it has achieved as well as it has erred. But it is, in any case, all we have. Without the knowledge, the customs, the institutions we have inherited, we should have no advantage at all over our ancestors of ten thousand years ago. Biologically we have not changed. The past is our basic material. Each generation starts with what it finds in the way of cultural achievement, and builds upon that.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg E Book of Human Traits and their Social Significance, by Irwin Edman)
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