We always knew how much a man’s past modified a man’s future; that we all knew how much, a man is apt to be like his ancestors; that the existence of national character is the greatest commonplace in the world. Even while the cerebral hemispheres are entire, and in full possession of their powers, the brain gives rise to actions which are as completely reflex as those of the spinal cord. When the eyelids wink at a flash of light, or a threatened blow, a reflex action takes place, in which the afferent nerves are the optic, the efferent, the facial. When a bad smell causes a grimace, there is a reflex action through the same motor nerve, while the olfactory nerves constitute the afferent channels. In these cases, therefore, reflex action must be effected through the brain, all the nerves involved being cerebral. When the whole body starts at a loud noise, the afferent auditory nerve gives rise to an impulse which passes to the medulla oblongata, and thence affects the great majority of the motor nerves of the body. It may be said that these are mere mechanical actions, and have nothing to do with the acts which we associate with intelligence. The reflex actions proper to the spinal cord itself are NATURAL, and are involved in the structure of the cord and the properties of its constituents. By the help of the brain we may acquire an affinity of ARTIFICIAL reflex actions. That is to say, an action may require all our attention and all our volition for its first, or second, or third performance, but by frequent repetition it becomes, in a manner, part our organisation, and is performed without volition, or even consciousness.
As everyone knows, it takes a soldier a very long time to learn his drill – to put himself, for instance, into the attitude of ‘attention’ at the instant the word of command is heard. But, after a time, the sound of the word gives rise to the act, whether the soldier be thinking of it or not. There is a story, which is credible enough, though it may not be true, of a practical joker, who, seeing a discharged veteran carrying home his dinner, suddenly called out ‘Attention!’ whereupon the man instantly brought his hands down, and lost his mutton and potatoes in the gutter. The drill had been gone through, and its effects had become embodied in the man’s nervous structure. The body of the accomplished man has thus become by training different from what it once was, and different from that of the rude man; it is charged with stored virtue and acquired faculty which come away from it unconsciously.
It is the action of the will that causes the unconscious habit; it is the continual effort of the beginning that creates the hoarded energy of the end; it is the silent toil of the first generation that becomes the transmitted aptitude of the next. Here physical causes do not create the moral, but moral create the physical.
An inherited drill, science says, makes modern nations what they are; their born structure bears the trace of the laws of their fathers; but the ancient nations came into no such inheritance; they were the descendants of people who did what was right in their own eyes; they were born to no tutored habits, no preservative bonds, and therefore they were at the mercy of every impulse and blown by every passion.
In later ages many races have gained much discipline quickly, though painfully; a loose set of scattered clans has been often and often forced to substantial settlement by a rigid conqueror; the Romans did half the work for above half Europe. But where could the first ages find Romans or a conqueror? Men conquer by the power of government, and it was exactly government which then was not. The first ascent of civilisation was at a steep gradient, though when now we look down upon it, it seems almost nothing.
In early times the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do much the same things, telling them what to expect of each other, fashioning them alike, and keeping them so. What this rule is does not matter so much. A good rule is better than a bad one, but any rule is better than none; while, for reasons which a jurist will appreciate, none can be very good. But to gain that rule, what may be called the impressive elements of a polity are incomparably more important than its useful elements. How to get the obedience of men is the hard problem; what you do with that obedience is less critical.
The object of such organisations is to create what may be called a cake of custom. All the actions of life are to be submitted to a single rule for a single object; that gradually created the ‘hereditary drill’ which science teaches to be essential, and which the early instinct of men saw to be essential too. That this regime forbids free thought is not an evil; or rather, though an evil, it is the necessary basis for the greatest good; it is necessary for making the mould of civilisation, and hardening the soft fibre of early man.
In every particular state of the world, those nations which are strongest tend to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peuliarities the strongest tend to be the best. Secondly, within every particular nation the type or types of character then and there most attractive tend to prevail; and, the most attractive, though with exceptions, is what we call the best character. Thirdly, neither of these competitions is in most historic conditions intensified by extrinsic forces, but in some conditions, such as those now prevailing in the most influential part of the world, both are so intensified.
Man, being the strongest of all animals, differs from the rest; he was obliged to be his own domesticator; he had to tame himself. And the way in which it happened was, that the most obedient, the tamest tribes are, at the first stage in the real struggle of life, the strongest and the conquerors. All are very wild then; the animal vigour, the savage virtue of the race has died out in none, and all have enough of it. But what makes one tribe, one incipient tribe, one bit of a tribe, to differ from another is their relative faculty of coherence. The slightest symptom of legal development, the least indication of a military bond, is then enough to turn the scale. The compact tribes win, and the compact tribes are the tamest. Civilisation begins, because the beginning of civilisation is a military advantage. Probably if we had historic records of the ante-historic ages, if some superhuman power had set down the thoughts and actions of men ages before they could set them down for themselves, we should know that this first step in civilisation was the hardest step. But when we come to history as it is, we are more struck with the difficulty of the next step. All the absolutely incoherent men – all the ‘Cyclopes’ – have been cleared away long before there was an authentic account of them. And the least coherent only remain in the ‘protected’ parts of the world, as we may call them.
Ordinary civilisation begins near the Mediterranean Sea; the best, doubtless, of the ante-historic civilisations were not far off. From this centre the conquering SWARM, for such it is, has grown and grown; has widened its subject territories steadily, though not equably, age by age. But geography long defied it. An Atlantic Ocean, a Pacific Ocean, an Australian Ocean, an unapproachable interior Africa, an inaccessible and undesirable hill India, were beyond its range. In such remote places there was no real competition, and on them inferior, half-combined men continued to exist. But in the regions of rivalry, the regions where the better man pressed upon the worse man, such half-made associations could not last. They died out and history did not begin till after they were gone. The great difficulty which history records is not that of the first step, but that of the second step. What is most evident is not the difficulty of getting a fixed law, but getting out of a fixed law; not of cementing a cake of custom, but of breaking the cake of custom; not of making the first preservative habit, but of breaking through it, and reaching something better.
Macaulay justly said that many an army has prospered under a bad commander, but no army has ever prospered under a ‘debating society;’ that many-headed monster is then fatal. Despotism grows in the first societies, just as democracy grows in more modern societies; it is the government answering the primary need, and congenial to the whole spirit of the time. But despotism is unfavourable to the principle of variability, as all history shows. It tends to keep men in the customary stage of civilisation; its very fitness for that age unfits it for the next. It prevents men from passing into the first age of progress, the very slow and very gradually improving age. Some ‘standing system’ of semi-free discussion is as necessary to break the thick crust of custom and begin progress as it is in later ages to carry on progress when begun; probably it is even more necessary. And in the most progressive races we find it.
What breaks the human race up into fragments so unlike one another, and yet each in its interior so monotonous? The question is most puzzling, though the fact is so familiar. Perhaps these same considerations throw some light, too, on the further and still more interesting question why some few nations progress, and why the greater part do not. Of course at first all such distinctions of nation and nation were explained by original diversity of race. They are dissimilar, it was said, because they were created dissimilar. But in most cases this easy supposition will not do its work. You cannot (consistently with plain facts) imagine enough original races to make it tenable. Some half-dozen or more great families of men may or may not have been descended from separate first stocks, but sub-varieties have certainly not so descended.
We may argue, rightly or wrongly, that all Aryan nations are of a single or peculiar origin, just as it was long believed that all Greek-speaking nations were of one such stock. But you will not be listened to if you say that there were one Adam and Eve for Sparta, and another Adam and Eve for Athens. All Greeks are evidently of one origin, but within the limits of the Greek family, as of all other families, there is some contrast-making force which causes city to be unlike city, and tribe unlike tribe.
The grave part of mankind are quite as liable to these imitated beliefs as the frivolous part. The belief of the money-market, which is mainly composed of grave people, is as imitative as any belief. You will find one day everyone enterprising, enthusiastic, vigorous, eager to buy, and eager to order: in a week or so you will find almost the whole society depressed, anxious, and wanting to sell. If you examine the reasons for the activity, or for the inactivity, or for the change, you will hardly be able to trace them at all, and as far as you can trace them, they are of little force. In fact, these opinions were not formed by reason, but by mimicry. Something happened that looked a little good, on which eager sanguine men talked loudly, and common people caught their tone. A little while afterwards, and when people were tired of talking this, something also happened looking a little bad, on which the dismal, anxious people began, and all the rest followed their words. And in both cases an avowed dissentient is set down as ‘crotchety.’ ‘If you want,’ said Swift, ‘to gain the reputation of a sensible man, you should be of the opinion of the person with whom for the time being you are conversing.’ There is much quiet intellectual persecution among ‘reasonable’ men; a cautious person hesitates before he tells them anything new, for if he gets a name for such things he will be called ‘flighty,’ and in times of decision he will not be attended to. In this way the infection of imitation catches men in their mostinward and intellectual part – their creed. But it also invades men – by the most bodily part of the mind – so to speak – the link between soul and body – the manner. No one needs to have this explained; we all know how a kind of subtle influence makes us imitate or try to imitate the manner of those around us.
The process of nation-making is one of which we have obvious examples in the most recent times, and which is going on now. The most simple example is the foundation of the first State of America,say New England, which has such a marked and such a deep national character. A great number of persons agreeing in fundamental disposition, agreeing in religion, agreeing in politics, form a separate settlement; they exaggerate their own disposition, teach their own creed, set up their favourite government; they discourage all other dispositions, persecute other beliefs, forbid other forms or habits of government. Of course a nation so made will have a separate stamp and mark. The original settlers began of one type; they sedulously imitated it; and (though other causes have intervened and disturbed it) the necessary operation of the principles of inheritance has transmitted many original traits still unaltered, and has left an entire New England character – in no respect unaffected by its first character.
In early states of civilisation there is a great mortality of infant life, and this is a kind of selection initself – the child most fit to be a good Spartan is most likely to survive a Spartan childhood. The habits of the tribe are enforced on the child; if he is able to catch and copy them he lives; if he cannot he dies. The imitation which assimilates early nations continues through life, but it begins with suitable forms and acts on picked specimens. There is a kind of parental selection operating in the same way and probably tending to keep alive the same individuals. Those children which gratified their fathers and mothers most would be most tenderly treated by them, and have the best chance to live, and as a rough rule their favourites would be the children of most ‘promise,’ that is to say, those who seemed most likely to be a credit to the tribe according to the leading tribal manners and the existing tribal tastes. The most gratifying child would be the best looked after, and the most gratifying would be the best specimen of the standard then and there raised up.
The modern pre-historic men, those of whom we have collected so many remains, and to whom are due the ancient, strange customs of historical nations (the fossil customs, we might call them, for very often they are stuck by themselves in real civilisation, and have no more part in it than the fossils in the surrounding strata), pre-historic men in this sense were ‘savages without the fixed habits of savages;’ that is, that, like savages, they had strong passions and weak reason; that, like savages, they preferred short spasms of greedy pleasure to mild and equable enjoyment; that, like savages, they could not postpone the present to the future; that, like savages, their ingrained sense of morality was, to say the best of it, rudimentary and defective. But that,unlike present savages, they had not complex customs and singular customs, odd and seemingly inexplicable rules guiding all human life.
The man some few thousand years before history began, and not at all, at least not necessarily, the primitive man was identical with a modern savage, in another respect there is equal or greater reason to suppose that he was most unlike a modern savage. A modern savage is anything but the simple being which philosophers of the eighteenth century imagined him to be; on the contrary, his life is twisted into a thousand curious habits; his reason is darkened by a thousand strange prejudices; his feeling sare frightened by a thousand cruel superstitions. The whole mind of a modern savage is, so to say, tattooed over with monstrous images; there is not a smooth place anywhere about it. But there is no reason to suppose the minds of pre-historic men to be so cut and marked; on the contrary, the creation of these habits, these superstitions, these prejudices, must have taken ages. In his nature, it may be said, pre-historic man was the same as a modern savage; it is only in his acquisition that he was different.
It is plain that the first pre-historic men had the flint tools which the lowest savages use, and we can trace a regular improvement in the finish and in the efficiency of their simple instruments corresponding to that which we see at this day in the upward transition from the lowest savages to the highest. Now it is not conceivable that a race of beings with valuable instincts supporting their existence and supplying their wants would need these simple tools. They are exactly those needed by very poor people who have no instincts, and those were used by such, for savages are the poorest of the poor. It would be very strange if these same utensils, no more no less, were used by beings whose discerning instincts made them in comparison altogether rich. Such a being would know how to manage without such things. Pre-historic man was substantially a savage like present savages, in morals, intellectual attainments, and in religion; but that he differed in this from our present savages, that he had not had time to ingrain his nature so deeply with bad habits, and to impress bad beliefs so unalterably on his mind as they have. They have had ages to fix the stain on them selves, but primitive man was younger and had no such time.
In general, too, the conquerors would be better than the conquered (most merits in early society are more or less military merits), but they would not be very much better, for the lowest steps in the ladder of civilisation are very steep, and the effort to mount them is slow and tedious. And this is probably the better if they are to produce a good and quick effect in civilising those they have conquered. The experience of the English in India shows, if it shows anything, that a highly civilised race may fail in producing a rapidly excellent effect on a less civilised race, because it is too good and too different. The two are not en rapport together; the merits of the one are not the merits prized by the other; the manner-language of the one is not the manner-language of the other.The higher being is not and cannot be a model for the lower; he could not mould himself on it if he would, and would not if he could. Consequently, the two races have long lived together, ‘near and yet far off,’ daily seeing one another and daily interchanging superficial thoughts, but in the depths of their mind separated by a whole era of civilisation, and so affecting one another only a little in comparison with what might have been hoped. But in early societies there were no such great differences, and the rather superior conqueror must have easily improved the rather inferior conquered. It is in the interior of these customary groups that national characters are formed. By proscribing non conformist members for generations, and cherishing and rewarding conformist members, non conformists become fewer and fewer, and conformists more and more. Most men mostly imitate what they see, and catch the tone of what they hear, and so a settled type, a persistent character, is formed. Nor is the process wholly mental. No ‘unconscious selection’ has been at work at the breed of man. If neither that nor conscious selection has been at work, how did there come to be these breeds,and such there are in the greatest numbers, though we call them nations? In societies tyrannically customary, uncongenial minds become first cowed, then melancholy, then out of health, and at last die.
Adapted from PHYSICS AND POLITICS OR THOUGHTS ON THE APPLICATION OF THE PRINCIPLES OF ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ AND ‘INHERITANCE’ TO POLITICAL SOCIETY BY WALTER BAGEHOT, 2003-2008 Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation.