Moribus antiquis stat res Romana virisque
What Habit is to an individual during the brief term of his existence here, Traditions are to a nation whose life extends over hundreds or thousands of years. In them dwells the moral continuity of its existence. They link each generation to those that have gone before and sum up its collective memories. To understand their action upon the nation, let us begin by considering how habit affects the individual.
Habit, that is to say, the tendency of each man to go on thinking and acting upon the same general lines, is due not only to hereditary predispositions rooted in a race or in a family, but also to certain fundamental ideas which each person either forms for himself or has received from instruction, or from the example of others who have influenced him in that formative period of life when the mind and character are still comparatively fluid. Once such ideas have been solidified, they constitute, for nearly all persons, the permanent basis of conduct and the standard by which they judge both themselves and others. Most men are indolent, prone to follow the line of least resistance in thinking as well as in acting, so they find it easier to apply the maxims already in their minds than to think out afresh on each occasion every serious question. That would make life too burdensome. Here habit helps; for where it is so strong that there is no need felt for turning the mind on to examine the question, judgment and action in minor matters become almost automatic. A man's disposition to imitate others, or to repeat himself, has its source in physiological facts, certain in their action though obscure in their causes, which I cannot attempt to deal with here.
Psychologists since Aristotle have dwelt on the supreme importance of habit as the basis of moral action. Once settled, it is the most constant factor, especially in those persons, everywhere the majority, to whom independent thinking is an effort for which they have neither taste nor talent. Under its power, action becomes instinctive. Parents, teachers, the public opinion of the school, stamp certain notions and rules of conduct on the soft metal of a young mind, and when the metal has hardened they are not readily effaced. For one who can think out a doubtful ethical question, there are ten who can remember what they were taught to believe. If men are from childhood accustomed to regard certain conduct as honourable, because approved by the general sentiment of their fellows, they do not ask why that should be so, but promptly judge themselves and others by the standards they have accepted. If, on the contrary, they either have not imbibed, or have not made for themselves, such standards, they yield to the desire or passion of the moment, or are deterred from obeying it only by a fear of the consequences. So when one generation after another of a people has grown up valuing certain virtues and believing that the welfare of the nation depends on their maintenance, when it respects those who are faithful to virtue, and reveres the memory of those heroes of the past in whom virtue shone forth with peculiar lustre, the virtues and the memories become a part of the people's heritage, and are cherished as an ancient family prizes the shield and sword which a forefather carried in battle. In one of the finer and more impressionable spirits, the glory of national heroes becomes a living force, part of himself, inspiring him as he reads its history. He is proud of belonging to such a stock. He feels a sense of duty to it. He asks himself what made the nation great, and finds the source of greatness in what are deemed its characteristic virtues.
Something similar is observable on a small scale in a profession, or in any body, such as a college, with a long corporate life behind it. Its members feel a measure of pride belonging to such a body. The mantle of old distinction falls upon them, and helps to maintain a high standard of conduct. It is of course only persons of superior intelligence some historic knowledge in whom any such sentiments strong, but it is usually such men who lead the nation in action, or instruct it by their words, or set in public life an example which the average man respects. Thus there is formed in the people a standard by which statesmen are tested, an ideal created to which they must live up, if they are to receive the people's confidence. Truthfulness, honour, unselfishness, courage are enshrined as parts of that ideal. In a democracy where the sentiment of equality has gone so far as to make men unwilling to recognize the authority of the wise or defer to the counsels of experience, references to what their ancestors felt or did may still command respect. And while the nation's own self-esteem willingly appropriates such virtues as its own, those who aspire to leadership feel that they must try to possess or seem to possess them. If they are high-minded, their good intentions are strengthened; if of common clay, they must at least pay homage to the ideal by not falling too far below it. Nobody wants to be compared to “the fause Menteith” or to those whom history has branded as unworthy, such as the timorous pontiff who made “the great refusal.” Thus the ideals of public conduct, and the recollections of those in whom the ideals were exemplified, become the traditions of a nation, deemed by it to be a part of its national character, most familiar and powerful when embodied in famous persons who are the shining lights of its history.
The best instances of the influence of such ideals and traditions are to be found in the histories of more or less popularly governed countries, and especially of Rome, of England, of Switzerland, and of the United States.
In Rome the virtue most honoured was that of devotion to the State. Decius giving himself to death in order to secure victory over the Samnites, the legendary Curtius leaping into the gulf, Regulus returning to a cruel death at Carthage rather than advise the Senate to sanction an unfavourable peace, even Manlius Torquatus condemning his own son to death in order that military discipline might be maintained, were real or imagined examples held up for imitation to the Roman youth, and for a long time serving to inspire it. Patriotism possessed the mind of the Swiss before it had laid hold on any other people in mediaeval Europe. The memory of those three confederates of Grutli who led the revolt against the oppressions of the Count of Hapsburg, and of Arnold von Winkelried sacrificing himself in Decian fashion to win the fight at Sempach, have sunk into the heart of every Swiss. They helped to form the sentiment of dauntless loyalty in the Swiss Guards who perished at the Tuileries in 1792, fighting not even for their own country, but in defence of the monarch with whom they had taken service. And in Switzerland patriotism has been turned into a peaceful channel in creating a sense of the civic duty which every man owes to his canton. Nowhere in the world has this sense been so strong, or done so much to make men take an interest in domestic politics and bring so much intelligence to hear upon it. It shows us a tradition embodied in a habit of daily life.
In England whose national independence was never threatened from the Norman Conquest until the time when Bonaparte was encamped at Boulogne, the growth of national traditions was more gradual and less definitely connected with particular historical cases. Nevertheless there were incidents from the days of Magna Charta down to the revolution of 1688 which created in the more educated classes a steady attachment to liberty as well as to law, law being regarded not merely as the enforcement of order but as the safeguard of liberty. Whatever unconstitutional acts might be done by any king or minister, no one in either English party ventured, after the fall of the Stuarts, to disparage liberty as a fundamental principle.
Taken in their widest sense Traditions include all the influences which the Past of a nation exerts upon its Present, in forming its thoughts and accustoming its will to act upon certain fixed lines. The traditions of valour are, of course, those most generally cherished in every country, because every one understands and honours courage. In mediaeval Spain, however, the crusading character of the wars waged against the Moors for four centuries formed not only a love of battle but also a religious intolerance which is not yet extinct. Its strength is shown by the violence of the anti-clerical recoil among Spanish anarchists. The victorious campaigns of Frederick the Great which made Prussia a nation, created also that spirit of militarism and that supremacy of military ideals which a series of successful wars brought to their highest development a century after his time. In Japan the religious devotion to a dynasty whose origin is lost in the mist of fable combined with the personal devotion of the feudal retainer to his lord to produce that chivalric self-forgetting loyalty to State and Nation which has made the Japanese warrior feel it a privilege to offer up his life in the national cause. Nowhere does this sort of loyalty seem to have equally pervaded all classes of a people.
Besides these traditions of honour and dignity in conduct there are also certain ideas or principles of policy which have so often been recognized by a nation, and applied in the management of its affairs, that they have become a part of its mental equipment. Some of these ideas have been embodied in its institutions, and by them the institutions have stood. Some are associated with events in national history which approved their soundness. In the United States, for instance, the dogmas contained in the Declaration of Independence and the view of policy known as the Monroe Doctrine, the theory of the sovereignty of the people and the necessity of separating the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, have by general consent become axiomatic. Abiding foundations of policy glide into other principles which have come to so inhere in national consciousness as to seem parts of national character. Such, for the English, are the respect for law as law, the feeling that every citizen is bound to come forward in its support, the confidence in the Courts which administer it — a confidence not felt in the seventeenth century, because then not yet deserved. Such in France is the passion for equality, still more recent, and a deference to executive authority greater than Englishmen or Americans feel, together with a passionate attachment to the soil of France which has replaced the old feudal attachment to the person of the sovereign.
Among traditions, those which approve and maintain principles and habits of political action have been due to the people itself, guided by wise leaders, while those which have a moral character and secure respect for public virtue, are generally due to the influence and example of some famous man who so impressed his contemporaries as to become a model for later generations. The classic instance comes from the United States. Its people had the singular good fortune to find in the beginning of their national life a hero whose character became a tradition for them of all that was highest and purest in statesmanship. George Washington set a standard of courage, calmness, dignity, and uprightness by which every public man's conduct was to be tried. Seventy years later the tradition of unselfish patriotism, as well as of firmness and of faith in the power of freedom was, so to speak, reconsecrated by Abraham Lincoln. Two such lives (the former of which had much to do with inspiring the latter) have been an asset of incomparable value to the people among whom they were lived. When the War of Secession had ended and the dawn of reconciliation began after a time to appear, Northern as well as Southern men found in the memory of Washington a bond of reunion, for it was a memory cherished and honoured by both alike.
Habits can be bad as well as good, though when found in a people they are commonly attributed not so much to historical causes as to the inherent depravity of mankind, allowed to indulge itself unchecked, and infecting one generation after another, because there was neither legal penalty nor public disapproval to restrain it. An offence that is familiar and goes unpunished is deemed venial and excites no surprise. Corruption and malversation were common in the Greek republics, even among brilliant leaders. They were common in the later days of Rome among ambitious politicians, who were wont to bribe the voters, or the jurors before whom they were prosecuted, with money extorted from the provincial subjects of the republic. The laws were stringent, but the offenders frequently escaped. Among the statesmen of Italy, and indeed of Europe generally, in the fifteenth and sixteenth century there was little honour. Machiavelli was no worse than others in his means, and better than most in his aims. In Russia, under the Tsars, corruption was the rule among officials, civil and military. In China it successfully overcame, a few years ago, the nascent virtue of many among the young enthusiasts who had proclaimed a republic. In England bribery was rife in Parliament under Walpole and in parliamentary constituencies till the middle of last century. It was, for the briber, a matter of jest, not of social stigma, the habit being an old one. So in tropical America there are some republics in which the ruling faction has for many a year “made the elections,” and many in which a President is expected to enrich himself, and leaves a good name if he has shot comparatively few of his opponents.
Traditions are built up slowly but crumble quickly, just as it takes longer to form in an individual the virtue that will resist temptation than it takes to break down what had seemed to be a settled habit. Seldom can he who has once succumbed to strong inducements be thereafter trusted to stand firm.
Various have been the causes that have weakened or destroyed old traditions. Sometimes the quality of a population is changed; it may be, as happened in Home, by the impoverishment of the bulk of the old citizen stock and the increase in the number of freedmen; it may be by the influx of a crowd of immigrants, ignorant of the history of their new country, irresponsive to sentiments which the old inhabitants have cherished. The English stock to which the farmers and artisans of Massachusetts and Connecticut belonged has now become a minority in these States.
There are times when under the pressure of some grave national crisis, such as a foreign or even perhaps a civil war, a nation resigns some of its liberties into the hands of the Executive, or adopts new methods of government calculated to strengthen its position in the world. If the period of suspension of liberties be short and the attachment of the people to their old institutions exceptionally strong, no harm may be done. This proved to be the case after the American War of Secession, when constitutional government was restored uninjured. But there is always a risk that the stream may not return to its old channel. After a great war a nation is never, for better or worse, what it was before. Sometimes the waves of internal discord run so high that the tradition of devotion to common national interests is forgotten in the strife of religions or of classes. Sometimes the intellectual development of a people has sapped the foundations of its beliefs without replacing them by new conceptions of duty fit to stand the strain of new conditions. The most familiar instance is that of the Greek republics in the age of Socrates when the teachings of some eminent Sophists, pulverizing the simple belief in gods who punished perjury and bad faith, were representing justice as merely the advantage of the stronger. Here the traditions first affected were religious and ethical, but an old system of beliefs and habits hangs together; when the religious part of it is smitten, other parts feel the shock. Traditions last longest in peoples who live amid simple conditions and whose minds are slow and steady rather than swift. The Roman spirit was more conservative than that of the highly susceptible Greeks, as the English have been less prone to charge than have the nimbler-minded French. No tradition lasts for ever, not even in China. When it shows signs of decay, the best chance of saving it lies in reinforcing an ancient sentimental reverence by considerations drawn from reason and experience. These are supplied by history, the teaching of which in schools and universities might in most countries do more than it has yet done to fill the people's mind with memories of what is finest in its history and to dwell upon the worth of experience as a guide in polities.
The traditions of virtue shown in political life are not so well remembered by all classes of any people as are those of warlike valour or disinterested patriotism, because they appeal less to the imagination, and are more apt to be associated with those who have been the leaders of parties rather than of the nation. Nelson and Garibaldi are names more popular than Hampden, Mazzini, or Kossuth. Even in Switzerland there are few outstanding civil figures — and hardly any known outside its own borders — to whom traditions are attached. Appealing to reason rather than to emotion, they are less promising themes for rhetoric. But the greatest statesmen have rendered services greater than any rendered by arms, except indeed where the war was for national independence. The traditional love of liberty, the traditional sense of duty to the community, be it great or small, the traditional respect for law and wish to secure reforms by constitutional rather than by violent means — these were the habits engrained in the mind and will of Englishmen and Swiss which have helped each people to build up its free institutions from rude beginnings, and have enabled those institutions to continue their beneficent work. Those traditions carried across the sea rendered the same service in America. When similar institutions, however skilfully devised, are set down among those who, like the peoples of tropical America, have no such traditions, the institutions work imperfectly or do not work at all, because men have not that common basis of mutual understandings, that reciprocal willingness to effect a compromise, that accepted standard of public honour, that wish to respect certain conventions and keep within certain limits, which long habit has formed in the minds of Englishmen or Americans or Switzers.