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No. IV.: NATION-MAKING. - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 8 (Physics and Politics, Currency Monopoly, and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 8.
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All theories as to the primitive man must be very uncertain. Granting the doctrine of evolution to be true, man must be held to have a common ancestor with the rest of the Primates. But then we do not know what their common ancestor was like. If ever we are to have a distinct conception of him, it can only be after long years of future researches and the laborious accumulation of materials, scarcely the beginning of which now exists. But science has already done something for us. It cannot yet tell us our first ancestor, but it can tell us much of an ancestor very high up in the line of descent. We cannot get the least idea (even upon the full assumption of the theory of evolution) of the first man; but we can get a very tolerable idea of the paulo-prehistoric man, if I may so say—of man as he existed some short time (as we now reckon shortness), some ten thousand years, before history began. Investigators whose acuteness and diligence can hardly be surpassed—Sir John Lubbock and Mr. Tylor are the chiefs among them—have collected so much and explained so much that they have left a fairly vivid result.
That result is, or seems to me to be, if I may sum it up in my own words, that the modern prehistoric 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)—prehistoric 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. And the reasons for these conclusions as to a race too ancient to leave a history, but not too ancient to have left memorials, are briefly these: First, that we cannot imagine a strong reason without attainments; and, plainly, prehistoric men had not attainments. They would never have lost them if they had. It is utterly incredible that whole races of men in the most distant parts of the world (capable of counting, for they quickly learn to count) should have lost the art of counting, if they had ever possessed it. It is incredible that whole races could lose the elements of common sense, the elementary knowledge as to things material and things mental—the Benjamin Franklin philosophy—if they had ever known it. Without some data the reasoning faculties of man cannot work. As Lord Bacon said, the mind of man must “work upon stuff”. And in the absence of the common knowledge which trains us in the elements of reason as far as we are trained, they had no “stuff”. Even, therefore, if their passions were not absolutely stronger than ours, relatively they were stronger, for their reason was weaker than our reason. Again, it is certain that races of men capable of postponing the present to the future (even if such races were conceivable without an educated reason) would have had so huge an advantage in the struggles of nations, that no others would have survived them. A single Australian tribe (really capable of such a habit, and really practising it) would have conquered all Australia almost as the English have conquered it. Suppose a race of long-headed Scotchmen, even as ignorant as the Australians, and they would have got from Torres to Bass’s Straits, no matter how fierce was the resistance of the other Australians. The whole territory would have been theirs, and theirs only. We cannot imagine innumerable races to have lost, if they had once had it, the most useful of all habits of mind—the habit which would most ensure their victory in the incessant contests which, ever since they began, men have carried on with one another and with nature, the habit, which in historical times has above any other received for its possession the victory in those contests. Thirdly, we may be sure that the morality of prehistoric man was as imperfect and as rudimentary as his reason. The same sort of arguments apply to a self-restraining morality of a high type as apply to a settled postponement of the present to the future upon grounds recommended by argument. Both are so involved in difficult intellectual ideas (and a high morality the most of the two) that it is all but impossible to conceive their existence among people who could not count more than five—who had only the grossest and simplest forms of language—who had no kind of writing or reading—who, as it has been roughly said, had “no pots and no pans”—who could indeed make a fire, but who could hardly do anything else—who could hardly command nature any further. Exactly also like a shrewd far-sightedness, a sound morality on elementary transactions is far too useful a gift to the human race ever to have been thoroughly lost when they had once attained it. But innumerable savages have lost all but completely many of the moral rules most conducive to tribal welfare. There are many savages who can hardly be said to care for human life—who have scarcely the family feelings—who are eager to kill all old people (their own parents included) as soon as they get old and become a burden—who have scarcely the sense of truth—who, probably from a constant tradition of terror, wish to conceal everything, and would (as observers say) “rather lie than not”—whose ideas of marriage are so vague and slight that the idea, “communal marriage” (in which all the women of the tribe are common to all the men, and them only), has been invented to denote it. Now if we consider how cohesive and how fortifying to human societies are the love of truth, and the love of parents, and a stable marriage tie, how sure such feelings would be to make a tribe which possessed them wholly and soon victorious over tribes which were destitute of them, we shall begin to comprehend how unlikely it is that vast masses of tribes throughout the world should have lost all these moral helps to conquest, not to speak of others. If any reasoning is safe as to prehistoric man, the reasoning which imputes to him a deficient sense of morals is safe, for all the arguments suggested by all our late researches converge upon it, and concur in teaching it.
Nor on this point does the case rest wholly on recent investigations. Many years ago Mr. Jowett said that the classical religions bore relics of the “ages before morality”. And this is only one of several cases in which that great thinker has proved by a chance expression that he had exhausted impending controversies years before they arrived, and had perceived more or less the conclusion at which the disputants would arrive long before the public issue was joined. There is no other explanation of such religions than this. We have but to open Mr. Gladstone’s “Homer” in order to see with how intense an antipathy a really moral age would regard the gods and goddesses of Homer; how inconceivable it is that a really moral age should first have invented and then bowed down before them; how plain it is (when once explained) that they are antiquities, like an English court-suit, or a stone-sacrificial knife, for no one would use such things as implements of ceremony, except those who had inherited them from a past age, when there was nothing better.
Nor is there anything inconsistent with our present moral theories of whatever kind in so thinking about our ancestors. The intuitive theory of morality, which would be that naturally most opposed to it, has lately taken a new development. It is not now maintained that all men have the same amount of conscience. Indeed, only a most shallow disputant who did not understand even the plainest facts of human nature could ever have maintained it; if men differ in anything they differ in the fineness and the delicacy of their moral intuitions, however we may suppose those feelings to have been acquired. We need not go as far as savages to learn that lesson; we need only talk to the English poor or to our own servants, and we shall be taught it very completely. The lower classes in civilised countries, like all classes in uncivilised countries, are clearly wanting in the nicer part of those feelings which, taken together, we call the sense of morality. All this an intuitionist who knows his case will now admit, but he will add that, though the amount of the moral sense may and does differ in different persons, yet that as far as it goes it is alike in all. He likens it to the intuition of number, in which some savages are so defective that they cannot really and easily count more than three. Yet as far as three his intuitions are the same as those of civilised people. Unquestionably if there are intuitions at all, the primary truths of number are such. There is a felt necessity in them if in anything, and it would be pedantry to say that any proposition of morals was more certain than that five and five make ten. The truths of arithmetic, intuitive or not, certainly cannot be acquired independently of experience nor can those of morals be so either. Unquestionably they were aroused in life and by experience, though after that comes the difficult and ancient controversy whether anything peculiar to them and not to be found in the other facts of life is superadded to them independently of experience out of the vigour of the mind itself. No intuitionist, therefore, fears to speak of the conscience of his prehistoric ancestor as imperfect, rudimentary, or hardly to be discerned, for he has to admit much the same so as to square his theory to plain modern facts, and that theory in the modern form may consistently be held along with them. Of course if an intuitionist can accept this conclusion as to prehistoric men, so assuredly may Mr. Spencer, who traces all morality back to our inherited experience of utility, or Mr. Darwin, who ascribes it to an inherited sympathy, or Mr. Mill, who with characteristic courage undertakes to build up the whole moral nature of man with no help whatever either from ethical intuition or from physiological instinct. Indeed of the everlasting questions, such as the reality of freewill, or the nature of conscience, it is, as I have before explained, altogether inconsistent with the design of these papers to speak. They have been discussed ever since the history of discussion begins; human opinion is still divided, and most people still feel many difficulties in every suggested theory, and doubt if they have heard the last word of argument or the whole solution of the problem in any of them. In the interest of sound knowledge it is essential to narrow to the utmost the debatable territory; to see how many ascertained facts there are which are consistent with all theories, how many may, as foreign lawyers would phrase it, be equally held in condominium by them.
But though in these great characteristics there is reason to imagine that the prehistoric man—at least the sort of prehistoric man I am treating of, 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 feelings are 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 prehistoric 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, prehistoric man was the same as a modern savage; it is only in his acquisition that he was different.
It may be objected that if man was developed out of any kind of animal (and this is the doctrine of evolution which, if it be not proved conclusively, has great probability and great scientific analogy in its favour) he would necessarily at first possess animal instincts; that these would only gradually be lost; that in the meantime they would serve as a protection and an aid, and that prehistoric men, therefore, would have important helps and feelings which existing savages have not. And probably of the first men, the first beings worthy to be so called, this was true: they had, or may have had, certain remnants of instincts which aided them in the struggle of existence, and as reason gradually came these instincts may have waned away. Some instincts certainly do wane when the intellect is applied steadily to their subject-matter. The curious “counting boys,” the arithmetical prodigies, who can work by a strange innate faculty the most wonderful sums, lose that faculty, always partially, sometimes completely, if they are taught to reckon by rule like the rest of mankind. In like manner I have heard it said that a man could soon reason himself out of the instinct of decency if he would only take pains and work hard enough. And perhaps other primitive instincts may have in like manner passed away. But this does not affect my argument. I am only saying that these instincts, if they ever existed, did pass away—that there was a period, probably an immense period as we reckon time in human history, when prehistoric men lived much as savages live now, without any important aids and helps.
The proofs of this are to be found in the great works of Sir John Lubbock and Mr. Tylor, of which I just now spoke. I can only bring out two of them here. First, it is plain that the first prehistoric 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, or if it wanted any, would know how to make better.
And, secondly, on the moral side we know that the prehistoric age was one of much licence, and the proof is that in that age descent was reckoned through the female only, just as it is among the lowest savages. “Maternity,” it has been said, “is a matter of fact, paternity is a matter of opinion”; and this not very refined expression exactly conveys the connection of the lower human societies. In all slave-owning communities—in Rome formerly, and in Virginia yesterday—such was the accepted rule of law; the child kept the condition of the mother, whatever that condition was; nobody inquired as to the father; the law, once for all, assumed that he could not be ascertained. Of course no remains exist which prove this or anything else about the morality of prehistoric man; and morality can only be described by remains amounting to a history. But one of the axioms of prehistoric investigation binds us to accept this as the morality of the prehistoric races if we receive that axiom. It is plain that the widespread absence of a characteristic which greatly aids the possessor in the conflicts between race and race probably indicates that the primary race did not possess that quality. If one-armed people existed almost everywhere in every continent; if people were found in every intermediate stage, some with the mere germ of the second arm, some with the second arm half-grown, some with it nearly complete; we should then argue—“the first race cannot have had two arms, because men have always been fighting, and as two arms are a great advantage in fighting, one-armed and half-armed people would immediately have been killed off the earth; they never could have attained any numbers. A diffused deficiency in a warlike power is the best attainable evidence that the prehistoric men did not possess that power.” If this axiom be received it is palpably applicable to the marriage-bond of primitive races. A cohesive “family” is the best germ for a campaigning nation. In a Roman family the boys, from the time of their birth, were bred to a domestic despotism, which well prepared them for a subjection in after life to a military discipline, a military drill, and a military despotism. They were ready to obey their generals because they were compelled to obey their fathers; they conquered the world in manhood because as children they were bred in homes where the tradition of passionate valour was steadied by the habit of implacable order. And nothing of this is possible in loosely-bound family groups (if they can be called families at all) where the father is more or less uncertain, where descent is not traced through him, where, that is, property does not come from him, where such property as he has passes to his sure relations—to his sister’s children. An ill-knit nation which does not recognise paternity as a legal relation, would be conquered like a mob by any other nation which had a vestige or a beginning of the patria potestas. If, therefore, all the first men had the strict morality of families, they would no more have permitted the rise of semi-moral nations anywhere in the world than the Romans would have permitted them to arise in Italy. They would have conquered, killed, and plundered them before they became nations; and yet semi-moral nations exist all over the world.
It will be said that this argument proves too much. For it proves that not only the somewhat-before-history men, but the absolutely first men, could not have had close family instincts, and yet if they were like most though not all of the animals nearest to man they had such instincts. There is a great story of some African chief who expressed his disgust at adhering to one wife, by saying it was “like the monkeys”. The semi-brutal ancestors of man, if they existed, had very likely an instinct of constancy which the African chief, and others like him, had lost. How, then, if it was so beneficial, could they ever lose it? The answer is plain: they could lose it if they had it as an irrational propensity and habit, and not as a moral and rational feeling. When reason came, it would weaken that habit like all other irrational habits. And reason is a force of such infinite vigour—a victory-making agent of such incomparable efficiency—that its continually diminishing valuable instincts will not matter if it grows itself steadily all the while. The strongest competitor wins in both the cases we are imagining; in the first, a race with intelligent reason, but without blind instinct, beats a race with that instinct but without that reason; in the second, a race with reason and high moral feeling beats a race with reason but without high moral feeling. And the two are palpably consistent.
There is every reason, therefore, to suppose prehistoric man to be deficient in much of sexual morality, as we regard that morality. As to the detail of “primitive marriage” or “no marriage,” for that is pretty much what it comes to, there is of course much room for discussion. Both Mr. M‘Clennan and Sir John Lubbock are too accomplished reasoners and too careful investigators to wish conclusions so complex and refined as theirs to be accepted all in a mass, besides that on some critical points the two differ. But the main issue is not dependent on nice arguments. Upon broad grounds we may believe that in prehistoric times men fought both to gain and to keep their wives; that the strongest man took the best wife away from the weaker man; and that if the wife was restive, did not like the change, her new husband beat her; that (as in Australia now) a pretty woman was sure to undergo many such changes, and her back to bear the marks of many such chastisements; that in the principal department of human conduct (which is the most tangible and easily traced, and therefore the most obtainable specimen of the rest) the minds of prehistoric men were not so much immoral as unmoral: they did not violate a rule of conscience, but they were somehow not sufficiently developed for them to feel on this point any conscience, or for it to prescribe to them any rule.
The same argument applies to religion. There are, indeed, many points of the greatest obscurity, both in the present savage religions and in the scanty vestiges of prehistoric religion. But one point is clear. All savage religions are full of superstitions founded on luck. Savages believe that casual omens are a sign of coming events; that some trees are lucky, that some animals are lucky, that some places are lucky, that some indifferent actions—indifferent apparently and indifferent really—are lucky, and so of others in each class, that they are unlucky. Nor can a savage well distinguish between a sign of “luck” or ill-luck, as we should say, and a deity which causes the good or the ill; the indicating precedent and the causing being are to the savage mind much the same; a steadiness of head far beyond savages is required consistently to distinguish them. And it is extremely natural that they should believe so. They are playing a game—the game of life—with no knowledge of its rules. They have not an idea of the laws of nature; if they want to cure a man, they have no conception at all of true scientific remedies. If they try anything they must try it upon bare chance. The most useful modern remedies were often discovered in this bare, empirical way. What could be more improbable—at least, for what could a prehistoric man have less given a good reason—than that some mineral springs should stop rheumatic pains, or mineral springs make wounds heal quickly? And yet the chance knowledge of the marvellous effect of gifted springs is probably as ancient as any sound knowledge as to medicine whatever. No doubt it was mere casual luck at first that tried these springs and found them answer. Somebody by accident tried them and by that accident was instantly cured. The chance which happily directed men in this one case, misdirected them in a thousand cases. Some expedition had answered when the resolution to undertake it was resolved on under an ancient tree, and accordingly that tree became lucky and sacred. Another expedition failed when a magpie crossed its path, and a magpie was said to be unlucky. A serpent crossed the path of another expedition, and it had a marvellous victory, and accordingly the serpent became a sign of great luck (and what a savage cannot distinguish from it—a potent deity which makes luck). Ancient medicine is equally unreasonable: as late down as the Middle Ages it was full of superstitions founded on mere luck. The collection of prescriptions published under the direction of the Master of the Rolls abounds in such fancies as we should call them. According to one of them, unless I forget, some disease—a fever, I think—is supposed to be cured by placing the patient between two halves of a hare and a pigeon recently killed.1 Nothing can be plainer than that there is no ground for this kind of treatment, and that the idea of it arose out of a chance hit, which came right and succeeded. There was nothing so absurd or so contrary to common sense as we are apt to imagine about it. The lying between two halves of a hare or a pigeon was à priori, and to the inexperienced mind, quite as likely to cure disease as the drinking certain draughts of nasty mineral water. Both, somehow, were tried; both answered—that is, both were at the first time, or at some memorable time, followed by a remarkable recovery; and the only difference is, that the curative power of the mineral is persistent, and happens constantly; whereas, on an average of trials, the proximity of a hare or pigeon is found to have no effect, and cures take place as often in cases where it is not tried as in cases where it is. The nature of minds which are deeply engaged in watching events of which they do not know the reason, is to single out some fabulous accompaniment or some wonderful series of good luck or bad luck, and to dread ever after that accompaniment if it brings evil, and to love it and long for it if it brings good. All savages are in this position, and the fascinating effect of striking accompaniments (in some single case) of singular good fortune and singular calamity, is one great source of savage religions.
Gamblers to this day are, with respect to the chance part of their game, in much the same plight as savages with respect to the main events of their whole lives. And we well know how superstitious they all are. To this day very sensible whist-players have a certain belief—not, of course, a fixed conviction, but still a certain impression—that there is “luck under a black deuce,” and will half mutter some not very gentle maledictions if they turn up as a trump the four of clubs, because it brings ill-luck, and is “the devil’s bedpost”. Of course grown-up gamblers have too much general knowledge, too much organised common sense, to prolong or cherish such ideas; they are ashamed of entertaining them, though, nevertheless, they cannot entirely drive them out of their minds. But child-gamblers—a number of little boys set to play loo—are just in the position of savages, for their fancy is still impressible, and they have not as yet been thoroughly subjected to the confuting experience of the real world; and child-gamblers have idolatries—at least I know that years ago a set of boy loo-players, of whom I was one, had considerable faith in a certain “pretty fish,” which was larger and more nicely made than the other fish we had. We gave the best evidence of our belief in its power to “bring luck”; we fought for it (if our elders were out of the way); we offered to buy it, with many other fish from the envied holder, and I am sure I have often cried bitterly if the chance of the game took it away from me. Persons who stand up for the dignity of philosophy, if any such there still are, will say that I ought not to mention this, because it seems trivial; but the more modest spirit of modern thought plainly teaches, if it teaches anything, the cardinal value of occasional little facts. I do not hesitate to say that many learned and elaborate explanations of the totem—the “clan” deity—the beast or bird who, in some supernatural way, attends to the clan and watches over it—do not seem to me to be nearly as akin to the reality as it works and lives among the lower races as the “pretty fish” of my early boyhood. And very naturally so, for a grave philosopher is separated from primitive thought by the whole length of human culture; but an impressible child is as near to, and its thoughts are as much like, that thought as anything can now be.
The worst of these superstitions is that they are easy to make and hard to destroy. A single run of luck has made the fortune of many a charm and many idols. I doubt if even a single run of luck be necessary. I am sure that if an elder boy said that “the pretty fish was lucky—of course it was,” all the lesser boys would believe it, and in a week it would be an accepted idol. And I suspect the Nestor of a savage tribe—the aged repository of guiding experience—would have an equal power of creating superstitions. But if once created they are most difficult to eradicate. If any one said that the amulet was of certain efficacy—that it always acted whenever it was applied—it would of course be very easy to disprove; but no one ever said that the “pretty fish” always brought luck; it was only said that it did so on the whole, and that if you had it you were more likely to be lucky than if you were without it. But it requires a long table of statistics of the results of games to disprove this thoroughly; and by the time people can make tables they are already above such beliefs, and do not need to have them disproved. Nor in many cases where omens or amulets are used would such tables be easy to make, for the data could not be found; and a rash attempt to subdue the superstition by a striking instance may easily end in confirming it. Francis Newman, in the remarkable narrative of his experience as a missionary in Asia, gives a curious example of this. As he was setting out on a distant and somewhat hazardous expedition, his native servants tied round the neck of the mule a small bag supposed to be of preventive and mystic virtue. As the place was crowded and a whole townspeople looking on, Mr. Newman thought that he would take an opportunity of disproving the superstition. So he made a long speech of explanation in his best Arabic, and cut off the bag, to the horror of all about him. But as ill-fortune would have it, the mule had not got thirty yards up the street before she put her foot into a hole and broke her leg; upon which all the natives were confirmed in their former faith in the power of the bag, and said, “You see now what happens to unbelievers”.
Now the present point as to these superstitions is their military inexpediency. A nation which was moved by these superstitions as to luck would be at the mercy of a nation, in other respects equal, which was not subject to them. In historical times, as we know, the panic terror at eclipses has been the ruin of the armies which have felt it; or has made them delay to do something necessary, or rush to do something destructive. The necessity of consulting the auspices, while it was sincerely practised and before it became a trick for disguising foresight, was in classical history very dangerous. And much worse is it with savages, whose life is one of omens, who must always consult their sorcerers, who may be turned this way or that by some chance accident, who, if they were intellectually able to frame a consistent military policy—and some savages in war see farther than in anything else—are yet liable to be put out, distracted, confused, and turned aside in the carrying out of it, because some event, really innocuous but to their minds foreboding, arrests and frightens them. A religion full of omens is a military misfortune, and will bring a nation to destruction if set to fight with a nation at all equal otherwise, who had a religion without omens. Clearly then, if all early men unanimously, or even much the greater number of early men, had a religion without omens, no religion, or scarcely a religion, anywhere in the world could have come into existence with omens; the immense majority possessing the superior military advantage, the small minority destitute of it would have been crushed out and destroyed. But, on the contrary, all over the world religions with omens once existed, in most they still exist; all savages have them, and deep in the most ancient civilisations we find the plainest traces of them. Unquestionably therefore the prehistoric religion was like that of savages—viz., in this that it largely consisted in the watching of omens and in the worship of lucky beasts and things, which are a sort of embodied and permanent omens.
It may indeed be objected—an analogous objection was taken as to the ascertained moral deficiencies of prehistoric mankind—that if this religion of omens was so pernicious and so likely to ruin a race, no race would ever have acquired it. But it is only likely to ruin a race contending with another race otherwise equal. The fancied discovery of these omens—not an extravagant thing in an early age, as I have tried to show, not a whit then to be distinguished as improbable from the discovery of healing herbs or springs which prehistoric men also did discover—the discovery of omens was an act of reason as far as it went. And if in reason the omen-finding race were superior to the races in conflict with them, the omen-finding race would win, and we may conjecture that omen-finding races were thus superior since they won and prevailed in every latitude and in every zone.
In all particulars therefore we would keep to our formula, and say that prehistoric 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 themselves, but primitive man was younger and had no such time.
I have elaborated the evidence for this conclusion at what may seem needless and tedious length, but I have done so on account of its importance. If we accept it, and if we are sure of it, it will help us to many most important conclusions. Some of these I have dwelt upon in previous papers, but I will set them down again.
First, it will in part explain to us what the world was about, so to speak, before history. It was making, so to say, the intellectual consistence—the connected and coherent habits, the preference of equable to violent enjoyment, the abiding capacity to prefer, if required, the future to the present, the mental prerequisites without which civilisation could not begin to exist, and without which it would soon cease to exist even had it begun. The primitive man, like the present savage, had not these prerequisites, but, unlike the present savage, he was capable of acquiring them and of being trained in them, for his nature was still soft and still impressible, and possibly, strange as it may seem to say, his outward circumstances were more favourable to an attainment of civilisation than those of our present savages. At any rate, the prehistoric times were spent in making men capable of writing a history, and having something to put in it when it is written, and we can see how it was done.
Two preliminary processes indeed there are which seem inscrutable. There was some strange preliminary process by which the main races of men were formed; they began to exist very early, and except by intermixture no new ones have been formed since. It was a process singularly active in early ages, and singularly quiescent in later ages. Such differences as exist between the Aryan, the Turanian, the negro, the red man, and the Australian, are differences greater altogether than any causes now active are capable of creating in present men, at least in any way explicable by us. And there is, therefore, a strong presumption that (as great authorities now hold) these differences were created before the nature of men, especially before the mind and the adaptive nature of men, had taken their existing constitution. And a second condition precedent of civilisation seems, at least to me, to have been equally inherited, if the doctrine of evolution be true, from some previous state or condition. I at least find it difficult to conceive of men, at all like the present men, unless existing in something like families, that is, in groups avowedly connected, at least on the mother’s side, and probably always with a vestige of connection, more or less, on the father’s side, and unless these groups were like many animals, gregarious, under a leader more or less fixed. It is almost beyond imagination how man, as we know man, could by any sort of process have gained this step in civilisation. And it is a great advantage, to say the least of it, in the evolution theory that it enables us to remit this difficulty to a pre-existing period in nature, where other instincts and powers than our present ones may perhaps have come into play, and where our imagination can hardly travel. At any rate, for the present I may assume these two steps in human progress made, and these two conditions realised.
The rest of the way, if we grant these two conditions, is plainer. The first thing is the erection of what we may call a custom making power, that is, of an authority which can enforce a fixed rule of life, which, by means of that fixed rule, can in some degree create a calculable future, which can make it rational to postpone present violent but momentary pleasure for future continual pleasure, because it ensures, what else is not sure, that if the sacrifice of what is in hand be made, enjoyment of the contingent expected recompense will be received. Of course I am not saying that we shall find in early society any authority of which these shall be the motives. We must have travelled ages (unless all our evidence be wrong) from the first men before there was a comprehension of such motives. I only mean that the first thing in early society was an authority of whose action this shall be the result, little as it knew what it was doing, little as it would have cared if it had known.
The conscious end of early societies was not at all, or scarcely at all, the protection of life and property, as it was assumed to be by the eighteenth-century theory of government. Even in early historical ages—in the youth of the human race, not its childhood—such is not the nature of early states. Sir Henry Maine has taught us that the earliest subject of jurisprudence is not the separate property of the individual, but the common property of the family group; what we should call private property hardly then existed; or if it did, was so small as to be of no importance: it was like the things little children are now allowed to call their own, which they feel it very hard to have taken from them, but which they have no real right to hold and keep. Such is our earliest property-law, and our earliest life-law is that the lives of all members of the family group were at the mercy of the head of the group. As far as the individual goes, neither his goods nor his existence were protected at all. And this may teach us that something else was lacked in early societies besides what in our societies we now think of.
I do not think I put this too high when I say that a most important if not the most important object of early legislation was the enforcement of lucky rites. I do not like to say religious rites, because that would involve me in a great controversy as to the power, or even the existence, of early religions. But there is no savage tribe without a notion of luck; and perhaps there is hardly any which has not a conception of luck for the tribe as a tribe, of which each member has not some such a belief that his own action or the action of any other member of it—that he or the others doing anything which was unlucky or would bring a “curse”—might cause evil not only to himself, but to all the tribe as well. I have said so much about “luck” and about its naturalness before, that I ought to say nothing again. But I must add that the contagiousness of the idea of “luck” is remarkable. It does not at all, like the notion of desert, cleave to the doer. There are people to this day who would not permit in their house people to sit down thirteen to dinner. They do not expect any evil to themselves particularly for permitting it or sharing in it, but they cannot get out of their heads the idea that some one or more of the number will come to harm if the thing is done. This is what Mr. Tylor calls survival in culture. The faint belief in the corporate liability of these thirteen is the feeble relic and last dying representative of that great principle of corporate liability to good and ill fortune which has filled such an immense place in the world.
The traces of it are endless. You can hardly take up a book of travels in rude regions without finding “I wanted to do so and so. But I was not permitted, for the natives feared it might bring ill luck on the ‘party,’ or perhaps the tribe.” Mr. Galton, for instance, could hardly feed his people. The Damaras, he says, have numberless superstitions about meat which are very troublesome. In the first place, each tribe, or rather family, is prohibited from eating cattle of certain colours, savages, “who come from the sun” eschewing sheep spotted in a particular way, which those “who come from the rain” have no objection to. “As,” he says, “there are five or six eandas or descents, and I had men from most of them with me, I could hardly kill a sheep that everybody would eat;” and he could not keep his meat, for it had to be given away because it was commanded by one superstition, nor buy milk, the staple food of those parts, because it was prohibited by another. And so on without end. Doing anything unlucky is in their idea what putting on something that attracts the electric fluid is in fact. You cannot be sure that harm will not be done, not only to the person in fault, but to those about him too. As in the Scriptural phrase, doing what is of evil omen is “like one that letteth out water”. He cannot tell what are the consequences of his act, who will share them, or how they can be prevented.
In the earliest historical nations I need not say that the corporate liabilities of states is to a modern student their most curious feature. The belief is indeed raised far above the notion of mere “luck,” because there is a distinct belief in gods or a god whom the act offends. But the indiscriminate character of the punishment still survives; not only the mutilator of the Hermæ, but all the Athenians—not only the violator of the rites of the Bona dea, but all the Romans—are liable to the curse engendered; and so all through ancient history. The strength of the corporate anxiety so created is known to every one. Not only was it greater than any anxiety about personal property, but it was immeasurably greater. Naturally, even reasonably we may say, it was greater. The dread of the powers of nature, or of the beings who rule those powers, is properly, upon grounds of reason, as much greater than any other dread as the might of the powers of nature is superior to that of any other powers. If a tribe or a nation have, by a contagious fancy, come to believe that the doing of any one thing by any number will be “unlucky,” that is, will bring an intense and vast liability on them all, then that tribe and that nation will prevent the doing of that thing more than anything else. They will deal with the most cherished chief who even by chance should do it, as in a similar case the sailors dealt with Jonah.
I do not of course mean that this strange condition of mind as it seems to us was the sole source of early customs. On the contrary, man might be described as a custom-making animal with more justice than by many of the short descriptions. In whatever way a man has done anything once, he has a tendency to do it again: if he has done it several times he has a great tendency so to do it, and what is more, he has a great tendency to make others do it also. He transmits his formed customs to his children by example and by teaching. This is true now of human nature, and will always be true, no doubt. But what is peculiar in early societies is that over most of these customs there grows sooner or later a semi-supernatural sanction. The whole community is possessed with the idea that if the primal usages of the tribe be broken, harm unspeakable will happen in ways you cannot think of, and from sources you cannot imagine. As people nowadays believe that “murder will out,” and that great crime will bring even an earthly punishment, so in early times people believed that for any breach of sacred custom certain retribution would happen. To this day many semi-civilised races have great difficulty in regarding any arrangement as binding and conclusive unless they can also manage to look at it as an inherited usage. Sir H. Maine, in his last work, gives a most curious case. The English Government in India has in many cases made new and great works of irrigation, of which no ancient Indian Government ever thought; and it has generally left it to the native village community to say what share each man of the village should have in the water; and the village authorities have accordingly laid down a series of most minute rules about it. But the peculiarity is that in no case do these rules “purport to emanate from the personal authority of their author or authors, which rests on grounds of reason not on grounds of innocence and sanctity; nor do they assume to be dictated by a sense of equity; there is always, I am assured, a sort of fiction under which some customs as to the distribution of water are supposed to have emanated from a remote antiquity, although, in fact, no such artificial supply had ever been so much as thought of”. So difficult does this ancient race—like, probably, in this respect so much of the ancient world—find it to imagine a rule which is obligatory, but not traditional.
The ready formation of custom-making groups in early society must have been greatly helped by the easy divisions of that society. Much of the world—all Europe, for example—was then covered by the primeval forest; men had only conquered, and as yet could only conquer, a few plots and corners from it. These narrow spaces were soon exhausted, and if numbers grew some of the new people must move. Accordingly, migrations were constant, and were necessary. And these migrations were not like those of modern times. There was no such feeling as binds even Americans who hate, or speak as if they hated, the present political England—nevertheless to “the old home”. There was then no organised means of communication—no practical communication, we may say, between parted members of the same group; those who once went out from the parent society went out for ever; they left no abiding remembrance, and they kept no abiding regard. Even the language of the parent tribe and of the descended tribe would differ in a generation or two. There being no written literature and no spoken intercourse, the speech of both would vary (the speech of such communities is always varying), and would vary in different directions. One set of causes, events, and associations would act on one, and another set on another; sectional differences would soon arise, and, for speaking purposes, what philologists call a dialectical difference often amounts to real and total difference: no connected interchange of thought is possible any longer. Separate groups soon “set up house”; the early societies begin a new set of customs, acquire and keep a distinct and special “luck”.
If it were not for this facility of new formations, one good or bad custom would long since have “corrupted” the world; but even this would not have been enough but for those continual wars, of which I have spoken at such length in the essay on “The Use of Conflict,” that I need say nothing now. These are by their incessant fractures of old images, and by their constant infusion of new elements, the real regenerators of society. And whatever be the truth or falsehood of the general dislike to mixed and half-bred races, no such suspicion was probably applicable to the early mixtures of primitive society. Supposing, as is likely, each great aboriginal race to have had its own quarter of the world (a quarter, as it would seem, corresponding to the special quarters in which plants and animals are divided), then the immense majority of the mixtures would be between men of different tribes but of the same stock, and this no one would object to, but every one would praise.
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. As I wrote a whole essay on the manner of this before, I cannot speak of it now. By proscribing nonconformist members for generations, and cherishing and rewarding conformist members, nonconformists 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. I cannot agree, though the greatest authorities say it, that 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. A Shelley in New England could hardly have lived, and a race of Shelleys would have been impossible. Mr. Galton wishes that breeds of men should be created by matching men with marked characteristics with women of like characteristics. But surely this is what nature has been doing time out of mind, and most in the rudest nations and hardest times. Nature disheartened in each generation the ill-fitted members of each customary group, so deprived them of their full vigour, or, if they were weakly, killed them. The Spartan character was formed because none but people with a Spartan make of mind could endure a Spartan existence. The early Roman character was so formed too. Perhaps all very marked national characters can be traced back to a time of rigid and pervading discipline. In modern times, when society is more tolerant, new national characters are neither so strong, so featurely, nor so uniform.
In this manner society was occupied in prehistoric times,—it is consistent with and explicable by our general principle as to savages, that society should for ages have been so occupied, strange as that conclusion is, and incredible as it would be, if we had not been taught by experience to believe strange things.
Secondly, this principle and this conception of prehistoric times explain to us the meaning and the origin of the oldest and strangest of social anomalies—an anomaly which is among the first things history tells us—the existence of caste nations. Nothing is at first sight stranger than the aspect of those communities where several nations seem to be bound up together—where each is governed by its own rule of law, where no one pays any deference to the rule of law of any of the others. But if our principles be true, these are just the nations most likely to last, which would have a special advantage in early times, and would probably not only maintain themselves, but conquer and kill out others also. The characteristic necessity of early society as we have seen, is strict usage and binding coercive custom. But the obvious result and inevitable evil of that is monotony in society; no one can be much different from his fellows, or can cultivate his difference.
Such societies are necessarily weak from the want of variety in their elements. But a caste nation is various and composite; and has in a mode suited to early societies the constant co-operation of contrasted persons, which in a later age is one of the greatest triumphs of civilisation. In a primitive age the division between the warrior caste and the priestly caste is especially advantageous. Little popular and little deserving to be popular nowadays as are priestly hierarchies, most probably the beginnings of science were made in such, and were for ages transmitted in such. An intellectual class was in that age only possible when it was protected by a notion that whoever hurt them would certainly be punished by heaven. In this class apart discoveries were slowly made and some beginning of mental discipline was slowly matured. But such a community is necessarily unwarlike, and the superstition which protects priests from home murder will not aid them in conflict with the foreigner. Few nations mind killing their enemies’ priests, and many priestly civilisations have perished without record before they well began. But such a civilisation will not perish if a warrior caste is tacked on to it and is bound to defend it. On the contrary, such a civilisation will be singularly likely to live. The head of the sage will help the arm of the soldier.
That a nation divided into castes must be a most difficult thing to found is plain. Probably it could only begin in a country several times conquered, and where the boundaries of each caste rudely coincided with the boundaries of certain sets of victors and vanquished. But, as we now see, when founded it is a likely nation to last. A party-coloured community of many tribes and many usages is more likely to get on, and help itself, than a nation of a single lineage and one monotonous rule. I say “at first,” because I apprehend that in this case, as in so many others in the puzzling history of progress, the very institutions which most aid at step number one are precisely those which most impede at step number two. The whole of a caste nation is more various than the whole of a non-caste nation, but each caste itself is more monotonous than anything is, or can be, in a non-caste nation. Gradually a habit of action and type of mind forces itself on each caste, and it is little likely to be rid of it, for all who enter it are taught in one way and trained to the same employment. Several non-caste nations have still continued to progress. But all caste nations have stopped early, though some have lasted long. Each colour in the singular composite of these tesselated societies has an indelible and invariable shade.
Thirdly, we see why so few nations have made rapid advance, and how many have become stationary. It is in the process of becoming a nation, and in order to become such, that they subjected themselves to the influence which has made them stationary. They could not become a real nation without binding themselves by a fixed law and usage, and it is the fixity of that law and usage which has kept them as they were ever since. I wrote a whole essay on this before, so I need say nothing now; and I only name it because it is one of the most important consequences of this view of society, if not indeed the most important.
Again, we can thus explain one of the most curious facts of the present world. “Manner,” says a shrewd observer, who has seen much of existing life, “manner gets regularly worse as you go from the East to the West; it is best in Asia, not so good in Europe, and altogether bad in the western states of America.” And the reason is this—an imposing manner is a dignified usage, which tends to preserve itself and also all other existing usages along with itself. It tends to induce the obedience of mankind. One of the cleverest novelists of the present day has a curious dissertation to settle why on the hunting-field, and in all collections of men, some men “snub and some men get snubbed”; and why society recognises in each case the ascendancy or the subordination as if it was right. “It is not at all,” Mr. Trollope fully explains, “rare ability which gains the supremacy; very often the ill-treated man is quite as clever as the man who ill-treats him. Nor does it absolutely depend on wealth; for, though great wealth is almost always a protection from social ignominy, and will always ensure a passive respect, it will not in a miscellaneous group of men of itself gain an active power to snub others. Schoolboys, in the same way,” the novelist adds, “let some boys have dominion, and make other boys slaves.” And he decides, no doubt truly, that in each case “something in the manner or gait” of the supreme boy or man has much to do with it. On this account in early society a dignified manner is of essential importance; it is, then, not only an auxiliary mode of acquiring respect, but a principal mode. The competing institutions which have now much superseded it, had not then begun. Ancient institutions or venerated laws did not then exist; and the habitual ascendancy of grave manner was a primary force in winning and calming mankind. To this day it is rare to find a savage chief without it; and almost always they greatly excel in it. Only last year a red Indian chief came from the prairies to see President Grant, and everybody declared that he had the best manners in Washington. The secretaries and heads of departments seemed vulgar to him; though, of course, intrinsically they were infinitely above him, for he was only “a plundering rascal”. But an impres sive manner had been a tradition in the societies in which he had lived, because it was of great value in those societies; and it is not a tradition in America, for nowhere is it less thought of, or of less use, than in a rough English colony; the essentials of civilisation there depend on far different influences.
And manner, being so useful and so important, usages and customs grow up to develop it. Asiatic society is full of such things, if it should not rather be said to be composed of them.
“From the spirit and decision of a public envoy upon ceremonies and forms,” says Sir John Malcolm, “the Persians very generally form their opinion of the character of the country he represents. This fact I had read in books, and all I saw convinced me of its truth. Fortunately the Elchee had resided at some of the principal courts of India, whose usages are very similar. He was, therefore, deeply versed in that important science denominated ‘Kâida-e-nishest-oo-berkhâst’ (or the art of sitting and rising), in which is included a knowledge of the forms and manners of good society, and particularly those of Asiatic kings and their courts.
“He was quite aware, on his first arrival in Persia, of the consequence of every step he took on such delicate points; he was, therefore, anxious to fight all his battles regarding ceremonies before he came near the footstool of royalty. We were consequently plagued, from the moment we landed at Ambusheher, till we reached Shiraz, with daily almost hourly drilling, that we might be perfect in our demeanour at all places, and under all circumstances. We were carefully instructed where to ride in a procession, where to stand or sit within-doors, when to rise from our seats, how far to advance to meet a visitor, and to what part of the tent or house we were to follow him when he departed, if he was of sufficient rank to make us stir a step.
“The regulations of our risings and standings, and movings and reseatings, were, however, of comparatively less importance than the time and manner of smoking our Kelliâns and taking our coffee. It is quite astonishing how much depends upon coffee and tobacco in Persia. Men are gratified or offended, according to the mode in which these favourite refreshments are offered. You welcome a visitor, or send him off, by the way in which you call for a pipe or a cup of coffee. Then you mark, in the most minute manner, every shade of attention and consideration, by the mode in which he is treated. If he be above you, you present these refreshments yourself, and do not partake till commanded; if equal, you exchange pipes, and present him with coffee, taking the next cup yourself; if a little below you, and you wish to pay him attention, you leave him to smoke his own pipe, but the servant gives him, according to your condescending nod, the first cup of coffee; if much inferior, you keep your distance and maintain your rank, by taking the first cup of coffee yourself, and then directing the servant, by a wave of the hand to help the guest.
“When a visitor arrives, the coffee and pipe are called for to welcome him; a second call for these articles announces that he may depart; but this part of the ceremony varies according to the relative rank or intimacy of the parties.
“These matters may appear light to those with whom observances of this character are habits, not rules; but in this country they are of primary consideration, a man’s importance with himself and with others depending on them.”
In ancient customary societies the influence of manner, which is a primary influence, has been settled into rules, so that it may aid established usages and not thwart them—that it may, above all, augment the habit of going by custom, and not break and weaken it. Every aid, as we have seen, was wanted to impose the yoke of custom upon such societies; and impressing the power of manner to serve them was one of the greatest aids.
And lastly, we now understand why order and civilisation are so unstable even in progressive communities. We see frequently in states what physiologists call “Atavism”—the return, in part, to the unstable nature of their barbarous ancestors.
Such scenes of cruelty and horror as happened in the great French Revolution, and as happen, more or less, in every great riot, have always been said to bring out a secret and suppressed side of human nature; and we now see that they were the outbreak of inherited passions long repressed by fixed custom, but starting into life as soon as that repression was catastrophically removed, and when sudden choice was given. The irritability of mankind, too, is only part of their imperfect, transitory civilisation and of their original savage nature. They could not look steadily to a given end for an hour in their prehistoric state; and even now, when excited or when suddenly and wholly thrown out of their old grooves, they can scarcely do so. Even some very high races, as the French and the Irish, seem in troubled times hardly to be stable at all, but to be carried everywhere as the passions of the moment and the ideas generated at the hour may determine. But, thoroughly to deal with such phenomena as these, we must examine the mode in which national characters can be emancipated from the rule of custom, and can be prepared for the use of choice.
 Readers of Scott’s life will remember that an admirer of his in humble life proposed to cure him of inflammation of the bowels by making him sleep a whole night on twelve smooth stones, painfully collected by the admirer from twelve brooks, which was, it appeared, a recipe of sovereign traditional power. Scott gravely told the proposer that he had mistaken the charm, and that the stones were of no virtue unless wrapped up in the petticoat of a widow who never wished to marry again, and as no such widow seems to have been forthcoming, he escaped the remedy.