Source: Herbert Spencer, Essays on Education and Kindred Subjects, Introduction by Charles W. Eliot (London: Dent, 1911). Chapter: ON MANNERS AND FASHION
Copyright: The text is in the public domain.
Fair Use: This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Whoever has studied the physiognomy of political meetings, cannot fail to have remarked a connection between democratic opinions and peculiarities of costume. At a Chartist demonstration, a lecture on Socialism, or a soirée of the Friends of Italy, there will be seen many among the audience, and a still larger ratio among the speakers, who get themselves up in a style more or less unusual. One gentleman on the platform divides his hair down the centre, instead of on one side; another brushes it back off the forehead, in the fashion known as “bringing out the intellect;” a third has so long forsworn the scissors, that his locks sweep his shoulders. A considerable sprinkling of moustaches may be observed; here and there an imperial; and occasionally some courageous breaker of conventions exhibits a full-grown beard.2 This nonconformity in hair is countenanced by various nonconformities in dress, shown by others of the assemblage. Bare necks, shirt-collars à la Byron, waistcoats cut Quaker fashion, wonderfully shaggy great coats, numerous oddities in form and colour, destroy the monotony usual in crowds. Even those exhibiting no conspicuous peculiarity, frequently indicate by something in the pattern or makeup of their clothes, that they pay small regard to what their tailors tell them about the prevailing taste. And when the gathering breaks up, the varieties of head-gear displayed—the number of caps, and the abundance of felt hats—suffice to prove that were the world at large like-minded, the black cylinders which tyrannise over us would soon be deposed.
The foreign correspondence of our daily press shows that this relationship between political discontent and the disregard of customs exists on the Continent also. Red republicanism has always been distinguished by its hirsuteness. The authorities of Prussia, Austria, and Italy, alike recognise certain forms of hat as indicative of disaffection, and fulminate against them accordingly. In some places the wearer of a blouse runs a risk of being classed among the suspects; and in others, he who would avoid the bureau of police, must beware how he goes out in any but the ordinary colours. Thus, democracy abroad, as at home, tends towards personal singularity.
Nor is this association of characteristics peculiar to modern times, or to reformers of the State. It has always existed; and it has been manifested as much in religious agitations as in political ones. Along with dissent from the chief established opinions and arrangements, there has ever been some dissent from the customary social practices. The Puritans, disapproving of the long curls of the Cavaliers, as of their principles, cut their own hair short, and so gained the name of “Roundheads.” The marked religious nonconformity of the Quakers was accompanied by an equally-marked nonconformity of manners—in attire, in speech, in salutation. The early Moravians not only believed differently, but at the same time dressed differently, and lived differently, from their fellow Christians.
That the association between political independence and independence of personal conduct, is not a phenomenon of to-day only, we may see alike in the appearance of Franklin at the French court in plain clothes, and in the white hats worn by the last generation of radicals. Originality of nature is sure to show itself in more ways than one. The mention of George Fox’s suit of leather, or Pestalozzi’s school name, “Harry Oddity,” will at once suggest the remembrance that men who have in great things diverged from the beaten track, have frequently done so in small things likewise. Minor illustrations of this truth may be gathered in almost every circle. We believe that whoever will number up his reforming and rationalist acquaintances, will find among them more than the usual proportion of those who in dress or behaviour exhibit some degree of what the world calls eccentricity.
If it be a fact that men of revolutionary aims in politics or religion, are commonly revolutionists in custom also, it is not less a fact that those whose office it is to uphold established arrangements in State and Church, are also those who most adhere to the social forms and observances bequeathed to us by past generations. Practices elsewhere extinct still linger about the headquarters of government. The monarch still gives assent to Acts of Parliament in the old French of the Normans; and Norman French terms are still used in law. Wigs, such as those we see depicted in old portraits, may yet be found on the heads of judges and barristers. The Beefeaters at the Tower wear the costume of Henry VIIth’s bodyguard. The University dress of the present year varies but little from that worn soon after the Reformation. The claret-coloured coat, knee-breeches, lace shirt frills, ruffles, white silk stockings, and buckled shoes, which once formed the usual attire of a gentleman, still survive as the court-dress. And it need scarcely be said that at levées and drawing-rooms, the ceremonies are prescribed with an exactness, and enforced with a rigour, not elsewhere to be found.
Can we consider these two series of coincidences as accidental and unmeaning? Must we not rather conclude that some necessary relationship obtains between them? Are there not such things as a constitutional conservatism, and a constitutional tendency to change? Is there not a class which clings to the old in all things; and another class so in love with progress as often to mistake novelty for improvement? Do we not find some men ready to bow to established authority of whatever kind; while others demand of every such authority its reason, and reject it if it fails to justify itself? And must not the minds thus contrasted tend to become respectively conformist and nonconformist, not only in politics and religion, but in other things? Submission, whether to a government, to the dogmas of ecclesiastics, or to that code of behaviour which society at large has set up, is essentially of the same nature; and the sentiment which induces resistance to the despotism of rulers, civil or spiritual, likewise induces resistance to the despotism of the world’s opinion. Look at them fundamentally, and all enactments, alike of the legislature, the consistory, and the saloon—all regulations, formal or virtual, have a common character: they are all limitations of men’s freedom. “Do this—Refrain from that,” are the blank formulas into which they may all be written: and in each case the understanding is that obedience will bring approbation here and paradise hereafter; while disobedience will entail imprisonment, or sending to Coventry, or eternal torments, as the case may be. And if restraints, however named, and through whatever apparatus of means exercised, are one in their action upon men, it must happen that those who are patient under one kind of restraint, are likely to be patient under another; and conversely, that those impatient of restraint in general, will, on the average, tend to show their impatience in all directions.
That Law, Religion, and Manners are thus related—that their respective kinds of operation come under one generalisation—that they have in certain contrasted characteristics of men a common support and a common danger—will, however, be most clearly seen on discovering that they have a common origin. Little as from present appearances we should suppose it, we shall yet find that at first, the control of religion, the control of laws and the control of manners, were all one control. However incredible it may now seem, we believe it to be demonstrable that the rules of etiquette, the provisions of the statute-book, and the commands of the decalogue, have grown from the same root. If we go far enough back into the ages of primeval Fetishism, it becomes manifest that originally Diety, Chief, and Master of the ceremonies were identical. To make good these positions, and to show their bearing on what is to follow, it will be necessary here to traverse ground that is in part somewhat beaten, and at first sight irrelevant to our topic. We will pass over it as quickly as consists with the exigencies of the argument.
That the earliest social aggregations were ruled solely by the will of the strong man, few dispute. That from the strong man proceeded not only Monarchy, but the conception of a God, few admit: much as Carlyle and others have said in evidence of it. If, however, those who are unable to believe this, will lay aside the ideas of God and man in which they have been educated, and study the aboriginal ideas of them, they will at least see some probability in the hypothesis. Let them remember that before experience had yet taught men to distinguish between the possible and the impossible; and while they were ready on the slightest suggestion to ascribe unknown powers to any object and make a fetish of it; their conceptions of humanity and its capacities were necessarily vague, and without specific limits. The man who by unusual strength, or cunning, achieved something that others had failed to achieve, or something which they did not understand, was considered by them as differing from themselves; and, as we see in the belief of some Polynesians that only their chiefs have souls, or in that of the ancient Peruvians that their nobles were divine by birth, the ascribed difference was apt to be not one of degree only, but one of kind.
Let them remember next, how gross were the notions of God, or rather of gods, prevalent during the same era and afterwards—how concretely gods were conceived as men of specific aspects dressed in specific ways—how their names were literally “the strong,” “the destroyer,” “the powerful one,”—how, according to the Scandinavian mythology, the “sacred duty of blood-revenge” was acted on by the gods themselves,—and how they were not only human in their vindictiveness, their cruelty, and their quarrels with each other, but were supposed to have amours on earth, and to consume the viands placed on their altars. Add to which, that in various mythologies, Greek, Scandinavian, and others, the oldest beings are giants; that according to a traditional genealogy the gods, demi-gods, and in some cases men, are descended from these after the human fashion; and that while in the East we hear of sons of God who saw the daughters of men that they were fair, the Teutonic myths tell of unions between the sons of men and the daughters of the gods.
Let them remember, too, that at first the idea of death differed widely from that which we have; that there are still tribes who, on the decease of one of their number, attempt to make the corpse stand, and put food into his mouth; that the Peruvians had feasts at which the mummies of their dead Incas presided, when, as Prescott says, they paid attention “to these insensible remains as if they were instinct with life;” that among the Fejees it is believed that every enemy has to be killed twice; that the Eastern Pagans give extension and figure to the soul, and attribute to it all the same substances, both solid and liquid, of which our bodies are composed; and that it is the custom among most barbarous races to bury food, weapons, and trinkets along with the dead body, under the manifest belief that it will presently need them.
Lastly, let them remember that the other world, as originally conceived, is simply some distant part of this world—some Elysian fields, some happy hunting-ground, accessible even to the living, and to which, after death, men travel in anticipation of a life analogous in general character to that which they led before. Then, co-ordinating these general facts—the ascription of unknown powers to chiefs and medicine men; the belief in deities having human forms, passions, and behaviour; the imperfect comprehension of death as distinguished from life; and the proximity of the future abode to the present, both in position and character—let them reflect whether they do not almost unavoidably suggest the conclusion that the aboriginal god is the dead chief; the chief not dead in our sense, but gone away carrying with him food and weapons to some rumoured region of plenty, some promised land, whither he had long intended to lead his followers, and whence he will presently return to fetch them.
This hypothesis once entertained, is seen to harmonise with all primitive ideas and practices. The sons of the deified chief reigning after him, it necessarily happens that all early kings are held descendants of the gods; and the fact that alike in Assyria, Egypt, among the Jews, Phœnicians, and ancient Britons, kings’ names were formed out of the names of the gods, is fully explained. The genesis of Polytheism out of Fetishism, by the successive migrations of the race of god-kings to the other world—a genesis illustrated in the Greek mythology, alike by the precise genealogy of the deities, and by the specifically asserted apotheosis of the later ones—tends further to bear it out. It explains the fact that in the old creeds, as in the still extant creed of the Otaheitans, every family has its guardian spirit, who is supposed to be one of their departed relatives; and that they sacrifice to these as minor gods—a practice still pursued by the Chinese and even by the Russians. It is perfectly congruous with the Grecian myths concerning the wars of the Gods with the Titans and their final usurpation; and it similarly agrees with the fact that among the Teutonic gods proper was one Freir who came among them by adoption, “but was born among the Vanes, a somewhat mysterious other dynasty of gods, who had been conquered and superseded by the stronger and more warlike Odin dynasty.” It harmonises, too, with the belief that there are different gods to different territories and nations, as there were different chiefs; that these gods contend for supremacy as chiefs do; and it gives meaning to the boast of neighbouring tribes—“Our god is greater than your god.” It is confirmed by the notion universally current in early times, that the gods come from this other abode, in which they commonly live, and appear among men—speak to them, help them, punish them. And remembering this, it becomes manifest that the prayers put up by primitive peoples to their gods for aid in battle, are meant literally—that their gods are expected to come back from the other kingdom they are reigning over, and once more fight the old enemies they had before warred against so implacably; and it needs but to name the Iliad, to remind every one how thoroughly they believed the expectation fulfilled.
All government, then, being originally that of the strong man who has become a fetish by some manifestation of superiority, there arises, at his death—his supposed departure on a long projected expedition, in which he is accompanied by his slaves and concubines sacrificed at his tomb—their arises, then, the incipient division of religious from political control, of civil rule from spiritual. His son becomes deputed chief during his absence; his authority is cited as that by which his son acts; his vengeance is invoked on all who disobey his son; and his commands, as previously known or as asserted by his son, become the germ of a moral code; a fact we shall the more clearly perceive if we remember, that early moral codes inculcate mainly the virtues of the warrior, and the duty of exterminating some neighbouring tribe whose existence is an offence to the deity.
From this point onwards, these two kinds of authority, at first complicated together as those of principal and agent, become slowly more and more distinct. As experience accumulates, and ideas of causation grow more precise, kings lose their supernatural attributes; and, instead of God-king, become God-descended king, God-appointed king, the Lord’s anointed, the vicegerent of heaven, ruler reigning by Divine right. The old theory, however, long clings to men in feeling, after it has disappeared in name; and “such divinity doth hedge a king,” that even now, many, on first seeing one, feel a secret surprise at finding him an ordinary sample of humanity. The sacredness attaching to royalty attaches afterwards to its appended institutions—to legislatures, to laws. Legal and illegal are synonymous with right and wrong; the authority of Parliament is held unlimited; and a lingering faith in governmental power continually generates unfounded hopes from its enactments. Political scepticism, however, having destroyed the divine prestige of royalty, goes on ever increasing, and promises ultimately to reduce the State to a purely secular institution, whose regulations are limited in their sphere, and have no other authority than the general will. Meanwhile, the religious control has been little by little separating itself from the civil, both in its essence and in its forms. While from the God-king of the savage have arisen in one direction, secular rulers who, age by age, have been losing the sacred attributes men ascribed to them; there has arisen in another direction, the conception of a deity, who, at first human in all things, has been gradually losing human materiality, human form, human passions, human modes of action: until now, anthropomorphism has become a reproach.
Along with this wide divergence in men’s ideas of the divine and civil ruler has been taking place a corresponding divergence in the codes of conduct respectively proceeding from them. While the king was a deputy-god—a governor such as the Jews looked for in the Messiah—a governor considered, as the Czar still is, “our God upon Earth,”—it, of course, followed that his commands were the supreme rules. But as men ceased to believe in his supernatural origin and nature, his commands ceased to be the highest; and there arose a distinction between the regulations made by him, and the regulations handed down from the old god-kings, who were rendered ever more sacred by time and the accumulation of myths. Hence came respectively, Law and Morality: the one growing ever more concrete, the other more abstract; the authority of the one ever on the decrease, that of the other ever on the increase; originally the same, but now placed daily in more marked antagonism.
Simultaneously there has been going on a separation of the institutions administering these two codes of conduct. While they were yet one, of course Church and State were one: the king was arch-priest, not nominally, but really—alike the giver of new commands and the chief interpreter of the old commands; and the deputy-priests coming out of his family were thus simply expounders of the dictates of their ancestry: at first as recollected, and afterwards as ascertained by professed interviews with them. This union—which still existed practically during the middle ages, when the authority of kings was mixed up with the authority of the pope, when there were bishop-rulers having all the powers of feudal lords, and when priests punished by penances—has been, step by step, becoming less close. Though monarchs are still “defenders of the faith,” and ecclesiastical chiefs, they are but nominally such. Though bishops still have civil power, it is not what they once had. Protestantism shook loose the bonds of union; Dissent has long been busy in organising a mechanism for the exercise of religious control, wholly independent of law; in America, a separate organisation for that purpose already exists; and if anything is to be hoped from the Anti-State-Church Association—or, as it has been newly named, “The Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control”—we shall presently have a separate organisation here also.
Thus alike in authority, in essence, and in form, political and spiritual rule have been ever more widely diverging from the same root. That increasing division of labour which marks the progress of society in other things, marks it also in this separation of government into civil and religious; and if we observe how the morality which forms the substance of religions in general, is beginning to be purified from the associated creeds, we may anticipate that this division will be ultimately carried much further.
Passing now to the third species of control—that of Manners—we shall find that this, too, while it had a common genesis with the others, has gradually come to have a distinct sphere and a special embodiment. Among early aggregations of men before yet social observances existed, the sole forms of courtesy known were the signs of submission to the strong man; as the sole law was his will, and the sole religion the awe of his supposed super-naturalness. Originally, ceremonies were modes of behaviour to the god-king. Our commonest titles have been derived from his names. And all salutations were primarily worship paid to him. Let us trace out these truths in detail, beginning with titles.
The fact already noticed, that the names of early kings among divers races are formed by the addition of certain syllables to the names of their gods—which certain syllables, like our Mac and Fitz, probably mean “son of,” or “descended from”—at once gives meaning to the term Father as a divine title. And when we read, in Selden, that “the composition out of these names of Deities was not only proper to Kings: their Grandes and more honourable Subjects” (no doubt members of the royal race) “had sometimes the like;” we see how the term Father, properly used by these also, and by their multiplying descendants, came to be a title used by the people in general. And it is significant as bearing on this point, that among the most barbarous nation in Europe, where belief in the divine nature of the ruler still lingers, Father in this higher sense is still a regal distinction. When, again, we remember how the divinity at first ascribed to kings was not a complimentary fiction but a supposed fact; and how, further, under the Fetish philosophy the celestial bodies are believed to be personages who once lived among men; we see that the appellations of oriental rulers, “Brother to the Sun,” etc., were probably once expressive of a genuine belief; and have simply, like many other things, continued in use after all meaning has gone out of them. We way infer, too, that the titles, God, Lord, Divinity, were given to primitive rulers literally—that the nostra divinitas applied to the Roman emperors, and the various sacred designations that have been borne by monarchs, down to the still extant phrase, “Our Lord the King,” are the dead and dying forms of what were once living facts. From these names, God, Father, Lord, Divinity, originally belonging to the God-king, and afterwards to God and the king, the derivation of our commonest titles of respect is clearly traceable.
There is reason to think that these titles were originally proper names. Not only do we see among the Egyptians, where Pharaoh was synonymous with king, and among the Romans, where to be Cæsar meant to be Emperor, that the proper names of the greatest men were transferred to their successors, and so became class names; but in the Scandinavian mythology we may trace a human title of honour up to the proper name of a divine personage. In Anglo-Saxon bealdor, or baldor, means Lord; and Balder is the name of the favourite of Odin’s sons—the gods who with him constitute the Teutonic Pantheon. How these names of honour became general is easily understood. The relatives of the primitive kings—the grandees described by Selden as having names formed on those of the gods, and shown by this to be members of the divine race—necessarily shared in the epithets, such as Lord, descriptive of superhuman relationships and nature. Their ever-multiplying offspring inheriting these, gradually rendered them comparatively common. And then they came to be applied to every man of power: partly from the fact that, in these early days when men conceived divinity simply as a stronger kind of humanity, great persons could be called by divine epithets with but little exaggeration; partly from the fact that the unusually potent were apt to be considered as unrecognised or illegitimate descendants of “the strong, the destroyer, the powerful one;” and partly, also, from compliment and the desire to propitiate.
Progressively as superstition diminished, this last became the sole cause. And if we remember that it is the nature of compliment, as we daily hear it, to attribute more than is due—that in the constantly widening application of “esquire,” in the perpetual repetition of “your honour” by the fawning Irishman, and in the use of the name “gentleman” to any coalheaver or dustman by the lower classes of London, we have current examples of the depreciation of titles consequent on compliment—and that in barbarous times, when the wish to propitiate was stronger than now, this effect must have been greater; we shall see that there naturally arose an extensive misuse of all early distinctions. Hence the facts, that the Jews called Herod a god; that Father, in its higher sense, was a term used among them by servants to masters; that Lord was applicable to any person of worth and power. Hence, too, the fact that, in the later periods of the Roman Empire, every man saluted his neighbour as Dominus and Rex.
But it is in the titles of the middle ages, and in the growth of our modern ones out of them, that the process is most clearly seen. Herr, Don, Signior, Seigneur, Sennor, were all originally names of rulers—of feudal lords. By the complimentary use of these names to all who could, on any pretence, be supposed to merit them, and by successive degradations of them from each step in the descent to a still lower one, they have come to be common forms of address. At first the phrase in which a serf accosted his despotic chief, mein herr is now familiarly applied in Germany to ordinary people. The Spanish title Don, once proper to noblemen and gentlemen only, is now accorded to all classes. So, too, is it with Signior in Italy. Seigneur and Monseigneur, by contraction in Sieur and Monsieur, have produced the term of respect claimed by every Frenchman. And whether Sire be or be not a like contraction of Signior, it is clear that, as it was borne by sundry of the ancient feudal lords of France, who, as Selden says, “affected rather to bee stiled by the name of Sire than Baron, as Le Sire de Montmorencie, Le Sire de Beauieu, and the like,” and as it has been commonly used to monarchs, our word Sir, which is derived from it, originally meant lord or king. Thus, too, is it with feminine titles. Lady, which, according to Horne Tooke, means exalted, and was at first given only to the few, is now given to all women of education. Dame, once an honourable name to which, in old books, we find the epithets of “high-born” and “stately” affixed, has now, by repeated widenings of its application, become relatively a term of contempt. And if we trace the compound of this, ma Dame, through its contractions—Madam, ma’am, mam, mum, we find that the “Yes’m” of Sally to her mistress is originally equivalent to “Yes, my exalted,” or “Yes, your highness.” Throughout, therefore, the genesis of words of honour has been the same. Just as with the Jews and with the Romans, has it been with the modern Europeans. Tracing these everyday names to their primitive significations of lord and king, and remembering that in aboriginal societies these were applied only to the gods and their descendants, we arrive at the conclusion that our familiar Sir and Monsieur are, in their primary and expanded meanings, terms of adoration.
Further to illustrate this gradual depreciation of titles and to confirm the inference drawn, it may be well to notice in passing, that the oldest of them have, as might be expected, been depreciated to the greatest extent. Thus, Master—a word proved by its derivation and by the similarity of the connate words in other languages (Fr., Maître for master; Russ., master; Dan., meester; Ger., meister) to have been one of the earliest in use for expressing lordship—has now become applicable to children only, and under the modification of “Mister,” to persons next above the labourer. Again, knighthood, the oldest kind of dignity, is also the lowest; and Knight Bachelor, which is the lowest order of knighthood, is more ancient than any other of the orders. Similarly, too, with the peerage, Baron is alike the earliest and least elevated of its divisions. This continual degradation of all names of honour has, from time to time, made it requisite to introduce new ones having that distinguishing effect which the originals had lost by generality of use; just as our habit of misapplying superlatives has, by gradually destroying their force, entailed the need for fresh ones. And if, within the last thousand years, this process has produced effects thus marked, we may readily conceive how, during previous thousands, the titles of gods and demi-gods came to be used to all persons exercising power; as they have since come to be used to persons of respectability.
If from names of honour we turn to phrases of honour, we find similar facts. The Oriental styles of address, applied to ordinary people—“I am your slave,” “All I have is yours,” “I am your sacrifice”—attribute to the individual spoken to the same greatness that Monsieur and My Lord do: they ascribe to him the character of an all-powerful ruler, so immeasurably superior to the speaker as to be his owner. So, likewise, with the Polish expressions of respect—“I throw myself under your feet,” “I kiss your feet.” In our now meaningless subscription to a formal letter—“Your most obedient servant,”—the same thing is visible. Nay, even in the familiar signature “Yours faithfully,” the “yours,” if interpreted as originally meant, is the expression of a slave to his master.
All these dead forms were once living embodiments of fact—were primarily the genuine indications of that submission to authority which they verbally assert; were afterwards naturally used by the weak and cowardly to propitiate those above them; gradually grew to be considered the due of such; and, by a continually wider misuse, have lost their meanings, as Sir and Master have done. That, like titles, they were in the beginning used only to the God-king, is indicated by the fact that, like titles, they were subsequently used in common to God and the king. Religious worship has ever largely consisted of professions of obedience, of being God’s servants, of belonging to him to do what he will with. Like titles, therefore, these common phrases of honour had a devotional origin.
Perhaps, however, it is in the use of the word you as a singular pronoun that the popularising of what were once supreme distinctions is most markedly illustrated. This speaking of a single individual in the plural was originally an honour given only to the highest—was the reciprocal of the imperial “we” assumed by such. Yet now, by being applied to successively lower and lower classes, it has become all but universal. Only by one sect of Christians, and in a few secluded districts, is the primitive thou still used. And the you, in becoming common to all ranks, has simultaneously lost every vestige of the honour once attaching to it.
But the genesis of Manners out of forms of allegiance and worship is above all shown in men’s modes of salutation. Note first the significance of the word. Among the Romans, the salutatio was a daily homage paid by clients and inferiors to superiors. This was alike the case with civilians and in the army. The very derivation of our word, therefore, is suggestive of submission. Passing to particular forms of obeisance (mark the word again), let us begin with the Eastern one of baring the feet. This was, primarily, a mark of reverence, alike to a god and a king. The act of Moses before the burning bush, and the practice of Mahometans, who are sworn on the Koran with their shoes off, exemplify the one employment of it; the custom of the Persians, who remove their shoes on entering the presence of their monarch, exemplifies the other. As usual, however, this homage, paid next to inferior rulers, has descended from grade to grade. In India, it is a common mark of respect; a polite man in Turkey always leaves his shoes at the door, while the lower orders of Turks never enter the presence of their superiors but in their stockings; and in Japan, this baring of the feet is an ordinary salutation of man to man.
Take another case. Selden, describing the ceremonies of the Romans, says:—“For whereas it was usual either to kiss the Images of their Gods, or adoring them, to stand somewhat off before them, solemnly moving the right hand to the lips, and then, casting it as if they had cast kisses, to turne the body on the same hand (which was the right forme of Adoration), it grew also by custom, first that the emperors, being next to Deities, and by some accounted as Deities, had the like done to them in acknowledgment of their Greatness.” If, now, we call to mind the awkward salute of a village school-boy, made by putting his open hand up to his face and describing a semicircle with his forearm; and if we remember that the salute thus used as a form of reverence in country districts, is most likely a remnant of the feudal times; we shall see reason for thinking that our common wave of the hand to a friend across the street, represents what was primarily a devotional act.
Similarly have originated all forms of respect depending upon inclinations of the body. Entire prostration is the aboriginal sign of submission. The passage of Scripture, “Thou hast put all under his feet,” and that other one, so suggestive in its anthropomorphism, “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool,” imply, what the Assyrian sculptures fully bear out, that it was the practice of the ancient god-kings of the East to trample upon the conquered. And when we bear in mind that there are existing savages who signify submission by placing the neck under the foot of the person submitted to, it becomes obvious that all prostration, especially when accompanied by kissing the foot, expressed a willingness to be trodden upon—was an attempt to mitigate wrath by saying, in signs, “Tread on me if you will.” Remembering, further, that kissing the foot, as of the Pope and of a saint’s statue, still continues in Europe to be a mark of extreme reverence; that prostration to feudal lords was once general; and that its disappearance must have taken place, not abruptly, but by gradual modification into something else; we have ground for deriving from these deepest of humiliations all inclinations of respect; especially as the transition is traceable. The reverence of a Russian serf, who bends his head to the ground, and the salaam of the Hindoo, are abridged prostrations; a bow is a short salaam; a nod is a short bow.
Should any hesitate to admit this conclusion, then perhaps, on being reminded that the lowest of these obeisances are common where the submission is most abject; that among ourselves the profundity of the bow marks the amount of respect; and lastly, that the bow is even now used devotionally in our churches—by Catholics to their altars, and by Protestants at the name of Christ—they will see sufficient evidence for thinking that this salutation also was originally worship.
The same may be said, too, of the curtsy, or courtesy, as it is otherwise written. Its derivation from courtoisie, courteousness, that is, behaviour like that at court, at once shows that it was primarily the reverence paid to a monarch. And if we call to mind that falling upon the knees, or upon one knee, has been a common obeisance of subjects to rulers; that in ancient manuscripts and tapestries, servants are depicted as assuming this attitude while offering the dishes to their masters at table; and that this same attitude is assumed towards our own queen at every presentation; we may infer, what the character of the curtsy itself suggests, that it is an abridged act of kneeling. As the word has been contracted from courtoisie into curtsy, so the motion has been contracted from a placing of the knee on the floor, to a lowering of the knee towards the floor. Moreover, when we compare the curtsy of a lady with the awkward one a peasant girl makes, which, if continued, would bring her down on both knees, we may see in this last a remnant of that greater reverence required of serfs. And when, from considering that simple kneeling of the West, still represented by the curtsy, we pass Eastward, and note the attitude of the Mahometan worshipper, who not only kneels but bows his head to the ground, we may infer that the curtsy also is an evanescent form of the aboriginal prostration.
In further evidence of this it may be remarked, that there has but recently disappeared from the salutations of men, an action having the same proximate derivation with the curtsy. That backward sweep of the foot with which the conventional stage-sailor accompanies his bow—a movement which prevailed generally in past generations, when “a bow and a scrape” went together, and which, within the memory of living persons, was made by boys to their schoolmaster with the effect of wearing a hole in the floor—is pretty clearly a preliminary to going on one knee. A motion so ungainly could never have been intentionally introduced; even if the artificial introduction of obeisances were possible. Hence we must regard it as the remnant of something antecedent: and that this something antecedent was humiliating may be inferred from the phrase, “scraping an acquaintance;” which, being used to denote the gaining of favour by obsequiousness, implies that the scrape was considered a mark of servility—that is, of serf-ility.
Consider, again, the uncovering of the head. Almost everywhere this has been a sign of reverence, alike in temples and before potentates; and it yet preserves among us some of its original meaning. Whether it rains, hails, or shines, you must keep your head bare while speaking to the monarch; and on no plea may you remain covered in a place of worship. As usual, however, this ceremony, at first a submission to gods and kings, has become in process of time a common civility. Once an acknowledgment of another’s unlimited supremacy, the removal of the hat is now a salute accorded to very ordinary persons, and that uncovering, originally reserved for entrance into “the house of God,” good manners now dictates on entrance into the house of a common labourer.
Standing, too, as a mark of respect, has undergone like extensions in its application. Shown, by the practice in our churches, to be intermediate between the humiliation signified by kneeling and the self-respect which sitting implies, and used at courts as a form of homage when more active demonstrations of it have been made, this posture is now employed in daily life to show consideration; as seen alike in the attitude of a servant before a master, and in that rising which politeness prescribes on the entrance of a visitor.
Many other threads of evidence might have been woven into our argument. As, for example, the significant fact, that if we trace back our still existing law of primogeniture—if we consider it as displayed by Scottish clans, in which not only ownership but government devolved from the beginning on the eldest son of the eldest—if we look further back, and observe that the old titles of lordship, Signor, Seigneur, Sennor, Sire, Sieur, all originally mean, senior, or elder—if we go Eastward, and find that Sheick has a like derivation, and that the Oriental names for priests, as Pir, for instance, are literally interpreted old man—if we note in Hebrew records how primeval is the ascribed superiority of the first-born, how great the authority of elders, and how sacred the memory of patriarchs—and if, then, we remember that among divine titles are “Ancient of Days,” and “Father of Gods and men;”—we see how completely these facts harmonise with the hypothesis, that the aboriginal god is the first man sufficiently great to become a tradition, the earliest whose power and deeds made him remembered; that hence antiquity unavoidably became associated with superiority, and age with nearness in blood to “the powerful one;” that so there naturally arose that domination of the eldest which characterises all history, and that theory of human degeneracy which even yet survives.
We might further dwell on the facts, that Lord signifies highborn, or, as the same root gives a word meaning heaven, possibly heaven-born; that, before it became common, Sir or Sire, as well as Father, was the distinction of a priest; that worship, originally worth-ship—a term of respect that has been used commonly, as well as to magistrates—is also our term for the act of attributing greatness or worth to the Deity; so that to ascribe worth-ship to a man is to worship him. We might make much of the evidence that all early governments are more or less distinctly theocratic; and that among ancient Eastern nations even the commonest forms and customs appear to have been influenced by religion. We might enforce our argument respecting the derivation of ceremonies, by tracing out the aboriginal obeisance made by putting dust on the head, which probably symbolises putting the head in the dust: by affiliating the practice prevailing among certain tribes, of doing another honour by presenting him with a portion of hair torn from the head—an act which seems tantamount to saying, “I am your slave;” by investigating the Oriental custom of giving to a visitor any object he speaks of admiringly, which is pretty clearly a carrying out of the compliment, “All I have is yours.”
Without enlarging, however, on these and many minor facts, we venture to think that the evidence already assigned is sufficient to justify our position. Had the proofs been few or of one kind, little faith could have been placed in the inference. But numerous as they are, alike in the case of titles, in that of complimentary phrases, and in that of salutes—similar and simultaneous, too, as the process of depreciation has been in all of these; the evidences become strong by mutual confirmation. And when we recollect, also, that not only have the results of this process been visible in various nations and in all times, but that they are occurring among ourselves at the present moment, and that the causes assigned for previous depreciations may be seen daily working out other ones—when we recollect this, it becomes scarcely possible to doubt that the process has been as alleged; and that our ordinary words, acts, and phrases of civility were originally acknowledgments of submission to another’s omnipotence.
Thus the general doctrine, that all kinds of government exercised over men were at first one government—that the political, the religious, and the ceremonial forms of control are divergent branches of a general and once indivisible control—begins to look tenable. When, with the above facts fresh in mind, we read primitive records, and find that “there were giants in those days”—when we remember that in Eastern traditions Nimrod, among others, figures in all the characters of giant, king, and divinity—when we turn to the sculptures exhumed by Mr. Layard, and contemplating in them the effigies of kings driving over enemies, trampling on prisoners, and adored by prostrate slaves, then observe how their actions correspond to the primitive names for the divinity, “the strong,” “the destroyer,” “the powerful one”—when we find that the earliest temples were also the residences of the kings—and when, lastly, we discover that among races of men still living there are current superstitions analogous to those which old records and old buildings indicate; we begin to realise the probability of the hypothesis that has been set forth.
Going back, in imagination, to the remote era when men’s theories of things were yet unformed; and conceiving to ourselves the conquering chief as dimly figured in ancient myths, and poems, and ruins; we may see that all rules of conduct whatever spring from his will. Alike legislator and judge, all quarrels among his subjects are decided by him; and his words become the Law. Awe of him is the incipient Religion; and his maxims furnish its first precepts. Submission is made to him in the forms he prescribes; and these give birth to Manners. From the first, time develops political allegiance and the administration of justice; from the second, the worship of a being whose personality becomes ever more vague, and the inculcation of precepts ever more abstract; from the third, forms of honour and the rules of etiquette.
In conformity with the law of evolution of all organised bodies, that general functions are gradually separated into the special functions constituting them, there have grown up in the social organism for the better performance of the governmental office, an apparatus of law-courts, judges, and barristers; a national church, with its bishops and priests; and a system of caste, titles, and ceremonies, administered by society at large. By the first, overt aggressions are cognised and punished; by the second, the disposition to commit such aggressions is in some degree checked; by the third, those minor breaches of good conduct, which the others do not notice, are denounced and chastised. Law and Religion control behaviour in its essentials: Manners control it in its details. For regulating those daily actions which are too numerous and too unimportant to be officially directed, there comes into play this subtler set of restraints. And when we consider what these restraints are—when we analyse the words, and phrases, and salutes employed, we see that in origin as in effect, the system is a setting up of temporary governments between all men who come in contact, for the purpose of better managing the intercourse between them.
From the proposition, that these several kinds of government are essentially one, both in genesis and function, may be deduced several important corollaries, directly bearing on our special topic.
Let us first notice, that there is not only a common origin and office for all forms of rule, but a common necessity for them. The aboriginal man, coming fresh from the killing of bears and from lying in ambush for his enemy, has, by the necessities of his condition, a nature requiring to be curbed in its every impulse. Alike in war and in the chase, his daily discipline has been that of sacrificing other creatures to his own needs and passions. His character, bequeathed to him by ancestors who led similar lives, is moulded by this discipline—is fitted to this existence. The unlimited selfishness, the love of inflicting pain, the blood-thirstiness, thus kept active, he brings with him into the social state. These dispositions put him in constant danger of conflict with his equally savage neighbour. In small things as in great, in words as in deeds, he is aggressive; and is hourly liable to the aggressions of others like natured. Only, therefore, by the most rigorous control exercised over all actions, can the primitive unions of men be maintained. There must be a ruler strong, remorseless, and of indomitable will; there must be a creed terrible in its threats to the disobedient; and there must be the most servile submission of all inferiors to superiors. The law must be cruel; the religion must be stern; the ceremonies must be strict.
The co-ordinate necessity for these several kinds of restraint might be largely illustrated from history were there space. Suffice it to point out, that where the civil power has been weak, the multiplication of thieves, assassins, and banditti, has indicated the approach of social dissolution; that when, from the corruptness of its ministry, religion has lost its influence, as it did just before the Flagellants appeared, the State has been endangered; and that the disregard of established social observances has ever been an accompaniment of political revolutions. Whoever doubts the necessity for a government of manners proportionate in strength to the co-existing political and religious governments, will be convinced on calling to mind that until recently even elaborate codes of behaviour failed to keep gentlemen from quarrelling in the streets and fighting duels in taverns; and on remembering further, that even now people exhibit at the doors of a theatre, where there is no ceremonial law to rule them, a degree of aggressiveness which would produce confusion if carried into social intercourse.
As might be expected, we find that, having a common origin and like general functions, these several controlling agencies act during each era with similar degrees of vigour. Under the Chinese despotism, stringent and multitudinous in its edicts and harsh in the enforcement of them, and associated with which there is an equally stern domestic despotism exercised by the eldest surviving male of the family, there exists a system of observances alike complicated and rigid. There is a tribunal of ceremonies. Previous to presentation at court, ambassadors pass many days in practising the required forms. Social intercourse is cumbered by endless compliments and obeisances. Class distinctions are strongly marked by badges. The chief regret on losing an only son is, that there will be no one to perform the sepulchral rites. And if there wants a definite measure of the respect paid to social ordinances, we have it in the torture to which ladies submit in having their feet crushed. In India, and indeed throughout the East, there exists a like connection between the pitiless tyranny of rulers, the dread terrors of immemorial creeds, and the rigid restraint of unchangeable customs: the caste regulations continue still unalterable; the fashions of clothes and furniture have remained the same for ages; suttees are so ancient as to be mentioned by Strabo and Diodorus Siculus; justice is still administered at the palace-gates as of old; in short, “every usage is a precept of religion and a maxim of jurisprudence.”
A similar relationship of phenomena was exhibited in Europe during the Middle Ages. While all its governments were autocratic, while feudalism held sway, while the Church was unshorn of its power, while the criminal code was full of horrors and the hell of the popular creed full of terrors, the rules of behaviour were both more numerous and more carefully conformed to than now. Differences of dress marked divisions of rank. Men were limited by law to a certain width of shoe-toes; and no one below a specified degree might wear a cloak less than so many inches long. The symbols on banners and shields were carefully attended to. Heraldry was an important branch of knowledge. Precedence was strictly insisted on. And those various salutes of which we now use the abridgments were gone through in full. Even during our own last century, with its corrupt House of Commons and little-curbed monarchs, we may mark a correspondence of social formalities. Gentlemen were still distinguished from lower classes by dress; people sacrificed themselves to inconvenient requirements—as powder, hooped petticoats, and towering head-dresses; and children addressed their parents as Sir and Madam.
A further corollary naturally following this last, and almost, indeed, forming part of it, is, that these several kinds of government decrease in stringency at the same rate. Simultaneously with the decline in the influence of priesthoods, and in the fear of eternal torments—simultaneously with the mitigation of political tyranny, the growth of popular power, and the amelioration of criminal codes; has taken place that diminution of formalities and that fading of distinctive marks, now so observable. Looking at home, we may note that there is less attention to precedence than there used to be. No one in our day ends an interview with the phrase “your humble servant.” The employment of the word Sir, once general in social intercourse, is at present considered bad breeding; and on the occasions calling for them, it is held vulgar to use the words “Your Majesty,” or “Your Royal Highness,” more than once in a conversation. People no longer formally drink each other’s healths; and even the taking wine with each other at dinner has ceased to be fashionable. The taking-off of hats between gentlemen has been gradually falling into disuse. Even when the hat is removed, it is no longer swept out at arm’s length, but is simply lifted. Hence the remark made upon us by foreigners, that we take off our hats less than any other nation in Europe—a remark that should be coupled with the other, that we are the freest nation in Europe.
As already implied, this association of facts is not accidental. These titles of address and modes of salutation, bearing about them, as they all do, something of that servility which marks their origin, become distasteful in proportion as men become more independent themselves, and sympathise more with the independence of others. The feeling which makes the modern gentleman tell the labourer standing bareheaded before him to put on his hat—the feeling which gives us a dislike to those who cringe and fawn—the feeling which makes us alike assert our own dignity and respect that of others—the feeling which thus leads us more and more to discountenance all forms and names which confess inferiority and submission; is the same feeling which resists despotic power and inaugurates popular government, denies the authority of the Church and establishes the right of private judgment.
A fourth fact, akin to the foregoing, is, that these several kinds of government not only decline together, but corrupt together. By the same process that a Court of Chancery becomes a place not for the administration of justice, but for the withholding of it—by the same process that a national church, from being an agency for moral control, comes to be merely a thing of formulas and tithes and bishoprics—by this same process do titles and ceremonies that once had a meaning and a power become empty forms.
Coats of arms which served to distinguish men in battle, now figure on the carriage panels of retired grocers. Once a badge of high military rank, the shoulder-knot has become, on the modern footman, a mark of servitude. The name Banneret, which once marked a partially-created Baron—a Baron who had passed his military “little go”—is now, under the modification of Baronet, applicable to any one favoured by wealth or interest or party feeling. Knighthood has so far ceased to be an honour, that men now honour themselves by declining it. The military dignity Escuyer has, in the modern Esquire, become a wholly unmilitary affix. Not only do titles, and phrases, and salutes cease to fulfil their original functions, but the whole apparatus of social forms tends to become useless for its original purpose—the facilitation of social intercourse. Those most learned in ceremonies, and most precise in the observance of them, are not always the best behaved; as those deepest read in creeds and scriptures are not therefore the most religious; nor those who have the clearest notions of legality and illegality, the most honest. Just as lawyers are of all men the least noted for probity; as cathedral towns have a lower moral character than most others; so, if Swift is to be believed, courtiers are “the most insignificant race of people that the island can afford, and with the smallest tincture of good manners.”
But perhaps it is in that class of social observances comprehended under the term Fashion, which we must here discuss parenthetically, that this process of corruption is seen with the greatest distinctness. As contrasted with Manners, which dictate our minor acts in relation to other persons, Fashion dictates our minor acts in relation to ourselves. While the one prescribes that part of our deportment which directly affects our neighbours; the other prescribes that part of our deportment which is primarily personal, and in which our neighbours are concerned only as spectators. Thus distinguished as they are, however, the two have a common source. For while, as we have shown, Manners originate by imitation of the behaviour pursued towards the great; Fashion originates by imitation of the behaviour of the great. While the one has its derivation in the titles, phrases, and salutes used to those in power; the other is derived from the habits and appearances exhibited by those in power.
The Carrib mother who squeezes her child’s head into a shape like that of the chief; the young savage who makes marks on himself similar to the scars carried by the warriors of his tribe (which is probably the origin of tattooing); the Highlander who adopts the plaid worn by the head of his clan; the courtiers who affect greyness, or limp, or cover their necks, in imitation of their king; and the people who ape the courtiers; are alike acting under a kind of government connate with that of Manners, and, like it too, primarily beneficial. For notwithstanding the numberless absurdities into which this copyism has led the people, from nose-rings to ear-rings, from painted faces to beauty-spots, from shaven heads to powdered wigs, from filed teeth and stained nails to bell-girdles, peaked shoes, and breeches stuffed with bran,—it must yet be concluded, that as the strong men, the successful men, the men of will, intelligence, and originality, who have got to the top, are, on the average, more likely to show judgment in their habits and tastes than the mass, the imitation of such is advantageous.
By and by, however, Fashion, corrupting like these other forms of rule, almost wholly ceases to be an imitation of the best, and becomes an imitation of quite other than the best. As those who take orders are not those having a special fitness for the priestly office, but those who see their way to a living by it; as legislators and public functionaries do not become such by virtue of their political insight and power to rule, but by virtue of birth, acreage, and class influence; so, the self-elected clique who set the fashion, gain this prerogative, not by their force of nature, their intellect, their higher worth or better taste, but gain it solely by their unchecked assumption. Among the initiated are to be found neither the noblest in rank, the chief in power, the best cultured, the most refined, nor those of greatest genius, wit, or beauty; and their reunions, so far from being superior to others, are noted for their inanity. Yet, by the example of these sham great, and not by that of the truly great, does society at large now regulate its goings and comings, its hours, its dress, its small usages. As a natural consequence, these have generally little or none of that suitableness which the theory of fashion implies they should have. But instead of a continual progress towards greater elegance and convenience, which might be expected to occur did people copy the ways of the really best, or follow their own ideas of propriety, we have a reign of mere whim, of unreason, of change for the sake of change, of wanton oscillations from either extreme to the other—a reign of usages without meaning, times without fitness, dress without taste. And thus life à la mode, instead of being life conducted in the most rational manner, is life regulated by spendthrifts and idlers, milliners and tailors, dandies and silly women.
To these several corollaries—that the various orders of control exercised over men have a common origin and a common function, are called out by co-ordinate necessities and co-exist in like stringency, decline together and corrupt together—it now only remains to add that they become needless together. Consequent as all kinds of government are upon the unfitness of the aboriginal man for social life; and diminishing in coerciveness as they all do in proportion as this unfitness diminishes; they must one and all come to an end as humanity acquires complete adaptation to its new conditions. That discipline of circumstances which has already wrought out such great changes in us, must go on eventually to work out yet greater ones. That daily curbing of the lower nature and culture of the higher, which out of cannibals and devil worshippers has evolved philanthropists, lovers of peace, and haters of superstition, cannot fail to evolve out of these, men as much superior to them as they are to their progenitors. The causes that have produced past modifications are still in action; must continue in action as long as there exists any incongruity between man’s desires and the requirements of the social state; and must eventually make him organically fit for the social state. As it is now needless to forbid man-eating and Fetishism, so will it ultimately become needless to forbid murder, theft, and the minor offences of our criminal code. When human nature has grown into conformity with the moral law, there will need no judges and statute-books; when it spontaneously takes the right course in all things, as in some things it does already, prospects of future reward or punishment will not be wanted as incentives; and when fit behaviour has become instinctive, there will need no code of ceremonies to say how behaviour shall be regulated.
Thus, then, may be recognised the meaning, the naturalness, the necessity of those various eccentricities of reformers which we set out by describing. They are not accidental; they are not mere personal caprices, as people are apt to suppose. On the contrary, they are inevitable results of the law of relationship above illustrated. That community of genesis, function, and decay which all forms of restraint exhibit, is simply the obverse of the fact at first pointed out, that they have in two sentiments of human nature a common preserver and a common destroyer. Awe of power originates and cherishes them all: love of freedom undermines and periodically weakens them all. The one defends despotism and asserts the supremacy of laws, adheres to old creeds and supports ecclesiastical authority, pays respect to titles and conserves forms; the other, putting rectitude above legality, achieves periodical instalments of political liberty, inaugurates Protestantism and works out its consequences, ignores the senseless dictates of Fashion and emancipates men from dead customs.
To the true reformer no institution is sacred, no belief above criticism. Everything shall conform itself to equity and reason; nothing shall be saved by its prestige. Conceding to each man liberty to pursue his own ends and satisfy his own tastes, he demands for himself like liberty; and consents to no restrictions on this, save those which other men’s equal claims involve. No matter whether it be an ordinance of one man, or an ordinance of all men, if it trenches on his legitimate sphere of action, he denies its validity. The tyranny that would impose on him a particular style of dress and a set mode of behaviour, he resists equally with the tyranny that would limit his buyings and sellings, or dictate his creed. Whether the regulation be formally made by a legislature, or informally made by society at large—whether the penalty for disobedience be imprisonment, or frowns and social ostracism, he sees to be a question of no moment. He will utter his belief notwithstanding the threatened punishment; he will break conventions spite of the petty persecutions that will be visited on him. Show him that his actions are inimical to his fellow-men, and he will pause. Prove that he is disregarding their legitimate claims—that he is doing what in the nature of things must produce unhappiness; and he will alter his course. But until you do this—until you demonstrate that his proceedings are essentially inconvenient or inelegant, essentially irrational, unjust, or ungenerous, he will persevere.
Some, indeed, argue that his conduct is unjust and ungenerous. They say that he has no right to annoy other people by his whims; that the gentleman to whom his letter comes with no “Esq.” appended to the address, and the lady whose evening party he enters with gloveless hands, are vexed at what they consider his want of respect, or want of breeding; that thus his eccentricities cannot be indulged save at the expense of his neighbours’ feelings; and that hence his nonconformity is in plain terms selfishness.
He answers that this position, if logically developed, would deprive men of all liberty whatever. Each must conform all his acts to the public taste, and not his own. The public taste on every point having been once ascertained, men’s habits must thenceforth remain for ever fixed; seeing that no man can adopt other habits without sinning against the public taste, and giving people disagreeable feelings. Consequently, be it an era of pig-tails or high-heeled shoes, of starched ruffs or trunk-hose, all must continue to wear pig-tails, high-heeled shoes, starched ruffs, or trunk-hose to the crack of doom.
If it be still urged that he is not justified in breaking through others’ forms that he may establish his own, and so sacrificing the wishes of many to the wishes of one, he replies that all religious and political changes might be negatived on like grounds. He asks whether Luther’s sayings and doings were not extremely offensive to the mass of his contemporaries; whether the resistance of Hampden was not disgusting to the time-servers around him; whether every reformer has not shocked men’s prejudices, and given immense displeasure by the opinions he uttered. The affirmative answer he follows up by demanding what right the reformer has, then, to utter these opinions; whether he is not sacrificing the feelings of many to the feelings of one; and so proves that, to be consistent, his antagonists must condemn not only all nonconformity in actions, but all nonconformity in thoughts.
His antagonists rejoin that his position, too, may be pushed to an absurdity. They argue that if a man may offend by the disregard of some forms, he may as legitimately do so by the disregard of all; and they inquire—Why should he not go out to dinner in a dirty shirt, and with an unshorn chin? Why should he not spit on the drawing-room carpet, and stretch his heels up to the mantle-shelf?
The convention-breaker answers, that to ask this, implies a confounding of two widely-different classes of actions—the actions that are essentially displeasurable to those around, with the actions that are but incidentally displeasurable to them. He whose skin is so unclean as to offend the nostrils of his neighbours, or he who talks so loudly as to disturb a whole room, may be justly complained of, and rightly excluded by society from its assemblies. But he who presents himself in a surtout in place of a dress-coat, or in brown trousers instead of black, gives offence not to men’s senses, or their innate tastes, but merely to their prejudices, their bigotry of convention. It cannot be said that his costume is less elegant or less intrinsically appropriate than the one prescribed; seeing that a few hours earlier in the day it is admired. It is the implied rebellion, therefore, that annoys. How little the cause of quarrel has to do with the dress itself, is seen in the fact that a century ago black clothes would have been thought preposterous for hours of recreation, and that a few years hence some now forbidden style may be nearer the requirements of Fashion than the present one. Thus the reformer explains that it is not against the natural restraints, but against the artificial ones, that he protests; and that manifestly the fire of sneers and angry glances which he has to bear, is poured upon him because he will not bow down to the idol which society has set up.
Should he be asked how we are to distinguish between conduct that is absolutely disagreeable to others, and conduct that is relatively so, he answers, that they will distinguish themselves if men will let them. Actions intrinsically repugnant will ever be frowned upon, and must ever remain as exceptional as now. Actions not intrinsically repugnant will establish themselves as proper. No relaxation of customs will introduce the practice of going to a party in muddy boots, and with unwashed hands; for the dislike of dirt would continue were Fashion abolished to-morrow. That love of approbation which now makes people so solicitous to be en règle would still exist—would still make them careful of their personal appearance—would still induce them to seek admiration by making themselves ornamental—would still cause them to respect the natural laws of good behaviour, as they now do the artificial ones. The change would simply be from a repulsive monotony to a picturesque variety. And if there be any regulations respecting which it is uncertain whether they are based on reality or on convention, experiment will soon decide, if due scope be allowed.
When at length the controversy comes round, as controversies often do, to the point whence it started, and the “party of order” repeat their charge against the rebel, that he is sacrificing the feelings of others to the gratification of his own wilfulness, he replies once for all that they cheat themselves by misstatements. He accuses them of being so despotic, that, not content with being masters over their own ways and habits, they would be masters over his also; and grumble because he will not let them. He merely asks the same freedom which they exercise; they, however, propose to regulate his course as well as their own—to cut and clip his mode of life into agreement with their approved pattern; and then charge him with wilfulness and selfishness, because he does not quietly submit! He warns them that he shall resist, nevertheless; and that he shall do so, not only for the assertion of his own independence, but for their good. He tells them that they are slaves, and know it not; that they are shackled, and kiss their chains; that they have lived all their days in prison, and complain at the walls being broken down. He says he must persevere, however, with a view to his own release; and in spite of their present expostulations, he prophesies that when they have recovered from the fright which the prospect of freedom produces, they will thank him for aiding in their emancipation.
Unamiable as seems this find-fault mood, offensive as is this defiant attitude, we must beware of overlooking the truths enunciated, in dislike of the advocacy. It is an unfortunate hindrance to all innovation, that in virtue of their very function, the innovators stand in a position of antagonism; and the disagreeable manners, and sayings, and doings, which this antagonism generates, are commonly associated with the doctrines promulgated. Quite forgetting that whether the thing attacked be good or bad, the combative spirit is necessarily repulsive; and quite forgetting that the toleration of abuses seems amiable merely from its passivity; the mass of men contract a bias against advanced views, and in favour of stationary ones, from intercourse with their respective adherents. “Conservatism,” as Emerson says, “is debonnair and social; reform is individual and imperious.” And this remains true, however vicious the system conserved, however righteous the reform to be effected. Nay, the indignation of the purists is usually extreme in proportion as the evils to be got rid of are great. The more urgent the required change, the more intemperate is the vehemence of its promoters. Let no one, then, confound with the principles of this social nonconformity the acerbity and the disagreeable self-assertion of those who first display it.
The most plausible objection raised against resistance to conventions, is grounded on its impolicy, considered even from the progressist’s point of view. It is urged by many of the more liberal and intelligent—usually those who have themselves shown some independence of behaviour in earlier days—that to rebel in these small matters is to destroy your own power of helping on reform in greater matters. “If you show yourself eccentric in manners or dress, the world,” they say, “will not listen to you. You will be considered as crotchety, and impracticable. The opinions you express on important subjects, which might have been treated with respect had you conformed on minor points, will now inevitably be put down among your singularities; and thus, by dissenting in trifles, you disable yourself from spreading dissent in essentials.”
Only noting, as we pass, that this is one of those anticipations which bring about their own fulfilment—that it is because most who disapprove these conventions do not show their disapproval, that the few who do show it look eccentric—and that did all act out their convictions, no such inference as the above would be drawn, and no such evil would result;—noting this as we pass, we go on to reply that these social restraints, and forms, and requirements, are not small evils, but among the greatest. Estimate their sum total, and we doubt whether they would not exceed most others. Could we add up the trouble, the cost, the jealousies, vexations, misunderstandings, the loss of time and the loss of pleasure, which these conventions entail—could we clearly realise the extent to which we are all daily hampered by them, daily enslaved by them; we should perhaps come to the conclusion that the tyranny of Mrs. Grundy is worse than any other tyranny we suffer under. Let us look at a few of its hurtful results; beginning with those of minor importance.
It produces extravagance. The desire to be comme il faut, which underlies all conformities, whether of manners, dress, or styles of entertainment, is the desire which makes many a spendthrift and many a bankrupt. To “keep up appearances,” to have a house in an approved quarter furnished in the latest taste, to give expensive dinners and crowded soirées, is an ambition forming the natural outcome of the conformist spirit. It is needless to enlarge on these follies: they have been satirised by hosts of writers, and in every drawing-room. All that here concerns us, is to point out that the respect for social observances, which men think so praiseworthy, has the same root with this effort to be fashionable in mode of living; and that, other things equal, the last cannot be diminished without the first being diminished also. If, now, we consider all that this extravagance entails—if we count up the robbed tradesmen, the stinted governesses, the ill-educated children, the fleeced relatives, who have to suffer from it—if we mark the anxiety and the many moral delinquencies which its perpetrators involve themselves in; we shall see that this regard for conventions is not quite so innocent as it looks.
Again, it decreases the amount of social intercourse. Passing over the reckless, and those who make a great display on speculation with the occasional result of getting on in the world to the exclusion of much better men, we come to the far larger class who, being prudent and honest enough not to exceed their means, and yet having a strong wish to be “respectable,” are obliged to limit their entertainments to the smallest possible number; and that each of these may be turned to the greatest advantage in meeting the claims upon their hospitality, are induced to issue their invitations with little or no regard to the comfort or mutual fitness of their guests. A few inconveniently-large assemblies, made up of people mostly strange to each other or but distantly acquainted, and having scarcely any tastes in common, are made to serve in place of many small parties of friends intimate enough to have some bond of thought and sympathy. Thus the quantity of intercourse is diminished, and the quality deteriorated. Because it is the custom to make costly preparations and provide costly refreshments; and because it entails both less expense and less trouble to do this for many persons on a few occasions than for few persons on many occasions; the reunions of our less wealthy classes are rendered alike infrequent and tedious.
Let it be further observed, that the existing formalities of social intercourse drive away many who most need its refining influence: and drive them into injurious habits and associations. Not a few men, and not the least sensible men either, give up in disgust this going out to stately dinners, and stiff evening-parties; and instead, seek society in clubs, and cigar-divans, and taverns. “I’m sick of this standing about in drawing-rooms, talking nonsense, and trying to look happy,” will answer one of them when taxed with his desertion. “Why should I any longer waste time and money, and temper? Once I was ready enough to rush home from the office to dress; I sported embroidered shirts, submitted to tight boots, and cared nothing for tailors’ and haberdashers’ bills. I know better now. My patience lasted a good while; for though I found each night pass stupidly, I always hoped the next would make amends. But I’m undeceived. Cab-hire and kid gloves cost more than any evening party pays for; or rather—it is worth the cost of them to avoid the party. No, no; I’ll no more of it. Why should I pay five shillings a time for the privilege of being bored?”
If, now, we consider that this very common mood tends towards billiard-rooms, towards long sittings over cigars and brandy-and-water, towards Evans’s and the Coal Hole, towards every place where amusement may be had; it becomes a question whether these precise observances which hamper our set meetings, have not to answer for much of the prevalent dissoluteness. Men must have excitements of some kind or other; and if debarred from higher ones will fall back upon lower. It is not that those who thus take to irregular habits are essentially those of low tastes. Often it is quite the reverse. Among half a dozen intimate friends, abandoning formalities and sitting at ease round the fire, none will enter with greater enjoyment into the highest kind of social intercourse—the genuine communion of thought and feeling; and if the circle includes women of intelligence and refinement, so much the greater is their pleasure. It is because they will no longer be choked with the mere dry husks of conversation which society offers them, that they fly its assemblies, and seek those with whom they may have discourse that is at least real, though unpolished. The men who thus long for substantial mental sympathy, and will go where they can get it, are often, indeed, much better at the core than the men who are content with the inanities of gloved and scented party-goers—men who feel no need to come morally nearer to their fellow creatures than they can come while standing, teacup in hand, answering trifles with trifles; and who, by feeling no such need, prove themselves shallow-thoughted and cold-hearted.
It is true, that some who shun drawing-rooms do so from inability to bear the restraints prescribed by a genuine refinement, and that they would be greatly improved by being kept under these restraints. But it is not less true that, by adding to the legitimate restraints, which are based on convenience and a regard for others, a host of factitious restraints based only on convention, the refining discipline, which would else have been borne with benefit, is rendered unbearable, and so misses its end. Excess of government invariably defeats itself by driving away those to be governed. And if over all who desert its entertainments in disgust either at their emptiness or their formality, society thus loses its salutary influence—if such not only fail to receive that moral culture which the company of ladies, when rationally regulated, would give them, but, in default of other relaxation, are driven into habits and companionships which often end in gambling and drunkenness; must we not say that here, too, is an evil not to be passed over as insignificant?
Then consider what a blighting effect these multitudinous preparations and ceremonies have upon the pleasures they profess to subserve. Who, on calling to mind the occasions of his highest social enjoyments, does not find them to have been wholly informal, perhaps impromptu? How delightful a picnic of friends, who forget all observances save those dictated by good nature! How pleasant the little unpretended gatherings of book-societies, and the like; or those purely accidental meetings of a few people well known to each other! Then, indeed, we may see that “a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” Cheeks flush, and eyes sparkle. The witty grow brilliant, and even the dull are excited into saying good things. There is an overflow of topics; and the right thought, and the right words to put it in, spring up unsought. Grave alternates with gay: now serious converse, and now jokes, anecdotes, and playful raillery. Every one’s best nature is shown, every one’s best feelings are in pleasurable activity; and, for the time, life seems well worth having.
Go now and dress for some half-past eight dinner, or some ten o’clock “at home;” and present yourself in spotless attire, with every hair arranged to perfection. How great the difference! The enjoyment seems in the inverse ratio of the preparation. These figures, got up with such finish and precision, appear but half alive. They have frozen each other by their primness; and your faculties feel the numbing effects of the atmosphere the moment you enter it. All those thoughts, so nimble and so apt awhile since, have disappeared—have suddenly acquired a preternatural power of eluding you. If you venture a remark to your neighbour, there comes a trite rejoinder, and there it ends. No subject you can hit upon outlives half a dozen sentences. Nothing that is said excites any real interest in you; and you feel that all you say is listened to with apathy. By some strange magic, things that usually give pleasure seem to have lost all charm.
You have a taste for art. Weary of frivolous talk, you turn to the table, and find that the book of engravings and the portfolio of photographs are as flat as the conversation. You are fond of music. Yet the singing, good as it is, you hear with utter indifference; and say “Thank you” with a sense of being a profound hypocrite. Wholly at ease though you could be, for your own part, you find that your sympathies will not let you. You see young gentlemen feeling whether their ties are properly adjusted, looking vacantly round, and considering what they shall do next. You see ladies sitting disconsolately, waiting for some one to speak to them, and wishing they had the wherewith to occupy their fingers. You see the hostess standing about the doorway, keeping a factitious smile on her face, and racking her brain to find the requisite nothings with which to greet her guests as they enter. You see numberless traits of weariness and embarrassment; and, if you have any fellow-feeling, these cannot fail to produce a feeling of discomfort. The disorder is catching; and do what you will you cannot resist the general infection. You struggle against it; you make spasmodic efforts to be lively; but none of your sallies or your good stories do more than raise a simper or a forced laugh: intellect and feeling are alike asphyxiated. And when, at length, yielding to your disgust, you rush away, how great is the relief when you get into the fresh air, and see the stars! How you “Thank God, that’s over!” and half resolve to avoid all such boredom for the future!
What, now, is the secret of this perpetual miscarriage and disappointment? Does not the fault lie with all these needless adjuncts—these elaborate dressings, these set forms, these expensive preparations, these many devices and arrangements that imply trouble and raise expectation? Who that has lived thirty years in the world has not discovered that Pleasure is coy; and must not be too directly pursued, but must be caught unawares? An air from a street-piano, heard while at work, will often gratify more than the choicest music played at a concert by the most accomplished musicians. A single good picture seen in a dealer’s window, may give keener enjoyment than a whole exhibition gone through with catalogue and pencil. By the time we have got ready our elaborate apparatus by which to secure happiness, the happiness is gone. It is too subtle to be contained in these receivers, garnished with compliments, and fenced round with etiquette. The more we multiply and complicate appliances, the more certain are we to drive it away.
The reason is patent enough. These higher emotions to which social intercourse ministers, are of extremely complex nature; they consequently depend for their production upon very numerous conditions; the more numerous the conditions, the greater the liability that one or other of them will be disturbed, and the emotions consequently prevented. It takes a considerable misfortune to destroy appetite; but cordial sympathy with those around may be extinguished by a look or a word. Hence it follows, that the more multiplied the unnecessary requirements with which social intercourse is surrounded, the less likely are its pleasures to be achieved. It is difficult enough to fulfil continuously all the essentials to a pleasurable communion with others: how much more difficult, then, must it be continuously to fulfil a host of non-essentials also! It is, indeed, impossible. The attempt inevitably ends in the sacrifice of the first to the last—the essentials to the non-essentials. What chance is there of getting any genuine response from the lady who is thinking of your stupidity in taking her in to dinner on the wrong arm? How are you likely to have agreeable converse with the gentleman who is fuming internally because he is not placed next to the hostess? Formalities, familiar as they may become, necessarily occupy attention—necessarily multiply the occasions for mistake, misunderstanding, and jealousy, on the part of one or other—necessarily distract all minds from the thoughts and feelings that should occupy them—necessarily, therefore, subvert those conditions under which only any sterling intercourse is to be had.
And this indeed is the fatal mischief which these conventions entail—a mischief to which every other is secondary. They destroy those highest of our pleasures which they profess to subserve. All institutions are alike in this, that however useful, and needful even, they originally were, they not only in the end cease to be so, but become detrimental. While humanity is growing, they continue fixed; daily get more mechanical and unvital; and by and by tend to strangle what they before preserved. It is not simply that they become corrupt and fail to act: they become obstructions. Old forms of government finally grow so oppressive, that they must be thrown off even at the risk of reigns of terror. Old creeds end in being dead formulas, which no longer aid but distort and arrest the general mind; while the State-churches administering them, come to be instruments for subsidising conservatism and repressing progress. Old schemes of education, incarnated in public schools and colleges, continue filling the heads of new generations with what has become relatively useless knowledge, and, by consequence, excluding knowledge which is useful. Not an organisation of any kind—political, religious, literary, philanthropic—but what, by its ever-multiplying regulations, its accumulating wealth, its yearly addition of officers, and the creeping into it of patronage and party feeling, eventually loses its original spirit, and sinks into a mere lifeless mechanism, worked with a view to private ends—a mechanism which not merely fails of its first purpose, but is a positive hindrance to it.
Thus is it, too, with social usages. We read of the Chinese that they have “ponderous ceremonies transmitted from time immemorial,” which make social intercourse a burden. The court forms prescribed by monarchs for their own exaltation, have, in all times and places, ended in consuming the comfort of their lives. And so the artificial observances of the dining-room and saloon, in proportion as they are many and strict, extinguish that agreeable communion which they were originally intended to secure. The dislike with which people commonly speak of society that is “formal,” and “stiff,” and “ceremonious,” implies the general recognition of this fact; and this recognition, logically developed, involves that all usages of behaviour which are not based on natural requirements, are injurious. That these conventions defeat their own ends is no new assertion. Swift, criticising the manners of his day, says—” Wise men are often more uneasy at the over-civility of these refiners than they could possibly be in the conversation of peasants and mechanics.”
But it is not only in these details that the self-defeating action of our arrangements is traceable: it is traceable in the very substance and nature of them. Our social intercourse, as commonly managed, is a mere semblance of the reality sought. What is it that we want? Some sympathetic converse with our fellow-creatures: some converse that shall not be mere dead words, but the vehicle of living thoughts and feelings—converse in which the eyes and the face shall speak, and the tones of the voice be full of meaning—converse which shall make us feel no longer alone, but shall draw us closer to another, and double our own emotions by adding another’s to them. Who is there that has not, from time to time, felt how cold and flat is all this talk about politics and science, and the new books and the new men, and how a genuine utterance of fellow-feeling outweighs the whole of it? Mark the words of Bacon:—“For a crowd is not a company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”
If this be true, then it is only after acquaintance has grown into intimacy, and intimacy has ripened into friendship, that the real communion which men need becomes possible. A rationally-formed circle must consist almost wholly of those on terms of familiarity and regard, with but one or two strangers. What folly, then, underlies the whole system of our grand dinners, our “at homes,” our evening parties—assemblages made up of many who never met before, many others who just bow to each other, many others who though familiar feel mutual indifference, with just a few real friends lost in the general mass! You need but look round at the artificial expressions of face, to see at once how it is. All have their disguises on; and how can there be sympathy between masks? No wonder that in private every one exclaims against the stupidity of these gatherings. No wonder that hostesses get them up rather because they must than because they wish. No wonder that the invited go less from the expectation of pleasure than from fear of giving offence. The whole thing is a gigantic mistake—an organised disappointment.
And then note, lastly, that in this case, as in all others, when an organisation has become effete and inoperative for its legitimate purpose, it is employed for quite other ones—quite opposite ones. What is the usual plea put in for giving and attending these tedious assemblies? “I admit that they are stupid and frivolous enough,” replies every man to your criticisms; “but then, you know, one must keep up one’s connections.” And could you get from his wife a sincere answer, it would be—“Like you, I am sick of these frivolities; but then, we must get our daughters married.” The one knows that there is a profession to push, a practice to gain, a business to extend: or parliamentary influence, or county patronage, or votes, or office, to be got: position, berths, favours, profit. The other’s thoughts run upon husbands and settlements, wives and dowries. Worthless for their ostensible purpose of daily bringing human beings into pleasurable relations with each other, these cumbrous appliances of our social intercourse are now perseveringly kept in action with a view to the pecuniary and matrimonial results which they indirectly produce.
Who then shall say that the reform of our system of observances is unimportant? When we see how this system induces fashionable extravagance, with its entailed bankruptcy and ruin—when we mark how greatly it limits the amount of social intercourse among the less wealthy classes—when We find that many who most need to be disciplined by mixing with the refined are driven away by it, and led into dangerous and often fatal courses—when we count up the many minor evils it inflicts, the extra work which its costliness entails on all professional and mercantile men, the damage to public taste in dress and decoration by the setting up of its absurdities as standards for imitation, the injury to health indicated in the faces of its devotees at the close of the London season, the mortality of milliners and the like, which its sudden exigencies yearly involve;—and when to all these we add its fatal sin, that it blights, withers up, and kills, that high enjoyment it professedly ministers to—that enjoyment which is a chief end of our hard struggling in life to obtain—shall we not conclude that to reform our system of etiquette and fashion, is an aim yielding to few in urgency?
There needs, then, a protestantism in social usages. Forms that have ceased to facilitate and have become obstructive—whether political, religious, or other—have ever to be swept away; and eventually are so swept away in all cases. Signs are not wanting that some change is at hand. A host of satirists, led on by Thackeray, have been for years engaged in bringing our sham-festivities, and our fashionable follies, into contempt; and in their candid moods, most men laugh at the frivolities with which they and the world in general are deluded. Ridicule has always been a revolutionary agent. That which is habitually assailed with sneers and sarcasms cannot long survive. Institutions that have lost their roots in men’s respect and faith are doomed; and the day of their dissolution is not far off. The time is approaching, then, when our system of social observances must pass through some crisis, out of which it will come purified and comparatively simple.
How this crisis will be brought about, no one can with any certainty say. Whether by the continuance and increase of individual protests, or whether by the union of many persons for the practice and propagation of some better ystem, the future alone can decide. The influence of dissentients acting without co-operation, seems, under the present state of things, inadequate. Standing severally alone, and having no well-defined views; frowned on by conformists, and expostulated with even by those who secretly sympathise with them; subject to petty persecutions, and unable to trace any benefit produced by their example; they are apt, one by one, to give up their attempts as hopeless. The young convention-breaker eventually finds that he pays too heavily for his nonconformity. Hating, for example, everything that bears about it any remnant of servility, he determines, in the ardour of his independence, that he will uncover to no one. But what he means simply as a general protest, he finds that ladies interpret into a personal disrespect. Though he sees that, from the days of chivalry downwards, these marks of supreme consideration paid to the other sex have been but a hypocritical counterpart to the actual subjection in which men have held them—a pretended submission to compensate for a real domination; and though he sees that when the true dignity of women is recognised, the mock dignities given to them will be abolished; yet he does not like to be thus misunderstood, and so hesitates in his practice.
In other cases, again, his courage fails him. Such of his unconventionalities as can be attributed only to eccentricity, he has no qualms about: for, on the whole, he feels rather complimented than otherwise in being considered a disregarder of public opinion. But when they are liable to be put down to ignorance, to ill-breeding, or to poverty, he becomes a coward. However clearly the recent innovation of eating some kinds of fish with knife and fork proves the fork-and-bread practice to have had little but caprice for its basis, yet he dares not wholly ignore that practice while fashion partially maintains it. Though he thinks that a silk handkerchief is quite as appropriate for drawing-room use as a white cambric one, he is not altogether at ease in acting out his opinion. Then, too, he begins to perceive that his resistance to prescription brings round disadvantageous results which he had not calculated upon. He had expected that it would save him from a great deal of social intercourse of a frivolous kind—that it would offend the fools, but not the sensible people; and so would serve as a self-acting test by which those worth knowing would be separated from those not worth knowing. But the fools prove to be so greatly in the majority that, by offending them, he closes against himself nearly all the avenues though which the sensible people are to be reached. Thus he finds, that his nonconformity is frequently misinterpreted; that there are but few directions in which he dares to carry it consistently out; that the annoyances and disadvantages which it brings upon him are greater than he anticipated; and that the chances of his doing any good are very remote. Hence he gradually loses resolution, and lapses, step by step, into the ordinary routine of observances.
Abortive as individual protests thus generally turn out, it may possibly be that nothing effectual will be done until there arises some organised resistance to this invisible despotism, by which our modes and habits are dictated. It may happen, that the government of Manners and Fashion will be rendered less tyrannical, as the political and religious governments have been, by some antagonistic union. Alike in Church and State, men’s first emancipations from excess of restriction were achieved by numbers, bound together by a common creed or a common political faith. What remained undone while there were but individual schismatics or rebels, was effected when there came to be many acting in concert. It is tolerably clear that these earliest instalments of freedom could not have been obtained in any other way; for so long as the feeling of personal independence was weak and the rule strong, there could never have been a sufficient number of separate dissentients to produce the desired results. Only in these later times, during which the secular and spiritual controls have been growing less coercive, and the tendency towards individual liberty greater, has it become possible for smaller and smaller sects and parties to fight against established creeds and laws; until now men may safely stand even alone in their antagonism.
The failure of individual nonconformity to customs, as above illustrated, suggests that an analogous series of changes may have to be gone through in this case also. It is true that the lex non scripta differs from the lex scripta in this, that, being unwritten, it is more readily altered; and that it has, from time to time, been quietly ameliorated. Nevertheless, we shall find that the analogy holds substantially good. For in this case, as in the others, the essential revolution is not the substituting of any one set of restraints for any other, but the limiting or abolishing the authority which prescribes restraints. Just as the fundamental change inaugurated by the Reformation was not a superseding of one creed by another, but an ignoring of the arbiter who before dictated creeds—just as the fundamental change which Democracy long ago commenced, was not from this particular law to that, but from the despotism of one to the freedom of all; so, the parallel change yet to be wrought out in this supplementary government of which we are treating, is not the replacing of absurd usages by sensible ones, but the dethronement of that secret, irresponsible power which now imposes our usages, and the assertion of the right of all individuals to choose their own usages. In rules of living, a West-end clique is our Pope; and we are all papists, with but a mere sprinkling of heretics. On all who decisively rebel, comes down the penalty of excommunication, with its long catalogue of disagreeable and, indeed, serious consequences.
The liberty of the subject asserted in our constitution, and ever on the increase, has yet to be wrested from this subtler tyranny. The right of private judgment, which our ancestors wrung from the church, remains to be claimed from this dictator of our habits. Or, as before said, to free us from these idolatries and superstitious conformities, there has still to come a protestanism in social usages. Parallel, therefore, as is the change to be wrought out, it seems not improbable that it may be wrought out in an analogous way. That influence which solitary dissentients fail to gain, and that perseverance which they lack, may come into existence when they unite. That persecution which the world now visits upon them from mistaking their nonconformity for ignorance or disrespect, may diminish when it is seen to result from principle. The penalty which exclusion now entails may disappear when they become numerous enough to form visiting circles of their own. And when a successful stand has been made, and the brunt of the opposition has passed, that large amount of secret dislike to our observances which now pervades society, may manifest itself with sufficient power to effect the desired emancipation.
Whether such will be the process, time alone can decide. That community of origin, growth, supremacy, and decadence, which we have found among all kinds of government, suggests a community in modes of change also. On the other hand, Nature often performs substantially similar operations, in ways apparently different. Hence these details can never be foretold.
Meanwhile, let us glance at the conclusions that have been reached. On the one side, government, originally one, and afterwards subdivided for the better fulfilment of its function, must be considered as having ever been, in all its branches—political, religious, and ceremonial—beneficial; and, indeed, absolutely necessary. On the other side, government, under all its forms, must be regarded as subserving a temporary office, made needful by the unfitness of aboriginal humanity for social life; and the successive diminutions of its coerciveness in State, in Church, and in Custom, must be looked upon as steps towards its final disappearance. To complete the conception, there requires to be borne in mind the third fact, that the genesis, the maintenance, and the decline of all governments, however named, are alike brought about by the humanity to be controlled: from which may be drawn the inference that, on the average, restrictions of every kind cannot last much longer than they are wanted, and cannot be destroyed much faster than they ought to be.
Society, in all its developments, undergoes the process of exuviation. These old forms which it successively throws off, have all been once vitally united with it—have severally served as the protective envelopes within which a higher humanity was being evolved. They are cast aside only when they become hindrances—only when some inner and better envelope has been formed; and they bequeath to us all that there was in them good. The periodical abolitions of tyrannical laws have left the administration of justice not only uninjured, but purified. Dead and buried creeds have not carried with them the essential morality they contained, which still exists, uncontaminated by the sloughs of superstition. And all that there is of justice and kindness and beauty, embodied in our cumbrous forms of etiquette, will live perennially when the forms themselves have been forgotten.
[1 ]Westminster Review, April 1854.
[2 ] This was written before moustaches and beards had become common.
Last modified April 10, 2014