« AnteriorContinuar »
see them, and such as in historical times they have always been — cannot, as it seems to me, be solved without separating it into two: one, the making of broadly marked races, such as the negro or the red man or the European; and the second, that of making the minor distinctions, such as the distinction between Spartan and Athenian or between Scotchman and Englishman. Nations as we see them are (if my arguments prove true) the produce of two great forces: one the race-making force, which- whatever it was-acted in antiquity, and has now wholly or almost given over acting; and the other the nationmaking force properly so called, which is acting now as much as it ever acted and creating as much as it ever created.
The strongest light on the great causes which have formed and are forming nations is thrown by the smaller causes which are altering nations. The way in which nations change, generation after generation, is exceedingly curious, and the change occasionally happens when it is very hard to account for. Something seems to steal over society, say of the Regency time as compared with that of the present Queen: if we read of life at Windsor (at the cottage now pulled down), or of Bond Street as it was in the days of the “ Loungers ” (an extinct race), or of St. James's Street as it was when Mr. Fox and his party tried to make “political capital” out of the dissipation of an heir-apparent, we seem to be reading not of the places we know so well, but of very distant and unlike localities. Or let any one think how little is the external change in England between the age of Elizabeth and the age of Anne compared with the national change. How few were the alterations in physical condition, how few (if any) the scientific inventions affecting human life which the later period possessed but the earlier did not! How hard it is to say what has caused the change in the people, and yet how total is the contrast, at least at first sight!
In passing from Bacon to Addison, from Shakespeare to Pope, we seem to ass into a new world.
In the first of these essays I spoke of the mode in which the literary change happens; and I recur to it because, literature being narrower and more definite than life, a change in the less serves as a model and illustration of the change in the greater. Some writer, as was explained, - not necessarily a very excellent writer or a remembered one, - hit on something which suited the public taste; he went on writing, and others imitated him, and they so accustomed their readers to that style that they would bear nothing else.
Those readers who did not like it were driven to the works of other ages and other countries, - had to despise the “trash of the day," as they would call it. The age of Anne patronized Steele the beginner of the essay and Addison its perfecter, and it neglected writings in a wholly discordant key. I have heard that the founder of the Times was asked how all the articles in the Times came to seem to be written by one man, and that he replied, “Oh, there is always some one best contributor, and all the rest copy.” And this is doubtless the true account of the manner in which a certain trade-mark, a curious and indefinable unity, settles on every newspaper ; perhaps it would be possible to name the men who a few years since created the Saturday Review style, now imitated by another and a younger race: but when the style of a periodical is once formed, the continuance of it is preserved by a much more despotic impulse than the tendency to imitation, — by the selfinterest of the editor, who acts as trustee, if I may say so, for the subscribers. The regular buyers of a periodical want to read what they have been used to read, — the same sort of thought, the same sort of words: the editor sees that they get that sort; he selects the suitable, the conforming articles, and he rejects the non-conforming. What the editor does in the case of a periodical, the readers, do in the case of literature in general: they patronize one thing and reject the rest.
Of course there was always some reason, if we only could find it, which gave the prominence in each age to some particular winning literature; there always is some reason why the fashion of female dress is what it is : but just as in the case of dress we know that nowadays the determining cause is very much of an accident, so in the case of literary fashion the origin is a good deal of an accident. What the milliners of Paris or the demi-monde of Paris enjoin our English ladies is (I suppose) a good deal chance: but as soon as it is decreed, those whom it suits and those whom it does not all wear it; the imitative propensity at once insures uniformity, and “that horrid thing we wore last year” (as the phrase may go) is soon nowhere to be seen. Just so a literary fashion spreads, though I am far from saying with equal primitive unreasonableness: a literary taste always begins on some decent reason, but once started, it is propagated as a fashion in dress is propagated ; even those who do not like it read it because it is there, and because nothing else is easily to be found.
The same patronage of favored forms and persecution of disliked forms are the main causes too, I believe, which change national character. Some one attractive type catches the eye, so to speak, of the nation or a part of the nation, as servants catch the gait of their masters, or as mobile girls come home speaking the special words and acting the little gestures of each family whom they may have been visiting. I do not know if many of my readers happen to have read Father Newman's celebrated sermon “Personal Influence the Means of Propagating the Truth”; if not, I strongly recommend them to do so. They will there see the opinion of a great practical leader of men, of one who has led very many where they little thought of going, as to the mode in which they are to be led : and what he says, put shortly and simply and taken out of his delicate language, is but this,- that men are guided by type, not by argument; that some winning instance must be set up before them, or the sermon will be vain and the doctrine will not spread. I do not want to illustrate this matter from religious history, for I should be led far from my purpose; and after all I can but teach the commonplace that it is the life of teachers which is catching, not their tenets. And again, in political matters, how quickly a leading statesman can change the tone of the community! We are most of us earnest with Mr. Gladstone: we were most of us not so earnest in the time of Lord Palmerston. The change is what every one feels, though no one can define it. Each predominant mind calls out a corresponding sentiment in the country; most feel it a little : those who feel it much express it much; those who feel it excessively express it excessively ; those who dissent are silent or .unheard.
After such great matters as religion and politics, it may seem trifling to illustrate the subject from little boys; but it is not trifling. The bane of philosophy is pomposity: people will not see that small things are the miniatures of greater, and it seems a loss of abstract dignity to freshen their minds by object lessons from what they know. But every boardingschool changes as a nation changes. Most of us may remember thinking, “How odd it is that this half' should be so unlike last ‘half'! now we never go out of bounds, last half we were always going ; now we play rounders, then we played prisoner's base:” and so through all the easy life of that time. In fact, some ruling spirits, some one or two ascendant boys, had left, one or two others had come; and so all was changed. The models were changed and the copies changed; a different thing was praised and a different thing bullied. A curious case of the same tendency was noticed to me only lately: a friend of mine-a Liberal Conservative - addressed a meeting of workingmen at Leeds, and was much pleased at finding his characteristic and perhaps refined points both apprehended and applauded; "but then,” as he narrated, “up rose a blatant Radical who said the very opposite things, and the workingmen cheered him too and quite equally.” He was puzzled to account for so rapid a change; but the mass of the meeting was no doubt nearly neutral, and if set going, quite ready to applaud any good words without much thinking. The ringleaders changed : the Radical tailor started the Radical cheer; the more moderate shoemaker started the moderate cheer: and the great bulk followed suit. Only a few in each case were silent, and an absolute contrast was in ten minutes presented by the same elements.
The truth is, that the propensity of man to imitate what is before him is one of the strongest parts of his nature; and one sign of it is the great pain which we feel when our imitation has been unsuccessful. There is a cynical doctrine that most men would rather be accused of wickedness than of gaucherie ; and this is but another way of saying that the bad copying of predominant manners is felt to be more of a disgrace than common consideration would account for its being, since gaucherie in all but extravagant cases is not an offense against religion or morals, but is simply bad imitation.
We must not think that this imitation is voluntary, or even conscious. On the contrary, it has its seat mainly in very obscure parts of the mind, whose notions, so far from having been consciously produced, are hardly felt to exist; so far from being conceived beforehand, are not even felt at the time. The main seat of the imitative part of our nature is our belief, and the causes predisposing us to believe this or disinclining us to believe that are among the obscurest parts of our nature; but as to the imitative nature of credulity there can be no doubt. In