« AnteriorContinuar »
modern time, one of the most firm and accepted maxims of old times. A secession on religious grounds of isolated Romans to sail beyond sea would have seemed to the ancient Romans an impossibility. In still ruder ages, the religion of savages is a thing too feeble to create a schism or to found a community; we are dealing with people capable of history when we speak of great ideas, not with prehistoric flintmen or the present savages : but though under very different forms, the same essential causes- the imitation of preferred characters and the elimination of detested characters — were at work in the oldest times, and are at work among rude men now. Strong as the propensity to imitation is among civilized men, we must conceive it as an impulse of which their minds have been partially denuded. Like the farseeing sight, the infallible hearing, the magical scent of the savage, it is a half-lost power; it was strongest in ancient times, and is strongest in uncivilized regions.
This extreme propensity to imitation is one great reason of the amazing sameness which every observer notices in savage nations. When you have seen one Fuegian, you have seen all Fuegians; one Tasmanian, all Tasmanians. The higher savages, as the NewZealanders, are less uniform; they have more of the varied and compact structure of civilized nations, because in other respects they are more civilized, they have greater mental capacity, larger stores of inward thought: but much of the same monotonous nature clings to them too. A savage tribe resembles a herd of gregarious beasts: where the leader goes they go too; they copy blindly his habits, and thus soon become that which he already is. For not only the tendency but also the power to imitate is stronger in savages than civilized men; savages copy quicker and they copy better. Children in the same way are born mimics: they cannot help imitating what comes before them; there is nothing in their minds to resist the propensity to copy. Every educated man has a large inward supply of ideas to which he can retire, and in which he can escape from or alleviate unpleasant outward objects; but a savage or a child has no resource: the external movements before it are its very life; it lives by what it sees and hears. Uneducated people in civilized nations have vestiges of the same condition : if you send a housemaid and a philosopher to a foreign country of which neither knows the language, the chances are that the housemaid will catch it before the philosopher. He has something else to do, - he can live in his own thoughts; but unless she can imitate the utterances she is lost, - she has no life till she can join in the chatter of the kitchen. The propensity to mimicry and the power of mimicry are mostly strongest in those who have least abstract minds. The most wonderful examples of imitation in the world are perhaps the imitations of civilized men by savages in the use of martial weapons: they learn the knack, as sportsmen call it, with inconceivable rapidity; a NorthAmerican Indian-an Australian even - can shoot as well as any white man. Here the motive is at its maximum, as well as the innate power: every savage cares more for the power of killing than for any other power.
The persecuting tendency of all savages, and indeed of all ignorant people, is even more striking than their imitative tendency. No barbarian can bear to see one of his nation deviate from the old barbarous customs and usages of their tribe; very commonly all the tribe would expect a punishment from the gods if any one of them refrained from what was old or began what was new. In modern times and in cultivated countries we regard each person as responsible only for his own actions, and do not believe or think of believing that the misconduct of others can bring guilt on them; guilt to us is an individual taint, consequent on choice and cleaving to the chooser: but in early ages the act of one member of the tribe is conceived to make all the tribe impious, to offend its peculiar god, to expose all the tribe to penalties from heaven. There is no “limited liability” in the political notions of that time: the early tribe or nation is a religious partnership, on which a rash member by a sudden impiety may bring utter ruin. If the state is conceived thus, toleration becomes wicked: a permitted deviation from the transmitted ordinances becomes simple folly, - it is a sacrifice of the happiness of the greatest number; it is allowing one individual, for a moment's pleasure or a stupid whim, to bring terrible and irretrievable calamity upon all. No one will ever understand even Athenian history who forgets this idea of the old world, though Athens was in comparison with others a rational and skeptical place, ready for new views and free from old prejudices. When the street statues of Hermes were mutilated, all the Athenians were frightened and furious: they thought that they should all be ruined because some one had mutilated a god's image and so offended him. Almost every detail of life in the classical timesthe times when real history opens - was invested with a religious sanction: a sacred ritual regulated human action; whether it was called “law” or not, much of it was older than the word “law,”- it was part of an ancient usage conceived as emanating from a superhuman authority, and not to be transgressed without risk of punishment by more than mortal power. There was such a solidarité then between citizens that each might be led to persecute the other for fear of harm to himself.
It may be said that these two tendencies of the early world — that to persecution and that to imitation - must conflict; that the imitative impulse would lead men to copy what is new, and that persecution by traditional habit would prevent their copying it. But in practice the two tendencies co-operate : there is a strong tendency to copy the most common thing, and that common thing is the old habit. Daily imitation is far oftenest a conservative force, for the most frequent models are ancient. Of course, however, something new is necessary for every man and for every nation. We may wish, if we please, that to-morrow shall be like to-day, but it will not be like it : new forces will impinge upon us,- new wind, new rain, and the light of another sun,- and we must alter to meet them. But the persecuting habit and the imitative combine to insure that the new thing shall be in the old fashion; it must be an alteration, but it shall contain as little of variety as possible. The imitative impulse tends to this, because men most easily imitate what their minds are best prepared for; what is like the old, yet with the inevitable minimum of alteration ; what throws them least out of the old path 'and puzzles least their minds. The doctrine of development means this, – that in unavoidable changes men like the new doctrine which is most of a “preservative addition” to their old doctrines; the imitative and the persecuting tendencies make all change in early nations a kind of selective conservatism, for the most part keeping what is old but annexing some new but like practice,- an additional turret in the old style.
It is this process of adding suitable things and rejecting discordant things which has raised those scenes of strange manners which in every part of the world puzzle the civilized men who come upon them first. Like the old head-dress of mountain villages, they make the traveler think not so much whether they are good or whether they are bad, as wonder how any one could have come to think of them ; to regard them as “monstrosities," which only some wild abnormal intellect could have hit upon. And wild and abnormal indeed would be that intellect if it were a single one at all; but in fact such manners are the growth of ages, like Roman law or the British Constitution. No one man, no one generation could
have thought of them ; only a series of generations, trained in the habits of the last and wanting something akin to such habits, could have devised them. Savages pet their favorite habits, so to say, and preserve them as they do their favorite animals; ages are required, but at last a national character is formed by the confluence of congenial attractions and accordant detestations.
Another cause helps. In early states of civilization there is a great mortality of infant life, and this is a kind of selection in itself, the child most fit to be a good Spartan is most likely to survive a Spartan childhood. The habits of the tribe are enforced on the child ; if he is able to catch and copy them he lives, if he cannot he dies. The imitation which assimilates early nations continues through life, but it begins with suitable forms and acts on picked specimens. I suppose, too, that there is a kind of parental selection operating in the same way, and probably tending to keep alive the same individuals. Those children which gratified their fathers and mothers most would be most tenderly treated by them, and have the best chance to live; and as a rough rule their favorites would be the children of most “promise,” – that is to say, those who seemed most likely to be a credit to the tribe according to the leading tribal manners and the existing tribal tastes. The most gratifying child would be the best looked after, and the most gratifying would be the best specimen of the standard then and there raised up.
Even so, I think there will be a disinclination to attribute so marked, fixed, almost physical a thing as national character to causes so evanescent as the imitation of appreciated habit and the persecution of detested habit; but after all, national character is but a name for a collection of habits more or less universal, and this imitation and this persecution in long generations have vast physical effects. The mind of the parent (as we speak) passes somehow to the body