V. Character and History

Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states. But what is the constitution of man?

We may define human nature as the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind. The most basic tendencies we shall call instincts, though we recognize that much doubt has been cast upon their inborn quality. We might describe human nature through the “Table of Character Elements” given on the following page. In this analysis human beings are normally equipped by “nature” (here meaning heredity) with six positive and six negative instincts, whose function it is to preserve the individual, the family, the group, or the species. In positive personalities the positive tendencies predominate, but most individuals are armed with both sets of instincts—to meet or to avoid (according to mood or circumstance) the basic challenges or opportunities of life. Each instinct generates habits and is accompanied by feelings. Their totality is the nature of man.

But how far has human nature changed in the course of history? Theoretically there must have been some change; natural selection has presumably operated upon psychological as well as upon physiological variations. Nevertheless, known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind. The Greeks of Plato’s time behaved very much like the French of modern centuries; and the Romans behaved like the English. Means and instrumentalities change; motives and ends remain the same: to act or rest, to acquire or give, to fight or retreat, to seek association or privacy, to mate or reject, to offer or resent parental care. Nor does human nature alter as between classes: by and large the poor have the same impulses as the rich, with only less opportunity or skill to implement them. Nothing is clearer in history than the adoption by successful rebels of the methods they were accustomed to condemn in the forces they deposed.

TABLE OF CHARACTER ELEMENTS

 

INSTINCTS

HABITS

FEELINGS

Positive

Action

Play

Work

Curiosity

Manipulation

Thought

Innovation

Art

Buoyancy

Energy

Eagerness

Wonder

Absorption

Resolution

Aesthetic

feeling

Negative

Sleep

Rest

Sloth

Indifference

Hesitation

Dreaming

Imitation

Disorder

Fatigue

Inertia

Boredom

Doubt

Vacuity

Acceptance

Confusion

Positive

Fight

Approach

Competition

Pugnacity

Mastery

Courage

Rivalry

Anger

Pride

Negative

Flight

Retreat

Co-operation

Timidity

Submission

Anxiety

Friendliness

Fear

Humility

Positive

Acquisition

Eating

Hoarding

Property

Hunger

Greed

Possessiveness

Negative

Avoidance

Rejection

Spending

Poverty

Disgust

Prodigality

Insecurity

Positive

Association

Communication

Seeking approval

Generosity

Sociability

Vanity

Kindliness

Negative

Privacy

Solitude

Fearing disapproval

Selfishness

Secretiveness

Shyness

Hostility

Positive

Mating

Sexual activity

Courtship

Sexual imagination

Sexual love

Negative

Refusal

Sexual perversion

Blushing

Sexual neurosis

Modesty

Positive

Parental care

Homemaking

Parental love

Negative

Filial dependence

Filial rebellion

Filial resentment

Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education. Custom and tradition within a group correspond to type and heredity in the species, and to instincts in the individual; they are ready adjustments to typical and frequently repeated situations. New situations, however, do arise, requiring novel, unstereotyped responses; hence development, in the higher organisms, requires a capacity for experiment and innovation—the social correlates of variation and mutation. Social evolution is an interplay of custom with origination.

Here the initiative individual—the “great man,” the “hero,” the “genius”—regains his place as a formative force in history. He is not quite the god that Carlyle described; he grows out of his time and land, and is the product and symbol of events as well as their agent and voice; without some situation requiring a new response his new ideas would be untimely and impracticable. When he is a hero of action, the demands of his position and the exaltation of crisis develop and inflate him to such magnitude and powers as would in normal times have remained potential and untapped. But he is not merely an effect. Events take place through him as well as around him; his ideas and decisions enter vitally into the course of history. At times his eloquence, like Churchill’s, may be worth a thousand regiments; his foresight in strategy and tactics, like Napoleon’s, may win battles and campaigns and establish states. If he is a prophet like Mohammed, wise in the means of inspiring men, his words may raise a poor and disadvantaged people to unpremeditated ambitions and surprising power. A Pasteur, a Morse, an Edison, a Ford, a Wright, a Marx, a Lenin, a Mao Tse-tung are effects of numberless causes, and causes of endless effects.

In our table of character elements imitation is opposed to innovation, but in vital ways it co-operates with it. As submissive natures unite with masterful individuals to make the order and operation of a society, so the imitative majority follows the innovating minority, and this follows the originative individual, in adapting new responses to the demands of environment or survival. History in the large is the conflict of minorities; the majority applauds the victor and supplies the human material of social experiment.

Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history. A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he is unchecked by custom, morals, or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.

So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it—perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.

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