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What can be worse than a life regulated by that sort of obedience and that sort of imitation? This is of course a bad specimen; but the nature of customary law as we everywhere find it in its earliest stages is that of coarse casual comprehensive usage, beginning we cannot tell how, deciding we cannot tell why, but ruling every one in almost every action with an inflexible grasp.
The necessity of thus forming co-operative groups by fixed customs explains the necessity of isolation in early society. As a matter of fact, all great nations have been prepared in privacy and in secret; they have been composed far away from all distraction. Greece, Rome, Judæa, were framed each by itself, and the antipathy of each to men of different race and different speech is one of their most marked peculiarities and quite their strongest common property. And the instinct of early ages is a right guide for the needs of early ages : intercourse with foreigners then broke down in states the fixed rules which were forming their characters, so as to be a cause of weak fiber of mind, of desultory and unsettled action; the living spectacle of an admitted unbelief destroys the binding authority of religious custom and snaps the social cord.
Thus we see the use of a sort of “preliminary” age in societies, when trade is bad because it prevents the separation of nations, because it infuses distracting ideas among occupied communities, because it “brings alien minds to alien shores." And as the
” trade which we now think of as an incalculable good is in that age a formidable evil and destructive calamity, so war and conquest, which we commonly and justly see to be now evils, are in that age often singular benefits and great advantages: it is only by the competition of customs that bad customs can be eliminated and good customs multiplied ; conquest is the premium given by nature to those national characters which their national customs have made most fit to
win in war, and in many most material respects those winning characters are really the best characters, – the characters which do win in war are the characters which we should wish to win in war.
Similarly, the best institutions have a natural military advantage over bad institutions. The first great victory of civilization was the conquest of nations with ill-defined families having legal descent through the mother only, by nations of definite families tracing descent through the father as well as the mother, or through the father only. Such compact families are a much better basis for military discipline than the ill-bound families which indeed seem hardly to be families at all, where “paternity” is for tribal purposes an unrecognized idea, and where only the physical fact of “maternity” is thought to be certain enough to be the foundation of law or custom. The nations with a thoroughly compacted family system have “possessed the earth,”- that is, they have taken all the finest districts in the most competed for parts; and the nations with loose systems have been merely left to mountain ranges and lonely islands. The family system, and that in its highest form, has been so exclusively the system of civilization that literature hardly recognizes any other, and that if it were not for the living testimony of a great multitude of scattered communities which are “fashioned after the structure of the elder world,” we should hardly admit the possibility of something so contrary to all which we have lived amongst and which we have been used to think of. After such an example of the fragmentary nature of the evidence, it is in comparison easy to believe that hundreds of strange institutions may have passed away, and have left behind them not only no memorial, but not even a trace or a vestige to help the imagination to figure what they were.
I cannot expand the subject, but in the same way the better religions have had a great physical advantage, if I may say so, over the worse : they have given
what I may call a confidence in the universe. The savage subjected to a mean superstition is afraid to walk simply about the world, - he cannot do this because it is ominous, or he must do that because it is lucky, or he cannot do anything at all till the gods have spoken and given him leave to begin. But under the higher religions there is no similar slavery and no similar terror. The belief of the Greek,
είς οιωνός άριστος, αμύνεσθαι περί πάτρης: *
the belief of the Roman that he was to trust in the gods of Rome, for those gods were stronger than all others; the belief of Cromwell's soldiery that they were to “trust in God and keep their powder dry,”— are great steps in upward progress, using "progress in its narrowest sense: they all enabled those who believed them to “take the world as it comes," to be guided by no unreal reason and to be limited by no mystic scruple; whenever they found anything to do, to do it with their might. And more directly what I may call the fortifying religions—that is to say, those which lay the plainest stress on the manly parts of morality, upon valor, on truth and industry – have had plainly the most obvious effect in strengthening the races which believed them and in making those races the winning races.
No doubt many sorts of primitive improvement are pernicious to war; an exquisite sense of beauty, a love of meditation, a tendency to cultivate the force of the mind at the expense of the force of the body, for example, help in their respective degrees to make men less warlike than they would otherwise be. But these are the virtues of other ages: the first work of the first ages is to bind men together in the strong bond of a rough, coarse, harsh custom, and the incessant conflict of nations effects this in the best way. Every nation is a “hereditary co-operative group,” bound by a fixed custom; and out of those groups, those conquer which have the most binding and most invigorating customs, and these are as a rough rule the best customs. The majority of the “groups " which win and conquer are better than the majority of those which fail and perish, and thus the first world grew better and was improved.
*"The best omen is to fight for one's country.” (“Iliad," xii. 243.)
This early customary world no doubt continued for ages. The first history delineates great monarchies, each composed of a hundred customary groups, all of which believed themselves to be of enormous antiquity, and all of which must have existed for very many generations. The first historical world is not a new-looking thing, but a very ancient; and according to principle it is necessary that it should exist for ages. If human nature was to be gradually improved, each generation must be born better tamed, more calm, more capable of civilization - in a word, more legal - than the one before it ; and such inherited improvements are always slow and dubious. Though a few gifted people may advance much, the mass of each generation can improve but very little on the generation which preceded it; and even the slight improvement so gained is liable to be destroyed by some mysterious atavism, some strange recurrence to a primitive past. Long ages of dreary monotony are the first facts in the history of human communities; but those ages were not lost to mankind, for it was then that was formed the comparatively gentle and guidable thing which we now call human nature.
And indeed, the greatest difficulty is not in preserving such a world but in ending it; we have brought in the yoke of custom to improve the world, and in the world the custom sticks. In a thousand cases -- in the great majority of cases - the progress of mankind has been arrested in this its earliest shape; it has been closely embalmed in a mummy-like imitation of its primitive existence. I have endeavored to show in what manner and how slowly and in how
few cases this yoke of custom was removed. It was “government by discussion ” which broke the bond of ages and set free the originality of mankind; then and then only the motives which Lord Macaulay counted on to secure the progress of mankind in fact begin to work: then the “tendency in every man to ameliorate his condition” begins to be important, because then man can alter his condition, while before he is pegged down by ancient usage; then the “tendency in each mechanical art towards perfection” begins to have force, because the artist is at last allowed to seek perfection, after having been forced for ages to move in the straight furrow of the old fixed way.
As soon this great step upwards is once made, all or almost all the higher gifts and graces of humanity have a rapid and a definite effect on “verifiable progress," -on progress in the narrowest because in the most universally admitted sense of the term. Success in life then depends, as we have seen, more than anything else on "animated moderation,”— on a certain combination of energy of mind and balance of mind, hard to attain and harder to keep; and this subtle excellence is aided by all the finer graces of humanity. It is a matter of common observation
a that though often separated, fine taste and fine judgment go very much together; and especially that a man with gross want of taste, though he may act sensibly and correctly for a while, is yet apt to break out sooner or later into gross practical error. In metaphysics, probably both taste and judgment involve what is termed “poise of mind,”- that is, the power of true passiveness; the faculty of “waiting” till the stream of impressions, whether those of life or those of art, have done all that they have to do and cut their full type plainly upon the mind. The ill-judging and the untasteful are both over-eager; both move too quick[ly) and blur the image. In this way the union between a subtle sense of beauty and a subtle discretion in conduct is a natural one, because it rests on