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THE INDIVIDUALIZING OF CONSCIENCE
CONSCIENCE, as we have seen, is the result of a fusion of elements coming from personal experience and tribal judgment. In its early phases the latter elements predominate; conscience may be fairly called the inner side of custom. Primitive men have little individuality and involuntarily reflect the general attitude. But with widening experience and growing mental maturity, conscience, like man's other faculties, tends to become more individual and divergent, until we find, in civilized life, a man standing out for conscience' sake against the opinion of the world. The individualization of conscience, with the consequent clash of ideals, gives the study of morality much of its interest and difficulty; it will be worth while to note some of its causes.
Why did not the individualizing of conscience occur earlier?
(1) In primitive man there is not much opportunity for the development of individuality. There are few personal possessions, there is little scope for the exercise of peculiar talents, there is little power of reflection, to develop strongly individual ideas. The self-assertive instincts are to considerable extent still dormant for lack of stimulus to call them forth. The individual is content to take his place in the group-life, and it seldom occurs to him to question the group-judgment.
(2) In primitive life there is a drastic repression of any incipient rebelliousness, through the enforcement of custom or explicit law in the ways we have indicated; the fear of
summary retribution must have been a heavy discouragement to any innovator. If men dared to defy the community morals, they were very likely to be put to death before the habit of free judgment had much time to spread. There was thus a sort of artificial selection for survival of the conventional type, and weeding-out of the free thinker and moral genius. Even in historic times this process has continued and been an enormous clog on human progress. The man of revolutionary moral insight has had to pay the penalty, if not of death as in the case of Socrates or of Jesus at least of ridicule and ostracism, of excommunication and isolation-as, in our own day, with Tolstoy. Many and many a saint who might have been a beaconlight to mankind has lived under the curses or sneers of his fellows and died in loneliness, to be soon forgotten. A few have, after years of opposition, obtained a following and accomplished great reforms, as did Buddha, Mohammed, St. Francis, and Luther. But none can count the potential reformers, the men of new insight, of individual moral judgment, who have been crushed by the weight of group-opposition. Man has been the worst enemy of his own progress.
(3) There is another aspect to this selective process, noted before in another context — the struggle for existence between groups. So intense are these tribal struggles in early society that harmony within a group is absolutely necessary. Individualization means disorganization; and whatever communities developed free thought and divergent ideas were at a disadvantage when it came to action. Many such groups, ahead of their rivals in individual moral development, were wiped out by barbaric armies that gave unquestioning obedience to the tribal will and worked together like a machine. Up to a certain stage in human development individuality was an undesirable variation and was ruthlessly repressed, sometimes by the execution
of the particular offenders, sometimes by the destruction of the group to which they belonged and which they by their divergence weakened.
What forces made against custom-morality?
Against these repressive forces, however, other forces were from early times urging men on to reject the tyranny of custom. Those inward promptings that we call conscience were continually tending to become less the echo of the group-conventions and more the expression of the individual's needs and deepest desires.
(1) At bottom, of course, lay the natural restlessness and passions of men, the impatience of control, the longing for liberty, the craving for self-expression. The combative instinct, pride, obstinacy, and notably the sex-instinct, were from earliest times spurring men on to a disregard of the conventional and the formation of individual standards.
(2) We may make special mention of the love of power over others, which has been one of the deep roots of the perpetual internecine struggles of man. There is a need of leadership in every group; and this need is felt more and more keenly as the groups increase in size. At first the authority of the elders suffices, or of strong men who push to the fore at times of crisis, as in the case of the so-called judges, the military dictators, as we might better call them, of early Israel. But as Israel, grown in numbers, and feeling the need of greater unity and readiness, clamored for a king, so generally, at a certain stage of culture, permanent chiefs of some sort become necessary. Now the chief, enjoying his sense of power, usually imposed his will upon the people; his individuality, at least, had more or less free play. And thus, through the changing decrees of successive rulers, all sorts of varying standards became realized, and the rigidity of early custom was steadily loosened.
(3) In the hunting stage of primitive life, and even in the pastoral stage, there was little private property, and hence little opportunity for the development of the acquisitive instinct. But with the transition to an agricultural life, and still more with the growth of commerce and the arts, private accumulation became possible. Individual initiative began to pay; the smarter and more ingenious could outstrip their fellows by breaking through the crust of custom, while those who were hidebound by a conventional conscience were at a disadvantage. To a large extent this lawlessness or innovation in conduct came into conflict with the individual's conscience. But the question "Why not?" would at once arise; if possible, a man would justify his act to himself. And to some degree those new ways of acting would swing conscience over to their side.
(4) In earliest times each tribe lived very much to itself and developed its own morals, under the stress of similar forces, but without much influence from the experience of other groups. It was thus exceedingly difficult for it to conceive of any other ways of doing things; the ancestral customs were accepted as inevitable, like the sun and the rain. Inter-tribal conflicts first gave, perhaps, a vantagepoint for mutual criticism. A clan that by some custom had an obvious advantage over its neighbors would naturally be imitated as soon as men became quick-witted enough to understand its superiority. The taking of prisoners, the exchange of hostages or envoys, friendly missions and journeys, would give insight into one another's life. With the development of commerce, this mutual criticism of morals would be greatly accelerated. So the authority of local conventions and standards would be discredited, custom would become more fluid, and individual judgment find freer play. Especially would the more observant, the more traveled, the more reflective, tend to vary from the ideals of their neighbors.
(5) In various other ways, apart from the mutual influence of divergent group-customs, the progress of civilization tends to produce variations in ideals. The increase of knowledge, the development of science and philosophy, bring floods of new ideas to burst the old dams; deepening insight reveals the irrationality of old ideas to the leaders of thought. The progress of the arts gives new interests and valuations. The spiritual seers and prophets see visions of a better order and proclaim new gospels. The development of classes and castes allows to the aristocracy more leisure to think and criticize; the institution of slavery, in particular, produced a class of slave-owners with ample time to dissect their inherited conceptions.
(6) Finally, where, under favoring conditions, the danger of war in which man has for the most part lived became less acute, custom generally grew laxer. It is the imperious necessity of self-preservation that has been the greatest conservative force; warlike states have demanded strict allegiance and looked with suspicion upon deviations from the group ideals. But peoples that, whether from a fortunate geographical situation or because of their marked superiority in numbers and power over their neighbors, have escaped this need of perpetual self-defense, could afford to relax their vigilance for conformity. And the very notable increase in individual variations in conduct and ideal during the past century has been largely owing to the era of comparative peace. We seem to be reaching the age when the advantage is to lie not with the nation that has the most rigid customs, but with the nation that shows the most individual initiative and progress.
Conservatism vs. radicalism
We have become forever emancipated from the tyranny of custom-morality under which the majority of men have