Chapter 5: The Extension of Primary Ideals
Charles Horton Cooley
PRIMARY IDEALS UNDERLIE DEMOCRACY AND CHRISTIANITY — WHY THEY ARE NOT ACHIEVED ON A LARGER SCALE — WHAT THEY REQUIRE FROM PERSONALITY — FROM SOCIAL MECHANISM — THE PRINCIPLE OF COMPENSATION
IT will be found that those systems of larger idealism which are most human and so of most enduring value, are based upon the ideals of primary groups. Take, for instance, the two systems that have most vitality at the present time—democracy and Christianity.
The aspirations of ideal democracy—including, of course, socialism, and whatever else may go by a special name—are those naturally springing from the playground or the local community; embracing equal opportunity, fair play, the loyal service of all in the common good, free discussion, and kindness to the weak. These are renewed every day in the hearts of the people because they spring from and are corroborated by familiar and homely experience. Moreover, modern democracy as a historical current is apparently traceable back to the village community life of the Teutonic tribes of northern Europe, from which it descends through English constitutional liberty and the American and French revolutions to its broad and deep channels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
(52) And Christianity, as a social system, is based upon the family, its ideals being traceable to the domestic circle of a Judaean carpenter. God is a kind father; men and women are brothers and sisters; we are all members one of another, doing as we would be done by and referring .MI things to the rule of love. In so far as the church has departed from these principles it has proved transient; these endure because they are human.
But why is it that human nature is not more successful in achieving these primary aims? They appear to be simple and reasonable, and one asks why they are so little realized, why we are not, in fact, a moral whole, a happy family.
It is not because we do not wish it. There can be no doubt, I should say, that, leaving aside a comparatively few abnormal individuals, whose influence is small, men in general have a natural allegiance to the community ideal, and would gladly see it carried out on a large as well as a small scale. And nearly all imaginative and aspiring persons view it with enthusiasm, and would devote themselves to it with some ardor and sacrifice if they saw clearly how they could do so with effect. It is easy to imagine types of pure malignity in people of whom we have little knowledge, but who ever came to know any one intimately without finding that he had somewhere in him the impulses of a man and a brother ?
The failure to realize these impulses in practice is, of course, due in part to moral weakness of a personal character, to the fact that our higher nature has but an imperfect and transient mastery of our lower, so that we never
(53) live up to our ideals. But going beyond this and looking at the matter from the standpoint of the larger mind, the cause of failure is seen to be the difficulty of organization. Even if our intentions were always good, we should not succeed, because, to make good intentions effective, they must be extended into a system. In attempting to do this our constructive power is used up and our ideals confused and discouraged. We are even led to create a kind of institutions which, though good in certain aspects, may brutalize or ossify the individual, so that primary idealism in him is almost obliterated. The creation of a moral order on an ever-growing scale is the great historical task of mankind, and the magnitude of it explains all shortcomings.
From personality the building of a moral order requires not only good impulses but character and capacity. The ideal must be worked out with steadfastness, self-control, and intelligence. Even families and fellowships, though usually on a higher level than more elaborate structures, often break down, and commonly from lack of character in their members. But if it is insufficient here, how much less will it suffice for a righteous state. Our new order of life, with its great extension of structure and its principle of freedom, is an ever severer test of the political and moral fibre of mankind, of its power to hold itself together in vast, efficient, plastic wholes. Whatever races or social systems fail to produce this fibre must yield ascendancy to those which succeed.
This stronger personality depends also upon training; and whatever peoples succeed in being righteous on a
(54) great scale will do so only by adding to natural capacity an education suited to the growing demands of the situation—one at the same time broad and special, technical and humane. There can be no moral order that does not live in the mind of the individual.
Besides personality—or rather correlative with it there must be an adequate mechanism of communication and organization. In small groups the requirements of structure are so simple as to make little trouble, but in proportion as the web of relations extends and diversifies, they become more and more difficult to meet without sacrificing human nature; so that, other things equal, the freedom and real unity of the system are likely to vary inversely with its extent. It is only because other things have not remained equal, because the mechanism has been improved, that it has become possible, in a measure, to reconcile freedom with extent.
Communication must be full and quick in order to give that promptness in the give-and-take of suggestions upon which moral unity depends. Gesture and speech ensure this in the face-to-face group; but only the recent marvellous improvement of communicative machinery makes a free mind on a great scale even conceivable. If there is no means of working thought and sentiment into a whole by reciprocation, the unity of the group cannot be other than inert and unhuman. This cause alone would account for the lack of extended freedom previous to the nineteenth century.
There must also be forms and customs of rational organization, through which human nature may express itself
(55) in an orderly and effective manner. Even children learn the need of regular discussion and decision, while all bodies of adults meeting for deliberation find that they can think organically only by observance of the rules which have been worked out for such occasions. And if we are to have great and stable nations, it is easy to see that these rules of order must become a body of law and custom including most, if not all, of the familiar institutions of society. These are a product of progressive invention, trial, and survival as much as the railroad or the factory, and they have in the long run the same purpose, that of the fuller expression of human nature in a social system.
As might be expected from these conditions, there is a principle of compensation at work in the growth of the larger mind. The more betterment there is, the more of vital force, of human reason, feeling, and choice, goes into it; and, as these are limited, improvement in one respect is apt to be offset, at least in part or temporarily, by delay or retrogression in others.
Thus a rapid improvement in the means of communication, as we see in our own time, supplies the basis for a larger and freer society, and yet it may, by disordering settled relations, and by fixing attention too much upon mechanical phases of progress, bring in conditions of confusion and injustice that are the opposite of free.
A very general fact of early political history is deterioration by growth. The small state cannot escape its destiny as part of a larger world, but must expand or perish. It grows in size, power, and diversity by the necessities
(56) of its struggle for existence—as did Rome, Athens, and a hundred other states—but in so doing sacrifices human nature to military expediency and develops a mechanical or despotic structure. This, in the long run, produces weakness, decay, and conquest, or perhaps revolt and revolution. The requirements of human nature—both direct, as expressed in social idealism, and indirect, as felt in the ultimate weakness and failure of systems which disregard them—are irrepressible. Gradually, therefore, through improvement and through the survival of higher types in conflict, a type of larger structure is developed which less sacrifices these requirements.
Much of what is unfree and unhuman in our modern life comes from mere inadequacy of mental and moral energy to meet the accumulating demands upon it. In many quarters attention and effort must be lacking, and: where this is the case social relations fall to a low plane— just as a teacher who has too much to do necessarily adopts a mechanical style of instruction. So what we call "red tape" prevails in great clerical offices because much business is done by persons of small ability, who can work only under rule. And great bureaucratic systems, like the Russian Empire, are of much the same nature.
In general the wrongs of the social system come much more from inadequacy than from ill intention. It is indeed not to be expected that all relations should be fully rational and sympathetic; we have to be content with infusing reason and sympathy into what is most vital.
Society, then, as a moral organism, is a progressive creation, tentatively wrought out through experiment, struggle, and survival. Not only individuals but ideas,
(57) institutions, nations, and races do their work upon it and perish. Its ideals, though simple in spirit, are achieved through endless elaboration of means.
It will be my further endeavor to throw some light upon this striving whole by considering certain phases of its organization, such as Communication, Public Opinion, Sentiment, Classes, and Institutions; always trying to see the whole in the part, the part in the whole, and human nature in both.