Social Organization

Chapter 10: Modern Communication:
Superficiality and Strain

Charles Horton Cooley

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The action of the new communication is essentially stimulating, and so may, in some of its phases, be injurious. It costs the individual more in the way of mental function to take a normal part in the new order of things than it did in the old. Not only is his outlook broader, so that he is incited to think and feel about a wider range of matters, but he is required to be a more thorough-going specialist in the mastery of his particular function; both extension and intension have grown. General culture and technical training are alike more exigent than the: used to be, and their demands visibly increase from year to year, not only in the schools but in life at large. The man who does not meet them falls behind the procession, and becomes in some sense a failure: either unable to make a living, or narrow and out of touch with generous movements.

Fortunately, from this point of view, our mental functions are as a rule rather sluggish, so that the spur of modern intercourse is for the most part wholesome, awakening the mind, abating sensuality, and giving men idea and purpose. Such ill effect as may be ascribed to it

(99) seems to fall chiefly under the two heads, superficiality and strain, which the reader will perceive to be another view of that enlargement and animation discussed in the last chapter but one.

There is a rather general agreement among observers that, outside of his specialty, the man of our somewhat hurried civilization is apt to have an impatient, touch and go habit of mind as regards both thought and feeling. We are trying to do many and various things, and are driven to versatility and short cuts at some expense to truth and depth. "The habit of inattention," said De Tocqueville about 1835, " must be considered as the greatest defect of the democratic character"[1]; and recently his judgment has been confirmed by Ostrogorski, who thinks that deliverance from the bonds of space and time has made the American a man of short views, wedded to the present, accustomed to getting quick returns, and with no deep root anywhere.[2] We have reduced ennui considerably; but a moderate ennui is justly reckoned by Comte and others as one of the springs of progress, and it is no unmixed good that we are too busy to be unhappy.

In this matter, as in so many others, we should discriminate, so far as we can, between permanent conditions of modern life and what is due merely to change, between democracy and confusion. There is nothing in the nature of democracy to prevent its attaining, when transition has somewhat abated, a diverse and stable organization of its

(100) own sort, with great advantage to our spiritual composure and productivity.

In the meanwhile it is beyond doubt that the constant and varied stimulus of a confused time makes sustained attention difficult. Certainly our popular literature is written for those who run as they read, and carries the principle of economy of attention beyond anything previously imagined. And in feeling it seems to be true that we tend toward a somewhat superficial kindliness and adaptability, rather than sustained passion of any kind Generally speaking, mind is spread out very thin over our civilization; a good sort of mind, no doubt, but quite thin.

All this may be counteracted in various ways, especially by thoroughness in education, and is perhaps to be regarded as lack of maturity rather than as incurable defect.

Mental strain, in spite of the alarming opinions sometimes expressed, is by no means a general condition in modern society, nor likely to become so; it is confined to a relatively small number, in whom individual weakness, or unusual stress, or both, has rendered life too much for the spirit. Yet this number includes a great part of those who perform the more exacting intellectual functions in business and the professions, as well as peculiarly weak, or sensitive, or unfortunate individuals in all walks of life. In general there is an increase of self-consciousness and choice; there is more opportunity, more responsibility, more complexity, a greater burden upon intelligence, will and character. The individual not only can but must deal with a flood of urgent suggestions, or be swamped

(101) by them. "This age that blots out life with question marks"[3] forces us to think and choose whether we are ready or not.

Worse, probably, than anything in the way of work— though that is often destructive -- is the anxious insecurity in which our changing life keeps a large part of the population, the well-to-do as well as the poor. And an educated and imaginative people feels such anxieties more than one deadened by ignorance. "In America," said De Tocqueville, "I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances which the world affords; it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brows, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures." [4]

Not long ago Mr. H. D. Sedgwick contributed to a magazine a study of what he called "The New American Type, [5] based on an exhibition of English and American portraits, some recent, some a century old. He found that tile more recent were conspicuously marked by the signs of unrest and strain. Speaking of Mr. Sargent's subjects he says, "The obvious qualities in his portraits are disquiet, lack of equilibrium, absence of principle, . . . a mind unoccupied by the rightful heirs, as if the home of principle and dogma had been transformed into an inn for wayfarers. Sargent's women are more marked than his men; women, as physically more delicate, are the first to reveal the strain of physical and psychical maladjustment. The thin spirit of life shivers pathetically in

(102) its 'fleshly dress'; in the intensity of its eagerness it is all unconscious of its spiritual fidgeting on finding itself astray —no path, no blazings, the old forgotten, the new not formed." The early Americans, he says, " were not limber minded men, not readily agnostic, not nicely sceptical; they were . . . eighteenth century Englishmen." Of Reynolds' women he observes, "These ladies led lives unvexed; natural affections, a few brief saws, a half. dozen principles, kept their brows smooth, their cheeks ripe, their lips most wooable." People had " a stable physique and a well-ordered, logical, dogmatic philosophy ,' The older portraits " chant a chorus of praise for national character, for class distinctions, for dogma and belief, for character, for good manners, for honor, for contemplation, for vision to look upon life as a whole, for appreciation that the world is to be enjoyed, for freedom from democracy, for capacity in lighter mood to treat existence as a comedy told by Goldoni."[6]

This may or may not be dispassionately just, but it sets forth one side of the case—a side the more pertinent for being unpopular—and suggests a very real though intangible difference between the people of our time and those of a century ago—one which all students must have felt. It is what we feel in literature when we compare the people of Jane Austen with those, let us say, of the author of The House of Mirth.

I do not propose to inquire how far the effects of strain may be seen in an increase of certain distinctly pathological phenomena, such as neurasthenia, the use of drugs,

(103) insanity and suicide. That it has an important working in this way—difficult, however, to separate from that of Other factors—is generally conceded. In the growth of suicide we seem to have a statistical demonstration of the destructive effect of social stress at its worst; and of general paralysis, which is rapidly increasing and has been called the disease of the century, we are told that "it is the disease of excess, of vice, of overwork, of prolonged worry; it is especially the disease of great urban centres, and its existence usually seems to show that the organism has entered upon a competitive race for which it is not fully equipped."


  1. Democracy in America, vol. ii, book iii, chap. 15.
  2. Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, ii,
  3. J. R. Lowell, The Cathedral
  4. Democracy in America, vol ii, book ii, chap. 13
  5. Since published in a book having this title. 101
  6. The Atlantic Monthly, April, 1904.

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