Social Organization

Chapter 16: The Trend of Sentiment

Charles Horton Cooley

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BY sentiment I mean socialized feeling, feeling which has been raised by thought and intercourse out of its merely instinctive state and become properly human. It implies imagination, and the medium in which it chiefly lives is sympathetic contact with the minds of others. Thus love is a sentiment, while lust is not; resentment is, but not rage; the fear of disgrace or ridicule, but not animal terror, and so on. Sentiment is the chief motive power of life, and as a rule lies deeper in our minds and is less subject to essential change than thought, from which, however, it is not to be too sharply separated.

Two traits in the growth of sentiment are perhaps characteristic of modern life, both of which, as will appear, are closely bound up with the other psychological changes that have already been discussed.

First a trend toward diversification: under the impulse of a growing diversity of suggestion and intercourse many new varieties and shades of sentiment are developed. Like a stream which is distributed for irrigation,


the general current of social feeling is drawn off into many small channels.

Second a trend toward humanism, meaning by this a wider reach and application of the sentiments that naturally prevail in the familiar intercourse of primary groups. Following a tendency evident in all phases of the social mind, these expand and organize themselves at the expense of sentiments that go with the more formal or oppressive structures of an earlier epoch.

The diversification of sentiment seems to involve some degree of attenuation, or decline in volume, and also some growth of refinement.

By the former I mean that the constant and varied demands upon feeling which modern life makes—in contrast to the occasional but often severe demands of a more primitive society—give rise, very much as in the case of the irrigating stream, to the need and practice of more economy and regularity in the flow, so that "animated moderation" [1]in feeling succeeds the alternations of apathy and explosion characteristic of a ruder condition. Thus our emotional experience is made up of diverse but for the most part rather mild excitements, so that the man most at home in our civilization, though more nimble in sentiment than the man of an earlier order, is perhaps somewhat inferior in depth. Something of the same difference can be seen between the city man and the farmer; while the latter is inferior in versatility and readiness of feeling, he has a greater store of it laid up, which is apt to give superior depth and momentum to such

(179) sentiment as he does cherish. Who has not experienced the long-minded faithfulness and kindness, or perhaps resentment, of country people, and contrasted them with the less stable feelings of those who live a more urbane life ?

In saying that life tends toward refinement it is only a general trend that is asserted. We must admit that many phases of refined sentiment have been more perfectly felt and expressed in the past than they are now; but this is a matter of the maturity of special types of culture, rather than of general progress. Thus the Italian Renaissance produced wonders of refinement in art, as in the painting, let us say, of Botticelli; but it was, on the whole, a bloody, harsh and sensual time compared with ours, a time when assassination, torture and rape were matters of every day. So, also, there is a refinement of the sense of language in Shakespeare and his contemporaries which we can only admire, while their plays depict a rather gross state of feeling. A course of reading in English fiction, beginning with Chaucer and ending with James, Howells and Mrs. Ward, would certainly leave the impression that our sensibilities had, on the whole, grown finer.

And this is even more true of the common people than of the well-to-do class with which literature is chiefly occupied: the tendency to the diffusion of refinement being more marked than its increase in a favored order. The sharp contrast in manners and feelings between the "gentleman," as formerly understood, and the peasant, artisan and trading classes has partly disappeared.

(180) Differences in wealth and occupation no longer necessitate differences in real culture, the opportunities for which are coming to be open to all classes, and in America, at least, the native-bred farmer or handworker is not uncommonly, in essential qualities, a gentleman.

The general fact is that the activities of life, to which feeling responds, have become more various and subtle and less crudely determined by animal conditions. Material variety and comfort is one phase of this: we become habituated to a comparatively delicate existence and so are trained to shun coarseness. Communication, by giving abundance and choice of social contacts, also acts to diversify and refine sentiment; the growth of order disaccustoms us to violence, and democracy tends to remove the degrading spectacle of personal or class oppression.

This modern refinement has the advantage that, being a general rise in level rather than the achievement of a class or a nation, it is probably secure. It is not, like the refinement of Greece, the somewhat precarious fruit of transient conditions, but a possession of the race, in no more danger of dying out than the steam-engine.

To the trend toward humanism and the sentiments—such as justice, truth, kindness and service—that go with it, I shall devote the rest of this chapter and the one that follows:

The basis of all sentiment of this kind is the sense of community, or of sharing in a common social or spiritual whole, membership in which gives to all a kind of inner equality, no matter what their special parts may be. It is felt, however, that the differences among men should be

(181) functional and intrinsic, not arbitrary or accidental. The sense of justice is usually strong among the members of a sympathetic group, the basis for determining what is just being the perception of some purpose which every one is to serve, each in his own way, so that he who rightly holds a higher place is the one who can function best for the common good. It does not hurt my self-respect or my allegiance to remain a common seaman while another becomes captain of the ship, provided I recognize that he is the fitter man for the place; and if the distribution of stations in society were evidently of this sort there would be no serious protest against it. What makes trouble is the growth of an ideal of fair play which the actual system of things does not satisfy.

The widening of sympathy and the consciousness of larger unity have brought the hope and demand for a corresponding extension of justice; and all sorts of humanity—not to speak of the lower animals—profit by this wider sentiment. Classes seek to understand each other; the personality of women and children is recognized and fostered; there is some attempt to sympathize with alien nations and races, civilized or savage, and to help them to their just place in the common life of mankind.

Our conception of international rights reflects the same view, and the American, at least, desires that his country should treat other countries as one just man treats another, and is proud when he can believe that she has done so. It is surely of scme significance that in the most powerful of democracies national selfishness, in the judgment of a competent European observer,

(182) is less cynical and obtrusive than in any of the great states of Europe.[2]

Truth is a kind of justice, and wherever there is identification of oneself with the life of the group it is fostered, and lying tends to be felt as mean and impolitic. Serious falsehood among friends is, I believe, universally abhorred —by savages and children as well as by civilized adults. To lie to a friend is to hit him from behind, to trip him up in the dark, and so the moral sentiment of every group attempts to suppress falsehood among its members, however it may be encouraged as against outsiders. "Wherefore," says St. Paul, "putting away lying, speak every man truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another." [3]

Our democratic system aims to be a larger organization of moral unity, and so far as it is so, in the feeling of the individual, it fosters this open and downright attitude toward his fellows. In idea, and largely in fact, we are a commonwealth, of which each one is a member by his will and intelligence, as well as by necessity, and with which, accordingly, the human sentiment of loyalty among those who are members one of another is naturally in force. The very disgust with which, in a matter like assessment for taxation, men contemplate the incompatibility that sometimes exists between truth and fairness, is a tribute to the prevailing sentiment of sincerity.

An artificial system, that is one which, however solid

(183) its hidden foundations—and of course all systems rest on fact of some sort—does not visibly flow from principles of truth and fairness, fails to arouse this loyalty of partnership. One may be devoted to it, but his devotion will be based rather on reverence for something above him than on a sense of participation, and will call for submission rather than for straightforward dealing. It would seem that lying and servility are natural in the attitude of a subject toward a master, that is toward a superior but uncomprehending power; while truth is generated in sympathy. Tyranny may be said to make falsehood a virtue, and in contemporary Russia, for instance, stealth and evasion are the necessary and justifiable means of pursuing the aims of human nature.

Another reason for the association of freedom with truth is that the former is a training in the sense of social cause and effect; the free play of human forces being a constant demonstration of the power of reality as against sham. The more men experiment intelligently with life, the more they come to believe in definite causation and the less in trickery. Freedom means continuous experiment, a constant testing of the individual and of all kinds of social ideas and arrangements. It tends, then, to a social realism; "Her open eyes desire the truth." The best people I know are pervaded by the feeling that life is so real that it is not worth while to make believe. "Knights of the unshielded heart," they desire nothing so much as to escape from all pretense and prudery and confront things as they really are—confident that they are not irremediably bad. I read in a current newspaper that

(184) "brutal, unvarnished, careless frankness is the pose of the new type of girl. She has not been developed in a school of evasion. To pretend you gave a hundred dollars for a gown when you really gave fifty for it, is a sorry jest for her and a waste of time.... If she owns to the new gown she tells you its cost, the name of the inexpensive dressmaker who made it, and just where she economized in its price."

There is a tribute to truth in the very cynicism and shamelessness with which flagitious politicians and financiers declare and defend their practices. Like Napoleon or Macchiavelli they have at least cast off superstition and are dealing with reality, though they apprehend it only in a low and partial aspect. If they lie, they do so deliberately, scientifically, with a view to producing a certain effect upon people whom they regard as fools. It only needs that this rational spirit should ally itself with higher sentiment and deeper insight in order that it should become a source of virtue.

I will not here inquire minutely how far or in what sense honesty is the best policy, but it is safe to say that the more life is organized upon a basis of freedom and justice the more truth there is in the proverb. When the general state of things is anarchical, as in the time of Macchiavelli, rationalism may lead to the cynical use of falsehood as the tool suited to the material; nor is it deniable that this is often the case at the present day. But modern democracy aims to organize justice, and in so far as it succeeds it creates a medium in which truth tends to survive and falsehood to perish. We all wish to

(185) live in such a medium: there is nothing more grateful than the conviction that the order of things is sincere, is founded on reality of some sort; and in a good measure the American, for instance, does have this conviction. It makes democracy a soft couch for the soul: one can let himself go and does not have to make believe; presence is no part of the system; be your real self and you will find your right place.

"I know how the great basement of all power
Is frankness, and a true tongue to the world;
And how intriguing secrecy is proof
Of fear and weakness, and a hollow state."

An artificial system must maintain itself by suppressing the free play of social forces and inculcating its own artificial ideas in place of those derived from experience. Free association, free speech, free thinking, in so far as they touch upon matters vital to authority, are and always have been put down under such systems, and this means that the whole mind of the people is emasculated, as the mind of Italy was by Spanish rule and religious reaction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. "Oriental mendacity" is ascribed to the insecurity of life and property under arbitrary rule; but it is not merely life and property that are affected. The very idea of truth and reason in human affairs can hardly prevail under a system which affords no observation to corroborate it. The fact that in diplomacy, for instance, there is a growing belief that it pays to be simple and honest, I take to be a reflection of the fact that the international system, based more and more on intelligent public opinion, is

(186) gradually coming to be a medium in which truth is fit to live.

Perhaps something of this hostility to truth will linger in all establishments, however they may be humanized: they all involve a kind of vested interest in certain ideas which is not favorable to entire frankness. It sometimes appears that one who would be quite honest and stand for human nature should avoid not only religious, political and educational allegiance, but law, journalism, and all positions where one has to speak as part of an institution. As a rule the great seers and thinkers have stood as much aside from institutions as the nature of the human mind permits.

Still another reason for the keener sense of truth in our day is the need to economize attention. In societies where life is dull, fiction, circumlocution and elaborate forms of intercourse serve as a sort of pastime; and the first arouses no resentment unless some definite injury is attempted by it. Although the Chinese are upright in keeping their pecuniary engagements, we are told that mere truth is not valued by them, and is not inculcated by their classic moralists. So in Italy the people seem to think that a courteous and encouraging lie is kinder than the bare truth, as when a man will pretend to give you information when he knows nothing about the matter. A strenuous civilization like ours makes one intolerant of all this. It is not that we are always hurried; but we are so often made to feel the limitations of our attention that we dislike to waste it. Thought is life, and we wish to get the most reality for a given outlay of it that is to be

(187) had. We wish to come at once to the Real Thing, whether it be a business proposition or the most subtle theory.

Another sentiment favored by the times is social courage and hopefulness, a disposition to push forward with confidence regarding the future both of the individual and of society at large. That this attitude is the prevalent one, in American democracy at least, nearly all observers are agreed. " Let any one," says Dr. Lyman Abbott, " stand on one of our great highways and watch the countenances of the passers-by; the language written on most of them is that of eagerness, ambition, expectation, hope." [4]There is something ruthless about this headlong optimism, which is apt to deny and neglect failure and despair, as certain religious sects of the day deny and neglect physical injury; but it answers its purpose of sustaining the combatants. It springs from a condition in which the individual, not supported in any one place by a rigid system, is impelled from childhood to trust himself to the common current of life, to make experiments, to acquire a habit of venture and a working knowledge of social forces. The state of things instigates endeavor, and, as a rule, rewards it sufficiently to keep up one's courage, while occasional failure at least takes away that vague dread of the unknown which is often worse than the reality. Life is natural and vivid, not the wax-works of an artificial order, and has that enlivening effect that comes from being thrown back upon human nature. A real pessimism—one which despairs of the general trend

(188) of things—is rare and without much influence, even the revolutionary sects maintaining that the changes they desire are in the line of a natural evolution. Discontent is affirmative and constructive rather than stagnant: it works out programmes and hopefully agitates for their realization. There is a kind of piety and trust in God to be seen in the confidence with which small bodies of men anticipate the success of principles they believe to be right.


  1. Bagehot's phrase. See his Physics and Politics.
  2. See James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, chap. 87.
  3. Ephesians, iv, 25.
  4. In Shaler's United States, ii, 594.

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