Human Nature and Conduct

Part 2: The Place of Impulse in Conduct:
IV. Impulse and Conflict of Habits

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War and the existing economic regime have not been discussed primarily on their own account. They are crucial cases of the relation existing between original impulse and acquired habit. They are so fraught with evil consequences that any one who is disposed can heap up criticisms without end. Nevertheless they persist. This persistence constitutes the case for the conservative who argues that such institutions are rooted in an unalterable human nature. A truer psychology locates the difficulty elsewhere. It shows that the trouble lies in the inertness of established habit. No matter how accidental and irrational the circumstances of its origin, no matter how different the conditions which now exist to those under which the habit was formed, the latter persists until the environment obstinately rejects it. Habits once formed perpetuate themselves: by acting unremittingly upon the native stock of activities. They stimulate, inhibit, intensify, weaken, select, concentrate and organize the latter into their own likeness. They create out of the formless void of impulses a world made in their own image. Dean is a creature of habit, not of reason nor yet of instinct.

Recognition of the correct psychology locates the problem but does not guarantee its solution. Indeed, at first sight it seems to indicate that every attempt to

(126) solve the problem and secure fundamental reorganizations is caught in a vicious circle. For the direction of native activity depends upon acquired habits, and yet acquired habits can be modified only by redirection of impulses. Existing institutions impose their stamp, their superscription, upon impulse and instinct. They embody the modifications the latter have undergone. How then can we get leverage for clanging institutions? How shall impulse exercise that re-adjusting office which has been claimed for it? Shall we not have to depend in the future as in the past upon upheaval and accident to dislocate customs so as to release impulses to serve as points of departure for new habits?

The existing psychology of the industrial worker for example is slack, irresponsible, combining a maximum of mechanical routine with a maximum of explosive, unregulated impulsiveness. These things have been bred by the existing economic system. But they exist, and are formidable obstacles to social change. We cannot breed in men the desire to get something for as nearly nothing as possible and in the end not pay the price. We satisfy ourselves cheaply by preaching the charm of productivity and by blaming the inherent selfishness of human nature, and urging some great mortal and religious revival. The evils point in reality to the necessity of a change in economic institutions, but meantime they offer serious obstacles to the change. At the same time, the existing economic system has enlisted in behalf of its own perpetuity the, managerial and the technological abilities which must

(127) serve the cause of the laborer if he is to be emancipated. In the face of these difficulties other persons seek an equally cheap satisfaction in the thought of universal civil war and revolution.

Is there any way out of the vicious circle? In the first place, there are possibilities resident in the education of the young which have never yet been taken advantage of. The idea of universal education is as yet hardly a century old, and it is still much more of an idea than a fact, when we take into account the early age at which it terminates for the mass. Also, thus far schooling has been largely utilized as a convenient tool of the existing nationalistic and economic regimes. Hence it is easy to point out defects and perversions in every existing school system. It is easy for a critic to ridicule the religious devotion to education which has characterized for example the American republic. It is easy to represent it as zeal without knowledge, fanatical faith apart from understanding. And yet the cold fact of the situation is that the chief means of continuous, graded, economical improvement and social rectification lies in utilizing the opportunities of educating the young to modify prevailing types of thought and desire.

The voting are not as yet as subject to the full impact of established customs. Their life of impulsive activity is vivid, flexible, experimenting, curious. Adults have their habits formed, fixed, at least comparatively. They are the subjects, not to say victims, of an environment which they can directly change only

( 128) by a maximum of effort and disturbance. They may not be able to perceive clearly the needed changes, or be willing to pay the price of effecting them. Yet they wish a different life for the generation to come. In order to realize that wish they may create a special environment whose main function is education. In order that education of the young be efficacious in inducing an improved society, it is not necessary for adults to have a formulated definite ideal of some better state. An educational enterprise conducted in this spirit would probably end merely in substituting one rigidity for another. What is necessary is that habits 1)e formed which are more intelligent, more sensitively percipient, more informed with foresight, more aware of what they are about, more direct and sincere, more flexibly responsive than those now current. Then they will meet their own problems and propose their own improvements.

Educative development of the young is not the only way in which the life of impulse may be employed to effect social ameliorations, though it is the least expensive and most orderly. No adult environment is all of one piece. The more complex a culture is, the more certain it is to include habits formed on differing, even conflicting patterns. Each custom may he rigid, unintelligent in itself, and yet this rigidity may cause it to wear upon others. The resulting attrition may release impulse for new adventures. The present time is conspicuously a time of such internal frictions and liberations. Social life seems chaotic, unorganized, rather

(129) than too fixedly regimented. Political and legal institutions are now inconsistent with the habits that dominate friendly intercourse, science and art. Different institutions foster antagonistic impulses and form contrary dispositions.

If we had to wait upon exhortations and unembodied "ideals" to effect social alterations, we should indeed wait long. But the conflict of patterns involved in institutions which are inharmonious with one another is already producing great changes. The significant point is not whether modifications shall continue to occur, but whether they shall be characterized chiefly by uneasiness, discontent and blind antagonistic struggles, or whether intelligent direction may modulate the harshness of conflict, and turn the elements of disintegration into a constructive synthesis. At all events, the social situation in " advanced" countries is such as to impart an air of absurdity to our insistence upon the rigidity of customs. There are plenty of persons to tell us that the real trouble lies in lack of fixity of habit and principle; in departure from immutable standards and structures constituted once for all. We are told that we are suffering from an excess of instinct, and from laxity of habit due to surrender to impulse as a law of life. The remedy is said to he to return from contemporary fluidity to the stable and spacious patterns of a classic antiquity that observed law and proportion: for somehow antiquity is always classic. When instability, uncertainty, erratic change are diffused throughout the situation, why dwell upon the

(130) evils of fixed habit and the need of release of impulse as an initiator of reorganizations? Why not rather condemn impulse and exalt habits of reverencing order and fixed truth?

The question is natural, but the remedy suggested is futile. It is not easy to exaggerate the extent to which we now pass from one kind of nurture to another as we go from business to church, from science to the newspaper, from business to art, from companionship to politics, from home to school. An individual is now subjected to many conflicting schemes of education. Hence habits are divided against one another, personality is disrupted, the scheme of conduct is confused and disintegrated. But the remedy lies in the development of a new morale which can be attained only as released impulses are intelligently employed to form harmonious habits adapted to one another in a new situation. A laxity due to decadence of old habits cannot be corrected by exhortations to restore old habits in their former rigidity. Even though it were abstractly desirable it is impossible. And it is not desirable because the inflexibility of old habits is precisely the chief cause of their decay and disintegration. Plaintive lamentations at the prevalence of change an(, abstract appeals for restoration. of senile authority are signs of personal feebleness, of inability to cope with change. It is a "defense reaction."


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