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The precept is very good, to begin with swimming with corks. There is an error somewhat akin to the one I have been combating, which may be worth noticing here. Declamations are current in the present day against the iniquity of giving a bias to the minds of young persons, by teaching them our own interpretation of the Sacred Volume, instead of leaving them to investigate for themselves; that is, against endeavouring to place them in the same situation with those to whom those very Scriptures were written; instead of leaving them to struggle with difficulties which the Scriptures nowhere contemplate or provide against. The maintainors of such a principle would do well to consider, whether it would not, if consistently pursued, prove too much. Do you not, it might be asked, bias the minds of children by putting into their hands the Scriptures themselves, as the infallible word of God? If you are convinced that they are so, you must be sure that they will stand the test of unprejudiced inquiry. Are you not, at least, bound in fairness to teach them, at the same time, the systems of ancient Mythology, the doctrines of the Koran, and those of modern philosophers, that they may freely chuse amongst all? Let any one who is disposed to deride the absurdity of such a proposal, consider whether there is any objection to it, which would not equally lie against the exclusion of systematic religious instruction, or indeed systematic training in any science or art.
It is urged, however, that since a man must wish to find the system true in which he has been trained, his judgment must be unduly biassed by that wish. It would follow from this principle, that no physician should be trusted who is not utterly indifferent whether his patient recovers or dies, and who is not wholly free from any favourable hope from the mode of treatment pursued; since else his mind must be unfairly influenced by his wishes!
'The predominancy of custom is everywhere visible; insomuch
as a man would wonder to hear men profess, protest, engage,
give great words, and then do just as they have done before;
as if they were dead images and engines, moved only by
the wheels of custom.'
This 'predominancy of custom' is remarkably exemplified in the case of soldiers who have long been habituated to obey, as if by a mechanical impulse, the word of command.
It happened, in the case of a contemplated insurrection in a certain part of the British Empire, that the plotters of it sought to tamper with the soldiers who were likely to be called out against them; and, for this purpose, frequented the publichouses to which the soldiers resorted, and drew them into conversation. Reports of these attempts reached the officers; who, however, found that so little impression was made, that they did not think it needful to take any notice of them. On one occasion it appeared that a sergeant of a Scotch regiment was so far talked over as to feel and express great sympathy with the agitators, on account of their alleged grievances, as laid before him by the seducer. 'Weel, now, I did na ken that; indeed that seems unco hard; I can na wonder that ye should complain o' that,' &c., &c.
The other, seeking to follow up his blow, then said—'I suppose now such honest fellows as you, if you were to be called out against us, when we were driven to rise in a good cause, would never have the heart to fire on poor fellows who were only seeking liberty and justice. ' The sergeant replied (just as he was reaching down his cap and belt, to return to barracks), 'I'd just na advise ye to try!'
He felt conscious—misled as he had been respecting the justice of the cause,—that, whatever might be his private opinions and inward feelings, if the word of command were given to 'make ready, present, fire,' he should instinctively obey it.
And this is very much the case with any one who has been long drilled in the ranks of a party. Whatever may be his natural disposition—whatever may be the judgment his unbiassed understanding dictates on any point—whatever he may inwardly feel, and may (with perfect sincerity) have said, when you come to action, it is likely that the habit of going along with his party will prevail. And the more general and indefinite the purpose for which the party, or society (or by whatever name it may be called) is framed, and the less distinctly specified are its objects, the more will its members be, usually, under the control and direction of its leaders.1
I was once conversing with an intelligent and liberal-minded
1 See the 'Annotations' on the Essay on ' Unity in Religion,' and on ' Factions.'
man, who was expressing his strong disapprobation of some late decisions and proceedings of the leading persons of the Society he belonged to, and assuring me that the greater part of the subordinates regarded them as wrong and unjustifiable. 'But,' said I, 'they will nevertheless, I suppose, comply, and act as they are required?' 'Oh, yes, they must do that!'
Of course, there are many various degrees of partisanship, as there are also different degrees of custom in all other things: and it is not meant that all who are in any degree connected with any party must be equally devoted adherents of it. But I am speaking of the tendency of party-spirit, and describing a party-man so far forth as he is such. And persons of much experience in human affairs lay it down accordingly as a maxim, that you should be very cautious how you fully trust a partyman, however sound his own judgment, and however pure the principles on which he acts, when left to himself. A sensible and upright man, who keeps himself quite unconnected with party, may be calculated on as likely to act on the views which you have found him to take on each point. In some things, perhaps, you find him to differ from you; in others, to agree; but when you have learnt what his sentiments are, you know in each case what to expect. But it is not so with one who is connected with, and consequently controlled by, a party. In proportion as he is so, he is not fully his own master; and in some instances you will probably find him take you quite by surprise, by assenting to some course quite at variance with the sentiments which you have heard him express—probably with perfect sincerity—as his own. When it comes to action, a formed habit of following the party will be likely to prevail over everything. At least, 'I'd just na advise ye to try!'
It is important to keep in mind that—as is evident from what has been said just above—habits are formed, not at one stroke, but gradually and insensibly; so that unless vigilant care be employed, a great change may come over the character without our being conscious of any. For, as Dr. Johnson has well expressed it, 'The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.' And this is often strongly exemplified in the case just adverted to—that of party-spirit. It is not often that a man, all at once, resolves to join himself to a party; but he is drawn in by little and little. Party is like one of those perilous whirlpools sometimes met with at sea. When a vessel reaches the outer edge of one of them, the current moves so slowly, and with so little of a curve, that the mariners may be unconscious of moving in any curve at all, or even of any motion whatever. But each circuit of the spiral increases the velocity, and gradually increases the curve, and brings the vessel nearer to the centre. And perhaps this rapid motion, and the direction of it, are for the first time perceived, when the force of the current has become irresistible.
Some, no doubt, there were, of those who originally joined the Association called 'United Irishmen/ who, entertaining no evil designs, were seduced by specious appearances and fair professions, and did not enough consider that when once embarked on the stream of Party, no one can be sure how far he may ultimately be carried. They found themselves, doubtless most unexpectedly to many of them, engaged in an attempted revolution, and partners of men in actual rebellion.
No doubt many did draw back, though not without difficulty, and danger, and shame, when they perceived whither they were being hurried; though it is also, I think, highly probable that many were prevented by that difficulty and shame from stopping short and turning back in time; and having 'stepped in so far/ persevered in a course which, if it had been originally proposed to them, they would have shrunk from with horror, saying, 'Is thy servant a dog that he should do this great thing?'
'It is true that a man may, if he will, withdraw from, and disown, a party which he had formerly belonged to. But this is a step which requires no small degree of moral courage. And not only are we strongly tempted to shrink from taking such a step, but also our dread of doing so is likely rather to mislead our reason than to overpower it. A man will wish to think it justifiable to adhere to the party; and this wish is likely to bias his judgment, rather than to prevail on him to act contrary to his judgment. For, we know how much the judgment of men is likely to be biassed, as well as how much they are tempted to acquiesce in something against their judgment, when earnestly pressed by the majority of those who are acting with them,—whom they look up to,—whose approbation encourages them,—and whose censure they cannot but dread.
'Some doctrine, suppose, is promulgated, or measure proposed, or mode of procedure commenced, which some members of a party do not, in their unbiassed judgment, approve. But any one of them is disposed, first to wish, then to hope, and lastly to believe, that those are in the right whom he would be sorry to think wrong. And again, in any case where his judgment may still be unchanged, he may feel that it is but a small concession he is called on to make, and that there are great benefits to set against it; and that, after all, he is perhaps called on merely to acquiesce silently in what he does not quite approve; and, he is loth to incur censure, as lukewarm in the good cause,—as presumptuous,—as unfriendly towards those who are acting with him. To be 'a breaker up of the Club' (traipiac StaXvrrjg) was a reproach, the dread of which, we learn from the great historian of Greece, carried much weight with it in the transactions of the party-warfare he is describing. And we may expect the like in all similar cases.
'One may sometimes hear a person say in so many words— though far oftener, in his conduct—' It is true I do not altogether approve of such and such a step; but it is insisted on as essential by those who are acting with us; and if we were to hold out against it, we should lose their co-operation; which would be a most serious evil. There is nothing to be done, therefore, but to comply.''
'Certainly custom is most perfect when it beginneth in young years: this we call education, which is, in effect, but an early custom.'
Education may be compared to the grafting of a tree. Every gardener knows that the younger the wilding-stock is that is to be grafted, the easier and the more effectual is the operation, because, then, one scion put on just above the root, will become the main stem of the tree, and all the branches it puts forth will be of the right sort. When, on the other hand, a tree is to be grafted at a considerable age (which may be very successfully done), you have to put on twenty or thirty grafts on the several branches; and afterwards you will have to be watching