BLTC Press Titles


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The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

A. Conan Doyle


The Bhagavad Gita

Anonymous


The Revolt of the Netherlands

Friedrich Schiller


The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas


Our social heritage

by Graham Wallas

Excerpt:

Sustained muscular and mental effort are alike in the fact that they are dependent on the existence of the selfconscious will, which itself is mainly a product of social inheritance. We know little or nothing of the consciousness of non-human animals, but anyone who observes the behavior of a wild mammal may guess that it is not aware of any "self," separable from and more permanent than the impulse of the moment. Fear, or anger, or sex-love, or the hunting impulse, are, one supposes, while they prevail, inseparable parts of the animal's self. Two impulses, fear, for instance, and curiosity, may, of course, conflict. But as one watches a frightened and curious rabbit, one infers that it does not feel either that one of the two impulses is more especially its "self" than the other, or that a "self" exists apart from both of them. Primitive man may have stood in that respect somewhere between the unself-consciousness of the higher mammals and the selfconsciousness of civilized man. Civilized man is taught to separate in consciousness his "self" and his "will" from his less permanent memories and impulses, by an educational process which begins even before the power of speech has developed. The youngest infant is encouraged by signs and non-linguistic sounds to make certain selfdirected efforts. A more definite stage starts with the acquirement of language. As soon as a fact of consciousness can be named, it can be separated from the namer. The original invention of words like "will" or "try" must therefore have formed a new departure point in human behavior. They made it infinitely easier to recognize the feeling of self-conscious effort, to stimulate that feeling voluntarily, and to maintain it.1

Now the degree of control that can be exercised by the

11 watched, some years ago, a small experiment in the combined process of teaching the meaning of a word and stimulating a self-conscious effort. A little girl of perhaps five years old had formed a habit of biting her hair as she went to sleep. She was told to "try" to stop it, and she asked how she was to do so. She was told that her "will" would help her. Next morning she came down and said that her "will" told her to go on biting. In a few days she apparently learnt to distinguish between "will" as conscious impulse, and "will" as self-conscious effort. self-conscious will over the different factors in human behavior varies with the earliness or lateness in biological origin of those factors. Our will exercises very little direct control over the simpler physiological reactions, heart-beat, digestion, etc., which appeared earliest in the evolutionary history of mankind, which are mainly subconscious, and which we share with many of the simplest animals. Our will has more direct control over the more conscious "instincts," and over those movements of the sense organs and the muscles which are the normal external manifestations of "instinctive" behavior. It has most control over the highly conscious process of attention, and over certain other factors in that behavior of the intellect which is the latest product of evolution.2 And this gradation from our "lower" and less conscious physiological reactions up through "instinctive" behavior to our "higher," more conscious activities, is not only a gradation from that which is earlier to that which is later in evolution, but also to a large extent a gradation from that which was evolved to meet continuous needs to that which was evolved to meet our occasional needs. All vertebrate animals breathe water or air, circulate their body-fluids, and digest food, by continuous or prolonged repetitions of monotonous external or internal movements. These movements do not soon create fatigue, nor do the pecking or browsing movements of many birds or mammals while obtaining food, though fatigue soon fol

2 See my Human Nature in Politics, Part I, Chap. I. The limited direct control of the will is, however, extended by the fact that self-conscious effort can often produce sympathetic effects on our subconscious processes. Voluntary muscular exercise, or the determination to be cheerful, will improve digestion, and conscious attention will quicken the subconscious process of remembering.

lows the intermittent movements to which they are impelled by the presence of danger. Hunting animals, on the other hand, or animals, like man and the anthropoid apes, of mixed diet, not only escape danger by the intermittent activities of flight, or self-defense, or puzzled thought, but obtain their food by intermittent actions, to which they feel themselves impelled by fits and starts.

Civilized man, therefore, when he digs potatoes, or adds up figures, as his regular daily occupation, is using continuously under the direction of self-conscious will, powers which were evolved for intermittent use under the direction of impulse; and he suffers, in consequence, daily fatigue, and at longer intervals severe nervous reactions. Habit, particularly if begun in early childhood, may diminish these effects, and even submerge them below full consciousness, but does not abolish them.3 Sustained muscular or mental effort is, that is to say, "unnatural" to us, though it is necessary for the creation of the wealth and power without which civilized man cannot exist. It follows that progress in the arts of working and thinking requires the invention of means, not only of increasing the immediate efficiency of our work and thought, but also, of economizing them and compensating for the strain which they involve. Every increase of the self-conscious exertion involved in civilized work has compelled mankind to provide for periods when self-conscious effort is suspended, and the socially inherited element in our behavior is at a minimum. When a modern factory hand or clerk goes for a walk with his dog, the behavior of the man is very like that of the dog, and in neither case is it

3 On the relation between habit and our physiological nature see my Great Society, Chap. V.


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