Traditions represent the ideas, the needs, and the sentiments of
the past. They are the synthesis of the race, and weigh upon us
with immense force.
The biological sciences have been transformed since embryology
has shown the immense influence of the past on the evolution of
living beings; and the historical sciences will not undergo a
less change when this conception has become more widespread. As
yet it is not sufficiently general, and many statesmen are still
no further advanced than the theorists of the last century, who
believed that a society could break off with its past and be
entirely recast on lines suggested solely by the light of reason.
A people is an organism created by the past, and, like every
other organism, it can only be modified by slow hereditary
It is tradition that guides men, and more especially so when they
are in a crowd. The changes they can effect in their traditions
with any ease, merely bear, as I have often repeated, upon names
and outward forms.
This circumstance is not to be regretted. Neither a national
genius nor civilisation would be possible without traditions. In
consequence man's two great concerns since he has existed have
been to create a network of traditions which he afterwards
endeavours to destroy when their beneficial effects have worn
themselves out. Civilisation is impossible without traditions,
and progress impossible without the destruction of those
traditions. The difficulty, and it is an immense difficulty, is
to find a proper equilibrium between stability and variability.
Should a people allow its customs to become too firmly rooted, it
can no longer change, and becomes, like China, incapable of
improvement. Violent revolutions are in this case of no avail;
for what happens is that either the broken fragments of the chain
are pieced together again and the past resumes its empire without
change, or the fragments remain apart and decadence soon succeeds
The ideal for a people is in consequence to preserve the
institutions of the past, merely changing them insensibly and
little by little. This ideal is difficult to realise. The
Romans in ancient and the English in modern times are almost
alone in having realised it.
It is precisely crowds that cling the most tenaciously to
traditional ideas and oppose their being changed with the most
obstinacy. This is notably the case with the category of crowds
constituting castes. I have already insisted upon the
conservative spirit of crowds, and shown that the most violent
rebellions merely end in a changing of words and terms. At the
end of the last century, in the presence of destroyed churches,
of priests expelled the country or guillotined, it might have
been thought that the old religious ideas had lost all their
strength, and yet a few years had barely lapsed before the
abolished system of public worship had to be re-established in
deference to universal demands.
Taine, is very clear on this point.
"What is everywhere seen with respect to the keeping of Sunday
and attendance at the churches proves that the majority of
Frenchmen desire to return to their old usages and that it is no
longer opportune to resist this natural tendency. . . . The
great majority of men stand in need of religion, public worship,
and priests. IT IS AN ERROR OF SOME MODERN PHILOSOPHERS, BY
WHICH I MYSELF HAVE BEEN LED AWAY, to believe in the possibility
of instruction being so general as to destroy religious
prejudices, which for a great number of unfortunate persons are a
source of consolation. . . . The mass of the people, then, must
be allowed its priests, its altars, and its public worship."
Blotted out for a moment, the old traditions had resumed their
No example could better display the power of tradition on the
mind of crowds. The most redoubtable idols do not dwell in
temples, nor the most despotic tyrants in palaces; both the one
and the other can be broken in an instant. But the invisible
masters that reign in our innermost selves are safe from every
effort at revolt, and only yield to the slow wearing away of
In social as in biological problems time is one of the most
energetic factors. It is the sole real creator and the sole
great destroyer. It is time that has made mountains with grains
of sand and raised the obscure cell of geological eras to human
dignity. The action of centuries is sufficient to transform any
given phenomenon. It has been justly observed that an ant with
enough time at its disposal could level Mount Blanc. A being
possessed of the magical force of varying time at his will would
have the power attributed by believers to God.
In this place, however, we have only to concern ourselves with
the influence of time on the genesis of the opinions of crowds.
Its action from this point of view is still immense. Dependent
upon it are the great forces such as race, which cannot form
themselves without it. It causes the birth, the growth, and the
death of all beliefs. It is by the aid of time that they acquire
their strength and also by its aid that they lose it.
It is time in particular that prepares the opinions and beliefs
of crowds, or at least the soil on which they will germinate.
This is why certain ideas are realisable at one epoch and not at
another. It is time that accumulates that immense detritus of
beliefs and thoughts on which the ideas of a given period spring
up. They do not grow at hazard and by chance; the roots of each
of them strike down into a long past. When they blossom it is
time that has prepared their blooming; and to arrive at a notion
of their genesis it is always back in the past that it is
necessary to search. They are the daughters of the past and the
mothers of the future, but throughout the slaves of time.
Time, in consequence, is our veritable master, and it suffices to
leave it free to act to see all things transformed. At the
present day we are very uneasy with regard to the threatening
aspirations of the masses and the destructions and upheavals
foreboded thereby. Time, without other aid, will see to the
restoration of equilibrium. "No form of government," M. Lavisse
very properly writes, "was founded in a day. Political and
social organisations are works that demand centuries. The feudal
system existed for centuries in a shapeless, chaotic state before
it found its laws; absolute monarchy also existed for centuries
before arriving at regular methods of government, and these
periods of expectancy were extremely troubled."
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