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.[8]

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,


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."