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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Why Early Societies Could not Be Free
By Walter Bagehot (1826–1877)
 
From ‘Physics and Politics’

I BELIEVE the general description in which Sir John Lubbock sums up his estimate of the savage mind suits the patriarchal mind: “Savages,” he says, “have the character of children with the passions and strength of men.”…  1
  And this is precisely what we should expect. “An inherited drill,” science says, “makes modern nations what they are; their born structure bears the trace of the laws of their fathers:” but the ancient nations came into no such inheritance,—they were the descendants of people who did what was right in their own eyes; they were born to no tutored habits, no preservative bonds, and therefore they were at the mercy of every impulse and blown by every passion….  2
  Again, I at least cannot call up to myself the loose conceptions (as they must have been) of morals which then existed. If we set aside all the element derived from law and polity which runs through our current moral notions, I hardly know what we shall have left. The residuum was somehow and in some vague way intelligible to the ante-political man; but it must have been uncertain, wavering, and unfit to be depended upon. In the best cases it existed much as the vague feeling of beauty now exists in minds sensitive but untaught,—a still small voice of uncertain meaning, an unknown something modifying everything else and higher than anything else, yet in form so indistinct that when you looked for it, it was gone; or if this be thought the delicate fiction of a later fancy, then morality was at least to be found in the wild spasms of “wild justice,” half punishment, half outrage: but anyhow, being unfixed by steady law, it was intermittent, vague, and hard for us to imagine….  3
  To sum up:—Law—rigid, definite, concise law—is the primary want of early mankind; that which they need above anything else, that which is requisite before they can gain anything else. But it is their greatest difficulty as well as their first requisite; the thing most out of their reach as well as that most beneficial to them if they reach it. In later ages, many races have gained much of this discipline quickly though painfully,—a loose set of scattered clans has been often and often forced to substantial settlement by a rigid conqueror; the Romans did half the work for above half Europe. But where could the first ages find Romans or a conqueror? men conquer by the power of government, and it was exactly government which then was not. The first ascent of civilization was at a steep gradient, though when now we look down upon it, it seems almost nothing.  4
  How the step from no polity to polity was made, distinct history does not record…. But when once polities were begun, there is no difficulty in explaining why they lasted. Whatever may be said against the principle of “natural selection” in other departments, there is no doubt of its predominance in early human history: the strongest killed out the weakest as they could. And I need not pause to prove that any form of polity is more efficient than none; that an aggregate of families owning even a slippery allegiance to a single head would be sure to have the better of a set of families acknowledging no obedience to any one, but scattering loose about the world and fighting where they stood. Homer’s Cyclops would be powerless against the feeblest band; so far from its being singular that we find no other record of that state of man, so unstable and sure to perish was it that we should rather wonder at even a single vestige lasting down to the age when for picturesqueness it became valuable in poetry.  5
  But though the origin of polity is dubious, we are upon the terra firma of actual records when we speak of the preservation of polities. Perhaps every young Englishman who comes nowadays to Aristotle or Plato is struck with their conservatism: fresh from the liberal doctrines of the present age, he wonders at finding in those recognized teachers so much contrary teaching. They both, unlike as they are, hold with Xenophon so unlike both, that man is “the hardest of all animals to govern.” Of Plato it might indeed be plausibly said that the adherents of an intuitive philosophy, being “the Tories of speculation,” have commonly been prone to conservatism in government; but Aristotle, the founder of the experience philosophy, ought according to that doctrine to have been a Liberal if any one ever was a Liberal. In fact, both of these men lived when men “had not had time to forget” the difficulties of government: we have forgotten them altogether. We reckon as the basis of our culture upon an amount of order, of tacit obedience, of prescriptive governability, which these philosophers hoped to get as a principal result of their culture; we take without thought as a datum what they hunted as a quæsitum.  6
  In early times the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do much the same things, telling them what to expect of each other,—fashioning them alike and keeping them so: what this rule is, does not matter so much. A good rule is better than a bad one, but any rule is better than none; while, for reasons which a jurist will appreciate, none can be very good. But to gain that rule, what may be called the “impressive” elements of a polity are incomparably more important than its useful elements. How to get the obedience of men, is the hard problem; what you do with that obedience is less critical.  7
  To gain that obedience, the primary condition is the identity—not the union, but the sameness—of what we now call “church” and “state.”… No division of power is then endurable without danger, probably without destruction: the priest must not teach one thing and the king another; king must be priest and prophet king,—the two must say the same because they are the same. The idea of difference between spiritual penalties and legal penalties must never be awakened,—indeed, early Greek thought or early Roman thought would never have comprehended it; there was a kind of rough public opinion, and there were rough—very rough—hands which acted on it. We now talk of “political penalties” and “ecclesiastical prohibition” and “the social censure”; but they were all one then. Nothing is very like those old communities now, but perhaps a trades-union is as near as most things: to work cheap is thought to be a “wicked” thing, and so some Broadhead puts it down.  8
  The object of such organizations is to create what may be called a cake of custom. All the actions of life are to be submitted to a single rule for a single object,—that gradually created “hereditary drill” which science teaches to be essential, and which the early instinct of men saw to be essential too. That this régime forbids free thought is not an evil,—or rather, though an evil, it is the necessary basis for the greatest good; it is necessary for making the mold of civilization and hardening the soft fibre of early man.  9
 
 
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