Social Organization

Chapter 11: The Enlargement of Consciousness

Charles Horton Cooley

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Narrowness of consciousness in tribal society -- Importance of face-to-face assembly -- Individuality -- Subconscious character of wider relations -- Enlargement of consciousness -- Irregularity in growth -- Breadth of modern consciousness -- Democracy

IN a life like that of the Teutonic tribes before they took on Roman civilization, the social medium was small, limited for most purposes to the family, clan or village group. Within this narrow circle there was a vivid interchange of thought and feeling, a sphere of moral unity, of sympathy, loyalty, honor and congenial intercourse. Here precious traditions were cherished, and here also was the field for an active public opinion, for suggestion and discussion, for leading and following, for conformity and dissent " In this kindly soil of the family," says Professor Gummer in his Germanic Origins, "flourished such growth of sentiment as that rough life brought forth. Peace, good-will, the sense of honor, loyalty to friend and kinsman, brotherly affection, all were plants that found in the Germanic home that congenial warmth they needed for their earliest stages of growth.... Originally the family or clan made a definite sphere or system of life; Outside of it the homeless man felt indeed that chaos had come again."[1]


When we say that public opinion is modern, we mean of course, the wider and more elaborate forms of it. On a smaller scale it has always existed where people have had a chance to discuss and act upon matters of common interest. Among our American Indians, for example, "Opinion was a most potent factor in all tribes, and this would be largely directed by those having popularity and power. Officers, in fact all persons, became extremely well known in the small community of an Amerind tribe. Every peculiarity of temperament was understood, and the individual was respected or despised according to his predominating characteristics. Those who were bold and fierce and full of strategy were made war-chiefs, while those who possessed judgment and decision were made civil chiefs or governors."[2] The Germanic tribes were accustomed to assemble in those village moots to which the historian recurs with such reverence, where " the men from whom Englishmen were to spring learned the worth of public opinion, of public discussion, the worth of the agreement, the 'common-sense' to which discussion leads, as of the laws which derive their force from being expressions of that general conviction."[3]

Discussion and public opinion of this simple sort, as every one knows, takes place also among children wherever they mingle freely. Indeed, it springs so directly from human nature, and is so difficult to suppress even by the most inquisitorial methods, that we may assume it to exist locally in all forms of society and at all periods of history It grows by looks and gestures where

(109) speech is forbidden, so that even in a prison there is public Opinion among the inmates. But in tribal life these local groups contained all the vivid and conscious society there was, the lack of means of record and of quick transmission making a wider unity impracticable.

In the absence of indirect communication people had to come into face-to-face contact in order to feel social excitement and rise to the higher phases of consciousness. Hence games, feasts and public assemblies of every sort meant more to the general life than they do in our day. They were the occasions of exaltation, the theatre for the display of eloquence either in discussing questions of the moment or recounting deeds of the past—and for the practice of those rhythmic exercises that combined dancing, acting, poetry and music in one comprehensive and communal art . Such assemblies are possibly more ancient than human nature itself—since human nature implies a preceding evolution of group life—and in some primitive form of them speech itself is supposed by some to have been born. Just as children invent words in the eagerness of play, and slang arises among gangs of boys on the street, so the earliest men were perhaps incited to the invention of language by a certain ecstasy and self-forgetting audacity, like that of the poet sprung from the excitement of festal meetings.[4]

Something of the spirit of these primitive assemblies Is perhaps reproduced in the social exaltation of those festal evenings around the camp-fire which many of us can recall, with individual and group songs, chants, "stunts" and the

(110) like; when there were not wanting original, almost impromptu, compositions—celebrating notable deeds or satanizing conspicuous individuals—which the common excite ment generated in the minds of one or more ingenious persons.

It is sometimes said that the individual counted for nothing in tribal life, that the family or the clan was the unit of society, in which all personalities were merged' From the standpoint of organization there is much truth in this; that is the group of kindred was for many pun poses (political, economic, religious, etc.) a corporate unit, acting as a whole and responsible as a whole to the rest of society; so that punishment of wrong-doing, for ex. ample, would be exacted from the group rather than from the particular offender. But taken psychologically, to mean that there was a lack of self-assertion, the idea is with. out foundation. On the contrary, the barbaric mind exalts an aggressive and even extravagant individuality. Achilles is a fair sample of its heroes, mighty in valor and prowess, but vain, arrogant and resentful— what we should be apt to call an individualist. [5] The men of the Niebelungenlied, of Beowulf, of Norse and Irish tales and of our Indian legends are very much like him.

Consider, also, the personal initiative displayed in the formation of a war-party among the Omahas, as described by Dorsey, and note how little it differs from the way in which commercial and other enterprises are started at the present day.


" It is generally a young man who decides to undertake an expedition against the enemy. Having formed his plan he speaks thus to his friend: 'My friend, as I wish to go on the war path, let us go. Let us boil the food as for a feast.' The friend having consented, the two are the leaders . . . if they can induce others to follow them. So they find two young men whom they send as messengers to invite those whom they name.... When all have assembled the planner of the expedition addresses the company. 'Ho! my friends, my friend and I have invited N'OU to a feast, because we wish to go on the war path.' Then each one who is willing to go replies thus: 'Yes, my friend, I am willing.' But he who is unwilling replies, 'My friend, I do not wish to go, I am unwilling.' Sometimes the host says, 'Let us go by such a day. Prepare yourselves.'"[6]

The whole proceeding reminds one also of the way games are initiated among boys, the one who "gets it up" having the right to claim the best position. No doubt the structure of some tribal societies permitted of less initiative than others; but such differences exist at all stages of culture.

Self-feeling, self-assertion and the general relation of the individual to the group are much the same at all epochs, and there was never a time since man became human when, as we sometimes read, " personality emerged " Change has taken place chiefly in the extent and character of the group to which the individual appeals, and in the ways in which he tries to distinguish

(112) himself. The Germanic tribesman, the mediaeval knight, the Renaissance artist or scholar and the modern captain of industry are alike ambitious: it is the object that differs. There has indeed been a development of personality in history, but it has been correlative with that of the general life, and has brought no essential change in the relation between the two.

In tribal life, then, since the conditions did not admit of wider unification, public consciousness could be only local in scope. Beyond its narrow range the cords which held life together were of a subconscious character— heredity, of course, with its freight of mental and social tendency; oral tradition, often vague and devious, and a mass of custom that was revered without being understood. These wider relations, not being surveyed and discussed, could not be the objects of deliberate thought and will, but were accepted as part of the necessary order of things, and usually ascribed to some divine source. In this way language, laws, religion, forms of government, social classes, traditional relations to other clans or tribes—all of which we know to have been built up by the cumulative workings of the human mind—were thought of as beyond the sphere of man's control.

The wider unity existed, then as now; human development was continuous in time and, after a blind fashion, cooperative among contemporaries. The tools of life were progressively invented and spread by imitation from tribe to tribe, the fittest always tending to survive; but only the immediate details of such changes were matters of consciousness: as processes they were beyond human

(113) cognizance. A man might adapt an ancient custom to a fresh emergency, but he would be unaware that he was shaping the growth of institutions.

There was even a tribal or national opinion, of a slow? subconscious sort a growth and consensus of idea upon matters of general and enduring interest, such as religion, marriage and government. And, under unusual pressure, some more conscious unity of spirit might be aroused, as among the Germans or Gauls confederated against Rome; but this was likely to be transient.

The central fact of history, from a psychological point of view, may be said to be the gradual enlargement of social consciousness and rational cooperation. The mind constantly, though perhaps not regularly, extends the sphere within which it makes its higher powers valid. Human nature, possessed of ideals moulded in the family and the commune, is ever striving, somewhat blindly for the most part, with those difficulties of communication and organization which obstruct their realization on a larger scale. Whether progress is general or not we need not now inquire; it is certain that great gains have been made by the more vigorous or fortunate races, and that these are regarded with emulation and hope by many of the others.

Throughout modern European history, at least, there has been an evident extension of the local areas within which communication and cooperation prevail, and, on the whole, an advance in the quality of cooperation as judged by an ideal moral unity. It has tended to become more

(114) free and human, more adequately expressive of communal feeling.

Perhaps all apparent departures from this tendency may plausibly be explained as cases of irregular growth. If we find that vast systems of discipline, like the Roman Empire, have broken down, we find also that these sys tems were of a low type, psychologically, that the best features of them were after all preserved, and that the new systems that arose, though perhaps less in extent, were on the whole a higher and fuller expression of human nature.

In the later Empire, for example, it seems plain that social mechanism (in its proper kind and measure one of the conditions of freedom) had grown in such a way as to shackle the human mind. In order to achieve and maintain an imperial reach of control, the state had gradually been forced to take on a centralized bureaucratic structure, which left the individual and the local group no sphere of self-reliant development. Public spirit and political leadership were suppressed, and the habit of organized self-expression died out, leaving the people without group vitality and as helpless as children. They were not, in general, cowards or voluptuaries—it seems that the decline of courage and domestic morals has been exaggerated but they had no trained and effective public capacity. Society, as Professor Dill says, had been elaborately and deliberately stereotyped.

The decline of vitality and initiative pervaded all spheres of life. There were no inventions and little industrial or agricultural progress of any kind. Literature de-

(115)-generated into rhetoric: "In the same manner," says Longinus, " as some children always remain pigmies, whose infant limbs have been too closely confined, thus our tender minds, fettered by the prejudices and habits of a just servitude, are unable to expand themselves, or to attain that well-proportioned greatness which we admire in the ancients, who, living under a popular government, wrote with the same freedom as they acted."[7]

The growing states of the earlier world were confronted, whether they knew it or not, with an irreconcilable opposition between freedom and expansion. They might retain in small areas those simple and popular institutions which nearly all the great peoples started with, and to which they owed their vigor; or they could organize on a larger scale a more mechanical unity. In the first case their careers were brief, because they lacked the military force to ensure permanence in a hostile world. In the latter they incurred, by the suppression of human nature, that degeneracy which sooner or later overtook every great state of antiquity.

In some such way as this we may, perhaps, dispose of the i enumerable instances which history shows of the failure of free organization—as in the decay of ancient and mediaeval city republics. Not only was their freedom of imperfect nature at the best, but they were too small to hold their own in a world that was necessarily, for the most part, autocratic or customary. Freedom, though in itself a principle of strength, was on too little a scale to defend itself. " If a republic be small," said Montes-

(116)-quieu, "it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large it is ruined by internal imperfection."[8]

But how splendid, in literature, in art, and even in arms, were many of these failures. How well did Athens, Florence and a hundred other cities illustrate the intrinsic I strength and fecundity of that free principle to which modern conditions permit an indefinite expansion.

The present epoch, then, brings with it a larger and, potentially at least, a higher and freer consciousness. In the individual aspect of life this means that each one of us has, as a rule, a wider grasp of situations, and is thus in a position to give a wider application to his intelligence, sympathy and conscience. In proportion as he does this he ceases to be a blind agent and becomes a rational member of the whole.

Because of this more conscious relation to the larger wholes—nations, institutions, tendencies—he takes a more vital and personal part in them. His self-feeling attaches itself, as its nature is, to the object of his free activity, and he tends to feel that "love of the maker for his work," that spiritual identification of the member with the whole, which is the ideal of organization.

De Tocqueville found that in the United States there was no proletariat. " That numerous and turbulent multitude does not exist, who regarding the law as their natural enemy look upon it with fear and distrust. It is impossible, on the contrary, not to perceive that all classes . . . are attached to it by a kind of parental affection."[9]

(117) And, notwithstanding a deep and well-grounded "social unrest," this remains essentially true at the present day, and should be true of all real democracy. Where the state is directly and obviously founded upon the thought of the people it is impossible to get up much fundamental antagonism to it; the energies of discontent are absorbed by moderate agitation.

The extension of reach and choice favors, in the long run, not only political but every kind of opportunity and freedom. It opens to the individual a more vital, self-determined and energetic part in all phases of the whole.

At the same time, the limits of human faculty make it impossible that any one of us should actually occupy all the field of thought thus open to him. Although stimulated to greater activity than before, one must constantly select and renounce; and most of his life will still be on the plane of custom and mechanism. He is freer chiefly in that he can survey the larger whole and choose in what relations he will express himself.

Indeed, an ever-present danger of the new order is that one will not select and renounce enough, that he will swallow more than he can properly digest, and fail of the benefits of a thorough subconscious assimilation. The more one studies current life, the more he is inclined to look upon superficiality as its least tractable defect.

The new conditions demand also a thorough, yet diversified and adaptable, system of training for the individual who is to share in this freer and more exigent society While democracy as a spirit is spontaneous, only the fullest development of personal faculty can make this spirit effectual on a great scale. Our confidence in our

(118) instincts need not be shaken, but our application of them must be enlarged and enlightened. We must be taught to do some one thing well, and yet never allowed to lose our sense of the relation of that one thing to the general endeavor.

The general or public phase of larger consciousness is what we call Democracy. I mean by this primarily the organized sway of public opinion. It works out also in a tendency to humanize the collective life, to make institutions express the higher impulses of human nature, instead of brutal or mechanical conditions. That which most inwardly distinguishes modern life from ancient or mediaeval is the conscious power of the common people trying to effectuate their instincts. All systems rest, in a sense, upon public opinion; but the peculiarity of our time is that this opinion is more and more rational and self-determining. It is not, as in the past, a mere reflection of conditions believed to be inevitable, but seeks principles, finds these principles in human nature, and is determined to conform life to them or know why not. In this all earnest people, in their diverse ways, are taking part.

We find, of course, that but little can be carried out on the highest moral plane; the mind cannot attend to many things with that concentration which achieves adequate expression, and the principle of compensation is ever at work. If one thing is well done, others are overlooked, so that we are constantly being caught and ground in our own neglected mechanism.

On the whole, however, the larger mind involves a

(119) democratic and humanistic trend in every phase of life. A right democracy is simply the application on a large scale of principles which are universally felt to be right as applied to a small group—principles of free cooperation motived by a common spirit which each serves according to his capacity. Most of what is characteristic of the time is evidently of this nature; as, for instance, our sentiment of fair play, our growing kindliness, our cult of womanhood, our respect for hand labor, and our endeavor to organize society economically or on "business principles." And it is perhaps equally evident that the ideas which these replace—of caste, of domination, of military glory, of "conspicuous leisure" [10]and the like—sprang from a secondary and artificial system, based on conditions which forbade a large realization of primary ideals.

May we not say, speaking largely, that there has always been a democratic tendency, whose advance has been conditioned by the possibility, under actual conditions, of organizing popular thought and will on a wide scale? Free cooperation is natural and human; it takes place spontaneously among children on the playground, among settlers in new countries, and among the most primitive sorts of men—everywhere, in short, where the secondary and artificial discipline has not supplanted it. The latter, including every sort of coercive or mechanical control is of course, natural in the larger sense, and functional in human development; but there must ever be some resistance to it, which will tend to become effective when the control ceases to be maintained by the pressure of ex-

(120)-pediency. Accordingly we see that throughout modern history, and especially during the past century, there has been a progressive humanism, a striving to clear away lower forms of cooperation no longer essential, and to substitute something congenial to natural impulse.

Discussion regarding the comparative merits of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy has come to be looked upon as scholastic. The world is clearly democratizing; it is only a question of how fast the movement can take place, and what, under various conditions, it really involves. Democracy, instead of being a single and definite political type, proves to be merely a principle of breadth in organization, naturally prevalent wherever men have learned how to work it, under which life will be at least as various in its forms as it was before.

It involves a change in the character of social discipline not confined to politics, but as much at home in one sphere as another. With facility of communication as its mechanical basis, it proceeds inevitably to discuss and experiment with freer modes of action in religion, industry, education, philanthropy and the family. The law of the survival of the fittest will prevail in regard to social institutions, as it has in the past, but the conditions of fitness have undergone a change the implications of which we can but dimly foresee.


  1. Pages 169, 171.
  2. F. S. Dellenbaugh, The North Americans of Yesterday, 416.
  3. J. R. Green, History of the English People, i, 13.
  4. J. Donovan, The Festal Origin of Human Speech. Mind, Octover 1891.
  5. "Jura neget sibi nata, nihil non arroget armis."—Horace, A~E Poet., 122.
  6. J O. Dorsey, Omaha Sociology, 315, 316. A publication of the US Bureau of Ethnology.
  7. Quoted by Gibbon, Decline and Fall, Milman-Smith edition, i, 194, 195.
  8. The Spirit of Laws, book ix, chap. 1.
  9. Democracy in America, vol. i, chap. 24.
  10. One of many illuminating phrases introduced by T. V. Veblen in his work on The Theory of the Leisure Class.

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