Human Nature and Conduct

Part 2: The Place of Impulse in Conduct:
II. Plasticity of Impulse

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In the case of the young it is patent that impulses are highly flexible starting points for activities which are diversified according to the ways in which they are. used. Any impulse may become organized into almost any disposition according to the way it interacts with surroundings. Fear may become abject cowardice, prudent caution, reverence for superiors or respect for equals; an agency for credulous swallowing of absurd superstitions or for wary scepticism. A man may be chiefly afraid of the spirits of his ancestors, of officials, of arousing the disapproval of his associates, of being deceived, of fresh air, or of Bolshevism. The actual outcome depends upon how the impulse of fear is interwoven with other impulses. This depends in turn upon the outlets and inhibitions supplied by the social environment.

In a definite sense, then, a human society is always starting afresh. It is always in process of renewing, and it endures only because of renewal. We speak of the peoples of southern Europe as Latin peoples. Their existing languages depart widely from one another and from the Latin mother tongue. Yet there never was a. day when this alteration of speech was intentional or explicit. Persons always meant to reproduce the speech they heard from their elders and supposed they were

(96) succeeding. This fact may stand as a kind of symbol of the reconstruction wrought in habits because of the fact that they can be transmitted and be made to endure only through the medium of the crude activities of the young or through contact with persons having different habits.

For the most part, this continuous alteration has been unconscious and. unintended. Immature, undeveloped activity has succeeded in modifying adult organized activity accidentally and surreptitiously. But with the dawn of the idea of progressive betterment and an interest in new uses of impulses, there has grown up some consciousness of the extent to which a future new society of changed purposes and desires may be created by a deliberate humane treatment of the impulses of youth. This is the meaning of education; for a truly humane education consists in an intelligent direction of native activities in the light of the possibilities and necessities of the social situation. But for the most part, adults have given training rather than education. An impatient, premature mechanization of impulsive activity after the fixed pattern of adult habits of thought and affection has been desired. The combined effect of love of power, timidity in the face of the novel and A self-admiring complacency has been too strong to permit immature impulse to exercise its reorganizing potentialities. The younger generation has hardly even knocked frankly at the door of adult customs, much less been invited in to rectify through better education the brutalities and inequities estab-

(97) -lished in adult habits. Each new generation has crept blindly and furtively through such chance gaps as have happened to be left open. Otherwise it has been modeled after the old.

We have already noted how original plasticity is warped and docility is taken mean advantage of. It has been used to signify not capacity to learn liberally and generously, but willingness to learn the customs of adult associates, ability to learn just those special things which those having power and authority wish to teach. Original modifiability has not been given a fair chance to act as a trustee for a better human life. It has been loaded with convention, biased by adult convenience. It has been practically rendered into an equivalent of non-assertion of originality, a pliant accommodation to the embodied opinions of others.

Consequently docility has been identified with imitativeness, instead of with power to re-make old habits, to re-create. Plasticity and originality have been opposed to each other. That the most precious part of plasticity consists in ability to form habits of independent judgment and of inventive initiation has been ignored. For it demands a more complete and intense docility to form flexible easily re-adjusted habits than it does to acquire those which rigidly copy the ways of others. In short, among the native activities of the young are some that work towards accommodation, assimilation, reproduction, and others that work toward exploration, discovery and creation. But the weight of adult custom has been thrown upon retaining

(98) and strengthening tendencies toward conformity, and against those which make for variation and independence. The habits of the growing person are jealously kept within the limit of adult customs. The delightful originality of the child is tamed. Worship of institutions and personages themselves lacking in imaginative foresight, versatile observation and liberal thought, is enforced.

Very early in life sets of mind are formed without attentive thought, and these sets persist and control the mature mind. The child learns to avoid the shock of unpleasant disagreement, to find the easy way out, to appear to conform to customs which are wholly mysterious to him in order to get his own waythat is to display some natural impulse without exciting the unfavorable notice of those in authority. Adults distrust the intelligence which a child has while making upon him demands for a kind of conduct that requires a, high order of intelligence, if it is to be intelligent at all. The inconsistency is reconciled by instilling in him "moral " habits which have a maximum of emotional empressment and adamantine hold with a minimum of understanding. These habitudes, deeply engrained before thought is awake and even before the day of experiences which can later he recalled, govern conscious later thought. They are usually deepest and most unget-at-able just where critical thought is most needed in morals, religion and politics. These "infantilisms " account for the mass of irrationalities that prevail among men of otherwise rational tastes. These

(99) personal " hang-overs " are the cause of what the student of culture calls survivals. But unfortunately these survivals are much more numerous and pervasive than the anthropologist and historian are wont to admit. To list them would perhaps oust one from " respectable " society.

And yet the intimation never wholly deserts us that there is in the unformed activities of childhood and youth the possibilities of a better life for the community as well as for individuals here and there. This dim sense is the ground of our abiding idealization of childhood. For with all its extravagancies and uncertainties, its effusions and reticences, it remains a standing proof of a life wherein growth is normal not an anomaly, activity a delight not a task, and where habit-forming is an expansion of power not its shrinkage. Habit and impulse may war with each other, but it is a combat between the habits of adults and the impulses of the young, and not, as with the adult, a civil warfare whereby personality is rent asunder. Our usual measure for the " goodness " of children is the amount of trouble they make for grownups, which means of course the amount they deviate from adult habits and expectations. Yet by way of expiation we envy children their love of new experiences, their intentness in extracting the last drop of significance from each situation, their vital seriousness in things that to us are outworn.

We compensate for the harshness and monotony f our present insistence upon formed habits by

( 100) imagining a future heaven in which we too shall respond freshly and generously to each incident of life. In consequence of our divided attitude, our ideals are self-contradictory. On the one hand, we dream of an attained perfection, an ultimate static goal, in which effort shall cease, and desire and execution be once and for all in complete equilibrium. We wish for a character which shall be steadfast, and we then conceive this desired faithfulness as something immutable, a character exactly the same yesterday, today and forever. But we also have a sneaking sympathy for the courage of an Emerson in declaring that consistency should be thrown to the winds when it stands between u;; and the opportunities of present life. We reach out to the opposite extreme of our ideal of fixity, and under the guise of a return to nature dream of a romantic freedom, in which all life is plastic to impulse, a continual source of improvised spontaneities and novel inspirations. We rebel against all organization and all stability. If modern thought and sentiment is to escape from this division in its ideals, it must be through utilizing released impulse as an agent of steady reorganization of custom and institutions.

While childhood is the conspicuous proof of the renewing of habit rendered possible by impulse, the latter never wholly ceases to play its refreshing role in adult life. If it did, life would petrify, society stagnate. Instinctive reactions are sometimes too intense to be woven into a smooth pattern of habits. Under ordinary circumstances they appear to be tamed to

(101) obey their master, custom. But extraordinary crises release them and they show by wild violent energy how superficial is the control of routine. The saying that civilization is only skin deep, that a savage persists beneath the clothes of a civilized man, is the common acknowledgment of this fact. At critical moments of unusual stimuli the emotional outbreak and rush of instincts dominating all activity show how superficial is the modification which a rigid habit has been able to effect.

When we face this fact in its general significance,, we confront one of the ominous aspects of the history of man. We realize how little the progress of man has been the product of intelligent guidance, how largely it has been a by-product of accidental upheavals, even though by an apologetic interest in behalf of some privileged institution we later transmute chance into providence. We have depended upon the clash of war, the stress of revolution, the emergence of heroic individuals, the impact of migrations generated by war and famine, the incoming of barbarians, to change established institutions. Instead of constantly utilizing unused impulse to effect continuous reconstruction, we have waited till an accumulation of stresses suddenly breaks through the dikes of custom.

It is often supposed that as old persons die, so must old peoples. There are many facts in history to support the belief. Decadence and degeneration seems to be the rule as age increases. An irruption of some uncivilized horde has then provided new blood and fresh

(102) life so much so that history has been defined as a process of rebarbarization. In truth the analogy between a person and a nation with respect to senescence and death is defective. A nation is always renewed by the death of its old constituents and the birth of those who are as young and fresh as ever were any individuals in the hey-day of the nation's glory. Not the nation but its customs get old. Its institutions petrify into rigidity; there is social arterial sclerosis. Then some people not overburdened with elaborate and stiff habits take up and carry on the moving process of life. The stock of fresh peoples is, however, approaching exhaustion. It is not safe to rely upon this expensive method of renewing civilization. We need to discover how to rejuvenate it from within. A normal perpetuation becomes a fact in the degree in which impulse is released and habit is plastic to the transforming touch of impulse. When customs are flexible and youth is educated as youth and not as premature adulthood, no nation grows old.

There always exists a goodly store of non-functioning impulses which may be drawn upon. Their manifestation and utilization is called conversion or regeneration when it comes suddenly. But they may be drawn upon continuously and moderately. Then we call it learning or educative growth. Rigid custom signifies not that there are no such impulses but that they are not organically taken advantage of. As matter of fact, the stiffer and the more encrusted the customs, the larger is the number of instinctive activities

(103) that find no regular outlet and that accordingly merely await a chance to get an irregular, uncoordinated manifestation. Routine habits never take up all the slack. They apply only where conditions remain the same or recur in uniform ways. They do not fit the unusual and novel.

Consequently rigid moral codes that attempt to lay down definite injunctions and prohibitions for every occasion in life turn out in fact loose and slack. Stretch ten commandments or any other number as far as you will by ingenious exegesis, yet acts unprovided for by them will occur. No elaboration of statute law can forestall variant cases and the need of interpretation ad hoe. Moral and legal schemes that attempt the impossible in the way of definite formulation compensate for explicit strictness in some lines by implicit looseness in others. The only truly severe code is the one which foregoes codification, throwing responsibility for judging each case upon the agents concerned, imposing upon them the burden of discovery and adaptation

The relation which actually exists between undirected instinct and over-organized custom is illustrated in the two views that are current about savage life. The popular view looks at the savage as a wild man; as one who knows no controlling principles or rules of action, who freely follows his own impulse, whim or desire whenever it seizes him and wherever it takes him. Anthropologists are given to the opposed notion. They view savages as bondsmen to custom,

(104) They note the network of regulations that order his risings-up and his sittings-down, his goings-out and his comings-in. They conclude that in comparison with civilized man the savage is a slave, governed by many inflexible tribal habitudes in conduct and ideas.

The truth about savage life lies in a combination of these two conceptions. Where customs exist they are of one pattern and binding on personal sentiment and thought to a degree unknown in civilized life. But since they cannot possibly exist with respect to all the changing detail of daily life, whatever is left uncovered by custom is free from regulation. It is therefore left to appetite and momentary circumstance. Thus enslavement to custom and license of impulse exist side by side. Strict conformity and unrestrained wildness intensify each other. This picture of life shows us in an exaggerated form the psychology current in civilized life whenever customs harden and hold individuals enmeshed. Within civilization, the savage still exists. He is known in his degree by oscillation between loose indulgence and stiff habit.

Impulse in short brings with itself the possibility but not the assurance of a steady reorganization of habits to meet new elements in new situations. The moral problem in child and adult alike as regards impulse and instinct is to utilize them for formation of new habits, or what is the same thing, the modification of an old habit so that it may be adequately serviceable under novel conditions. The place of impulse in conduct as a pivot of re-adjustment, re-organization, in

(105) habits may be defined as follows: On one side, it is marked off from the territory of arrested and encrusted habits. On the other side, it is demarcated from the region in which impulse is a law unto itself.[1] Generalizing these distinctions, a valid moral theory contrasts with all those theories which set up static goals (even when they are called perfection), and with those theories which idealize raw impulse and find in its spontaneities an adequate mode of human freedom. Impulse is a source, an indispensable source, of liberation; but only as it is employed in giving habits pertinence and freshness does it liberate power.


  1. The use of the words instinct and impulse. as practical equivalents is intentional, even though it may grieve critical readers. The word instinct taken alone is still too laden with the older notion that an instinct is always definitely organized and adapted which for the most part is just what it is not in human beings. The word impulse suggests something primitive, yet loose, undirected, initial. Alan can progress as beasts cannot, precisely because he has so many 'instincts' that they cut across one another, so that most serviceable actions must be learned. In learning habits it is possible for man to learn the habit of learning. Then betterment becomes a conscious principle of life.

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