Human Nature and Conduct

Part 2: The Place of Impulse in Conduct:
VII. Impulse and Thought

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We return to the original proposition. The position of impulse in conduct is intermediary. Morality is an endeavor to find for the manifestation of impulse in special situations an office of refreshment and renewal. The endeavor is not easy of accomplishment. It is easier to surrender the main and public channels of action and belief to the sluggishness of custom, and idealize tradition by emotional attachment to its ease, comforts and privileges instead of idealizing it in practice by making it more equably balanced with present needs. Again, impulses not used for the work of rejuvenation and vital recovery are sidetracked to find their own lawless barbarities or their own sentimental refinements. Or they are perverted to pathological careers— some of which have been mentioned.

In the course of time custom becomes intolerable because of what it suppresses and some accident of war or inner catastrophe releases impulses for unrestrained expression. At such times we have philosophies which identify progress with motion, blind spontaneity with freedom, and which under the name of the sacredness of individuality or a return to the norms of nature make impulse a law unto itself. The oscillation between impulse arrested and frozen in rigid custom and impulse isolated and undirected is seen most conspicuously when

(170) epochs of conservatism and revolutionary ardor alternate. But the same phenomenon is repeated on a smaller scale in individuals. And in society the two tendencies and philosophies exist simultaneously; they waste in controversial strife the energy that is needed for specific criticism and specific reconstruction.

The release of some portion of the stock of impulses is an opportunity, not an end. In its origin it is the product of chance; but it affords imagination and invention their chance. The moral correlate of liberated impulse is not immediate activity, but reflection upon the way in which to use impulse to renew disposition and reorganize habit. Escape from the clutch of custom gives an opportunity to do old things in new ways, and thus to construct new ends and means. Breach in the crust of the cake of custom releases impulses; but it is the work of intelligence to find the ways of using them. There is an alternative between anchoring a boat in the harbor till it becomes a rotting hulk and letting it loose to be the sport of every contrary gust. To discover and define this alternative is the business of mind, of observant, remembering, contriving disposition.

Habit as a vital art depends upon the animation of habit by impulse; only this inspiriting stands between habit and stagnation. But art, little as well as great, anonymous as well as that distinguished by titles of dignity, cannot be improvised. It is impossible without spontaneity, but it is not spontaneity. Impulse is needed to arouse thought. incite reflection and enliven

(171) belief. But only thought notes obstructions, invents tools, conceives aims, directs technique, and thus converts impulse into an art which lives in objects. Thought is born as the twin of impulse in every moment of impeded habit. But unless it is nurtured, it speedily dies, and habit and instinct continue their civil warfare. There is instinctive wisdom in the tendency of the young to ignore the limitations of the environment. Only thus can they discover their own power and learn the differences in different kinds of environing limitations. But this discovery when once made marks the birth of intelligence; and with its birth comes the responsibility of the mature to observe, to recall, to forecast. Every moral life has its radical, ism; but this radical factor does not find its full expression in direct action but in the courage of intelligence to go deeper than either tradition or immediate impulse goes. To the study of intelligence in action we now turn our attention.


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