It is not inconsistent with the hopefulness inherent in primitive religion that it should rest on a faith in tradition, though this might seem to contradict the tendency of the immature mind to indulge in random play. Another trait of such a mind being to enjoy repetition by rote, it is on this that the static type of society seizes in order to obtain the rigid system of law that it needs. The cyclical view of life, reflected in the belief in reincarnation, implies a round of duties comprised in a sacred custom, and only faith in its infallibility can supply the moral effort needed to maintain it.
IN one of the profoundest, if not the least paradoxical, of his essays, entitled Youth and Crabbed Age, Robert Louis Stevenson does his best to turn the tables on the solemn elder who, in the name of authority, rebukes the rising generation for its irresponsible doings and wild opinions. For no revelation, he argues, comes with the passing of the years. We merely suffer a change of mood; so that what felt at the time like an ‘undying hope’ is replaced by an ‘infallible credulity’ which we proceed to mistake in ourselves for a ripened wisdom. These settled convictions, however, in which we take such pride, are perhaps not due to growth of experience so much as to decline of animal heat. Because we have lost the taste for living dangerously, it does not follow that we have reached safety. ‘A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right.’ Yet in reality such a dull respectable person is no sage. He provides, indeed, the veriest parody of an angel because he has finally shed his wings. He has joined the ranks of those who ‘take everything as it comes in a forlorn stupidity’—who ‘swallow the universe like a pill’. But thus to claim enlightenment as one’s portion is simply to have given up trying to transform for the better a defective world which includes the existing moral outlook of a man and the present state of his knowledge. Any advance implies a method of trial and error. In fact, ‘all error, not merely verbal, is a strong way of stating that the current truth is incomplete’. Hence human perfectibility would seem to depend more on the experiments of the sons than on the dogmas of the fathers. For, after all, ‘it is better to be a fool than to be dead’—or even dead-alive. Wherefore Stevenson, the sick man whose body denied him the adventures for which his soul craved, cries out: ‘For God’s sake, give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself!’
Now savagery is commonly held to bear a certain analogy to the adolescence of the human race. If, therefore, Stevenson is right in his psychology, undying hope should prove to be its dominant mood, while ‘infallible credulity’ ought as yet to have had no chance to develop. On such a theory of the youth of the world, prehistory might be expected to provide us with the spectacle of gay, go-ahead peoples, heroically intent on taking time by the forelock, and not afraid of playing the fool. It turns out, however, that only on a very long view of the progress of mankind can a case be made out for that innate hopefulness which must have been there all along as a prime mover. Nay, the immense sluggishness of cultural evolution in its earlier stages would almost seem to justify a Platonic myth to the effect that, racially speaking, Man was born an ancient, but is visibly growing younger every day. Thus a cave-man might well be pardoned for thinking modern America, or even Great Britain, raw and childish. For he knew the difference between the right and the wrong way of doing things down to the last touch to the edge of a flint-knife; whereas our standards are as various as the wares of a toy-shop. Or, again, he was content to take his cue from his tribal elders; whereas our manners and even our morals are at the mercy of ‘the younger set’. In short, the cave-man, like any other savage, prided himself on being the acme of respectability. Yet Stevenson’s biting phrase ‘infallible credulity’ reminds us that adherence to fixed principles has its weak side. It remains to take stock of the advantages and the drawbacks of living by rule a little more precisely.
To begin with, it may be observed that a policy of going slow finds favour with every other animal species except our own, and is a mark of the predominance of instinct. Now instinct is a tyrant, while its chief minister, habit, is even more insistent on passive obedience in the subject organism. Nevertheless there is a reason in the life of the higher type of animal when it is allowed a taste of freedom. Play may be only Nature’s way of disguising school-discipline, but on the face of it the activity seems to be markedly autonomous, partly because there is a superabundance of energy ready to be let loose at random, and partly because the unimportance of the objects on which it is exercised does away with the need of caution and self-restraint. So too, then, the savage has his full share of play during childhood, and enjoys it all the more thoroughly because superintendence on the part of his elders is notoriously slack. For better or worse, the primitive community allows its progeny to grow up wild; though it should be noted that ‘wild’ in this context only means ‘at will’, and by no means implies an innate tendency to grow up crooked. Spontaneous imitation furnishes no bad substitute for the elementary school. Although Dame Nature lacks the adventitious support of spectacles and birch, she manages to keep her class at once busy and amused. Call it what we will—nature, instinct, the unconscious—something of racial origin and import stirs in every childish bosom which urges on the youngster to forestall destiny by rehearsing with the zest of a born actor his future part on the world’s stage. Thanks to a sort of active dreaming, the bud figures itself as the full-blown flower, and thereby positively determines its own unfolding.
Now have we not here, in the play of children, the natural prototype and model of all those symbolisms whereby mankind has sought to envisage the ideal? Just as the ambition of youth, as revealed in play, is to anticipate its own development by feigning to have already taken the step that lies ahead, so the whole cultural process may be said to be actuated by the will to pretend that we are grown-up and in the full enjoyment of our manhood, when in point of fact we are nothing of the kind. To realize the human potential in vision, however fleeting and unsubstantial, is the preoccupation of those choicer spirits who are in the forefront of the human host. These lead on none the less surely because their methods are more akin to those of the medicine-man than to those of the war-chief. Childlike enough to enjoy the drama, not to say the conjuring, for its own sake, they so impose on themselves and on the rest as to cause their fancy to pass as fact, their will for the very deed. There can be no lying down in peace for such a ‘hunter home from the hill’, since he would rather dance under the moon and make big magic in aid of tomorrow’s adventure.
Even so, however, though we make full allowance for the workings of that spirit of play which appeals to the Ewigkindliches in us all, we must not forget that such progress as our species can be said to have accomplished is incidental to a process which consists largely in sheer repetition. Indeed, when the child plays at being the man, he does not evince the slightest conscious desire to improve on the authorized version of the part. If he reads into it anything new, he does it unwittingly, and because he himself is a new creature—not a chip from a dead block, but a slip from a living stem which can impart the power of living afresh and independently. Thus the old Adam was reproduced in Cain and Abel with considerable difference in each case. Doubtless the causes of variation in Man or in any other organic stock remain exceedingly obscure and in large measure defy control; but one might guess that the sheer multiplication of the human family has greatly increased variability and with it the rate of change in respect to social customs of all kinds. Be this so or not, the normal child displays conformity to type in the highest degree—a tendency which on its mental side can almost be equated with herd-feeling. Never are we more gregariously disposed than in childhood; and this sheeplike habit in itself is bound to suppress all inclination to diverge. Further, the economy of individual growth would seem to demand of the tiro a certain mechanization of elementary functions by continuous exercise—a sort of practising of scales—which carries with it little or no sense of monotony so long as the appropriate age-limit is not exceeded. Explain it, then, as we may, conservatism rules in the nursery, and the child is the foremost, because the most single-minded, champion and exponent of that time-honoured faith. Alter one word of his favourite story, and he protests. On the other hand, the greatest compliment that he can pay to our efforts to entertain him is to shout, ‘Again!’ It does not follow, therefore, because savage childhood, though all too short, is relatively untrammelled while it lasts, that it interprets its freedom as a freedom to differ. Indiscipline there may be, but it does not breed unorthodoxy. The child at play proves to be an impersonator who revels in stock characters, very much as happens with the rustic when he engages in folk-drama. In short, the immature mind is conventional even in its make-believe. Indeed in modern education it is all too easy to produce a cheap and commonplace uniformity by trading on this juvenile propensity to repeat by rote and according to some set fashion; whereas the more difficult task is usually shirked of bringing out that infinitely more precious originality of which all have a few grains hidden within them, while here and there an industrious prospector may expect to strike some richer vein.
In the next place, let us consider why childhood under the conditions of primitive existence is bound to be brief, nay, unduly curtailed. Truly it might be said of the young savage who undergoes initiation on reaching puberty that
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy.
Essentially initiation is a preparation for marriage, and, although it may sound cynical to say so, when a man marries in the hard, hand-to-mouth world of typical savagery, his troubles begin. The same, of course, holds equally of the woman, whose lot as the child-bearer is perhaps even harder, though Nature has a way of adjusting the weight of the yoke to each kind of neck in bearable proportion. As for the burdensome nature of the social, and more especially the economic, responsibilities attendant on such early matrimony, tending as they do to bear most heavily on juniors, partly because of their inexperience but chiefly in consequence of the inferiority of their tribal status, one has only to consult Miss Margaret Mead’s incisive sketch entitled Growing up in New Guinea. Family and fun are here shown to be incompatible on evidence that can hardly be gainsaid, unless it were by arguing that, since happiness is largely a matter of standards, there is less weariness of such tough flesh than a civilized observer might suppose. Not to dwell further on this particular point, which is, however, of primary importance inasmuch as a faculty of rapid reproduction is the sine qua non of survival at this level of society, let us go on to note how, apart from its function as a finishing school for those about to marry, initiation is largely concerned with teaching the young idea how not to shoot in undesirable directions. Its Spartan method of testing manhood by the infliction of pain on the pretext of circumcision, knocking out a tooth, or other ritual purpose reveals a policy of the heavy hand which must be all the more daunting to the novice because, as we have seen, he has hitherto been mostly left to his own devices. His passport to the new life is some outrage wrought on his person. Ere he can make good his entrance he must be branded as fit for social service. He will be admitted into the order of the adult only when he can show the stigmata of what is veritably a consecration. His vow to be a true man must have been sealed with his own blood.
Now what is the moral to be drawn from the severities common to so many savage initiations? For such facts can be matched from all the greater areas of characterization, Australia, America, Africa; though it may be that more easy-going ways are reported of sheltered peoples, whether they are so situated that they can exploit a geographical isolation, or simply have softened and grown listless under the Pax Britannica. Surely the implication of the harsh treatment meted out to impressionable youth is that they must be taught to accommodate themselves to authority in the form of a system of the sternest repressions. Such negative prescriptions must ever abound in a law which, like that of the Medes and Persians, ‘altereth not’. Every savage could subscribe to the Pythagorean maxim that there is only one way of doing right as against infinite ways of doing wrong. Kipling’s jingle about the ‘nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays’ is, on the contrary, more in harmony with the spirit of the modern world; for ‘where no law is, there is no transgression’, and, where no dogma is, there can be no persecution. In an age of conscious experimentation, so long as each is prepared to stand by his own mistakes, he has usually no difficulty in obtaining his letters of marque from the guardians of the public. But the old-world name for an experimenter is ‘pirate’. Liberty is identified with libertinism, and neither the one nor the other can be enjoyed under official charter so long as Custom is king. It is no doubt accidental that in Latin the same word codex should stand indifferently for a whipping-post, a blockhead, and the book of the law; but by punning in the decent obscurity of a dead language one might make a trope of it to express in one ‘portmanteau word’ the triple aim of the primitive legislator as regards educational machinery, mental product, and social pattern. To codify sums up the ideal of the ancien régime.
Now it might seem a paradox to maintain that in what Herbert Spencer would describe as the static as contrasted with the dynamic type of human society there is provided just as ample an opportunity for living strenuously, or, if we like to recur to Stevenson’s phrase, for living dangerously. Indeed, of the two, the savage and the civilized man, it is undubitably the former who runs the greater risk of sudden extinction, whether individual or collective. If we be inclined to award ourselves the palm on the strength of the record-breaking efforts of our speed-mongers and high-fliers, in whose feats the majority of us participate with the help of an evening-paper and an easy chair, we need only purge our pride with a dose of vital statistics. It will thereupon appear that effectively, if in less spectacular fashion, the chances of death weigh heavily against the humdrum folk who hunt and fish and scratch for roots and collect firewood among snakes and sharks and crocodiles and lions—not to mention next-door neighbours with head-hunting or cannibal tastes. Thus it is easy to underrate the mild excitements of the simple life. Stevenson himself might have composed an essay on ‘living dangerously in Samoa’ to remind himself that hoary age can plead justification under primitive conditions for not courting a danger which is ever present and in act to claim fresh victims. It is no discredit to the hardiest mariner that he should reef his sails in a storm. Indeed, to drift under bare poles was about the only thing to be done on such a sea of troubles as covered the face of the Earth when mankind started on its voyage.
Granted, then, that a static society must observe and enforce a rigid form of law, does it follow that, in comparison with a body of civilized men, it is any less active as measured by the intensity of its striving? It is not easy to provide a scientific answer to the question because we have not yet devised any accurate means of estimating the relative powers of the various human breeds. It is obvious that all that can be expected of a given brand of humanity is that it should live at the highest tension compatible with its innate capacity to balance output with organic wear and tear. Now it would hardly do, perhaps, to treat Homo sapiens, the specific type to which all existing branches of the human family alike belong, as a mutation established once for all in such a state of moving equilibrium that deviations from the average so far as they occur indicate no significant disturbance of the true-breeding quality of the race. At the same time the burden of disproof must, in the light of the known facts, rest on those who deny the approximate equality of the diverse ethnic stocks as regards intelligence and even physique, when acquired characters have as far as possible been written off, and regard is had solely to the norms exhibited by the congenital endowment. For our present purpose, then, we may postulate that the savage has it in him quite as much as the ordinary civilized man to reach a high standard of physical and mental exertion. What is more, one may go on to suggest that in practice he does attain this high standard of intensive living, although his method of doing so is not ours, but differs in a striking fashion which it may be worth our while to try to characterize a little more fully.
To cover the whole range of human history, we need two conceptions of progress—one as movement along a line, the other as movement in a circle. It would seem that either kind of energy is equally pleasing to mankind so long as the energy is in like degree unimpeded. If the former kind of progress can alone bring us nearer Heaven, the latter kind is presumably the only one available whenever we have got there. Now the primitive man envisages his earthly no less than his post-terrestrial paradise as an eternal round of the same activities raised to the nth point of smooth accomplishment. Whether in his native forest or in his happy hunting-ground he asks for no more than a beautiful continuance. Not for him do new machines advertise closer bondage under the specious guise of labour-saving comfort. Even new tunes, we are told, were not tolerated in the best days of ancient Egypt, though at this point Nature must have protested, to judge by the fact that the latest corroboree airs are wafted from end to end of aboriginal Australia. Yet it is no wonder that, having so little, the savage should stick fast to what he has got. He is like some poverty-stricken and lonely crofter who must hoard his mean substance and make it go as far as he can. Between him and starvation is nothing but his labour, his luck, and the little nest-egg represented by the capitalized experience handed on to him by his forefathers. In such narrow circumstances even a hovel-full of antiquated rubbish is not to be despised. For the sake of the odd clout or sherd that may serve for yet another turn of duty, the fusty reek of the rest is endured, and may even come to seem homelike; for the savage gets as much fresh air as he needs, or perhaps a bit too much for normal human lungs, on the weather-side of his dwelling. Present snugness rather than prospective fortune is all he asks of Providence; and, as in other cases, Providence sees fit to grant him what he seeks only if he prove sufficiently pertinacious and valiant in the seeking. Indeed, the main point that requires emphasis here is that both kinds of progress, the static and the dynamic, the roundabout and the point-to-point, entail equally hard work if they are to be achieved at all.
Now with savages such hard work falls hardest on the older men. We can speak, with Rivers, if we like, of ‘gerontocracy’, or greybeard government, by way of bringing out another aspect of the same fact; but there is at least as much onus as honour to be reckoned among the perquisites of such a stewardship. The task of a tribal elder is tiresomely manifold, because he presides over a social system which is Church, State, and University in one. The whole commonwealth conceived as a symbiosis composed of his ancestors, his contemporaries, and the rising generation is committed to his charge. Now it may well be that in a given case there prevails some doctrine of reincarnation to give symbolic expression to the implicit notion of life as a cyclical process; but even so the savage is too illogical, or too logical—it is a nice point which is the better way of putting it—to suppose that the spirit that returns to life has no need to start its schooling over again. Whether learning be rated with Plato and Wordsworth as a remembering or not, it proves in effect almost as tedious and unpleasant a business as being born; and hardly less tedious and unpleasant is the job of the spiritual midwife who helps to regulate the affair. Speaking as one ‘don’ to another, I would congratulate the primitive gerontocrat on the general adequacy of his curriculum regarded as an organ of educational mass-production. Good, bad, or indifferent, his pupils have to be levelled up to a standard of citizenship which is not only absolute in theory, but in practice varies so little that, barring interference from without, a secular duration can be predicted for any institution conducted soundly on stone-age lines. Now of course nothing under the sun lasts for ever, not even the hardiest specimen of these self-seeding growths of the lower culture. Against our paltry seven thousand years of civilization must, however, be set the probability that Tasmanians, Bushmen, or Eskimo have, as Professor Sollas argues, been engaged for perhaps twice that length of time in the more equable occupation of pivoting on themselves like planets or the seasons. Even if this be not strictly demonstrable, one can be pretty sure that they were as little conscious of changing conditions to which they must readapt their habits as we are, say, of those gradual alterations of sea-level which by speeding up the geological cinematograph might easily be turned into a nerve-shattering picture of the Deluge. The savage, then, may be excused for behaving as if the larger life of society were compromised in a magnus annus—a revolving system with fixed and knowable orbit. For the philosopher the theory may be true or it may not. But for the primitive man it is valid, because he finds on repeated trial that it works.
Surely, then, from the standpoint of so totally different a world-plan, Stevenson’s sneer at credulity can be seen to be misplaced if extended to experience and authority in their relation to the static type of society. Credulity must now be hailed as faith; and in an age of faith there can be no playing the fool with the things of the faith whether on the part of irresponsible youth or otherwise. The tribal elder feels himself as infallible as any pope; and the tradition of which he is the appointed minister and mouthpiece has for him all the force of a divine revelation. Knowledge he has at least in the pragmatic sense that it is knowledge of a well-tested way of life; and it seems to him an inspired knowledge inasmuch as ancestral precedent speaks not uncertainly therein. With Practical Wisdom, then, he is as conversant as was King Numa with the Nymph Egeria; but of her younger sister, the Speculative Intelligence, he has never encountered the rival attractions.
So much for primitive credulity on its intellectual side. But were it a mere faculty of knowing or opining, no amount of credulity, or, if we prefer to say so, faith, would move mountains. This is perfectly well known to the savage wonder-worker, to whom, by the way, the moving of mountains might well seem part of his ordinary routine, since staying the Sun, or bringing down the Moon, is clearly more of a feat as these things go. How, then, does one move mountains, compel sun and moon, or what not? Any competent medicine-man would answer at once, ‘By mana’. So pregnant a word defeats all translation, but it will perhaps suffice for the moment to say that mana stands here for ‘drive’. Only give him more power to his elbow, and Man feels equal to shifting the firmament, should it happen to be in his way. But it would be unfair to judge humanity or human religion by its partiality for miracles. Faith has its journalistic department and miracles belong thereto, being always news, and at their best propaganda. Even to-day one may suspect that the public interest in progress is rather skin-deep. Is it not true that the novelties which science purveys from its laboratories—often, it must be confessed, with the air of the artist who extracts a rabbit from a top-hat—appeal chiefly to an appetite for the marvellous which has its roots far down in us and indeed is radical in a racial sense? So too, then, in the static society they must be tickled with novelties, though on the distinct understanding that these are meant to enliven the daily round but not to upset it. We need not, therefore, lay too much stress on the fact, if the elder in charge of an initiation ceremony should indulge in a few simple experiments in magic—ad captandum subsellia—by way of diverting his class. How he makes the boys stare every time that he brings up the crystals from his inside! Now of course he is no mere pedagogue, but a mystagogue in the most serious meaning of the term. These cheaper tricks, however, are but prolusory to the real mysteries. They are hardly more than exhibitions of professorial humour. As Godley, that Swan of Isis, sings ‘Ad Lectionem Suam’—‘To his Lecture’:
I know thee well—nor can mistake
The old accustomed pencil stroke
Denoting where I mostly make
Now the practiser of these mild deceptions, even assuming him to be fully aware that they are such, is far too naïve to have excogitated any casuistical theory to the effect that the end justifies the means. At the same time if we, who stand at such a distance away that we can see the wood with the trees in due subordination to it, ask ourselves whether the initiation rites in their entirety are so contrived as to generate the necessary mana for maintaining the static society in being, there can be no doubt about the answer. The thing works; and herein lies the real miracle, such as puts all lesser ones into the shade. The upshot of these considerations is that credulity must rank as faith, a saving virtue so long as it supplies society with the drive required to keep it going, whether this be a going forward or simply a going round and round. For it must be remembered that a third possibility consists in going backward, and that in this direction the nature of the limiting condition, death, is clear, whereas in the other direction the goal, namely life, may be construed either as life positive or life superlative; so that mankind hardly knows whether to stand by its gains or to risk them on the chance of a ‘maximum’. Now gambling may be excused in the rich, but the savage is a poor man whose chief solicitude is to keep the wolf from the door—in other words not to succumb to utter extinction, a monster not easily repelled by stone-age weapons. It is a perpetual puzzle to our Colonial administrators how easily a savage people collapses under treatment. Left to themselves these simple folk had fought the good fight for ages; yet, as soon as they come into contact with superior persons full of good intentions, their nerve seems to go, and it is too late to succour them. Fortunately it is beginning to dawn on the representatives of civilization that an imported faith cannot be substituted for a home-grown credulity except by means of a slow and delicate process of psychological grafting. Such a technique can be mastered only by the help of an anthropology which applies to each primitive society what is known as the ‘functional’ method of studying their indigenous culture. Borrowing a word from General Smuts, one might likewise describe this method as ‘holistic’. Its object is to study the details of an organization in sole, or at any rate in primary, reference to their bearing on the effectiveness of the whole as a running concern. Thus it is opposed on the one hand to a method of origins which traces the back-history of the various factors, and on the other hand to a method of abstract valuation which considers how any one of these factors, taken individually, might be used under different conditions in another and perhaps a better way. Here, for instance, is a ship’s stoker. As regards origin, he may be a runaway solicitor or merely a runaway schoolboy. Again, in point of abstract worth he may have in him the makings of a peer or a pickpocket. But from the standpoint of the captain of the ship, who is strictly functional and holistic in his outlook, the immediate question is, ‘Can the fellow stoke?’ Functionally, then, the thirty-nine articles of any savage faith hold true for those concerned if they can likewise truly affirm that crowning fortieth article: One and all together these beliefs of ours enable us to live well here and now.
The instructiveness of a functional interpretation of primitive religion is brought out with great clarity in a short essay by Dr. Malinowski, who was indeed the first to give the method this descriptive name, though anthropologists have long been acquainted with it non verbo sed re. His subject being ‘Myth in Primitive Psychology’, he exposes the inadequacy of the view which treats myth as typically aetiological or explanatory in its aim, as if the savage were a philosopher who has nothing to do but to scratch his head and ask ‘Why?’ of the universe at large. But in stone-age society even the scratching of one’s head takes on a strictly functional significance. Truth in the abstract has not yet come to be counted among Man’s daily needs. Thus, if one is expected to swop one coin of scholarly mintage for another, myth as assessed by its real function might be termed not aetiological but fidejussive. Its business is not to satisfy curiosity but to confirm the faith. It is there to cater, not for the speculative man with his ‘Why?’ but for the practical man with his ‘How if not thus?’ As Goethe says, ‘Im Anfang war der Tat.’ ‘Act first and reflect afterwards’ is good policy for cave-men in their dealings with cave-bears. The environment of the simple life is, so to speak, jumpy. Even so, Nature mercifully tempers the strain of coping with constant emergency by consigning all secondary activities as far as possible to the charge of habit. Now Habit is no sleeping partner in the business, since the office-work must be kept up to the mark, if the head of the firm, Attention, is to be left free to concentrate on questions of make-or-break. On the other hand, though highly competent within his own more limited sphere, Habit is prim and fussy, a martyr to routine; wherefore it is only common sense on the part of Attention to humour so useful a co-worker in his little ways, however absurd. ‘Be soople, Davie, in things immaterial,’ says the Rev. Mr. Campbell to the hero of Kidnapped. To the same effect whispers the voice of Practical Wisdom in the ear of the hard-pressed leaders of a primitive community. Having their native share of shrewdness, they must have their doubts about many a point of current belief. Indeed, it is possible, as I myself have done, to accumulate an impressive heap of witness in respect to the alleged scepticism of certain savage chiefs and elders who, under cross-examination by the civilized inquirer, have cheerfully allowed that augurs may have cause to wink at one another in their private capacity. Even if we suppose, as is quite likely, that such confessions often form part of a general conspiracy to fool the white man, yet the very fact that the native mind can distinguish between different versions of the faith, whether the esoteric one be imparted to strangers or reserved for the initiated, proves that one dead-level of credulity by no means represents the psychological truth of the matter. I venture, then, to suggest that, by proceeding on functional lines, one might, in any given case about which the facts are sufficiently known, construct a scale of religious values indicating how the primitive society is aware of considerable disparity alike in the quantity and the quality of the mana attaching to different ritual practices and notions. All that counts as medicine does not amount to ‘big medicine’ by a long way. Though no savage would dream of applying the test of credibility as such to the objects of his religious appreciation, yet in his pragmatic way he can draw some sort of line between that which is supererogatory and that which is necessary and due. It may be a little hard when very primitive folk are under investigation to distinguish these shades of significance, if only because civilized sentiment finds it hard to do justice to the inward appeal of endo-cannibalism, blood-letting, phallic worship, and so on. If, however, a community of middle grade, as for instance Ashanti, is examined from this point of view, it becomes clear in the light of what a sympathetic onlooker such as Captain Rattray is able to gather that the natives are far from putting their High God, their ancestral spirits, and the ignoble crowd of fetishes, fairies, and hobgoblins on one and the same plane of sanctity. On the contrary, a study of their diversified pantheon proves that it implies gradations of rank which are almost equivalent to degrees of reality so far as cult provides the criterion of religious truth.
Thus we are faced with an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, the static society turns out to be not incapable of discrimination between the greater and the lesser things of the Law. On the other hand, it represses all ‘newness of spirit’ and serves the law ‘in the oldness of the letter’—in a word, indiscriminately. Why, then, we may well ask, does it thus prefer, in Stevenson’s words, ‘to swallow the universe like a pill?’ Surely the answer is that the patient is thinking, not about his palate, but about his health. Let the Speculative Intelligence suck the universe like a sweet. The savage at the bidding of Practical Wisdom gulps down his bolus with such perverted gusto that, the nastier it tastes, the more certain he is about the virtue of his specific. Our custom, our whole custom, and nothing but our custom—thus runs the prescription. So in curative magic it is always the rule that not a word must be varied if the formula is to work.
Indeed, the same medical metaphor may be given a deeper application. The very ideal of the static society, its subconscious standard of well-being, may be likened to health. Now, biologically speaking, namely, in reference to life which is a movement, health is the nearest thing to an absolute that is revealed immanently within human experience. The healthy man asks no more of his body than to keep healthy; for in relation to normal more could only mean too much, which is as bad as too little. In regard to health, then, the only sound policy is to let well alone. Though in reality life, however well-poised, is but an eddy in a perpetual drift, yet there is a passing sense of stability in revolving about a point. Thus faith is a sort of contentment with present fitness. Savages, we are apt to forget, enjoy being savage. They are not anxious to change places with us any more than we with them. The ptarmigan has no longing for the plain, nor the stormy petrel for enclosed waters. Science terms it adaptation to environment, but considered as a spiritual state it means possessing one’s soul in peace, which in turn is an affair of feeling and keeping fit amid whatever circumstances one’s lot may be cast. It is more a question of stoutness of heart than of the state of the weather; and indeed it may be formulated as a law that, climatically, the optimum conditions of human efficiency are more severe than those of human comfort. With the hard-pressed savage, then, the will to believe is equivalent to the will to affirm that life is never too hard so long as it is healthy. If his fore-fathers managed, he can manage also; and his chief concern is how the younger generation is to be taught to manage likewise. For, just as childbirth is always a critical period demanding medical attention, so the whole obstetrical art of assisting a soul into being by means of education implies that the social health is specially delicate in the matter of the reproductive function. If each year of freshmen is equal to the last, the institution may be trusted to carry on; but not otherwise.
To sum up, then, it would appear that the religious faith of the savage is not merely a will to believe a lot of nonsense. Nor, again, is it simply a will to take his world as he finds it, because in order to live up to such a hard world a man has to be fit, and fitness depends on mana. Now mana stands at once for miracle and for morale; and who will say that the savage is not right in identifying the two. With wonder and positive awe he discovers, as we all may do, that the moral order is capable of supplying out of itself the motive—the ‘drive’—necessary to evoke moral action on the part of Man. This revelation comes, however, to the primitive man in a special way. So concrete-minded is he that he is bound to be more or less of a pantheist. He encounters the divine stimulus here, there, and anywhere within the contents of an experience in which percepts play a far more important part than concepts. The civilized man, on the other hand, thanks to a far wider system of communications which entails a free use of mental symbols, favours a more abstract notion of deity, seeking to grasp it in the unity of its idea rather than in the plurality of its manifestations. Now in both these directions there lies danger, but in a different form. As for the savage, it is not a starved intellectualism that he has to fear, but on the contrary a sensualism nourished on a miscellaneous diet that is mixed up with a good deal of dirt. Yet, even though none of us may have reason to envy the child of nature either for his innocence, or for his digestion, the fact remains that he is uncritical of his rough fare and can extract from it all the rude health that a man can want. Whatever, then, may be the final judgement of Ethics, a comparative history of Morals is bound to assume that among the mixed ingredients of his religion the holiness prevails over the uncleanness, since the vital effect is to encourage him in a way of life that has survival value. Thus, anthropologically viewed at all events, the faith of the savage is to be reckoned to him for righteousness.