Modern Self-Consciousness


THERE is a story of an anxious mother who, hearing that her daughter had lately begun the study of physiology, wrote to the child’s instructor, " Please do not teach Mabel about her insides, — it is n’t nice.” A related instinct of delicacy sometimes stirs at the prying so rife today into the workings of our minds and spirits, as if in premonition of some disadvantage if not of some disaster.

The initial responsibility for the modern interest in man as man — in the individual as distinguished from man in the mass — must be borne by the Humanists of the Renaissance, who overrode the mediæval conception that made the human creature a mere " worm,” and who began to dignify him by a study of his real nature and of his place in the cosmos. Then Rousseau, as precursor of the Revolution, took the next step, that which led from a consideration of man’s nature to a consideration of man’s rights. But the aristocratic tradition lingered; we are still under the necessity of reminding ourselves that, even at the beginning of the present century, the arts found it difficult to apprehend and express the great in terms of the little, the familiar, the individualistic; only the terms of the conventionally great seemed to suffice. David remained as far afield as Metastasio ever was.

The interest in the individual, everyday man has grown with the growth of the democratic spirit, which involves a passion for biography, and with the growth of the scientific spirit, which involves a passion for reportage. As discovery and invention have crowded thick upon us, requiring incessant adjustments to incessantly varying conditions, our nerves have come forward and introduced us to ourselves. And as the world has shrunk with every improved means of communication, making mankind in all his varieties more accessible and more fully illustrated than ever before, our traveling agents have stepped forth and introduced us to our brothers, and curiosity, if not sympathy, prompts us to busy ourselves with the “ psychology ” of the Eskimo and the Tierra del Fuegan. Everything is grist to the modern mill.

Civilization brings differentiation. Among barbarians social opinion is omnipotent ; the individual must conform or “ go.” If a Hindoo villager succumbs to the missionary and is converted, he may remain in the village on but one condition : all the other villagers must have been converted too. If no longer an “ interchangeable ” part of the machine, the lonely proselyte finds himself, in Roman phrase, forbidden fire and water. It is only within pretty well-defined limits of time and space — in the present century and among the dominant Teutonic races — that the liberty to be one’s self and to live one’s own life (assuming this desire to lead one from the beaten track) has been practicable without the risk of social embarrassment and even of social reproach. Elsewhere the Chinaman, the sparrow — all a good deal alike.

As civilization advances, this differentiation will continue; specialization and particularization have only begun. How far will they go ? In what will they end ? To what utmost bound of “ spontaneous variation ” and of disintegrative psychology will the acute consciousness of individuality carry us ? Will our sympathies be widened or narrowed ? With every man straining to understand himself and to make himself understood, all as a working basis for the assertion of individual claims, how soon will moral anarchy supervene? This is the real nub of the problem play and the problem novel, — a crux not disassociated from the Protestant doctrine of the right of private judgment. The day opens when every man shall judge himself and justify himself, and the hand on the door knob is the hand of Ibsen. But custom opposes, and law — those two laggards ; and so does a conventional, inelastic morality ; and so does Nature herself, with her immense indifference to the individual. Here lies the essence of twentieth-century tragedy. The individual man is becoming more acutely conscious of his personality, with its attendant rights and claims, while all the great conservative forces of the world, natural and institutional, continue to treat him as but an undistinguished atom in a general mass that is ruled in careless “ by and large ” fashion by some dim power impatient of pygmy self-assertion. A greater than Ibsen will be demanded by the coming century.