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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 47.djvu/555

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THE study of the different civilizations that have succeeded one another since the origin of the world proves that they have always been guided in their development by a very small number of fundamental ideas. If the history of peoples should be reduced to the story of their ideas, it would not be very long. We have shown in a previous essay that the evolution of a people is chiefly derived from its mental constitution. We found then that while the hereditary sentiments, the aggregation of which constitutes character, have great fixedness, they can nevertheless be transformed slowly under the influence of various factors. Among the most operative of these factors are ideas. But, for ideas to have influence, they must have progressively come down from the mobile regions of the conscious into the stable and unconscious regions of the feelings, where our thoughts and the motives of our actions are elaborated. They then form as it were a part of the character and act effectively on the conduct. When ideas have undergone this modification, and are fixed in the unconscious, their power over the mind is absolute. They cease then to be influenced by the reason. The convert who is dominated by a religious idea or by any belief is inaccessible to all arguments, however intelligent we may suppose him to be.

Governing ideas, formed as we have described, become established and disestablished very slowly. If it were otherwise, civilizations would have no stability. But if ideas, once established, could not be gradually transformed, and finally disappear, peoples would achieve no progress. In consequence of the slowness of our mental transformations, many human ages are required for the triumph of a new idea, and several ages more for its elimination. The most civilized peoples are those whose directing ideas have been maintained at an even distance from variability and fixity. History is strewn with the wrecks of those who have not been able to maintain this equilibrium.

The reader of history is struck with the paucity of the ideas of peoples, the slowness with which they are modified, and the power they exercise. Civilizations are the resultants of certain ideas, and when these ideas are changed, the civilization is inevitably transformed with them. The middle ages lived on two fundamental ideas—the religious and the feudal. From them issued all the arts of the period, its literature, and its whole conception of life. At the Renascence these ideas underwent a slight modification: an ideal recovered from the ancient Greek and Latin world imposed itself on Europe, and transformation of the