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THE INSTABILITY OF KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF
As is true of any other point of view that may be characteristic of any other period of history, so also the modern point of view is a matter of habit. It is common to the modern civilised peoples only in so far as these peoples have come through substantially the same historical experience and have thereby acquired substantially the same habits of thought and have fallen into somewhat the same prevalent frame of mind. This modern point of view, therefore, is limited both in time and space. It is characteristic of the modern historical era and of such peoples as lie within the range of that peculiar civilisation which marks off the modern world from what has gone before and from what still prevails outside of its range. In other words, it is a trait of modern Christendom, of Occidental civilisation as it has run within the past few centuries. This general statement is not vitiated by the fact that there has been some slight diffusion of these modern and Western ideas outside of this range in recent times.
By historical accident it happens that the modern point of view has reached its maturest formulation and prevails with the least faltering among the French and English-speaking peoples; so that these peoples may be said to constitute the center of diffu
sion for that system of ideas which is called the modern point of view. Outward from this broad center the same range of ideas prevail throughout Christendom, but they prevail with less singleness of conviction among the peoples who are culturally more remote from this center; increasingly so with each farther remove. These others have carried over a larger remainder of the habits of thought of an earlier age, and have carried them over in a better state of preservation. It may also be that these others, or some of them, have acquired habits of thought of a new order which do not altogether fit into that system of ideas that is commonly spoken of as the modern point of view. That such is the case need imply neither praise nor blame. It is only that, by common usage, these remainders of ancient habits of thought and these newer preconceptions that do not fit into the framework of West-European conventional thinking are not ordinarily rated as intrinsic to the modern point of view. They need not therefore be less to the purpose as a guide and criterion of human living; it is only that they are alien to those purposes which are considered to be of prime consequence in civilised life as it is guided and tested by the constituent principles of the modern point of view.
What is spoken of as a point of view is always a composite affair; some sort of a rounded and balanced system of principles and standards, which are taken for granted, at least provisionally, and which serve as a base of reference and legitimation in all questions of deliberate opinion. So when any given usage or any line of conduct or belief is seen and
approved from the modern point of view, it comes to the same as saying that these things are seen and accepted in the light of those principles which modern men habitually consider to be final and sufficient. They are principles of right, equity, propriety, duty, perhaps of knowledge, belief, and taste.
It is evident that these principles and standards of what is right, good, true, and beautiful, will vary from one age to another and from one people to another, in response to the varying conditions of life; inasmuch as these principles are always of the nature of habit; although the variation will of course range only within the limits of that human nature that finds expression in these same principles of right, good, truth, and beauty. So also, it will be found that something in the way of a common measure of truth and sufficiency runs through any such body of principles that are accepted as final and selfevident at any given time and place,- in case this habitual body of principles has reached such a degree of poise and consistency that they can fairly be said to constitute a stable point of view. It is only because there is such a degree of consistency and such a common measure of validity among the commonly accepted principles of conduct and belief today, that it is possible to speak intelligently of the modern point of view, and to contrast it with any other point of view which may have prevailed earlier or elsewhere, as, e. g., in the Middle Ages or in Pagan Antiquity.
The Romans were given to saying, Tempora mutantur, and the Spanish have learned to speak indulgently in the name of Costumbres del pais. The
common law of the English-speaking peoples does not coincide at all points with what was indefeasibly right and good in the eyes of the Romans; and still less do its principles countenance all the vagaries of the Mosaic code. Yet, each and several, in their due time and institutional setting, these have all been tried and found valid and have approved themselves as securely and eternally right and good in principle.
Evidently these principles, which so are made to serve as standards of validity in law and custom, knowledge and belief, are of the nature of canons, established rules, and have the authority of precedent, prescription. They have been defined by the attrition of use and wont and disputation, and they are accepted in a somewhat deliberate manner by common consent, and are upheld by a deliberate public opinion as to what is right and seemly. In the popular apprehension, and indeed in the apprehension of the trained jurists and scholars for the time being, these constituent principles of the accepted point of view are “fundamentally and eternally right and good." But this perpetuity with which they so are habitually invested in the popular apprehension, in their time, is evidently such a qualified perpetuity only as belongs to any settled outgrowth of use and wont. They are of an institutional character and they are endowed with that degree of perpetuity only that belongs to any institution. So soon as a marked change of circumstances comes on, a change of a sufficiently profound, enduring and comprehensive character, such as persistently to cross or to go beyond those lines of use
and wont out of which these settled principles have emerged, then these principles and their standards of validity and finality must presently undergo a revision, such as to bring on a new balance of principles, embodying the habits of thought enforced by a new situation, and expressing itself in a revised scheme of authoritative use and wont, law and custom. In the transition from the medieval to the modern point of view, e. g., there is to be seen such a pervasive change in men's habitual outlook, answering to the compulsion of a new range of circumstances which then came to condition the daily life of the peoples of Christendom.
In this mutation of the habitual outlook, between medieval and modern times, the contrast is perhaps most neatly shown in the altered standards of knowledge and belief, rather than in the settled domain of law and morals. Not that the mutation of habits which then overtook the Western world need have been less wide or less effectual in matters of conduct; but the change which has taken effect in science and philosophy, between the fourteenth century and the nineteenth, e. g., appears to have been of a more recognizable character, more easily defined in succinct and convincing terms. It has also quite generally attracted the attention of those men who have interested themselves in the course of historical events, and it has therefore become something of a commonplace in any standard historical survey of modern civilisation to say that the scheme of knowledge and belief underwent a visible change between the Middle Ages and modern times.
It will also be found true that the canons of knowl