The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

The Training of Instinct


     CERTAINLY we do not give our instinct anything like a fair chance in this modern life. We have arranged our moral obligations and our spiritual duties by codes more or less severe; we have hedged about our material life with such complete safety and so many conventions that there remains comparatively little scope for the individual will to exercise its initiative choice. Our path of conduct is so closely prescribed that range of choice is limited, and instinct atrophies. This is wrong, surely. It must be culpable to allow any power, so delicate, so strong, so beneficent and trustworthy as the human instinct, to deteriorate and grow inoperative from any cause whatever. [Page 30]

     Yet every day we neglect to consult our instinct. How many of us, when we sit down at table, think instinctively what we should prefer to eat? For the most part we consume what is set before us, without question — pickles, candies, raw fruits, and fried abominations without number — regardless of utility or consequence. Then, as a reward of our own stupidity, we must send for a doctor just so often to undo the effects of our folly. Even those of us who have sense enough to consider their food at all are for the most content to regulate their diet according to some hygienic formula, more or less admirable, no doubt, but certainly universally applicable. Yet all the while here is instinct only waiting to be consulted to give us pretty sure and sound advice.

     True, most of us could hardly depend on our own choice now to guide our appetite; for instinct has been so hampered and thwarted and choked and disregarded that it has almost ceased to operate altogether. [Page 31] When we ought to consult it in regard to the conduct of the body, for the maintenance of this physical life, it is really not our instinct that we consult at all, but our reason. We have made so much of reason that we cannot get it out of the way and allow instinct to govern for the moment. Yet there are regions of activity where instinct should lead and reason only advise. You and I each have an instinct as to what is best for us in food or rest or sleep or exertion, if we would only cultivate it, only give it play in our lives. And if that instinct were educated, it would guide us quite as infallibly in these matters as our reason does in actual knowledge and thought; quite as infallibly as our conscience does in matters of right and wrong. Our instinct is a sort of conscience for the body, and deserves our care and obedience just as much as does that preceptor of morals.

    But we must not limit the realm of instinct to the governance of the animal body. We must recall that it is a human instinct, and [Page 32] has sane wisdom applicable to all the doings of men. If I meet a new acquaintance, my judgment of him must be made up from my instinctive perception of the man, as well as from the deductions of reason and intuition. I shall be told certain facts concerning him, perhaps, and to these facts I apply logic. I shall also have certain more or less definite feelings about him, both sentimental and sympathetic (or antipathetic), and these feelings are derived from intuition and instinct. I shall know immediately something of him spiritually. I cannot tell how; and I shall know something of him through my senses, by instinct.

    It is good to reason and to make the reason supreme in this life. But it is fatal to disregard either intuition or instinct. And of these two indispensable guides, instinct is the most neglected, the most in need of reinstatement in our regard. [Page 33]