The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen

Chapter Eleven

The Belief in Luck

The gambling propensity is another subsidiary trait of the barbarian temperament. It is a concomitant variation of character of almost universal prevalence among sporting men and among men given to warlike and emulative activities generally. This trait also has a direct economic value. It is recognized to be a hindrance to the highest industrial efficiency of the aggregate in any community where it prevails in an appreciable degree. The gambling proclivity is doubtfully to be classed as a feature belonging exclusively to the predatory type of human nature. The chief factor in the gambling habit is the belief in luck; and this belief is apparently traceable, at least in its elements, to a stage in human evolution antedating the predatory culture. It may well have been under the predatory culture that the belief in luck was developed into the form in which it is present, as the chief element of the gambling proclivity, in the sporting temperament. It probably owes the specific form under which it occurs in the modern culture to the predatory discipline. But the belief in luck is in substance a habit of more ancient date than the predatory culture. It is one form of the artistic apprehension of things. The belief seems to be a trait carried over in substance from an earlier phase into the barbarian culture, and transmuted and transmitted through that culture to a later stage of human development under a specific form imposed by the predatory discipline. But in any case, it is to be taken as an archaic trait, inherited from a more or less remote past, more or less incompatible with the requirements of the modern industrial process, and more or less of a hindrance to the fullest efficiency of the collective economic life of the present.

While the belief in luck is the basis of the gambling habit, it is not the only element that enters into the habit of betting. Betting on the issue of contests of strength and skill proceeds on a further motive, without which the belief in luck would scarcely come in as a prominent feature of sporting life. This further motive is the desire of the anticipated winner, or the partisan of the anticipated winning side, to heighten his side’s ascendency at the cost of the loser. Not only does the stronger side score a more signal victory, and the losing side suffer a more painful and humiliating defeat, in proportion as the pecuniary gain and loss in the wager is large; although this alone is a consideration of material weight. But the wager is commonly laid also with a view, not avowed in words nor even recognized in set terms in petto, to enhancing the chances of success for the contestant on which it is laid. It is felt that substance and solicitude expended to this end can not go for naught in the issue. There is here a special manifestation of the instinct of workmanship, backed by an even more manifest sense that the animistic congruity of things must decide for a victorious outcome for the side in whose behalf the propensity inherent in events has been propitiated and fortified by so much of conative and kinetic urging. This incentive to the wager expresses itself freely under the form of backing one’s favorite in any contest, and it is unmistakably a predatory feature. It is as ancillary to the predaceous impulse proper that the belief in luck expresses itself in a wager. So that it may be set down that in so far as the belief in luck comes to expression in the form of laying a wager, it is to be accounted an integral element of the predatory type of character. The belief is, in its elements, an archaic habit which belongs substantially to early, undifferentiated human nature; but when this belief is helped out by the predatory emulative impulse, and so is differentiated into the specific form of the gambling habit, it is, in this higher-developed and specific form, to be classed as a trait of the barbarian character.

The belief in luck is a sense of fortuitous necessity in the sequence of phenomena. In its various mutations and expressions, it is of very serious importance for the economic efficiency of any community in which it prevails to an appreciable extent. So much so as to warrant a more detailed discussion of its origin and content and of the bearing of its various ramifications upon economic structure and function, as well as a discussion of the relation of the leisure class to its growth, differentiation, and persistence. In the developed, integrated form in which it is most readily observed in the barbarian of the predatory culture or in the sporting man of modern communities, the belief comprises at least two distinguishable elements — which are to be taken as two different phases of the same fundamental habit of thought, or as the same psychological factor in two successive phases of its evolution. The fact that these two elements are successive phases of the same general line of growth of belief does not hinder their coexisting in the habits of thought of any given individual. The more primitive form (or the more archaic phase) is an incipient animistic belief, or an animistic sense of relations and things, that imputes a quasi-personal character to facts. To the archaic man all the obtrusive and obviously consequential objects and facts in his environment have a quasi-personal individuality. They are conceived to be possessed of volition, or rather of propensities, which enter into the complex of causes and affect events in an inscrutable manner. The sporting man’s sense of luck and chance, or of fortuitous necessity, is an inarticulate or inchoate animism. It applies to objects and situations, often in a very vague way; but it is usually so far defined as to imply the possibility of propitiating, or of deceiving and cajoling, or otherwise disturbing the holding of propensities resident in the objects which constitute the apparatus and accessories of any game of skill or chance. There are few sporting men who are not in the habit of wearing charms or talismans to which more or less of efficacy is felt to belong. And the proportion is not much less of those who instinctively dread the “hoodooing” of the contestants or the apparatus engaged in any contest on which they lay a wager; or who feel that the fact of their backing a given contestant or side in the game does and ought to strengthen that side; or to whom the “mascot” which they cultivate means something more than a jest.

In its simple form the belief in luck is this instinctive sense of an inscrutable teleological propensity in objects or situations. Objects or events have a propensity to eventuate in a given end, whether this end or objective point of the sequence is conceived to be fortuitously given or deliberately sought. From this simple animism the belief shades off by insensible gradations into the second, derivative form or phase above referred to, which is a more or less articulate belief in an inscrutable preternatural agency. The preternatural agency works through the visible objects with which it is associated, but is not identified with these objects in point of individuality. The use of the term “preternatural agency” here carries no further implication as to the nature of the agency spoken of as preternatural. This is only a farther development of animistic belief. The preternatural agency is not necessarily conceived to be a personal agent in the full sense, but it is an agency which partakes of the attributes of personality to the extent of somewhat arbitrarily influencing the outcome of any enterprise, and especially of any contest. The pervading belief in the hamingia or gipta (gaefa, authna) which lends so much of color to the Icelandic sagas specifically, and to early Germanic folk-legends, is an illustration of this sense of an extra-physical propensity in the course of events.

In this expression or form of the belief the propensity is scarcely personified although to a varying extent an individuality is imputed to it; and this individuated propensity is sometimes conceived to yield to circumstances, commonly to circumstances of a spiritual or preternatural character. A well-known and striking exemplification of the belief — in a fairly advanced stage of differentiation and involving an anthropomorphic personification of the preternatural agent appealed to — is afforded by the wager of battle. Here the preternatural agent was conceived to act on request as umpire, and to shape the outcome of the contest in accordance with some stipulated ground of decision, such as the equity or legality of the respective contestants’ claims. The like sense of an inscrutable but spiritually necessary tendency in events is still traceable as an obscure element in current popular belief, as shown, for instance, by the well-accredited maxim, “Thrice is he armed who knows his quarrel just,”— a maxim which retains much of its significance for the average unreflecting person even in the civilized communities of today. The modern reminiscence of the belief in the hamingia, or in the guidance of an unseen hand, which is traceable in the acceptance of this maxim is faint and perhaps uncertain; and it seems in any case to be blended with other psychological moments that are not clearly of an animistic character.

For the purpose in hand it is unnecessary to look more closely into the psychological process or the ethnological line of descent by which the later of these two animistic apprehensions of propensity is derived from the earlier. This question may be of the gravest importance to folk-psychology or to the theory of the evolution of creeds and cults. The same is true of the more fundamental question whether the two are related at all as successive phases in a sequence of development. Reference is here made to the existence of these questions only to remark that the interest of the present discussion does not lie in that direction. So far as concerns economic theory, these two elements or phases of the belief in luck, or in an extra-causal trend or propensity in things, are of substantially the same character. They have an economic significance as habits of thought which affect the individual’s habitual view of the facts and sequences with which he comes in contact, and which thereby affect the individual’s serviceability for the industrial purpose. Therefore, apart from all question of the beauty, worth, or beneficence of any animistic belief, there is place for a discussion of their economic bearing on the serviceability of the individual as an economic factor, and especially as an industrial agent.

It has already been noted in an earlier connection, that in order to have the highest serviceability in the complex industrial processes of today, the individual must be endowed with the aptitude and the habit of readily apprehending and relating facts in terms of causal sequence. Both as a whole and in its details, the industrial process is a process of quantitative causation. The “intelligence” demanded of the workman, as well as of the director of an industrial process, is little else than a degree of facility in the apprehension of and adaptation to a quantitatively determined causal sequence. This facility of apprehension and adaptation is what is lacking in stupid workmen, and the growth of this facility is the end sought in their education — so far as their education aims to enhance their industrial efficiency.

In so far as the individual’s inherited aptitudes or his training incline him to account for facts and sequences in other terms than those of causation or matter-of-fact, they lower his productive efficiency or industrial usefulness. This lowering of efficiency through a penchant for animistic methods of apprehending facts is especially apparent when taken in the mass-when a given population with an animistic turn is viewed as a whole. The economic drawbacks of animism are more patent and its consequences are more far-reaching under the modern system of large industry than under any other. In the modern industrial communities, industry is, to a constantly increasing extent, being organized in a comprehensive system of organs and functions mutually conditioning one another; and therefore freedom from all bias in the causal apprehension of phenomena grows constantly more requisite to efficiency on the part of the men concerned in industry. Under a system of handicraft an advantage in dexterity, diligence, muscular force, or endurance may, in a very large measure, offset such a bias in the habits of thought of the workmen.

Similarly in agricultural industry of the traditional kind, which closely resembles handicraft in the nature of the demands made upon the workman. In both, the workman is himself the prime mover chiefly depended upon, and the natural forces engaged are in large part apprehended as inscrutable and fortuitous agencies, whose working lies beyond the workman’s control or discretion. In popular apprehension there is in these forms of industry relatively little of the industrial process left to the fateful swing of a comprehensive mechanical sequence which must be comprehended in terms of causation and to which the operations of industry and the movements of the workmen must be adapted. As industrial methods develop, the virtues of the handicraftsman count for less and less as an offset to scanty intelligence or a halting acceptance of the sequence of cause and effect. The industrial organization assumes more and more of the character of a mechanism, in which it is man’s office to discriminate and select what natural forces shall work out their effects in his service. The workman’s part in industry changes from that of a prime mover to that of discrimination and valuation of quantitative sequences and mechanical facts. The faculty of a ready apprehension and unbiased appreciation of causes in his environment grows in relative economic importance and any element in the complex of his habits of thought which intrudes a bias at variance with this ready appreciation of matter-of-fact sequence gains proportionately in importance as a disturbing element acting to lower his industrial usefulness. Through its cumulative effect upon the habitual attitude of the population, even a slight or inconspicuous bias towards accounting for everyday facts by recourse to other ground than that of quantitative causation may work an appreciable lowering of the collective industrial efficiency of a community.

The animistic habit of mind may occur in the early, undifferentiated form of an inchoate animistic belief, or in the later and more highly integrated phase in which there is an anthropomorphic personification of the propensity imputed to facts. The industrial value of such a lively animistic sense, or of such recourse to a preternatural agency or the guidance of an unseen hand, is of course very much the same in either case. As affects the industrial serviceability of the individual, the effect is of the same kind in either case; but the extent to which this habit of thought dominates or shapes the complex of his habits of thought varies with the degree of immediacy, urgency, or exclusiveness with which the individual habitually applies the animistic or anthropomorphic formula in dealing with the facts of his environment. The animistic habit acts in all cases to blur the appreciation of causal sequence; but the earlier, less reflected, less defined animistic sense of propensity may be expected to affect the intellectual processes of the individual in a more pervasive way than the higher forms of anthropomorphism. Where the animistic habit is present in the naive form, its scope and range of application are not defined or limited. It will therefore palpably affect his thinking at every turn of the person’s life — wherever he has to do with the material means of life. In the later, maturer development of animism, after it has been defined through the process of anthropomorphic elaboration, when its application has been limited in a somewhat consistent fashion to the remote and the invisible, it comes about that an increasing range of everyday facts are provisionally accounted for without recourse to the preternatural agency in which a cultivated animism expresses itself. A highly integrated, personified preternatural agency is not a convenient means of handling the trivial occurrences of life, and a habit is therefore easily fallen into of accounting for many trivial or vulgar phenomena in terms of sequence. The provisional explanation so arrived at is by neglect allowed to stand as definitive, for trivial purposes, until special provocation or perplexity recalls the individual to his allegiance. But when special exigencies arise, that is to say, when there is peculiar need of a full and free recourse to the law of cause and effect, then the individual commonly has recourse to the preternatural agency as a universal solvent, if he is possessed of an anthropomorphic belief.

The extra-causal propensity or agent has a very high utility as a recourse in perplexity, but its utility is altogether of a non-economic kind. It is especially a refuge and a fund of comfort where it has attained the degree of consistency and specialization that belongs to an anthropomorphic divinity. It has much to commend it even on other grounds than that of affording the perplexed individual a means of escape from the difficulty of accounting for phenomena in terms of causal sequence. It would scarcely be in place here to dwell on the obvious and well-accepted merits of an anthropomorphic divinity, as seen from the point of view of the aesthetic, moral, or spiritual interest, or even as seen from the less remote standpoint of political, military, or social policy. The question here concerns the less picturesque and less urgent economic value of the belief in such a preternatural agency, taken as a habit of thought which affects the industrial serviceability of the believer. And even within this narrow, economic range, the inquiry is perforce confined to the immediate bearing of this habit of thought upon the believer’s workmanlike serviceability, rather than extended to include its remoter economic effects. These remoter effects are very difficult to trace. The inquiry into them is so encumbered with current preconceptions as to the degree in which life is enhanced by spiritual contact with such a divinity, that any attempt to inquire into their economic value must for the present be fruitless.

The immediate, direct effect of the animistic habit of thought upon the general frame of mind of the believer goes in the direction of lowering his effective intelligence in the respect in which intelligence is of especial consequence for modern industry. The effect follows, in varying degree, whether the preternatural agent or propensity believed in is of a higher or a lower cast. This holds true of the barbarian’s and the sporting man’s sense of luck and propensity, and likewise of the somewhat higher developed belief in an anthropomorphic divinity, such as is commonly possessed by the same class. It must be taken to hold true also — though with what relative degree of cogency is not easy to say — of the more adequately developed anthropomorphic cults, such as appeal to the devout civilized man. The industrial disability entailed by a popular adherence to one of the higher anthropomorphic cults may be relatively slight, but it is not to be overlooked. And even these high-class cults of the Western culture do not represent the last dissolving phase of this human sense of extra-causal propensity. Beyond these the same animistic sense shows itself also in such attenuations of anthropomorphism as the eighteenth-century appeal to an order of nature and natural rights, and in their modern representative, the ostensibly post-Darwinian concept of a meliorative trend in the process of evolution. This animistic explanation of phenomena is a form of the fallacy which the logicians knew by the name of ignava ratio. For the purposes of industry or of science it counts as a blunder in the apprehension and valuation of facts. Apart from its direct industrial consequences, the animistic habit has a certain significance for economic theory on other grounds. (1) It is a fairly reliable indication of the presence, and to some extent even of the degree of potency, of certain other archaic traits that accompany it and that are of substantial economic consequence; and (2) the material consequences of that code of devout proprieties to which the animistic habit gives rise in the development of an anthropomorphic cult are of importance both (a) as affecting the community’s consumption of goods and the prevalent canons of taste, as already suggested in an earlier chapter, and (b) by inducing and conserving a certain habitual recognition of the relation to a superior, and so stiffening the current sense of status and allegiance.

As regards the point last named (b), that body of habits of thought which makes up the character of any individual is in some sense an organic whole. A marked variation in a given direction at any one point carries with it, as its correlative, a concomitant variation in the habitual expression of life in other directions or other groups of activities. These various habits of thought, or habitual expressions of life, are all phases of the single life sequence of the individual; therefore a habit formed in response to a given stimulus will necessarily affect the character of the response made to other stimuli. A modification of human nature at any one point is a modification of human nature as a whole. On this ground, and perhaps to a still greater extent on obscurer grounds that can not be discussed here, there are these concomitant variations as between the different traits of human nature. So, for instance, barbarian peoples with a well-developed predatory scheme of life are commonly also possessed of a strong prevailing animistic habit, a well-formed anthropomorphic cult, and a lively sense of status. On the other hand, anthropomorphism and the realizing sense of an animistic propensity in material are less obtrusively present in the life of the peoples at the cultural stages which precede and which follow the barbarian culture. The sense of status is also feebler; on the whole, in peaceable communities. It is to be remarked that a lively, but slightly specialized, animistic belief is to be found in most if not all peoples living in the ante-predatory, savage stage of culture. The primitive savage takes his animism less seriously than the barbarian or the degenerate savage. With him it eventuates in fantastic myth-making, rather than in coercive superstition. The barbarian culture shows sportsmanship, status, and anthropomorphism. There is commonly observable a like concomitance of variations in the same respects in the individual temperament of men in the civilized communities of today. Those modern representatives of the predaceous barbarian temper that make up the sporting element are commonly believers in luck; at least they have a strong sense of an animistic propensity in things, by force of which they are given to gambling. So also as regards anthropomorphism in this class. Such of them as give in their adhesion to some creed commonly attach themselves to one of the naively and consistently anthropomorphic creeds; there are relatively few sporting men who seek spiritual comfort in the less anthropomorphic cults, such as the Unitarian or the Universalist.

Closely bound up with this correlation of anthropomorphism and prowess is the fact that anthropomorphic cults act to conserve, if not to initiate, habits of mind favorable to a regime of status. As regards this point, it is quite impossible to say where the disciplinary effect of the cult ends and where the evidence of a concomitance of variations in inherited traits begins. In their finest development, the predatory temperament, the sense of status, and the anthropomorphic cult all together belong to the barbarian culture; and something of a mutual causal relation subsists between the three phenomena as they come into sight in communities on that cultural level. The way in which they recur in correlation in the habits and attitudes of individuals and classes today goes far to imply a like causal or organic relation between the same psychological phenomena considered as traits or habits of the individual. It has appeared at an earlier point in the discussion that the relation of status, as a feature of social structure, is a consequence of the predatory habit of life. As regards its line of derivation, it is substantially an elaborated expression of the predatory attitude. On the other hand, an anthropomorphic cult is a code of detailed relations of status superimposed upon the concept of a preternatural, inscrutable propensity in material things. So that, as regards the external facts of its derivation, the cult may be taken as an outgrowth of archaic man’s pervading animistic sense, defined and in some degree transformed by the predatory habit of life, the result being a personified preternatural agency, which is by imputation endowed with a full complement of the habits of thought that characterize the man of the predatory culture.

The grosser psychological features in the case, which have an immediate bearing on economic theory and are consequently to be taken account of here, are therefore: (a) as has appeared in an earlier chapter, the predatory, emulative habit of mind here called prowess is but the barbarian variant of the generically human instinct of workmanship, which has fallen into this specific form under the guidance of a habit of invidious comparison of persons; (b) the relation of status is a formal expression of such an invidious comparison duly gauged and graded according to a sanctioned schedule; (c) an anthropomorphic cult, in the days of its early vigor at least, is an institution the characteristic element of which is a relation of status between the human subject as inferior and the personified preternatural agency as superior. With this in mind, there should be no difficulty in recognizing the intimate relation which subsists between these three phenomena of human nature and of human life; the relation amounts to an identity in some of their substantial elements. On the one hand, the system of status and the predatory habit of life are an expression of the instinct of workmanship as it takes form under a custom of invidious comparison; on the other hand, the anthropomorphic cult and the habit of devout observances are an expression of men’s animistic sense of a propensity in material things, elaborated under the guidance of substantially the same general habit of invidious comparison. The two categories — the emulative habit of life and the habit of devout observances — are therefore to be taken as complementary elements of the barbarian type of human nature and of its modern barbarian variants. They are expressions of much the same range of aptitudes, made in response to different sets of stimuli.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:24