Dickens on Custom

A wise philosopher asked “what has more power in directing the course of our lives, reason or custom?”

Reading A Tale of Two Cities cannot but convince one that custom is by far the predominant influence. Take this passage for instance

They hanged at Tyburn, in those days, so the street outside Newgate had not obtained one infamous notoriety that has since attached to it. But, the gaol was a vile place, in which most kinds of debauchery and villainy were practised, and where dire diseases were bred, that came into court with the prisoners, and sometimes rushed straight from the dock at my Lord Chief Justice himself, and pulled him off the bench. It had more than once happened, that the Judge in the black cap pronounced his own doom as certainly as the prisoner’s, and even died before him. For the rest, the Old Bailey was famous as a kind of deadly inn-yard, from which pale travellers set out continually, in carts and coaches, on a violent passage into the other world: traversing some two miles and a half of public street and road, and shaming few good citizens, if any. So powerful is use, and so desirable to be good use in the beginning. It was famous, too, for the pillory, a wise old institution, that inflicted a punishment of which no one could foresee the extent; also, for the whipping-post, another dear old institution, very humanising and softening to behold in action; also, for extensive transactions in blood-money, another fragment of ancestral wisdom, systematically leading to the most frightful mercenary crimes that could be committed under Heaven. Altogether, the Old Bailey, at that date, was a choice illustration of the precept, that “Whatever is is right;” an aphorism that would be as final as it is lazy, did it not include the troublesome consequence, that nothing that ever was, was wrong. (A Tale of Two Cities Bk II Chapter – “A Sight”)

“So powerful is use”, so powerful is custom. As Dickens illustrates, even the inhabitants of the highly civilized city of London could grow accustomed to atrocities committed by their own legal system. For example take this lovely little discussion between Jerry Cruncher and another sight see-er or court watcher of sorts,

After some delay and demur, the door grudgingly turned on its hinges a very little way, and allowed Mr. Jerry Cruncher to squeeze himself into court.

“What’s on?” he asked, in a whisper, of the man he found himself next to.

“Nothing yet.”

“What’s coming on?”

“The Treason case.”

“The quartering one, eh?”

“Ah!” returned the man, with a relish; “he’ll be drawn on a hurdle to be half hanged, and then he’ll be taken down and sliced before his own face, and then his inside will be taken out and burnt while he looks on, and then his head will be chopped off, and he’ll be cut into quarters. That’s the sentence.”

“If he’s found Guilty, you mean to say?” Jerry added, by way of proviso.

“Oh! they’ll find him guilty,” said the other. “Don’t you be afraid of that.”

Jerry Cruncher and son Jerry

The sheer barbarity of the description shocks the reader but appears slightly humourous given the “relish” with which the torture is anticipated by these two respectable gentlemen, especially if read aloud in a cockney accent. But so powerful is custom that even the most disturbing things might appear as perfectly ordinary.

Dickens proceeds to manifest the effect of custom on the life of the mind by saying

“the Old Bailey, at that date, was a choice illustration of the precept, that “Whatever is is right;”

Whatever is established though long usage, whatever is firmly practiced in society by long custom, whatever thoughts or explanations have been trotted forth and repeated to such an extent that these thoughts become habits of mind … all of these are “whatever is” and they all become what “is right.”

Custom is powerful indeed, so powerful that its presence in directing our thoughts and actions becomes undetectable and we act according to it as if it were almost nature itself, or rather second nature.

Perhaps there is no escaping custom, and therefore “so desirable to be good use in the beginning.” But if we are to avoid acting and speaking “as those asleep” we can at least examine our lives, and examine our customs.

The trouble is precisely in identifying and distinguishing the thoughts that we have which spring from nature from those that spring from ‘second nature’ or custom.


About marklangley

Presently, the founding Headmaster of Our Lady of Walsingham Academy in Colorado Springs (see www. OLWclassical.org), former headmaster and Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their children.
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2 Responses to Dickens on Custom

  1. Andrew says:

    This is a good article I was glad to hear you address that he talked about the treason case with relish. It got me thinking of how custom shapes people’s minds as well as their morals .

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