MoboReader > Literature > Practical Education, Volume I


Practical Education, Volume I By Maria Edgeworth Characters: 58846

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

The artless expressions of sympathy and sensibility in children, are peculiarly pleasing; people who, in their commerce with the world, have been disgusted and deceived by falsehood and affectation, listen with delight to the genuine language of nature. Those who have any interest in the education of children, have yet a higher sense of pleasure in observing symptoms of their sensibility; they anticipate the future virtues which early sensibility seems certainly to promise; the future happiness which these virtues will diffuse. Nor are they unsupported by philosophy in these sanguine hopes. No theory was ever developed with more ingenious elegance, than that which deduces all our moral sentiments from sympathy. The direct influence of sympathy upon all social beings, is sufficiently obvious, and we immediately perceive its necessary connection with compassion, friendship, and benevolence; but the subject becomes more intricate when we are to analyse our sense of propriety and justice; of merit and demerit; of gratitude and resentment; self-complacency or remorse; ambition and shame.[78]

We allow, without hesitation, that a being destitute of sympathy, could never have any of these feelings, and must, consequently, be incapable of all intercourse with society; yet we must at the same time perceive, that a being endowed with the most exquisite sympathy, must, without the assistance and education of reason, be, if not equally incapable of social intercourse, far more dangerous to the happiness of society. A person governed by sympathy alone, must be influenced by the bad as well as by the good passions of others; he must feel resentment with the angry man; hatred with the malevolent; jealousy with the jealous; and avarice with the miser: the more lively his sympathy with these painful feelings, the greater must be his misery; the more forcibly he is impelled to action by this sympathetic influence, the greater, probably, must be his imprudence and his guilt. Let us even suppose a being capable of sympathy only with the best feelings of his fellow-creatures, still, without the direction of reason, he would be a nuisance in the world; his pity would stop the hand, and overturn the balance of justice; his love would be as dangerous as his pity; his gratitude would exalt his benefactor at the expense of the whole human race; his sympathy with the rich, the prosperous, the great, and the fortunate, would be so sudden, and so violent, as to leave him no time for reflection upon the consequences of tyranny, or the miseries occasioned by monopoly. No time for reflection, did we say? We forgot that we were speaking of a being destitute of the reasoning faculty! Such a being, no matter what his virtuous sympathies might be, must act either like a madman or a fool. On sympathy we cannot depend, either for the correctness of a man's moral sentiments, or for the steadiness of his moral conduct. It is very common to talk of the excellence of a person's heart, of the natural goodness of his disposition; when these expressions distinctly mean any thing, they must refer to natural sympathy, or a superior degree of sensibility. Experience, however, does not teach us, that sensibility and virtue have any certain connection with each other. No one can read the works of Sterne, or of Rousseau, without believing these men to have been endowed with extraordinary sensibility; yet, who would propose their conduct in life as a model for imitation? That quickness of sympathy with present objects of distress, which constitutes compassion, is usually thought a virtue, but it is a virtue frequently found in persons of an abandoned character. Mandeville, in his essay upon Charity Schools, puts this in a strong light.

"Should any one of us," says he, "be locked up in a ground room, where, in a yard joining to it, there was a thriving good humoured child at play, of two or three years old, so near us, that through the grates of the window we could almost touch it with our hands; and if, whilst we took delight in the harmless diversion, and imperfect prattle, of the innocent babe, a nasty overgrown sow should come in upon the child, set it a screaming, and frighten it out of its wits; it is natural to think that this would make us uneasy, and that with crying out, and making all the menacing noise we could, we should endeavour to drive the sow away-But if this should happen to be an half-starved creature, that, mad with hunger, went roaming about in quest of food, and we should behold the ravenous brute, in spite of our cries, and all the threatening gestures we could think of, actually lay hold of the helpless infant, destroy, and devour it;-to see her widely open her destructive jaws, and the poor lamb beat down with greedy haste; to look on the defenceless posture of tender limbs first trampled upon, then torn asunder; to see the filthy snout digging in the yet living entrails, suck up the smoking blood, and now and then to hear the crackling of the bones, and the cruel animal grunt with savage pleasure over the horrid banquet; to hear and see all this, what torture would it give the soul beyond expression!****** Not only a man of humanity, of good morals, and commiseration, but likewise an highwayman, an house-breaker, or a murderer, could feel anxieties on such an occasion."

Amongst those monsters, who are pointed out by the historian to the just detestation of all mankind, we meet with instances of casual sympathy and sensibility; even their vices frequently prove to us, that they never became utterly indifferent to the opinion and feelings of their fellow-creatures. The dissimulation, jealousy, suspicion, and cruelty of Tiberius, originated, perhaps, more in his anxiety about the opinions which were formed of his character, than in his fears of any conspiracies against his life. The "judge within," the habit of viewing his own conduct in the light in which it was beheld by the impartial spectator, prompted him to new crimes; and thus his unextinguished sympathy, and his exasperated sensibility, drove him to excesses, from which a more torpid temperament might have preserved him.[79] When, upon his presenting the sons of Germanicus to the senate, Tiberius beheld the tenderness with which these young men were received, he was moved to such an agony of jealousy, as instantly to beseech the senate that he might resign the empire. We cannot attribute either to policy or fear, this strong emotion, because we know that the senate was at this time absolutely at the disposal of Tiberius, and the lives of the sons of Germanicus depended upon his pleasure.

The desire to excel, according to "Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments," is to be resolved principally into our love of the sympathy of our fellow-creatures. We wish for their sympathy, either in our success, or in the pleasure we feel in superiority. The desire for this refined modification of sympathy, may be the motive of good and great actions; but it cannot be trusted as a moral principle. Nero's love of sympathy, made him anxious to be applauded on the stage as a fiddler and a buffoon. Tiberius banished one of his philosophic courtiers, and persecuted him till the unfortunate man laid violent hands upon himself, merely because he had discovered that the emperour read books in the morning to prepare himself with questions for his literary society at night. Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, sued in the most abject manner for an Olympic crown, and sent a critic to the galleys for finding fault with his verses. Had not these men a sufficient degree of sensibility to praise, and more than a sufficient desire for the sympathy of their fellow-creatures?

It is not from any perverse love of sophistry, that the word sensibility has been used in these instances instead of irritability, which seems better to characterize the temper of a Dionysius, or a Tiberius; but, in fact, irritability, in common language, merely denotes an excessive or ill governed degree of sensibility. The point of excess must be marked: sympathy must be regulated by education, and consequently the methods of directing sensibility to useful and amiable purposes, must be anxiously studied by all who wish either for the happiness or virtue of their pupils.

Long before children can understand reasoning, they can feel sympathy; during this early period of their education, example and habit, slight external circumstances, and the propensity to imitation, govern their thoughts and actions. Imitation is the involuntary effect of sympathy in children; hence those who have the most sympathy, are most liable to be improved or injured by early examples. Examples of the malevolent passions, should therefore be most carefully excluded from the sight of those who have yet no choice in their sympathy; expressions of kindness and affection in the countenance, the voice, the actions, of all who approach, and of all who have the care of infants, are not only immediately and evidently agreeable to the children, but ought also to be used as the best possible means of exciting benevolent sympathies in their mind. Children, who habitually meet with kindness, habitually feel complacency; that species of instinctive, or rather of associated affection, which always rises in the mind from the recollection of past pleasures, is immediately excited in such children by the sight of their parents. By an easy transition of ideas, they expect the same benevolence, even from strangers, which they have experienced from their friends, and their sympathy naturally prepares them to wish for society; this wish is often improperly indulged.

At the age when children begin to unfold their ideas, and to express their thoughts in words, they are such interesting and entertaining companions, that they attract a large portion of our daily attention: we listen eagerly to their simple observations; we enter into their young astonishment at every new object; we are delighted to watch all their emotions; we help them with words to express their ideas; we anxiously endeavour to understand their imperfect reasonings, and are pleased to find, or put them in the right. This season of universal smiles and courtesy, is delightful to children whilst it lasts, but it soon passes away; they soon speak without exciting any astonishment, and instead of meeting with admiration for every attempt to express an idea, they are soon repulsed for troublesome volubility; even when they talk sense, they are suffered to talk unheard, or else they are checked for unbecoming presumption. Children feel this change in public opinion and manners most severely; they are not sensible of any change in themselves, except, perhaps, they are conscious of having improved both in sense and language. This unmerited loss of their late gratuitous allowance of sympathy, usually operates unfavourably upon the temper of the sufferers; they become shy and silent, and reserved, if not sullen; they withdraw from our capricious society, and they endeavour to console themselves with other pleasures. It is difficult to them to feel contented with their own little occupations and amusements, for want of the spectators and the audience which used to be at their command. Children of a timid temper, or of an indolent disposition, are quite dispirited and bereft of all energy in these circumstances; others, with greater vivacity, and more voluntary exertion, endeavour to supply the loss of universal sympathy, by the invention of independent occupations; but they feel anger and indignation, when they are not rewarded with any smiles or any praise for their "virtuous toil." They naturally seek for new companions, either amongst children of their own age, or amongst complaisant servants. Immediately all the business of education is at a stand; for neither these servants, nor these playfellows, are capable of becoming their instructers; nor can tutors hope to succeed, who have transferred their power over the pleasures, and consequently over the affections of their pupils. Sympathy now becomes the declared enemy of all the constituted authorities. What chance is there of obedience or of happiness, under such a government?

Would it not be more prudent to prevent, than to complain of these evils? Sympathy is our first, best friend, in education, and by judicious management, might long continue our faithful ally.

Instead of lavishing our smiles and our attention upon young children for a short period, just at that age when they are amusing playthings, should we not do more wisely if we reserved some portion of our kindness a few years longer? By a proper economy, our sympathy may last for many years, and may continually contribute to the most useful purposes. Instead of accustoming our pupils early to such a degree of our attention as cannot be supported long on our parts, we should rather suffer them to feel a little ennui, at that age when they can have but few independent or useful occupations. We should employ ourselves in our usual manner, and converse, without allowing children to interrupt us with frivolous prattle; but whenever they ask sensible questions, make just observations, or show a disposition to acquire knowledge, we should assist and encourage them with praise and affection; gradually as they become capable of taking any part in conversation, they should be admitted into society, and they will learn of themselves, or we may teach them, that useful and agreeable qualities are those by which they must secure the pleasures of sympathy. Esteem, being associated with sympathy, will increase its value, and this connection should be made as soon, and kept as sacred, in the mind as possible.

With respect to the sympathy which children feel for each other, it must be carefully managed, or it will counteract, instead of assisting us, in education. It is natural, that those who are placed nearly in the same circumstances, should feel alike, and sympathize with one another; but children feel only for the present; they have few ideas of the future; and consequently all that they can desire, either for themselves, or for their companions, is what will immediately please. Education looks to the future, and frequently we must ensure future advantage, even at the expense of present pain or restraint. The companion and the tutor then, supposing each to be equally good and equally kind, must command, in a very different degree, the sympathy of the child. It may, notwithstanding, be questioned, whether those who are constant companions in their idle hours, when they are very young, are likely to be either as fond of one another when they grow up, or even as happy whilst they are children, as those are who spend less time together. Whenever the humours, interests, and passions of others cross our own, there is an end of sympathy, and this happens almost every hour in the day with children; it is generally supposed, that they learn to live in friendship with each other, and to bear with one another's little faults habitually; that they even reciprocally cure these faults, and learn, by experience, those principles of honour and justice on which society depends. We may be deceived in this reasoning by a false analogy.

We call the society of children, society in miniature; the proportions of the miniature are so much altered, that it is by no means an accurate resemblance of that which exists in the civilized world. Amongst children of different ages, strength, and talents, there must always be tyranny, injustice, and that worst species of inequality, which arises from superior force on the one side, and abject timidity on the other. Of this, the spectators of juvenile disputes and quarrels are sometimes sensible, and they hastily interfere and endeavour to part the combatants, by pronouncing certain moral sentences, such as, "Good boys never quarrel; brothers must love and help one another." But these sentences seldom operate as a charm upon the angry passions; the parties concerned, hearing it asserted that they must love one another, at the very instant when they happen to feel that they cannot, are still further exasperated, and they stand at bay, sullen in hatred, or approach hypocritical in reconciliation. It is more easy to prevent occasions of dispute, than to remedy the bad consequences which petty altercations produce. Young children should be kept asunder at all times, and in all situations, in which it is necessary, or probable, that their appetites and passions should be in direct competition. Two hungry children, with their eager eyes fixed upon one and the same bason of bread and milk, do not sympathize with each other, though they have the same sensations; each perceives, that if the other eats the bread and milk, he cannot eat it. Hunger is more powerful than sympathy; but satisfy the hunger of one of the parties, and immediately he will begin to feel for his companion, and will wish that his hunger should also be satisfied. Even Mr. Barnet, the epicure, who is so well described in Moore's excellent novel,[80] after he has crammed himself to the throat, asks his wife to "try to eat a bit." Intelligent preceptors will apply the instance of the bason of bread and milk, in a variety of apparently dissimilar circumstances.

We may observe, that the more quickly children reason, the sooner they discover how far their interests are any ways incompatible with the interests of their companions. The more readily a boy calculates, the sooner he will perceive, that if he were to share his bason of bread and milk equally with a dozen of his companions, his own portion must be small. The accuracy of his mental division would prevent him from offering to part with that share which, perhaps, a more ignorant accountant would be ready to surrender at once, without being on that account more generous. Children, who are accurate observers of the countenance, and who have a superior degree of penetration, discover very early the symptoms of displeasure, or of affection, in their friends; they also perceive quickly the dangers of rivalship from their companions. If experience convinces them, that they must lose in proportion as their companions gain, either in fame or in favour, they will necessarily dislike them as rivals; their hatred will be as vehement, as their love of praise and affection is ardent. Thus children, who have the most lively sympathy, are, unless they be judiciously educated, the most in danger of feeling early the malevolent passions of jealousy and envy. It is inhuman, and in every point of view unjustifiable in us, to excite these painful feelings in children, as we too often do, by the careless or partial distribution of affection and applause. Exact justice will best prevent jealousy; each individual submits to justice, because each, in turn, feels the benefit of its protection. Some preceptors, with benevolent intentions, labour to preserve a perfect equality amongst their pupils, and, from the fear of exciting envy in those who are inferior, avoid uttering any encomiums upon superior talents and merit. This management seldom succeeds; the truth cannot be concealed; those who feel their own superiority, make painful reflections upon the injustice done to them by the policy of their tutors; those who are sensible of their own inferiority, are not comforted by the courtesy and humiliating forbearance with which they are treated. It is, therefore, best to speak the plain truth; to give to all their due share of affection and applause: at the same time, we should avoid blaming one child at the moment when we praise another: we should never put our pupils in contrast with one another; nor yet should we deceive them as to their respective excellences and defects. Our comparison should rather be made between what the pupil has been, and what he is, than between what he is, and what any body else is not.[81] By this style of praise we may induce children to become emulous of their former selves, instead of being envious of their competitors. Without deceit or affectation, we may also take care to associate general pleasure in a family with particular commendations: thus, if one boy is remarkable for prudence, and another for generosity, we should not praise the generosity of the one at the expense of the prudence of the other, but we should give to each virtue its just measure of applause. If one girl sings, and another draws, remarkably well, we may show that we are pleased with both agreeable accomplishments, without bringing them into comparison. Nor is it necessary that we should be in a desperate hurry to balance the separate degrees of praise which we distribute exactly at the same moment, because if children are sure that the reward of their industry and ingenuity is secured by our justice, they will trust to us, though that reward may be for a few hours delayed. It is only where workmen have no confidence in the integrity or punctuality of their masters, that they are impatient of any accidental delay in the payment of their wages.

With the precautions which have been mentioned, we may hope to see children grow up in real friendship together. The whole sum of their pleasure is much increased by mutual sympathy. This happy moral truth, upon which so many of our virtues depend, should be impressed upon the mind; it should be clearly demonstrated to the reason; it should not be repeated as an a priori, sentimental assertion.

Those who have observed the sudden, violent, and surprising effects of emulation in public schools, will regret the want of this power in the intellectual education of their pupils at home. Even the acquisition of talents and knowledge ought, however, to be but a secondary consideration, subordinate to the general happiness of our pupils. If we could have superior knowledge, upon condition that we should have a malevolent disposition, and an irritable temper, should we, setting every other moral consideration aside, be willing to make the purchase at such a price? Let any person, desirous to see a striking picture of the effects of scholastic competition upon the moral character, look at the life of that wonder of his age, the celebrated Abeillard. As the taste and manners of the present times are so different from those of the age in which he lived, we see, without any species of deception, the real value of the learning in which he excelled, and we can judge both of his acquirements, and of his character, without prejudice. We see him goaded on by rivalship, and literary ambition, to astonishing exertions at one time; at another, torpid in monkish indolence: at one time, we see him intoxicated with adulation; at another, listless, desponding, abject, incapable of maintaining his own self-approbation without the suffrages of those whom he despised. If his biographer[82] does him justice, a more selfish, irritable, contemptible, miserable being, than the learned Abeillard, could scarcely exist.

A philosopher,[83] who, if we might judge of him by the benignity of his writings, was surely of a most amiable and happy temper, has yet left us a melancholy and discouraging history of the unsociable condition of men of superior knowledge and abilities. He supposes that those who have devoted much time to the cultivation of their understandings, have habitually less sympathy, or less exercise for their sympathy, than those who live less abstracted from the world; that, consequently, "all their social, and all their public affections, lose their natural warmth and vigour," whilst their selfish passions are cherished and strengthened, being kept in constant play by literary rivalship. It is to be hoped, that there are men of the most extensive learning and genius, now living, who could, from their own experience, assure us that those are obsolete observations, no longer applicable to modern human nature. At all events, we, who refer so much to education, are hopefully of opinion, that education can prevent these evils, in common with almost all the other evils of life. It would be an errour, fatal to all improvement, to believe that the cultivation of the understanding, impedes the exercise of the social affections. Obviously, a man, who secludes himself from the world, and whose whole life is occupied with abstract studies, cannot enjoy any pleasure from his social affections; his admiration of the dead, is so constant, that he has no time to feel any sympathy with the living. An individual, of this ruminating species, is humorously delineated in Mrs. D'Arblay's Camilla. Men, who are compelled to unrelenting labour, whether by avarice, or by literary ambition, are equally to be pitied. They are not models for imitation; they sacrifice their happiness to some strong passion or interest. Without this ascetic abstinence from the domestic and social pleasures of life, surely persons may cultivate their understandings, and acquire, even by mixing with their fellow-creatures, a variety of useful knowledge.

An ingenious theory[84] supposes the exercise of any of our faculties, is always attended with pleasure, which lasts as long as that exercise can be continued without fatigue. This pleasure, arising from the due exercise of our mental powers, the author of this theory maintains to be the foundation of our most agreeable sentiments. If there be any truth in these ideas, of how many agreeable sentiments must a man of sense be capable! The pleasures of society must to him increase in an almost incalculable proportion; because, in conversation, his faculties can never want subjects on which they may be amply exercised. The dearth of conversation, which every body may have felt in certain company, is always attended with mournful countenances, and every symptom of ennui. Indeed, without the pleasures of conversation, society is reduced to meetings of people, who assemble to eat and drink, to show their fine clothes, to weary and to hate one another. The sympathy of bon vivants is, it must be acknowleged, very lively and sincere towards each other; but this can last only during the hour of dinner, unless they revive, and prolong, by the powers of imagination, the memory of the feast. Some foreign traveller[85] tells us, that "every year, at Naples, an officer of the police goes through the city, attended by a trumpeter, who proclaims in all the squares and cross-ways, how many thousand oxen, calves, lambs, hogs, &c. the Neapolitans have had the honour of eating in the course of the year." The people all listen with extreme attention to this proclamation, and are immoderately delighted at the huge amount.

A degree, and scarcely one degree, above the brute sympathy of good eaters, is that gregarious propensity which is sometimes honoured with the name of sociability. The current sympathy, or appearance of sympathy, which is to be found amongst the idle and frivolous in fashionable life, is wholly unconnected with even the idea of esteem. It is therefore pernicious to all who partake of it; it excites to no great exertions; it rewards neither useful nor amiable qualities: on the contrary, it is to be obtained by vice, rather than by virtue; by folly much more readily than by wisdom. It is the mere follower of fashion, and of dissipation, and it keeps those in humour and countenance, who ought to hear the voice of public reproach, and who might be roused by the fear of disgrace, or the feelings of shame, to exertions which should justly entitle them to the approbation and affection of honourable friends.

Young people, who are early in life content with this convivial sympathy, may, in the common phrase, become very good, pleasant companions; but there is little chance that they should ever become any thing more, and there is great danger that they may be led into any degree of folly, extravagance, or vice, to which fashion and the voice of numbers invite. It sometimes happens, that men of superior abilities, have such an indiscriminate love of applause and sympathy, that they reduce themselves to the standard of all their casual companions, and vary their objects of ambition with the opinion of the silly people with whom they chance to associate. In public life, party spirit becomes the ruling principle of men of this character; in private life, they are addicted to clubs, and associations of all sorts, in which the contagion of sympathy has a power which the sober influence of reason seldom ventures to correct. The waste of talents, and the total loss of principle, to which this indiscriminate love of sympathy leads, should warn us to guard against its influence by early education. The gregarious propensity in childhood, should not be indulged without precautions: unless their companions are well educated, we can never be reasonably secure of the conduct or happiness of our pupils: from sympathy, they catch all the wishes, tastes, and ideas of those with whom they associate; and what is still worse, they acquire the dangerous habits of resting upon the support, and of wanting the stimulus of numbers. It is, surely, far more prudent to let children feel a little ennui, from the want of occupation and of company, than to purchase for them the juvenile pleasures of society at the expense of their future happiness. Ch

ildhood, as a part of our existence, ought to have as great a share of happiness as it can enjoy compatibly with the advantage of the other seasons of life. By this principle, we should be guided in all which we allow, and in all which we refuse, to children; by this rule, we may avoid unnecessary severity, and pernicious indulgence.

As young people gradually acquire knowledge, they will learn to converse, and when they have the habits of conversing rationally, they will not desire companions who can only chatter. They will prefer the company of friends, who can sympathize in their occupations, to the presence of ignorant idlers, who can fill up the void of ideas with nonsense and noise. Some people have a notion that the understanding and the heart are not to be educated at the same time; but the very reverse of this is, perhaps, true; neither can be brought to any perfection, unless both are cultivated together.

We should not, therefore, expect premature virtues. During childhood, there occur but few opportunities of exerting the virtues which are recommended in books, such as humanity and generosity.

The humanity of children cannot, perhaps, properly be said to be exercised upon animals; they are frequently extremely fond of animals, but they are not always equable in their fondness; they sometimes treat their favourites with that caprice which favourites are doomed to experience; this caprice degenerates into cruelty, if it is resented by the sufferer. We must not depend merely upon the natural feelings of compassion, as preservatives against cruelty; the instinctive feelings of compassion, are strong amongst uneducated people; yet these do not restrain them from acts of cruelty. They take delight, it has been often observed, in all tragical, sanguinary spectacles, because these excite emotion, and relieve them from the listless state in which their days usually pass. It is the same with all persons, in all ranks of life, whose minds are uncultivated.[86] Until young people have fixed habits of benevolence, and a taste for occupation, perhaps it is not prudent to trust them with the care or protection of animals. Even when they are enthusiastically fond of them, they cannot, by their utmost ingenuity, make the animal so happy in a state of captivity, as they would be in a state of liberty. They are apt to insist upon doing animals good against their will, and they are often unjust in the defence of their favourites. A boy of seven years old, once knocked down his sister, to prevent her crushing his caterpillar.[87]

Children should not be taught to confine their benevolence to those animals which are thought beautiful; the fear and disgust which we express at the sight of certain unfortunate animals, whom we are pleased to call ugly and shocking, are observed by children, and these associations lead to cruelty. If we do not prejudice our pupils by foolish exclamations; if they do not, from sympathy, catch our absurd antipathies, their benevolence towards the animal world, will not be illiberally confined to favourite lap-dogs and singing-birds. From association, most people think that frogs are ugly animals. L--, a boy between five and six years old, once begged his mother to come out to look at a beautiful animal which he had just found; she was rather surprised to find that this beautiful creature was a frog.

If children never see others torment animals, they will not think that cruelty can be an amusement; but they may be provoked to revenge the pain which is inflicted upon them; and therefore we should take care not to put children in situations where they are liable to be hurt or terrified by animals. Could we possibly expect, that Gulliver should love the Brobdignagian wasp that buzzed round his cake, and prevented him from eating his breakfast? Could we expect that Gulliver should be ever reconciled to the rat against whom he was obliged to draw his sword? Many animals are, to children, what the wasp and the rat were to Gulliver. Put bodily fear out of the case, it required all uncle Toby's benevolence to bear the buzzing of a gnat while he was eating his dinner. Children, even when they have no cause to be afraid of animals, are sometimes in situations to be provoked by them; and the nice casuist will find it difficult to do strict justice upon the offended and the offenders.

October 2, 1796. S--, nine years old, took care of his brother H--'s hot-bed for some time, when H-- was absent from home. He was extremely anxious about his charge; he took one of his sisters to look at the hot-bed, showed her a hole where the mice came in, and expressed great hatred against the whole race. He the same day asked his mother for a bait for the mouse-trap; his mother refused to give him one, telling him that she did not wish he should learn to kill animals. How good nature sometimes leads to the opposite feeling! S--'s love for his brother's cucumbers made him imagine and compass the death of the mice. Children should be protected against animals, which we do not wish that they should hate; if cats scratch them, and dogs bite them, and mice devour the fruits of their industry, children must consider these animals as enemies; they cannot love them, and they may learn the habit of revenge, from being exposed to their insults and depredations. Pythagoras himself would have insisted upon his exclusive right to the vegetables on which he was to subsist, especially if he had raised them by his own care and industry. Buffon,[88] notwithstanding all his benevolent philosophy, can scarcely speak with patience of his enemies the field mice; who, when he was trying experiments upon the culture of forest trees, tormented him perpetually by their insatiable love of acorns. "I was terrified," says he, "at the discovery of half a bushel, and often a whole bushel, of acorns in each of the holes inhabited by these little animals; they had collected these acorns for their winter provision." The philosopher gave orders immediately for the erection of a great number of traps, and snares baited with broiled nuts; in less than three weeks nearly three hundred field mice were killed or taken prisoners. Mankind are obliged to carry on a defensive war with the animal world. "Eat or be eaten," says Dr. Darwin, is the great law of nature. It is fortunate for us that there are butchers by profession in the world, and rat-catchers, and cats, otherwise our habits of benevolence and sympathy would be utterly destroyed. Children, though they must perceive the necessity for destroying certain animals need not be themselves executioners; they should not conquer the natural repugnance to the sight of the struggles of pain, and the convulsions of death; their aversion of being the cause of pain should be preserved, both by principle and habit. Those who have not been habituated to the bloody form of cruelty, can never fix their eye upon her without shuddering; even those to whom she may have, in some instances, been early familiarized, recoil from her appearance in any shape to which they have not been accustomed. At one of the magnificent shows with which Pompey[89] entertained the Roman people for five days successively, the populace enjoyed the death of wild beasts; five hundred lions were killed; but, on the last day, when twenty elephants were put to death, the people, unused to the sight, and moved by the lamentable howlings of these animals, were seized with sudden compassion; they execrated Pompey himself for being the author of so much cruelty.

Charity for the poor, is often inculcated in books for children; but how is this virtue to be actually brought into practice in childhood? Without proper objects of charity are selected by the parents, children have no opportunities of discovering them; they have not sufficient knowledge of the world to distinguish truth from falsehood in the complaints of the distressed: nor have they sufficiently enlarged views to discern the best means of doing good to their fellow-creatures. They may give away money to the poor, but they do not always feel the value of what they give: they give counters: supplied with all the necessaries and luxuries of life, they have no use for money; they feel no privation; they make no sacrifice in giving money away, or at least, none worthy to be extolled as heroic. When children grow up, they learn the value of money; their generosity will then cost them rather more effort, and yet can be rewarded only with the same expressions of gratitude, with the same blessings from the beggar, or the same applause from the spectator.

Let us put charity out of the question, and suppose that the generosity of children is displayed in making presents to their companions, still there are difficulties. These presents are usually baubles, which at the best can encourage only a frivolous taste. But we must further consider, that even generous children are apt to expect generosity equal to their own from their companions; then come tacit or explicit comparisons of the value or elegance of their respective gifts; the difficult rules of exchange and barter are to be learned; and nice calculations of Tare and Tret are entered into by the repentant borrowers and lenders. A sentimental, two often ends in a commercial intercourse; and those who begin with the most munificent dispositions, sometimes end with selfish discontent, low cunning, or disgusting ostentation. Whoever has carefully attended to young makers of presents, and makers of bargains, will not think this account of them much exaggerated.

"Then what is to be done? How are the social affections to be developed? How is the sensibility of children to be tried? How is the young heart to display its most amiable feelings?" a sentimental preceptress will impatiently inquire.

The amiable feelings of the heart need not be displayed; they may be sufficiently exercised without the stimulus either of our eloquence or our applause. In madame de Silleri's account of the education of the children of the duke of Orleans, there appears rather too much sentimental artifice and management. When the Duchess of Orleans was ill, the children were instructed to write "charming notes" from day to day, and from hour to hour, to inquire how she did. Once when a servant was going from Saint Leu to Paris, madame de Silleri asked her pupils if they had any commissions; the little duke de Chartres says yes, and gave a message about a bird-cage, but he did not recollect to write to his mother, till somebody whispered to him that he had forgotten it. Madame de Silleri calls this childish forgetfulness a "heinous offence;" but was not it very natural, that the boy should think of his bird cage? and what mother would wish that her children should have it put into their head, to inquire after her health in the complimentary style? Another time, madame de Silleri is displeased with her pupils, because they did not show sufficient sympathy and concern for her when she had a headache or sore throat. The exact number of messages which, consistently with the strict duties of friendship, they ought to have sent, are upon another occasion prescribed.

"I had yesterday afternoon a violent attack of the colic, and you discovered the greatest sensibility. By the journal of M. le Brun, I find it was the duke de Montpensier who thought this morning of writing to inquire how I did. You left me yesterday in a very calm state, and there was no reason for anxiety; but, consistently with the strict duties of friendship, you ought to have given orders before you went to bed, for inquiries to be made at eight o'clock in the morning, to know whether I had had any return of my complaint during the night; and you should again have sent at ten, to learn from myself, the instant I awoke, the exact state of my health. Such are the benevolent and tender cares which a lively and sincere friendship dictates. You must accustom yourselves to the observance of them, if you wish to be beloved."

Another day madame de Silleri told the duke de Chartres, that he had a very idiotic appearance, because, when he went to see his mother, his attention was taken up by two paroquets which happened to be in the room. All these reproaches and documents could not, we should apprehend, tend to increase the real sensibility and affection of children. Gratitude is one of the most certain, but one of the latest, rewards, which preceptors and parents should expect from their pupils. Those who are too impatient to wait for the gradual development of the affections, will obtain from their children, instead of warm, genuine, enlightened gratitude, nothing but the expression of cold, constrained, stupid hypocrisy. During the process of education, a child cannot perceive its ultimate end; how can he judge whether the means employed by his parents, are well adapted to effect their purposes? Moments of restraint and of privation, or, perhaps, of positive pain, must be endured by children under the mildest system of education: they must, therefore, perceive, that their parents are the immediate cause of some evils to them; the remote good is beyond their view. And can we expect from an infant the systematic resignation of an optimist? Belief upon trust, is very different from that which arises from experience; and no one, who understands the human heart, will expect incompatible feelings: in the mind of a child, the feeling of present pain is incompatible with gratitude. Mrs. Macaulay mentions a striking instance of extorted gratitude. A poor child, who had been taught to return thanks for every thing, had a bitter medicine given to her; when she had drank it, she curtesied, and said, "Thank you for my good stuff." There was a mistake in the medicine, and the child died the next morning.

Children who are not sentimentally educated, often offend by their simplicity, and frequently disgust people of impatient feelings, by their apparent indifference to things which are expected to touch their sensibility. Let us be content with nature, or rather let us never exchange simplicity for affectation. Nothing hurts young people more than to be watched continually about their feelings, to have their countenances scrutinized, and the degrees of their sensibility measured by the surveying eye of the unmerciful spectator. Under the constraint of such examinations, they can think of nothing, but that they are looked at, and feel nothing but shame or apprehension: they are afraid to lay their minds open, lest they should be convicted of some deficiency of feeling. On the contrary, children who are not in dread of this sentimental inquisition, speak their minds, the truth, and the whole truth, without effort or disguise: they lay open their hearts, and tell their thoughts as they arise, with simplicity that would not fear to enter even "The palace of Truth."[90]

A little girl, Ho--, who was not quite four years old, asked her mother to give her a plaything: one of her sisters had just before asked for the same thing. "I cannot give it to you both," said the mother.

Ho--. No, but I wish you to give it to me, and not to E--.

Mother. Don't you wish your sister to have what she wants?

Ho--. Mother, if I say that I don't wish so, will you give it to me?

Perhaps this naivete might have displeased some scrupulous admirers of politeness, who could not discover in it symptoms of that independent simplicity of character, for which the child who made this speech was distinguished.

"Do you always love me?" said a mother to her son, who was about four years old.

"Always," said the child, "except when I am asleep."

Mother. "And why do you not love me when you are asleep?"

Son. "Because I do not think of you then."

This sensible answer showed, that the boy reflected accurately upon his own feelings, and a judicious parent must consequently have a sober certainty of his affection. The thoughtless caresses of children who are never accustomed to reason, are lavished alike upon strangers and friends, and their fondness of to-day may, without any reasonable cause, become aversion by to-morrow.

Children are often asked to tell which of their friends they love the best, but they are seldom required to assign any reason for their choice. It is not prudent to question them frequently about their own feelings; but whenever they express any decided preference, we should endeavour to lead, not to drive them to reflect upon the reasons for their affection. They will probably at first mention some particular instance of kindness, which they have lately received from the person whom they prefer. "I like such a person because he mended my top." "I like such another because he took me out to walk with him and let me gather flowers." By degrees we may teach children to generalize their ideas, and to perceive that they like people for being either useful or agreeable.

The desire to return kindness by kindness, arises very early in the mind; and the hope of conciliating the good will of the powerful beings by whom they are surrounded, is one of the first wishes that appears in the minds of intelligent and affectionate children. From this sense of mutual dependence, the first principles of social intercourse are deduced, and we may render our pupils either mean sycophants, or useful and honourable members of society, by the methods which we use to direct their first efforts to please. It should be our object to convince them, that the exchange of mutual good offices contributes to happiness; and whilst we connect the desire to assist others with the perception of the beneficial consequences that eventually arise to themselves, we may be certain that children will never become blindly selfish, or idly sentimental. We cannot help admiring the simplicity, strength of mind, and good sense, of a little girl of four years old, who, when she was put into a stage coach with a number of strangers, looked round upon them all, and, after a few minutes silence, addressed them, with the imperfect articulation of infancy, in the following words:

"If you'll be good to me, I'll be good to you."

Whilst we were writing upon sympathy and sensibility, we met with the following apposite passage:

"In 1765, I was," says M. de St. Pierre, "at Dresden, at a play acted at court; it was the Pere de Famille. The electoress came in with one of her daughters, who might be about five or six years old. An officer of the Saxon guards, who came with me to the play, whispered, 'That child will interest you as much as the play.' As soon as she was seated, she placed both her hands on the front of the box, fixed her eyes upon the stage, and continued with her mouth open, all attention to the motions of the actors. It was truly touching to see their different passions painted on her face as in a glass. There appeared in her countenance successively, anxiety, surprise, melancholy, and grief; at length the interest increasing in every scene, tears began to flow, which soon ran in abundance down her little cheeks; then came agitation, sighs, and loud sobs; at last they were obliged to carry her out of the box, lest she should choke herself with crying. My next neighbour told me, that every time that this young princess came to a pathetic play, she was obliged to leave the house before the catastrophe."

"I have seen," continues M. de St. Pierre, "instances of sensibility still more touching amongst the children of the common people, because the emotion was not here produced by any theatrical effect. As I was walking some years ago in the Pre St. Gervais, at the beginning of winter, I saw a poor woman lying on the ground, busied in weeding a bed of sorrel; near her was a little girl of six years old at the utmost, standing motionless, and all purple with cold. I addressed myself to this woman, who appeared to be ill, and I asked her what was the matter with her. Sir, said she, for these three months I have suffered terribly from the rheumatism, but my illness troubles me less than this child, she never will leave me; if I say to her, Thou art quite frozen, go and warm thyself in the house, she answers me, Alas! mamma, if I leave you, you'll certainly fall ill again!"

"Another time, being at Marly, I went to see, in the groves of that magnificent park, that charming group of children who are feeding with vine leaves and grapes a goat who seems to be playing with them. Near this spot is an open summer house, where Louis XV. on fine days, used sometimes to take refreshment. As it was showery weather, I went to take shelter for a few minutes. I found there three children, who were much more interesting than children of marble. They were two little girls, very pretty, and very busily employed in picking up all round the summer house dry sticks, which they put into a sort of wallet which was lying upon the king's table, whilst a little ill clothed thin boy was devouring a bit of bread in one corner of the room. I asked the tallest of the children, who appeared to be between eight and nine years old, what she meant to do with the wood which she was gathering together with so much eagerness. She answered, 'Sir, you see that little boy, he is very unhappy. He has a mother-in-law' (Why always a mother-in-law?) 'He has a mother-in-law, who sends him all day long to look for wood; when he does not bring any home, he is beaten; when he has got any, the Swiss who stands at the entrance of the park takes it all away from him, and keeps it for himself. The boy is almost starved with hunger, and we have given him our breakfast.' After having said these words, she and her companion finished filling the little wallet, they packed it upon the boy's shoulders, and they ran before their unfortunate friend to see that he might pass in safety."

We have read these three anecdotes to several children, and have found that the active friends of the little wood-cutter were the most admired. It is probable, that amongst children who have been much praised for expressions of sensibility, the young lady who wept so bitterly at the play-house, would be preferred; affectionate children will like the little girl who stood purple with cold beside her sick mother; but if they have been well educated, they will probably express some surprise at her motionless attitude; they will ask why she did not try to help her mother to weed the bed of sorrel.

It requires much skill and delicacy in our conduct towards children, to preserve a proper medium between the indulging and the repressing of their sensibility. We are cruel towards them when we suspect their genuine expressions of affection; nothing hurts the temper of a generous child more than this species of injustice. Receive his expressions of kindness and gratitude with cold reserve, or a look that implies a doubt of his truth, and you give him so much pain, that you not only repress, but destroy his affectionate feelings. On the contrary, if you appear touched and delighted by his caresses, from the hope of pleasing, he will be naturally inclined to repeat such demonstrations of sensibility: this repetition should be gently discouraged, lest it should lead to affectation. At the same time, though we take this precaution, we should consider, that children are not early sensible that affectation is either ridiculous or disgusting; they are not conscious of doing any thing wrong by repeating what they have once perceived to be agreeable in their own, or in the manners of others. They frequently imitate, without any idea that imitation is displeasing; their object, as Locke observes, is to please by affectation; they only mistake the means: we should rectify this mistake without treating it as a crime.

A little girl of five years old stood beside her mother, observing the distribution of a dish of strawberries, the first strawberries of the year; and seeing a number of people busily helping, and being helped to cream and sugar, said in a low voice, not meant to attract attention, "I like to see people helping one another." Had the child, at this instant, been praised for this natural expression of sympathy, the pleasure of praise would have been immediately substituted in her mind, instead of the feeling of benevolence, which was in itself sufficiently agreeable; and, perhaps, from a desire to please, she would, upon the next favourable occasion, have repeated the same sentiment; this we should immediately call affectation; but how could the child foresee, that the repetition of what we formerly liked, would be offensive? We should not first extol sympathy, and then disdain affectation; our encomiums frequently produce the faults by which we are disgusted. Sensibility and sympathy, when they have proper objects, and full employment, do not look for applause; they are sufficiently happy in their own enjoyments. Those who have attempted to teach children, must have observed, that sympathy is immediately connected with all the imitative arts; the nature of this connection, more especially in poetry and painting, has been pointed out with ingenuity and eloquence by those[91] whose excellence in these arts entitle their theories to our prudent attention. We shall not attempt to repeat; we refer to their observations. Sufficient occupation for sympathy, may be found by cultivating the talents of young people.

Without repeating here what has been said in many other places, it may be necessary to remind all who are concerned in female education, that peculiar caution is necessary to manage female sensibility: to make, what is called the heart, a source of permanent pleasure, we must cultivate the reasoning powers at the same time that we repress the enthusiasm of fine feeling. Women, from their situation and duties in society, are called upon rather for the daily exercise of quiet domestic virtues, than for those splendid acts of generosity, or those exaggerated expressions of tenderness, which are the characteristics of heroines in romance. Sentimental authors, who paint with enchanting colours all the graces and all the virtues in happy union, teach us to expect that this union should be indissoluble. Afterwards, from the natural influence of association, we expect in real life to meet with virtue when we see grace, and we are disappointed, almost disgusted, when we find virtue unadorned. This false association has a double effect upon the conduct of women; it prepares them to be pleased, and it excites them to endeavour to please by adventitious charms, rather than by those qualities which merit esteem. Women, who have been much addicted to common novel-reading, are always acting in imitation of some Jemima, or Almeria, who never existed, and they perpetually mistake plain William and Thomas for "My Beverly!" They have another peculiar misfortune; they require continual great emotions to keep them in tolerable humour with themselves; they must have tears in their eyes, or they are apprehensive that their hearts are growing hard. They have accustomed themselves to such violent stimulus, that they cannot endure the languor to which they are subject in the intervals of delirium. Pink appears pale to the eye that is used to scarlet; and common food is insipid to the taste which has been vitiated by the high seasonings of art.

A celebrated French actress, in the wane of her charms, and who, for that reason, began to feel weary of the world, exclaimed, whilst she was recounting what she had suffered from a faithless lover, "Ah! c'étoit le bon temps, j'étois bien malheureuse!"[92]

The happy age in which women can, with any grace or effect, be romantically wretched, is, even with the beautiful, but a short season of felicity. The sentimental sorrows of any female mourner, of more than thirty years standing, command but little sympathy, and less admiration; and what other consolations are suited to sentimental sorrows?

Women, who cultivate their reasoning powers, and who acquire tastes for science and literature, find sufficient variety in life, and do not require the stimulus of dissipation, or of romance. Their sympathy and sensibility are engrossed by proper objects, and connected with habits of useful exertion: they usually feel the affection which others profess, and actually enjoy the happiness which others describe.

[78] Adam Smith.

[79] See Smith.

[80] Edward.

[81] V. Rousseau and Williams.

[82] Berington. See his Life of Abeillard.

[83] Dr. John Gregory. Comparative View of the State and Faculties of Man with those of the Animal World. See vol. ii. of Works, from page 100 to 114.

[84] Vernet's Théorie des Sentiments Agréables.

[85] V. Varieties of Literature, vol. i.

[86] Can it be true, that an English nobleman, in the 18th century, won a bet by procuring a man to eat a cat alive?

[87] See Moore's Edward for the boy and larks, an excellent story for children.

[88] Mem. de l'Acad. R. for the year 1742, p. 332.

[89] V. Middleton's Life of Cicero, vol. i. page 474.

[90] V. Le Palais de la Verite.-Madame de Genlis Veillées du Chateau.

[91] Sir Joshua Reynolds's Discourses. Dr. Darwin's Critical Interludes in the Botanic Garden, and his chapter on Sympathy and Imitation in Zoonomia.

[92] D'Alembert.

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top