Letter IX. November 20, 1818
My dear Greaves,
I shall try in this, and in some subsequent letters, to describe the facts which may be considered as the first manifestation of the good principle of which I have spoken. I shall then proceed to point out the common mistake, by which it is frequently either altogether overlooked, or even perverted by injudicious treatment, so that, instead of acting as a moral preservative, instead of being instrumental to the spiritual elevation, it is rendered contributive to the corruption of the best powers of human nature.
It will be unpleasant to dwell upon this topic; it will be necessary to allude to the source of all the mental and moral misery which our flesh is heir to; it will be indispensable to convince many a fond mother, that what was well meant, is not always well done, and strongly to impress upon her mind the fact, that by a mode of proceeding flowing from the most benevolent motives, but which would not have stood the test of a matured judgment, she may entail on her children all that misery, against which it was her only wish to protect them. But if, in going over the ground now before us, we shall have frequent occasion to lament the short-sightedness of some, and the indolence of others, we shall also have occasion to rejoice, that the means by which so much misery may be avoided, and by which a still greater portion of happiness may be secured, are by no means out of the reach of the mother. Indeed, whenever I have met with a mother, who distinguished herself by the care which she gave to the education of her children, and by the success which she obtained, I have always found, that the principles upon which she acted, and the means which she employed, were not the result of a long and difficult search, but rather of a resolution adopted in time, and constantly followed, to do no step without pausing for a moment to reflect: and I have not found, that this led to an over-anxiety on her part or to that state of continual agitation which we sometimes observe preying on the heart of a mother, who is always calculating the remote consequences of trifles, with almost feverish apprehension.
This last mentioned state of the mind, which must mar the cheerfulness of her spirits, so essential for a judicious and effective education, generally ensues upon a prior want of discretion, that may have led to consequences which, in their turn, give rise to needless apprehensions. Nothing, on the contrary, is so well calculated to secure to the mind an imperturbable tranquillity, as a timely exercise of judgment, and a constant habit of reflection.
I know not if philosophers would think it worth their while, but I feel confident that a mother would not decline following us to the consideration of the state in which the infant remains for some time after his birth.
This state, in the first place, strikes us as a state of utter helplessness. The first impression seems to be that of pain, or, at least, of a sensation of uneasiness. There is not yet the slightest circumstance that might remind us of any other faculties, except those of the animal nature of man; and even these are on the very lowest stage of development.
Still there is in this animal nature an instinct which acts with greater security, and which increases in strength as the functions of animal life are repeated, day by day: this animal instinct has been known to make the most rapid progress, and to arrive very early at the highest point of strength and intensity, even when little or no attention has been paid to protect the infant from surrounding dangers, or to strengthen it by more than ordinary nourishment and care. It is a well known fact, that among savage nations the animal powers of children are capable of exertions, and are developing with a rapidity which proves sufficiently that this part of human nature goes altogether parallel with the instinct in the rest of the animal creation.
So striking is this similarity, that we frequently find every attempt to discover any trace of another faculty treated with ridicule. Indeed, while we are assiduous in our attention to that part of human nature in the earliest stage of life, which would require but little of our care, we are but too apt to overlook and to neglect that which in its first appearance is certainly very weak, but which is, by its very weakness, entitled to our care and support, and which may well inspire us with an interest in its development, that will amply reward us for our labours. For, striking as this similarity may be, we can never be justified in overlooking the distinction that exists between the infant, even in the first era of life, and between the animal, which apparently may have made a more rapid progress, and may be far superior in the qualifications which constitute a sound and comfortable state of animal existence.
The animal will forever remain on that point of bodily strength and sagacity, to which its instinct has conducted it so rapidly. For the whole duration of its life, its enjoyments, and exertions, and, if we may say so, its attainments, will remain stationary. It may, through old age, or through unfavourable circumstances, be thrown back; but it will never advance beyond that line of physical perfection, which is attendant on its full growth. A new faculty, or an additional agency of the former ones, is an event unheard of in the natural history of the animal creation.
(It is not the same with man).
In him there is something which will not fail, in due time, of making itself manifest by a series of facts altogether independent of animal life. While the animal is forever actuated by that instinct to which it owes its preservation, and all its powers and enjoyments, a something will assert its right in man, to hold the empire over all his powers; to control the lower part of his nature, and to lead him to those exertions which will secure for him a place in the scale of moral being.
The animal is destined by the Creator to follow the instinct of its nature. Man is destined to follow a higher principle. His animal nature must no longer be permitted to rule him, as soon as his spiritual nature has commenced to unfold.
It will be the object of my next letter to point out to the mother the epoch at which she may expect the first tokens of a spiritual nature in her infant. (PSW 26 p. 68-70)