Letter XVII. January 7, 1819
My dear Greaves,
I am anxious to elucidate some statements of a preceding letter concerning the early practice of selfdenial. Allow me, for this purpose, to resume the subject of my last; and if I shall appear to have dwelt too long on a favourite theme, or to have recurred to it too often, may I hope that you will ascribe this circumstance, at least, not (solely) to the loquaciousness of old age but also to my conviction of the vital importance of the subject. The more I have seen of the mental and moral misery under which thousands of our fellow-creatures are suffering; the more frequently I have observed the wealth without content, the splendour without happiness, among the higher classes; the closer I have investigated into the first springs of those mighty convulsions which have shaken the world and made even our peaceful valleys ring with the shouts of war, and with the wailing of despair; the more have I been confirmed in the view that the immediate causes of all this, and of much misery that yet remains unmentioned, have arisen from an undue superiority which the desires of the lower nature of Man have assumed over the energies of the mind, and the better affections of the heart. And I cannot see any remedy placed within the reach of human power, to check the further progress of this misery and the ulterior demoralisation of our race, but the early influence of mothers, to break, by firmness, the increasing power of animal selfishness, and to overcome it by affection. This is the end to which I would wish the practice of selfdenial to contribute. For this reason I insist on the circumspection to be employed by mothers in controlling the cravings of infants.
For this reason I would again and again request the mother to be watchful in her care, to do all in her power, and to do it with cheerfulness, that none of its real wants may rest unattended to. For it is not only her duty to do so in order to provide for the physical well-being of the child; but a neglect of this duty is to be still more anxiously avoided, because it might cast a shadow on her own affection and provoke, if not doubts, at least a feeling of uneasiness which might afterwards lead to them.
But for this same reason I would entreat a mother to be constantly on her guard against her own weakness; never to indulge the appetite of the child with what be stimulating to further desire, or what is, at best, superfluous; and never to encourage importunity.
What I call weakness she may perhaps call affection. But let her be persuaded that the character of true affection is far different. The affection for which she would plead is merely animal: it is a feeling for which she cannot account, and which she cannot resist. It may become to her also the basis of a more elevated feeling; of spiritualised maternal love. But, to experience the latter, she must have opened her own heart to the influence of spiritual views and principles. She must herself know to bear and forbear, to resign and be humble. She must know a higher object of her wishes, a purer source of enjoyment than present gratification. She must weigh the experience of the past, and ponder the duties of the future. Her own interest, and her own desires, must not interfere with more momentous obligations, or weaken her attachment and her zeal for the welfare of others. Her affections must not be centered in self; her wishes and her hopes must not be limited to the things of this world. (What is born of the flesh must perish.) If such be her affection for her child, it will die away before she is able to do anything for its real interest. But if her affection is of a higher origin, if its efforts bear the stamp of a calm, a mild, and conscientious spirit, it will enable her to conquer her own weakness and to elevate, by a judicious control, the rising emotions of her infant.
To those who have not had an opportunity of observing it frequently, it is impossible to form an idea of the rapidity and eagerness with which the animal instinct is increasing, if left to itself, without the salutary check of maternal influence. (But the increase, by the fear of punishment, can only tend to make the evil worse). The mere act of forbidding is a strong excitement to desire. Fear can never act as a moral restraint; it can only act as a stimulus to the physical appetite, and exasperate and alienate the mind.
This then is gained by severity. Its consequences are, no doubt, as mischievous as those of indulgence. Against an excess of both, I can only repeat the recommendation of (affection and firmness.)
From these two guiding principles the mother will derive the satisfaction to see that, when her infant, from an inability to understand her motives, cannot yet respect her as a wise mother, it will, for the kindness of her manner, obey her as a loving mother. (PSW 26, p. 88-90)