Typos p. 43: Wordworthian [= Wordsworthian]; p. 43: Macshiavelli [= Macchiavelli]; p. 44: Macshiavelli's [= Macchiavelli's]; p. 46: attitutde [= attitude]; p. 48: Imanuel [= Immanuel]; p. 54: futher [= further]
The Graver Consequences of the Wordsworthian Standpoint.
We have seen the dilemma of the faithful, and a baffling one it was too! For they had to choose between rejecting Jesus's views on children as inconsistent with the facts, whereby they risked the destruction of his divine prestige, and accepting his views, which meant they must forget their own childhood and be blind to the nature of the children about them.
We have seen how the great majority make their choice. They retain the popular and traditional conception of the Kingdom of Heaven, peopled by the morally unblemished, or the blemished wholly cleansed, accept Matthew XIX, 14, as axiomatic and, throughout their lives, cherish a wholly false picture of their own children and children in general. This position is, as a rule, strengthened by their forgetting their own childhood and how they saw other, children behave in the course of it, and by failing, as adults, accurately to observe the children about them.
Thus, when Miss Susan Isaacs writes in Social Development in Children (p. 404): "Everyone will remember the shock and horror with which the public mind reacted to the idea that little children have sexual desires" (to mention only one aspect of them not allowed for in the Wordsworthian generalization), what she implies, but does not state, is that the general public, having forgotten their own childhood and the children who were then their contemporaries, and having as adults inaccurately observed little children, were able to accept Matthew XIX. 14, without question, and were therefore painfully surprised to learn that the facts did not bear it out.
But what else could we reasonably expect? If the world starts out with a false standard about anything, not necessarily merely about children, it courts a rude awakening when reality turns out to be something utterly different. It is then prone to regard the apparent deviation not as the norm, but as a monstrous exception to it.
When, however, this mistake is made with children, as it is now made as often as the child of uninformed parents departs from heavenly standards, think, of the injustice to the child in question! In this respect alone it is probably true to say that more pain and misery have been caused both to parents and children by the initial error of measuring childhood nature with a faulty yardstick than by any other misunderstanding that has arisen through Jesus's teaching on the subject.
And yet there can be little doubt that for generations in Europe, especially England, and North America, the caricature of child character which we find in Wordsworth has dominated not only the ordinary adult's thought and action but also those of the priest, the author and the pedagogue.
It may have struck the reader that I consistently implicate the people of the U.S.A. with the English in the charge of falsifying child nature on the basis of Jesus's dictum. I do so because there is abundant evidence that they are equally guilty of it. We have only to read Longfellow's Children, or his Children of the Lord's Supper, or Whittier's Child-Songs to
Besides, did not the sage, Emerson, in 1836, declare that "Infancy is the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men and pleads with them to return to Paradise?" (Chap. VIII of Nature).
Written thirty years after Wordsworth's Ode, these lines might pass as a précis of it, and abundantly bear out my contention that the Anglo-Saxon world as a whole is particularly prone to the sentiments they express.
But, owing to the traditional pecuniary prestige of these countries, there has been much imitation of them abroad. For, to the majority, pecuniary prestige is always the object of deep admiration, and he who admires usually imitates. Thus, we get the Swiss poet, H. F. Amiel, whose opportunities of contemplating Anglo-Saxon pecuniary prestige must have been exceptional, writing of the child: "Le peu de paradis que nous apercevons encore sur la terre est dû à sa présence" (Fragments d'un Journal Intime, Vol. ii. p. 52). Whilst Rousseau, who was an infidel, displayed, despite his French blood and his anti-Christian views, a similar romanticism. He believed, for instance, that Man is born good. Like most other "free" thinkers, whose revolt against the Church makes them break with many of the wisest traditions of that body, he speaks of children as "ces petits innocents," and of the child's "aimable instinct," which is rendered unamiable only by adult interference and influence. With singular blindness, he also speaks of the child's soul as "toujours en paix." He is in fact Wordsworthian in his outlook.
It is, of course, an anachronism to suggest that Rousseau took the Wordsworthian view of childhood, for he published Emile, in which the above sentiments appear, in 1762. The truth is that he and Wordsworth (the former unwittingly)
This brings me, though only for a brief moment, to the consideration of those other consequences of the Wordsworthian standpoint unconnected directly with child life.
The most important is undoubtedly found in the sphere of politics where, if proper and adequate provision is to be made for both domestic and foreign relations, an accurate estimate of the nature of the average man is quintessential. As the German Jesuit, Friedrich Muckermann, declared some seventeen years ago, "In discussing how men should be governed, it cannot be a matter of indifference whether we hold human nature to be radically bad, as Luther did, or radically good, as Rousseau maintained."
But what do we actually find?
Certainly among Liberal politicians and political theorists, as also in the schemes and programmes of the Socialists, we everywhere encounter the determination to frame policies and to legislate on the hasty and superficial assumption that Rousseau was right. No attempt is first made to justify Rousseau by a careful examination of the data, or by an assiduous study of human psychology. It is assumed off-hand, presumably because the assumption pleases, that Man is born good. And this position which, wherever it is widely held, has led and is still leading to indescribable governmental blundering in every department and relation of the national life, naturally ends in awakenings as rude and as nightmarish as does the false estimate of children from which it springs.
Nor, since women have been admitted to the Council Chamber, has the position been shaken. On the contrary! For women, especially in England and the U.S.A., are usually predestined Wordsworthians. In the sequel I shall have occasion to show why this is so.
Thus, in all countries where the Liberal and Socialist standpoint prevails, it is assumed, as Rousseau assumed, that
Wherever the extreme desiderata of the Socialists have been realized, what do we find? Are equality, fraternity and liberty established? Is exploitation of man by man abolished? Are cruelty, oppression, slavery and suffering unknown?
Owing to the inevitable and utter breakdown of the various ideal schemes for establishing a society enjoying economic and social equality, fraternity and liberty, we find, where such schemes have been implemented, a tyranny and a degree of servitude, misery and suffering which surpasses anything of the kind ever witnessed in societies organized on non-Socialist lines. Despite all plans to the contrary, we see a ruling elite gradually forming and, owing to the fundamental will to power in men, establishing itself regardless of the ideology at the root of the Socialist reforms effected. We find the same old evils of a purely competitive regime reappearing, though perhaps under guises and names more difficult than ever to attack and remove.
The older Socialist dreamers men like Robert Owen, Proudhon, Marx, Engels and Lassalle, would probably be as deeply shocked to see their principles culminating in such
But if men will start from false premises, they must expect these harrowing disappointments.
I have not forgotten that educational institutions, including reformatories and homes for the wayward, are now among the more important features of an environment presided over by every civilized government with a social conscience. I agree that some improvement is visible here. If, however, that part of modern environment covered by educational institutions is "improved" on the basis of a false estimate of the nature of man, even the most painstaking and benevolent measures will not carry us far. For education, re-education, reform training, etc. and the methods adopted in providing them must, if they are to prove effective, be based, like sound government, on an accurate reading of the average man's nature.
More realistic and, therefore, less acceptable to Modern Thought and modern taste, was the attitude of Macchiavelli who nursed no illusions either about children or about the nature of Man, for he said: "They who lay the foundations of the State and furnish it with laws must, as is shown by all who have treated of civil government [not all, by any means, Signer!] and by examples of which history is full, assume that all men are bad, and will always, when they have free field, give loose to their evil inclinations." (Discorsi. Book I. Ch. 3. translated by Ninian Hill Thompson.)
Although this is much closer to Browning and the New Psychology not to mention the traditional wisdom of the Church than Rousseau's "Man is born good," I would not deny that, between Rousseau and Macshiavelli, a compromise might perhaps be found. But I submit that, of the two, Macchiavelli was nearer the truth. For even if we take account of no more than that accursed will to ascendancy, or will to power, which all penetrating psychologists, from Aristotle to Nietzsche and Adler, have recognized as the
At all events, it is lamentable to reflect that we should not yet, at this late hour, have progressed beyond these two extremes Rousseau's and Macshiavelli's estimates of Man; for it indicates that, in spite of all our "planning" for the future, and all the good intentions behind it, we are still groping in the dark, and are no nearer than we were at the beginning of our era to that essential foundation of good government an accurate understanding of the nature of Man.
Indeed, to read some of the speeches of our politicians, and to hear either Labour or Conservative Ministers report on Conferences and negotiations with foreign Powers, is daily to be reminded of the chasm still separating our would-be statesmen from that prerequisite of sound and sane government which Macchiavelli formulated.
Only the other day (23.12.46) I was reading a speech by our Foreign Minister, Mr. Bevin, in which the following passage occurred: "We [Great Britain] hold out the hand of friendship and co-operation to all, for we believe profoundly that such friendship and co-operation between the Great Powers is the surest basis on which to build peace for all time,"
N.B. These are the words of a man who makes no special claim to prophetic vision, and would hardly rouse more than amusement if he did. Nor am I aware of any evidence pointing to his having tried to discover the true nature of Man. Yet he can speak of building "peace for all time" on "friendship and co-operation." Who is heartened by this kind of unauthoritative estimate of human behaviour in the future?
He goes on: "Do not be impatient. This time we may be building slowly, straining for perfection. The peacemakers
Is there anybody who attaches any value whatsoever to this kind of talk?
Continuing, he says: "Can anyone believe that if the five Powers live in concert and harmony and are helped by the smaller Powers who are contributing their energies and their hope, war is possible at all?"
After swallowing our tears, we might ask: "Can anyone believe that, if all men and women were constant and steadfast, divorce would be possible at all?"
Nearing the end of his speech he says: "I believe we have entered the first stage of establishing concord and harmony between the Great Powers."
One would like to know whether Mr. Bevin was satisfied that we have established concord and harmony between the people of his own nation, even in their homes, before he cast his sentimental vision so far afield.
Now, it is this kind of loose and psychologically uninformed thinking and speaking on both sides of the House of Commons and outside it, which reveals the basic and incurable romanticism of Anglo-Saxon politics. And I submit that a great deal of it is due to the persistent falsification and misreading of Man's true nature, which lies at the root of English and American upbringing.
I regard the above quoted sentiments from Mr. Bevin's speech as dangerous because they bear no relation to reality, and they have no such relation because they are rooted in unverified and unverifiable premises.
Pending the establishment of more satisfactory, because more realistic, ideas about the nature of Man, and no matter how the problem may ultimately be solved, it seems safe, even now, to maintain that we are bound to go seriously wrong in our national policies, as also in our treatment of the young, so long as we pursue in our politics ideals based on the assumption that Man is born good, or which is the
I do not propose, in this book, to say any more about the wider consequences of this belief. My present task is to investigate further its effect upon children themselves and their education, and hence upon the whole of the adult population which, every generation, takes over the management of world affairs in countries accepting the Wordsworthian standpoint.
The French have a proverb which will serve me in good stead to introduce my main theme. They say, "on ne fait pas d'omelette sans casser des oeufs." It sounds as platitudinous as any proverb well can. But, in the context in which it is applied, it has a profound bearing on my subject. For we have only to imagine a community in which eggs are venerated to the point of worship, in order to appreciate the serious complications that might quickly arise if some tourist, entering its precincts, were tactlessly to order an omelette for lunch.
If such an egg-venerating community at all resembled our latter-day "freedom-loving" peoples, the chances are that he would be lynched out of hand.
On the principle of this French proverb, it seems clear that we could hardly hope to build up a society of tolerable adults if our attitude to children were anything like that of the above-mentioned community towards eggs. And it is here we touch upon the crux of the whole problem of modern parenthood and child-education.
The question is, does our attitutde to children, as implicitly enjoined in Matthew XIX. 14, differ so very much from that of our hypothetical egg-venerating community towards eggs? If it does not, then a good many of our present difficulties with children, and much of our present muddle in our educational theories, our theories of reform and, above all, our theories of control, may easily be explained.
The majority will be inclined to withhold an influence, a touch, a demonstration of will or control which they feel is corrupt, as against a creature who, but for the accident of incarnation on this earth, would still be in Heaven consorting with angels.
This may be an extreme statement of the actual state of affairs. But allowing for a certain amount of variation it is not too inaccurate to serve as a guide to our thought on the subject. For we have constantly to bear in mind that, to the average adult of Western civilization, the constellation of ideas clustering round the child are, by training and fashion, all of a reverential kind.
Only if indignation, exasperation and rage over some shocking departure from angelic character makes such an adult forget for a moment the moral prestige of the child, will he or she summon the resolution and, above all, acquire the clean conscience to attempt high-handed correction. And then it will usually be imposed in haste, with violence and probably in fact usually with undue severity. For the emotional momentum needed to overcome the sense of moral inferiority will tend to flow over into the act of correction itself and, to that extent, it will be irrational. But even storms of this kind, regrettable as they must be, are likely to be rare, if the sense of moral inferiority to the child is profound. Besides, there are other factors which usually have a share in discharging an explosive act of this kind, especially when the adult in the scene is also the parent. But of this anon.
Now I find few thinkers of the past aware of the forces involved in this brief and highly simplified sketch of the
As long ago as 1796, he published an important essay Ueber Naïve und Sentimentalische Dichtung in which he showed clearly the nature of the adult educator's dilemma regarding the child in modern Christendom. He demonstrated how the excessive reverence for Nature in comparatively recent times, like the excessive veneration of the child, has arisen, not from any aesthetic or intelligent appreciation of either, but from a moral estimate of the respective worth of child and adult, and from a sense of the "incorrupt" state of both children and of objects in Nature, as compared with the corruption and turpitude of their adult human beholder.
Schiller even goes so far as to say that the adult's feelings in the presence of the child are and must be "humiliating" (demüthigend). Thus he saw the full consequences of the Wordsworthian standpoint ten years before Wordsworth's Ode was published. Like Wordsworth, he looked on the child as "innocent," and was far from giving the word the Augustinian interpretation. It is strange, however, that with all his dazzling clarity, he failed to notice the pedagogic and generally educational implications of his discovery. For it is with these that the state of affairs he so ably analyses plays the worst havoc.
As I have already pointed out, it requires a certain niaiserie to regard the average civilized man as morally inferior to the child. For he is obviously in every respect, despite all his "dirty secrets," the child's moral and general
But, if it requires a certain niaiserie to regard the average civilized man as the moral inferior of the child, it requires a degree of obtuseness bordering on mental defect to look on the average civilized man as corrupt relative to Nature herself. For Nature is not only "red in tooth and claw," she is black with duplicity, falsehood, deception and the cynical contempt of justice and fair-play. Hers is the realm of heartless, bullying monsters. From the larger carnivora to the cat, the cormorant and the otter; from the camouflage of her creatures that masquerade as inanimate objects, or whose coats make them invisible to their prey, down to the amphibians and insects who pass themselves off as twigs, leaves, harmless fellow-insects, or else as excreta, there is not a diabolical device with which Nature has not anticipated the cunning and callousness of our burglars, thugs, sadists and murderers.
Is the exaltation of Nature a niaiserie particulièrement Anglo-Saxone? Certainly the monotony of Nature themes in English poetry, and the way the English poet and reader of poetry hardly judge a line of verse as poetical unless it relates to some aspect of Nature, rather point to this conclusion. But Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia have a good slice of it, too.
Eliza Cook's The Worship of Nature, by no means written with any malicious or satirical intent, describes the attitude very accurately, and the antepenultimate and ultimate stanzas of this poem put the whole mood in a nutshell:
"They forgot the warrior's noble rank,
And cost of the guarded gem;
And the girth of the old beech stem.
"'Tis thus Man turns from crown and kings
To the sunlight and the sod.
And yearns with instinct to the things
That tell the most of God!"
Yes, but as Schopenhauer pointed out over a century ago, only if we forget the life of the creatures in the thicket and the long grass, and the struggle of the vegetation itself, can Nature be contemplated in this way.
The belief that Nature's products, as coming, like little children, straight from the hand of God himself, must be better than we are is so deeply rooted in the mind of the north western European (or is it the mind of the Nordic?), that, provided they pander to this belief, the gravest errors not only pass unnoticed by most readers in the areas he inhabits, but often also increase his appreciation of the works containing them.
A conspicuous example occurs to me as I write. In Axel Munthe's San Michele, a book which went into countless editions in England alone, the author declares "animals cannot tell lies."
This is the sort of statement which is constantly being made by Nature and Child adulators, and reveals their conviction concerning the moral prestige of both. But its utter falseness, far from discrediting Munthe as an observer and thinker, probably contributed greatly to his popularity. For it says what most modern people prefer to believe.
Now I yield to nobody in my love of dogs and cats, and have kept them continuously throughout my married life. But I cheerfully acknowledge that both animals can be the most barefaced liars if they see that any advantage is to be gained by falsehood. Not one of mine has been any exception to this rule. It would constitute too lengthy a digression here.
But, if we are predisposed in favour of the myth of Nature's and the child's moral superiority over the average civilized adult, such experiences as I have consistently had with cats and dogs, and such as I and others have consistently had with children, must not be mentioned. The upholders of Modern Thought love you more if you say, "animals cannot tell lies," and children are "sweet innocents."
Deeply rooted prejudices of this kind are hard to uproot, and so far as I have been able to judge the matter, among the majority in all classes in this country to-day, the attitude to both Nature and children is more or less as Schiller described it a hundred and fifty years ago.
This explains why most modern people, no matter what their aesthetic endowments or training may be, are convinced that they can earn approval and esteem, and acquire moral prestige, by publicly, or at least openly, professing on all suitable occasions to admire natural scenery, trees, "sky-effects," sunsets, flowers, etc. Such behaviour is now as much de rigueur as standing to the strains of the National Anthem. The most vulgar of moderns, whose "ignorant literacy" has not prevented them from acquiring material success and the car that advertizes it, will feel it incumbent upon them, when parking their vehicle in a lane or a wooded track, to pass some perfunctory comment on the beauty of the rural scene, or some aspect of it. They owe it to themselves to admire the view.
For exclamations of wonder and ecstasy at some phenomenon of Nature tend to identify those who utter them with the phenomenon in question. They feel "nicer" for having thus expressed themselves, and are persuaded that their companions think them so. They could not, of course,
We can now also understand the self-satisfied assurance, the aggressive self-righteousness, with which adults, both here and on the far side of the Atlantic, display their feelings of humble veneration towards children, especially if other adults are at hand whom it is desirable to impress favourably.
This too has become a convention, rooted in the anxiety to be associated with moral prestige. Besides, such behaviour has the loftiest possible warrant! It would, therefore, be superficial, not to say inaccurate, to infer from such antics that they arise from a genuine love of children as such, least of all from a genuine concern about their welfare. They are, rather, self-seeking and self-gratifying acts, calculated to bring feelings of warm self-approval to him or her who performs them, and to draw upon him or her the expected approval of onlookers, regardless of their effect on the child.
Indeed, as things are, this can hardly fail to be so. For, once again, the display of admiration or reverential wonder in the presence of anything suggests a relation to it of sympathy, understanding, proximity, almost kinship. And, since the child is assumed to be morally superior, it reflects well upon the average adult to identify himself or herself with the child by an appreciation which darkly hints at a oneness with it.
Summing up, therefore, the gravamen of the charge I make against this attitude and the background of superstition behind it, is that the adults of the nation or nations that adopt it are, by virtue of it, partially disabled or paralysed for the most important function it is their duty to perform in respect of the children in their midst, which is to control and guide them. And it is this that constitutes the most serious
The fact that, as we shall see, this partial paralysis of the adult vis-à-vis of the child, combined with the self-importance induced in every child by our culture, does lead to a good many of our present difficulties with children, as also with the grown-up children who compose our adult population, is obvious to a good many competent psychologists. Because it is well known to mention only one aspect of our present plight that most of the psychological maladjustments of adults are the result of a failure through faulty education to have overcome, outlived, or otherwise divested themselves of childlike traits.
A third grave consequence of the Wordsworthian standpoint arises out of the shock and disillusionment produced in the average adult who holds it when, as parent or educator, he or she is confronted with a particularly distressing departure from "innocent" behaviour in any child or children in his or her charge. I have already hinted at this and suggested that the violent reaction provoked in the adult in such circumstances is prone to lead to an exorbitantly severe handling of the situation. This is more or less inevitable, and I have little doubt that most of the cases of excessive violence and even of gross cruelly towards children, especially among the ignorant and illiterate, are the outcome of this
But, so far, it cannot be said that the recognition of this artificially induced paralysis and its cognate evils, or the appreciation of the grave consequences of sudden and complete disillusionment in the adult, have instigated any concerted drive against the fundamental principles which cause them, and this in spite of our now being in possession of all the necessary weapons with which to attack these principles and prove them both false and dangerous.
Is it possible that the fundamental principles in question are felt to derive from a source too sacred to be openly assailed?
It must be admitted that the powerful attack indirectly made upon them by those who expounded or popularized the evolutionary hypothesis Herbert Spencer above all had hardly any effect whatsoever. It was only with the advent of the New Psychology that views opposed to the Wordsworthian attitude began to make headway, though still only in restricted circles. Indeed, to judge from popular fiction, the impact upon the public mind of the facts established by modern psychology has been surprisingly slight. Among the few authors in whose works we certainly see their influence on the portrayal of children, or in whom we detect an abatement of that maudlin adulation still displayed by the majority, names like those of the genius E. M. Delafield, and of a lesser light such as May Sinclair, occur to us instantly. But their number is not great. Nor, from what I gather, is E. M. Delafield, for instance, too popular.
On the other hand, in some quarters, the New Psychology itself has been inexpertly used to promote even futher the emancipation of children from adult control on, as it were, "scientific" grounds, divorced from all suspicion of sentiment and prejudice. The line of argument adopted is to stress the pernicious effects of what Freud calls "repressions."
It is true that the more enlightened and more expert exponents of the New Psychology authorities like Aichhorn, Susan Isaacs, C. W. Valentine, and Anna Freud for instance heartily condemn and reject it and declare it to be not only nonsense, but also inconsistent with the true doctrines of the system of psychology on which it claims to be based. Seeing, however, that, as I suspect, it is probably due to a hang-over in its more or less wishful thinking exponents of the old Wordsworthian influence, coupled with an inadequate understanding of the great modern psychologists, it appears to be stubbornly entrenched.