How swiftly life passes here below! The first quarter of it is gone before we know how to use it; the last quarter finds us incapable of enjoying life. At first we do not know how to live; and when we know how to live it is too late. In the interval between these two useless extremes we waste three-fourths of our time sleeping, working, sorrowing, enduring restraint and every kind of suffering. Life is short, not so much because of the short time it lasts, but because we are allowed scarcely any time to enjoy it. In vain is there a long interval between the hour of death and that of birth; life is still too short, if this interval is not well spent.
We are born, so to speak, twice over; born into existence, and born into life; born a human being, and born a man. Those who regard woman as an imperfect man are no doubt mistaken, but they have external resemblance on their side. Up to the age of puberty children of both sexes have little to distinguish them to the eye, the same face and form, the same complexion and voice, everything is the same; girls are children and boys are children; one name is enough for creatures so closely resembling one another. Males whose development is arrested preserve this resemblance all their lives; they are always big children; and women who never lose this resemblance seem in many respects never to be more than children.
But, speaking generally, man is not meant to remain a child. He leaves childhood behind him at the time ordained by nature; and this critical moment, short enough in itself, has far-reaching consequences.
As the roaring of the waves precedes the tempest, so the murmur of rising passions announces this tumultuous change; a suppressed
excitement warns us of the approaching danger. A change of temper, frequent outbreaks of anger, a perpetual stirring of the mind, make the child almost ungovernable. He becomes deaf to the voice he used to obey; he is a lion in a fever; he distrusts his keeper and refuses to be controlled.
With the moral symptoms of a changing temper there are perceptible changes in appearance. His countenance develops and takes the stamp of his character; the soft and sparse down upon his cheeks becomes darker and stiffer. His voice grows hoarse or rather he loses it altogether. He is neither a child nor a man and cannot speak like either of them. His eyes, those organs of the soul which till now were dumb, find speech and meaning; a kindling fire illumines them, there is still a sacred innocence in their ever brightening glance, but they have lost their first meaningless expression; he is already aware that they can say too much; he is beginning to learn to lower his eyes and blush, he is becoming sensitive, though he does not know what it is that he feels; he is uneasy without knowing why. All this may happen gradually and give you time enough; but if his keenness becomes impatience, his eagerness madness, if he is angry and sorry all in a moment, if he weeps without cause, if in the presence of objects which are beginning to be a source of danger his pulse quickens and his eyes sparkle, if he trembles when a woman’s hand touches his, if he is troubled or timid in her presence, O Ulysses, wise Ulysses! have a care! The passages you closed with so much pains are open; the winds are unloosed; keep your hand upon the helm or all is lost.
This is the second birth I spoke of; then it is that man really enters upon life; henceforth no human passion is a stranger to him. Our efforts so far have been child’s play, now they are of the greatest importance. This period when education is usually finished is just the time to begin; but to explain this new plan properly, let us take up our story where we left it.
Our passions are the chief means of self-preservation; to try to destroy them is therefore as absurd as it is useless; this would be to overcome nature, to reshape God’s handiwork. If God bade man annihilate the passions he has given him, God would bid him be and not be; He would contradict himself. He has never given such a foolish commandment, there is nothing like it written on the heart of man, and what God will have a man do, He does not leave to the words of another man. He speaks Himself; His words are written in the secret heart.
Now I consider those who would prevent the birth of the passions almost as foolish as those who would destroy them, and those who think this has been my object hitherto are greatly mistaken.
But should we reason rightly, if from the fact that passions are natural to man, we inferred that all the passions we feel in ourselves and behold in others are natural? Their source, indeed, is natural; but they have been swollen by a thousand other streams; they are a great river which is constantly growing, one in which we can scarcely find a single drop of the original stream. Our natural passions are few in number; they are the means to freedom, they tend to self-preservation. All those which enslave and destroy us have another source; nature does not bestow them on us; we seize on them in her despite.
The origin of our passions, the root and spring of all the rest, the only one which is born with man, which never leaves him as long as he lives, is self-love; this passion is primitive, instinctive, it precedes all the rest, which are in a sense only modifications of it. In this sense, if you like, they are all natural. But most of these modifications are the result of external influences, without which they would never occur, and such modifications, far from being advantageous to us, are harmful. They change the original purpose and work against its end; then it is that man finds himself
outside nature and at strife with himself.
Self-love is always good, always in accordance with the order of nature. The preservation of our own life is specially entrusted to each one of us, and our first care is, and must be, to watch over our own life; and how can we continually watch over it, if we do not take the greatest interest in it?
Self-preservation requires, therefore, that we shall love ourselves; we must love ourselves above everything, and it follows directly from this that we love what contributes to our preservation. Every child becomes fond of its nurse; Romulus must have loved the she-wolf who suckled him. At first this attachment is quite unconscious; the individual is attracted to that which contributes to his welfare and repelled by that which is harmful; this is merely blind instinct. What transforms this instinct into feeling, the liking into love, the aversion into hatred, is the evident intention of helping or hurting us. We do not become passionately attached to objects without feeling, which only follow the direction given them; but those from which we expect benefit or injury from their internal disposition, from their will, those we see acting freely for or against us, inspire us with like feelings to those they exhibit towards us. Something does us good, we seek after it; but we love the person who does us good; something harms us and we shrink from it, but we hate the person who tries to hurt us.
The child’s first sentiment is self-love, his second, which is derived from it, is love of those about him; for in his present state of weakness he is only aware of people through the help and attention received from them. At first his affection for his nurse and his governess is mere habit. He seeks them because he needs them and because he is happy when they are there; it is rather perception than kindly feeling. It takes a long time to discover not merely that they are useful to him, but that they desire to be useful to him, and then it is that he begins to love them.
So a child is naturally disposed to kindly feeling because he sees that every one about him is inclined to help him, and from this experience he gets the habit of a kindly feeling towards his species; but with the expansion of his relations, his needs, his dependence, active or passive, the consciousness of his relations to others is awakened, and leads to the sense of duties and preferences. Then the child becomes masterful, jealous, deceitful, and vindictive. If he is not compelled to obedience, when he does not see the usefulness of what he is told to do, he attributes it to caprice, to an intention of tormenting him, and he rebels. If people give in to him, as soon as anything opposes him he regards it as rebellion, as a determination to resist him; he beats the chair or table for disobeying him. Self-love, which concerns itself only with ourselves, is content to satisfy our own needs; but selfishness, which is always comparing self with others, is never satisfied and never can be; for this feeling, which prefers ourselves to others, requires that they should prefer us to themselves, which is impossible. Thus the tender and gentle passions spring from self-love, while the hateful and angry passions spring from selfishness. So it is the fewness of his needs, the narrow limits within which he can compare himself with others, that makes a man really good; what makes him really bad is a multiplicity of needs and dependence on the opinions of others. It is easy to see how we can apply this principle and guide every passion of children and men towards good or evil. True, man cannot always live alone, and it will be hard therefore to remain good; and this difficulty will increase of necessity as his relations with others are extended. For this reason, above all, the dangers of social life demand that the necessary skill and care shall be devoted to guarding the human heart against the depravity which springs from fresh needs.
Man’s proper study is that of his relation to his environment. So long as he only knows that environment through his physical
nature, he should study himself in relation to things; this is the business of his childhood; when he begins to be aware of his moral nature, he should study himself in relation to his fellow-men; this is the business of his whole life, and we have now reached the time when that study should be begun.
As soon as a man needs a companion he is no longer an isolated creature, his heart is no longer alone. All his relations with his species, all the affections of his heart, come into being along with this. His first passion soon arouses the rest.
The direction of the instinct is uncertain. One sex is attracted by the other; that is the impulse of nature. Choice, preferences, individual likings, are the work of reason, prejudice, and habit; time and knowledge are required to make us capable of love; we do not love without reasoning or prefer without comparison. These judgments are none the less real, although they are formed unconsciously. True love, whatever you may say, will always be held in honour by mankind; for although its impulses lead us astray, although it does not bar the door of the heart to certain detestable qualities, although it even gives rise to these, yet it always presupposes certain worthy characteristics, without which we should be incapable of love. This choice, which is supposed to be contrary to reason, really springs from reason. We say Love is blind because his eyes are better than ours, and he perceives relations which we cannot discern. All women would be alike to a man who had no idea of virtue or beauty, and the first comer would always be the most charming. Love does not spring from nature, far from it; it is the curb and law of her desires; it is love that makes one sex indifferent to the other, the loved one alone excepted.
We wish to inspire the preference we feel; love must be mutual. To be loved we must be worthy of love; to be preferred we must be more worthy than the rest, at least in the eyes of our beloved.
Hence we begin to look around among our fellows; we begin to compare ourselves with them, there is emulation, rivalry, and jealousy. A heart full to overflowing loves to make itself known; from the need of a mistress there soon springs the need of a friend. He who feels how sweet it is to be loved, desires to be loved by everybody; and there could be no preferences if there were not many that fail to find satisfaction. With love and friendship there begin dissensions, enmity, and hatred. I behold deference to other people’s opinions enthroned among all these divers passions, and foolish mortals, enslaved by her power, base their very existence merely on what other people think.
Expand these ideas and you will see where we get that form of selfishness which we call natural selfishness, and how selfishness ceases to be a simple feeling and becomes pride in great minds, vanity in little ones, and in both feeds continually at our neighbour’s cost. Passions of this kind, not having any germ in the child’s heart, cannot spring up in it of themselves; it is we who sow the seeds, and they never take root unless by our fault. Not so with the young man; they will find an entrance in spite of us. It is therefore time to change our methods.
Let us begin with some considerations of importance with regard to the critical stage under discussion. The change from childhood to puberty is not so clearly determined by nature but that it varies according to individual temperament and racial conditions. Everybody knows the differences which have been observed with regard to this between hot and cold countries, and every one sees that ardent temperaments mature earlier than others; but we may be mistaken as to the causes, and we may often attribute to physical causes what is really due to moral: this is one of the commonest errors in the philosophy of our times. The teaching of nature comes slowly; man’s lessons are mostly premature. In the former case, the senses kindle the imagination, in the
latter the imagination kindles the senses; it gives them a precocious activity which cannot fail to enervate the individual and, in the long run, the race. It is a more general and more trustworthy fact than that of climatic influences, that puberty and sexual power is always more precocious among educated and civilised races, than among the ignorant and barbarous. [Footnote: “In towns,” says M. Buffon, “and among the well-to-do classes, children accustomed to plentiful and nourishing food sooner reach this state; in the country and among the poor, children are more backward, because of their poor and scanty food.” I admit the fact but not the explanation, for in the districts where the food of the villagers is plentiful and good, as in the Valais and even in some of the mountain districts of Italy, such as Friuli, the age of puberty for both sexes is quite as much later than in the heart of the towns, where, in order to gratify their vanity, people are often extremely parsimonious in the matter of food, and where most people, in the words of the proverb, have a velvet coat and an empty belly. It is astonishing to find in these mountainous regions big lads as strong as a man with shrill voices and smooth chins, and tall girls, well developed in other respects, without any trace of the periodic functions of their sex. This difference is, in my opinion, solely due to the fact that in the simplicity of their manners the imagination remains calm and peaceful, and does not stir the blood till much later, and thus their temperament is much less precocious.] Children are preternaturally quick to discern immoral habits under the cloak of decency with which they are concealed. The prim speech imposed upon them, the lessons in good behaviour, the veil of mystery you profess to hang before their eyes, serve but to stimulate their curiosity. It is plain, from the way you set about it, that they are meant to learn what you profess to conceal; and of all you teach them this is most quickly assimilated.
Consult experience and you will find how far this foolish
method hastens the work of nature and ruins the character. This is one of the chief causes of physical degeneration in our towns. The young people, prematurely exhausted, remain small, puny, and misshapen, they grow old instead of growing up, like a vine forced to bear fruit in spring, which fades and dies before autumn.
To know how far a happy ignorance may prolong the innocence of children, you must live among rude and simple people. It is a sight both touching and amusing to see both sexes, left to the protection of their own hearts, continuing the sports of childhood in the flower of youth and beauty, showing by their very familiarity the purity of their pleasures. When at length those delightful young people marry, they bestow on each other the first fruits of their person, and are all the dearer therefore. Swarms of strong and healthy children are the pledges of a union which nothing can change, and the fruit of the virtue of their early years.
If the age at which a man becomes conscious of his sex is deferred as much by the effects of education as by the action of nature, it follows that this age may be hastened or retarded according to the way in which the child is brought up; and if the body gains or loses strength in proportion as its development is accelerated or retarded, it also follows that the more we try to retard it the stronger and more vigorous will the young man be. I am still speaking of purely physical consequences; you will soon see that this is not all.
From these considerations I arrive at the solution of the question so often discussed—Should we enlighten children at an early period as to the objects of their curiosity, or is it better to put them off with decent shams? I think we need do neither. In the first place, this curiosity will not arise unless we give it a chance. We must therefore take care not to give it an opportunity. In the next place, questions one is not obliged to answer do not compel us to deceive those who ask them; it is better to bid the child hold his
tongue than to tell him a lie. He will not be greatly surprised at this treatment if you have already accustomed him to it in matters of no importance. Lastly, if you decide to answer his questions, let it be with the greatest plainness, without mystery or confusion, without a smile. It is much less dangerous to satisfy a child’s curiosity than to stimulate it.
Let your answers be always grave, brief, decided, and without trace of hesitation. I need not add that they should be true. We cannot teach children the danger of telling lies to men without realising, on the man’s part, the danger of telling lies to children. A single untruth on the part of the master will destroy the results of his education.
Complete ignorance with regard to certain matters is perhaps the best thing for children; but let them learn very early what it is impossible to conceal from them permanently. Either their curiosity must never be aroused, or it must be satisfied before the age when it becomes a source of danger. Your conduct towards your pupil in this respect depends greatly on his individual circumstances, the society in which he moves, the position in which he may find himself, etc. Nothing must be left to chance; and if you are not sure of keeping him in ignorance of the difference between the sexes till he is sixteen, take care you teach him before he is ten.
I do not like people to be too fastidious in speaking with children, nor should they go out of their way to avoid calling a spade a spade; they are always found out if they do. Good manners in this respect are always perfectly simple; but an imagination soiled by vice makes the ear over-sensitive and compels us to be constantly refining our expressions. Plain words do not matter; it is lascivious ideas which must be avoided.
Although modesty is natural to man, it is not natural to children. Modesty only begins with the knowledge of evil; and how
should children without this knowledge of evil have the feeling which results from it? To give them lessons in modesty and good conduct is to teach them that there are things shameful and wicked, and to give them a secret wish to know what these things are. Sooner or later they will find out, and the first spark which touches the imagination will certainly hasten the awakening of the senses. Blushes are the sign of guilt; true innocence is ashamed of nothing.
Children have not the same desires as men; but they are subject like them to the same disagreeable needs which offend the senses, and by this means they may receive the same lessons in propriety. Follow the mind of nature which has located in the same place the organs of secret pleasures and those of disgusting needs; she teaches us the same precautions at different ages, sometimes by means of one idea and sometimes by another; to the man through modesty, to the child through cleanliness.
I can only find one satisfactory way of preserving the child’s innocence, to surround him by those who respect and love him. Without this all our efforts to keep him in ignorance fail sooner or later; a smile, a wink, a careless gesture tells him all we sought to hide; it is enough to teach him to perceive that there is something we want to hide from him. The delicate phrases and expressions employed by persons of politeness assume a knowledge which children ought not to possess, and they are quite out of place with them, but when we truly respect the child’s innocence we easily find in talking to him the simple phrases which befit him. There is a certain directness of speech which is suitable and pleasing to innocence; this is the right tone to adopt in order to turn the child from dangerous curiosity. By speaking simply to him about everything you do not let him suspect there is anything left unsaid. By connecting coarse words with the unpleasant ideas which belong to them, you quench the first spark of imagination; you do not
forbid the child t...