Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 42.djvu/277

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263
EDITOR'S TABLE.

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 

THE FORMATION OF CHARACTER.

IN the preface to his Data of Ethics Mr. Spencer recognized the danger which might be apprehended from a weakening of the authority of existing moral systems before the authority of a more comprehensive and rational system should be established. The caution he thus gave fell, we have no doubt, with grave significance upon many ears. In not a few minds there must be a consciousness of more unsettlement than resettlement of moral ideas and standards; and, if so, it can hardly be that, in some cases at least, moral practice has not been unfavorably affected. Since the Data of Ethics was published, the ferment of thought in the world has been more rapid than ever; and it becomes a question of serious practical import by what means the minds and characters of the present generation, particularly of the younger portion of it, may be fortified against the perils attendant on their intellectual situation.

Let us take the case of a father whose son, brought up more or less in an atmosphere of advanced ideas, is showing a distrust of the traditional supports and sanctions of morality. The duty of the father is plainly to point out that the vitality or worth of a moral principle does not depend on the strength of the fortress which mankind in any age may have built for its defense. The principle is one thing, the wall surrounding it is another. The time must come, we believe, when all moral principles will be left simply to the care of man's enlightened reason, and when that protection will be sufficient. Meantime, as traditional defenses fall into decay, it is well to point out that walls so massive would not have been built unless the consciousness of men had told them that there was something precious to guard. Even the ceremonial observances of society, artificial and overstrained as they may sometimes appear, are the bulwarks of something that is essential to the well-being of men in their social relations. On this point Mr. Spencer, in the second volume of his Principles of Sociology, has well remarked that, "just as the abolition of religious restraints, while yet moral restraints have not grown strong enough, entails increase of misconduct; so, if the observances regulating social intercourse lose their sway faster than the feelings which prompt true politeness develop, there inevitably follows more or less rudeness in behavior and consequent liability to discord."

It is well, therefore, to say to the young, "Gain knowledge fast if you will, but remember that increase of knowledge does not always mean increase of wisdom, and may even result in its impairment if it nourishes an undue self-confidence." The poet Shelley was radical enough, yet even he confessed that the world had more knowledge than it could digest, or, in other words, rightly reduce to practice. If we compare the science of to-day with that of the opening centuries of our era, we find the difference almost immeasurable; but if we compare the wisdom of to-day, as shown in our best moral treatises or as exemplified in the lives of men, with the wisdom of that period as expressed in the works of such writers as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and as embodied in their lives, the difference is far less marked. A man of our time who took his science from Lucretius would wander in gross darkness; but a man who took the treatise On Duties by Cicero, the contemporary of Lucretius, as his guide in moral questions would not be led far astray. This