Logic Taught by Love/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI
REFORM, FALSE AND TRUE

"The God of your fathers will bring you out of bondage."'

The difference between True Reform and mere fashionable quackery can be illustrated by example. In the beginning of the 19th century comparatively few English people learned foreign languages. At last some sensible people thought that it would be well if we in England knew more of the modes of thinking of our French and German neighbours. They made their children learn French and German, really for a reason—in order that the children should be able to converse with foreigners, and to read good books written abroad. That was a real Reform. Next it began to be the fashion to learn French and German. People who had neither the means nor the wish to procure foreign books took to neglecting all sound English education. Many country parents were satisfied with any sort of school in which a girl learned to repeat a few foreign phrases; they considered that proved she was educated in a superior and advanced manner. If such silly parents had been asked why a girl was to be made to pick up a smattering of French in preference to learning to understand English properly, they could not have told; "the gentry make their gals learn French ;" they had no better reason. That is false Reform. There are Jews who are dropping that grand old inheritance, the Hebrew language, in order to get their children taught whatever happens to be in fashion. The Reform they are preparing is that their children will be formed on a lower type than that of their grand-fathers; about that, I think, there can be no sort of question. Re-form should always aim at rise in type. And this gives us the clue by which we can distinguish false Reform from true. A monkey will do anything, for no better reason than that some one else has done it just before; it is the privilege of men to study the memorials of the past, and to preserve them for future generations.

When I was a young girl I knew a farmer, who had in his house one of those old oak chests so much prized by lovers of Art, covered with beautiful carvings of scroll-work and flowers. The carving of one of those chests must have taken some man months, perhaps years, to do; and no one could have done it at all who did not really love his Art. Once done, such a piece of work is a delight to successive generations, and is prized as a family treasure. The farmer's mother became bedridden, and was obliged to hire a housekeeper to manage her house. This woman attended diligently to the dairy and all the practical farm-duties which she understood; but, not being interested in old carvings, she allowed the chest to become clogged with dust, so that the pattern could hardly be seen. One day we called at the farm; the oak chest was missing. In its place there stood a brand-new white box. We asked for the oak chest. "What oak chest?" said the housekeeper. "The one that used to stand in that corner." "Oh! that old thing! Why, he wur that old and shabby and dirty, as I were ashamed to see un; and the worms had got into un; so when the painters were doing up the front o' the house, I just fetched in a pail o' paint and a brush, and I tuk and I gived un a nice coat o' paint; and don't he look a beauty now?" That good woman thought she had made a reform in the house, improved her mistress's property. We all know that she was much mistaken.

Her idea of improvement was a false one. We have not all got old carvings in our possession; but we all have charge of some valuable old things; an old language, old customs, old traditions, old modes of thought which contain the stored-up mental force of our forefathers, old memories, a race-history, and some form or other of old religious faith. And with all these things we can deal rightly, or we can deal with them wrongly. Changes of some sort we must have. We must not keep every kind of old lumber in our houses, or there would not be room for ourselves. We have to live our own lives; and we must not so crowd up the world with memorials of the past as to leave no room for the present. We must sometimes make changes or there could be no progress. Which changes are real Reform, and which are mere foolish fashion? Then, again, just as an old carving left to itself gathers dust and damp and tends to decay, so everything that is old, if left to itself, tends to become obscure and to moulder. Everything needs care to keep it fresh. Much of our progress consists in refreshing or renewing things that have grown dusty with age; the question is, How can this best be done? We have then to study the two questions: What is worth preserving? and:—How to preserve it? And I think that if we give a few moments' attention to considering how the well-meaning servant above referred to came to make such a mistake as she did, and what exactly was the nature of her mistake, it may help us to find our way to some of the great principles by which false Reform ought to be distinguished from true.

First, how came she to make the mistake? Well, probably in some such way as this:—Either she herself or some neighbour, when she was young, lived in a room the walls of which were becoming dirty and brown and scratched. By and by it occurred to somebody to whitewash the walls. And everybody who came in said: "How you have improved the place!" And the woman, then perhaps quite a child, got out of the whole affair just this idea: When something is old, and brown, and dirty, and has little holes in it, the way to improve it is to put on it whitewash. When she was grown up and had charge of her mistress's furniture, she neglected the oak chest because she took no interest in it; but all of a sudden it occurred to her that, if any visitors called, it would look discreditable to have the chest so dirty; she did not care about the carving, but she did not want to be disgraced in the neighbours' eyes. The chest was old, and it was brown, and it had holes and marks in which the dust lodged; and it was dirty. The old idea cropped up in her mind, from mere association, without reflection—"whitewash it, that's the way to improve it." She looked out of the window; there stood a pail of paint just handy, so she took it and did the deed; and in half an hour she had hidden from the sight of his posterity the loving, painstaking labour of a man who was dead and could not rise to interfere. Because somebody else improved a dirty wall with white-wash, she thought she could improve a dirty carving in the same way; because somebody else hid accidental scratches with whitewash, she hid, with paint, marks made by the loving care of a skilled carver.

Now if the woman's own father had carved the chest, if she remembered seeing him, when she was a child, working at it evening after evening, then, after he was dead, when it grew dirty and the dust began to clog the pattern, she would have carefully and lovingly brushed out the dust so as to make the pattern show. But she had not actually seen any one at work on it therefore it never occurred to her to remember that somebody must have thought it worth while to spend time over the doing of it. It never occurred to her that she was blotting out the memory of the carver by destroying his work.

Here, then, is one clear principle by which to judge when to destroy memorials of the past, and how to refresh such as we decide to preserve. We should cultivate "that power of imagination which forms so large a part of the Divine Charity," by learning to think sometimes of our remote ancestors as if they were our immediate parents, and of the ancestors of others as if they were our own. We reverently consign to the fire many things possessed or made by our own parents, which had only a temporary value, rather than leave them littering about for no purpose except to cause annoyance and excite contempt; but we preserve and restore that which, by the exercise of a little care, can be made to have a permanent value and do our parents credit. In the same spirit we should deal with all the work of the past. Our old languages, old customs, old modes of religious observance, are often all that remain to tell us about serious, studious, devout men of long ago. It is easy to forsake old customs for the sake of following new fashions; but the consequence is, that hardly anything then will remain to tell our grandchildren what sort of people their ancestors were. And again, we should try to remember that comparatively little harm is done by the mere mistakes of individuals; all the most grievous mischief is caused by that massing of error which we call "fashion"; the unreasoning copying of what somebody else does without reflecting whether it is a suitable thing for us to do. Doing something new because somebody else did it, is not progress. Imitation without reason is the property of monkeys, not of men. Nothing is more dangerous to social order than the habit of imitating at random unselected examples. A thing may be very real progress when some one person does it for a reason; and the very same thing may be anything but progress if somebody else does it without a reason. We teach little children by imitation, but that is because they are children, because their reasoning powers are dormant. So we let a baby crawl on all fours till it can walk. But then a child has parents, who select what example they choose to put before its eyes, and who protect it from crawling into the worst kinds of mud. The privilege of a grown man is to stand up on his feet and not crawl, and to think for himself what he ought to do, and whom he ought to imitate; and not copy the example of strangers without knowing why.[1]

  1. Given as a lecture at the Jewish Working-Men's Club.