Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/August 1881/Physical Education VIII

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"Mirth is a remedy."—Thomas Hobbes.

HAPPINESS is the normal condition of every living creature, for in a state of nature every normal function is connected with a pleasurable sensation. "To enjoy is to obey"; if human life were what it could be and what its Author intended it to be, the path of duty would be a flowery path, the reward of virtue would not be a crown of thorns; man, like all his fellow-creatures, would attain to his highest well-being by simply following the promptings of his instincts. Wild animals have not lost their earthly paradise; he who has observed them in the freedom of their forest homes can not doubt that to them existence is a blessing, and death merely the later or earlier evening of a happy day. Nor would our missionaries find it easy to persuade an able-bodied savage that earth is a vale of tears, till fire-water and fire-arms demonstrate the superiority of revelation over the light of nature. The children of the wilderness need no holidays; to them life itself is a festival and earth a play-ground for manifold games, not the less entertaining for being sometimes spiced with danger or prompted by hunger and thirst.

But in process of time the daily life of a combatant in the harder and harder struggle for existence became so joyless and wearisome that the clamors of an unsatisfied instinct suggested the institution of periodical festivals: pleasure-days intended to offset the tedium of monotonous toil, as gymnastic exercises tend to counteract the influence of sedentary occupations. The Assyrians and Greeks had trimonthly holidays, besides annual revels, and great national festivals at longer intervals. In ancient Etruria every new month was ushered in by a day of merrymaking in honor of a tutelary deity; the patricians and plebeians of republican Rome had their field-days; the festivals of the seasons united the pleasure-seekers of all classes, and even the slaves had their Saturnalia weeks when some of their privileges were only limited by their capacity of enjoyment. la the first centuries of the Roman Empire, when the growth of the cities and the scarcity of game began to circumscribe the private pastimes of the poorer classes, the rulers themselves provided the means of public amusements; at the death of Septimus Severus (a. d. 211), the capital alone had six free amphitheatres and twelve or fourteen large public baths, where the poorest were admitted gratis, and none but the poorest could complain about the half-cent entrance-fee to the luxurious thermæ. The circenses, or public games, were by no means confined to the gladiatorial combats that have exercised the eloquence of our Christian moralists; dramatic entertainments, trials of strength, and the exhibition of outlandish curiosities, seem to have been as popular as the grandest prize-fights, unless the combatants were international champions. And it would be a great mistake to suppose that only the wealthy capital could afford to amuse its citizens at the public expense; from Gaul to Syria every town had a circus or two, every larger village an arena, a free bath, and a public gymnasium. The Colosseum of Vespasian seated eighty thousand spectators, but was rivaled by the amphitheatres of Narbonne, Syracuse, Antioch, Berytus, and Thessalonica.[1] Children, married women, old men, and many trades-unions had their yearly carnivals, and, during the celebration of the Olympian and Capitoline games and various local festivals, even strangers enjoyed the freedom of the larger towns.

And now?—Professor Wirgmann, in his "Annalen des Russischen Reiches," estimates that since the accession of Nicholas I, the modern Cæsars have expended an average annual sum of seventeen million dollars for the torture of their subjects; how many cents have they ever spent for national pastimes? How many spectators (since the abolition of the "Tyburn-days") have ever been entertained at the expense of the wealthy British Empire? What has our Great Republic done in the matter of circenses, except to pass an occasional sabbath law for the suppression of public amusements on the only day in which a large plurality of our workingmen find their only leisure for recreation? The spoils of a Roman consul would dwindle before the rents of our American, German, and French financiers: what have our commercial triumphators ever achieved for the entertainment of their poor fellow-citizens? Cooper Institute lectures, street revivals, and prize distributions at the examination of a sabbath-school for adults? "At the proposition of such-like pastime," says Ludwig Boerne, "a resurrected citizen of ancient Rome would feel like a filibuster at an invitation to dive for copper coins in a duck-pond, after having chased King Philip's silver fleet on the Spanish Main."

Not poverty makes our daily ways so trite and joyless, for the best recreations are still as free as the air and the sea; nor want of leisure, for we manage to find plenty of time for humdrum ceremonies. The old Egyptians turned, their funerals into holidays—we celebrate our holidays like funerals; all the employments of our weekly day of rest are sicklied over with a cast of superstitious fear; and, indeed, no other anachronism of our strangely complex civilization proclaims more loudly the necessity of its divorce from the influence of an antinatural religion. When that religion reigned supreme, its exponents openly and violently waged war upon all earthly joys; sublunary life, according to their doctrine, was a state of probation for testing a man's power of self-denial; earth was the devil's own, and delight in its pleasures an insult to the jealous ruler of a higher sphere. They believed that God delights in the self-abasement and mortification of his creatures, and hoped to gain his favor by afflicting themselves in every possible way—by voluntary seclusion, fasts, vigils, the wearing of dingy garments, and abstinence from every physical pleasure. Failing to enamor mankind with their doleful heaven, they revenged themselves by depriving them of their earthly joys. In hopes of making the hereafter more attractive, they made life as repulsive as possible; kill-joys and persecutors were the active heroes of those times; ascetics and self-tormentors their passive exemplars. Virtue and joylessness became synonyms; men aspiring to superior merit exchanged the glories of the sunny earth for the misery of a gloomy convent; a "Man of Sorrows" became a type of moral perfection, an instrument of torture, the trade-mark of the new religion. Kosmos—i. e., beauty and harmony—was the oldest Grecian term for God's wonderful world; a "vale of tears" the favorite Christian epithet. A symposium of festive heroes was exchanged for a conventicle of whining penitents, Olympus for a charnel-house, the festival of the seasons for the ecclesiastic sabbath: there, a merry multitude, joining in dances and heroic games, inspired by the rapture of emulation, the joy of exuberant health and the beauty of earth till their happiness overflowed in anthems of praise to the bounteous gods; here, a cowed and wretched assemblage, listening with groans to the denunciations of a Nature hating fanatic. And that hideous superstition founds its claim to our gratitude on its merit of having suppressed a few profligate pastimes—in aiming its death-blows at all earthly joys whatever; as if the crushing of a few poison-plants could atone for the attempt to turn a fertile continent into a sand-waste! The attempt, I say, for I do not believe that either the axe or the cross will for ever mar the beauty of our Mother Earth; the devastated woodlands of the East will ultimately be reclaimed, and here and there the moral desert of asceticism has already begun to bloom with flowers from the revived seeds of Grecian civilization.

Monachism, at least, is fast disappearing; in this age of railroads and steam-engines we have no time for positive self-torture à la Simon Stylites. But our commercial Pecksniffs have found it a time- and money-saving plan to stick to the negative part of the anti-pleasure dogma, and hope to atone for the dreary materialism of our daily factory-life by the still drearier asceticism of a Puritan sabbath: six days of misery in the name of Mammon, balanced by one day of sixfold misery in the name of Christ. "Worldly pleasures" are still under the ban of our spiritual purists; daily drudgery and daily self-denial are still considered the proper sphere of a law-abiding citizen, and special afflictions a special sign of divine favor. Life has become a socage-duty; we do not think it necessary to alleviate the distress of our poor till it reaches a degree that threatens to end it. We have countless benevolent institutions for the prevention of outright death, not one benevolent enough to make life worth living. Infanticide is now far more rigorously punished than in old times; we enforce every child's right to live and become a humble, tithe-paying Christian, but as for its claim to live happy we refer it to the sweet by-and-by. We shudder at the barbarity of the Cæsars, who permitted the combat of men with wild beasts, to cater to the amusement of the Roman populace; but we contemplate with great equanimity the misery of millions of our fellow-citizens, wearing away their lives in workshops and factories; millions of children of our own nation and country, who have no recreation but sleep, no hope but oblivion, to whom the morning sun brings the summons of a taskmaster and the summer season nothing but lengthened hours of weary toil; nay, we make it the boast of our pious civilization to deprive them of their sole day of leisure, to interdict their harmless sports, lest the noise, or even the rumor of their merriment, might disturb the solemnity of an assemblage of whining hypocrites. Hence the recklessness, the Nihilism, and the weary pessimism of our times, the melancholy that everywhere underlies the glittering varnish of our social life. Hence also that vague yearning after a happy hereafter, which the murderers of the happy past have made the principal source of their revenues.

With few exceptions the children of Christendom are stricken with a disease which mirth alone can cure. In North America and North Britain, especially, it is pitiful to witness the slow withering of so many light-loving creatures in the hopeless night of poverty and Sabbatarianism; more pitiful to see the reviving of their spirits at every deceptive sign of dawn, the expedients of poor, compromising Nature, her makeshifts with half-recreations and half-sufficient rest, in the lingering hope of a better future—to come only with the repose from which no factory-bell can awaken a sleeper, when after long years of waning life, waning at last to a state of callous vegetation, Nature is reduced to the alternative of ending an evil for which she has no remedy.

But while the ebb of life alternates with a tide, the struggle against a natural instinct is the struggle of Prometheus against the vulture of Jove; in the intervals of torment the martyr may forget his misery, but the torturer returns, and the poisoned arrows of the interventor can bring only a temporary relief. Man can not conquer a God-sent instinct, though he may for a time defy it—with poison; the most incurable victims of intemperance are those who resort to stimulants less for the sake of intoxication than for the benumbing after-effect which helps them to stifle the voice of outraged Nature. It is a significant circumstance that the consumption of intoxicating poisons increases in times of famine and general distress; the Christian dogma of the reformatory value of misery has, indeed, been refuted by the most dreadful arguments of the world's history; the unhappiest nations are not only the most immoral, but the most selfish and the meanest in every ugly sense of the word: virtues do not flourish on a trampled soil. The same with individuals; injustice, disappointment, and bodily pain, can turn the noblest man into a querulous tyrant, a harmless kitten into a spiteful cat. Happiness, on the other hand, is the sunshine that decks the moral world with flowers; making earth a heaven would be the surest way of turning men into angels; the hardest heart will melt under the persistent rays of kindness and happiness. Happy children have no time to be wicked; it is not worth their while to waste the merry hours on vices. Genius, too, is a child of light; the Grecian worship of joy favored the development of every human science, while the monastic worship of sorrow produced nothing but monsters and chimeras; for to modern science Christianity bears about the same relation as the plague to the quarantine.

But, aside from all this, mirth has an hygienic value that can hardly be overrated while our social life remains what the slavery of vices and dogmas has made it. Joy has been called the sunshine of the heart, yet the same sun that calls forth the flowers of a plant is also needed to expand its leaves and ripen its fruits; and without the stimulus of exhilarating pastimes perfect bodily health is as impossible as moral and mental vigor. And, as sure as a succession of uniform crops will exhaust the best soil, the daily repetition of a monotonous occupation will wear out the best man. Body and mind require an occasional change of employment, or else a liberal supply of fertilizing recreations, and this requirement is a factor whose omission often foils the arithmetic of our political economists.

To the creatures of the wilderness affliction comes generally in the form of impending danger—famine or persistent persecution; and under such circumstances the modifications of the vital process seem to operate against its long continuance; well-wishing Nature sees her purpose defeated, and the vital energy flags, the sap of life runs to seed. On the same principle an existence of joyless drudgery seems to drain the springs of health, even at an age when they can draw upon the largest inner resources; hope, too often baffled, at last withdraws her aid; the tongue may be attuned to canting hymns of consolation, but the heart can not be deceived, and with its sinking pulse the strength of life ebbs away. Nine tenths of our city children are literally starving for lack of recreation; not the means of life, but its object, civilization has defrauded them of; they feel a want which bread can only aggravate, for only hunger helps them to forget the misery of ennui. Their pallor is the sallow hue of a cellar-plant; they would be healthier if they were happier. I would undertake to cure a sickly child with fun and rye-bread sooner than with tidbits and tedium.

Mirth is a remedy; the remarkable longevity of the French aristocrats,[2] in spite of their dietetic and other sins, can with certainty be ascribed to the gayety of their pastimes; almost any mode of diversion is better than the deadly monotony of our Sabbatarian machine life; even excursion-trains have added years to the average longevity of our city populations. In a temperature of 56° Fahr., Elisha Kane kept his men in good health by devoting a part of the long night to burlesques and pantomimes; but, as a sanitary precaution, dramaturgy was only collateral to the substitution of tea for grog; and the most striking illustration of the hygienic effect of merriment is therefore, perhaps, the experience of Dr. Brehm, the manager of the Hamburg Zoölogical Garden. Having noticed that the monkeys in the happy-family department generally outlived the solitary prisoners, he concluded to try the Swiss nostalgia-remedy, "fun and cider-punch"; but the liquid stimulants proved superfluous: the introduction of a grapple-swing and a few toys sufficed to reverse the shadow on the dial of death, and man by man the quadrumana recovered from a disease which evidently had been nothing but ennui, since the mortuary lists of the last decade showed an almost uniform death-rate throughout the year, except in midsummer, when the monkey-house could be thoroughly ventilated.

Men of a cheerful disposition are generally long-lived, and anything tending to counteract the influence of worry and discontent directly contributes to the preservation of health. Despair can paralyze the energy of the vital functions like a sudden poison, while the fulfillment of a long-cherished hope has effected the cure of many diseases; history abounds with examples of strong men dying of sheer grief,[3] as well as of a great success giving to others a new lease of life. Even hope can sustain the vital powers under severe trials; the appearance of a distant sail or a leeward coast has often restored the strength of shipwrecked sailors who would have succumbed to another hour of hopeless famine. A mere day-dream of a possible deliverance from toil or captivity prolongs the life of thousands who would not survive an awakening to the realities of their situation.

But "hope deferred" sickens the body as well as the soul; and, next to the happiness of a life whose labors are their own immediate reward, is the confident anticipation of a period of compensating enjoyments at the end of every day, of every week, and every year, or part of a year. With a few playthings the youngsters of the nursery will find pastimes enough, though even the youngest should have some corner of the house where they can feel quite at home; but the necessity of providing special times and modes of recreation begins with the day when a child is delivered to the taskmaster, when its employment during any considerable part of the twenty-four hours becomes laborious and compulsory. Children under ten should never be kept at school for more than three consecutive hours, unless the variety of the successive lessons forms itself a sort of recreation, as drawing after grammar, or writing alternating with "calisthenics" or vocal exercises. If the principal meal of the day is taken at noon, the mid-day recess should be extended to at least three hours; otherwise one hour is more than sufficient, especially where the recess sports are diverting enough to forget the schoolroom for a few minutes. The more completely a special train of thoughts can for a while be dismissed from the mind, with the more profit can it afterward be resumed, for the same reason that the successful practice of any bodily exercise requires a periodical relaxation of the strained muscles. But, if the instinct of rooks and savages can be trusted, the recreation-time, par excellence, is the evening hour; and with a little management young and old bondmen of drudgery might consecrate the end of every day to health restoring sports. All schools ought to close at 4 p. m.; and, till we can enforce the eight-hours labor law, the societies for the prevention of cruelty should liberate at least the younger factory-slaves two hours before the sunset of a summer day, in order to give them a chance for a few minutes' recreation between supper and bedtime. "Horas non conto, nisi serenas" was the usual inscription of the Roman sun-dials, but the Arabs of the desert count time by nights instead of days; and for us, too, sunset is the beginning of the most pleasant and most play-inviting hour of the twenty-four; the day's work is done, no fear of interruption damps the merriment of the moment, and to the fatigue of boisterous sports the coming night offers the refuge of rest and sleep. For the same reason the compulsory somnolence of our Quaker sabbath makes Saturday night the Saturnalia-time of many Christian nations; the Sunday laws have reduced them to amusements which can, and too often ought to, dispense with daylight, and in the larger cities apprentices and factory-boys have the alternative of joining in such night revels or postponing their amusements to the musical resurrection of the saints in light, for the free Saturday is unfortunately confined to primary schools and a few private seminaries. In German schools Saturday is at least a half-holiday; i. e., the scholars are dismissed at noon, and at once make for the fields and woods, except in winter, when the disciples of the Turner hall assemble on the last afternoon in the week.

With our present helplessness against the lethargic influence of the midsummer heat, the conventional time of the long vacations is well selected, but, if a hoped-for diet and dress reform shall have taught us to pass the dog-days with comfort, it would be more sensible to divide the two months: four free weeks in June, in time for the first huckleberries and butterflies, and four in October—the best season for a long excursion to the paradise of a primitive mountain-range, nowadays about the only sanctuary of Nature where her worshipers can shake their shoulders free from the yoke of prejudice and escape from the atmosphere of hypocrisy to a higher and purer medium. For the children of the poor every city should have a Kinder-park—not a ceremonious promenade, with sacred groves and unapproachable grass-plots, but a public play-ground with shade-trees and swings. May-poles, gymnastic contrivances and a free bathing-house, and room for all the free menageries and music-halls which the Peabodies of the future might feel inclined to add. Inactivity is no recreation; we should not spend our leisure hours like machines, whose best relief is a temporary surcease of toil, but like living creatures of the God who intended that the joys of life should outweigh its sorrows. Let us provide healthful pastimes, or the victims of asceticism will resort to vices dram-drinking, gambling, and secret sins for even pernicious excitements become attractive as a relief from the insupportable dullness of a canting Quaker life.

Ennui has never made a human being better or more industrious; on the contrary, the hope of a merry evening would inspire a day laborer with a good-humor and an energy unknown to the languid resignados of our present system. The confident expectation even of a. physical pleasure imparts to the current of life an onward impulse that seems to react on the mind as well as on every function of the automatic organism; the first Napoleon, who enlivened the tedium of camp-life with Olympic festivities, and did not deem it below his dignity to make his own maître de plaisir, could in return rely on his men to endure fatigues that would have killed the barrack slaves of his enemies. It is not hard work that drives our young men to seek a Lethe in alcohol: we read of Grecian soldiers marching fifty miles a day in heavy armor; of hunters running down a wild-boar, and of teamsters yoking themselves to a car when their horses had broken down. Many of our New England boys, who go on a whaling cruise rather than die of ennui, would gladly consent to work, in the ancient sense of the word, if they could exchange their Pecksniff-day for a Grecian festival. The Aryan nations, too, had their sacred days and sacred rites, but their Nature-worship was the mist that rises from the woods and meadows, and blends with the ethereal hues of the sky; the Hebrew priestcraft dogma is a poison-cloud which for centuries has darkened the light of the sun and blighted the fairest flowers.

In choosing the mode of a child's recreations, it should be borne in mind that their main purpose is to restore the tone of the mind and its harmony with the physical instincts by supplying the chief deficiencies of our ordinary employment. For a hard-working blacksmith, fun, pure and simple, would be a sufficient pastime, while brain-workers need a recreation that combines amusement with physical exercise—the unloosening of the brain-fiber with the tension of the muscles. Emulation and the presence of relatives and schoolmates impart to competitive gymnastics a charm which a spirited boy would not exchange for the passive pleasure of witnessing the best circus-performance. Wrestling, lance-throwing, archery, base-ball, and a well-contested foot-race, can awaken the enthusiasm of the Grecian palæstra, and professional gymnasts will take the same delight in the equally healthful though less dramatic trials of strength at the horizontal bar. But, on the play-ground, such exercises should be divested from the least appearance of being a task—even children can not be happy on compulsion.

There is also too much in-door and in-town work about the present life of our schoolboys. Encourage their love of the woods; let us make holidays a synonym of picnic excursions, and enlarge the definition of camp-meetings; of all the known modes of inspiration, forest air and the view of a beautiful landscape are the most inexpensive, especially from a moral standpoint, being never followed by a splenetic reaction. A ramble in the depths of a pathless forest, or on the heights of an Alpenland, between rocks and lonely mountain-meadows, opens well-springs of life unknown to the prisoners of the city tenements.

But the chief curse of our in-door life is, after all, its dullness; and its direct antidote merriment, therefore the chief point about all real recreations. Fun and laughter have become the most effective cordials of our materia medica, and their promotion a most important branch of the science of happiness. There is no such thing as genuine frolic in the stifling atmosphere of a stove-room; the shady lawn in summer and the open hall in winter make a better play-ground than the stuffy nursery; but freedom from restraint is a still more essential element of mirth. Even in the despotic countries of the Old World the representative of the Government attends the public fêtes in disguise, and, if the schoolmaster wants to watch the recess-sports of his pupils, let him do so unobserved; if you can trust your children at all, trust them not to abuse the freedom of their recreations, or else conduct your surveillance as unobtrusively as possible. Children detest ceremonies; in our etiquette-ridden towns too many boys are aliens under their fathers' roof; give them one hour in the day and one corner in the house where they are really at home, where they can feel that the permission to enjoy themselves is granted as a right rather than as a concession to the foibles of youth. If I had to board my children in an old hull, like Anderson's sea-shell peddler, I would let them store their toy-shells in the caboose, and keep it sacred from the intrusion of the forecastle folk, to let my little ones know that the believers in the divinity of joy, though in a sad minority in this pessimistic world, have rights and perquisites which I mean to maintain against all comers.

It does not cost much to make the little folks happy; time, and permission to use it, is all the most of them ask; but make them sure that the pursuit of happiness is not a contraband affair, but a legitimate and praiseworthy business. Nor can it do any harm to let* them accumulate a little stock in trade—marbles, tops, dolls, and magic lanterns, and, if possible, a few pets; in winter-time, and for the bigger boys, a private menagerie of squirrels and gophers is a better aid to domestic habits than a hundred interviews with the home-missionary. Connive at a snowball-fight or a torn hat; and be sure that a pair of skates, fishing-tackle, and a base-ball outfit are a better investment than a medicine-chest. Make your children happy; all Nature proclaims the plan of a benevolent Creator; let them feel that their life is in harmony with that plan—that existence has a positive value, an attraction that would remain, though the fear of death were removed.

And, above all, let no cloud of superstition darken the sunshine of your Sundays; and, in countries where the knell of the church-bells drives your children from the play-grounds of the city, take them out to the woods and mountains, and let them worship the Creator in his grandest temple; teach them to love his day by making it the happiest day in the week. Or, disregard the bells and brave the consequences: till we can repeal the sabbath laws, let us defy them in every way and at any risk; in dealing with the despotism of the mythology-mongers, legal obligations are out of the question; the right of Nature enters the lists against the right of brutal force leagued with imposture.

  1. Tacitus, "Annalen," xii-xiv.
  2. E. g., Polignac, eighty-one years; Richelieu, eighty-three; Sainte-Pierre, seventy-eight; Chateaubriand, eighty; Lafayette, seventy-eight; Duke of Bassano, eighty-one; Corneille, eighty; Dumouriez, eighty-four; Palinet, eighty-five; Fontenelle, one hundred; Joinville, ninety-one; L'Enclos, eighty-nine; La Maintenon, eighty-four; Rochefoucauld, eighty; Villars, eighty-one; Sully, eighty-one; Montfaucon, eighty-six; Soult, eighty-two; Talleyrand, eighty-four.
  3. E. g., Isocrates, Kepler, Mehemet Ali, Bajazet, Politianus, Columbus, Maupertuis, Pitt, the two Napoleons, Nicholas I, Joseph II, Platen, Abd-el-Kader, Shamyl, Horace Greeley.