Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/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 simple consideration should moderate the ardor of those who think that, because the domain of scientific knowledge has been wonderfully enlarged, all things must have been made new in the moral order as well. That is not the case: the main outlines of morality will remain as they were traced centuries ago, the reason being that they were traced not on theoretical hues, but on lines directly suggested by experience. There are not wanting voices in the present day that whisper, nor even some that shout, that the age of restraint has passed away, and that nothing is now forbidden to the emancipated spirit of man. Such teaching is dangerous, and, just in so far as it is listened to, will the wisdom of the past rise up to reprove the folly of a lawless present, and experience set its seal on the reprobation.
The wise parent will follow a just mean between inculcating unquestioning deference to established beliefs and practices and stimulating a spirit of rebellion against whatever can not produce its logical credentials in a shape suited to the critical temper of the times. Room must be left for intellectual growth, and the mind must be allowed to go on voyages of discovery of its own; but as a preparation for such voyages a disposition, not to accept with absolute submission, but at least to respect—in some measure to reverence—the principles of morality which the experience of mankind has slowly elaborated, will be found to be of no mean value.
"Me this unchartered freedom tires,
I feel the weight of chance desires,"
says the poet Wordsworth in his Ode to Duty. The poet felt their weight; others, less happily constituted, have experienced their danger, for not every one can join in the affirmation:
"Through no disturbance of my soul
Or strong compunction in me wrought
Some parents who have no wish to launch their children on too adventurous a career nevertheless help to do so by unduly stimulating, or not wisely repressing, their egotism, and by emphasizing too strongly or without due discrimination the importance of individuality. Not every seedling is worth cultivation, and a given individuality may be little better than a "freak." The true advice to give to every one is, not to abound in his own peculiar sense for the sake of being different from others, but to choose wisely an object in life and to develop his nature to the utmost in the effort to advance that object. The proof of a pudding is in the eating, and the measure of the value of an individuality is not the angle of its divergence from the normal, but the amount of effective help it can give to the work of the world.
The character of every human being will be largely shaped by heredity: the function of education is to repress as far as possible all hurtful tendencies by bringing their nature and consequences into prominence, and to call into activity such useful faculties or traits as threaten to lie dormant. The wise educator will not, however, proceed on any Procrustean plan. His aim will not be conformity to an arbitrary or conventional model, but simply the production of the best possible results from the particular type submitted to him; and he will respect individuality in this sense, that he will know that Nature sometimes does more in one stroke than education can accomplish in a hundred years. It is hardly necessary to say, in conclusion, that the formation of character is by far the most important problem in education. Give us learning, give us accomplishments, give us talents if you can; but above all strive to give us men and women fitted for life and its activities, for its joys, its sorrows, and its struggles, fitted to be happy themselves and to make others happy.
Much as has been written about the great poet who was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey on the 12th of October last, a few words may properly be devoted to him in this place on account of the marked influence which his writings have had upon the intellectual movement of our time. In him there was an admirable balance and harmony of the logical and emotional powers. Through the former he was in sympathy with the most progressive thought of the age; through the latter, coupled with a noble imagination, he was enabled to enrich the English language with lyrics of priceless value and to infuse into the great body of his poetry the warmth and glow of a high moral inspiration. In many respects Tennyson was an ideal poet. While alive to the controversies of the time, he held a place apart, and never did or suffered aught of a nature to impair the great and ever-increasing consideration in which his name was held. He confined himself strictly to his own region of poetry, not seeking to shine as a prose writer, a critic, a theologian, or a man of society. At the same time his poetical throne was well within view of the people. His style was free from the all but hopeless obscurity of Browning, and yet it was marked by a certain distinction and refinement of thought which placed it just beyond the reach of the intellectually vulgar. Though a "gentleman" by birth, he had sincere popular sympathies; and though an upholder of church and state, his theology was of a very broad and liberal pattern. All things considered, he was in an admirable position for interpreting this age to itself; in other words, for making his contemporaries conscious of the spirit and tendencies of the time. His thought was fresh and forward-glancing in the early years of the century, and in the latest it was still in sympathy with all true progress.
No one can read any considerable portion of the poetry of Tennyson without perceiving his interest in scientific thought. He tells us himself, in Locksley Hall, in a touch which may be regarded as autobiographical:
"Here about the beach I wandered, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science and the long results of time."
In certain well-known stanzas of In Memoriam he has given us a vigorous sketch of the evolution theory, even anticipating the views of Darwin on the descent of man. That he studied the stars is evident from many allusions. Take the beautiful verses from Locksley Hall:
"Many a night from yonder ivied casement ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the west;
In The Palace of Art he tells how—
. . . "while Saturn whirls, his steadfast shade
Sleeps on his luminous ring ";
and in The Princess how
. . . "the fiery Sirius alters hue,
And bickers into red and emerald."
That he did not sympathize with the attacks of theologians on scientific speculations may perhaps be gathered from the following lines in the Prologue to his Morte d'Arthur:
"Half awake I heard
The parson taking wide and wider sweeps,
That he placed but limited faith in ecclesiastical authority is more than hinted where he says to the Rev. F. D. Maurice:
"Should all the churchmen foam in spite
In the preceding verse he had intimated that he would not mind in the least if "eighty thousand college councils" had "thundered anathema" at his friend. His references to the clergy, indeed, were not in general flattering; and this, considering that his own father whom he greatly revered was a beneficed clergyman, is a little remarkable. When the old woman in The Goose began to grow rich with her golden eggs, "the parson," we read, "smirked and nodded." In Maud we read of "the snowy-banded, delicate-handed, dilettante priest"; and in the Northern Farmer we do not get a deep impression of the value of the ministrations of the parson whom that worthy, when he went to church, heard "a bummin' away "over his head. At the same time the tone of Tennyson's mind was essentially reverent. Without cramping his thought he bowed his will to a Power that he recognized as divine. No man ever faced intellectual difficulties more fully and fairly than he did. He would sometimes solve his difficulties by what Comte has called "the logic of feeling" in a way which is not given to all of us, but he never laid false pretensions to argumentative victory. In his Two Voices he lets the evil spirit have its say to the fullest extent, and then answers:
"I can not make this matter plain,
So in In Memoriam there is earnest aspiration and even affirmation, but no dogmatism, no appeal to authority or reliance on authority.
To the moral law Tennyson throughout his works is unfailingly loyal. If, as he says, he received his laurel "green from the brows of him who uttered nothing base," he has bequeathed that laurel as fresh and stainless as he received it. We can not think of a better course of moral hygiene than a selection which might be made from the late laureate's poetry. The Palace of Art tells most powerfully of the misery of selfishness; the Idylls of the King are a noble and impassioned plea for truth and fidelity; Maud and Locksley Hall strike all the chords of high and generous feeling; and The Princess sets the relations of the sexes in a light which is familiar enough to us to-day, but which forty-five years ago had almost the character of a gospel. It may be said of Tennyson's Muse that, while the world in which she lives and moves is a noble one, it is not an impossible one: hence the benefit of reading Tennyson; the virtues which he depicts and glorifies are essentially human in their character and make for the perfection of human life. They are within our reach if we will but strenuously grasp at them. If the verse of Tennyson had descended into the grave with him, the world to-day would be a grievous loser; but while we mourn the poet who gladdened and instructed our age, we rejoice to think how much he has left that our children and our children's children will prize not less highly than we, and that will extend its healthful influence through ages to come.