Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 4. Chapter 3. IV


          Like Goethe, again, Pen was a person of casual education. It is quite open to contention that persons thus educated do a good deal of the work of the world; that, indeed, men and women of great parts and original mind are often persons who have managed to evade the regular routine of the schools. Like Pen, they have got out of working through that Greek play, line by line and word by word, on which ‘the Doctor’ set such store, and have, like him, read ten times as much in the time. Allowing the genius to be a law unto himself, we must be on the watch lest the ordinarily clever boy slip the yoke; indeed, as we have seen in Goethe’s case, the genius might well have been seen in Goethe’s case, the genius might well have been the better for the common grind. Pen, anyway, would probably not have run that disastrous course at Oxbridge had he acquired the habit of working under rule and towards an end.
          It is well to consider this matter at a time when we are casting about rather wildly to find out what education is, and what it is to effect. There is certain knowledge, no doubt, which it is shameful not to possess, and, wanting which, the mind is as limp, feeble, and incapable as an ill-nourished body. There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth. It follows that the first three lustres belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar
to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end. It is in this second stage that the value of the classical and mathematical grind comes in. It produces a certain sanity of judgment, and therefore a certain capacity for affairs, and ability for the examination of questions, which are rather the distinguishing marks of the public schoolman,—not merely the university man, that is another matter, but the man who has ground through that Greek play which both Pen and the young Goethe contrived to get out of. Whatever be the faults of the public school, it is not a manufactory of ‘cranks’; and the danger of a transition period like the present is that it may produce a crop of these persons of unbalanced judgment and undisciplined will.

                    “ ‘O friend,’ said he, ‘hold up your mind; strength is but strength of will;
                    Reverence each other’s good in fight, and shame at things done ill.’”

This exordium of “Atrides” might well be the motto of our public schools; it sums up with curious exactness that which they accomplish,—the steady purpose, public spirit, and fine sense of honour which adorn our public services, recruited for the most part from our public schools.
          But these find qualities, of which we are proud, may co-exist with ignorance; and ignorance is the mother of prejudice and the obstinate foe of progress. The task before us in setting in order the house of our
national education is a delicate one. We must guard those assets of character which the education of the past affords us, and recover, if we may, the passionate love of knowledge for its own sake which brought about an earlier renaissance. To regard education as disciplinary only is as though a man sowed ploughs and harrows instead of seed-corn; but an eager, willful, desultory pursuit of knowledge brings with it serious risks to character. There is much talk of reading in these days, of the use of public libraries to further education, and young students are taking up this cry of ‘general reading.’ We hear of ‘three books a week’ as a usual thing, and rather a matter of pride. But this, again, comes of our tendency to depreciate knowledge, and to lose sight of its alimentary character. If we perceive that knowledge, like bread, is necessary food, we see also that it must be taken in set portions, fitly combined, duly served, and at due intervals, in order to induce the digestive processes without which, knowledge like meat, gives us labour rather than strength. In other words, desultory reading affords entertainment, and perhaps an occasional stimulus to thought. Casual reading—that is, vague reading round a subject without the effort to know—is not in much better case: if we are to read and grow thereby, we must read to know, that is, our reading must be study—orderly, definite, purposeful. In this way, what I have called the two stages of education, synthetic and analytic, coalesce; the wide reading tends to discipline, and in the disciplinary or analytic stage the mind of the student is well nourished by the continued habit of wide reading.
          Arthur Pendennis made a failure of his college career, and only a qualified success of his after life,
through one other cause which affects most young students. He went to college absolutely without moral instruction other than that of certain virtuous traditions and tendencies imbibed from his parents, together with tendencies quite other than virtuous. But no map of life had been presented to his view showing the heights whose ascent should reward the wayfarer with a noble outlook, the pitfalls and morasses in which many a gallant young traveler disappears. This, too, belongs to the disrespect in which we, as a nation, hold knowledge. To know is not synonymous with to do; but we should not leave our young people to stumble on right action without any guiding philosophy of life; the risks are too great. We who bear the name of Christ do not always give ourselves the trouble to realise how His daily labour was to make the Jews know; how ‘ye will not understand’ was the reproach He cast upon them. Even with the example of our master before us, we take small pains to make our young people realise the possibilities of noble action that lie in them and in everyone. We give them certain warnings, it is true, for fear of ruin and loss of reputation, but do we warn them against that deadly dull failure which is implied in a career of commonplace success? Pen was ‘plucked’; but how many a man who takes his degree, let us say, does so through the continual prodding of a petty ambition, without drawing from his labour knowledge or love or strength of will towards duty! If the worlds you conquer be those of academic distinction, why, there is no spirit in you for further labours, unless as more such worlds present themselves.
          In some ways the Greeks had a more adequate view of education than ourselves: they seem to have
held that, along with gymnastic and music, philosophy is the chief concern of every youth. “A freeborn boy,” says Plutarch, “must neglect no part of the cycle of knowledge, but he must run through one (subject) after another, so that he may get a taste of each of them—for to be perfect in all is impossible—but philosophy he must pursue in earnest. I can make this clear by a figure: it is delightful and entertaining to travel through many cities, but only profitable to linger in the best.
          “The philosopher Bion has well said: ‘As the suitors of Penelope, when they could not obtain her, made free use of all that belonged to her, so also they who find philosophy too hard occupy themselves with other branches of knowledge, worth nothing by comparison. For this reason, philosophy must be put first in all education.
          “For the nurture and development of the body men have invented two instruments, the study of medicine and gymnastic, of which one makes for the health of the body, the other for its strength. But for the sicknesses and sorrows of the soul, philosophy is the only cure.
          “Through philosophy, man arrives at the knowledge of what is good and what is bad, what is just and what is unjust; most especially he learns what he should endeavour after, and what he should avoid; how he should order himself towards God, towards father and mother, towards his elders, towards the laws, towards strangers and superiors, towards his friends, towards wife and child and slave. She teaches humility towards God, reverence for parents, respect for the aged, obedience to law; to be in submission to authority, to love friends, to be chaste towards
women. She teaches tenderness towards children and gentleness towards slaves; she exhibits to us the highest good, that in happiness our joy be measured, and in misfortune our grief restrained; in order that we be not as the beasts, unrestrained in desire as in rage. These are, I hold, some of the benefits we owe to the teaching of philosophy. For to be modest in good fortune, to be without envy, gentle in mind, to know how to extinguish evil desires, is wisdom; and the ruling of an angry spirit is the sign of no common understanding.”[1]
          The functions which Plutarch claims for philosophy we ascribe to religion, and by so doing we place life on a higher level. There is this fundamental difference between the two: while philosophy instructs, religion both instructs and enables. But it is a question whether that science of life or art of living which philosophy should teach had not better be made a distinct study, with its own methods, classifications, rules of progress, under the sanction of religion, and tried at every step by a religions standard.
          As it is, the moral and philosophical training we give is random and scrappy to a pitiable degree. The very sincerity of our dependence upon God has resulted in a criminal ignorance about ourselves, our possibilities and our risks, and this in despite, as I have said, of the teaching of our Master. No one person should be launched upon life without an ordered knowledge of himself; he should know, for example, that he has certain appetites, servants, whose business is the upkeep of the body, and, when the time comes, the propagation of the race; that the
manly part is never, in small things or great, to yield ourselves to the rule of any one of these appetites, which are so constituted that, treated as servants, they serve with diligence and obedience, but allowed to encroach, rule with relentless tyranny. To know such matters in detail may not save a youth, but should certainly give him pause—give him that moment in which to listen to the divine Counsellor who is able to save him.
          Then, how many youths go into the arena of life armed with the knowledge that they are equipped with desires whose chief function seems to be to provide for the nurture of the mind and the propagation of ideas, in much the same way as the bodily appetites have their particular uses? How many know that to become the slave of a single desire, as ambition or emulation, for example, results in as truly, though not as obviously, ill-balanced and ill-governed a person as does the inordinate gratification of any one appetite? How many know that health is a duty, and not merely an advantage; that a serviceable body, strong and capable, is a debt we owe to ourselves, our kin, and our kind? A few are aware of the advantage of, at any rate, a fit body: but how many know that to possess an alert, intelligent, and reflective mind is also among our duties? How many are aware of the incalculable joys of knowledge, of imagination, of reasoned thought, and that these are a patrimony in readiness for each of us? Do young people, again, realise that they enter on life with two great affections capable of ordering all the bonds which unite them to their fellow-man in just degree—capital, as it were, for an outlay of continual serviceableness? Do they know how conscience may be played with, how reason may
be suborned, how the right function of the will may give place to unreasoning willfulness? Have they adequate thoughts of the Supreme relation? Are they aware of owing aught to man or to God? Does not our teaching of religion fall short just because we have allowed ourselves to become ignorant of ourselves? And are we not therefore in danger of losing that conception of God which should keep us in the equipoise? Are we not so much in the habit of hearing of the love and care and saving power of our God that we accept ourselves as the objects of His infinite tenderness, and gradually lose the point of infinite tenderness, and gradually lose the point of view which makes men heroes and saints in the service of a Master? In a word, do we not implicitly teach our youth that meat is more than life, that getting on is the chief thing, that having is more than being or doing? No doubt there are noble youths who somehow seem to get themselves into right relations, as there are noble men and women to live with whom is continual inspiration; but, perhaps, these would be usual, and not exceptional, if we could arrive at a profounder and truer outlook upon life. Everything that need be taught to a youth is no doubt explicit or implicit in the Christian religion, but I cannot help thinking that we should make more progress in the way of that perfection which is commanded us if we set ourselves to the study of life with the method and purpose we give to other studies—pursuing this, however, with the sense of quite peculiar divine support and direction.


[1] Opera Moralia (trs. from Plutarch’s  Ausgewählte moralische Abhandlungen, translated by Dr Otto Güthling).