Formation of Character Volume 5 Pt 4. Chapter 5



TWO persons meet in the porch of the King Archon; the one brings a suit, and the other appears to answer to a very serious charge. We know the impeached man and the charge brought against him. Socrates was charged by Meletus, a young man who was little known, with corrupting the youth of the city, and with inventing new gods and denying the existence of old ones. He says that Meletus shows a good deal of character in the charge he makes; and, “I fancy that he must be a wise man, and seeing that I am the reverse of a wise man, he has found me out. . . . Of all our political men, he is the only one who seems to me to begin in the right way with the cultivation of virtue in youth.”
          But Euthyphro, the other speaker, who has come to bring a suit, declines this explanation, and thinks that Socrates is to be brought before the court as a Neologian, such as he is himself. Socrates considers that danger lies, not in being thought wise, but in the attempt to impart wisdom to others,—“I have a benevolent habit of pouring out myself to everybody, and would even pay for a listener, and I am afraid
that the Athenians may think me too talkative.” Then the dialogue goes on?—
          “Soc. And what is your suit, Euthyphro? are you the pursuer or the defendant?
          Euth. I am the pursuer.
          Soc. Of whom?
          Euth. You will think me mad when I tell you.
          Soc. Why, has the fugitive wings?
          Euth. Nay, he is not very volatile at his time of life.
          Soc. Who is he?
          Euth. My father.
          Soc. Your father! my good man?
          Euth. Yes.
          Soc. And of what is he accused?
          Euth. Of murder, Socrates.
          Soc. By the powers, Euthyphro! how little does the common herd know of the nature of right and truth. A man must be an extraordinary man, and have made great strides in wisdom, before he could have seen his way to bring such an action.
          Euth. Indeed, Socrates, he must.
          Soc. I suppose that the man whom your father murdered was one of your relatives—clearly he was; for if he had been a stranger you would never have thought of prosecuting him.
          Euth. I am amused, Socrates, at your making a distinction between one who is a relation and one who is not a relation; for surely the pollution is the same in either case if you knowingly associate with the murderer, when you ought to clear yourself and him by proceeding against him.”[1]
          Then the case is stated more fully. The dead man “worked for us as a field labourer on our farm in Naxos,” and in a fit of drunken passion slew a fellow-servant. “My father bound him hand and foot and threw him into a ditch” to await inquiry into the case. Meanwhile the man, being neglected, died, “And my father and family are angry with me for taking the part of the murderer and prosecuting my
father. They say that he did not kill him; and that if he did, the dead man was but a murderer, and I ought not to take any notice, for that a son is impious who prosecutes his father. Which shows, Socrates, how little they know what the gods think about piety and impiety.”
          “Soc. And what is piety, and what is impiety?
          Euth. Piety is doing as I am doing; that is to say, prosecuting anyone who is guilty of murder, sacrilege, or of any similar crime—whether he be your father or mother, or whoever he may be—that makes no difference; and not to prosecute them is impiety.”
          Euthyphro is with us to-day, a familiar figure, mentioned in every newspaper, talked over at every table, having disciples in pretty nearly every house. We may know him as Pro-Pigtails (Punch), or Pro-pease; he may go without a hat or disport himself in sandals,—things innocent enough,—but he has this in common with his prototype: he may not indict his father, but every Euthyphrodite is ready with—‘What is piety? you ask. To do as I do,’ whether he malign his country or feed upon nuts. But the way, he generally does both.
          We complain that the Euthyphrodite is narrow, one-sided, illiberal, unnatural, undutiful: he is unreasonable, we say, silly, a food. But he does not regard us. Piety, he says, is doing as I am doing, and it is piety because it is pleasing to the gods. If you be another Socrates you propose yourself to him as a disciple, with wily tact, that he may give you an opportunity to confute the fallacies he unfolds. But it is of no use. ‘Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.’
          We call him a crank, and he gets many disciples
because anybody who is cocksure brings relief to the hesitancy of the general mind. For himself, he is not to be convinced. However outrageous his conduct, whether he light the fires of persecution, make himself and exception to common law, say ‘Corban’ of the dues he owes to country or kin, or limit himself to such small pieties as ‘I always wear’ this or that; ‘buy my tea’ at so-and-so’s, or ‘spend the summer’ here or there (the piety lying in the always), he has an infallible creed.
          We, like Socrates, if we may presume to say so, are tolerant of the ‘crank’: ‘he is not a bad fellow,’ we say, ‘but he has a bee in his bonnet’; and when we do not take up his religion, he ministers to our vanity, for it is not unpleasant to feel superior to his oddities.
          Where is the harm in him? we ask; if he prosecute his own father, he does it with really pious intention. Well, it is a pity that a narrow-minded, illiberal, unjust person should exist; and it is a very great pity that he should be free to propagate those pious doctrines of his,—for this reason, that every foolish little piety we accept as the whole duty of man makes us the less capable of just, liberal, and reverent thought; and we cannot be more in any situation than our own conception of what that situation requires. However likeable he may be, the crank is not a harmless person. He is bad for himself and bad for other people.
          But Euthyphro is not open to conviction. The whole field of his mind is occupied by his own fallacious reasoning: there is no getting at him later, so we must catch him before he becomes a tiresome person, and, in order to do so, must find out what
there is in him (and in us) that goes to the making of a crank.
          An incident is told in Lavengro full of instruction on this point. We remember how Preacher Williams who went about, with his wife Winifred, doing good, was subject to fits of spiritual despair, which came upon him especially of a Saturday because he was going to preach the next day. ‘Pechod Yspryyd Glan’ (which is the Welsh for ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost’), he would be heard to cry in a paroxysm of grief and terror; and ‘Lavengro,’ who overheard this, asked him to tell the story of his life. It appeared that when he was a child of seven he had wilfully and intentionally said certain awful words (we are not told what they were), and this was the unpardonable sin. His sweet wife was right when she told him that pride was, in truth, his sin; but ‘Lavengro’ made the matter plain to him. “ ‘You said that after you had committed this same sin of yours you were in the habit, at school, of looking upon your schoolfellows with a kind of gloomy superiority, considering yourself a lone, monstrous being, who had committed a sin far above the daring of any of them. Are you sure that many of your schoolfellows were not looking upon you and the others with much the same eyes with which you were looking upon them?. . . . All I mean to say is, they had probably secrets of their own, and who knows that the secret sin of more than one of them was not the very sin which caused you so much misery?’
          “ ‘Dost thou imagine, then,’ said Peter, ‘the sin against the Holy Ghost to be so common an occurrence?’
          “ ‘As you have described it,’ said I, ‘of very common
occurrence, especially amongst children, who are indeed the only beings likely to commit it.’”
          Here we have the root of the matter indicated. The desire to be exceptional is in us all, and some of us prefer a bad eminence to none. Pride takes all sorts of unexpected action; and when it leads us to rest our right to distinction on some oddity proper to us, we are on the way to mania.
          The thing that strikes us about the Euthyphrodite is the strength of his convictions. He may or may not consciously seek distinction that way, the question does not occur either to us or him, but the passionate energy with which he holds and propagates what seems to us some trifling article of faith is what characterises him, and distinguishes him from the prig, a person with whom he may turn out to have some things in common. He takes his own absolute conviction to be synonymous with absolute truth. We have seen how it was with Euthyphro. There was no least chink in his mind to let in light. We do not go so far, but most of us owe our failures to the fact that we will not be convinced against our convictions; and the more ardent we are, the more we err if these should be mistaken.
          For this reason it is well we should make children perceive at a very early age that a man’s reason is the servant of his own will, and is not necessarily an independent authority within him in the service of truth. This is one of the by-lessons of history which quite a young child is able to understand,—how a good man can, as we say, persuade himself that wrong opinions and wrong actions are reasonable and right. Not that he does persuade himself, but that his reason appears to act in an independent way, and
brings forward arguments in favour of a conclusion which he has already unconsciously accepted.
          This is a piece of self-knowledge upon which every child should be brought up if we would not have him at the mercy of chance convictions. Perceiving this, he would see for himself the object of his education; and young people would be eager to acquire knowledge were they brought to perceive that wide knowledge of men and events is a necessary foundation for convictions which shall be just as well as reasonable.
          This is one reason why children should have a wide and generous curriculum. We try to put them off with a parcel of ready-made opinions, principles, convictions, and are astonished that these do not stick to them; but such things each of us has to get by his own labour. It is only a person of liberal mind whose convictions are to be trusted, because they are the ripe fruit of his knowledge.
          But, after all, the crank (it is possible to write with impunity of cranks and prigs, because the characters do not precisely fit anyone), is a person who errs by excess. It is not always that he does not know, but that he allows one aspect of a subject to fill his mind. Euthyphro knew as well as anyone the love and reverence due to a parent, but he allowed this single conception,—of justice, without regard to persons, as pleasing to the gods,—to occupy his mind exclusively.
          And this is how we bring up cranks. We magnify a single good quality or a single conviction until there is no room for anything else. We probably fail to get in either the virtue or the conviction, but we do get in the notion that some one aspect of truth is the
whole truth. This mental attitude accounts for the extraordinary fitfulness of our opinions and efforts with regard to education. Now, the country is to be brought up upon nature-lore, and now upon handicrafts; now upon science, and then upon art; we will not understand that knowledge is food; and therefore we believe that the whole of education may be accomplished by means of a single subject.
          The time may come when we shall consider in the ordering of our lives the Aristotelian doctrine of the Mean, not because the Mean is safe and comfortable, but because excess is injustice, and no one may allow himself to be carried away by a single idea. Those who enlist for offensive attack upon some fortress of iniquity—intemperance, unchastity, ignorance, godlessness—are, of course, occupied before all things with the duty of their calling: a fighting soldier is not required to fulfil all the claims made upon the peaceable citizen. For the rest of us, excess is weakness; the ill-balanced character is harmful to society; and I venture to think that the zealous propagation of a single virtue in our schools, that of temperance or thrift, for example, to the omission or neglect of other teaching, may well do harm to the national character. We know how the inculcation of thrift has operated in France. Let us teach these (temperance and thrift) by all means; but also, and equally, diligence, candour, kindness, all the graces that go to make up love and justice, all the habits that ensue in intelligence.
          To repeat what I have already insisted upon to weariness, we must teach children a definite, ordered philosophy of life. It is all in the Bible? Yes, but our teaching of the Bible is no longer of the full,
exhaustive, progressive kind that should issue in a balanced character.
          The school curriculum should be an exemplification of the doctrine of the Mean as regards both studies and students, and should not be allowed to depend for its success upon the extremes of emulation or ambition. We have seen that the desire for distinction which makes the conventional person come out first in sports or examinations, converts the more erratic into what we call a crank. But, indeed, he has not had fair play—neither the one nor the other boy. Many motives must be allowed due action, and many interests must make their appeal, if we would have a sane and serviceable outgoing person. We are all creatures of infinite variety. It is a wonder to some of us how the fashionable woman sustains the London season: ‘excitement,’ we say, and dismiss the subject; but many a lady goes through the toils of the season with ease and pleasure who is not in the least excited by any of its events, just as many a man of affairs has a bewildering number of matters to attend to, but finds the day, as Goethe did, ‘infinitely long,’ and is able to get them all in.
          Child or man, we spend half our time in being bored; and we are bored because our thoughts wander from the thing in hand—we are inattentive. When for a moment we do brace ourselves to an act of attention, the invigorating effect of such act is surprising. We are alive; and it is so good to be alive that we seek the fitful stimulus of excitement—to be the more listless after than before, because we have been stimulated and not invigorated. Being bored becomes a habit; we secretly look forward with longing to the end of every occupation or amusement, and
are ready to take up easily with any ‘crank’ that promises distraction and fuller living, for however short a time. When we have used up that interest, another may occur.
          That we cannot find life enough for our living is perhaps one of these ‘shoots of everlastingnesse’ (not always ‘bright’) which remind us that we are the ‘children of an infinite hope.’ But we may not check these growing pains by any means which stunt our growth; and, to begin with the children, we may do something to keep them from getting into the habit of being bored. As it is, the best children pay attention probably for about one-third of a given lesson; for the rest of the time they are at the mercy of volatile thoughts, and at the end they are fagged, not so much by the lesson as by the throng of vagrant fancies which has played upon their inattentive minds.
          How, if we tried the same quantity of work in the one-third of the time with the interest which induces fixed attention? This would enable us to reduce working-hours by one-third, and at the same time to get in a good many more subjects, having regard to a child’s real need for knowledge of many kinds: the children would not be bored, they would discover the delightfulness of knowledge, and we should all benefit, for we might hope that, instead of shutting up our books when we leave school or college, each of us, under ninety say, would have his days varied and the springs of life renewed by periods of definite study: we should all be students, the working-man as well as the man of leisure. The writer knew a man of ninety who then began to study Spanish. We know how our late Queen began the study of Hindustani at
seventy, and we all know of work of great value accomplished by aged persons.
          But this highly varied intellectual work must not have the passing character of an amusement (is not this the danger of lectures?) Continuation and progression must mark every study, so that each day we go on from where we left off, and know that we are covering fresh ground. Perhaps some day we shall come to perceive that moral and spiritual progression are also for us, not by way of distinction, but for us in common with all men, and because we are human beings.
          Much and varied knowledge, the habit of study (begun early and continued through life), some acquaintance with the principles of an ordered moral life, some knowledge of economic science, should help in the making of well-ordered, well-balanced persons, capable of living without weariness, and without a disordered desire for notice from other people. But if, by giving them knowledge, motive power, and work, it is possible to keep the bright impulsive children from becoming erratic persons, what about the slower and less generous natures who are apt, under culture, to develop into prigs?
          This letter from a boy’s master to his father indicates the sort of thing:—
Masters sometimes growl because bad boys are sent to them: am I unreasonable in complaining that Herbert is a deal too good? I have always felt it difficult to define a prig, most people find it so, but I begin to feel that the thing is developing under my eyes. Such an early growth should be easily checked. Have you any suggestions to give me?
Herbert does everything well; is punctual, and if
late, has excellent reasons for being so; he is absolutely never in the wrong; he is industrious, does his ‘preps,’ takes his turn in construing, even does his French exercises (!), has an orderly desk, tidy note-books, a decent necktie—what is there he does not do? He is strong in this new nature-study, turns out a decent set of verses, makes a decent score at cricket. ‘Why grumble?’ you will say? ‘Haven’t I sent you a model, dutiful schoolboy, if he is a bit conceited?’ He is not exactly conceited, and he is not dutiful. What he does is just to let all those virtues shine by comparison with the rest of the boys who lack them, many of whom are really more interesting and original than this Admirable Crichton. He just surrounds himself with an atmosphere of righteousness, in which ordinary mortals can’t breathe. He is most aggravating when great people and great things are being talked about. It is proper then to be humble, and he puts on the air of an Uriah Heep. If I snub him, he is silent and stubborn. He is always too busy doing his duty to be of any use to the small boys;” etc.
          This sort of virtuous child is apt to be a home-product. We are not told how long Herbert had been at school, but should judge that the school was small and for young boys. Also, we should imagine that the boy’s father, and perhaps his mother, were persons genuinely interested in education, who set ideals before their children. We gather, too, that the boy has little originality, although he turns out decent verses.
          Here we have the young prig fully accounted for; and at a time when parents and teachers are taking education very seriously, we must remember that he
is a likely outcome of this very zeal. Such another wave of educational thought reached England in the eighteenth century, and we have ‘Mr Barlow’s’ admirable pupils, Miss Edgeworth’s Frank, and all the nicely-labelled scaled of virtues and vices. The child in a family with perhaps the least in him sees that his parents commend certain things—a well-cleaned bicycle, for example—and that they reprove his brothers and sisters for being late, or untidy, or careless. He is perhaps half-conscious of inferiority to the rest in many things, so he builds up an ideal of various virtues which are easily within his reach, and presents that product which we call a ‘prig.’ He is a very difficult person to treat. It is not easy to say to him that his virtues are a bore; that nobody cares a pin about them; and as for snubbing him, to snub a person full of conscious virtue is to awaken a slow fire of resentment, not likely soon to go out. Perhaps education should be with us (in our family life) like religion—to be acted, but not to be talked about. The danger of offering material for a false ideal is a very real one. The child with plenty of stuff in him will slip the yoke now and then, and make jokes about the ideal which, although he does not know it, is shaping him; but the good child of slow intelligence ‘acquires merit,’ picks up the virtues that come in his way, and makes a caddis-worm case of them, an unattached integument instead of a growth from within. It is hard to get at him, because there are no depths to be sounded; even ‘the sharp ingredient of a bad success’ does not affect him much—he has no measure for the badness. We must recollect that his desire for distinction is as great as that of his more original brother; but, with
the cuteness of a small mind, he chooses to excel in being good rather than in being odd.
          But this, too, is only a phase of the uneasiness of human nature. It is encouraging to reflect that a sense of deficiency may be at the bottom of it; and for the sake of this weaker brother we must be careful not to put too big a premium of praise of the little conventional virtues, as easy as they are necessary: in our readings and talk, qualities of heart and head must be emphasised, rather than all the good little virtues contained, so to speak, in our own skin. We may even be obliging and helpful, just out of virtue: really it should be possible to make children see that self-contained virtue bores other people, that kindness and service is of value only as it comes out of love, that industry and perseverance are good only when they are the outcome of duty, that there is no worth in the diligent doing of lessons unless we love knowledge. Our danger in dealing with children of this type is that we should lose sight of our own ideal, and accept the display of virtues which are certainly convenient.
          It is to be hoped that Herbert will go, by and by, to a big school. Boys do not tolerate the Better-than-my-neighbour order of virtues. Goodness, for them, must be spontaneous, and not laboured; must be unconscious too; they scent a prig from afar, and have ways of their own for taking it out of him.
          The prig and the crank appear to have one thing in common—the desire to be remarkable, distinguished in one way or another; this universal desire is a natural provision for the feeding of the mind, as hunger is for that of the body; but we may not bring
up boys and girls to depend upon a moral tuck-shop. There are other things to live for besides the getting of praise and the shirking of blame, and every child is open to the greater considerations.
          The more sincerely we face the problems of education, the more shy we become of any cut-and-dried treatment of human nature. We have an increasing sense that a person is infinite, capable of so many joys, such aspirations, such labours, such distresses—and uneasiness like that of the restless sea! How shall we get tenderness enough to deal with child or youth? is a question ever present with us. We know that his distress and his uneasiness are ‘growing pains,’ but we know, too, that he is not always able to bear them, and finds ways to ease his aching at the cost of his growth.
          Is there no peace? Goethe, we have seen, found a curious peace which lasted him all his life in the perception that “we are His people and the sheep of His pasture,” which he got out of his study of the early books of the Bible.
          The writer is familiar with a German watering-place much frequented by Polish Jews of the poorer sort, went thither probably by benevolent brethren of their race. These men are by no means phlegmatic; groups of three or four will engage in talk for hours at a spell, enviably earnest talk, impersonal, one would gather, from the faces of the speakers, and not like the chatter about baths and symptoms to be heard in passing other groups of talkers. We may take it for granted that they are not notable for the conventional virtues. But the curious thing about all these men, whether of the ruddy or dark type, is their tranquillity of aspect; their faces are like those of little
children, simple, interested, untroubled, and very free from lines of anxiety. Is it that, like Goethe, they are aware of themselves only as “sheep of His pasture,” and for the rest, take life as it comes?
          This peace comes to all simple, natural persons who have faith in God—as to the great German poet,—for faith is the only key to that science of the proportion of things which enables us to take ourselves simply as part of the general scheme, sure of being duly nourished and ordered, and under no compulsion to make life too strenuous. “My peace shall flow like a river” has been said; and this is what we forget, that the peace of God is an active principle,—ever-flowing, ever-going, ever-nourishing, ever-fertilising,—and not a passive state, a quiet creek, where we may stagnate at our ease.
          “My peace I leave unto you” conveys a legacy to children as well as to their elders. They appropriate this peace while they are quite young, and live in gladness and at ease; but we disturb them too soon. We throw them back upon their own endeavours; convict them of naughtiness, but do not convince them of goodness; make them uneasy and unhappy, so that they wince under our touch; and fail to open to them free paths to goodness and knowledge.
          That children should have the peace of God as a necessary condition of growth is a practical question. If we believe it is their right, not to be acquired by merit nor lost by demerit, we shall take less upon ourselves, and understand that it is not we who pasture the young souls. The managing mother, who interferes
with every hour and every occupation of her child’s life, all because it is her duty, would tend to disappear. She would see, with some amusement, why it is that the rather lazy, self-indulgent mother is often blessed with very good children. She, too, will let her children be, not because she is lazy, but being dutiful, she sees that—give children opportunity and elbow-room, and they are likely to become natural persons, neither cranks nor prigs. And here is a hope for society; children so brought up are hardly likely to become managing persons in their turn, inclined to intrude upon the lives of others, and be rather intolerable in whatever relation.
          No doubt children are deeply grateful to managing parents, and we are all lazy enough to be thankful to persons who undertake our lives for us: but these will-meaning persons encroach; we are required to act for ourselves, think for ourselves, and let other persons do the same.
          It is our puritan way to take too much upon us for ourselves and others: we must ‘acquire merit’ and they must acquire merit; and the feeding in quiet pastures, the being led beside still waters, we take to be the reward of peculiar merit, and do not see that it is a natural state and condition, proper to everyone who will claim it. If we saw this, we should be less obtrusive in our dealings with children; we should study to be quiet, only seeing to it that our inactivity is masterly.
          Wordsworth sums it all up in a few lines of profound insight, and adds the noble suggestion that, given elbow-room and the freedom of opportunity, we have within us natural powers whose due activity will of itself correct our failings. We may come to see that
this is some part of God’s way of forgiving us our sins:—
                                        “ ’Tis known
          That when we stand upon our native soil,
          Unelbowed by such objects as oppress
          Our active powers, those powers themselves become
          Strong to subvert our noxious qualities.
          They sweep distemper from the busy day,
          And make the chalice of the big round year
          Run o’er with gladness; whence the Being moves
          In beauty through the world; and all who see
          Bless him, rejoicing in his neighbourbood.”


[1] Cf. Jowett’s translation.