Letter XIII. December 12, 1818

My dear Greaves,

The greatest benefit that results from a treatment of the child, such as the good old rule enjoins, is of a moral nature. When I speak of moral benefit, or of moral deterioration, I do not lose sight of the tender age to which I would ascribe it. I am not now speaking of a child in whom reason has in some degree been developed, and to whom you may attempt, with some hope of success, to explain the ideas of right or wrong, on which our private duties, and the fabric of our social system, are founded.

No; I am speaking of that period of infancy at which many, and perhaps most philosophers, would contend that a moral faculty is either totally wanting, or at least dormant. If, therefore, what I have to say on the subject, shall appear altogether visionary, I have only to reply that I am ready to give it up, whenever I shall stand convicted of its nullity by experience.

Till then, I mean to hold, that the better nature of the infant must be encouraged, as early as possible, to struggle against the over-growing power of the animal instinct which I consider as the basis of the lower nature of Man.

The agency of this animal instinct will become more manifest with every subsequent day of the infant's life. This instinct, now no more content with its first efforts which were necessary to self-preservation, is rapidly increasing in strength. (The eagerness of this craving of an infant forms a strong contrast with the weakness of its physical powers.) It would grasp every object which it perceives; there is nothing that strikes its curiosity, but that at the same time excites its desires; and the inconceivable obstinacy of this craving increases in the same measure as the object is placed out of its reach.

Whatever there is ungainly and unamiable in a little child will be found, in some way or other, connected with the agency of this animal instinct. For even the impatience of the infant, while under the influence of circumstances which may cause physical pain, is no more than a reaction of that instinct. If we consider the state of the infant, with its desires and its impatience, we shall see that it furnishes a striking parallel to the image of Man under the influence of his passions. It is customary to say that passion should be overcome by principle, and that our desires should be regulated by reason. But at a time when we cannot yet appeal to either, Providence has supplied a still more powerful agent in their stead, -- maternal love.

The only influence to which the heart is accessible long before the understanding could have adopted or rejected it as a motive, is affection. And it is a fact that no person can be so well qualified at an early period to gain the affection of a child, as the mother.

If, therefore, I find it asserted by an eminent writer that, in order to settle your authority over your children, "fear and awe ought to give you the first power over their minds, and love and friendship in riper years to hold it;" - I can only imagine, that a mistake has led that writer into a statement which is openly at war with the enlightened sentiments expressed in so many other pages of his valuable work.

For even supposing for a moment that the course which appears to be recommended in the above passage were found expedient and beneficial, as I am convinced that it will not be, still I cannot see how it should even be practicable at the time that I am speaking of.

"Fear" implies a knowledge of the consequences of an action or an event. It implies a consciousness of causality; and causality, in its turn, pre-supposes a faculty of observing, comparing, and combining a variety of facts, and of deducing from them a conclusion.

Surely the ingenious writer from whom I have quoted, could not have given credit to the infant for a course of reasoning so complicated, so foreign to the state of its mental faculties. "Fear", then, we shall be obliged to dismiss at once. Even if it were not, as a motive of action, unworthy of a human being, it would be inapplicable at the first, and certainly not the least important period of life.

By "awe" may be understood, either an indistinct and vague feeling which casts a veil over the mind, and while it works upon the imagination, and the nervous system, has nothing to do with reasoning, and is not fit to direct the faculties to a certain line of action; or else, "awe" may be said to originate in a conviction of the moral superiority of another being, that pervades the mind, and prompts the heart to look with veneration on subjects which the intellect is unable to scan, and to follow precepts which have received their sanction from infinite wisdom.

That awe, in the first-mentioned sense, has some affinity with the first sensations of an infant, I admit. But everything of that sort that may be said to belong to infancy, originates in a feeling of helplessness, or of occasional pain. It may, then, be said to be a mere physical phenomenon: and as such, I conceive that it would be little qualified for a motive to be employed in moral education. But besides, it could not serve as a motive, because, from its nature, it is a mere transient sensation, and cannot, of course, lead to a constant line of conduct or contribute to form a moral habit.

Awe, in the other sense, seems to pre-suppose more than one idea to which the infant is yet, and must for some time continue to be, a stranger. Moral worth can only be appreciated when there is a consciousness of moral energy. And if divested from its character as a moral feeling, it will be dissolved into fear. But, in the better sense, the feeling of awe, which is essential in the formation of religious ideas, and in the communication of religious impressions, ought to be reserved for that period, when it will be first excited by a consideration of that being to whom, with the exclusion of all finite beings, that feeling may be said to be due in a pre-eminent degree. (PSW 26, p.77-80)