Letter VI. October 31, 1818
My dear Greaves,
Had I been more anxious, on some former occasions, to suit my words to the taste of the one, and to the theories of others, I might perhaps have secured the approbation of those who are at present inclined to put upon my principles a less favourable construction, or to reject them altogether. But I have not been taught to refer to systems for the proof of what experience suggested, or practice confirmed to me. If it has been my lot, as I humbly hope that it was, to light upon truths little noticed before, and principles which, though almost generally acknowledged, were yet seldom practised, I confess that I was little qualified for that task by the precision of my philosophical notions, but supported rather by a rich stock of experience, and guided by the impulse of my heart. If, therefore, I am frequently recurring to an appeal to the feelings of a mother, you will easily conceive that, while I would court the examination of my principles, by those who are qualified for it by intellectual superiority, I would yet look for sympathy chiefly to those whose exertions are kindred to mine, - being sprung from the same feelings, and directed to the same end. Let me then proceed to lay before you my views, not indeed with the elaborate accuracy that might satisfy the criticism of a stranger, but with the warmth that may speak to the (heart) of a (friend).
I would, in the first place, direct your attention to the existence, and the early manifestation, of a spiritual principle, even in the infant mind. I would put it in the strongest light, that there is in the child an active power of faith and love; the two principles by which, under the divine guidance, our nature is made to participate of the highest blessings that are in store for us. And this power is not, as other faculties are, in a dormant state, in the infant mind. While all other faculties, whether mental or physical, present the image of utter helplessness, of a weakness, which, in its first attempts at exertion, only leads to pain and disappointment, that same power of faith and love displays an energy, an intensity, which is never surpassed by its most successful efforts, when in full growth.
I am fully aware, that what I have called, just now, a principle of faith and love in the infant, is frequently, and indeed generally, degraded by the name of a merely animal or instinctive feeling. But I confess, that I look upon the instinctive agency of the infant, on its first stage of existence, as the wonderful dispensation of a benign and all-wise Providence. In this wise, and, I repeat it, wonderful dispensation, we may indeed admire, with feelings of veneration, the free gift of the Creator to man a gift which, however man may pervert it, is yet, in its primitive agency, an incalculable blessing. And if the feeling I am alluding to, be called animal, I confess, that such appears to have been the intention of the Creator, that however low the first state of human existence might rank, it might yet adumbrate, in its primitive forms, the successive development of its spiritual nature.
This principle, however, for the existence of which I contend, is by no means absolutely ripened and purified in the child. If it were to remain among the inferior faculties, it would fail to act as a constant preservative of faith and love. It must, therefore, derive its nourishment and increase from nature: it must be cherished by the sacred power of innocence and truth. This must constitute the atmosphere in which the child is living. This daily nourishment of the child's love and faith, will, in time, unfold all the germs of the purest virtues. The infant is obedient, active, patient, - I should almost have said, wise and pious, before it has been taught to understand the nature or merit of these virtues. The highest and strongest power of spiritual elevation, of which the soul of man is capable under the influence of the divine doctrine of Christ, is communicated to the child in tender infancy, by a kind of revelation. It has a foretaste of the most sublime virtues, the power of which it is not yet able to conceive.
Thus the true dignity of Christianity may be said to be implanted in the child before it has an idea of the full growth of its yet tender germs in its breast. The sacred feeling of gratitude is active in the child in the moment of gratification, when it feels its animal life appeased, and its animal wants supplied. The sacred power of sympathy, which is superior to the fear of danger and death, is active in the child: it would die in the arms of the mother, to relieve her from imminent pain, the feeling of which is strongly marked on her features, - it would die for her, before it could conceive what is sympathy, or death. In the child, there is even an antepast of the feeling of tranquillity and delight, which is the reward of a resignation of our own desires, of a subordination of all our hopes and wishes, under the supreme and ruling principles of love and faith. This act of resignation, trifling as may be its immediate object, is the first step towards the conscious and principled exercise of self-denial.
In the arms of the mother, the infant is actuated, and as it were inspired by this principle, which may become its second nature, while the mind is yet far from a consciousness of that power, which, in its further development, may produce the most glorious efforts of self-denial. (PSW 26 p. 58-60)