Letter X. November 27, 1818
My dear Greaves,
I have frequently heard it observed, that there is not a more humiliating consideration than that of the first condition of man, when he has entered this world, a helpless stranger, equally unable to speak his wants, or to think of supplying them, or to give any token by which he might be recognised as a member of the rational creation.
I admit, that all this must strongly remind us of the weakness of our nature, that it may guard us against the presumption of trusting in our own powers; and I think it right to encourage any reflection which may call back to our mind what we are but too apt to forget. But though this consideration is by no means flattering to our vanity, yet I cannot see why it should be so peculiarly humiliating.
Let the case be put as strongly as observation may warrant us to do. Let it be granted, that weeks must pass, before the infant will give any proof of any faculty superior to those of irrational animals. Let it be added, that no animal is so physically helpless, so destitute of power, as the infant for some time after his birth. And thus let the commencement of human life occupy the lowest place even in the scale of mere animal existence. Still I confess that, from a moral point of view, I cannot find anything humiliating in this fact.
(To see a rational being brutalized) - that indeed may be called the severest lesson to anyone who has a wish to vindicate the moral character of human nature. But this most humiliating observation will bear no comparison with the fact now before us. Or, who is not aware of the immense difference between a state of animal existence, to which the manifestation of spiritual life will succeed, and between moral and responsible existence, in which the germs of that life have been oppressed, and blighted. In the one instance, we look forward to progressive elevation; in the other, we turn away from successive degradation. Before the light of intelligence has appeared, before the voice of conscience has spoken, neither error nor corruption can exist; but where the one has been darkened, and the other is slighted, there may we lament over the blindness, the selfishness of man.
Instead, therefore, of dwelling exclusively on the want of an intellectual and moral principle, we ought rather to watch its first appearance; instead of reviling the work of the Creator, we ought to acknowledge His wisdom in opening, at whatever period it may please Him, the eyes of his creatures, and unclosing to them both a visible world full of miracles, and a spiritual world full of blessing: instead of complaining, than which nothing can be more wrong, and more unwise, that He has not created us more perfect, we ought rather to examine ourselves, how far we are still from that point of perfection, which He has placed within our reach.
I have said thus much, because the subject affords frequent scope for thoughtless and frivolous remarks, which might perhaps in some measure contribute to damp the zeal and interest of mothers. But I trust that a mother will always consult her own experience, and her own heart, rather than the sophistry of those who cannot feel with her.
Let her then consider the stranger on her breast as a being destined for a better existence than the one in which he now unconsciously looks up to her for that support which Providence has placed it in her means to give. Let her not only follow that instinctive affection, which could not allow her to be insensible to the wants of her infant; let her look forward to the time in which her infant shall be alive to a sense of duty in this, and to hope for another world: and let her not forget, that while such is the destination of her infant, on her devolves the task of preparing, and of teaching him, the first and most difficult steps of his path.
And when the first weeks of anxiety on her part, and of unconsciousness on that of her infant, are over; when the attention which is required, becomes monotonous and wearying; then will the mother feel a longing for something to animate the scene, to enhance the interest, and to encourage her to new exertions.
Nor shall she be disappointed; for the day will come, when the infant will no longer apply to the mother, only because her attention and her support are to him a source of animal gratification. The day will come, when his eye will catch the eye of the mother; when it will read there a language, new, and yet not unknown; when that look of love will call into life the first smile, to play round the lips of the infant.
With this fact, a new era begins in the infant's life. With it, a new world opens to his view. He has entered a new stage of existence; he has vindicated his character as a being superior to the rest of the animal creation.
The smile of joy, and the tear of sympathy, are denied to the animal race. They are given to man; they constitute a tacit language, common to all, and understood, because felt, by all. They are the earliest signs of feeling, which belong exclusively to man.
They are the early witnesses, whose meaning cannot be mistaken, of internal emotions. The character of these emotions may change, they may be momentary or permanent, and their objects may extend to endless variety; but the signs which nature has appointed for them, remain the same; and thus they will continue through life the never-failing indexes of feeling, whether it be clouded in silent grief, or wrapped in tranquil serenity; whether it make the bosom throb with agony, or heave with delight. (PSW 26 p.71-73)