Letter XV. December 24, 1818
My dear Greaves,
Of all the affections of our nature, the most deserving of encouragement, the most kindred to the standard of true humanity, are no doubt those which are not confined to perishable objects; which do not solely act upon the imagination, but which are apt to expand the mind, and inspire the heart with a noble zeal for all that is truly excellent.
This consideration is of incalculable importance for the interest of moral education. It should form the very basis of all that a plan of education may propose, or a system comprehend. If it is necessary to store the mind with knowledge, to enlighten the intellect, and to explain correct principles of morality; if it is desirable to form the taste; it is still the more so, it is indeed indispensable, to direct, to purify, to elevate the affections of the heart: and we cannot commence at too early a period to proceed upon this principle.
I have been led into these remarks by the idea expressed in the concluding part of my last letter, - that the affection and confidence which the infant bears to the mother should be elevated, as well as encouraged and strengthened. It will not, perhaps, be superfluous to say a few words more in explanation of that proposition.
If the affections of the child were to remain forever concentrated in the focus of his love of the mother; if his confidence were forever confined to her; however well she may have deserved the tribute of never-failing gratitude, it is obvious, that the child must, earlier or later in his career, experience the most severe pain and disappointment, for which, with that exclusive direction of his moral nature, he could then find no remedy. The time must come when the tie, however sacred, which unites him visibly with his mother must be broken: and whether it may be so ordained that it be rudely snapped, or gently and gradually loosened, still the ultimate effect would be the same, equally painful and afflicting.
Not even the most sincere advocate of filial affection, than which few feelings can be purer or deeper, - not even he who is most intimately penetrated by that sentiment, would wish to contend for the exclusive and constant ascendancy of that principle over the mind. If we do not mean to lose sight entirely of the higher destination and of the most exalted duties of Man, we cannot conceal from ourselves that Man is not created "so noble in reason, so infinite in faculties," to give up his whole existence to his affection for any one individual, while the most comprehensive view of his duties, both to his Maker and to his fellowmen, is clearly laid before him by a thousand witnesses whose voice he cannot but hear.
It is clear, therefore, that the affection of the child for the mother is only to be appreciated in proportion as it serves to impress the infant mind with those emotions, and afterwards to render familiar to it those considerations which belong to the ultimate ends, as far as we may understand them, of the Creator in the formation of Man.
If a mother is conscious of this she will not find it difficult to take the right view of the affection which Providence has implanted in her child. She will consider it as the germ on which every better feeling must be engrafted. She will be led to consider herself as the instrument which Providence has chosen to purify that affection, to transfer its most intense agency to a still worthier object. She will then begin to understand why the most unlimited confidence springs so early and voluntarily from the very nature of the child. She will begin to understand that the infant is taught so early to confide, in order that one day this confidence may be centered and elevated to the confidence of a faith that will stand unshaken by danger, and unsullied by corruption.
Let me here allude, my dear friend, to an occasional circumstance which would have invited me to these reflections, even if I had not been engaged in conversing with you on the same theme. The date of this letter will, perhaps, remind you of a custom of my country, which you have observed while living amongst us. The days on which the Nativity of our Lord is commemorated in our churches, have been adopted, since time immemorial, as a season at which the children in every family receive from their parents, and from each other, little tokens of affection. Need I recall to your recollection those scenes of innocent and heartfelt joy with which you were so much pleased when you witnessed them among our children? They will convey to the mind of every observer a striking proof how little is requisite to give the most intense satisfaction, and to afford infinite gratification, where there is a real stock of affection, and where that simplicity of heart is still left, which it should be the care of education to preserve as long as possible. You have seen that those days are, amongst us, a real festival of affection in its fullest and most pleasing sense: and you will certainly not have found that the children, whose hearts were just then under the influence of affection, were less accessible to the call of sincere and heartfelt devotion.
I have mentioned this circumstance because it would afford a copious theme for reflection on the subject that I have been treating.
It is upon facts like this which experience will, at some time or other, suggest to every parent, that I would ground the practical proof of the proposition that the affections, and especially the early affection of children to their parents, might be intimately connected with, and essentially conducive to, their being imbued with those impressions the object of which is more important than every human consideration, and more sacred than every human tie. (PSW 26, p. 83-85)