Letter XVI. December 31, 1818
My dear Greaves,
If the mother has once accustomed herself to take the view to which I alluded in my last, of the affection and the confidence of her infant, the whole of her duties will appear to her in a new light.
She will then look upon education not as task which to her is invariably connected with much labour and difficulty, but as a work of which the facility, and in a great measure also the success is dependent on herself. She will look upon her own efforts on behalf of her child not as a matter of indifference, or at least of convenience, but as a most sacred and most weighty obliga- tion. She will be convinced that education does not consist in a series of admonitions and corrections, of rewards and punishments, of injunctions and directions, strung together without unity of purpose or dignity of execution; but that it ought to present an unbroken chain of measures originating in the same principle, - in a knowledge of the constant laws of our nature; practised in the same spirit, - a spirit of benevolence and firmness; and leading to the same end, - the elevation of Man to the true dignity of a spiritual being.
But will the mother be able to spiritualise the unfolding faculties, the rising emotions of her infant? Will she be able to overcome those obstacles which the preponderance of the animal nature will throw in her way?
Not unless she has first lent her own heart to the influence of a higher principle; not unless the germs of a spiritual love and faith which she is to develop in her child, have first gained ground in the better affections of her own being. Here, then, it will be necessary for the mother to pause and examine herself how far she may expect to succeed in inculcating that to which in her own practice she may have been a stranger more than she would wish to confess to herself. But let her be sincere, for once; and if the result of her examination be less favourable to her own expectations and less flattering to her self-love, let her resolution be the more sincere and vigorous, to discard for the future all those minor predilections, to check all those wishes which might alienate her from her new task; and to give her whole heart to that which will promote her own final happiness and that of her child.
However difficult it may appear at first to resign, to dismiss the thought of some hopes, and to defer the accomplishment of others; still that struggle is for the very best cause, and, if serious, cannot be unsuccessful: for there is not an act of resignation, there is not a single fact in the moral world, however distinguished, to which maternal love could not furnish a parallel.
If the mother is but conscious of the sincerity of her own intentions; if she has raised the tone of her own mind, and elevated the affections of her being above the sphere of subordinate and frivolous pursuits; she will soon be enabled to ascertain the efficacy of her influence on the child.
Her best and almost infallible criterion will be if she really succeeds in accustoming her child to the practice of self-denial. Of all the moral habits which may be formed by a judicious education, that of self-denial is the most difficult to acquire, and the most beneficial when adopted.
I call it a habit; for though it rests upon a principle, yet it is only by engendering a habit that that principle gives evidences of its vitality. The practice of all other virtues, and more especially many of the actions which are admired and held out as examples, may be the result of a well-understood moral rule which had long been theoretically known before it was applied in a practical case; or again, they may have flowed from a momentary enthusiasm which acts with irresistible power on a mind alive to noble sentiments. But a practice of self-denial, conscientiously and cheerfully pursued, can only be the fruit of a long and constant habit.
The greatest difficulty which the mother will find in her early attempts to form that habit in her infant does not rest with the importunity of the infant, but with her own weakness. If she is not herself able to resign her own comfort and her own fond desires to her maternal love, she must not think of obtaining such a result in the infant, for her own sake. It is impossible to inspire others with a moral feeling if she is not herself pervaded with it. To endear any virtue to another she must herself look upon her own duty with pleasure. If she has known virtue only as the awe-inspiring Goddess, "With gait and garb austere, And threatening brow severe,"- she will never obtain that mastery over the heart which is not yielded up to authority, but bestowed as the free gift of affection. But if the mother has in the discipline of early years, or in the experience of life, herself gone through a school of self-denial; if she has nourished in her own heart the principle of active benevolence; if she knows resignation, not by name only, but from practice; then her eloquence, her look of maternal love, her example, will be persuasive, and the infant will, in a future day, bless her memory and honour it by virtues. (PSW 26, p. 85-88)