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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Punishment

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. &S., I
Volume 11, no. 5, 1900, pgs. 273-283


The good that comes of penetrating beneath the surface of practice, and trying to substitute for mere rule-of-thumb or guess-work a consistency of fundamental principles, is perhaps not often more plainly shown than in our dealings with children. It is to be regretted that we do not recognize the full extent of the wrong we do to children in trying our 'prentice hands upon this tender and delicate material, content to learn by individual experience what we might have learnt before this experience began, and to amend through their misfortune a practice that might have been put to a preliminary test. It is not 'practical,' in the good sense, to blunder needlessly from wrong ways into right ones in the momentous task of bringing discipline to bear upon the formation of character in the young.

This, I think, is my justification for bringing before you for discussion a view of punishment which may at first sight appear remote from the needs of every day.

The word punishment covers, in ordinary use, two great classes or kinds of things. I mean that all grades and manners and details of punishment fall--or so it seems to me--into one or another of two divisions.

I. Disciplinary chastisement directed towards correcting the faults of the offender and helping him to form his character aright.

II. The penal, and, where, love and justice reign, the inevitable result of defying law and breaking order. This penalty vindicates the supremacy and beneficence of law and order, and protects from injury the community to which the offender belongs; but it does not promote his amendment.

The two kinds of punishment differ at almost every point. One is, under the best conditions, inevitable, the other comes as a gift; one benefits primarily the community, the other benefits primarily the individual member; one is only loss to the offender, the other may be the provision of his exceeding gain. One is forced upon him by his own evil will and deed, the other he is free to use or to reject, like all good gifts of love.

Let us take, as an example of the penal kind of punishment, the moral ignorance that comes of wilful turning away from the light, the state of conscience in which a man finds himself when he has steadily set his will to disobey the law of his conscience. He becomes ignorant of moral distinctions, because his conscience has lost sensitiveness and no longer disturbs him. In the sphere of morals, this is the most awful punishment; and it takes the form of deprivation, the form of loss; but it is, in no sense, in itself a remedial measure, indeed rather the contrary.

Most of the punishment justly and wisely given to children is in principle of the other kind; it is disciplinary chastisement and has the purpose in the moral sphere of increasing both the sensitiveness of conscience and the desire and power to obey its laws. It is both remedial and corrective, and is the means of gain, not loss, in power and scope of function and operation. It is not justly inevitable, like the other kind; nor, strictly speaking, is it earned by the offender like the other kind. It comes as a gift of love and care from parents and teachers, or, in the world at large, from other vice-regents of God in authority within the social body of which we are living members. Men and women and children may sometimes escape it--at least to a great extent--or rebel against it, and, in either way, miss the gain it brings; no human being who gains it can finally escape the punishment of loss; nor can any power ward it off, because it is freely earned by a personal being who cannot lose his freedom without ceasing to be a person and becoming a mere thing.

People tell us nowadays, perhaps more emphatically than ever before, although the notion is at least as old as Plato, that no punishment not remedial can possibly be just. A very little thought shows that this view of the matter involves a theory of wrong-doing in which evil is classed either as disease, or as the result of want of development or of unfavourable circumstances; and there is left out of account the power of initiative, the free activity and will, of the wrong-doer, as well as his final responsibility for his own character and the fact that, against his will, no power in earth or heaven can make him good.

If there is a possibility of setting the will against the good of order and of law, or of attaining by free choice blindness to that good, something must happen to the lawless man unless law and order and the good of both are to be discredited in the community, and the well-being of the whole sacrificed to the selfish self-seeking of its evil parts. The something that happens is the defeat of the attempt to gain without law the good the law alone can provide; and it is punishment-- punishment inevitable, punishment earned, punishment that cannot be withheld where love and righteousness keep rule.

In all our experience, mental, moral, physical, in our personal and social and political life, this true penalty of evil-doing is always marked by loss, by deprivation of the good at which law is aimed, and for the sake of which obedience to law is in love of men justly demanded.

There is no clearer illustration of this principle than the most extreme case we can find, the most awful and complete of punishments, the total loss we call 'damnation.' Theologians speak of this as poena damni, the penalty of punishment by a loss without qualification or mitigation. Damnation is the loss of God; that is, it is the loss of all the benefits of life, and truth, and beauty, and every other good which divine love would freely give to all who will receive. It is the consequence of a man's seeking what seem to him things desirable, merely because he desires them for himself without consideration of the good of others, and the law of that good, and the part he ought to fulfil in relation to both. It comes of setting a selfish will in antagonism to the love-inspired laws of right, or bringing about through wilful wrong-doing a state of ignorance of those laws. To the eyes of the wrong-doer, it is inflicted, but it is truly won, freely won in spite of every inducement to take another course short of a compulsion destructive of the man. Not being a puppet, nor a tool, the man goes his own way to his exceeding loss, for, by lawlessness, he must deprive himself of the blessings that can come by law alone. He passes into the darkness of moral ignorance, of want of power and light, into the degraded state of one plunged into furious but impotent self-seeking, making for himself an inconceivable solitude by shutting out for ever Love and the gifts of Love.

All this horror is of his own making, but for him it is punishment coming from the Personal Law of the world, who is--although the blessed knowledge is lost by him--the world's supreme good, and, for Love's sake and the world's sake, must remain supreme.

We have also before our eyes, here and now, examples of the penalty of partial loss in our imperfect human life and society. Everywhere it comes as the natural consequence of defying the beneficial conditions of life and society, and of substituting license for liberty, isolation for membership, antagonism for co-operation, self-seeking in apartness for self-finding in bonds of oneness with the whole. It comes, because the good of the whole, the good and beauty and truth of life, depend on the maintenance of these conditions.

The principle is exemplified even in the simplest things. If a man were so foolish, for example, as to set himself to use electricity according to his own fancy or caprice, paying no respect to those lessons of experience we call its laws, if he tried to make telegraph lines of hempen rope and lamps of paraffin or tallow, if he defied the constitution and disregarded the proper ways of electric action, we know quite well what would certainly happen. He would lose all the good of it, he would not be able to use it, he would forfeit all the advantages he could have gained through obedience and an orderly co-operation with it. If he had adapted his own behaviour to its demands he would have been free of its benefits--the benefits he must lose by his perversity. This is his proper punishment, the punishment he cannot escape. He may or may not be positively injured, hurt or even killed, in the course of his foolish defiance, but this is not inevitable; what is inevitable in this and every other instance of defiance of perfect law is the loss of that which order provides, the privation of that good which its observance only can procure. It rests in the nature of things that this loss should come about, but a man brings it upon himself as surely as he sets himself to deal wrongly in stupid self-will with a power that would otherwise bring him nothing but good.

We see the same principle exemplified in the life of the social and political community to which we belong, the great national body in which we are members. If a man sets himself against the ordered common will of the body and defies the laws in which that common will is expressed, if he commits crimes, as we say, and breaks the law, then he must quite certainly, as soon as he is found out by the community, lose the good at which the law is aimed. The laws of a free community are expressive of its will and are aimed at maintaining order for the common good. If a member of the community sets his will in antagonism or isolation, he cuts himself off from the good the law might have provided for him in a life of harmony with the rest. Society may add to this loss--inevitable in a law-abiding community when love and justice are maintained--disciplinary chastisement of this kind or of that, aimed at the amendment of the offender; and if its discipline fails, it may even condemn the wilfully lawless man to life-long imprisonment or to death, but it so doing it does but ratify and complete the act by which he himself effected his severance from the whole of which he was a part, and with which his true well-being was bound up.

Social or judicial deprivation has, for its aim, the protection of the whole body and the vindication of the good of order and law; it is an outcome of the existence of a corporate unity upon the one hand, and the possession of individual power in its members to accept or to reject, upon the other. It does not (like total loss) entirely preclude the application of remedial discipline, and it is the business of us all to see to it that while the offender bears, as he must, this punishment of loss, beneficial discipline and chastisement shall work towards his amelioration [improvement].

The popular opinion of the present day, that unless a punishment is remedial it is unjust, is connected with a materialistic theory which will pass away, and the opinion, at its best, is incapable of resisting the logic of the stubborn facts of life; but it is due moreover to an individualistic way of looking at things, it ignores the inestimably valuable truth that every human being is incomplete by himself, that he cannot live his proper life to his proper advantage unless he lives as what he truly is--the member of a body sharing life with the body and all its other members, giving to it and them, receiving from it and them, and finding his own good in union with the good of all the rest. It ignores this and, therefore, fails to reckon with the fact that the freedom of the individual member is conditional on his harmony with the other members of the whole, his effective power dependent on the coincidence of his will with the common will. It is at variance with the truth that, in isolation, antagonism and self-will freedom and power must both be lost, and that such loss is in itself the most severe but the most just of penalties.

There is punishment--let us not forget the fact--there is punishment that is not remedial, yet is most just; that is inflicted yet is freely earned; that no power, human or divine, can abrogate; no love, no mercy, can withhold.

"Punishment," says Dr. Bigg, "Is the safeguard of Law, that is to say, of the unity, life and welfare of the whole, and of the individual in and through the whole. It does not aim at amendment but at the maintenance of that law, which alone can amend."

The principle of the maintenance of beneficent law should never be lost sight of in the application of remedial discipline and chastisement. The moral discipline of children is, of course, remedial in its object, but the more clearly we distinguish for ourselves between such discipline and true penal loss--the punishment of deprivation--the better will our discipline be.

Let me remind you of the best form of discipline, that which falls, perhaps, chiefly upon those who merit least of the penalty of loss--I mean the chastisement we welcome as the instrument of our own recovery and advance in the way that leads to good, the chastisement of sons beloved by their Father. This chastisement is certainly accompanied by pain of one kind or another, but undoubtedly if it is willingly received, understood and responded to, if its discipline is taken as meant for our amelioration and help in the way by which we wish to go it brings with it, however painful it may be, not loss but gain. It is not penal, it is remedial; and it is remedial in proportion as the distinction is perceived by us, and the Father, rather than the condemnatory Judge, is recognized as its source. Piece by piece, in this discussion, you see, we are putting together our scheme of principles about punishment and discipline.

Punishment proper, the penalty of loss, is a natural consequence of rebellion against the conditions under which all true good is won, and it protects the community and vindicates the supremacy of law against the lawless, but cannot of itself remedy their lawlessness, because, in the nature of things, all good comes of freely-given obedience to the law, and this obedience they refuse.

Discipline or chastisement is not a natural consequence of wrong-doing; it is the gift of love, and it brings no loss, but gain proportioned to the welcome and response with which it is received.

In our treatment of children we cannot fail to profit by a recognition of these principles; nor can they fail to profit if we make clear to them from the very beginning that we recognize and act upon the distinction between penalty and discipline.

Upon our outlook on life, on experience, on the treatment we ourselves receive, and the results of our own thought and doings, these same principles seem to me to cast a great and inspiriting light. In a highly technical work on Judicial Punishment I came upon some reflections upon Dante, which are well worthy of being noted in connection with this subject.

Dante pictures for us three spiritual states of life, states profoundly real. In one of these states men are in love with evil, without knowing that it is evil. Step by step in the earthly life they have chosen this or that course of action because it seemed to gratify desire, not caring, or not knowing and not seeking to find out, whether it was right or wrong, lawful or lawless. Therefore step by step they have brought themselves to a condition in which they do not, and cannot, discern evil as evil. They suffer, for they have lost everything good, and all their desire is unsatisfied; but they attribute their pain, the pain of awful, inevitable, universal loss, to any cause but the right one, the necessary recoil of lawlessness upon the lawless and evil man.

This state is called Hell.

In another state, men discern their sin as sin, and seek to escape from it. To this end they welcome purifying discipline, and with all its hardships and its pain; they see in it, not punishment, nothing penal or of the nature of loss; they see only the remedy for their weakness and disease that Love itself provides.

This is the Purgatorial state of those whose will is set towards good, whose life is travelling onwards towards Paradise, the state of men for whom discipline has done its work and come to an end.

In Paradise the victory over self-seeking and selfish love is complete. Life has no hindrance: it is full in its harmony with Divine Order, and free in obedience to Divine Law.

We come now to make some attempt to apply our principles in relation to the practical problems with which we have to deal.

It is plain that open-eyed, wilful, persistent rebellion against law and order justly brings the penal consequence of loss of what that order could have bestowed, and it is equally plain that this loss is not a benefit to the offender--that is, unless we regard it in the light of being not a positive injury to him, as would be, of course, any success attained in evil ways by lawlessness and rebellion against good. It is a benefit to the body, to the whole, not the offending member.

Discipline, on the other hand, discipline or chastisement, is always remedial or corrective, if rightly given and rightly received, however painful it may be; and it is with this kind of punishment that parents and teachers are chiefly concerned. We must not forget, in our interest in discipline, the need of making clear to those with whom we have to deal how greatly the pain of discipline differs from the penalty of loss due to wilful defiance of law, and how terrible this latter penalty is in its inexorableness and magnitude. The chastisement we administer must be a defense against the earning of any punishment of loss, for if it be not, it fails wholly of its object; and since its utility depends on the way it is received, we have, therefore, to train up in our children the power to respond to it by voluntary co-operation with us.

Again, it is part of the education of a child of which far too little notice is taken that he should be made to see that he is not a self-sufficient being, but a member of a great living body, which works well only when it works in the universal order. Then he will be able to understand that lawlessness--that is, evil-doing, criminal or sinful--brings with it a natural penalty of loss.

It is a strange thing that there is so much misunderstanding on this matter. Even Mr. Spencer, in his well-known Essay on Education, makes egregious mistakes in discussing punishment. For instance, in advising parents to make their discipline, as far as possible, follow the line of Nature's punishments, he gives as an instance of what he means the case of a child who leaves the contents of its toy-box scattered about on the floor. His practical recommendation is good; that child, he says, should be made to put away its toys itself; but he goes on to tell us that "the labour of putting things in order is the true consequence of having put them in disorder," meaning that it is the inevitable consequence, as burning one's finger is the inevitable consequence of putting it under ordinary conditions in a fire. This is not a fact; the true consequence of putting things in disorder is that the benefit of finding them in order next time is lost, as well as the benefit of keeping them useful and in good condition for a right length of time. To consent to being made to put them in order, or to make a voluntary effort to put them in order, is not merely 'natural'; it is a piece of excellent moral discipline of a kind possible only to a moral being who freely turns his will towards good and travels voluntarily along a path which is by no means 'natural,' by no means that of 'least resistance,' as the scientific people say. Can you imagine a monkey tidying up its toy-box? Certainly not; the monkey suffers the true natural consequence of disorder by losing the use of the disordered toys, and that is all.

It is true that, as parental or tutorial discipline increases in severity, it may reasonably imitate natural punishment; for, as Spencer points out, if the child does not respond to the attempt to make him restore order, the next step is to keep his toys away from him; but this is not the real thing, it is the application of a lesson learnt from observation of the real thing, from seeing the method by which Nature removes from an ill-user that which he ill-uses.

We gain enormously, I think, when we grasp once for all the great fundamental truth that no human being, old or young, can be forced to be good, simply because goodness is not a matter of mere exterior conduct, but of interior disposition, of will, character, or, as Swedenborg says, a "ruling love." Enlist the will on the right side, and discipline will have its proper effect; it will be remedial and corrective of the character and interior habits, and through these of the exterior conduct; have the child's will against you, or merely neutral, and you may for the time produce good exterior conduct; but as sure as man is man, endowed with the inalienable gift of free personality, there will come another time when the shell of good conduct will drop away like a rotten husk, and the true living character of the human being will show itself for what it really is. Not even the power of Almighty God can force the creatures made in His own image as free agents, and not playthings or machines, to be good against their will. If they persistently set their will against good, all that His power can do for them, the best even He can do (yet a best more terrible than we can conceive) is to withdraw from them that which they refuse to have, and leave them to themselves.

This is the law of Nature and the law of God about punishment. Its lessons for us are many and deep; but the one which comes home to me at this moment is the lesson of enlisting on our side, and the side of good, the will of our children, remembering always that, without it, our discipline will come to nothing, and the natural penalty of loss may be their lot instead. If we adopt any other plan, we shall ourselves be sinning against order; we shall be like the man who tries to send a telegram by means of a hempen rope, instead of a wire; our message will not be received. The power possessed by every normal human being, the power wielded by him as a true agent, is a part of his own order, and cannot be either broken down or over-ridden, or replaced. Nobody can build up character without the consent and co-operation of the person whose character it is. Every character is constituted from within by the use made of help and opportunities from without. We give help and opportunity; but there our power in relation to the character of our children is at an end. We are responsible for the giving of help and opportunity, and for the kinds of both that we give. Each child is finally responsible for the use he makes of them; it is his inalienable right to be, in the last resort, the disposer of himself, determining what his final destiny shall be by the direction he gives to his character and his 'ruling love'; and we shall miss our aim if we do not reckon with the law of our children, if we fail to enlist them on the side of right, and if we forget that they cannot be compelled to be good, however ingeniously we may contrive to make them seem good.


Proofread June 2011, LNL