The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Virtues of Simplicity
by Mrs. Clement Parsons
"How often some of us must have longed to make a clean sweep of all the 'little objects' in how many an over-ornamented drawing-room! For ladies are the worse sinners in this matter of the accumulation of worthless knick-knacks, hugging their chains. Like caddis-worms, they bedeck and bedizen their rooms till one can hardly move . . ."
"Simplicity is to do a thing, not because others do it, but because one inwardly wishes to do it. Simplicity obeys the commandment, 'To thine own self be true'--not to conventionality or to hearsay. To thine own self--it is the touchstone of simplicity."
Thursday, May 17th, 5 p.m., At 3, Grosvenor Place (by kind permission of The Lady Esther Smith). Mrs. Clement Parsons read a paper on The Virtues of Simplicity.
It is, I believe, on record that somebody once died of taking coffee and good advice. Lest the fear of a similar fate haunt the mind of anyone present this afternoon, let me preface this address by disclaiming any pretension to be didactic, still less original.
On "The Virtues of Simplicity," who could hope to suggest anything that should be, at the same time, fresh and of reasonable applicability? There is no forest of Arden nor any Walden Wood hereabouts for us and our children to practise "a return to Nature in"; and one imagines it was but a jesting tribute Voltaire paid Rousseau in saying to him, "Almost thou persuadest me to go on all fours." We are not arboreal creatures, and whatever simplicity we aim at must be a simplicity we can exercise within the four-mile radius, and within this goodly frame of things as they are, or mainly as they are. When I have said my say, if I have awakened any responsive echoes out of the experience of others, and thus fortified, it may be, their own impressions as to the desirableness of simplicity in life, the object of this little paper will be attained.
I have given as its title, "The Virtues of Simplicity," but simplicity is itself a virtue--and a fine art. For that matter, is not the whole expanse of every-day life but so much raw material, out of which it is, fortunately, just possible to weave a result properly deserving of being called "artistic"? Yes, as Wordsworth reminds us, "Life requires an art," and perhaps the most valuable factor in the general art of living is simplicity. Like all supremely great things, simplicity is many-sided and profound, does not lend itself easily to definition, evades our analysis. Simplicity is self-respect, it is discretion, it is to "make the journey of life with just luggage enough"; and in this last sense--as simplification--it is the first letter of the alphabet of the art of living. You have only to turn a search-light on the current methods of diet, dress, household life, medicine, education, to see that they all stand in need of continual simplification, depletion, weeding. And to do so is the gradual tendency of the age we live in. Nothing is more promising than to contemplate what a mass of useless conventions, pretences, and intermediaries have, during the last thirty years, been swept into the gulf.
I know few sayings, by the way, more illuminating than that of Wordsworth's, "Life requires an art." There must be an idea in every hour of our lives, and only when there is, is that hour worth living. Wherever human creatures succeed in moulding things to their higher ideas, we may justly call their efforts artistic, whether it be in landscape-gardening, or handwriting, or tone of voice. A completely successful management of each of these constitutes an art, and impresses us more or less with a sense of the beauty which art exists to create. And what do all such minor arts make for when they combine, as in happy cases they do, and merge harmoniously in the complete art of making life a thing of dignity and charm? What is the object of these separate rills of ideas uniting in that one main idea? It is self-expression. In proportion as life approaches self-expression, is it worthy to be called artistically successful? Yet, diving into the lives and circumstances of our contemporaries and ourselves, how seldom we see this ideal of self-expression carried out in practice. Instead, we drift along in an unmeaning conformity, walled in on every side by multifarious "duties" that are no duties. What we want is to be inoculated with a little boldness and a good deal of simplicity.
I hope no one imagines I am recommending a revolt against the many necessary conventions of civilized existence. Nobody is more firmly persuaded than I am of the general good sense of the social ordering; only I am equally convinced that there are many conventionalities and traditional, imitative habits that are both unnecessary and harmful, and that it is fatal to adopt unquestioningly the formulae of one's neighbours. Our girls are shy, and the children are gauche, and a considerable proportion of the men we respect and regard are either too reserved or too ironical to make good companions--and all because they lack the saving health of simplicity. Such characters imagine they have successfully hidden that treasure, themselves, and little guess how transparent their defensive mask is--how clearly we can see through the gauze. As Mr. Edward Carpenter has well said, "To work out one's own character pleasantly in the sight of all is one of the greatest of the arts of life," and simplicity is the chief means towards this deliverance; because, in the domain of manners, frankness and communicableness go with simplicity, and are, indeed, its immediate result. We all know the sheer magnetism of a simple nature--the nature that speaks out freely and equally without embarrassment or affectation, what we ourselves have only been feeling in the deeper region of our souls. I think there can be little doubt that, in the case of our Queen, her personal strength still lies, where it has always lain, in her great simplicity both of character and manners.
But we must, throughout, remember that the simplicity which it is so much to young people's advantage we should foster in the thoughts and feelings that dictate the mere manners, is to be a simplicity compatible with discernment. Because they are simple, they are not to be uncritical in their dealings with a miscellaneous world, and we should remind them that they are not called upon to give their best to the best. We do not want to see them in "the crowd that cheers but not discriminates." It is almost needless to say that the fitting form of simplicity varies with the time of life. In a grown person, the simplicity of childhood would be a stupidity, while in a child the simplicity of mature character would be affectation. Simplicity of character is the crowning virtue of clever people, since brilliancy of mind has so many temptations to let its own subtlety invade the realm of the emotions and the will.
As in adult life, a true simplicity is the highest achievement of the art of living, so it is the most natural attribute of childhood, and precisely as it is the hardest art for us grown people to attain, so it is the easiest quality to destroy in childhood. Therefore, if I can remind those of you particularly who are parents and guardians to regard simplicity as an essential ingredient in education, I shall be well content.
The whole world knows that it is, as I have just said, a young child's nature to be simple, and everyone knows equally well how rapidly, in disadvantageous conditions, childish simplicity becomes tarnished. Hence, our knowledge behoves us to be often at our child's side, ready to give him early object-lessons (if I may so call them) in that later, reasoned simplicity of which I am speaking to-day. And we need never do more than wait upon a child's own occasions to find a speedy opportunity for our seasonable word. I was walking recently with a little girl down a street of small villas. The street itself happened to be particularly barren of interest from the child's point of view, so she solaced herself by counting up the dark curtains at the dining-room windows as against the summer or lace curtains. Suddenly she said to me, "Oh, look! Why have the people in that house turned the marble lady's face away from them? If it was a little girl, I should think she had been naughty!" I glanced across an asphalte garden, and beheld a Parian bust set in the window and facing the glass. Clearly the inmates of the room behind were pathetically content to have, for their own daily portion, the hollowed back of the bust, which, by a curious irony, was that of the Goddess of Wisdom. We semi-petrified adults are so inured to seeing suburban busts turned towards the road that we have become callous to the eloquence of them as symbols. But I thought that the child's innocent question, "Why have the people turned the marble lady's face away from them?" was not far from being a trenchant condemnation of many of the dismal unrealities in the house--and the life--unbeautiful.
A child instinctively shies at such a sight as I have described; any child caught young enough would do so, including, no doubt, the child to whose elders poor Minerva "belonged." But, little by little, the protest of simplicity will be nipped, and custom--in the shape of pretences and un-simplicities manifold--will overlay it "heavy as frost, and deep almost as life," till the child, too, is plunged neck-deep in that superfluous study of the world's opinion which is so regrettable and so much an enemy to peace. But, for the child who has been studiously imbued with a belief in the beauty of simplicity, a happier fate waits, for nothing will appear to him at once so repugnant and so futile as self-display, the turning of Minerva's bust towards the road. It is everything to cultivate, or re-cultivate, in the children that sort of character which Matthew Arnold attributes to Joubert, the French critic, "a changeless preference of being to seeming, and of knowing to showing." Unreality of character and sham brilliance are decided rocks ahead of girls and boys, and I think we should be on the look-out for the evil even in unlikely places, and endeavour all we can to oppose it by our own glorification of simplicity.
To cease utterly from being artificial and derivative--I expect that, just at first, that would seem to some youths and maidens the most difficult affectation of all. Yet how infinitely quicker, did they but guess it, they would reach any goal by means of simplicity--with all the confidence and spontaneity it brings with it! What they need is to be helped out of the morbid habit they have got into of accounting their real selves less competent to sustain the role of life than the shadow-shapes of borrowed selves. Never did that delicate thinker, Amiel, conceive anything juster or of which life oftener reminds one than when he wrote, "Let us humbly accept even our own nature. Not that we are called upon to accept the evil and the disease in us, but let us accept ourselves in spite of the evil and the disease." It is a golden-thoughted counsel, and we can feelingly persuade our older children of its truth by reasoning with them--that nobody ever did or ever could change his original make, nor desert his own type; that all endeavour spent on trying to do so is waste of energy; but that what they can do is to frankly accept and then set about developing themselves--I use "developing themselves" as the equivalent of the more old-fashioned phrase "Improving themselves." And, in the majority of cases, I am sure, lives do clarify and become more real as they grow gradually older--all the simple, ancient, familiar doctrines come to have a meaning.
I think that simplicity of character is almost the most endearing attribute of either man or woman, and also the most impressive, and the most strengthening to the weaker natures of others. Who, on the contrary, can sufficiently emphasise the lassitude--I know no other word for it--the indescribable lassitude one feels in the presence of all unreality?
Always, simplicity has been the hall-mark of great men. Who ever opened the biography of a hero and did not find that he was simple in his manners, his wants, his habits, consequently robust to endure hardship, and the possessor--not the possessed--of his possessions? What strikes the popular imagination deepest in the personalities of Martin Luther, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, General Gordon? Their radiant simplicity, I am convinced. All the supremely fearless and God-fearing men, all the men of action, have been simple; and only to read of their simplicity buoys us up and refreshes us.
It is the same in literature; it is the same in art. Simplicity is the stamp of the work that endures, and nothing throughout the ages has been more certain than the simplicity of all commanding thought. Its immortality is carried out of its simplicity precisely because, by virtue of its simplicity, it continues to appeal to the universal understanding from generation to generation.
I was giving a lecture in the country not long ago on Browning, and when it was over, a lady said rather casually to me, "What I find in Browning is that he is so simple--as simple as a child." I was rather taken aback by the remark--one is so broken in to hearing people, whether they have read Browning or not, inveigh against his obscurity! But the more I reflected on it, the more I realized how perfectly true it was. Browning, of course, as everyone says, is often very tangled as to expression, and his mental processes were apt to be intricate and even tortuous, but, as regards the spiritual outlook, those few main ideas by which a man is guided, he is astonishingly straightforward and simple.
"Take what is, trust what may be."
"The world and life's too big to pass for a dream."
"Give earth yourself, go up for gain above."
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world."
These and a few other similar sentences sum up Browning's faith, and that, from first to last, was nobly simple. There was nothing esoteric, nothing ambiguous there.
Or take Browning's great brother poet, Tennyson. In Tennyson we see how the most exquisite refinement of taste made for a simplicity which is just as exquisite. Take such a poem as the famous one that occurs in "The Princess"--
"As through the land at eve we went."
Where, in literature, could anything simpler be found? It is the simplicity of its language--purely Anglo-Saxon and almost entirely monosyllabic--that expresses the poignancy of its ideas, till every word seems a poem in itself. Only such writers as have the gift of simplicity can ever reach pathos, and to them alone belong the keen, kind eyes that read the whole heart's pain and can interpret it.
As a matter of fact, every artist who has the root of the matter in him at all shrinks from any sort of redundancy and in-utility, and at least strives to be simple--for to be simple, as Tennyson was simple, is not an easy matter, is not for beginners. It is an absolutely necessary process with artists to be for ever chiseling away the surplusage, to be for ever removing, reducing, simplifying.
The law of economy governs art. In a work of art you want no stroke, no note, no syllable, which is not organic and structural. If there is one that can be spared, that one is doing mischief. Of Beethoven, by the way, we are told that his method of composition was one of ruthless excision.
Artists of the second and third rank are aware of the need for untiring deletion. They all know how much greater the half is than the whole, and none of them but believe and tremble in the presence of a master's simplicity, while to the extent to which they can assimilate the same spirit, do they, too, produce work which is all but masterly. I should say that the Louvre portrait of Mme Recamier by Jacques-Louis David is a case in point. It is its curiously antique simplicity that compels one's attention and rivets one's memory to that work.
Or think, for a moment, of the great sculptors. What is their supreme gift? What was Michael Angelo's? It was his grand simplicity blent with his grand power. So, too, the finest statuary of all, the statuary of Greece, moves to admiration, not by accumulation of detail, but by abstraction from it. Everywhere power is made manifest without the help of elaboration, and in its simplicity reside the unapproachableness and mystery of genius. How many of the greatest pictures the world has produced have had, for their subject, the simplest of all themes, a mother with a child!
Take the master-work of Goethe, "Faust." What a simple story is the essence of the tragedy! Take the successive lines and sentences set down to the part of Margaret. Only a mind of the highest genius would have been willing to make her say so little, and what she says so infinitely simple. Yet what a living, moving result--love, guilt, sorrow, redemption, the "ever-womanly," all coiled into that matchless creation--for even the god-like Shakespeare has not equaled the presentation of Margaret.
What is the unfading glory of Homer? His extraordinary simpleness of incident; the few distinct swift touches and no more, the marmoreal quality. What do we remember oftenest of Dante? The short, piercing descriptions in their towering simplicity. Look where we may, all the masterpieces that have become a part of the world's life are characterized by undeviating simplicity. No confusion, no overcrowding, no complication, no conceits. What is perhaps the finest portrait of contemporary times? The plainest and least ornate--Whistler's portrait of his mother.
In short, all the elements in beauty, grandeur and pathos are simple--as simple, it has been said, "as the lines in a Nile landscape--the strong river, the yellow desert, the palms, the pyramids--hardly more than a horizontal line and a perpendicular line--only there is the sky, the atmosphere, the colour" and these latter are like the ideality of genius, which, touching the true realism, turns simplicity into imperishable art. The pyramids themselves--colossal, yet how simple in form! You have but to contrast them with the Albert Memorial [a Gothic structure in Kensington Gardens] to obtain another note on the virtues of simplicity.
How does the example of the simplicity of a Dante, a Michael Angelo, a General Gordon bear upon ourselves and our training of our children? By assuring us that simplicity is an indispensable element of the true conquest of life. The vulgar idea that simplicity is somehow connected with privation, pain, and disadvantageousness is terribly widely spread. Socrates leveled at this blunder when he observed, "You, Antiphon, seem to think that happiness consists in luxury and extravagance, but I think that to want nothing is to resemble the gods, and that to want as little as possible is to make the nearest approach to the gods." Socrates expressed himself in the dialect of his own age, but is it not more than ever true to-day that we actually suffer from having too much of everything, and that there will be no deliverance for us till we find out that this is what has been the matter with us--that our disease was a plethora of the means of living, while the end of life was still to seek?
With every decade we see what were formerly called luxuries becoming more and more necessities. We accumulate too recklessly, we devour what we cannot possibly assimilate, we are in a fair way to die of surfeit, a thing as fatal as starvation, and, on the whole, less dignified. There is too much of everything nowadays--rather too much eating, certainly too much furniture, too much talking and writing, far too much lecturing, altogether too much fussing. In a well-painted picture, there is not a grain of paint which is mere material. All is expression.
If any doubt the truth of my assertion that we have too much furniture and too many impedimenta, I would ask them to direct their minds--if they can without blenching--to the operation of moving house! Are we not tyrannized over by our appurtenances and appliances? Do we not need a whole train of servants--not to wait upon us--but to remove the ever-recurring dust from our burdensome possessions? In a cunningly contrived shop window in Paris or Brussels or Bond Street, one object is placed alone or almost alone, and to its solitariness owes half its cachet, but in our dwelling-houses we learn little from the lesson. Think of the close crush of flowers on the table of most dinners of invitation, and then turn from those serried masses of forced blooms to an illustration in Mr. Conder's book on Japanese flower-arrangements, or to actual examples in Eida's shop in Conduit Street! Why do we not adopt the dexterous Japanese system of changing the objects in our rooms--putting half at a time away out of sight? It would be pleasanter for our visitors, pleasanter for the housemaids--indeed it would go far towards the solution of the problem of domestic service. And not that alone. If this Golden Age of the household could be established, the cares of the vast majority of women would be diminished. There would come a marked reduction in the distressing household activity, the militant pursuit of abject economics, the futile detail, and wearing drudgery, which still characterize the married life of many a woman whose interests might be comparatively intellectual and refined.
"It is not growing like a tree
How often one hears, "Who is so-and-so?" "Oh, the man who owns that immense collection of--," whatever it may be. "The man who owns" sometimes sounds dangerously akin, as a descriptive epithet, to "the man who is owned by the collection," and one might have imagined that the man's natural egoism would repudiate a tribute in which he himself is subsidiary to his purchases.
The case is still more desperate where no eye for quality exists, where a greedy capacity for quantity is substituted for it. How often some of us must have longed to make a clean sweep of all the "little objects" in how many an over-ornamented drawing-room! For ladies are the worse sinners in this matter of the accumulation of worthless knick-knacks, hugging their chains. Like caddis-worms, they bedeck and bedizen their rooms till one can hardly move for show-cases and silver tables and occasionals and cosies and easies, and mauresque and fretwork crimes committed in the name of "liberty," and a general glut of cushions.
There can be no delight in one's surroundings when they are dirty to the eye and sticky to the touch, and for this reason too, a severe style of house furnishing is best, especially in London, where, for very cleanliness and health's sake, people who are not absolutely rich must minimize textile fabrics in their rooms.
If we aim at any exquisiteness in our houses, the majority of us can only reach it, under the actual conditions that exist, by means of simplicity. Let us, therefore, courageously get rid of all the superfluous contents of rooms, their cartloads of varied material of uncertain value and certain uselessness, the books which are no books, the hoarded rubbish, the broken toys of every time of life. The counsel of simplicity is to destroy all lumber ruthlessly.
Great are the joy and value of making for oneself, as far as may be harmlessly, the sort of life one really likes. Nobody can settle what that is except oneself, but it largely consists in tranquil omissions of the notions of others, and I often think, when I hear people commiserating absent friends, that, as likely as not, those friends, within their four wall, are as happy as the day is long--only their idea of happiness does not exactly coincide with their critics'. Simplicity is to do a thing, not because others do it, but because one inwardly wishes to do it. Simplicity obeys the commandment, To thine own self be true--not to conventionality or to hearsay. To thine own self--it is the touchstone of simplicity.
Our blind enslavement to things is what begets that ugliest feature of modern civilization, social envy, with its correlative, ostentation. Looking at the middle and the lower middle class is especially to see the huge need for a better idea of living, in many sections of it, in this country. The old idea of the dignity of keeping to one's own rank as one's own rank is--partly for good, of course--no more; crests, the heraldry of Parkins and Gotto, are professed by all, the girls wear so much more ephemeral finery than their occasions warrant that, from the standpoint of taste, it would be a relief to see sumptuary laws revived.
Two hundred years ago, the first Lord Halifax gave his daughter some advice that might well be laid to heart still. "Above all," he wrote, "fix it in your thoughts, as an unchangeable maxim, that nothing is truly fine but what is fit, and that just so much as is proper for your circumstances of their several kinds, is much finer than all you can add to it. When you once break through these bounds, you launch into a wide sea of extravagance. Everything will become necessary, because you have a mind to it; and you have a mind to it, not because it is fit for you, but because somebody else hath it. This lady's-logic setteth reason upon its head, by carrying the rule from things to persons, and appealing from what is right to every fool that is in the wrong. The word 'necessary' is miserably applied; it disordereth families and overturneth governments by being so abused. Remember, that children and fools want everything, because they want wit to distinguish, and therefore there is no stronger evidence of a crazy understanding, than the making too large a catalogue of things necessary, when, in truth, there are so very few things that have a right to be place in it. Try everything first in your judgment, before you allow it a place in your desire."
"Spending their substance on that which satisfieth not"--how much there is of that going on about us. Obligatory over-work and over-worry are very present evils which many men, and women too, have to face, and I am fully aware that we have none of us altogether evaded what Ruskin called the Storm Cloud of the 19th Century. Yet I think that in the general interests of the community, as well as of those who might have leisure if they would, a stand should be made against the meaningless rush and self-imposed scramble without end in which many young women of the so-called "leisured" classes pass their days. If they are not more careful, their children will have lost the knack of leisure, that balm of spent minds; they will be incapable of the art of resting. Our girls are too ready with a description of themselves as hurrying off to this place and that, they are "frantically busy," they "haven't a moment to themselves." Not a moment to themselves--what a deplorable programme! And when one comes to analyse their day, what has it all amounted to but bustle? It has been unproductive labour and fatigue without profit. In other words, there has been no adequate return to anyone for the banished serenity, the fever, the fret, and the fury, and these young women have disquieted themselves in vain. In behalf alike of true temperance, and of the charm of an unpreoccupied manner, we ought to stem the tide of feminine over-strenuousness and restlessness. It would be well to lead girls to regard quality--not quantity, intensiveness--not area, and the much rather than the many. Even when the objects undertaken are worthy, one often finds that people who wantonly undertake to do too much in the day or week, end by doing all things badly. Consequently they become more of a hindrance than a help, and had far better have left half of those tasks alone which they appropriated with such recklessness. We ought to be simpler--that is, content to let a good deal pass by us. Let us be industrious, by all means, but only so much so as is consistent with intelligence. We must be singularly situated if we cannot distribute our gratuitous over-work among others--and an occasional chastening experience of the small difference we individually make to the world, after all our hurry and pother [pother means fuss], might be a salutary corrective to our tendency to overwork ourselves. The kind and lovely spirit of Pascal was not intending to paralyse any beneficent activity when he said that "most of the mischief in the world would never happen, if men would only be content to sit still in their parlours." It was a wise passiveness Pascal meant to enjoin.
We do not rate solitude sufficiently highly nowadays, for solitude means self-recollection. Without solitude, originality is impossible, since originality consists in a reaction from outside influences, in giving to them our individual stamp, and this can only take place when we are by ourselves. What is there in the world half so helpful or so formative as the hour of silence?
Altogether, we want less talking round subjects, fewer platitudes and generalizations, more direct work, and, in matters educational, less prosing as to self-evident truth; all round, in short, less over-elaboration of the obvious. Hardened as we all become, one is occasionally perfectly startled at the debate, never ending, still beginning, that goes on round questions one would have imagined every sensible person must have settled for himself or herself long before and quite quietly. We turn over too many books, we glance at too many dailies and weeklies. To keep up with the magazines is, in itself, a harassing and disbursing occupation. I counted no fewer than eleven current magazines and ladies' papers in the morning-room of a friend with whom I was staying in the winter, and I privately wondered how one small head could carry all she knew. Would that we could get a renewal of the better characteristics of the life of two centuries ago--with its early rising and early resting, its large, void places, its minds innocent and quiet that took these for an hermitage.
Another foe to simplicity in our era is the multitude of books about books. Personally I have almost a horror of this class of belles-lettres. We don't want elucidations, we want the classics themselves. Many people read notes and criticisms and commentaries and preliminaries and antecedents and never reach the original. It is as though a person bent on seeing Westminster Abbey were to stay listening to a tittle-tattle of the verger instead of seeing Westminster Abbey. Another evil of the time from which we should abstain is the plague of cheap editions. This reaches an acute crisis when it consists of a cheap edition of detached fragments of world's literature. The Liebig-potting of literature is a doubtful benefit at best to the new Democracy.
The feeling as to the simplification of life which I am trying to express, however imperfectly, this afternoon, is, as I need scarcely say, very much in the air. Most of those who think at all are touched with it, only with one it breaks out in one place, with another in another. The menu-makers have had hold of it for the last twenty years, and Sir Henry Thompson's widely read manual, "Food and Feeding," though written with the moderation of a man of the world, drove the nail fairly home. Without enlarging upon the miseries of the too well fed, it would not be altogether out of date to suggest that it is only because we choose to lack hunger that so many of us have lost touch of the fact that simple meals taste better than sophisticated ones. Thomas Walker of "The Original" invites his guests in these terms, "Can you dine with me to-morrow? I shall have herrings, hashed mutton, and cranberry tart. My fishmonger sends me word herrings are just in perfection, and I have some delicious mutton, in hashing which I shall direct my cook to exercise all her art." And one detects a plenary gusto through the words that makes one suppose that herrings and hash must be the chief of delicacies. And so, of course, they are--to the extent to which one has an appetite when one sits down to them. To be hungry ere one eats is one of the prime conditions of simplicity in daily life. Nor do I think that Great Britain has even yet passed out of the era of meals which makes one more or less heavy, sleepy, and incompetent afterwards.
Probably the plea for a simpler daily life has never been put on a juster ground (if we admit its transcendentalism) than it was by William Penn, over two centuries ago, in his "Fruits of Solitude." He writes:--"The most common things are the most useful; which shows both the wisdom and the goodness of the great Lord of the family of the world. What therefore He has made rare, don't thou use too commonly: lest thou shouldest invert the use and order of things, become wanton, and thy blessings prove a curse."
But what is simple for one is not for another. There is no need for colourless uniformity, and it is far from the advocates of simplicity to recommend anything approaching a fanatica asceticism. On the contrary, they believe that life should be rich and joyous, but that, in order to make it so, there must be some rigour in our regiment to keep us alert, supple, and elastic. That is largely why they advocate simplicity, believing that, by it, we get closer to realities, and can better find enjoyment in the simple things always near us. If people would only recognize that "little and good" is the motto of civilized enjoyment, much would be gained.
It is sufficiently apparent, I hope, that all I have hitherto said has a bearing upon the central subject of this Conference--inasmuch as the one thing needful is to be started in life with the right ideals, and then, having the ideas, to follow them wholeheartedly. While a child is young, his father and mother's example is his liveliest precept, his most vivid rule, and, of all the influences that rain down on him, the influence of his mother's habits, bearing, and general methods is paramount. Education is the foremost duty of parents. The school may have charge of the child's mind, it is the home that has charge, not of his body only, but of his soul, and whatever training in the art of living is neglected there, will be left neglected--till the child repairs the gaps by dint of painful, avoidable effort in the after-time. It seems a harsh thing to say, but one still knows parents not a few, who, having shifted all intellectual education upon what they call the proper shoulders, seem to consider themselves absolved from fostering any nobler cares in their child than that he "sit down to eat and drink, and rise up to play." It is the spirit in which we bring up our children, rather than any particular maxims we impart, that will incline them towards the virtues of simplicity. Fruitful of this spirit, we shall, above all, urge them to master each of their tasks, not as from the standpoint that it will bring them credit or be un moyen pour parvenir, but simply from the standpoint that such-and-such a way is the only proper way of doing the thing in question. To give them "workmanlike" views of all they do is the thing that matters.
But not only do we want the children to grow up believing in the simplicity in which we believe, we want them to reap educationally the harvest of our convictions. As regards education, "simplicity" is almost a synonym for common sense. Let me illustrate by one or two random, perhaps trite instances, what I understand by educational simplicity. A child has to be taught sooner or later a vast array of general facts. How best are we to set about it? "By first impressing the imagination," is the counsel of simplicity. The imagination once impressed, the mind unconsciously allows facts to classify themselves in the memory. I have noticed this again and again. There should be nothing isolated in the instruction we impart, nothing in the manner of the questions of Mangnall deceased; every fact or image which we bring before a young child should be in some way organically connected with its predecessor. At the beginning of education, fortunately, there need be no question of cram--we can let the children assimilate by sequent thoughts and incidents.
Parents may immeasurably help school teachers by kindling a child's imagination for a subject, the facts of which have to be mastered in the school. A child lives by imagination. Thus, to interest a London child in history, the simplest course would be to take him to the Tower, Whitehall, and a matinee of a Shakspere [sic] play. Enthusiasm is everything. An imaginative child, impassionated for Roman history by seeing Mr. Tree's fine production of Julius Caesar, pores over a model of the Forum, writes scenes, as she says innocently, "a little in the style of Shakespeare," wishes ceaselessly to be taken to Rome itself.
Similarly with natural science. One vivid walk along a trickling hillside with his father will give a boy a never-to-be-lost grip of what is meant by the Great Watersheds of the World. Let us not forget that the most valuable lessons we ourselves ever learnt were those we learnt out of school.
Again, let us discourage the over-strenuous number of subjects some of the junior-school prospectuses suggest. And, more important still it is to see that our children drink at actual fountain-heads, and listen, not to the innumerable echoes, but to the few voices. To study one good instance till they understand it will teach them more than a superficial acquaintance with fifty. Fruitful knowledge for them does not consist in knowing the contents of many books, but in possessing the excellence of a few. There is so much we do and are recommended to do that is needless, so much that we could very well let slide, and children be none the worse. We let the "extras," both of education and life generally, harass us overmuch, forgetting that the first mark should be "less, better done;" a few essentials, but those deeply impressed; again--"the much rather than the many." Did some of us take education in a simpler spirit, it would mean both a happier and a cooler handling of their work for the professional teachers.
Equally with all this, we must guard against substituting cajolery of children for encouragement of children. Neither must we peptonize everything the child's mind is expected to consume, for, if we do, we shall permanently injure his digestion. We must not let a difficulty lose its specific educational value of being a difficulty--a dragon led up by the hair to who dares fight. Only so can young fortitude be forged. And besides, every difficulty we really solve at all is solved by ourselves.
It is right that a child should know, or rather have a child's inkling, of the sacrifices that are made for him. If a nurse forgoes her evening out to manufacture some toy, or to finish the new party frock, we should take care that the child appreciates this. Which leads me to another point more closely connected with the doctrine of simplicity. One has almost laughed sometimes at the talk about "object-lessons" as thought every hour of the child's waking life did not consist of a series of object-lessons, more striking and authentic than anything in the hortus siccus ["dry garden"] of the set school-room "object-lesson." If we at home were handier and less idle with the children, there would be little need to call in the Sloyd teacher with his paraphernalia--which, being artificial, lose thereby a proportion of educational value. Children might easily be allowed every practical experience they can get in their own homes of the relations--both physical and ethical--between cause and effect. So with early lessons in domestic occupations. What rudimentary lesson in citizenship can excel that of letting the children give their own little help when extra trouble is being taken on their account? If they are expected to help to set out the cups, and lay the "best" table-cloth when their friends are coming to tea, they receive half-consciously a real object-lesson in the membership of any commonwealth--learning for themselves that privileges connote obligations, and thereby feeling that they are integers, and not solely appendages, of the family state. But really, I feel ashamed to mention such points as these--they must be so self-evident. Similarly, I will not dwell upon the immense benefit to children--to their souls and minds, not only to their physical constitution--of a large measure of country life. The daily movements of spring and summer, the crops, the tides, the birds and beasts, these form the best education for young children, for these are facts and truths, and not an assemblage of mere words and artificialities.
There is one more point I have already dwelt upon as regards adult life which I should like to refer to under its educational aspect. We must instill into our growing girls and boys, and illustrate by example, the nowadays important lesson (homely and unambitious as it sounds) not to undertake, in their spare and holiday times, more than they can do well. Make them see that what they cannot calculate upon doing well, it is better to leave undone--very likely it will be something that would be equally well undone altogether, but if not, then it must be relegated to someone else to do.
But throughout these remarks, let me say, I shrink from any would-be oracular or sententious treatment of any single problem of education. One problem is uppermost with one parent, another with another, and they mostly succeed in solving them alone--alone, humanly speaking--for the Not Ourselves that make for righteousness is with us in education as elsewhere. There exists in many a mother a highly-strung and extraordinarily perceptive clairvoyance, which, if she has faith in it, will guide her almost infalliably through her dealings with her own child. The clairvoyance of mothers is more truly thaumaturgic [able to work miracles] than any powers claimed by the professed mystics. And, similarly, there exits in many a child a certain dim consciousness of this insight by his mother into the deeper retreats of his nature, and a silent, wonderful response to it.
And now, in conclusion, I think it probabe that some of my remarks as an irresponsible girding at methods so strengthened by custom as to be immovable, while others will only have been reminded of Lord Brougham's impatient whisper under the platitudinising preacher, "Go on, Sir, the court is with you."
It has not belonged to the scheme of my paper to dwell on the wider social bearing of a reasonable simplicity exercised in our daily life. Let me, however, end by saying that I, for one, am convinced that simplicity is as much the path of right as I have tried to prove it to be the path of light.
Proofread May 2011, LNL
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