Experiencing Youth and Age: Godwin’s Thoughts on Man
Godwin expands his theories of education and intellectual development into a theory of youth and age.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For his next essay, Godwin waxes philosophic about the nature and implications of youth and age. As is his usual approach, he begins by discussing education, though here his remarks are qualified by the recognition that “I am more doubtful in writing the following Essay than in any of those which precede, how far I am treating of human nature generally, or to a certain degree merely recording my own feelings as an individual.” Such, of course, is the problem all social scientists and philosophers face–we can never truly and completely extricate ourselves from our own individual experience. Nonetheless, Godwin proceeds to draw what he believes are well‐founded generalizations.
In his own youth, Godwin seems to have been scarred by his instruction in Latin. He found the subject both tedious and pointless, while his teacher stubbornly refused to clarify the topic’s import. Entirely on his own, however, our author eventually came to acquire a certain regard for learning antique languages. Where he once believed that “the English language, all the books in my father’s library, [contained] every thing that it would be necessary for me to know,” he gradually discovered that Latin enabled him to transform “the thoughts expressed in an unknown tongue into my own.” Moreover, Godwin “speedily understood that I could never be on a level with those eminent scholars whom it was my ambition to rival,” without understanding the cultural context–including the language–in which they wrote their great ideas.
Godwin transfers this sense of majestic wonder at the empowering effects of knowledge into a general theory of youth and age. Youths, by nature and force of circumstance, possess a passionate drive to learn about, manipulate, and eventually conquer their chosen spheres of action. In this quest, they strive to emulate great, more aged men and women. While those who have established themselves through age and achievement are well aware of their successes, failures, and relative advantages over those in their youth, the youths have no sense of either their limitations or the level of accomplishment they may already have reached. To the youth, all the world and its possibilities have either already been manifested in the past or linger forever in the future. The aged may rest comfortably on laurels acquired in the past and know that their futures are secure; the youth is condemned to exist without any such comforts. The passions of youth, therefore, demonstrate generally a lack of practical wisdom and full knowledge rather than a lack of virtue. And while Godwin admits of the need for some correction to damaging youthful behaviors, he concludes by commenting that “Childhood is beautiful; youth is ingenuous; and it can be nothing but a principle which is hostile to all that most adorns this sublunary scene, that would with violence and despotic rule mar the fairest flower that creation has to boast.” Parents, friends, family, neighbors, politicians–practically every adult in society at one time or another–very often forget in their feverish drive to correct errant, childish behavior that all children are really adults in the making and they are unlikely to simply forget how they were treated.
By William Godwin
THOUGHTS ON MAN: HIS NATURE, PRODUCTIONS AND DISCOVERIES INTERSPERSED WITH SOME PARTICULARS RESPECTING THE AUTHOR (Excerpts)
ESSAY XIV. OF YOUTH AND AGE.
I am more doubtful in writing the following Essay than in any of those which precede, how far I am treating of human nature generally, or to a certain degree merely recording my own feelings as an individual. I am guided however in composing it, by the principle laid down in my Preface, that the purpose of my book in each instance should be to expand some new and interesting truth, or some old truth viewed under a new aspect, which had never by any preceding writer been laid before the public.
Education, in the conception of those whose office it is to direct it, has various engines by means of which it is to be made effective, and among these are reprehension and chastisement.
The philosophy of the wisest man that ever existed, is mainly derived from the act of introspection. We look into our own bosoms, observe attentively every thing that passes there, anatomise our motives, trace step by step the operations of thought, and diligently remark the effects of external impulses upon our feelings and conduct. Philosophers, ever since the time in which Socrates flourished, to carry back our recollections no further, have found that the minds of men in the most essential particulars are framed so far upon the same model, that the analysis of the individual may stand in general consideration for the analysis of the species. Where this principle fails, it is not easy to suggest a proceeding that shall supply the deficiency. I look into my own breast; I observe steadily and with diligence what passes there; and with all the parade of the philosophy of the human mind I can do little more than this…
I find then in myself, for as long a time as I can trace backward the records of memory, a prominent vein of docility. Whatever it was proposed to teach me, that was in any degree accordant with my constitution and capacity, I was willing to learn…
In addition to this vein of docility, which easily prompted me to learn whatever was proposed for my instruction and improvement, I felt in myself a sentiment of ambition, a desire to possess the qualifications which I found to be productive of esteem, and that should enable me to excel among my contemporaries. I was ambitious to be a leader, and to be regarded by others with feelings of complacency. I had no wish to rule by brute force and compulsion; but I was desirous to govern by love, and honour, and “the cords of a man.”
I do not imagine that, when I aver thus much of myself, I am bringing forward any thing unprecedented, or that multitudes of my fellow‐men do not largely participate with me.
The question therefore I am considering is, through what agency, and with what engines, a youth thus disposed, and with these qualifications, is to be initiated in all liberal arts.
I will go back no further than to the commencement of the learning of Latin. All before was so easy to me, as never to have presented the idea of a task. I was immediately put into the accidence. No explanation was attempted to be given why Latin was to be of use to me, or why it was necessary to commit to memory the cases of nouns and the tenses of verbs. I know not whether this was owing to the unwillingness of my instructor to give himself the trouble, or to my supposed incapacity to apprehend the explanation. The last of these I do not admit. My docility however came to my aid, and I did not for a moment harbour any repugnance to the doing what was required of me. At first, and unassisted in the enquiry, I felt a difficulty in supposing that the English language, all the books in my father’s library, did not contain every thing that it would be necessary for me to know. In no long time however I came to experience a pleasure in turning the thoughts expressed in an unknown tongue into my own; and I speedily understood that I could never be on a level with those eminent scholars whom it was my ambition to rival, without the study of the classics.
What then were the obstacles, that should in any degree counteract my smooth and rapid progress in the studies suggested to me? I can conceive only two.
First, the versatility and fickleness which in a greater or less degree beset all human minds, particularly in the season of early youth. However docile we may be, and willing to learn, there will be periods, when either some other object powerfully solicits us, or satiety creeps in, and makes us wish to occupy our attention with any thing else rather than with the task prescribed us. But this is no powerful obstacle. The authority of the instructor, a grave look, and the exercise of a moderate degree of patience will easily remove it in such a probationer as we are here considering.
Another obstacle is presumption. The scholar is willing to conceive well of his own capacity. He has a vanity in accomplishing the task prescribed him in the shortest practicable time. He is impatient to go away from the business imposed upon him, to things of his own election, and occupations which his partialities and his temper prompt him to pursue. He has a pride in saying to himself, “This, which was a business given to occupy me for several hours, I can accomplish in less than one.” But the presumption arising out of these views is easily subdued. If the pupil is wrong in his calculation, the actual experiment will speedily convince him of his error. He is humbled by and ashamed of his mistake. The merely being sent back to study his lesson afresh, is on the face of the thing punishment enough.
It follows from this view of the matter, that an ingenuous youth, endowed with sufficient capacity for the business prescribed him, may be led on in the path of intellectual acquisition and improvement with a silken cord. It will demand a certain degree of patience on the part of the instructor. But Heaven knows, that this patience is sufficiently called into requisition when the instructor shall be the greatest disciplinarian that ever existed. Kind tones and encouragement will animate the learner amidst many a difficult pass. A grave remark may perhaps sometimes be called for. And, if the preceptor and the pupil have gone on like friends, a grave remark, a look expressive of rebuke, will be found a very powerful engine. The instructor should smooth the business of instruction to his pupil, by appealing to his understanding, developing his taste, and assisting him to remark the beauties of the composition on which he is occupied.
I come now then to the consideration of the two engines mentioned in the commencement of this Essay, reprehension and chastisement…
I say then, that reprehension and reprimand can scarcely ever be necessary. The pupil should undoubtedly be informed when he is wrong. He should be told what it is that he ought to have omitted, and that he ought to have done. There should be no reserve in this. It will be worthy of the highest censure, if on these points the instructor should be mealy‐mouthed, or hesitate to tell the pupil in the plainest terms, of his faults, his bad habits, and the dangers that beset his onward and honourable path.
But this may be best, and most beneficially done, and in a way most suitable to the exigence, and to the party to be corrected, in a few words. The rest is all an unwholsome tumour, the disease of speech, and not the sound and healthful substance through which its circulation and life are conveyed.
There is always danger of this excrescence of speech, where the speaker is the umpire, and feels himself at liberty, unreproved, to say what he pleases. He is charmed with the sound of his own voice. The periods flow numerous from his tongue, and he gets on at his ease. There is in all this an image of empire; and the human mind is ever prone to be delighted in the exercise of unrestricted authority. The pupil in this case stands before his instructor in an attitude humble, submissive, and bowing to the admonition that is communicated to him. The speaker says more than it was in his purpose to say; and he knows not how to arrest himself in his triumphant career. He believes that he is in no danger of excess, and recollects the old proverb that “words break no bones.”
But a syllable more than is necessary and justly measured, is materially of evil operation to ingenuous youth. The mind of such a youth is tender and flexible, and easily swayed one way or the other. He believes almost every thing that he is bid to believe; and the admonition that is given him with all the symptoms of friendliness and sincerity he is prompt to subscribe to. If this is wantonly aggravated to him, he feels the oppression, and is galled with the injustice. He knows himself guiltless of premeditated wrong. He has not yet learned that his condition is that of a slave; and he feels a certain impatience at his being considered as such, though he probably does not venture to express it. He shuts up the sense of this despotism in his own bosom; and it is his first lesson of independence and rebellion and original sin.
It is one of the grossest mistakes of which we can be guilty, if we confound different offences and offenders together. The great and the small alike appear before us in the many‐coloured scene of human society, and, if we reprehend bitterly and rate a juvenile sinner for the fault, which he scarcely understood, and assuredly had not premeditated, we break down at once a thousand salutary boundaries, and reduce the ideas of right and wrong in his mind to a portentous and terrible chaos. The communicator of liberal knowledge assuredly ought not to confound his office with that of a magistrate at a quarter‐sessions, who though he does not sit in judgment upon transgressions of the deepest and most atrocious character, yet has brought before him in many cases defaulters of a somewhat hardened disposition, whose lot has been cast among the loose and the profligate, and who have been carefully trained to a certain audacity of temper, taught to look upon the paraphernalia of justice with scorn, and to place a sort of honour in sustaining hard words and the lesser visitations of punishment with unflinching nerve.
If this is the judgment we ought to pass upon the bitter and galling and humiliating terms of reprehension apt to be made use of by the instructor to his pupil, it is unnecessary to say a word on the subject of chastisement. If such an expedient is ever to be had recourse to, it can only be in cases of contumaciousness and rebellion; and then the instructor cannot too unreservedly say to himself, “This is matter of deep humiliation to me: I ought to have succeeded by an appeal to the understanding and ingenuous feelings of youth; but I am reduced to a confession of my impotence…”
I go back to the recollections of my youth, and can scarcely find where to draw the line between ineptness and maturity. The thoughts that occurred to me, as far back as I can recollect them, were often shrewd; the suggestions ingenious; the judgments not seldom acute. I feel myself the same individual all through.
Sometimes I was unreasonably presumptuous, and sometimes unnecessarily distrustful. Experience has taught me in various instances a sober confidence in my decisions; but that is all the difference. So to express it, I had then the same tools to work with as now; but the magazine of materials upon which I had to operate was scantily supplied…
In speaking thus of the intellectual powers of my youth, I am however conceding too much. It is true, “Practice maketh perfect.” But it is surprising, in apt and towardly youth, how much there is to commend in the first essays. The novice, who has his faculties lively and on the alert, will strike with his hammer almost exactly where the blow ought to be placed, and give nearly the precisely right force to the act. He will seize the thread it was fitting to seize; and, though he fail again and again, will shew an adroitness upon the whole that we scarcely know how to account for. The man whose career shall ultimately be crowned with success, will demonstrate in the beginning that he was destined to succeed.
There is therefore no radical difference between the child and the man. His flesh becomes more firm and sinewy; his bones grow more solid and powerful; his joints are more completely strung. But he is still essentially the same being that he was…The child is occasionally grave and reflecting, and deduces well‐founded inferences; he draws on the past, and plunges into the wide ocean of the future. In proportion as the child advances into the youth, his intervals of gravity increase, and he builds up theories and judgments, some of which no future time shall suffice to overturn. It is idle to suppose that the first activity of our faculties, when every thing is new and produces an unbated impression, when the mind is uncumbered, and every interest and every feeling bid us be observing and awake, should pass for nothing. We lay up stores then, which shall never be exhausted. Our minds are the reverse of worn and obtuse. We bring faculties into the world with us fresh from the hands of the all‐bounteous giver; they are not yet moulded to a senseless routine; they are not yet corrupted by the ill lessons of effrontery, impudence and vice. Childhood is beautiful; youth is ingenuous; and it can be nothing but a principle which is hostile to all that most adorns this sublunary scene, that would with violence and despotic rule mar the fairest flower that creation has to boast.
It happens therefore almost unavoidably that, when the man mature looks back upon the little incidents of his youth, he sees them to a surprising degree in the same light, and forms the same conclusions respecting them, as he did when they were actually passing…Bitter reproaches and acts of violence are the offspring of perturbation engendered upon imbecility, and therefore can never be approved upon a sober and impartial revision. And, if they are to be impeached in the judgment of an equal and indifferent observer, we may be sure they will be emphatically condemned by the grave and enlightened censor who looks back upon the years of his own nonage, and recollects that he was himself the victim of the intemperance to be pronounced upon. The interest that he must necessarily take in the scenes in which he once had an engrossing concern, will supply peculiar luminousness to his views. He taxes himself to be just. The transaction is over now, and is passed to the events that preceded the universal deluge. He holds the balance with a steadiness, which sets at defiance all attempts to give it a false direction one way or the other. But the judgment he made on the case at the time, and immediately after the humiliation he suffered, remains with him. It was the sentiment of his ripening youth; it was the opinion of his opening manhood; and it still attends him, when he is already fast yielding to the incroachments and irresistible assaults of declining years.