Immagini della pagina


words of revolution, he is reported next day to be a man who preaches liberty and equality, and would destroy property and class-distinctions. Those who so stigmatize him may not intend to practise unfairness; they are giving what are the real conclusions in their own minds from the sentiments they heard him utter, and they think it equivalent to quote those conclusions instead of the actual language which gave rise to them. Their hearers, again, take the statement so made as fact, and perhaps proceed to reason upon it and draw further inferences, whereas, had they heard the original discussion, their own conclusions might have been very different.*

We need only turn to any newspaper comment on a speech, or to many able articles in our best reviews, to see how frequent is this kind of misrepresentation; and how necessary it is, before we give the slightest weight to any censure, praise, or criticism, of sentiments or opinions quoted from another, to insist on having them quoted in the author's own words, and to know how far the context explains or modifies their meaning. We should never be satisfied, in short, with hearing it said, "So and so thinks thus or thus," without hearing in what terms he has himself declared his thoughts. The unfairness practised towards others by this mode of inaccuracy needs no comment; the evil effect on our own minds is the habit of reasoning without considering the grounds on which we proceed, confounding the distinctions between the probable and the true, between certainty and uncertainty; and this custom, contracted in common conversation, will oppose a serious obstacle to our endeavours in the pursuit of truth and the formation of correct opinions.


*This unfair precipitancy in drawing a conclusion, was remarkably exemplified by the prejudice excited against the admirable work we have so often quoted," Woman's Rights and Duties," on account of that one word, rights, used in the title. The expression unfortunately recalled the wild theories of some former writers, and seemed to suggest claims more or less infringing on the rights and supremacy of men. This, for a great number of persons, was sufficient. Men condemned the cause unheard, and women dared not judge for themselves. Their prejudices being once alarmed, they did not allow themselves one moment's pause to consider, much less to examine, whether the word used bore necessarily the meaning which their preconceived notions attached to it; but did their best to consign to obscurity a work which, had they read it, they would have found to contain the ablest refutation of the very errors they supposed it intended to support-a work whose deep, womanly tenderness, while enforcing the gentler duties of our position, is only equalled by the vigorous reasoning and lofty eloquence which are brought to bear on all the most difficult parts of the author's subject. The writer of such a book may afford to smile in pity at the prejudiced ignorance that has partly robbed her of the fame she had so nobly earned; but those who have been robbed by it of the benefit of her labours, have a deeper injury to forgive. (This note was written for the first edition, and omitted by mistake.)


It is natural to the human mind to seek immediately for a cause wherever any effect attracts attention, and reason no less promptly draws some inference; but, in order to regulate this natural activity of the reasoning faculty, and trace out real causes and consequences, more caution, labour and accuracy are required than the generality of mankind are willing to bestow; through this indolence, error too easily creeps in. It is so rare for the mental vision to be free from the mists of prejudice or ignorance, that we cannot be too constantly, or too rigidly on our guard against the deceptions we are thereby exposed to from ourselves and others. Inaccuracy in any shape will surely weaken the general soundness of reasoning, and with it the very power of forming correct opinions.

We come now to the last, as it is the highest, result of moral integrity, namely, Justice. There is no quality more difficult to exercise, because it requires the constant submission of feeling or personal interests to the decision of reason; and none which is so frequently called for, or whose office is so important. Justice is the moral basis of society, and in proportion only as it prevails between man and man, can society flourish and civilization advance. Without justice benevolence is often useless, and generosity is a mere mockery. It has been said, "Be just before you are generous;" but it is truer to say, "You cannot be generous till you have been just." To give away to one, that which is due to another, is not to be generous, but dishonest; or to substitute charity for justice, is to render benevolence pernicious by degrading the moral sense of its objects. Such injudicious benevolence is often received with more contempt than gratitude, and engenders discontent on the one hand, and servility on the other; but justice always commands respect, and its healthy influence fosters the growth of other virtues.


There is, perhaps, no accusation so frequently brought against women as that of partiality and injustice. We have more than once heard it said, that no woman is really just, that she never considers a question fairly on its own merits, but immediately brings in personal feelings, and decides on whichever side they happen to lean. This is a very serious accusation, and one which, we fear, is in a great measure justified by the habitual predominance of feeling over judgment in women's minds. The fear of such a reproach should of itself rouse them to resist the undue influence of feeling, and to strengthen the judgment by sedulous cultivation. We have already seen that, without the impartiality which secures a fair examination of both sides of a question, and the candour which sets aside prejudice and prepossession, to look for and admit only what is true, we cannot hope



to attain truth in any intellectual pursuit. But the same candour and the same impartiality are even more required when we are called upon to decide upon what is just in any given case. Women, from their position as mothers and mistresses of families, and very often from their intercourse with the poor, are constantly called upon for decisions of this nature, and their power over those who depend on them will be beneficial, or the reverse, in proportion as it is justly exercised. Children have a keen sense of justice; they will bear even a very severe rule without a murmur, if they feel it to be just, but will rebel instantly against injustice. It is the same with servants and labourers; they respect and value justice more than kindness; and the feeling that they will be dealt with according to their merits, acts as a direct encouragement to industry and good conduct. If, on the contrary, a mistress be swayed only by impulse or caprice, her dependants instantly begin to speculate upon it; and, instead of steady principle, they act upon a kind of gambling calculation of the chances of gain or loss. Much of the domestic discomfort, and the constant complaint of servants' ill-conduct, which is the favourite theme of female conversation, might, we believe, be accounted for in this manner.

Women are notoriously the hottest of partisans, and partisanship is the most formidable foe to truth and justice. The commonest rules of equity are never so frequently violated as in a party discussion. Blind clamour and obstinate adherence to previous notions are substituted for the sober investigation and openness to conviction which are required to arrive at the truth. Passion is roused to decide questions of which reason alone is the judge, and the result is, of course, to leave each party more firmly rooted in their own opinions than before. Examples of this folly are but too frequent. Let any man or measure become the subject of female partisanship; the first word of dissent is the signal for an outbreak of party feeling; the merits of the individual, the tenets he professes, the party he belongs to, are attacked and defended with equal blindness; questions of which, perhaps, the speakers in their calmest moments would be incompetent to judge, are decided with all the rashness of ignorance; exaggerated statements are unhesitatingly made, expressions used originally in a different or a limited sense are caught up and made the watch-words of party; temper is lost, reason unheeded, for the disputants will hear no reasons but their own, and believe no facts which tell against them; and this melancholy exhibition of prejudice, ignorance, and folly, generally ends at last with the avowal (which, if made at first, would have saved the whole discussion) that the question is one


of personal feeling with the speakers, against which, of course, argument is unavailing.

Such exhibitions should make every woman who values the influence and character of her sex, determine to avoid the causes which lead to them, and to cultivate the love of truth and the habits of candour and impartiality, which shall save her from being the blind instrument of party prejudices. Were such habits more general, many questions of the first importance, which now seem doomed to remain the eternal objects of religious or political strife, might meet with a calm and just solution, and our country would be spared the numerous and great evils which result from the preference of party to truth.

The most difficult exercise of justice remains to be considered, namely, that which is needed to decide, not between the conflicting claims or opinions of others, but between those claims and opinions and our own; to see the right which interferes with what we would assume, or have perhaps long assumed, as our own right; and to judge a question in which we are personally concerned, upon its abstract merits, with the same rigid exclusion of biassing

motives that we should practise in any indifferent case. It is truly

lamentable to see how few persons are in this sense really just; and one great cause may be found in the want of habitual selfscrutiny. We must be in the constant habit of examining our own motives and actions, and striving to cultivate that impartiality which leaves conscience unobscured by passion, or we cannot expect, when the claims of another are brought forward, and our wishes or selfish passions are roused by opposition, to be able to feel how far these should be repressed, and the wishes or objects of another admitted as prior in right.


It is only the daily habit of viewing our own conduct and principles, as we might suppose another would view them, that will make us capable of judging another as we would judge ourselves. The questions, "What is right?" "What is true?" must be habitually supreme, and arise almost spontaneously before any desires or affections are listened to, if we would maintain ourselves in that frame of mind, which can hold the even balance between our claims and those preferred against them. In this form of justice, at least, women are less deficient than men. Saved from the evil influence of that systematic selfishness in which the latter are in general trained from childhood, they are more free from one great source of partiality and injustice. Even while blind, perhaps, to the reason and justice of claims or rights urged against prepossessions or prejudices, in which their feelings are strongly enlisted on the side of one or the other of the contending parties, their own unselfish nature, unused to struggle proudly even for just



rights, is more easily brought to acknowledge the fairness of what opposes only its own will and interest.

Injustice in this respect arises as often perhaps from mere want of thought as from selfishness, and many a mind which would revolt from the least infringement of the rights of others, if proposed in a form sufficiently striking to induce reflection, has gone on year after year, without intentional departure from integrity or good feeling, in a systematic course of injustice to which long habit has blinded it. Look through the long history of the oppression of one class by another, of one sex by the other, of one nation by another, and who can doubt that many among the oppressors, among the unfairly privileged, among the conquering race, among domestic despots, and among slave-owners themselves, have been men of upright intentions and good feeling, but who, from want of scrutinising their position and its duties, and their own principles of action, from want of considering what they themselves would feel under certain conditions, have persevered in a course of injustice which serious reflection would have made abhorrent to them. There arises a feeling almost of awe when we turn to examine ourselves, after contemplating in others such instances of the effect of custom and thoughtlessness in perverting our better nature.

Integrity of mind, which comprehends all the moral results of love of truth, determines the character of a woman's influence. We need scarcely point out its value in the education of children; for how, but by a mother's daily example, shall they be inspired with the love of truth, and with that confidence in virtue which is the best foundation for its future practice? If the child's implicit trust in his mother be deceived, the man's faith in all integrity is dangerously shaken; and between disbelief in virtue and indulgence of vice, there is but one short and easy step.

The wife's influence depends no less than the mother's on her integrity. It will save her from the practice of petty artifices and the love of petty mysteries, which must irritate her husband, weaken his confidence, and thereby endanger conjugal happiness. Influence, properly exerted, is the triumph of moral power; when abused, it is the victory of artifice over moral weakness. Its possession, therefore, without some guarantee for its proper exercise, is alike dangerous to those who wield and those who obey it; and this guarantee exists only in the integrity of its possessor. Artifice and cunning are too often regarded as the lawful arms of the weak; but every wife should remember that her real and only lasting power lies in moral influence, and that this is lessened by whatever lowers her character or shakes her husband's confidence. If she desire to be regarded as a wife, not as a mistress-if she prefers being valued as his friend and help

« IndietroContinua »