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BELONGS TO EARNEST MINDS.
source of danger to the young by leading them to overlook qualities of the heart, incomparably more precious. Highly as we may prize intellect, our love and reverence should first belong to goodness, or we are in danger of giving them where goodness is wanting. The worship of intellect is particularly dangerous to women, whose own powers of mind are above the ordinary level. They grow weary of the insipidity that so commonly surrounds them; they are dazzled by the brilliancy and the talent of men, in whose ambition or love of fame their own ambition readily sympathises; their woman's nature leads them to cling to some superior strength, while the aspiring nature within misdirects their choice, and it is not till later that they find they had overlooked what really deserved respect and confidence in pursuing this brilliant phantom. As year after year teaches us more of this world of trial and sorrow, we renounce the false worship of our youth, and learn to revere the less showy qualities of the heart, to love the moral excellence we had almost been tempted to despise, to seek and honour it, however lowly its garb, or unadorned by the gifts of intellect. Beautiful indeed are those gifts, but separated from goodness they lose their highest worth, while moral beauty is like the pure and priceless pearl, whose value remains the same, though no rare or costly setting shows it forth to advantage.
Reverence, like humility, is essentially the feeling of earnest minds. The shallow and the frivolous are always irreverent, as they are presumptuous, because they are incapable of discerning what deserves to be revered. Unfortunately, from their numbers and position, they give the tone to general society, and consequently minds of a different stamp are daily pained by the prevalent irreverence of thought and speech. These tendencies are fostered by the too common habit in conversation, of dwelling only upon the low and ridiculous points of character and manner; whilst the living sparks of truth and beauty which exist even in the midst of coarseness and corruption, and which keep up our respect for our kind, are lost sight of. Men would rather laugh than admire; accordingly everything that can produce laughter, whether absurd speech, ill-natured wit, or foolish gossip, is circulated with avidity, and received with applause; while a noble sentiment or a generous action, if repeated at all, are listened to with cold unsympathising silence. Even the admiration which is really excited, few venture to express, and the emotion which some may feel, they conceal or repress, that the company may not be startled or embarrassed by the introduction of a higher tone. This strongly exemplifies the perversion of natural feeling, under the influence of frivolous society. In a large and mixed assem
blage, as that of a theatre or public meeting, even though the coarse and the vulgar form the majority, generous sentiment or action awakens a chord in the human breast, which is loudly responded to; the coldness or the sneer belongs to the false refinement of circles, where fear of ridicule presides over conversation, and where nothing is so ridiculous as the warm and simple expression of unconventional admiration.
Another form of the cavilling spirit is that which would
"Gild refined gold, and paint the lily;"、
under its influence, men are ever sifting the gold to discover the one grain of alloy, and microscopically examining the lily, to spy out some blemish in its purity. This fault, however, may be found in minds of very different orders. In some it is merely the fastidiousness of over-refinement; their own perceptions of beauty and excellence are so fine, their own standard of right so high, that they feel and are acutely pained, by what falls short of that standard, and shows a blindness to those perceptions. But minds of this cast take no pleasure in dwelling on the errors or absurdities of others, and their reverence for what is really great and good, makes them indulgent for every feeble effort which tends towards goodness. In minds of a different order, fastidiousness is an affectation of superiority; they think their own talents and noble sentiments are best shown by the expression of contempt for others; or, worse still, it may arise from taking pleasure in contemplating the follies or vices of mankind, rather than their virtues, which tends gradually to blunt the perception of moral beauty altogether. Such a habit may give a considerable degree of acuteness and knowledge of the world, that is, of the worst features of human nature, but it is at best only a one-sided and shallow view of men and things; and in the young is no less revolting than false.
EVIL OF AN OVER-CRITICAL SPIRIT.
Personal ridicule, the only wit of such minds, is a two-edged sword, as dangerous to him who wields, as to him who is stricken by it. Its aim is not to blast vice or folly, but to expose those involuntary foibles or infirmities, over which a benevolent man willingly throws a veil. As no one is exempt from such ibles, so no one less thoughtless than the habitual mocker, would use a weapon so easily retorted on himself. Unfortunately, however, no wit is so easy as personal sarcasm, and it therefore furnishes nine-tenths of the flashy small-talk which enlivens our dinner-tables and drawing-rooms, at the expense of all the higher qualities of conversation.
Women are too often foremost in this cruel sport, and many
who would disdain to join in dull matter-of-fact scandal, do not scruple to hold up to the withering light of ridicule, the infirmities or harmless peculiarities of acquaintances, or even so called friends. They generally, however, meet with their punishment in the almost instinctive dislike with which men shrink from a sarcastic woman; though they may gather round her chair and applaud her merciless attacks, they repay her in her absence by satire equally merciless, and show as usual neither pity nor indulgence for the error they have fostered.
It is not uncommon to see ridicule employed as a means of influence over children and young people, but if its use is dangerous in other cases, in this it is madness. One of the most important aims of education is to teach the young to withstand the power of ridicule in questions of right and wrong; but how is this to be effected, if a mother even scruples not to employ it as a means of influence, and to attempt laughing a child out of errors, which should be met only by grave disapprobation. Such a mother has no right to complain if her son should afterwards yield up principle at the taunt of his associates, or if her daughter becomes the slave of fashionable follies, through fear of "the world's dread laugh."
There is but one legitimate use of ridicule as a means of influence, namely, to show up the inconsistency or absurdity either of action or argument. The reductio ad absurdum may be applied to conduct as well as to reasoning, and is in both a powerful means of conviction. There are many cases, when the mind is either unable or unwilling to follow out a serious argument, in which it can only be startled into a perception or acknowledgment of the truth, by being shown the absurdity involved in its own error. The ridicule in this case is levelled against the error, not against the person, whose self-respect is thus preserved.
In education, reverence is required in the teacher, no less than in the pupil; and, we believe, much of the irreverence so painfully visible in the young, arises from neglect of this consideration. Unless the mother respect the germ of good or great qualities in her child, how shall she foster or aid their development? If the child is accustomed to find his generous feelings or his eager sympathy met with indifference, or checked with a sneer, because, perhaps, awkwardly expressed, or called forth on some occasion which to sober age does not seem to warrant them, how will that child believe that such feelings are worthy of honour, and learn to respect them in others? Want of sympathy, or even actual derision, will be borne from companions or playmates with more or less injury, according to the child's nature; but from his mother, it falls like a blight on every noble impulse, and may settle in
bitterness which years of other friendship and warmer sympathy will scarcely efface. Even in the severest reproof there should be no mixture of scorn, the child's self-respect should never be shaken, for in that lies the best safeguard of his moral strength. Nor does humiliation ever produce humility; that arises from a perception of excellence, not from a sense of degradation, which may co-exist with pride, and every vengeful passion. The sensitive and timid child may be crushed, the high-spirited will rebel against the contempt he feels to be undeserved, and his pride or his vanity, instead of being subdued, will be stung into increased action.
These observations on the regard due to the feelings of children apply equally to our treatment of inferiors in general. In our intercourse with the poor, or with domestic servants, reverence will teach us to respect their feelings and convictions, and to cherish, by ready sympathy, every spark of moral and intellectual worth. Few minds are noble enough to preserve self-respect under the contempt of others; if, therefore, we would foster in our inferiors in rank that feeling, without which there is no virtue, we must, by our respect for them, teach them to respect themselves. The influence of free institutions, in educating a nation, is a striking illustration of this truth,-the people respect, in themselves, the power they exercise, and are thus gradually fitted for greater freedom and more extended privileges; while the subjects of a despotism,-abject and despised,-continue to deserve the degradation they suffer.
It is painful to see how little this truth is attended to,—how regardless the upper classes generally are of the moral and intellectual wants of their inferiors. It is true that, in general terms, these things are much dwelt upon in the present day; the good of the people has become almost the cant of modern civilization; but when we turn from general declamation to particular instances of conduct, we too often find even benevolent persons wantonly trampling on the feelings and sympathies of those beneath them, and thinking they have fulfilled every obligation of Christian charity when they have supplied the bodily necessities of their dependants, with something less of care and forethought than they would have bestowed on their horses and oxen.
Not so did He act, whose example we profess to follow! In the record of Christ's ministry on earth, we find no expression of scorn or derision; while he met vice and hypocrisy with indignant rebuke, he bore with patient goodness the involuntary infirmities of men, even when they most thwarted his designs and misunderstood his teaching. Throughout his ministry on earth, he strove, with unwearied love, to raise to a higher level the coarse and obtuse minds around him, and sympathised with their in
firmities and weakness even when feeling most bitterly that they could not sympathise with him. Of all men, he was the most humble, because of all men he alone fully comprehended perfection.
Our condemnation of ridicule, as a means of personal influence, does not apply to the legitimate and wholesome exercise of satire, in lashing the follies of society and the absurdities of custom and fashion, or in holding up to scorn vices which no law can reach and abuses which private interests would combine to keep up, and against which reproof and argument are powerless. The grounds of the argument or reproof might be incomprehensible to the multitude, but the vice or the folly reflected in the mirror of ridicule becomes visible to the grossest apprehension, and is made despicable in the eyes of all men. What sermon against hypocrisy could equal in power the living picture of Molière's Tartuffe? What grave argument against female pedantry could have been so effective as his Femmes Savantes? The sense of the ridiculous is more universal than good taste or good principle, just as the dread of ridicule is more powerful in most minds than the voice of reason and conscience; and, therefore, to make vice or folly ridiculous is the speediest method of making it odious or contemptible to the multitude. It may be added that the satire which thus holds up general vices or follies to scorn has none of the bad effects of personal ridicule upon the minds of individuals. If the latter are conscious of deserving the censure, they still are not degraded in the eyes of others, and may, if they have sense enough to feel their deficiencies, correct themselves, without the additional difficulty of struggling with wounded pride, or angry passion.
We are as far from wishing to banish mirth, wit, or humour from conversation, as legitimate satire from the press or the theatre; for trifles must form the staple of most drawing-room talk, and a solemn trifler is far worse than a gay one, inasmuch as his dulness may be mistaken for wisdom. Real wit (if it yet exist in this age of common-place) has nothing in common with the fault we have been condemning; and humour, though it sees far deeper than ridicule into the ludicrous side of men and things, has none of its cold-hearted irony. There is a genial kindness in its mirth, almost as it were a loving sympathy for the very foibles it laughs at. And who would proscribe mirth from social intercourse with
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,