Letter VI

From Letter VI:

[23] If there be any reason to suppose that mankind are improving, surely it maybe hoped that a time will come, when violence will cease to be employed as the means of correcting violence. It is certainly highly irrational to suppose that the mechanical operation of blows should be calculated to inform ignorance, or to eradicate error; and it would probably be difficult to find many instances wherein their effects had proved salutary. The person on whom they are inflicted, may be pained; but the mind, which alone instigates the hand or the tongue to mischief, it is to be feared, is hardened, blunted, and thereby rendered more liable to err again. By witnessing conduct of the sort amongst servants or ill-educated people, parties of young persons, when left to themselves, occasionally fall into the same dreadful error; and often, for some trivial offence, one who is too feeble to resist, becomes the victim of ungoverned passion, and cries pierce the air, which are extorted by a brother’s or a sister’s blows. I have trembled when I have witnessed such a scene, and ardently have I longed to convince [24] the punisher, that he was fixing sentiments of aversion in the little sufferer’s breast, perhaps for ever, and laying a foundation for domestic discord, (that worst of evils,) which might never be removed. Excuse me, my dear young friends, if I wish to guard you against failings from which I would hope your hearts revolt; but the error is so common, it is that of so many well-meaning people, that too much can hardly be said to deter from it. May you not have to learn its pernicious consequences too late. It is possible, that, where mild reasoning, firm reprehension, diminished confidence and affection, have failed to convince of the impropriety of doing wrong, that blows and tortures should impress the importance of doing right? There is generally some unavoidable disadvantage arising to ourselves, from the commission of evil; and if the mind were led to reflect upon this, and left fully to feel it, the attendant suffering might operate against the future failing. But by the angry and impetuous manner in which we often attempt to correct vice, we counteract all this, and force the attention of the offender, from his crime to his punishment.*

[25] The ardour, inexperience, and impetuosity of children, will sometimes occasion accidents, and inflict suffering. Suppose this to be the case, and an elder child to be wounded by the wanton carelessness of a younger. No blows retaliate on the unlucky boy; but he sees his brother enduring pain, and observes his blood streaming, while the efforts of the party are employed in alleviating the misfortune. All amusement is suspended, and mirth at an end: the countenance of the sufferer and his attendants, betray anxiety and displeasure; while the offender stands a silent and terrified spectator, and feels himself the degraded cause of all the mischief. How much pleasure has he lost! How much misery has he occasioned! During the scene he has time for these reflections, and they will naturally occur. He hears none of the language of petulance and passion, but a mild, though firm expostulation, [26] from his elder brother. That child must be a very extraordinary one indeed, who, by such treatment, is not softened into the deepest regret, and disposed to love his brothers and sisters with more ardour than ever, since he finds they can forgive; while he is determined, in future, to guard against thus needing forgiveness. On the other hand, imagine little attention to be paid, either to the wound or to the wounded; but accusations, threatenings, and blows, to be heaped upon the offender. He is hurried from the circle, violently forced into another apartment, and confined there. His attention is immediately diverted from the suffering of his brother, to his own punishment. He becomes impatient and clamourous, and, instead of being at leisure to reflect how he can make reparation, all his attention is turned towards the redress of his own grievance. You will judge, you will decide which method is most rational, most likely to be productive of good. This is but one of a thousand instances which are occurring every day. You already perceive how much we might diminish the evil arising from them, by the exercise of better dispositions than those of anger and revenge. That the cultivation of these may be your daily business, and their richest fruits your constant enjoyment, is the ardent wish of your sincere and affectionate Friend.

* The writer would not be understood as assuming, that corporal punishments are never necessary; but she ventures to appeal to fact, for proof of their general inutility. [25] This is the common mode of chastisement with the uneducated vulgar. What are the consequences? The greatest contempt of parental authority, and the most flagrant instances of disobedience. Those people who are so prodigal of their blows, are generally loudest in the complaints of disobedient children. There may be cases of unusual obstinacy, (as that mentioned by Locke,) where such chastisement is necessary, in order to subdue; but, it is presumed, no wise parent will descend to the lowest species of punishment, till more rational modes of manifesting disapprobation have failed.