I’ll admit it– I’ve been putting off tackling this post. Charlotte Mason’s second principle is a stumbling block for many who are new to her philosophy. Over time, if we are attracted enough to the rest of what she has to say, I think we end up coming up with explanations of why she didn’t really mean what she seems to say. I have my own ideas about what Charlotte meant which are a little unorthodox. But my goal today is to see how Charlotte herself explained her ideas and to see how they line up with the Word of God. To get up to speed on what I am doing in this series and why see this post on “pure CM,” and this one on her first principle and this one on her last principle.
Last note before we begin: as I am writing this post, I am realizing it could be very long so I am going to divide it into 3 parts. Today we will discuss Charlotte’s own words on her second principle, next time will be Christian views of human nature, and lastly I will give you my own thoughts on the topic.
The Second Principle as Charlotte Explains It
Charlotte Mason’s second principle is as follows:
“They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)
When I looked at Charlotte’s first principle, I found that she addressed it in a number of places in her six-volume series. While it mat occasionally be alluded to in other places, Charlotte’s most thorough explanation of her second principle comes in an extended section in her sixth volume entitled “The Good and Evil Nature of a Child.” My discussion will mainly be a working through of this section, with only a few added notes from her other writings.
Charlotte’s philosophy on the nature of children is a rejection of two antithetical views:
“A well-known educationalist has brought heavy charges against us all on the score that we bring up children as ‘children of wrath.’ He probably exaggerates the effect of any such teaching, and the ‘little angel’ theory is fully as mischievous.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 46)
This is the first half of her principle — we must think of children neither as all evil nor as perfect angels. She goes on:
“The fact seems to be that children are like ourselves, not because they have become so, but because they are born so; that is, with tendencies, dispositions, towards good and towards evil, and also with intuitive knowledge as to which is good and which is evil. There are good and evil tendencies in body and mind, heart and soul; and the hope set before us is that we can foster the good so as to attenuate the evil; that is, on condition that we put Education in her true place as the handmaid of Religion.” (p. 46)
Many argue that Charlotte Mason did not mean her second principle theologically, that she was not talking about the moral state of children. I think the above quotes make clear that she is indeed in the spiritual realm. This is not to deny that she applied her educational ideas with great success to all classes of society and to those her culture called uneducable, undoubtedly she did (see, for instance, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. xxv), but her remarks were not limited to such areas; she clearly spoke also of the moral nature of children.
The phrase “body and mind, heart and soul” in the above quote is key. This is not a mere rhetorical flourish; Charlotte means each of these four areas literally and goes on to devote a section to each of them and to how our “good and evil tendencies” play out in them.
First she offers some explanation of what she means by a “tendency.” She does not use the phrase “genetic predisposition” but might as well have:
“Physicians and physiologists tell us that new-born children start fair. A child is not born with tuberculosis, for example, if with a tendency which it is our business to counteract. In the same way all possibilities for good are contained in his moral and intellectual outfit, hindered it may be by a corresponding tendency to evil for every such potentiality. We begin to see our way. It is our business to know of what parts and passions a child is made up, to discern the dangers that present themselves, and still more the possibilities of free-going in delightful paths. However disappointing, even forbidding, the failings of a child, we may be quite sure that in every case the opposite tendency is there and we must bring the wit to give it play.” (p. 47)
Note again that she is speaking here of both “moral and intellectual” tendencies. Just as one child may be born more prone to infection than another, so one may be more prone to fits of temper or laziness or any other malady. Though some failings may affect one more than another, we are all subject to them:
” . . . in every child there are tendencies to greediness, restlessness, sloth, impurity, any one of which by allowance may ruin the child and the man that he will be.” (p. 48)
Charlotte spends a brief time only on the body and her main emphasis is on developing “nervous over-pressure” (pp. 48-49). I am not going to dwell on the body because Charlotte herself spends little time on it and because I think it causes the least dispute.
Moving on to the mind Charlotte says:
“We do not perceive that the mind, too, has its tendencies both good and evil and that every inclination towards good is hindered and may be thwarted by a corresponding inclination towards evil; I am not speaking of moral evil but of those intellectual evils which we are slow to define and are careless in dealing with.” (pp. 49-50)
The intellectual tendencies to good are in every child: “even backward children, have extraordinary ‘possibilities for good'” (p. 52). Among the evil intellectual tendencies, Charlotte lists “slumbering minds,” a desire for marks (grades), and “lethargy.” She also speaks in this section of the need to engage in a broad curriculum so as to not become eccentric and to develop the imagination, reason, and sense of beauty.
In dealing with the heart, Charlotte speaks of “‘feelings'” but perhaps not in the sense in which we use the word today. Her concern is really for what we would call the virtues. Again, “every child, even the rudest, is endowed” with these including “Love and . . . all its manifestations, kindness, benevolence, generosity, gratitude, pity, sympathy, loyalty, humility, gladness” (p. 59). So too “everyone has Justice in his heart” (p. 60). It is under this heading that she might also include conscience as she says elsewhere that:
“[The child] is born a law abiding being, with a sense of may, and must not, of right and wrong . . . But how has it been brought about that the babe, with an acute sense of right and wrong even when it can understand little of human speech, should grow into the boy or girl already proving ‘the curse of lawless heart’? By slow degrees, here a little and there a little, as all that is good or bad in character comes to pass.” (Home Education, p. 14).
Lastly, Charlotte turns to “the well-being of the soul” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 63). Here her concern is our relationship with our Creator. She says that “we have in us an infinite capacity for love, loyalty and service which we cannot expend upon any other [than God]” (p. 64). She speaks elsewhere of “[the child’s] natural relationship with Almighty God” (Home Education, p. 19).
In concluding this section, Charlotte says:
“I have endeavoured to sketch some of the possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil present in all children; they are waiting for direction and control, certainly, but still more for the formative influence of knowledge. I have avoided philosophical terms, using only names in common use,––body and soul, body and mind, body, soul and spirit,––because these represent ideas that we cannot elude and that convey certain definite notions; and these ideas must needs form the basis of our educational thought.” (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 65)
The key points we have seen in all this are:
- “the possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children”
- the whole child is in view, “body and soul, body and mind, body, soul and spirit”
Though it is beyond the scope of this principle, Miss Mason makes clear that the answer for her, the way to build the good and avoid the evil, is education — albeit perhaps an education more broadly defined than we tend to use the term these days. Though she sees both good and evil latent in the child, Mason does admit that “it is unchangeably true that the child who is not being constantly raised to a higher and a higher platform will sink to a lower and a lower” (Home Education, p. 103).
Identifying the Issues
In this principle, Charlotte makes two interrelated statements: children have the potential for good and children have the potential for evil. Among Christians of various stripes, it is the first of these which is up for debate. No one denies that children are to some extent sinful or at least have the potential to sin. It is how good they are or can be which causes disputes.
I hope I have shown that Charlotte has the whole person in mind when she makes this statement. She does not exclude the religious or moral aspects of the person, nor does she confine herself to them. It is truly a “whole child” approach. Having said which, it is beyond the scope of what I am doing here to go very deeply into the body and mind and the Scriptures have little to say on these. What Charlotte calls the heart and soul are what I would like to focus on. When she speaks of the heart, she is talking about virtues — above all love and justice but also the other virtues which flow out of these such as kindness, generosity and gladness, among many others. When she speaks of the soul, she is talking about our ability to have a relationship with our Creator. These then are the two questions we must ask: Are children capable of virtue, that is of good moral acts? and Are they able to have a relationship with their Creator?
One final note: Charlotte’s focus is on children because her subject is education. Children of course come in all shapes and sizes. It is not long before outside forces act on an individual and whatever latent tendencies there are are pushed one way or another. But I think what Charlotte has in mind, and what theologians debate is really what capacity for good is there in the unaffected individual, the person as he is born, before the world, for good or evil, has its effect.
Next time in part 2: Christian views of human nature