There is a profound difference between the ancient and medieval view of children and the modern cult of the child. The Rousseauean idolatry of nature and worship of savages, popularized through a certain brand of sentimental poetry, helped to establish a picturesque ideal of the innocent, angelic child. St. Augustine was not inclined to hold the same view. For him, the anger, mischievousness, and impatience of little children were so many signs that human nature is not inherited free of the effects of Adam’s sin. The modern emphasis on letting children “be themselves” (even though it often turns out to be lip service), as well as rhetoric about “recovering one’s childhood,” belie a peculiarly rosy estimation of the innate goodness of man.
Once the doctrine of original sin had been largely eradicated from the daily mindset of Catholics as well as Protestants, it was inevitable that shrines would be erected to The Child, nature’s favorite, a piece of charming fantasy confirmed in the popular mind by Victorian paintings of an effeminate Jesus caressing the golden locks of cherubic ten-year-olds. The gradual shift from the Christ Child, who deserves our reverence, to The Child can be seen in some of Wordsworth’s verses and those of other Romantics who profess the innocence of the “man of nature” and the perfectibility of the human species. In our age of educational Prometheanism, which still embraces these fanciful theories and pushes them even further, it may be worthwhile to consider the more realistic views of our ancestors.
The ancients and medievals saw the child as an imperfect starting point and the adult as mature, meaning capable of moral and intellectual perfection. Only an adult can appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful as such; a child feels their vibrations in his imagination without apprehending what they are, or why they should be as they are. The child’s psyche exhibits a paradox: In itself, it is superficial because undeveloped; but it is also supremely absorbent, possessing an almost magical power of assimilation. When Christ tells us to imitate the child, he is clearly pointing to the latter quality. Christians should strive to be receptive to God’s word, ready to do His will, even as a child receives trustingly and eagerly whatever is given him, and acts upon what he acquires. This duality in the child’s psyche explains why both Aristotle and Nietzsche emphasize the role of training in education: The child forms habits long before he understands the meaning and importance of habit.
To take an important example, a small child, simply of himself, is not capable of discriminating between good and bad music. He will grow accustomed to any sounds to which he is subjected because they are all novel to him and he is greedy to exercise the powers of sensation. Hence, a child can learn to love Mozart long before he is capable of appreciating him. His sensitive soul becomes Mozartian while his consciousness remains ignorant of the nature of the music absorbed. Absorption is the right metaphor in this context. A towel is capable of picking up any kind of liquid, regardless of its nobility: Soda pop saturates a towel as thoroughly as vintage wine. A child, because of his very openness and lack of differentiation, trusts the whole world as though everything were equally choice worthy. As Aristotle said,
The child has [a deliberative faculty], but it is immature. . . . The child is imperfect, and therefore obviously his excellence is not relative to him alone, but to the perfect man and to his teacher, and in like manner the excellence of the servant is relative to a master.
Childhood furnishes the materials out of which parents and educators may build a responsible public citizen and a virtuous private man worthy of his freedom. The chief purpose of childhood is to culminate in adulthood. The child, especially in his most “tender” years, exercises little independent power over this process of maturation, for he is at the mercy of his elders and his society. Invoking a central Aristotelian distinction, we may say that the power to “form” children resides not in the child, who is as matter, but in his elders, who have already acquired the forms of virtue and vice, and therefore stand to him as form. (This relationship explains why we customarily speak of the “formation” of children, students, soldiers, or priests.) Apart from their example, instruction, and discipline, the child can only mature biologically, not psychologically and spiritually. Childhood is a rudimentary stage that must be shed like a first skin when it becomes too tight for inner growth. As Dorothy Sayers remarks:
“Except,” said Christ, “ye become as little children”—and the words are sometimes quoted to justify the flight into infantilism. Now, children differ in many ways, but they have one thing in common. Peter Pan—if indeed he exists otherwise than in the nostalgic imagination of an adult—is a case for the pathologist. All normal children (however much we discourage them) look forward to growing up.
Just as the liberal arts (e.g., geometry, arithmetic, logic, grammar) exist ultimately for the sake of metaphysics and theology—which is why we teach the former to children and reserve the latter for the intellectually mature—so too everything of the child exists for the sake of the whole man into which he may someday develop. Describing the place of the child in classical Greek education, H.I. Marrou writes:
In the first place the whole aim of this education was the formation of adults, not the development of the child. There is no point in being led astray by etymology. I know quite well that it [paedeia] contains the word. But this needs to be translated as “the treatment to which a child should be subjected” — to turn him into a man. As we saw, the Latins happily translated the word as humanitas.
If the Greeks could have known the extent to which education (at least since Rousseau wrote Emile) has been adapted to the child and the special characteristics of his mind, they would have responded with amused surprise. What is the point, the Greeks would ask, of concentrating on the child as though he were an end in himself? The point of childhood is that it leads to manhood, and the proper object of education is therefore not any slobbering child or awkward adolescent or even an up-and-coming young man, but Man, and Man alone; and the point of education is to teach the child to transcend himself.
One sign of a secure adult is that, while he may have had a lovely childhood, he does not wish (literally) to become a child again. The thought should cause laughter, as though one were to say, “Quantum physics is interesting, but let’s spend this afternoon going over the alphabet.” It is fitting for women to become child-like during their years of child-rearing, because they are the immediate and intimate source of the child, its nurse and comforter, its first teacher. But both women and men only pretend to be like children when playing with them; the toys of a child should appear as no more than that. As Aristotle writes, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life, however much he were to be pleased at the things that children are pleased at.”
For Aristotle, the focal point of ethics as an applied science is the rearing of children into responsible adults as effectively as possible. This explains why he devotes so much of his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics to pedagogical matters. In the Middle T^es, when Aristotle’s ideas (though largely unknown in their written record) were followed throughout Europe as a matter of course, it would not have been unusual for a lad to be prepared to transact local business at 15, to enter marriage or religious life at 16, or to prosecute advanced studies at 17. Childhood merged seamlessly with some type of apprenticeship, novitiate, or manual labor. The curious vision of a child as wholly outside of the world of adults, as having, therefore, nothing to contribute to the world of his elders except entertainment, sweetness, and occasional irritation, would have been ridiculous to the medieval. “A child is a man not fully grown up,” the peasant or the noble would have said; and as proof, the one would teach his son to plant and harvest corn, the other, to ride a horse and hunt a fox. As manifested in the High Middle Ages, the traditional approach to the child is disciplinary, pedagogical, and monarchical. Such an approach is found wherever healthy mothers and fathers do not subscribe to a fairy-tale conception of youth in which the child is a happy stranger to the petty business of grown-ups.
There is, needless to say, much truth in speaking of an intangible aura of purity, beauty, and boundless life radiated by the child. The child’s mad and heady love for the world, for play, and for learning is obviously a good thing to imitate, especially since adults have a tendency to be dour, skeptical, and self-absorbed. Yet can we deny that the best qualities of small children owe a lot to their indiscriminate and naive approach to the world — as if it were a garden of unalloyed pleasure, fully to be trusted, fully to be explored—than to any sustained voluntary effort on their part? After having spent a short time with an unruly toddler, the father knows that his child is not a visitor from a better place.
I do not think that St. Augustine can be accused of residual Manichaeanism when he candidly points out that children can be quite nasty, selfish, and greedy. They live, said Thomas Aquinas, “according to the impulses of passion since they have not been strengthened in rational judgment by which the passions are regulated.” As Aristotle perceived. they are in many ways closer to the irrational animals—with, however, the all-important difference of having an inclination to develop the power of reason— than they are to men in whom that reasoning power is active. Is it surprising, then, that people treat their pets in a manner very similar to the way in which they speak to and pamper a tiny child? The adult invests the child with a profoundly different sentiment, signified by a different kind of love; but that is due to its humanity and its intimate link with mother and father. The humor that adults see in a child’s antics is often completely lost on the child himself We are in the habit of ascribing to him the deliberative action we see in ourselves, even when he is still acting according to appetite, imitation, and caprice.
Societies in which men and women live close to nature, regularly interacting with it for livelihood and for leisure, are not often betrayed into escapist fantasies. Children are there to be reared (that is, set up straight) into worthy representatives of family, society, culture, and religion. Obviously, the extent to which rearing issues in a man or woman who merits the name “adult” depends in the greatest measure on the worthiness of the parent and the educator. The medieval saying nemo dat quod nan habet—no one can give what he does not have—is certainly germane. The state of affairs described by Thoreau’s well-known remark, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is not to be marveled at, since the only period during which human roots can be deeply planted is nowadays squandered on worthless distractions, leading to a character as insubstantial as the materials on which it was fed.
A healthy and realistic society sees in the child, in addition to more endearing qualities, several unfortunate traits: his propensity to self-indulgence, his dominant inclination to sense-pleasure, and his need for strict rules and guidance in order to “put childish ways behind,” the metaphor St. Paul uses for Christians. As Aristotle explains,
The name self-indulgence is applied also to childish faults. . . . The transference of the name seems not a bad one, for that which desires what is ignoble and which develops quickly ought to be kept in a chastened condition, and these characteristics belong above all to appetite and to the child, since children in fact live at the beck and call of appetite, and it is in them that the desire for what is pleasant is strongest . . . and as the child should live according to the direction of his tutor, so the appetitive element should live according to reason.
Such a view would be almost unintelligible to contemporary parents and educators, except to an admirable cluster of homeschoolers fond of the biblical warning: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” The reason why this once-common view would nowadays meet with hostility or a blank stare is, I fear to say, that most contemporary parents and educators are themselves still children in the worst sense: willful, immature, self-indulgent. Moderns, being afraid of suffering, displaced from nature, and spiritually alienated from themselves, adulate childhood because it suggests or symbolizes an escape from the pains of maturity and a vicarious redemption from the inevitability of death. At the bottom of the fear of death is the fear of an ultimate or divine judgment of one’s life, a fear that no man can entirely eradicate from his soul (although some have come close). Only the mature are fit to be judged—which would explain the unconscious horror often felt toward maturity. As long as I never grow up, I am not fully responsible for my actions, and I never need to be judged as a good man or a bad man. As long as I am just a “bad little girl” or a “naughty little boy,” there is no real crime or guilt for me to answer for.
Due in part to this unnatural obsession with youth and youthfulness, the contemporary West artificially elongates childhood by the institution of “adolescence” or the “teenage years,” a fabricated vacation between immaturity and maturity that succeeds in prolonging childish behavior even after the body has become that of an adult. This elongation of psychological childhood, a stage of life whose selfishness results from the fall of our first parents, parallels the myopic Western preoccupation with lengthening life well past the age of natural decrepitude, as though to purchase immortality with drugs and machines—the promise made by Rene Descartes. His new mechanistic philosophy, he tells us,
is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices which would facilitate our enjoyment of the fruits of the earth without pain . . . but also, and most importantly, for the maintenance of health, which is undoubtedly the chief good and the foundation of all other goods in this life.
Indeed, “we might free ourselves from innumerable diseases, both of the body and of the mind, and perhaps even from the infirmity of old age.” Descartes saw in medicine the supreme fruit of man’s earthly endeavors. The Western fixation on longevity is, in contemporary jargon, “an infantile regression complex caused by the desire to return to the passive undifferentiated state of infancy.” It is a desire to recapture what is lost over time by means of charms and amulets, e.g., diets, cosmetics, pills, fads, and devices of every description. One of the more noticeable effects of this disease is the sorry attempt of older women to look like younger women. As Goethe says, “Error is all right so long as we are young, but we must not carry it into our old age.” The disease extends even to the cultural historical plane: It is no exaggeration to compare the contemporary West to a decrepit old man living out a fantasy of youth.
Our fixation with themes of “eternal youth,” taken in a crassly physical sense, also does much to explain why so many old people are locked up and forgotten in nursing homes. “Out of sight, out of mind.” People do not wish to be reminded of senescence and mortality. But there is another side to this phenomenon of widespread ingratitude. A large number of people cringe at the idea of sacrificing any of their freedom—or what they think to be freedom—in order to care for their elderly parents. They have little filial piety because they are still unruly children who do not wish to grow up and acknowledge the profound debts they owe to others. According to the design of creation, grandparents are meant to act as counselors, teachers, and guardians, telling family stories and passing down values from one generation to the next. In a world of infants, there is scarcely a place for them; with the demise of parenthood comes the demise of grandparenthood. Is it any wonder that the once-noble role of grandfather is now often confined to the mailing of an occasional birthday check, or that of grandmother to the baking of holiday cookies?
Certain things follow from the artificial prolongation of childhood into “adolescence.” The most important consequence is that we have mere children, psychologically speaking, foraging about in adult bodies with adult appetites. During these “adolescent” years, in addition to whatever enormities of unchecked voracity such hybrid child-men commit, psychic habits are engendered which create deep-seated disharmony in the soul and usually terminate in superficial, abusive, or futile relationships with other people later on in life. The present-day epidemic of prenatal infanticide, whether in cold blood or in intention—the neurotic hatred of children and large families that informs the worldview of journalist, feminist, and social architect alike —is fundamentally caused by the self-indulgent immaturity of the neo-pagan soul, bent on pursuing a course of uninhibited avarice and lust. The 20th century is populated by children masquerading as adults, the main difference being that the toys of adults are vastly more sophisticated (and harmful) than those of children. Hence we arrive at the heart of the paradox: adoration of pure potentiality leads to the corruption of actuality. Put simply, adulation of the child leads ultimately to hatred of the child.
The 16-year-old boy who married a 14-year-old girl in A.D. 1300 could boast of the ability to cobble shoes or forge iron, plant and harvest crops, break horses or barter at the town market, repair a thatched roof, amid many other talents; his bride had been prepared by her mother to act the part of a dutiful wife, ready to bear children, manage the household, and contribute to her husband’s work. In terms of independence, behavior, and responsibility, these two “teenagers” were more mature in their rosy youth than the majority of modern Westerners at any point in their lives. And yet, until recently, English historians might still have referred to the year 1300 as one more shadow in the lengthy Dark Ages.