Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
From ‘Émile’
By Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
Translation of William H. Payne

RATTLE-HEADED children become commonplace men. I know of no observation more general and more certain than this. Nothing is more difficult than to distinguish, in infancy, real stupidity from that apparent and deceptive stupidity which is the indication of strong characters. It seems strange, at first sight, that the two extremes should have the same signs, and yet this must needs be so; for at an age when the man has as yet no real ideas, all the difference that exists between him who has genius and him who has it not is, that the latter gives admittance only to false ideas, while the former, finding no others, gives admittance to none. In so far then as one is capable of nothing, and nothing is befitting the other, both appear to be stupid. The only sign that can distinguish them depends on chance, which may offer to the last some idea within his comprehension; whereas the first is always and everywhere the same. During his infancy the younger Cato seemed an imbecile in the family. He was taciturn and obstinate, and this was all the judgment that was formed of him. It was only in the antechamber of Sylla that his uncle learned to know him. If he had not gone into that antechamber, perhaps he would have passed for a dolt till the age of reason. If Cæsar had not lived, perhaps men would always have treated as a visionary that very Cato who penetrated his baleful genius, and foresaw all his projects from afar. Oh, how liable to be deceived are they who are so precipitate in their judgments of children! They are often the more childish. I myself have seen a man somewhat advanced in age, who honored me with his friendship, who was regarded by his family and his friends as lacking in intelligence; but this was a superior mind maturing in silence. All at once he has shown himself a philosopher, and I doubt not that posterity will assign him a distinguished and honorable place among the best reasoners and the most profound metaphysicians of his age.  1
  Respect childhood, and do not hastily judge of it either for good or for evil. Allow a long time for the exceptions to be manifested, proved, and confirmed, before adopting special methods for them. Allow Nature to act in her place, for fear of thwarting her operations. You know, you say, the value of time, and do not wish to waste it. You do not see that to make a bad use of time is much more wasteful than to do nothing with it; and that a poorly taught child is further from wisdom than one who has not been taught at all. You are alarmed at seeing him consume his early years in doing nothing! Really! Is it nothing to be happy? Is it nothing to jump, play, and run, all day long? In no other part of his life will he be so busy. Plato, in his ‘Republic,’ which is deemed so austere, brings up children only in festivals, games, songs, and pastimes. It might be said that he has done all when he has really taught them how to enjoy themselves: and Seneca, speaking of the ancient Roman youth, says they were always on their feet, and were never taught anything which they could learn while seated. Were they of less value for this when they reached the age of manhood? Be not at all frightened, therefore, at this so-called idleness. What would you think of a man who, in order to turn his whole life to profitable account, would never take time to sleep? You will say that he is a man out of his senses: that he does not make use of his time but deprives himself of it; and that to fly from sleep is to run toward death. Reflect, therefore, that this is the same thing, and that childhood is the slumber of reason.  2
  The apparent facility with which children learn is the cause of their ruin. We do not see that this very facility is the proof that they are learning nothing. Their smooth and polished brain reflects like a mirror the objects that are presented to it; but nothing remains, nothing penetrates it. The child retains words, but ideas are reflected. Those who hear these words understand them, but the child who utters them does not.  3
  Although memory and reasoning are two essentially different faculties, yet the first is not truly developed save in conjunction with the second. Before the age of reason a child does not receive ideas, but images; and there is this difference between them: images are but the faithful pictures of sensible objects, while ideas are notions of objects determined by their relations. An image may exist alone in the mind which forms the representation of it; but every idea supposes others. When we imagine, we do no more than see; but when we conceive, we compare. Our sensations are purely passive, whereas all our perceptions or ideas spring from an active principle which judges.  4
  I say then, that children, not being capable of judgment, have no real memory. They retain sounds, forms, sensations, but rarely ideas; and still more rarely their combinations. The objection that they learn some elements of geometry is thought to be a proof that I am wrong; but directly to the contrary, it is a proof in my favor. It is shown that, far from knowing how to reason for themselves, they cannot even retain the reasonings of others; for if you follow these little geometricians in their recitations, you will at once see that they have retained only the exact expressions of the figure and the terms of the demonstration. If you interpose the least unforeseen objection to the argument, or if you reverse the figure they are following, they are at once disconcerted. All their knowledge is in sensation, and nothing has penetrated the understanding. Their memory itself is hardly more perfect than their other faculties; since they must almost always learn over again, when grown, the things which they learned by rote in childhood.  5
  I am very far from thinking, however, that children are incapable of any kind of reasoning. On the contrary, I see that they reason very well on whatever they know, and on whatever is related to their present and obvious interests. But it is with respect to their knowledge that we are deceived. We give them credit for knowledge which they do not have, and make them reason on matters which they cannot comprehend. We are deceived, moreover, in trying to make them attentive to considerations which in no wise affect them;—as that of their prospective interest, of their happiness when grown to be men, or of the esteem in which they will be held when they have become great,—talk which, addressed to creatures deprived of all foresight, has absolutely no significance for them. Now, all the premature studies of these unfortunates relate to objects entirely foreign to their minds; and we may judge of the attention which they can give them.  6
  The pedagogues who make such a great display of the subjects which they teach their disciples, are paid to speak of this matter in different terms; but we see by their own course of action that they think exactly as I. do. For what do they really teach their pupils? Words, words, nothing but words. Among the different sciences which they boast of teaching, they are very careful not to choose those which are really useful to them, because they are the sciences of things, and they would never succeed in teaching them; but they prefer the sciences which we seem to know when we have learned their terminology,—such as heraldry, geography, chronology, the languages, etc.,—all of them studies so remote from man, and especially from the child, that it would be a marvel if a single item of all this could be useful to him once in the course of his life.  7
  It will seem surprising to some that I include the study of languages among the inutilities of education; but it will be recollected that I am speaking here only of primary studies; and that, whatever may be thought of it, I do not believe that up to the age of twelve or fifteen years, any child, prodigies excepted, has ever really learned two languages.  8
  I grant that if the study of languages were but the study of words,—that is, of the forms or sounds which express them,—it might be suitable for children; but languages, by the changing symbols, also modify the ideas which they represent. Languages have their several and peculiar effects in the formation of the intellectual faculties; the thoughts are tinged by their respective idioms. The only thing common to languages is the reason. The spirit of each language has its peculiar form; and this difference is doubtless partly the cause and partly the effect of national characteristics. This conjecture seems to be confirmed by the fact that among all the nations of the earth, language follows the vicissitudes of manners, and is preserved pure or is corrupted just as they are.  9
  Use has given one of these different forms of thought to the child; and it is the only one which he preserves to the age of reason. In order to have two of these forms, he must needs know how to compare ideas; and how can he compare them when he is hardly in a condition to conceive them? Each thing may have for him a thousand different symbols; but each idea can have but one form. Nevertheless, we are told that he learns to speak several. This I deny. I have seen such little prodigies, who thought they were speaking five or six languages. I have heard them speak German in terms of Latin, French, and Italian, respectively. In fact, they used five or six vocabularies, but they spoke nothing but German. In a word, give children as many synonyms as you please, and you will change the words they utter, but not the language: they will never know but one.  10
  It is to conceal their inaptitude in this respect that they are drilled by preference on dead languages, since there are no longer judges of those who may be called to testify. The familiar use of these languages having for a long time been lost, we are content to imitate the remains of them which we find written in books; and this is what we call speaking them. If such is the Greek and Latin of the teachers, we may imagine what the Greek and Latin of the children is! Scarcely have they learned by heart the rudiments of these languages, of which they understand absolutely nothing, when they are taught, first to turn a French discourse into Latin words; and then when they are more advanced, to tack together in prose, sentences from Cicero, and in verse, scraps from Virgil. Then they think that they are speaking Latin: and who is there to contradict them?  11

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