Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 5

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It must be remembered that at the beginning of the nineteenth century the relations between parents and children were still far from satisfactory.  The violent type of father, as described by Fielding, Richardson, Smollett and Sheridan, is now hardly more likely to find a place in literature than the original advertisement of Messrs. Fairlie & Pontifex’s “Pious Country Parishioner,” but the type was much too persistent not to have been drawn from nature closely.  The parents in Miss Austen’s novels are less like savage wild beasts than those of her predecessors, but she evidently looks upon them with suspicion, and an uneasy feeling that le père de famille est capable de tout makes itself sufficiently apparent throughout the greater part of her writings.  In the Elizabethan time the relations between parents and children seem on the whole to have been more kindly.  The fathers and the sons are for the most part friends in Shakespeare, nor does the evil appear to have reached its full abomination till a long course of Puritanism had familiarised men’s minds with Jewish ideals as those which we should endeavour to reproduce in our everyday life.  What precedents did not Abraham, Jephthah and Jonadab the son of Rechab offer?  How easy was it to quote and follow them in an age when few reasonable men or women doubted that every syllable of the Old Testament was taken down verbatim from the mouth of God.  Moreover, Puritanism restricted natural pleasures; it substituted the Jeremiad for the Pæan, and it forgot that the poor abuses of all times want countenance.

Mr Pontifex may have been a little sterner with his children than some of his neighbours, but not much.  He thrashed his boys two or three times a week and some weeks a good deal oftener, but in those days fathers were always thrashing their boys.  It is easy to have juster views when everyone else has them, but fortunately or unfortunately results have nothing whatever to do with the moral guilt or blamelessness of him who brings them about; they depend solely upon the thing done, whatever it may happen to be.  The moral guilt or blamelessness in like manner has nothing to do with the result; it turns upon the question whether a sufficient number of reasonable people placed as the actor was placed would have done as the actor has done.  At that time it was universally admitted that to spare the rod was to spoil the child, and St Paul had placed disobedience to parents in very ugly company.  If his children did anything which Mr Pontifex disliked they were clearly disobedient to their father.  In this case there was obviously only one course for a sensible man to take.  It consisted in checking the first signs of self-will while his children were too young to offer serious resistance.  If their wills were “well broken” in childhood, to use an expression then much in vogue, they would acquire habits of obedience which they would not venture to break through till they were over twenty-one years old.  Then they might please themselves; he should know how to protect himself; till then he and his money were more at their mercy than he liked.

How little do we know our thoughts—our reflex actions indeed, yes; but our reflex reflections!  Man, forsooth, prides himself on his consciousness!  We boast that we differ from the winds and waves and falling stones and plants, which grow they know not why, and from the wandering creatures which go up and down after their prey, as we are pleased to say without the help of reason.  We know so well what we are doing ourselves and why we do it, do we not?  I fancy that there is some truth in the view which is being put forward nowadays, that it is our less conscious thoughts and our less conscious actions which mainly mould our lives and the lives of those who spring from us.