Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 78

[+] | [-] | reset

But, as I have said, I thought my godson had now seen as much of the under currents of life as was likely to be of use to him, and that it was time he began to live in a style more suitable to his prospects.  His aunt had wished him to kiss the soil, and he had kissed it with a vengeance; but I did not like the notion of his coming suddenly from the position of a small shop-keeper to that of a man with an income of between three and four thousand a year.  Too sudden a jump from bad fortune to good is just as dangerous as one from good to bad; besides, poverty is very wearing; it is a quasi-embryonic condition, through which a man had better pass if he is to hold his later developments securely, but like measles or scarlet fever he had better have it mildly and get it over early.

No man is safe from losing every penny he has in the world, unless he has had his facer.  How often do I not hear middle-aged women and quiet family men say that they have no speculative tendency; they never had touched, and never would touch, any but the very soundest, best reputed investments, and as for unlimited liability, oh dear! dear! and they throw up their hands and eyes.

Whenever a person is heard to talk thus he may be recognised as the easy prey of the first adventurer who comes across him; he will commonly, indeed, wind up his discourse by saying that in spite of all his natural caution, and his well knowing how foolish speculation is, yet there are some investments which are called speculative but in reality are not so, and he will pull out of his pocket the prospectus of a Cornish gold mine.  It is only on having actually lost money that one realises what an awful thing the loss of it is, and finds out how easily it is lost by those who venture out of the middle of the most beaten path.  Ernest had had his facer, as he had had his attack of poverty, young, and sufficiently badly for a sensible man to be little likely to forget it.  I can fancy few pieces of good fortune greater than this as happening to any man, provided, of course, that he is not damaged irretrievably.

So strongly do I feel on this subject that if I had my way I would have a speculation master attached to every school.  The boys would be encouraged to read the Money Market Review, the Railway News, and all the best financial papers, and should establish a stock exchange amongst themselves in which pence should stand as pounds.  Then let them see how this making haste to get rich moneys out in actual practice.  There might be a prize awarded by the head-master to the most prudent dealer, and the boys who lost their money time after time should be dismissed.  Of course if any boy proved to have a genius for speculation and made money—well and good, let him speculate by all means.

If Universities were not the worst teachers in the world I should like to see professorships of speculation established at Oxford and Cambridge.  When I reflect, however, that the only things worth doing which Oxford and Cambridge can do well are cooking, cricket, rowing and games, of which there is no professorship, I fear that the establishment of a professorial chair would end in teaching young men neither how to speculate, nor how not to speculate, but would simply turn them out as bad speculators.

I heard of one case in which a father actually carried my idea into practice.  He wanted his son to learn how little confidence was to be placed in glowing prospectuses and flaming articles, and found him five hundred pounds which he was to invest according to his lights.  The father expected he would lose the money; but it did not turn out so in practice, for the boy took so much pains and played so cautiously that the money kept growing and growing till the father took it away again, increment and all—as he was pleased to say, in self defence.