Lay Morals HTML version

Chapter 1
The problem of education is twofold: first to know, and then to utter. Every one
who lives any semblance of an inner life thinks more nobly and profoundly than
he speaks; and the best of teachers can impart only broken images of the truth
which they perceive. Speech which goes from one to another between two
natures, and, what is worse, between two experiences, is doubly relative. The
speaker buries his meaning; it is for the hearer to dig it up again; and all speech,
written or spoken, is in a dead language until it finds a willing and prepared
hearer. Such, moreover, is the complexity of life, that when we condescend upon
details in our advice, we may be sure we condescend on error; and the best of
education is to throw out some magnanimous hints. No man was ever so poor
that he could express all he has in him by words, looks, or actions; his true
knowledge is eternally incommunicable, for it is a knowledge of himself; and his
best wisdom comes to him by no process of the mind, but in a supreme self-
dictation, which keeps varying from hour to hour in its dictates with the variation
of events and circumstances.
A few men of picked nature, full of faith, courage, and contempt for others, try
earnestly to set forth as much as they can grasp of this inner law; but the vast
majority, when they come to advise the young, must be content to retail certain
doctrines which have been already retailed to them in their own youth. Every
generation has to educate another which it has brought upon the stage. People
who readily accept the responsibility of parentship, having very different matters
in their eye, are apt to feel rueful when that responsibility falls due. What are they
to tell the child about life and conduct, subjects on which they have themselves
so few and such confused opinions? Indeed, I do not know; the least said,
perhaps, the soonest mended; and yet the child keeps asking, and the parent
must find some words to say in his own defence. Where does he find them? and
what are they when found?
As a matter of experience, and in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a
thousand, he will instil into his wide-eyed brat three bad things: the terror of
public opinion, and, flowing from that as a fountain, the desire of wealth and
applause. Besides these, or what might be deduced as corollaries from these, he
will teach not much else of any effective value: some dim notions of divinity,
perhaps, and book-keeping, and how to walk through a quadrille.
But, you may tell me, the young people are taught to be Christians. It may be
want of penetration, but I have not yet been able to perceive it. As an honest
man, whatever we teach, and be it good or evil, it is not the doctrine of Christ.
What he taught (and in this he is like all other teachers worthy of the name) was
not a code of rules, but a ruling spirit; not truths, but a spirit of truth; not views,