The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."

by Mrs. Dowson
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 423-436

"Those present may like to know that this subject has been treated in a less difficult manner in Miss Mason's books--especially in 'Parents and Children'--and she has also written two articles in the Review, one on 'Masterly Inactivity' and the other on 'Obedience.' There is also an article in a back number of the 'Review' by Mrs. Bainbridge and another by Mr. Olive. All these put the subject in a less difficult manner."

Miss Montagu then read a paper by Mrs. Dowson, on Authority.

Mr. Arthur Balfour remarks that "it would be, perhaps, an exaggeration to assert that the theory of authority has been, for three centuries, the main battlefield whereon have met the opposing forces of new thoughts and old"; but, if it be an exaggeration, "it is only because, at this point at least, victory is commonly supposed, long ago, to have declared itself decidedly in favour of the new." That Mr. Balfour is himself not of the "new" opinion is plainly to be seen from the concluding words of his chapter on this subject:--"Though it may seem to savour of paradox," he says, "it is yet no exaggeration to say, that if we would find the quality in which we most notably excel the brute creation, we should look for it, not so much in our faculty of convincing and being convinced by the exercise of reasoning, as in our capacity for influencing and being influenced through the action of Authority."

Mr. Balfour speaks for men of thought; he contrasts, in fact, their opinion with the opinion that reached its height among such men long ago, and has since declined to a fall, manifest to every one of us. Forty years ago, the "new" view of authority became popular, and it is popular still, for the opinion that is popular lags far behind the opinion of the hierarchy of thought. Forty years ago individualism, scientific and unscientific, seemed, to the ordinary observer, to hold the future in its grasp, and rationalism, more or less disguised, was the key-note of popular thinking, both speculative and practical. At that time, the very word authority was discredited, and it evoked memories only of what were called the effete [weak] social, religious, and political superstitions of ages bygone for evermore. "There certainly have been times," said the popular voice of forty years ago, "when men leaned upon authority, but the Aufklaerung [Enlightenment] has removed all that; such men reasoned little and ill; we reason well and much, what is authority to us? What can it be, as long as we go on in the way of enlightenment, reasoning always much and well?"

It may be an optimist's view, but I do not think it is, that makes the reasoning of the better minds of this our own day seem much more reasonable than that of the boasted time of Enlightenment, of the effects of which we have had popular display this last half-century or so. It seems to me that we have really learned to reason more and better, and that the reinstatement of authority now unquestionably taking place in many directions is due, in some important degree, to progress in the very ways by which our predecessors came to throw it aside. It does not seem to me due, in any considerable degree, to mere reaction against the falseness and inadequacy and unprofitableness of what it is coming to replace, but rather, as I have said, to a positive advance along the road by which that was attained. There was once a common but unreasoning acceptance of authority and its influence; there came to be an equally common and, but imperfectly reasoned, rejection of it; there is coming a better reasoned acceptance which, we may hope, will be at least adequate to give support to one common to those minds not excluded from the main current of human life. The result may well appear reactionary; the process is, I think, continuous. It is not because men have ceased to reason, and to reason well, that authority is once more receiving honour and esteem; it is because they have gone on reasoning, and have corrected the results reached in an earlier stage.

If I have implied that there was never a time before our own when authority was reasonably esteemed, I have done so only because, in cutting across the movement of thought and looking at it in rough unnatural sections, it is impossible to bring into full view the places of overlapping and anticipation in the living line. I have no doubt many of you have already supplied the needed corrections, for, to begin with, it will have occurred to your minds that one great psychologist [St. Paul], to whom we are all deeply indebted, placed authority in its right and reasonable position nearly nineteen centuries ago. That great student of the human mind and the social life of men, speaking of the most important authority in the world, described it as "the pillar and ground of the truth." In those words St. Paul pointed out for all time the character and the value of authority of every kind. The proper function of authority is to be the visible centre of organization and order, the abiding witness to the direction in which right progress must be made and good be won, the standing-place from which men may safely survey the difficulties and problems of their personal experience of life, and the starting-point from which they may proceed to deal in right and profitable ways with all that personal experience may bring. There are grades in authority, but the principle on which all are to be accepted is the same; in every grade, authority embodies and presents the outcome of experience, and brings before us a greater or less part of the contents of the social consciousness, and of the influence of the social will. Each is, in its particular sphere, a 'pillar' and a 'ground'--a pillar standing out before our eyes, a ground on which we may take our stand and gain the advantage won by those who have gone before.

St. Paul saw this; but then, St. Paul was, among other things, a great psychologist. Swedenborg, another great psychologist, saw it too; and, because we are at last beginning to interpret society and the life of the individuals who make up the social whole, as St. Paul and Swedenborg did, in terms of the minds of those individuals who make up the whole instead of in terms of an atomistic philosophy of the world, or in terms of mathematics or mechanics, or an abstract biology, we are reinstating authority and seeing that it is very reasonable so to do. Society, Swedenborg teaches us, is, or rather is growing to be, the great Divine-Human Man; it is being organized as every individual man is being organized, and its growth is, in the language of one of our latest teachers, [James Mark Baldwin] "analogous to the growth of consciousness rather than to that of the biological organism," to which it has been fashionable to compare it. "A man," says Swedenborg, "is a heaven and also a world in least form after the image of the greatest."

In the fullness of time, we are learning something of what Swedenborg meant. We are finding out that, just as the experience of every normal man is written down in his mind as an organized system of habits of thought, a mass of mental acquisition with which every new thing comes into relation to be modified and in its turn to modify, so the greater experience of the social body to which every man belongs is written down in a system of custom and ordinance and community of thought and expression, exercising over all men an authoritative influence, modifying all men and being itself, in turn, modified by them.

The body of mental habit in every man is his own authority exercising over him an influence he holds in esteem and reckons with; it is his mental 'pillar' and 'ground,' and he knows, or may know, if he is able to reflect upon it, that if he could break it down there would be ruin within him, and, if he could disregard it, he would be thrown back to infancy again, and have to begin again at the very beginning--without knowledge, without speech, without anything but the mere capacity to be helped once more to find what he had set aside. We should see him as an idiot if he could really lose the inner authority of his mind, and as a lunatic if he could disintegrate it.

The process of mental growth and life is on the one hand a process of give-and-take between the acquisitions of past experience and the new experience of every-day arrival; and on the other hand (as no man is sufficient for himself alone, but is of necessity a member of a social whole) it is the process of give-and-take between the social consciousness and the individual consciousness in relation to it. Living growth, in fact, whether person or social, takes place by an alternation of copying and making changes in the copy, a dialectic of imitation and invention, as Baldwin says, imitation following authority, invention combining afresh, re-arranging and interpreting what has been received. In every department of life, the rule holds good; and we have here a reasonable ground for giving due respect even to the least example of an authoritative influence, and for valuing it on account of the uses it fulfils.

"Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land the Lord thy God giveth thee." Practical reverence for authority, little as some of us have been willing to admit it, is the condition of life in the 'land' given us, the land where we may grow and strengthen, and win the good that is, indeed, freely provided for us, but is to be won only on condition that we share it with the rest. 'Father' and 'Mother' are the typical representatives of authority and the first presenters of it. They bring to the child the first touch of the social consciousness; they embody it for him; they are, for him, the pillar and ground of all good, and he rests on them and looks to them; his 'imitation' follows them, and, with what they supply, his 'invention' deals. Beyond father and mother, there opens out for him, bit by bit, a view of other authorities, other representatives of the mind of the developing Greater Man; but he will see that the justice of its claim upon him is rooted where that of his father and mother is rooted, and that the reasonableness of its claim is the reasonableness of theirs.

By looking at authority in this point of view, we learn not only the reasonableness of respecting it, but the character a right authority should have. We cannot forget, nor is it well that we should try to forget, that there have been travesties of authority men have done well to reject; and, moreover, that there are still to be heard theories of authority proclaimed both by those who support and those who would destroy it, which cannot be adjusted to any good psychological interpretation of life, but belong to interpretations based on conceptions of the mechanical and biological sort. Any theory of authority, any practical effort to use authority, in which there is not full recognition of the necessity for give-and-take in personal and social advance, and of the impossibility of bringing compulsion to bear with success in anything but external affairs is unworthy of respect. It is, in fact, not a theory of a practice of authority at all, but of an absolutism to be striven against as mischievous in proportion to its success.

In a right authority rightly to be honoured, there is always something of a 'father and mother,' and there is never anything autocratic, arbitrary, or merely external.

Swedenborg has drawn for us a picture of authority as his prophetic eye sees it exercised in the better worlds that are to come for us between this world and the best. "All the forms of government," he says, "agree in this, that they regard the public good as their end, and, in that good, the good of everyone." The governors in those intermediate worlds "are in good and wisdom more than others; and thus, from love, will good to all and, from wisdom, know how to provide for its being done . . . They do not rule and command imperiously, but minister and serve; for to do good to others from the love of good is to serve, and to provide for its being done is to minister. Neither do they make themselves greater than others, but less; for they regard the good of the society and of their neighbour in the first place, but their own good in the last place, and that which is in the first place is greater, and that which is in the last is less. And yet they have honour and glory, for they dwell in the midst of the society, in a more elevated situation than others, and inhabit magnificent palaces. They even accept this glory and honour, not for the sake of themselves, but for the sake of obedience, for all there know that they have honour and glory from the Lord, and that, on this account, they are to be obeyed."

A true authority of 'father and mother' is this, and therefore, because the authority of these governors bears the Divine commission for use in wisdom and love, they receive, says Swedenborg, due honour from all whose days are long in the "land" of common life and common aims bestowed upon them.

It is the test of authority--this question of 'father and mother'--the test of the claim of every authority to honour, the test of its worth and true power, the test of its origin and its commission. "God deals with us," says Mr. Gore, "as with sons, not as with slaves, He makes us partakers of His counsels, intelligent co-operators with Him"; and every right authority, as God's vice-regent, rules as He rules, makes sons, not slaves, demands co-operation and participation in its love-inspired work of wisdom and power. Always there must be scope and opportunity for the dialectic of personal and social growth, for the give-and-take of alternate movements of imitation and invention (of reception, use and return), for the powers of obedient acceptance, free utilizing of acquired good, and the pouring of it back in new form into the common store. Absolutism, tyranny, arbitrary dominance, lies outside all this; it belongs to a kingdom which is not Divine. The authority of father and mother is the typical authority of heavenly force, of the force of love and wisdom exercised in ministerial and mediatorial service; it is a living channel of the heavenly blessings, and is possessed of the dignity of the Divine commission to do heavenly work. All other right authority is of the same origin and has its measure of the same force, following this wonderful type: in its proper form and operation, it uses love and wisdom in mediatorial service as the minister of good to the body social and politic, and to its individual members according to their needs.

Obvious as this may seem when it is set out in plain words, many of us have it still to learn, at least in some degree. Many of us have still to learn that it is not only reasonable to respect authority, but that, whatever we may say or do, or think, we depend upon it for living growth, at least as much as we depend upon our own individual powers. From our infancy we have the social consciousness over against our own, teaching us, leading us, calling forth our powers, inducing imitation, and providing us with the material of thought which our originality is to enable us to give back in new combinations. The social consciousness is the authoritative influence upon us, wiser than ourselves, more experienced, further advanced, and far more widely extended in that unending process of "growing to know," to which we sometimes vain-gloriously give the name of knowledge won. We come to the social consciousness of the social will, each one of us, and we put ourselves to school with it, learning from it lessons of value proportionate to our capacity and opportunity, and to our obedience. We enter gradually into the fulness of our relation to it, as in active personal response we make use of what it unceasingly provides, and give to the material it proffers the stamp of our own assimilating and transforming work.

The authority of the social consciousness is no absolutism, but it is universal in a rightly growing life; it is the great social 'father and mother,' honourable and honoured for its mission and its work.

In every department of our lives, we are dealing with the authoritative influence of the social consciousness, we find it and feel it everywhere, and we are helpless without its aid. Speaking of and to men who are thinkers par excellence, Dr. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his "Welby Prize Essay," reminds them that "all alike must know that they belong to a great alliance which runs through all nations, the Republic of Scholars; and [that] to work in and for this, to be recognized in it, and to find in it a following and co-operation, has always been the highest aim of the master. There at once," he goes on, "the individual will, at the height of its enjoyment and power and of its artist's pride, finds itself over against a more powerful social will which commands its respect, and which, forming itself in a council wherein the most distinguished masters have the greatest natural weight, and exercising its office of distinction and selection, determines with decisive sovereignty what is to hold universally, what permanently, and what both universally and permanently." The Republic of Scholars manifests a special part of the general social consciousness, and its authority is a special part of the general social authority over against the individual work and will.

"There is something wiser than any member of the House of Commons," said a sagacious observer, "and that is the House of Commons itself." To this authority every member submits and finds in submission the way to usefulness and power. What is true of one whole and its parts is true of others embraced in the same system and supreme whole. The governing organ of this country bears witness to the country's will, and has its authoritative voice honoured as the voice of the King. Behind it is power to enforce its decrees upon those who cut themselves off from the social whole it represents, because, as the servant of the nation, it has the nation's strength; but we honour it ,not merely on account of its power, which might be only brute force, but in so far as we believe it speaks the nation's mind and ours, and gives the nation's witness to the outcome of its experience and the direction which the national wisdom and the national will towards good point out as best to follow in the interests of the whole. The Government of this country is, for us 'the pillar and ground' of political good--we value it for its character and its use, not for its mere strength--it is King, not Tyrant, and we honour the King where we should destroy the Tyrant, had he one head or many.

It is not in regard to political government that nowadays there is any serious strain in a free country against authority; it is either in regard to the formation of general opinion or in the relations of domestic life. We have long given up the belief that opinion and change of opinion can be forced; we are doubtful only as to the morality of allowing authority to have weight in the process of forming it. Some of us have no doubt; we are quite sure that emancipation from the influence of authority is a primary article in the charter of our modern liberties--a thing not only possible and desirable, but secured. Such people are still in the darker ages of revolt; they have not yet discovered that for all right progress we not only need the help of the other-consciousness over against us, but that this other-consciousness is, in fact, besides being mediatorial and ministerial through its organs of expression, necessarily definite and authoritative in its relation to us. Our progress depends upon our finding some 'pillar' to indicate known right ways and known wrong ones, and some 'ground' on which to take a stand; there must be, moreover, some voice which shall proffer us in obvious form the organized results of past experience. There cannot be the turn and play of full living reciprocity between the individual man and the major and minor human wholes of which he is an acting part, unless those wholes can reach his intelligence by definite acts of expression, acts by which the social consciousness can make itself known and felt. These acts of expression of the social consciousness are, in varying degree, definitive and authoritative; so it is customary among people who believe themselves emancipated to call them hindrances instead of helps, and to look at them in a manner appropriate only to men severed from the social whole, and at least desiring to travel in ways obviously barred by such acts, The attitude is that of men who would be rebels, were not rebellion made by oppression so uncomfortable to the rebels. This is, of course, the attitude of the prudent Anarchist, as well as of the small boy who would live on tarts and toffy but for the domestic tyrant who proffers him bread and beef. The authority of the social consciousness is no more a tyranny than is the authority of parents; it is rooted in love and wisdom and in utility to men.

We may be told that this is all very well, but that we use the wrong word, because 'authority' has too lofty a meaning and claim to be applied to anything so universal in its range as the mind and will of human society. The word certainly has a lofty sound; but authority is of many degrees. It is absolutism that does not admit of degrees, and absolutism is a thing of evil, a mere mockery of the authority that descends from high to low by the mission of service in Divine and human love. We must recognize the degrees of authority, but we may see, underlying them, one and the same principle of right.

Let us take, for example, an instance from both ends of the scale, one from among the most authoritative, and one from among the least authoritative acts of the social mind and will.

There is, I suppose, in the whole of Christendom, nothing for which so high a claim is made, nothing so potently authoritative over those who grant the claim, as the great Act known as The Creed. No Acts of Parliament and King have anything approaching the authority of the Creed. Those Acts, great as is their influence both upon conduct and opinion, do but express the plastic [shapeable] national mind as it is constituted during a comparatively brief period, and under easily changed conditions. The social consciousness grows and alters; and Act after Act, as it ceases to represent the people's mind and will, becomes obsolete, or is corrected, withdrawn, or over-ridden as the case may be. In the Creed (the one chief Act of the whole Christian consciousness), we have an extraordinary thing, a thing that, although it has a parallel, has at least no equal in the world. It has a parallel in the Acts of the Republic of Scholars spoken of by Dr. Tonnies in a passage from which I quote once more on account of its peculiar appositeness. "There at once the individual will . . . finds itself over against a more powerful social will commanding its respect; and which, forming itself in a council wherein the most distinguished masters have the greatest natural weight, and exercising its office of distinction and selection, determines with decisive sovereignty, what is to hold universally, what permanently, and what both universally and permanently."

Here is a parallel to the Christian Act, a close and interesting parallel. In the Republic of Scholars, the authority of the social will, expressed in Acts of its magisterial council, is recognized by all members of the brotherhood. They acknowledge its "decisive sovereignty," its power to determine by a process of distinction and selection what is to hold good universally and enduringly. By a precisely similar process of distinction and selection, exercised by a precisely similar magisterial Council, the consentient witness of the Christian Republic to a number of supremely important facts has been formulated in its Creed. The Creed is authoritative as the voice of the whole body speaking through its appointed organ. It is an Act of witness to experience borne by the whole Brotherhood some fifteen centuries ago, and endorsed by this continuing body from that time to the present day. When any one of us stands over against this wonderful Act, he is confronted by an authority not only greater than all Acts of Kings and Parliaments, but dealing with matters beyond the range of all merely earthly Republics; he is confronted by the voice of millions speaking, not as so many aggregated units, but as bound into an organized oneness of common life by a unifying Spirit, and possessing an experience of unique profundity penetrating the secret recesses of the soul. Here, if a man will accept it, is his 'pillar and ground of truth.' The great authority stands over against him as the authority of the Republic of Scholars stands over against the individual member of it; but it is no tyrant, it is a 'father and mother' authority offering him service, ministering to him in order that he may use his own power to the utmost advantage from a base tested by the experience of a corporate life, to which his own experience is as nothing.

We have in this example an instance of a great authority as it should be. It is absolutely firm and definite concerning that which is known to be true. It expresses unwaveringly the consentient witness of the whole body to the great facts; but it makes no attempt to trammel the application of them. It leaves to each individual and each generation the work which, for each generation and individual, must and should be peculiar and specially designed, must and should be subject to correction and expansion to meet the demands involved in every change. For the good of the whole, and of every part of the whole, the authority of the whole is used to preserve what no single life-time would suffice to establish, but it leaves to the efforts of every life and time the work that no developing corporate organization can once for all perform. The living play of 'imitation and invention' is ensured, and round about the great central facts established by consentient witness, there grows up an ever-increasing body of truths of interpretation, application and combination, contributed through the interaction of the unnumbered host who have thankfully recognized their 'pillar' of truth and made its 'ground' a starting-point of safe advance.

We have taken an instance of greatest authority; we will take another of least.

Every person we meet, every book we read, every work of man, represents, in least form, and in value great or small, the authority of the social mind and will. To every human work and every person we ought to come in the one attitude that befits a rational being who knows his place. We ought to come in due humility, as recipients by cooperative effort of this or that good thing bestowed. We should endeavour to find out what message from the social consciousness, not yet received by us, is proffered now by this person, or by that book or picture or scheme of thought. We should try humbly to enter into the meaning of the mind over against us as thus expressed; and only when we have done this is it possible for us to use it aright, to correct, amplify, recombine, approve or disapprove, as may seem to us good. We must pay due honour to the authority of the least.

The greatest social sin is the sin of contempt; the greatest social duty is to "honour all men." This precept is the Christian expansion of the Fifth Commandment. It brings with it a recognition of the dignity and authority of every man as possessing a mediatorial office in relation to his fellows by which he becomes a channel to convey some gift, and as being a representative in his degree of the Divine commission to the whole body to minister to the needs of all. Mediation, ministry and authority, are linked together; but they reach from the highest to the lowest in one orderly system spreading out from the universal source--the One Mediator who is both God and man, the Head of the human Brotherhood in God.

We are, by office, all mediators, all ministers, and in the degree in which we fulfill the duties of our office, we are clothed with authority; but the type of our authority is found in the 'father and mother' whom we were commanded in the childhood of the human race to honour, and not in any absolute power external to the needs of others and independent of their cooperating will. We cannot do anything without love, we dare not try to rule without striving after wisdom, we must not accept honour for the sake of ourselves, but only--like the governors in the worlds to come--for the sake of obedience; because honour, like authority, is "from the Lord."

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Dr. A. Schofield (Chairman), on declaring the matter open for discussion, regretted that Mrs. Dowson's absence prevented questions being asked.

Mrs. Franklin: One thought will surely be amongst us all--that this is an extremely important subject, and an almost impossible one to discuss on the spur of the moment. Those present may like to know that the subject has been treated in a less difficult manner in Miss Mason's books--especially in Parents and Children--and she has also written two articles in the Review, one on "Masterly Inactivity" and the other on "Obedience." There is also an article in a back number of the Review by Mrs. Bainbridge and another by Mr. Olive. All these put the subject in a less difficult manner.

Dr. A. Schofield (Chairman): I am sure new members will feel that the P.N.E.U. is not likely to go too fast, for we have listened to two extremely conservative papers. There is no doubt as to the main points of Mrs. Dowson's paper. There is really no resentment of authority in large minds; it is only minds that are prejudiced that resent authority. But there is another side, not touched upon by Mrs. Dowson--the terrible evil to the world at large, and individuals in particular, of false authority, which has a bad influence on men's minds and souls. I consider the power of authority has been wrongly used in past ages, therefore, in the present day, there is not so much a refusal of authority as a refusal of blind submission to it. The old idea, "Open your mouth and shut your eyes," is for ever gone by, as regards authority. But this is, I think, one of the most hopeful signs of the time, that while authority itself is not resented, there is a wide desire to know whether it is based on solid grounds or not.

Mrs. Bigland: As we listened to this paper, the subject seemed so deep that I almost wished we had some key to it; but towards the end Mrs. Dowson put authority on the moral basis--which is the real basis--that we acknowledge authority because we feel for everyone that they have something to give to us. Children want to know that those who exercise authority have something to give them--is easy for them to realize; but when we are older, it is difficult to acknowledge authority, and it seems to me that Mrs. Steinthal rather touched the note of it when she said "it is the angel within the marble." It is the realizing and recognizing that in every individual, however brusque and unsympathetic the exterior, that gives us the willingness to submit to authority in whatever form it comes.

Mrs. Franklin: I think it will be unfortunate if we, as members of P.N.E.U. do not emphasize that we do believe in obedience to authority. Some of us younger parents will feel many mistakes were made in the training of children, because a kind of doctrine in opposition to this was in the air, and I think one of the reasons this society existed was to prevent parents following such doctrines too closely. Very highly strung children do require an outside authority, not so much that they may recognize the reasonableness of it, as because of its effect upon them through life and training.

Mrs. Anson: I must earnestly agree with Mrs. Franklin that we must, as a Union, testify that children must obey. They must meet difficulties in life, and that they may not have all the grit taken out of their characters they must take nasty medicine. They must face the question of obedience as a thing they have to give in to, however hard they find it. We ought not to be always giving them reasons, until they have gained the habit of obedience. I am quite sure that they have no right to be always asking us why we give certain orders.

Mrs. Flint: I also should like to accentuate this--the love that is in the parents' heart does not assume an authority, but takes hold of the affections of the child, and though it may rebel, carries it away.

Mrs. Bagenal: It seems to me that the whole question is relative--must be relative. When children come to a reasonable age, we can give them a reason why we wish a certain command carried out, and I think we should do this as soon as they can understand it.

Lady Campbell: I imagine it is one of the many subjects about which it is impossible to make a hard and fast rule; also, it depends very much on the character and temperament of the individual child.

Mrs. Franklin: I believe there is hardly any age when a child does not understand reason. If you can give reasons, there is need for very few orders, because if there is a habit of obedience, there is no need for many orders. We all believe in obedience as a habit; we know then there is not so much necessity for the words "do" and "don't." In a house where obedience is the rule and habit, very few orders are obliged to be given.

Mrs. Holroyd Chaplin: I think we rule because our children love us so intensely that they are willing to obey us, and it is a real pleasure to them, and the sort of obedience that come of real love in our children lasts for years and years. I think the words "implicit obedience" will cover the early years of childhood, and, after the early years are over, I would leave everybody with a free hand.

Proofread by LNL, May, 2011