By Himself

The Fates, by Michael Angelo.

MY dear parents' foremost wish was to make a man of me. They knew that education must begin with the dawn of life; that it must grow with the growth and strengthen with the strength; that the germ of the future man lies in the first impression of childhood; and that adulation and incitement to pride and vanity, though they may be a mistaken form of parental affection, are in fact the worst of lessons for the child, and the most baneful in their results. They also knew well that the mind of a youth is a tablet from which no line once graven can ever after be effaced. . . .

In a word, the aim of my parents was to prepare me for the warfare of life, such as it really becomes in after years. And this useful training consists mainly in acquiring a habit of self-sacrifice, and in learning how to suffer.

Verily, if the excess of affection which leads parents to spoil their children were not in itself a touching excuse, what bitter reproaches might fall on those parents who enervate their sons by a childhood of luxury and indulgence,-- those who, knowing the while that they must one day have to endure both burning heat and biting frost,-- knowing also that, in after life, they must erelong brave alike misfortunes, delusions, and the inexorable calls of honor and duty, yet never dream of forearming them against suffering. It should be likewise borne in mind that even children have natural rights, and that they may claim not to be corrupted, deceived, or misled.

They have a right not to be sacrificed to a misplaced and pernicious tenderness. They have a right to be led by the shortest and surest road to that moral and material well-being which constitutes, so to speak, their capital in life, which is a direct gift of Providence--no good being possible to man if he is not accustomed to suffer as well as to obey when duty or necessity requires it.

Now, of all blessings, which is the first and foremost? To be a free and honest man. We must obey the moral law to be the latter; the political and civil law to be the former. Can this be done without sacrifice, without suffering, more or less?

I know but too well that in Italy my definition of liberty as consisting in obedience is now not universally accepted. On the contrary, the opposite idea is afloat, viz. that liberty consists in disobeying every law. This error is excusable up to a certain point. A violent reaction necessarily succeeded the long and odious despotism of the past. But to fall from one despotism into another does not solve the problem, and it is impossible to be free, strong, or independent until law reigns in place of the arbitrary will either of a tyrant or of the mob.

The seeds of this manly obedience must be sown in early life. By the law of Nature, children must obey and not question. I defy any parent to answer every question of his child otherwise than by the words, Because I say it! This authority must, however, be maintained in the minds of the young by profound respect and veneration for their parents. It is therefore quite a mistake to adopt the modern system of allowing children to treat their fathers and mothers on terms of equality, to let them express an opinion whenever they please, and ask the reason of everything. There is no equality between a man and a child, between the father and his son. Any apparent equality allowed to exist is one wholly unfounded in truth. In matters of education, as in politics, both the old despotism and modern license are a direct result of cause and effect. Will experience ever point out a rational medium? Let us hope so.

In my opinion my parents had almost discovered this middle path. I will explain why I say almost.

In spite of my profound veneration for my father, I think I may be allowed humbly to express my doubts with regard to some of his acts and opinions. Moreover, were I to abstain altogether from criticism, my praise would be worth nothing.

I shall, therefore, state that in carrying out his excellent system of authority, he sometimes gave way to his hasty and impetuous temper; and this, added to the perpetual mistrust of his own heart, which I have already mentioned, occasionally betrayed him into the opposite extreme, and he was then, perhaps, overharsh with us. But I thank him even for this fault; a hundred times better such temporary severity than the permanency of the opposite system. In every way and in all cases there is no worse rule than a weak one.

These were the principles my parents followed in our education. A few anecdotes may serve to illustrate them. Though childish and trivial at the first glance, they are not so when we consider the importance and difficulty of guiding children aright from the beginning; and if these pages could in any degree facilitate the task of those who are to succeed us, my warmest wish would be attained.

The distribution of our daily occupations was strictly laid down for Matilde and me in black and white, and these rules were not to be broken with impunity. We were thus accustomed to habits of order, and never to make anybody wait for our convenience, a fault which is one of the most troublesome that can be committed either by great people or small.

I remember one day that Matilde, having gone out with Teresa, came home when we had been at dinner some time. It was winter, and snow was falling. The two culprits sat down a little confused, and their soup was brought them in two plates, which had been kept hot; but can you guess where? On the balcony; so that the contents were not only below freezing point, but actually had a thick covering of snow!

At dinner, of course my sister and I sat perfectly silent, waiting our turn, without right of petition or remonstrance. As to the other proprieties of behavior, such as neatness, and not being noisy or boisterous, we knew well that the slightest infraction would have entailed banishment for the rest of the day at least. Our great anxiety was to eclipse ourselves as much as possible; and I assure you that under this system we never fancied ourselves the central points of importance round which all the rest of the world was to revolve -- an idea which, thanks to absurd indulgence and flattery, is often forcibly thrust, I may say, into poor little brains, which, if left to themselves, would never have lost their natural simplicity. . . .

On another occasion my excellent mother gave me a lesson of humility, which I shall never forget, any more than the place where I received it.

In the open part of the Cascine, which was once used as a race course, to the right of the space where the carriages stand, there is a walk alongside the wood. I was walking there one day with my mother, followed by an old servant, a countryman of Pylades, less heroic than the latter, but a very good fellow too. I forget why, but I raised a little cane I had in my hand and I am afraid I struck him. My mother, before all the passers-by, obliged me to kneel down and beg his pardon. I can still see poor Giacolin taking off his hat with a face of utter bewilderment, quite unable to comprehend how it was that the Chevalier Massimo Taparelli d' Azeglio came to be at his feet.

An indifference to bodily pain was another of the precepts most carefully instilled by our father, and as usual the lesson was made more impressive by example whenever an opportunity presented itself. If, for instance, we complained of any slight pain or accident, our father used to say, half in fun, half in earnest: "When a Piedmontese has both his arms and legs broken, and has received two sword thrusts in the body, he may be allowed to say, but not till then, 'Really, I almost think I am not quite well.'

The moral authority he had acquired over me was so great that in no case would I have disobeyed him, even had he ordered me to jump out of window.

I recollect that when my first tooth was drawn, I was in an agony of fright as we went to the dentist, but outwardly I was brave enough, and tried to seem as indifferent as possible. On another occasion my childish courage and also my father's firmness were put to a more serious test. He had hired a house called the Villa Billi, which stands about half a mile from San Domenico di Fiesole, on the right winding up towards the hill. Only two years ago I visited the place, and found the same family of peasants still there, and my two old playmates, Nando and Sandro, who had both become even greater fogies than myself, and we had a hearty chat together about bygone times.

Whilst living at this villa, our father was accustomed to take us out for long walks, which were the subject of special regulations. We were strictly forbidden to ask, "Have we still far to go?" "What o'clock is it?" or to say, "I am thirsty;" "I am hungry; " "I am tired; " but in everything else we had full liberty of speech and action. Returning from one of these excursions, we one day found ourselves below Castel di Poggio, a rugged, stony path leading towards Vincigliata.

In one hand I had a nosegay of wild flowers, gathered by the way, and in the other a stick, when I happened to stumble, and fell awkwardly. My father sprang forward to pick me up, and seeing that one arm pained me, he examined it and found that in fact the bone was broken below the elbow. All this time my eyes were fixed upon him, and I could see his countenance change, and assume such an expression of tenderness and anxiety that he no longer appeared to be the same man. He bound up my arm as well as he could, and we then continued our way homewards. After a few moments, during which my father had resumed his usual calmness, he said to me:--

"Listen, Mammolino; your mother is not well. If she knows you are hurt, it will make her worse. You must be brave, my boy; to-morrow morning we will go to Florence, where all that is needful can be done for you; but this evening you must not show you are in pain. Do you understand?"

All this was said with his usual firmness and authority, but also with the greatest affection. I was only too glad to have so important and difficult a task intrusted to me. The whole evening I sat quietly in a corner, supporting my poor little broken arm as best I could, and my mother only thought me tired by the long walk, and had no suspicion of the truth.

The next day I was taken to Florence and my arm was set; but to complete the cure I had to be sent to the Baths of Vinadio a few years afterwards. Some people may, in this instance, think my father was cruel. I remember the fact as if it were but yesterday, and I am sure such an idea never for one moment entered my mind. The expression of ineffable tenderness which I had read in his eyes had so delighted me, it seemed so reasonable to avoid alarming my mother, that I looked on the hard task allotted to me as a fine opportunity of displaying my courage. I did so because I had not been spoilt, and good principles had been early implanted within me; and now that I am an old man and have known the world, I bless the severity of my father; and I could wish every Italian child might have one like him, and derive more profit than I did; in thirty years' time Italy would then be the first of nations.

Moreover, it is a fact that children are much more observant than is commonly supposed, and never regard as hostile a just but affectionate severity. I have always seen them disposed to prefer persons who keep them in order to those who constantly yield to their caprices; and soldiers are just the same in this respect.

The following is another example to prove that my father did not deserve to be called cruel: --

He thought it a bad practice to awaken children suddenly, or to let their sleep be abruptly disturbed. If we had to rise early for a journey, he would come to my bedside and softly hum a popular song, two lines of which still ring in my ears:--

Chi vuol veder l' aurora
Lasci le molli plume.

He who the early dawn would view
Downy pillows must eschew.

And by gradually raising his voice, he woke me without the slightest start. In truth, with all his severity, Heaven knows how I loved him. . . .

I could never understand why M. de La Rochefoucauld makes so light of pity. It is true that in his time the slightest headache felt by a noble met with attention; but who felt any sympathy for a manant condemned to the rack? The pity then in fashion was relative. Yet the Gospel says, "Beati misericordes,." and, after all, the Gospel existed even in those days.

This shows how long men who styled themselves Christians remained in reality worse than pagans. And if, taking this principle for our guide, we examine closely the actual state of society, we might perhaps find that Christian civilization is even now far from deserving its name.

Let us take, for instance, one of the great buildings at Genoa, eight or ten stories high, divided into several apartments, inhabited by as many families. If we saw these apparently peaceful tenants always adding bolts, double locks, and iron clamps to their doors, and never coming out on the common staircase unless armed to the teeth with weapons of war, should we say that this community had attained the ideal of Christian civilization, even though its members when they met overflowed with protestations of their love and esteem for one another?

And is not Europe nowadays in the exact condition of such a house?

To home page