Read THE SPOILED CHILDREN OF CIVILIZATION of Humanly Speaking, free online book, by Samuel McChord Crothers, on

To spoil a child is no easy task, for Nature is all the time working in behalf of the childish virtues and veracities, and is gently correcting the abnormalities of education. Still it can be done. The secret of it is never to let the child alone, and to insist on doing for him all that he would otherwise do for himself and more.

In that “more” lies the spoiling power. The child must be early made acquainted with the feeling of satiety. There must be too much of everything. If he were left to himself to any extent, this would be an unknown experience. For he is a hungry little creature, with a growing appetite, and naturally is busy ministering to his own needs. He is always doing something for himself, and enjoys the exercise. The little egoist, even when he has “no language but a cry,” uses that language to make known to the world that he wants something and wants it very much. As his wants increase, his exertions increase also. Arms and legs, fingers and toes, muscles and nerves and busy brain are all at work to get something which he desires. He is a mechanic fashioning his little world to his own uses. He is a despot who insists on his divine right to rule the subservient creatures around him. He is an inventor devising ways and means to secure all the ends which he has the wit to see. That these great works on which he has set his heart end in self is obvious enough, but we forgive him. Altruism will come in its own time.

In natural play a boy will be a horse or a driver. Either occupation gives him plenty to do. But the rôle of an elderly passenger, given a softly cushioned seat and deposited respectfully at the journey’s end, he rejects with violent expressions of scorn. It is ignominious. He will be a policeman or robber or judge or executioner, just as the exigencies of the game demand. These are honorable positions worthy of one who belongs to the party of action. But do not impose upon him by asking him to act the part of the respectable citizen who is robbed and who does nothing but telephone for the police. He is not fastidious and will take up almost anything that is suggested, if it gives him the opportunity of exerting himself. The demand for exertion is the irreducible minimum.

Now to spoil all this fine enthusiasm you must arrange everything in such a manner that the eager little worker shall find everything done before he has time to put his hand to it. There must be no alluring possibilities in his tiny universe. The days of creation, when “the sons of God shouted for joy,” must be passed before he is ushered in. He must be presented only with accomplished facts. There must be nothing left for him to make or discover. He must be told everything. All his designs must be anticipated, by nurses and parents and teachers. They must give him whatever good things they can think of before he has time to desire them. From the time when elaborate mechanical toys are put into his reluctant hands, it is understood that he is to be amused, and need not amuse himself His education is arranged for him. His companions are chosen for him. There is nothing for him to do, and if there were, there is no incentive for him to do it. In the game of life he is never allowed to be the horse. It is his fate to be the passenger.

A child is spoiled when he accepts the position into which fond, foolish parents thrust him. Being a passenger on what was presumably intended to be a pleasure excursion, he begins to find fault as soon as the journey becomes a little wearisome. He must find fault, because that is the only thing left for him to find. Having no opportunity to exercise his creative faculties, he becomes a petulant critic of a world he can neither enjoy nor understand. Taking for granted that everything should be done for him, he is angry because it is not done better. His ready-made world does not please him why should it? It never occurs to him that if he does not like it he should try and make it better.

Unfortunately, the characteristics of the spoiled child do not vanish with childhood or even with adolescence. A university training does not necessarily transform petulance into ripe wisdom. Literary ability may only give fluent expression to a peevish spirit.

Among the innumerable children of an advanced civilization there are those who have been spoiled by the petting to which they have been subjected. Life has been made so easy for them that when they come upon hard places which demand sturdy endurance they break forth into angry complaints. They have been given the results of the complicated activities of mankind, without having done their share in the common tasks. They have not through personal endeavor learned how much everything costs. They are not able, therefore, to pay cheerfully for any future good. If it is not given to them at once they feel that they have a grievance. For friendly cooeperation they are not prepared. They must have their own way or they will not play the game. Their fretful complaints are like those of the children in the old-time market-places: “We have piped unto you and you have not danced, we have mourned unto you and you have not lamented.”

There is a fashionable attitude of mind among many who pride themselves on their acute intellectualism. It manifests itself in a supercilious compassion for the efforts and ambitions of the man of action. He, poor fellow, is well-meaning, but unilluminated. He is eager and energetic because he imagines that he is accomplishing something. If he were a serious thinker he would see that all effort is futile. We are here in an unintelligible world, a world of mighty forces, moving we know not whither. We are subject to passions and impulses which we cannot resist. We are never so helpless as when we are in the midst of human affairs. We have great words which we utter proudly. We talk of Civilization, Christianity, Democracy, and the like. What miserable failures they all are. Civilization has failed to produce contentment. It has failed to secure perfect justice between man and man, or to satisfy the hungry with bread. Christianity after all these centuries of preaching leaves mankind as we see it to-day an armed camp, nation fighting nation, class warring against class. The democratic movement about which we hear so much is equally unsuccessful. After its brilliant promises it leaves us helpless against the passion and stupidity of the mob. Popular education adds to the tribulations of society. It rapidly increases the number of the discontented. The half-educated are led astray by quacks and demagogues who flourish mightily. The higher technical education increases that intellectual proletariat which Bismarck saw to be a peril. Science, which once was hailed as a deliverer, is now perceived to bring only the disillusioning knowledge of our limitations. The bankruptcy of Science follows closely upon the bankruptcy of Faith. Mechanical inventions, instead of decreasing the friction of life, enormously increase it. We are destined to be dragged along by our own machines which are to go faster and faster. Philanthropy increases the number of the unfit. The advances of medicine are only apparent, while statistics show that tuberculosis, a disease of early life, decreases, cancer and diseases of later life increase.

As for the general interest in social amelioration, that is the worst sign of all. “Coming events cast their shadows before,” and we may see the shadow of the coming Revolution. Is there any symptom of decadence more sure than when the moral temperature suddenly rises above normal? Watch the clinical charts of Empire. In the period of national vigor the blood is cool. But the time arrives when the period of growth has passed. Then a boding sense comes on. The huge frame of the patient is feverish. The social conscience is sensitive. All sorts of soft-hearted proposals for helping the masses are proposed. The world rulers become too tenderhearted for their business. Then comes the end.

Read again the history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. How admirable were the efforts of the “good emperors,” and how futile! Consider again the oft-repeated story of the way the humanitarianism of Rousseau ushered in the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.

With such gloomy forebodings do the over-civilized thinkers and writers try to discourage the half-civilized and half-educated workers, who are trying to make things better. How shall we answer the prophets of ill?

Not by denying the existence of the evils they see, or the possibility of the calamities which they fear. What we object to is the mental attitude toward the facts that are discovered. The spoiled child, when it discovers something not to its liking, exaggerates the evil, and indulges its ill-temper.

The well-trained man faces the evil, studies it, measures it, and then sets to work. He is well aware that nothing human is perfect, and that to accomplish one thing is only to reveal another thing which needs to be done. There must be perpetual readjustment, and reconsideration. What was done yesterday must be done over again to-day in a somewhat different way. But all this does not prove the futility of effort. It only proves that the effort must be unceasing, and that it must be more and more wisely directed.

He compares, for example, Christianity as an ideal with Christianity as an actual achievement. He places in parallel columns the maxims of Jesus, and the policies of Christian nations and the actual state of Christian churches. The discrepancy is obvious enough. But it does not prove that Christianity is a failure; it only proves that its work is unfinished.

A political party may adopt a platform filled with excellent proposals which if thoroughly carried out would bring in the millennium. But it is too much to expect that it would all be accomplished in four years. At the end of that period we should not be surprised if the reformers should ask for a further extension of time.

The spoiled children of civilization eliminate from their problem the one element which is constant and significant human effort. They forget that from the beginning human life has been a tremendous struggle against great odds. Nothing has come without labor, no advance has been without daring leadership. New fortunes have always had their hazards.

Forgetting all this, and accepting whatever comforts may have come to them as their right, they are depressed and discouraged by their vision of the future with its dangers and its difficulties. They habitually talk of the civilized world as on the brink of some great catastrophe which it is impossible to avoid. This gloomy foreboding is looked upon as an indication of wisdom.

It should be dismissed, I think, as an indication of childish unreason, unworthy of any one who faces realities. It is still true that “the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

The notion that coming events cast shadows before is a superstition. How can they? A shadow must be the shadow of something. The only events that can cast a shadow are those which have already taken place. Behind them is the light of experience, shining upon actualities which intercept its rays.

The shadows which affright us are of our own making. They are projections into the future of our own experiences. They are sharply denned silhouettes, rather than vague omens. When we look at them closely we can recognize familiar features. We are dealing with cause and effect. What is done foreshadows what remains to be done. Every act implies some further acts as its results. When a principle is recognized its practical applications must follow. When men begin to reason from new premises they are bound to come to new conclusions.

It is evident that in the last half-century enough discoveries have been made to keep us busy for a long time. Every scientific advance upsets some custom and interferes with some vested interest. You cannot discover the truth about tuberculosis without causing a great deal of trouble to the owners of unsanitary dwellings. Some of them are widows whose little all is invested in this kind of property. The health inspectors make life more difficult for them.

Scholarly research among ancient manuscripts is the cause of destructive criticism. The scholar with the most peaceable intentions in the world disturbs some one’s faith. His discovery perhaps involves the reconstruction of a whole system of philosophy.

A law is passed. The people are pleased with it, and then forget all about it. But by and by a conscientious executive comes into office who thinks it his duty to enforce the law. Such accidents are liable to happen in the most good-humored democracy. When he tries to enforce it there is a burst of angry surprise. He is treated as a revolutionist who is attacking the established order. And yet to the moderately philosophic observer the making of the law and its enforcement belong to the same process. The difficulty is that though united logically they are often widely separated chronologically.

The adjustment to a new theory involves changes in practice. But the practical man who has usually little interest in new theories is surprised and angry when the changes come. He looks upon them as arbitrary interferences with his rights.

Even when it is admitted that when considered in a large way the change is for the better, the question arises, Who is to pay for it? The discussion on this point is bound to be acrimonious, as we are not saints and nobody wants to pay more than his share of the costs of progress. Even the price of liberty is something which we grumble over.

You have noticed how it is when a new boulevard is laid in any part of the city. There is always a dispute between the municipality and the abutters. Should the abutters be assessed for betterments or should they sue for damages? Usually both actions are instituted. The cost of such litigation should be included in the price which the community pays for the improvement.

If people always knew what was good for them and acted accordingly, this would be a very different world, though not nearly so interesting. But we do not know what is good for us till we try; and human life is spent in a series of experiments. The experiments are costly, but there is no other way of getting results. All that we can say to a person who refuses to interest himself in these experiments, or who looks upon all experiments as futile which do not turn out as he wished, is that his attitude is childish. The great commandment to the worker or thinker is, Thou shalt not sulk.

Sulking is no more admirable in those of great reputation than it is in the nursery. Thackeray declared that, in his opinion, “love is a higher intellectual exercise than hate.” And looked at as an exercise of mental power courage must always be greater than the most highly intellectualized form of fear or despair.

I cannot take with perfect seriousness Matthew Arnold’s oft-quoted lines:

“Achilles ponders in his tent,
The kings of modern thought are dumb.
Silent they are, though not content,
And wait to see the future come.
They have the grief men had of yore,
But they contend and cry no more.”

If that is ever the attitude of the best minds, it is only a momentary one of which they are quickly ashamed. Achilles sulked in his tent when he was pondering not a big problem, but a small grievance. The kings of modern thought who are described seem like kings out of a job. We are inclined to turn from them to the intellectual monarchs de facto. They are the ones who take up the hard job which the representatives of the old regime give up as hopeless. For when the king has abdicated and contends no more Long live the King!

The real thinkers of any age do not remain long in a blue funk. They always find something important to think about. They always point out something worth doing. They cannot passively wait to see the future come. They are too busy making it.

Matthew Arnold struck a truer note in Rugby Chapel. The true leaders of mankind can never be mere intellectualists. There must be a union of intellectual and moral energy like that which he recognized in his father. To the fainting, dispirited race,

“Ye like angels appear,
Radiant with ardour divine,
Beacons of hope, ye appear!
Languor is not in your heart,
Weakness is not in your word,
Weariness not on your brow;
Ye alight in our van: at your voice
Panic, despair, flee away.”

When those whom we have looked upon as our intellectual leaders grow disheartened, we must remember that a lost leader does not necessarily mean a lost cause. When those whom we had called the kings of modern thought are dumb, we can find new leadership. “Change kings with us,” replied an Irish officer after the panic of the Boyne; “change kings with us, and we will fight you again.”