Saturday, August 11, 2007

A rational or a stupid

No matter how old or jaded I get, I don't think I'm ever going to lose the shivery feeling of excitement that certain eighteenth-century texts elicit in me. I've just spent the evening rereading Defoe's Mere Nature Delineated, a series of observations on the human mind prompted by his observation of a feral child (taken up by people of fashion at the English court) known as Peter of Hanover.

The boy “gives us a View of mere Nature,” Defoe writes, posing the question of whether “his Soul being capable of Improvement, differs from us only in the Loss it has sustained under so long a deny’d Education”:
If that be his Case, he is then only to be considered as an Infant, and that he is just now in the mere State of Infancy and Childhood, with this Disadvantage, as above, That the Soul being left unpolished, and not able to shine, and having lost the Seasons in which it should have been taught and enur’d to its proper Functions, the Organs being grown firm and solid, without being put into a Capacity by due Exercise, are not so easily disposed for the necessary Motion and Application; and so the Difficulty will be the greater to bring it to work, and may not, in a long Time, if ever, be overcome.

If this be the Case it dictates the Necessity of early Education of Children, in whom, not the Soul only, but the organick Powers are, as a Lump of soft Wax, which is always ready to receive any Impression; but if harden’d, grow callous, and stubborn, and, like what we call Sealing-Wax, obstinately refuse the impression of the Seal, unless melted, and reduced by the Force of Fire; that is to say, Unless moulded and temper’d to Instruction, by Violence, Length of Time, and abundance of Difficulty.

Mere Nature receives the vivifying Influence in Generation, but requires the Help of Art to bring it to Perfection of living: The Soul is plac’d in the Body like a rough Diamond, which requires the Wheel and Knife, and all the other Arts of the Cutter, to shape it, and polish it, and bring it to shew the perfect Water of a true Brilliant. . . .

. . . . Education seems to me to be the only specific Remedy for all the Imperfections of Nature; that all the Difference in Souls, or the greatest Part at least, that is to say, between the Dull and the Bright, the Sensible and Insensible, the Active and the Indolent, the Capable and the Incapable, are owing to, and derive form this one Article: That the Man is a Rational, or a Stupid, just as he is handled by his Teachers.
I have been fascinated by feral children ever since (at a rather young age!) I read Harlan Lane's wonderful book The Wild Boy of Aveyron. The literature on feral children is copious--Michael Newton's recent book was a very good introduction to the topic, I thought--and here is the massive online resource for related matters.

I think the most interesting book I've read on the topic in the last few years, though, might be this 1942 volume titled Wolf-Children and Feral Man by the Reverend J.A.L. Singh and Professor Robert M. Zingg, complete with a preface by Bishop H. Pakenham-Walsh (who reflects that "Human vices see to have been as little inherited as human virtues, and this fact seems to me to have a very pertinent bearing on the consideration of what we mean by 'Original Sin'"). Here is a wikipedia entry on Amala and Kamala, the "Wolf Girls of Midnapore," raised by the Reverend Singh in his orphanage.

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