Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Nascent Strength

"Reason," says Rousseau, "is the bridle of strength." I would rather say that it should serve as a bridle to the first interior movements, which incline us to our strength. A child of ten years of age has a lively sentiment of his nascent strength, a sentiment active and vigorous prompting him to be active, to be continually fidgeting, to take those objects that are near at hand, and to turn them about and work them in every manner....This nascent strength in animals is governed by a certain unalterable instinct that guides them, but in man there is no immediate rule other than reason. Why then should reason be entirely useless to a child of ten years old? This interior propensity that stirs and agitates him, which prompts him to continual action and keeps him always out of breath -- does it not need some restraint? It is true that at this age reason is too weak to suffice by itself. It needs to be assisted and fortified by precepts, examples, and appropriate practices.

Hyacinthe-Sigismond Gerdil, The Anti-Emile, Frank, tr. St Augustine's Press (South Bend, Indiana: 2011), p. 48.

The essential argument here is against a combination of two claims by Rousseau, that children under the age of ten or even fifteen do not have a sufficiently developed reason to be capable of rational moral distinctions, and that the first inclinations of the heart are naturally right. Gerdil has just finished arguing that the former is in fact false -- if one child takes another's toy, for instance, young children who saw it, though they have no other connection, will tell you all about how it is wrong, and they can even distinguish between doing wrong accidentally and doing it deliberately. These are rational distinctions. Rousseau, on Gerdil's view, has diagnosed the situation in exactly the opposite way he should: they have the capacity for rational distinctions, but need assistance to be consistent with them, particularly given that their first inclinations drive them every which-way. This disagreement is in some sense the central disagreement between Rousseau and Gerdil about the nature of education, because everything else builds on the question of what this first, basic education is supposed to be doing.

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