Objections to Quaker Moral Education

[This is taken from Thomas Clarkson's A Portraiture of Quakerism.]

Objections stated by philosophical moralists to the preceding system of education—this system a prohibitory one—prohibitions sometimes the cause of greater evil than they prevent—they may confuse morality—and break the spirit—they render the vicious more vicious—and are not to be relied upon as effectual, because built on a fake foundation—ignorance no guardian of virtue—causes, not sub-causes, are to be contended against --no certain security but in knowledge and a love of virtue—prohibitions, where effectual, produce but a sluggish virtue.


The Quakers differ on the subject of moral education very materially from the world, and indeed from those of the world, who having had a more than ordinarily liberal education, may be supposed to have, in most cases, a more than ordinarily correct judgment. The Quaker system, as we have seen, consists principally of specific prohibitions. These prohibitions again, are extended occasionally to things, which are not in themselves vicious. They are extended, again, to these, because it is possible that they may be made productive, of evil. And they are founded apparently on the principle, that ignorance of such things secures innocence, or that ignorance, in such cases, has the operation of a preventive of vice, or a preservative of virtue.

Philosophical moralists on the other hand, are friends to occasional indulgences. They see nothing inherently or necessarily mischievous, either in the theatre or in the concert-room, or in the ball-room, or in the circulating library, or in many other places of resort. If a young female, say they, situated in a provincial town, were to see a play annually, would it not give her animation, and afford a spring to her heart? or if a youth were to see a play two or three times in the year, might not his parents, if they were to accompany him, make it each time, by their judicious and moral remarks, subservient to the improvement of his morals? neither do these moralists anticipate any danger by looking to distant prospects, where the things are innocent in themselves. And they are of opinion, that all danger may be counteracted effectually, not by prohibitory checks and guards, but by storing the mind with knowledge, and filling it with a love of virtue. The arguments therefore, which these will advance against the system of the moral education of the Quakers, may be seen in the following words.

“All prohibitions, they contend, should be avoided, as much as possible, in moral education; for prohibitions may often become the cause of greater immorality, than they were intended to prevent. The fable of the hen, whose very prohibition led her chickens to the fatal well, has often been realized in life, there is a certain curiosity in human nature to look into things forbidden. If Quaker youth should have the same desires in this respect as others, they cannot gratify them but at the expense of their virtue. If they wish for novels, for example, they must get them clandestinely. If to go to the theatre, they must go in secret. But they must do more than this in the latter case, for as they would be known by their dress, they must change it for that of another person. Hence they may be made capable of intrigue, hypocrisy, and deceit.”

“Prohibitions, again, they believe, except they be well founded, may confound the notions of children on the subject of morality; for if they are forbidden to do what they see worthy and enlightened persons do, they may never know where to fix the boundaries between vice and virtue.”

“Prohibitions, again, they consider, if made without an allowance of exceptions, as having a tendency to break the spirit of youth. Break a horse in the usual way, and teach him to stop with the check of the reins, and you break him, and preserve his courage. But put him in a mill to break him, and you break his life and animation. Prohibitions therefore may hinder elevated feeling, and may lead to poverty and sordidness of spirit.”

“Prohibitions, again, they believe, if youth once depart from the right way, render them more vicious characters than common. This arises from the abruptness or suddenness of transition. For having been shut up within narrow boundaries for a part of their lives, they go greater lengths, when once let loose, than others, who have not been equally curbed and confined.”

“But while they are of opinion, that prohibitions are likely to be thus injurious to Quaker-youth, they are of opinion, that they are never to be relied upon as effectual guardians of morality, because they consider them as built upon false principles.”

“They are founded, they conceive, on the principle, that ignorance is a security for innocence, or that vice is so attractive, that we cannot resist it but by being kept out of the way. In the first case, they contend that the position is false; for ignorant persons are of all others the most likely, when they fall into temptations, to be seduced, and in the second, they contend that there is a distrust of divine providence in his moral government of the world.”

“They are founded, again, they conceive, on false principles, inasmuch as the Quakers confound causes with sub-causes, or causes with occasions. If a person, for example, were to get over a hedge, and receive a thorn in his hand, and die of the wound, this thorn would be only the occasion, and not the cause of his death. The bad state in which his body must have been, to have made this wound fatal, would have been the original cause. In like manner neither the theatre, nor the ball-room are the causes of the bad passions, that are to be found there. All these passions must have existed in persons previously to their entrance into these places. Plays therefore, or novels, or public dances, are only the sub-causes, or the occasions of calling forth the passions in question. The real cause is in the infected state of the mind, or in the want of knowledge, or in the want of a love of virtue.”

“Prohibitions therefore, though they may become partial checks of vice, can never, they believe, be relied upon as effectual guardians of virtue. Bars and bolts seldom prevent thieves from robbing a house. But if armed men should be in it, who would venture to enter in? In the same manner the mind of man should be armed or prepared. It should be so furnished, that men should be able to wander through a vicious world, amidst all its foibles and its follies, and pass uncontaminated by them.  It should have that tone given to it, which should hinder all circumstances from becoming occasions. But this can never be done by locking up the heart to keep vice out of it, but by filling it with knowledge and with a love of virtue.”

“That this is the only method to be relied upon in moral education, they conceive may be shown by considering upon whom the pernicious effects of the theatre, or of the ball-room, or of the circulating library, principally fall. Do they not fall principally upon those, who have never had a dignified education. ‘Empty noddles, it is said, are fond of playhouses,’ and the converse, is true, that persons, whose understandings have been enriched, and whose tastes have been corrected, find all such recreations tiresome. At least they find so much to disgust them, that what they approve does not make them adequate amends.  This is the case also with respect to novels. These do harm principally to barren minds. They do harm to those who have no proper employment for their time, or to those, who in the manners, conversation, and conduct, of their parents, or others with whom they associate, have no examples of pure thinking, or of pure living, or of a pure taste. Those, on the other hand, who have been taught to love good books, will never run after, or be affected by, bad ones. And the same mode of reasoning, they conceive, is applicable to other cases. For if people are taught to love virtue for virtue’s sake, and, in like manner, to hate what is unworthy, because they have a genuine and living knowledge of its unworthiness, neither the ball, nor concert-room, nor the theatre, nor the circulating library, nor the diversions of the field, will have charms enough to seduce them, or to injure the morality of their minds.”

To sum up the whole. The prohibitions of the Quakers, in the first place, may become injurious, in the opinion of these philosophical moralists, by occasioning greater evils, than they were intended to prevent. They can never, in the second place, be relied upon as effectual guardians of virtue, because they consider them to be founded on false principles. And if at any time they can believe them to be effectual in the office assigned them, they believe them to be productive only of a cold or a sluggish virtue.





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