Letters to a Daughter and A Little Sermon to School Girls



My Dear Daughter:—No words in the English language are so much bandied about in efforts to describe or classify society at the present day as are the words "culture," "cultured," "cultivated" and their antitheses. These are the terms that intimidate the vain, selfish, illiterate rich; for to be described as "rich but uncultivated" is regarded as a greater slur upon the social standing of families than to be reported as having gained wealth by dishonesty or trickery. And then the matter is made all the harder for those willing to acquire a hypocritical polish at any expense if they can only be called "cultivated," from the fact that they do not know what true culture is, nor are they able to recognize it when they see it. They are like a person lacking in all artistic sense, who wishes to buy pictures—at the mercy of every impostor.

What, then, is the secret that lies behind the demeanor and manners of the cultivated man or woman, or the cultivated family? What power or what sentiment modulates the voice to kind and gentle tones; restrains the boisterous conversation or laughter; gives such a delicate perception of the rights of others as to make impossible the dictatorial or arrogant form of address the impertinent question, the personal familiarity, the curiosity about private affairs, the forwardness in giving advice or expressing unasked opinions, the boastful statement of personal possessions or qualities, the action that causes pain or inconvenience or discomfort to associates or dependents, all of which are the most common forms of transgression among the uncultivated?

In his famous address on "The Progress of Culture," delivered before a celebrated college society in Cambridge in 1867, Emerson summed up the whole matter in one sentence: "The foundation of culture, as of character, is at last the moral sentiment." Here is the whole secret in a single sentence. The restraining grace is "at last the moral sentiment." It is a fine genuine unselfishness that, observing how all these things may pain and wound, refrains from doing any of them. The man or woman or family who can avoid transgressing in these particulars can do so habitually only as the result of a fine moral sentiment underlying the whole nature. And those who possess or have cultivated in themselves this fine moral sentiment of unselfishness, justice, and considerateness, will be surrounded by an atmosphere of culture though their dwelling-place be an uncarpeted cabin, while those who lack this restraining grace will be "uncultivated" though their surroundings afford every comfort, beauty, and luxury. It should be a thought of encouragement to us, and an inspiration of hope that we may possess the true and imperishable riches of a cultivated spirit, however poor and struggling our lives may be, or however barren of external beauty our surroundings. Culture depends not on material possessions. In fact, the very abundance of conveniences and comforts and elegances often seems to have an injurious and deteriorating effect on individuals and families by producing in them a selfish love of personal ease and exclusiveness. On the other hand, the painful and patient economizing of humble toilers often produces an unselfishness and patience and gentleness of demeanor which is in effect the very finest culture.

In these days of specialists and artists and architects and upholsterers, anyone who has money can possess himself of the material surroundings of taste and culture. His house may be "a poem in stone" exteriorly, and a "symphony in color" in its interior adornments. This much of the products of genuine culture he may buy with money. But no money can buy the pearl of great price, the cultured spirit in the individual or family, without which the most palatial mansion is but a dead and lifeless shell. Lacking this moral sentiment and culture, how many a handsomely appointed home is the abode of rudeness, unkindness, selfishness, and misery! The rude speech or cutting retort or selfish act are doubly and trebly incongruous when pictured walls and frescoed ceilings and luxurious surroundings of artistic beauty are the silent witnesses of the vulgarity. On the other hand, there is opportunity for the display of the best and kindest and most cultivated manners in the humble home where lack of suitable furnishings and dearth of conveniences puts everyone's unselfishness to the test.

I have frequently heard wise parents and teachers speak of the perplexity of spirit which they feel when they see that in so many instances the acquirement of accomplishments, as they are termed, fails to add any moral strength or beauty to the character of the young people in whose welfare and advancement their hearts are so entirely absorbed. This young girl sings and plays beautifully, paints and draws in a genuinely artistic manner, speaks French and German like a native, and yet she is ill-tempered and shrewish if circumstances happen to cross her inclination. Here is a young man who is possessed of a fine collegiate education, and who is also an excellent musician. Yet he can be rude and disrespectful to his mother, insolent to his father, overbearing and arrogant towards servants and subordinates, and a perfect boor to his younger brothers and sisters. Both these young persons have uncultivated spirits. So we see that the cultivation of the intellectual nature, the acquirement of accomplishments, the practice of any art, the advantages of travel, the surroundings of elegance, may or may not tend to the genuine culture of the spirit; and as wise and earnest parents and teachers perceive this truth, they realize more and more that the great problem of culture, alike for parent and teacher, is how to develop the moral sentiment.

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