The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Benevolence to the Unhappy: Unhappiness from Intellectual Condition

To an intellectual being, in a cultivated state of society, a certain amount of knowledge may be considered a necessary of life. If he do not possess it, he is shut out from a vast source of enjoyment; is liable to become the dupe of the designing, and to sink down into mere animal existence. By learning how to read, he is enabled to acquire the whole knowledge which is contained within a language. By writing, he can act where he cannot be personally present; and can, also, benefit others by the communication of his own thoughts. By a knowledge of accounts, he is enabled to be just in his dealings with others, and to be assured that others are just in their dealings with him.

So much as this may be considered necessary; the rest is not so. The duty of thus educating a child, belongs, in the first instance, to the parent. But since, as so much knowledge as this is indispensable to the child’s happiness, if the parent be unable to furnish it, the child becomes, in so far, an object of charity. And, as it is for the benefit of the whole society, that every individual should be thus far instructed, it is properly, also, a subject of social regulation. And, hence, provision should be made, at public expense, for the education of those who are unable to procure it.

Nevertheless, this education is a valuable consideration to the receiver; and, hence, our former principle ought not to be departed from. Although the provision for this degree of education be properly made a matter of public enactment, yet every one should contribute to it, in so far as he is able. Unless this be done, he will cease to value it, and it will be merely a premium on idleness. And, hence, I think it will be found that large permanent funds for the purpose of general education, are commonly injurious to the cause of education itself. A small fund, annually appropriated, may be useful to stimulate an unlettered people to exertion but it is, probably, useful for no other purpose. A better plan, perhaps, would be to oblige each district to support schools at its own expense. This would produce the greatest possible interest in the subject, and the most thorough supervision of the schools. It is generally believed that the school funds of some of our older states have been injurious to the cause of common education.

In so far, then, as education is necessary to enable us to accomplish the purposes of our existence, and to perform our duties to society, the obligation to make a provision for the universal enjoyment of it, comes within the law of benevolence. Beyond this, it may very properly be left to the arrangements of Divine Providence; that is, every one may be left to acquire as much more as his circumstances will allow. There is no more reason why all men should be educated alike, than why they should all dress alike, or live in equally expensive houses. As civilization advances, and capital accumulates, and labor becomes more productive, it will become possible for every man to acquire more and more intellectual cultivation. In this manner, the condition of all classes is to be improved; and not by the impracticable attempt to render the education of all classes, at any one time, alike.

While I say this, however, I by no means assert that i is not a laudable and excellent charity, to assist, in the acquisition of knowledge, any person who gives promise of peculiar usefulness. Benevolence is frequently exerted under such circumstances, with the greatest possible benefit and produces the most gratifying and the most abundant results. There can surely be no more delightful mode of charity, than that which raises from the dust modest and despairing talent, and enables it to bless and adorn society. Yet, on such a subject as this, it is manifest that no general rule can be given. The duty must be determined by the respective condition of the parties. It is, however, proper to add, that aid of this kind should be given with discretion; and never in such a manner as to remove from genius the necessity Of depending on itself. The early struggle for independence, is a natural and a salutary discipline for talent. Genius was given, not for the benefit of its possessor, but for the benefit of others. And the sooner its possessor is taught the necessity of exerting it to practical purpose, the better is t for him, and the better for society. The poets tell us much of the amount of genius which has been nipped in the bud by the frosts of adversity. This, doubtless, is true; but let it not be forgotten that, by the law of our nature, early promise is frequently delusive. The poets do not tell us how great an amount of genius is also withered by the sun of prosperity. It is probable that a greater proportion of talent is destroyed, or rendered valueless, by riches than by poverty; and the rapid mutations of society, I think, demonstrate this to be the fact.

The same principles will, in substance, apply to the case in which, for a particular object, as for the promotion of religion, it is deemed expedient to increase the proportion of professionally educated men.

In this, as in every other instance, if we would be truly useful, our charities must be governed by the principles which God has marked out in the constitution of man.

The general principle of God’s government is, that, for all valuable possessions, we must render a consideration, and experience has taught, that it is impossible to vary from this rule, without the liability of doing injury to the recipient. The reason is obvious; for we can scarcely, in any other manner, injure another so seriously, as by leading him to rely on any one else than himself, or to feel that the public are under obligations to take charge of him.

Hence, charity of this sort should be governed by the following principles:

1. The recipient should receive no more than is necessary, with his own industrious exertions, to accomplish the object.

2. To loan money is better than to give it.

3. It should be distributed in such manner as most successfully to cultivate the good dispositions of both parties.

Hence, private and personal assistance, when practicable, has some advantages over that derived from associations. And, hence, such supervision is always desirable, as will restrict the charity to that class of persons for whom it was designed, and as will render it of such a nature, that those of every other class should be under the least possible temptation to desire it.

And, in arranging the plan of such an association, it should always be borne in mind, that the sudden change in all the prospects of a young man’s life. which is made by setting before him the prospect of a professional education, is one of the severest trials of human virtue.

Public provision for scientific education, does not come under the head of benevolence. Inasmuch, however, as the cultivation of science is advantageous to all classes of a community, it is for the interest of the whole that it be cultivated. But the means of scientific education, as philosophical instruments, libraries, and buildings, could never be furnished by instructors, without rendering this kind of education so expensive as to restrict it entirely to the rich. It is, therefore, wise for a community to make these provisions out of the common stock, so that a fair opportunity of improvement may be open to all. When, however, the public fails to discharge this duty, it is frequently, with great patriotism and benevolence, assumed by individuals. I know of no more interesting instances of expansive benevolence, than those in which wealth is appropriated to the noble purpose of diffusing over all coming time, “the light of science and the blessings of religion.” Who can estimate the blessings which the founders of Oxford and Cambridge universities have conferred upon the human race!