The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 31

WITH the masters Ernest was ere long in absolute disgrace. He had more liberty now than he had known heretofore. The heavy hand and watchful eye of Theobald were no longer about his path and about his bed and spying out all his ways; and punishment by way of copying out lines of Virgil was a very different thing from the savage beatings of his father. The copying out in fact was often less trouble than the lesson. Latin and Greek had nothing in them which commended them to his instinct as likely to bring him peace even at the last; still less did they hold out any hope of doing so within some more reasonable time. The deadness inherent in these defunct languages themselves had never been artificially counteracted by a system of bona fide rewards for application. There had been any amount of punishments for want of application, but no good comfortable bribes had baited the hook which was to allure him to his good.

Indeed, the more pleasant side of learning to do this or that had always been treated as something with which Ernest had no concern. We had no business with pleasant things at all, at any rate very little business, at any rate not he, Ernest. We were put into this world not for pleasure but duty, and pleasure had in it something more or less sinful in its very essence. If we were doing anything we liked, we, or at any rate he, Ernest, should apologise and think he was being very mercifully dealt with, if not at once told to go and do something else. With what he did not like, however, it was different; the more he disliked a thing the greater the presumption that it was right. It never occurred to him that the presumption was in favour of the rightness of what was most pleasant, and that the onus of proving that it was not right lay with those who disputed its being so. I have said more than once that he believed in his own depravity; never was there a little mortal more ready to accept without cavil whatever he was told by those who were in authority over him: he thought, at least, that he believed it, for as yet he knew nothing of that other Ernest that dwelt within him, and was so much stronger and more real than the Ernest of which he was conscious. The dumb Ernest persuaded with inarticulate feelings too swift and sure to be translated into such debatable things as words, but practically insisted as follows —

“Growing is not the easy, plain sailing business that it is commonly supposed to be: it is hard work — harder than any but a growing boy can understand; it requires attention, and you are not strong enough to attend to your bodily growth, and to your lessons too. Besides, Latin and Greek are great humbugs; the more people know of them the more odious they generally are; the nice people whom you delight in either never knew any at all or forgot what they had learned as soon as they could; they never turned to the classics after they were no longer forced to read them; therefore they are nonsense, all very well in their own time and country, but out of place here. Never learn anything until you find you have been made uncomfortable for a good long while by not knowing it; when you find that you have occasion for this or that knowledge, or foresee that you will have occasion for it shortly, the sooner you learn it the better, but till then spend your time in growing bone and muscle; these will be much more useful to you than Latin and Greek, nor will you ever be able to make them if you do not do so now, whereas Latin and Greek can be acquired at any time by those who want them.

“You are surrounded on every side by lies which would deceive even the elect, if the elect were not generally so uncommonly wide awake; the self of which you are conscious, your reasoning and reflecting self, will believe these lies and bid you act in accordance with them. This conscious self of yours, Ernest, is a prig begotten of prigs and trained in priggishness; I will not allow it to shape your actions, though it will doubtless shape your words for many a year to come. Your papa is not here to beat you now; this is a change in the conditions of your existence, and should be followed by changed actions. Obey me, your true self, and things will go tolerably well with you, but only listen to that outward and visible old husk of yours which is called your father, and I will rend you in pieces even unto the third and fourth generation as one who has hated God; for I, Ernest, am the God who made you.”

How shocked Ernest would have been if he could have heard the advice he was receiving; what consternation too there would have been at Battersby; but the matter did not end here, for this same wicked inner self gave him bad advice about his pocket-money, the choice of his companions, and on the whole Ernest was attentive and obedient to its behests, more so than Theobald had been. The consequence was that he learned little, his mind growing more slowly and his body rather faster than heretofore: and when by and by his inner self urged him in directions where he met obstacles beyond his strength to combat, he took — though with passionate compunctions of conscience — the nearest course to the one from which he was debarred which circumstances would allow.

It may be guessed that Ernest was not the chosen friend of the more sedate and well-conducted youths then studying at Roughborough. Some of the less desirable boys used to go to publichouses and drink more beer than was good for them; Ernest’s inner self can hardly have told him to ally himself to these young gentlemen, but he did so at an early age, and was sometimes made pitiably sick by an amount of beer which would have produced no effect upon a stronger boy. Ernest’s inner self must have interposed at this point and told him that there was not much fun in this, for he dropped the habit ere it had taken firm hold of him, and never resumed it; but he contracted another at the disgracefully early age of between thirteen and fourteen which he did not relinquish, though to the present day his conscious self keeps dinging it into him that the less he smokes the better.

And so matters went on till my hero was nearly fourteen years old. If by that time he was not actually a young blackguard, he belonged to a debatable class between the sub-reputable and the upper disreputable, with perhaps rather more leaning to the latter except so far as vices of meanness were concerned, from which he was fairly free. I gather this partly from what Ernest has told me, and partly from his school bills which I remember Theobald showed me with much complaining. There was an institution at Roughborough called the monthly merit money; the maximum sum which a boy of Ernest’s age could get was four shillings and sixpence; several boys got four shillings and few less than sixpence, but Ernest never got more than half-a-crown and seldom more than eighteen pence; his average would, I should think, be about one and nine pence, which was just too much for him to rank among the downright bad boys, but too little to put him among the good ones.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31