A Prophecy

John Stuart Mill

From a Review of ``Letters from Palmyra'', in the London and Westminister Review for January, 1838
The time was, when it was thought that the best and most appropriate office of fictitious narrative was to awaken high aspirations, by the representation, in interesting circumstances, of characters conformable indeed to human nature, but whose actions and sentiments were of a more generous and loftier cast than are ordinarily to be met with by everybody in every-day life. But, now-a-days, nature and probability are thought to be violated, if there be shown to the reader, in the personages with whom he is called upon to sympathize, characters on a larger scale than himself, or than the persons he is accustomed to meet at a dinner or a quadrille party. Yet from such representations, familiar from early youth, have not only the noblest minds in modern Europe derived much of what made them noble, but even the commoner spirits what made them understand and respond to nobleness. And this is education. It would be well if the more narrow-minded portion, both of the religious and of the scientific education-mongers, would consider whether the books which they are banishing from the hands of youth were not instruments of national education to the full as powerful as the catalogues of physical facts and theological dogmas which they have substituted,---as if science and religion were to be taught, not by imbuing the mind with their spirit, but by cramming the memory with summaries of their conclusions. Not what a boy or a girl can repeat by rote, but what they have learnt to love and admire, is what forms their character. The chivalrous spirit has almost disappeared from books of education; the popular novels of the day teach nothing but (what is already too soon learnt from actual life) lessons of worldliness, with at most the huckstering virtues which conduce to getting on in the world; and, for the first time perhaps in history, the youth of both sexes of the educated classes are universally growing up unromantic. What will come in mature time from such a youth, the world has not yet had time to see. But the world may rely upon it, that catechisms, whether Pinnock's or the Church of England's, will be found a poor substitute for those old romances, whether of chivalry or of fairy, which, if they did not give a true picture of actual life, did not give a false one, since they did not profess to give any, but (what was much better) filled the youthful imagination with pictures of heroic men, and of what are at least as much wanted, heroic women. The book before us does this: and greatly is any book to be valued, which in this age, and in a form suited to it, does its part towards keeping alive the chivalrous spirit, which was the best part of the old romances; towards giving to the aspirations of the young and susceptible a noble direction, and keeping present to the mind an exalted standard of worth, by placing before it heroes and heroines worthy of the name.

It is an additional title to praise in this author, that his great women are imagined in the very contrary spirit to the modern cant, according to which an heroic woman is supposed to be something intrinsically different from the best sort of heroic men. It was not so thought in the days of Artemisia or Zenobia, or in that era of great statesmen and stateswomen, the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the daughters of royal houses were governors of provinces, and displayed, as such, talents for command equal to any of their husbands or brothers; and when negotiations which had baffled the first diplomatists of Francis and of Charles V. were brought to a successful issue by the wisdom and dexterity of two princesses. The book before us is, in every line, a virtual protest against the narrow and degrading doctrine which has grown out of the false refinement of later times. And it is the author's avowed belief, that one of the innumerable great purposes of Christianity was to abolish the distinction between the two characters, by teaching that neither of them can be really admirable without the qualities supposed to be distinctive of the other, and by exhibiting, in the person of its divine Founder, an equally perfect model of both.

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