Recently, Spouse Mouse asked me, with some irritation, why Western society is so in love with children.   

In short, the cult of the child began more recently in the Victorian era.  Yet, since the time of the ancient Greeks, fallen Man has had a fascination with human perfectability.  A few centuries later, the British-born monk Pelagius — he of the heresy — believed that ‘man was endowed with sufficient grace from birth to lead a perfect life’.  He, therefore, rejected the notion of original sin, as many people today do.  For that, he was excommunicated in 418 AD. 

Reflecting on Jesus’s words regarding children, e.g. ‘Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me’ (Luke 9:48), various 18th century thinkers and authors of the Enlightenment mooted the notion of childhood innocence.  Among them were the Earl of Shaftesbury, Henry Fielding and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  This continued into the Romanticism which characterised the early Victorian period.  William Blake and Wiliam Wordsworth penned lines extolling what they perceived as an innate spirituality, purity and holiness. 

A certain mawkishness and emotion accompanied this seeming idolatry.  However, we would do well to recall that children were cheap labour at the time, toiling untold hours in mines and factories under the abuse of employers and parents alike.  If they were really unlucky, they ended up in brutal orphanages and workhouses.  The Christian and positive effect of this sentimentality was the passage of laws forbidding child labour.  The West began to see children as young people with feelings and intellect, instead of as animals. 

As the decade progressed, authors such as Charles Dickens endowed their youngest characters with a simple wisdom which instructed the adult world.  Thomas Hughes did the same in Tom Brown’s Schooldays as did L M Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables.  Children were forces for good and for positive change.   Therefore, it is no surprise that Victorian art depicted them as beautiful and angelic.   What would have made some gentlemen of the time paedophiles today was considered as normal — viewing or photographing naked children as innocent cherubs in an effort to preserve their images for posterity.  I do wonder about that; it seems unsavoury.

Lewis Carroll was someone who was infatuated with little girls.  Dr Sherry Ackerman of the Cambridge Centre for Western Esotericism explains his mindset.  Let us remember that Carroll dropped out of seminary, having intended to become an Anglican priest, and appears to have drifted towards Theosophy, as evidenced by some of the imagery in Alice in Wonderland.  (No wonder my mother didn’t want me reading it too closely!)  Dr Ackerman writes:

Although there is no conclusive evidence as to why Carroll declined the priesthood, it is quite likely that he was entertaining serious doubts about the Anglican church. It is most conceivable that his interest and involvement in the nineteenth century Platonic revival, as well as in the subsequent theosophical movement, substantially changed his spiritual direction. The exoteric structure, for him, of the Anglican church may well have been supplanted by esoteric insight. Rather than knowing about (episteme) truth, Carroll chose a path through which he could know (gnosis) Truth. This being so, Carroll chose to sing a new song. Instead of dogmatic liturgy, he sang the theosophist’s intellectual hymn to Love and preached from carefully crafted allegory instead of from a pulpit.

As a result:

Carroll turns Alice into Odysseus journeying home to Ithaca. The hero’s journey always involves the departure, an initiation and the return … Alice, as an alter-ego for Carroll’s transcendent heroic self, underwent a gentle initiation in Wonderland so that Carroll could share, discretely, his secret of gnosis. Heeding the advice, written centuries earlier by Roger Bacon, Carroll concealed his secret carefully, leaving it so that it could be understood only by the efforts of the studious and wise.

In short, Carroll became a Gnostic — a heretic — albeit a talented, enduring author.  But, I digress.

The transformation of children in the public mind took place slowly.  As you can imagine, it started with the upper strata of society and trickled downward throughout the 19th century.  By the beginning of the 20th century, birth rates had fallen, children were much more valued as human beings.  Births began to take place in hospitals rather than in the home.  Discipline, although still harsh by our standards, was easing. 

Along with these societal trends in the early 20th century came a penchant for the emotional and intuitive over the reason and intellect which had started in the Enlightenment.  Perhaps it was a reaction against increased industrialisation, technology and urbanisation.  The Western world was also influenced by the effects of Modernism, in all its guises.  Leftism, via Fabianism and Communism, held a certain appeal for some.  Elitism shifted from the old orders of royal families and landed gentry to a new generation of self-made industrialists and a burgeoning intelligentsia, e.g. the Bloomsbury group, who relied on their money and patronage.  Together, the new elite would change cultural norms in ways which are familiar to us today.  The Occidental Quarterly, in an analysis of artist and author Wyndham Lewis, explains (emphasis mine) what was happening:

Other symptoms of the romantic epoch subverting cultural standards include the feminine principle, with the over representation of homosexuals and the effete among the literati and the Bloomsbury coterie; the cult of the primitive; and the “cult of the child,” that is closely related to the adulation of the primitive.

Female values, resting on the intuitive and emotional, undermine masculine rationality, the intellect–the feminine flux against the masculine hardness of stability and discipline. To Lewis revolutions are a return to the past. Feminism aims at returning society to an idealized primitive matriarchy. Communism aims at a returning to primitive forms of common ownership. The idolization of the savage and the child are also returns to the atavistic. The millionaire world and “High Bohemia” support these, as it does other vulgarizing revolutions.

All this is going on today.  Children are pretty much worshipped in a peculiar way — most parents wrap them in cotton wool and to let your child exercise a modicum of independence is akin to flaying him alive — abuse, pure and simple.   

It is unhealthy to rely so much on emotion and adulation of things which go against order, progress and individuality.  Yet, we see this happening all the time.  To our shame, we laud social practices from the Dark Ages, embrace the lowest common cultural (not to mention political) denominator and idolise our children when we should be instructing them to be self-reliant.

More on this subject tomorrow. 

For further reading:

Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction

C L Dodgson and the Victorian Cult of the Child

Oxford University Press: Artful Dodgers by Marah Gubar

The Victorian Family (19th Century)

Sherry Ackerman PhD: Looking for Lewis Carroll

The Occidental Quarterly: Wyndham Lewis