The Principle of Virtue

Given that Locke is one of the great minds of the last few centuries, we might expect him to put a high value on intellectual development. Actually, though, the strongest message of Some Thoughts is exactly the opposite: a child's bodily health and the soundness of his character are far more important, in Locke's view, than the state of his intellect. The primary goal of Locke's education plan is to create a virtuous, well-bred, and wise young man, and not to create a scholar.

According to Locke, virtue is proportional to an individual's capacity for self-denial. A person who has the ability to forego his desires when reason tells him to do so, will be a virtuous person. A person without this capacity cannot be a virtuous person. Locke calls this capacity the "principle of virtue" and instilling this principle is the educator's overriding aim.

The optimal time to instill this capacity, Locke tells us, is in early childhood, while the mind is still tender and malleable. In order to do this, though, parents need to stifle their natural instincts, which tell them to coddle and indulge. If you coddle and indulge your baby, Locke warns, then your child will learn that his desires ought to always be satisfied, and he will find himself incapable of self-denial. If, instead, you maintain a stern authority over your child, and do not indulge his whims, then your child will grow accustomed to subverting his immediate desires to the dictates of reason. For the time being, of course, it is your reason that he is yielding to, but this is setting a pattern that will serve him well when his own reason begins to develop: he will then be able to subvert his immediate desires to the dictates of his own reason.

Locke even goes so far as to say that a child cannot be allowed to ask for anything by name. He can tell you that he is hungry, but if he tells you that he wants a plum, he will be denied that fruit. He can tell you that he is thirsty, but he cannot tell you he wants beer. In this way, the child comes to realize that his appetites will only be satisfied when they agree with what reason shows to be best. As the child matures and his specific requests begin come from discernment, then he can ask for things by name.

In order for this principle of virtue to take hold, the authority of the parents must be absolute and based in fear and awe. Under no circumstances should the child be beaten for doing wrong, but he also cannot be rewarded with toys or sweets for doing right. These sorts of motivations, Locke points out, just reinforce what we are trying to root out: they make immediate physical desires the objects of all actions. Instead of physical motivations, Locke suggests that parents use mental motivations. When the child does wrong he must be met with cold disapproval, and when he does right he must be commended and treated warmly. The child thus comes to be motivated by the desire to be in his parents' good graces; he wants to avoid disgrace and warrant esteem. This sort of motivation will later develop into a desire to warrant his own esteem—that is, to always follow his conscience.

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