Seventeenth & eighteenth century attitudes to childhood

The seventeenth and eighteenth century saw a philosophical / psychological debate about how the mind was formed and stocked with ideas:

  • Some philosophers argued that children were born with their mind as a blank page.

  • This page must be written on – that is to say, the mind must be filled with knowledge, ideas and values, which, modified by experience, would equip children with what they needed to function as social beings.

  • A different view, usually that of Christian thinkers, held that children were born in original sin and that their souls must be cleansed of that sin, often by quite stern measures, to make them fit for salvation.

  • In both these views, childhood was seen as little more than a preparation for adulthood, with little value as a period in the lives of individuals.

This is linked to another idea – that the mind or soul does not come into the world empty, or as a blank sheet. The Ancient Greek Philosopher, Plato, who was very popular in the Romantic period, believed in reincarnation. He claimed that a person's immortal soul gains knowledge whilst in heaven before their birth, which knowledge is recalled when prompted by certain experiences:

      Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God who is our home

William Wordsworth,
Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood, 1897, lines 62-65    
  • Eventually, the demands of society capture the child as ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close/Upon the growing Boy' (lines 67-68) and in adulthood the visionary quality of life disappears: ‘At length the Man perceives it die away, and fade into the light of common day'.

The Romantics and childhood

Jean-Jacques RousseauLater eighteenth century philosophers and poets reversed this view:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the thinkers whose ideas influenced the French Revolution, believed that children were naturally innocent and were corrupted by society.

  • Rousseau developed the idea of the child of nature and argued that children should be subjected to as little formal education as possible and be allowed to live a natural life, from which they would learn all that they required.

  • The Romantic poets were very much influenced by the idea of the natural child, and celebrated childhood as a separate and valuable state, and believed that children should not be hurried into adulthood.

  • William Wordsworth, in his Ode on Intimations of Mortality from Early Childhood (1807) lays particular stress on children's fresh, unprejudiced and innocent perception of the world:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

William Wordsworth,
Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Early Childhood, 1897, lines 1-5
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