Dear Readers, I have something for your heart, mind and soul today. Angela Reed is a CM mother who I have watched pursue this life with such earnestness, passion, and genuineness – you can’t help but be drawn to her! She is an active collaborator @charlottemasonirl and also posts @athena_amidstthereeds on Instagram. She did the deep work of tracking down the origins of our school motto, maxima reverntia debetur pueris and has written this lovely post. Read it all, pray the prayer, meditate on the truths and ideas presented herein. You and your household will benefit.
A Commonplace from Ancient Days
(c) Angela Reed 2018
Maxima reverentia debetur pueris has a wider meaning than it generally receives. We take it as meaning that we should not do or say anything unseemly before the young, but does it not also include a profound and reverent study of the properties and possibilities present in a child? (Mason, p.81)
Oh, that Latin. I love it so! It always gets the wheels of my mind turning. I remembered seeing this same motto on Nancy’s website and…hadn’t she made a blog button of it as well? I set down my pink volume and opened the laptop, clicking over to Sage Parnassus to refresh my memory. Ah yes, there it is…the motto for her homeschool!
I had been reading Mason’s sixth volume in preparation for an evening session of Nancy’s Living Education Lessons. The class assignment concerned chapter five, “The Sacredness of Personality,” and I was only a couple pages in when the Latin motto, maxima reverentia debetur pueris, arrested my attention. Naturally, I wondered about its origin: Who had authored it? In what context did it originally appear? And why did Charlotte Mason share it with her audience in this chapter?
The Motto in Victorian England
Maxima reverentia debetur pueris translates literally, “the greatest respect is owed to the the children,” or simply, “children are entitled to the greatest respect.” This idea, expressed through the Latin, would have been a familiar maxim to most educated Europeans, including those in Mason’s community of parents and educators. It was a popular choice of motto for schools; was invoked frequently for ceremonious occasions; and had become somewhat hackneyed in common use, as the characters of this Victorian story illustrate:
“…But don’t display too much wit, or you’ll never come to be a bishop. I might have hoped to be a bishop myself some day, only I’ve made too many jokes to be forgiven.”
“Mr. Smith,” broke in the warning voice of his wife; “you really shouldn’t, and before the boys too!”
“Quite true, my dear. Maxima reverentia debetur pueris. A very good motto too….” (Chapman, p.81)
“We take it as meaning that we should not do or say anything unseemly before the young…” Mason observes. And indeed, the admonition is certainly worth heeding, but is that all that the motto implies? In the introduction to her sixth volume, Mason relates an interesting anecdote about a “philosophical old friend” who had often related to her a certain axiom. The truth of it had impressed on her more and more over the forty years of her work in education, yet she was yet unable “to trace the saying to its source” (p.16). In this brief comment, we see her curious interest in the sources of ideas; therefore, let us consider the original, ancient context of our motto, which reveals just how much of what Mason calls its “wider meaning” had been obscured in casual cliché.
The Motto in Ancient Rome
The Roman author Decimus Junius Juvenalis, whom we know as Juvenal, was a master of poetic satire. After spending his youth in rhetorical pursuits, he picked up the pen (or rather, stylus) in middle age to compose moral critiques, often scathing, of Roman life and society. He wrote at least sixteen satires, published in five books between c. AD 100-130. We find our motto in Satire 14—Juvenal’s discourse on the power of parental example.
He opens with the main thrust: “There are many things of ill repute…—things that would affix a lasting stain to the brightest of lives,—which parents themselves reveal and hand on to their sons.” Such “things of ill repute” he presents to the reader in vivid example: the father who enjoys gambling to his own ruin; who spends extravagantly to indulge his gluttony; who takes pleasure in listening to the flogging of a slave, or the mother who keeps company with many men. Natural law reveals itself, then, in the resulting character of the children: the son who wields the dice in his teens; who gorges himself on truffles and songbirds; who delights in tormenting his inferiors, and the daughter who throws away her chastity. Each demonstrates how “no evil example corrupts us so soon and so rapidly as one that has been set at home, since it came into the mind on high authority” (p.265). *
Here we see some ideas that resonate with Mason’s philosophy. The parents possess a “high authority” by nature (sic natura iubet—”thus Nature ordains”). Docility is implied by how easily the children adopt the vices of their parents, and is stated outright as a principle just a few verses later: “for we are all of us teachable (dociles) in what is base and wrong.” Juvenal thus builds his case upon the importance of atmosphere, reminding parents to “[a]bstain therefore from things which you must condemn…that our crimes be not copied by our children” (p.267). Upon these premises, Juvenal delivers his famous motto, urging parents, “even if you have an evil deed in mind, you owe the greatest respect to the young; do not despise your son’s youth, and let your baby boy keep you from pursuing sin.”**
In succeeding lines of the satire, Juvenal points also to the power of discipline and life in educating a child for good:
It is good that you have presented your country and your people with a citizen, if you make him serviceable to his country, useful for the land, useful for the things both of peace and war. For it will make all the difference in what practices, in what habits, you bring him up…,[Just as] the noble birds that wait on Jupiter hunt the hare or the roe in the woods, and from them serve up prey to their eyrie; so when their progeny are of full age and soar up from the nest, hunger bids them sweep down upon that same prey which they had first tasted when they broke the shell (p.271f.)
“‘Live content, my boys, with these cottages and hills of yours,” said the…father in days of yore; “let the plough win for us what bread shall suffice our table; such fare the rustic gods approve, whose aid and bounty gave us the glad ear of corn, and taught men to disdain the acorn of ancient times.” […] Such were the maxims which those ancients taught the young…(p.277f.)
But these tools can also be used for ill:
Some day you will say, ‘I never taught these things, I never advised them’: no, but you are yourself the cause and origin of your son’s depravity; for whosoever teaches the love of wealth turns his sons into misers by his ill-omened instruction…shows him how to double his patrimony by fraud…and he cannot stop: he will pay no heed to you, he will rush on, leaving the turning post far behind (p.281).
When you tell a youth that a man is a fool who makes a present to a friend, or relieves and lightens the poverty of a kinsman, you teach him to plunder and to cheat and to commit any kind of crime for money’s sake….Thus you will see the fire, whose sparks you yourself have kindled, blazing far and wide and carrying all before them (p.281f.)
Through illustrations such as these, Juvenal admonishes parents to be mindful of their great responsibility in raising children, through which they cultivate the character, ultimately, of the next generation. He expresses grave concern for the weakening moral fiber of Roman society throughout all of his Satires, and his point here falls in the same vein: integrity (or its opposite, immorality) begins in the home—modeled by the parent, who is the child’s first living example. The Victorian suggestion that parents should avoid saying or doing “anything unseemly” seems, by comparison, a shallow interpretation given Juvenal’s observations and his insistence that the future good of Roman society hinges upon a virtuous relationship between parents and children. Indeed, his point is a serious one.
The Motto à la CM
Without a doubt, the cultural climate of England in Mason’s day was vastly different from that of Rome in Juvenal’s day. But those differences should pique our interest in the motto all the more, since Mason found it directly applicable to her philosophy and aimed to draw out its “wider meaning” for her audience. As one classical scholar notes, Juvenal was an especially rich source for pithy ideas:
Juvenal’s greatest gift is his power of coining phrases….[t]he thought may sometimes be a commonplace, but the form is so perfect that posterity, in despair of finding any better expression of the familiar idea, has constantly adopted his foreign phrase….no Roman writer, not even Horace himself, has left so many phrases and lines, of which all are familiar proverbs among educated Europeans, and some are habitually quoted even by those who have never heard the name of Juvenal. (Duff, p.xl)
So how did the motto fit within the principles of her educational philosophy? In Mason’s words, the “wider meaning” of the motto includes “a profound and reverent study of the properties and possibilities present in a child.” Like Juvenal, she was compelled to speak to the gravity of rearing the next generation, though her specific focus was different. She speaks, not of blatant moral degeneracy in parents; but rather, to expose a more subtle parental vice:
We may not despise them, or hinder them (“suffer little children”), or offend them by our brutish clumsiness of action and want of serious thought […] The vice which hinders us in the bringing up of children is that so heavily censured in the Gospel. We are not simple; we act our parts and play in an unlawful way upon motives. (Mason, p.81)
In a chapter regarding the “sacredness” of personality, Mason draws attention to the pernicious ways in which well-meaning parents and educators commit offenses against the children in their care—through “direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.” She depicts this through numerous examples, lest there be any doubt about what sorts of interactions fall under the description. On the surface, these do not appear corrupting like the parental vices in Juvenal’s satire; but internally, they are “undermining” (p.81), “encroach[ing]” (p.82), and “trespassing” (p.83) on the sacred ground of personality—actions which one might describe, quite literally, as desecrating personality.
Now that is strong language. But is it not consistent with Mason’s view of personhood and the reverence with which she regards personality? If we believe, as Mason did, that “the Divine Spirit has constant access” to the child’s spirit, and is his “continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life” (p.xxxi), then we must be alert to the ways in which unlawful play upon a child’s motives, in any manifestation, can creep into our teaching. Why? Because ultimately, it interferes with the invisible work of the Spirit within our children—work which is not within our power to accomplish. Our trespasses on a child’s personality—because of our fears, insecurities, or desire to control the outcome—are not innocuous; they are potentially “stultifying” to his “intellectual and moral growth” (p.84).
Lord, have mercy upon us. Help us to become as little children while remembering that in your Divine estimate “the child’s estate is higher than ours.” Oh Father, teach us how we ought to feed your lambs and care for the sacred personality you give to each one. Amen.
Maxima reverentia debetur pueris encapsulates these ideas perfectly. How well this commonplace from ancient days articulates a truth embedded within the Divine scheme of life! Children are entitled to the greatest respect—and we who are further along on life’s journey are called to lovingly and honorably regard the children in our lives, born fully persons, made in the image of their heavenly Father. Just as He first loved us.
*Unless stated otherwise, I source all English translation of Juvenal from Ramsey (1996).
Chapman, E. (1887). The Golden Pavement; or, The Adventures of a Blue-Coat Boy. London: John F. Shaw and Co.
Duff, J.D., ed. (1962). D. Ivnii Ivvenalis: Satvrae XIV. Cambridge: University Press.
Ramsay, G.G., ed. (1996). Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Mason, C. (1989). A Philosophy of Education. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House.