Health And Education

by Charles Kingsley
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"The Divine Discontent"

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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 640

Context: The Reverend Charles Kingsley was a high-minded man whose novels and essays were vehicles for his idealism. In them he tried to work for various kinds of social reform, and he gained a large following. He expressed, among other ideas, his admiration for strength, courage, and good health; and he did so with such effectiveness that these qualities began to be cultivated. An ideal grew up in Victorian England which some persons have since referred to as "muscular Christianity;" its principle was that the youth of England should have the bodies of vikings, with the souls of saints. One of Kingsley's efforts in this direction is his volume of essays, Health and Education. In the first essay he observes that the British people appear to be less stalwart than they formerly were; and he points out that the reason is that the high mortality rate of earlier times weeded out all but those best equipped to survive. Now that the industrial age is here and advances in human survival have been made, the population is increasing and much of it is less rugged physically. Kingsley adds that instead of longing for a heroic past that was not really so desirable, we must accept the new age and seek to make it better. One factor that has lessened the number of robust Englishmen is the warfare of recent centuries. "War is, without doubt, the most hideous physical curse which fallen man inflicts upon himself; and for this simple reason, that it reverses the very laws of nature, and is more cruel even than pestilence. For instead of issuing in the survival of the fittest, it issues in the survival of the less fit; and therefore, if protracted, must deteriorate generations yet unborn." He then describes the living and working conditions of the poor, noting that these cannot produce healthy children unless they are improved. Intelligence cannot grow properly in an unhealthy body. He then answers those who would rather ignore the problem, or who fear the poor may be made discontented:

. . . But are not people discontented already, from the lowest to the highest? And ought a man, in such a piecemeal, foolish, greedy, sinful world as this is, and always has been, to be anything but discontented? If he thinks that things are going all right, must he not have a most beggarly conception of what going right means? And if things are not going right, can it be anything but good for him to see that they are not going right? Can truth and fact harm any human being? I shall not believe so, as long as I have a Bible wherein to believe. For my part, I should like to make every man, woman, and child whom I meet discontented with themselves, even as I am discontented with myself. I should like to awaken in them, about their physical, their intellectual, their moral condition, that divine discontent which is the parent, first of upward aspiration and then of self-control, thought, effort to fulfil that aspiration even in part. For to be discontented with the divine discontent, and to be ashamed with the noble shame, is the very germ and first upgrowth of all virtue. Men begin at first, as boys begin when they grumble at their school and their school-masters, to lay the blame on others; to be discontented with their circumstances. . . . But that way no deliverance lies. That discontent only ends in revolt and rebellion, social or political; and that, again, still in the same worship of circumstances–but this time desperate–which ends, let it disguise itself under what fine names it will, in what the old Greeks called a tyranny; in which . . . all have become the voluntary slaves of one man, because each man fancies that the one man can improve his circumstances for him.

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