Thieving in England

The Leader-Post – Jul 27, 1948

Thieving in England

by Robert Lynd

I read a letter in “Time and Tide” the other day in which the correspondent spoke of the “single chained spoon” to be seen in some railway buffets nowadays.

What a comment on civilization today it is that a spoon at a tea counter should have to be kept on a chain! If things go on like this we may yet find ourselves using chained knives and forks in the restaurant and drinking out of chained tumblers.

As nothing is too big to be stolen these days — didn’t somebody recently steal a spiral staircase? — it may be necessary to chain even the tables and chairs.

Most of the English men, women and children we know are as trustworthy as ever, but the epidemic of picking and stealing that has played havoc with the moral of hundreds of thousands of people since 1939 will, I fancy, be remembered as one of the most remarkable phenomena in the social history of twentieth – century England.

During the war the landlord of an Oxfordshire inn at which I was staying for a few days, himself an ex-officer from the First World War, told me of the way in which his particularly delightful bar was being constantly depleted of its treasures, and added gloomily: “I used to feel proud of being an Englishman, Mr. Lynd, but now I begin to wonder whether it’s much better than being a Hottentot.”

I sometimes wonder whether the modern educational system is sufficiently based on the theory that the chief end of education should be to civilize the barbarian that is born in each of us.

Perhaps there has been too great a tendency in modern times to regard human beings as naturally good so that they do not need to be taught how to be honest with the same earnestness with which they are taught how to spell. Human beings are, unfortunately, no more naturally good than dogs or cats.

The dog that, left in a room by itself, wolfs a plateful of cakes, and the cat that, seeing a nice bit of fish on the kitchen table, makes off with it are behaving exactly the same egotistical spirit as would a human child in a state of nature.

What largely differentiates the human being from the other animals is the second nature that training imposes on him. Animals, too, of course, like the dog and the horse—the cat is almost hopeless—have a second nature imposed on them by training; but not to the same extent as human beings.

This artificial thing known as second nature can so transform a human being that Augustine, for example, can begin as a young blackguard and end as one of the world’s saints. In the same way, small children naturally prone to theft and lying can, as a result of training, acquire habits that make honesty and truthfulness second nature to them.

I am not, I may say, suggesting that the natural human being is wholly bad. I believe that he is born with a mixture of good and bad instincts, and that only as a result of training—

whether in the home, the school or the church—can the good get the better of the bad and second nature make the necessary improvement on nature.

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