The Small Virtues: an essay by Natalia Ginzburg (from Le Piccole Virtu', Einaudi)
Le piccole virtu': un saggio di Natalia Ginzburg
[...] As far as the upbringing of children is concerned, I think one must teach them not the small virtues, but the bigger ones. Not saving, but generosity and indifference to money; not prudence but courage and embracing danger; not cunning but frankness and love of truth; not diplomacy but love for others and abnegation; not the desire for success but the desire to be and to know.
However, we tend to do the opposite: we are quick to teach respect for the small virtues, and make them the base of our entire educational system. We therefore choose the easier way because the small virtues don't contain any material dangers and keep us safe from any blows of fate. We neglect to teach the bigger virtues and yet we love them and we would like our children to possess them: but we have faith that one day they will arise spontaneously in our children since we consider them to be instinctive in nature, while we consider the other ones, the smaller ones, to be the result of calculation and reflection, and we therefore believe that they must absolutely be taught.
In reality it is merely an ostensible difference. The small virtues also come from the depth of our instinct, a defensive instinct; but in them it is reason, the brilliant defender of our personal safety, that speaks, rules and pontificates. The bigger virtues originate from an instinct where reason does not speak, an instinct that would be difficult to define. The best of ourselves resides there, in that mute instinct, and not in the defensive instinct that argues, rules and pontificates with the voice of reason.
Upbringing is nothing but a certain relationship that we establish with our children, a certain environment where feelings, instincts and thoughts thrive. I believe that an environment entirely inspired by the small virtues will insensibly lead to cynicism, or fear of living. Individual small virtues themselves have nothing to do with cynicism or fear of living; but all of them combined, without the bigger ones, will generate an environment not free of consequences. The small virtues are not in themselves despicable: but their value is of a complementary, not substantive, nature; they are by themselves insufficient and, without the bigger virtues, a poor nourishment for human nature. The exercise of the small virtues in a moderate way and when absolutely necessary, can be found everywhere and breathed in the air: the small virtues are very common and widespread among men. But the bigger virtues, we cannot breathe them in the air and yet they should be the primary substance of our relationship with our children and the foundation of upbringing. Besides, the big can also contain the small; but the small, by the laws of nature, cannot in any way contain the big.
In our relationship with our children, it does not help that we try to remember and emulate the ways of our own parents. Our childhood and youth was not a time of small virtues: it was a time of loud and resonant words that, however, were gradually losing their power. Now is the time of humble and frigid words, that perhaps conceal a desire for redemption. But it is a shy desire, and full of fear of ridicule. And so we assume an air prudence and cunning. Our parents didn't know prudence or cunning; they didn't understand the fear of ridicule; they were inconsistent and illogical, but they never realized that they were; they contradicted themselves continuously but never admitted that they did. The authority that they used with us, we would never be able to use. Strong in their principles, which they believed unshakeable, they ruled over us with absolute power. They deafened us with thundering words; a conversation wasn't possible because, as soon as they suspected their own misdemeanours, they ordered us to be quiet; they banged their fist on the table and made the room shake. We remember that gesture, but we would not be able to repeat it. We can be furious, howl like wolves; but behind that howl is a hysterical sob, the raucous bleat of a lamb. [...]
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