No. 189 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

Saturday, October 6, 1711.

‘… Patriae pietatis imago.’


The following Letter being written to my Bookseller, upon a Subject of which I treated some time since, I shall publish it in this Paper, together with the Letter that was inclosed in it.

Mr. Buckley,

“Mr. SPECTATOR having of late descanted upon the Cruelty of Parents to their Children, I have been induced (at the Request of several of Mr. SPECTATOR’S Admirers) to inclose this Letter, which I assure you is the Original from a Father to his own Son, notwithstanding the latter gave but little or no Provocation. It would be wonderfully obliging to the World, if Mr. SPECTATOR would give his Opinion of it, in some of his Speculations, and particularly to”

(Mr. Buckley)

Your Humble Servant.


“You are a sawcy audacious Rascal, and both Fool and Mad, and I care not a Farthing whether you comply or no; that does not raze out my Impressions of your Insolence, going about Railing at me, and the next Day to sollicit my Favour: These are Inconsistencies, such as discover thy Reason depraved. To be brief, I never desire to see your Face; and, Sirrah, if you go to the Work-house, it is no Disgrace to me for you to be supported there; and if you Starve in the Streets, I’ll never give any thing underhand in your Behalf. If I have any more of your scribling Nonsense I’ll break your Head the first Time I set Sight on you. You are a stubborn Beast; is this your Gratitude for my giving you Mony? You Rogue, I’ll better your Judgment, and give you a greater Sense of your Duty to (I regret to say) your Father, etc.”

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“P.S. It’s Prudence for you to keep out of my Sight; for to reproach me, that Might overcomes Right, on the Outside of your Letter, I shall give you a great Knock on the Skull for it.”

Was there ever such an Image of Paternal Tenderness! It was usual among some of the Greeks to make their Slaves drink to Excess, and then expose them to their Children, who by that means conceived an early Aversion to a Vice which makes Men appear so monstrous and irrational. I have exposed this Picture of an unnatural Father with the same Intention, that its Deformity may deter others from its Resemblance. If the Reader has a mind to see a Father of the same Stamp represented in the most exquisite Stroaks of Humour, he may meet with it in one of the finest Comedies that ever appeared upon the English Stage: I mean the Part of Sir Sampson [1] in ‘Love for Love’.

I must not however engage my self blindly on the Side of the Son, to whom the fond Letter above-written was directed. His Father calls him a sawcy and audacious Rascal in the first Line, and I am afraid upon Examination he will prove but an ungracious Youth. To go about railing at his Father, and to find no other Place but the Outside of his Letter to tell him that Might overcomes Right, if it does not discover his Reason to be depraved, and that he is either Fool or Mad, as the cholerick old Gentleman tells him, we may at least allow that the Father will do very well in endeavouring to better his Judgment, and give him a greater Sense of his Duty. But whether this may be brought about by breaking his Head, or giving him a great Knock on the Skull, ought, I think, to be well considered. Upon the whole, I wish the Father has not met with his Match, and that he may not be as equally paired with a Son, as the Mother in Virgil.

… Crudelis tu quoque mater:
Crudelis mater magis an puer Improbus ille?
Improbus ille puer, crudelis tu quoque mater. [2]

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Or like the Crow and her Egg, in the Greek Proverb,

[Greek (transliterated): Kakou korakos kakhon oon. [3]]

I must here take Notice of a Letter which I have received from an unknown Correspondent, upon the Subject of my Paper, upon which the foregoing Letter is likewise founded. The Writer of it seems very much concerned lest that Paper should seem to give Encouragement to the Disobedience of Children towards their Parents; but if the Writer of it will take the Pains to read it over again attentively, I dare say his Apprehensions will vanish. Pardon and Reconciliation are all the Penitent Daughter requests, and all that I contend for in her Behalf; and in this Case I may use the Saying of an eminent Wit, who, upon some great Men pressing him to forgive his Daughter who had married against his Consent, told them he could refuse nothing to their Instances, but that he would have them remember there was Difference between Giving and Forgiving.

I must confess, in all Controversies between Parents and their Children, I am naturally prejudiced in favour of the former. The Obligations on that Side can never be acquitted, and I think it is one of the greatest Reflections upon Human Nature that Parental Instinct should be a stronger Motive to Love than Filial Gratitude; that the receiving of Favours should be a less Inducement to Good-will, Tenderness and Commiseration, than the conferring of them; and that the taking care of any Person should endear the Child or Dependant more to the Parent or Benefactor, than the Parent or Benefactor to the Child or Dependant; yet so it happens, that for one cruel Parent we meet with a thousand undutiful Children. This is indeed wonderfully contrived (as I have formerly observed) for the Support of every living Species; but at the same time that it shews the Wisdom of the Creator, it discovers the Imperfection and Degeneracy of the Creature.

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The Obedience of Children to their Parents is the Basis of all Government, and set forth as the Measure of that Obedience which we owe to those whom Providence hath placed over us.

It is Father Le Conte, [4] if I am not mistaken, who tells us how Want of Duty in this Particular is punished among the Chinese, insomuch that if a Son should be known to kill, or so much as to strike his Father, not only the Criminal but his whole Family would be rooted out, nay the Inhabitants of the Place where he lived would be put to the Sword, nay the Place itself would be razed to the Ground, and its Foundations sown with Salt; For, say they, there must have been an utter Depravation of Manners in that Clan or Society of People who could have bred up among them so horrible an Offender. To this I shall add a Passage out of the first Book of Herodotus. That Historian in his Account of the Persian Customs and Religion tells us, It is their Opinion that no Man ever killed his Father, or that it is possible such a Crime should be in Nature; but that if any thing like it should ever happen, they conclude that the reputed Son must have been Illegitimate, Supposititious, or begotten in Adultery. Their Opinion in this Particular shews sufficiently what a Notion they must have had of Undutifulness in general.


[Footnote 1: Sir Sampson Legend in Congreve’s play, which ends with the heroine’s ‘punishing an inhuman father and rewarding a faithful lover.’]

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[Footnote 2: Ecl. 8.]

[Footnote 3: Of bad Crow bad Egg.]

[Footnote 4: ‘Present State of China,’ Part 2. Letter to the Cardinal d’Estrees.]

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