Charlotte Mason’s Paradoxical Principle, Part 3

Charlotte Mason’s Paradoxical Principle, Part 3

Personhood Explored: The Atmosphere of Personhood

This is the final article in a series on Charlotte Mason’s concept of personhood. The first article dealt with Mason’s doctrine of personhood, discussing what Mason believed the human person is. The second article explored how Mason’s doctrine of personhood inevitably led her to urge the pursuit of specific disciplines (or habits) that align with personhood. More specifically, it explored the disciplines a parent, who properly understands their child’s personhood, gives to their child. This last article explores the sort of atmosphere a parent pursues in view of their child’s personhood.

I would like to start with a bit of a warning. This last article is probably going to be the most unwieldy and abstract of the three. The concept of “atmosphere” is so large and all-encompassing that one could go on endlessly exploring all the ways a parent is to guard and foster the atmosphere of the home. However, I think there is a very strong tendency to reduce atmosphere to a series of how-tos that, while helpful, often miss the mark for communicating the true essence of atmosphere. My goal, then, since many have spent time discussing the particulars of atmosphere, is to focus on the principles. If these are deeply understood, the implementation, I believe, will come naturally, and will accommodate the inevitably unique situations we all bring to the table.

Another warning about atmosphere comes from Mason herself. Mason sensed that the educational tool of atmosphere was fraught with difficulty. For example, she believed it was liable to be too much depended on: “Of the three clauses of our definition, that which declares that ‘education is an atmosphere’ pleases us most, perhaps, because it is the most inviting to the laissez aller principle of human nature.”[1] Elsewhere, she paints the temptation of “atmosphere” differently, describing a home where parents reduce atmosphere to mere aesthetics, while the actual atmosphere being created falls short of their aim. Their child’s nursery, which the parents have obviously taken extremely seriously, is described thus:

Peter’s nursery was a perfect dream in which to hatch the soul of a little boy. Its walls were done in warm, cream-coloured paint and upon them Peter’s father had put the most lovely patterns of trotting and jumping horses and dancing cats and dogs and leaping lambs, a carnival of beasts …. there was a big brass fire-guard in Peter’s nursery …. and all the tables had smoothly rounded corners… There was nothing casual about the early years of Peter.[2]

There is in this description a simultaneously suffocating effort on the part of the parents, and a flat and rather mechanical implementation of “atmosphere.” Mason clearly felt that atmosphere, when approached naively and superficially, was a delightful, easy tool, often picked up, yet rarely used to purpose, expected to do all the work, but rarely made to do the work for which it was intended. However, when Mason spoke of atmosphere in its deeper sense, she expressed a great weightiness and fearfulness for those who truly took it seriously:

There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet, the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine… Every look of gentleness and tone of reverence … passes into the thought-environment, the very atmosphere which the child breathes… Oh, the wonderful and dreadful presence of the little child in the midst![3]

What, then, is this atmosphere that Mason feared was a too appealing, yet terribly weighty tool?

Mason believed that an atmosphere, just like habits and beliefs, grows out of the living ideas that one has taken in. However, unlike beliefs which one can hold concretely in the mind, or habits which one acts out concretely with the body, one’s atmosphere usually exists in a far less conscious form; an atmosphere seems almost intangible because it exists in so many millions of little things, all so seemingly insignificant, that it is almost impossible to believe that they mean anything at all. However, that does not mean that particular ideas have not ultimately motivated the millions of decisions (however conscious or unconscious) that have resulted in one’s atmosphere. Mason believed that ideas themselves could be intangible and could be communicated through atmosphere:

Ideas may invest as an atmosphere, rather than strike as a weapon. ‘The idea may exist in a clear, distinct, definite form, as that of a circle in the mind … or it may be a mere instinct, a vague appetency towards something…’[4]

The description of “vague appetency” is particularly apt; it is an inclination, a taste, however hazy, that guides and propels much of one’s actions. Mason, however (much like C. S. Lewis), was brilliant at discovering the living ideas that exist behind the insignificant parts of life, making the intangible and vague appetencies concrete. She really believed that nothing we do is unimportant, that the tiniest decisions in life, be it a small purchase, a tone of voice, or a failure to answer a letter, are all manifestations of living ideas: “Things are only signs which represent ideas. Several times a day we shall find two ideas presented to our minds; and we must make our choice upon right and reasonable grounds.”[5] Hence, she described the “atmosphere emanating” from a person as “the ideas which rule their own lives.”[6] A person’s atmosphere, then, is the most honest (because mostly involuntary) manifestation of what they truly believe.

If one’s atmosphere is the aura, so to speak, of “the ideas which rule one’s life,” then on the surface it seems like atmosphere is hardly a tool one can expect anyone to deliberately harness. However, Mason clearly felt that there is a deliberate part to atmosphere, or she would not have included it as one of the three legitimate educational tools, nor would she have given so much detailed advice about how to create an atmosphere in the home. Though Mason never expressed this explicitly, she clearly recognized a dual-aspect to atmosphere. The primary and involuntary part of atmosphere is the aura of “the ideas which rule one’s life,” which, again, may be quite contrary to what one thinks are the ideas that rule one’s life. The primary atmosphere is inescapable since it is always there and always communicating one’s deepest (if unrecognized) beliefs. The secondary aspect of atmosphere comes into existence as one deliberately tries to express certain ideas through the many decisions one makes. If the primary and secondary aspects of atmosphere are not aligned, the primary atmosphere ultimately has sway, since it is the involuntary expression of the deepest ideas that invest a person.

This principle of the primary atmosphere having the upper hand is vitally important. It is the reason, I believe, behind much of the wooden applications of Mason’s idea of atmosphere. We want children to be creative, so we put up beautiful posters with colourful pictures and buy wooden toys and curated craft kits, hoping to inspire their imaginations. These sorts of decisions are not irrelevant, but they are not the most fundamental, and may even be counter-productive (for example, buying an atmosphere of creativity has got to be one of the most sure ways of preventing a true atmosphere of creativity). We must start with the more subtle, powerful ways that an atmosphere is created if we are to impact children the way we claim we want to. Mason expressed this principle brilliantly when describing why some parents are unable to teach their children “the meaning of must” (meaning, they are unable to teach their children obedience):

… the reason why some parents fail to obtain prompt and cheerful obedience from their children is that they do not recognize “must” in their own lives. They elect to do this and that, choose to go here and there, have kindly instincts and benevolent emotions, but are unaware of the constraining must, which should direct their speech and control their actions. They allow themselves to do what they choose; there may be little harm in what they do; the harm is that they feel free to allow themselves.[7]

The idea Mason is expressing here is that, in spite of parents doing their best to teach obedience to their children, the fact that the parents’ own atmosphere is one of choosing rather than obeying completely undermines their efforts. So long as the children sense that the parents do things primarily because they want to, even when “there may be little harm in what they do,” obedience will not be the atmosphere of the home; the primary atmosphere of choice defeats all other efforts.

With this principle of the primary and secondary atmospheres in mind, we will continue to the main point of this article. We will not spend much time on how an atmosphere is created (just as we didn’t spend time discussing the how of habit-building). What we are most interested in is understanding what sort of atmosphere fosters personhood. If, as we have discussed, to be a person is to be relationally oriented to God and his world, and thus objectively oriented (oriented outward towards reality rather than inward towards our subjective experience of reality), what atmosphere did Mason believe helped or hindered this Godward and outward movement?

I think we will be helped on our way by exploring Mason’s notion of “best.” Mason was very fond of this word, frequently using it to describe the quality she thought was acceptable for children. Again and again she demanded that parents give their children “the best”:

Boxes of cheap colours are to be avoided. Children are worthy of the best, and some half-dozen tubes of really good colours will last a long time…[8]

Children should have the best of their Mothers.[9]

Let me repeat, that I venture to suggest, not what is practicable in any household, but what seems to me absolutely best for the children[10]

If the children are to have what is quite the best thing for them, they should be two or three hours every day in the open air…[11]

…the child’s capacity for knowledge is very limited … and, therefore, it behoves parent or teacher to pour in only of the best.[12]

Children must be Nurtured on the Best.—For the children? They must grow up upon the best. There must never be a period in their lives when they are allowed to read or listen to twaddle or reading-made-easy. There is never a time when they are unequal to worthy thoughts, well put; inspiring tales, well told… we shall train a race of readers who will demand literature—that is, the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.[13]

Children must have the Best Books.—One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough…[14]

Try to cultivate taste by noticing the best passages in any book that is being read… The best literature can only be appreciated by those who have fitted themselves for it.[15]

I saw how religious teaching helped the children, gave them power and motives for continuous effort, and raised their desires towards the best things.[16]

This is only a tiny sample of quotes where Mason communicates more or less the same thing—that children should be given the best, should learn to discern the best, and should learn to delight in the best.[17] I would like to focus especially on the last quote. What should the best things do for children? It should “raise their desires.” If correct doctrine raises our minds to the best things, and if correct actions join our bodies to the best things, correct atmosphere joins our desires—our impulses, our emotions, and our taste—to the best things. An atmosphere of personhood guides a child to feel correctly about the world, to discern what is worthy of admiration or what is worthy of contempt (there are things worthy of contempt). Of course, the worthiest and best thing of all is God Himself. The biblical principle—that which is true for the lesser is true (only more so) for the greater—holds here; the assumption Mason makes is that, if your child’s heart becomes knit to that which is mediocre, if his taste and desire is for the trivial, the vulgar, or the indifferent,[18] you have absolutely no reason to expect he will have any taste or desire for God.

This conviction that a child’s desires must be moulded to discern the best flies in the face of our culture. Our culture has declared that things have no fixed meaning or value inherent in them, but only have value as it is assigned to them. For example, if a little girl thinks a bright, rainbow tutu dress plastered with unicorns is pretty, it is pretty, and to say that her taste requires correction and refinement is to do violence to the child; what right does anyone have to say that the dress is not pretty when the girl who is going to wear it is convinced that it is, and, most significantly of all, wants to wear it? Under this view, a thing has value if a person wants, likes, or chooses it.

Although at first glance emphasizing a person’s desires (their likes and dislikes, their right to choose in matters of “insignificance”) appears to uphold their personhood, it in fact does the exact opposite. First, it makes a person’s outlook towards reality completely subjective, stripping things of real worth and meaning. Second, it perverts reality into something to be used rather than appreciated apart from what it “does for me.” That is, it destroys objectivity and relationality, the two essential features of personhood (see part one). Today, an atmosphere of choice and personal taste is so deeply and subtly infused in our culture that it is almost impossible to imagine another mode of existence. Even adults are so infused in this atmosphere that, looking back to the example of the little girl with the dress, a mother might have a vague sense that wearing such a dress might not be the best thing—might not be appropriate for church—but she could hardly express why. In contrast, Mason, when describing how a young lady should decide what sort of clothing to buy, says:

Before she goes “shopping,” she must use her reason, and that rapidly, to lay down the principles on which she is to choose her dress,—it is to be pretty, becoming, suitable for the occasions on which it is to be worn, in harmony with what else is worn with it.[19]

Not idle opinions or whims, but principles of what is suitable, becoming, and harmonious, are to decide clothes. Consider, also, how clearly Mason believes that these things—what is suitable for an occasion or what is becoming to an individual—are not at all subjective matters, but themselves have to do with concrete, objective realities. A little girl should not wear a bright rainbow tutu dress with unicorns plastered on it, first because such a dress wears the little girl rather than the girl wearing the dress (i.e., it is not becoming), second because it teaches the girl that dress is for self-expression (“I like unicorns and I want people to know what I like”), and third because it is inappropriate for almost all occasions (certainly church deserves a mode of dress where the celebration of self is not so front-and-centre). Most subtly of all, however, is the fact that such a dress is not fundamentally acting as a dress, but as a costume; the girl’s dress has become a toy. None of these principles require that the girl wear clothes that are ugly. Far from it. However, it does require a love and commitment to the true nature of what God has created, which is always very, very beautiful. C. S. Lewis, in his book That Hideous Strength, portrays this principle profoundly in a very different scene where women are choosing robes for a banquet (though “discovering” would really be a more correct word in this case):

“There,” said Mother Dimble as she draped [the robe] skilfully round Ivy. Then she said, “Oh!” in genuine amazement. All three stood back from Ivy staring at her with delight. The commonplace had not exactly gone from her form and face, the robe had taken it up, as a great composer takes up a folk tune and tosses it like a ball through his symphony and makes of it a marvel, yet leaves it still itself. A “pert fairy” or “dapper elf,” a small though perfect sprightliness, stood before them: but still recognisably Ivy Maggs.

“Isn’t that like a man!” exclaimed Mrs. Dimble. “There’s not a mirror in the room.”

“I don’t believe we were meant to see ourselves,” said Jane. “He said something about being mirrors enough to see another.” …

Jane could see nothing specially appropriate in the robe which the others agreed in putting on her. Blue was, indeed, her colour but she had thought of something a little more austere and dignified. Left to her own judgement, she would have called this a little “fussy.” But when she saw the others all clap their hands, she submitted. Indeed, it did not now occur to her to do otherwise and the whole matter was forgotten a moment later in the excitement of choosing a robe for Mother Dimble.[20]

Here we see a return of the mirror theme from the previous articles in this series: we are not meant to look at ourselves, going through life imagining what impression we give off. We must look out, and if there is any reason to be looked at, it is for others to do the looking. Thus Jane realizes that she, so long enslaved to her subjective self, is not qualified to know what dress would look best on her; her own tastes and desires have become unreliable because they are not in line with God’s created reality. She must “submit.” But in the process, her objective self shines through, glorious and true.

Put another way, just as the discipline of personhood requires that our actions, thoughts, and sensations be objective, so the atmosphere of personhood encourages our feelings to be objective:

… when [our feelings] become subjective, when every feeling concerns itself with the ego, we have, as in the case of sensations, morbid conditions set up; the person begins by being ‘over sensitive,’ hysteria supervenes, perhaps melancholia, an utterly spoilt life.[21]

This subjective orientation in our feelings stands in direct contrast to the objective feelings of the inner life that Mason urges, as exemplified in her book Ourselves, where a person learns to see that the feelings, aspirations, emotions, and motives that exist within them are common to all people. The result of this sort of self-analysis is humility and true self-awareness, a clear-sightedness that sees one’s self more clearly (and, thus, less exaltedly) and others more charitably.[22] One is brought into closer contact with one’s fellow man rather than being increasingly removed from him. In short, one behaves more relationally. More like a person.

This atmosphere is particularly difficult to develop in our culture, where everything around us causes our thoughts and feelings to “concern itself with the ego.” The example of a little girl and her dress is one among thousands. Perhaps parents would do well to consider whether the books, media, and conversations their child is surrounded with encourages them to think about themselves—“Am I pretty? Am I treated fairly? What sort of person am I? What do people think of me? What style of decor expresses my personality? Am I a foodie? An adventurous type?”—or whether it encourages interest in a worthy subject.[23] For certainly a subject worthy of our admiration is what we truly desire.

A careful reader may notice that much of this sounds like the previous article’s emphasis on the discipline of attention or the discipline of speech, where children should notice and speak of things outside of them. Certainly discipline and atmosphere run in and out of each other, supporting the development of each. But the atmosphere of personhood requires not just that attention be paid to things, but that the heart responds appropriately, and this is more difficult to set up and more spiritually passed on. One can see this spiritual passing on of the heart’s loves in Mason’s example of a mother amongst the flowers. She may (rarely) give a “look and gesture of delight” or point out some of its beautiful details. She may (“very rarely”) “with tender filial reverence … point to some lovely flower or gracious tree, not only as a beautiful work, but a beautiful thought of God, in which we may believe He finds continual pleasure.”[24] But never, never may the mother, with exaggerated mannerisms exclaim how beautiful it is; atmosphere truly is one of those things “caught not taught.” The sincere and appropriate feelings that well up instinctively in response to the nature of things is incapable of being faked. It begins with attention, but we must go further. For Mason, this is the heart of the Christian faith:

I have said that faith is an interchangeable term for admiration. Faith also implies the fixed regard which leads to recognition, and the recognition which leads to appreciation; and when our admiration, our faith, is fixed on the highest, appreciation becomes worship, adoration.[25]

Notice the progression here. We begin with attention, a “fixed regard,” which then “leads to recognition,” a realization of the true nature of a thing. The Christian, in obedience to Christ and out of love for all his works, cannot help but see the true nature of his world without being drawn into appreciation, and when the highest things are properly appreciated, when their nature is truly recognized, we adore. We worship.

Which brings the atmosphere of personhood to a point. The fundamental atmosphere of personhood is worship. It is an atmosphere of appreciation for the true, good, and beautiful so that, not just our minds, but our emotions go out to the whole world, intuitively grasping (if not fully comprehending) the nature of things. It is an atmosphere where a family sits down to a meal, not to have their own demands met, but to marvel at the effort and kindness of the parents who made it, and the Father who made it all. (I should note that this is unlikely to include any bizarre exclamations. Such a meal would likely seem very simple, cheerful, and ordinary.) It is an atmosphere where a child’s morbid fixation with himself—his rights, whether it’s his turn to have the toy, whether he got to wear the shirt he wanted, whether he is being paid attention to, whether his talent is appreciated—is overcome, not by asking him what’s wrong, but by drawing his attention to a worthy object and ignoring his self-obsession into oblivion. It is an atmosphere where a mother aids her daughters in matters of clothing and hair in such a way that they are made to look their best, while simultaneously freed from the burden of thinking much of it. It is an atmosphere where anything that twists our feelings about God and his purposes are rejected out of loyalty to Him. And it is an atmosphere where God himself is intuitively felt to be, without competition or self-consciousness, the most beautiful, the most desirous, the worthiest object of our affections. In such an atmosphere, where the living idea “God is best” informs all our tastes and choices, our children will truly be persons.

Laura Teeple is a piano teacher and homemaker. She recently completed her Graduate Diploma in Christian Studies from Regent College, garnering the Board of Governors’ Prize for Proficiency. While she enjoys theological reading, she finds her most important theological insights come from Tolkien, Lewis, and Austen. Laura lives in Cold Lake, Alberta where her husband, Nathanael, is stationed as a fighter pilot.

©2024 Laura Teeple

Endnotes:

[1] Charlotte M. Mason, School Education, p. 149.

[2] Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 95, quoting Joan and Peter by H. G. Wells.

[3] Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 36, 37.

[4] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 36.

[5] Mason, Ourselves, Book II, p. 146.­­

[6] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 247.

[7] Charlotte M. Mason, “Children Are Born Persons: Liberty versus various forms of tyranny,” The Parents’ Review 22 (1911): para 12.

[8] Mason, Home Education, p. 313.

[9] Mason, Home Education, p. 17.

[10] Mason, Home Education, p. 44 (emphasis original).

[11] Mason, Home Education, p. 85.

[12] Mason, Home Education, p. 175.

[13] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 263.

[14] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 279.

[15] Mason, School Education, p. 340.

[16] Mason, Home Education, p. 99.

[17] It is important to distinguish Mason’s insistence on “the best” from a love of the expensive or fashionable; Mason was not endorsing snobbery—the belief that one is better than others because one either has or is capable of discerning “the best,” usually in matters of triviality—but she was endorsing judgment. Essential to this judgment, was the belief that “the best” is not a matter of subjective opinion.

[18] I borrowed this trio (trivial, vulgar, and indifferent) from a wonderful lecture by R. V. Young at the 2023 Touchstone Conference. I would highly recommend it as a short introduction to what art is and does. (R.V. Young, “Touchstone Conference 2023, Friday, 10:30a.m., October 13,” YouTube, October 13, 2023, lecture, 38:22 to 38:37, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8ANRruNJqU&t=3661s)

[19] Mason, Formation of Character, p. 242.

[20] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (Quebec: Samizdat, November 2015), pp. 336, 337.

[21] Mason, Parents and Children, p. 195.

[22] This is a perpetual theme in Jane Austen’s works, by the way.

[23] Here is an excellent description of the way parents create a subjective versus objective atmosphere: “A child who is taught from the first the delights of giving and sharing, of loving and bearing, will always spend himself freely on others, will love and serve, seeking for nothing again; but the child who recognises that he is the object of constant attention, consideration, love and service, becomes self-regardful, self-seeking, selfish, almost without his fault, so strongly is he influenced by the direction his thoughts receive from those about him. So, too, of that other fountain, of justice, with which every child is born. There, again, the stream may flow forth in either, but not in both, of the channels, the egoistic or the altruistic… ‘It’s not Fair!’—He may be taught to occupy himself with his own rights and other people’s duties, and, if he is, his state of mind is easily discernible by the catchwords often on his lips, ‘It’s a shame!’ ‘It’s not fair!’” Mason, Parents and Children, pp. 288–289.

[24] Mason, Home Education, p. 79–80.

[25] Charlotte M. Mason, “Children Are Born Persons: Liberty versus various forms of tyranny,” The Parents’ Review 22 (1911): para 24.

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