A Precocious Letter and a Meditation on Humility

My dear Adele,

I am four years old and can read any English book. I can say all the Latin substantives and adjectives and active verbs besides 52 lines of Latin poetry. I can cast up any sum in addition and multiply by

2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10

I can also say the pence table, I read French a little and I know the clock.

Francis Galton, February-15-1827

Four year olds like Francis care nothing for the virtue of humility, bless their hearts!

When I came across this letter I laughed out loud at the obvious appetite Francis had for learning and his pleasure in it. (It will come as no surprise that little Francis Galton went on to become one of Victorian England’s great polymaths: anthropologist, eugenicist, tropical explorer, geographer, inventor, meteorologist, proto-geneticist, psychometrician, and statistician.)

I laughed again, this time a little enviously, as I recalled what age I was when I had accomplished something similar. (Alas, I’ve yet to commit 52 lines of Latin poetry to memory.) For those who enjoy learning things, it’s hard not to envy a soul to whom learning comes so easily.

Reflecting a little on my pang of envy, I saw this was an occasion to practice humility. Now, I’m not interested in that lazy and unreflective practice of false humility, whereby one wrongly imagines that underestimating one’s worth is a spiritual accomplishment rather than a damaging error. Instead, by practicing humility I mean countering egotism, and by egotism I mean inflated self-importance: witness that nagging voice in your head whose sole obsessive focus is you, how you’re doing, and how you compare—even to a four-year-old boy.

Instead of indulging this half-conscious pang of envy, I called that small nagging voice from the shadows and laughed at him, for caring enough (still!) to think the comparison worthwhile. That’s right, dude, you’re no Sir Francis Galton.

I quote Galton in a section of my book where I explore what’s wrongheaded about behaviorism’s claim that there’s no way to know what goes on in the heart and mind of a dog. Galton’s own view is less anthropocentric, more humble, and more in the spirit of evolutionary psychology:

Every whine or bark of the dog, and of his fawning, savage, or timorous movements, is the exact counterpart of what would have been the man’s behavior, had he felt similar emotions. As the man understands the thoughts of the dog, so the dog understands the thoughts of the man.

Hat tip: I found young Galton’s letter to Adele in psychologist James Hillman’s eccentric and cheerfully provocative book, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.

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