Educational Philosophy, Home Education

Saddling the Masterly Inactivity Virtue Horse

November 7, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

Understanding virtue as something that exists between two extremes has been a powerful concept for me. A couple weekends ago at the Grace to Build Retreat, I used Aristotle’s description of virtue as a way of understanding living books early on, before you’ve grown the aesthetic sense capable of picking them out by just reading them a bit. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like she started this journey with an affection for twaddle and little taste for real literature and needed a quick and helpful way of thinking about them.

Charlotte Mason's concept of masterly inactivity is a key to good mothering. Here, Aristotle's Golden Mean gives us a shortcut to understanding it.

Today, I want us to use the same lens for understanding masterly inactivity.

Let’s start with Aristotle. In Nichomachean Ethics, he writes in regard to virtue that:

these sorts of states naturally tend to be ruined by excess and deficiency. We see this happen with strength and health, which we mention because we must use what is evident as a witness to what is not. For both excessive and deficient exercises ruin strength and likewise, too much or too little eating or drinking ruins health, while the proportionate amount produces, increases and preserves it.

Sometimes you’ll hear people refer to “Aristotle’s Golden Mean” and this is what they’re talking about. When he goes on to the “less evident” states, we begin to get the point:

The same is true, then, of temperance, bravery and the other virtues. For if, e.g., someone avoids and is afraid of everything, standing firm against nothing, he becomes cowardly, but if he is afraid of nothing at all and goes to face everything, he becomes rash. Similarly, if he gratifies himself with every pleasure and refrains from none, he becomes intemperate, but if he avoids them all, as boors do, he becomes some sort of insensible person. Temperance and bravery, then, are ruined by excess and deficiency but preserved by the mean.

In our own culture, we have a saying about falling off the other side of the horse. The idea is that we swing like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. We (or our family) fell off of one side of the horse — this was an unvirtuous extreme. So, in order to prevent that ever happening again, we fall off the other side, often on purpose. We think of it as a well meaning over-correction. We might even pat ourselves on the back. Look how much better we’ve done than the previous generation! What we don’t realize that virtue lies in staying on the horse; falling off of either side is a lack of virtue.

In my reference to living books, the idea was only an analogy. While I do think living books are virtuous in that they embody all that a book should do and be, I’m less confident in saying that textbooks and twaddle are the two extremes (though I did imply that). As an illustration, it works, but the general sense that we can often understand what something is by exploring what it is not is more of what I was getting at.

But with masterly inactivity, here is a virtue horse we can saddle! There are two very obvious extremes, and masterly inactivity is smack in the middle.

On one side of the horse, we have the micromanaging mama. This is the controlling approach. She plans out her child’s entire day, leaving him no free time. She decides that she knows best on every single subject and issue, regardless of how old the child is, and demands conformity with her standards. In the area of emotions, the mother dictates how the child ought to feel in response to every situation. When applied to schooling, the parent decides in advance not only what the curriculum will be (curriculum being the path traveled by the mind) but also exactly what ideas will be gleaned in each and every lessons. Tests reveal whether or not the student can regurgitate exactly what the parent/teacher thinks about the subject at hand.

In this example, there is no respect for the child’s personality.

On the other side of the horse, we have neglect. The child is given zero guidance or oversight. The child runs and plays and no one makes sure he is safe and no one is aware of what he is doing — and therefore no one knows what to work with him on in the privacy of the home. In the area of emotions, the child’s feelings are always affirmed, no matter how wildly disproportionate to the situation. When this is applied to the curriculum, the child chooses his own course of study, no matter how narrow, how broad, how disorganized, or how inappropriate. The child can even choose not to study at all.

In this example, there is no respect for the child’s common humanity.

Now, obviously these are two extremes. I’ve never met any mother who fits either description perfectly.

But I think we can vividly see how masterly inactivity is the golden mean.

Charlotte Mason says this of masterly inactivity:

It indicates a fine healthy moral pose which it is worth while for us to analyse. Perhaps the idea is nearly that conveyed in Wordsworth’s even more happy phrase, ‘wise passiveness’. It indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbid action. But there is, from our point of view at any rate, a further idea conveyed in ‘masterly inactivity.’ The mastery is not over ourselves only; there is also a sense of authority, which our children should be as much aware of when it is inactive as when they are doing our bidding. The sense of authority is the sine quâ non of the parental relationship, and I am not sure that without that our activities or our inactivity will produce any great results. This element of strength is the backbone of our position. ‘We could an’ if we would’ and the children know it — They are free under authority, which is liberty; to be free without authority is license.

There is more to say about it than this. There is a sense of waiting for time to pass — of patience while things are worked out on their own. There is also her insistence upon good humor. But the core of the virtue is what we see above: the mother is fully present and aware of the situation, but she is choosing not to act because she believes that nature, in this case, will be the best teacher. (A number of years ago when I was experimenting with this idea, I wrote of this example from our home.)

You see, we need both of the words. We need masterly: the mother is practically omniscient. She knows what is going on. Her children are not dangling off the edge of a cliff while she has a cup of coffee with her friends. This is where masterly inactivity departs from my Don’t Look Theory of Parenting. You can see which side of the horse I have fallen off on: in order to protect my children from my own unnecessary intervention, I have on occasion kept myself ignorant. This isn’t masterly inactivity; it’s just inactivity.

When the mother is all-knowing, she is able to give guidance and counsel. She is able to correct when necessary. That word “necessary” is important. It isn’t that the masterly inactive mother never corrects, but that she knows that her correction often is not needed, and she has the wisdom to discern when it is and isn’t, as well as that self-control to hold back when time will produce the required consequences without her intervention.

To return to Aristotle’s Golden Mean, I think we can all see how it’s a helpful concept to keep in mind. While it isn’t the key to every single virtue without exception, it is the key to most of them. In pursuing virtue, we’re not veering off to an extreme (though it can feel that way culturally), but rather walking a balance beam. We’re saddling the horse, and then trying to remain mounted when the ride gets rough and we’re tempted to just fall off on whichever side looks the most comfortable.


Want to Go Deep With Masterly Inactivity?

Masterly Inactivity: Charlotte Mason's Secret to Successfully Leading Your Homeschool

My talk on this subject (you already own the video version if you purchased the Leading Well retreat in 2017) is available in the Afterthoughts Shop. Try masterly inactivity! It’s not a hack — it’s a way of life. ♥

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17 Comments

  • Reply How Education Is Like Sandpaper | Afterthoughts October 15, 2019 at 8:29 am

    […] you remember the concept of the Golden Mean from when we discussed it last year in regard to saddling the masterly inactivity virtue horse? Virtue is the mean between two extremes — it’s a midway point. Aristotle seems to be one […]

  • Reply Rebecca Beck April 13, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    Brandy, I have to laugh seeing this post again. It’s one of the few educational posts my husband has actually read. I believe he read it because of the title! (He spends most days ‘in the saddle’ as a working cowboy.)

    Since then, he’s been very good at just letting the kids alone. When I go out to milk the cow he’s in charge and I’ll come in and ask how things went and he just smiles and says, “Charlotte Mason, baby! Masterly inactivity!” Which basically translates, he has no idea and all is well!

  • Reply Cindi Dennis December 8, 2016 at 7:48 am

    A+! I am in the midst of memorizing Expostulation and Reply, and this was a beautiful and timely correlation with his words. Thank you.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel December 8, 2016 at 9:56 am

      I had to google that. It is beautiful! I think I will print it out so I can read it over and over. There is much to think about there!

  • Reply SS #16: Don't Be the White Witch | Scholé Sisters December 2, 2016 at 1:01 am

    […] Saddling the Masterly Inactivity Virtue Horse (more on virtue between two extremes) […]

  • Reply Glenna November 12, 2016 at 10:00 pm

    Great analogy, as this week my dd had her first riding lesson and the trainer was adamant that she be balanced right in the center of the saddle! It’s a tough thing to do, but very necessary!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 13, 2016 at 8:41 am

      Oh, I love that this metaphor is so vivid to you now! ♥

  • Reply Lacey November 11, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you for this post Brandy. I tend towards the micromanaging mama side. Its been a long road for me to get to where I am now. My oldest is 8 and sending them outside alone with the back window open is so good for me and them.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 13, 2016 at 8:40 am

      Keep up the good work, Lacey. I know how hard this balance can be! ♥

  • Reply Lynette November 8, 2016 at 7:26 am

    You’ve convicted me greatly. My introverted self loves sending them outside every afternoon without me. I know CM says I need to go with them (and I truly want to be outside too), but I just don’t think CM understands what will all not get done when I do so. Anyway, hopefully my new plans for chores and cleaning up after supper as a family will help. My oldest is 6 so having real help is hard. But my oldest also needs a lot of diligent training – as I’m becoming more and more aware. Have you seen that meme with being a good wife, mom, and housekeeper on the corners of a triangle and it says. “Pick two?” Yeah.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 9, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      I have not seen that meme, but wow do I identify with that!

      If it is any consolation, it really *does* get easier. I mean, I certainly can send (and not take) my teenager! 🙂 While I would take them all on nature walks, I often keep myself aware by simply having the windows open so that I can hear what is going on. I often tell them, “My spies are everywhere.” 😉

  • Reply Claire November 7, 2016 at 7:51 pm

    I don’t know that your ‘don’t look’ theory is necessarily unmasterful – at least, not as I remember you describing it in the past… obviously you’re the one actually present, so you know when you’ve been not-enough-masterful, but… An example from my life – My kids like to climb on our roofs. I have a rule that they need to ask me first, and I need to be outside so I’ll know if they fall and break something and I can call the ambulance – because I might not hear them scream from inside our thick-walled house. But I do know they’ll probably be safe – if I actually think they may be at risk – if I’m not happy with their footware or if the roof is wet and slippery – I won’t let them climb. But I won’t actually be watching them on the roof, yk? I feel that is the mean – I maintain my role, which is to keep them safe, I am still the authority – but I don’t actually watch them climbing about (unless they ask me to). I might be reading or gardening. The impression I have is that this is your usual balance, too. You do know approximately where they are and what they’re doing and if you really didn’t think they should, you would stop them. Am I wrong?

    (slightly funny story: When we made foam swords we made the rule: feet on the ground to fight – no fighting on the trampoline or the roof. When we told people this, they would all say, “The roof??” ….

    like, seriously, did they think play sword fighting on the roof was a good idea? Someone could get hurt! :P)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 9, 2016 at 2:35 pm

      I like what you said here. And I think you’re right — the Don’t Look Theory *doesn’t* have to be unmasterful. It’s in how it’s done. Thank you. I feel much better now. 🙂

      And oh my! I totally laughed at the fighting on the roof story!

  • Reply Elizabeth November 7, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    I needed to read this… so much good food for thought, even beyond masterly inactivity. Thank you!

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 7, 2016 at 5:32 pm

      I’m so glad you found it helpful, Elizabeth. ♥

  • Reply Dawn Duran November 7, 2016 at 10:28 am

    Home run, Brandy.
    “You see, we need both of the words. We need masterly: the mother is practically omniscient. She knows what is going on. Her children are not dangling off the edge of a cliff while she has a cup of coffee with her friends.”
    Too many people misunderstand the masterly aspect of this approach. I know it took me years to understand, so I get that. But often people key in on the “inactivity” component entirely and fail to even acknowledge the importance of the “masterly” element. You have described the concept brilliantly. Naturally:).

    • Reply Brandy Vencel November 7, 2016 at 10:46 am

      What is funny to me is that I didn’t, until re-reading her for writing this post, recall that she tied it to maintaining our authority. That was an interesting connection for me.

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