Posted by: mattcolvin | April 7, 2013

Purgatory and Parenting

The best quotation I saw this week comes from Dorothy Sayers’ preface to Dante’s Purgatorio in the Penguin edition. She is writing about the difference between Dante’s Hell and his Purgatory: despite the outward similarity of some of the torments, the sufferers in Hell suffer unwillingly, being still animated by hatred of God, while the inhabitants of Purgatory submit to their punishments as remedies to make them fit for heaven, and do so willingly, being animated by love of God.

Dante has grasped the great essential which is so often overlooked in arguments about penal reform, namely, the prime necessity of persuading the culprit to accept judgment. If a man is once convinced of his own guilt, and that he is sentenced by a just tribunal, all punishment of whatever kind is remedial, since it lies with him to make it so. If he is not so convinced, then all punishment, however enlightened, remains merely vindictive, since he sees it so and will not make it otherwise. (pp. 15-16)

Sayers has not added what struck me about this passage: that the same principle applies equally well, or even better, to child discipline. For it is sometimes appropriate for the civil magistrate to execute vengeance, but not so for parents. The withholding of privileges, the application of the rod, the imposition of restitution or labor – all will serve only to deepen enmity in a child who does not believe that he is guilty, or that he is “sentenced by a just tribunal”. Parents who lose their children’s respect lose the ability to correct them. Children with soft hearts receive correction as intended for their good and love their parents more for it.

Charon is not interested in remedial punishment.


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