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Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.



My dear brother,
You will not be displeased if I devote another letter or two to the subject of recreation and amusement. This is not so trifling a matter as some people might suppose. All young people are fond of play, and more than this, something of the sort is absolutely necessary. As the proverb says, "the bow must not be always bent." The more diligent a boy is at his books—the more he needs relaxation. This is not only important for the preservation of health—but for preserving the activity and strength of the mind. Constant application to studies or work, without rest or pastime, wears the mind, and leads to dullness and despondency.

It is very common to leave boys entirely to themselves in the choice of their amusements; but this is not right; for all recreations are not alike good, and there are some which are highly injurious and improper.

There are three things which you should have in view in every game, sport or amusement—

1. It should be full of entertainment.

2. It should be altogether innocent.

3. It should be of some use to body or mind.

The first requisite, that is entertainment, you will readily seek and find; but boys are not so careful to amuse themselves in a profitable, or even a harmless way. Let me call your attention to some of the amusements which are common.

First of all, I persuade myself that you will never think of playing cards. I would wish you never to know even the name of a playing-card. Games of this kind are all games of hazard or chance. They do not benefit the mind, they waste precious time, and, above all, they lead directly to the ruinous vice of gambling. Every play in which dice are used is, in some degree, a game of chance; and such amusements lead the inexperienced to gambling.

Checkers is a game of skill; but I never could see it to be of much use to the mind, and it certainly affords no advantages to the body. Indeed, all sedentary games of this sort seem unsuitable for youth, because they keep the players within doors, while they might be employed in taking healthful exercise.

The game of chess is liable also to the last of these objections, although it has been approved by many judicious people. I certainly do not regard it as evil in itself, and it may be true that it encourages thought, and exercises the mind to a certain extent. But its fascinations are such, that most who are fond of it waste many precious hours at the chessboard. It often takes up a great length of time, and those who become experts are frequently tempted to try other games, and so become gamblers at length. Besides, I could never find it as clearly beneficial to the mind as has been pretended. Some of the most wonderful chess-players I have ever seen have been people of very feeble understanding and limited reasoning powers.

In a word, I would recommend to you to abstain from all games which keep you sitting still, and yield no direct improvement.

You are rather too big a boy to engage in the trifling sports of children. Such I consider marbles. I am always mortified to see older boys at this pastime. It brings one into bad company, is often connected with a sort of gambling, and at best is somewhat a groveling business, without any pretense of being useful.

There are other recreations which are either good or bad, according to the way in which they are used. Such are wrestling and boxing. These are highly useful to the limbs, affording them exercise and strength. But then care must be taken to avoid all danger, and especially to shun every disposition towards fighting and bullying. I fear it will generally be found that good boxers are apt to become quarrelsome, and fond of picking fights.

You will, no doubt, expect me to say something about what are called the sports of the field. Among these I include fishing. It is certainly delightful to stroll along pleasant brooks, and to recline on the green, shaded banks, in fine summer weather. And in the pursuit of this sport, it is always pleasing to witness the increase of one's skill, and the corresponding success. Where it is pursued for the sake of obtaining food, it is undoubtedly a reasonable and useful employment. But when boys go a fishing, their sole object is amusement, and their amusement is a cruel one. The baiting with live worms, which writhe upon the barbed hook, and the mangling of the harmless little fish which are caught—are surely bad lessons of humanity for tender youth. Some people will call these objections weak and womanlike. But where amusements are so abundant, without the necessity of harming any living thing, I cannot see the need of seeking so barbarous enjoyment.

My objections are still greater to hunting or gunning for birds, as an amusement for boys. There is no sport in which they become so enthusiastic, and there are few which are more injurious. Not to speak of the lamentable accidents which are constantly occurring with fire-arms. There is hunting, a greater cruelty than even in fishing. If every bird at which you discharged your gun were killed on the spot, there might be less reason for this remark. But how many poor fluttering things are merely wounded, and left to linger for hours or days in mortal anguish. I can never forget the impressions made upon me in my childhood, by the touching lines of Burns, upon seeing a wounded rabbit limp along his path—

Inhuman man! shame on your barbarous art,
And blasted be your murder-aiming eye.
May never pity soothe you with a sigh;
Nor ever pleasure gladden your cruel heart.

Seek, 'mangled wretch', some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest—but now your dying bed;
The sheltering rushes whistling o'er your head;
The cold earth with your bloody bosom pressed.

Oft as by winding path I musing wait,
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I'll miss you sporting o'er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian's aim, and mourn your hapless fate!

Whole days are commonly consumed in this sport and there are many young men who become so fond of it as to make it their principal employment. Without enlarging upon the reasons why it is so, I will state it as a fact, which I have long observed—that young men who are devoted to guns usually become idle and dissipated.

But you will be ready to say, "You are only telling me what past-times I must not indulge in; name some which you recommend." This I propose to do in my next letter. In the meantime, let me give you one important rule, which applies to the whole subject—Let amusement always occupy its proper time. Its time is when the mind needs refreshment, when it has been jaded by hard work or study. Never make a business of amusement. Never spend whole days upon mere recreation. Be moderate in all enjoyments of this kind, and avoid everything that is frivolous and childish. Remember that we are just as accountable for our relaxation as for anything else; and we ought, therefore, to be as conscientious in it. Farewell.

Your affectionate brother,

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