What is Masterly Inactivity?

masterly inactivity doing nothing with a deal of skillMost of us who read Charlotte Mason’s original six volumes meet the term ‘masterly inactivity’ there for the first time, and we are generally puzzled by it.  Often we come away thinking that it is a phrase specific to Miss Mason, coined by her.  Actually, it was a term in that had long been in common usage and was easily understood by her original audience. I found the history of the term helpful to my understanding of how it might be applied to home-life and working with children. My conclusion is that yes, there is a vast deal behind the term, but it’s not so mystical and strange as it seemed to me when I first read Miss Mason’s writings. 

What follows is a long post with a good bit of research shared.  But for those who haven’t the time or inclination to read the background, the TL:DR of it all is this:

1.  Masterly Inactivity, which Mason also sometimes called ‘ a wise letting alone’ has a lot to do with with Cowper’s poetical reference to ‘doing nothing with a deal of skill.’  It’s similar to the economic term laissez-faire, or leave it alone, let things take their course.  I think there are also similarities with today’s ‘choose your battles,’ but that’s not all of it.  Even more important is the understanding that children can be let alone, and should be- that is, the parents do not need to schedule and hover and direct every minute of every hour.  Give them direction and nourishing ideas, and then give them the time to think them out and work them out on their own.  Allow them to make choices even when you know they are going to fail.  

Keeping in mind that ‘letting alone’ is also a phrase she uses for ‘masterly inactivity,’ there is a passage in volume 6 that gives an excellent example of practical application. A child of 5 has come home from a walk deeply unhappy about something, but nobody knows why or what.  It comes out that she has been distressed by a poor man seen on the walk.  What I find useful here is how it comes out.  The child is brought to explain through “some letting alone, and some wise openings.”  Miss Mason isn’t even directly speaking of masterly inactivity here, but it helps us see the sort of thing she means- sometimes too much intervention and direct involvement gives us the opposite result of the one we seek. A wise parent knows when to ask questions, when to quietly work alongside the child, waiting for the child to volunteer information.  

masterly inactivity build good habits firstThis explanation in volume 1, page 191-2 is also helpful:

The educational error of our day is that we believe too much in mediators. Now, Nature is her own mediator, undertakes, herself, to find work for eyes and ears, taste and touch; she will prick the brain with problems and the heart with feelings; and the part of the mother or teacher in the early years (indeed, all through life) is to sow opportunities, and then to keep in the background, ready with a guiding or restraining hand only when these are badly wanted.

Parents often worry that they are not doing enough with their young children, and scramble to create play dates, to get their children to art and music classes and library day and keep them busy, or send them to preschool or try preschool at home.  It’s instructive that Miss Mason  in the fuller passage uses parents sending children to kindergarten as an undesirable example of the very opposite of this wise letting alone.

In today’s parlance, I would say the parent who understands masterly inactivity is closer to a free range parent than to a helicopter parent, but there is still more to it than that. The mother who utilizes Masterly Inactivity is not lazy, complacent, or giving up because she is just too tired to argue about something any longer.  She is aware of what is going on, is not susceptible to manipulation, and while she is letting the children go about their business on their own, she also knows when to step in and intervene.  

oranges page divider


2. That’s the short of it.  For a more depth and detail, I would urge the interested parent to take time for a careful reading and rereading of chapter 3 of volume 3 .  That would be very helpful in understanding the term.

 However, some balance is necessary.  It is a very useful tool to have in the parenting toolbox.  It is not suitable for use in every single situation, as Miss Mason acknowledges in volume 1: 

“Nothing could be better for the child than this ‘masterly inactivity,’ so far as it goes. It is well he should be let grow and helped to grow according to his nature; and so long as the parents do not step in to spoil him, much good and no very evident harm comes of letting him alone. But this philosophy of ‘let him be,’ while it covers a part, does not cover the serious part of the parents’ calling; does not touch the strenuous incessant efforts upon lines of law which go to the producing of a human being at his best.”

Also here in volume 1:

Let Children Alone.––In conclusion, let me say that the education of habit is successful in so far as it enables the mother to let her children alone, not teasing them with perpetual commands and directions––a running fire of Do and Don’t; but letting them go their own way and grow, having first secured that they will go the right way, and grow to fruitful purpose. The gardener, it is true, ‘digs about and dungs,’ prunes and trains, his peach tree; but that occupies a small fraction of the tree’s life: all the rest of the time the sweet airs and sunshine, the rains and dews, play about it and breathe upon it, get into its substance, and the result is––peaches. But let the gardener neglect his part, and the peaches will be no better than sloes.

In chapter 4 of the third volume, she speaks more about where to apply Masterly Inactivity, and I’ll have more about that later.  Meanwhile, this little list might be helpful. It’s my summation of chapter 3 (in no way intended to be a substitute for reading chapter 3)-click to enlarge: Masterly Inactivity chart


For the last and final part of this very long post, I wanted to share what I found on the historical background of the term:

The earliest reference to ‘Masterly Inactivity” seems to have been in 1792 by James Mackintosh in the book “Vindiciæ Gallicæ: Defence of the French revolution and its English admirers, against the accusations of … Edmund Burke; including some strictures on the late production of Mons. de Calonne … The fourth edition, with additions…” (titles were quite a mouthful then.)  He used it in reference to a political policy of judiciously not one side or the other in a political battle.

Mackintosh’s usage is quoted later in a quotations anthology published in 1800, “Other Men’s Minds, Or, Seven Thousand Choice Extracts on History, Science, Philosophy, Religion, Etc: Selected from the Standard Authorship of Ancient and Modern Times, and Classified in Alphabetical Order”:
“COMMONS: The Inactivity of the

“The Commons, faithful to their system remained in a wise and masterly inactivity.” Mackintosh.

The following page image is from a book published in 2002.  This page image is from a section on India in the mid to late 1800s (the war the author refers to,which followed Lytton’s abandonment of the Masterly Inactivity policy started in 1878):

masterly inactivity as a political term


I found the above paragraph particularly helpful to me in giving the phrase context, as well as highlighting just how much in every day casual use the term must have been.

Queen Victoria was considered the Empress of India; Britain’s involvement in India and Afghanistan were of keen interest ‘at home,’ many of the students using Mason’s correspondence courses were in India or had relatives there.  

Charlotte Mason and her countrymen would have been well informed about the events leading to that war, the people and policies involved.  You can read a short but thorough overview here. The British Envoy to Kabul, the 3 British Officers with him and all but 7 of the 75 soldiers detailed to protect them were murdered during an 8 hour seige.  The soldiers were a detail from the elite Queen’s Own Corps of the Guides.  The 7 survivors only survived because they had been dispatched elsewhere to seek aid at the start of the attack.  Rudyard Kipling’sThe Ballad of East and Westis about the Guides, so you can see how this group were known and admired at home in England.

Four weeks later the British military hero Lord Roberts led British and Indian troops into Kabul in retaliation and conquered her (for the moment, at least), receiving the abdication of the King of Afghanistan (who said he’d rather cut grass in the English camp than be King of his troubled country). Mason refers to Lord Roberts in volume 6 as one of her examples of those who used reason to spur themselves on to noble deeds: ” Nurse Cavell, Jack Coruwell, Lord Roberts, General Gordon, Madame Curie, leave hints enough to enable us to follow the trains of thought which issued in glorious deeds. “

Leaving aside this history lesson, the point is, ‘Masterly Inactivity’ as a political policy had been working well enough in the British Empire’s dealings with Afghanistan, and abandoning that policy resulted in a war, as everybody knew. So it was highly familiar to her readers (and that it was not highly familiar to me, I put down to my lacking education).

The phrase was also in usage in the U.S. in connection to both medicine and politics, as early as 1828:

Masterly inactivity references

Below is a screenshot from the 1892 book Fact, Fancy, and Fable: A New Handbook for Ready Reference on Subjects Commonly Omitted from Cyclopaedias; Comprising Personal Sobriquets, Familiar Phrases, Popular Appellations, Geographical Nicknames, Literary Pseudonyms, Mythological Characters, Red-letter Days, Political Slang, Contractions and Abbreviations, Technical Terms, Foreign Words and Phrases, Americanisms, Etc. Comp. by Henry Frederic Reddall

(yet another mouthful!)

Click to enlarge:

Masterly Inactivity from 1892 book Fact, Fancy, and Fable A New Handbook for Ready Reference on Subjects

Front Cover

Masterly Inactivity from 1892 book Fact, Fancy, and Fable A New Handbook for Ready Reference on Subjects


“Doing nothing with a deal of skill.”  I love how poetry can clarify what was once quite murky.

John C. Calhoun used the phrase several times:

Masterly Inactivity john calhoun


Here is another page image of the phrase attributed first to Mackintosh:masterly inactivity reference quote

It’s also used in the 1956 move ‘The Man Who Never Was,’ about the 1:38 mark (this is a highly fictional version of the true story of operation Mincemeat, where British secret services used a dead body given a fictional identity with false papers planted on him to fool the Germans into thinking the British were not planning an attack on Sicily).  In the film, the phrase is used to refer to keeping a quiet eye on a known spy rather than picking him up in order to ensure the success and secrecy of  a much bigger operation.

So, as we see, the phrase first was used in reference to political policies.

Applying the same idea to domestic life, when a child complains of being bored, a wise parent will frequently engage in a wise letting alone and masterly inactivity by standing back and letting the child find his own solutions to boredom, particularly if screens are not allowed to be the solution.
When a baby is learning to explore and crawls under a table and then stands up and raps his head on the underside of the table, a wise parent will not race to soothe and rescue the child every time he crawls under the table, but will take the little bumps as a normal part of life, will let the child explore and discover on his own the properties of space, of solids, of height- even though it may mean a few bumps and bruises.

Not too long ago a parent shared with me the story of a family hike where one of the children kept ignoring her parents and darting off, trying more daring pathways against their instructions.  She was just a small thing, a preschooler, and by daring, I don’t mean anything life threatening.  On one of her adventures in disobedience she scrambled up on a rock as they told her not to- and then she got stuck and could not get down.

Although it was very hard for the parents, they did not race to help her down.  They could see that the child could get down on her own if only she tried, although there might be a scraped knee in the process.  They assured her they would wait for her, but having gotten up there because she did not listen to her parents’ counsel, she was now going to have to extricate herself.

After some time, some false starts, and the predicted scrapes and bumps, the child got herself down.  The parents were rewarded when she dusted her self off, briskly wiped her hands on her pantlegs and declared, “Well. That served me right!”

This was a wise letting alone, an exercise in Masterly Inactivity.  One of the key things about Masterly Inactivity is that it is not a one size fits all approach, it is not the skeleton key that opens all doors.  There are some cases where masterly inactivity is called for, and others that may look quite similar where that would be irresponsible.  You have to consider both the immediate needs and circumstances as well as long term goals.

It is a tall order, which Miss Mason acknowledges, and I doubt any of us could ever get it right every time.  However, as with most things, we’ll get it right more often by trying than by not trying.

Part II

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