A Charlotte Mason Education, Philosophy
Comments 4

Sursum Corda in Natural Law by Nancy Kelly

What I desire to set before the reader is a method of education based upon natural law. (Mason, 1955, p. 3)

Last year at the CLUSA conference during a lecture on education models, the speaker mentioned that Mason’s curriculum is based on natural law.  The woman next to me leaned over and whispered, “So, what exactly is natural law?”  I quickly whispered back something about natural law being the set of laws not necessarily written down anywhere, but that people everywhere would acknowledge.  She looked at me quizzically.  I resolved to look into it.

Mason writes about natural law in the physical and the moral/mental sense.  In the physical sense, she speaks of the importance of good health, nutrition and atmosphere.  Everyone would acknowledge that these things are important whether they adhere to them or not.  Mason (1955) states,

“In the first place, we have considered some of the conditions to be observed with a view to keep the brain in healthy working order; for it is upon the possession of an active, duly nourished brain that the possibility of a sound education depends.” (p. 95)

A curriculum based on  natural law in this sense will utilize short, varied lessons and will pay attention to how a child learns best, taking heed that the child’s physical being and surroundings are optimal in order for him to learn.

Mason talks about natural law within the curriculum.  Of mathematics she (Mason, 1954) says, “that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire the sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law” (p. 6).  Sursum corda is Latin for “to lift up your hearts”.  There is something in natural law that should cause our hearts to soar!

As for the moral/mental area of natural law, here Mason has so much to say.  Ideas!  Relationships! Behavior of mind! Image bearers! Duty! Authority! Habits!  C.S. Lewis, a proponent of natural law principles called this “universal morality”.  He (1952) says:

“These then are the two points that I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.” (p. 21)

Mason recognized these universal principles (or universal morality, as Lewis calls it) and framed her curriculum around them.  As Lewis states, you can know about natural law but ignore it.  She says, “We labour under the mistake of supposing that there is not natural law or inherent principle according to which a child’s course of studies should be regulated” (Mason, 1989, Vol. 6, p. 156).  In fact,  if we don’t subscribe to natural law, the curriculum will end up in the one of the following camps which are either utilitarian or materialistic in nature:

  • The three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic
  • Class etiquette – those things proper for a gentlemen to know
  • Vocational work – training for an occupation
  • Latest fad or theory – children as experiments
  • Achievement  tests and scholarships – test prep

Mason calls for a curriculum based on natural law – a complete curriculum that is suggested in the very nature of things.  Her basis for natural law is found in Truth. Perhaps this is why so many of us experience sursum corda when we study her writings and apply her philosophy.


Lewis, C.S. (1952).  Mere Christianity.  New York:  MacMillan Publishing Company.

Mason, C.M. (1954). An essay towards a philosophy of education. London: J.M. Dent & Sons LTD. (Original published in 1925).

Mason, C.M. (1955). Home education:  The education and training of children under nine. Oxford:  The Scrivener Press, LTD. (Original published in 1886).

© Nancy Kelly 2011

This entry was posted in: A Charlotte Mason Education, Philosophy


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. Thank you for looking into what she said….and of course, Lewis alongside. It makes me think of First Principles too.
    We seem to forget what is good for us and mostly it is in how we and the world is made: Natural law.

  2. Bobby Jo says

    I’m so glad I now know what in the world sursum corda is!

    I agree, having experienced it myself as I grow in knowledge. I think the phrase, “It makes so much sense,” quite often as I read her volumes.

    Thanks for sharing this, Nancy!

  3. Bobby Jo says

    One more thing I thought of….

    In my college education classes we often discussed how a student’s basic needs must be met before they will be able to learn. It makes sense. Things mentioned were food, rest, proper clothing, general health, but we never talked much about their mental needs (short and varied lessons, etc.)

    We talked about this need sort of in reverse, how their short attention spans (especially in lower elementary) was a negative fact about students that we needed to be aware of. But, we never took it to a practical level or looked at how to help train children to have longer attention spans or how to work with their basic need for short lessons. It was simply a fact of life that was blamed on children spending too much time in front of their T.V.’s and video games. I think this is one of the reasons why, after graduation and on into my first year of teaching I always felt something was missing for me.

    Getting to know the CM ideas has clarified a lot of this for me. I’m loving it!

  4. As I chew on this whole “natural law” idea, I’m wondering where Classical education’s ideas regarding the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages fits in. I don’t know of any research that supports these stages, so I’m ignorant about it all, and I have always worked on helping the kids form relationships that have meaning for them in our studies rather than rote memorization, etc., especially in the early years. Are young children stronger memorizers naturally, though? Have I been doing them a disservice, allowing them to form relationships with nature, heroes, stories, and helping the world come alive for them when I should ALSO have included lots of memory work? I’ve wondered that for a while now. We always second guess ourselves as homeschoolers, but now that I’m teaching other people’s children, I have been even more concerned about this… Anyone know if brain research supports extra memory work for the elementary age? I don’t mean bland, boring stuff, but poems, hymns, folk songs, spelling and grammar rules, math tables. Things they’d learn later but that might be harder to memorize later on if the whole “grammar stage” thing is correct…

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