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terest, of business, of pleasure, are loud on every side, and unless we have learnt, in the silence of self-communion, to know on what side we are most easily assailable, on what point our guard must be most watchful, and have clearly marked out to ourselves the line it behooves us to pursue, we are too likely to be hurried or seduced into acting in opposition to the very principles which we desire to follow. It is in those quiet moments when we commune with our own hearts and are still, that the voice of conscience makes itself most plainly heard, and it is by earnestly listening to it then, that we gradually become enabled to hear its faintest whispers in more stormy hours.
On first entering upon the task of self-examination, it will be vain to attempt a complete survey of our actions and motives with reference to a general standard of right and wrong. The memory will soon grow confused amidst the maze of unconnected and multifarious matter, and the attempt will either be given up in despair, or be very imperfectly carried out. more advisable to single out some points for particular examination, and to refer to some one express and clearly defined principle than to a general standard. It is a good plan, for instance, for any young person in whom the habit of self-examination has not been formed from childhood, to set clearly forth at the beginning of the day some portion of the great task of selfimprovement that most needs to be performed, some particular habit that should be cultivated, some duty rendered peculiarly urgent by the circumstances of the moment, some pursuit which it is desirable to follow with diligence; and at night to enter into a close examination upon these points, with a view to ascertain how far the object has been attained or lost sight of, how far the motive has remained honest and active. Such a daily exercise as this may appear childish to many; but first steps must be slow and carefully watched, and it is only by such first steps as these that a habit of self-scrutiny can be attained.
But in this, as in every other path of human endeavor, there are dangers to be avoided and errors to be guarded against ; thus, our attempts to acquire self-knowledge may, unless carefully watched, degenerate into that morbid contemplation of self which wastes, in dissecting every thought, and feeling, and sen. timent, the time which is needed for action. We cannot too carefully remember that self-knowledge is not an end, but an instrument; that it is valuable only as it serves to promote the object we have in view. It is not enough that we should deplore our errors; we must honestly and earnestly set to work to correct them, or be contented to take our place with those who own their faults, but never mend," and whose verbal humility so often seems only another form of vanity. One of the great advantages of daily self-examination is, that we cannot, without a painful sense of shame, acknowledge day after day the same uncorrected fault, the same broken resolution, and we are thus urged on to more vigorous efforts of self-improvement. If, however, we neglect to make those efforts, and remain satisfied with acknowledging and deploring our errors, the law of habit, by which repeated passive impressions lose their force, will cause the sense of shame to become weaker each time that it has remained fruitless, and, instead of deriving any benefit from self-examination, we shall incur additional risk of blunting conscience, and becoming callous to its reproaches.
It is for this reason that we doubt the efficacy of keeping journals as a means of testing moral improvement. Few, very few, have courage to set down without extenuation or reservation every fault, error, or deficiency of mind or heart; though we have every reason to believe the record will meet no eyes but our own, yet from the moment it is written down it seems to acquire a sort of publicity, and a startling reality which tempts us to disguise the truth. It is also to be feared, in some cases, that the beauty of the language in which the confession may be clothed is more dwelt upon than the shame of having such er. rors to confess, and that, self being the theme, the very act of accusation may minister rather to vanity than to humility.
We must again repeat, the only test of the value of our selfexamination is its effect upon our actions, and the latter again enables us to gain an ever clearer knowledge of ourselves. It has been said, * that “our works are the mirror in which the
* Carlyle, Sartor Resartus.
spirit first sees its own true lineaments”; and this holds good so long as we guard against those causes of self-delusion with respect to motives which we have already spoken of. It is evident that, however much we may have studied our own minds and characters, we cannot really know the measure of their capabilities till they have been fairly tried in action. Another essential point in judging ourselves is, not to set up any individual standard of comparison. Principles alone furnish an unchangeable standard, applicable to all cases, and so long as we keep them steadily in mind, and apply ourselves to measure the distance which yet separates us from the goal of perfection, rather than the ground we have already gained, our self-knowledge will be productive only of deeper humility, and a more earnest desire of attaining true excellence.
The improvement to which all self-knowledge should tend is carried out by means of self-control ; the power which submits the will to determinate principles of action. Every desire has a tendency to move the will, or, in other words, whenever a desire is excited, the impulse to gratify it immediately follows. We have, however, the power to resist this impulse, and to act only in accordance with principles deliberately chosen, and this power is self-control. That it is universally exercised to a great extent is proved by the very existence of civilized society, which would be impossible were not certain principles acknowl. edged by the great mass of its members as rules of action to which individual desires and interests must give way. But within these limits there is still a wide field for self-indulgence, which must be narrowed again by the sense of duty in each individual. The laws of society can only prevent those overt acts which endanger social existence or prosperity, and the restraints they impose are so habitual, that, except in moments when the passions are strongly roused, we are unconscious of them. He who yields to every desire, the gratification of which is not forbidden by law, must yet remain far below the rank of a rational or moral being, and the habit of yielding to impulse leads, according to natural dispositions, to miserable weakness of purpose and action, or to degrading selfishness. Such a character if that deserve the name which is the toy of every passing emotion may, under the momentary influence of good and generous feeling, produce single acts of virtue, but is utterly incapable of a course of virtuous conduct. We may pity, and even love, the weak creature of impulse, but our respect and admiration are involuntarily given to those whose strong will, guided by unchangeable principles, moves steadily on towards its purpose, as unmindful of all disturbing forces around or within as the stately vessel, bearing on her course, of the waves that break around her prow.
There is a moral grandeur in this power of the will to subdue .impulse and bend every faculty to the predetermined purpose, which exercises almost despotic influence over the minds of others, and which excites our admiration even when the purpose is one that we cannot approve of. The iron will of a Ximenes, a Richelieu, or a Napoleon, will always obtain a larger share of human reverence than more amiable, but feebler characters. Energy of will is the distinguishing mark of greatness, the instrument by which greatness is achieved; but its oral character must depend on the principles which guide it. It has been possessed by all who have raised themselves by personal exertion above their fellows, whether for good or for evil. It has been used for the most unworthy and the most atrocious purposes, but is not the less an essential element of virtue ; and wherever we see it we may be sure that, were the guiding principle virtuous, there would be true nobility of character.
The right province of self-control is in maintaining the due subordination of all those appetites and inclinations which, unrestrained, would prevent conscience performing its proper office of regulating the will. Conscience, enlightened by reason and governing the whole moral being, is truly the law of God written in our hearts; the will, habitually submitted to its rule, is placed in accordance with the will of God, as far as we know it, and the character thus produced is the highest form of moral excellence attainable on earth. So, to mould character should be the first aim of all education, and the question how the will may thus be subdued and regulated is evidently one of the highest importance. We will try to give an answer to it by briefly examining the process of volition ; first premising that volition is simply that state of mind which immediately precedes action.*
Our affections and desires, as already explained, are the im. pulses which move the will. When any external object or train of reflection produces a passive emotion in the mind, and that emotion excites desire, the latter becomes an impulse to action. For instance, the sight of an object of distress excites compassion, and compassion again the desire and consequent impulse to relieve the suffering. Or the contemplation of an act of virtue excites moral approbation, whence arises the desire and then the impulse to imitate the virtuous action. But in
delib erate act, that is, in every act not the immediate result of impulse, — there is a pause between the desire and the act; and it is in this pause that other principles of the mind come into play, and prevail in influencing the will in proportion to their habitual predominance, and to the strength of the immediate desire.
It is clear that the principles habitually predominant must influence the will more readily, and with more force, than others. In a mind habitually. selfish, the occasionally generous impulse will be stifled by the selfish considerations which will instantly recur in the moment of deliberation, while in the habitually vir. tuous mind, the low and unworthy desires, which arise but too often in every human heart, will, in like manner, be repressed and silenced by the prevailing principle during the pause which allows it to come into play, and action will remain under the guidance of conscience. The office of reason in this process of deliberation is to judge of the consequences of the actions we meditate, and of their relations, as means to ends. The percep
* See the definition of an act in the chapter on Habit, p. 66.