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INSTRUMENTS OF MORAL DISCIPLINE.
THE necessity of self-knowledge and self-control to enable us to form a habit of strict conscientiousness, was adverted to in a former chapter. They are, indeed, the principal and indispensable instruments of all moral discipline. The one implies the study of the object to be pursued; the other, the power of attaining it.
Self-knowledge may justly be called the key to wisdom; for not only is self-improvement impossible without it, but unless we have reflected on our own minds, examined the causes which affect them, and the principles on which they act, we shall be incapable of reading the minds of others; human nature and human life must remain to us as sealed books. Our purpose here, however, is to speak of it simply as an instrument of selfimprovement.
It has been repeatedly said, and is commonly believed, that it is very difficult know one's-self; and certainly the almost incredible degree of self-delusion that we occasionally meet with, would go far to justify such a conclusion. Nevertheless, we hold it to be a false one; and we believe that all those who choose to know themselves, may do so, without more difficulty than attends any other study, namely, the exercise of attention and reflection. If we attend to the operations of our own minds, and apply, in judging our own actions, the same tests by which we judge others, we can be at no loss to discover either the good or the bad qualities to which we are most prone; we shall even be enabled to estimate our own characters more justly than those of our neighbours, in so far as we are better acquainted with our own motives and intentions.
If we were not capable of such an estimate, if we could not arrive at the knowledge of our defects and failings, it would be impossible to correct them. How could we guard against temptations arising from inclinations in our own hearts, of which we should know nothing? How could we remedy deficiencies of which we should be unconscious? Or how can we suppose that the Creator, who has made progressive improvement the law of our being, has not also made us capable of attaining that knowledge, without which conscious and therefore moral improvement is impossible? Such absurdities refute themselves. Nor does the diffident modesty of the great and the virtuous mind argue against self-knowledge. Such minds also know themselves, but their attention is too earnestly fixed on a higher standard of excellence to allow them to feel self-satisfaction in the degree they have attained. When St. Paul declared himself the chief of sinners, the declaration proved, not that he was deficient in self-knowledge, but that he measured himself by the perfect standard of Him in whose sight even the angels are not pure." The virtuous man who habitually resists the temptations of life, often humbles himself in deeper self-abasement than they who habitually yield to them, for his endeavours tend to a higher goal; he knows the secret weaknesses which still keep his course of life below the aspirations on which he delights to dwell; and he is conscious how far short he yet remains of perfect conformity to his ideal of moral beauty, the image of the invisible God in his own soul.
Wherever self-delusion does exist, we may be sure that it arises from carelessness, vanity, or insincerity of purpose, far more than from any real difficulty in arriving at the truth. Vanity makes us shrink from the painful task of unveiling every defect and analysing every folly. We would rather see ourselves through the eyes of others (or as we wish to appear in their eyes), than honestly look into our own hearts and minds, and acknowledge their poverty, their infirmity, or their baseness. Here lies the true difficulty of self-knowledge-we do not wish for it. If we did, an hour's reflection would teach us enough to make us feel how necessary was the inquiry, and how urgent the task of reformation.
It is not, however, by an isolated act of inquiry, but by a daily habit of self-scrutiny, that thorough self-knowledge can be attained. We must habitually examine the general tendency of our thoughts, and sift our motives and intentions, our aims, inclinations, and feelings, no less than our actions. To say in general terms that we will struggle against evil, is only a form of expression. If we purpose to begin the struggle in earnest, it
must be with each individual failing, with each reprehensible thought and propensity. We must not only check every wrong desire, lest it proceed into action, but also examine the source whence it springs, and purify that also. "Out of the heart are the issues of life;" if that be not pure, the issues, which are our actions, can never be virtuous.
The importance of investigating the motives of our actions, follows necessarily from the fact that it is the motive which determines the character of the act, and which forms the habit of the mind. "To set the outward actions right," says Archbishop Leighton, "though with an honest intention, and not so to regard and find out the inward disorder of the heart, is but to be still putting the index of a clock right with your finger while it is foul and out of order within, which is a continual business, and does no good."
WANT OF HONEST SCRUTINY
The same conduct, as we all know, may proceed from very different motives. The cruelty of a Nero and of a Spanish inquisitor, for instance, arise from totally different principles. In the first it was the brutal delight in human suffering; in the latter, the effect of a blind-but, as in many cases we must believe, an honest-fanaticism. Virtues which are imposed by the laws of society, as modesty in women and bravery in men, may in like manner be traced to very different sources in different individuals. With some they are a form, with others a principle; and in the latter case only do they really indicate character.
Unfortunately self-delusion attaches most especially to our motives. Determined to see ourselves only as others may be supposed to see us, we wilfully shut out of sight what is really hidden from them, and deceive ourselves with the mask we have ourselves put on! Our very consciousness of what is right, makes us unwilling to own that we depart from it in practice, and we really persuade ourselves that we are actuated by certain principles, because we are in the habit of acknowledging their truth. Some such strange process of mental legerdemain must be supposed to account for the blindness so frequently seen. In no other manner can we explain how some persons pique themselves on a generosity which really springs from ostentation; or take credit for exertions to please others which were prompted only by vanity; or view with complacency acts of piety and selfdenial originating in the fear of punishment. It is impossible to doubt that such persons really have deceived themselves, and often it is not till after years of self-delusion that the veil is accidentally torn from their eyes; then, if any moral sensibility has survived this long deadness to true impressions, they are startled to find that they are neither pious, nor amiable, nor generous,
and that under that fair show of virtue, evil passions have grown up and strengthened into active principles, which only want opportunity to show themselves in their naked deformity.
Habitual honest self-examination will be an effectual safeguard against this danger; and, though difficult at first, exercise will make it more and more easy, till it will seem to us as impossible to live on in careless indifference to the motives and tendencies of our actions, as it does to others to bestow one hour's serious thought upon the subject. Those who are not in the habit of reflecting on their past conduct always leave themselves open to future danger; experience teaches them nothing; they act in the same manner as a general who once assailed on a weak point should make no provision against future attacks, and should allow himself to be surprised again and again. In the current of busy life, we have no time to meditate before we act; the necessity for action presses upon us. The claims of interest, 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 behoves 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. It is 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 task of self-improvement that most needs to be performed, some particular habit that should be cultivated, some duty rendered particularly 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 obtained or lost sight of, how far the motive has
JOURNALS RARELY USEFUL.
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 obtained.
But in this, as in every other path of human endeavour, 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 sentiment, 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 errors 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.