Highlights from Smiles’s “Character”
Emphasis as it appears in the original work may be missing, and my own edits, though marked, may be broad. Then, important: By sharing these highlights I neither implicitly endorse nor recommend respective authors and their views. Assume that I know little of the authors, and that I have a nuanced view on the matter. (Everything the highlights can tell is that—much like the books themselves—for some reason or other I found them of interest.) When a detailed understanding of my views is important, ask me.
- Influence of Character
- Home Power
- Companionship and Examples
- Companionship of Books
- The Discipline of Experience
- Companionship in Marriage
Influence of Character
Character is one of the greatest motive powers in the world. In its noblest embodiments, it exemplifies human nature in its highest forms, for it exhibits man at his best.
Men of genuine excellence, in every station of life—men of industry, of integrity, of high principle, of sterling honesty of purpose—command the spontaneous homage of mankind.
Although genius always commands admiration, character most secures respect. The former is more the product of brain-power, the latter of heart-power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life.
[…]each man can act his part honestly and honourably, and to the best of his ability. He can use his gifts, and not abuse them. He can strive to make the best of life. He can be true, just, honest, and faithful, even in small things. […]he can do his Duty in that sphere in which Providence has placed him.
Man’s life is “centred in the sphere of common duties.”
[…]we can always better understand and appreciate a man’s real character by the manner in which he conducts himself towards those who are the most nearly related to him, and by his transaction of the seemingly commonplace details of daily duty, than by his public exhibition of himself as an author, an orator, or a statesman.
A man may be accomplished in art, literature, and science, and yet, in honesty, virtue, truthfulness, and the spirit of duty, be entitled to take rank after many a poor and illiterate peasant.
Character is property. It is the noblest of possessions. It is an estate in the general goodwill and respect of men
Simple honesty of purpose in a man goes a long way in life
“No man is bound to be rich or great,—no, nor to be wise; but every man is bound to be honest.”—Sir Benjamin Rudyard
[…]the purpose, besides being honest, must be inspired by sound principles, and pursued with undeviating adherence to truth, integrity, and uprightness. Without principles, a man is like a ship without rudder or compass, left to drift hither and thither with every wind that blows.
Epictetus once received a visit from a certain magnificent orator going to Rome on a lawsuit, who wished to learn from the stoic something of his philosophy. Epictetus received his visitor coolly, not believing in his sincerity. “You will only criticise my style,” said he; “not really wishing to learn principles.”—“Well, but,” said the orator, “if I attend to that sort of thing; I shall be a mere pauper, like you, with no plate, nor equipage, nor land.”—“I don’t want such things,” replied Epictetus; “and besides, you are poorer than I am, after all. Patron or no patron, what care I? You do care. I am richer than you. I don’t care what Caesar thinks of me. I flatter no one. This is what I have, instead of your gold and silver plate. You have silver vessels, but earthenware reasons, principles, appetites. My mind to me a kingdom is, and it furnishes me with abundant and happy occupation in lieu of your restless idleness. All your possessions seem small to you; mine seem great to me. Your desire is insatiate—mine is satisfied.”
In the affairs of life or of business, it is not intellect that tells so much as character,—not brains so much as heart,—not genius so much as self-control, patience, and discipline, regulated by judgment. Hence there is no better provision for the uses of either private or public life, than a fair share of ordinary good sense guided by rectitude.
[…]Burke said of a powerful nobleman of the last century, “his virtues were his means.” The secret is, that the aims of such men are felt to be pure and noble, and they act upon others with a constraining power.
Character is formed by a variety of minute circumstances, more or less under the regulation and control of the individual. Not a day passes without its discipline
[…]character is undergoing constant change, for better or for worse—either being elevated on the one hand, or degraded on the other.
The mechanical law, that action and reaction are equal, holds true also in morals. Good deeds act and react on the doers of them; and so do evil.
“Nothing can work me damage but myself
[…]every one is not only justified, but bound in duty, to aim at reaching the highest standard of character: not to become the richest in means, but in spirit; not the greatest in worldly position, but in true honour; not the most intellectual, but the most virtuous; not the most powerful and influential, but the most truthful, upright, and honest.
Character exhibits itself in conduct, guided and inspired by principle, integrity, and practical wisdom.
The man of character is conscientious. He puts his conscience into his work, into his words, into his every action.
The man of character is also reverential. The possession of this quality marks the noblest, and highest type of manhood and womanhood: reverence for things consecrated by the homage of generations—for high objects, pure thoughts, and noble aims—for the great men of former times, and the highminded workers amongst our contemporaries.
[…]reverence is but another word for religion, which binds men to each other, and all to God.
Energy of will—self-originating force—is the soul of every great character. Where it is, there is life
The energetic leader of noble spirit not only wins a way for himself, but carries others with him.
There is a contagiousness in every example of energetic conduct. The brave man is an inspiration to the weak, and compels them, as it were, to follow him.
The good and the great draw others after them; they lighten and lift up all who are within reach of their influence.
[…]Let a man of energetic and upright character be appointed to a position of trust and authority, and all who serve under him become, as it were, conscious of an increase of power.
The solitary thought of a great thinker will dwell in the minds of men for centuries until at length it works itself into their daily life and practice.
Great workers and great thinkers are the true makers of history, which is but continuous humanity influenced by men of character—by great leaders, kings, priests, philosophers, statesmen, and patriots—the true aristocracy of man.
Emerson has said that every institution is to be regarded as but the lengthened shadow of some great man: as Islamism of Mahomet, Puritanism of Calvin, Jesuitism of Loyola, Quakerism of Fox, Methodism of Wesley, Abolitionism of Clarkson.
No country can be lost which feels herself overlooked by such glorious witnesses [dead heroes].
Nations have their character to maintain as well as individuals
It is the individual men, and the spirit which actuates them, that determine the moral standing and stability of nations. Government, in the long run, is usually no better than the people governed. Where the mass is sound in conscience, morals, and habit, the nation will be ruled honestly and nobly.
The only true barrier against the despotism of public opinion, whether it be of the many or of the few, is enlightened individual freedom and purity of personal character.
Political morality can never have any solid existence on a basis of individual immorality.
Like men, nations are purified and strengthened by trials.
For a nation to be great, it need not necessarily be big, though bigness is often confounded with greatness. A nation may be very big in point of territory and population and yet be devoid of true greatness.
In like manner [to Athens] the decline and fall of Rome was attributable to the general corruption of its people, and to their engrossing love of pleasure and idleness
[…]nations that are idle and luxurious—that “will rather lose a pound of blood,” as old Burton says, “in a single combat, than a drop of sweat in any honest labour”—must inevitably die out, and laborious energetic nations take their place.
[…]greatness of a country does not depend upon the extent of its territory, but on the character of its people.
The people may seem to be highly civilised, and yet be ready to fall to pieces at first touch of adversity. Without integrity of individual character, they can have no real strength, cohesion, soundness. They may be rich, polite, and artistic; and yet hovering on the brink of ruin. If living for themselves only, and with no end but pleasure—each little self his own little god—such a nation is doomed, and its decay is inevitable.
And when the time arrives in any country when wealth has so corrupted, or pleasure so depraved, or faction so infatuated the people, that honour, order, obedience, virtue, and loyalty have seemingly become things of the past; then, amidst the darkness, when honest men—if, haply, there be such left—are groping about and feeling for each other’s hands, their only remaining hope will be in the restoration and elevation of Individual Character; for by that alone can a nation be saved; and if character be irrecoverably lost, then indeed there will be nothing left worth saving.
Home is the first and most important school of character. It is there that every human being receives his best moral training, or his worst
It is a common saying that “Manners make the man;” and there is a second, that “Mind makes the man;” but truer than either is a third, that “Home makes the man.”
[…]the child learns by simple imitation, without effort, almost through the pores of the skin.
However apparently trivial the influences which contribute to form the character of the child, they endure through life. The child’s character is the nucleus of the man’s; all after-education is but superposition; the form of the crystal remains the same.
It is in childhood that the mind is most open to impressions, and ready to be kindled by the first spark that falls into it.
The first thing continues for ever with the child. The first joy, the first sorrow, the first success, the first failure, the first achievement, the first misadventure, paint the foreground of his life.
[…]the bias given to his moral character in early life is of immense importance.
The child cannot help imitating what he sees. Everything is to him a model—of manner, of gesture, of speech, of habit, of character.
Every new educator effects less than his predecessor
[…]if we would have fine characters, we must necessarily present before them fine models. Now, the model most constantly before every child’s eye is the Mother.
Even children are judges of consistency, and the lessons of the parent who says one thing and does the opposite, are quickly seen through.
[…]repeated acts, one following another, at length become consolidated in habit, determine the action of the human being for good or for evil, and, in a word, form the character.
[…]the mother lives again in her children. They unconsciously mould themselves after her manner, her speech, her conduct, and her method of life. Her habits become theirs; and her character is visibly repeated in them.
“[A] sufficient measure of civilisation is the influence of good women.”—Emerson
Woman, above all other educators, educates humanly. Man is the brain, but woman is the heart of humanity; he its judgment, she its feeling; he its strength, she its grace, ornament, and solace.
[…][Woman] makes us love what he can only make us believe, and it is chiefly through her that we are enabled to arrive at virtue.
[…]sometimes it happens that long after the parents have gone to their Rest—it may be twenty years or more—the good precept, the good example set before their sons and daughters in childhood, at length springs up and bears fruit.
“Live as long as you may,” said Southey, “the first twenty years are the longest half of your life,” and they are by far the most pregnant in consequences.
The poorest dwelling, presided over by a virtuous, thrifty, cheerful, and cleanly woman, may thus be the abode of comfort, virtue, and happiness
The good home is thus the best of schools, not only in youth but in age.
[…]“in a large factory, where many children were employed, that the managers before they engaged a boy always inquired into the mother’s character, and if that was satisfactory they were tolerably certain that her children would conduct themselves creditably. No attention was paid to the character of the father.”
It has also been observed that in cases where the father has turned out badly—become a drunkard, and “gone to the dogs”—provided the mother is prudent and sensible, the family will be kept together, and the children probably make their way honourably in life; whereas in cases of the opposite sort, where the mother turns out badly, no matter how well-conducted the father may be, the instances of after-success in life on the part of the children are comparatively rare.
Work diligently—be, above all, modest and humble; and when you find yourself excelling others, then compare what you have done with Nature itself, or with the “ideal” of your own mind, and you will be secured, by the contrast which will be apparent, against the effects of pride and presumption.
To the business man, time is money; but to the business woman, method is more—it is peace, comfort, and domestic prosperity.
[…]Byron, whose sympathies for woman were of a very imperfect kind, professed that he would limit her library to a Bible and a cookery-book. But this view of woman’s character and culture is as absurdly narrow and unintelligent, on the one hand, as the opposite view, now so much in vogue, is extravagant and unnatural on the other—that woman ought to be educated so as to be as much as possible the equal of man; undistinguishable from him, except in sex; equal to him in rights and votes; and his competitor in all that makes life a fierce and selfish struggle for place and power and money.
Men themselves cannot be sound in mind or morals if women be the reverse
[…]to instruct woman is to instruct man; to elevate her character is to raise his own; to enlarge her mental freedom is to extend and secure that of the whole community. For Nations are but the outcomes of Homes, and Peoples of Mothers.
It is still not uncommon in the North for the husbands to be idle at home, while the mothers and daughters are working in the factory; the result being, in many cases, an entire subversion of family order, of domestic discipline, and of home rule. And for many years past, in Paris, that state of things has been reached which some women desire to effect amongst ourselves. The women there mainly attend to business—serving the boutique, or presiding at the comptoir—while the men lounge about the Boulevards. But the result has only been homelessness, degeneracy, and family and social decay.
Companionship and Examples
[…]men are by nature imitators, and all persons are more or less impressed by the speech, the manners, the gait, the gestures, and the very habits of thinking of their companions.
“Is example nothing? It is everything. Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”—Burke
Emerson has observed that even old couples, or persons who have been housemates for a course of years, grow gradually like each other; so that, if they were to live long enough, we should scarcely be able to know them apart. But if this be true of the old, how much more true is it of the young, whose plastic natures are so much more soft and impressionable, and ready to take the stamp of the life and conversation of those about them!
Bad custom, consolidated into habit, is such a tyrant that men sometimes cling to vices even while they curse them. They have become the slaves of habits
It is a common saying that men are known by the company they keep.
In companionship with the good, growing natures will always find their best nourishment; while companionship with the bad will only be fruitful in mischief. There are persons whom to know is to love, honour, and admire; and others whom to know is to shun and despise
[…]. Live with persons of elevated characters, and you will feel lifted and lighted up in them [.]
Association with others is useful also in strengthening the character
After one of his usual night-dissipations, a friend stood by his bedside on the following morning. “Paley,” said he, “I have not been able to sleep for thinking about you. I have been thinking what a fool you are! I have the means of dissipation, and can afford to be idle: You are poor, and cannot afford it. I could do nothing, probably, even were I to try: You are capable of doing anything. I have lain awake all night thinking about your folly, and I have now come solemnly to warn you. Indeed, if you persist in your indolence, and go on in this way, I must renounce your society altogether!”
It is said that Paley was so powerfully affected by this admonition, that from that moment he became an altered man. He formed an entirely new plan of life, and diligently persevered in it. He became one of the most industrious of students.
“You should make an especial point of observing the company they keep: nothing so tells the changes in a boy’s character.”
Character tells in all conditions of life.
[…]the man of bad character and debased energy will unconsciously lower and degrade his fellows.
Like begets like, and good makes good.
“It is astonishing how much good goodness makes. Nothing that is good is alone, nor anything bad; it makes others good or others bad—and that other, and so on: like a stone thrown into a pond, which makes circles that make other wider ones, and then others, till the last reaches the shore…”—Canon Moseley
There are men in whose presence we feel as if we breathed a spiritual ozone, refreshing and invigorating, like inhaling mountain air, or enjoying a bath of sunshine.
The very sight of a great and good man is often an inspiration to the young, who cannot help admiring and loving the gentle, the brave, the truthful, the magnanimous!
Professor Tyndall speaks of Faraday’s friendship as “energy and inspiration.” After spending an evening with him he wrote: “His work excites admiration, but contact with him warms and elevates the heart. Here, surely, is a strong man. I love strength, but let me not forget the example of its union with modesty, tenderness, and sweetness, in the character of Faraday.”
[…]the gentlest natures are enabled, by the power of affection and intelligence, to mould the characters of men destined to influence and elevate their race through all time.
“Take up a subject and pursue it well, and you cannot fail to succeed.”
Energy of character has always a power to evoke energy in others.
[…]the mastery of character makes itself felt.
“Tell me whom you admire, and I will tell you what you are, at least as regards your talents, tastes, and character.”—Sainte-Beuve
As we advance in life, we crystallize into habit; and “nil admirari” [“to be surprised by nothing”] too often becomes our motto.
“[Prince Albert] had the greatest delight,” says the ablest delineator of his character, “in anybody else saying a fine saying, or doing a great deed. He would rejoice over it, and talk about it for days; and whether it was a thing nobly said or done by a little child, or by a veteran statesman, it gave him equal pleasure. He delighted in humanity doing well on any occasion and in any manner.”
“No quality will get a man more friends than a sincere admiration of the qualities of others. It indicates generosity of nature, frankness, cordiality, and cheerful recognition of merit.”—Dr. Johnson
[…]small and ungenerous minds cannot admire heartily.
The most disagreeable of all people are those who “sit in the seat of the scorner.” Persons of this sort often come to regard the success of others, even in a good work, as a kind of personal offence. They cannot bear to hear another praised, especially if he belong to their own art, or calling, or profession.
The greatest consolation of such persons are the defects of men of character.
[…]A German writer has said that it is a miserable temper that cares only to discover the blemishes in the character of great men or great periods.
Small men may be envious of their fellows, but really great men seek out and love each other.
The examples set by the great and good do not die; they continue to live and speak to all the generations that succeed them.
“To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die.”
“Let every man be occupied, and occupied in the highest employment of which his nature is capable, and die with the consciousness that he has done his best
Work is one of the best educators of practical character.
Labour may be a burden and a chastisement, but it is also an honour and a glory. Without it, nothing can be accomplished.
It is idleness that is the curse of man—not labour.
When the Emperor Severus lay on his deathbed
[…]his final watchword to his soldiers was, “laboremus” (we must work); and nothing but constant toil maintained the power and extended the authority of the Roman generals.
There is, perhaps, no tendency of our nature that has to be more carefully guarded against than indolence.
“Me tink dat all men love lazy.” It is characteristic of the savage as of the despot. It is natural to men to endeavour to enjoy the products of labour without its toils.
“Idleness is the bane of body and mind, the nurse of naughtiness, the chief mother of all mischief, one of the seven deadly sins, the devil’s cushion, his pillow and chief reposal…
[…]Idleness of the mind is much worse than that of the body [.]”—Burton
“Give not way to solitariness and idleness. Be not solitary—be not idle.”
It is indolence that exhausts, not action, in which there is life, health, and pleasure. The spirits may be exhausted and wearied by employment, but they are utterly wasted by idleness.
[…]to desire to possess, without being burdened with the trouble of acquiring, is as much a sign of weakness, as to recognise that everything worth having is only to be got by paying its price, is the prime secret of practical strength.
[…]there are men who die of overwork; but many more die of selfishness, indulgence, and idleness.
A man’s life is to be measured by what he does in it, and what he feels in it.
[…]it was a wise saying of a Chinese Emperor, that “if there was a man who did not work, or a woman that was idle, somebody must suffer cold or hunger in the empire.”
Constant useful occupation is thus wholesome, not only for the body, but for the mind.
[…]work—employment, useful occupation—is one of the great secrets of happiness.
[…]no work is worse than overwork; the mind preys on itself—the most unwholesome of food.”
Even work that produces no results, because it is work, is better than torpor,—inasmuch as it educates faculty, and is thus preparatory to successful work. The habit of working teaches method.
Of the good and faithful servant, whose energies thus directed are thus methodized, it is less truly affirmed that he lives in time than that time lives in him.
[Business] is the best discipline of character; for it involves the exercise of diligence, attention, self-denial, judgment, tact, knowledge of and sympathy with others.
The man or woman who achieves success in the management of any great affair of business is entitled to honour
The greatest geniuses have, without exception, been the greatest workers, even to the extent of drudgery. They have not only worked harder than ordinary men, but brought to their work higher faculties and a more ardent spirit. Nothing great and durable was ever improvised.
Voltaire insisted with truth that the real spirit of business and literature are the same; the perfection of each being the union of energy and thoughtfulness, of cultivated intelligence and practical wisdom, of the active and contemplative essence
[William Hutton] says, in his Autobiography, that a man may live half a century and not be acquainted with his own character.
Culture of the best sort trains the habit of application and industry, disciplines the mind, supplies it with resources, and gives it freedom and vigour of action—all of which are equally requisite in the successful conduct of business.
Speculative ability depends on vigorous thinking—practical ability on vigorous acting; and the two qualities are usually found combined in very unequal proportions.
The diligent man is quick to find employment for his leisure; and he is able to make leisure when the idle man finds none. “He hath no leisure,” says George Herbert, “who useth it not.”
To conclude: a fair measure of work is good for mind as well as body. Man is an intelligence sustained and preserved by bodily organs, and their active exercise is necessary to the enjoyment of health. It is not work, but overwork, that is hurtful; and it is not hard work that is injurious so much as monotonous work, fagging work, hopeless work.
[…]overwork is always bad economy. It is, in fact, great waste, especially if conjoined with worry. Indeed, worry kills far more than work does. It frets, it excites, it consumes the body—as sand and grit, which occasion excessive friction, wear out the wheels of a machine. Overwork and worry have both to be guarded against.
“If thou canst plan a noble deed,
And never flag till it succeed,
Though in the strife thy heart should bleed,
Whatever obstacles control,
Thine hour will come—go on, true soul!
Thou’lt win the prize, thou’lt reach the goal.”
The courage that displays itself in silent effort and endeavour—that dares to endure all and suffer all for truth and duty—is more truly heroic than the achievements of physical valour, which are rewarded by honours and titles, or by laurels sometimes steeped in blood.
It is moral courage that characterises the highest order of manhood and womanhood—the courage to seek and to speak the truth; the courage to be just; the courage to be honest; the courage to resist temptation; the courage to do one’s duty.
[…]there has scarcely been a discovery in astronomy, in natural history, or in physical science, that has not been attacked by the bigoted and narrow-minded as leading to infidelity.
[…]I cannot and will not retract, for we must never act contrary to our conscience.
Like all courageous men, [Luther’s] strength only seemed to grow in proportion to the difficulties he had to encounter and overcome.
[…]the greater part of the courage that is needed in the world is not of a heroic kind. Courage may be displayed in everyday life as well as in historic fields of action. There needs, for example, the common courage to be honest—the courage to resist temptation—the courage to speak the truth—the courage to be what we really are, and not to pretend to be what we are not—the courage to live honestly within our own means, and not dishonestly upon the means of others.
The weak and undisciplined man is at the mercy of every temptation; he cannot say “No,” but falls before it.
Calling upon others for help in forming a decision is worse than useless. A man must so train his habits as to rely upon his own powers and depend upon his own courage in moments of emergency.
For in life and in business, despatch is better than discourse; and the shortest answer of all is, doing.
There needs also the exercise of no small degree of moral courage to resist the corrupting influences of what is called “Society.”
Most men, but especially women, are the moral slaves of the class or caste to which they belong.
Formerly, sycophancy showed itself in not daring to speak the truth to those in high places; but in these days it rather shows itself in not daring to speak the truth to those in low places. Now that “the masses” exercise political power, there is a growing tendency to fawn upon them, to flatter them, and to speak nothing but smooth words to them. They are credited with virtues which they themselves know they do not possess.
It is not the man of the noblest character—the highest-cultured and best-conditioned man—whose favour is now sought, so much as that of the lowest man, the least-cultured and worst-conditioned man, because his vote is usually that of the majority.
The same moral cowardice extends downwards as well as upwards.
[…]Where men of high standing have not the courage of their opinions, what is to be expected from men of low standing?
Men of sterling character have the courage to speak the truth, even when it is unpopular.
“Popularity, in the lowest and most common sense is not worth the having. Do your duty to the best of your power, win the approbation of your own conscience, and popularity, in its best and highest sense, is sure to follow.”—Sir John Pakington
A man must have the courage to be himself, and not the shadow or the echo of another. He must exercise his own powers, think his own thoughts, and speak his own sentiments. He must elaborate his own opinions, and form his own convictions. It has been said that he who dare not form an opinion, must be a coward; he who will not, must be an idler; he who cannot, must be a fool.
“I had rather suffer for speaking the truth, than that the truth should suffer for want of my speaking.”—John Pym
There are certain states of society and conditions of affairs in which a man is bound to speak out, and be antagonistic—when conformity is not only a weakness, but a sin.
Men often conquer difficulties because they feel they can. Their confidence in themselves inspires the confidence of others.
Energy makes the man of practical ability. It gives him vis, force, momentum. It is the active motive power of character
It is the courageous man who can best afford to be generous; or rather, it is his nature to be so.
The brave man is magnanimous as well as gentle. He does not take even an enemy at a disadvantage, nor strike a man when he is down and unable to defend himself.
“The magnanimous man will behave with moderation under both good fortune and bad. He will know how to be exalted and how to be abased. He will neither be delighted with success nor grieved by failure. He will neither shun danger nor seek it, for there are few things which he cares for. He is reticent, and somewhat slow of speech, but speaks his mind openly and boldly when occasion calls for it. He is apt to admire, for nothing is great to him. He overlooks injuries. He is not given to talk about himself or about others; for he does not care that he himself should be praised, or that other people should be blamed. He does not cry out about trifles, and craves help from none.”—Aristotle
“The higher the monkey climbs,” says the proverb, “the more he shows his tail.”
Much of the fear that exists is the offspring of imagination, which creates the images of evils which may happen, but perhaps rarely do
[…]unless the imagination be held under strict discipline, we are prone to meet evils more than halfway—to suffer them by forestalment, and to assume the burdens which we ourselves create.
All weakness, whether of mind or body, is equivalent to deformity, and the reverse of interesting. Courage is graceful and dignified, whilst fear, in any form, is mean and repulsive. Yet the utmost tenderness and gentleness are consistent with courage.
“We must not lose heart, or it will be the worse both for ourselves and for those whom we love. To struggle, and again and again to renew the conflict—this is life’s inheritance.”—Ary Scheffer
In sickness and sorrow, none are braver and less complaining sufferers than women.
[…]women can be as enduring as men, under the heaviest trials and calamities; but too little pains are taken to teach them to endure petty terrors and frivolous vexations with fortitude. Such little miseries, if petted and indulged, quickly run into sickly sensibility, and become the bane of their life, keeping themselves and those about them in a state of chronic discomfort.
The best corrective of this condition of mind is wholesome moral and mental discipline.
Personal beauty soon passes; but beauty of mind and character increases in attractiveness the older it grows.
“The government of one’s self is the only true freedom for the Individual.”—Frederick Perthes
Self-control is only courage under another form. It may almost be regarded as the primary essence of character.
Self-control is at the root of all the virtues. Let a man give the reins to his impulses and passions, and from that moment he yields up his moral freedom. He is carried along the current of life, and becomes the slave of his strongest desire for the time being.
To be morally free—to be more than an animal—man must be able to resist instinctive impulse, and this can only be done by the exercise of self-control.
In the Bible praise is given, not to the strong man who “taketh a city,” but to the stronger man who “ruleth his own spirit.” This stronger man is he who, by discipline, exercises a constant control over his thoughts, his speech, and his acts.
The best support of character will always be found in habit
“In the supremacy of self-control consists one of the perfections of the ideal man. Not to be impulsive—not to be spurred hither and thither by each desire that in turn comes uppermost—but to be self-restrained, self-balanced, governed by the joint decision of the feelings in council assembled, before whom every action shall have been fully debated and calmly determined—that it is which education, moral education at least, strives to produce.”—Herbert Spencer
The first seminary of moral discipline, and the best, as we have already shown, is the home; next comes the school, and after that the world, the great school of practical life.
The best-regulated home is always that in which the discipline is the most perfect, and yet where it is the least felt.
A competent teacher has said of the propensities and habits, that they are as teachable as Latin and Greek, while they are much more essential to happiness.
[…]“a man’s being in a good or bad humour very much depends upon his will.”
[…]the habit of looking at the best side of any event is worth far more than a thousand pounds a year.
A strong temper is not necessarily a bad temper. But the stronger the temper, the greater is the need of self-discipline and self-control.
It is not men’s faults that ruin them so much as the manner in which they conduct themselves after the faults have been committed.
[…]but controlled and held in subjection [temper] may become a source of energetic power and usefulness.
The wise and forbearant man will restrain his desire to say a smart or severe thing at the expense of another’s feelings; while the fool blurts out what he thinks, and will sacrifice his friend rather than his joke.
“The mouth of a wise man is in his heart; the heart of a fool is in his mouth.”—Solomon
We have heard men of great experience say that they have often regretted having spoken, but never once regretted holding their tongue.
There are more good people than bad in the world, and the bad get the upper hand merely because they are bolder.
[…]the last lesson of culture is to believe in difficulties which are invisible to ourselves.”—Julia Wedgwood
Life will always be, to a great extent, what we ourselves make it. The cheerful man makes a cheerful world, the gloomy man a gloomy one.
[Life] is, for the most part, but the reflection of ourselves.
Every man has his peculiarities of manner and character, as he has peculiarities of form and feature; and we must have forbearance in dealing with them, as we expect them to have forbearance in dealing with us.
[…] it is very often the case that the uncharitableness of others, where it really exists, is but the reflection of our own want of charity and want of temper. It still oftener happens, that the worry we subject ourselves to, has its source in our own imagination.
“[…] the arms with which the ill-dispositions of the world are to be combated, and the qualities by which it is to be reconciled to us, and we reconciled to it, are moderation, gentleness, a little indulgence to others, and a great deal of distrust of ourselves; which are not qualities of a mean spirit, as some may possibly think them, but virtues of a great and noble kind […]; for nothing can be so unworthy of a well-composed soul as to pass away life in bickerings and litigations—in snarling and scuffling with every one about us. We must be at peace with our species, if not for their sakes, at least very much for our own.”—Edmund Burke
Were it possible to conceive the existence of a tyrant who should compel his people to give up to him one-third or more of their earnings, and require them at the same time to consume a commodity that should brutalise and degrade them, destroy the peace and comfort of their families, and sow in themselves the seeds of disease and premature death—what indignation meetings, what monster processions there would be! What eloquent speeches and apostrophes to the spirit of liberty!—what appeals against a despotism so monstrous and so unnatural! And yet such a tyrant really exists amongst us—the tyrant of unrestrained appetite, whom no force of arms, or voices, or votes can resist, while men are willing to be his slaves [→ alcohol].
The pursuit of ignoble pleasure is the degradation of true happiness; it saps the morals, destroys the energies, and degrades the manliness and robustness of individuals as of nations.
Living at the cost of others is not only dishonesty, but it is untruthfulness in deed, as lying is in word.
[…]strict adherence to even the smallest details of morality is the foundation of all manly and noble character.
The honourable man is frugal of his means, and pays his way honestly. He does not seek to pass himself off as richer than he is
[…]. As that man is not poor whose means are small, but whose desires are uncontrolled […].
“How happy is he born and taught,
That serveth not another’s will!
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill!”
Duty is a thing that is due, and must be paid by every man who would avoid present discredit and eventual moral insolvency. It is an obligation—a debt—which can only be discharged by voluntary effort and resolute action in the affairs of life.
“Be and continue poor, young man while others around you grow rich by fraud and disloyalty; be without place or power while others beg their way upwards; bear the pain of disappointed hopes, while others gain the accomplishment of theirs by flattery; forego the gracious pressure of the hand, for which others cringe and crawl. Wrap yourself in your own virtue, and seek a friend and your daily bread.”—Heinzelmann
What most stands in the way of the performance of duty, is irresolution, weakness of purpose, and indecision. On the one side are conscience and the knowledge of good and evil; on the other are indolence, selfishness, love of pleasure, or passion.
A man can only achieve strength of purpose by the action of his own freewill. If he is to stand erect, it must be by his own efforts
“We do not choose our own parts in life, and have nothing to do with those parts: our simple duty is confined to playing them well.
[…]You must teach men that happiness is not where, in their blindness and misery, they seek it. It is not in strength, for Myro and Ofellius were not happy; not in wealth, for Croesus was not happy; not in power, for the Consuls were not happy; not in all these together, for Nero and Sardanapulus and Agamemnon sighed and wept and tore their hair, and were the slaves of circumstances and the dupes of semblances. It lies in yourselves […].”—Epictetus
“It is necessary for me to go, it is not necessary for me to live.”
Wellington’s watchword, like Washington’s, was duty; and no man could be more loyal to it than he was. “There is little or nothing,” he once said, “in this life worth living for; but we can all of us go straight forward and do our duty.”
“You may depend upon it, that it is more in your own power than in anybody else’s to promote both your comfort and advancement. A strict and unwearied attention to your duty, and a complacent and respectful behaviour, not only to your superiors but to everybody, will ensure you their regard, and the reward will surely come; but if it should not, I am convinced you have too much good sense to let disappointment sour you. Guard carefully against letting discontent appear in you. It will be sorrow to your friends, a triumph to your competitors, and cannot be productive of any good. Conduct yourself so as to deserve the best that can come to you, and the consciousness of your own proper behaviour will keep you in spirits if it should not come. Let it be your ambition to be foremost in all duty. Do not be a nice observer of turns, but ever present yourself ready for everything, and, unless your officers are very inattentive men, they will not allow others to impose more duty on you than they should.”
It is a grand thing, after all, this pervading spirit of Duty in a nation; and so long as it survives, no one need despair of its future. But when it has departed, or become deadened, and been supplanted by thirst for pleasure, or selfish aggrandisement, or “glory”—then woe to that nation, for its dissolution is near at hand!
“There is only one great object in the world which deserves our efforts, and that is the good of mankind.”
His object always was to benefit permanently those whom he assisted.
The true and emphatic epitaph of the good, truth-loving, truth-speaking Abbe was this—“He loved much!”
[…]it is truth that makes the success of the gentleman.
A household cannot be governed by lying; nor can a nation. Sir Thomas Browne once asked, “Do the devils lie?” “No,” was [Wellington’s] answer; “for then even hell could not subsist.” No considerations can justify the sacrifice of truth, which ought to be sovereign in all the relations of life.
Of all mean vices, perhaps lying is the meanest.
[…]Dr. Arnold laboured more sedulously to instil into young men than the virtue of truthfulness, as being the manliest of virtues, as indeed the very basis of all true manliness.
“If you say so, that is quite enough; of course I believe your word.”
“To none is life so sweet as to those who have lost all fear to die.”
“Heaven is a temper, not a place.”—Dr. Chalmers
“Even Power itself hath not one-half the might of Gentleness
[…]Plato says, that in seeking the good of others we find our own.
The largest and most comprehensive natures are generally also the most cheerful, the most loving, the most hopeful, the most trustful. It is the wise man, of large vision, who is the quickest to discern the moral sunshine gleaming through the darkest cloud. In present evil he sees prospective good; in pain, he recognises the effort of nature to restore health; in trials, he finds correction and discipline; and in sorrow and suffering, he gathers courage, knowledge, and the best practical wisdom.
There are always two sides of life on which we can look, according as we choose—the bright side or the gloomy.
While cheerfulness of disposition is a great source of enjoyment in life, it is also a great safeguard of character.
How are we to overcome temptations? says: “Cheerfulness is the first thing, cheerfulness is the second, and cheerfulness is the third.”
[…]“a merry heart doeth good like a medicine.”
Johnson was of opinion that a man grew better as he grew older, and that his nature mellowed with age.
And so it is, that there are old young men, and young old men—some who are as joyous and cheerful as boys in their old age, and others who are as morose and cheerless as saddened old men while still in their boyhood.
The true basis of cheerfulness is love, hope, and patience. Love evokes love, and begets loving kindness. Love cherishes hopeful and generous thoughts of others.
Bentham lays it down as a principle, that a man becomes rich in his own stock of pleasures in proportion to the amount he distributes to others. His kindness will evoke kindness, and his happiness be increased by his own benevolence. “Kind words,” he says, “cost no more than unkind ones.”
Good and friendly conduct may meet with an unworthy and ungrateful return; but the absence of gratitude on the part of the receiver cannot destroy the self-approbation which recompenses the giver, and we may scatter the seeds of courtesy and kindliness around us at so little expense. Some of them will inevitably fall on good ground, and grow up into benevolence in the minds of others
[…]“Why does everybody love you so much?” She answered, “I think it is because I love everybody so much.”
“Power itself hath not one half the might of gentleness.”
“Every act of kindness is in fact an exercise of power, and a stock of friendship laid up
The kindness that displays itself in giving money, does not amount to much, and often does quite as much harm as good; but the kindness of true sympathy, of thoughtful help, is never without beneficent results.
The good temper that displays itself in kindness must not be confounded with softness or silliness.
Egotism, scepticism, and selfishness are always miserable companions in life, and they are especially unnatural in youth.
[…]the chief source of worry in the world is not real but imaginary evil—small vexations and trivial afflictions.
We shut the door against cheerfulness, and surround ourselves with gloom. The habit gives a colouring to our life. We grow querulous, moody, and unsympathetic. Our conversation becomes full of regrets. We are harsh in our judgment of others. We are unsociable, and think everybody else is so. We make our breast a storehouse of pain, which we inflict upon ourselves as well as upon others.
This disposition is encouraged by selfishness: indeed, it is for the most part selfishness unmingled, without any admixture of sympathy or consideration for the feelings of those about us. It is simply wilfulness in the wrong direction. It is wilful, because it might be avoided. Let the necessitarians argue as they may, freedom of will and action is the possession of every man and woman. It is sometimes our glory, and very often it is our shame: all depends upon the manner in which it is used. We can choose to look at the bright side of things, or at the dark. We can follow good and eschew evil thoughts. We can be wrongheaded and wronghearted, or the reverse, as we ourselves determine. The world will be to each one of us very much what we make it. The cheerful are its real possessors, for the world belongs to those who enjoy it.
[…]“we should cherish the little virtues which spring up at the foot of the Cross!” When the saint [St. Francis de Sales] was asked, “What virtues do you mean?” he replied: “Humility, patience, meekness, benignity, bearing one another’s burden, condescension, softness of heart, cheerfulness, cordiality, compassion, forgiving injuries, simplicity, candour—all, in short of that sort of little virtues. They, like unobtrusive violets, love the shade […].”
“If you would fall into any extreme, let it be on the side of gentleness.”
Cheerfulness also accompanies patience, which is one of the main conditions of happiness and success in life.
“Patience will overcome all things
[…]Thales the philosopher said, “Even those who have nothing else have hope.” Hope is the great helper of the poor.
“A beautiful behaviour is better than a beautiful form; it gives a higher pleasure than statues and pictures; it is the finest of the fine arts.”—Emerson
“Virtue itself offends, when coupled with a forbidding manner.”—Bishop Middleton
A manner at once gracious and cordial is among the greatest aids to success, and many there are who fail for want of it. For a great deal depends upon first impressions; and these are usually favourable or otherwise according to a man’s courteousness and civility.
While rudeness and gruffness bar doors and shut hearts, kindness and propriety of behaviour, in which good manners consist, act as an “open sesame” everywhere. Doors unbar before them, and they are a passport to the hearts of everybody, young and old.
A man’s manner, to a certain extent, indicates his character.
Artificial rules of politeness are of very little use. What passes by the name of “Etiquette” is often of the essence of unpoliteness and untruthfulness. It consists in a great measure of posture-making, and is easily seen through.
Good manners consist, for the most part, in courteousness and kindness.
[…]one may be perfectly polite to another without necessarily having a special regard for him.
The truest politeness comes of sincerity. It must be the outcome of the heart, or it will make no lasting impression; for no amount of polish can dispense with truthfulness.
Without genuineness and individuality, human life would lose much of its interest and variety, as well as its manliness and robustness of character.
Men may show their disregard of others in various unpolite ways—as, for instance, by neglect of propriety in dress, by the absence of cleanliness, or by indulging in repulsive habits.
“[N]othing so much prevents our being natural as the desire of appearing so.”—Rochefoucauld
[…]there is no reason why the poorest classes should not practise good manners towards each other as well as the richest.
The French and Germans, of even the humblest classes, are gracious in manner, complaisant, cordial, and well-bred. The foreign workman lifts his cap and respectfully salutes his fellow-workman in passing. There is no sacrifice of manliness in this, but grace and dignity.
Most men are like so many gems in the rough, which need polishing by contact with other and better natures
[…]well-mannered men usually receive their best culture by mixing in the society of gentle and adroit women.
“Talent is power: tact is skill. Talent is weight: tact is momentum. Talent knows what to do: tact knows how to do it. Talent makes a man respectable: tact makes him respected. Talent is wealth: tact is ready-money.”
When two shy men meet, they seem like a couple of icicles. They sidle away and turn their backs on each other in a room, or when travelling creep into the opposite corners of a railway-carriage. When shy Englishmen are about to start on a journey by railway, they walk along the train, to discover an empty compartment in which to bestow themselves; and when once ensconced, they inwardly hate the next man who comes in. So; on entering the dining-room of their club, each shy man looks out for an unoccupied table, until sometimes—all the tables in the room are occupied by single diners. All this apparent unsociableness is merely shyness—the national characteristic of the Englishman.
“In every case, an interview will find a more easy and pleasing termination when the door is at hand as the last words are spoken.”
[…]thinking of others, rather than of one’s self, is of the true essence of politeness.
“Pour aimer les hommes, il faut attendre peu.”—Helvetius
Give the Englishman a home, and he is comparatively indifferent to society. For the sake of a holding which he can call his own, he will cross the seas, plant himself on the prairie or amidst the primeval forest, and make for himself a home. The solitude of the wilderness has no fears for him; the society of his wife and family is sufficient, and he cares for no other. Hence it is that the people of Germanic origin, from whom the English and Americans have alike sprung, make the best of colonizers, and are now rapidly extending themselves as emigrants and settlers in all parts of the habitable globe.
English, Scotch, Germans, and Americans are alike ready to accept solitude, provided they can but establish a home and maintain a family.
There are other qualities besides these, which grow out of the comparative unsociableness of the Englishman. His shyness throws him back upon himself, and renders him self-reliant and self-dependent. Society not being essential to his happiness, he takes refuge in reading, in study, in invention; or he finds pleasure in industrial work, and becomes the best of mechanics.
The English are inartistic for the same reason that they are unsociable. They may make good colonists, sailors, and mechanics; but they do not make good singers, dancers, actors, artistes, or modistes. They neither dress well, act well, speak well, nor write well. They want style—they want elegance. What they have to do they do in a straightforward manner, but without grace.
Grace is a sweetener and embellisher of life, and as such is worthy of cultivation.
The contemplation of fine works of art will doubtless improve the taste, and excite admiration; but a single noble action done in the sight of men will more influence the mind, and stimulate the character to imitation, than the sight of miles of statuary or acres of pictures.
The gift of the artist greatly differs from that of the thinker; his highest idea is to mould his subject—whether it be of painting, or music, or literature—into that perfect grace of form in which thought (it may not be of the deepest) finds its apotheosis and immortality.
[…]in ancient Rome, where art was at its greatest height when the people were in their most degraded condition.
Honest courage is of greater worth than any amount of grace; purity is better than elegance; and cleanliness of body, mind, and heart, than any amount of fine art.
Without a solid sterling basis of individual goodness, all the grace, elegance, and art in the world would fail to save or to elevate a people.
Companionship of Books
A man may usually be known by the books he reads, as well as by the company he keeps; for there is a companionship of books as well as of men; and one should always live in the best company, whether it be of books or of men.
“Love me, love my book.” The book is a truer and higher bond of union. Men can think, feel, and sympathise with each other through their favourite author. They live in him together, and he in them.
[…]the best books are treasuries of good words and golden thoughts, which, remembered and cherished, become our abiding companions and comforters.
Books possess an essence of immortality. They are by far the most lasting products of human effort. Temples crumble into ruin; pictures and statues decay; but books survive.
Books introduce us into the best society; they bring us into the presence of the greatest minds that have ever lived.
Every person may learn something from the recorded life of another
Goethe has said that there is no man so commonplace that a wise man may not learn something from him.
Dr. Johnson once observed that there was not a person in the streets but he should like to know his biography—his experiences of life, his trials, his difficulties, his successes, and his failures.
We never feel personally interested in masses of men; but we feel and sympathise with the individual actors
[…]there are men whose lives are far more eloquent than their speeches, and whose personal character is far greater than their deeds.
[…]a man may say too much even on the best subjects…
“Whoever hath anything fixed in his person that doth induce contempt, hath also a perpetual spur in himself to rescue and deliver himself from scorn; therefore, all deformed persons are extremely bold.”—Lord Bacon
There is a Highland proverb which says, that if the best man’s faults were written on his forehead he would pull his bonnet over his brow.
“There is no man who has not something hateful in him—no man who has not some of the wild beast in him. But there are few who will honestly tell us how they manage their wild beast.”—Voltaire
[…]“the world knows nothing of its greatest men.”
Men who have written books have been the most fortunate in this respect, because they possess an attraction for literary men which those whose lives have been embodied in deeds do not possess.
“Beware you be not swallowed up in books,” [John Wesley] would say to [friends]; “an ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.”
Erasmus, the great scholar, was even of opinion that books were the necessaries of life, and clothes the luxuries
“Poets are a longer-lived race than heroes: they breathe more of the air of immortality.”—Hazlitt
“Words are the only things that last for ever.”
Companionship in Marriage
“Kindness in women,
not their beauteous looks,
Shall win my love.”
“In the husband Wisdom,
In the wife Gentleness.”
The respective social functions and duties of men and women are clearly defined by nature. God created man and woman, each to do their proper work, each to fill their proper sphere. Neither can occupy the position, nor perform the functions, of the other. Their several vocations are perfectly distinct. Woman exists on her own account, as man does on his, at the same time that each has intimate relations with the other. Humanity needs both for the purposes of the race, and in every consideration of social progress both must necessarily be included.
Man is stronger, more muscular, and of rougher fibre; woman is more delicate, sensitive, and nervous. The one excels in power of brain, the other in qualities of heart; and though the head may rule, it is the heart that influences. Both are alike adapted for the respective functions they have to perform in life; and to attempt to impose woman’s work upon man would be quite as absurd as to attempt to impose man’s work upon woman. Men are sometimes womanlike, and women are sometimes manlike; but these are only exceptions which prove the rule.
A heartless man is as much out-of-keeping in civilized society as a stupid and unintelligent woman.
Without sympathy or consideration for others, man were a poor, stunted, sordid, selfish being; and without cultivated intelligence, the most beautiful woman were little better than a well-dressed doll.
It is still too much the practice to cultivate the weakness of woman rather than her strength, and to render her attractive rather than self-reliant.
On the other hand, the education of young men too often errs on the side of selfishness.
To maintain a high standard of purity in society, the culture of both sexes must be in harmony, and keep equal pace. A pure womanhood must be accompanied by a pure manhood. The same moral law applies alike to both.
“Love in the common acceptation of the term, is folly; but love, in its purity, its loftiness, its unselfishness, is not only a consequence, but a proof, of our moral excellence.”
The love which is the outcome of esteem and admiration, has an elevating and purifying effect on the character. It tends to emancipate one from the slavery of self.
[…]True love also in a measure elevates the intellect. “All love renders wise in a degree,” says the poet Browning, and the most gifted minds have been the sincerest lovers.
As woman is not woman until she has known love, neither is man man. Both are requisite to each other’s completeness.
A life exclusively occupied in affairs of business insensibly tends to narrow and harden the character. It is mainly occupied with self-watching for advantages, and guarding against sharp practice on the part of others.
[…]if the heart be not occupied by affection for others and sympathy with them—life, though it may appear to the outer world to be a success, will probably be no success at all, but a failure.
[…]won all hearts to obedience by his gentleness. He was a man clothed in household goodness; and he ruled so gently and wisely, that his home was pervaded by an atmosphere of love and duty.
“Love is a fire that, kindling its first embers in the narrow nook of a private bosom, caught from a wandering spark out of another private heart, glows and enlarges until it warms and beams upon multitudes of men and women, upon the universal heart of all, and so lights up the whole world and nature with its generous flames.”—Emerson
For a man to enjoy true repose and happiness in marriage, he must have in his wife a soul-mate as well as a helpmate. But it is not requisite that she should be merely a pale copy of himself.
“The brain-women never interest us like the heart-women.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes
“[The ‘true wife’] should be pleasing to his eyes and to his taste: the taste goes deep into the nature of all men—love is hardly apart from it; and in a life of care and excitement, that home which is not the seat of love cannot be a place of repose; rest for the brain, and peace for the spirit, being only to be had through the softening of the affections. He should look for a clear understanding, cheerfulness, and alacrity of mind, rather than gaiety and brilliancy, and for a gentle tenderness of disposition in preference to an impassioned nature.”
Some persons are disappointed in marriage, because they expect too much from it; but many more, because they do not bring into the co-partnership their fair share of cheerfulness, kindliness, forbearance, and common sense.
The golden rule of married life is, “Bear and forbear.”
Burns the poet, in speaking of the qualities of a good wife, divided them into ten parts. Four of these he gave to good temper, two to good sense, one to wit, one to beauty—such as a sweet face, eloquent eyes, a fine person, a graceful carriage; and the other two parts he divided amongst the other qualities belonging to or attending on a wife—such as fortune, connections, education (that is, of a higher standard than ordinary), family blood, &c.; but he said: “Divide those two degrees as you please, only remember that all these minor proportions must be expressed by fractions, for there is not any one of them that is entitled to the dignity of an integer.”
It has been said that girls are very good at making nets, but that it would be better still if they would learn to make cages. Men are often as easily caught as birds, but as difficult to keep.
No wise person will marry for beauty mainly. It may exercise a powerful attraction in the first place, but it is found to be of comparatively little consequence afterwards.
[…]to marry a handsome figure without character, fine features unbeautified by sentiment or good-nature, is the most deplorable of mistakes. As even the finest landscape, seen daily, becomes monotonous, so does the most beautiful face, unless a beautiful nature shines through it. The beauty of to-day becomes commonplace to-morrow; whereas goodness, displayed through the most ordinary features, is perennially lovely. Moreover, this kind of beauty improves with age, and time ripens rather than destroys it.
A man’s moral character is, necessarily, powerfully influenced by his wife. A lower nature will drag him down, as a higher will lift him up.
[…]she is not made to be the admiration of everybody, but the happiness of one.
There are few men strong enough to resist the influence of a lower character in a wife. If she do not sustain and elevate what is highest in his nature, she will speedily reduce him to her own level. Thus a wife may be the making or the unmaking of the best of men.
Uninterrupted joy, like uninterrupted success, is not good for either man or woman.
[…]the true womanly woman[:] the helpful, cheerful, affectionate wife [.]
The Discipline of Experience
To be worth anything, character must be capable of standing firm upon its feet in the world of daily work, temptation, and trial; and able to bear the wear-and-tear of actual life.
[…]The life that rejoices in solitude may be only rejoicing in selfishness. Seclusion may indicate contempt for others; though more usually it means indolence, cowardice, or self-indulgence.
To every human being belongs his fair share of manful toil and human duty; and it cannot be shirked without loss to the individual himself, as well as to the community to which he belongs.
“It is an uncontroverted truth, that no man ever made an ill-figure who understood his own talents, nor a good one who mistook them.”—Swift
A due amount of self-knowledge is, therefore, necessary for those who would be anything or do anything in the world.
“You know only too well what you can do; but till you have learned what you cannot do, you will neither accomplish anything of moment, nor know inward peace.”—Frederic Perthes
Any one who would profit by experience will never be above asking for help.
We have to keep our minds and hearts open, and never be ashamed to learn, with the assistance of those who are wiser and more experienced than ourselves.
The results of experience are, of course, only to be achieved by living; and living is a question of time. The man of experience learns to rely upon Time as his helper. “Time and I against any two,” was a maxim of Cardinal Mazarin.
Time has been described as a beautifier and as a consoler; but it is also a teacher.
A little youthful ardour is a great help in life, and is useful as an energetic motive power.
[…]with courage and perseverance, inspired by enthusiasm, a man feels strong enough to face any danger [.]
The apprenticeship of difficulty is one which the greatest of men have had to serve. It is usually the best stimulus and discipline of character. It often evokes powers of action that, but for it, would have remained dormant.
There are natures which blossom and ripen amidst trials, which would only wither and decay in an atmosphere of ease and comfort.
[…]it is good for men to be roused into action and stiffened into self-reliance by difficulty, rather than to slumber away their lives in useless apathy and indolence. It is the struggle that is the condition of victory. If there were no difficulties, there would be no need of efforts […].
[…]difficulty, adversity, and suffering are not all evil, but often the best source of strength, discipline, and virtue.
Some men only require a great difficulty set in their way to exhibit the force of their character and genius; and that difficulty once conquered becomes one of the greatest incentives to their further progress.
It is a mistake to suppose that men succeed through success; they much oftener succeed through failure.
[Knowing what not to do] is often still more important in diplomacy.
While, in a large-natured man, solitude will make the pure heart purer, in the small-natured man it will only serve to make the hard heart still harder: for though solitude may be the nurse of great spirits, it is the torment of small ones.
All the political parties of the times in which Bunyan lived, imprisoned their opponents when they had the opportunity and the power.
Men who, like these, suffer the penalty of law, and seem to fail, at least for a time, do not really fail. Many, who have seemed to fail utterly, have often exercised a more potent and enduring influence upon their race, than those whose career has been a course of uninterupted success.
The character of a man does not depend on whether his efforts are immediately followed by failure or by success.
A great act does not perish with the life of him who performs it, but lives and grows up into like acts in those who survive the doer thereof and cherish his memory.
“Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for a hermitage.”
[…]it is not ease and facility that tries men, and brings out the good that is in them, so much as trial and difficulty. Adversity is the touchstone of character. As some herbs need to be crushed to give forth their sweetest odour, so some natures need to be tried by suffering to evoke the excellence that is in them.
As there are no blessings which may not be perverted into evils, so there are no trials which may not be converted into blessings.
The hollowest of all gospels is the gospel of ease and comfort. Difficulty, and even failure, are far better teachers.
Failure improves tempers and strengthens the nature. Even sorrow is in some mysterious way linked with joy and associated with tenderness.
Assuming happiness to be the end of being, sorrow may be the indispensable condition through which it is to be reached.
Afflictions often prove but blessings in disguise.
“No man is more miserable than he that hath no adversity. That man is not tried, whether he be good or bad; and God never crowns those virtues which are only faculties and dispositions; but every act of virtue is an ingredient unto reward.”—Jeremy Taylor
[…]might it not be said that the pursuit of mere happiness is an illusion?
Life, all sunshine without shade, all happiness without sorrow, all pleasure without pain, were not life at all—at least not human life. Take the lot of the happiest—it is a tangled yarn. It is made up of sorrows and joys; and the joys are all the sweeter because of the sorrows; bereavements and blessings, one following another, making us sad and blessed by turns. Even death itself makes life more loving; it binds us more closely together while here.
What the poor imprisoned Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark wrote on her chapel-window ought to be the prayer of all,—“Oh! keep me innocent! make others great.”
[…]life will always be to a large extent what we ourselves make it. Each mind makes its own little world. The cheerful mind makes it pleasant, and the discontented mind makes it miserable.
Life is for the most part but the mirror of our own individual selves. Our mind gives to all situations, to all fortunes, high or low, their real characters.
[…]though we may not apprehend the full meaning of the discipline of trial through which the best have to pass, we must have faith in the completeness of the design of which our little individual lives form a part.
Read the whole book: Character.
I’m Jens, and I’m an engineering lead and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma. I love trying things, not only in web development, but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have a question or suggestion about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message. Thank you!
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