Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Self Culture

( Originally Published 1891 )

There is
One great society alone on earth
The noble Living and the noble Dead.


THE passion for truth and for the culture which makes its possession possible is not rightly felt by the heart of boy or of youth; it is the man's passion, and its power over him is most irresistibly asserted when outward restraint has been removed, when escaping from the control of parents and teachers he is left to himself to shape his course and seek his own ends. When his companions have finished their studies he feels that his own are now properly only about to begin; when they are dreaming of liberty and pleasure, of wealth and success, of the world and its honors, his mind is haunted by the mystery of God and Nature, by visions of dimly discerned truth and beauty which he must follow whithersoever they lead; and al-ready he perceives that wisdom comes to those alone who toil and cease not from labor, who suffer and are patient. Hitherto he has learned the lessons given him by teachers appointed by others; henceforth he is himself to choose his instructors. As once, half-unconscious, he played in the smile or frown of Nature, and drank knowledge with delight, so now in the world of man's thought, hope, and love, he is, with deliberate purpose, to seek what is good for the nourishment of his soul. Happy is he, for nearly all men toil and suffer that they may live; but he is also to have time to labor, to make life intelligent and fair. He must know not only what the blind atoms are doing, but what saints, sages, and heroes have loved, thought, and done. He will still keep close to Nature who, though she utters myriad sounds, never speaks a human word; but he will also lend his ear to the voice of wisdom which lies asleep in books, and to sympathetic minds whispers from other worlds whatever high or holy truth has consecrated the life of man. His guiding thought must be how to make the work by which he maintains himself in the world subserve moral and intellectual ends; for his aim is not merely or chiefly to have goods, but to be wise and good, and therefore to build up within himself the power of conduct and the power of intelligence which makes man human, and distinguishes him from whatever else on earth has life.

It is our indolence and frivolity that make routine duties, however distracting or importunate, incompatible with the serious application which the work of self-culture demands; but we are by nature indolent and frivolous, and only education can make us earnest and laborious. None but a cultivated mind can under-stand that if the whole human race could be turned loose, to eat and drink and play like thoughtless children, life would become meaningless ; that a paradise in which work should not be necessary would become wearisome. The progress of the race is the result of effort, physical, religious, moral, and intellectual; and the advance of individuals is proportional to their exertion. Nature herself pushes the young to bodily exercise; but though activity is for them a kind of necessity, only the discipline of habit will lead them to prefer labor to idleness ; and they will not even use their senses properly unless they are taught to look and to listen, just as they are taught to walk and to ride. The habit of manual labor, as it is directly related to the animal existence to which man is prone, and supplies the physical wants whose urgency is most keenly felt, is acquired with least difficulty, and it prepares the way for moral and intellectual life; but it especially favors the life which has regard to temporal ends and conduces to comfort and well-being. They whose instrument is the brain rarely aim at anything higher than wealth and position; and if they become rich and prominent, they remain narrow and uninteresting, They talk of progress, of new inventions and discoveries, and they neglect to improve themselves; they boast of the greatness of their country, while their real world is one of vulgar thought and desire; they take interest in what seems to concern the general welfare, but fail to make themselves centres of light and love. What is worse they have the conceit of wisdom, they lack reverence ; they are impatient, and must have at once what they seek. But the better among us see the insufficiency of the popular aims, and begin to yearn for something other than a life of politics, newspapers, and financial enterprise. They de-sire to know and love the best that is known, and they are willing to be poor and obscure, if they may but gain entrance into this higher world. " I shall ever consider myself," says Descartes, " more obliged to those who leave me to my leisure, than I should to any who might offer me the most honorable employments." This is the thought of every true student and lover of wisdom; for he feels that whatever a man's occupation may be, his business is to improve his mind and to form his character. He desires not to be known and appreciated, but to know and appreciate ; not to have more, but to be more ; not to have friends, but to be the friend of man, which he is when he is the lover of truth. He turns from vulgar pleasures as he turns from pain, because both pleasure and pain in fastening the soul to the body deprive it of freedom and hinder the play of the mind.

He loves the best with single heart
And without thought what gifts it bring.

Unless one have deep faith in the good of culture he will easily become discouraged in the work which is here urged upon him. He must be drawn to the love of intellectual excellence by an attraction such as a poet feels in the presence of beauty; he must believe in it as a miser believes in gold; he must seek it as a lover seeks the beloved. Our wants determine our pleasures, and they who have no intellectual cravings feel not the need of exercise of mind. They are born and remain inferior. They are content with the world which seems to be real, forgetting the higher one, which alone is real; they are not urged to the intellectual life by irresistible instincts. They are discouraged by difficulties, thwarted by obstacles which lie in the path of all who strive to move forward and to gain higher planes. It is not possible to advance except along the road of toil, of struggle, and of suffering. We cannot emerge even from childish ignorance and weakness without experiencing a sense of loss. Mental work in the beginning and for a long time is weariness, is little better than drudgery. We labor, and there seems to be no gain ; we study and there seems to be no increase of knowledge or power; and if we persevere, we are led by faith and hope, not by any clear perception of the result of persistent application. Genius itself is not exempt from this law. Poets and artists work with an intensity unknown to others, and are distinguished by their faith in the power of labor. The consummate musician must practise for hours, day by day, year in and year out. The brain is the most delicate and the finest of instruments, and it is vain to imagine that any-thing else than ceaseless, patient effort will enable us to use it with perfect skill ; indeed, it is only after long study that we become capable of understanding what the perfection of the intellect is, that we become capable of discerning what is excellent, beautiful, and true in style and thought,

Discouragement and weariness will, again and again, suggest doubts concerning the wisdom of this ceaseless effort to improve one's self. Why persist in the pursuit of what can never be completely attained? Why toil to gain what the mass of men neither admire nor love? Why wear out life in a course of action which leads neither to wealth nor honors? Why turn away from pleasures which lie near us to follow after ideal things? These are questions which force themselves upon us; and it requires faith and courage not to be shaken by this sophistry. Visions of ideal life float before young eyes, and if to be attracted by what is high and fair were enough, it were not difficult to be saint, sage, or hero; but when we perceive that the way to the best is the road of toil and drudgery, that we must labor long and accomplish little, wan-der far and doubt our progress, must suffer much and feel misgivings whether it is not in vain, then only the noblest and the bravest still push forward in obedience to inward law. The ideal of culture appeals to them with irresistible force. They consent to lack wealth, and the approval of friends and the world's applause; they are willing to turn away when fair hands hold out the cup of pleasure, when bright eyes and smiling lips woo to indulgence. If, you ask, How long? They answer, Until we die ! They are lovers of wisdom and do not trust to hope of temporal reward. Their aim is light and purity of mind and heart; these they would not barter for comfort and position.

As saints, while doing the common work of men, walk uplifted to worlds invisible, so they, amid the noise and distractions of life still hear the appealing voice of truth; and as parted lovers dream only of the hour when they shall meet again, so these chosen spirits, in the midst of whatever cares and labors, turn to the time when thought shall people their solitude, as with the presence of angels. They hear heavenly voices asking, Why stay ye on the earth, unless to grow? Vanity, frivolity, and fickleness die within them ; and they grow to be humble and courageous, disinterested and laborious, strong and persevering. The cultivation of their higher nature becomes the law of their life; and the sense of duty, " stern daughter of the voice of God," which of all motives that sway the heart, best stands the test of reason, becomes their guide and support. Thus culture, which looks to the Infinite and All-wise as to its ideal, rests upon the basis of morality and religion.

To think is difficult, and they who wish to grow in power of thought must hoard their strength. Excess, of whatever kind, is a waste of intellectual force. The weakness of men of genius has impoverished the world. Sensual indulgence diminishes spiritual insight; it perverts reason, and deadens love; it enfeebles the physical man, and weakens the organs of sense, which are the avenues of the soul. The higher self is developed harmoniously only when it springs from a healthful body. It is the lack of moral balance which makes genius akin to madness. Nothing is so sane as reason, and great minds fall from truth only when they fail in the strength which comes of righteous conduct.

Let the lover of wisdom then strive to live in a healthy body that his senses may report truly of the universe in which he dwells. But this is not easy; for mental labor exhausts, and if the vital forces are still further diminished by dissipation, disease and premature decay of the intellectual faculties will be the result. The ideal of culture embraces the whole man, physical, moral, religious, and intellectual; and the loss of health or morality or faith cannot but impede the harmonious development of the mind itself. Passion is the foe of reason, and may easily become strong enough to extinguish its light. He who wishes to educate himself must learn to resist the desires of his lower nature, which if indulged deaden sensibility, weaken the will, take from the imagination its freshness, and from the heart the power of loving. The task he has set himself is arduous, and he cannot have too much energy, too much warmth of soul, too much capacity for labor. Let him not waste, like a mere animal, the strength which was given him that he might learn to know and love infinite truth and beauty. The dwelling with one's self and with thoughts of what is true and high, which is an essential condition of mental growth, is impossible when the sanctuary of the soul is filled with unclean images. Intellectual honesty, the disinterested love of truth, without which no progress can be made, will hardly be found in those who are the slaves of unworthy passions. The more religious a man is, the more does he believe in the worth and sacredness of truth, and the more willing does he become to throw all his energies with persevering diligence into the work of self-improvement. They who fail to see in the universe an all-wise, all-holy, and all-powerful Being, from whom are all things and to whom all things turn, easily come to doubt whether it holds anything of true worth. History teaches this, and it requires little reflection to perceive that it must be so. Of the Solitary, Wordsworth says,

" But in despite

Of all this outside bravery, within
He neither felt encouragement nor hope ,
For moral dignity and strength of mind
Were wanting, and simplicity of life
And reverence for himself ; and, last and best,
Confiding thoughts, through love and fear of Him
Before whose sight the troubles of this world
Are vain."

The corrupt and the ignorant easily learn to feel contempt, but the scholar is reverent. He moves in the midst of infinite worlds, and knows that the least is part of the whole.

Now, how shall he who is resolved to educate himself set about his work? What advice shall be given him? What rules shall be made for him that he may not waste time and energy? He who yearns for the cultivation of mind which makes wisdom possible must work his way to the light. All intellect ual men strive to educate themselves, but each one strives in a different way. They all aim at insight rather than information, at the perfect use of their faculties rather than learning. The power to see things as they are, is what they want; and therefore they look, observe, examine, compare, analyze, meditate, read, and write. And they keep doing this day by day; and the longer they work, the more attractive their work grows to be. Descartes, who is a typical lover of the intellectual life, looked upon him-self simply as a thinking being, and gave all his thought to the cultivation of his higher faculties in the hope that he might finally discover some truth which would bring blessings to men. He had no thought of literary fame, published little, and sedulously avoided whatever might bring him into notoriety. " Those," he says, " who wish to know how to speak of everything and to acquire a reputation for learning, will succeed most easily if they content themselves with the semblance of truth, which may readily be found." The love of truth is the mark of the real student. What is, is; it is man's business to know it. He is the foe of pretence ; sham for him means shame. He will have sound knowledge; he will do his work well: whether men shall applaud or reward him for it, is a foreign consideration. He obeys an inward law, and the praise of those who cannot understand him sounds to him like mockery. True thought, like right conduct, is its own reward. To see truth and to love it is enough, - is more than to have the worship of the world. The impor-tant thing is to be a man, to have a serious pur-pose, to be in earnest, to yearn for what is good and holy; and without this the culture of the intellect will not avail.

We must build upon the broad foundation of man's life, and not upon any special faculty. The merely literary man is often the most pitiful of men, able, it may be, to do little else than complain that his merits are not recognized. Let it not be imagined then that the lover of wisdom, the follower of intellectual good, should propose to himself a literary career. He may of course be or become a man of letters, but this is incidental to his life-purpose, which is to develop within himself the power of knowing and loving. He will learn to think rightly and to act well, first of all ; for he knows that a man's writing cannot be worth more than he himself is worth. He is a seeker after truth and perfection; and understanding at the price of what countless labors these may be hoped for, he is slow to imagine that words of his may be of help to others.

Observation, reading, and writing are the chief means by which thought is stimulated, the mind developed, and the intellect cultivated. The habit of looking and the habit of thinking are closely related. A man thinks as he sees; and for a mind like Shakespeare's, for instance, observation is almost the only thing that is necessary for its development. The boundless world breaks in upon him with creative force. His sympathy is universal, and therefore so is his interest. He sees the like in the unlike, the differences in things which are similar. Every little bird and every little flower are known to him. He contemplates Falstaff and Poor Tom with as much interest as though they were Hamlet and King Lear. In all original minds the power of observation is great. It is the chief source of our earliest knowledge, of that which touches us most nearly and most deeply colors the imagination. When the boy is wandering through fields, sitting in the shade of trees, or lying on the banks of murmuring streams, he is not only learning more delightful things than books will ever teach him, but he is also acquiring the habit of attention, of looking at what he sees, which nowhere else can be gotten in so natural and pleasant a way. Hence the best minds have either been born in the country or have passed there some of their early years. Unless we have first learned to look with the eye, we shall never learn to look with the mind. They who walk unmoved beneath the starlit heavens, or by the ever-moving ocean, or amid the silent mountains; who do not find, like Wordsworth, that the meanest flower that blows gives thoughts which often lie too deep for tears, will not derive great help from the world of books. But in the world of books the intellectual must also make themselves at home and live, must thence draw nourishment, light, wisdom, strength, for there as nowhere else the mind of man has stamped its image; and there the thoughts of the master spirits still breathe, still glow with truth and beauty. The best books are powers

"Forever to be hallowed; only less,
For what we are and what we may become,
Than Nature's self, which is the breath of God,
Or his pure Word, by miracle revealed."

But it is as difficult to know books as to know men. There are but few men who can be of intellectual service to us; and there are but few books which stimulate and nourish the mind. The best books are, as Milton says, " the precious life-blood of a master spirit ; and it is absurd to suppose that they will reveal their secret to every chance corner, to every heedless reader. As it takes a hero to know a hero, so only an awakened mind can love and understand the great thinkers. The reading of the ignorant is chiefly a mechanical proceeding; and, indeed, for men in general reading is little better than waste of time. Their reading, like their conversation, leaves them what they were, or worse. The mass of printed matter has no greater value from an intellectual point of view at least than the wide ever-flowing stream of talk; and for the multitude it is all the same whether they gossip and complain, or read and nod. How-ever much they read, they remain unintelligent; what knowledge they gain is fragmentary, unreal; they learn merely enough to talk about what they do not understand. We may of course read for entertainment, as we may talk for entertainment ; but this is merely a recreation of the mind, which is good only because it rests and prepares us for work. The wise read books to be enlightened, uplifted, and inspired.

Their reading is a labor in which every faculty of the mind is awake and active. They are attentive; they weigh, compare, judge. They re-create within their own minds the images produced by the author; they seek to enter into his inmost thought; they admire each well-turned phrase, each happy epithet; they walk with him, and make themselves at home in the wonderland which his genius has called into being; past centuries rise before them, and they almost forget that they did not hear Plato discourse in the Academy, or stroll with Horace along the Sacred Way. As they are brought thus intimately into the company of the noblest minds, they think as they thought, feel as they felt, and so are enlightened and inspired. They drink the spirit of the mighty dead, and gradually come to live in a higher and richer world. The best in life and literature is seen to be such only by those who have made themselves worthy of the heavenly vision ; and once we have learned to love the few real books of the world, or rather what in these few is eternally true and beautiful, we breathe the atmosphere of the intellectual life. What is frivolous, or false, or vulgar can no longer please us ; having seen and loved what is high we may not sink to the lower.

Knowledge may be useful, and yet have little power to nourish, train, and enlarge the mind, and it is its disciplinary and educational value which we are here considering. Medicine for a physician, law for an attorney, theology for a clergyman, is the most useful knowledge; but they are not therefore the best means of intellectual culture. Natural science, though it is most useful, ministering as it does in a thousand ways and with ever-increasing efficacy to our wants and comforts, has but an inferior educational power. Acquaintance with the uniform co-existences and sequences of phenomena is not a mental tonic. Such knowledge not only leaves us unmoved, it has a tendency even to fetter the free play of the mind and to chill the imagination. It unweaves the rainbow, and leaves us the dead chemical elements. The information we have gained is practical, but it does not exalt the soul or render us more keenly alive to the divine beauty which rests on Nature's face. It does not enable us, as does the knowledge of literature and history, to participate in the conscious life of the race. It makes no appeal to our nobler human instincts. There is no book on natural science, nor can there ever be one, which may take a place among the few immortal works which men never cease to read and love. Physical science has its own domain, and its study will continue to enrich the world, to make specialists of a hundred kinds; but it never can take the place of literature and history as a means of culture ; and as an educational force its value is greatest when it is studied not experimentally, but as literature, though of course, every cultivated man should be familiar with the inductive method, and should receive consequently a certain scientific training.

History, in bringing us into the presence of the greatest men and in showing us their mightiest achievements, rouses our whole being. It sets the mind aglow, awakens enthusiasm, and fires the imagination. It makes us feel how blessed a thing it is " to scorn delights and live laborious days ; " how divine to perish in bringing truth and holiness to men. We commingle with the makers of the world ; we hear them speak and see them act ; we catch the spirit of their lofty purpose, their high courage, their noble eloquence. When we drink deeply of the wisdom which history teaches, we come to understand that truth and justice, heroism and religion, which are the virtues of the greatest men, may be ours as easily as theirs ; that opportunity for true men is ever present, and that the task set for each one of us is as sacred and important as any which has ever been intrusted to the human mind and will. Our thought is widened, our hearts are strengthened, and we come to feel that it shall be well for others that we too have lived. When we have learned to be at home with lofty and generous natures, the heroic mood becomes natural to us.

There are of course but few histories which have this tonic effect upon the mind and the will, but with these the lover of culture should make himself familiar. Each one must find the book he needs; and though he should find no help in a volume which time and the consent of the learned have consecrated, let him not be discouraged, but continue to seek and to read until he meet with the author who fills his soul with joy and opens to his wondering eyes visions of new worlds. To love any great book so that we read it or at least those portions of it which especially appeal to us many times, and always with new pleasure (as a mother never wearies of looking upon her child), until the thought and style of the author become al-most our own, is to learn the secret of self-education; for he who understands and loves one great book is sure to find his way to the love and knowledge of other works of genius. He will not read, chiefly to gain information, but he will read for exaltation of spirit, for enlightenment, for strength of soul, for the help which springs from contact with generous and awakened minds. He will mark his favorite passages and refer to them often, as one loves to revisit places where he has been happy: and these very pencil-marks will become dear to him as tokens of truth revealed, of wisdom gained, of joy bestowed. The best reading is that which most profoundly stimulates thought, which brings our own minds into active, conscious communion with the mind of the author; and hence the best poetry is the most efficacious and the most delightful aid to mental improvement.

Poetry is, as Aristotle says, the most philosophic of all writing. It is also the writing which is most instinct with passion, with life. It springs from intense thought and feeling, and bears within itself the power to call forth thought and feeling. It is thought transfused with the glow of emotion, and consequently thought made beautiful, attractive, contagious. It is, to quote Wordsworth, " the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science." The poet has more enthusiasm and tenderness than other men, a more sensitive soul, a more comprehensive mind. His wider sympathy gives him greater insight; and his power to see absent things as though they were present enables him to bring the distant and the past before our eyes, to make them live again in a new and immortal world; he stimulates the whole mind and appeals to every faculty of the soul. The greatest philosophers are, like Plato, poets too; and unless the historian is also a poet, there is no inspiration, no life in what he writes. It is as superficial and vulgar to sneer at poetry as to sneer at religion ; and they alone are mockers who have eyes but for some counterfeit. To be able to read a true poet is not a gift of Nature ; it is a faculty to be acquired. He creates, as Wordsworth says, the taste by which he is appreciated. To imagine we may read him as we read a frivolous novel is absurd ; it may well happen we shall see no truth or beauty in him until patient study has made it plain. It often takes the world a hundred years or more to recognize a great poet; and a knowledge of his worth can be had by the student only at the price of patient labor. Wordsworth will attract scarcely any one at the first glance; the great number of readers will soon weary of him and throw him aside; but those who learn to understand him find in his writings treasures above all price. There are but a few great poems in the literatures of the different nations, but he who wishes to have a cultivated mind must, at the cost of whatever time and labor, make himself familiar with them ; for there alone are found the best thoughts clothed in fittest words; there alone are rightly portrayed the noblest characters ; there alone is the world of men and things transfigured by the imagination and illumined by the pure light of the mind. True poets help us to see, they teach us to admire, they lift our thoughts, they appeal to our higher nature; they give us nobler loves, more exalted aims, more spiritual purposes; they make us feel that to live for money or place is to lead a narrow and a slavish life; and to men around whom the fetters of material and hardening cares are growing, they cry and bid them

" Look abroad
And see to what fair countries they are bound."

But even the greatest poets have weaknesses, and are great only by comparison. There is not one who however he may enchant and strengthen, does not also disappoint us. The perfect poet the future will bring; and to his coming we shall look with more eager expectation than if we foresaw man dowered with wings. The elevation we forebode is of the soul, not of the body. Progress we have al-ready made. It is no longer possible for a true poet to sing of sensual delights; the man he creates is now no more the slave " of low ambition or distempered love." His theme is rather

"No other than the heart of man
As found among the best of those who live,
Not unexalted by religious faith,
Nor uninformed by books, good books, though few,
In Nature's presence."

Writing is as great an aid to the cultivation of the mind as reading. It is indeed indispensable, and the accuracy of thought and expression of which Bacon speaks, is but one of its good results. " By writing," says Saint Augustine, "I have learned many things which nothing else had taught me." There is, of course, no question here of writing for publication. To do this no one should be urged. The farther we are from all thought of readers, the nearer are we to truth ; and once an author has published, a sort of madness comes over him, and he seems to be doing nothing unless he continue to publish. The truly intellectual man leads an interior life; he dwells habitually in the presence of God, of Nature, and of his own soul; he swims in a current of ideas, looks out upon a world of truth and beauty; he would rather gain some new vision of the eternal reality than to have a mountain of gold or the suffrages of a whole people. The great hinderance is lack of the power of prolonged attention, of sustained thought; and this the habit of serious writing gives. But the habit itself is difficult to acquire. At first in attempting to write we are discouraged to find how crude, how unreal, how little within our control our knowledge is; and it will often happen that we shall simply hold the pen in idleness, either because we find nothing to write, or because the proper way to express what we think eludes our efforts. When this happens day after day, the temptation will come to abandon our purpose, and to seek easier and less effective means of developing mental strength, or else we shall write carelessly and without thought, which is even a greater evil than not to write at all. In the writing of which I am thinking there is no question of style, of what critics and readers will say; all that is asked is that we apply our minds to things as they appear to us, and put in plain words what we see. Thus our style will become the expression of our thought and life. It will be the outgrowth of a natural method, and consequently will have genuine worth. What is written in this way should be pre-served, not that others may see it, but that we ourselves by comparing our earlier with our later essays may be encouraged by the evidence of improvement. It is not necessary to make choice of a subject, whatever interests us is a fit theme; and if nothing should happen specially to interest us, by writing we shall gain interest in many things.

The method here proposed requires serious application, perseverance, diligence: it is difficult; but they who have the courage to continue to write, undeterred by difficulties, will gain more than they hope for. They will grow in strength, in accuracy, in pliancy, in openness of mind; they will become capable of pro-found and just views, and will gradually rise to worlds of truth and beauty of which the common man does not dream. And it will frequently happen that there will be permanent value in what is written not to please the crowd or to flatter a capricious public opinion, or to win gold or applause, but simply in the presence of God and one's own soul to bear witness to truth. As the painter takes pallet and brush, the musician his instrument, each to perfect himself in his art, so he who desires to learn how to think should take the pen, and day by day write something of the truth and love, the hope and faith, which make him a living man.

Home | More Articles | Email: