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Of Self-Creation

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

" You are a poem, though your poem's naught," cries Browning in one of his verses. We might go further and say of every man that he is not only poem but poet. He is so in the old Greek sense, where the word poet " stands first of all for the doer, the maker. That is man's title on this planet, the maker—one might in a sense say, the creator. The animals, in their countless generations, leave the world very much as they find it. But this other animal, on his way through, shapes a thousand monuments of himself. He breathes his thought upon wood and stone and iron, and they stand henceforth as forms of his imagination. He flings his will outward, and it cuts its way through mountain and forest, making a new thing of the ancient earth. He weds the invisibles of his soul to the solid material he finds without, by processes which become ever more complicated, ever more daring, until the prospect opens of his bringing into subjection every element, every cosmic force. Indeed is he the poet, the " maker."

But all this mastery outside is but a small part of man's creative function. Its most wonderful feature is exhibited in the action of it upon himself. To make railways and steam-engines and ships and palaces is no small thing. But all this becomes insignificant in comparison with another work on which he is engaged--that of remaking himself. Man has to-day a competitor who will in the end beat him out of the field. It is that other man, the man that is to be, whom he is creating. Man is king now over all he sees, but he works incessantly for his own deposition. As surely as the child dies into the man, so surely will our present manhood die into a better. Of all his cunning processes, the magic of his looms, of his retorts, this is the crowning work, incessantly, silently going on, the weaving, to wit, of new brain and heart, the sketching of a vaster human structure of which future ages will witness the great completion.

Our business, however, in the present article is not with the age-long movement of our race as a whole. We are contributing to that, but in the meantime there is a business closer home. It is that of the creation of ourselves as individuals. The world process is being repeated in you and me. In our several callings we are making a thousand things boots, buildings, leading articles, what not. Beyond that we are at this moment, as in every past moment, engaged in the work of making ourselves. There is, we are aware, a modern school that denies this, and holds that what goes on within us is as mechanical and inevitable as the revolution of the planet or the wash of the wave on the shore. Physiologists, like Bichat, argue that character is unchangeable, depending on the organic structure and functions.

To which it is enough for us to reply, with Dr. Johnson, " all theory is against the freedom of the will, all experience for it." The logic of life is deeper than the logic of the schools, and we have only to examine what passes in our own interior to realise the immense extent to which we have been put in trust with this business. It is not what I am but what I can be, not the actual but the immense possible, that gives life its finest inspiration. Let us examine the ground a little here.

There are two factors that are incessantly weaving man ; the one is his faculty of reception, the other his volition. As to the former, one notes a striking recent suggestion of Sir Oliver Lodge : " That the whole of us may not be incarnated in our present selves. What the rest of me may be doing for these few years while I am here I do not know ; perhaps it is asleep." It might, we think, be put more simply and yet more impressively than that. Is it not that the whole universe is the unincarnated part of us ? We are related to it all, and have incessant commerce with all its parts. The light from its farthest star falls on our retina, the forces that move Sirius work on our nerves. So far as we can see there are none of its resources we may not absorb, none of its wealth by which we may not enrich ourselves. We are the meeting-point of the Cosmos, the playground of its forces, the clearing-house of its treasure. Year by year, century by century, man is becoming immeasurably mightier by his growing intimacy with his universe.

The other factor in man's self-creation is, we have said, his power of volition. The question of the will has, in latter-day philosophy, been thrown into some strangely new aspects. Schopenhauer, in his " Welt als Wills and Vorstellung," gives us will as something before intellect, before consciousness, as the prime motor of the universe, the ultimate cause. It is not necessary to follow the German philosopher into these conclusions to estimate to the full the tremendous power of the faculty which, under the name of the will, we find lodged within us, In its operations we see creation if we see it anywhere. The roar of avalanches, the rush of Niagaras, are not to compare, in the mystery of their power, with the silent movement which we call a volition. Niagara could sweep ten thousand men down its gulf without feeling it but the idea beating in the brain of one of those ten thousand may suffice to chain Niagara and to make bond slaves of its powers.

We want, however, now to observe the action of will upon character, its action as self-creator. What takes place here reminds us of nothing so much as that play of radiant matter of which Sir William Crookes has given us such amazing revelations. in a closed tube, where almost a vacuum is made to exist, we have a rush of invisible molecules of such rapidity and force that a mass of metal under their impact becomes red-hot, and will even melt if the attack is prolonged. These molecules, we say, so minute yet so mighty, remind us of the impact upon the personality of those mysterious will-impulses which in a strong character, streaming from the centre, are necessarily working upon and transforming the entire moral structure. Poor are we indeed in inner resource if we have not experienced the power of this working.

Take, for instance, the question of temperament. Is it possible to recreate one's temperament ? It is easy to put the matter to proof. There are men who carry in them a tendency to melancholy. Poor poet Gray, himself a victim, has described it for us. " But there is another sort, black indeed, that has something in it like Tertullian's rule of faith. Credo quia impossibile est. For it believes, nay, is sure of, everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful ; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasureable." But the melancholy man has his remedy. It ' lies in the daily energy of his will. When the black thoughts come, a strong volition, like a breeze from the north, will sweep away the clouds. We can will the thoughts which are to come to us, the memories on which to feed, the prospects for the mind to gaze upon. Our world will change for us by the constant repetition of this process. The mind will act here as the body acts. When we first learn to walk our every step demands a separate volition. After the process has been kept up through the days and weeks the action that required these studied efforts becomes automatic, and we walk easily without thinking about it. And the will which does this for the body will do it also for the mind. If we will to be cheerful, to banish the unwholesome fancies, the brooding resentments, the sense of slights and injuries, and instead to summon to our thought the causes of gratitude, the sense of the good in life, the reasons for aspiration and hope, we can do it. The lapses from all this may be frequent, as an infant's falls are frequent ; but let us after each stumble pick ourselves up and move on, and in time the joy-sense will become a habit, and we shall wake up daily in clear weather.

It is in this way that men create their world, and make a good one or a bad one of it, apart from all considerations of external fortune. They have made it by making themselves. Seneca observes of Diogenes that " he kept himself outside the fortuitous. It is as if he had said, ` Do your business fortune : you have nothing to do with Diogenes.' " Mr. Moncure Conway, in his auto-biography, speaks of a negro woman he knew in his youth as the happiest person he ever met. " Her quick intelligence, her humour, her humility and simplicity, and indefinable qualities that I never knew in any white person made her to me a revelation." Here was happiness achieved against perhaps the heaviest handicap that modern life offers. The powerlessness of fortune as compared with will in the making of character is vividly illustrated in the case of the two great moralists Vauvenargues and La Rochefoucauld. Of the two a French critic observes : " La Rochefoucauld, born into the first rank, dowered with great fortune, loved with the most passionate love in his youth, surrounded by illustrious and exquisite friendship in old age, overwhelmed as it seemed with all fortune's favours, brings from the voyage of life only a bitter experience, and from the spectacle of humanity a disdainful pessimism. Vauvenargues, on the contrary, poor, always suffering, unfortunate in all his enterprises, preserves the serenity of his soul and the equity of his judgment, proclaiming man's capacity of goodness, disinterestedness and love." We repeat, the will is omnipotent in this sphere if we will only use it. We may not, perhaps, achieve wealth or empire. But if we do not reach this brightness of inner temper the fault is not God's or the world's ; it is our own.

But self-creation does not end here. It extends not only over temperament, but also over the whole of our mental life. Our mind at the beginning is an acorn which, according as we will, may or may not become an oak. We do not know our brain capacity until we have put it to the utmost test of our will capacity. Whether or no you read trashy books in one language, or read the world's best books in half a dozen languages, is an affair of your own choice. To learn is as easy as to eat, if we give ourselves to it. And talking of eating, it may be well to remind ourselves of that saying of Plato in the " Protagoras," about the right food for the soul. We can, says he, when we buy pro-vision for the body in the market, take it away with us, store it, and use it or not use it, as we think fit. But the soul's food, the doctrine we get from books or from teachers, enters at once directly into us, and we cannot escape its effects for good or ill. And so we need here with the greater care to choose our food. That choice, again, is an affair of the will. What mental company are we keeping ? Do we live habitually with the great souls, forming ourselves on their noble ideals, drawing into us the sap of their strength, breathing the divine air they live in ? Or are we content with the garbage and the loathsome fog-atmosphere of the world's literary slums ?

In closing, let it be observed that there is an all-important side of this question, a religious side, which we have not touched. We have let it alone in order to emphasize a feature in self-creation which religious teachers are apt to neglect. We agree with them fully in their main assertion that man's re-creation is ultimately a Divine business. The receptive capacity on which our highest hopes depend is before all things a capacity to receive the power from above, the secret, silent energy of the Spirit. But the tendency of the hour in many religious circles is to keep man on the move by outside pressures, the emotionalism of revival meetings, the dram-drinking of high-wrought excitements. Whereas what we want above all things to-day is a machinery that works from within. Says a French writer, " Aujourd'hui l'homme désire immensément, mais il veut faible-ment." The need of our time is great willing. Here, in the deeps of us, let us in the strength of God weave the garment of our manhood, our vesture of eternity.



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