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Strong Temper

( Originally Published 1884 )

Evils of Strong Temper.—Strafford, Cromwell, Washington, Wellington, etc. —Instances of Self-control.—Faraday, Anquetil.—Forbearance of Speech. —Honest Indignation.

" The Government of one's self is the only true freedom for the indiVidual."—FREDERICK PERTHES.

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. Dr. Johnson says men grow better as they grow older, and improve with experience; but this depends upon the width and depth and generousness of their nature. 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. The wise will profit by the suffering they cause, and eschew them for the future; but there are those on whom experience exerts no ripening influence, and who only grow narrower and bitterer, and more vicious with time.

What is called strong temper in a young man, often indicates a large amount of unripe energy, which will expend itself in useful work if the road be fairly opened to it. It is said of Stephen Girard, a Frenchman, who pursued a remarkably successful career in the United States, that when he heard of a clerk with a strong temper, he would readily take him into his employment, and set him to work in a room by himself; Girard being of opinion that such persons were the best workers, and that their energy would expend itself in work if removed from the temptation to quarrel.

Strong temper may only mean a strong and excitable will. Uncontrolled, it displays itself in fitful outbreaks of passion; but controlled and held in subjection like steam pent-up within the organized mechanism of a steam-engine, the use of which is regulated and con-trolled by slide-valves and governors and levers it may become a source of energetic power and usefulness. Hence some of the greatest characters in history have been men of strong temper, but of equally strong determination to hold their motive-power under strict regulation and control.

Cromwell is described as having been of a wayward and violent temper in his youth cross, intractable, and masterless with a vast quantity of youthful energy, which exploded in a variety of youthful mischiefs. He even obtained the reputation of a roysterer in his native town, and seemed to be rapidly going to the bad, when religion, in one of its most rigid forms, laid hold upon his strong nature, and subjected it to the iron discipline of Calvinism. An entirely new direction was thus given to his energy of temperament, which forced an outlet for itself into public life, and eventually became the dominating influence in England for a period of nearly twenty years.

Mr. Motley compares William the Silent to Washing-ton, whom he in many respects resembled. The American, like the Dutch patriot, stands out in history as the very impersonation of dignity, bravery, purity, and personal excellence. His command over his feelings, even in moments of great difficulty and danger, was such as to convey the impression, to those who did not know him intimately, that he was a man of inborn calmness and almost impassiveness of disposition. Yet Washington was by nature ardent and impetuous; his mildness, gentleness, politeness, and consideration for others, were the result of rigid self-control and unwearied self-discipline, which he diligently practiced even from his boyhood. His biographer says of him, that " his temperament was ardent, his passions strong, and, amidst the multiplied scenes of temptation and excitement through which he passed, it was his constant effort, and ultimate triumph, to check the one and subdue the other." And again : " His passions were strong, and sometimes they broke out with vehemence, but he had the power of checking them in an instant. Perhaps self-control was the most remarkable trait of his character. It was in part, the effect of discipline; yet he seems by nature to have possessed this power in a degree which has been denied to other men."

The Duke of Wellington's natural temper, like that of Napoleon, was irritable in the extreme, and it was only by watchful self-control that he was enabled to restrain it. He studied calmness and coolness in the midst of danger, like an Indian chief: At Waterloo, and elsewhere, he gave his orders in the most critical moments without the slightest excitement, and in a tone of voice almost more than usually subdued.

A man may be feeble in organization, but, blessed with a happy temperament, his soul may be great, active, noble, and sovereign. Professor Tyndall has given us a fine picture of the character of Faraday, and of his self-denying labors in the cause of science—exhibiting him as a man of strong, original, and even fiery nature, and yet of extreme tenderness and sensibility. "Underneath his sweetness and gentleness," he says, " was the heat of a volcano. He was a man of excitable and fiery. nature; but, through high self discipline, he had converted the fire into a central glow and motive-power of life, instead of permitting it to waste itself in useless passion."

There was one fine feature in Faraday's character which is worthy of notice one closely akin to self-control: it was his self denial. By devoting himself to analytical chemistry, he might have speedily realized a large fortune; but he nobly resisted the temptation, . and preferred to follow the path of pure science. " Taking the duration of his life into account," says Mr. Tyndall, " this son of a blacksmith and apprentice to a book-binder had to decide between a fortune of $750,000 on the one side, and his undowered science on the other, he chose the latter, and died a poor man. But his was the glory of holding aloft among the nations the scientific name of England for a period of forty years."

Take a like instance of the self-denial of a Frenchman. The historian Anquetil was one of the small numbers of literary men in France who refused to bow to the Napoleonic yoke. He sank into great poverty, living on bread-and-milk, and limiting his expenditure to only three sous a day. " I have still two sous a day left," said he, " for the conqueror of Marengo and Austerlitz." " But if you fall sick," said a friend to him, " you will need the help of a pension. Why not do as others do? Pay court to the emperor you have need of him to live." " I do not need him to die," was the historian's reply. But Anquetil did not die in poverty; he lived to the age of ninety-four, saying to a friend, on. the eve of his death, " Come, see a man who dies still full of life !"

If a man would get through life honorably and peaceably, he must necessarily learn to practice self denial in small things as well as great. Men have to bear as well as forbear. The temper has to be held in subjection to the judgment; and the little demons of ill-humor, petulance, and sarcasm, kept resolutely at a distance. If once they find an entrance to the mind, they are very apt to return, and to establish for themselves a permanent occupation there.

It is necessary to one's personal happiness, to exercise control over one's words as well as acts: for there are words that strike even harder than blows; and men may " speak daggers," though they use none. " Un coup de langue," says the French proverb, " est pire qu'un coup de lance." The stinging repartee that rises to the lips, and which, if uttered, might cover an adversary with confusion, how difficult it sometimes is to resist saying it! " Heaven keep us," says Miss Bremer, in her " Home," ". from the destroying power of words ! There are words which sever hearts more than sharp swords do; there are words the point of which sting the heart through the course of a whole life."

Thus character exhibits itself in self-control of speech as much as in anything else. 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," said Solomon, "is in his heart; the heart of a fool is in his mouth."

There are, however, men who are no fools, that are headlong in their language as in their acts, because of their want of forbearance and self restraining patience. The impulsive genius, gifted with quick thought and incisive speech perhaps carried away by the cheers of the moment lets fly a sarcastic sentence which may return upon him to his own infinite damage. Even statesmen might be named, who have failed through their inability to resist the temptation of saying clever and spiteful things at their adversary's expense. " The turn of a sentence," says Bentham, " has decided the fate of many a friendship, and, for aught that we know, the fate of many a kingdom." So, when one is tempted to write a clever but harsh thing, though it may be difficult to restrain it, it is always better to leave it in the inkstand.

" A goose's quill," says the Spanish proverb, "often hurts more than a lion's claw."

Carlyle says, when speaking of Oliver Cromwell, " He that can not withal keep his mind to himself, can not practice any considerable thing whatsoever." It was said of William the Silent, by one of his greatest enemies, that an arrogant or indiscreet word was never known to fall from his lips. Like him, Washington was discretion itself in the use of speech, never taking advantage of an opponent, or seeking a short lived triumph in a debate. And it is said that, in the long run, the world comes round to and supports the wise man who knows when and how to be silent.

We have heard men of great experience say that they have often regretted having spoken, but never once regretted holding their tongue. "Be silent," says Pythagoras, " or say something better than silence." " Speak fitly," says George Herbert, " or be silent wisely." St. Francis de Sales, whom Leigh Hunt styled "the Gentleman Saint," has said: "It is better to remain silent than to speak the truth ill-humoredly, and so spoil an excellent dish by covering it with bad sauce." Another Frenchman, Lacordaire, characteris tically puts speech first, and silence next. " After speech," he says, " silence is the greatest power in the world." Yet a word spoken in season, how powerful it may be! As the old Welsh proverb has it, " A golden tongue is in the mouth of the blessed."

It is related, as a remarkable instance of self-control on the part of De Leon, a distinguished Spanish poet of the sixteenth century, who lay for years in the dungeons of the Inquisition without light or society, because of his having translated a part of the Scriptures into his native tongue, that, on being liberated and restored to his professorship, an immense crowd attended his first lecture,. expecting some account of his long imprisonment; but De Leon was too wise and too gentle to indulge in recrimination. He merely resumed the lecture which, five years before, had been so sadly interrupted, with the accustomed formula " Heri dicebamus," and went directly into his subject.

There are, of course, times and occasions when the expression of indignation is not only justifiable but necessary. We are bound to be indignant at falsehood, selfishness, and cruelty. A man of true feeling fires up naturally at baseness or meanness of any sort, even in cases where he may be under no obligation to speak out. " I would have nothing to do," said Perthes, " with the man who can not be moved to indignation. There are more good people than bad in the world, and the bad get the upper hand merely because they are bolder. We can not help being pleased with a man who uses his powers with decision, and we often take his side for no other reason than because he does so use them. No doubt, I have often repented speaking; but not less often have I repented keeping silence."

One who loves right can not be indifferent to wrong, or wrong-doing. If he feels warmly, he will speak warmly, out of the fullness of his heart. As a noble lady has written:

"A noble heart doth teach a virtuous scorn
To scorn to owe a duty overlong,
To scorn to be for benefits forborne,
To scorn to lie, to scorn to do a wrong,
To scorn to bear an injury in mind,
To scorn a freeborn heart slave like to bind."

We have, however, to be on our guard against impatient scorn. The best people are apt to have their impatient side, and often the very temper which makes men earnest makes them also intolerant. " Of all mental gifts," says Miss Julia Wedgwood, " the rarest is intellectual patience; and the last lesson of culture is to believe in difficulties which are invisible to ourselves."

The best corrective of intolerance in disposition, is increase of wisdom and enlarged experience of life. Cultivated good sense will usually save men from the entanglements in which moral impatience is apt to involve them; good sense consisting chiefly in that temper of mind which enables its possessor to deal with the practical affairs of life with justice, judgment, discretion, and charity. Hence men of culture and experience are invariably found the most forbearant and tolerant, as ignorant and narrow-minded persons are found the most unforgiving and intolerant. Men of large and generous natures, in proportion to their practical wisdom, are disposed to make allowance for the defects and disadvantages of others allowing for the controlling power of circumstances in the formation of character, and the limited power of resistance of weak and fallible natures to temptation and error. " I see no fault committed," said Goethe," which I also might not have committed." So a wise and good man exclaimed, when he saw a criminal drawn on his hurdle to Tyburn: " There goes Jonathan Bradford but for the grace of God!"

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