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Self-culture - Facilities And Difficulties

( Originally Published 1884 )

Sir Walter Scott on Self-culture.—Active Employment salutary.—Importance of physical Health.—Early Labor.—Training in Use of Tools.—Healthiness of Great Men.—Labor conquers all Things.—Well-directed Labor.—Opinions of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Fowell Buxton.—Thoroughness, Accuracy, Decision, and Promptitude.—The virtue of patient Labor.—The right Use of Knowledge.—Books may impart learning, but well - applied Knowledge and Experience only exhibit Wisdom.—The Magna Charta Men.—Brindley Stephenson, Hunter, and others, not book-learned yet great.—Self-respect.—The Wisdom and Strength acquired through Failure.—The Uses of Difficulty and Adversity.—Struggles with Difficulties.

"Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives to himself."—GIBBON.

THE best part of every man's education, said Sir Walter Scott, " is that which he gives to him-self." The late Sir Benjamin Brodie delighted to re-member this saying, and he used to congratulate him-self on the fact that professionally he was self-taught. But this is necessarily the case with all men who have acquired distinction in letters, science, or art. The education received at school or college is but a beginning, and is valuable mainly inasmuch as it trains the mind and habituates it to continuous application and study. That which is put into us by others is always far less ours than that which we acquire by our own diligent and persevering effort. Knowledge conquered by labor becomes a possession--a property entirely our own. A greater vividness and permanency of impression is secured; and facts thus acquired become registered in the mind in a way that mere imparted information can never effect. This kind of self culture also calls forth' power and cultivates strength. The solution of one problem helps the mastery of another; and thus knowledge is carried into faculty. Our own active effort is the essential thing; and no facilities, no books, no teachers, no amount of lessons learnt by rote will enable us to dispense with it.

The best teachers have been the readiest to recognize the importance of self-culture, and of stimulating the student to acquire knowledge by the active exercise of his own faculties. They have relied more upon training than upon telling, and sought to make their pupils themselves active parties to the work in which they were engaged; thus making teaching something far higher than the mere passive reception of the scraps and details of knowledge.

From the numerous instances already cited of men of humble station who have risen to distinction in science and literature, it will be obvious that labor is by no means incompatible with the highest intellectual culture. Work in moderation is healthy as well as agree-able to the human constitution. Work educates the body, as study educates the mind; and that is the best state of society in which there is some work for every man's leisure, and some leisure for every man's work.

The use of early labor in self-imposed mechanical employments may be illustrated by the boyhood of Sir Isaac Newton. Though comparatively a dull scholar,, he was very assiduous in the use of his saw, hammer, and hatchet—" knocking and hammering in his lodging room" making models of windmills, carriages, and machines of all sorts; and as he grew older, he took delight in making little tables and cupboards for his friends. Smeaton, Watt, and Stephenson, were equally handy with tools when mere boys; and but for such kind of self-culture in their youth, it is doubtful whether they, would have accomplished so much in their man-hood. Such was also the early training of the great inventors and mechanics described in the preceding pages, whose contrivance and intelligence were practically trained by the constant use of their hands in early life. Even where men belonging to the manual labor class have risen above it, and become more purely intellectual laborers, they have found the advantages of their early training in their latter pursuits. Elihu Burritt says he found hard labor necessary to enable him to study with effect; and more than once he gave up school-teaching and study, and, taking to his leather apron again, went back to his blacksmith's forge and anvil for his health of body and mind's sake.

The training of young men in the use of tools would, at the same time that it educated them in common things," teach them the use of their hands and arms, familiarize them with healthy work, exercise their faculties upon things tangible and actual, give them some practical acquaintance with mechanics, impart to them the ability of being useful, and implant in them the habit of persevering physical effort. This is an advantage which the working classes, strictly so called, certainly possess over the leisure classes that they are in early life under the necessity of applying themselves laboriously to some mechanical pursuit or other-thus acquiring manual dexterity and the use of their physical powers, The chief disadvantage attached to the calling of the laborious classes is, not that they are employed in physical work, but that they are too exclusively so employed, often to the neglect of their moral and intellectual faculties. While the youths of the leisure classes, having been taught to associate labor with servility, have shunned it, and been allowed to grow up practically ignorant, the poorer classes, confining them-selves within the circle of their laborious callings, have been allowed to grow up, in a large proportion of cases, absolutely illiterate. It seems possible however, to avoid both these evils by combining physical training or physical work with intellectual culture; and there are various signs abroad which seem to mark the gradual adoption of this healthier system of education.

The success of even professional men depends in no slight degree on their physical health; and a public writer has gone so far as to say that the greatness of our great men is quite as much a bodily affair as a mental one." A healthy breathing apparatus is as indispensable to the successful lawyer or politician as a well-cultured intellect. The thorough aeration of the blood by free exposure to a large breathing surface in the lungs, is necessary to maintain that full vital power on which the vigorous working of the brain in so large a measure depends. The lawyer has to climb the heights of his profession through close and heated courts, and the political leader has to bear the fatigue and excitement of long and anxious debates in a crowded House. Hence the lawyer in full practice and the parliamentary leader in full work are called upon to display powers of physical endurance and activity even more extraordinary than those of the intellect such powers as have been exhibited in so remarkable a degree by Brougham, Lyndhurst, and Campbell; by Peel, Graham, and Palmerston all full-chested men.

While it is necessary, then, in the first place to secure this solid foundation of physical health, it must also be observed that the cultivation of the habit of mental application is quite indispensable for the education of the student. The maxim that " Labor conquers all things " holds especially true in the case of the con-quest of knowledge. The road into learning is alike free to all who will give the labor and the study requisite to gather it; nor are there any difficulties so great that the student of resolute purpose may not surmount and overcome them. It was one of the characteristic expressions of Chatterton, that God had sent his creatures into the world with arms long enough to reach any thing if they chose to be at the trouble. In study, as in business, energy is the great thing. There must be the " fervet opus:" we must not only strike the iron while it is hot, but strike it till it is made hot. It is astonishing how much may be accomplished in self-culture by the energetic and the persevering, who are careful to avail themselves of opportunities, and use up the fragments of spare time which the idle permit to run to waste. Thus Ferguson learnt astronomy from the heavens while wrapt in a sheep-skin on the high land hills. Thus Stone learnt mathematics while working as a journeyman gardener; thus Drew studied the highest philosophy in the intervals of cobbling shoes; and thus Miller taught himself geology while working as a day-laborer in a quarry.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, as we have already observed, was so earnest a believer in the force of industry, that he held that all men might achieve excellence if they would not exercise the power of assiduous and patient working. He held that drudgery lay on the road to genius, and that there was no limit to the proficiency of an artist except the limit of his own painstaking. He would not believe in what is called inspiration, but only in study and labor. " Excellence," he said, " is never granted to man but as the reward of labor." " If you have great talents, industry will improve them; if you have but moderate abilities, industry will supply their deficiency. Nothing is denied to well-directed labor; nothing is to be obtained without it." Sir Fowell Buxton was an equal believer in the power of study; and he entertained the modest idea that he could do as well as other men if he devoted to the pursuit double the time and labor that they did. He placed his great confidence in ordinary means and extraordinary application.

" I have known several men in my life," says Dr. Ross, " who may be recognized in days to come as men of genius, and they were all plodders, hard-working, intent men. Genius is known by its works; genius without works is a blind faith, a dumb oracle. But meritorious works are the result of time and labor, and can not be accomplished by intention or by a wish. . . .

Every great work is the result of vast preparatory training. Facility comes by labor. Nothing seems easy, not even walking, that was not difficult at first. The orator whose eye flashes instantaneous fire, and whose lips pour out a flood of noble thoughts, startling by their unexpectedness and elevating by their wisdom and truth, has learned his secret by patient repetition, and after many bitter disappointments."

Thoroughness and accuracy are two principal points to be aimed at in study. Francis Horner, in laying down rules for the cultivation of his mind; placed great stress upon the habit of continuous application to one subject for the sake of mastering it thoroughly; he confined himself with this object to only a few books, and resisted with the greatest firmness " every approach to a habit of desultory reading." The value of knowledge to any man consists not in its quantity, but mainly in the good uses to which he can apply it. Hence a little knowledge of an exact and perfect character, is always found more valuable for practical purposes than any extent of superficial learning.

The most profitable study is that which is conducted with a definite aim and object. By thoroughly mastering any given branch of knowledge we render it more available for use at any moment. Hence it is not enough merely to have books, or to know where to read for information as we want it. Practical wisdom, for the purposes of life, must be carried about with us, and be ready for use at call. It is not sufficient that we have a fund laid up at home, but not a farthing in the pocket : we must carry about with us a store of the cur-rent coin of knowledge ready for exchange on all occasions, else we are comparitively helpless when the opportunity for using it occurs.

Decision and promptitude are as requisite in self-culture as in business. The growth of these qualities may be encouraged by accustoming young people to rely upon their own resources, leaving them to enjoy as much freedom of action in early life as is practicable. Too much guidance and restraint hinder the formation of habits of self-help. They are like bladders tied under the arms of one who has not taught himself to swim. Want of confidence is perhaps a greater obstacle to improvement than is generally imagined. It has been said that half the failures in life arise from pulling in one's horse while he is leaping. Dr. Johnson was accustomed to attribute his success to confidence in his own powers. True modesty is quite compatible with a due estimate of one's own merits, and does not demand the abnegation of all merit. Though there are those who deceive themselves by putting a false figure before their ciphers, the want of confidence, the want of faith in one's self, and consequently the want of promptitude in action, is a defect of character which is found to stand very much in the way of individual progress; and the reason why so little is done, is generally because so little is attempted.

It is the use we make of the powers intrusted to us, which constitutes our only just claim to respect. He who employs his one talent aright is as much to be honored as he to whom ten talents have been given. There is really no more personal merit attaching to the possession of superior intellectual powers than there is in the succession to a large estate. How are those powers used how is that estate employed? The mind may accumulate large stores of knowledge without any useful purpose; but the knowledge must be allied to goodness and wisdom, and embodied in upright character, else it is naught.

It ,is possible that at this day we may even exaggerate the importance of literary culture. We are apt to imagine that because we possess many libraries, institutes, and museums, we are making great progress.

But such facilities may as often be a hindrance as a help to individual self culture of the highest kind. The possession of a library, or the free use of it, no more constitutes learning, than the possession of wealth constitutes generosity. Though we undoubtedly possess great facilities, it is nevertheless true, as of old, that wisdom and understanding can only become the possession of individual men by traveling the old road of observation, attention, perseverance, and industry. The possession of the mere materials of knowledge is something very different from wisdom and understanding, which are reached through a higher kind of discipline than that of reading which is often but a mere passive reception of other men's thoughts; there being little or no active effort of mind in the transaction.

It is also to be borne in mind that the experience gathered from books, though often valuable, is but of the nature of learning; whereas the experience gained from actual life is of the nature of wisdom; and a small store of the latter is worth vastly more than any stock of the former. Lord Bolingbroke truly said that " Whatever study tends neither directly nor indirectly to make us better men and citizens, is at best but a specious and ingenious sort of idleness, and the knowledge we accquire by it only a creditable kind of ignorance nothing more."

Useful and instructive though good reading may be,, it is yet only one mode of cultivating the mind; and is much less influential than practical experience and good example in the formation of character. There were wise, valiant, and true-hearted men bred in England, long before the existence of a reading public. Magna Charta was secured by men who signed the deed with their marks. Though altogether unskilled in the art of deciphering the literary signs by which principles were denominated upon paper, they yet understood and appreciated, and boldly contended for, the things themselves. Thus the foundations of English liberty were laid by men who, though illiterate, were nevertheless of the very highest stamp of character. And it must be admitted that the chief object of culture is, not merely to fill the mind with other men's thoughts, and to be the passive recipient of their impressions of things, but to enlarge our individual intelligence, and render us more useful and efficient workers in the sphere of life to which we may be called. Many of our most energetic and useful workers have been but sparing readers. Brindley and Stephenson did not learn to read and write until they reached manhood, and yet they did great works and lived manly lives; John Hunter could barely read or write when he was twenty years old, though he could make tables and chairs with any carpenter in the trade. " I never read," said the great physiologist when lecturing before his class; " this " pointing to some part of the subject before him" this is the work that you must study if you wish to become eminent in your profession." When told that one of his contemporaries had charged him with being ignorant of the dead languages, he said, " I would undertake to teach him that on the dead body which he never knew in any language, dead or living."

It is not then how much a man may know, that is of importance, but the end and purpose for which he knows it. The object of knowledge should be to mature wisdom and improve character, to render us bet-ter, happier, and more useful; the more benevolent, more energetic, and more efficient in the pursuit of every high purpose in life. " When people once fall into the habit of admiring and encouraging ability as such, with-out reference to moral character and religious and political opinions are the concrete form of moral character they are on the highway to all sorts of degradation." We must ourselves be and do, and not test satisfied merely with reading and meditating over what other men have been and done. Our best light must be made life, and our best thought action. At least we ought to be able to say, as Richter did, " I have made as much out of myself as could be made of the stuff, and no man should require more;" for it is every man's duty to discipline' and guide himself, with God's help, according to his responsibilities and the faculties with which he has been endowed.

Self-discipline and self-control are the beginnings of practical wisdom; and these must have their root in self-respect. Hope springs from. it hope, which is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for who so hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles. The humblest may say, " To respect myself, to develop myself this is my true duty in life. An integral and responsible part of the great system of society, I owe it to society and to its Author not to degrade or destroy either my body, mind, or instincts. On the contrary, I am bound to the best of my power to give to those parts of my constitution the highest degree of perfection possible. I am not only to suppress the evil, but to evoke the good elements in my nature. And as I respect myself, so am I equally bound to respect others, as they on their part are bound to respect me." Hence mutual respect, justice, and order, of which law becomes the written record and guarantee.

Self-respect is the noblest garment with which a man may clothe himself the most elevating feeling with which the mind can be inspired. One of Pythagora's wisest maxims, in his " Golden Verses," is that with which he enjoins the pupil to " reverence himself," Borne up by this high idea, he will not defile his body by sensuality, nor his mind by servile thoughts. This sentiment, carried into daily life, will be found at the root of all the virtues--cleanliness, sobriety, chastity, morality, and religion. " The pious and just honoring of ourselves," said Milton, " may be thought the radical moisture and fountain-head from whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth." To think meanly of one's self, is to sink in one's own estimation as well as in the estimation of others. And as the thoughts are, so will the acts be. Man can not aspire if he look down; if he will rise, he must look up. The very humblest may be sustained by the proper indulgence of this feeling. Poverty itself may be lifted and lighted up by self respect; and it is truly a noble sight to see a poor man hold himself upright amidst his temptations, and refuse to demean himself by low actions.

It is not ease, but effort not facility, but difficulty, that makes men. There is, perhaps, no station in life, in which difficulties have not to be encountered and overcome before any decided measure of success can be achieved. Those difficulties are, however, our best instructors, as our mistakes often form our best experience. Charles James Fox was accustomed to say that he hoped more from a man who failed, and yet went on in spite of his failure, than from the buoyant career of the successful. " It is all very well," said he, " to tell me that a young man has distinguished himself by a brilliant first speech. He may go on, or he may be satisfied with his first triumph; but show me a young man who has not succeeded at first, and nevertheless has gone on, and I will back that young man to do better than most of those who have succeeded at the first trial,"

We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery. It was the failure in the attempt to make a sucking-pump act, when the working-bucket was more than thirty-three feet above the surface of the water to be raised, that led observant men to study the law of atmospheric pressure, and. opened a new field of research to the genius of Galileo, Torrecelli, and Boyle. John Hunter used to remark that the art of surgery would not advance until professional men had the courage to publish their failures as well as their successes. Watt the engineer said, of all things most wanted in mechanical engineering was a history of failures : " We want," he said, " a book of blots."

Necessity may be a hard schoolmistress, but she is generally found the best. Though the ordeal of adversity is one from which we naturally shrink, yet, when it comes, we must bravely and manfully encounter it. Burns says truly,

" Though losses and crosses
Be lessons right severe,
There's wit there, you'll get there,
You'll find no other where."

" Sweet indeed are the uses of adversity." They re-veal to us our powers, and call forth our energies. If there be real worth in the character, like sweet herbs, it will give forth its finest fragrance when pressed. " Crosses," says the old proverb, " are the ladders that lead to heaven." " What is even poverty itself," asks Richter, " that a man should murmur under it? It is but as the pain of piercing a maiden's ear, and you hang precious jewels in the wound." In the experience of life it is found that the wholesome discipline of adversity in strong natures usually carries with it a self-preserving influence. Many are found capable of bravely bearing up under privations, and cheerfully encountering obstructions, who are afterwards found unable to withstand the more dangerous influences of prosperity. It is only a weak man whom the wind deprives of his cloak; a man of average strength is. more in danger of losing it when assailed by the beams of a too genial sun. Thus it often needs a higher discipline and a stronger character to bear up under good fortune than under adverse. Some generous natures kindle and warm with prosperity, but there are many on whom wealth has no such influence. Base hearts it only hardens, making those who were mean and servile, mean and proud. But while prosperity is apt to harden the heart to pride, adversity in a man of resolution will serve to ripen it into fortitude. To use the words of Burke, " Difficulty is a severe instructor, set over us by the supreme ordinance of a parental guardian and instructor, who knows us better than we know ourselves, as He loves us better too. He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill; our antagonist is thus our helper. Without the necessity of encountering difficulty, life might be easier, but men would be worth less. For trials, wisely improved, train the character, and teach self-help; thus hardship itself may often prove the wholesomest discipline for us, though we recognize it not.

The battle of life is, in most cases fought up-hill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honor. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be achieved. Difficulties may intimidate the weak, but they act only as a wholesome stimulus to men of resolution and valor. All experience of life, indeed, serves to prove that the impediments thrown in the way of human advancement may. for the most part, be overcome by steady good conduct, honest zeal, activity, perseverance, and above all, by a determined resolution to surmount difficulties, and stand up manfully against misfortune.

The School of Difficulty is the best school of moral discipline, for nations as for individuals. Indeed, the history of difficulty would be but a history of all the great and good things that have yet been accomplished by men. It is hard to say how much northern nations owe to their encounter with a comparatively rude and changeable climate, and an originally sterile soil, which is one of the necessities of their condition involving a perennial struggle with difficulties such as the natives of sunnier climes know nothing of. And thus it may be, that though our finest products are exotic, the skill and industry which have been necessary to rear them, have issued in the production of a native growth of men not surpassed on the globe.

Wherever there is difficulty, the individual man must come out better for worse. Encounter with it will train his strength, and discipline his skill; heartening him for future effort, as the racer, by being trained to run against the hill, at lenght with facility. The road to success may be steep to climb, and it puts to the proof the energies of him who would reach the summit. But by experience a man soon learns that obstacles are to be overcome by grappling with them; that the nettle feels as soft as silk when it is boldly grasped; and that the most effective help towards realizing the object proposed is the moral conviction that we can and will accomplish it. Thus difficulties often fall away of themselves before the determination to overcome them.

Much will be done if we do but try. Nobody knows what he can do till he has tried; and few try their best till they have been forced to do it. " If I could do such and such a thing," sighs the desponding youth. But nothing will be done if he only wishes. The desire must ripen into purpose and effort; and one energetic attempt is worth a thousand aspirations. It is these thorny " ifs "—the mutterings of impotence and despair —which so often hedge round the field of possibility, and prevent any thing being done or even attempted. " A difficulty," said Lord Lyndhurst, " is a thing to be overcome;" grapple with it at once; facility will come with practice, and strength and fortitude with repeated effort. Thus the mind and character may be trained to an almost, perfect discipline, and enabled to act with a grace, spirit, and liberty, almost incomprehensible to those who have not passed through a similar experience.

Every thing that we learn is the mastery of a difficulty; and the mastery of one helps to the mastery of others. Things which may at first sight appear comparatively valueless in education such as the study of the dead languages, and the relation of lines and surfaces which we call mathematics are really of the greatest practical value, not so much because of the information which they yield, as because of the development which they compel. The mastery of these studies evokes effort, and cultivates powers of application, which otherwise might have lain dormant. Thus one thing leads to another, and so the work goes on through life encounter with difficulty ending only when life and culture end. But indulging in the feeling of discouragement never helped any one or a difficulty, and never will. D'Alembert's advice to the student who complained to him about his want of success in mastering the first elements of mathematics was the right one, " Go on, sir, and faith and strength will come to you." The tortoise in the right road will beat a racer in the wrong. It matters not, though a youth be slow, if he be but diligent. Quickness of parts may even prove a defect, inasmuch as the boy who learns readily will often forget as readily; and also because he finds no need of cultivating that quality of application and per-severance which the slower youth is compelled to exercise, and which proves so valuable an element in the formation of every character. Davy said, " What I am I have made myself;" and the same holds true universally.

To conclude: the best culture is not obtained from teachers when at school or college, so much as by our own diligent self education when we have become men. Hence parents need not be in too great haste to see their children's talents forced into bloom. Let them watch and wait patiently, letting good example and quiet training do their work, and leave the rest to Providence. Let them see to it that the youth is provided, by free exercise of his bodily powers, with a full stock of physical health; set him fairly on the road of self-culture; carefully train his habits of application and perseverance; and as he grows older, if the right stuff be in him, he will be enabled vigorously and effectively to cultivate himself.

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