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On Self Examination

Andrews Norton

This article is taken from The General Repository and Review, vol. 3, no. 1 (January 1813), pp. 52-59

He who wishes to be virtuous, or useful, or wise, must seek to know his own character; he who wishes for happiness must both know and have power over himself, without which it is unattainable. That each one is better acquainted with himself than any one else, is probable; that each one can know himself best is certain. But either not being conscious of this power, or wanting disposition to exert it, another's opinion is often mistaken for our own consciousness, and the estimation of our character accommodated to the image reflected from another’s mind. The opinions entertained concerning us cannot but affect us, and if we are disposed to consider only or principally what is said or thought that is good, or that alone which is bad, concerning us, distrust of our powers or a vain estimation of ourselves will be produced. Although then what is said of us may be of some assistance, and what is thought (could we know it) would be of much more, towards estimating ourselves, yet as others are liable to inaccuracy of judgment, as well as ourselves, as they have not the same means of knowing, and even if they had, as we cannot depend on our judgments of their opinions, or their expressions of opinion, as we have in our full possession the subject of knowledge and the instruments for examining it, we ought to form our opinion of our character principally from the observations which we can make upon ourselves.

Self-knowledge is to be acquired by honest and habitual examination. We may deceive ourselves as well as others; we may be reserved in our confessions when no ear hears them. There are favorite faults which may escape, from being the companions of our virtues; there are vices to which we may be lenient because they have in them something of refinement and amiableness, and the errors of weakness we may pity rather than condemn. When a good quality, which is congenial to our natural disposition, has grown into a defect, we may be insensible to it; and from various motives by which we are actuated we may select those that are good and imagine that they are the only ones which influence us, when they would be lost to a closer inspection in the crowd of unworthy inclinations. It is not unnecessary then to say that this examination should be honest, or to be impressed with the importance of sincerity and openness in our intercourse with ourselves. Truth, without any of the drapery of prejudice or opinion, must be the test of our actions, and we must reverence our judgment too much to attempt to deceive it or suffer it to be misled.

It is not only when some unusually strong motives have affected us, when our actions have been of important consequences and have had much in them to interest us, that we must ask what manner of spirit we are of. Not alone when we are suffering from recent guilt, for the stain is then fresh and disgusting and may cover something better, and we may, it is possible, too much condemn ourselves. Nor only when our hearts are elevated and warmed by an act of uncommon goodness, for it may dazzle us: after we have been looking at the sun we see its image on the cloud. Nor again when we are depressed and gloomy, for melancholy is a fog which is oppressive and chilling, through which the rays of hope cannot penetrate, which obscures vision, which distorts every object, and magnifies what would be beauty into deformity, darkening the path which we are pursuing and presenting only a prospect of misery and distress—the fearful monsters of diseased imagination. We then only recollect to condemn. At other times we may behold from the eminence of expectation the fair landscape of futurity, gilded by the rising sun, rich with promises of good that kindles desire and rouses exertion, whose only shades are for calm repose to refresh and invigorate, and which produces delight alloyed only by the regret that we are not already in possession. This is when health has given activity and spirits; or when our cheerfulness is excessive from physical excitement, from much company, from uncommon praises, or the flattering attentions of those whom we love and respect; or when new proofs of the esteem of others make us estimate ourselves more highly, and we adopt the good opinion which we think they express; or when some prosperous event has shed light upon our prospects and discovered new sources of pleasure, or when being relieved from some evil which oppressed us, our steps totter from the relief.—In such circumstances we shall have too much levity for composed retrospection, or be too complacent for fair examination. When we are so partial to ourselves in our estimation of what is to come, it cannot be expected that we shall judge with correctness of what is past.

 There may be seasons of despondence when desperation makes us acquiesce in vice—there may be periods of scepticism when, doubting the danger, we may not fear to err; when the mind cannot discern between good and bad—and amid the tumult of passion no voice can be heard but that which prompts us to indulgence; we may gaze with delight upon the leopard’s spots or the adder’s skin and forget the venom and the fang; in the delirium of guilty feelings, the sting of conscience may be unfelt, and we may be unable to judge of our conduct. At such times we should banish thought from our minds, we should seek safety in flight rather than by combat, we should strive to forget rather than recollect our feelings, fearing to deepen impressions which may otherwise soon disappear.

 There are many who, from the constitution of their minds, are incapable of these vicissitudes, who are not liable to the disturbing influence of strong emotions, and there are none who can always remain in such states of mind as have been described. In most persons the passions and feelings are not usually in powerful operation. They rouse themselves and are violent for a season, and then leave the soul harassed by their invasion to recover its exhausted vigor, so that, for the most part, reason may possess her rightful sway, and then is the period favorable to an impartial estimation of one’s own character.

 This exercise must be habitual: not merely an unfrequent and occasional inquiry into our characters, to which circumstances peculiarly favorable may excite us, but a constant and unremitted attention to every action and to each whisper of conscience. We should uniformly reflect whether we do what we ought. We should determine what we will do by considering the great rules of life, which religion affords, and we should judge of what we have done by reference to the same guide. We must search minutely into our own hearts; we must detect the motive which would conceal itself, and lay open to our inspection the principles by which we are governed.

In all such inquiries, as are now recommended, every man may consider his character in three relations—as intellectual, social, and religious. As to the first, one’s intellectual character, as there is nothing which pertains to them about which most men are more anxious, so there is nothing, concerning which, they more often mistake. By some strange inconsistency a double error is common upon this subject. First, the learning or knowledge, which is the result of patient study or judicious observation, is attributed rather to the possession of faculties which are not common, to something which is the gift of nature, and is unattainable by those who do not now possess it, than to that labor and mental exertion which is the real source of all intellectual eminence. The second error is that a man is praised, not for having the fruits of his assiduity, not for being learned, but for possessing talents. He has the reward of merit for that which was confessedly beyond his power to obtain, and very often he who, by some accident, is thought what is called a genius, although he may be a very idle one, is ranked as superior to him who possesses all that genius can give except the reputation of it. Now these errors are harmless, in so far as this, that a man who obtains knowledge will always obtain praise, though probably this praise will be for being able to acquire rather than for having exercised his powers; yet again it is injurious because some may be satisfied with the reputation of abilities, and content with this, will not make those exertions to which the want of it might otherwise prompt them. But the consequence which is perhaps most to be lamented, and which it is most pertinent to the present purpose to notice, is the discouragement and wrong estimation of one’s own character, which it may produce, and the waste and neglect of talents which may follow from such mistakes. Intellectual excellence is one of the favorite objects of the wishes of most men. It is a desire that not unfrequently is excessive and exposes them to vanity and all its ridiculous consequences. There are those against whom few accusations can be brought, which could not be rendered almost offensive, provided the charge was accompanied by any acknowledgement of their intellectual superiority. But this kind of excellence is certainly to be sought after and valued, since it gives a rank in society which cannot be obtained so easily without it, and especially because it affords greater facilities for the acquisition of what is morally good. It must therefore be very desirable to all to ascertain the just and proper rank of their minds, how far they are susceptible of cultivation, and how far they are cultivated. This knowledge will preserve those who desire intellectual excellence only because it gives men rank and reputation, from the mortifications consequent upon inordinate self-estimation, and it will assist those in the use of their understandings who would improve them as the better part of their nature and as the means of virtue and happiness. Our intellectual character must then be a worthy and an interesting object of self-examination. When we inquire into it, we must be careful to make the test of it our own observation—we must be firm enough to resist equally the praises of a friend and the aspersions of an enemy; for none but ourselves have all the means of judging. We alone know what are the subjects to which our thoughts spontaneously recur; whether our minds are commonly employed upon subjects of permanent interest and great importance, or whether our mental strength is debilitated from inaction or suffered to waste itself upon trifles. The books and the society which we prefer, and the truths that are impressed upon our memories by what we have read and heard, the degree of inclination which we feel to obtain knowledge, the patience with which we persevere in pursuit of it, and the pleasure which new acquisitions afford, are some of the circumstances we should regard. To be told that we have ability must not satisfy us, for we may have been observed only in our most favorable states of mind. We must know that of the praises we receive, a great part are undeserved, and that there are many, and that we may be of their number who have enjoyed reputation far beyond their deserts. The expressions of intellectual character are frequently mistaken, because it requires discrimination and good judgment to estimate them correctly. For the same reasons the want of approbation is not to discourage us. Timidity or awkwardness, or the very desire of showing that we are not ignorant, may lead us into the most unpleasant mistakes—we may possess all that would command the respect we desire, but be destitute of the power of easily manifesting it to others; we must therefore recur to the experiments which we ourselves have made, if we desire to form a correct estimate of our intellectual character.

It is not so, when we seek to know ourselves as social beings. We alone indeed can know what are our dispositions towards others, but our value as members of society depends not upon the possession, but upon the exercise and expressions of our kind and benevolent affections. It is an important part of our duty, when we regard ourselves in this light, to render ourselves pleasing to others; and so certain is it that if we do this they will express their satisfaction, that we may consider their manners towards us as a fair index of our own. It is true that it is of the utmost importance that our principles and feelings should be correct, and there is no better mode of ascertaining whether they be so than by applying to them the rules of religion; for they constitute a part of our religious character. But although if our hearts be pure and our intentions good, we shall probably avoid injuring those around us, yet something more is necessary to render us as pleasing and as useful as we should wish to be. We are to attend to the prejudices and opinions of our fellow beings, we must yield to them in all actions which are morally indifferent, endeavouring not only to do them good, but to do it pleasantly. Now our success in these exertions must be known from those for whom they are made, and we must wish for the opinions of those who are judicious observers. Nothing can more assist us in these inquiries than a friend. He that possesses one that is faithful in reproof, and sincere in praise, has greater advantages for judging of his external deportment than any other circumstances can afford. These remarks apply particularly to our manners; but there are other things to which attention must be paid, from regard to the forms and customs of society and which may appear to be more important. There are donations to be made beside our charities, cares to be assumed, which will not benefit us, business to be performed, which is not our own, and services to be rendered to the community, for which there is no compensation. Many objects demand the attention of a public-spirited man, whose obligation depends upon opinion, and he must consult the example of others for his guide in what he does concerning them. When therefore we wish to know our social character, as far as it depends upon these circumstances, we must consult that which in this case is the only rule of action.

But the most important object of self-examination has not yet been noticed. It is above all other things interesting to know in what measure our lives are conformed to the will of our heavenly Father, and to the example of our beloved Saviour, whose blessed memory is the Light of our world. Do we view the character of God with complacency? Are we penitent for our sins? Do we aspire after greater virtue than we possess? Are our actions influenced by proper motives? Are we acquiring such characters as belong to the inhabitants of heaven? Are we willing that our future condition shall be determined by God? —These are questions which are worthy to occupy our minds. They are not to be answered by recurring to any creeds or systems of faith. Virtue does not consist in, or very much depend upon, the speculative opinions which we may adopt; for there are but few articles of belief which are requisite to the Christian character, and those are possessed by almost all who call themselves Christians, while controversies and disputes are agitated upon subjects of comparatively little importance. The light which God has given us is sufficient to indicate our duty, and knowing our obligations, we can judge whether we discharge them. The opinions of others will afford us no assistance in forming this judgment, for all virtue has its residence in the heart, and this is a retreat into which no human eye can penetrate. This is the residence of all our principles and motives; it is upon the nature of these that our character depends; and it requires an attentive and discriminating exercise of the understanding to become properly acquainted with them. Nor will it be beneficial to compare ourselves with others, for their thoughts are as inscrutable to us as our own are to them. They may be good and seem evil, or be evil and seem good. In short, we can only learn our religious character by examination of our own hearts, and when we reflect upon the great importance and high interest of moral excellence and the ruin which may follow self-deception upon this subject, we must be convinced that this examination, above all others, is to be performed with the utmost sincerity and fairness.


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