Self-mastery is the essence of heroism.--Emerson
He who reigns within himself is more than a king.--Milton
I have only one counsel for you--Be master!--Napoleon
Self-control is essential to happiness and usefulness.--E. A. Horton
He is a fool who cannot be angry; but he is a wise man who will
Some one has said "Self-control is only courage under another form"; but
we think it is far more than that. It is the master of all the virtues,
courage included. If it is not so, how can it so control them as to
develop a pure and noble character? The self-control which we commend
has its root in true self-respect. The wayward, drifting youth or man
cannot respect himself. He knows that there is no decision of character
in drifting with the current, no enterprise, spirit, or determination.
He must look the world squarely in the face, and say, "I am a man," or
he cannot respect himself; and he must stem the current and row up
stream to command his destiny.
Self-control is at the root of all the virtues. Let a man yield to his
impulses and passions, and from that moment he gives up his moral
freedom. "Teach self-denial and make its practice pleasurable," says
Walter Scott, "and you create for the world a destiny more sublime than
ever issued from the brain of the wildest dreamer."
This may seem to be a very strong statement, but it is fully sustained
by the experience of great men like Dr. Cuyler, who said, not long ago,
"I have been watching the careers of young men by the thousand in this
busy city of New York for over thirty years, and I find that the chief
difference between the successful and the unsuccessful lies in the
single element of 'staying-power.'"
Think of a man just starting out in life to conquer the world being at
the mercy of his own appetites and passions! He cannot stand up and look
the world in the face when he is the slave of what should be his own
servants. He cannot lead who is led. There is nothing which gives
certainty and direction to the life of a man who is not his own master.
If he has mastered all but one appetite, passion, or weakness, he
isstill a slave; it is the weakest point that measures the strength of
It was the self-discipline of a man who had never looked upon war until
he was forty, that enabled Oliver Cromwell to create an army which never
fought without victory, yet which retired into the ranks of industry as
soon as the government was established, each soldier being distinguished
from his neighbors only by his superior diligence, sobriety, and
regularity in the pursuits of peace.
Many of the greatest characters in history illustrate this trait. Take,
as a single instance, the case of the Duke of Wellington, whose career
was marked by a persistent watchfulness over his irritable and explosive
nature. How well he conquered himself, let the story of his deeds tell.
The field of his great victory, which was Napoleon's overthrow, could
not have been won but for this power of subduing himself.
In ordinary life the application is the same. He who would lead must
first command himself. The time of test is when everybody is excited or
angry or dismayed; then the well-balanced mind comes to the front. To
say, "No" in the face of glowing temptation is a part of this power.
A very striking illustration is recorded in the life of Horace Greeley.
Offended by a pungent article, a gentleman called at the _Tribune_
office and inquired for the editor. He was shown into a little
seven-by-nine sanctum, where Greeley sat, with his head close down to
his paper, scribbling away at a rapid rate. The angry man began by
asking if this was Mr. Greeley. "Yes, sir; what do you want?" said the
editor, quickly, without once looking up from his paper. The irate
visitor then began using his tongue, with no deference to the rules of
propriety, good breeding, or reason. Meantime Mr. Greeley continued to
write. Page after page was dashed off in the most impetuous style, with
no change of features, and without paying the slightest attention to
the visitor. Finally, after about twenty minutes of the most
impassioned scolding ever poured out in an editor's office, the angry
man became disgusted, and abruptly turned to walk out of the room.
Then, for the first time, Mr. Greeley looked up, rose from his chair,
and slapping the gentleman familiarly on his shoulder, in a pleasant
tone of voice said: "Don't go, friend; sit down, sit down, and free
your mind; it will do you good, you will feel better for it. Besides,
it helps me to think what I am to write about. Don't go."
There is a very special demand for the cultivation of this trait and the
kindred grace of patience at the present time. "Can't wait" is
characteristic of the century, and is written on everything; on
commerce, on schools, on societies, on churches. Can't wait for high
school seminary or college. The boy can't wait to become a youth, nor
the youth a man. Young men rush into business with no great reserve of
education or drill; of course they do poor, feverish work, and break
down in middle life, and may die of old age at forty, if not before.
Everybody is in a hurry; and to be able, amid this universal rush, to
hold one's self in check, and to stick to a single object until it is
fully accomplished, will carry us a long way toward success.
Endurance is a much better test of character than any one act of
heroism, however noble. It was many years of drudgery, and reading a
thousand volumes, that enabled George Eliot to get fifty thousand
dollars for "Daniel Deronda."
Edison in describing his repeated efforts to make the phonograph
reproduce a sibilant sound, says, "From eighteen to twenty hours a day
for the last seven months I have worked on this single word 'specia.' I
said into the phonograph 'specia, specia, specia;' but the instrument
responded 'pecia, pecia, pecia.' It was enough to drive one mad. But I
held firm, and I have succeeded."
Years of patient apprenticeship make a man a good mechanic. It takes
longer to form the artisan. The trained intellect requires a longer
period still. Henry Ward Beecher sent a half-dozen articles to the
publishers of a religious paper to pay for his subscription, but they
were "respectfully declined." One of the leading magazines ridiculed
Tennyson's first poems, and consigned the young poet to oblivion. Only
one of Ralph Waldo Emerson's books had a remunerative sale. Washington
Irving was nearly seventy years old before the income from his books
paid the expenses of his household. Who does not see that if these men
had lost their grip upon themselves, the world would have been deprived
of many of its rarest literary treasures?
A great many rules have been given for securing and increasing this
trait. A large number rest on mere policy, and are good only for the
surface; they do not go to the center. Others are too radical, and tear
up the roots, leaving one without energy or ambition. The aim should be
to keep the native force unabated, but to give it wiser guidance.
A fair amount of self-examination is good. Self-knowledge is a preface
to self-control. The wise commander knows the weak and strong points of
his fort. Too much self-inspection leads to morbidness; too little,
conducts to careless, hasty action. The average American does not know
himself well enough; he proceeds with a boastful confidence, and is
always in the right, so he thinks. If we are conscious of a failing we
naturally strive against it.
There are two chief aims which, if held in view, will surely strengthen
our self-control; one is attention to conscience, the other is a spirit
of good-will. The lawless nature, not intending to live according to
right, is always breaking over proper restraints,--is suspicious and
quarrelsome. And he who has not the disposition to love his fellow-men,
grows more and more petulant, disagreeable, and unfair.
You must also learn to guard your weak point. For example: Have you a
hot, passionate temper? If so, a moment's outbreak, like a rat-hole in a
dam, may flood all the work of years. One angry word sometimes raises a
storm that time itself cannot allay. A single angry word has lost many a
friend. The man who would succeed in any great undertaking must hold all
his faculties under perfect control; they must be disciplined and
drilled, until they quickly and cheerfully obey the will.
For the special illustration of this lesson we select a couple of
incidents from the life of George Washington.
Washington had great power of wrath, inheriting the high, hasty temper
of his mother. Tobias Lear, his intimate friend and private secretary,
says that in the winter of 1791, an officer brought a letter telling of
General St. Clair's disastrous defeat by the Indians. It must be
delivered to the President himself. He left his family and guests at
table, glanced over the contents, and, when he rejoined them, seemed as
calm as usual. But afterward, when he and Lear were alone, walked the
room, silent a while, and then he broke out in great agitation, "It is
all over. St. Clair is defeated, routed; the officers nearly all
killed, the men by wholesale; the disaster complete; too shocking to
think of, and a surprise into the bargain!" He walked about, much
agitated, and his wrath became terrible. "Yes!" he burst forth, "here
on this very spot, I took leave of him. I wished him success and honor.
'You have your instructions,' I said, 'from the Secretary of War. I
had myself a strict eye to them, and will add but one word, BEWARE OF A
SURPRISE! You know how the Indians fight!'
"He went off with this, as my last solemn warning, thrown into his ears;
and yet, to suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered,
tomahawked, by a surprise,--the very thing I guarded him against! O God!
O God! he is worse than a murderer! How can he answer for it to his
country? The blood of the slain is upon him; the curse of widows and
orphans; the curse of Heaven!"
His emotions were awful. After a while he cooled a little, and sat down,
and said: "This must not go beyond this room. General St. Clair shall
have justice. I looked through the despatches, saw the whole disaster,
but not all the particulars. I will receive him without displeasure; I
will hear him without prejudice. He shall have full justice!"
The second incident is told as follows: In 1775, at Cambridge, the army
was destitute of powder. Washington sent Colonel Glover to Marblehead
for a supply of that article, which was said to be there. At night the
colonel returned, found Washington in front of his headquarters, pacing
up and down. Glover saluted. The general, without returning his salute,
asked, roughly: "Have you got the powder?" "No, sir." Washington broke
out at first with terrible severity of speech, and then said: "Why did
you come back, sir, without it?" "Sir, there is not a kernel of powder
in Marblehead." Washington walked up and down a minute or two, in great
agitation, and then said: "Colonel Glover, here is my hand, if you will
take it and forgive me. The greatness of our danger made me forget what
is due to you and to myself."
Such victories as these show self-control at its very best; and they
ought to make us all see its value and importance.
[Footnote: See Seeley's "Story of Washington" (1893), and the excellent
article in Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. VI., pp.