SOME INSTRUCTORS OF CONSCIENCE: SOCIOLOGY, SELF-KNOWLEDGE
Sociology—How other People live.—“With all thy getting, get understanding,” says the wise man; and we are never too young or too much engaged with work or pleasure to escape the duty of understanding how other people live. What are their needs? What things will do them good, and what things will do them harm? It behoves us all to think about the housing of the poor, the drink question, the care of the sick, the best way of dealing with crimes and offences, the teaching of the ignorant, whether they be persons or nations.
“I was an hungered,” says Christ, “and ye fed me; naked, and ye clothed me; sick and in prison, and ye visited me.” Perhaps no words spoken by our Master have come home with more intensity of meaning to every Christian soul, and few of us escape the sense of self-condemnation; and this, not so much because we are hard-hearted, unfeeling, and without pity—indeed, it is quite otherwise—an appeal in the newspapers brings an overwhelming and injurious amount of help. A beggar in the street grows rich on pennies. Any ‘case’ that we hear of we are very eager to help, as
much to satisfy our conscience, because of those words of Christ’s, as for the sake of the sufferer.
Conditions of Helpfulness.—But these casual efforts of ours are the despair of people who go to work steadily and conscientiously to help their brothers who are in need. These tell us of the evils of promiscuous charity, so we make up our minds that it is best not to ‘give’ at all; we are likely to do more harm than good, and so we content ourselves with a few subscriptions to certain public charities. In this matter, as in so many others, we err through the lack of an instructed conscience. It behoves each of us to lay ourselves out for instruction, to read, inquire, think, to look about us for a way of acting, believing—
That Circumstance, a sacred oracle,
Speaks with the voice of God to faithful souls;
and it is usually in our way, and not by going out of our way, that we shall find the particular piece of brotherly work appointed for us to do.
But we must keep our eyes open: the right thing is never obtrusive, and we may pass it by without observation. We must bear three things in mind. We must get a wide care and knowledge concerning the needs of men; we must devote ourselves, with understanding, to some particular effort for the needy; and, in all our endeavours, we must bear in mind our Master’s way: What wouldst thou that I should do unto thee? he asked; and let us believe that charitable efforts, which go against the grain of the persons benefited, miss that principle of love which alone gives us a right to do service to others. It is particularly needful to bear this in mind in days when it is rather difficult to reach individuals,
and we have to do our work through organisations. But organisations fail continually because they overlook this guiding principle, ‘What wouldst thou?’ It is not only self-relieving effort that is due from us, but discriminating and considerate love.
To know Ourselves is Wisdom.—It is difficult to find a name which covers what we are and what we may become, but let us call it philosophy; for to know ourselves is wisdom. We all like to get what we call knowledge of ourselves from phrenologists, readers of handwriting, and the like, and from the polite sayings of our acquaintances. But this is the knowledge that puffeth up, because it is usually flattering and, therefore, false. We may deserve praise for the thing we are praised for; but flattery fills us with the notion that we are made up of this or the other charming quality, and that those of our friends who see another side are unkind and unjust.
This is so plain to some people that they think the best plan is to leave self alone altogether, never thinking at all about what is in them, whether for good or ill, unless perhaps they are brought to book for some grave fault. Their course would be right enough if living were the easy, casual thing they make of it. But to be born a human being is to come into possession of a great estate—forest land here, copses there, cornfields, meadows, fisheries, what not: indeed, more than an estate, as I said before—a kingdom, the kingdom of Mansoul.
Self-Knowledge Impersonal.—Here, as in other estates, the casual proprietor ruins his land; field after field runs to waste and to weeds, and the land is hardly to be ‘cleaned’ in a generation.
All the same, it is a mistake to think about ourselves personally. Our Lord has said once, for all time, “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.” It is a wonderful saying, true even for our Master—how much more for us! We generally have too much taste to bear witness out loud—to tell other people how plucky and generous, how clever or how sweet we are; but do we never bear witness to ourselves of ourselves—privately plume ourselves upon this or that good quality or fine action? When we do so, our witness is not true: the virtue for which we praise ourselves to ourselves is a virtue we do not possess. The fine action we admire ourselves for has ceased to be fine; our own praise of it has taken out all the virtue.
Greatness of Human Nature.—This would appear to prove them in the right who say it is best not to think of ourselves at all; but, ourselves may mean two things,—our own little sayings, doings and feelings—poor things at the best—or that glorious human nature, with its unmeasured capacities, which we share with heroes and sages, with Christ himself.
It is profanity to say of greed, sloth, sin, depravity of every kind, ‘Oh, it’s human nature’; for human nature is fitted for all godlike uses, and the Son of Man came to show us all that we may be when we do not reject the indwelling of our God. It is only as we realise the greatness of human nature that we understand what our Lord means when He says that one soul is worth more than the whole world. His words are always spoken in truth and soberness, and this is no fantastic valuation; nor does it mean, I think, that every single soul is so valuable to God; but that every single soul or person is so immeasurably
great in itself; and this is the reason of the infinite divine solicitude that not one should perish. Therefore let us take stock, not of what is peculiar to us as individuals, but what is proper to each of us as human beings, remembering that we have no true ownership of the wealth of which we are ignorant.
Also, it is only a sense of the greatness of the poorest human soul that will awaken in us the passionate brotherhood which should help each of us to do our little share of the saving of the world; for we are called upon to work with our Master as well as for him. The object of this little book is to introduce to themselves any who are not yet acquainted with their own worth; so I need not here go over the reasons why, or the manner in which, we should know ourselves. Only one thing I should like to say on this point. Let us not put this sort of knowledge away from us as too troublesome and as making us too responsible. We have simply to know in the first place; and are not bound to be labouring all the time to feed imagination, exercise reason, instruct conscience, and the rest. In this sphere of self-knowledge, as in so much else, set things going, and they go;—
“Begin it, and the thing will be completed.”
We are so mercifully made that the ordering of ourselves becomes unconscious to those of us who take it as a duty; it is the casual people who land in bogs or are brought up against stone walls.