Practical Hints from a Father to His Daughter

William Sprague, 1835


Self-Knowledge


I have already endeavored to inculcate upon you the importance of your becoming a proficient in various branches of useful knowledge. There is, however, one branch of which I have hitherto said nothing, which is incomparably more important to you than all human science I mean the knowledge of yourself. To this deeply interesting subject allow me now, in a few brief hints, to direct your attention.

In self-knowledge I include, in the first place, a knowledge of your intellectual powers. It implies that you understand the particular bent of your own mind; in which of the faculties, if any, you are especially deficient and in which of them, if any, you are particularly gifted; whether there is a good degree of harmony naturally pervading the powers of your mind or whether there is reason for special effort to give to those powers their due balance. It implies also that you understand for what department of mental action your constitution is best adapted and in what field your efforts will be most likely to be successful.

In the knowledge of which I am speaking, there is also included an acquaintance with your moral temper. There is perhaps as great a variety of temper among mankind, as of countenance; there being scarcely two individuals whose natural feelings, when subjected to a rigid analysis, are not found to be, in some respects, different. These original qualities constitute, in a great degree, the germ of the character; and in most instances, whatever good or evil is accomplished, whatever happiness or misery is experienced no doubt is to be traced, either directly or indirectly, to the leading tendencies of our nature.

With these tendencies, as it respects yourself, you should be familiarly acquainted: you should know what evil dispositions you are most prone to indulge; at what point you are most susceptible of being successfully assailed by temptation; and at what point you are capable of encountering temptation with the best hope of success.

In self-knowledge is farther implied, a knowledge of your conduct. It would seem at first view, that every individual must know this as it respects himself, whether he desires it or not; but the real fact is, that there is much in the conduct of most people, of which, though it is perfectly open to the world they contrive to keep themselves in ignorance! Not that they are unconscious of their actions as they perform them; but they allow them to pass out of remembrance, and never make them a subject of deliberate review, and still less do they think of connecting them with each other with a view to ascertain the habit of their life.

If you would know yourself, you must be familiar with the tenor of your conduct from day to day of your conduct in all the circumstances in which you are placed, and in all the relations which you sustain. Whether it is such as conscience approves or condemns, it must not be allowed to escape your observation, or to slide prematurely out of your remembrance.

You must know your motives also the principles by which your conduct is governed. Not only the general habit of feeling but the particular motives which prompt to particular actions, should be well understood. For it is possible, that many an action, which with the world passes for a splendid deed of benevolence may, with Him who inspects the motive, be nothing better than an act of gross hypocrisy! And on the other hand, that actions which to the world bear a suspicious character may, to the Searcher of the heart, appear praiseworthy and excellent.

In short, every action derives its moral-character, not from the external form which it may happen to assume but from the motive by which it is dictated. If you are ignorant of your motives then your ignorance is radical. If you do not know your motives you probably know less of yourself, than those who have an opportunity of inspecting only your external conduct.

You must know the various duties which devolve upon you in the different relations of life duties which you owe both to God and man; and the momentous considerations by which these duties are enforced.

In a word, whatever relates to your character as an intellectual, moral, and immortal being you ought distinctly to understand; and the whole extent of this enters into the true idea of self-knowledge.

It is the tendency of self-knowledge, to promote your usefulness and assist you to select a proper field for your activity. If an individual happens to get into a sphere for which he is particularly disqualified, let his intentions be as good as they may, and let his activity be ever so great it is not improbable that greater injury than benefit, will result from his exertions. Whereas the same amount of effort, in a field for which Providence had fitted him might exert a blessed influence on many successive generations. Self-knowledge is the grand security against mistaking in this matter. If you know well the peculiarities of your own mind and temperament, the weak as well as the strong points in your character you will be in little danger of engaging in enterprises for which God never designed you. And on the other hand you will be likely to employ your powers on the most suitable objects, and with the best effect!

Self-knowledge is fitted moreover to promote your usefulness, as it imparts to you stability of character. If you know little of yourself, you will almost of course be liable to a sudden adoption of opinions respecting truth and duty and to an equally sudden abandonment of them! And this will produce a habit of instability both of feeling and action, which will injure your usefulness by weakening the confidence of others in your judgment, and by rendering your efforts feeble and inefficient.

On the other hand, an intimate acquaintance with your own heart, as it will keep you from engaging in rash enterprises will also make you resolute and stable in respect to those in which you actually engage; and your facilities for doing good will be increased by the favorable regard which this habit of stability will secure to you from the surrounding community.

Is it not manifest then, that self-knowledge is one of the best pledges for well directed activity and usefulness?

But how is this most desirable attainment to be made? It is within the reach of every individual and yet there is reason to fear that the multitude remain strangers to it. The reason is, that they shrink from the effort necessary for knowing themselves, on the one hand and dread the result of an examination on the other hand!

If you would know yourself, it is essential that you should habitually and faithfully perform the duty of self-communion. You must not be contented with looking merely at the external act but faithfully investigate the motives and principles of your conduct. You must compare your actions, not with any human standard but with the rule of duty which God has revealed in his word. You must let your examination be conducted with great vigilance, with due deliberation, with unyielding resolution, and with entire impartiality. You must examine the operations of your mind and heart, in different states of feeling, and in every variety of circumstances and must compare the result at one time with the result at another; that thus you may be able to ascertain the general tenor of your thoughts and feelings.

A superficial and occasional inspection of your heart, will contribute little to your stock of self-knowledge, and may even expose you to fatal self-deception. But an examination, conducted in the manner which I have described, cannot fail in the end to render you intimately acquainted with yourself.

Judicious and free conversation with Christian friends, is another important means of acquiring self-knowledge. The truth is, that we often by our conduct exhibit feelings and traits of character which we are not conscious of possessing; and thus put it in the power of our friends, to reveal to us the secrets of our own hearts. And though this is a matter upon which we ought not to converse too indiscriminately yet it may very safely and properly become a subject of conversation with those in whom we repose special confidence. And they may be of immense advantage to us, by giving us their honest impressions in respect to that part of our conduct which falls under their observation.

Nay, we may often learn important lessons in respect to ourselves by watching the conduct of others towards us. For it is more than probable, if they knew us intimately, that they judge correctly respecting our character, and their treatment of us will almost certainly reveal their true opinion. If, for instance, the careless world treats a professing Christian habitually as if he were one of themselves you may calculate, with absolute assurance, that he has become a backslider! And many a professor, no doubt, if he would might learn from the treatment which he receives from the world, that he is beginning to wander, while he has scarcely begun to suspect it from observation upon his own conduct, or from an examination of his own heart!

Reading the Scriptures and prayer are among the most important of all the means of self-knowledge. The Scriptures, by exhibiting in the divine law a perfect standard of duty, and by exhibiting the character of man in every variety of condition and under every kind of influence brings us acquainted, more than all other books, with the most secret springs of human action! Prayer secures God's blessing upon every other effort while it brings to our aid a direct divine illumination. Study the Bible then daily and diligently, and pray without ceasing for the enlightening influence of God's Spirit and you will soon be a proficient in self-knowledge!