Man is a wonderful union of mind and body, and to form a perfect being a high degree of cultivation is required for each component part. Those who cultivate the mental to the exclusion of the mere bodily, or at least carelessly pass by its claims, are no less in error than those who cultivate the bodily faculties to the exclusion of the mental. The aim of all attempts at self-cultivation should be the highest and most appropriate development of the entire being—physical, intellectual, and moral. It comprehends the health of the body, the expansion of the intellect, the purification of the heart. It guards the health, because a feeble body acts powerfully on the mind, and is a clog to its progress. It cherishes the intellect, because it is the glory of the human being. It trains the moral nature, because if that is weak and misdirected a blight falls upon the soul and a curse rests upon the body. As each faculty reacts upon all the others, true self-culture attends with a due proportion of care to each. It strives to retain one power whose action is too intense, and to stimulate another which is torpid, until they act in delightful harmony with each other, and the result is the healthful progress toward the highest point of attainable good.
Self-culture includes a proper care of the health of the body. To be careless of your health is to be stunted in intellect and miserable in feelings. You might as well expect to enjoy life in a dilapidated and ruined habitation, which affords free admission to the freezing blast and the pitiless rain, as to be happy in a body ruined by self-indulgence. The body is the home of the soul. Can its mysterious tenant find rest and unmixed joy within its chambers if daily exposed to sharp and shivering shocks through its aching joints or quivering nerves? How many bright intellects have failed of making any impression upon the world simply because they neglected the most obvious of hygienic laws! If God has bestowed upon you the inestimable gift of good health and a good constitution, it is your duty, as a rational creature, to preserve it. To expect vigorous health and the enjoyment which it brings, and at the same time live in open defiance of the laws of health, is to expect what can not take place. Not only is good health thus of value and one of the most important ends of self-cultivation, but we would impress on all the fact that the body is just as important a factor as the mind in the work of success, that it is just as worthy to be cultivated, so as to grow in strength and beauty, and the development of all those faculties which go to make a physically perfect man or woman.
It is a sad sight to see a brilliant mind that has dragged down a strong body, because it has been so imperious in its demands, leaving its companion to suffer for lack of attention to some of its plainest wants. It reminds one of a crazy building, tottering under its own weight, yet full of the most costly machinery, which can be run, if at all, only with the greatest caution, or the entire fabric will crumble to ruins. The lesson can not be too soon learned that, while the human body is most wonderfully complex in its organization, still such is the perfection of all nature’s works that all that is demanded of us is compliance with simple rules, to enable us to enjoy health. That it is our duty as well as our privilege to so train and cultivate the body that it will answer readily all demands made upon it by an enlightened mind, and will perform all its appropriate functions in the great work of life.
Self-culture also implies suitable efforts to expand and strengthen the intellect by reading, by reflection, and by writing down your thoughts. The strength and vigor given to the mind by self-culture is not materially different from that expressed by the term education in its broad and comprehensive meaning. Intellect being the crowning glory and chief attribute of man, there can be no nobler aim, to set before one’s self than that of expanding and quickening all of its powers. Rightly lived our every-day life and actions conduce to this result. Our education is by no means entirely the product of organized schools. Our hired teachers and printed books are not all that act on our powers to develop them. Life is one grand school, and its every circumstance a teacher. Society pours in its influence upon us like the thousand streams that flood the ocean.
Scholastic men and women speak of book education; there is also a life education—that great, common arena where men and women do battle with the forces around them. Our duty is so to guide and control these influences as to be educated in the right direction. We should recognize the fact that we are educating all the time, and the great question for us to settle is, “What manner of education are we receiving?” Some are educated in vice, some in folly, some in selfishness, some in deception, some in goodness, some in truth. Every day gives us many lessons in life. Every thought leaves its impression on the mind. Every feeling weaves a garment for the spirit. Every passion plows a furrow in the soul. It is our duty as sentient, moral beings so to guide and direct these thoughts, feelings, and passions that they shall educate us in the right direction. We are lax in duty to ourselves to let the world educate us as it will, for we are running a great risk to yield ourselves up to the circumstances life has thrown about us, to plunge into the stream of popular custom and allow ourselves to drift with the current.
But aside from the practical education of everyday life we are to remember, in our efforts after self-culture, that it is also obligatory upon us to seek the discipline afforded by books and study. In the pursuit of knowledge follow it wherever it is to be found; like fern, it is the product of all climates, and, like air, its circulation is not restricted to any particular class. Any and every legitimate means of acquiring information is to be pursued, and all the odds and bits of time pressed into use. Set a high price upon your leisure moments. They are sands of precious gold; properly expended they will procure for you a stock of great thoughts—thoughts that will fill, stir, invigorate, and expand the soul. As the magnificent river, rolling in the pride of its mighty waters, owes its greatness to the hidden springs of the mountain nook, so does the wide, sweeping influence of distinguished men date its origin from hours of privacy resolutely employed in efforts after self-development.
We should esteem those moments best improved which are employed in developing our own thoughts, rather than in acquiring those of others, since in this kind of intellectual exercise our powers are best brought into action and disciplined for use. Knowledge acquired by labor becomes a possession—a property entirely our own. A greater vividness of impression is secured, and facts thus acquired become registered in the mind in a way that mere imparted information fails of securing. A habit of observation and reflection is well-nigh every thing. He who has spent his whole life in traveling may live and die a thorough novice in most of the important affairs of life, while, on the other hand, a man may be confined to a narrow sphere and be engrossed in the prosaic affairs of every-day life, and yet have very correct ideas of the manners and customs of other nations. He that studies only men will get the body of knowledge without the soul; he that studies only books, the soul without the body. He that to what he sees adds observation, and to what he reads, reflection, is in the right road to knowledge, provided that in scrutinizing the hearts of others he neglects not his own. Be not dismayed at doubts, for remember that doubt is the vestibule through which all must pass before they can enter into the temple of wisdom; therefore, when we are in doubt and puzzle out the truth by our own, exertions, we have gained a something which will stay by us and serve us again. But if to avoid the trouble of a search we avail ourselves of the superior information of a friend, such knowledge will not remain with us; we have borrowed it and not bought it.
But man possesses something more than a mere body and intellect; he is the possessor of moral faculties as well. A true self-culture will be none the less careful to have the actions of these refined and pure than it is to possess physical health on the one hand and mental vigor on the other. Indeed, since your happiness depends upon their healthful condition more than upon the state of your body and intellect, your first care should be devoted to giving careful attention to your moral nature. With disordered moral faculties you will be as a ship without a helm, dashed on bars and rocks at the will of winds and waves. It is the vice of the age to substitute learning for wisdom, to educate the head, and to forget that there is a more important education necessary for the heart. Let the heart be opened and a thousand virtues rush in. There is dew in one flower and not in another, because one opens its cup and takes it in, while the other closes itself and the drop runs off. God rains his goodness and mercy as widespread as the dew, and if we lack them it is because we know not how to open our hearts to receive them. No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, and not what he has. Cultivate your moral nature, then, as well as bodily strength and mental vigor. The heart is the center of vitality in the physical body; so the moral senses seem to give vitality to all the various faculties of the mind. If the moral nature becomes stunted in its development the mind is apt to become chaotic in its action. How often we meet with examples of this character in the common walks of life! Many lose their balance of mind and become wrecks from want of heart culture. Is the head of more importance than the heart? It is true that wealth is the child of the one, but it is equally true that happiness is the offspring of the other.
Such, then, is an outline of the great problem of self-culture. We can not escape its claims; from the time reason dawns until death closes the scene they are pressing upon you. Much of the happiness of life, both here and hereafter, depends on how you meet its demands. You can, if you but will it, grow apace in all that is manly or womanly in life; or, by neglecting the claims of your manifold nature, as utterly fail of so doing as the stunted shrub fails of being the stately tree with waving branches and luxuriant foliage.
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