PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
In this age of exploration every kind of ignorance is regarded as
dishonorable. In almost every sort of knowledge there is a competition for
superiority. It is true that intellectual attainments are never to be
undervalued. All knowledge is excellent as far as it goes, and as long as it
lasts. But how short the period is before "knowledge will pass away!" Shall
we then regard it as dishonorable to be ignorant in anything which relates
to life and literature, to taste and science, and not feel ashamed to live
in ignorance of our own hearts?
To have a flourishing estate, but a mind in disorder; to keep exact accounts
with others, but no reckoning with our Maker; to have an accurate knowledge
of profit or loss in our business, but to remain utterly ignorant as to
whether our spiritual state is improving or declining; to calculate at the
end of every year how much we have increased or diminished our fortune, but
to be careless whether we have gained or lost in faith and holiness—this is
a grievous miscalculation of the comparative value of things. To pay
attention to things in an inverse proportion to their importance is surely
proof that our learning has not improved our judgment.
The distinguishing faculty of self-inspection would not have been given us
if it had not been intended that we should use it regularly. It is surely
just as sensible to look well to our spiritual as to our worldly
possessions. We have appetites to control, imaginations to restrain, tempers
to regulate, passions to subdue, and how can this internal work be done, how
can our thoughts be kept within proper bounds, how can appropriate direction
be given to our affections, how can our inward state be preserved from
continual insurrection if we do not exercise this capacity to inspect
ourselves? Without constant discipline, imagination will become an outlaw
and conscience a rebel.
This inward eye is given to us for a continual watch upon the soul. Both the
formation and the growth of our moral and religious character depends upon a
constant vigilance over the soul's interior movements. A sporadic glance is
not enough for a thing so deep. An unsteady view will not suffice for a
thing so wavering, nor a casual look for a thing so deceitful as the human
heart. Such an object must be observed under a variety of aspects, because
it is always shifting its position, always changing its appearances.
We should examine not only our conduct but our opinions. Our actions
themselves will be obvious enough. It is our inward motivations which
require the scrutiny. These we should follow to their remotest springs,
scrutinize to their deepest recesses, trace through their most perplexing
windings. And lest we should in our pursuit wander in uncertainty and
blindness, let us make use of that guiding clue which the Almighty has
furnished by His Word and by His Spirit. He will conduct us through the
intricacies of this labyrinth. "What I know not, teach me" should be our
constant petition in all our researches.
If we would turn our thoughts inward we would abate much of the
self-complacency with which we swallow the flattery of others. If we would
examine our motives keenly, we would frequently blush at the praises our
actions receive. Let us then conscientiously enquire not only what we do,
but why we do it.
Self-inspection is the only means to preserve us from self-conceit.
Self-acquaintance will give us a far more deep and intimate knowledge of our
own errors than we can possibly have by curiously inquiring into the errors
of others. We are eager enough to blame them without knowing their motives.
We are just as eager to vindicate ourselves, though we cannot be entirely
ignorant of our own. Thus two virtues will be acquired by the same act of
self-examination: humility and candor. An impartial review of our own
infirmities is the likeliest way to make us tender and compassionate to
those of others.
We shall not be liable to overrate our own judgment when we perceive that it
often forms such false estimates. It is so captivated with trifles, so
elated with petty successes, so dejected with little disappointments, that
when others commend our charity, which we know is so cold; when others extol
our piety, which we feel to be so dead; when they applaud the strength of
our faith, which we know to be so faint and feeble, we cannot possibly be
intoxicated with the applause which never would have been given, had the
applauder known us as we know, or ought to know ourselves.
If we contradict him, it may only be to have a further virtue attributed to
us—humility, which perhaps we deserve to have ascribed to us as little as
those which we have been renouncing. If we kept a sharp lookout we would not
be proud of praises which cannot apply to us, but would rather grieve at the
fraud we commit by tacitly accepting a character to which we have so little
real pretension. To be delighted at finding that people think so much better
of us than we are conscious of deserving is in effect to rejoice in the
success of our own deceit.
We shall also become more patient and forgiving, and shall better endure the
harsh judgment of others when we perceive that their opinion of us nearly
coincides with our own real, though unacknowledged, sentiments. There is
much less injury incurred by others thinking too badly of us than in our
thinking too well of ourselves.
It is evident then, that to live at random, without any self-examination, is
not the life of a rational, much less an immortal, least of all an
accountable being. To pray occasionally, without a deliberate course of
prayer, to be liberal without a plan, and charitable without a motive, to
let the mind float on the current of public opinion, to be every hour liable
to death without any habitual preparation for it, to carry within us a soul
which we believe will exist through all the countless ages of eternity, and
yet to make little enquiry whether that eternity is likely to be happy or
miserable—all this is totally thoughtless. If adopted in the ordinary
concerns of life, such a way to live would ruin a man's reputation for
common sense. Yet he who lives without self-examination is absolutely guilty
of this folly.
Nothing more plainly shows us what weak, vacillating creatures we are than
the difficulty we find in holding ourselves to the very self-scrutiny we had
deliberately resolved on. Some trifle which we should be ashamed to dwell
upon at any time intrudes itself on the moments dedicated to serious
thought. Recollection is interrupted. The whole chain of reflection is
broken so that the scattered links cannot again be united. And so
inconsistent are we that we are sometimes not sorry to have a plausible
pretense for interrupting the very employment to which we had just committed
ourselves. For lack of this inward acquaintance, we remain in utter
ignorance of our inability to meet even the ordinary trials of life with
Nursed in the lap of luxury, we have no notion that we have but a loose hold
on the things of this world, and of the world itself. But let some accident
take away not the world, but some trifle on which we thought we set no value
while we possessed it, we find to our astonishment that we hold, not the
world only, but even this trivial possession with a pretty tight grasp. Such
detections of our self-ignorance ought at least to humble us.
There is a spurious sort of self-examination which does not serve to
enlighten but to blind. People who have given up some notorious vice, who
have softened some shades of a glaring sin, or substituted some outward
forms in the place of open irreligion, may look on their change of character
with pleasure. They compare themselves with what they were and view the
alteration with self-complacency. They deceive themselves by taking their
standard from their former conduct, or from the character of others who are
worse, instead of taking it from the unerring rule of Scripture. He looks
more at the discredit than the sinfulness of his former life. Being more
ashamed of what is disreputable than grieved at what is vicious, he is, in
this state of shallow reformation, more in danger in proportion as he gives
himself more credit. He is not aware that having a fault or two less will
not carry him to heaven while his heart is still glued to the world and
estranged from God.
If we ever look into our hearts at all, we are naturally most inclined to it
when we think we have been acting right. In this case, self-inspection
gratifies self-love. We have no great difficulty in directing our attention
to an object when that object presents us with pleasing images.
But it is a painful effort to compel the mind to turn in on itself when the
view only presents subjects for regret and remorse. This painful duty
however must be performed, and will bring more healing in proportion as it
is less pleasant. Let us establish it into a habit to ponder our faults. We
need not feed our vanity with the recollection of our virtues. They will, if
that vanity does not obliterate them, be recorded elsewhere.
We are also most disposed to look at those parts of our character which will
best bear it, and which consequently least need it; at those parts which
afford most self-gratification. If a covetous man, for instance, examines
himself, instead of turning his attention to the guilty part, he applies the
probe where he knows it will not go very deep; he turns from his greed to
that abstention of which his very avarice is perhaps the source. Another,
who is the slave of passion, fondly rests upon some act of generosity, which
he considers as a fair exchange for some favorite vice that would cost him
more to renounce than he is willing to part with.
We are all too much disposed to dwell on that smiling side of the view which
pleases and deceives us, and to shut our eyes upon that part which we do not
choose to see, because we are resolved not to stop that particular sin.
Self-love always holds a screen between the superficial self-examiner and
his faults. The nominal Christian wraps himself up in forms which he makes
himself believe are religion. He exults in what he does, overlooks what he
ought to do and never suspects that what is done at all can be done amiss.
We are usually so indolent that we seldom examine a truth on more than one
side, so we generally take care that it shall be that side which shall
confirm some old prejudices. We will not take pains to correct those
prejudices and to rectify our judgment, lest it should oblige us to discard
a favorite opinion. We are still as eager to judge and as presumptuous to
decide as if we fully possessed the grounds on which a sound judgment may be
made, and a just decision formed.
We should watch ourselves whether we observe a simple rule of truth and
justice in our conversations as well as in our ordinary transactions. Are we
exact in our measures of commendation and censure? Do we not bestow
extravagant praise where simple approval alone is due? Do we not withhold
commendation, where if given, it would support modesty and encourage merit?
Do we reprimand as immoral what deserves only a slight censure as imprudent?
Do we not sometimes pretend to overrate ordinary merit in the hope of
securing to ourselves the reputation of candor, so that we may on other
occasions, with less suspicion, depreciate established excellence? We may be
extolling ordinary merit because we think that it can come into no
competition with us, and we denigrate excellence because it obviously
It is only by scrutinizing the heart that we can know it. Any careless
observer may see that his watch has stopped by casting an eye on its face,
but it is only the expert who takes it to pieces and examines every spring
and every wheel separately. By ascertaining the precise cause of the problem
he sets the watch right and restores the hidden movements.
The illusions of intellectual vision would be corrected by a close habit of
cultivating an acquaintance with our hearts. We fill much too large a space
in our own imaginations and fancy that we take more room in the world than
Providence assigns to an individual who has to divide his allotment with so
many millions who are all of equal importance in their own eyes. The
conscientious practice we have been recommending would greatly assist in
reducing us to our proper dimensions and limiting us to our proper place. We
would be astonished if we could see our real smallness and the speck we
actually occupy. When shall we learn from our own feelings how much
consequence every person is to himself or herself?
Self-examination must not be occasional, but regular. Let us settle our
accounts frequently. Little articles will run up to a large amount if they
are not cleared off. Even our innocent days, as we may choose to call them,
will not have passed without furnishing their measure of faults. Our
deadness in devotion, our eagerness for human applause, our care to conceal
our faults rather than to correct them, our negligent performance of some
relative duty, our imprudence in conversation, especially at table, our
inconsideration, driving to the very edge of permitted indulgences—let us
keep all our numerous items in small sums. We can examine them while the
particulars are fresh in our memory. Otherwise, we may find when we come to
settle the grand account, (the final judgement), that these faults have not
And let one subject of our frequent inquiry be to ask whether, since we last
examined our hearts, our secular affairs or our eternal concerns have had
the predominance. We do not mean which of them occupied most of our time.
Naturally, the larger portion must necessarily be absorbed in the cares of
the present life. What we need to ask is how have we conducted ourselves
when a competition arose between the interests of both.
That general burst of sins which so frequently rushes in on the consciences
of the dying would be much moderated by previous habitual self-examination.
The sorrow must be as precise as the sin. Indefinite repentance is no
repentance. And it is one helpful use of self-enquiry to remind us that all
unforsaken sins are unrepented sins.
To a Christian there is this substantial comfort which follows minute
self-inspection: when we find fewer sins to be noted and more victories over
temptations obtained, we have solid evidence of our advancement which well
repays our trouble.
The faithful searcher into his own heart feels himself in the situation of
Ezekiel, who being conducted in vision from one idol to another, the spirit
at sight of each repeatedly exclaims, "Here is another abomination!" The
prophet was commanded to dig deeper, and the further he penetrated, the more
evils he found, while the spirit continued to cry out, "I will show you yet
Self-examination, by detecting self-love, self-denial by weakening its
powers and self-government by reducing its tyranny, turns the disposition of
the soul from its natural bias, controls the disorderly appetite, and under
the influence of divine grace restores to the person the dominion over
himself that God first gave us over the lower creatures. Desires, passions
and appetites are brought to move somewhat more in their appointed order—as
subjects, not tyrants. In the end, self-examination restores us to dominion
over our own will, and in good measure enthrones us in that empire which we
forfeited by sin.
We now begin to survey our interior, the awful world within, not with
complacency but with the control of a sovereign, and we still find too much
rebellion to feel ourselves secure. Therefore we continue our inspection
with vigilance but without agitation. We continue to experience a remainder
of insubordination and disorder, but this calls forth a stricter supervision
rather than driving us to relax our discipline.
This self-inspection somewhat resembles the correction of a literary effort.
After many careful revisions, though some grosser faults may be removed,
though the errors are neither quite so numerous nor so glaring as at first,
yet the critic perpetually perceives faults which he had not perceived
before. Negligences appear which he had overlooked and even defects show up
which had passed as benefits before. He finds much to amend and even to
erase in what he had previously admired. When by rigorous reprimands the
most acknowledged faults are corrected, his critical discernment, improved
by exercise and a greater familiarity with his subject, still detects and
will forever detect new imperfections. But he neither throws aside his work
nor leaves off his criticism. If it does not make the work more perfect, it
will at least make the author more humble. Conscious that if it is not quite
so bad as it was, it is still an immeasurable distance from the desired
Is it not astonishing that we should go on repeating periodically, "Search
me, O God, and know my faults," yet neglect to examine ourselves? Is there
not something more like defiance than devotion to invite the inspection of
Omniscience to that heart which we ourselves neglect to inspect? How can any
of us as Christians solemnly cry out to God, "Search me, O God, and know my
heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends
you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life," while we neglect to
examine our hearts and are afraid of testing our thoughts, dreading to ask
if there be any way of wickedness in us, knowing that the inquiry ought to
lead to the expulsion of sin?
In our self-inquisition let us fortify our virtue by calling things by their
proper names. Self-love is particularly ingenious in inventing disguises of
this kind. Let us lay them open, strip them bare, face them and give them as
little quarter as if they were the faults of another. Let us not call
wounded pride, sensitivity. Self-love is made up of soft and sickly
sensibilities. Not that sensibility which melts at the sorrows of others,
but that which cannot endure the least suffering itself. It is alive in
every pore where self is concerned. A touch is a wound. It is careless in
inflicting pain, but exquisitely awake in feeling it. It defends itself
before it is attacked, revenges affronts before they are offered, and
resents as an insult the very suspicion of an imperfection.
In order then to unmask our heart, let us not be content to examine our
vices, let us examine our virtues also, those smaller faults. Let us
scrutinize to the bottom those qualities and actions which have more
particularly obtained public estimation. Let us inquire if they were genuine
in the motivation, singular in the intention, and honest in the prosecution.
Let us ask ourselves if in some admired instances our generosity had any
trace of vanity, our charity any taint of ostentation. We must question
whether when we did such a right action which brought us credit, would we
have persisted in doing it if we had foreseen that it would incur censure?
Do we never deceive ourselves by mistaking a natural slothfulness, for
Christian moderation? Do we never transform our love of ease, into deadness
of the world? Do we make our carnal activity, into Christian zeal? Do we
mistake our obstinacy for firmness, our pride for fortitude, our selfishness
for feeling, our love of controversy for the love of God, and our indolence
of temper for deadness to human applause? When we have stripped our good
qualities bare, when we have made all due deductions for natural
temperament, easiness of disposition, self-interest, desire of admiration,
of every nonessential attachment, every illegitimate motive, let us fairly
add up the account; and we shall be mortified to see how little there will
Pride may impose itself upon us even in the guise of repentance. The humble
Christian is grieved at his faults; the proud man is angry at them. He is
indignant when he discovers he has done wrong, not so much because his sin
offends God, but because it has let him see that he is not quite so good as
he had tried to make himself believe. It is more necessary to stimulate us
to the humbling of our pride than to the performance of certain good
actions. The former is more difficult and it is less pleasant.
That very pride will of itself stimulate to the performance of many things
that are laudable. These performances will reproduce pride since they were
produced by it, whereas humility has no outward stimulus. Divine grace alone
produces it. It is so far from being energized by the love of fame, that it
is not humility until it has laid the desire of fame in the dust.
As we have said, if an actual virtue consists in the dominion over the
contrary vice, then humility is the conquest over pride; charity over
selfishness. It is not only a victory over the natural disposition, but a
substitution of the opposite quality. This proves that all virtue is founded
in self-denial and self-denial in self-knowledge, and self-knowledge in
Pride so insinuates itself in all we do and say and think, that our apparent
humility often has its origin in pride. That very impatience which we feel
at the perception of our faults is produced by the astonishment at finding
that we are not perfect. This sense of our sins should make us humble, but
not desperate. It should teach us to distrust everything in ourselves, and
to hope for everything from God. The more we lay open the wounds which sin
has made, the more earnestly shall we seek the remedy which Christ has
But instead of seeking for self-knowledge, we are glancing about us for
grounds for self-exaltation. We almost resemble the Pharisee who with so
much self-complacency delivered the catalogue of his own virtues and other
men's sins. Or like the Tartars, who thought they possessed the qualities of
those they murdered, the Pharisee fancied that the sins of which he accused
the publican would swell the amount of his own good deeds. Like him we take
a few items from memory, and a few more from imagination.
Instead of pulling down the edifice which pride has raised, we look around
on our good works for buttresses to prop it up. We excuse ourselves from the
accusation of many faults by alleging that they are common, and certainly
not unique to ourselves. This is one of the weakest of our deceits. Faults
are not less personally ours because others commit them. The responsibility
for sin can be divided just as matter can. Is there any lessening of our
responsibility for our sin just because others are guilty of the same?
Self-love is a very diligent motivation, and generally has two concerns in
hand at the same time. It is as busy in concealing our own defects, as in
detecting those of others, especially those of the wise and good. We might
indeed direct its activity in the latter instance to our own advantage, for
if the faults of good men are injurious to themselves, they might be
rendered profitable to us, if we were careful to convert them to their true
use. But instead of turning them into a means of promoting our own
watchfulness, we employ them mischievously in two ways. We lessen our
respect for pious characters when we see the infirmities which are blended
with their fine qualities, and we turn their failings into a justification
of our own, which are not like theirs since ours are overshadowed with
virtues. To admire the excellences of others without imitating them is
fruitless admiration. And to condemn their errors without avoiding them is
When we are compelled by our conscience to acknowledge
and regret any fault we have recently committed, this fault so presses upon
our recollection that we seem to forget that we have any other. This single
error fills our mind and we look at it as through a microscope, which
confines sight to that one object exclusively. Other sins indeed are more
effectually shut out because we are examining this one. Thus, while the
object in question is magnified, the others seem as if they did not exist.
It seems to be established into a kind of system not to profit by anything
outside us, and not to cultivate a knowledge of anything within us. Though
we are perpetually remarking on the defects of others, when does the remark
lead us to study and to root out the same defects in our own hearts? Almost
every day we hear of the death of others, but does it induce us to reflect
on death as a thing in which we have an individual concern? We consider the
death of a friend as a loss, but seldom apply it as a warning. The death of
others we lament, and the faults of others we censure, but how seldom do we
make use of the one for our own change, or the other for our own preparation
It is the fashion of the times to try experiments in the arts, in
agriculture and philosophy. In every science the diligent professor is
always afraid there may be some secret which he has not yet attained, some
hidden principle which would reward the labor of discovery, something even
which the diligent and intelligent person has actually found out, but which
has before this eluded his pursuit. Shall the Christian stop short in his
scrutiny? Shall he not examine and inquire until he lays hold on the very
heart and core of the faith?
Why should experimental philosophy be the prevailing study while
experimental religion be branded as the badge of enthusiasm, and the jargon
of a hollow profession? Shall we never labor to establish the distinction
between appearance and reality, between studying religion critically and
embracing it practically; between having our conduct creditable and our
heart sanctified? Shall we not aspire to do the best things from the highest
motives, and elevate our aims by our attainments? Why should we remain in
the vestibule when the sanctuary is open? Why should we be content to dwell
in the outer courts when we are invited to enter into the holiest by the
blood of Jesus?
Natural reason is not likely to furnish arguments sufficiently convincing,
nor motives sufficiently powerful to drive us to a close self-inspection.
Our corruptions foster this ignorance. To this they owe their undisputed
possession of our hearts. No principle short of Christianity is strong
enough to impel us to a study so disagreeable as that of a study of our
faults. Humility is the prime grace of Christianity, and this grace can
never take root and flourish in a heart that lives in ignorance of itself.
If we do not know the magnitude and extent of our sins, if we do not know
the imperfection of our virtues, the failure of our best resolutions, the
sickness of our purest purposes, we cannot be humble. If we are not humble,
we cannot be Christians.
But we can ask, is there to be no end to this vigilance? Is there no
assigned period when this self-denial may become unnecessary? Is there no
given point when we may be freed from this annoying self-inspection? Is the
matured Christian to be a slave to the same drudgery as the novice? The true
answer is—we may cease to watch when our spiritual enemy ceases to assail.
We may cease to be on guard when there is no longer any temptation from
without. We may cease our self-denial when there is no more corruption
within us. We may give the reins to our imagination when we are sure its
tendencies will be toward heaven. We may dismiss repentance when sin is
abolished. We may indulge selfishness when we can do it without danger to
our souls. We may neglect prayer when we no longer need the favor of God. We
may cease to praise Him when He ceases to be gracious to us. To discontinue
our vigilance at any time short of this will be to defeat all the virtues we
have practiced on earth and to put in danger all our hopes of happiness in