PRACTICAL PIETY  by Hannah More, 1811Chapter 13

Chapter 13

"The idol Self," says an excellent old divine, "has made more desolation among men than ever was made in those places where idols were served by human sacrifices. It has preyed more fiercely on human lives than Molech." To worship images is a more obvious idolatry, but scarcely more degrading than to set up self in opposition to God. To devote ourselves to this service is as perfect slavery, as the service of God is perfect freedom. If we cannot imitate the sacrifice of Christ in His death, we are called to imitate the sacrifice of Himself in doing His will. Even the Son of God declared, "I came not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me." This was His grand lesson, this was His distinguishing character.

Self-will is the ever flowing fountain of all the evil which deforms our hearts, of all the boiling passions which inflame and disorder society; the root of bitterness on which all its corrupt fruits grow. We set up our own understanding against the wisdom of God, and our own passions against the will of God. If we could ascertain the precise period when sensuality ceased to govern the animal part of our nature, and pride ceased to govern the intellectual part, that period would form the most memorable era of the Christian life; from that moment on we begin a new date of liberty and happiness; from that stage we set out on a new career of peace, liberty and virtue.

Self-love is a Proteus of all shapes, shades and complexions. It has the power of expansions and contractions as best serves the occasion. There is no crevice so small through which its subtle essence cannot stretch itself to fill. It is of all degrees of refinement; so coarse and hungry as to gorge itself with the grossest adulation, so fastidious as to require a homage as refined as itself; so artful as to elude the detection of ordinary observers, so specious as to escape the observation of the very heart in which it reigns paramount. Yet, though so extravagant in its appetites, it can adopt a moderation which imposes, a delicacy which veils its deformity, an artificial character which keeps its real one out of sight.

We are apt to speak of self-love as if it were only a symptom, whereas it is the disease itself. It is a malignant disease which has possession of the moral constitution and leaves nothing uncorrupted by its touch. This corrupting principle pollutes, by coming into contact with it, whatever is in itself great and noble. The poet, Alexander Pope, erroneously called self-love "a little pebble that stirred the lake, and made it the well—spring of human progress." His lines are as follows:
Self-love thus pushed to social, to divine,
Gives you to make your neighbor's blessing thine.
Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to make
As a small pebble stirs the peaceful lake.

The Apostle James appears to have been of a different opinion from Pope. James speaks as if he suspected that the pebble stirred the lake a little too roughly. He traces this mischievous principle from its birth to the largest extent of its malign influence. The question, "where come wars and fightings among you?" he answers by another question: "come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?"

The same pervading spirit which creates hostility between nations, creates animosity among neighbors and discord in families. It is the same principle which, having in the beginning made Cain a murderer in his father's house, has been ever since in perpetual operation. It has been transmitted in one unbroken line of succession through that long chain of crimes of which history is composed, to the present triumphant spoiler of Europe [Napoleon]. In cultivated societies, laws repress the overt act in private individuals by punishment, but the Christian religion is the only thing that has ever been devised to cleanse the spring.

"The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?" This proposition, this interrogation, we read with complacency, and both the statement and the question being a portion of Scripture, we think it would not be decent to contradict it. We read it, however, with a secret reservation that it is only the heart of all the rest of the world that is meant, and we rarely make the application which the Scripture intended. Each hopes that there is one heart that might escape the charge, and he makes the single exception in favor of his own. But if the exception which everyone makes were true, there would not be a deceitful or wicked heart in the world.

As a theory we are ready enough to admire self-knowledge, but when it comes to practice, we are as blindfolded as if our happiness depended on our ignorance. To lay hold on a religious truth, and to maintain our hold, is no easy matter. We like to have an intellectual knowledge of divine things, but to cultivate a spiritual acquaintance with them cannot be easily achieved. We can even force ourselves to believe that which we do not understand more easily than we can bring ourselves to choose that which crosses our will or our passions. One of the first duties of a Christian is to endeavor to conquer this antipathy to the self-denying doctrines against which the human heart so sturdily holds out.

The scholar takes incredible pains for the acquisition of knowledge. The philosopher cheerfully consumes the midnight oil in his laborious pursuits; he willingly sacrifices food and rest to conquer a difficulty in science. Here the labor is pleasant, the fatigue is welcome, the very difficulty is not without its charms. Why do we react so differently in our religious pursuits? Because in the most laborious human studies, there is no opposition to the will, there is no combat of the affections. If the passions are at all implicated, if self-love is at all concerned, it is rather in the way of gratification than of opposition.

There is such a thing as a mechanical Christianity. There are good imitations of religion, so well executed and so resembling as not only to deceive the spectator but the artist. If properly used, the careful reading of pious books is one of the most beneficial means to preserve us from the influence of self-love. These very books, however, in the hands of the lazy and self-satisfied, produce an effect directly contrary to that which they were intended to produce, and which they actually do produce on minds properly prepared for them. They inflate where they were intended to humble. Some hypochondriacs amuse their melancholy hours by consulting every available medical book, and fancy they can find their own ailment in the ailment of every patient, until they believe they actually feel every pain of which they read, though they read a case diametrically opposite to their own.

So the religious soul, weakened by self-love, may be unreasonably elated when reading books that describe a religious state far beyond their own. He feels his spiritual pulse by a watch that has no rhythm in common with it, yet he fancies that they go exactly alike. He dwells with delight on symptoms, not one of which belongs to him, and flatters himself with their supposed agreement. He looks in those books for signs of grace, and he observes them with complete self-application; he traces the evidences of being in God's favor, and those evidences he finds in himself.

Self-ignorance appropriates truths faithfully stated but wholly inapplicable. The presumption of the novice arrogates to itself the experience of the advanced Christian. He is persuaded that it is his own case and seizes on the consolations which belong only to the most elevated piety. Self-knowledge would correct the judgment. It would teach us to use the pattern held out as an original to copy, instead of leading us to fancy that we are already wrought into the likeness. It would teach us when we read the history of an established Christian, to labor after a conformity to it, instead of mistaking it for the description of our own character.

Human prudence, daily experience, self-love, all teach us to distrust others, but all motives combined do not teach us to distrust ourselves; we confide unreservedly in our own heart, though as a guide it misleads, as a counselor it betrays. It is both defendant and judge. Self-love blinds the defendant through ignorance; and moves the judge to acquit through partiality.

Though we praise ourselves for our discretion in not confiding too implicitly in others, yet it would be difficult to find any friend, neighbor, or even an enemy who has deceived us so often as we have deceived ourselves. If an acquaintance betray us, we take warning, are on the watch, and are careful not to trust him again. But however frequently the bosom traitor deceives and misleads, no such determined stand is made against his treachery: we lie as open to his next treachery: we lie as open to his next assault as if he had never betrayed us! We do not profit by the remembrance of the past delusion to guard against the future.

Yet if another deceive us, it is only in matters respecting this world, but we deceive ourselves in things of eternal importance. The treachery of others can only affect our fortune or our fame, or at worst, our peace; but the eternal traitor may mislead us to our everlasting destruction. We are too much disposed to suspect others who probably have neither the inclination nor the power to injure us, but we seldom suspect our own heart, though it possesses and uses both.

We ought however fairly to distinguish between the simple VANITY and the HYPOCRISY of self-love. Those who content themselves with talking as if the praise of virtue implied the practice, and who expect to be thought good because they commend goodness, only propagate the deceit which has misled them. Hypocrisy, on the other hand, does not even believe herself. She has deeper motives, she has designs to answer, competitions to promote, projects to effect. But mere vanity can subsist on the thin air of the admiration she solicits, without intending to get anything by it. She is gratuitous in her loquacity; for she is ready to display her own merit to those who have nothing to give in return, whose applause brings no profit, and whose censure no disgrace. Self-love feels strengthened by the number of voices in its favor, and is less anxious about the goodness of the work than the loudness of the acclamation. Success is merit in the eyes of both.

But even though we may put more refinement into our self-love, it is self-love still. No subtlety of reasoning, no elegance of taste, though it may disguise the inmost motive, can destroy it. We are still too much in love with flattery even though we may profess to despise that praise which depends on the acclamations of the masses. But if we are over-anxious for the admiration of the better-born and the better-bred, this by no means proves that we are not vain, it only proves that our vanity has better taste. Our appetite is not coarse enough perhaps to relish that popularity which ordinary ambition covets, but do we never feed in secret on the applause of more distinguishing judges? Is not their having extolled our merit a confirmation of their discernment, and the chief ground of our high opinion of theirs?

But if any circumstances arise to induce them to change the too-favorable opinion which they had formed of us, though their general character remain as unimpeachable as when we most admired them, do we not begin to judge them unfavorably? Do we not begin to question their claim to that discernment which we ascribed to them, to suspect the soundness of their judgment on which we had commented so loudly? We do well if we do not entertain some doubt of the uprightness of their motive, as we probably question the reality of their friendship. We do not candidly allow for the effect which prejudice, which misinformation, which partiality may produce even on an upright mind. Still less does it enter into our calculation that we may actually have deserved their disapproval, that something in our conduct may have incurred the change in theirs.

It is no low attainment to detect this lurking injustice in our hearts, to strive against it, to pray against it, and especially to conquer it. We may consider that we have acquired a sound principle of integrity when prejudice no longer blinds our judgment, when resentment does not bias our justice and when we do not make our opinion of others correspond to the opinion they entertain of us. We must have no false estimate which shall incline us to condemnation of others, or to partiality to ourselves. The principle of impartiality must be kept sound or our determinations will not be accurate.

In order to strengthen this principle, we should make it a test of our sincerity to search out and to commend the good qualities of those who do not like us. But this must be done without affectation, and without insincerity. We must practice no false candor. If we are not on our guard, we may be seeking praise for our generosity, while we are only being just. These refinements of self-love are the dangers only of spirits of the higher order, but to such they are dangers.

The INGENUITY of self-love is inexhaustible. If people extol us, we feel our good opinion of ourselves confirmed. If they dislike us, we do not think the worse of ourselves, but of them; it is not we who lack merit, but they who lack true insight. We persuade ourselves that they are not so much insensible to our worth, as jealous of it. There is no shift, stratagem, or device which we do not employ to make us stand well with ourselves.

We are too apt to calculate unfairly in two ways: by referring to some one signal act of generosity, as if such acts were the common habit of our lives; and by treating our habitual faults, not as common habits, but occasional failures. There is scarcely any fault in another, which offends us more than vanity, though perhaps there is none that really injures us so little. We have no patience that another should be as full of self-love as we allow ourselves to be; so full of himself as to have little leisure to pay attention to us. We are particularly quick-sighted to the smallest of his imperfections which interferes with our self-esteem, while we are lenient to his more grave offenses which, by not coming in contact with our vanity, do not shock our self-love.

Is it not strange that though we love ourselves so much better than we love any other person, yet there is hardly one, however little we value him, that we had not rather be alone with, that we had not rather converse with, that we had not rather come to close quarters with, than ourselves? Scarcely one whose private history, whose thoughts, feelings, actions and motives we had not rather pry into than our own? Do we not use every art and contrivance to avoid getting at the truth of our own character? Do we not endeavor to keep ourselves ignorant of what everyone else knows respecting our faults, and do we not account that man our enemy who takes on himself the best office of a friend—that of opening to us our real state and condition?

The little satisfaction people find when they faithfully look within makes them fly more eagerly to the things without. Early practice and long habit might conquer the repugnance to look at home, and the fondness for looking abroad. We might perhaps collect a reasonably just knowledge of our own character if we could ascertain the real opinions of others concerning us. But that opinion being, except in a moment of resentment, carefully kept from us by our own precautions, profits us nothing. We do not choose to know their secret sentiments because we do not choose to be cured of our error; because we "love darkness rather than light;" because we conceive that in parting with our vanity, we should part with the only comfort we have, that of being ignorant of our own faults.

Self-knowledge would materially contribute to our happiness by curing us of that self-sufficiency which is continually exposing us to mortifications. The hourly irritations and vexations which pride undergoes are far more than equivalents for the short intoxications of pleasure which they snatch.

The enemy within (our deceitful heart) is always in a confederacy with the enemy without, whether that enemy be the world or the devil. The domestic foe (our deceitful heart) accommodates itself to their allurements, flatters our weaknesses, throws a veil over our vices, tarnishes our good deeds, guilds our bad ones, hoodwinks our judgment, and works hard to conceal our internal springs of action.

Self-love has the talent of imitating whatever the world admires, even though it should happen to be Christian virtues. Because we regard our reputation, self-love leads us to avoid all vices, not only to escape punishment, but disgrace if we committed them. It can even assume the zeal and copy the activity of Christian charity. It attributes to our conduct those proprieties and graces which are manifested in the conduct of those who are actuated by a sounder motive. The difference lies in the ends proposed. The object of the one is to please God, of the other, to win the praises of people.

Self-love, judging the feelings of others by its own, is aware that nothing excites so much odium as its own character would do, if nakedly exhibited. We feel, by our own disgust at its exhibition in others, how much disgust we ourselves should excite if we did not clothe it with gentle manners and a polished address. Where therefore we would not condescend "to take the lowest place, to think others better than ourselves, to be courteous and pitiful" on the true Scripture ground, politeness steps in as the accredited substitute of humility— and the counterfeit "gem" is willingly worn by those who will not go to the expense of the real jewel.

There is a certain elegance of mind which will often restrain a well-bred man from sordid pleasures and gross sensualism. He will be led by his good taste perhaps not only to abhor the excesses of vice, but to admire the theory of virtue. But it is only the excesses of vice which he will abhor. Exquisite gratification, sober luxury, incessant but not unmeasured enjoyment form the principle of his plan of life. If he observes a temperance in his pleasures, it is only because excess would take off the edge, destroy the zest, and abridge the gratification.

By resisting gross vice he flatters himself that he is a temperate man and that he has made all the sacrifices which self-denial imposes. Inwardly satisfied, he compares himself with those who have sunk into coarser indulgences, and he enjoys his own superiority in health, credit and unimpaired faculties, and exults in the dignity of his own character.

There is, if the expression may be allowed, a sort of religious self-deceit and affectation of humility which is in reality full of self, which is entirely occupied with self, and which only looks at things as they refer to self. This religious vanity operates in two ways. First, we not only lash out at the imputation by others, of the smallest individual fault to ourselves; while at the same time we pretend to charge ourselves with more corruption than is attributed to us. On the other hand, while we are lamenting our general lack of all goodness, we fight for every particle that is questioned by others. The one quality that is in question always happens to be the very one to which we must lay claim, however deficient in others. Thus, while renouncing the pretension to every virtue, "we depreciate ourselves into all." We had rather talk even of our faults than not occupy the foreground of the canvas.

Humility does not consist in telling our faults, but in willing to be told of them; in hearing them patiently and even thankfully; in correcting ourselves when told; in not hating those who tell us of them. If we were little in our own eyes, and felt our real insignificance, we would avoid false humility as much as mere obvious vanity. But we seldom dwell on our faults except in a general way, rarely on those of which we are really guilty. We do it in the hope of being contradicted, and thus of being confirmed in the secret good opinion we hold of ourselves. It is not enough that we inveigh against ourselves. We must in a manner forget ourselves. This oblivion of self from a pure principle would go further towards our advancement in Christian virtue than the most splendid actions performed on the opposite ground.

That self-knowledge which teaches us humility teaches us compassion also. The sick pity the sick. They sympathize with the disorder of which they feel the symptoms in themselves. Self-knowledge also checks injustice by establishing the equitable principle of showing the kindness we expect to receive. It represses ambition by convincing us how little we are entitled to superiority. It renders adversity profitable by letting us see how much we deserve it. It makes prosperity safe, by directing our hearts to Him who confers it, instead of receiving it as the consequence of our own deserving.

We even carry our self-importance to the foot of the throne of God. When prostrate there we are not required, it is true, to forget ourselves, but we are required to remember HIM. We have indeed much sin to lament, but we have also much mercy to adore. We have much to ask, but we have likewise much to acknowledge. Yet our infinite obligations to God do not fill our hearts half as much as a petty uneasiness of our own, nor HIS infinite perfections as much as our own smallest need! The great, the only effectual antidote to self-love is to get the love of God and of our neighbor firmly rooted in the heart. Yet let us ever bear in mind that dependence on our fellow creatures is as carefully to be avoided as love of them is to be cultivated. There is none but God on whom the principle of love and dependence form but a single duty.