The Virtue of Self-commandSeptember 20, 2015
1 A man is said to be perfectly virtuous if he acts according to the rules of=
- perfect prudence,
- strict justice, and
- proper benevolence.
But the perfect knowledge of those rules alone will not enable him to act in this way. His own passions=
- are very apt to mislead him, and
- sometimes drive and seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself approves of in all his sober and cool hours
The perfect knowledge will not always enable him to do his duty if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command.
2 The best ancient moralists divided those passions into two=
- Those which are hard to restrain, even for a moment
3 Examples are fear and anger, with other passions mixed or connected with them.
- Fear and anger are often difficult to restrain even for a single moment.
- These drive us from our duty.
- The command of these are called fortitude, manhood, and strength of mind.
- Those which are easy to restrain for a short time, but can mislead into great deviations in a lifetime, by their continual solicitations
Examples are love of ease, pleasure, applause, and other selfish gratifications
- These are easy to restrain for a short time. But by their continual solicitations, they often mislead us into many weaknesses which we have much reason to be ashamed of afterwards.
- These seduce us from our duty.
- The command of these are called temperance, decency, modesty, and moderation.
4 The command of both has a beauty of its own, which is admired=
- for its own sake
- independent of the beauty it derives from its utility by letting us act prudently, justly, and benevolently
Some of that admiration is excited by=
- its strength in commanding the passions hard to control
- its uniformity, equality, and steadiness in commanding the passions easy to control
5 A man is very much admired if he stays calm while he is in danger, torture, and near death.
If he suffers for the sake of humanity and nationalism, this admiration is mixed with=
- compassion for his sufferings,
- the highest sense of his merit.
These raises that admiration into veneration. Many of the heroes of the past are remembered favourably in the cause of truth, liberty, and justice. They have=
- perished on the scaffold, and
- behaved there with ease and dignity.
If Socrates’ enemies had made him die quietly in his bed, his glory might never have acquired that dazzling splendour which all succeeding ages held of it.
In the English history, the illustrious heads engraven by Vertue and Howbraken makes everyone feel a real dignity and charm over the characters which have the axe affixed to them. That axe is the emblem of having been beheaded. It is engraved under the most illustrious of them=
- the Sir Thomas Mores,
- the Rhaleighs,
- the Russels,
- the Sydneys, etc.
This dignity is much superior to what they can derive from all the futile ornaments of heraldry which sometimes accompany them.
6 This magnanimity gives lustre to innocent and virtuous men.
It draws some favourable regard even on the greatest criminals. When a robber behaves with decency and firmness during his execution, we often regret that he, who had such great and noble powers, could do such bad things, even if we perfectly approve of his punishment.
7 War is the great school for acquiring and exercising this species of magnanimity.
Death is the king of terrors. The man who has conquered the fear of death will not likely lose his presence of mind at the approach of any other natural evil. In war, men become familiar with death.
They are necessarily cured of that superstitious horror which afflicts the weak and inexperienced. They consider it merely as the loss of life. Death is no longer the object of aversion than as life may be the object of desire. They learn from experience too that= many great dangers are not so great as they appear with courage, activity, and presence of mind, they can extricate themselves honourably from seemingly hopeless situations. The dread of death is thus greatly reduced. The confidence or hope of escaping death is augmented. They learn to expose themselves to danger less reluctantly. They are less anxious to get out of it. They are less apt to lose their presence of mind while they are in danger. This habitual contempt of danger and death ennobles the profession of a soldier. It bestows on that profession a natural rank and dignity superior to any other profession. The skillful and successful exercise of this profession in the service of their country, constituted the most distinguishing feature in the character of the favourite heroes of all ages.
8 Great warlike exploits sometimes=
- interests us, and
- commands even some esteem for the very worthless characters which conduct it.
Even if those exploits were undertaken contrary to justice and without any regard to humanity.
We are interested even in the exploits of the Buccaneers.
In the most criminal pursuits, they endured greater hardships and dangers than ordinary.
9 On many occasions, the command of anger appears not less generous and noble than the command of fear.
The proper expression of just indignation composes many of the most splendid and admired passages of ancient and modern eloquence.
The Philippics of Demosthenes and Catalinarians of Cicero, get their beauty from their noble propriety.
But this just indignation is merely anger restrained and properly attempered to what the impartial spectator can enter into.
The blustering and noisy passion which goes beyond this is always odious and offensive. It interests us, not for the angry man, but for the man with whom he is angry. On many occasions, the nobleness of pardoning appears superior even to the most perfect propriety of resenting. The man who can remove all animosity and act confidently and cordially towards the person who most grievously offended him, seems justly to merit our highest admiration when=
- proper acknowledgments have been made by the offending party, and
- the public interest requires that the most mortal enemies unite for some important duty, even without any such acknowledgments.
10 However, the command of anger does not always appear in such splendid colours. Fear is=
- contrary to anger and
- often the motive which restrains anger.
In such cases, the meanness of the motive takes away all the nobleness of the restraint. Anger prompts to attack. The indulgence of anger seems sometimes to show courage and superiority to fear. The indulgence of anger is sometimes an object of vanity. The indulgence of fear never is an object of vanity. Vain and weak men often affect to be ostentatiously passionate among their inferiors or those who dare not resist them.
They fancy that they show spirit in being so. A bully tells many stories of his own insolence which are not true. He imagines that he renders himself more formidable, amiable, and respectable to his audience. By favouring the practice of duelling, modern manners in some cases encourage private revenge. In modern times, they perhaps render the restraint of anger by fear more contemptible than otherwise. There is always something dignified in the command of fear, whatever may be its motive. It is not so with the command of anger. Unless it is founded in the sense of decency, dignity, and propriety, the command of anger is never perfectly agreeable.
11 To act according to the dictates of prudence, of justice, and proper beneficence, seems to have no great merit where there is no temptation to do otherwise.
The character of the most exalted wisdom and virtue is to= act with cool deliberation in the midst of the greatest dangers and difficulties, observe religiously the sacred rules of justice in spite of= the greatest interests which might tempt us to violate them, and the greatest injuries which might provoke us to violate them. never suffer the benevolence of our temper to be damped or discouraged by the malignity and ingratitude of the individuals towards whom it may have been exercised. Self-command is a great virtue by itself. All the other virtues seem to derive their principal lustre from self-command.
12 The command of fear and anger, are always great and noble powers.
When they are directed by justice and benevolence they= are great virtues, and increase the splendour of those other virtues. However, they may sometimes be directed by very different motives. In this case, though still great and respectable, they may be excessively dangerous. The most intrepid valour may be employed in the cause of the greatest injustice. Amidst great provocations, apparent tranquility and good humour may sometimes conceal the most determined and cruel resolution to revenge.
The strength of mind needed for such dissimulation is always contaminated by the baseness of falsehood. However, such strength has been often much admired by many people of no contemptible judgment. The dissimulation of= Catharine of Medicis is often celebrated by the profound historian Davila, Lord Digby, afterwards Earl of Bristol, by the grave and conscientious Lord Clarendon, and the first Ashley Earl of Shaftesbury, by the judicious Mr . Locke. Even Cicero considers this deceitful character as not unsuitable to a certain flexibility of manners, not as of the highest dignity. He thinks these manners may still be agreeable and respectable on the whole. He exemplifies it by the characters of=
- Homer’s Ulysses,
- the Athenian Themistocles,
- the Spartan Lysander, and
- the Roman Marcus Crassus.
This character of dark and deep dissimulation occurs most commonly=
- in times of great public disorder, and
- amidst the violence of faction and civil war.
The regard to self-defence obliges most men to have recourse to dexterity, address, and apparent accommodation to the current prevailing party when=
- law has become impotent, and
- the most perfect innocence cannot alone insure safety.
This false character is also frequently accompanied with the coolest and most determined courage. Its proper exercise supposes that courage, as death is commonly the certain consequence of detection. It can be used indifferently to exasperate or to allay those furious animosities of adverse factions which impose the need to assume it. It may sometimes be useful. But it is at least equally liable to be excessively pernicious.
13 The command of the less violent and turbulent passions seems much less liable to be abused to any pernicious purpose.
Temperance, decency, modesty, and moderation, are always amiable.
The following virtues derive their lustre from the steadiness of those gentler exertions of self-command=
- industry, and
The conduct of those who live humbly in private and peaceable life, also derives most of their beauty and grace from that gentler self-command. It is a beauty and grace much less dazzling. But it is not always less pleasing than those from the splendid actions of the hero, statesman, or legislator.