Reason should guide us; but without correct knowledge reason is useless; just as the most perfectly formed eye would be useless without light. There is in every man a natural thirst for knowledge, which needs only to be cultivated and rightly directed. All have not equal opportunities of obtaining important knowledge: but all have more advantages for this object than they utilize. The sources of information are innumerable: the principal, however, are books and other people. In regard to the former, no age of the world which has passed was so favored with a multiplicity of books as our own. Indeed the very number and diversity of character and tendency of authors now create one of the most obvious difficulties to those who are destitute of wise advisers. It would be an unwise counsel to tell you to read indiscriminately whatever comes to hand. The press gives circulation not only to useful knowledge, but to error dressed up plausibly in the garb of truth. Many books are useless, others are on the whole injurious, and some are impregnated with a deadly poison. Waste not your time in works of idle fiction. Touch not the book which exhibits vice in an alluring form. Seek the advice of judicious friends in the choice of books.
But you may also learn much from listening to the conversation of the wise and godly. There is scarcely a person so ignorant, who has lived any time in the world, who cannot communicate some profitable hint to the young. Avail yourselves, then, of every opportunity of learning what you do not know; and let not pride prevent you from seeking instruction, lest by this means you should betray your ignorance. Nourish the desire of knowledge, and keep your mind constantly awake and open to instruction from every quarter.
But, especially, I would recommend to you the acquisition of self-knowledge. “Know yourself” was a precept held in such high esteem among the ancients, that the honor of inventing it was claimed for several of their wisest men; and not only so, but on account of its superlative excellence, it was believed by many to have been uttered by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi; at which place, as Pliny informs us, it was conspicuously written in letters of gold, over the door of the temple.
And this species of knowledge is also inculcated in the Christian Scriptures as most useful and necessary. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor 13:5) And in the Old Testament the value of this knowledge is also fully recognized, where we are exhorted “to commune with our own hearts”, (Psalm 4:4) and “to keep our hearts with all diligence”. (Prov 4:23) And the possession of it is made an object of fervent prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts” (Psalm 139:23)—”Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and my mind.” (Psalm 26:2)
As this knowledge is necessary to all, so it is placed within the reach of all. But it cannot be acquired without diligent self-examination. To this duty there exists in human nature a strong repugnance, partly from natural and partly from moral causes, so that by most it is entirely neglected, to their exceeding great detriment. But, when it is attempted, we are in great danger of being misled by self-love and prejudice. To acquire any true knowledge of ourselves, some good degree of honesty and impartiality is essentially requisite. But an honest desire to arrive at the truth is not the only prerequisite to self-knowledge. The mind must be enlightened in regard to the standard of rectitude to which we ought to be conformed. “The entrance of your Word gives light.” (Psalm 119:130) The Word of God should dwell richly in us, and by the rules and principles of the sacred volume we should form all our sentiments respecting ourselves. This is the candle of the Lord which searches the inward parts of man; and without such a lamp it would be as impossible to obtain any considerable degree of self-knowledge—as to distinguish the objects in a dark room without a light. Self-examination, accompanied with a careful perusal of the Holy Scriptures, will lead us daily to a more thorough knowledge of our own character.
Beware of the common illusion of forming your estimate of yourselves from the favorable opinions of those around you. They cannot know the secret principles from which you act, and flattery may have much influence in leading them to speak in your praise.
Seize favorable opportunities of judging of the latent strength of your passions. The fact is that, until some new occasion elicits our feelings, we are as ignorant of what is within us, as other people.
Study also your constitutional temperament, and consider attentively the power which particular objects and circumstances have over you. You may often learn even from your enemies and calumniators what are the weak points in your character. They are sagacious in detecting faults, and generally have some shadow of truth for what they allege against us. We may therefore derive more benefit from the sarcasms of our foes, than from the flattery of our friends.
Learn, moreover, to form a correct estimate of your own abilities, as this is necessary to guide you in your undertakings.
– Archibald Alexander