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Self Culture

By Frank G. Allen

      [An Address Delivered Before Columbia Christian College, June 7, 1878.]

      Ladies and Gentlemen:--I am happy in the privilege of again addressing you in the interests of the great work in which you are so nobly engaged. To-day many of you go out from under the fostering care of this institution, to engage in the ceaseless battle of life. That you have been well panoplied for the conflict is not questioned. And, if I can second, in some degree, the efforts of your faithful and worthy Faculty in directing and encouraging you to that success that should crown their efforts and yours, I shall feel that I have labored to no trifling purpose. The theme selected for your consideration is


      Man, though fallen, is in his ruins grand. His powers of development are little less than infinite. They begin with the cradle, but do not end with the grave. No other being begins so low and ascends so high. In his beginning, he is "crushed before the moth;" in the fullness of his power he shall "judge angels." In this world he scarcely begins to live. This life is too short and this world too small for the development of his God-given faculties. Here he scarcely learns the alphabet preparatory to God's grand university from which he is never to graduate. He simply begins the study of an unending book. He but gathers a few pebbles on the shores of the river of time, then sinks beneath its wave.

      But while in this world we scarcely make a beginning, yet everything depends on the character of that beginning. As is the beginning, so will be the conclusion. In the direction taken in time will we progress in eternity. We may repent of our mistakes here and correct them, but there is no repentance beyond the grave. There are no mistakes corrected in eternity. Hence the necessity of a proper use of time.

      I have selected the word culture to express the idea which I wish to convey, and yet I must confess that it does not express it as happily as I should desire. Where the Greeks had their paideia, the Romans their humanitas, we have the more elastic and accommodating word culture. I use it in this address in the sense of drawing out and developing the nobler powers that are potentially in fallen humanity. It is not so much the development of all the faculties in man to their highest extent, as the directing and training of the better ones to their true end. We are dealing here with beginnings, not endings. The perfection of man in all his capacities is not a thing of time. In time, the character must receive its mold; in eternity, its highest polish.

      By self-culture I mean, of course, the power that one has, and ought to use, of cultivating himself. "To cultivate anything," says Dr. Channing, "be it a plant, an animal, a mind, is to make grow. Growth, expansion is the end. Nothing admits culture but that which has a principle of life, capable of being expanded. He, therefore, who does what he can to unfold all his powers and capacities, especially his nobler ones, so as to become a well proportioned, vigorous, happy being, practices self-culture." This may apply to those who have not the advantages of schools and colleges, and to the after education of those who have.

      We hear much in this age about a "finished education at college." There is, alas! too much truth in the expression. Generally, the more superficial our collegiate education, the more completely is it "finished" on the day of graduation. How few young ladies and gentlemen meet the expectations raised by their educational advantages! How few years sadden loving hearts with disappointed hopes! How many stars shine brilliantly within college walls, then go out to be seen no more! And all this the result of a "finished education!"

      Most of these failures are the result of wrong views of education. Our school days are but a beginning of our earthly education, as this is but the beginning of that which is to come. It is not what we learn in school, but what we learn after leaving it, that determines our success or failure. These advantages are but for the purpose of laying the foundation; the building is the work of after years. And he who does not build, does not even preserve the foundation. Alas! how many well-laid foundations have moldered into ruin! No sooner does the plant cease to grow than it begins to decay. Therefore, he who would live must grow, and he who would grow must be active. There is no success to him who stands with his hands in his pockets. This is an age of intense activity. Competition in every calling is sharp; the professions are crowded, and there is room only at the top. Therefore, the path to success is not strewed with flowers and tinted with the rainbow's hue. As Carlyle truly says: "The race of life has become intense; the runners are treading upon each other's heels, woe be to him who stops to tie his shoestrings."

      Many a young man fails because he thinks himself a genius, and therefore does not need to study. The sooner you get rid of the idea that you are a genius the better. The old idea of a genius that never has to study is the pet of laziness and the ruin of manliness. Sidney Smith truly says: "There is but one method of attaining to excellence, and that is hard labor; and a man who will not pay that price for distinction had better at once dedicate himself to the pursuit of the fox, or sport with the tangles of Neaera's hair, or talk of bullocks and glory in the goad! There are many modes of being frivolous, and not a few of being useful; there is but one mode of being intellectually great."

      It is common for those who have not the wealth to afford them a luxurious college course to bemoan their misfortune and content themselves with being nothing. If culture were attained by complaining of misfortune, many would soon reach perfection. To some, extreme poverty is doubtless a misfortune, but to many others it is a blessing. The world's grandest heroes and benefactors have struggled with poverty; and, but for this, they would have died unwept and unhonored. The great men and women of earth were not dandled in the lap of luxury. Lord Thurlow, Chancellor of England, when asked by a wealthy friend what course his son should pursue to secure success at the bar, is said to have thus replied: "Let your son spend his fortune, marry and spend his wife's, and then go to the bar; there will be little fear of his failure." The Chancellor well knew that, with his wealth, the young man would not do the work that success demanded. How many men, and women, too, were never anything till they lost their fortune! Then the world felt their power. What a fortune, then, to have no fortune to lose! True, poverty brings difficulties, but difficulties develop men. They show the material out of which one is composed. While they dishearten the irresolute, they stimulate the brave. The wind that extinguishes the taper only intensifies the heat of the stronger flame. Gnats are blown with the wind, but kites rise only against it.

      All culture is, in a large degree, self-culture. Our teachers are only helps. They can teach us, but they can not learn us. We must do our own learning. Wealth can not buy it, nor luxurious surroundings impart it; it must be made ours by personal application.

      I am not contending that all may or should be scholars in the proper sense of that word. There is a difference between culture and scholarship. A man of culture may or may not be a scholar. I plead more especially for the training of the mind, for the development of the nobler faculties of our nature, that we may fulfill the true end of our being.

      I do not mean that all should be great, in the popular acceptation of that term. This is neither desirable nor possible. If all were great, then none were great. But God has designed us all for positions of usefulness and happiness; some in one direction, some in another. These positions we should seek and fill to the full extent of our ability. And it is with reference to this ability that I am making the plea for self-culture. It is not simply preparation for a position, but development in it, for which I plead. There is much said in this age about education for a position, and this education is all right; the more thorough the better. But the trouble is, too many seem to think that this is all. Here is the ruinous mistake. There is a world of difference between being educated for a calling, and being educated in it. That may be obtained in schools and colleges; this is a work of subsequent life. That is important; this is indispensable. Without that, this may be a grand success; without this, that is next to worthless. Many men are highly educated in their calling who were never educated for it. This is self-culture in its true sense.

      Nor is the culture for which I plead derived simply from books. These we need, but we need them simply as helps. We should make them our servants, not our masters. A "bookworm" is sometimes a very inferior kind of a worm. Some men that the schools call highly educated rely so much on books that they are nothing in themselves. They have no mind of their own. They deal altogether in second-hand goods. We need to lay aside our books, and study men and things--commence with God and nature. We must learn to think. To think much. To think accurately. To do our own thinking, not have it done for us. Without this, we shall make but little of our advantages; with it, we rise superior to advantages.

      Neither am I contending that we should all strive for the "learned professions." It is just the reverse. We want to elevate and ennoble the unlearned professions. The American people, at least, should learn that the calling does not make the man. We need to dignify all the honest and legitimate vocations by intellectual and moral culture. We not only need to dignify labor by culture, but, by so doing, we need to dignify the mass of our common humanity. Personal worth consists not in what one does, but in what one is. Better be a good barber than a poor doctor, a good shoemaker than a poor lawyer.

      I would not be understood as claiming that men and women in all the vocations in life should be cultured in all directions. In this age of short and intense life this is not practicable. It might have done before the flood, when men lived a thousand years, but it is not adapted to the nineteenth century. Remember I am speaking with reference to the masses. Men can not know everything, neither can they do everything, and do it well. All knowledge may be made useful, and I would urge the obtaining of all possible; but it is a mistake to try to do too much, and do nothing. A few things well understood are of more value than a smattering of much. By all means avoid being "Jack-of-all-trades." Decide what you want to do and do it. I would urge the training of mind and heart and hand as a specialty in that which you select as a life work, embellished and perfected by all the general knowledge that a life of intense application will enable you to possess. Difference in occupation demands a difference in special culture, but not in general. This is culture, not of the schools, simply, but of life.

      But the difficulties and the means of self-culture need now to be considered. In doing this, the first essential element to success to which your attention is called, is


      No man ever amounted to much who did not rely on God and himself. The young man who whines around, waiting for some one to help him, instead of helping himself, ought to be sent back to the nursery, clothed in enlarged baby-gowns, and fed with a spoon. Men of independence are the men that move the world. The living rarely walk well in the shoes of the dead, and he who waits for them ought to go barefooted all his life. God helps those who help themselves. Self-reliance toughens our sinews and develops our manhood. "It is not in the sheltered garden or the hothouse, but on the rugged Alpine cliffs where the storm bursts most violently, that the toughest plants are reared." The man who does not rely on self, soon ceases to have any self. He becomes a zoological parasite, instead of a man. He is a lobster that waits for the sea to come to him, instead of going to it, though its waves may be dashing at his feet. Should the sea accommodate him in time, well enough; otherwise he dies. These men make the subjunctive heroes of the world. They always "might," "could," "would" or "should" do some great thing; but they never get into the imperative mood to do it. They have never learned self-reliance; and, the result is, they never learned anything worth knowing. They can never appreciate this saying of the immortal Burke: "I was not rocked and swaddled and dandled into a legislator. Nitor in adversum is the motto for a man like me."

      Those who are afraid to move without the arms of a rich ancestry around them, will never learn to walk erect. They will never have a firm, elastic step, nor make the world feel the weight of their tread. The man who thus shrinks from difficulties and responsibilities, refuses to be a pupil of the best teacher the world affords. They should learn that repeated failure, if wisely used, is but a means to grand success. As Dr. Mathews truly says: "Great statesmen in all countries have owed their sagacity, tact and foresight more to their failures than to their successes. The diplomatist becomes master of his art by being baffled, thwarted, defeated, quite as much as by winning his points. Every time he is checkmated he acquires a profounder knowledge of the political game, and makes his next combination with increased skill and increased chances of success." Ease and luxury may make the butterflies of society, but difficulties make men and women. That was a wise saying of Pythagoras, that, "ability and necessity dwell near each other." It is astonishing how difficulties will yield to one who will not yield to them. They tip their plumed caps to his dominant will, and politely bow themselves out of sight. They not only clear the way for self-reliance, but give him the encouragement of their parting salute.

      "Every person," says Gibbon, "has two educations--one which he receives from others, and one, more important, which he gives himself." Archimedes said, "Give me a standing-place and I will move the world." But Goethe more happily says, "Make good thy standing-place and move the world." Circumstances may afford a standing-place, but self-reliance alone can give the leverage power. We must learn that character and worth consists in doing, not in possessing. Not resting, not having, not being simply, but growing and becoming, is the true character of self-culture. This thought is most beautifully expressed by Rogers--

      "Our reward
      Is in the race we run, not in the prize,
      Those few, to whom is given what they ne'er earned,
      Having by favor or inheritance
      The dangerous gifts placed in their hands,
      Know not, nor ever can, the generous pride
      That glows in him who on himself relies,
      Entering the lists of life. He speeds beyond
      Them all, and foremost in the race succeeds.
      His joy is not that he has got his crown,
      But that the power to win the crown is his."

      Another important item in the attainment of self-culture is the


      Time is a divine inheritance that no man has a right to squander. The antediluvians might have afforded to be a little profligate in this direction, but the man who would fulfill his high destiny in this age has no time to lose. Lost time is forever lost. There is much useless complaint in the world of a want of time. It is not more time we need, so much as a better use of that we have. I do not mean that we should deprive ourselves of requisite sleep and rest. On the contrary, the regulation of these constitutes a part of the economy of which I speak. Rest is necessary; but all rest is not idleness. We should learn to rest by changing our employment, not by its abandonment. The man whose mind becomes weary in his study, finds the most invigorating rest in manual labor. The physical and intellectual have a happy reflective influence on each other. The moments wisely taken for intellectual and moral culture by the laboring man are fountains whose refreshing stream, like that from Horeb, follows him through his daily toil. They are a ceaseless pleasure, both in remembrance and anticipation. Those, also whose lives are disconnected with manual labor should have such a variety of work that one kind prepares the way for the enjoyment of another. There are both pleasure and health in a change of diet. To happily manage this variety requires a training of the mind essential to self-culture. We must learn to do the right thing at the right time. The happy influence of one thing upon another depends on their arrangement and the manner of their execution. It may not be well to have too many irons in the fire, but it is certainly best to have enough for some to be heating while others are cooling.

      In order to do the right thing at the right time, and do it well, we must learn to think about the right thing at the right time. This is one of the most important features in mental training. We can think well on but one thing at a time. Therefore, the mind that is filled with various kinds of thoughts can prosecute none of them successfully. We must learn to select the guests that we would have sit at our intellectual banquets, summon or exclude them at will, and never permit the intrusion of a promiscuous crowd. When our work is arranged for the day, the week, the month, the year, we should set apart the time to be devoted to each item, both in work and in thought; and then never allow the thoughts of one to encroach upon the time allotted to another. We should so train the mind that we can think about the thing only of which we wish to think, concentrate our whole mind upon it till the time comes to put it away; then dismiss it in a moment, turn to something else, and think no more about it, till its proper time. The mind is soon trained to pass from one subject to another in a moment, with all its powers of concentration. This mastery of the mind, once attained, will enable us to study at all times and places regardless of circumstances. The man who can not study amid the wild shouts of the excited multitude is not his own master. He who can command his time and his talents only when no surging billows beat against his quiet retreat, has necessarily to spend much of life in which he has neither time nor talents which he can call his own. A very important item, then, in the economy of time, is to learn to labor under difficulties, till we rise superior to external surroundings. To keep the reins of the mind well in hand when there is a stampede all around us, is absolutely essential in the great crises of life. This is attained only by training the mind to instantaneous concentration under all circumstances. This, then, I would urge you to persist in until it is accomplished. Without this you will lose much time in acquiring information, and, what is of vastly more importance, you will be unprepared to use what you have at the very time, it may be, when it is most needed.

      Another important element in the economy of time we learn from the great Teacher who said, "Gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost." If He who had the power to create as well as to preserve, was such an economist of the remnants of loaves and fishes, how much more should we save the fragments of time, which we can not lengthen out a span?

      Many people seem to think they can make garments only out of whole cloth. If they have not an abundance of uninterrupted time in which to accomplish a thing, they think they can not accomplish it at all. Such men accomplish but little, not for want of time, but for want of its economy. To avoid this waste, we must learn to weave whole garments out of the mere ravelings of the fabric of time. But some complain that they can not "get up steam" for intellectual labor in these fractions of time. We don't need to "get up steam." The "steam" should be already up. We only need to change the gearing. "There is a momentum in the active man," says Mathews, "which of itself almost carries him to the mark, just as a very light stroke will keep a hoop going, when a smart one was required to set it in motion. While others are yawning and stretching themselves to overcome the vis inertiae, he has his eyes wide open, his faculties keyed up for action, and is thoroughly alive in every fiber. He walks through the world with his hands unmuffled and ready by his side, and so can sometimes do more by a single touch in passing than a vacant man is likely to do by strenuous effort."

      Let no one conclude that nothing important can be accomplished by these scattered fragments. It is said that "Hugh Miller found time while pursuing his trade as a stone-mason, not only to read but to write, cultivating his style till he became one of the most facile and brilliant authors of the day." Also, that Elihu Burritt "acquired a mastery of eighteen languages and twenty-two dialects, not by rare genius, which he disclaimed, but by improving the bits and fragments of time which he could steal from his occupation as a blacksmith."

      With these examples before us, then, let no one conclude that he can not get time from his daily vocation, whatever it may be, to cultivate his mind, and develop his moral and intellectual faculties. Another essential element in self-culture is


      "A man," says Emerson, "is like a bit of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand until you come to a particular angle; then it shows deep and beautiful colors." There is no adaptation or universal applicability in man; but each has his special talent; and the mastery of successful men consists in adroitly keeping themselves where and when that turn shall need oftenest to be practiced. The successful man in every calling, whether literary, scientific or business, is he who is totus in illo--who can say with Paul, this one thing I do! With the exception of a few great creative minds, the men whose names are historic are identified with some one achievement, upon which all their life force is spent. "Whatever I have tried to do in my life," says Dickens, "I have tried with all my heart to do well. What I have devoted myself to, I have devoted myself to completely. Never to put one hand to a thing on which I would not throw my whole self, and never to affect depreciation of my work, whatever it was, I find now to have been golden rules." The fact is, the range of human knowledge has become so extensive that the man who would know some things well must have the courage to be ignorant of many others. There are many things for which one is wholly incapacitated; for which he has no talent, and, as a rule, time spent in this direction is time lost. Goethe justly says: "We should guard against a talent which we can not hope to practice in perfection. Improve it as we may, we shall always, in the end, when the merit of the master has become apparent to us, painfully lament the loss of time and strength devoted to such botching." Sidney Smith condemns what he calls the "foppery of universality--of knowing all sciences and excelling in all arts." "Now my advice," he says, "on the contrary, is to have the courage to be ignorant of a great number of things, in order to avoid the calamity of being ignorant of everything."

      I do not mean that you should try to learn but one thing, or be a man or woman of one idea; far from it. I simply mean that you must be select. Select your calling, and then bend all your energies in that direction. Let those branches of knowledge that bear most directly on your vocation be mastered first, then widen the circle as opportunity affords. Do not scatter your powers over so much territory that they are felt nowhere. It is only when the sun's rays are brought to a focus that they burn. The man who is one thing this year, another next; studies medicine a while, then law, is next a school-teacher, and then an insurance agent, will, in the end, be nothing. Men who are always changing, never learn enough about anything to make it of any value. Men who are eminent in their professions have stuck to them with a singleness of purpose. Men talk much about genius, when, generally, the genius of which they speak is but the result of unremitting application. The genius that blesses this world is simply a talent for hard work. They are men who have the resolution to try, and the courage to persevere. Idle men of the most eminent natural ability are soon distanced in the race by the mediocre who sticks to his purpose and plods. Then, I repeat, if you would succeed in life, in whatever calling you may select, divest yourself of the idea that you are a genius and do not need the application demanded by common mortality; rely not on the caprices of fickle fortune; but rely on God and yourself, economize your time, apply yourself with diligence and with singleness of purpose. With these you will be a blessing to the world, and fulfill the high and holy purposes of God in giving you being.

      Self-culture looks not simply to time, but to eternity. No man is truly cultured who is not cultured for eternity. His culture is but one-sided, and that the most inferior side. The well-rounded and perfected culture, though it may be only partial so far as the culture of this world is concerned, is the culture that prepares one to matriculate in the great university over which God presides, and sit forever in delightful appreciation at the feet of the great Teacher. Let this, then, be the ultimatum of all your efforts.

      It is for this reason that you should so highly appreciate this institution from which you go out to-day as honored students. While the various branches of the arts and sciences that pertain to this life, have been carefully and accurately taught you, the great Science of eternal life, if I may so term it, has been, I trust, indelibly engraved on your every heart. A college whose faculty is composed exclusively of Christian men and women, and in which the systematic study of the Bible by both ladies and gentlemen is made one of its most prominent features, will ever be most highly appreciated by those who appreciate true culture, and know in what it consists. I think I appreciate a high standard of education, and I want, if possible, to give my children its advantages; but I should infinitely prefer their never going beyond the common school than to be graduated with the first honors from the most renowned colleges or universities of Europe or America, in which the authority of Jesus is not held as supreme, and the Bible honored as our only divine guide. Other things being equal, we should always honor those institutions most that honor God's word most. For this reason, then, as well as for many others, we delight to honor this institution from whose fostering care you this day go forth.

      In conclusion, let me entreat you to be what this world now most needs--MEN and WOMEN. The world is now burdened with "gentlemen and ladies;" but it is perishing for the want of MEN and WOMEN. The world needs men and women that are true to themselves, true to each other, and true to God--men and women who know what manliness is, and what womanly virtues are; who delight in the real, and scorn the counterfeit; who have the courage to do right because it is right; who would rather stand alone on the side of truth, than with the world on the side of error; who are governed by high and holy principle, not by selfish policy. We need men and women that will create a healthier public sentiment, rather than to float on that which exists; who will frown out of countenance the fraud, dishonesty and meanness that now lifts high its head in society; who will not live in fine palaces, drive fast horses, and occupy the first pews in the sanctuary, at ten cents on the dollar. The world needs men and women who have hearts and consciences, as well as brains; who realize that they have a soul as well as a body; who live for eternity rather than for time.

      God grant that you may all make such men and women. That you may not only be a blessing to the age and generation in which you live; but that your influence for the "true, the beautiful and the good," may be felt like the gentle dews of heaven upon the earth, generations after you are gathered to your fathers! May you be diligent and faithful in the cultivation of your nobler powers of mind and heart till the world shall bless God that you have lived in it; then laying aside the body, in which you have fought the grand fight for righteousness and truth--a fight on which God and angels have looked with interest and delight--as you would lay aside a worn-out garment, and passing through "the gates ajar," enter on a higher plane of culture, where you will not have to rely upon self, and struggle against adversity as here; but where you will have all the facilities of Heaven, and be forever pupils of the great Teacher!

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