By Bennett, William J.

Simon & Schuster

Bennett, William J.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0684835770


Excerpt

Chapter 1

Self-Discipline

In self-discipline one makes a "disciple" of oneself. One is one's own teacher, trainer, coach, and "disciplinarian." It is an odd sort of relationship, paradoxical in its own way, and many of us don't handle it very well. There is much unhappiness and personal distress in the world because of failures to control tempers, appetites, passions, and impulses. "Oh, if only I had stopped myself" is an all too familiar refrain.

The father of modern philosophy, René Descartes, once remarked of "good sense" that "everybody thinks he is so well supplied with it, that even the most difficult to please in all other matters never desire more of it than they already possess." With self-discipline it is just the opposite. Rare indeed is the person who doesn't desire more self-discipline and, with it, the control that it gives one over the course of one's life and development. That desire is itself, as Descartes might say, a further mark of good sense. We do want to take charge of ourselves. But what does that mean?

The question has been at or near the center of Western philosophy since its very beginnings. Plato divided the soul into three parts or operations - reason, passion, and appetite - and said that right behavior results from harmony or control of these elements. Saint Augustine sought to understand the soul by ranking its various forms of love in his famous ordo amoris: love of God, neighbor, self, and material goods. Sigmund Freud divided the psyche into the id, ego, and superego. And we find William Shakespeare examining the conflicts of the soul, the struggle between good and evil called the psychomachia, in immortal works such as King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Hamlet. Again and again, the problem is one of the soul's proper balance and order. "This was the noblest Roman of them all," Antony says of Brutus in Julius Caesar. "His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man!'"

But the question of correct order of the soul is not simply the domain of sublime philosophy and drama. It lies at the heart of the task of successful everyday behavior, whether it is controlling our tempers, or our appetites, or our inclinations to sit all day in front of the television. As Aristotle pointed out, here our habits make all the difference. We learn to order our souls the same way we learn to do math problems or play baseball well - through practice.

Practice, of course, is the medicine so many people find hard to swallow. If it were easy, we wouldn't have such modern-day phenomena as multimillon-dollar diet and exercise industries. We can enlist the aid of trainers, therapists, support groups, step programs, and other strategies, but in the end, it's practice that brings self-control.

The case of Aristotle's contemporary Demosthenes illustrates the point. Demosthenes had great ambition to become an orator, but suffered natural limitations as a speaker. Strong desire is essential, but by itself is insufficient. According to Plutarch, "His inarticulate and stammering pronunciation he overcame and rendered more distinct by speaking with pebbles in his mouth." Give yourself an even greater challenge than the one you are trying to master and you will develop the powers necessary to overcome the original difficulty. He used a similar strategy in training his voice, which "he disciplined by declaiming and reciting speeches or verses when he was out of breath, while running or going up steep places." And to keep himself studying without interruption "two or three months together," Demosthenes shaved "one half of his head, that so for shame he might not go abroad, though he desired it ever so much." Thus did Demosthenes make a kind of negative support group out of a general public that never saw him!

Good and Bad Children
Robert Louis Stevenson

Children, you are very little,
And your bones are very brittle;
If you would grow great and stately,
You must try to walk sedately.

You must still be bright and quiet,
And content with simple diet;
And remain, through all bewild'ring,
Innocent and honest children.

Happy hearts and happy faces,
Happy play in grassy places -
That was how, in ancient ages,
Children grew to kings and sages.

But the unkind and the unruly,
And the sort who eat unduly,
They must never hope for glory -
Theirs is quite a different story!

Cruel children, crying babies,
All grow up as geese and gabies,
Hated, as their age increases,
By their nephews and their nieces.

Please
Alicia Aspinwall

Webster's defines our manners as our "morals shown in conduct." Good people stick to good manners, as this story from a turn-of-the-century reader reminds us.

There was once a little word named "Please," that lived in a small boy's mouth. Pleases live in everybody's mouth, though people often forget they are there.

Now, all Pleases, to be kept strong and happy, should be taken out of the mouth very often, so they can get air. They are like little fish in a bowl, you know, that come popping up to the top of the water to breathe.

The Please I am going to tell you about lived in the mouth of a boy named Dick; but only once in a long while did it have a chance to get out. For Dick, I am sorry to say, was a rude little boy; he hardly ever remembered to say "Please."

"Give me some bread! I want some water! Give me that book!" - that is the way he would ask for things.

His father and mother felt very bad about this. And, as for the poor Please itself, it would sit up on the roof of the boy's mouth day after day, hoping for a chance to get out. It was growing weaker and weaker every day.

This boy Dick had a brother, John. Now, John was older than Dick - he was almost ten; and he was just as polite as Dick was rude. So his Please had plenty of fresh air, and was strong and happy.

One day at breakfast, Dick's Please felt that he must have some fresh air, even if he had to run away. So out he ran - out of Dick's mouth - and took a long breath. Then he crept across the table and jumped into John's mouth!

The Please-who-lived-there was very angry.

"Get out!" he cried. "You don't belong here! This is my mouth!"

"I know it," replied Dick's Please. "I live over there in that brother mouth. But alas! I am not happy there. I am never used. I never get a breath of fresh air! I thought you might be willing to let me stay here for a day or so - until I felt stronger."

"Why, certainly," said the other Please, kindly. "I understand. Stay, of course; and when my master uses me, we will both go out together. He is kind, and I am sure he would not mind saying 'Please' twice. Stay, as long as you like."

That noon, at dinner, John wanted some butter; and this is what he said:

"Father, will you pass me the butter, please - please?"

"Certainly," said the father. "But why be so very polite?"

John did not answer. He was turning to his mother, and said,

"Mother, will you give me a muffin, please - please?"

His mother laughed.

"You shall have the muffin, dear; but why do you say 'please' twice?"

"I don't know," answered John. "The words seem just to jump out, somehow. Katie, please - please, some water!

"This time, John was almost frightened.

"Well, well," said his father, "there is no harm done. One can't be too 'pleasing' in this world."

All this time little Dick had been calling, "Give me an egg! I want some milk. Give me a spoon!" in the rude way he had. But now he stopped and listened to his brother. He thought it would be fun to try to talk like John; so he began,

"Mother, will you give me a muffin, m-m-m-?"

He was trying to say "please"; but how could he? He never guessed that his own little Please was sitting in John's mouth. So he tried again, and asked for the butter.

"Mother, will you pass me the butter, m-m-m-?"

That was all he could say.

So it went on all day, and everyone wondered what was the matter with those two boys. When night came, they were both so tired, and Dick was so cross, that their mother sent them to bed very early.

But the next morning, no sooner had they sat down to breakfast than Dick's Please ran home again. He had had so much fresh air the day before that now he was feeling quite strong and happy. And the very next moment, he had another airing; for Dick said,

"Father, will you cut my orange, please?" Why! the word slipped out as easily as could be! It sounded just as well as when John said it - John was saying only one "please" this morning. And from that time on, little Dick was just as polite as his brother.

Rebecca,
Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably.
Hilaire Belloc

Aristotle would have loved this poem and the one that follows it. The first illustrates excess, the second deficiency. The trick to finding correct behavior is to strike the right balance. (See the passage from Aristotle's Ethics, later in this chapter.)

A trick that everyone abhors
In Little Gifts is slamming Doors.
A Wealthy Banker's Little Daughter
Who lived in Palace Green, Bayswater
(By name Rebecca Offendort),
Was given to this Furious Sport.
She would deliberately go
And Slam the door like Billy-Ho!
To make her Uncle Jacob start.
She was not really bad at heart,
But only rather rude and wild:
She was an aggravating child....

It happened that a Marble Bust
of Abraham was standing just
Above the Door this little Lamb
Had carefully prepared to Slam,
And Down it came! It knocked her flat!
It laid her out! She looked like that.

Her Funeral Sermon (which was long
And followed by a Sacred Song)
Mentioned her Virtues, it is true,
But dwelt upon her Vices too,
And showed the Dreadful End of One
Who goes and slams the Door for Fun.

The children who were brought to hear
The awful Tale from far and near
Were much impressed, and inly swore
They never more would slam the Door.
- As often they had done before.

Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore
William Brighty Rands

Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore -
No doubt you have heard the name before -
Was a boy who never would shut a door!

The wind might whistle, the wind might roar,
And teeth be aching and throats be sore,
But still he never would shut the door.

His father would beg, his mother implore,
"Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore,
We really do wish you would shut the door!"

Their hands they wrung, their hair they tore;
But Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore
Was deaf as the buoy out at the Nore.

When he walked forth the folks would roar,
"Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore,
Why don't you think to shut the door?"

They rigged out a Shutter with sail and oar,
And threatened to pack off Gustavus Gore
On a voyage of penance to Singapore.

But he begged for mercy, and said, "No more!
Pray do not send me to Singapore
On a Shutter, and then I will shut the door."

"You will?" said his parents; "then keep on shore!
But mind you do! For the plague is sore
Of a fellow that never will shut the door,
Godfrey Gordon Gustavus Gore!"

The Lovable Child
Emilie Poulsson

We meet the well-behaved child (whom everybody loves).

Frisky as a lambkin,
Busy as a bee -
That's the kind of little girl
People like to see.

Modest as a violet,
As a rosebud sweet -
That's the kind of little girl
People like to meet.

Bright as is a diamond,
Pure as any pearl -
Everyone rejoices in
Such a little girl.

Happy as a robin,
Gentle as a dove -
That's the kind of little girl
Everyone will love.

Fly away and seek her,
Little song of mine,
For I choose that very girl
As my Valentine.

John, Tom, and James

We meet three ill-behaved children (whom nobody likes).

John was a bad boy, and beat a poor cat;
Tom put a stone in a blind man's hat;
James was the boy who neglected his prayers;
They've all grown up ugly, and nobody cares.

There Was a Little Girl

We meet the child who, like most, is sometimes well behaved and sometimes not. And we face a hard, unavoidable fact of life: if we cannot control our own behavior, eventually someone will come and control it for us in a way we probably will not like. This poem is sometimes attributed to Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow.

There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

One day she went upstairs,
When her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head
In her little trundle-bed,
And then began hooraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise,
And she thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic;
But when she climbed the stair,
And found Jemima there,
She took and she did spank her most emphatic.

My Own Self
Retold by Joseph Jacobs

Sometimes fortune offers us close calls we should take as warnings. Heaving a sigh of relief is not enough; if we're smart, we'll change our behavior. Self-discipline is learned in the face of adversity, as this old English fairy tale reminds us.

In a tiny house in the North Countrie, far away from any town or village, there lived not long ago, a poor widow all alone with her little son, a six-year-old boy.

The house door opened straight on to the hillside, and all around about were moorlands and huge stones, and swampy hollows; never a house nor a sign of life wherever you might look, for their nearest neighbors were the fairies in the glen below, and the "will-o'-the-wisps" in the long grass along the path-side.

And many a tale the widow could tell of the "good folk" calling to each other in the oak trees, and the twinkling lights hopping on to the very windowsill, on dark nights; but in spite of the loneliness, she lived on from year to year in the little house, perhaps because she was never asked to pay any rent for it.

But she did not care to sit up late, when the fire burned low, and no one knew what might be about. So, when they had had their supper she would make up a good fire and go off to bed, so that if anything terrible did happen, she could always hide her head under the bedclothes.

This, however, was far too early to please her little son; so when she called him to bed, he would go on playing beside the fire, as if he did not hear her.

He had always been bad to do with since the day he was born, and his mother did not often care to cross him.

Continues...


Excerpted from by Bennett, William J. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.