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.
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.
Who Slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably.
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
dAbove 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
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. Indeed, the more she tried to make him obey her, the less heed he paid to anything she said, so it usually ended by his taking his own way.
But one night, just at the fore-end of winter, the widow could not make up her mind to go off to bed, and leave him playing by the fireside. For the wind was tugging at the door, and rattling the windowpanes, and well she knew that on such a night, fairies and such like were bound to be out and about, and bent on mischief. So she tried to coax the boy into going at once to bed:
"It's safest to bide in bed on such a night as this!" she said. But no, he wouldn't go.
Then she threatened to "give him the stick," but it was no use.
The more she begged and scolded, the more he shook his head; and when at last she lost patience and cried that the fairies would surely come and fetch him away, he only laughed and said he wished they would, for he would like one to play with.
At that his mother burst into tears, and went off to bed in despair, certain that after such words something dreadful would happen, while her naughty little son sat on his stool by the fire, not at all put out by her crying.
But he had not long been sitting there alone, when he heard a fluttering sound near him in the chimney, and presently down by his side dropped the tiniest wee girl you could think of. She was not a span high, and had hair like spun silver, eyes as green as grass, and cheeks red as June roses.
The little boy looked at her with surprise.
"Oh!" said he, "what do they call ye?"
"My own self," she said in a shrill but sweet little voice, and she looked at him too. "And what do they call ye?"
"Just my own self too," he answered cautiously; and with that they began to play together.
She certainly showed him some fine games. She made animals out of the ashes that looked and moved like life, and trees with green leaves waving over tiny houses, with men and women an inch high in them, who, when she breathed on them, fell to walking and talking quite properly.
But the fire was getting low, and the light dim, and presently the little boy stirred the coals with a stick, to make them blaze, when out jumped a red-hot cinder, and where should it fall, but on the fairy child's tiny foot!
Thereupon she set up such a squeal, that the boy dropped the stick, and clapped his hands to his ears. But it grew to so shrill a screech, that it was like all the wind in the world, whistling through one tiny keyhole!
There was a sound in the chimney again, but this time the little boy did not wait to see what it was, but bolted off to bed, where he hid under the blankets and listened in fear and trembling to what went on.
A voice came from the chimney speaking sharply:
"Who's there, and what's wrong?" it said.
"It's my own self," sobbed the fairy child, "and my loot's burned sore. O-o-h!"
"Who did it?" said the voice angrily. This time it sounded nearer, and the boy, peeping from under the clothes, could see a white face looking out from the chimney opening!
"Just my own self too!" said the fairy child again.
"Then if ye did it your own self," cried the elf mother shrilly, "what's the use o' making all this fuss about it?" -- and with that she stretched out a long thin arm, and caught the creature by its ear, and, shaking it roughly, pulled it after her, out of sight up the chimney!
The little boy lay awake a long time, listening, in case the fairy mother should come back after all. And next evening after supper, his mother was surprised to find that he was willing to go to bed whenever she liked.
"He's taking a turn for the better at last!" she said to herself. But he was thinking just then that, when next a fairy came to play with him, he might not get off quite so easily as he had done this time.
To the Little Girl Who Wriggles
Laura E. Richards
In which we learn to sit still.
Don't wriggle about anymore, my dear!
I'm sure all your joints must be sore, my dear!
It's wriggle and jiggle, it's twist and it's wiggle,
Like an eel on a shingly shore, my dear,
Like an eel on a shingly shore.
Oh! how do you think you would feel, my dear,
If you should turn into an eel, my dear?
With never an arm to protect you from harm,
And no sign of a toe or a heel, my dear,
No sign of a toe or a heel?
And what do you think you would do, my dear,
Far down in the water so blue, my dear,
Where the prawns and the shrimps, with their curls and their crimps,
Would turn up their noses at you, my dear,
Would turn up their noses at you?
The crab he would give you a nip, my dear,
And the lobster would lend you a clip, my dear.
And perhaps if a shark should come by in the dark,
Down his throat you might happen to slip, my dear,
Down his throat you might happen to slip.
Then try to sit still on your chair, my dear!
To your parents 'tis no more than fair, my dear.
For we really don't feel like inviting an eel
Our board and our lodging to share, my dear,
Our board and our lodging to share.
Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion.
In which we discover the kind of gruesome end that comes to children who dart away from their mothers into streets, run away from their fathers at crowded ball parks, dash screaming down grocery store aisles, and who in general cannot bring themselves to hold on to the hand they are told to hold.
There was a Boy whose name was Jim;
His Friends were very good to him.
They gave him Tea, and Cakes, and Jam,
And slices of delicious Ham,
And Chocolate with pink inside,
And little Tricycles to ride,
And read him Stories through and through,
And even took him to the Zoo --
But there it was the dreadful Fate
Befell him, which I now relate.
You know -- at least you ought to know,
For I have often told you so --
That Children never are allowed
To leave their Nurses in a Crowd;
Now this was Jim's especial Foible,
He ran away when he was able,
And on this inauspicious day
He slipped his hand and ran away!
He hadn't gone a yard when -- Bang!
With open Jaws, a Lion sprang,
And hungrily began to eat
The Boy: beginning at his feet.
Now just imagine how it feels
When first your toes and then your heels,
And then by gradual degrees,
Your shins and ankles, calves and knees,
Are slowly eaten, bit by bit.
No wonder Jim detested it!
No wonder that he shouted "Hi!"
The Honest Keeper heard his cry,
Though very fat he almost ran
To help the little gentleman.
'Ponto!" he ordered as he came
(For Ponto was the Lion's name),
"Ponto!" he cried, with angry Frown.
"Let go, Sir! Down, Sir! Put it down!"
The Lion made a sudden Stop,
He let the Dainty Morsel drop,
And slunk reluctant to his Cage,
Snarling with Disappointed Rage.
But when he bent him over Jim,
The Honest Keeper's Eyes were dim.
The Lion having reached his Head,
The Miserable Boy was dead!
When Nurse informed his Parents, they
Were more Concerned than I can say:
His Mother, as She dried her eyes,
Said, "Well -- it gives me no surprise,
He would not do as he was told!"
His Father, who was self-controlled,
Bade all the children round attend
To James' miserable end,
And always keep a-hold of Nurse
For fear of finding something worse.
In which we discover the unfortunate consequences of fighting.
The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
'Twas half past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t'other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn't there; I simply state What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)
The gingham dog went "bow-wow-wow!"
And the calico cat replied "mee-ow!"
The air was littered an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico.
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind; I'm only telling you What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)
The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, "Oh, dear! what shall we do!"
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw --
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don't fancy I exaggerate -- I got my news from the Chinese plate!)
Next morning, where the two had sat
They found no trace of dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole that pair away!
But the truth about the cat and pup
Is this: they ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so, And that is how I came to know.)
Let Dogs Delight to Bark and Bite
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so;
Let bears and lions growl and fight,
For 'tis their nature too.
But, children, you should never let
Such angry passions rise;
Your little hands were never made
To tear each other's eyes.
The King and His Hawk
Retold by James Baldwin
Thomas Jefferson gave us simple but effective advice about controlling our temper: count to ten before you do anything, and if very angry, count to a hundred. Genghis Khan (c. 11621227), whose Mongol empire stretched from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan, could have used Jefferson's remedy in this tale.
Genghis Khan was a great king and warrior.
He led his army into China and Persia, and he conquered many lands. In every country, men told about his daring deeds, and they said that since Alexander the Great there had been no king like him.
One morning when he was home from the wars, he rode out into the woods to have a day's sport. Many of his friends were with him. They rode out gayly, carrying their bows and arrows. Behind them came the servants with the hounds.
It was a merry hunting party. The woods rang with their shouts and laughter. They expected to carry much game home in the evening.
On the king's wrist sat his favorite hawk, for in those days hawks were trained to hunt. At a word from their masters they would fly high up into the air, and look around for prey. If they chanced to see a deer or a rabbit, they would swoop down upon it swift as any arrow.
All day long Genghis Khan and his huntsmen rode through the woods. But they did not find as much game as they expected.
Toward evening they started for home. The king had often ridden through the woods, and he knew all the paths. So while the rest of the party took the nearest way, he went by a longer road through a valley between two mountains.
The day had been warm, and the king was very thirsty. His pet hawk had left his wrist and flown away. It would be sure to find its way home.
The king rode slowly along. He had once seen a spring of clear water near this pathway. If he could only find it now! But the hot days of summer had dried up all the mountain brooks.
At last, to his joy, he saw some water trickling down over the edge of a rock. He knew that there was a spring farther up. In the wet season, a swift stream of water always poured down here; but now it came only one drop at a time.
The king leaped from his horse. He took a little silver cup from his hunting bag. He held it so as to catch the slowly falling drops.
It took a long time to fill the cup; and the king was so thirsty that he could hardly wait. At last it was nearly ful
The Book of Virtues
William J. Bennett has collected hundreds of stories in The Book of Virtues, an instructive and inspiring anthology that will help children understand and develop character -- and help adults teach them. From the Bible to American history, from Greek mythology to English poetry, from fairy tales to modern fiction, these stories are a rich mine of moral literacy, a reliable moral reference point that will help anchor our children and ourselves in our culture, our history, and our traditions -- the sources of the ideals by which we wish to live our lives. Complete with instructive introductions and notes, The Book of Virtues is a book the whole family can read and enjoy -- and learn from -- together.
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