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John Mason (1706-1763) was a British minister. He was the grandson of the poet John Mason (1646-1694).
A Treatise on Self-Knowledge (1745)
- It has often occurred to my mind in digesting my thoughts on this subject, what a pity it is that this most useful science should be so generally neglected in the modern methods of education; and that preceptors and tutors, both in public and private seminaries of learning, should forget that the forming the manners is more necessary to a finished education than furnishing the minds of youth. Socrates, who made all his philosophy subservient to morality, was of this sentiment: and took more pains to rectify the tempers than replenish the understandings of his pupils; and looked upon all knowledge as useless speculation that was not brought to this end, to make us wiser and better men. And, without doubt, if in the academy the youth has once happily learned the great art of managing his temper, governing his passions, and guarding his foibles, he will find a more solid advantage from it in afterlife, than he could expect from the best acquaintance with all the systems of ancient and modern philosophy.
- He who does not improve his temper together with his understanding, is not much the better for it.
- Whence is it that moral philosophy, which was so carefully cultivated in the ancient academy, should be forced in the modern to give place to natural, that was originally designed to be subservient to it? Which is to exalt the hand-maid into the place of mistress7. This appears not only a preposterous, but a pernicious method of institution ; for as the mind takes a turn of thought in future life, suitable to the tincture it hath received in youth, it will naturally conclude that there is no necessity to regard, or at least to lay any stress upon what was never inculcated upon it as a matter of importance then: and so will grow up in a neglect or disesteem of those things which are more necessary to make a person a wise and truly understanding man than all those rudiments of science he brought with him from the school or college.
- Thales, the Milesian, is said to be the first author of it1; who used to say, that, for a man to know himself, is the hardest thing in the world2. It was afterwards adopted by Chylon the Lacedemonian; and is one of those three precepts which Pliny affirms to have been consecrated at Delphos in golden letters. It was afterwards greatly admired, and frequently used by others1; till at length it acquired the authority of a divine oracle; and was supposed to have been given originally by Apollo himself. Of which general opinion Cicero gives us this reason; "because it hath such a weight of sense and wisdom in it, as appears too great to be attributed to any man*." And this opinion, of its coming originally from Apollo himself, perhaps was the reason that it was written in golden capitals over the door of his temple at Delphos.
- And why this excellent precept should not be held in as high esteem in the Christian world as it was in the heathen, is hard to conceive. Human nature is the same now as it was then: the heart as deceitful; and the necessity of watching, knowing, and keeping it, the same.
- [Scripture], by which, “as in a glass, we may survey ourselves, and know what manner of persons we are,” (James 1. 23) discovers ourselves to us; pierces into the inmost recesses of the mind; strips off every disguise; lays open the inward part; makes a strict scrutiny into the very soul and spirit; and critically judges of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Heb. iv. 12) It shows us with what exactness and care we are to search and try our spirits, examine ourselves, and watch our ways, and keep our hearts, in order to acquire this important self-science; which it often calls us to do. “Examine yourselves; prove your own selves; know you not yourselves? Let a man examine himself.” (1 Cor. xi. 28) Our Saviour upbraids his disciples with their self-ignorance, in not “knowing what manner of spirits they were of.” (Luke ix. 55) And, saith the apostle, “If a man (through self-ignorance) thinketh himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself, and not another.” (Gal. vi. 3, 4) Here we are commanded, instead of judging others, to judge ourselves; and to avoid the .inexcusable rashness of condemning others for the very crimes we ourselves are guilty of, (Rom. ii. 1, 21, 22) which a self-ignorant man is very apt to do; nay, to be more offended at a small blemish in another's character, than at a greater in his own; which folly, self-ignorance, and hypocrisy, our Saviour, with just severity, animadverts upon. (Mat. vii. 3-5) And what stress was laid upon this under the Old Testament dispensation appears sufficiently from those expressions. "Keep thy heart with all diligence." (Prov. iv. 23) "Commune with your own heart." (Psal. iv. 4) "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts." (Psal. cxxxix. 23) "Examine me, O Lord, and prove me; try my reins and my heart." (Psal. xxvi. 2) "Let us search and try our ways." (Lam. iii. 4) "Recollect, recollect yourselves, O "nation not desired." (Zeph. ii. 1)
- Every one of a common capacity hath the opportunity and ability to attain [self-knowledge], if he will but recollect his rambling thoughts, turn them in upon himself, watch the motions of his heart.
- Other sciences are suited to the various conditions of life: some, more necessary to some; other, to others. But this [science of self-knowledge] equally concerns every one.