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“Reverence Thyself:” Godwin’s Thoughts on Man

Advancing his own sort of self-esteem theory, Godwin concludes that healthy societies require healthy individuals who love and respect themselves.

Editor’s Note

For his next essay, Godwin offers an analysis of the twin concept to our last number on diffidence. The diffident man’s paralyzing lack of confidence was, in all likelihood, established during his days as a schoolboy, drilled in the daily practice of disregard for the self. As if the entire institutional structure were designed to counteract Pythagoras’ dictum, “Reverence thyself,” modern education served to convince students that they were wicked, fallen, untutored and unskilled, weak individuals. Godwin suggests that building a more frank, reserved, sympathetic, and benevolent world requires that we inculcate in youth a deep and profound love of the self. We are, as Godwin has argued throughout, at once atomized individuals incapable of understanding one another and fundamentally social beings capable of sharing our thoughts, emotions, passions, and experiences. Godwin certainly recognized that the full weight of bad history and worse ideas pressed down upon most of the population, forcing them into positions of self-sacrifice to powerful elites. Some are born into poverty, others with disabilities or debilitating diseases, and still more pressed into the ruling patriarchal, statist, imperial, dogmatic institutions dominating the affairs of humankind. Most people—it must be admitted—are forcibly denied the opportunities to discover their full potentials as free individuals. As a life-long educator, Godwin saw his role vis-à-vis humanity as that of the encouraging preceptor. Brace up the human species, praise the individual person’s endless potential for thought, and help build an edifice of self-love capable of withstanding attacks from a hostile and jealous humanity. The truly self-regarding would rise above the fray of exploitative social behavior to enter all social exchanges in good faith—the good faith of one who knows exactly how valuable each and every individual is to overall social welfare.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History



…One of the most striking of the precepts contained in what are called the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, is couched in the words, “Reverence thyself.”

The duties which are incumbent on man are of two sorts, negative and positive. We are bound to set right our mistakes, and to correct the evil habits to which we are prone; and we are bound also to be generously ambitious, to aspire after excellence, and to undertake such things as may reflect honour on ourselves, and be useful to others.

To the practice of the former of these classes of duties we may be instigated by prohibitions, menaces and fear, the fear of mischiefs that may fall upon us conformably to the known series of antecedents and consequents in the course of nature, or of mischiefs that may be inflicted on us by the laws of the country in which we live, or as results of the ill will and disapprobation felt towards us by individuals. There is nothing that is necessarily generous or invigorating in the practice of our negative duties. They amount merely to a scheme for keeping us within bounds…

On the other hand, if we would enter ourselves in the race of positive improvement, if we would become familiar with generous sentiments, and the train of conduct which such sentiments inspire, we must provide ourselves with the soil in which such things grow, and engage in the species of husbandry by which they are matured; in other words, we must be no strangers to self-esteem and self-complacency.

The truth of this statement may perhaps be most strikingly illustrated, if we take for our example the progress of schoolboys under a preceptor. A considerable proportion of these are apt, diligent, and desirous to perform the tasks in which they are engaged, so as to satisfy the demands of their masters and parents, and to advance honourably in the path that is recommended to them. And a considerable proportion put themselves on the defensive, and propose to their own minds to perform exactly as much as shall exempt them from censure and punishment, and no more.

Now I say of the former, that they cannot accomplish the purpose they have conceived, unless so far as they are aided by a sentiment of self-reverence…

And, as it is with the unfledged schoolboy, after the same manner it is with the man mature. He must have to a certain extent a good opinion of himself, he must feel a kind of internal harmony, giving to the circulations of his frame animation and cheerfulness, or he can never undertake and execute considerable things.

The execution of any thing considerable implies in the first place previous persevering meditation. He that undertakes any great achievement will, according to the vulgar phrase, “think twice,” before he buckles up his resolution, and plunges into the ocean, which he has already surveyed with anxious glance while he remained on shore…

But all those voluntary actions, or rather series and chains of actions, which comprise energy in the first determination, and honour in the execution, each in its degree rests upon self-complacency as the pillar upon which its weight is sustained, and without which it must sink into nothing.

Self-complacency then being the indispensible condition of all that is honourable in human achievements, hence we may derive a multitude of duties, and those of the most delicate nature, incumbent on the preceptor, as well as a peculiar discipline to be observed by the candidate, both while he is “under a schoolmaster,” and afterwards when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to be regulated by his own discretion.

The first duty of the preceptor is encouragement.

Not that his face is to be for ever dressed in smiles, and that his tone is to be at all times that of invitation and courtship. The great theatre of the world is of a mingled constitution, made up of advantages and sufferings; and it is perhaps best that so should be the different scenes of the drama as they pass. The young adventurer is not to expect to have every difficulty smoothed for him by the hand of another. This were to teach him a lesson of effeminacy and cowardice. On the contrary it is necessary that he should learn that human life is a state of hardship, that the adversary we have to encounter does not always present himself with his fangs sheathed in the woolly softness which occasionally renders them harmless, and that nothing great or eminently honourable was ever achieved but through the dint of resolution, energy and struggle. It is good that the winds of heaven should blow upon him, that he should encounter the tempest of the elements, and occasionally sustain the inclemency of the summer’s heat and winter’s cold, both literally and metaphorically.

But the preceptor, however he conducts himself in other respects, ought never to allow his pupil to despise himself, or to hold himself as of no account. Self-contempt can never be a discipline favourable to energy or to virtue. The pupil ought at all times to judge himself in some degree worthy, worthy and competent now to attempt, and hereafter to accomplish, things deserving of commendation. The preceptor must never degrade his pupil in his own eyes, but on the contrary must teach him that nothing but resolution and perseverance are necessary, to enable him to effect all that the judicious director can expect from him. He should be encouraged through every step of his progress, and specially encouraged when he has gained a certain point, and arrived at an important resting-place. It is thus we are taught the whole circle of what are called accomplishments, dancing, music, fencing, and the rest; and it is surely a strange anomaly, if those things which are most essential in raising the mind to its true standard, cannot be communicated with equal suavity and kindness, be surrounded with allurements, and regarded as sources of pleasure and genuine hilarity.

In the mean time it is to be admitted that every human creature, especially in the season of youth, and not being the victim of some depressing disease either of body or mind, has in him a good obstinate sort of self-complacency, which cannot without much difficulty be eradicated. “Though he falleth seven times, yet will he rise again.” And, when we have encountered various mortifications, and have been many times rebuked and inveighed against, we nevertheless recover our own good opinion, and are ready to enter into a fresh contention for the prize, if not in one kind, then in another.

It is in allusion to this feature in the human character, that we have an expressive phrase in the English language,—”to break the spirit.” The preceptor may occasionally perhaps prescribe to the pupil a severe task; and the young adventurer may say, Can I be expected to accomplish this? But all must be done in kindness. The generous attempter must be reminded of the powers he has within him, perhaps yet unexercised; with cheering sounds his progress must be encouraged; and, above all, the director of the course must take care not to tax him beyond his strength. And, be it observed, that the strength of a human creature is to be ascertained by two things; first, the abstract capacity, that the thing required is not beyond the power of a being so constituted to perform; and, secondly, we must take into the account his past achievements, the things he has already accomplished, and not expect that he is at once to overleap a thousand obstacles.

For there is such a thing as a broken spirit…

To break the spirit of a man, bears a considerable resemblance to the breaking the main spring, or principal movement, of a complicated and ingeniously constructed machine. We cannot tell when it is to happen; and it comes at last perhaps at the time that it is least expected. A judicious superintendent therefore will be far from trying consequences in his office, and will, like a man walking on a cliff whose extremes are ever and anon crumbling away and falling into the ocean, keep much within the edge, and at a safe distance from the line of danger.

But this consideration has led me much beyond the true subject of this Essay. The instructor of youth, as I have already said, is called upon to use all his skill, to animate the courage, and maintain the cheerfulness and self-complacency of his pupil. And, as such is the discipline to be observed to the candidate, while he is “under a schoolmaster,” so, when he is emancipated, and his plan of conduct is to be regulated by his own discretion, it is necessary that he should carry forward the same scheme, and cultivate that tone of feeling, which should best reconcile him to himself, and, by teaching him to esteem himself and bear in mind his own value, enable him to achieve things honourable to his character, and memorably useful to others. Melancholy, and a disposition anticipating evil are carefully to be guarded against, by him who is desirous to perform his part well on the theatre of society. He should habitually meditate all cheerful things, and sing the song of battle which has a thousand times spurred on his predecessors to victory. He should contemplate the crown that awaits him, and say to himself, I also will do my part, and endeavour to enrol myself in the select number of those champions, of whom it has been predicated that they were men, of whom, compared with the herd of ordinary mortals, “the world,” the species among whom they were rated, “was not worthy.”

Another consideration is to be recollected here. Without self-complacency in the agent no generous enterprise is to be expected, and no train of voluntary actions, such as may purchase honour to the person engaged in them.

But, beside this, there is no true and substantial happiness but for the self-complacent. “The good man,” as Solomon says, “is satisfied from himself.” The reflex act is inseparable from the constitution of the human mind. How can any one have genuine happiness, unless in proportion as he looks round, and, “behold! every thing is very good?” This is the sunshine of the soul, the true joy, that gives cheerfulness to all our circulations, and makes us feel ourselves entire and complete. What indeed is life, unless so far as it is enjoyed? It does not merit the name. If I go into a school, and look round on a number of young faces, the scene is destitute of its true charm, unless so far as I see inward peace and contentment on all sides. And, if we require this eminently in the young, neither can it be less essential, when in growing manhood we have the real cares of the world to contend with, or when in declining age we need every auxiliary to enable us to sustain our infirmities…

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