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.
Disciple of oneself
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.
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, ergo, 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 medecine so many people find hard to swallow. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have such modern-day phenomena as multimillion-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 trainning 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 interruptions ‘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!