THE REFLECTIVE MOOD
From: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day
The exercise of concentrating the mind (to which at least half an
hour a day should be given) is a mere preliminary, like scales on
the piano. Having acquired power over that most unruly member of
one's complex organism, one has naturally to put it to the yoke.
Useless to possess an obedient mind unless one profits to the
furthest possible degree by its obedience. A prolonged primary
course of study is indicated.
Now as to what this course of study should be there cannot be any
question; there never has been any question. All the sensible
people of all ages are agreed upon it. And it is not literature,
nor is it any other art, nor is it history, nor is it any science.
It is the study of one's self. Man, know thyself. These words are
so hackneyed that verily I blush to write them. Yet they must be
written, for they need to be written. (I take back my blush, being
ashamed of it.) Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase
is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which
everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious
put into practice. I don't know why. I am entirely convinced that
what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average
well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely
important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main
direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us,
upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our
actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have
already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men
have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that
happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental
pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of
conduct to principles.
I suppose that you will not have the audacity to deny this. And if
you admit it, and still devote no part of your day to the deliberate
consideration of your reason, principles, and conduct, you admit
also that while striving for a certain thing you are regularly
leaving undone the one act which is necessary to the attainment of
Now, shall I blush, or will you?
Do not fear that I mean to thrust certain principles upon your
attention. I care not (in this place) what your principles are.
Your principles may induce you to believe in the righteousness of
burglary. I don't mind. All I urge is that a life in which conduct
does not fairly well accord with principles is a silly life; and
that conduct can only be made to accord with principles by means of
daily examination, reflection, and resolution. What leads to the
permanent sorrowfulness of burglars is that their principles are
contrary to burglary. If they genuinely believed in the moral
excellence of burglary, penal servitude would simply mean so many
happy years for them; all martyrs are happy, because their conduct
and their principles agree.
As for reason (which makes conduct, and is not unconnected with the
making of principles), it plays a far smaller part in our lives than
we fancy. We are supposed to be reasonable but we are much more
instinctive than reasonable. And the less we reflect, the less
reasonable we shall be. The next time you get cross with the waiter
because your steak is over-cooked, ask reason to step into the
cabinet-room of your mind, and consult her. She will probably tell
you that the waiter did not cook the steak, and had no control over
the cooking of the steak; and that even if he alone was to blame,
you accomplished nothing good by getting cross; you merely lost your
dignity, looked a fool in the eyes of sensible men, and soured the
waiter, while producing no effect whatever on the steak.
The result of this consultation with reason (for which she makes no
charge) will be that when once more your steak is over-cooked you
will treat the waiter as a fellow-creature, remain quite calm in a
kindly spirit, and politely insist on having a fresh steak. The
gain will be obvious and solid.
In the formation or modification of principles, and the practice of
conduct, much help can be derived from printed books (issued at
sixpence each and upwards). I mentioned in my last chapter Marcus
Aurelius and Epictetus. Certain even more widely known works will
occur at once to the memory. I may also mention Pascal, La Bruyere,
and Emerson. For myself, you do not catch me travelling without my
Marcus Aurelius. Yes, books are valuable. But not reading of books
will take the place of a daily, candid, honest examination of what
one has recently done, and what one is about to do--of a steady
looking at one's self in the face (disconcerting though the sight
When shall this important business be accomplished? The solitude of
the evening journey home appears to me to be suitable for it. A
reflective mood naturally follows the exertion of having earned the
day's living. Of course if, instead of attending to an elementary
and profoundly important duty, you prefer to read the paper (which
you might just as well read while waiting for your dinner) I have
nothing to say. But attend to it at some time of the day you must.
I now come to the evening hours.
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