The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Self-Consciousness in Its Relation to Character

by F. U.
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 347-350

This is a self-conscious age. In all walks of life; in politics, in literature, even in philanthropy, the age is subjective. Education in its various branches tends to the development of individualism, and the tendency of individualism is to be conscious of self. This is, however, to a great extent the inevitable attribute of an active condition. It is very beautiful to see an entire absence of self-consciousness as is usually the case in little children, but when not spoilt by over-indulgence, or, worse, by over-severity, but when the child is a little older, and awakes to its relations with things outside itself and immediate surroundings, the self-conscious age is reached, and is shown usually by sudden shyness and apparent stupidity, or by the rooted conviction in the child that he knows better and more on every possible subject than his elders. Trying though this last phase certainly is, there is still so much in it of promise, so much evidence of existing character, that friends and relations may well wait with patience, and hope for self-consciousness to give place to self-possession--that true possession of the soul, which Matthew Arnold saw regretfully was so often missed in the hurry and bustle of life--

      "We see all sights from pole to pole
            And glance, and nod, and bustle by
      And never once possess our soul
            Before we die."

The absence of self-consciousness, so beautiful wherever met with, is then we see usually characteristic of childhood, [An instance of painfully precocious self-consciousness in childhood may be found in the "Life of the late Lord Lytton," who, when very young, startled his mother enquiring if she were conscious of her own identity!] while its existence is often a product of growth and education. Is it then to be termed a fault of the age, or is it not rather a sign of progress? To both of these questions I think the answer should be in the affirmative. Self-consciousness is undoubtedly a faulty condition, but it may also belong to a transitional stage of real progress.

Among savage tribes it is entirely absent; its development is unmistakably a product of civilization, and like most other such products has both a good and a bad side. To realize oneself, to be conscious of one's own individuality is a step towards further growth, but to stop there would be at once to put a limit to growth. An infant, when it begins to awaken to the consciousness of innate powers, endeavours at once to put them to the test. It becomes, for example, conscious of powers which shall enable him to speak and to walk, and this realization leads to crowing and kicking--the first advance towards speaking and walking. It is the same with us in sleep--in deep sleep at any rate--self is lost in unconsciousness, but with our waking comes again the consciousness of self, and with the consciousness the call to action. The realization of self is the first step towards greatness, but to become greatness it must pass rapidly over the self-conscious stage, and translate being and doing, and to do this involves conquest of that very self which has cost at first so much to develop.

      "Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,
      These three alone lead life to Sovereign power,"

Says Tennyson in "Oenone," and this is the whole secret. The child conscious of the power of speech has to learn to speak, and that done must learn to control speech. The man who has learned the great and awful truth of his own individuality, must first learn the way in which he can use it, and then how to conquer it. "Resolve," says Matthew Arnold,

      "To be thyself, and know that he
      Who finds himself, loses his misery,"

but this is only a half-truth, for to truly find oneself, one must also lose oneself. Life is full of paradoxes, and being one's best self, is the result alike of self-development and of self-repression. It is interesting in this connection to compare two great modern poets--Browning and Tennyson. Browning's note is always one of aspiration.

      "A man's reach should exceed his grasp,
      Or what's a heaven for?"

Aspire to be, to develop what is in you. This is his message to man.

Tennyson on the other hand bids men struggle to repress evil that good may grow,

      "Acting the law we live by without fear,"

but both alike point to men finding their true being ultimately in loving, and it is in loving truly and really that self-consciousness must inevitably die, though the love may perhaps be deeper and stronger for that previous self-knowledge of which we have been speaking. To again quote words of Tennyson's--

      "Love took up the harp of Life, and smote on all the chords with might,
      Smote the chord of Self, that trembling, pass'd in music out of sight."

And certain it is that unless self-consciousness can evaporate in some such way as that, it will become that deadliest of moral foes, Egotism. In many cases self-consciousness is of course, merely a form of Egotism, pure and simple, while in others, as shown in the case of the strange Autobiography of Marie Bashkirtseff [Ukrainian artist who died at age 25], it may become the acme of morbid sensibility, but we are considering it here more as that sense of individuality which truly may grow into Egotism or morbid sensitiveness, but which may also ripen into self-conquest, and in speaking of the characteristics of the age in which we live, we may, I think, say thankfully, that Egotism per se is less a fault characteristic of our nation now than ever before. Men are more ready to-day to give themselves, and to sacrifice themselves for the good of others and the welfare of their country, but they are conscious of what it is they are doing. The old abandon of personal interests which led men silently to go forth to death or victory in the early and middle ages, has given place to a higher--because more personal--spirit of self-sacrifice, but takes generally (individually there are, of course, very many nobles exceptions), there is less silence about what is being done. Men are waking more than ever before to the realization of power in and around them, and above all to the recognition of a common brotherhood--which is, in truth, the product of the highest individualism--but they talk about what they feel, and think, and do, as they did not previously. It is an age of experiments, of systems, of theories; educational, political, and social discussions are the very air we breathe, but in all these there is life. Like the school boy, the world thinks it knows nearly everything, and applies itself to exercise its knowledge on the great questions of life. And rightly so. But like the school boy, it is, perhaps, only passing through a phase which may be the passport to fuller knowledge.

Self-consciousness then, if it be a fault of the age in which we live, is still, if we can use the antithesis, a good fault, for it bears in it the seeds of life and of progress, which may in time blossom into a noble self-forgetfulness, and at the same time into a truer "possessing" of our souls than ever before. With this belief we may well regard with patience and with hope its often presence in the young, recognizing it as an earnest of possible strength and nobility of character in the future.

F. U.

Proofread by LNL, July, 2023