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On Self-Culture
Intellectual, Physical, and Moral by John Stuart Blackie, 6th Edition, 1875


"The glory of a young man is his strength." Solomon

I. It is a patent fact, as certain as anything in mathematics, that whatever exists must have a basis on which to stand, a root from which to grow, a hinge on which, to turn, a something which, however subordinate in itself with reference to the complete whole, is the indispensable point of attachment from which the existence of the whole depends. No house can be raised except on a foundation, a substructure which has no independent virtue, and which, when it exists in the greatest perfection, is generally not visible, but rather loves to hide itself in darkness. Now this is exactly the sort of relation which subsists between a man's thinking faculty and his body, between his mental activity and his bodily health; and it is obvious that, if this analogy be true, there is nothing that a student ought to be more careful about than the sound condition of his flesh and blood. It is, however, a well-known fact that the care of their health, or, what is the same thing, the rational treatment of their own flesh and blood, is the very last thing that students seriously think of; and the more eager the student, the more apt is he to sin in this respect, and to drive himself, like an unsignalled railway train, to the very brink of a fatal precipice, before he knows where he stands. It is wise, therefore, to start in a studious life with the assured conviction which all experience warrants, that sedentary occupations generally, and specially sedentary habits combined with severe and persistent brain exercise, are more or less unhealthy, and, in the case of naturally frail constitutions, such as have frequently a tendency to fling themselves into books, tend directly to the enfeebling of the faculties and the undermining of the frame. After this warning from an old student, let every man consider that his blood shall be on his own head if he neglect to use, with a firm purpose, as much care in the preservation of his health as any good workman would do in keeping his tools sharp, or any good soldier in having his powder dry. Meanwhile I will jot down, under a few heads, some of the most important practical suggestions with which experience has furnished me in this matter.

II. The growth and vigorous condition of every member of the body, as, in fact, of every function of existence in the universe, depends on EXERCISE. All life is an energising or a working; absolute rest is found only in the grave; and the measure of a man's vitality is the measure of his working power. To possess every faculty and function of the body in harmonious working order is to be healthy; to he healthy, with a high degree of vital force, is to be strong. A man may be healthy without being strong; but all health tends, more or less, towards strength, and all disease is weakness. Now, any one may se in nature, that things grow big simply by growing; this growth is a constant and habitual exercise of vital or vegetative force, and whatever checks or diminishes the action of this force—say, harsh winds or frost—will stop the growth and stunt the production. Let the student therefore bear in mind, that sitting on a chair, leaning over a desk, poring over a book, cannot possibly be the way to make his body grow. The blood can be made to flow, and the muscles to play freely, only by exercise; and, if that exercise is not taken, Nature will not be mocked. Every young student ought to make a sacred resolution to move about in the open air at least two hours every day. If he does not do this, cold feet, the clogging of the wheels of the internal parts of the fleshly frame, and various shades of stomachic and cerebral discomfort, will not fail in due season to inform him that he has been sinning against Nature, and, if he does not amend his courses, as a bad boy he will certainly be flogged; for Nature is never, like some soft-hearted human masters, over merciful in her treatment. But why should a student indulge so much in the lazy and unhealthy habit of sitting? A man may think as well standing as sitting, often not a little better; and as for reading in these days, when the most weighty books may be had cheaply, in the lightest form, there is no necessity why a person should he bending his back, and doubling his chest, merely because he happens to have a book in his hand. A man will read a play or a poem far more naturally and effectively while walking up and down the room, than when sitting sleepily in a chair. Sitting, in fact, is a slovenly habit, and ought not to be indulged. But when a man does sit, or must sit, let him at all events sit erect, with his back to the light, and a full free projection of the breast. Also, when studying languages, or reading fine passages of poetry, let him read as much as possible aloud; a practice recommended by Clemens of Alexandria, and which will have the double good effect of strengthening that most important vital element the lungs, and training the ear to the perception of vocal distinctions, so stupidly neglected in many of our public schools. There is, in fact, no necessary connection, in most cases, between the knowledge which a student is anxious to acquire, and the sedentary habits which students are so apt to cultivate. A certain part of his work, no doubt, must be done amid books; but if I wish to know Homer, for instance, thoroughly, after the first grammatical and lexicographical drudgery is over, I can read him as well on the top of Ben Cruachan, or, if the day be blasty, amid the grand silver pines at Inverawe, as in a fusty study. A man's enjoyment of an ∆schylean drama or a Platonic dialogue will not be diminished, but sensibly in- creased, by the fragrant breath of birches blowing around him, or the sound of mighty waters rushing near. As for a lexicon, if you make yourself at the first reading a short index of the more difficult words, you can manage the second reading more comfortably without it What a student should specially see to, both in respect of health and of good taste, is not to carry the breath of books with him wherever he goes, as some people carry the odour of tobacco. To prevent this contagion of bookishness, the best thing a young man can do is to join a volunteer corps, the drill connected with which will serve the double purpose of brushing off all taint of pedantry, and girding the loins stoutly for all the duties that belong to citizenship and active manhood. The modern Prussians, like the ancient Greeks, understand the value of military drill, and make every man serve his time in the army; but we rush prematurely into the shop, and our citizenship and our manhood suffer accordingly. The cheapness of railway and steamboat travelling, also, in the present day, renders inexcusable the conduct of the studious youth who will sit, week after week, and month after month, chained to a dull gray book, when he might inhale much more healthy imaginings from the vivid face of nature in some green glen or remote wave-plashed isle. A book, of course, may always be in his pocket, if a book be necessary; but it is better to cultivate independence of these paper helps, as often as may be, to learn directly from observation of nature, and to sit in a frame of "wise passiveness," growing insensibly in strong thought and feeling, by the breezy influences of Nature playing about us. But it is not necessary that a man should be given to indulge in Wordsworthian musings, before the modern habits of travelling and touring can be made to subserve the double end of health and culture. Geology, Botany, Zoology, and all branches of Natural History, are best studied in the open air; and their successful cultivation necessarily implies the practice of those habits of active and enterprising pedestrianism, which are such a fine school of independent manhood. History also and archology are most aptly studied in the storied glen, the ruined abbey, or the stout old border tower; and in fact, in an age when the whole world is more or less locomotive, the student who stays at home, and learns in a gray way only from books, in addition to the prospect of dragging through life with enfeebled health, and dropping into a premature grave, must make up his mind to be looked on by all well-conditioned persons as a weakling and an oddity.

For keeping the machine of the body in a fine poise of flexibility and firmness, nothing deserves a higher place than GAMES and GYMNASTICS. A regular constitutional walk, as it is called, before dinner, as practised by many persons, has no doubt something formal about it, which not everybody knows to season with pleasantness: to those who feel the pressure of such formality, athletic games supply the necessary exercise along with a healthy social stimulus. For boys and young men, cricket; for persons of a quiet temperament, and staid old bachelors, bowls; for all persons and all ages, the breezy Scottish game of golf is to be commended. Boating of course, when not overdone, as it sometimes is in Oxford and Cambridge, is a manly and characteristically British exercise; and the delicate management of sail and rudder as practised in the Shetland and Hebridean seas, is an art which calls into play all the powers that belong to a prompt and vigorous manhood. Angling,again, is favourable to musing and poetic imaginings, as the examples of Walton and Stoddart, and glorious John Wilson, largely show; in rainy weather billiards is out of sight the best game; in it there is developed a quickness of eye, an expertness of touch, and a subtlety of calculation, truly admirable. In comparison with this cards are stupid, which, at best, in whist, only exercise the memory, while chess can scarcely be called an amusement; it is a study, and a severe brain exercise, which for a man of desultory mental activity may have a bracing virtue, but to a systematic thinker can scarcely act as a relief.

III. Let me now make a few remarks on the very vulgar, but by no means always wisely managed process of EATING and DRINKING. Abernethy was wont to say that the two great killing powers in the world are STUFF and FRET. Of these the former certainly has nothing to do with the premature decay of Scottish students; they die rather of eating too little than of eating too much. Of course it is necessary, in the first place, that you should have something to eat, and, in the second place, that what you eat should be substantial and nourishing. With regard to the details of this matter you must consult the doctor; but I believe it is universally agreed that the plainest food is often the best; and for the highest cerebral and sanguineous purposes, long experience has proved that there is nothing better than oatmeal and good pottage. For as the poet says-

"Buirdly chiels and clever hizzies
Are bred in sic a way as this is."

Supposing, however, that the supply of good nourishment is adequate, people are apt to err in various ways when they come to use it. There is a class of people who do not walk through life, but race; they do not know what it is to sit down to anything with a quiet purpose, and so they bolt their dinner with a galloping purpose to be done with it as soon as possible. This is bad policy and bad philosophy. The man who eats in a hurry loses both the pleasure of eating and the profit of digestion. If men of business in bustling cities, and Americans who live in a constant fever of democratic excitement, are apt to indulge in this unhealthy habit, students and bookish men are not free from the same temptation. Eager readers will not only bolt their dinner that they may get to their books, but they will read sometimes even while they are eating; thus forcing nature to act from two distinct vital centres at the same time—the brain and the stomach—of which the necessary result is to enfeeble both. To sip a cup of tea with Lucian or Aristophanes in one hand may be both pleasant and Profitable; but dinner is a more serious affair, and must be gone about with a devotion of the whole man—totus in illis, "a whole man to one thing at one time," as Chancellor Thurlow said, —seasoned very properly, with agreeable conversation or a little cheerful music, where you can have it, but never mingled with severe cogitations or perplexing problems. In this view the custom of the English and German students of dining with one another, is much to be commended before the solitary feeding too often practised by poor Scottish students in lonely lodging houses. In this matter the Free Church of Scotland, among its other notable achievements, has recently shown us an example well worthy of imitation. They have instituted a dining hail for their theological students, distinguished by salubrity, cheapness, and sociality. Next to quality, a certain variety of food is by all means to be sought after. The stimulus of novelty that goes along with variety, sharpens appetite; besides that Nature, in all her rich and beautiful ways, emphatically protests against monotony. It is, moreover, a point of practical wisdom to prevent the stomach from becoming the habituated slave of any land of food. In change of circumstances the favourite diet cannot always be had; and so, to keep himself in a state of alimentary comfort, your methodical eater must restrict his habits of locomotion, and narrow the range of his existence to a fixed sphere where he can be fed regularly with his meted portion. As for drink, I need not say that a glass of good beer or wine is always pleasant, and in certain cases may even be necessary to stimulate digestion ; but healthy young men can never require such stimulus; and the more money that a poor Scotch student can spare from unnecessary and slippery luxuries, such as drink and tobacco, so much the better. "Honest water" certainly has this merit, that it "never made any man a sinner;" and of whisky it may be said that, however beneficial it may be on a wet moor or on the top of a frosty Ben in the Highlands, when indulged in habitually it never made any man either fair or fat. He who abstains from it altogether will never die in a ditch, and will always find a penny in his pocket to help himself and his friend in an emergency.

IV. I believe there are few things more necessary than to warn students against the evil effects of close rooms and bad ventilation. Impure air can never make pure blood; and impure blood corrupts the whole system. But the evil is, that, no immediate sensible effects being produced from a considerable amount of impurity in the air, thoughtless and careless persons—that is, I am afraid, the great majority of persons—go on inhaling it without receiving any hint that they are imbibing poison. But those evils are always the most dangerous of which the approaches are the most insidious. Let students, therefore, who are often confined in small rooms, be careful to throw open their windows whenever they go out; and, if the windows of their sleeping-room are so situated that they can be kept open without sending a draught of air directly across the sleeper, let them by all means be left open night and day, both summer and winter. In breezy Scotland, at least, this practice, except in the case of very sensitive subjects, can only be beneficial. In hot countries, where .insalubrious vapours in some places infest the night, it may be otherwise.

V. Should it be necessary to say a word about SLEEP? One would think not. Nature, we may imagine, is sufficient for herself in this matter. Let a man sleep when he is sleepy, and rise when the crow of the cock, or the glare of the sun, rouses him from his torpor. Exactly so, if Nature always got fair play; but she is swindled and flouted in so many ways by human beings, that a general reference to her often becomes a useless generality. In the matter of sleep specially students are great sinners ; nay, their very profession is a sin against repose; and the strictest prophylactic measures are necessary to prevent certain poaching practices of thinking men into the sacred domain of sleep. Cerebral excitement, like strong coffee, is the direct antagonist of sleep; therefore the student should so apportion his hours of intellectual task-work, that the more exciting and stimulating brain exercise should never be continued direct into the hour for repose; but let the last work of the day be always something comparatively light and easy, or dull and soporific; or better still, let a man walk for an hour before bed, or have a pleasant chat with a chum, and then there can be no fear but that nature, left to herself, will find, without artifice, the measure of rest which she requires. As to the exact amount of that measure, no rule can be laid down; less than six, or more than eight hours' sleep, according to general experience, must always be exceptional. The student who walks at least two hours every day, and works hard with his brain eight or nine hours besides, will soon find out what is the natural measure of sleep that he requires, to keep free from the feverishness and the languor that are the necessary consequences of prolonged artificial wakefulness. As to early rising, which makes such a famous figure in some notable biographies, I can say little about it, as it is a virtue which I was never able to practise. There can be no doubt, however, that, wherever it can be practised in a natural and easy way, it is a very healthful practice ; and in certain circumstances, such as those in which the late distinguished Baron Bunsen was placed, full of various business and distraction, the morning hours seem clearly to be pointed out as the only ones available for the purposes of learned research and devout meditation.

VI. On the use of BATHS and WATER as a hygienic instrument I can speak with confidence, as I have frequented various celebrated hydropathic institutions, and have carefully pondered both the principles and the practice of that therapeutic discipline. Hydropathy is a name that very inadequately expresses the virtue of the treatment to which it subjects the patient. It is a well-calculated combination of exercise, leisure, diet, amusement, society, and water, applied in various ways to stimulate the natural perspiratory action of the skin. Any one may see that the influences brought to bear on the bodily system by such a combination are in the highest degree sanitary. The important point for students is to be informed that parts of this discipline somewhat expensively pursued in hydropathic institutions under the superintendence of experienced physicians, can be transferred safely, and at no expense, to the routine of their daily life. A regular bath in the morning, where water can be had, unless with very feeble and delicate subjects, has always an invigorating effect; but, where water is scarce, a wet sheet, dipped in water, and well wrung, will serve the purpose equally well. The body must be altogether enveloped, and well rubbed with this; and then a dry sheet used in the same way will cause a glow to come out in the skin, which is the best preventive against those disturbances of cuticular action which the instability of our northern climate renders so common and so annoying. The wet sheet packing, one of the most bruited of the hydropathic appliances, and which in fact acts as a mild tepid blister swathing the whole body, may be practised for special purposes, under the direction of a person expert in those matters; but the virtue of this, as of all water applications, depends on the power of reaction which the physical system possesses This reaction young men of good constitutions, trained by healthy exercise and exposure, will always possess; but persons of a dull and slow temperament should beware of making sudden experiments with cold water without certain precautions and directions from those who are more experienced than themselves.

VII. What I have further to say about health belongs to an altogether different chapter. A man cannot be kept healthy merely by attending to his stomach. If the body, which is the support of the curiously complex fabric, acts with a sustaining influence on the mind, the mind, which is the impelling force of the machine, may, like steam in a steam-engine, for want of a controlling and regulative force, in a single fit of untempered expansion, blow all the wheels and pegs, and close compacted plates of the machine, into chaos. No function of the body can be safely performed for a continuance without the habitual strong control of a well-disciplined will. All merely physical energies in man have a strong tendency to run riot into fever and dissolution when divorced from the superintendence of what Plato called Imperial mind. The music of well-regulated emotions imparts its harmony to the strings of the physical machine; and freedom from the blind plunges of wilfulness keeps the heart free from those fierce and irregular beatings which wear out its vitality prematurely. Therefore, if you would be healthy, be good, and if you would be good, be wise; and if you would be wise, be devout and reverent, for the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. What this means it will be the business of the following chapter to set forth.

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