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Precept and Practice

That example is more powerful than precept we are all aware, and are never tired of voicing this sentiment, yet how easy and flattering to adopt the role of preceptor. To glibly utter moral maxims is one of the easiest of occupations, and one in which our conceit grows upon what it feeds. As the phrase goes, "talk is cheap," and the windbag requires nothing but air to keep it inflated. To practice what we preach, to harmonize our theory and practice, to live out our ideals, this is one of the greatest difficulties we daily have to contend with. Who among us is not guilty of this strange inconsistency, this war between the flesh and the spirit? The office of preceptor ill becomes us if not supported by exemplary conduct. Of what use, for instance, to tell children to, be patient, kind, gentle, and forgiving, if we do not practice these virtues ourselves? Far better say nothing at all about them, than to confuse their little minds by foolishly thinking to teach them virtues which to us are only names. As Olive Schriener says: "The old dream little how their words and lives are texts and studies to the generation that shall succeed them. Not what we are taught, but what we see makes us." It is not our words that teach but our acts.

A father in trying to dissuade his son from the habit of smoking, advised him to at once leave the company of any boy who should light a cigarette. "But," quickly replied the boy, "if it is wrong to smoke, and boys who smoke are not fitting company for me, why did you invite the gentleman into the house, who called to see you last night, as he was smoking a cigar?"

How easy by lip-labor to gain a reputation at variance with our character, and how careful we should be as to what pretensions we put forward. As good Thomas Fuller wrote, "How easy is pen and paper piety, for one to write religiously! I will not say it costeth nothing, but it is far cheaper to work one’s head than one’s heart to goodness. Some, perchance, may guess me to be good by my writings, and so I shall deceive my readers. But if I do not desire to be good, I most of all deceive myself. I can make a hundred meditations sooner than subdue the least sin in my soul."

With friends and acquaintances we desire, quite innocently and naturally, to create a good impression, we are anxious to please and to be thought well of, but this desire to please others may lead to insincerity and hypocrisy. To try and encourage others in their work, by voicing sentiments not strictly true, is a form of deception easily fallen into; in so doing we soothe our conscience with the thought that we have committed only a little wrong that much good may be the outcome. On such an occasion it is argued with some show of plausibility that the words were uttered in good faith, so much so that no profit thereby accrued to ourselves also; the old fallacy of doing evil, thinking that good may come.

In the world we too often appraise men at their own estimate; assumption is frequently mistaken for ability, and humility for weakness, and so we have the trite saying, "empty vessels make the most sound.” It is a truism that we talk but little about the deepest things of the heart and soul, indeed if we do we are always under the suspicion of talking cant. As John Ruskin says: "The moment a man can really do his work he becomes speechless about it; all words become idle to him—all theories." What the world needs is not more writers, talkers, or preachers, but better lives. We have had too much exposition and not enough exemplification. For all in varying degrees, have in their own hearts a knowledge of the truth, and when that knowledge is applied in daily life a fuller and wider revelation will be vouchsafed. As in chemistry we apply a test to distinguish certain substances, or detect their presence; so in ethics, our knowledge must be tested in the arena of life, before we know its value or utility. The same in the physical and mental worlds, we only receive by expending—by giving. To gain we must give. To increase our knowledge of the things pertaining to right conduct and the higher life, we must use the knowledge we already possess.

Let us however be sure we speak from knowledge and personal experience, and not from hearsay. There is such a thing as sciolism in the moral and spiritual life. To give utterance to certain shibboleths and formulas because others do, or because we are expected to, is to be guilty of dissembling and insincerity, and will result in a life of inconsistencies, and of conduct full of incongruities and irregularities.

This strange disagreement between words and deeds, precept and practice, promise and fulfillment, it should be borne in mind, is by no means solely confined to the region of morals and religion, but is common in every department of life. In commerce, politics, and literature we see the same divorce between speech and act, promise and performance, yet the discrepancy in most cases is purely unconscious. Few are so base as to play a part willfully or designedly. Rather is it the aspiration and yearning for perfection of character and conduct which, through various causes and circumstances, is not incorporated with the daily life, in other words, the ideal not realized. "When I would do good, evil is present with me."

Thus we should ever be on our guard, watching ourselves carefully—our every word and act, so that we may not by our deeds belie our utterances. Then by this process of self-examination and self-analysis, we shall quickly discover what manner of men and women we are, and so see ourselves as others see us, thereby enabling us to bring our conduct into line with our profession. But the introspection must be a personal one; to criticize and condemn others will not help us in the least, but will only hinder. With Nathaniel Hawthorne we must realize that each one of us has one person to make good, and that is himself or herself. Having entered into a realization of our weaknesses and shortcomings in this respect, if we are in earnest we shall soon discover how to remedy them—to reconcile our theory with our practice. Then we shall guard our words, so that our conduct will be in conformity with our speech. To live as we talk, and talk as we live is our daily task; to be what we seem, and seem what we are.

Parents often counsel their children against certain things, and do them themselves, in the foolish hope that the children will believe their ears in preference to their eyes. Years of careful teaching of a child to be honest and truthful may be nullified in an instant by a parent’s lying to a conductor about a child’s age to save a nickel.
—William George Jordan
There is in the mythology of the Norsemen a belief that the strength of an enemy we kill enters into us. This is true in character. As we conquer a passion, a thought, a feeling, a desire; as we rise superior to some impulse, the strength of that victory, trifling though it may be, is stored by nature as a Reserve Power to come to us in the hour of need.
—William George Jordan


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Thomas W. Allen

  • Brother of author James Allen
  • Not much else is known about him. If you have information about this author to share, please contact me.

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