The fundamental cause of self-ignorance is want of self-examination. Men know little of themselves, because they seldom reflect on themselves. For a transient, hasty glance, such as the generality of men are content with, cannot discover all the bents and tendencies of the soul, those standing features and lineaments of the inward man. Besides, our passions are not always in motion, but retire now and then, into the secret recesses of the heart, where they lie concealed, till a fresh occasion calls them forth again. And it is generally in these intervals of composure that we turn our eyes upon ourselves. When the powers of the mind are already engaged in the pursuit of some other object, it is not without greater exertion than most men are willing to make, that they can be recalled, and chained down to the unpleasant task of self-examination. For, before we can with ease and pleasure take a view of our interior, we must have our desires lulled into repose, and our thoughts collected ; in a word, we must become temporary hermits, inattentive to all the impressions of sense. And it is not surprising if he, who only in such moments turns his thoughts upon himself, mistakes present composure for habitual serenity, and momentary good dispositions for settled principles of virtue, which, though they may be obscured in the dark hour of violent temptation, yet never fail to emerge from the cloud with their original splendor.

But, were a person both willing and able on all occasions to commune with his own heart, still numberless causes concur to render it extremely difficult for him to pass an impartial judgment on himself. Among these, that self-love, which was born with him, has grown with his growth, and strengthened with his strength, is one of the most considerable. Where our reputation or interest is at all concerned; where there are the remotest considerations of self connected with the point before us; what a strange bias does that circumstance give to the mind, and how difficult it is entirely to disengage our judgments! With what reluctance are we brought to think evil of a friend whom we have long loved and esteemed! how apt are we to overlook, or palliate, the strongest appearances that may stand against him! and to assign the best and kindest motives for the worst and most unjustifiable actions! Man is still a worse casuist, is the dupe of a much stronger prejudice and prepossession, when judging of himself, that dearest of all parties, so closely connected with him, so much and so long beloved. It is not an easy matter to be just where there is such an impulse to be kind.

Besides this prime source of self-deceit, there is another, equally dangerous and delusive. It consists in the false judgments which we form of different vices, according to our age, disposition, rank in life, or the alternate ebbs and flows of our passions. Close consideration would soon convince us that there are many actions, equally bad and vicious in themselves, which are held by us in very different degrees of detestation. Those faults, which nature or custom has made familiar to us, and to which an unresisted passion still keeps us enslaved, are decked out and painted in all the false colors that a soft and flattering hand can give them; while others, to which we feel no propensity, appear at once naked and deformed, surrounded with all the marks of their real guilt, folly, and dishonor.

This species of self-delusion is beautifully unfolded in the history of David and Nathan. David, to the gratification of a base passion, had sacrificed a faithful and valiant servant, whose fidelity he should have cherished, and whose valor he should have rewarded. Nathan, the prophet, was commissioned by God to bring the adulterous murderer to a sense of his guilt. Instead of declaring his real errand, the prophet comes to him with a fictitious complaint, regarding a cruel act of injustice committed by one of his subjects, and frames a case, not so parallel to David's as by awakening suspicion to prevent a patient hearing, and yet not so void of resemblance as to fail of striking, when shown in a proper light; while the whole was so tenderly addressed to the heart and passions, that it could not but excite horror and indignation in the hearer.

And Nathan said unto him, there were two men in one city, the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many sheep and oxen. But the poor man had nothing at all but one little ewe lamb, which he had brought and nourished up, and which had grown up in his house together with his children, eating of his bread, and drinking of his cup, and sleeping in his bosom: and it was unto him as a daughter. And when a certain stranger was come to the rich man, he spared to take of his own sheep and oxen, to make a feast for that stranger, who was come to him, but took the poor man's ewe, and dressed it for the man that was come to him. And David's anger being exceedingly kindled against that man, he said to Nathan: As the Lord liveth, the man that has done this thing is a child of death. And Nathan said to David, thou art the man.

Indeed he was worse than the man, if the sins of adultery and murder are more heinous than a petty oppression. Yet so far was he blinded by his present passion, so provoked and exasperated at the fictitious offence, as sincerely to condemn, and, beyond the utmost rigor of the law, sentence to death a man infinitely more innocent than himself. He has no suspicion, that, in condemning the unknown oppressor, he is pronouncing his own condemnation. It is necessary for the prophet to say to him, in plain terms, thou art the man. Nor is this sufficient. All the aggravating circumstances of his crime must be enumerated, the whole detail of his guilt has to be held before his eyes, before he can be brought to a sense of his own criminality and to that feeling confession, I have sinned against the Lord.

Thus the case still stands with us. When the passions are warmed, and the sin which presents itself exactly tallies with the desire, how unconcernedly does a man rush into it, in spite of every principle of honor or of justice? Talk to him, the moment after, upon the nature of some other vice, to which he is not addicted, and from which his age, his temper, or his rank in life secures him, and how well he reasons, what honest indignation he expresses against it, how insensibly his anger kindles against the man who hath done this thing!

Again, the number is not small of those, who judge of themselves, not by a direct examination of their own hearts, but by forming a comparison between their lives and actions and those of others. When a person is entering on the work of self-examination, he frequently looks around, instead of looking within. He soon finds, or thinks he finds, one more malicious, another more covetous, a third more proud and imperious than himself, and thus indirectly forms his judgment of himself, not by reviewing his life and proving his works, as the apostle directs, but by drawing, from the infirmities and defects of others, a delusive conclusion in favor of himself. In such competitions, there will always be so much self-love, as to draw a flattering likeness of one of the parties; and, in all likelihood, so much malignity, as to give but a coarse picture of the other. The self-ignorant Pharisee, of whom the Gospel speaks, fell into both these faults. He no sooner saw the publican, but he formed to himself the idea of all the vices that could possibly enter the man's character, and, contrasting them with his own imagined virtues, took an occasion of triumph and joy, where he ought to have been penetrated with sorrow and shame.

But, let these comparisons of ourselves with others be ever so impartially conducted, they are nevertheless worthless. Before we can form a correct estimate of our moral character, we must consider our conduct, not with relation to the conduct of others, but with relation to the divine law. By our conformity with that law, we must stand or fall. If we suppose that the greater guilt of others will diminish our own, or that what we see daily practised by persons whose reputation stands fair with the world must therefore be lawful, we have fallen into speculative as well as practical errors, have corrupted our first principles, and defiled our morals in their very source. For the practice of others is no rule, and never will be accepted as an apology for us. At the last day, we shall be judged, not by the notions and common practice of men, but by the commandments of God. He will not inquire, whether there have been others much worse than ourselves, or whether we have been as good as the generality of mankind; but, whether we have fulfilled what his law and right reason dictated. This is the standard of right and wrong: this the balance of the sanctuary in which our actions are to be weighed. Hence, our Saviour has so emphatically warned us, that unless we are much better than the generality, we can never save our souls; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who enter thereat; but narrow is the way that leadeth to life, and few there are who find it.

Numbers are misled by taking opinions, which they hear others deliver concerning them, as the standard, by which they judge of themselves. But the opinions which others form of us are in general very ill founded; for most men judge with inward prepossession, all by outward appearances, and therefore think and speak of us very much at random. Besides, their verbal professions are, not unfrequently, much at variance with the sentiments of their hearts. There are men, too, who persuade themselves that they have those virtues which they really want, by mistaking and substituting some solitary acts, which they have performed, for settled habits. The luxurious man, for instance, who can prevail on himself to observe the fasts of the Church, suffers his imagination to dwell for ever on his fortitude and self-command. He feels indignant, that there should be men who, deaf to the calls of the Church, can riot in dainties and profusion, while the Christian world is engaged in the practices of penance. From any censures of men or reproaches of conscience he appeals to action and to knowledge, and thus concludes himself to be a mortified man, because he practices one act of mortification. Again, many never arrive at the true knowledge of themselves, because they begin the examination of their works before they are prepared to amend the faults which they may discover. For, if a man is not sincerely disposed to reform his faults, he will not be inclined to see them; he no longer performs the office of a judge, but of an advocate, whose business is, not to discover, but skillfully to conceal, the truth.

The last error which I shall notice is, perhaps, more general than any. All those fall into it who, when engaged in investigating their actions, leave out of the calculation the most important part of them; I mean the motives upon which they were performed. Even at the moment of action, many are ignorant of the real principles by which they are governed. The honor of God and the interest of religion have often been the apparent and supposed ends, when secular interest and secret vanity have been the hidden and the true. Many, like Jehu, have thought themselves transported with genuine zeal, when they have been animated only by the heat of their natural passions. Many have supposed themselves to be charitably giving wholesome admonitions to others, when they have been only venting their own spleen. Many a seeming act of friendship and generosity has proceeded from a principle of selfishness, unperceived by him whom it actuated. And if we are thus deluded even in the moment of action, the delusion will often continue when the deed is done; and thus our actions may appear very different in our own eyes, and in the eyes of God, who seeth not as man seeth; for man seeth those things which appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart.

Such are the rocks on which many split, who would arrive at self-knowledge; and I have pointed them out, not only that they may be carefully avoided, but also that they may serve, as so many landmarks, to direct us into that secure haven, the knowledge of ourselves. For, if men fail in their pursuit of self-knowledge on account of carelessness in self-examination, and of the partiality of self-love, through the influence of present passions, through delusive comparisons of themselves with others, from a vain dependence on the opinion of the world, by the substitution of single acts for habits, by neglecting to furnish themselves with the requisite dispositions, and by omitting to explore the true springs of their actions, the consequence is unavoidable, that whoever wishes to succeed in the attainment of self-knowledge must pursue an opposite course. He must frequently scrutinize his actions with the most critical exactness, the most piercing curiosity. This duty is in part performed by an examination of conscience at our evening prayers, when we recall to memory the actions and omissions of the past day, lament our failings, and resolve to reform them. But this only gives us a view of our conduct for that one day. Now, there are many undoubted duties, which are not-obligatory every day, and which are not necessarily attached to any particular portion of our time. The omission of such duties we may easily overlook, or palliate, in our daily examinations; and thus we may continue to defer, from day to day, some of the most essential obligations of life, without perceiving that we are grossly and criminally neglectful. To remedy this inconvenience, we should at stated seasons retire from the hurry of business and of pleasure, and make a general review of our lives.

Hence the teachers of spirituality have so strongly recommended us to make an occasional retreat for a few days, in order to brush from our souls that dust of the world, which they are apt to contract in our intercourse with society. In this light, St. Leo and many others have considered the ecclesiastical institutions of Lent and Easter, Advent and Christmas. And it is undoubtedly the spirit of the Church, that every man should set apart certain times for more continued prayer and more serious recollection; without which, it is morally impossible to form just notions of our religious duties, and to acquire a due knowledge of God and of ourselves. If, in some circumstances, this be impracticable, still, Sundays and holidays of obligation are, or ought to be, leisure days. Two or three hours, every Sunday, or every other Sunday, spent in meditating upon God's law, and upon the manner in which we comply with it; in reflecting upon our failings, and the means by which they may be amended; in exciting ourselves to repentance for the past and to good resolutions for the future; may be an excellent, though interrupted, retreat, and may greatly facilitate our progress in the knowledge of ourselves.

During these examinations, we must always be careful to remember, how difficult it is to pass an equitable sentence, where the same person is both judge and criminal; and we must counterbalance the influence of self-love and the prepossession of passion, by considering that, however we decide now, there will be a rehearing at another court, where judgment will be given according to truth. We must not lull our remorse, with the remembrance of crimes more atrocious than our own, or believe that we are not bad, while another can be found worse; but, on the contrary, we should keep our eyes fixed on those bright models of sanctity, whom the Church proposes to our imitation, who, though really the greatest of men, sincerely reputed themselves the least. We must not place any reliance on the misguided opinions which others may have concerning us, nor pay any regard to the flattering language of our friends; but should, rather, lend a willing ear to the reproaches of our adversaries. For an enemy, by making a stricter search into us, will discover every flaw and imperfection of our temper; and, though his malice may set them in too strong a light, he will generally have some ground for his censures. By attending, therefore, to his accusations, we shall see the worst of ourselves, and shall have our eyes opened to many a blemish and defect, which otherwise we might never have observed. We must, besides, bring ourselves to a full resolution of reforming whatever we may find in ourselves defective; and must trace all our good actions to their springs and sources; never forgetting, that, however beautiful or splendid their appearance, if they arose from any improper motive, their splendor is darkness, their beauty is deformity, in the eye of reason and religion.

Finally, would we know ourselves, we must frequently converse, not only with ourselves in consideration, but with God in prayer. In the lowest prostration of soul, we must beseech Him to call forth light out of darkness, and disclose to us the depth and devices of our hearts; for, without the influence of his divine illuminations, our hearts, after all our care and pains to know them, will certainly deceive us, and self-love will so prejudice the understanding as to keep us still in self-ignorance.