On Self-Discipline


Self-discipline can become a form of pride in which we attribute to ourselves complete mastery over ourselves with no willingness to guide ourselves to ends that are to be served or people to be loved.

Everyone has heard that all work and no play make Jack a dull boy. Now, I am not exactly sure just who this famous Jack is, but I suspect in his own way he is each of us when we confront the notion of precisely self-discipline. Clearly, the notion of discipline, especially disciplining ones own self, has to do with the systematic process by which we acquire knowledge or virtue or art. Discipline means instruction, especially organized instruction. When we add the notion of self to this instruction, we are indicating that we are ourselves objects of our own rule, our own need to instruct ourselves. Ultimately, no one else can do this for us. Our lives are ours to order, to put some sort of principle or purpose into our many and varied thoughts and deeds. Our lives are also ours to leave in disorder or in an order that deviates from what it is we know we ought to be. We should not, moreover, underestimate the difficulty we confront in ruling ourselves. Christianity even suggests that most of us might well need something more than ourselves properly to see and rule ourselves.

This topic is really what the First Book of Aristotles Ethics is about when he tells us reflectively to look back on our deeds and our thoughts and see, if we can, that for which we act, that which we think to be most important and that which governs all we do. No doubt we can mislead ourselves in this self reflection. We can think we act for the noblest purposes, whereas in fact, as all our friends know, we act for money or pleasure or vain honors. It is difficult to see ourselves as we are, even if this inner seeing is one of the most important things we must do for ourselves. The famous Socratic admonition, know thyself, meant at least this knowledge of our own implicit ends, in addition to knowing the kind of being we are given by nature our human being, something we did not give ourselves.

The student who first comes to the university is no doubt exhilarated by a kind of new found freedom. He is still too young really to have acquired a good knowledge of himself or a firm capacity to rule himself. From all I hear, high schools any more are not themselves exactly models of balanced preparations for orderly lives. But I suppose to most high school students in comparison to college, high schools look pretty confined. Many young men and women, no doubt, have, by the time they reach college, already failed to discipline themselves. They have barely begun to acquire the habits and incentives necessary to figure out, not what they should do in terms of a profession or job, but what life itself is about, itself a lifetime task, to be sure. Many of us, unfortunately, make very serious mistakes very early in our lives. College is a place in which, if we are wise, these mistakes can be either corrected or, on the contrary, magnified infinitely.

Now, I am not someone who thinks that we will really learn what life itself is about in college courses. We may, no doubt, get snippets here and there. The ideology or intellectual chaos that is often, as many critics point out, the meaning of college curricula themselves needs to be reflected on and understood. Universities and colleges are there to be used. We are not to attend them blindly, even though we can and must make ourselves teachable. A good number of the very important books and ideas that a student will need to know if he is to know the truth, to confront what is good, are never even mentioned in any university curriculum or course. This situation would imply that we need to know something about life even before beginning to learn more specifically about parts of it in an academic setting. If we are lucky, we begin to suspect that some of these things we need to know, the highest things, come from our parents or our church or our friends or our own curiosity. Many a man has saved his soul because of some book he chanced to read in some obscure library or used book store. Many a girl has understood what her life is about because she happened, one random summer afternoon, to talk seriously to her grandmother or to her aunt.

Self-discipline, the rule over all of our given passions, fears, dreams, thoughts, can be, if simply taken for itself, a dangerous thing. We can be Stoics who conceive self-discipline somehow as an end in itself, whereas it is really the pre-requisite for seeing and loving what is not ourselves. Self-discipline can become a form of pride in which we attribute to ourselves complete mastery over ourselves with no willingness to guide ourselves to ends that are to be served or people to be loved. None-the-less, our bare selves are objects to ourselves. We recognize that our ability to accomplish anything at all begins with some realization that we must take control of ourselves. We must begin to note in ourselves those things that cause us troubles. Plato said that the worst thing that can happen to us is to have a lie in our souls, especially about ourselves. These difficulties can even be other students, perhaps even teachers, who interfere with our studies or our responsibilities, including our responsibilities to God. They can be things like drink or drugs or our own laziness.

The purpose of self-discipline in the best sense then is not ourselves. That probably sounds strange. The classical writers, I think, used to relate self-discipline to liberty. The person who was most free was the one who had the most control over himself. The person who was most unfree was the one who was ruled by pleasures, money, or power. Self-discipline does not, however, solve the question of what is knowledge or truth or good. In this sense, it is instrumental, something good for the sake of something else. John Paul II put it well in his profound new book, the fundamental dimension of mans existence ... is always a co-existence. We are ourselves to be sure and we are to rule ourselves. But once we have managed to approach this no doubt difficult issue, what remains is the rest of our lives. We can then begin to focus on the things of the highest importance and dignity, something we would be unable to do if we did not succeed in imposing some self-discipline on ourselves.

Paul Johnson in his book, The Intellectuals, has suggested, with considerable unpopularity, that there is an intimate connection between our moral life and our intellectual life. Sometimes, I think the history of our times can be described as an argument on whether or not this connection is true. Self-discipline is the beginning of wisdom, not its end. When we have discovered the purpose for which self-discipline exists, we will, if we are sane, hardly recall anything about it because it has enabled us to become free to see so much else.




Father James V. Schall, S.J. "On Self-Discipline." The Academy (February, 1995).

Reprinted with permission from Father James V. Schall, S.J.

This essay is also found as Interlude #IV in On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2001).


Father James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of many books in the areas of social issues, spirituality and literature including The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical & Political Essays, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing; Roman Catholic Political Philosophy; The Order of Things; The Regensburg Lecture; The Life of the Mind: On the Joys and Travails of Thinking; Schall on Chesterton: Timely Essays on Timeless Paradoxes; Another Sort of Learning, Sum Total Of Human Happiness, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Copyright © 2012 Father James V. Schall, S.J.

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