S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
It will secure you from the narrow idolatry of the present times and fashions, and create the noblest kind of imaginative power in your soul, that of living in past ages;wholly devoid of which power, a man can neither anticipate the future, nor even live a truly human life, a life of reason, in the present.
Had we a privilege of calling up, by the power of memory, only such passages as were pleasing, unmixed with such as were disagreeable, we might then excite at pleasure an ideal happiness, perhaps more poignant than actual sensation. But this is not the case: the past is never represented without some disagreeable circumstances which tarnish all its beauty; the remembrance of an evil carries in it nothing agreeable, and to remember a good is always accompanied with regret. Thus we lose more than we gain by the remembrance.
The serious and impartial retrospect of our conduct is indisputably necessary to the conformation or recovery of virtue, and is, therefore, recommended, under the name of self-examination, by divines, as the first act previous to repentance. It is, indeed, of so great use, that without it we should always be to begin life, be seduced forever by the same allurements and misled by the same fallacies. But in order that we may not lose the advantage of our experience, we must endeavour to see everything in its proper form, and excite in ourselves those sentiments which the great Author of nature has decreed the concomitants or followers of good or bad actions.
Distance in truth produces in idea the same effect as in real perspective: objects are softened and rounded, and rendered doubly graceful; the harsher and more ordinary points of character are melted down; and those by which it is remembered are the more striking outlines, that mark sublimity, grace, or beauty. There are mists, too, in the mental, as in the natural horizon, to conceal what is less pleasing in distant objects; and there are happy lights to stream in full glory upon those points which can profit by brilliant illumination.
With such inclinations in my heart, I went to my closet yesterday evening, and resolved to be sorrowful; upon which occasion I could not but look with disdain upon myself, that though all the reasons which I had to lament the loss of many of my friends are now as forcible as at the moment of their departure, yet did not my heart swell with the same sorrow which I felt at that time: but I could, without tears, reflect upon many pleasing adventures I have had with some, who have long been blended with common earth. Though it is by the benefit of nature, that length of time thus blots out the violence of afflictions; yet with tempers too much given to pleasure, it is almost necessary to revive the old places of grief in our memory; and ponder step by step on past life, to lead the mind into that sobriety of thought which poises the heart, and makes it beat with due time, without being quickened with desire, or retarded with despair, from its proper and equal motion.
There is a fault which, though common, wants a name. It is the very contrary to procrastination. As we lose the present hour by delaying from day to day to execute what we ought to do immediately, so most of us take occasion to sit still and throw away the time in our possession by retrospect on what is past, imagining we have already acquitted ourselves, and established our characters in the sight of mankind. But when we thus put a value upon ourselves for what we have already done, any farther than to explain ourselves in order to assist our future conduct, that will give us an overweening opinion of our merit, to the prejudice of our present industry. The great rule, methinks, should be, to manage the instant in which we stand, with fortitude, equanimity, and moderation, according to mens respective circumstances. If our past actions reproach us, they cannot be atoned for by our own severe reflections so effectually as by a contrary behaviour. If they are praiseworthy, the memory of them is of no use but to act suitably to them. Thus a good present behaviour is an implicit repentance for any miscarriage in what is past; but present slackness will not make up for past activity.