So a billion years ago I set out on a mission to be the best version of myself by pursuing what the Greeks called arete which loosely translates to excellence in all things. Broadly speaking it’s being excellent in all the ways a person can be excellent mentally, physically, intellectually, spiritually and practically.
I have to confess though, I let the Matrix get the better of me. I plugged in, became one of “them” and lost sight of what I am about and what I want to achieve.
Luckily, Morpheus found me and I am unplugged again, but I’m going to have to rebuild the parts of my mind I haven’t used for a while.
Which brings me to Isaac Watts…
One of the most popular and prolific Christian hymn writers of all time — including Joy to the World — was a man named Isaac Watts, who lived in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. Watts was a well educated Nonconformist (in the religious sense, not the modern one) who, along with his hymn writing, published a number of books on logic, science, and the learning process, at a time when these concepts were only just starting to grab hold as a dominant ideology, replacing the central role of religious teaching.
Watts wrote a book called Improvement of the Mind. And in this book he shared a set of general rules for the improvement of knowledge. Although written in the 18th century, these rules can still be applied today.
So here are the rules:
Rule I. DEEPLY possess your mind with the vast importance of a good judgment, and the rich and inestimable advantage of right reasoning.
Rule II. Consider the weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature in general, which arise from the very constitution of a soul united to an animal body, and subjected to many inconveniences thereby.
Rule III. A slight view of things so momentous is not sufficient.
Rule IV. Presume not too much upon a bright genius, a ready wit, and good parts; for this, without labour and study, will never make a man of knowledge and wisdom.
Rule V. As you are not to fancy yourself a learned man because you are blessed with a ready wit; so neither must you imagine that large and laborious reading, and a strong memory, can denominate you truly wise.
Rule VI. Be not so weak as to imagine, that a life of learning is a life of laziness and ease;
Rule VII. Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasure of known trains, animate your daily industry.
Rule VIII. Do not hover always on the surface of things, nor take up suddenly with mere appearances; but penetrate into the depth of matters, as far as your time and circumstances allow, especially in those things which relate to your own profession.
Rule IX. Once a day, especially in the early years of life and study, call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge.
Rule X. Maintain a constant watch at all times against a dogmatical spirit.
Rule XI. Though caution and slow assent will guard you against frequent mistakes and retractions; yet you should get humility and courage enough to retract any mistake, and confess an error.
Rule XII. He that would raise his judgment above the vulgar rank of mankind, and learn to pass a just sentence on persons and things, must take heed of a fanciful temper of mind, and a humorous conduct in his affairs.
Rule XIII. For the same reason have a care of trifling with things important and momentous, or of sporting with things awful and sacred: do not indulge a spirit of ridicule, as some witty men do on all occasions and subjects.
Rule XIV. Ever maintain a virtuous and pious frame of spirit: for an indulgence of vicious inclinations debases the understanding, and perverts the judgment.
Rule XV. Watch against the pride of your own reason, and a vain conceit of your own intellectual powers, with the neglect of divine aid and blessing.
Rule XVI. Offer up therefore your daily requests to God, the father of lights, that he would bless all your attempts and labours in reading, study, and conversation.
You can read the full set of rules here.
Or you can buy a copy of Improvement of the Mind.