People today are fighting the temptations of a new economy. With Twitter and TikTok a click away, we need self-control to get anything done. There’s an explosion of new movements and techniques to fight procrastination, from Pomodoro (which gives you timed breaks when your tomato-shaped kitchen timer runs out) to self-help books and subreddits.
Our 17th-century forebears knew the story. They faced the rather earthier temptations of the early modern economy: drinking, gambling, whoring, but also again procrastination. They needed self-control to be good Christians, following their calling in a sinful world. Like us, they developed a set of techniques. If you’re bored with Buddhism and Yoga makes you yawn, let me introduce you to some spiritual wisdom from closer to home: the self-control secrets of the Puritan masters.
Puritan techniques were based on methodical self-examination and discipline. Self-examination was necessary because Puritans knew from experience that good intentions weren’t enough. The self was “caried of his lusts as the cart drawn by a wild horse”. Even regenerate Puritans, born again in the spirit, kept an “Old Adam” within them who would work to undermine the new man. Daniel Dyke’s 1615 Mystery of Self-Deceivinge catalogued the “dangerous Art of self-Sophistry” by which we fooled ourselves. A modern behavioural scientist would recognize many of these tricks: the actor-observer asymmetry, where we blame others’ deeds on their character, but our own on our situation, “transferring the fault upon the outward occasions, whereby they were entised [sic] to sin”; self-serving bias, “if the action be so grosse, as that it cannot be excused in itself, yet to excuse it, as it was done by us”; and the old excuse that we were only obeying orders, blaming “the commandement, or example of our superiours”. Dyke also understood how the best intentions go astray in small steps: “grant [sin] but her little, and this little will quickly come to a great deale”. Meditate on that before you play just one more Youtube video. The modern psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that in moral reasoning, “one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth”. Puritans used exactly the same metaphor: reason “plays the lawyer”, and “where lust hath dominion, it whets the whit to speake for it”.
The cure was that the believer must, as the earnest 21st century truth-seekers on lesswrong.com put it, “avoid the typical failure modes of human reason”. Says Dyke: “The Scripture hath discovered our hearts unto us for noble impostors and deceivers… Here then is that we must narrowly examine our selves by, if we will not be deceived by our owne hearts… there is some errour in the foundation; I doubt me, it is sandy, thou must needs digge a little deeper”.
Look deep within your self
Self-examination was part of the daily practice of meditation. The aim was to notice, and repent of, one’s sins in thought, word and deed. Unlike the Buddhist version, the long-term goal was to transform the self, not accept it. Believers must “learne to force our natures”; to “rule and beare sway even as Kings over our owne thoughts, wils, affections, over-mastering them”. This in turn made self-knowledge a Christian duty: to “make conscience of the idle rovings of our braines” and “enter… those darke closets of thy heart”. Puritan depth psychology, as the historian Theodore Bozeman calls it, developed an unprecedented and sometimes anguished level of introspection. Puritans were aware of the public and private temptations of virtue: “I more desire to be sincere, than to know that I am so. The comfort and delight of being and doing good, I set not so much by, as the very being and doing good,” insisted one. They knew how the brain played tricks, filling the believer’s mind with “swarming… vaine thoughts”.
To counteract it, they developed their own tricks and techniques. “Be careful to suppress every sin in the first motion” — it’s easier to stay good than get good. Use visualization, to make “our hearts affected with a lively taste, sense, and feeling of the things whereon wee meditate.” Treat everyday sights as a mnemonic device, a ploy known as “spiritualizing the creatures”. The preacher Cotton Mather, on seeing a tall man, would think to himself “Lord, let him fear God, above many”.
This self-examination was embedded in disciplined routines, starting in the morning by setting an intention for the day, and ending at night with a performance review. Some books provided a daily schedule to keep to. Just as contemporary self-improvers sometimes keep a journal of their progress, diary-writing was a Puritan practice: “I spoke two unadvised words today,” wrote one serious New England saint. Eventually, the diary could be worked up into a spiritual autobiography for those following behind.
Discipline might involve following a long list of rules: rules for what to eat, what to wear, and how to play sports, which the Puritans, contrary to stereotype, didn’t think were necessarily all bad. The most extreme example was Nicholas Byfield’s giant Marrow of the Oracle of God, with 200 pages of precepts, including fourteen rules for how to speak, and four rules for singing psalms. Most believers probably did not go that far, just as few of us follow all the suggestions in our self-help books. But the Godly did use rules as a structure. Some imposed fines on themselves for breaking them, like a modern-day swear box.
Routines extended beyond the day. Sunday, at the start of the week, provided a pause for disciplined reflection. Of course, church attendance was essential; precise Puritans would hunt through the locality for a good preacher, a practice known as “gadding about”. After the sermon, hearers had to meditate on it, and put it into practice.
Routines weren’t just individual, but were embedded in the household, a socioeconomic unit which was both family and workplace. The day started with prayers read by the master. A good Puritan employer would allow his servants their day of rest to attend worship. A large household management literature explained the reciprocal duties of husbands and wives, parents and children, servants and masters — duties embodied in, guess what, long lists of rules.
What can we learn?
The Puritans were like us, but not quite like us. Their self-analysis and self-discipline were not aimed at career achievement or better exam grades, but were part of a lifelong struggle for godliness. Sometimes to modern ears this can jar, because so much of it was transparently driven by the desire for “assurance”. In the merciless logic of Calvinism, all were predestined for salvation or damnation, and no amount of good works could change that — salvation came from faith alone. But good works were a clear sign that you were saved, since only a saved person would do them, and only a damned person would sin. Not surprisingly, the strain of this world view sometimes led believers to serious depression, which in turn might exacerbate their fear of having fallen into the “despair” of the reprobate.
But at its best a lifetime of discipline could lead to an admirable confidence. Listen to Milton’s eulogy on Oliver Cromwell: “A commander first over himself; the conqueror of himself, it was over himself he had learnt most to triumph. Hence he went to encounter with an external enemy as a veteran...” More humbly, the clergyman Richard Rogers described his internal struggle: “I watch and pray, and strive against all sin, but especially against those sins, to which I am more especially inclined. My conflicts are daily, and I am put hard to it; but I do not yield up my self to any sin, nor lie down in it…. I resolve that sin shall have no rest in my soul.” Looking back, he wrote: “I find upon the review of my life past… that I have not gone backward, but proceeded forward… not by sudden fits now and then happening, but by the main progress of the work in the total sum.” And later “after twelve years, I found through grace the same abiding in me, and more and more rooted.” Losing his parish for non-conformity didn’t faze him: “My temporal estate is mean and low, yet I am contented with it… I live in as narrow a compass for expences as I can, that I might have something to give to the poor”. Your move, Effective Altruists.
These crazy-hatted Western mystics have two lessons for us. The first is that self-discipline is easiest if you work as a team. If life coaches make their living by pushing us to do what we know we ought to, for a Puritan, the whole community of brethren was the coach. A much-mocked recent tweet said “by age 30, you should have a group of friends that talk business, money, and fitness, not politics and pop culture.” Crass, sure, but the underlying point is good: if you want to achieve something, surround yourself with people who share that goal. Puritans themselves were conscious about this; as one wrote, “the first sign of God’s favour to a sinner is, to give him grace to forsake evil companions”.
The second is, as any clergyman might have put it, respice finem — consider the end. There’s a certain paradox in getting up early, setting your pomodoro timer and filling in daily activity charts, if all you are aiming at is promotion and a larger salary. Modern careerism can partake of the same empty, compulsive nature as the addictions that stand in its way. Sure, the Puritans’ world view was extreme, but they knew what they were doing, and why they were doing it, and they helped to make the history of the seventeenth century. Groups with the same confidence and self-direction might make a similar impact in the twenty-first.