Choice And Destiny
( Originally Published 1912 )
"And the Lord God commanded man, saying, of every tree in the garden thou mayest freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat." —Hebrew Writings.
The story, of which these words are a fragment, is not peculiar to the Jewish writings. With some variations it appears in the mythology of many early races. In the Persian legends it is said that man and woman were created in holiness and were commanded to cherish good thoughts, speak good words and not to sacrifice to evil spirits. After a time they were approached by an evil spirit whose blandishments caused them to violate the divine command. In the Norse mythology the young gods are represented as innocent until they were tempted. They are pictured as playing in a green field with pieces of gold, when three young women came and, tempting them, took the gold from them. In the Sagas the story is thus briefly told: CHOICE AND DESTINY.
"There was a golden age of the gods when
Thus there is no people that does not have a golden age veiled in the remote past, a reign of happiness that was lost by some transgression, It is all a part of the great human drama. We read of Odin gaining knowledge at Mimir's fountain, but giving his eye to pay for it. Atalanta secured the golden apple, but lost the race. The Lotus eaters found ease, but lost all ambition. Sampson found pleasure, but lost strength. Adam and Eve gained knowledge, but lost innocence.
These stories are all taken from actual life. For many years archaeologists have tried to find the location of Eden. For all practical purposes the search may as well be abandoned. Already we all know its location. It may be found in Asia, in Europe, in America, in our own city, in our own hearts. It is not a vanishing legend; it is a perpetual human history. Stripped of its theological drapery, the plain truth of the story is, that, in a world where there are many mixed motives and instrumentalities and good and evil lie very close together, man has freedom of selection, and that immense issues await every act of the will. Choice is a kind of destiny. Freedom is a factor of fate. In a true sense salvation and destruction, Heaven and Hell are only the outworkings of character; and character is largely a product of the choices made by mortals during their earthly career.
Everything in nature comes in two-fold form. On one side it is good, on the other it is evil. The ocean is a highway of commerce and cleanser of the atmosphere, but at times it is full of treachery and violence and seems to take a fierce delight in destroying property and human life. Rains, that help create harvests, may become floods to overwhelm them. Zephyrs that, to-day, scarcely disturb aspen leaves, to-morrow may become a tornado uprooting oak forests. The lightning which purifies the air, may be turned into a swift messenger of death. A slight change of proportions may convert food into poison.
Into the midst of this bi-fold earth came man with the power of selection. Out of these commingled and warring facts and forces he was given the task of choosing those which would further him in his career. He had to learn how to distinguished between food and poison; learn how to protect himself from heat and cold, from rain and drought; learn when it is safe to trust the sea and the night because these necessary facts and phenomena may all become his enemy. Not only so; but he had to learn the harder lesson of wise self-denial and self-restraint. He had to learn that under certain conditions his pleasures turn to pains, his good fortune may be converted into calamity and his very virtues be transformed into vices. Thus our world is a scene of commingled good and evil, great and small, noble and mean, reasonable and foolish, spiritual and sensual and every mortal must choose between them.
That welfare hangs upon the way the choice is made finds illustration, not only in the story of Adam and Eve, but in every household and every heart. When Honor and Pleasure met the young Hercules at the parting of the ways and bade him select one of them for his constant companion, he followed Honor and gained a place among the Immortals. Two paths open before every one; and he who is as wise as the young hero of the legend will share his noble destiny.
Human life is restricted. Being finite, man must live a bounded life. The Eden event intimates that the parents of the race aspired beyond their human limitations. They would become as gods. It is this transgression of natural and necessary boundaries that brings mu 'h of earth's misery. To rise to heaven and defeat Zeus the Titans piled Mt. Ossa on Mt. Pelion. It was of no use. They were conquered at last and the unlawful height to which they had ascended only made their fall the greater when they were cast into Tartarus. It is ever so. Nature's laws are exigent; and he who violates them most, suffers most. Within limitations are safety and happiness; beyond them, danger and misery. Keeping within its banks, the life stream is useful; overflowing them, it spreads desolation. The human world is large, but it is not infinite. Many a ruined life learned too late that it could not possess all the universe. The gods may be gods, but man must be only man.
That the soul should wish for increased power and should try to expand its sphere of influence in every possible direction, is not strange. It is commendable. Hafiz says: "On the neck of the young man sparkles no gem so gracious as enterprise." By the powerful stimulus of ambition, without doubt, the borders of civilization have been extended and the torch of progress has flung its beams forward into the darkness. In its nobler form this sentiment has been present in the heart of many a patriot, many a hero, many a martyr. Because of it, seas have been navigated, and hitherto unknown islands and vast rich continents have been seen rising out of the blue waters. What the mind has been able to see and the heart to admire, the will has sought to gain Intellect said: "Over the sea is a mighty continent." The heart said: "I should love to behold it." The will said: "It shall be found." Intellect said: "It is a wilderness." The heart said: "I would it were subdued." Will said: "It shall become a garden." Intellect said: "A Republic is the noblest form of government." The heart said: "O that it could be tried!" The will said: "It shall be tried."
Intellect and emotion and will have wrought out a triple sovereignty over nature. Upon the world God made, man has built another one almost as wonderful. In accomplishing this the will has been the great producing factor. We might sing the praise of intellect. It discovers the hidden realm of truth. Finest of all instruments, it can weigh and compare mental things with more delicacy and precision than can a barometer determine the weight of the atmosphere. We may celebrate imagination. Like a bird, high up and far-seeing, it hovers far beyond the outposts of the actual and sees the possible. There is memory which, by holding together all the links of the past, brings the departed days to life again. There is hope that joins a more joyous future with the overcast present and makes happiness always just within reach. Nor may we forget those less clearly defined powers of the soul, --those emotions more sensitive to impressions than the strings of a harp and more changeable than the iris on the neck of a dove. But, having recalled and given them their meed of praise, the will must be called up to receive its crown. Without it intellect, memory, hope, imagination, emotion and fancy would all end in themselves. Its business is to turn all the thoughts of the mind and all the dreams of the heart into acts.
But this power is hedged about with restrictions. In this garden there is a forbidden tree. If, when guided by intelligence and laudable enterprise, man has discovered new worlds, founded new states, brought better forms of art and liberty and education and industry, it is no less true that, when inflamed by passion and avarice and cruelty, he has wrought desolation and shame and misery. Sometimes the path marked out by ambition has led toward truth and goodness. Running through fields adorned with flowers and enriched by harvests, those who have trod-den it have moved so gently that their footsteps would not disturb the singing birds or playing children. But, too often, it has run by the way of courts and camps, where cunning took the place of sincerity; falsehood took the place of truth; might was the only right; and the battle field and the ruin of happiness became the awful business of thousands of human beings. Earth has been trodden by conquerors the wreaths of whose victories were woven of flowers that grew in soil enriched by the blood of their fellow men. Thus ambition, that has led some to heights of true and lasting glory, has led some to depth of shame and crime. It may sing a sweet song in the heart of ardent and gifted youth, but it must never become a hot passion. Robed in love and justice it is an angel; clothed in enmity and selfishness it becomes a mad demon. When dying, a noble man thanked God that he had given his life to help his country do right and that he had only labored for the welfare and happiness of mankind. Contrast with this the death of that other Englishman, who, in his day of power, had ruled nations and monarchs. The great poet represents him as saying:
"Farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness!
A similar two-fold quality attends the accumulation and possession of wealth. The uses of riches are many and great and honorable. Money in some form is essential. It is only another kind of blood. Its circulation gives energy to all forms of industry and keeps in motion all the vast body of national and international commerce. It has been well said that, "the rich man is everywhere expected and everywhere he may be at home." Wherever he goes house, clothing and food await him. Money surrounds life with books, pictures, music; makes travel possible; enlarges life's horizon; and makes the world subsidiary to human desires. Thus one might write pages in praise of wealth.
But the desire for wealth must be curbed or disaster will surely follow. As the past is full of instances in which unrestrained love of power wrought evil, it contains also instances in which a similar longing for great wealth has stained lives that otherwise were noble. The name of Seneca is thus stained. So is that of Bacon. The harm wrought by the unchecked hunger for wealth must have been great before it could be written: "The love of money is the root of all evil." The havoc produced by dishonest accumulation of riches must have been well known when Virgil wrote: "The accursed love of gold." The fable of Midas arose from a real condition. There must have been some actual persons who wished that everything they touched might turn to gold.
Gigantic schemes for producing wealth are not peculiar to our days. Money-mad, speculation-mad eras have occurred all through history. The attempts to make money upon a false basis, which so abound in these days and disgrace them, are equalled by similar frauds in former times. John Law was as successful a "Promoter" as J. P. Morgan. The "Mississippi Bubble" had as little substance as some of the financial schemes of our day whose capital is largely composed of the same material from which bubbles are made. In the rush for stocks, in that company, persons were trampled to death. Thinking of one of those financial frauds, Dean Swift wrote:
"Subscribers here by thousands float
Describing a similar condition, when Englishmen were choosing fraudulent wealth instead of honor, Pope wrote:
"At length corruption, like a general flood,
There were those then who saw, as there are those now who see, the outcome of conscienceless speculation and the attempt to set aside the laws by which alone honorable wealth is gained. Only financial rogues place a high value on something that does not exist and attempt to sell it in the markets; and only those who are blinded by the insane desire to become rich suddenly would buy such a fraudulent and non-existent commodity. If shares are sold at a price far above their intrinsic value the rogues who sell may become rich, but the fools who buy will be impoverished. Following every former era of false speculation came a financial downfall. Those who had been regarded as Gods of finance, who could suspend the laws of nature and work miracles, came to be regarded as mountebanks and swindlers. From admiration they passed to contempt. A similar downfall cannot be very far distant in our financial world and a similar estimate will be placed upon those who have caused it. The law of justice is never repealed; its penalties fall upon the wrong-doers of each succeeding generation.
As a teacher, experience has received much praise. Perhaps it has been awarded more merit than it deserves. Either it is not as successful a teacher as has been popularly believed or else its pupils are very dull or very obdurate. From some cause man does not learn as rapidly as could be desired. It seems strange that he should go on repeating the mistakes and crimes of his ancestors. A little reflection would convince him that penalty surely follows transgression. There would seem to be no excuse for each generation to pass through an experience with financial frauds. It would seem as if the ways of the unprincipled promoter would lose their efficacy to deceive persons of ordinary sense. One should not need a revelation from heaven to convince him that however high a value may be placed upon "nothing," it is a very poor asset upon which to do a legitimate paying business. When a young man deliberately takes the money of a bank that is entrusted to his care and uses it for speculation in stocks, some of which have no, and all of which have an uncertain and rapidly fluctuating value, he is without the excuse of ignorance of consequences. He is not the first one who has committed that kind of crime. There have been ample opportunities for him to learn from observation. Thus he is not only devoid of honor, but he is wofully lacking in good sense. Let an age, let an individual 'beware of its choices. If it deliberately choose money at the expense of honor, friendship, love, home, its doom is assured.
The freedom of man's choice has always perplexed the philosophers and theologians. It represents the struggle between human liberty and nature's laws; between will and fate; between free personality and the limiting power of circumstances. It is said that the desire for independence, the tendency to revolt and break over the bounds of law on the part of mankind constitute that which is called sin. Kant calls it "das radicale Bose," the root of evil. Sin springs out of the voluntary confusion of the independence which is good with that which is bad in its results. The older theologians called it the outgoing of the natural man. It is the substitution of personal caprice for the universal law of right; the placing of an unbridled private desire or passion above regard for the well-being of all mankind. The sinful man is he who is by nature and practice seditious, insolent, ungovernable, denying all divine authority and contemptuous of all restraint.
Literature, ancient and modern, abounds with illustrations of this principle, It runs all through the Greek Tragedies. It is the foundation of the legends of Faust and Tannhauser and Festus. They all assume that man is free to choose and on his choice depends destiny.
In the "Mystery of Cain" Byron represents the first murderer as one who set his own will against that of God. He left home and love that he might be free from all restraint. Thus Lucifer speaks to him:
"Be thou a soul that dares use its power. A soul that dares look the Omnipotent Tyrant in the face and tell him his law is not good."
"Thou speakest to me of visions which long have swung in my brain."
Having wandered far and become free he returns and, finding Abel about to worship, he says:
"I will build no more altars nor suffer any. I will cast down this vile flatterer of the clouds."
Abel remonstrates and he strikes him dead. After-ward there came grief and heart consuming remorse. Trying to forget he says:
"Eastward from Eden will we take our way;
Looking upon Abel, Adah says:
"Peace be with him."
"But to me—!"
Recalling scenes from more recent books we may see the workings of the same inevitable law. There was the young Countess who, in an evil hour, made a wrong choice and fell into sorrow and remorse. See her for a moment thus pictured:
"All around her was darkness. Sad and gloomy thoughts passed through her mind. O pitiless nature, she thought, why cannot the soul's anguish destroy thee? My father's writing scorches my brow. Conscience hammers at me as with a thou-sand blows, yet does not destroy me. Then as if moved by some invisible power she started forward through the thicket. Thorns scratched her hands and feet and she wept like a forsaken child. Soon she came to where the lake lay glittering before her. Its waves said to her: In these depths all thought, all trouble, all fear, all remorse is at an end. At last she saw a rock extending over the water's edge. It was steep, almost perpendicular, She climbed to the top and leaned over. Farewell to love and pain and sin and remorse, she thought."
Let this paragraph from another book containing a similar moral be recalled:
"I will tell you something, Romola said as she took Lillo's cheeks between her hands. There was a man to whom I was very near who made almost every one fond of him. I believe when I first knew him he never thought of doing anything cruel or base. But because he tried to slip away from every_ thing that was unpleasant and cared for nothing as much as for his own safety, he came at last to commit some of the basest deeds such as make men infamous. He betrayed every trust that was reposed in him that he might keep himself safe and get rich and find pleasure. Yet calamity overtook him. Romola paused, Her voice was unsteady and Lillo was looking up at her in awed wonder. Another time Lillo—I will tell you at another time."
Readers of the book know the calamity that overtook the father of this boy. They see a dead body lying in the grass by the Arno and they hear a solemn voice saying: "The soul that sinneth it shall die."
May we illustrate still further with this passage?
"I must be loved, but it is certain that he hates me. All is over. What shall I do? There, she said, looking at the shadow of the car thrown upon the black coal dust which covered the sleepers, there I shall be delivered from it all—and from myself. A feeling like that which once came over her just before taking a dive in the river, and she made the sign of the cross. This familiar gesture called back to her soul memories of youth and childhood. Life with its elusive joys glowed for an instant before her, but she did not take her eyes from the car. She had time to feel afraid. She tried to draw back; but the great in-flexible mass struck her head and threw her upon her back. Lord forgive me, she whispered; and the candle by which she read the fulfillment of her life's work, its first deception, its grief and torment flared up with greater brightness than she had ever known, then flickered, grew faint and went out forever."
From reading, instances might be adduced, al-most without number, of those who, by bad choices, ruined their own lives and the lives of others. But the saddest thing about it all is that the instances are not confined to literature. No one reaches middle life without finding actual cases that would serve for the originals of those sinning and remorseful characters in fiction. This Irma, this Tito Melema, this Anna Karenina, this Festus, this Cain, this Cagliostro are only prominent types of persons whom we have known. They are those who have made bad choices. They have gone beyond bounds. They have rashly reached forth and grasped forbidden fruit and with the certainty of fate the penalty falls upon them.
The whole lesson lies upon the surface and no one can miss seeing it. While the pursuit of pleasure and and power and fame and money is legitimate and honorable, in itself, it must be carried forward under restrictions. Gained by lawlessness all things, however valuable in themselves, react upon him who gains them and ruin him. Thus, in a world in which dwell such possibilities for good and evil, we should mix wisdom with all our desires.
Mysteries there are for which there is now no solution. There are evils and misfortunes that seem to come unannounced and uncaused and lie beyond the bounds of human responsibility. For those upon whom they fall there can only be profound pity and sympathy. But by far the greater part of human misery has a human cause. Therefore much of it might be avoided. In the realm of practical morals there are not many debatable questions. The right and the wrong ways are usually clearly defined. No one need very often mistake the one for the other.
Those who have been young and now are old would bear united testimony that, in all their lives, they have never seen the path of folly or vice or crime lead to blessedness. Like the one leading from Eden it ends by being thorn covered. Thus they would say to every youth to select that road which leads by the way of wisdom and purity and honesty. The act of a moment may change the face of all the future. Choice is destiny.
"Heard are the Voices,