( Originally Published 1916 )
JACOB H. SCHIFF, at the annual meeting of the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York, said the other day, when he was introduced as a "great man" :
"Greatness often comes from accident or favor, and if this lifts us above the multitude it should carry with it the realization of greater responsibilities on our part toward others."
And herein Mr. Schiff showed one trait at least of a great man, and said a great thing.
For you can distinguish a great from a small man in this, that when riches, or honors, or prominence come to him the great man is humbled and sobered by his sense of duty, and by his consciousness of how little after all he had to do with it.
No sincere soul really thinks he is superior. Success "comes" to us. No man earns it; or, rather, the one who earns it is denied it as often as not.
Oliver Wendell Holmes described how an idea "came" to him, striking him like a bullet, as he expressed it.
Every creative mind has felt this, how things "just come." The composer of music, the painter, the sculptor, the novelist, dramatist and orator, the inventor, all have that sense of recipiency. Only the egotistic fool thinks he is the author of his own conceptions.
Socrates had his "daimon" that whispered to him suggestions. And every other great constructive soul has had that peculiar feeling of being played upon by some force or spirit not of him-self.
Only little souls are cocky and chesty and greedy for praise, whether they deserve it or not. These are the plagiarists, copiers, and second-raters of the world.
The same is true of the greatly rich. For there are contemptible rich and noble rich.
Under existing economic conditions a man may inherit a million dollars. In proportion as he regards it as "mine, to do with as I please," he is small. He probably will spend it in luxuries and amusements. He and his set are nuisances. Their very existence is immoral.
But if he realizes that destiny, under its laws, has put this wealth upon him, for no merit of his own, and that the high and serious task of ad-ministering it for the welfare of mankind is laid on his shoulders, then he becomes great.
So also if a man makes his own fortune. He still perceives, if he be great, that "accident or favor" has played into his hands, and he can have no peace nor self-respect unless he gives himself over to doing what he can to help those less fortunate.
This is the modern conscience, which is better and sounder than the conscience of any other age.
More and more the magnificent ones of earth are hearing the dim voice of that something or somebody, call it God, call it humanity, saying to them :
"What hast thou done with the talent LENT thee ?"