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Ideals

( Originally Published 1891 )

A noble aim,
Faithfully kept, is as a noble deed.

WORDSWORTH.

To few men does life bring a brighter day than that which places the crown upon their scholastic labors, and bids them go forth from the halls of the Alma Mater to the great world's battle-field. There is a freshness in these early triumphs which, like the bloom and fragrance of the flower, is quickly lost, never to be found again even by those for whom Fortune reserves her most choice gifts. Fame, though hymned by myriad tongues, is not so sweet as the delight we drink from the tear-dimmed eyes of our mothers and sisters, in the sacred hours when we can yet claim as our own the love of higher things, the faith and hope which make this mortal life immortal, and fill a moment with a wealth of memories which lasts through years. The highest joy is serious, and in the midst of supreme delight there comes to the soul a stillness which permits it to rise to the serene sphere where truth is most gladly heard and most easily perceived; and in such exaltation, the young see that life is not what they take it to be. They think it long; it is short. They think it happy ; it is full of cares and sorrows. This two-fold illusion widens the horizon of life and tinges it with gold. It gives to youth its charm and makes of it a blessed time to which we ever turn regretful eyes. But I am wrong to call illusion that which in truth is but an omen of the divine possibilities of man's nature. To the young, life is not mean or short, because the blessed freedom of youth may make it noble and immortal. The young stand upon the threshold of the world. Of the many careers which are open to human activity, they will choose one; and their fortunes will be various, even though their merits should be equal. But if position, fame, and wealth are often denied to the most persistent efforts and the best ability, it is consoling to know they are not the highest; and as they are not the end of life, they should not be made its aim. An aim, nevertheless, we must have, if we hope to live to good purpose. All men, in fact, whether or not they know it, have an ideal, base or lofty, which moulds character and shapes destiny. Whether it be pleasure or gain or renown or knowledge, or several of these, or something else, we all associate life with some end, or ends, the attainment of which seems to us most desirable.

This ideal, that which in our inmost souls we love and desire, which we lay to heart and live by, is at once the truest expression of our nature and the most potent agency in developing its powers. Now, in youth we form the ideals which we labor to body forth in our lives. What in these growing days we yearn for with all our being, is heaped upon us in old age. All important, therefore, is the choice of an ideal ; for this more than rules or precepts will deter-mine what we are to become. The love of the best is twin-born with the soul. What is the best? What is the worthiest life-aim? It must be something which is within the reach of every one, as Nature's best gifts— air and sunshine and water belong to all. What only the few can attain, cannot be life's real end or the highest good. The best is not far removed from any one of us, but is alike near to the poor and the rich, to the learned and the ignorant, to the shepherd and the king, and only the best can give to the soul repose and contentment. What then is the true life-ideal? Recalling to mind the thoughts and theories of many men, I can find nothing better than this, " Seek ye first the kingdom of God." " Love not pleasure," says Carlyle, " love God. This is the everlasting Yea, wherein all contradiction is solved; where-in whoso walks and works, it is well with him."

To the high and aspiring heart of youth, fame, honor, glory, appeal with such irresistible power, and appear clad in forms so beautiful, that at a time of life when all of us are unreal in our sentiments and crude in our opinions, they are often mistaken for the best. But fame is good only in so far as it gives power for good. For the rest, it is nominal. They who have deserved it care not for it. A great soul, is above all praise and dispraise of men, which are ever given ignorantly and without fine discernment. The popular breath, even when winnowed by the winds of centuries, is hardly pure.

And then fame cannot be the good of which I speak, for only a very few can even hope for it. To nearly all, the gifts which make it possible are denied; and to others, the opportunities. Many, indeed, love and win notoriety, but such as they need not detain us here. A lower race of youth, in whom the blood is warmer than the soul, think pleasure life's best gift, and are con-tent to let occasion die, while they revel in the elysiurn of the senses. But to make pleasure an end is to thwart one's purpose, for joy is good only when it comes unbidden. The pleasure we seek begins already to pall. It is good, indeed, if it come as refreshment to the weary, solace to the heavy-hearted, and rest to the care-worn; but if sought for its own sake, it is " the honey of poison flowers and all the measureless ill." Only the young, or the depraved, can believe that to live for pleasure is not to be fore-ordained to misery. Whoso loves God or freedom or growth of mind or strength of heart, feels that pleasure is his foe.

" A king of feasts and flowers, and wine and revel,
And love and mirth, was never King of glory."

Of money, as the end or ideal of life, it should not be necessary to speak. As a fine contempt for life, a willingness to throw it away in defence of any just cause or noble opinion, is one of the privileges of youth, so the generous heart of the young holds cheap the material comforts which money procures. To be young is to be free, to be able to live anywhere on land or sea, in the midst of deserts or among strange people; is to be able to fit the mind and body to all circumstance, and to rise almost above Nature's iron law. He who is impelled by this high and heavenly spirit will dream of flying and not of hobbling through life on golden crutches. Let the feeble and the old put their trust in money; but where there is strength and youth, the soul should be our guide.

And yet the very law and movement of our whole social life seem to point to riches as the chief good.

" What is that which I should turn to, lighting upon days like these?
Every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys."

Money is the god in whom we put our trust, to whom instinctively we pay homage. We believe that the rich are fortunate, are happy, that the best of life has been given to them. We have faith in the power of money, in its sovereign efficacy to save us not only from beggary, from sneers and insults, but we believe that it can transform us, and take away the poverty of mind, the narrowness of heart, the dulness of imagination, which make us weak, hard, and common. Even our hatred of the rich is but another form of the worship of money. The poor think they are wretched, because they think money the chief good; and if they are right, then is it a holy work to strive to overthrow society as it is now constituted. Buckle and Strauss find fault with the Christian religion because it does not inculcate the love of money. But in this, faith and reason are in harmony. Wealth is not the best, and to make it the end of life is idolatry, and as Saint Paul declares, the root of evil. Man is more than money, as the workman is more than his tools. The soul craves quite other nourishment than that which the whole material universe can sup-ply. Man's chief good lies in the infinite world of thought and righteousness. Fame and wealth and pleasure are good when they are born of high thinking and right living, when they lead to purer faith and love ; but if they are sought as ends and loved for themselves, they blight and corrupt. The value of culture is great, and the ideal it presents points in the right direction in bidding us build up the being which we are. But since man is not the highest, he may not rest in himself, and culture therefore is a means rather than an end. If we make it the chief aim of life, it degenerates into a principle of exclusion, destroys sympathy, and terminates in a sort of self-worship.

What remains, then, but the ideal which I have proposed? — " Seek ye first the Kingdom of God." Unless the light of Heaven fall along our way, thick darkness gathers about us, and in the end, whatever our success may have been, we fail, and are without God and without hope. So long as any seriousness is left, religion is man's first and deepest concern ; to be indifferent is to be dull or depraved, and doubt is disease. Difficulties assuredly there are, underlying not only faith, but all systems of knowledge. How am I certain that I know anything? is a question, debated in all past time, debatable in all future time; but we are none the less certain that we know. The mind is governed by laws which neither science nor philosophy can change, and while theories and systems rise and pass away, the eternal problems present themselves ever anew clothed in the eternal mystery. But little discernment is needed to enable us to perceive how poor and symbolic are the thoughts of the multitude. Half in pity, half in contempt, we rise to higher regions only to discover that wherever we may be there also are the laws and the limitations of our being; and that in whatsoever sanctuaries we may take refuge, we are still of the crowd. We cannot grasp the Infinite; language cannot express even what we know of the Divine Being, and hence there remains a background of darkness, where it is possible to adore, or to mock. But religion dispels more mystery than it involves. With it, there is twilight in the world; without it, night. We are in the world to act, not to doubt. Leaving quibbles to those who can find no better use for life, the wise, with firm faith in God and man, strive to make themselves worthy to do brave and righteous work. Distrust is the last wisdom a great heart learns; and noble natures feel that the generous view is, in the end, the true view. For them life means good ; they find strength and joy in this whole-some and cheerful faith, and if they are in error, it can never be known, for if death end all, with it knowledge ceases. Perceiving this, they strive to gain spiritual insight, they look to God; toward him they turn the current of their thought and love ; the unseen world of truth and beauty becomes their home ; and while mat-ter flows on and breaks and remakes itself to break again, they dwell in the presence of the Eternal, and become co-workers with the Infinite Power which makes goodness good, and justice right. They love knowledge, because God knows all things ; they love beauty, because he is its source; they love the soul, because it brings man into conscious communion with him and his universe. If their ideal is poetical,' they catch in the finer spirit of truth which the poet breathes, the fragrance of the breath of God ; if it is scientific, they discover in the laws of Nature the harmony of his attributes; if it is political and social, they trace the principles of justice and liberty to him; if it is philanthropic, they understand that love which is the basis, aim, and end of life is also God.

The root of their being is in him, and the illusory world of the senses cannot dim their vision of the real world which is eternal. By self-analysis the mind is sublimated until it be-comes a shadow in a shadowy universe; and the criticism of the reason drives us to doubt and inaction, from which we are redeemed by our necessary faith in our own freedom, in our power to act, and in the duty of acting in obedience to higher law. Knowledge comes of doing. Never to act is never to know. The world of which we are conscious is the world against which we throw ourselves by the power of the will; hence life is chiefly conduct, and its ideal is not merely religious, but moral. The duty of obedience to our better self determines the purpose and end of action, for the better self is under the impulse of God, Whether we look without or within, we find things are as they should not be; and there awakens the desire, nay, the demand that they be made other and better. The actual is a mockery unless it may be looked upon as the means of a higher state. If all things come forth only to perish and again come forth as they were before; if life is a monster which destroys itself that it may again be born, again to destroy itself, — were it not better that the tragedy should cease? For many centuries men have been struggling for richer and happier life ; and yet when we behold the sins, the miseries, the wrongs, the sorrows, of which the world is full, we are tempted to think that progress means failure. The multitude are still condemned to toil from youth to age to provide the food by which life is kept in the body ; immortal spirits are still driven by hard necessity to fix their thoughts upon matter from which they with much labor dig forth what nourishes the animal. Like the savage, we still tremble before the pitiless might of Nature. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, untimely frosts, destroy in a moment what with long and painful effort has been provided. Pestilence still stalks through the earth to slay and make desolate. Each day a hundred thou-sand human beings die; and how many of these perish as the victims of sins of ignorance, of selfishness, of sensuality.

Today, as of old, it would seem man's worst enemy is man. What hordes still wan-der through Asia and Africa, seeking opportunity for murder and rapine; what multitudes are still hunted like beasts, caught and sold into slavery. In Europe millions of men stand, arms in hand, waiting for the slaughter. They still believe, because they were born on different sides of a river and speak different languages, that they are natural enemies, made to destroy one another. And in our own country, what other sufferings and wrongs, greed, sensuality, injustice, deceit, — make us enemies one of another ! There is a general struggle in which each one strives to get the most, heedless of the misery of others. We trade upon the weaknesses, the vices, and the follies of our fellow-men; and every attempt at reform is met by an army of upholders of abuse. When we consider the murders, the suicides, the divorces, the adulteries, the prostitutions, the brawls, the drunkenness, the dishonesties, the political and official corruptions, of which our life is full, it is difficult to have complacent thoughts of ourselves. Consider, too, our prisons, our insane asylums, our poor-houses ; the multitudes of old men and women, who having worn out strength and health in toil which barely gave them food and raiment, are thrust aside, no longer now fit to be bought and sold; the countless young people, who have, as we say, been educated, but who have not been taught the principles and habits which lead to honorable living; the thousands in our great cities who are driven into surroundings which pervert and undermine character. And worse still, the good, instead of uniting to labor for a better state of things, misunderstand and thwart one another. They divide into parties, are jealous and contentious, and waste their time and exhaust their strength in foolish and futile controversies. They are not anxious that good be done, nor asking nor caring by whom ; but they seek credit for themselves, and while they seem to be laboring for the general welfare, are striving rather to satisfy their own selfish vanity.

But the knowledge of all this does not discourage him who, guided by the light of true ideals, labors to make reason and the will of God prevail. If things are bad he knows they have been worse. Never before have the faith and culture which make us human, which make us strong and wise, been the possession of so large a portion of the race. Religion and civilization have diffused themselves, from little centres — from Athens and Jerusalem and Rome — until people after people, whole continents, have been brought under their influence. And in our day this diffusion is so rapid that it spreads farther in a decade than formerly in centuries. For ages, mountains and rivers and oceans were barriers behind which tribes and nations intrenched themselves against the human foe. But we have tunnelled the mountains; we have bridged the rivers; we have tamed the oceans. We hitch steam and electricity to our wagons, and in a few days make the circuit of the globe. All lands, all seas, are open to us. The race is getting acquainted with itself. We make a comparative study of all literatures, of all religions, of all philosophies, of all political systems. We find some soul of goodness in whatever struggles and yearnings have tried man's heart. As the products of every clime are carried everywhere, like gifts from other worlds, so the highest science and the purest religion are communicated and taught throughout the earth : and as a result, national prejudices and antagonisms are beginning to disappear; wars are becoming less frequent and less cruel; established wrongs are yielding to the pressure of opinion; privileged classes are losing their hold upon the imagination; and opportunity offers itself to ever-increasing numbers.

Now, in all this, what do we perceive but the purpose of God, urging mankind to wider and nobler life? History is his many-chambered school. Here he has taught this lesson, and there another, still leading his children out of the darkness of sin and ignorance toward the light of righteousness and love, until his kingdom come, until his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To believe in God and in this divine education, and to make co-operation with his providential guidance of the race a life-aim is to have an ideal which is not only the highest, but which also blends all other true ideals into harmony. And the lovers of culture should be the first to perceive that intellectual good is empty, illusory, unless there be added to it the good of the heart, the good of conscience. To live for the cultivation of one's mind, is, after all, to live for one's self, and therefore out of harmony with the eternal law which makes it impossible for us to find ourselves except in what is not ourselves. " It is the capital fault of all cultivated men," says Goethe, that they devote their whole energies to the carrying out of a mere idea, and seldom or never to the realization of practical good." Whatever may be said in praise of culture, of its power to make its possessor at home in the world of the best thought, the purest sentiment, the highest achievements of the race; of the freedom, the mildness, the reasonableness of the temper it begets; of its aim at completeness and perfection, — it is nevertheless true, that if it be sought apart from faith in God and devotion to man, its tendency is to produce an artificial and unsympathetic character. The primal impulse of our nature is to action; and unless we can make our thought a kind of deed, it seems to be vain and unreal; and unless the harmonious development of all the endowments which make the beauty and dignity of human life, give us new strength and will to work with God for the good of men, sadness and a sense of failure fall upon us. To have a cultivated mind, to be able to see things on many sides, to have wide sympathy and the power of generous appreciation, — is most desirable, and without something of all this, not only is our life narrow and uninteresting, but our energy is turned in wrong directions, and our very religion is in danger of losing its catholicity.

Culture, then, is necessary. We need it as a corrective of the tendency to seek the good of life in what is external, as a means of helping us to overcome our vulgar self-complacency, our satisfaction with low aims and cheap accomplishments, our belief in the sovereign potency of machines and measures. We need it to make our lives less unlovely, less hard, less material ; to help us to understand the idolatry of the worship of steam and electricity, the utter insufficiency of the ideals of industrialism. But if culture is to become a mighty transforming influence it must be wedded to religious faith, without which, while it widens the intellectual view, it weakens the will to act. To take us out of ourselves and to urge us on to labor with God that we may leave the world better because we have lived, religion alone has power. It gives new vigor to the cultivated mind ; it takes away the exclusive and fastidious temper which a purely intellectual habit tends to produce; it enlarges sympathy; it teaches reverence; it nourishes faith, inspires hope, exalts the imagination, and keeps alive the fire of love. To lead a noble, a beautiful, and a useful life, we should accept and follow the ideals both of religion and of culture. In the midst of the transformations of many kinds which are taking place in the civilized world, neither the uneducated nor the irreligious mind can be of help. Large and tolerant views are necessary; but not less so is the enthusiasm, the earnestness, the charity of Christian faith. They who are to be leaders in the great movements upon which we have entered, must both know and believe. They must understand the age, must sympathize with whatever is true and beneficent in its aspirations, must hail with thankfulness whatever help science, and art, and culture can bring; but they must also know and feel that man is of the race of God, and that his real and true life is in the unseen, infinite, and eternal world of thought and love, with which the actual world of the senses must be brought into ever-increasing harmony. Liberty and equality are good, wealth is good, and with them we can do much, but not all that needs to be done. The spirit of Christ is not merely the spirit of liberty and equality; it is more essentially the spirit of love, of sympathy, of goodness; and this spirit must breathe upon our social life until it becomes as different from what it is as is fragrant spring from cheerless winter. Sympathy must become universal; not merely as a sentiment prompting to deeds of helpfulness and mercy, but as the informing principle of society until it attains such perfectness that whatever is loss or gain for one, shall be felt as loss or gain for all. The narrow, exclusive self must lose itself in wider aims, in generous deeds, in the comprehensive love of God and man. The good must no longer thwart one another; the weak must be protected ; the wicked must be surrounded by influences which make for righteousness ; and the forces of Nature itself must more and more be brought under man's control. Pestilence and famine must no longer bring death and desolation ; men must no longer drink impure water and adulterated liquors, no longer must they breathe the poisonous air of badly constructed houses; dwellings which are now made warm in winter, must be made cool in summer; miasmatic swamps must be drained ; saloons, which stand like painted harlots to lure men to sin and death, must be closed. Women must have the same rights and privileges as men ; children must no longer be made the victims of mammon and offered in sacrifice in his temple, the factory ; ignorance, which is the most fruitful cause of misery, must give place to knowledge; war must be condemned as public murder, and our present system of industrial competition must be considered worse than war; the social organization, which makes the few rich, and dooms the many to the slavery of poorly paid toil, must cease to exist; and if the political state is responsible for this cruelty, it must find a remedy, or be overthrown; society must be made to rest upon justice and love, without which it is but organized wrong. These principles must so thoroughly pervade our public life that it can no more be the interest of any one to wrong his fellow, to grow rich at the cost of the poverty and misery of another. Life must be prolonged both by removing many of the physical causes of death, and by making men more rational and religious, more willing and able to deny themselves those indulgences which are but a kind of slow suicide.

Never before have questions so vast, so complex, so pregnant with meaning, so fraught with the promise of good, presented themselves ; and it can hardly be vanity or conceit which prompts us to believe that in this mighty movement toward a social life in harmony with our idea of God and with the aspirations of the soul, America is the divinely appointed leader. But if this faith is not to be a mere delusion, it must become for the best among us the impulse to strong and persevering effort. Not by millionnaires and not by politicians shall this salvation be wrought; but by men who to pure religion add the best intellectual culture. The American youth must learn patience ; he must acquire that serene confidence in the power of labor, which makes workers willing to wait. He must not, like a foolish child, rush forward to pluck the fruit before it is ripe, lest this be his epitaph: The promise of his early life was great, his performance insignificant.

Do not our young men lack noble ambition? Are they not satisfied with low aims? To be a legislator; to be a governor; to be talked about; to live in a marble house, — seems to them a thing to be desired. Unhappy youths from whom the power and goodness of life are hidden, who, standing in the presence of the unseen, infinite world of truth and beauty, can only dream some aldermanic nightmare. They thrust themselves into the noisy crowd, and are thrown into contact with disenchanting experience at a time of life when the mind and heart should draw nourishment and wisdom from communion with God and with great thoughts. Amid the universal clatter of tongues, and in the overflowing cease-less stream of newspaper gossip, the soul is bewildered and stifled. In a blatant land, the young should learn to be silent. The noblest minds are fashioned in secrecy, through long travail like, —

"Wines that, Heaven knows where,
Have sucked the fire of some forgotten sun
And kept it thro' a hundred years of gloom
Yet glowing in a heart of ruby."

Is it not worth the labor and expectation of a life-time to be able to do, even once, the right thing excellently well? The eager passion for display, the desire to speak and act in the eyes of the world, is boyish. Will is concentration, and a great purpose works in secrecy. Oh, the goodness and the seriousness of life, the illimitable reach of achievement, which it opens to the young who have a great heart and noble aims ! With them is God's almighty power and love, and his.very presence is hidden from them by a film only. From this little islet they look out upon infinite worlds; heaven bends over them, and earth bears them up as though it would have them fly. How is it possible to remain inferior when we believe in God and know that this age is the right moment for all high and holy work? The yearning for guidance has never been so great. We have reached heights where the brain swims, and thoughts are confused, and it is held to be questionable whether we are to turn backward or to move onward to the land of promise; whether we are to be overwhelmed by the material world which we have so marvellously transformed, or with the aid of the secrets we have learned, are to rise Godward to a purer and fairer life of knowledge, justice, and love.

Is the material progress of the nineteenth century a cradle or a grave? Are we to continue to dig and delve and peer into matter until God and the soul fade from our view and we become like the things we work in? To put such questions to the multitude were idle. There is here no affair of votes and majorities. Human nature has not changed, and now, as in the past, crowds follow leaders. What the best minds and the most energetic characters believe and teach and put in practice, the mil-lions will come to accept. The doubt is whether the leaders will be worthy, — the real permanent leaders, for the noisy apparent leaders can never be so. And here we touch the core of the problem which Americans have to solve. No other people has such numbers who are ready to thrust themselves forward as leaders, no other has so few who are really able to lead. In mitigation of this fact, it may be said with truth, that nowhere else is it so difficult to lead; for nowhere else does force rule so little. Every one has opinions ; the whole nation is awakened ; thousands are able to discuss any subject with plausibility; and to be simply keen-witted and versatile is to be of the crowd. We need men whose intellectual view embraces the history of the race, who are familiar with all literature, who have studied all social movements, who are acquainted with the development of philosophic thought, who are not blinded by physical miracles and industrial wonders, but know how to appreciate all truth, all beauty, all goodness. And to this wide culture they must join the earnestness, the confidence, the charity, and the purity of motive which Christian faith inspires. We need scholars who are saints, and saints who are scholars. We need men of genius who live for God and their country; men of action who seek for light in the company of those who know; men of religion who understand that God reveals himself in science, and works in Nature as in the soul of man, for the good of those who love him. Let us know the right moment, and let us know that it comes for those alone who are prepared.



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