Love Of Excellence
( Originally Published 1891 )
Why is this glorious creature to be found
HE teaches to good purpose who inspires the love of excellence, and who sends his pupils forth from the school's narrow walls with such desire for self-improvement that the whole world becomes to them a God-appointed university. And why shall not every youth hope to enter the narrow circle of those for whom to live, is to think, who behold " the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies." An enlightened mind is like a fair and pleasant friend who comes to cheer us in every hour of loneliness and gloom ; it is like noble birth which admits to all best company; it is like wealth which surrounds us with what-ever is rarest and most precious; it is like virtue which lives in an atmosphere of light and serenity, and is itself enough for itself. Whatever our labors, our cares, our disappointments, a free and open mind, by holding us in communion with the highest and the fairest, will fill the soul with strength and joy. The artist, day by day, year in and year out, hangs over his work, and finds enough delight in the beauty he creates; and shall not the friend of the soul be glad in striving ceaselessly to make his knowledge and his love less unlike the knowledge and the love of God? Seldom is opportunity of victory offered to great captains, the orator rarely finds fit theme and audience, hardly shall the hero meet with occasions worthy of the sacrifice of life ; but he who labors to shape his mind to the heavenly forms of truth and beauty beholds them ever present and appealing. Life without thought and love is worthless; and to the best men and women belong only those who cultivate with earnestness and perseverance their spiritual faculties, who strive daily to know more, to love more, to be more beautiful. They are the chosen ones, and all others, even though they sit on thrones, are but the crowd.
Without a free and open mind there is no high and glad human life. You may as well point to the savage drowsing in his tent, or to cattle knee-deep in clover, and bid me think them high, as to ask me to admire where I can behold neither intelligence nor love. All that we possess is qualified by what we are. Gold makes not the miser rich, nor its lack a true man poor; and he who has gained insight into the fair truth that he is a part of all he sees and loves, is richer than kings, and lives like a god in his universe. Possibilities for us are measured by the kind of work in which we put our hearts. If a man's thoughts are wholly busy with carpentering do not expect him to become anything else than a carpenter; but if his aim is to build up his own being, to make his mind luminous, his heart tender and pure, his will steadfast, who but God shall fix a limit beyond which he may not hope to go. Education, in-deed, cannot confer organic power; but it alone gives us the faculty to perceive how infinitely wonderful and fair are man's endowments, how boundless his inheritance, how full of deathless hope is that to which he may aspire. Religion, philosophy, poetry, science, — all bring us into the presence of an ideal of ceaseless growth toward an all-perfect Infinite, dimly discerned and unapproachable, but which fascinates the soul and haunts the imagination with its deep mystery, until what we long for becomes more real than all that we possess, and yearning is our highest happiness. Ah ! who would throw a veil over the vision on which young eyes rest when young hearts feel that ideal things alone are real? Who would rob them of this divine principle of progress which makes growth the best of life?
"Many are our joys
In all ages, we know those made wise by experience, which teaches us to expect little, whether of ourselves or others, have made the thoughts and hopes of youth a jest, even as men have made religion a jest, having nothing to offer us in compensation for its loss, but witticisms and despair. This is the fatal fault of life, that when we have obtained what is good, — as wealth, position, wife, and friends, — we lose all hope of the best, and with our mockery discourage those who have ideal aims; who, remembering how the soul felt in life's dawn, retain a sense of God's presence in the world, to whom with growing faculties they aspire, feeling that whatsoever point they reach, they still have something to pursue. This is the principle of the diviner mind in all high and heroic natures ; this is the spring-head of deeds that make laws, of "thoughts that enrich the blood of the world ;" this is the power which gives to resolve the force of destiny, and clothes the soul with the heavenliest strength and beauty when it stands single and alone, of men abandoned and almost of God.
There is little danger that too many shall ever hearken to the invitation from the fair worlds to which all souls belong, and where alone they can be luminous and free. For centuries, now, what innumerable voices have pleaded with men to make themselves worthy of heaven; while they have moved on heedless of the heaven that lies about us here, placing their hopes and aims in material and perishable elements, athirst neither for truth, nor beauty, nor aught that is divinely good ! They sleep, they wake, they eat, they drink; they tread the beaten path with ceaseless iteration, and so they die. If one come appealing for culture of intellect, not because they who know, are stronger than the ignorant and make them their servants, but because an open, free, and flexible mind is good and fair, better than birth, position, and wealth, they turn away as though he trifled with their common-sense. Life, they say, is not for knowledge, but knowledge for life ; and they neither truly know, nor live. And if here and there some nobler soul stand forth, he de-grades himself to an aspirant to fame, forgetting truth and love.
Enough there are on earth who reap and sow,
Enough who make their life unmeaning show,
A few at least may love the poet's song,
With unresting, wearing thought and labor we are striving to make earth more habitable. We drag forth from its inner parts whatever treasures are hidden there; with steam's mighty force we mould brute matter into every fair and serviceable form ; we build great cities, we spread the fabric of our trade; the engine's iron heart goes throbbing through tunnelled mountains and over storm-swept seas to bear us and our wealth to all regions of the globe; we talk to one another from city to city, and from continent to continent along ocean's oozy depths the lightning flashes our words, spreading beneath our eyes each morning the whole world's gossip, — but in the midst of this miraculous transformation, we ourselves remain small, hard, and narrow, without great thoughts or great loves or immortal hopes. We are a crowd where the highest and the best lose individuality, and are swept along as though democracy were a tyranny of the average man under which superiority of whatever kind is criminal. Our population increases, our cities grow, our roads are lengthened, our machinery is made more perfect, the number of our schools is multi-plied, our newspapers are read in ever-widening circles, the spirit of humanity and of freedom breathes through our life; but the individual remains common-place and uninteresting. He lacks intelligence, has no perception of what is excellent, no faith in ideals, no reverence for genius, no belief in any highest sort of man who has not shown his worth in winning wealth, position, or notoriety. We have a thousand poets and no poetry, a thousand orators and no eloquence, a thousand philosophers and no philosophy. Every city points to its successful men who have millions, but are themselves poor and unintelligent; to its writers who, having sold their talent to newspapers and magazines, sink to the level of those they ad-dress, dealing only with what is of momentary interest, or if the question be deep, they move on the surface, lest the many-eyed crowd lose sight of them. The preacher gets an audience and pay on condition that he stoop to the gossip which centres around new theories, startling events, and mechanical schemes for the improvement of the country. If to get money be the end of writing and preaching; then must we seek to please the multitude who are willing to pay those who entertain and amuse them. Will not our friends, even, conceive a mean opinion of our ability, if we fail to gain public recognition?
So we make ourselves " motleys to the view, and sell cheap what is most dear." We must, perforce, show the endowment which can be brought to perfection only if it be permitted to grow in secrecy and solitude. The worst foe of excellence is the desire to appear; for when once we have made men talk of us, we seem to be doing nothing if they are silent, and thus the love of notoriety becomes the bane of true work and right living. To be one of a crowd is not to be at all; and if we are resolved to put our thoughts and acts to the test of reason, and to live for what is permanently true and great, we must consent, like the best of all ages, to be lonely in the world. All life, except the life of thought and love, is dull and superficial. The young love for a while, and are happy ; a few think; and for the rest existence is but the treadmill of monotonous sensation. There are but few, who, through work and knowledge, through faith and hope and love, seek to escape from the narrowness and misery of life to the summits of thought where the soul breathes a
"Effort and expectation and desire,
but few who understand how much the destiny of Man hangs upon single persons ; but few who feel that what they love and teach, millions must know and love,
"A people is but the attempt of many
Only the noblest souls awaken within us divine aspirations. They are the music, the poetry, which warms and illumines whole generations ; they are the few who, born with rich endowments, by ceaseless labor develop their powers until they become capable of work which, were it not for them, could not be done at all. History is the biography of aristocrats, of the chosen ones with whom all improvement originates, who found States, establish civilizations, create literatures, and teach wisdom. They work not for themselves ; for in spite of human selfishness and the personal aims of the ambitious, the poet, the scholar, and the statesman bless the world. They lead us through happy isles ; they purer air, and whence is seen the fairer world the multitude forebodes. There are but few whose life is clothe our thoughts and hopes with beauty and with strength ; they dissipate the general gloom ; they widen the sphere of life ; they bring the multitude beneath the sway of law.
Now, here in America, once for all, whatever the thoughtless may imagine, we have lost faith in the worth of artificial distinctions. Indeed plausible arguments may be found to prove that the kind of man democracy tends to form, has no reverence for distinctions of whatever kind, and is without ideals, and that as he is envious of men made by money, so he looks with the contempt of unenlightened common-sense upon those whom character and intellect raise above him. This is not truth. The higher you lift the mass, the more will they acknowledge and appreciate worth, the clearer will they see that what makes man human, beautiful, and beneficent is conduct and intelligence; and so in-creasing enlightenment will turn thought and admiration from position and wealth, from the pomp and show of life to what makes a man's self, his character, his mind, his manners even, — for the source of manners lies within us. In a society like ours, the chosen ones, the best, the models of life, and the leaders of thought will be distinguished from the crowd not by accident or circumstance, but by inner strength and beauty, by finer knowledge, by purer love, by a deeper faith in God, by a more steadfast trust that it must, and shall be, well with a world which God makes and rules, and which to the fairest mind is fairest, and to the holiest soul most sacred.
Here and now, if ever anywhere at any time, there is need of men, there is appeal to what is godlike in man, calling upon us to rise above our prosperity's, our politics, our mechanical aims and implements, and to turn the courage, energy, and practical sense which have wrought with miraculous power in developing the material resources of America, to the cultivation of our spiritual faculties. We alone of the great mod-ern nations are without classical writers of our own, without a national literature. The thought and love of this people, its philosophy, poetry, and art lies yet in the bud; and our tens of thousands of books, even the better sort, must perish to enrich the soil that nourishes a life of heavenly promise. Hitherto we have been sad imitators of the English, but not the best the English have done will satisfy America. Their language indeed will remain ours, and their men of genius, above all their poets, will enrich our minds with great thoughts nobly expressed. But a literature is a national growth ; it is the expression of a people's life and character, the more or less perfect utterance of what it loves, aims at, believes in, hopes for; it has the qualities and the defects of the national spirit; it bears the marks of the thousand influences that help to make that spirit what it is, — and English literature cannot be American literature, for the simple reason that Americans are not English-men, any more than they are Germans or Frenchmen. We must be ourselves in our thinking and writing, as in our living, or be in-significant, for it is a man's life that gives meaning to his thought; and to write as a disciple is to write in an inferior way, since the mind at its best is illumined by truth itself and not taught by the words of another. It is not to be believed that this great, intelligent, yearning American world will content itself with the trick and mannerism of foreign accent and style, or that those who build on any other than the broad foundation of our own national life shall be accepted as teachers and guides. There is, of course, no method known to man by which a great author may be formed; no science which teaches how a literature may be created. The men who have written what the world will not permit to die have written generally without any clear knowledge of the worth of their work, just as great discoverers and inventors seem to stumble on what they seek; nevertheless one may hope by right endeavor to make himself capable of uttering true thoughts so that they shall become intelligible and attractive to others; he may educate himself to know and love the best that has been spoken and written by men of genius, and so become a power to lift the aims and enlarge the views of his fellow-men. If many strive in this way to unfold their gifts and to cultivate their faculty's, their influence will finally pervade the life and thought of thousands, and it may be of the whole people.
I do not at all forget Aristotle's saying that " life is practice and not theory; " that men are born to do and suffer, and not to dream and weave systems ; that conduct and not culture is the basis of character and the source of strength ; that a knowledge of Nature is of vastly more importance to our material comfort and progress than philosophy, poetry, and art. This is not to be called in question; but in this country and age it seems hardly necessary that it be emphasized, for what is the whole world insisting upon but the necessity of scientific instruction, the importance of practical education, the cultivation of the money-getting faculty and habit, and the futility of philosophy, poetry, and art? Who is there that denies the worth of what is useful? Where is there one who does not approve and encourage whatever brings increase of wealth? Are we not all ready to applaud projects which give promise of providing more abundant food, better clothing, and more healthful surrounding for the poor? Does not our national genius seem to lie altogether in the line of what is practically useful? Is it not our boast and our great achievement that we have in a single century made the wilderness of a vast continent habitable, have so ploughed and drained and planted and built that it can now easily maintain hundreds of millions in gluttonous plenty? Is not our whole social and political organization of a kind which fits us to deal with questions and affairs that concern our temporal and material welfare? What innumerable individuals among us are congressmen, legislators, supervisors, bank and school directors, presidents of boards and companies, committee-men, councilmen, heads of lodges and societies, lawyers, professors, teachers, editors, colonels, generals, judges, party-leaders, so that the sovereign people seems to have life and being only in its titled representatives ! What does this universal reign of title and office mean but the practical education which responsibility gives? If from the midst of this paradise of utility, materialism, and business, a voice is raised to plead for culture, for intelligence, for beauty, for philosophy, poetry, and art, why need any one take alarm? While human nature remains what it is, can there be danger that the many will be drawn away from what appeals to the senses, to what the soul loves and yearns for? If the Almighty God does not win the multitude to the love of righteousness and wisdom, how shall the words of man prevail?
It is a mistake to oppose use to beauty, the serviceable to the excellent, since they belong together. Beauty is the blossom that makes the fruit-tree fair and fragrant. Life means more than meat and drink, house and clothing. To live is also to admire, to love, to lose one's self in the contemplation of the splendor with which Nature is clothed. Human life is the marriage of souls with things of light. Its basis, aim, and end is love, and love makes its object beautiful. Man may not even consent to eat, except with decency and grace ; he must have light and flowers and the rippling music of kindly speech, that as far as possible he may forget that his act is merely animal and useful. He will lose sight of the fact that clothing is intended for protection and comfort, rather than not dress to make himself beautiful. To speak merely to be understood, and not to speak also with ease and elegance, is not to be a gentleman. How easily words find the way to the heart when uttered in melodious cadence by the lips of the fair and young. Home is the centre and seat of whatever is most useful to us ; and yet to think of home is to think of spring-time and flowers, of the songs of birds and flowing waters, of the voices of children, of floating clouds and sunsets that linger as though heaven were loath to bid adieu to earth. The warmth, the color, and the light of their boyish days still glow in the hearts and imagination of noble men, and redeem the busy trafficking world of their daily life from utter vulgarity. What hues has not God painted on the air, the water, the fruit, and the grain that are the very substance and nutriment of our body's? Beauty is nobly useful. It illumines the mind, raises the imagination, and warms the heart. It is not an added quality, but grows from the inner nature of things; it is the thought of God working outward. Only from drunken eyes can you with paint and tinsel hide inward deformity. The beauty of hills and waves, of flowers and clouds, of children at play, of reapers at work, of heroes in battle, of poets inspired, of saints rapt in adoration, — rises from central depths of being, and is concealed from frivolous minds. Even in the presence of death, the hallowing spirit of beauty is felt. The full-ripe fruit that gently falls in the quiet air of long summer days, the yellow sheaves glinting in the rays of autumn's sun, the leaf which the kiss of the hoar frost has made blood-red and loosened from the parent stem, — are images of death but they suggest only calm and pleasant thoughts. The Bedouin, who, sitting amid the ruins of Ephesus, thinks but of his goats and pigs, heedless of Diana's temple, Alexander's glory, and the words of Saint Paul, is the type of those who place the useful above the excellent and the fair; and as men who in their boards of trade buy and sell cattle and corn, dream not .of green fields and of grain turning to gold in the sun of June, so we all, in the business and worry of life, lose sight of beauty which makes the heart glad and keeps it young.
The mind of man is the earthly home of beauty, and if any real thing were fair as the tender thought of imaginative youth, heaven were not far. All we love is but our thought of what only thought makes known and makes beautiful, and for what we know love's thought may be the essence of all things.
Fairer than waters where soft moonlight lies,
Than love, gleaming through Beauty's deep blue eyes,
Fairer than these, than all that may be seen,
Nature is neither sad nor joyful. We but see in her the reflection of our own minds. Gay scenes depress the melancholy, and gloomy prospects have not the power to rob the happy of their contentment. The spring may fill us with fresh and fragrant thoughts, or may but remind us of all the hopes and joys we have. lost; and autumn will speak to one of decay and death, to another of sleep .and rest, after toil, to prepare for a new and brighter awakening. All the glory of dawn and sunset is but etheric waves thrilling the vapory air and impinging on the optic nerve; but behind it all is the magician who sees and knows, who thinks and loves. " It is the mind that makes the body rich." Thoughts take shape and coloring from souls through which they pass; and a free and open mind looks upon the world in the mood in which a fair woman beholds herself in a mirror. The world is his as much as the face is hers. If we could live in the fairest spot of earth, and in the company of those who are dear, the source of our happiness would still be our own thought and love; and if they are great and noble, we cannot be miserable however meanly surrounded. What is reality but a state of soul, finite in man, infinite in God? Theory underlies fact, and to the divine mind all things are godlike and beautiful. The chemical elements are as sweet and pure in the buried corpse as in the blooming body of youth; and it is defective intellect, the warp of ignorance and sin, which hides from human eyes the perfect beauty of the world.
" Earth's crammed with heaven,
What we all need is not so much greater knowledge, as a luminous and symmetrical mind which, whatsoever way it turn, shall reflect the things that are, not in isolation and abstraction, but in the living unity and harmony wherein they have their being.
The worth of religion is infinite, the value of conduct is paramount; but he who lacks intellectual culture, whatever else he may be, is narrow, awkward, unintelligent. The mirror of his soul is dim, the motions of his spirit are sluggish, and the divine image which is himself is blurred.
But let no one imagine that this life of the soul in the mind is easy; for it is only less difficult than the life of the soul in God. To learn many things ; to master this or that science; to have skill in law or medicine; to acquaint one's self with the facts of history, with the opinions of philosophers or the teachings of theologians,--is comparatively not a difficult task ; and there are hundreds who are learned, who are skilful, who are able, who have acuteness and depth and information, for one who has an open, free, and flexible mind, — which is alive and active in many directions, touching the world of God and Nature at many points, and beholding truth and beauty from many sides; which is serious, sober, and reasonable, but also fresh, gentle, and sympathetic ; which enters with equal ease into the philosopher's thought, the poet's vision, and the ecstasy of the saint; which excludes no truth, is indifferent to no beauty, refuses homage to no goodness. The ideal of culture indeed, like that of religion, like that of art, lies beyond our reach, since the truth and beauty which lure us on, and flee the farther the longer we pursue, are nothing less than the eternal and infinite God.
And culture, if it is not to end in mere frivolity and gloss, must be pursued, like religion and art, with earnestness and reverence. If the spirit in which we work is not deep and holy, we may become accomplished but we shall not gain wisdom, power, and love. The beginner seeks to convert his belief into knowledge ; but the trained thinker knows that knowledge ends in belief, since beyond our little islets of intellectual vision, lies the boundless, fathomless expanse of unknown worlds where faith and hope alone can be our guides. Once individual man was insignificant; but now the earth itself is become so, — a mere dot in infinite space, where, for a moment, men wriggle like animalcules in a drop of water. And if at times a flash of light suddenly gleam athwart the mind, and it seem as though we were about to get a glimpse into the inner heart of being, the brightness quickly dies, and only the surfaces of things remain visible. Oh, the unimaginable length of ages when on the earth there was no living thing ! then life's ugly, slimy beginnings ; then the conscious soul's fitful dream stretching forth to end-less time and space ; then the final sleep in abysmal night with its one star of hope twinkling before the all-hidden throne of God, in the shadow of whose too great light faith kneels and waits!
Why shall he whose mind is free, symmetrical, and open, be tempted to vain glory, to frivolous boasting? Shall not life be more solemn and sacred to him than to another? Shall he indulge scorn for any being whom God has made, for any thought which has strengthened and consoled the human heart? Shall he not perceive, more clearly than others, that the unseen Power by whom all things are, is akin to thought and love, and that they alone bring help to man who make him feel that faith and hope mean good, and are fountains of larger and more en-during life? The highest mind, like the purest heart, is a witness of the soul and of God.