Growth And Duty
( Originally Published 1891 )
Why stay we on the earth unless to grow ?
WHAT life is in itself we do not know, any more than we know what matter is in itself ; but we know something of the properties of matter, and we also have some knowledge of the laws of life. Here it is sufficient to call attention to the law of growth, through which the living receive the power of self-development,
of bringing their endowments into act, of building up the being which they are. Whatever living thing is strong or beautiful has been made so by growth, since life begins in darkness and impotence. To grow is to be fresh and joyous. Hence the spring is the glad time ; for the earth itself then seems to renew its youth, and enter on a fairer life. The growing grass, the budding leaves, the sprouting corn, coming as with unheard shout from regions of the dead, fill us with happy thoughts, because in them we behold the vigor of life, bringing promise of higher things.
Nature herself seems to rejoice in this vital energy; for the insects hum, the birds sing, the lambs skip, and the very brooks give forth a merry sound. Growth leads us through Wonderland. It touches the germs lying in darkness, and the myriad forms of life spring to view; the mists are lifted from the valleys, and flowers bloom and shed fragrance through the air. Only the growing those who each moment are becoming something more than they were feel the worth and joyousness of life. Upon the youth nothing palls, for he is himself day by day rising into higher and wider worlds. To grow is to have faith, hope, courage.
The boy who has become able to do what a while ago was impossible to him, easily believes that nothing is impossible ; and as his powers unfold, his self-confidence is nourished; he exults in the consciousness of increasing strength, and cannot in any way be made to understand the doubts and faint-heartedness of men who have ceased to grow. Each hour he puts off some impotence, and why shall he not have faith in his destiny, and feel that he shall yet grow to be poet, orator, hero, or what you will that is great and noble ? And as he delights in life, we take delight in him.
In the same way a young race of people possesses a magic charm. Homer's heroes are barbarians ; but they are inspiring, because they belong to a growing race, and we see in them the budding promise of the day when Alexander's sword shall conquer the world; when Plato shall teach the philosophy which all men' who think must know ; and when Pericles shall bid the arts blossom in a perfection which is the despair of succeeding generations. And so in the Middle Ages there is barbarism enough, with its lawlessness and ignorance ; but there is also faith, courage, strength, which tell of youth, and point to a time of mature faculty and high achievement. There is the rich purple dawn which shall grow into the full day of our modern life.
Here in this New World we are the new people, in whose growth what highest hopes, what heavenly promises lie ! All the nations which are moving forward, are moving in directions in which we have gone before them, to larger political and religious liberty; to wider and more general education; to the destroying of privilege and the disestablishment of churches; to the recognition of the equal rights not only of all men, but of all men and women.
We also lead the way in the revolution which has been set in motion by the application of science to mechanical purposes, one of the results of which is seen in the industrial and commercial miracles of the present century. It is our vigorous growth which makes us the most interesting and attractive of the modern peoples. For whether men love us, or whether they hate us, they find it impossible to ignore us, unless they wish to argue themselves unknown; and the millions who yearn for freedom and opportunity turn first of all to us.
But observant minds, however much they may love America, however great their faith in popular government may be, cannot contemplate our actual condition without a sense of disquietude ; for there are aspects of our social evolution which sadden and depress even the most patriotic and loyal hearts. It would seem, for instance, that with us, while the multitude are made comfortable and keen-witted, the individual remains commonplace and weak; so that on all sides people are beginning to ask themselves what is the good of all this money and machinery if the race of godlike men is to die eut, or indeed if the result is not to be some nobler and better sort of man than the one with whom we have all along been familiar. Is not the yearning for divine men inborn? In the heroic ages such men were worshipped as gods, and one of the calamities of times of degeneracy is the dying out of faith in the worth of true manhood caused by the disappearance of superior men. Such men alone are memorable, and give to history its inspiring and educating power. The ruins of Athens and Rome, the cathedrals and castles of Europe, uplift and strengthen the heart, because they bid us reflect what thoughts and hopes were theirs who thus could build.
How quickly kings and peasants, millionnaires and paupers, become a common, undistinguished crowd ! But the hero, the poet, the saint, defy the ages and remain luminous and separate like stars. They
" Waged contention with their time's decay,
The soul, which makes man immortal, has alone the power to make him beneficent and beautiful.
But in this highest kind of man, in whom soul that is, faith, hope, love, courage, intellect is supreme, we Americans, who are on the crest of the topmost waves of the stream of tendency, are not rich. We have our popular heroes; but so has every petty people, every tribe its heroes. The dithyrambic prose in which it is the fashion to celebrate our conspicuous men has a hollow sound, very like cant. A marvellous development of wealth and numbers has taken place in America; but what American poet, philosopher, scientist, warrior, ruler, saint is there who can take his place with the foremost men of all this world? The American people seem still to be somewhat in the position of our new millionnaires: their fortune is above them, overshadows, and oppresses them. They live in fine houses, and have common thoughts ; they have costly libraries, and cheap culture; and their rich clothing poorly hides their coarse breeding. Nor does the tendency seem to be toward a nobler type of manhood.
The leaders of the Revolution, the framers of the Federal Constitution, the men who con-tended for State-rights, and still more those who led in the great struggle for human rights were of stronger and nobler mould than the politicians who now crowd the halls of Congress. The promise of a literature which a generation ago budded forth in New England was, it appears, delusive. What a sad book is not that recently issued from the press on the poets of America! It is the chapter on snakes in Ireland which we have all read, there are none. And are not our literary men whom it is possible to admire and love either dead or old enough to die?
All this, however, need not be cause for discouragement, if in the generations which are springing up around us, and which are soon to enter upon the scene of active life, we could discover the boundless confidence, the high courage, the noble sentiments, which make the faults of youth more attractive than the formal virtues of a maturer age. But youth seems about to disappear from our life, to leave only children and men. For a true youth the age of chivalry has not passed, nor has the age of faith, nor the age of poetry, nor the age of aught that is godlike and ideal. To our young men, however, high thoughts and heroic sentiments are what they are to a railroad president or a bank cashier, mere nonsense. Life for them is wholly prosaic and without illusions. They transform ideas into interests, faith into a speculation, and love into a financial transaction. They have no vague yearnings for what cannot be ; hardly have they any passions. They are cold and calculating. They deny themselves, and do not believe in self-denial; they are active, and do not love labor ; they are energetic, and have no enthusiasm; they approach life with the hard, mechanical thoughts with which a scientist studies matter. Their one idea is success, and success for them is money. Money means power, it means leisure, it means self-indulgence, it means display; it means, in a word, the thousand comforts and luxuries which, in their opinion, constitute the good of life.
In aristocratic societies the young have had a passion for distinction. They have held it to be an excellent thing to belong to a noble family, to occupy an elevated position, to wear the glittering badges of birth and of office. In ages of religious faith they have been smitten with the love of divine ideals ; they have yearned for God, and given all the strength of their hearts to make his will prevail. But to our youth distinction of birth is fictitious, and God is problematic ; and so they are left face to face with material aims and ends; and of such aims and ends money is the universal equivalent.
Now, it could not ever occur to me to think of denying that the basis of human life, individual and social, is material. Matter is part of our nature ; we are bedded in it, and by it are nourished. It is the instrument we must use even when we think and love, when we hope and pray. Upon this foundation our spiritual being is built; upon this foundation our social welfare rests.
Concern for material interests is one of the chief causes of human progress; since nothing else so stimulates to effort, and effort is the law of growth. The savage who has no conception of money, but is satisfied with what Nature provides, remains forever a savage. Habits of industry, of order, of punctuality, of economy and thrift, are, to a great extent, the result of our money-getting propensities. Our material wants are more urgent, more irresistible ; they press more constantly upon us than any other; and those whom they fail to rouse to exertion are, as a rule, hopelessly given over to indolence and sloth. In the stimulus of these lower needs, then, is found the impulse which drives men to labor ; and without labor welfare is not possible.
The poor must work, if they would drink and eat;
The strong must work, if they would shun defeat ;
So for all men the law of work is plain ;
Whatever enables man to overcome his in-born love of ease is, in so far, the source of good. Now, money represents what more than anything else has this stimulating power. It is the equivalent of what we eat and drink, of the homes we live in, of the comforts with which we surround ourselves, of the independence which makes us free to go here or there, to do this or that, to spend the winter where orange blossoms perfume the soft air, and the summer where ocean breezes quicken the pulse of life. It unlocks for us the treasury of the world, opens to our gaze whatever is sublime or beautiful ; introduces us to the master-minds who live in their works; it leads us where orators declaim, and singers thrill the soul with ecstasy. Nay, more, with it we build churches, endow schools, and provide hospitals and asylums for the weak and helpless. It is, indeed, like a god of this nether world, holding dominion over many spheres of life and receiving the heart-worship of millions.
Yet, if we make money and its equivalents a life-purpose the aim and end of our earthly hopes our service becomes idolatry, and a blight falls upon the nobler self. Money is the equivalent of what is venal, of all that may be bought or sold; but the best, the god-like, the distinctively human, cannot be bought or sold. A rich man can buy a wife, but not a woman's love ; he can buy books, but not an appreciative mind; he can buy a pew, but not a pure conscience; he can buy men's votes and flattery, but not their respect. The money-world is visible, material, mechanical, external; the world of the soul, of the better self, is invisible, spiritual, vital. God's kingdom is within. What we have is not what we are; and the all-important thing is to be, and not to have. Our possessions belong to us only in a mechanical way. The poet's soul owns the stars and the moonlit heavens, the mountains and rivers, the flowers and the birds, more truly than a millionnaire owns his bonds. What I know is mine, and what I love is mine ; and as my knowledge widens and my love deepens, my life is enlarged and intensified. But, since all human knowledge is imperfect and narrow, the soul stretches forth the tendrils of faith and hope. Looking upon shadows, we believe in realities; possessing what is vain and empty, we trust to the future to bring what is full and complete.
All noble literature and life has its origin in regions where the mind sees but darkly ; where faith is more potent than knowledge; where hope is larger than possession, and love mightier than sensation. The soul is dwarfed when-ever it clings to what is palpable and plain, fixed and bounded. Its home is in worlds which cannot be measured and weighed. It has infinite hopes, and longings, and fears ; lives in the conflux of immensities ; bathes on shores where waves of boundless yearning break. Borne on the wings of time, it still feels that only what is eternal is real, that what death can destroy is even now but a shadow. To it all outward things are formal, and what is less than God is hardly aught. In this mysterious, supersensible world all true ideals originate, and such ideals are to human life as rain and sunshine to the corn by which it is nourished.
What hope for the future is there, then, when the young have no enthusiasm, no heavenly illusions, no divine aspirations, no faith that man may become godlike, more than poets have ever imagined, or philosophers dreamed? when money, and what money buys, is the highest they know, and therefore the highest they are able to love? when even the ambitious among them set out with the deliberate purpose of becoming the beggars of men's votes ; of winning an office the chief worth of which, in their eyes, lies in its emoluments? when even the glorious and far-sounding voice of fame for them means only the gabble and cackle of notoriety?
The only example which I can call to mind of an historic people whose ideals are altogether material and mechanical, is that of China. Are we, then, destined to become a sort of Chinese Empire, with three hundred millions of human beings, and not a divine man or woman?
Is what Carlyle says is hitherto our sole achievement the bringing into existence of an almost incredible number of bores is this to be the final outcome of our national life? Is the commonest man the only type which in a democratic society will in the end survive? Does universal equality mean universal inferiority? Are republican institutions fatal to noble personality? Are the people as little friendly to men of moral and intellectual superiority as they are to men of great wealth ! Is their dislike of the millionnaires but a symptom of their aversion to all who in any way are distinguished from the crowd? And is this the explanation of the blight which falls upon the imagination and the hearts of the young?
Ah ! surely, we who have faith in human nature, who believe in freedom and in popular government, can never doubt what answer must be given to all these questions. A society which inevitably represses what is highest in the best sort of men is an evil society. A civilization which destroys faith in genius, in heroism, in sanctity, is the forerunner of barbarism. Individuality is man's noblest triumph over fate, his most heavenly assertion of the freedom of the soul; and a world in which individuality is made impossible is a slavish world. There man dwindles, becomes one of a multitude, the impersonal product of a general law; and all his godlike strength and, beauty are lost. Is not one true poet more precious than a whole generation of millionnaires; one philosopher of more worth than ten thousand members of Congress; one man who sees and loves God dearer than an army of able editors?
The greater our control of Nature becomes, the more its treasures are explored and utilized, the greater the need of strong personality to counteract the fatal force of matter. Just as men in tropical countries are overwhelmed and dwarfed by Nature's rich profusion, so in this age, in which industry and science have produced resources far beyond the power of unassisted Nature, only strong characters, marked individualities, can resist the influence of wealth and machinery, which tend to make man of less importance than that which he eats and wears, to make him subordinate to the tools he uses.
From many sides personality, which is the fountain-head of worth, genius, and power, is menaced. The spirit of the time would deny that God is a Person, and holds man's personality in slight esteem, as not rooted in the soul, but aggregated atoms. The whole social network, in whose meshes we are all caught, cripples and paralyzes individuality. We must belong to a party, to a society, to a ring, to a clique, and deliver up our living thought to these soulless entities. Or, if we remain aloof from such affiliation, we must have no honest conviction, no fixed principles, but fit our words to business and professional interests, and con-form to the exigencies of the prevailing whim. The minister is hired to preach not what he believes, but what the people wish to hear; the congressman is elected to vote not in the light of his own mind, but in obedience to the dictates of those who send him the newspaper circulates not because it is filled with words of truth and wisdom, but because it panders to the pruriency and prejudice of its patrons ; and a book is popular in inverse ratio to its individuality and worth. Our National Library is filled with books which have copyright, but no other right, human or divine, to exist at all; and when one of us does succeed in asserting his personality, he usually only makes himself odd and ridiculous. He rushes into polygamous Mormonism, or buffoon revivalism, or shallow-minded atheism ; nay, he will even become an anarchist, because a few men have too much money and too little soul. What we need is neither the absence of individuality nor a morbid individuality, but high and strong personalities.
If our country is to be great and forever memorable, something quite other than wealth and numbers will make it so. Were there but question of countless millions of dollars and people, then indeed the victory would already have been gained. If we are to serve the highest interests of mankind, and to mark an advance in human history, we must do more than establish universal suffrage, and teach every child to read and write. As true criticism deals only with men of genius or of the best talent, and takes no serious notice of mechanical writers and bookmakers, so true history loses sight of nations whose only distinction lies in their riches and populousness.
The noblest and most gifted men and women are alone supremely interesting and abidingly memorable. We have already reached a point where we perceive the unreality of the importance which the chronicles have sought to give to mere kings and captains. If the king was a hero, we love him ; but if he was a sot or a coward, his jewelled crown and purple robes leave him as unconsidered by us as the beggar in his rags. Whatever influence, favorable or unfavorable, democracy may exert to make easy or difficult the advent of the noblest kind of man, an age in which the people think and rule will strip from all sham greatness its trappings and tinsel. The parade hero and windy orator will be gazed at and applauded, but they are all the while transparent and contemptible. The scientific spirit, too, which now prevails, is the foe of all pretence ; it looks at things in their naked reality, is concerned to get a view of the fact as it is, without a care whether it be a beautiful or an ugly, a sweet or a bitter truth. The fact is what it is, and nothing can be gained by believing it to be what it is not.
This is a most wise and human way of looking at things, if men will only not forget that the mind sees farther than the eye, that the heart feels deeper than the hand; and that where knowledge fails, faith is left; where possession is denied, hope remains. The young must enter upon their life-work with the conviction that only what is real is true, good, and beautiful ; and that the unreal is altogether futile and vain.
Now, the most real thing for every man, if he is a man, is his own soul. His thought, his love, his faith, his hope, are but his soul thinking, loving, believing, hoping. His joy and misery are but his soul glad or sad. Hence, so far as we are able to see or argue, the essence of reality is spiritual ; and since the soul is conscious that it is not the supreme reality, but is dependent, illumined by a truth higher than itself, nourished by a love larger than its own, it has a dim vision of the Infinite Being as essentially real and essentially spiritual. A living faith in this infinite spiritual reality is the fountain-head not only of religion, but of noble life. All wavering here is a symptom of psychic paralysis. When the infinite reality becomes questionable, then all things become material and vile. The world becomes a world of sight and sound, of taste and touch. The soul is poured through the senses and dissipated; the current of life stagnates, and grows fetid in sloughs and marshes. Minds for whom God is the Unknowable have no faith in knowledge at all, except as the equivalent of weight and measure, of taste and touch and smell.
Now, if all that may be known and desired is reduced to this material expression, how dull and beggarly does not life become, mere atomic integration and disintegration, the poor human pneumatic-machine puffing along the dusty road of matter, bound and helpless and soulless as a clanking engine ! No high life, in individuals or nations, is to be hoped for, unless it is enrooted in the infinite spiritual reality, in God. It is forever indubitable that the highest is not material, and no argument is therefore needed to show that when spiritual ideals lose their power of attraction, life sinks to lower beds.
Sight is the noblest sense, and the starlit sky is the most sublime object we can be-hold. But what do we in reality see there? Only a kind of large tent, dimly lighted with gas jets. This is the noblest thing the noblest sense reveals. But let the soul appear, and the tent flies into invisible shreds; the heavens break open from abyss to abyss, still widening into limitless expanse, until imagination reels. The gas jets grow into suns, blazing since innumerable ages with unendurable light, and binding whole planetary systems into harmony and life. So infinitely does the soul transcend the senses! The world it lives in is boundless, eternal, sublime. This is its home; this the sphere in which it grows, and awakens to consciousness of kinship with God. This is the fathomless, shoreless abyss of being wherein it is plunged, from which it draws its life, its yearning for the absolute, its undying hope, its love of the best, its craving for immortality, its instinct for eternal things. To condemn it to work merely for money, for position, for applause, for pleasure, is to degrade it to the condition of a slave. It is as though we should take some supreme poet or hero and bid him break stones or grind corn, he who has the faculty to give to truth its divinest form, and to lift the hearts of nations to the love of heavenly things.
Whatever our lot on earth may bewhether we toil with the hand, with the brain, or with the heart we may not bind the soul to any slavish service. Let us do our work like men, till the soil, build homes, refine brute matter, be learned in law, in medicine, in theology; but let us never chain our souls to what they work in. No earthly work can lay claim to the whole life of man; for every man is born for God, for the Universe, and may not narrow his mind. We must have some practical thing to do in the world, some way of living which will place us in harmony with the requirements and needs of earthly life; and what this daily business of ours shall be, each one, in view of his endowments and surroundings, must decide for himself.
It is well to bear in mind that every kind of life has its advantages, except an immoral life. Whatever we make of ourselves, then, whether farmers, mechanics, lawyers, doctors, or priests, let us above all things first have a care that we are men; and if we are to be men, our special business work must form only a part of our life-work. The aim at least in this way alone can I look at human life is not to make rich and successful bankers, merchants, farmers, lawyers, and doctors, but to make noble and enlightened men. Hence the final thought in all work is that we work not to have more, but to be more; not for higher place, but for greater worth; not for fame, but for knowledge. In a word, the final thought is that we labor to upbuild the being which we are, and not merely to build round our real self with marble and gold and precious stones. This is but the Christian teaching which has transformed the world; which declares that it is the business of slaves even, of beggars and outcasts, to work first of all for God and the soul. The end is infinite, the aim must be the highest. Not to know this, not to hear the heavenly invitation, is to be shut out from communion with the best; is to be cut off from the source of growth ; is to be given over to modes of thought which fatally lead to mediocrity and vulgarity of life.
To live for common ends is to be common.
We cannot set a limit to the knowledge and love of man, because they spring from God, and move forever toward him who is without limit. That we have been made capable of this cease-less approach to an infinite ideal is the radical fact in our nature. Through this we are human; through this we are immortal; through this we are lifted above matter, look through the rippling stream of time on the calm ocean of eternity, and beyond the utmost bounds of space, see simple being, life and thought and love, deathless, imageless, absolute. This ideal creates the 'law of duty, for it makes the distinction between right and wrong. Hence the first duty of man is to make himself like God, through knowledge ever-widening, through love ever-deepening, through life ever-growing.
So only can we serve God, so only can we love him. To be content with ignorance is in-fidelity to his infinite truth. To rest in a lesser love is to deny the boundless charity which holds the heavens together and makes them beautiful, which to every creature gives its fellow, which for the young bird makes the nest, for the child the mother's breast, and in the heart of man sows the seed of faith and hope and heavenly pity.
Ceaseless growth toward God, this is the ideal, this is the law of human life, proposed and sanctioned alike by Religion, Philosophy, and Poetry. Dulcissima vita sentire in dies se fieri meliorem.
Upward to move along a Godward way,
It is man's chief blessedness that there lie in his nature infinite possibilities of growth. The growth of animals comes quickly to an end, and when they cease to grow they cease to be joyful; but man, whose bodily development even is slow, is capable of rising to wider knowledge and purer love through unending ages. Hence even when he is old, if he has lived for what is great and exalted, his mind is clear, his heart is tender, and his soul is glad. Only those races are noble, only those individuals are worthy, who yield without reserve to the power of this impulse to ceaseless progress. Behold how the race from which we have sprung the Aryan breaks forth into ever new developments of strength and beauty in Greece, in Italy, in France, in England, in Germany, in America; creating literature, philosophy, science, art; receiving Christian truth, and through its aid rising to diviner heights of wisdom, power, freedom, love, and knowledge.
And so there are individuals and they are born to teach and to rule for whom to live is to grow; who, forgetting what they have been, and what they are, think ever only of becoming more and more. Their education is never finished; their development is never complete; their work is never done. From victories won they look to other battle-fields ; from every height of knowledge they peer into the widening nescience; from all achievements and possessions they turn away toward the unapproachable In-finite, to whom they are drawn. Walking in the shadow of the too great light of God, they are illumined, and they are darkened. This makes Newton think his knowledge ignorance ; this makes Saint Paul think his heroic virtue naught. Oh, blessed men, who make us feel that we are of the race of God; who measure and weigh the heavens; who love with bound-less love; who toil and are patient; who teach us that workers can wait ! They are in love with life ; they yearn for fuller life. Life is good, and the highest life is God; and wherever man grows in knowledge, wisdom, and strength, in faith, hope, and love, he walks in the way of heaven.
To you, young gentlemen, who are about to quit these halls, to continue amid other surroundings the work of education which here has but begun, what words shall I more directly speak? If hitherto you have wrought to any purpose, you will go forth into the world filled with resolute will and noble enthusiasm to labor even unto the end in building up the being which is yourself, that you may unceasingly approach the type of perfect manhood. This deep-glowing fervor of enthusiasm for what is highest and best is worth more to you, and to any man, than all that may be learned in colleges. If ambition is akin to pride, and therefore to folly, it is none the less a mighty spur to noble action; and where it is not found in youth, budding and blossoming like the leaves and flowers in spring, what promise is there of the ripe fruit which nourishes life? The love of excellence bears us up on the swift wing and plumes of high desire, -
Without which whosoe'er consumes his days, Leaveth such vestige of himself on earth As smoke in air or foam upon the wave.
Do not place before your eyes the standard of vulgar success. Do not say, I will study, labor, exercise myself, that I may become able to get wealth or office, for to this kind of work the necessities of life and the tendency of the age will drive you ; whereas, if you hope to be true and high, it is your business to hold your-selves above the spirit of the age. It is our worst misfortune that we have no ideals. Our very religion, it would seem, is not able to give us a living faith in the reality of ideals; for we are no longer wholly convinced that souls live in the atmosphere of God as truly as lungs breathe the air of earth. We find it difficult even to think of striving for what is eternal, all-holy, and perfect, so unreal, so delusive do such thoughts seem.
Who will understand that to beds better than to have, and that in truth a man is worth only what he is? Who will believe that the kingdom of this world, not less than the kingdom of Heaven, lies within? Who, even in thinking of the worth of a pious and righteous life, is not swayed by some sort of honesty-best-policy principle? We love knowledge because we think it is power; and virtue, because we are told as a rule it succeeds. Ah ! do you love knowledge for itself ? for it is good, it is godlike to know. Do you love virtue for its own sake? for it is eternally and absolutely right to be virtuous. Instead of giving your thoughts and desires to wealth and position, learn to know how little of such things a true and wise man needs ; for the secret of a happy life does not lie in the means and opportunities of indulging our weaknesses, but in knowing how to be content with what is reasonable, that time and strength may remain for the cultivation of our nobler nature. Ask God to inspire you with some great thought, some abiding love of what is excellent, which may fill you with gladness and courage, and in the midst of the labors, the trials, and the disappointments of life, keep you still strong and serene.