( Originally Published 1879 )
THERE is a structure which every body is building, young and old, each one for himself. It is called character, and every act of life is a stone. If day by day we be careful to build our lives with pure, noble, upright deeds, at the end will stand a fair temple, honored by God and man. But, as one leak will sink a ship, and one flaw break a chain, so one mean, dishonorable, untruthful act or word will forever leave its impress and work its influence on our characters. Then, let the several deeds unite to form a day, and one by one the days grow into noble years, and the years, as they slowly pass, will raise at last a beautiful edifice, enduring for ever to our praise.
There are as many master-workmen in you as there are separate faculties; and there are as many blows struck as there are separate acts of emotion or volition. Every single day these myriad forces are building, building, building. Here is a great structure going up, point by point, story by story, although you are not conscious of it. It is a building of character. It is a building that must stand, and the word of inspiration warns you to take heed how you build it; to see to it that you have a foundation that shall endure; to make sure that you are building on it, not for the hour in which you live, but for that hour of revelation, when you shall be seen just as you are.
Our minds are given us, but our characters we make. Our mental powers must be cultivated. The full measure of all the powers necessary to make a man are no more a character than a handful of seeds • is an orchard of • fruits. Plant the seeds and tend them well, and they will make an orchard. Cultivate the powers and harmonize them well, and they will make a noble character. The germ is not the tree, the acorn is not the oak, neither is the mind a character. God gives the mind; man makes the character. The mind is the garden; the character is the fruit; the mind is the white page; the character is the writing we put on it. The mind is the metallic plate; the character is our engraving thereon. The mind is the shop, the countingroom ; the character is our profits on the trade. Large profits are made from quick sales and small per centage. So great characters are made by many little acts and efforts. A dollar is composed of a thousand mills; so is a character of a thousand thoughts and acts. The secret thoughts never expressed, the inward indulgences in imaginary wrong, the lie never told for want of courage, the licentiousness never indulged in from fear of public rebuke, the irreverence of the heart, are just as effectual in staining the character as though the world knew all about them. A subtile thing is a character; and a constant work is its formation. Whether it be good or bad, it has been long in its growth, and is the aggregate of millions of little mental acts. A good character is a precious thing, above rubies, gold, crowns, or kingdoms, and the work of making it is the noblest labor on earth.
Character is formed by a course of actions, and not actions by character. A person can have no character before he has had actions. Though an action be ever so glorious in itself, it ought not to pass for great, if it be not the effect of wisdom and, good design. Great actions carry their glory with them as the ruby wears its colors. Whatever be your condition or calling in life, keep in view the whole of your existence. Act not for the little span of time allotted you in this world, but act for eternity.
Characters formed by circumstances are much like machine poetry. They will do for the sport of mirth, and the torment of the senses of the beautiful. But they are horrible things. It makes angels weep to look at them. They are the picture of old chaos, a mass of confusion. A thousand winds have blown together the materials of which they are made. They usually lack order, harmony, consistency, and beauty, the very elements and essentials of a good character. They are those aimless nuisances that live for nothing, and mould, and become putrid, about the sewers of the world. If aught on earth is despicable, it is these porous masses of conglomerated filth and scum that float on the surface of society, driven or attracted by every speck of circumstance about them. They are purposeless, powerless, enervated automatons, playing second fiddle to chance. One brave will to resist evil and hold fast to good, is worth a million of them. One stout soul, with a resolute determination to make its own character, after the pattern of its own high wrought ideal, that, Jackson-like, takes the responsibility of being what suits its well-formed judgment, is of more real significance than an army of them. It will stand against them, and defy their power.
Every man is bound to aim at the possession of a good character, as one of the highest objects of his life. The very effort to secure it by worthy means will furnish him with a motive for exertion; and his idea of manhood, ,in proportion as it is elevated, will steady and animate his motive. It is well to have a high standard of life, even though we may not be able altogether to realize it. " The youth," says Disraeli, "who does not look up will look down; and the spirit that does not soar is destined, perhaps, to grovel." He who has a high standard of living and thinking will certainly do better than he who has none at all. We would have young men, as they start in life, regard character as a capital, much surer to yield full returns than any other capital, unaffected by panics and failures, fruitful when all other investments lie dormant, having as certain promise in the present life as in that which is to come. Character is like stock in trade; the more of it a man possesses, the greater his facilities for adding to it. Character is power, is influence: it makes friends, creates funds, draws patronage and support, and opens a sure and easy way to wealth, honor and happiness.
Trifles discover a character more than actions of importance. In regard to the former, a person is off his guard, and thinks it not material to use disguise. It is no imperfect hint toward the discovery of a man's character to say he looks as though you might be certain of finding a pin upon his sleeve. Truthfulness is a corner-stone in character, and if it is not firmly laid in youth, there will be ever after a weak spot in the foundation.
Sum it up then as we will, character is the great desideratum of human life. This truth, sublime in its simplicity and powerful in its beauty, is the highest lesson of religion, the first that youth should learn, the last that age should forget.
The value of character is the standard of human progress. The individual, the community, the nation tells its standing, its advancement, its worth, its true wealth and glory in the eye of God by its estimation of character. That man or nation who or which lightly esteems character, is low, groveling, and barbarous. Wherever character is made a secondary object, sensualism and crime prevail. He who would prostitute character to reputation is base. He who lives for any thing less than character is mean. He who enters upon any study, pursuit, amusement, pleasure, habit, or course of life, without considering its effect upon his character, is not a trusty or an honest man. He whose modes of thought, states of feeling, every-day acts, common language, and whole outward life, are not directed by a wise reference to their influence upon his character, is a man always to be watched. Just as a man prizes his character, so is he. This is the true standard of a man.