Success And Ill-health
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
Robust health and riches are the two things for which most men long as the chiefest of earthly blessings. And this is right, for, to one who knows how to use them, the possession of large wealth and great physical endurance becomes the means of achieving a large degree of success. But there are, unquestionably, blessing and advantages in the lack of riches, and the records of all time show that there are compensating advantages connected with ill-health It is a humiliating fact that a large proportion of the men who have left their mark upon the history of the world have not been possessed of the greatest physical powers. Indeed, much of the best work has been done by invalids and those in precarious health. Luther, the apostle of the Reformation, was one conspicuous ex-ample of remarkably robust health, but he Ieft no greater impress upon his age than John Calvin, who was infirm in body and lived in constant ill-health. Demosthenes, the greatest orator of antiquity, was of slight physique and uncertain health. Cicero was at one time a confirmed dyspeptic, and never was in perfect health. Homer and Milton were blind. The late John Richard Green accomplished the greatest task of modern times while suffering the bodily tortures of most painful disease. From the invalid's chair and the bed of death he wrote "The Making of England" and "The Conquest of England," both of them, books of the broadest scholarship and the greatest literary merit. In all literature there is no more touching story of heroic devotion to a great work, than that told of England's historian in the preface to the last-named work. Few men have died so nobly as this celebrated invalid, telling the grand story of the Conquest from the portals of the Eternal World. Mr. Ruskin has always been in feeble health, and he is perhaps the most voluminous and versatile writer England has yet produced. And who does not remember Robert Hall, the great English preacher, who carried from boyhood a load of pain, and who, while preaching, often had to wait and rest a little and then would preach again "about Heaven, until the glories of the Celestial City dropped on the multitude ?" Alexander H. Stephens, the brains of the Southern Confederacy, was a man of remarkable powers of mind but a weak body. He sat for years on the floor of the House of Representatives in a wheel-chair.
Yet it seems to us that these brilliant exceptions only prove the rule that it is the "Man of enduring fibre and elastic nerve" that does most in the world. The reason why these men have succeeded so well is due to the fact that they have husbanded the strength they had and used all their vitality in the pursuit of legitimate aims in life. Mr. Ruskin has said on this point, "A man who has inherited a feeble constitution and is forced to look carefully to his health is more rugged in middle life than the one who, inheriting a strong constitution, has taken little care of his birthright. The young man of inferior natural qualities of mind often outstrips the genius by stricter application and harder work. The one who has a leaning toward vice may rise victor of himself, while the one with a natural leaning toward virtue may go down."
One of the compensating advantages, then, of feeble bodily health is, that it tends to induce habits of self-control, the first condition, not only of success, but even of existence. Evil habits of every kind are suicidal to a man of weak constitution ; he is compelled, for very life's sake, to overcome his appetites ; while the. robust man may yield for a time with no apparent bad results to his. health. He who learns regularity and temperance in all the habits of life has mastered the first condition of greatness. Dissipation will sap the forces of the strongest constitution and wanton waste of nerve and muscle will wear out the body of a giant. He who saves his strength from the waste of worthless pleasure can easily conquer the difficulties of a successful life. It is the old, old gospel of self-control that saves the strong man and the weak in the struggle for existence amid the destructive forces of this present world. Happy that man who, possessed of perfect physical health, has learned to hold the tremendous energies of his body under the dominion of a powerful will and a pure heart.
We think the general fact remains true that the man of physical soundness and "comprehensive digestion" has an immense advantage over the weakling and the invalid. Other things being equal, high intellectual and moral attainment thrive best in a sound body. It was Pascal, we believe, who said that "disease is the natural state of Christians," and many have thought at different times in the world's history that asceticism was righteousness and dyspepsia a natural ally to godliness. In a past generation men seemed to think that a ruddy cheek was a sign of innate depravity and a rotund body a passport to the Penitentiary. But the generation in which we live is learning better. We see that perfect health is of immense advantage to any man. We believe that brawn has its legitimate use in the exhaustive work of the world. In these clays of merciless competition, how can a weakling enter the vast arena of life to meet its fierce contests, bear its hard shocks and subdue its impetuous opposition ? How can the small, weak man of today succeed when those of stalwart physique are crowding every vocation and storming every gateway of progress?
As well send a pigmy to do battle with Leviathan as an invalid to the work of life in this age. The time has gone by when noble devotion and high resolve and strong character belong only to consumptives, rheumatics and dyspeptics ! No ! There is no such thing as the highest attainments in a body racked with continual suffering. A clear head, a steady hand and a stout heart are needed everywhere, and a man cannot possess these when his head is whirling with pain and his heart sick within him. An invalid may school his powers to obey an imperious will and do great work in the midst of continual bodily suffering ; but what he does, is done rather in spite of poor health and is, at best, but a modicum of what might be done with a healthy stomach and an arm that never knew weariness or weakness. The same devotion to work, the same self-control would do vastly more with a sound constitution than with a weak one. If the great men whom we have mentioned accomplished so much in precarious health, what might they not have done with that equal poise of power that we admire in the trained athlete? The world still admires the brave Leonidas and his valiant/ band at the pass of Thermopylae. How they fought for Greece on that battle-field in the mountains ; how they drove back the hosts of Asiatic Empire that came against them at the command of Xerxes ! How well they defended Greece and Europe and the Western civilization from the hordes of Asiatic ignorance and oppression ! And, when at last they were betrayed by a heartless traitor, how the zeal of Spartan bravery sustained them in the hour of death and glory ! And every man of that matchless three hundred had Spartan blood and Spartan prowess leaping in his veins. There was only one sick man at Thermopylae and he traveled from Alpeni to share the conflict that has made his name immortal.
It is William the Conqueror at Senlac, hewing his way, almost unattended, to victory and the throne of England; it is Joan of Arc, "the maiden chaste," with the stature of a man and the strength of an Amazon ; it is the Duke of Wellington, "who stood four-square to every wind that blows," with his English soldiery sweeping to defeat the French army and the First Napoleon ; it is Lord Brougham, the most tireless of English statesmen ; it is Gladstone, "the old man eloquent," who carries the burdens of English state and the load of eighty years with equal composure ; it is Webster and Clay and Calhoun, thundering their periods with voices that knew no weariness it is our Garfields and Grants, who can win our battles on the field, adorn every position in life and pass through a baptism of unspeakable suffering without a murmur to the last ; it is these and such as these that the world loves to call great.