Not Measured By An Absolute Standard
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
True success is relative and cannot be measured by an absolute standard. There is no canon of judgment that can be applied to all men as the measure of their greatness. The vocations of men are many. Natural abilities are as diverse as the men who possess them or the vocations which they pursue. Then the opportunities of some men are an "open sesame" to success and fame, while the circumstances that surround others are an almost impassable barrier to the region beyond mediocrity. Natural tact is greater in one man than in another. This and kindred qualities in one person may more than offset the greater learning and finer intellectual endowments of his more favored neighbor. There is one success of the lawyer and another of the merchant or banker, one success of the preacher and another of the farmer or tradesman. In a word, there are many degrees of excellence and the highest of them are not attainable by all. There are degrees of attainment and fields of acquirement beyond the powers of the most consummate genius that ever walked the earth. No man ever yet attained absolute perfection in anything. No man ever accomplished all that he might have accomplished if he had made no blunders.
A man may be a very useful and successful preacher and never win the notoriety of a Talmadge, a Beecher or a Spurgeon. It would be folly to hold up the Rev. Enos Jones of Jonesville to the same standard that we judge the great lights of the pulpit by. There is one success of the grand old country pastor and quite another of the man who preaches to twenty millions in the Monday morning papers. A man may be a very successful teacher and never go into history as a Pestalozzi, a Froebel or a Socrates. There are thousands of successful instructors, who have done a good and honored work, that have never been heard of outside the somewhat narrow field of their daily toil. To be successful does not necessarily involve that one's name shall be carried to the world's end. "To be nameless in worthy deeds, said Sir Thomas Browne, "is better than an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lived more happily without a name than Herodias with one, and who would not rather have been the penitent thief on the cross than the great Pilate in the palace ?"
A man may bring the most possible out of his narrow field of work ; he may accomplish all that can be expected of his powers and abilities, and still be nameless in the history of his time. But is he any less successful than the man who, with splendid powers and transcendent opportunities, rises to the highest point of earthly greatness ? Can we be always certain that those whose names are on every lip have engaged their powers to the fullest extent ? May it not be that some men who are more nearly between the extremes of brilliant success and dismal failure are really winning the best success in all that goes to make up the true meaning of that term ? Is it necessary for one to despise small things and the opportunities of a humble life to be truly successful ? Must a man possess great wealth, or hold high office, or be a great writer, artist, architect, etc., to win success ? The author remembers that while yet a boy at school certain clergymen and others used to come to the school and make us speeches. They always spoke of certain men who had amassed great wealth or had risen to a high office, and their remarks were always pointed with the moral, that if we were diligent and practiced the same virtues, and exhibited the same energy, we should most certainly be like them, that is, rich men or high officials in the government. I have never lived to see that these men did not put a false idea of success before us, that they did not present an essentially mean and degrading view of life to our young and aspiring minds. I have thought, since mature years, that this kind of talk to boys is bad and wicked. It is a false standard of excellence. There is no virtue in high office or untold wealth. Neither of them can make a man successful. Neither of them, as the end of life, is a fit object to engage our abilities. What, then, is success? In school, success is to get one's lessons and improve bodily, intellectually and morally under the process of education. In professional life, success is to hold our position, win the case, save our patient, build up our business and support ourselves and those dependent on us by the honest wages of honest toil. In the best sense success is happiness in well-doing and well-being, with no thought of Mammon or Power. When men go to battle, victory is success and defeat is failure. When a vessel starts for Liverpool, success is to reach that port, with baggage, passengers and crew uninjured. To enter any other port is failure, though the vessel may have crossed the ocean. When a man starts out in life with a high calling and a noble purpose in his heart to do good and be good, his life is a failure if it descend to a miserable scramble for money and office-getting. Yea, though he win money and get the office, it is a " failure if, at the same time, he sacrifice his calling and quench his noble purpose.
Books are written, essays and sermons are multiplied to define the way of success. They are mostly bad books, corrupt essays and pernicious sermons. They announce the doctrine that transcendent greatness of some sort is implied in success. Distinction, riches, high official position, wide influence, large learning, these, say they, are the distinguishing marks of a successful life. I hold this to be a false view of success. None of these things are necessary to excellence of life or character. They simply mark different degrees of success and demonstrate the fact that there is no unvarying standard of judgment by which to determine success. A good 'man who treads the common walks of life, earns an honest living by useful labor, makes those around him happy and adds to the sum total of public virtue, is "a pillar of the common-wealth." He is "the salt of the earth and the light of the world." He is a successful man. < There was a time in the life of Napoleon when his fame was unexampled in the history of mankind. By a series of dashing victories and bold diplomacies he was well nigh master of Europe. On the 14th of September, 1812, he marched into the ancient capital of the Russians and looked upon the towers of the Kremlin as its conqueror. He was the star of Europe, the greatest general the world had seen. His success seemed triumphant and complete. Russia was prostrate at his feet, with only one fearful expedient left.
This they used, and when their ancient city was wrapped in flame and the Kremlin fell, starvation was marshalled against the victorious hosts of France. Napoleon's hope was broken ; his hard-fought campaign had come to naught. A disastrous retreat, Elba, Waterloo, and Saint Helena completed the fall of the world's proudest emperor. He had estimated success by a false standard and sought it by a false method. In Mrs. Edgeworth's phrase, "he had gone up like a rocket to come down like a stick."
Forty years ago a mother and six children stood by the grave-side of the husband and father. He had been poor and his efforts barely sufficed to keep the family comfortable. But now the poor woman was left alone to provide for her children, to educate them and do what she could for their start in life. In the dark and saddened home she laid before the elder ones the difficulties with which they were surrounded, and told them they must make every effort to aid themselves and her in the support of the family. Brave sons and heroic daughters gained such employment as they could. Their earnings were saved and expended with jealous care. One after another they acquired a good education and were fitted for the work of life and won honorable places for themselves. Two years ago they all met on Thanksgiving day to celebrate the eightieth birthday of their old mother. Two preachers, one preacher's wife, a lawyer, a physician's wife, and a farmer, with their families, sat at meat in the old homestead. In the course of the conversation, which drifted back to the early days of struggle, and want, and deprivation, one of the sons asked the mother if her life, with all its sorrows, had been worth living. The old mother, looking around on the throng, said, "Yes, John, well worth living." . There were days of hard work and great deprivation, but I have almost forgotten them in these last days of comfort and luxury. You have all been so good and so helpful to me that I seem to have lived a very happy life. Yes, John, I am content; my life has been worth living."
Here was, indeed, a successful life, a grand life, full of sublimest courage, self-denial, faith and devotion. What if it were lived in obscurity, amid pinching poverty and grim want ? The mother is happier in seeing those manly sons and womanly daughters than Napoleon at the summit of his greatness in the contemplation of conquered Italy, Austerlitz and Jena. The King of kings will crown the lovely New England mother, while Napoleon will be despised and forgotten at Saint Helena. The life of the widow was better, braver and more admirable than that of the man who wrecked the heart of Josephine. The life of the First Emperor was a wretched failure—that of the aged mother a great success.
Genuine excellence is in no wise measured by one's popularity. It is better to be unknown than dishonored. It is better to win honorable success in a small field of endeavor than to have one's name on every lip, but sullied with disgraceful action. It is better to be the most unknown farmer in the most secluded part of the Buckeye State, and carry the consciousness of a life devoted to legitimate pursuits, than to have all the fame of Caligula or Nero, with their unblushing wickedness and unutterable tyranny. They were powerful rulers, and the greatest of ancient states trembled when they spoke; their praises were uttered by a million willing subjects, but they were not successful men. The world has long since condemned them to the category of gigantic failure. They did not fully succeed in their outrageous purposes of meanness and wickedness. Their names are a blot upon the pages of history and their deeds too black for human language to portray. The immense popularity which they once enjoyed is as nothing compared to the infamy in which their names are now engulfed.