Reverence For Great Men
( Originally Published 1884 )
Luther, Knox, Dante.—Character a Great Legacy.—Character of Nations. —Washington Irving and Sir Walter Scott.—Character and Freedom.—Nations Strengthened by Trials.-Noble and Ignoble Patriotism.—Decline and Fall of Nations.—Stability of Character of Nations.
" The prosperity of a country depends, not on the abundance of its revenues, nor on the strength of its fortifications, nor on the beauty of its public buildings; but it consists in the number of its cultivated citizens, in its men of education, enlightenment, and character; here are to be found its true interest, its chief strength, its real power.—MARTIN LUTHER.
IT is natural to admire and revere really great men. They hallow the nation to which they belong, and lift up not only all who live in their time, but those who live after them. Their great example becomes the common heritage of their race; and their great deeds and great thoughts are the most glorious of legacies to mankind. They connect the present with the past, and help on the increasing purpose of the future; holding aloft the standard of principle, maintaining the dignity of human character, and filling the mind with traditions and instincts of all that is most worthy and noble in life.
Character embodied in thought and deed, is of the nature of immortality. The solitary thought of a great thinker will dwell in the minds of men for centuries, until at length it works itself into their daily life and practice. It lives on through the ages, speaking as a voice from the dead, and influencing minds living thousands of years apart. Thus, Moses and David and Solomon, Plato and Socrates and Xenophon, Seneca and Cicero and Epictetus, still speak to us as from their tombs. They still arrest the attention, and exercise an influence upon character, though their thoughts be conveyed in languages unspoken by them, and in their time unknown.
Great workers and great thinkers are the true makers of history, which is but continuous humanity influenced by men of character by great leaders, kings, priests, philosophers, statesmen, and patriots the true aristocracy of man. Indeed, Mr. Carlyle has broadly stated that Universal History is, at bottom, but the history of Great Men. They certainly mark and designate the epochs of national life. Their influence is active, as well as reactive. Though their mind is, in a measure, the product of their age, the public mind is also, to a great extent, their creation. Their individual action identifies the cause the institution. They think great thoughts; cast them abroad, and the thoughts make events. Thus the early Reformers initiated the Reformation, and with it the liberation of modern thought. Emerson has said that every institution is to be regarded as but the lengthened shadow of some great man: as Islamism of Mohammed, Puritanism of Calvin, Jesuitism of Loyola, Quakerism of Fox, Methodism of Wes-ley, Abolitionism of Clarkson.
Great men stamp their mind upon their age and nation as Luther did upon modern Germany, and Knox upon Scotland. And if there be one man more than another that stamped his mind on modern Italy, it was Dante. During the long centuries of Italian degradation his burning words were as a watch-fire and a beacon to all true men. He was the herald of his nation's liberty braving persecution, exile, and death, for the love of it. He was always the most national of the Italian poets, the most loved, the most read. From the time of his death all educated Italians had his best passages by heart; and the sentiments they enshrined inspired their lives, and eventually influenced the history of their nation. " The Italians," wrote Byron in 1821, " talk Dante, write Dante, and think and dream Dante, at this moment to an excess which would be ridiculous, but that he deserves their admiration. "
A succession of variously gifted men in different ages —extending from Alfred to Albert has in like manner contributed, by their life and example, to shape the multiform character of England. Of these, probably the most influential were the men of the Elizabethan and Cromwellian, and the intermediate periods among which we find the great names of Shakspeare, Raleigh, Burleigh, Sidney, Bacon, Milton, Herbert, Hampden, Pym, Eliot, Vane, Cromwell, and many more some of them men of great force, and others of great dignity and purity of character. The lives of such men have become part of the public life of England, and their deeds and thoughts are regarded as among the most cherished bequeathments from the past.
So Washington left behind him, as one of the greatest treasures of his country, the example of a stainless life of a great, honest, pure, and noble character a model for his nation to form themselves by in all time to come. And in the case of Washington, as in so many other great leaders of men, his greatness did not so much consist in his intellect, his skill, and his genius, as in his honor, his integrity, his truthfulness, his high and controlling sense of duty in a word, in his genuine nobility of character.
Men such as these are the true lifeblood of the country to which they belong. They-elevate and uphold it, fortify and ennoble it, and shed a glory over it by the example of life and character which they have bequeathed. " The names and memories of great men," says an able writer, " are the dowry of a nation. Widowhood, overthrow, desertion, even slavery, can not take away from her this sacred inheritance. . . . Whenever national life begins to quicken . . . . the dead heroes rise in the memories of men, and appear to the living to stand by in solemn spectatorship and approval. No country can be lost which feels herself overlooked by such glorious witnesses. They are the salt of the earth, in death as well as in life. What they did once, their descendants have still and always a right to do after them; and their example lives in their country, a continual stimulant and encouragement for him who has the soul to adopt it."
But it is not great men only that have to be taken into account in estimating the qualities of a nation, but the character that pervades the great body of the people. When Washington Irving visited Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott introduced him to many of his friends and favorites, not' only among the neighboring farmers, but the laboring peasantry. " I wish to show you," said. Scott, " some of our really excellent plain Scotch people. The character of a nation is not to be learnt from. its fine folks, its fine gentlemen and ladies; such you meet everywhere, and they are everywhere the same." While statesmen, philosophers, and divines represent the thinking power of society, the men who found industries and carve out new careers, as well as the common body of working people, from whom the national strength and spirit are from time to time recruited, must necessarily furnish the vital force and constitute the real backbone of every nation.
Nations have their character to maintain as well as individuals; and under constitutional governments where all classes more or less participate in the exercise of political power the national character will necessarily depend more upon the moral qualities of the many than of the few. And the same qualities which deter-mine the character of individuals also determine the character of nations. Unless they are high-minded, truthful, honest, virtuous, and courageous, they will be held in light esteem by other nations, and be without weight in the world. To have character, they must needs also be reverential, disciplined, self-controlling, and devoted to duty. The nation that has no higher god than pleasure, or even dollars or calico, must needs be in a poor way. It were better to revert to Homer's gods than be devoted to these; for the heathen deities at least imaged human virtues, and were something to look up to.
As for institutions, however good in themselves, they will avail but little in maintaining the standard of national character. It is the individual men, and the spirit which actuates them, that determine the moral standing and stability of nations. Government, in the long run, is usually no better than the people governed. Where the mass is sound in conscience, morals, and habit, the nation will be ruled honestly and nobly. But where they are corrupt, self-seeking and dishonest in heart, bound neither by truth nor by law, the rule of rogues and wire-pullers becomes inevitable.
The only true barrier against the despotism of public opinion, whether it be of the many or of the few, is enlightened individual freedom and purity of personal character. Without these there can be no vigorous. manhood, no true liberty in a nation. Political rights, however broadly framed, will not elevate a people individually depraved. Indeed, the more complete a system of popular suffrage, and the more perfect its protection,. the more completely will the real character of a people be reflected, as by a mirror, in their laws and government. Political morality can never have any solid existence on a basis of individual immorality. Even freedom, exercised by a debased people, would come to be regarded as a nuisance, and liberty of the press but a vent for licentiousness and moral abomination.
Nations, like individuals, derive support and strength from the feeling that they belong to an illustrious race, that they are the heirs of their greatness and ought to be the perpetuators of their glory. It is of momentous importance that a nation should have a great past to look back upon. It steadies the life of the present, elevates and upholds it, and lightens and lifts it up, by the memory of the great deeds, the noble sufferings, and the valorous achievements of the men of old. The life of nations, as of men, is a great treasury of experience, which, wisely used, issues in social progress and improvement; or, misused, issues in dreams, delusions, and failure. Like men, nations are purified and strengthened by trials. Some of the most glorious chapters in their history are those containing the record of the sufferings by means of which their character has been developed. Love of liberty and patriotic feeling may have done much, but trial and suffering nobly borne more than all.
A great deal of what passes by the name of patriot-ism in these days consists of the merest bigotry and narrow-mindedness; exhibiting itself in national prejudice, national conceit and national hatred. It does not show itself in deeds, but in boastings in howlings, gesticulations, and shrieking helplessly for help in flying flags and singing songs and in perpetual grinding at the hurdy-gurdy of long-dead grievances and long-remedied wrongs. To be infested by such a patriotism as this is perhaps among the greatest curses that can befall any country.
But as there is an ignoble, so is there a noble patriotism the patriotism that invigorates and elevates a country by noble work that does its duty truthfully and manfully that lives an honest, sober, and upright life, and strives to make the best use of the opportunities for improvement that present themselves on every side; and at the same time a patriotism that cherishes the memory and example of the great men of old, who, by their sufferings in the cause of religion or of freedom, have won for themselves a deathless glory, and for their nation those privileges of free life and free political institutions of which they are the inheritors and possessors.
Nations are not to be judged by their size any more than individuals:
" It is not growing like a tree
For a nation to be great, it need not necessarily be big, though bigness is often confounded with greatness. A nation may be very big in point of territory and population, and yet be devoid of true greatness. The people of Israel were a small people, yet what a great life they developed, and how powerful the influence they have exercised on the destinies of mankind ! Greece was not big: the entire population of Attica was less than that of South Lancashire. Athens was less populous than New York; and yet how great it was in art, in literature, in philosophy, and in patriotism!
But it was the fatal weakness of Athens that its citizens had no true family or home life, while its freemen were greatly outnumbered by its slaves. Its public men were loose, if not corrupt, in morals. Its women, even the most accomplished, were unchaste. Hence its fall became inevitable, and was even more sudden than its rise.
In like manner, the decline and fall of Rome was attributable to the general corruption of its people, and to their engrossing love of pleasure and idleness work, in the latter days of Rome, being regarded only as fit for slaves. Its citizens ceased to pride themselves on the virtues of character of their great forefathers; and the empire fell because it did not deserve to live. And so the nations that are idle and luxurious that " will rather lose a pound of blood," as old Burton says, "in a single combat, than a drop of sweat in any honest labor" must inevitably die out, and laborious, energetic nations take their place.
When Louis XIV. asked Colbert how it was that, ruling so great and populous a country as France, he had been unable to conquer so small a country as Holland, the minister replied: "Because, sire, the greatness of a country does not depend upon the extent of its territory, but on the character of its people. It is because of the industry, the frugality, and the energy of the Dutch that your Majesty has found them so difficult to overcome."'
It is also related of Spinola and Richardet, the ambassadors sent by the King of Spain to negotiate a treaty at the Hague in i 6o8, that one day they saw some eight or ten persons. land from a little boat, and sitting down upon the grass, proceed to make a meal of bread-and-cheese and beer. " Who are those travelers?" asked the ambassadors of a peasant. " These are our worshipful masters, the deputies from the States," was. his reply. Spinola at once whispered to his companion,. "We must make peace: these are not men to be conquered."
In fine, stability of institutions must depend upon stability of character. Any number of depraved units can not form a great nation. The people may seem to he highly civilized, and yet be ready to fall to pieces at the first touch of adversity. Without integrity of individual character, they can have no real strength, cohesion, or soundness. They may be rich, polite, and artistic, and yet hovering on the brink of ruin. If living for themselves only, and with no end but pleasure each little self his own little god such a nation is doomed, and its decay is inevitable.
Where national character ceases to be upheld, a nation may be regarded as next to lost. Where it ceases to esteem and to practice the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, integrity, and justice, it does not deserve to live. And when the time arrives in any country when wealth has so corrupted, or pleasure so depraved, or faction so infatuated the people, that honor, order, obedience, virtue, and loyalty have seemingly become things of the past; then, amidst the darkness, when honest men if, haply, there be such left are groping about and feeling for each other's hands, their only remaining hope will be in the restoration and elevation of Individual Character; for by that alone can a nation be saved; and if character be irrecoverably lost, then indeed there will be nothing left worth saving.