Duty - Conscience
( Originally Published 1884 )
The Sphere of Duty.—An American Legislator.—Foundation of Duty.—Conscience.—Power of Will.—Religion.—Self-control.—The best Government.—Plato.—The New Testament Ideal.—Dr. Macleod.—Character.
"He walked attended By a strong, aiding champion—Conscience."—MILTON.
MAN does not live for himself alone, He lives for the good of others as well as of himself. Every one has his duties to perform the richest as well as the poorest. To some life is pleasure, to others suffering. But the best do not live for self enjoyment, or even for fame. Their strongest motive power is hopeful, useful work in every good cause.
Hierocles says that each one of us is a centre, circumscribed by many concentric circles. From ourselves the first circle extends comprising parents, wife, and children. The next concentring circle comprises relations; then fellow-citizens; and lastly, the whole human race.
To do our duty in this world toward God and toward man, consistently and steadily, requires the cultivation of all the faculties which God hath given us. And He has given us everything. It is the higher Will that instructs and guides our will. It is the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong, that makes us responsible to man here, and to God hereafter.
The sphere of Duty is infinite. It exists in every station of life. We have it not in our choice to be rich or poor, to be happy or unhappy; but it becomes us to do the duty that everywhere surrounds us. Obedience to duty,-at all costs and risks, is. the very essence of the highest civilized life. Great deeds must be worked for, hoped for, died for, now as in the past.
But how to learn to do one's duty. Can there be any difficulty here? First, there is the pervading, abiding sense of duty to God. Then follow others: Duty to one's family; duty to our neighbors; duty of masters to servants, and of servants to masters, duty to our fellow-creatures; duty to the state, which has also its duty to perform to the citizen.
Many of these duties are performed privately. Our public life may be well known, but in private there is that which no one sees the inner life of the soul and spirit. We have it in our choice to be worthy or worth-less. No one can kill our soul, which can perish only by its own suicide. If we can only make ourselves and each other a little better, holier, and nobler, we have perhaps done the most that we could.
Here is the manner in which an American legislator stood to his post :
An eclipse of the sun happened in New England about a century ago. The heavens became very dark, and it seemed by many that the Day of Judgment was at hand. The Legislature of Connecticut happened then to be in session, and on the darkness coming on, a member moved the adjournment of the House, on which an old Puritan legislator, Davenport of Stamford, rose up and said that if the last day had come, he desired to be found in his place and doing his duty; for which reasons he moved that candles should be brought, so that the House might proceed with its business. Waiting at the post of Duty was the maxim of the wise man, and he carried his motion.
The foundation of Duty depends upon Liberty. Me must be free in order to perform their public duties, as well as to build up their individual character. They are free to think ; they must also be free to act. At the same time liberty may be used to do evil rather than to do good.
There is a stronger word than Liberty Conscience. From the beginning of civilization the power of this word has been acknowledged. " In our own breast, we have a God our conscience."
Conscience is that peculiar faculty of the soul which may be called the religious instinct. It first reveals itself when we become aware of the strife between a higher and a lower nature within us of spirit warring against flesh of good striving for the mastery over evil. Look where you will, in the church or without the church, the same struggle is always going on war for life or death; men and women wrung with pain because they love the good and cannot yet attain it.
It is out of this experience that Religion is born the higher law leading us up to One whom the law of conscience represents. "It is an introspection," says Canon Mosely, on which all religion has been built. Man going into himself and seeing the struggle within him, and thence getting self knowledge, and thence the knowledge of God." Under this influence man knows and feels what is right and wrong. He has the choice between good and evil. And because he is free to choose, he is responsible.
Whatever men may theoretically believe, none practically feel that their actions are necessary and inevitable. There is no constraint upon our volition. We know that we are not compelled, as by a spell, to obey any particular motive. " We feel," says John Stuart Mill, " that if we wished to prove that we have the power of resisting the motive, we could do so; and it would be humiliating to our pride, and paralyzing to our desire of excellence, if we thought otherwise."
Our actions are controllable, else why do men all over the world enact laws? They are enacted in order to be obeyed because it is the universal belief, as it is the universal fact that men obey them or not, very much as they determine. We feel each one of us that our habits and temptations are not our masters,, but we of them. Even in yielding to them we know that we could resist, and that, were we desirous of throwing them off altogether, there could not be required for that purpose a stronger desire or will than we know ourselves to be capable of feeling.
To enjoy spiritual freedom of the highest kind, the mind must have been awakened by knowledge. As the mind has become enlightened, and conscience shows its power, the responsibility of man increases. He submits himself to the influence of the Supreme Will, and acts in conformity with it not by constraint, but cheerfully; and the law which holds him is that of Love. In the act of belief, implying knowledge and confidence, his. humanity unfolds. He feels that by his own free act, his faith in and his working in conformity to the purpose of a Divine Will, he is achieving good, and securing the: highest good.
Where there is no such acknowledgment of Divine law, men act in obedience to sense, to passion, to self ishness. In indulging any vicious propensity, they know they are doing wrong. Their conscience condemns them. The law of nature cries out against. them. They know that their act has been willful and. sinful. But their power to resist in the future has. become weakened. Their will has lost power; and next time the temptation offers, the resistance will be less. Then the habit is formed. The curse of every evil deed is that, propagating still, it brings forth evil..
But conscience is not dead. We cannot dig a grave for it, and tell it to lie there. We may trample it under foot, but it still lives. Every sin or crime has, at the moment, of its perpetration, its own avenging angel. We can not blind our eyes to it, or stop our ears to it. 'Tis conscience that makes cowards of us all." There comes a day of judgment, even in this world, when it stands up confronting us, and warning us to return to the life of well-doing.
Conscience is permanent and universal. It is the very essence of individual character. It gives a man self-control the power of resisting temptations and defying them. Every man is bound - to develop his individuality, to endeavor to find the right way of life, and to walk in it. He has the will to do so : he has the power to be himself and not the echo of somebody else, nor the reflection of lower conditions, nor the spirit of current conventions. True manhood comes from selfcontrol from subjection of the lower powers to the higher conditions of our being.
The only comprehensive and sustained exercise of self-control is to be attained through the ascendency of conscience in the sense of duty performed. It is con-science alone which sets a man on his feet, frees him from the dominions of his own passions and propensities. It places him in relation to the best interests of his kind. The truest source of enjoyment is found in the paths of duty alone. Enjoyment will come as the unbidden sweetener of labor, and crown every right work.
Without conscience a man can have no higher principle of action than pleasure. He does what he likes best, whether it be sensuality or even sensuous intellectual enjoyment. We are not sent into the world to follow our own bent to indulge merely in self-satisfaction. The whole constitution of nature works against this idea of life. The mind ought never to be held in subjection to the lower parts of our nature. There can be no self-sacrifice, no self-denial, no self control except what may be necessary to avoid the consequences of human law.
A race so constituted, with intellect and passions such as man possesses, and without the paramount influence of conscience to govern their deeds, would soon be consigned to utter anarchy, and terminate in mutual destruction. We partly see the results already, in the mad riot in human life which has recently prevailed among the Nihilists in Germany and Russia, and the fire and destruction of the Communists' war in Paris. Such a principle prevailing throughout society can lead to nothing else than utter demoralization individual, social, and national.
It is well for the soul to look on actions done for love, not for selfish objects, but for duty, mercy, and loving-kindness. There are many things done for love which are a thousand times better than those done for money. The former inspire the spirit of heroism and self-devotion. The latter die with the giving. Duty that is bought is worth little. " I consider," said Dr. Arnold, " beyond all wealth, honor, or even health, is the attachment due to noble souls; because to become one with the good, generous, and true, is to be in a manner good, generous, and true yourself."
Every man has a service to do, to himself as an individual, and to those who are near him. In fact, life is of little value unless it be consecrated by duty. " Show those qualities, then," said Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, " which are altogether in thy power sincerity, gravity, endurance of labor, aversion to pleasure, contentment with thy portion, and with few things, benevolence, frankness, and magnanimity."
The greatest intellectual power may exist without a particle of magnanimity. The latter comes from the highest power in man's mind conscience, and from the highest faculty, reason, and capacity for faith that by which man is capable of apprehending more than the senses supply. It is this which makes man a reasonable creature more than a mere animal. Mr. Darwin has truly said " that the motives of conscience as connected with repentance and the feelings of duty, are the most important differences which separate man from the animal."
We are invited to believe in the all-powerful potency of matter. We are to believe only in what we can see with our eyes and touch with our hands. We are to believe in nothing that we do not understand. But how very little do we absolutely know and understand ! We see only the surfaces of things, " as in a glass darkly." How can matter help us to understand the mysteries of life? We know absolutely nothing about the causes of volition, sensation, and mental action. We know that they exist, but we can not understand them.
When a young man declared to Dr. Parr that he would believe nothing he did not understand, " Then sir," said the doctor, " your creed would be the shortest of any man whom I ever knew." But Sydney Smith said a better thing than this. At a dinner at Holland House a foreigner announced himself as a materialist. Presently Sydney Smith observed, " A very good soufflet this!" To which the materialist rejoined, " Oui, monsieur; il est ravissant!" " By the way," replied Smith, with his usual knock-down application, " may I ask, sir, whether you happen to believe in a cook ?"
We must believe a thousand things that we do not understand. Matter and its combinations are as great a mystery as Life is. Look at those numberless far-off worlds majestically wheeling in their appointed orbits; or at this earth on which we live, performing its diurnal motion on its own axis, during its annual circle round the sun. What do we understand about the causes of such motions? What can we ever know about them beyond the fact that such things are?
" The circuit of the sun in the heavens," says Pascal, " vast as it is, is itself only a delicate point when compared with the vaster circuit that is accomplished by the stars. Beyond the range of sight, this universe is but a spot in the ample bosom of nature. We can only imagine of atoms as compared with the reality, which is an infinite sphere, of which the centre is every-where, the circumference nowhere. What is man in the midst of this infinite? But there is another prospect not less astounding; it is the Infinite beneath him. Let him look to the smallest of the things which come under his notice a mite. It has limbs, veins, blood circulating in them, globules in that blood, humors, and serum. Within the inclosure of this atom I will show you not merely the visible universe, but the very immensity of Nature. Whoever gives his mind to thoughts such as this will be terrified at himself trembling where Nature has placed him suspended, as it were, between infinity and nothingness. The Author of these wonders comprehends them; none but he can do so."
Confucius taught his disciples to believe that Conduct is three fourths of life. " Ponder righteousness, and practise virtue. Knowledge, magnanimity, and energy, are universally binding. Gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness, constitute perfect virtue." These words come to us as the far-off echo of the great teacher of ten thousand ages, as his disciples called him the holy and prescient sage Confucius.
But all these virtues come from the innate monitor Conscience. From this first principle all rules of behavior are drawn. It bids us do what we call right, and forbids us doing what we call wrong. At its fullest growth it bids us do what makes others happy, and forbids us doing what makes others unhappy. The great lesson to be learned is, that man must strengthen himself to perform his duty and do what is right, seeking his happiness and inward peace in objects that cannot he taken away from him. Conscience is the conflict by which we get the mastery over our own failings. It is a silent working of the inner man, by which he proves his peculiar power of the will and spirit of God.
Plato taught without money and without price. It is not necessary to follow his history. Suffice it to say, that he devoted himself to the inculcation of truth, morality, and duty. He divided the four cardinal virtues into (I) Prudence and wisdom; (2) Courage, constancy, and fortitude; (3) Temperance, discretion, and self-control; and (4) justice and righteousness. He assumed this division of virtue as the basis of his moral philosophy. " Let men of all ranks," he said, " whether they are successful or unsuccessful, whether they triumph or not let them do their duty, and rest satisfied." What a lesson for future ages lies in these words !
The New Testament gives a glorified ideal of a possible human life; but hard are his labors who endeavors to keep that ideal uppermost in his mind. We feel that there is something else that we would like to do, much better than the thing that is incumbent upon us. But the duty is there, and it must be done, without dreaming or idling. How much of the philosophy of moral health and happiness is involved in the injunction, " Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might." He that does his best, whatever his lot may be, is on the sure road of advancement.
It is related of one, who in the depths of his despair cried, " It is of no use to he good, for you can not be good, and if you were, it would do you no good." It is hopeless, truthless, and faithless, thus to speak of the goodness of word and work. Each one of us can do a little good in our own sphere of life. If we can do it, we are bound to do it. We have no more right to render ourselves useless than to destroy ourselves.
We have to be faithful in small things as well as in great. We are required to make as good a use of our one talent as of the many talents that have been conferred upon us. We can follow the, dictates of our conscience, and walk, though alone, in the paths of duty. We can be honest, truthful, diligent, were it only out of respect for one's self. We have to be faithful even to the end. Who is not struck with the answer of the slave who, when asked by an intending purchaser, " Wilt thou be faithful if I buy thee?" " Yes," said the slave, " whether you buy me or not."
In the description of a sermon preached to the working classes by the late Dr. Macleod, in the Barony Church of Glasgow, it is said that he made a grand stand for Character. From the highest to the lowest that was the grand aim to be made. He said that " the most valuable thing that Prince Albert had left was Character. He knew perfectly well that many very poor people thought it was impossible for them to have a character. It was not true; he would not hear of it. There was not a man or woman before him, however poor they might be, but had it in their power, by the grace of God, to leave behind them the grandest thing on earth, Character; and their children might rise up after them and thank God that their mother was a pious woman, or their father a pious man."
Character is made up of small duties faithfully performed of self-denials, of self sacrifices, of kindly acts of love and duty. The backbone of character is laid at home; and whether the constitutional tendencies be good or bad, home influences will as a rule fan them into activity. " He that is faithful in little is faithful in much; and he that is unfaithful in little is unfaithful also in much." Kindness begets kindness, and truth and trust will bear a rich harvest of truth and trust. There are many little trivial acts of kindness which teach us more about a man's character than many vague phrases. These are easy to acquire, and their effects will last much longer than this very temporary life.
For no good thing is ever lost. Nothing dies, not even life, which gives up one form only to resume another. No good action, no good example, dies. It lives forever in our race. While the frame moulders and disappears, the deed leaves an indelible stamp, and moulds the very thought and will of future generations. Time is not the measure of a noble work; the coming age will share our joy. A single virtuous action has elevated a whole village, a whole city, a whole nation. " The present moment," says Goethe, " is a powerful deity." Man's best products are his happy and sanctifying thoughts, which, when once formed and put in practice, extend their fertilizing influence for thousands of years, and from generation to generation. It is from small seeds dropped into the ground that the finest productions grow; and it is from the inborn dictates of Conscience and the inspired principle of Duty that the finest growths of character have arisen.