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Duty In Action

( Originally Published 1884 )

Duty at Home.—Direction of the Will.—Characterless Men.—Lock on the Will.—School Teaching and Morality.—Human Liberty.—Noble Work. —Difficulties.—Laziness.—Resolution and Courage.—Intellectual Ability. —Lady Verney on Literature.—Discipline of Home.

" Do noble things, not dream them, all day long.
And so make life, death, and that vast forever, one grand, sweet song."


HE who has well considered his duty will at once carry his convictions into action. Our acts are the only things that are in our power. They not only form the sum of our habits, but of our character.

At the same time the course of duty is not always the easy course. It has many oppositions and difficulties to surmount. We may have the sagacity to see, but not the strength of purpose to do. To the irresolute there is many a lion in the way. He thinks and moralizes and dreams, but does nothing. " There is little to see," said a hard worker, " and little to do; it is only to do it."

There must not only be a conquest over likings and dislikings; but, what is harder to attain, a triumph over adverse repute. The man whose first question, after a right course of action has presented itself, is " What will people say?" is not the man to do anything at all. But if he asks, " is it my duty?" he can then proceed in his moral panoply, and be ready to incur men's censure, and even to brave their ridicule. " Let us have faith in fine actions," says M. de la Cretelle, " and let us reserve doubt and incredulity for bad. It is even better to be deceived than to distrust."

Duty is first learned at home. The child comes into the world helpless and dependent on others for its health, nurture, and moral and physical development. The child at length imbibes ideas; under proper influences he learns to obey, to control himself, to be kind to others, to be dutiful and happy. He has a will of his own; but whether it be well or ill directed depends very much upon parental influences.

The habit of willing is called purpose; and, from what has been said, the importance of forming a right purpose early in life will be obvious. "Character," says Novais, " is a completely-fashioned will; and the will, when once fashioned, may be steady and constant for life. When the true man, bent on good, holds by his purpose, he places but small value on the rewards or praises of the world; his own approving conscience, and the " well done " which awaits him, is his best reward.

Will, considered without regard to direction, is simple constancy, firmness, perseverance. But it will be obvious that, unless the direction of the character be right, the strong will may be merely a power for mischief: In great tyrants it is a demon; with power to wield, it knows no bounds nor restraint. It holds millions subject to it; inflames their passions, excites them to military fury, and is never satisfied but in conquering, destroying, and tyrannizing. The boundless Will produces an Alexander or a Napoleon. Alexander cried because there were no more kingdoms to conquer; and Bonaparte, after overrunning Europe, spent his force amid the snows of Russia. " Conquest has made me," he said, " and conquest must maintain me." But he was a man of no moral principle, and Europe cast him aside when his work of destruction was done.

The strong Will, allied to right motives, is as full of blessings as the other is of mischief. The man thus influenced moves and inflames the minds and consciences of others. He bends them in his views of duty, carries them with him in his endeavors to secure worthy objects, and directs opinion to the suppression of wrong. and the establishment of right. The man of strong will stamps power upon his actions. His energetic perseverance becomes habitual. He gives a tone to the company in which he is, to the society in which he lives, and even to the nation in which he is born. He is a joy to the timid, and a perpetual reproach to the sluggard. He sets the former on their feet by giving them hope. He may even inspire the latter to good deeds by the influence of his example.

Besides the men of strong bad wills and strong good wills, there is a far larger number who have very weak wills, or no wills at all. They are characterless. They have no strong will for vice, yet they have none for virtue. They are the passive recipients of impressions, which, however, take no hold of them. They seem neither to go forward nor backward. As the wind blows, so their vane turns round; and when the wind blows from another quarter, it turns round again. Any instrument can write on such spirits; any will can govern theirs. They cherish no truth strongly, and do not know what earnestness is. Such persons constitute the mass of society everywhere the care-less, the passive, the submissive, the feeble, and the indifferent.

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that attention should be directed to the improvement and strengthening of the Will; for without this there can neither be indepencence, nor firmness, nor individuality of character. Without it we cannot give truth its proper force, nor morals their proper direction, nor save ourselves from being machines in the hands of worthless and designing men. Intellectual cultivation will not give decision of character. Philosophers discuss; decisive men act. "Not to resolve," says Bacon, " is to resolve "—that is, to do nothing.

" The right time," says Locke, " to educate the Will aright is in youth. There is a certain season when our minds may be enlarged., when a vast stock of useful truths may be acquired; when our passions will readily submit to the government of reason: when right principles may be so fixed in us as to influence every important action in our future lives. But the season for this extends neither to the whole nor to any considerable length of our continuance upon earth. It is limited to but a few years of our term; and if throughout these we neglect it, error or ignorance is, according to the ordinary course of things, entailed upon us. Our Will becomes our law; and our lusts gain a strength which we afterward vainly oppose."

The first Lord Shaftesbury, in a conversation with Locke, broached a theory of character and conduct which threw a light upon his own. He said that wisdom lay in the heart and not in the head, and that it was not the want of knowledge but the perverseness of will that filled men's actions with folly, and their lives with disorder. Mere knowledge does not give vigor to character. A man may reason too much. He may weigh the thousand probabilities on either side, and come to no action, no decision. Knowledge is thus a check upon action. The Will must act in the light of the spirit and the understanding, and the soul then springs into full light and action.

Indeed the learning of letters and words and sentences is not of the importance that some think it to be. Learning has nothing to do with goodness or happiness. It may destroy humility and give place to pride. The chief movers of men have been little addicted to literature. Literary men have often attained to greatness of thought which influences men in all ages; but they rarely attain to moral greatness of action.

Men cannot be raised in masses, as the mountains. were in the early geological states of the world. They must be dealt with as units; for it is only by the elevation of individuals that the elevation of the masses can be effectually secured. Teachers and preachers may influence them from without, but the main action comes from within. Individual men must exert themselves and help themselves, otherwise they never can be effectually helped by others. " As habits belonging to the body," says Dr. Butler, " are produced by external acts, so habits of the mind are produced by the exertion of inward practical purposes by carrying them into action or acting upon them the principles of obedience, of veracity, justice, and charity."

There is little or no connection between school teaching and morality. Mere cultivation of the intellect has hardly any influence upon conduct. Creeds posted upon the memory will not eradicate vicious propensities. The intellect is merely an instrument, which is moved and worked by forces behind it by emotions, by self restraint, by self-control, by imagination, by enthusiasm, by everything that gives force and energy to character. The most of these principles are implanted at home, and not at school. Where the home is miserable, worthless, and unprincipled a place rather to be avoided than entered then school is the only place for learning obedience and discipline. At the same time, home is the true soil where virtue grows. The events of the household are more near and affecting to us than those of the school and the academy, It is in the study of the home that the true character and hopes of the times are to. be consulted.

To train up their households is the business of the old; to obey their parents and to grow in wisdom is the business of the young. Education is a work of authority and respect. Christianity, according to Guizot, is the greatest school of respect that the world has ever seen. Religious instruction alone imparts the spirit of self sacrifice, great virtues, and lofty thoughts. It penetrates to the conscience, and makes life bearable without a murmur against the mystery of human conditions.

" The great end of training," says a great writer, " is. liberty; and the sooner you can get a child to be a law unto himself, the sooner you will make a man of him." " I will respect human liberty," said Monseigneur Dupanloup, " in the smallest child even more scrupulously than in a grown man; for the latter can defend. it against me, while the child can not. Never will I insult the child so far as to regard him as material to be cast into a mould, to emerge with the stamp given by my will."

Paternal authority and family independence is a sacred domain; and if momentarily obscured in troublous times,. Christian sentiment protests and resists until it regains its authority. But liberty is not all that should be struggled for; obedience, self restraint, and self-government, are the conditions to be chiefly aimed at. The latter is the principle end of education. It is not imparted by teaching, but by example. The first instruction for youth, says Bonald, consists in habits, not in reasonings, in examples rather than in direct lessons. Example preaches better than precept, and that too because it is so much more difficult. At the same time, the best influences grow slowly, and in a gradual correspondence with human needs.

Noble work is the true educator. Idleness is a thorough demoralizer of body, soul, and conscience. Nine tenths of the vices and miseries of the world proceed from idleness. Without work there can be no active progress in human welfare. Mo more insufferable misery can be conceived than that which must follow incommunicable privileges. Imagine an idle man condemned to perpetual youth, while all around him decay and die. How sincerely would he call upon death for deliverance! " The weakest living creatures," says Carlyle, " by concentrating his powers on a single object, can accomplish something; whereas the strongest, by dispersing his over many, may fail to accomplish anything."

Have we difficulties to contend with? Then work through them. No exorcism charms like labor. Idleness of mind and body resembles rust. It wears more than work. " I would rather work out than rust out," said a noble worker. Schiller said that he found the ' greatest happiness in life to consist in the permormance of some mechanical duty. He was also of opinion that " the sense of beauty never furthered the performance of a single duty." The highest order of being is that which loses sight in resolution, and feeling in work.

The greatest of difficulties often lie where we are not looking for them. When painful events, occur, they are, perhaps, sent only to try and prove us. If we stand firm in our hour of trial, the firmness gives serenity to the mind, which always feels satisfaction in acting conformably to duty. " The battles of the wilderness," said Norman Macleod, " are the sore battles of everyday life. Their giants are our giants, their sorrows our sorrows, their defeats and victories ours also. As they had honors, defeats, and victories, so have we."

The school of difficulty is the best school of moral discipline. When difficulties have to be encountered, they must be met with courage and cheerfulness. Did not Aristotle say that happiness is not so much in our objects as in our energies? Grappling with difficulties is the surest way of overcoming them. The determination to realize an object is the moral conviction that we can and will accomplish it. Our wits are sharpened by our necessity, and the individual man stands forth to meet and overcome the difficulties which stand in his way.

The memoirs of men who have thrown their opportunities away would constitute a painful but a memorable volume for the world's instruction. " No strong man, in good health," says Ebenezer Elliot, " can be neglected, if he be true to himself. For the benefit of the young, I wish we had a correct account of the number of persons who fail of success, in a thousand who resolutely strive to do well. I do not think it exceeds one per cent." Men grudge success, but it is only the last term of what looked like a series of failures. They failed at first, then again and again, but at last their difficulties vanished, and success was achieved.

The desire to possess, without being burdened with the trouble of acquiring, is a great sign of weakness and laziness. Everything that is worth enjoying or possessing can only be got by the pleasure of working. This is the great secret of practical strength. " One may very distinctly prefer industry to indolence, the healthful exercise of all one's faculties to allowing them to rest unused in drowsy torpor. In the long run we shall probably find that the exercise of the faculties has of itself been the source of a more genuine happiness than has followed the actual attainment of what the exercise was directed to procure."

We must work, trusting that some of the good seed we throw into the ground will take root and spring up into deeds of well-doing. What man begins for himself God finishes for others. Indeed we can finish nothing. Others begin where we leave off, and carry on our work to a stage nearer perfection. We have to bequeath to those who come after us a noble design, worthy of imitation. Well done, well doing, and well to do, are inseparable conditions that reach through all the ages of eternity.

Very few people can realize the idea that they are of no use in the world. The fact of their existence implies the necessity for their existence. The world is before them. They have their choice of good and evil —of usefulness and idleness. What have they done with their time and means? Have they shown the world that their existence has been of any use whatever? Have they made any one the better because of their life? Has their career been a mere matter of idleness and selfishness, of laziness and indifference? Have they been seeking pleasure? Pleasure flies before idleness. Happiness is out of the reach of laziness. Pleasure and happiness are the fruits of work and labor, never of carelessness and indifference.

A resolute will is needed not only for the performance of difficult duties, but in order to go promptly, energetically, and with self-possession, through the thousand difficult things which come in almost every-body's way. Thus courage is as necessary as integrity in the performance of duty. The force may seem small which is needed to carry one cheerfully through any of these things singly, but to encounter one by one the crowding aggregate, and never to be taken by surprise, or thrown out of temper, is one of the last attainments of the human spirit.

Every generation has to bear its own burden, to weather its peculiar perils, to pass through its manifold trials. We are daily exposed to temptations, whether it be of idleness, self indulgence, or vice. The feeling of duty and the power of courage must resist these things at whatever sacrifice of worldly interest. When virtue has thus become a daily habit, we become possessed of an individual character, prepared for fulfilling, in a great measure, the ends for which we were created.

How much is lost to the world for want of a little courage! We have the willingness to do, but we fail to do it. The state of the world is such, and so much depends on action that everything seems to say loudly to every man, " Do something; do it, do it." The poor country parson, fighting against evil in his parish, against wrong-doing, injustice, and iniquity, has nobler ideas of duty than Alexander the Great ever had. Some men are mere apologies for workers, even when they pretend to be up and at it. They stand shivering on the brink; and have not the courage to plunge in. Every day sends to the grave a number of obscure men, who, if they had had the courage to begin, would, in all probability, have gone great lengths in the career of well-doing.

One of the greatest dangers that at present beset the youth of England is laziness. What is called " culture " amounts to little. It may be associated with the meanest moral character, abject servility to those in high places, and arrogance to the poor and lowly. The fast idle youth believes nothing, venerates nothing, hopes nothing; no, not even the final triumph of good in human hearts. There are many Mr. Tootses in the world, saying " It's all the same," "It's of no consequence." It is not all the same, nor will it be all the same a hundred years hence. The life of each man tells upon the whole life of society. Each man has his special duty to perform, his special work to do. If he does it not, he himself suffers, and others suffer through him. His idleness infects others, and propagates a bad example. A useless life is only an early death.

Oh, the vain pride of mere intellectual ability! how worthless, how contemptible, when contrasted with the riches of the heart! What is the understanding of the hard dry capacity of the brain and body? A mere dead skeleton of opinions, a few dry bones tied up together, if there be not a soul to add moisture and life, substance and reality, truth and joy. Every one will remember the modest saying of Newton perhaps the greatest man who ever lived the discoverer of the method of Fluxions, the theory of universal gravitation, and the decomposition of light that he felt himself but as a child playing by the sea-shore, while the immense ocean of truth lay all unexplored before him! Have we any philosophers who will make such a confession now?

The widest field of duty lies outside the line of literature and books. Men are social beings more than intellectual creatures. The best part of human cultivation is derived from social contact; hence courtesy, self respect, mutual toleration, and self-sacrifice for the good of others. Experience of men is wider than literature. Life is a book which lasts one's lifetime, but it requires wisdom to understand its difficult pages.

" In our days," says Lady Verney, " there is an indissoluble connection between the ideas of cultivation and reading and writing. It is now only the ignorant and stupid who can not do both. But fifty years ago books, except in the highest education, were the exception, and very clever men and women thought out their own thoughts, with very little assistance from anything beyond the Testament. Even among the upper classes reading was not very common among women. ' My grandmother could hardly spell when she wrote, and she read nothing but her livre d'heures,' said a French-man who was well able to judge, 'but she was far more worthy and wise than women are now.' "

In the old times boys had duty placed before them as an incentive. To fail was to disgrace one's self, and to succeed was merely to do one's duty. " As for the dream," said Hugh Miller, " that there is to be some extraordinary elevation of the general platform of the human race achieved by means of education, it is simply the hallucination of the age the world's present alchemical expedient for converting farthings into guineas, sheerly by dint of scouring."

After all, the best school of discipline is home. Family life is God's own method of training the young. And homes are very much as women make them.

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