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Honesty - Truth

( Originally Published 1884 )

Lying.—Little Lying.—Regulus the Roman.—Honesty in Business.—Depreciation of Manufactures.—The Chinese.—Bad Work Lying.—Socrates on Perfection of Work.—America on Money-making.—America 'without Apprentices.—Badness of Trade.—Commercial Gambling.—Repudiation of Pennsylvania.—Illinois Remains Honest.—Honesty of a German Peasant.

"The honest man, though e'er so poor,
Is king o' men for a' that."-BURNS.

HONESTY and truthfulness go well together. Honesty is truth, and truth is honesty. Truth alone may not constitute a great man, but it is the most important element of' a great character. It gives security to those who employ him, and confidence to those who serve under him. Truth is the essence of principle, integrity, and independence. It is the primary need of every man. Absolute veracity is more needed now than at any former period in our history.

Lying, common though it be, is denounced even by the liar himself. He protests that he is speaking the truth, for he knows that truth is universally respected, while lying is universally condemned. Lying is not only dishonest, but cowardly. " Dare to be true," said George Herbert; " nothing can ever need a lie." The most mischievous liars are those who keep on the verge of truth. They have not the courage to speak out the fact, but go round about it, and tell what is really untrue. A lie which is half the truth is the worst of lies.

There is a duplicity of life which is quite as bad as verbal falsehood. Actions have as plain a voice as words. The mean man is false to his profession. He evades the truth that he professes to believe. He plays at double dealing. He wants sincerity and veracity. The sincere man speaks as he thinks, believes as he pretends to believe, acts as he professes to act and performs as he promises.

" Other forms of practical contradiction are common," says Mr. Spurgeon; " some are intolerantly liberal; others are ferocious advocates for peace, or intemperate on intemperance. We have known pleaders for generosity who were themselves miserably stingy. We have heard of persons who have been wonderful sticklers for 'the truth' meaning thereby a certain form of doctrine— and yet they have not regarded the truth in matters of buying and selling, or with regard to the reputation of their neighbors, or the incidents of domestic life."

Lying is one of the most common and conventional of vices. It prevails in what is called " Society." Not at home is the fashionable mode of reply to a visitor. Lying is supposed to be so necessary to carry on human affairs that it is tacitly agreed to. One lie may be considered harmless, another slight, another unintended. Little lies are common. However tolerated, lying is more or less loathsome to every pure-minded man or woman. " Lies," says Ruskin, " may be light and accidental, but they are an ugly soot from the smoke of the pit, and it is better that our hearts should be swept clean of them, without our care as to which is largest or blackest."

" Lying abroad for the benefit of one's country " used to be the maxim of the diplomatist. Yet a man should care more for his word than for his life. When Regulus was sent by the Carthaginians, whose prisoner he was, to Rome, with a convoy of ambassadors to sue for peace, it was under the condition that he should return to his prison if peace were not effected. He took the oath, and swore that he would come back.

When he appeared at Rome he urged the senators. to persevere in the war, and not to agree to the exchange of prisoners. That involved his return to captivity at Carthage. The senators, and even the chief priest, held that as his oath had been wrested from him by force, he was not bound to go. " Have you resolved to dishonor me?" asked Regulus. "I am not ignorant that death and tortures are preparing for me; but what are these to the shame of an infamous action, or the wounds of a guilty mind? Slave as I am to Carthage, I have still the spirit of a Roman. I have sworn to return. It is my duty to go. Let the gods take care of the rest." Regulus returned to Carthage, and died under torture..

Truth and honesty show themselves in various ways. They characterize the man of just dealing, the faithful men of business, the men who will not deceive you to their own advantage. Honesty is the plainest and humblest manifestation of the principle of truth. Full measures, just weights, true samples, full service, strict fulfilment of engagements, are all indispensable to men of character.

Take a common case. Sam Foote had reason to complain of the shortness of the beer served to him at dinner. He called the landlord, and said to him, " Pray, sir, how many butts of beer do you draw in a month?" "Ten, sir," replied the publican. " And would you like to draw eleven if you could?" " Certainly, sir." " Then I will tell you how," said Foote; " fill your measure!"

But the case goes farther than this. We complain of short weights and adulteration of goods. We buy one thing and get another. But goods must sell; if with a profit, so much the better. If the dealer is found out, the customer goes elsewhere. M. Le Play, when he visited England many years ago, observed with great pleasure the commercial probity of English manufacturers. " They display," he said, " a scrupulous exactitude in the quantity and quality of their foreign consignments."

Could he say the same now? Have we not heard in public courts of the depreciation of our manufactures —of cotton loaded with china clay, starch, magnesium, and zinc? We have seen the loading, and therefore know what it is. The cotton becomes mildewed, discolored, and therefore unsalable. The mildew is a fungoid which, when developed by moisture, lives and grows upon the starch. China was one of the many marts for England-made cotton. But when the mildew -appeared, the trade vanished.

There is a Chinese proverb to the effect that " the conjuror does not deceive the man who beats the gong for him." The Chinaman is as great a deceiver as we are. He puts iron filings into his tea, and water into his silk. He is therefore quite awake to the deceptions of others. " The consequence is," says the British Consul at Cheefoo, " that our textiles have got a bad name, and their place is being supplied by American manufacturers. American drills, though forty per cent dearer, are driving English drills out of the market." We are no longer trusted. The English brand used to be a guarantee of honesty. It is so no longer.

All bad work is lying. It is thoroughly dishonest. You pay for having a work done well; it is done badly and dishonestly. It may be varnished over with a fair show of sufficiency, but the sin is not discovered until it is too late. So long as these things continue, it is in vain to talk of the dignity of labor, or of the social -value of the so-called working man. There can be no dignity of labor where there is no truthfulness, of work. " Dignity does not consist in hollowness and in light-handedness, but in substantiality and in strength. If there be flimsiness and superficiality of all kinds apparent in the work of the present day more than in the work of our forefathers, whence comes it ? From eagerness and competition, and the haste to be rich."

Socrates explained how useful and excellent a thing it was that a man should resolve on perfection in his own line, so that, if he be a carpenter, he will be the best possible carpenter; or if a statesman, that he will be the best possible statesman. It is by such means that true success is achieved. Such a' carpenter, Socrates said, would win the wreath of carpentering, though it was only of shavings.

Strange to say, the Americans are beginning to think that the badness of work, and the unwillingness to do good work, is, to a certain extent, the outcome of the common school system. Everybody is so well educated that he is above doing manual labor. There are no American apprentices, and no American servants. We do not speak without authority. A writer in Scribner's Monthly says that the Americans make a god of their common school system. It is treason to speak a word against it. A man is regarded as a foe to education who expresses any doubt of the value of it. But we may as well open our eyes to the fact that in preparing men for the work of life, especially for that work depending on manual skill, it is a hindrance and a failure. It is a mere smatter, veneering, and cram."

The writer of the article says that the old system of apprenticeship has grown almost entirely into disuse.

The boys are at school and cannot be apprenticed to a trade. Hence most mechanical work is done by foreigners. The lad who has made a successful beginning of the cultivation of his intellect does not like the idea of getting a living by the skillful use of his hands in the common employment of life. He has no taste for bodily labor. He gets some light employment, or tries to live upon his wits.

Under a spreading chestnut tree The village Smithy stands."

So said Longfellow. The village smithy stands there no longer. When General Armstrong, of the colored college of Hampton, went to the North in search of blacksmiths, he found no Americans to engage. Every blacksmith was an Irishman. And in the next generation of Irishmen every boy will be so well educated that he will not put his hands to any bodily labor. A New York clergyman possessing a large family (to correct this spreading influence) recently declared from his pulpit that he intended that every lad of his family should learn some mechanical employment, by which, on an emergency, he might get a living. Rich and poor should alike be taught to work, skilfully if possible; for it is quite as likely that the rich will become poor as that some of the poor will become rich; and that is a poor education which fails to prepare a man to take care of himself and his dependants throughout life.

We have lately been complaining of the badness of trade, but has not much of it happened through our own misdoing? In the arithmetic of the counting-house two and two do not always make four. How many tricks are resorted to in which honesty forms. no part for making money faster than others ! Instead of working patiently and well for a modest living, many desire to get rich all at once. The spirit of the age is. not that of a trader, but of a gambler. The pace is to fast to allow of any one stopping to inquire as to those who have fallen out by the way. They press on; the race for wealth is for the swift. Their faith is in money. It needs no prophet to point out the connection of our distress with the sin of commercial gambling and fraud, and of social extravagance and vanity, of widespread desolation and misery.

" My son," said a father, " ye're gawn out into t'warld; ye may be wranged; but if it comes to that, chet rather than be cheted." Another said, " Make money, honestly, if you can; but if not, make it." A third said, " Honesty is better than dishonesty; I've tried both." Of course we quote these phrases as being at utter variance with truth and honesty. But it is to be doubted whether higher principles of conduct prevail in many of the commercial classes of life. A young man begins business. He goes on slowly yet safely. His gains may be small, but they are justly come by. " A faithful man shall abound with blessings; but he that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent: he hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty may come upon him."

In large commercial towns young men are amazed at the splendor of the leaders of trade. They are supposed to be enormously rich. Every door opens to them. They command the highest places in society. They give balls, parties, and dinners. Their houses are full of pictures by the greatest artists. Their cellars are full of wine of the choicest vintage. Their conversation is not great; it is mostly about wine, horses, or prices. They seem to sail upon the golden sea of a great accumulated fortune.

Young business men are often carried away by such examples. If they have not firmness and courage, they are apt to follow in their footsteps. The first speculation may be a gain. The gain may be followed by another, and they are carried off their feet by the lust for wealth. They become dishonest and unscrupulous. Their bills are all over the discount market. To keep up their credit they spend more money upon pictures,, and even upon charities. Formerly greedy and unjust men seized the goods of others by violence; to-day they obtain them by fraudulent bankruptcies. Formerly every attempt was open; to-day everything is secret, until at length the last event comes, and everything is exposed. The man fails; the bills are worthless; the pictures are sold; and the recreant flies to avoid the curses of his creditors.

Nations and states are dishonest as well as individuals. Their condition is to be measured by the state of their three per cents. Spain and Greece and Turkey are dishonored in the commercial world. Spain was killed by her riches. The gold which came pouring into Spain from her vanquished colonies in South America depraved the people, and rendered them indolent and lazy. Nowadays a Spaniard will blush to work; he will not blush to beg. Greece has repudiated her debts for many years. Like Turkey, she has nothing to pay. All the works of industry in those countries are done by foreigners.

Much better things might have been hoped from Pennsylvania and the other American States which repudiated their debts many years ago. These were rich States, and the money borrowed from abroad made them richer, by opening up roads, and constructing canals for the benefit of the people. The Rev. Sydney Smith who lent his money, " the savings from a life's income made with difficulty and privation "—let the world know of his loss. He addressed a remonstrance to the House of Congress at Washington, which he afterwards published. " The Americans," he said, " who boast to have improved the institutions of the Old World have at least equalled its crimes. A great nation, after trampling under foot all earthly tyranny, has been guilty of a fraud as enormous as ever disgraced the worst king of the most degraded nation of Europe."

The State of Illinois acted nobly, though it was poor. It had borrowed money, like Pennsylvania, for the purpose of carrying out internal improvements. When the inhabitants of rich Pennsylvania set the example of repudiating their debts, many of the poorer States wished to follow in their footsteps. As every house-holder had a vote, it was easy, if they were dishonest, to repudiate their debts. A convention met at Spring field, the capital of the State, and the repudiation ordinance was offered to the meeting. It was about to be adopted, when it was stopped by an honest man. Stephen A. Douglas (let his honorable name be mentioned!) was lying sick at his hotel, when he desired to be taken to the convention. He was carried on a mattress, for he was too ill to walk. Lying on his back he wrote the following resolution, which he offered as a substitute for the repudiation ordinance :

" Resolved, that Illinois will be honest, although she never pays a cent."

The resolution touched the honest sentiment of every member of the convention. It was adopted with enthusiasm. It dealt a death-blow to the system of repudiation. The canal bonds immediately rose. Capital and emigration flowed into the State; and Illinois is now one of the most prosperous States in America. She has more miles of railway than any of the other States. Her broad prairies are one great grain-field, and are dotted about with hundreds of thousands of peaceful, happy homes. This is what honesty does.

The truth is, we have become too selfish. We think of ourselves far more than of others. The more devoted to pleasure the less we think of our fellow-creatures. Selfish people are impervious to the needs of others. They exist in a sort of mailed armor, and no weapons, either of misery or want, can assail them. Their senses are only open to those who can minister to their gratifications. " There are men," says St. Crysostom, " who seem to have come into the world only for pleasure, and that they might fatten this perishable body. . . . At sight of their luxurious table the angels retire God is offended the demons rejoice virtuous men are shocked and even the domestics scorn and laugh. . . . The just men who have gone before left sumptuous feasts to tyrants, and to men enriched by crime, who were the scourges of the world."

We no longer know how to live upon little. A man must have luxury about him. And yet a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesseth; he must live honestly, though poor. Retrenchment of the useless, the want even of the relatively necessary, is the high-road to Christian self denial, as well as to antique strength of character. That of which our age stands most in need is a man able to gratify every just desire, and yet to be contented with little. " A great heart in a little house," says Lacordaire, " is of all things here below that which has ever touched me most. Happy the man who soweth the good and the true. The harvest will not fail him!"

Here is a fine specimen of honesty and truthfulness on the part of the poor German peasant. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre has told the story in his " Etudes de la Nature." He was serving as an engineer under the Count de Saint-Germain during his campaign in Hesse, in 176o. For the first time he became familiar with the horrors of war. Day by day he passed through sacked villages and devastated fields and farm-yards. Men, women, and children were flying from their cottages in tears. Armed men were everywhere destroying the fruits of their labor, regarding it as a part of their glory. But in the midst of so many acts of cruelty Saint-Pierre was consoled by a sub-lime trait of character displayed by a poor man whose cottage and farm lay in the way of the advancing army.

A captain of dragoons was ordered out with his troop to forage for provisions. They reached a poor cabin and knocked at the door. An old man with a white beard appeared. Take me to a field," said the officer, " where I can obtain forage for my troops." " Immediately, sir," replied the old man. He put him-self at their head, and ascended the valley. After about half an hour's march a fine field of barley appeared. " This will do admirably," said the officer. " No," said the old man; " wait a little, and all will be right." They went on again, until they reached another field of barley. The troops dismounted, mowed down the grain, and trussing it up in bundles, put them on their horses. " Friend," said the officer, " how is it that you have brought us so far. The first field of barley that we saw was quite as good as this." " That is quite true," said the peasant, " but it was not mine!"

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