Companionship Of Books
( Originally Published 1884 )
Men are Known by the Books They Read.—Good Books the Best Society.—Interest of Biography.—The Great Lesson of Biography.—The Book of Books.—History and Biography.—Books the Inspirers of Youth.
"Books, we know,
"Good books are pearl and gold."—COBURN.
"Not only in the common speech of men, but in all art too which is or should be the concentrated and conserved essence of what men can speak and show—Biography is almost the one thing needful."—CARLYLE.
A MAN may usually be known by the books he reads, as well as by the company he keeps; for there is a companionship of books as well as of men; and one should always live in the best company, whether it be of books or of men.
A good book may be among the best of friends. It is the same today that it always was, and it will never change. It is the most patient and cheerful of companions. It does not turn its back upon us in times of adversity or distress. It always receives us with the same kindness; amusing and instructing us in youth, and comforting and consoling us in age.
Men often discover their affinity to each other by the mutual love they have for a book just as two persons sometimes discover a friend by the admiration which both entertain for a third. There is an old proverb, " Love me, love my dog." But there is more wisdom in this: " Love me, love my book." The book is a truer and higher bond of union. Men can think, feel, and sympathize with each other through their favorite author. They live in him together, and he in them.
Books introduce us into the best society; they bring us into the presence of the greatest minds that have ever lived. We hear what they said and did; we see them as if they were really alive; we are participators in their thoughts; we sympathize with them, enjoy with them, grieve with them; their experience becomes ours, and we feel as if we were in a measure actors with them in the scenes which they describe.
The great and good do not die, even in this world. Embalmed in books, their spirits walk abroad. The book is a living voice. It is an intellect to which one still listens. Hence we ever remain under the influence of the great men of old.
The imperial intellects of the world are as much alive now as they were ages ago. Homer still lives; and though his personal history is hidden in the mists of antiquity, his poems are as fresh today as if they had been newly written. Plato still teaches his transcendent philosophy; Horace, Virgil, and Dante still sing as when they lived; Shakspeare is not dead; his body was buried in 1616, but his mind is as much alive in England now, and his thought as far-reaching, as in the time of the Tudors.
Great, indeed, is the human interest felt in biography! What are all the novels that find such multitudes of readers, but so many ficticious biographies ? What are the dramas that people crowd to see, but so much acted biography ? Strange that the highest genius should be employed on the ficticious biography, and so much commonplace ability on the real!
The great lesson of biography is to show what man can be and do at his best. A noble life put fairly on record acts like an inspiration to others. It exhibits what life is capable of being made. It refreshes our spirit, encourages our hopes, gives us new strength and courage and faith faith in others as well as in ourselves. It stimulates our aspirations, rouses us to action, and incites us to become co-partners with them in- their work. To live with such men in their biographies, and to be inspired by their example, is to live with the best of men and to mix in the best of company.
At the head of all biographies stands the Great Biography the Book of Books. And what is the Bible, the most sacred and impressive of all books the educator of youth, the guide of manhood, and the consoler of age but a series of biographies of great heroes and patriarchs, prophets, kings, and judges culminating in the greatest biography of all the Life embodied in the New Testament? How much have the great examples there set forth done for mankind ! How many have drawn from them their best strength, their highest wisdom, their best nurture and admonition!
History itself is best studied in biography. Indeed, history is biography collective humanity as influenced and governed by individual men. " What is all history," says Emerson, " but the work of ideas, a record of the incomparable energy which his infinite aspirations in-fuse into man?" In its pages it is always persons we see more than principles. Historical events are interesting to us mainly in connection with the feelings, the sufferings, and interests of those by whom they are accomplished. In history we are surrounded by men long dead, but whose speech and whose deeds survive. We almost catch the sound of their voices; and what they did constitutes the interest of history.
While books are among the best companions of old age, they are often the best inspirers of youth. The first book that makes a deep impression on a young man's mind often constitutes an epoch in his life. It may fire the heart, stimulate the enthusiasm, and, by directing his efforts into unexpected channels, permanently influence his character. The new book, in which we form an intimacy with a new friend, whose mind is wiser and riper than our own, may thus form an important starting-point in the history of a life. It may sometimes almost be regarded in the light of a new birth.
The True Gentleman is one whose nature has been fashioned after the highest models. It is a grand old name, that of Gentleman, and has been recognized as a rank and power in all stages of society. ' " The Gentle-man is always the Gentleman," said the old French General to his regiment of Scottish gentry at Rousillon, " and invariably proves himself such in need and in danger." To possess this character is a dignity of it-self, commanding the instinctive homage of every generous mind, and those who will not bow to titular rank, will yet do homage to the gentleman. His qualities depend not upon fashion or manners, but upon moral worth not on personal possessions, but on personal qualities. The Psalmist briefly describes him as one " that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart."
The gentleman is eminently distinguished for his self-respect. He values his character not so much of it only as can be seen of others, but as he sees it himself; having regard for the approval of his inward monitor. And, as he respects himself, so, by the same law, does he respect others. Humanity is sacred in his eyes; and thence proceed politeness and forbearance, kindness and charity.
The true gentleman has a keen sense of honor scrupulously avoiding mean actions. His standard of probity in word and action is high. He does not shuffle or prevaricate, dodge or skulk; but is honest, upright, and straightforward. His law is rectitude action in right lines. When he says yes, it is a law: and he dares to say the valiant no at the fitting season. The gentleman will not be bribed; only the low-minded and unprincipled will sell themselves to those who are interested in buying them.
Riches and rank have no necessary connection with genuine gentlemanly qualities. The poor man may be a true gentleman in spirit and in daily life. He may be honest, truthful, upright, polite, temperate, courageous, self-respecting, and self-helping that is, be a true gentleman. The poor man with a rich spirit is in all ways superior to the rich man with a poor spirit. To borrow St. Paul's words, the former is as " having nothing, yet possessing all things," while the other,' though possessing all things has nothing. The first hopes every thing, and fears nothing; the last hopes nothing, and fears every thing. Only the poor in spirit are really poor. He who has lost all, but retains his courage, cheerfulness, hope, virtue, and 'self respect, is still rich. For such a man, the world is, as it were, held in trust; his spirit dominating over its grosser cares, he can still walk erect, a true gentleman.
There are many tests by which a gentleman may be known; but there is one that never fails. How does he exercise power over those subordinate to him? How does he conduct himself towards women and children? How does the officer treat his men, the employer his servants, the master his pupils, and man in every station those who are weaker than himself? The discretion, forbearance, and kindliness with which power in such cases is used, may indeed be regarded as the crucial test of gentlemanly character.
Gentleness is indeed the best test of gentlemanliness. A consideration for the feelings of others, for his inferiors and dependents as well as his equals, and respect for their self respect, will pervade the true gentleman's whole conduct. He will rather himself suffer a small injury, than by any uncharitable construction of another's behavior, incur the risk of committing a great wrong. He will be forbearant of the weaknesses, the failings, and the errors, of those whose advantages in life have not been equal to his own. He will be merciful even to his beast. He will not boast of his wealth, or his strength, or his gifts. He will not be puffed up by success, or unduly depressed by failure. He will not obtrude his views upon others, but speak his mind freely when occasion calls for it. He will not confer favors with a patronizing air. Sir Walter Scott once said of Lord Lothian, " He is a man from whom one may receive a favor, and that's saying a great deal in these days."
The quaint old Fuller sums up in a few words the character of the true gentleman and man of action in describing that of the great admiral, Sir Francis Drake: " Chaste in his life, just in his dealings, true of his word; merciful to those that were under him, and hating nothing so much as idleness; in matters especially of moment, he was never wont to rely on other men's care, how trusty or skillful soever they might seem to be, but, always contemning danger, and refusing no toil, he was wont himself to be one (whoever was a second) at every turn, where courage, skill or industry, was to be employed."