Power Of Good Example
( Originally Published 1884 )
High Standard of Living.—The Inspiration of Goodness.—Admiration of Good Men.—Influence of Gentle Natures.—Sir W. Napier.—Energy evokes Energy.—Radiating Force of Great Minds.—Admire Nobly.—Johnson and Boswell.
"For mine own part,
COMMUNICATION with the good is invariably productive of good. The good character is diffusive in his influence. " I was common clay till roses were planted in me," says some aromatic earth in the Eastern fable. Like begets like, and good makes good. " It is astonishing," says Canon Moseley, " how much good goodness makes. Nothing that is good is alone, nor any thing bad; it makes others good or others bad; and that other, and so on: like a stone thrown into a pond, which makes circles that make other wider ones, and then others, till the last reaches the shore Almost all the good that is in the world has, I suppose, thus come down to us traditionally from remote times, and often unknown centres of good. So Mr. Ruskin says, " That which is born of evil begets evil; and that which is born of valor and honor teaches valor and honor."
Hence it is that the life of every man is a daily inculcation of good or bad example to others. The life of a good man is at the same time the most eloquent lesson of virtue and the most severe reproof of vice. Dr. Hooker described the life of a pious clergyman of his acquaintance as " visible rhetoric," convincing even the most godless of the beauty of goodness. And so the good George Herbert said, on entering upon the duties of his parish: " Above all, I will be sure to live well, because the virtuous life of a clergyman is the most powerful eloquence to persuade all who see it to reverence and love, and at least to desire to live like him. And this I will do," he added, " because I know we live in an age that hath more need of good examples than precepts." It was a fine saying of the same good priest, when reproached with doing an act of kindness to a poor man considered beneath the dignity of his office that the thought of such actions " would prove music to him at midnight." Izaak Walton speaks of a letter written by George Herbert to Bishop Andrewes about a holy life, which the latter "put into his bosom," and, after showing it to his scholars, " did always return it to the place where he first lodged it, and continued it so, near his heart, till the last day of his life."
Great is the power of goodness to charm and to command. The man inspired by it is the true king of men, drawing all hearts after him. When General Nicholson lay wounded on his death-bed before Delhi, he dictated this last message to his equally noble and gallant friend, Sir Herbert Edwardes: "Tell him," said he, "I should have been a better man if I had continued to live with him, and our heavy public duties had not prevented my seeing more of him privately. I was always the better for a residence with him and his wife, however short. Give my love to them both !"
There are men in whose presence we feel as if we breathed a spiritual ozone, refreshing and invigorating, like inhaling mountain air, or enjoying a bath of sun-shine. The power of Sir Thomas More's gentle nature was so great that it subdued the bad at the same time that it inspired the good. Lord Brooke said of his deceased friend, Sir Philip Sidney, that " his wit and understanding beat upon his heart, to make himself and others, not in word or opinion, but in life and action, good and great."
The very sight of a great and good man is often an inspiration to the young, who cannot help admiring and loving the gentle, the brave, the truthful, the magnanimous ! Chateaubriand saw Washington only once, but it inspired him for life. After describing the interview, he says: " Washington sank into the tomb before any little celebrity had attached to my name. I passed before him as the most unknown of beings. He was in all his glory I in the depth of my obscurity. My name probably dwelt not a whole day in his memory. Happy, however, was I that his looks were cast upon me. I have felt warmed for it all the rest of my life. There is a virtue even in the looks of a great man."
When Niebuhr died, his friend, Frederick Perthes, said of him: " What a contemporary! The terror of all bad and base men, the stay of all the sterling and honest, the friend and helper of youth." Perthes said on another occasion: " It does a wrestling man good to be constantly surrounded by tried wrestlers; evil thoughts are put to flight when the eye falls on the portrait of one in whose living presence one would have blushed to own them." A Catholic money-lender, when about to cheat, was wont to draw a veil over the picture of his favorite saint. So Hazlitt has said of the portrait of a beautiful female, that it seemed as if an unhand-some action would be impossible in its presence. " It does one good to look upon his manly, honest face," said a poor German woman, pointing to a portrait of the great Reformer hung upon the wall of her humble dwelling.
Even the portrait of a noble or a good man, hung up in a room, is companionship after a sort. It gives us a closer personal interest in him. Looking at the features, we feel as if we knew him better, and were more nearly related to him. It is a link that connects us with a higher and better nature than our own. And though we may be far from reaching the standard of our hero, we are, to a certain extent, sustained and fortified by his depicted presence constantly before us.
Fox was proud to acknowledge how much he owed to the example and conversation of Burke. On one occasion he said of him, that " if he was to put all the political information he had gained from books, all that he had learned from science, or that the knowledge of the world and its affairs taught him, into one scale, and the improvement he had derived from Mr. Burke's conversation and instruction into the other, the latter would preponderate."
Professor Tyndall speaks of Faraday's friendship as " energy and inspiration." After spending an evening with him, he wrote: " His work excites admiration, but contact with him warms and elevates the heart. Here, surely, is a strong man. I love strength, but let me not forget the example of its union with modesty, tender ness, and sweetness, in the character of Faraday."
Even the gentlest natures are powerful to influence the character of others for good. Thus Wordsworth seems to have been especially impressed by the character of his sister Dorothy who exercised upon his mind and heart a lasting influence. He describes her as the blessing of his boyhood as well as of his manhood. Though two years younger than himself, her tenderness and sweetness contributed greatly to mould his nature, and open his mind to the influences of poetry:
" She gave me eyes, she gave me ears,
Thus the gentlest natures are enabled, by the power of affection and intelligence, to mould the characters of men destined to influence and elevate their race through all time.
Sir William Napier attributed the early direction of his character first. to the impress made upon it by his mother, when a boy, and afterwards to the noble example of his commander, Sir John Moore, when a man. Moore early detected the qualities of the young officer; and he was one of those to whom the general addressed the encouragement, " Well done, my majors !" at Corunna. Writing home to his mother, and describing the little court by which Moore was surrounded, he wrote, " Where shall we find such a king ?" It was to his personal affection for his chief that the world is mainly indebted to Sir William Napier for his great book, " The History of the Peninsular War." But he was stimulated to write the book by the advice of another friend, the late Lord Langdale, while one day walking with him across the fields on which Belgravia is now built. " It was Lord Langdale," he says, " who first kindled the fire within me." And of Sir William Napier himself, his biographer truly says, that " no thinking person could ever come in contact with him, without being strongly impressed with the genius of the man."
The career of the late Dr. Marshall Hall was a life-long illustration of the influence of character in forming character. Many eminent men still living trace their success in life to his suggestions and assistance, without which several valuable lines of study and investigation might not have been entered on, at least at so early a period. He would say to young men about him, " Take up a subject and pursue it well, and you can not fail to succeed.' And often he would throw out a new idea to a young friend, saying, " I make you a present of it; there is fortune in it, if you pursue it with energy."
Energy of character has always a power to evoke energy in others. It acts through sympathy, one of the most influential of human agencies. The zealous, energetic man unconsciously carries others along with him. His example is contagious, and compels imitation. He exercises a sort of electric power, which sends a thrill through every fibre, flows into the nature of those about him, and makes them give out sparks of fire.
Dr. Arnold's biographer, speaking of the power of this kind exercised by him over young men, says: " It was not so much an enthusiastic admiration for true genius, or learning, or eloquence, which stirred within them; it was a sympathetic thrill, caught from a spirit that was earnestly at work in the world whose work was healthy, sustained, and constantly carried forward in the fear of Goda work that was founded on a deep sense of its duty and its value."
Such a power, exercised by men of genius, evokes courage, enthusiasm and devotion. It is this intense admiration for individuals such as one can not conceive entertained for a multitude which has in all times produced heroes and martyrs. It is thus that the mastery of character makes itself felt. It acts by inspiration, quickening and vivifying the natures subject to its influence.
Great minds are rich in radiating force, not only exerting power, but communicating and even creating it. Thus Dante raised and drew after him a host of great spirits Petrarch, Boccacio, Tasso, and many more. From him Milton learnt to bear. the stings of evil tongues and the contumely of evil days; and long years after, Byron, thinking of Dante under the pine-trees of Ravenna, was incited to tune his harp to loftier strains than he had ever attempted before. Dante inspired the greatest painters of Italy Giotto, Orcagna, Michael Angelo, and Raphael. So Ariosto and Titian mutually inspired one another, and lighted up each other's glory.
Great and good men draw others after them, exciting the spontaneous admiration of mankind. This admiration of noble character elevates the mind, and tends to redeem it from the bondage of self, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to moral improvement. The recollection of men who have signalized themselves by great thoughts or great deeds seems as if to create for the time a purer atmosphere around us: and we feel as if our aims and purposes were unconsciously elevated.
" Tell me whom you admire," said Sainte-Beuve, " and I will tell you what you are, at least as regards your talents, tastes, and character." Do you admire mean men ?—your own nature is mean. Do you admire rich men? you are of the earth, earthy. Do you admire men of title?—you are a toad-eater, or a tuft-hunter. Do you admire honest, brave, and manly men ? you are yourself of an honest, brave, and manly spirit.
It is in the season of youth, while the character is forming, that the impulse to admire is the greatest. As we advance in life we crystallize into habit; and " Nil admirari" too often becomes our motto. It is well to encourage the admiration of great characters while the nature is plastic and open to impressions; for if the good are not admired as young men will have their heroes of some sort most probably the great bad may be taken by them for models. Hence it always rejoiced Dr. Arnold to hear his pupils expressing admiration of great deeds, or full of enthusiasm for persons or even scenery. " I believe," said he, " that "Nil admirari' is the devil's favorite text; and he could not choose a better to introduce his pupils into the more esoteric parts of his doctrine. And therefore I have always looked upon a man infected with the disorder of anti-romance as one who has lost the finest part of his nature, and his best protection against everything low and foolish.
"No quality," said Dr. Johnson, " will get a man more friends than a sincere admiration of the qualities of others. It indicates generosity of nature, frankness, cordiality, and cheerful recognition of merit." It was to the sincere it might almost be said the reverential admiration of Johnson by Boswell, that we owe one of the best biographies ever written. One is disposed to think that there must have been some genuine good qualities in Boswell to have been attracted by such a man as Johnson, and to have kept faithful to his worship in spite of rebuffs and snubbings innumerable. Macaulay speaks of Boswell as an altogether contemptible person as a coxcomb and a bore weak, vain, pushing, curious, garrulous; and without wit, humor, or eloquence. But Carlyle is doubtless more just in his characterization of the biographer, in whom vain and foolish though he was in many respects he sees a man penetrated by the old reverent feeling of discipleship, full of love and admiration for true wisdom and excellence. Without such qualities, Carlyle insists, the " Life of Johnson" never could have been written. " Boswell wrote a good book," he says, " because he had a heart and an eye to discern wisdom, and an utterance to render it forth; because of his free insight, his lively talent, and above all, of his love and child-like open-mindedness."