Influence Of Character
( Originally Published 1884 )
Character a Great Power in the World.—Common :Duty.—Character above Learning and Wealth.—Character a Property.—Honesty of Character.—Principles.—Reliableness.—Practical Wisdom.—Sheridan and Burke.
"Unless above himself, he can
CHARACTER is one of the greatest motive powers in the world. In its noblest embodiments it exemplifies human nature in its, highest forms, for it exhibits man at his best.
Men of genuine excellence, in every station of life —men of industry, of integrity, of high principle, of sterling honesty of purpose command the spontaneous homage of mankind. It is natural to believe in such men, to have confidence in them, and to imitate them. All that is good in the world is upheld by them, and without their presence in it the world would not be worth living in.
Although genius always commands admiration, character most secures respect. The former is more the product of brain-power, the latter of heart power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life. Men of genius stand to society in the relation of its intellect, as men of character of its conscience; and while the former are admired, the latter are followed.
Great men are always exceptional men; and greatness itself is but comparative. Indeed, the range of most men in life is so limited, that very few have the opportunity of being great. But each man can act his part honestly and honorably, and to the best of his ability. He can use his gifts, and not abuse them. He can strive to make the best of life. He can be true, just, honest and faithful, even in small things. In a word, he can do his duty in that sphere in which Providence has placed him.
Commonplace though it may appear, this doing of one's duty embodies the highest ideal of life and character. There may be nothing heroic about it; but the common lot of men is not heroic. And though the abiding sense of duty upholds man in his highest attitudes, it also equally sustains him in the transaction of the ordinary affairs of every-day existence. Man's life is "centred in the sphere of common duties." The most influential of all the virtues are those which are the most in request for daily use. They wear the best, and last the longest. Superfine virtues, which are above the standard of common men, may only be sources of temptation and danger. Burke has truly said "that the human system which rests for its basis on the heroic virtues is sure to have a superstructure of weakness or of profligacy."
When Dr. Abbot, afterwards Archbishop of Canter-bury, drew the character of his deceased friend Thomas Sackville, he did not dwell upon his merits as a states-man, or his genius as a poet, but upon his virtues as a man in relation to the ordinary duties of life. " How many rare things were in him!" said he. "Who more loving unto his wife ? Who more kind unto his children? Who more fast unto his friend ? Who more moderate unto his enemy? Who more true to his word?" Indeed, we can always better understand and appreciate a man's real character by the manner in which he conducts himself towards those who are the most nearly related to him, and by his transaction of the seemingly commonplace details of daily duty, than by his public exhibition of himself as an author, an ora tor, or a statesman.
At the same time, while duty, for the most part, applies to the conduct of affairs in common life by the average of common men, it is also a sustaining power to men of the very highest standard of character. They may not have either money, or property, or learning, or power; and yet they may be strong in heart and rich in spirit honest, truthful, dutiful. And whoever strives to do his duty faithfully is fulfilling. the purpose for which he was created, and building up in himself the principles of a manly character. There are many per-sons of whom it may be said that they have no other possession in the world but their character, and yet they stand as firmly upon it as any crowned king.
Intellectual culture has no necessary relation to purity or excellence of character. In the New Testament, appeals are constantly made to the heart of man and to " the spirit we are of," while allusions to the intellect are of very rare occurrence. " A handful of good life," says George Herbert, " is worth a bushel of learning." Not that learning is to be despised, but that it must be allied to goodness. Intellectual capacity is sometimes found associated with the meanest moral character with abject servility to those in high places, and arrogance to those of low estate. A man may be accomplished in art, literature, and science, and yet, in honesty, virtue, truthfulness, and the spirit of duty, be entitled to take rank after many a poor and illiterate peasant.
" You insist," wrote Perthes to a friend, " on respect for learned men. I say, Amen! But at the same time, don't forget that largeness of mind, depth of thought, appreciation of the lofty, experience of the world, delicacy of manner, tact and energy in action, love of truth, honesty, and amiability that all these may be wanting in a man who may yet be very learned."
When some one, in Sir Walter Scott's hearing, made a remark as to the value of literary talents and accomplishments, as if they were above all things to be esteemed and honored, he observed, " God help us ! what a poor world this would be if that were the true doctrine! I have read books enough, and observed and conversed with enough of eminent and splendidly-cultured minds, too, in my time; but I assure you, I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of poor uneducated men and women, when exerting the spirit of severe yet gentle heroism under difficulties and afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in the lot of friends and neighbors, than I ever yet met with out of the Bible. We shall never learn to feel and respect our real calling and destiny, unless we have taught ourselves to consider every thing as moonshine, compared with the education of the heart."
Still less has wealth any necessary connection with elevation of character. On the contrary, it is much more frequently the cause of its corruption and degradation. Wealth and corruption, luxury and vice, have very close affinities to each other. Wealth in the hands of men of weak purpose, of deficient self control, or of ill-regulated passions, is only a temptation and a snare --the source, it may be, of infinite mischief to them-selves, and often to others.
On the contrary, a condition of comparative poverty is compatible with character in its highest form. A man may possess only his industry, his frugality, his integrity, and yet stand high in the rank of true man-hood. The advice which Burns's father gave him was the best :
" He bade me act a manly part, though
One of the purest and noblest characters the writer ever knew was a laboring-man in a northern county, who brought up his family respectably on an income never amounting to more than ten shillings a week. Though possessed of only the rudiments of common education, obtained at an ordinary parish school, he was a man full of wisdom and thoughtfulness. His library consisted of the Bible, " Flavel," and " Boston " books which, excepting the first, probably few readers have ever heard of. This good man might have sat for the portrait of Wordsworth's well-known " Wanderer." When he had lived his modest life of work and worship, and finally went to his rest, he left behind him a reputation for practical wisdom, for genuine goodness, and for helpfulness in every good work, which greater and richer men might have envied.
When Luther died, he left behind him, as set forth in his will, " no ready money, no treasure of coin of any description." He was so poor at one part of his life, that he was under the necessity of earning his bread by turning, gardening, and clock-making. Yet, at the very time when he was thus working with his hands, he was. moulding the character of his country; and he was. morally stronger, and vastly more honored and followed, than all the princes of Germany.
Character is property. It is the noblest of possessions. It is an estate in the general good-will and respect of men; and they who invest in it though they may not become rich in this world's goods will find their reward in esteem and reputation fairly and honorably won. And it is right that in life good qualities should tell that industry, virtue, and goodness should rank the highest and that the really best men should be foremost.
Simple honesty of purpose in a man goes a long way in life, if founded on a just estimate of himself and a steady obedience to the rule he knows and feels to be right. It holds a man straight, gives him strength and sustenance, and forms a mainspring or vigorous action. " No man," once said Sir Benjamin Rudyard, " is bound to be rich or great no, nor to be wise; but every man is bound to be honest."
But the purpose, besides being honest, must be inspired by sound principles, and pursued with undeviating adherence to truth, integrity, and uprightness. Without principles, a man is like a ship without rudder or compass, left to drift hither and thither with every wind that blows. He is as one without law, or rule, or order, or government. " Moral principles," says Hume, " are social and universal. They form, in a manner, the party of humankind against vice and disorder, its common enemy."
Talent is by no means rare in the world; nor is even genius. But can the talent be trusted? can the genius? Not unless based on truthfulness on veracity, It is this quality more than any other that commands the esteem and respect and secures the confidence of others. Truthfulness is at the foundation of all personal excellence. It exhibits itself in conduct. It is rectitude truth in action, and shines through every word and deed. It means reliableness, and convinces other men that it can be trusted. And a man is al-ready of consequence in the world when it is known that he can be relied on that when he says he knows a thing he does know it that when he says he will do a thing, he can do, and does it. Thus reliableness becomes a passport to the general esteem and confidence of mankind.
In the affairs of life or of business, it is not intellect that tells so much as character not brains so much as heart not genius so much as self-control, patience and discipline, regulated by judgment. Hence there is no better provision for the use of either private or public life, than a fair share of ordinary good sense guided by rectitude. Good sense, disciplined by experience and inspired by goodness, issues in practical wisdom. In-deed, goodness in a measure implies wisdom the high est wisdom the union of the worldly with the spiritual. " The correspondences of wisdom and goodness," says Sir Henry Taylor, " are manifold; and that they will accompany each other is to be inferred, not only because men's wisdom makes them good, but because their goodness makes them wise."
It is because of this controlling power of character in life that we often see men exercise an amount of influence apparently out of all proportion to their intellectual endowments. They appear to act by means of some latent power, some reserved force, which acts secretly, by mere presence. As Burke said of a powerful noble-man of the last century, " his virtues were his means.' The secret is, that the aims of such men are felt to be pure and noble, and they act upon others with a con-straining power.
Though the reputation of men of genuine character may be of slow growth, their true qualities can not be wholly concealed. They may be misrepresented by some, and misunderstood by others; misfortune and adversity may, for a time overtake them; but, with patience and endurance, they will eventually inspire the respect and command the confidence which they really deserve.
It has been said of Sheridan that, had he possessed reliableness of character, he might have ruled the world; whereas, for want of it, his splendid gifts were comparatively useless. He dazzled and amused, but was without weight or influence in life or politics. Even the poor pantomimist of Drury Lane felt himself his superior. Thus, when Delpini one day pressed the manager for arrears of salary, Sheridan sharply reproved him, telling him he had forgotten his station. " No, indeed, Monsieur Sheridan, I have not," retorted Delpini; "I know the difference between us perfectly well. In birth, parentage and education, you are superior to me; but in life, character and behavior, I am superior to you."
Unlike Sheridan, Burke, his countryman, was a great man of character. He was thirty-five before he gained a seat in Parliament, yet he found time to carve his name deep in the political history of England. He was a man of great gifts, and of transcendent force of character. Yet he had a weakness, which proved a serious defect it was his want of temper; his genius was sacrificed to his irritability. And without this apparently minor gift of temper, the most splendid endowments may be comparatively valueless to their possessor.