Character And Circumstances
( Originally Published 1884 )
Formation of Character.—The late Prince Consort.--Force of Character.—The Conscientious Man.—The Quality of Reverence.—Intrepidity of Character.—Lord Palmerston.—Contagiousness of Energy.—The Napiers and Sir John Moore.—Washington.—Wellington.--Influence of Personal Character.
" Character is moral order seen through the medium of an individual nature. . . . Men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong."—EMERSON.
CHARACTER is formed by a variety of minute circumstances, more or less under the regulation and control of the individual. Not a day passes without its discipline, whether for good or for evil. There is no act, however trivial, but has its train of consequences, as there is no hair so small but casts its shadow. It was a wise saying of Mrs. Schimmelpenninck's mother, never to give way to what is little; or by that little, however you may despise it, you will be practically governed.
Every action, every thought, every feeling, contributes to the education of. the temper, the habits, and understanding, and exercises an inevitable influence upon all the acts of our future life. Thus character is undergoing constant change, for better or for worse either being elevated on the one hand or degraded on the other. " There is no fault nor folly of my life," says, Mr. Ruskin, " that does not rise up against me, and take away my joy, and shorten my power of possession, of sight, of understanding. And every past effort of my life, every gleam of rightness or good in it, is with me now, to help me in my grasp of this art and its vision.
The mechanical law, that action and reaction are equal, holds true also in morals. Good deeds act and react on the doers of them; and so do evil. Not only so: they produce like effects by the influence of example, on those who are the subjects of them. But man is not the creature, so much as he is the creator of circumstances; and by the exercise of his free-will, he can direct his actions so that they shall be productive of good rather than evil. " Nothing can work me damage but myself," said St. Bernard, " the harm that I sustain I carry about with me; and I am never a real sufferer but by my own fault."
The best sort of character, however, can not be formed without effort. There needs the exercise of constant self watchfulness, self discipline, and self-control. There may be much faltering, stumbling and temporary defeat; difficulties and temptations manifold to be battled with and overcome; but if the spirit be strong and the heart be upright, no one need despair of ultimate success. The very effort to advance to arrive at a higher standard of character than we have reached is inspiring and invigorating; and even though we may fall short of it, we can not fail to be improved by every honest effort made in an upward direction.
And with the light of great examples to guide us representatives of humanity in its best forms—every one is not only justified, but bound in duty, to aim at reaching the highest standard of character: not to become the richest in means, but in spirit; not the greatest in worldly position, but in true honor; not the most intellectual, but the most virtuous; not the most powerful and influential, but the most truthful, upright and honest.
It was very characteristic of the late Prince Consort a man himself of the purest mind, who powerfully impressed and influenced others by the sheer force of his own benevolent nature when drawing up the conditions of the annual prize to be given by Her Majesty at Wellington College, to determine that it should be awarded, not to the cleverest boy, nor to the most bookish boy, nor to the most precise, diligent, and prudent boy, but to the noblest boy, to the boy who should show the most promise of becoming a large-hearted, high-motived man.
Character exhibits itself in conduct, guided and inspired by principle, integrity, and practical wisdom. In its highest form, it is the individual will acting energetically under the influence of religion, morality, and reason. It chooses its way considerately, ,and pursues it steadfastly; esteeming duty above reputation, and the approval of conscience more than the world's praise. While respecting the personality of others, it preserves its own individuality and independence; and has the courage to be morally honest, though it may be unpopular, trusting tranquilly to time and experience for recognition.
Although the force of example will always exercise great influence upon the formation of character, the self originating and sustaining force of one's own spirit must be the main-stay. This alone can hold up the life, and give individual independence and energy. " Unless man can erect himself above himself," said Daniel, a poet of the Elizabethan era, " how poor a thing is man!" Without a certain degree of practical efficient force compounded of will, which is the root, and wisdom, which is the stem 'of character life will be indefinite and purposeless—like a body of stagnant water, instead of a running stream doing useful work and keeping the machinery of a district in motion.
When the elements of character are brought into action by determinate will, and, influenced by high purpose, man enters upon and courageously perseveres in the path of duty, at whatever cost of worldly interest, he may be said to approach the summit of his being. He then exhibits character in its most intrepid form, and embodies the highest idea of manliness. The acts of such a man become repeated in the life and action of others. His very words live and become actions. Thus every word of Luther's rang through Germany like a trumpet. As Richter said of him, His words were half battles." And thus Luther's life became transfused into the life of his country, and still lives in the character of modern Germany.
On the other hand, energy, without integrity and a soul of goodness, may only represent the embodied principle of evil. It is observed by Novalis, in his " Thoughts on Morals," that the ideal of moral perfection has no more dangerous rival to contend with than the ideal of the highest strength and the most energetic life, the maximum of the barbarian-which needs only a due admixture of pride, ambition, and selfishness, to be a perfect ideal of the devil. Among men of such stamp are found the greatest scourges and devastators of the world those elect scoundrels whom Providence, in its inscrutable designs, permits to fulfill their mission, of destruction upon earth.
Very different is the man of energetic character in. spired by a noble spirit, whose actions are governed by rectitude, and the law of whose life is duty. He is just and upright in his business dealings, in his public action, and in his family life : justice being as essential in the government of a home as of a nation. He will be honest in all things in his words and in his work. He will be generous and merciful to his opponents, as well as to those who are weaker than himself. It was truly said of Sheridan who, with all his improvidence, was generous, and never gave pain that
" His wit in the combat, as gentle as bright,
Such also was the character of Fox, who commanded the affection and service of others by his uniform heartiness and sympathy. He was a man who could always be most easily touched on the side of his honor. Thus the story is told of a tradesman calling upon him one day for the payment of a promissory mite which he presented. Fox was engaged at the time in counting out gold. The tradesman asked to be paid from the money before him. " No," said Fox, " I owe this money to Sheridan; it is a debt of honor; if any accident happened to me he would have nothing to show." " Then," said the tradesman, " I change my debt into one of honor;" and he tore up the note. Fox was conquered by the act; he thanked the man for his confidence, and paid him, saying: " Then Sheridan must wait; yours is the debt of older standing."
The man of character is conscientious. He puts his conscience into his work, into his words, into his every action. When Cromwell asked the Parliament for soldiers in lieu of the decayed serving men and tapsters who filled the Commonwealth's army, he required that they should be men " who made some conscience of what they did;" and such were the men of which his celebrated regiment of " Ironsides " was composed.
The man of character is also reverential. The possession of this quality marks the noblest and highest type of manhood and womanhood; reverence for things consecrated by, the homage of generations for high objects, pure thoughts and noble aims for the great men of former times, and the high-minded workers among our contemporaries. Reverence is alike indispensable to the happiness of individuals, of families, and of nations. Without it there can be no trust, no faith, no confidence, either in man or God neither social peace nor social progress. For reverence is but an-other word for religion, which binds men to each other, and all to God.
" The man of noble spirit," says Sir Thomas Over-bury, " converts all occurrences into experience, between. which experience and his reason there is marriage, and the issue are his actions. He moves by affection, not for affection; he loves glory, scorns shame, and governeth and obeyeth with one countenance, for it comes from one consideration. Knowing reason to be no idle gift of nature, he is the steersman of his own destiny. Truth is his goddess, and he takes pains to get her, not to look like her. Unto the society of men he is a sun, whose clearness directs their steps in a regular motion. He is the wise man's friend, the example of the indifferent, the medicine of the vicious. Thus time goeth not from him, but with him, and he feels age more by the strength of his soul than by the weakness of his body. Thus feels he no pain, but esteems all such things as friends, that desire to file off his fetters, and help him out of prison."
Energy of will self-originating force is the soul of every great character. Where it is, there is life; where it is not, there is faintness, helplessness, and despondency.
" The strong man and the water-fall," says the proverb, " channel their own path." The energetic leader of noble spirit not only wins a way for himself, but carries others with him. His every act has a personal significance, indicating vigor, independence, and self-reliance, and unconsciously commands respect, admiration, and homage. Such intrepidity of character characterized Luther, Cromwell, Washington, Pitt, Wellington, and all great leaders of men.
" I am convinced ," said Mr. Gladstone, in describing the qualities of the late Lord Palmerston in the House of Commons, shortly after his death--" I am convinced that it was the force of will, a sense of duty, and a de-termination not to give in, that enabled him to make himself a model for all of us who yet remain and follow him, with feeble and unequal steps, in the discharge of our duties; it was that force of will that in point of fact did not so much struggle against the infirmities of old age, but actually repelled them and kept them at a distance. And one other quality there is, at least, that may be noticed without the smallest risk of stirring in any breast a painful emotion. It is this, that Lord Palmerston had a nature incapable of enduring anger or any sentiment of wrath. This freedom from wrathful sentiment was not the result of painful effort, but the spontaneous fruit of the mind. It was a noble gift of his original nature a gift which beyond all others it was delightful to observe, delightful also to remember in connection with him who has left us, and with whom we have no longer to do, except in endeavoring to profit by his example wherever it can lead us in the path of duty and of right, and of bestowing on him those tributes of admiration and affection which he deserves at our hands."
The great leader attracts to himself men of kindred character, drawing them towards him as the loadstone draws iron: Thus, Sir John Moore early distinguished the three brothers Napier from the crowd of officers by whom he was surrounded, and they, on their part, repaid him by their passionate admiration. They were captivated by his courtesy, his bravery, and his lofty disinterestedness; and he became the model whom they re-solved to imitate, and, if possible, to emulate. "Moore's influence," says the biographer of Sir William Napier, " had a signal effect in forming and maturing their characters; and it is no small glory to have been the hero of those three men, while his early discovery of their mental and moral qualities is a proof of Moore's own penetration and judgment of character."
There is a contagiousness in every example of energetic conduct. The brave man is an inspiration to the weak, and compels them, as it were, to follow him. Thus Napier relates that at the combat of Vera, when the Spanish centre was broken and in flight, a young officer, named Havelock, sprang forward, and, waving his hat, called upon the Spaniards within sight to follow him. Putting spurs to his horse, he leaped the abattis which protected the French front, and went headlong against them. The Spaniards were electrified; in a moment they dashed after him, cheering for "El chico bianco!" (the fair boy), and with one shock they broke through the French and sent them flying down-hill.
And so it is in ordinary life. The' good and the great draw others after them; they lighten and lift up all who are within reach of their influence. They are as so many living centres of beneficent activity. Let a man of energetic and upright character be appointed to a position of trust and authority, and all who serve under him become, as it were, conscious of an increase of power. When Chatham was appointed minister, his personal influence was at once felt through all the ramifications of office. Every sailor who served under Nelson, and knew he was in command, shared the inspiration of the hero.
When Washington consented to act as commander-in-chief, it was felt as if the strength of the American forces had been more than doubled. Many years later, in 1798, when Washington, grown old, had withdrawn from public life and was living in retirement at Mount Vernon, and when it seemed probable that France would declare war against the United States, President Adams wrote to him, saying, " We must have your name, if you will permit us to use it; there will be more efficacy in it than in many an army." Such was the esteem in which the great President's noble character and eminent abilities were held by his countrymen.
In some cases, personal character acts by a kind of talismanic influence, as if certain men were the organs of a sort of supernatural force. " If I but stamp on the ground in Italy," said Pompey, " an army will appear." At the voice of Peter the Hermit, as described by the historian, " Europe arose and precipitated itself upon Asia." It was said of the Caliph Omar that his walking-stick struck more terror into those who saw it than another man's sword. The very names of some men are like the sound of a trumpet. When the Douglas lay mortally wounded on the field of Otterburn, he ordered his name to be shouted still louder than before, saying there was a tradition in his family that a dead Douglas should win a battle. His followers, inspired by the sound, gathered fresh courage, rallied, and conquered; and thus, in the words of the Scottish poet:
" The Douglas dead, his name hath won the field."
There have been some men whose greatest conquests have been achieved after they themselves were dead. " Never," says Michelet, " was Cesar more alive, more powerful, more terrible, than when his old and worn-out body, his withered corpse, lay pierced with blows; he appeared then purified, redeemed that which he had been despite his many stains the man of humanity." Never did the great character of William of Orange, surnamed the Silent, exercise greater power over his countrymen than after his assassination at Delft by the emissary of the Jesuits. On the very day of his murder the Estates of Holland resolved " to maintain the good cause, with God's help, to the utter-most, without sparing gold or blood;" and they kept their word.
The same illustration applies to all history and morals. The career of a great man remains an enduring monument of human energy. The man dies and disappears; but his thoughts and acts survive, and leave an indelible stamp upon his race. And thus the spirit of his life is prolonged and perpetuated, moulding the thought and will, and thereby contributing to form the character of the future. It is the men that advance in the highest and best directions who are the true beacons of human progress. They are as lights set upon a hill, illumining the moral atmosphere around them; and the light of their spirit continues to shine upon all succeeding generations.