A journey through life is like a journey along the track way of a retreating army; here a valuable ammunition wagon is abandoned because a careless smith left a flaw in the tire; there a brass cannon is deserted because a tug was improperly stitched; yonder a brave soldier lies dying in the thicket where he fell because excited men forgot the use of an ambulance. Life’s chief destructions are in the city of man’s soul.
Men differ, of course, in ways many—they differ in the number and range of their affections, in the scope of conscience, in taste and imagination, and in moral energy. But the original point of variance is physical. Some have a small body and a powerful mind, like a Corliss engine in a tiny boat, whose frail structure will soon be racked to pieces. Others are born with large bodies and very little mind, as if a toy engine were set to run a mud scow. This means that the poor engineer must pole up stream all his life. Others, by ignorance of parent, or accident through nurse, or through their own blunder or sin, destroy their bodily capital. Soon they are like boats cast high and dry upon the beach, doomed to sun-cracking and decay.
Few men, perhaps, ever learn how to so manage their brain and stomach as to be capable of high-pressure brain action for days at a time—until the cumulative mental forces break through all obstacles and conquer success. A great leader represents a kind of essence of common sense, but rugged common sense is sanity of nerve and brain. He who rules and leads must have mind and will, but he must have chest and stomach also.
Social wealth and happiness are through right living. Goodness is a commodity. Conscience in a cashier has a cash value. If arts and industries are flowers and fruits, moralities are the roots that nourish them. Disobedience is slavery. Obedience is liberty. Disobedience to law of fire or water or acid is death. Obedience to law of color gives the artist his skill; obedience to the law of eloquence gives the orator his force; obedience to the law of iron gives the inventor his tool; disobedience to the law of morals gives waste and want and wretchedness.
Man beholds his fellows as one beholds a volume written in a foreign language; the outer binding is seen, the inner contents are unread. Within general lines phrenology and physiognomy are helpful, but it is easier to determine what kind of a man lives in the house by looking at the knob on his front door than to determine the brain and heart within by studying the bumps upon face and forehead. Nature’s dictum is, “Grasp the handle of your own being.” Each must fashion his own character. Nature gives trees, but not tools; forests, but not furniture. Thus nature furnishes man with the birth materials and environment; man must work up these materials into those qualities called industry, integrity, honor, truth and love.
Man lives his life in fresh personal experiences. Then, by observation, he repeats his life in the career of his children. A third time he journeys around the circle, re-experiencing life in that of his grandchildren. Then, because the newness has passed away and events no longer stimulate his mind, death withdraws man from the scene and enters him in a new school.
Ours is a world in which each individual, each country, each age, each day, has a history peculiarly its own. This newness is a perpetual stimulant to curiosity and study. For some, once a picture or book has been seen, the pleasure ceases. Delight dies with familiarity. Such persons look back to the days of childhood as to the days of wonder and happiness. But the man of real vision ever beholds each rock, each herb and flower with the big eyes of children, and with a mind of perpetual wonder. For him the seed is a fountain gushing with new delights. By a strange paradox men are taught by monotony as well as by newness. Ours is a world where the words, “Blessed be drudgery,” are full of meaning. Culture and character come neither through consuming excitements nor the whirl of pleasures.
Solitude is a wise teacher. Going apart the youth grows great. History tells of a thousand men who have maintained virtue in adversity only to go down in hours of prosperity. That is, man is stimulated by the crisis; conflict provokes heroism, persecution lends strength. But, denied the exigency of a great trial, men who seemed grand fall all to pieces. Triumphant in adversity, men are vanquished by drudgery. Life’s crowning victory belongs to those who have won no brilliant battle, suffered no crushing wrong; who have figured in no great drama, whose sphere was obscure, but who have loved great principles midst small duties, nourished sublime hopes amid vulgar cares, and illustrated eternal principles in trifles.”
Responsibility is a teacher of righteousness. Man learns to swim by being tossed into life’s maelstrom and left to make his way ashore. No youth can learn to sail his life-craft in a lake sequestered and sheltered from all storms, where other vessels never come. Skill comes through sailing one’s craft amidst rocks and bars and opposing fleets, amidst storms and whirls and counter currents. English literature has a proverb about the incapacity of rich men’s sons. The rich man himself became mighty because he began in poverty, had no hand to help him forward, and many hands to hold him back. After long wrestling with opposing force he compacted within himself the strength and foresight, the frugality and wisdom of a score of ordinary men. The school of hard knocks made him a man of might. But his son, cradled in a soft nest, sheltered from every harsh wind, loving ease more than industry, is in danger of coming up without insight into the secrets of his profession or industry.
The extremes and contrasts of life do much to shape character. Ours is a world that moves from light to dark, from heat to cold, from summer to winter. On the crest to-day, the hero is in the trough to-morrow. During man’s few years, and brief, he experiences many reverses. He flits on between light and dark. It is hard for the leader to drop back into the ranks. It is not easy for him who hath led a movement to its success to see his laurels fall leaf by leaf. After long and dangerous service, men grown old and gray are succeeded by the youth to whom society owes no debt. Thus man journeys from strength to invalidism, from prosperity to adversity, from joy to sorrow, or goes from misery to happiness, from defeat to victory. When men combine gold and goodness, greatness and godliness, genius and graces, human nature is at its best.” On the other hand, adversity is a supplement, making up what prosperity lacks. Thus by his inner aspirations, man lives and builds.
Men begin life with the high purpose of living nobly, generously, openly. Full of the choicest aspirations, hungering for the highest things, the youth enters triumphantly upon the pathway of life. But journeying forward he meets conflict and strife, envy and jealousy, disappointment and defeat. He finds it hard to live up to the level of his best moods. Self-interest biases his judgment. Greed bribes reason. Pride leads him astray. Selfishness tempts him to violate his finer self. The struggle to maintain his ideals is like a struggle for life itself. Many, alas! After a short, sharp conflict, give up the warfare and break faith and fealty with the deeper convictions. They quench the light that shone afar off to beckon and cheer them on. Persuading themselves that the ideal life is impracticable, they strike an average between their highest moods and their low-flying hours. Then is the luster of life all dimmed, and the soul is like a noble mansion in the morning after some banquet or reception. In the evening, when making ready for the brilliant feast, the entire house is illuminated. Each curio is in its niche. The harp is in its place. The air is laden with the perfume of roses. But when the morning comes, how vast is the change! The windows are darkened and the halls deserted; the wax tapers have burned to the socket, or flicker out in smoke; the flowers, scorched by the heated air, have shriveled and fallen, and in the banquet-room only the “broken meats” remain. Gone is all the glory of the feast! Thus, when men lay aside their heroic ideals and bury their visions, the luster of life departs, and its beauty perishes.
The mind loves truth, and the body tempts man to break truth. The soul loves honor, and passion tempts it to deflect its pathway. Man goes forth in the morning with all the springs of generosity open; but before night selfishness has dammed up the hidden springs. In the morning man goes out with love irradiating his face; he comes back at night sullen and black with hatred and enmity. In the morning the soul is like a young soldier, parading in stainless white; at night his garments are begrimed and soiled with self-indulgence and sin. As there is a line along the tropics where two zones meet and breed perpetual storm, so there is a middle line in man where the animal man meets the spiritual man, and there is perpetual storm. There clouds never pass away, and the thunder never dies out of the horizon of time.
Hunger compels men to ask what food is in the river, what roots are in the ground, what fruits are on the trees, what forces are in the air. The body is peremptory in its demands. Hunger carries a stinging scourge. Necessity drives out the evil spirits of indolence and torpidity. The early man threading the thickets in search of food chanced upon a sweet plum, and because the bush grew a long way from his lodge he transplanted the root to a vale near his home. Thence came all man’s orchards and vineyards. Shivering with cold, man sought out some sheltered cave or hollow tree. But soon the body asked him to hew out a second cave in addition to the one nature had provided. Fulfilling its requests, man went on in the interests of his body to pile stone on stone, and lift up carved pillars and groined arches. Thence came all homes.
In the kingdom of morals, there are people who seem to be of virtue, truth and goodness all compact. Contrariwise, every day you will meet men upon our streets who are solid bestiality and villainy done up in flesh and skin. Each feature is as eloquent of rascality as an ape’s of idiocy. Experts skilled in physiognomy need no confession from impish lips, but read the life-history from page to page written on features “dimmed by sensuality, convulsed by passion, branded by remorse; the body consumed with sloth and dishonored with selfish uses; the bones full of the sins of youth, the face hideous with secret vices, the roots dried up beneath and the branches cut off above.”
It is as natural and necessary for hidden thoughts and deeds to reveal themselves through cuticle as for root or bud in spring to unroll themselves into sight and observation. Here and now everything tends to obscure nature’s handwriting and to veil it in mist and disguise. Most men are better than we think, but some men are worse. As steam in the boiler makes itself known by hisses and so the evil imaginings heave and strain, seeking escape.
Many forbear vice and crime through fear; their conscience is cowardice; if they dared they would riot through life like the beasts of the field; if all their inner imaginings were to take an outward expression in deeds, they would be scourges, plagues and pests. In the silence of the soul they commit every vice. But they who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind; the revealing day will come when the films of life shall be withdrawn, and the character shall appear faithful as a portrait, and then all the meanness and sliminess shall be seen to have given something to the soul’s picture.
Ours is called an age of unrest. We hear much about social discontent. Beneath all the outer activity and bustle there is an undertone of profound sadness. Wealth, pleasure, or politics has availed to conceal the world’s weariness. Strangely enough, just at a time when prosperity is greatly increased, when our homes are full of comforts and conveniences. Man is weary in the midst of his wealth and pleasures for the same reason that the young ruler was grieved and sad in the midst of his great possessions. For man stands, as it were, in the center of many concentric circles. About himself, as a center, sweeps the home circle; his immediate neighborhood relations describe a wider circle; his business career describes one larger still; then come his relations to the community in general, while beyond the horizon is a circle of influence that includes the world at large. When the tiny spider standing at the center of its wide-stretching and intricate web, woven for destruction, any chances to touch any thread of the web, immediately that thread vibrates to the uttermost extremity. And man stands at the center of a vast web of wide-reaching influence, woven not for blighting, but for blessing, and every one of these out-running lines, whether related to friends nearby or to citizens afar off, thrills and vibrates with secret influences.
If to-morrow conflict and strife should spring up in each garden—if the rose should strike its thorn into the honeysuckle; if the violet from its lowly sphere should fling mire upon the lily’s whiteness; if the wheat should lift up its stalk to beat down the barley; if the robin should become jealous of the lark’s sweet voice, and the oriole organize a campaign for exterminating the thrush, we should have a conflict in nature that would answer to the strife and warfare in society.
In national wars, where men by years of toil have planted vineyards, reared orchards, built houses and cities, they proceed to burn up the homes, destroy the granaries, cut down the vineyards and orchards; and these periodic public quarrels do but typify the equally destructive private feuds or troubles. The measure of manhood is the degree of skill attained in the art of carrying one’s self so as to pour forth upon men all the inspirations of love and hope, and to evoke good even from the meanest and wickedest of mankind.
Passing through life, the soul is to be a happiness producer and a joy distributer. Without conscious thought the violets pour forth perfume; without volition the magnet pulls the iron filings; with no purpose the candle pushes its beams of light into the darkness; and such is to be the weight of goodness in each man, that its mere presence will be felt. For the soul carries power to bless or blight; it can lift up its faculties for smiting, as an enemy lifts the hammer above the fragile vase or delicate marble.
Man’s history has been a history of selfishness and sin, and his body bears the marks thereof. His features are “seamed by sickness, dimmed by sensuality, convulsed by passion, pinched by poverty, shadowed by sorrow, branded by remorse.”
Men’s bodies are consumed by sloth, broken down by labor, tortured by disease, dishonored by foul uses, until beholding the “marks” of character in the natural face in a glass multitudes would fain forget what manner of men they are. For the human face is a canvas and nature’s writing goes ever on. But as the wrong act or foul deed sets its seal of distortion on the features, so the right act or true thought sets its stamp of beauty. There is no cosmetic for homely folks like character. Even the plainest face becomes beautiful in noble and radiant moods.
Men are anxious to be scholars and hurry along a pathway that leads straight to the grave. Men are anxious to find pleasure, but they find the flowers were grown in the yard. Men are feverishly anxious for wealth, and, coining all time and strength into gold, they find they have no health with which to enjoy the gathered sweetness. Haste in cooking the dinner has destroyed the appetite. We are told that “moderation and poise are the secrets of all successful art,” as they are of all successful life. Give the rein to appetite and passion, and satiety, disenchantment, and the grave quickly come.
(Adapted from Project Gutenberg’s A Man’s Value to Society, by Newell Dwight Hillis)


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