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.
Man begins at zero. The child thrusts his finger into the fire and is burned; thenceforth he learns to restrain himself in the presence of fire, and makes the flames smite the vapor for driving train or ship. The child errs in handling the sharp tool, and cuts himself; thenceforth he lifts up the axe upon the tree. The child mistakes the weight of stone, or the height of stair, and, falling, hard knocks teach him the nature and use of gravity. Daily the thorns that pierce his feet drive him back into the smooth pathway of nature’s laws. The sharp pains that follow each excess teach him the pleasures of sound and right living. Nor is there one infraction of law that is not followed by pain. As sharp guards are placed at the side of the bridge over the chasm to hold men back from the abyss, so nature’s laws are planted on either side of the way of life to prick and scourge erring feet back into the divine way.
Temptation is another teacher. Protection gives innocence, but practice gives virtue. Scientists say that the glowworm keeps its enemies at bay by the brightness of its own light. Man, by his love of truth and right, becomes his own castle and fortress. Cities no longer depend upon night-watchmen to guard against marauders and burglars. Men trusted to safes and iron bars upon the windows. Now bankers ask electric lights to guard their treasure vaults.
Life’s teacher also includes newness and zest. First, 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. Vast is the educational value therefore attaching to the newness of life. Thus, each new day is a new continent to be explored. Each youth is a new creature, full of delightful and mysterious possibilities. Each brain comes clothed with its own secret, having its own orbit, attaining its own unique experience. 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.
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.
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
The measure of strength in any living thing is its highest faculty. The strength of the deer is swiftness, of lion strength; but to the power of the foot the eagle adds wings, and therefore is praised for its swift flight. To the wing the bee adds genius for building with geometric skill, and its praise lies in its rare intelligence. Thus man also is to be measured by his highest faculty, in that he has power to see things unseen and work in realms invisible.
The soul is like a lost child. It wanders a stranger in a strange land. Full of it is heartsick, for even the best things content it for but a little while. The soul is a city, and as Thebes had many gateways through which passed great caravans laden with goodly treasure, so the five senses are gateways through which journey all earth’s sights and sounds. Therefore man loves and guards the physical house in which he lives. The heart, going forward, leaves behind some treasure, and perfumes its path. Memory hangs upon the tree the whispered confession made beneath its branches. No palace so memorable as the little house where you were reared, no charter oak so historic as the trees under which you played, no river Nile so notable as the little brook that once sung to your sighing, no volume or manuscript so precious as the letter.
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.
Material life and civilization may be said to literally rest upon man’s bones and sinews. Mental brightness gives facial illumination. The right act or true thought sets its stamp of beauty in the features; the wrong act or foul thought sets its seal of distortion. Moral purity and sweetness refine and beautify the countenance. The body is a show window, advertising and exhibiting the soul’s stock of goods. Nature condenses bough, bud and shrub into black coal, compacts the rich forces of air and sun and soil into peach and pear.
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.
All the majesty of the summer, all the glory of the storms, all the beauty of galleries, is as nothing compared to the majesty and beauty of a full-orbed and symmetrical manhood. 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.
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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