« PreviousContinue »
sider a seat in Parliament, or any other place you may occupy, or the power of appointing another to such a place, as a sacred trust for the public service, and, therefore, requiring sometimes the sacrifice of private friendship,—if you do justice to an opponent against a friend, or to a worse man (when he happens to have right on his side) against a better,—if you refuse to support your friends, or those you have been accustomed to act with, or those to whom you have a personal obligation, when they are about doing something that is wrong,—if you decline making application on behalf of a friend to those who would expect you, in return, to place your votes and interest at their disposal, whether your own judgment approved of their measures or not, —in these and other such cases, you will be perhaps more blamed or despised by the generality, than commended or admired. For, party-men will usually pardon a zealous advocate of their party for many great faults, more readily than they will pardon the virtue of standing quite aloof from party, and doing strict justice to all. It will often happen, therefore, that when a man of very great real excellence does acquire great and general esteem, four-fifths of this will have been bestowed on the minor virtues of his character; and four-fifths of his admirers will have either quite overlooked the most truly admirable of his qualities, or else regarded them as pardonable weaknesses.
You should guard, then, against the opposite dangers of either lowering your own moral standard to the level of some of your neighbours, or judging too hardly of them. Your general practical rule should be, to expect more of yourself than of others. Of course it is not meant that a man is to think overhighly of himself and 'despise others.' He is not to think his conduct better than others, only his capabilities. A man who feels himself capable of generous and exalted conduct (I do not mean, feels that he shall always act thus,—for who dares promise himself this?—but who feels that it is not beyond his conception, or unnatural to him), when he measures others by his own standard, and is disappointed with them, will remember that every man shall be judged 'according to that he hath, and not according to that he hath not.' He will feel that more is required of him, as being placed in a higher walk of duty; and will thus be even the less satisfied with his conformity to so lofty a standard.
This is a point which it is important to dwell on, because besides those who (as Bacon has elsewhere expressed it) are, intellectually, 'soaring angels,' and morally, 'crawling serpents;' there are also some whose moral superiority does not keep pace with their intellectual; who are indeed much better men than the common run, but yet not so much above them in that, as they are in intelligence. Such a person has been compared to the Image in the King of Babylon's dream, with a head of gold, and a breast of silver—a precious metal indeed, but inferior to that of the head.
Although, then, a man of elevated character will be humbled by his frequent failures, yet, as a fair and due sense of dignity, which arises from a consciousness of superior station, is not only right but needful, in a gentleman, a peer, or a king, to make them fill their stations gracefully; so it is here: that proper sense of his own moral dignity is necessary for a great and generous disposition, if he would act up to his character. The excess thereof will be checked by habits of true piety, which cannot but make him feel his own littleness in the strongest manner; and by continually asking himself ' Who made thee to differ from another? or, What hast thou that thou didst not receive?' he will be guarded against despising his inferiors. For, generous and ungenerous pride are not only different (as all would allow), but, in most points, opposite. A man of the former character makes allowances for others which he will not make for himself; the latter, allowances for himself, which he will not, for others: he is ready enough to think that this, and that, is not good enough for him; but the other thinks a base action not good enough for him, and does not regard his superiority as a privilege to act in a manner which, in his view, would degrade him from it; and, while doing the most generous actions himself, as things of course, he will make the readiest allowance for others' deficiencies. He will do good without calculating upon much gratitude; yet will be grateful, with most generous ardour, himself. To take any unfair advantages, or even to take all fair ones—to press his rights to the utmost—to press close to the limits of what is wrong, and anxiously consider whether he may be allowed to do this, or omit that,—he disdains, and would feel degraded by it. Of the virtues of such a man as this, the vulgar have indeed no perception.
He that assails error because it is error, without respect of persons, must be prepared for a storm from the party who were fanning him with the gentle breath of praise, so long as he had been dealing with the errors of the party opposed to them. They say with the rat to the mouse (in a ludicrous poem, on a house much infested with rats and mice, into which a cat had been brought),—
'Said tho other. This cat, if she murder a rat.
It should be added, however, for the credit of human nature, that, by a steady adherence to high principles, a man is likely— in the long run, though not speedily,—to create such a public confidence as will give him an influence beyond that of other men, of equal or of superior ability.
The following anecdote may be relied on: When the Poorlaw-amendment Bill was going through the House of Commons, Lord Althorp, who was then the ministerial leader in the House, was called on to answer a strong objection which was raised to one of the clauses. He rose and said that 'this very objection had occurred to himself; and that he had thereupon stated it to the framers of the Bill, who had given an answer which completely met the objection. But what that answer was, he was sorry to say, he could not at that moment recollect; though he assured the House that it was perfectly satisfactory' This satisfied every one, such was the confidence felt in his judgment and his integrity: the clause was allowed to pass without further opposition!
'There are so many false points of praise.'
That censure and commendation should in so many instances be indiscriminate, can surprise no one who recollects how rare a quality discrimination is, and how much better it suits indolence, as well as ignorance, to lay down a rule, than to ascertain the exceptions to it.
'Some praises come of good wishes.'
The word 'macarize' has been adopted by some Oxford-men who are familiar with Aristotle, to supply a word wanting in our language. 'Felicitate' and ' congratulate' are (in actual usage) confined to events. A man is congratulated on his marriage, but not on having a good wife. And sometimes 'I envy you' is used, when it is understood that there is no envy in the bad (which is the proper) sense. I believe the French sometimes say ' Je vous en fais mes compliments.' It may be said that men are admired for what they are, commended for what they do, and macarized for what they have.
Of the 'praises that come of good wishes,' none have such influence as the daily droppings of domestic flattery—to use the word flattery in the sense of undue praise merely. Laudari a laudato viro1 is what every one would prize most; but other praises may make up in tale what they want in weight.
It has been observed, however, by some writer, that 'no one is a hero to his valet.' This may be sometimes from the incapacity (above noticed) of the vulgar for appreciating the highest qualities. The valet has opportunities of knowing that his master needs to eat, drink, and sleep, &c., like other mortals; and perhaps he has seen him subject to sickness and other human infirmities. Caesar is represented by Shakespere as disparaged by those who remembered him ' shaking in an ague,' and calling out' Give me some drink, Titinius! like a sick girl.'
Perhaps, too, the valet has found his own superiority in some of the minor details of every-day life. He is more handy in packing up a trunk, or setting a razor; and more skilful in the arrangements for a journey, &c. And of the higher qualifications of the hero, he may have perhaps ['sensus nullus'] no perception.
With some minds, again, mere familiarity produces its proverbial effect. The highest intellectual and moral qualities may cease to excite any great admiration in one who has become so thoroughly used to them as to look for their manifestation as a matter of course: while any imperfection, on the other hand, strikes him by its contrast, even as 'the smallest speck is seen on snow.' It is at a meteor or a comet that men gaze with awe and admiration, who feel little or none at the splendid spectacle of the sun, moon, and stars, which they are used to. And to view all such objects with indifference, was considered by Horace—no very profound philosopher—as a mark of wisdom.
1 To be praised by one who is himself thought praiseworthy.
The above is the description of the most unthinking. Those, again, who are a little—and but a little—more reflective, finding that most people impute to them, as a matter of course, an over-veneration for any eminent person they may be connected with, are not unlikely to think that they cannot go too far in the opposite direction, and (as was observed in the 'Annotations' on Essays IV. and XXXVIII.) rush into the contrary extreme. And this dread of partiality, combined with the usual effect of familiarity, sometimes leads to an undue depreciation of what is excellent .
In one of the comedies of the early part of last century (many of which, though in bad taste, have considerable wit, and some wisdom) a man is represented complaining to a friend how desperately he is in love with a lady, in spite of her faults; though he has noted them, and written a list of them, which he has dwelt on till quite familiar with them; and still, he complained, he was more and more in love. 'Oh, I will tell you a remedy,' says the other: 'marry her; get as familiar with her virtues, as you are with her faults; and your passion will be cured.'
Hence, perhaps, partly, it may be that the proverb is sometimes applicable, of 'a prophet being without honour in his own country.'
'Certainly moderate praise, used with opportunity, and not vulgar, is that which doeth the good.'
It is worth remarking that praise is one of the things which almost everyone must wish for, and be glad of, yet which it is not allowable to seek for as an end. To obtain the approbation of the wise and good, by doing what is right, simply because it is right, is most gratifying to the natural and allowable wish to escape the censure and gain the approbation of our fellowcreatures; but to make this gratification, either wholly or partly, our object—to hold up a finger on purpose (and for that sole purpose) to gain the applause of the whole world, is unjustifiable.