Tradition says that when Solomon received the gift of an emerald vase from the Queen of Sheba he filled it with an elixir which he only knew how to prepare, one drop of which would prolong life indefinitely. A dying criminal begged for a drop of the precious fluid, but Solomon refused to prolong a wicked life. When good men asked for it they were refused, or failed to obtain it when promised, as the king would forget or prefer not to open the vase to get but a single drop. When at last the king became ill, and bade his servants bring the vase, he found that the contents had all evaporated. So it is often with our hope, our faith, our ambition, our aspiration.
A man cannot aspire if he looks down. God has not created us with aspirations and longings for heights to which we cannot climb. Live upward. The unattained still beckons us toward the summit of life’s mountains, into the atmosphere where great souls live and breathe and have their being. Even hope is but a promise of the possibility of its own fulfillment. Life should be lived in earnest. It is no idle game, no farce to amuse and be forgotten. It is a stern reality, fuller of duties than the sky of stars. You cannot have too much of that yearning which we call aspiration, for, even though you do not attain your ideal, the efforts you make will bring nothing but blessing; while he who fails of attaining mere worldly goals is too often eaten up with the canker-worm of disappointed ambition. To all will come a time when the love of glory will be seen to be but a splendid delusion, riches empty, rank vain, power dependent, and all outward advantages without inward peace a mere mockery of wretchedness. The wisest men have taken care to uproot selfish ambition from their breasts. Shakespeare considered it so near a vice as to need extenuating circumstances to make it a virtue.
Who has not noticed the power of love in an awkward, crabbed, shiftless, lazy man? He becomes gentle, chaste in language, energetic. Love brings out the poetry in him. It is only an idea, a sentiment, and yet what magic it has wrought. Nothing we can see has touched the man, yet he is entirely transformed.
Not less does ambition completely transform a human being, for a woman thirsting for fame can work where a man equally resolute would faint. He despises ease and sloth, welcomes toil and hardship, and shakes even kingdoms to gratify his master passion. Mere ambition has impelled many a man to a life of eminence and usefulness; its higher manifestation, aspiration, has led him beyond the stars. If the aim be right the life in its details cannot be far wrong. Your heart must inspire what your hands execute, or the work will be poorly done. The hand cannot reach higher than does the heart.
But do not strive to reach impossible goals. It is wholly in your power to develop yourself, but not necessarily so to make yourself a king. How many Presidents of the United States or Prime Ministers of England are chosen within the working lifetime of a man? What if a thousand young men resolve to become President or Prime Minister? While such prizes are within your reach, remember that your will must be tremendous and your qualifications of the highest order, or you cannot hope to secure them. Too many are deluded by ambition beyond their power of attainment, or tortured by aspirations totally disproportionate to their capacity for execution. You may, indeed, confidently hope to become eminent in usefulness and power, but only as you build upon a broad foundation of self-culture; while, as a rule, specialists in ambition as in science are apt to become narrow and one-sided. Darwin was very fond of poetry and music when young, but after devoting his life to science, he was surprised to find Shakespeare tedious. He said that, if he were to live his life again, he would read poetry and hear music every day, so as not to lose the power of appreciating such things.
God asks no man whether he will accept life. That is not the choice. You _must_ take it. The only choice is _how_.
“When I found I was black,” said Dumas, “I resolved to live as if I were white, and so force men to look below my skin.”
In the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society is a prospectus used by Longfellow in canvassing, on one of the blank leaves of which are the skeleton stanzas of “Excelsior,” which he was evidently evolving as he trudged from house to house.
“Disregarding the honors that most men value and looking to the truth,” said Plato, “I shall endeavor in reality to live as virtuously as I can; and, when I die, to die so. And I invite all other men to the utmost of my power; and you, too, I invite to this contest, which, I affirm, surpasses all contests here.”
“Did you ever hear of a man who had striven all his life faithfully and singly toward an object, and in no measure obtained it?” asked Thoreau. “If a man constantly aspires, is he not elevated? Did ever a man try heroism, magnanimity, truth, sincerity, and find that there was no advantage in them,–that it was a vain endeavor?”
“O if the stone can only have some vision of the temple of which it is to be a part forever,” exclaimed Phillips Brooks, “what patience must fill it as it feels the blows of the hammer, and knows that success for it is simply to let itself be wrought into what shape the master wills.”
Man never reaches heights above his habitual thought. It is not enough now and then to mount on wings of ecstasy into the infinite. We must habitually dwell there. The great man is he who abides easily on heights to which others rise occasionally and with difficulty. Don’t let the maxims of a low prudence daily dinned into your ears lower the tone of your high ambition or check your aspirations. Hope lifts us step by step up the mysterious ladder, the top of which no eye hath ever seen. Though we do not find what hope promised, yet we are stronger for the climbing, and we get a broader outlook upon life which repays the effort. Indeed, if we do not follow where hope beckons, we gradually slide down the ladder in despair. Strive ever to be at the top of your condition. A high standard is absolutely necessary.