Said James Martineau: “God insists on having a concurrence between our practice and our thoughts. If we proceed to make a contradiction between them, He forthwith begins to abolish it, and if the will will not rise to the reason, the reason must be degraded to the will.”
“When I say, in conducting your understanding,” says Sidney Smith, “love knowledge with a great love, with a vehement love, with a love co-eval with life–what do I say but love innocence, love virtue, love purity of conduct, love that which, if you are rich and great, will vindicate the blind fortune which has made you so, and make them call it justice; love that which, if you are poor, will render your poverty respectable, and make the proudest feel that it is unjust to laugh at the meanness of your fortunes; love that which will comfort you, adorn you, and never quit you–which will open to you the kingdom of thought, and all the boundless regions of conception as an asylum against the cruelty, the injustice, and the pain that may be your lot in the world–that which will make your motives habitually great and honorable, and light up in an instant a thousand noble disdains at the very thought of meanness and of fraud?”
The Arabs express this by a parable that incarnates, as is their wont, the Word in the recital. King Nimrod, say they, one day summoned his three sons into his presence. He ordered to be set before them three urns under seal. One of the urns was of gold, another of amber, and the third of clay. The king bade the eldest of his sons choose among the urns that which appeared to him to contain the treasure of greatest price. The eldest chose the vase of gold, on which was written the word “Empire.” He opened it and found it full of blood. The second chose the amber vase whereon was written the word “Glory.” He opened it and found it contained the ashes of the great men who had made a sensation in the world. The third son took the only remaining vase, the one of clay; he found it quite empty, but on the bottom the potter had written the word “God.” “Which of these vases weighs the most?” asked the king of the courtiers. The men of ambition replied it was the vase of gold; the poets and conquerors, the amber one; the sages that it was the empty vase, because a single letter of the name God weighs more than the entire globe. We are of the opinion of the sages. We believe the greatest things are great but in the proportion of divinity they contain.
“Although genius always commands admiration,” says Smiles, “character most secures respect. The former is more the product of brain-power, the latter of heart-power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life. Men of genius stand to society in the relation of its intellect, as men of character of its conscience; and while the former are admired, the latter are followed.
“Commonplace though it may appear, this doing of one’s duty embodies the highest ideal of life and character. There may be nothing heroic about it; but the common lot of men is not heroic. And though the abiding sense of duty upholds man in his highest attitudes, it also equally sustains him in the transaction of the ordinary affairs of every-day existence. The most influential of all the virtues are those which are the most in request for daily use. They wear the best and last the longest. We can always better understand and appreciate a man’s real character by the manner in which he conducts himself toward those who are the most nearly related to him, and by his transaction of the seemingly commonplace details of daily duty, than by his public exhibition of himself as an author, an orator, or a statesman. Intellectual culture has no necessary relation to purity or excellence of character.
“On the contrary, a condition of comparative poverty is compatible with character in its highest form. A man may possess only his industry, his frugality, his integrity, and yet stand high in the rank of true manhood.
“Character is property. It is the noblest of possessions. It is an estate in the general good-will and respect of men; and they who invest in it–though they may not become rich in this world’s goods–will find their reward in esteem and reputation fairly and honorably won. Without principles, a man is like a ship without rudder or compass, left to drift hither and thither with every wind that blows.”
What a contrast is afforded by the lives of Bacon and More. Bacon sought office with as much desire as More avoided it; Bacon used as much solicitation to obtain it as More endured to accept it, and each, when in it, was equally true to his character. More was simple, as Bacon was ostentatious. More was as incorruptible as Bacon was venal. More spent his private fortune in office, and Bacon spent the wages of corruption there. Both left office poor in worldly goods; but while More was rich in honor and good deeds, Bacon was poor in everything; poor in the mammon for which he bartered his integrity; poor in the gawd for which he sacrificed his peace; poor in the presence of the worthless; covered with shame in the midst of the people; trusting his fame to posterity, of which posterity is only able to say, that the wisest of men was adviser to the silliest of kings, yet that such a king had a sort of majesty when morally compared with the official director of his conscience. Both More and Bacon served each a great purpose for the world. More illustrated the beauty of holiness; Bacon expounded the infinitude of science. Bacon became the prophet of intellect; More, the martyr of conscience. The one pours over our understandings the light of knowledge; but the other inflames our hearts with the love of virtue.
All have read of the proud Egyptian king who ordered a colossal staircase built in his new palace, and was chagrined to find that he required a ladder to climb from one step to the next. A king’s legs are as short as those of a beggar. So, too, a prince’s ability to enjoy the pleasures of life is no greater than that of a pauper.
“All that is valuable in this world is to be had for nothing. Genius, beauty, health, piety, love, are not bought and sold. The richest man on earth would vainly offer a fortune to be qualified to write a verse like Milton, or to compose a melody like Mozart. You may summon all the physicians, but they cannot procure for you the sweet, healthful sleep which the tired laborer gets without price. Let no man, then, call himself a proprietor. He owns but the breath as it traverses his lips and the idea as it flits across his mind; and of that breath he may be deprived by the sting of a bee, and that idea, perhaps, truly belongs to another.”
“We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths:
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best;
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest.”