Man is born a long way from him and needs to see the end toward which he moves. He has a body and uses a lower life, but man is what he is in his best hours and most exalted moods. 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. Daily, mysterious ideals throb and throb within. It struggles with a vagrant restlessness. It goes yearning after what it does not find. A deep, mysterious hunger rises. It would fain come to itself. In its ideal hours it sees afar off the vision that tempts it on and up toward home and heaven. The secret of man is the secret of his vision hours. These tell him whence he came—and whither he goes.
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. Through the golden gate of the ear go noble truths, companying together messengers of affection and sweet friendships. The eye is an Appian Way over which have gone all the processions of the seasons. How do hand and vision protect man? Hunters use sharp spears for keeping back wild beasts, but Livingstone, armed only with eye beams, drove a snarling beast into the thicket, and Luther, lifting his great eyes upon an assassin, made the murderer flee. What flute or harp is comparable for sweetness to the voice? It carries warning and alarm. It will speak for you, plead for you, and pray for you. Truly it is an architect, fulfilling Dante's dictum, "piling up mountains of melody." Serving the soul well, the body becomes sacred by service. 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.
For the body the sower goes forth to sow, and the harvester looks forward to the time of sheaves and shouting. For strengthening the body the shepherd leads forth his flocks and herds, and for its raiment the weaver makes the looms and spindles fly. For the body all the trains go speeding in and out, bringing fruits from the sunny south, and furs from the frozen north. All the lower virtues and integrities spring from its desires. As an engine, lying loose in a great ship, would have no value, but, fastened down with bolts, drives the great hull through the water, so the body fastens and bolts the spirit to field, forest, and city, and makes it useful and productive.
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.
Oh, be warned against these dreams, all ye young hearts! The indulgence of the imagination is like the sultriness of a summer's day; what began so fair ends with sharp lightning and thunder. How terrible is this word to evil-doers! "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." The soul may be likened unto a house, and conscience is the furnace thereof. Sometimes the householder turns the heat into the sitting-room and parlor, but in the other rooms he turns off the warm currents of air. Sometimes heat is turned into the upper rooms, while the lower rooms are cold. Thus conscience, that should govern all faculties alike, is largely departmental in its workings.
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.
Men are born with feet and faculties, but only by practice do their steps run swiftly along those beautiful pathways called literature or law or statesmanship. Man's success in mastering other sciences encourages within us the belief that it is possible for men to master the science of getting on smoothly and justly with their fellow men. In importance this knowledge exceeds every other knowledge whatsoever. To know what armor to put on against to-morrow's conflicts; how to attain the ends of commerce and ambition by using men as instruments; how to be used by men, and how to use men, not by injuring them, not by cheating them, not by marring or neglecting them; but how through men to advance both one's self and one's fellows—this is life's task. For skill in getting on with men is the test of perfect manhood.
Man has skill for turning poisons into medicines. He changes deadly acids into balms, but he has no skill for taking envy's poisons out of the tongue, or sheathing the keen sword of hatred. As to physical nature, man seems rapidly approaching the time when all the forces of land and sea and sky will yield themselves as willing and obedient servants to do his will. But, having made himself monarch in every other realm, man breaks down utterly in attempting the task of living peaceably with his friends and neighbors. Sublime in his integrity and strength, he is most pitiable in the way he wrecks his own happiness, and ruins the happiness of others.
Pestilence in the city, tornado in the country, the fire in the forest—these are but feeble types of man as a destroyer. One science is as yet unmastered by man—the science of right living and the art of getting along smoothly with himself and his fellows.
Man has the beaver's instinct for building, the bee's skill for hiving, the lion's stroke is less than man's trip-hammer, and the deer's swift flight is slowness to man's electric speed, the eagle itself cannot outrun his flying speech. It is as if all the excellences of the whole animal creation were swept together and compacted in man's tiny body, with the addition of new gifts and faculties; but this concentration of all the gifts distributed to the animal world in man means that the dangers and difficulties that are distributed over all the rest of the animal creation will also be concentrated upon his single person. The increase of his treasure carries with it the increase of danger and difficulty. The vastness of his endowment opens up the possibilities of innumerable blunderings and stumbling and wanderings from the way. By so much, therefore, as he is above the bird and the beast, by that much does the task of carrying aright his faculties increase in magnitude. Men literally stand over against each other like gunboats, carrying deadly missiles.
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.
Through speech man can fill all the sky with storms, or he can sweep all clouds from the horizon. The soul can take the sting out of man's anger, or it can stir up anger; it can allay strife or whet the keen edge of hatred. The thermometer is not so sensitive to heat, the barometer to weight, the photographer's plate to light, as is the soul to the ten thousand influences of its fellow men. Great is man's skill in handling engines of force; marvelous man's control of winds and rivers; wondrous the mastery of engines and ideas. But man himself is greater than the tools he invents, and man stands forth clothed with power to control and influence his fellows, in that he can sweeten their bitterness, allay their conflicts, bear their burdens, surround them with the atmosphere of hope and sympathy. Just in proportion as men have capacity, talent and genius, are they to be guardians, teachers, and nurses for men, bearing themselves tenderly and sympathetically toward ignorance, poverty and weakness.
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. 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)