Importance of aiming high, in the formation of character.
To those who have carefully examined the introduction and table of contents, I am now prepared to give the following general direction; Fix upon a high standard of character. To be thought well is not sufficient. The point you are to aim at, is, the greatest possible degree of usefulness.
Many may think there is a danger of setting too high a standard of action. I have heard teachers contend that a child will learn to write much faster by having an inferior copy, than by imitating comparatively perfect one; ‘because,’ say they, ‘a pupil is liable to be discouraged if you give him a perfect copy; but if it is only a little in advance of his own, he will take courage from the belief that he shall soon be able to equal it.’ I am fully convinced, however, that this is not so. The more perfect the copy you place before the child, provided it be written, and not engraved, the better. For it must always be possible like things, for the child to imitate it; and what is not impossible, every child may reasonably be expected to aspire after, on the principle, that whatever man has done, a man may do.
So in human conduct, generally; whatever is possible should be aimed at. Did my limits permit, I might show that it is a part of the divine economy to place before his rational creatures a perfect standard of action and to make it their duty to come up to it?
He who only aims at little will accomplish but little. Expect great things, and attempt great things. A neglect of this rule produces more of the difference in the character, conduct, and success of men than is commonly supposed. Some start in life without any leading object at all; some with a low one; and some aim high:—and just in proportion to the elevation at which they aim, will be their progress and success. It is an old proverb that he who aims at the sun, will not reach it, to be sure, but his arrow will fly higher than if he aims at an object on a level with himself. Exactly so is it, in the formation of character, except in one point. To reach the sun with an arrow is an impossibility, but youth may aim high without attempting impossibilities.
Allow me repeat the assurance that, as a general rule, you may be whatever you will resolve to be. Determine that you will be useful in the world, and you shall be. Young men seem to be utterly unconscious of what they are capable of being and doing. Their efforts are often few and feeble because they are not awake to a full conviction that anything great or distinguished is in their power.
Nonetheless whence came en Alexander, a Cæsar, a Charles XII, or a Napoleon? Or whence the better order of spirits,—a Paul, an Alfred, a Luther, a Howard, a Penn, a Washington? Were not these men once like yourselves? What but self-exertion, aided by the blessing of Heaven, rendered these men so conspicuous for usefulness? Rely upon it,—what these men once were, you may be. Or at the least, you may make a nearer approach to them, than you are ready to believe. Resolution is almost omnipotent. Those little words, try, and begin, are sometimes great in their results. ‘I can’t,’ never accomplished anything;—’ I will try,’ has achieved wonders.
This position might be proved and illustrated by innumerable facts, but one must suffice.
A young man who had wasted his patrimony by profligacy, whilst standing, one day, on the brow of a precipice from which he had determined to throw himself, formed the sudden resolution to regain what he had lost. The purpose thus formed was kept; and though he began by shoveling a load of coals into a cellar, for which he only received twelve and a half cents, yet he proceeded from one step to another till he more than recovered his lost possessions, and died worth sixty thousand pounds sterling.
You will derive much advantage from a careful perusal of the lives of eminent individuals, especially of those who were good as well as great. You will derive comparatively little benefit from reading the lives of those scourges of their race who have drenched the earth in blood, except so far as it tends to show you what an immense blessing they might have been to the world, had they devoted to the work of human improvement those mighty energies which were employed in human destruction. Could the physical and intellectual energy of Napoleon, the order and method of Alfred, the industry, frugality, and wisdom of Franklin and Washington, and the excellence and untiring perseverance of Paul, and Penn, and Howard, be united in each individual of the rising generation, who can set limits to the good, which they might, and inevitably would accomplish! Is it too much to hope that some happier age will witness the reality? Is it not even probable that the rising generation may afford many such examples?
On Motives to action.
Not a few young men either have no fixed principles, no governing motive at all, or they are influenced by those which are low and unworthy. It is painful to say this, but it is too true. On such, I would press the importance of the following considerations.
Among the motives to action which I would present, the first is regarding your happiness. To this, you are by no means indifferent at present. Nay, the attainment of happiness is your primary objective. You seek it in every desire, word, and action. But you sometimes mistake the road that leads to it, either for the want of a friendly hand to guide you or because you refuse to be guided. Or what is most common, you grasp at a smaller good, which is near, and certain, and in so doing cut yourselves off from the enjoyment of a good which is often infinitely greater, though more remote.
Enable me to urge, in the second place, a regard for the family to which you belong. Indeed, you can never fully know unless the bitterness of ingratitude should teach you, the extent of the duty you owe to your relatives; and especially to your parents. You cannot know—at least till you are parents yourselves,—how their hearts are bound up in yours. But if you do not in some measure know it, till this late period, you are not fit to be parents.
In the third place, it is due to society, particularly to the neighborhood or sphere in which you move, and to the associations to which you may belong, that you strive to attain a very great elevation of character. Here, too, I am well aware that it is impossible, at your age, to perceive fully, how much you have it in your power to contribute, if you will, to the happiness of those around you; and here again let me refer you to the advice and guidance of aged friends.
But, fourthly, it is due to the nation and age to which you belong, that you fix upon a high standard of character. This work is intended for American youth. American! did I say? This word, alone, ought to call forth all your energies, and if there be a slumbering faculty within you, arouse it to action. Never, since the creation, were the youth of any age or country so imperiously called upon to exert themselves, as those whom I now address. Never before were there so many important interests at stake. Never were such immense results depending upon a generation of men, as upon that which is now approaching the stage of action. These rising millions are destined, according to all human probability, to form by far the greatest nation that ever constituted an entire community of freemen, since the world began. To form the character of these millions involves a greater amount of responsibility, individual and collective, than any other work to which humanity has ever been called. And the reasons are, it seems to me, obvious.
Now it is for you, my young friends, to determine whether these weighty responsibilities shall be fulfilled. It is for you to decide whether this greatest of free nations shall, at the same time, be the best. And as every nation is made up of individuals, you are each, in reality, called upon daily, to settle this question: ‘Shall the United States, possessing the amplest means of instruction within the reach of nearly all her citizens, the happiest government, the healthiest of climates, the greatest abundance of the best and most wholesome nutriment, with every other possible means for developing all the powers of human nature, be peopled with the most vigorous, powerful, and happy race of human beings which the world has ever known?’
There is another motive to which I beg leave, for one moment, to direct your attention. You are bound to fix on a high standard of action, from the desire of obeying the will of God. He it is who has cast your lot in a country which—all things considered—is the happiest below the sun. He it is who has given you such a wonderful capacity for happiness and instituted the delightful relations of parent and child, and brother and sister, and friend and neighbor. I might add, He it is, too, who has given you the name American,—a name which alone furnishes a passport to many civilized lands, and like a good countenance, or a becoming dress, prepossesses everybody in your favor.
But what young man is there, I may be asked, who is not influenced more or less, by all the motives which have been enumerated? Who is there that does not seek his happiness? Who does not desire to please his parents and other relatives, his friends, and his neighbors? Who does not wish to be distinguished for his attachment to country and liberty? Nay, who has not even some regard, in his conduct, to the will of God?
I grant that many young men, probably the most of those into whose hands this book will be likely to fall, are influenced, more or less, by all these considerations. All pursue their happiness, no doubt. By far the majority of the young have, also, real respect for the good opinion of others, and the laws of the Creator.
Still, do not thousands and tens of thousands mistake, as I have already intimated, regarding what promotes their iness? Is there any certainty that the greatest happiness of a creature can be secured without consulting the will of the Creator? And do not those young persons greatly err, who suppose that they can secure a full amount, even of earthly blessings, without conforming, with the utmost strictness, to those rules for conduct, which the Bible and the Book of Nature, so plainly make known?
Too many young men expect happiness from wealth. This is their great object of study and action, by night and by day. Not that they suppose there is an inherent value in the wealth itself, but only that it will secure the means of procuring the happiness they so ardently desire. But the farther they go, in the pursuit of wealth, for the sake of happiness, especially if successful in their plans and business, the more they forget their original purpose, and seek wealth for the sake of wealth. To get rich is their principal motive to action.
So it is regarding the exclusive pursuit of sensual pleasure, or civil distinction. The farther we go, the more we lose our original character, and the more we become devoted to the objects of pursuit and incapable of being roused by other motives.
The laws of God, whether we find them in the constitution of the universe around us, or go higher and seek them in the revealed word, are founded on a thorough knowledge of human nature, and all its tendencies. Do you study natural science—the laws which govern matter, animate and inanimate? What is the lesson which it constantly inculcates, but that it is man’s highest interest not to violate or attempt to violate the rules which Infinite Wisdom has adopted; and that every violation of his laws brings punishment along with it? Do you study the laws of God, as revealed in the Bible? And do not they, too, aim to inculcate the necessity of constant and endless obedience to his will, at the same time that their rejection is accompanied by the severest penalties which heaven and earth can inflict? What, in short, is the obvious design of the Creator, wherever and whenever any traces of his character and purposes can be discovered? What, indeed, but to show us that it is our most obvious duty and interest to love and obey Him?
The young man whose highest motives are to seek his happiness, and please his friends and neighbors, and the world around him, does much. This should never be denied. He merits much—not in the eye of God, for of this I have nothing to say in this volume—but from his fellow men. And although he may have never performed a single action from a desire to obey God, and make his fellow men better, as well as happier, he may still have been exceedingly useful, compared with a large proportion of mankind.
But suppose a young man possesses a character of this stamp—and such there are. How is he ennobled, how is the dignity of his nature advanced, how is he elevated from the rank of a mere companion of creatures,—earthly creatures, too,—to that of a meet companion and fit associate for the inhabitants of the celestial world, and the Father of all; when to these traits, so excellent and amiable in themselves, is joined the pure and exalted desire to pursue his studies and his employments, his pleasures and his pastimes—in a word, everything—even the most trifling concern which is worth doing, exactly as God would wish to have it done; and make the means of so doing, his great and daily study?
This, then, brings us to the highest of human motives to action, the love of God. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God supremely, and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, are the two great commands which bind the human family together. When our love to God is evinced by pure love to man, and it is our constant prayer, ‘Lord what wilt thou have me to do;’ then we come under the influence of motives which are worthy of creatures destined to immortality. When it is our meat and drink, from a sacred regard to the Father of our spirits, and of all things in the universe, material and immaterial, to make every thought, word, and action, do good—have a bearing upon the welfare of one or more, and the more the better—of our race, then alone do we come up to the dignity of our nature, and, by Divine aid, place ourselves in the situation for which the God of nature and grace designed us.
I have thus treated, at greater length than I had at first intended, of the importance of having an elevated aim, and of the motives to action. On how young men are to attain this elevation, it is the purpose of this little work to dwell plainly and fully. These means might be classed in three great divisions; viz. physical, mental, and moral. Whatever relates to health, belongs to the first division; whatever to the improvement of the mind, the second; and the formation of good manners and virtuous habits, constitutes the third. But although an arrangement of this sort might have been more logical, it would probably have been less interesting to the reader. The means of religious improvement, appropriately so-called, require a volume of themselves.
Nothing is more essential to usefulness and happiness in life than the habits of industry. ‘This we commanded you,’ says St. Paul, ‘that if any would not work, neither should he eat.’ Now, this would be the sober dictate of good sense, had the apostle never spoken. It is just as true now as it was 2,000 years ago, that no person possessing a sound mind in a healthy body, has a right to live in this world without labor. If he claims an existence on any other condition, let him betake himself to some other planet.
There are many kinds of labor. Some which are no less useful than others are almost exclusively mental. You may make your selection from a very wide range of employments, all, perhaps, equally important to society. But something you must do. Even if you happen to inherit an ample fortune, your health and happiness demand that you should labor. To live in idleness, even if you have the means, is not only injurious to yourself, but a species of fraud upon the community, and the children,—if children you ever have,—who have a claim upon you for what you can earn and do.
Allow me to prevail with you then when I urge you to set out in life fully determined to depend chiefly on yourself, for pecuniary support; and to be in this respect, independent. In a country where the general rule is that a person shall rise,—if he rises at all,—by his merit, such a resolution is indispensable. It is usually idle to be looking out for support from some other quarter. Suppose you should obtain a place of office or trust through the friendship, favor, or affection of others; what then? Why do you hold your post at uncertainties? It may be taken from you at almost any hour. But if you depend on yourself alone, in this respect, your mountain stands strong, and cannot very easily be moved.
He who lives upon any thing except his own labor, is incessantly surrounded by rivals. He is in daily danger of being out-bidden; his very bread depends upon caprice, and he lives in a state of never-ceasing fear. His is not, indeed, the dog’s life, ‘hunger and idleness,’ but it is worse; for it is ‘idleness with slavery;’ the latter being just the price of the former.
Slaves, are often well fed and decently clothed; but they dare not speak. They dare not be suspected even to think differently from their master, despise his acts as much as they may;—let him be tyrant, drunkard, fool, or all three at once, they must either be silent, or lose his approbation. Though possessing a thousand times his knowledge, they yield to his assumption of superior understanding; though knowing it is they who, in fact, do all that he is paid for doing, it is destruction to them to seem as if they thought any portion of the service belonged to themselves.
You smile, perhaps, and ask what all this tirade against slavery means. But remember, there is the slavery of several kinds. There is mental slavery as well as bodily, and the former is not confined to any particular division of the United States.
Begin, too, with a decision to labor through life. Many suppose that when they have secured to themselves a competence, they shall sit with folded arms, in an easy chair, the rest of their days, and enjoy it. But they may be assured that this will never do. The very fact of a person’s having spent the early and middle part of life in active usefulness, creates a necessity, to the body and mind, of its continuance. By this is not meant that men should labor as hard in old age, even in proportion to their strength, as in early life. Youth requires a great variety and amount of action, maturity not so much, and age still less. Yet so much as age does demand is more necessary than to those who are younger. Children are so tenacious of life, that they do not appear to suffer immediately if exercise is neglected; though a day of reckoning must finally come.
Hence we see the reason why those who retire from business towards the close of life, so often become diseased, in body and mind; and instead of enjoying life, or making those around them happy, become a source of misery to themselves and others.
Most people have a general belief in the importance of industrious habits; and yet not a few make strange work in endeavoring to form them. Some attempt to do it by compulsion; others by flattery. Some think it is to be accomplished by set lessons, in spite of example; others by example alone.
A certain father who was deeply convinced of the importance of forming his sons to habits of industry used to employ their whole days in removing and replacing heaps of stones. This was well-intended and arose from regarding the industry as a high accomplishment, but there is some danger of defeating our purpose in this way, and of producing disgust. Besides this, labor enough can usually be obtained which is profitable.
All persons, without exception, ought to labor more or less, every day in the open air. Of the truth of this opinion, the public are beginning to be sensible; and hence we hear much said, lately, about manual labor schools. Those who, from particular circumstances, cannot labor in the open air, should substitute in its place some active mechanical employment, together with suitable calisthenic or gymnastic exercises.
It is a great misfortune of the present day, that almost everyone is, by his, raised above his real state of life. Nearly every person you meet with is aiming at a situation in which he shall be exempted from the drudgery of laboring with his hands.
Now we cannot all become ‘lords‘ and ‘gentlemen,’ if we would. There must be a large part of us, after all, to make and mend clothes and houses, and carry on trade and commerce, and, despite all that we can do, the far greater part of us must work at something; otherwise, we fall under the sentence; ‘He who will not work shall not eat.’ Yet, so strong is the propensity to be thought ‘gentlemen;’ so general is this desire amongst the youth of this proud money-making nation, that thousands upon thousands of them are, at this moment, in a state which may end in starvation; not so much because they are too lazy to earn their bread, as because they are too proud!
And what are the consequences? A lazy youth becomes a burden to those parents, whom he ought to comfort, if not support. Always aspiring to something higher than he can reach, his life is a life of disappointment and shame. If marriage befalls him, it is a real affliction, involving others as well as himself. His lot is a thousand times worse than that of the common laborer. Nineteen times out of twenty a premature death awaits him: and, alas! how numerous are the cases in which that death is most miserable, not to say ignominious!
There is a false, as well as a true economy. I have seen an individual who, with a view to economy, was in the habit of splitting his wafers. Sometimes a thick wafer can be split into two, which will answer a very good purpose; but at others, both parts fall to pieces. Let the success be ever so complete, however, all who reflect for a moment on the value of time, must see it to be a losing process.
I knew a laboring man who would hire a horse, and spend the greater part of a day, in going six or eight miles and purchasing half a dozen bushels of grain, at sixpence less a bushel than he must have given near home. Thus to gain fifty cents, he subjected himself to an expense, in time and money, of one hundred and fifty. These are very common examples of the defective economy; and of that ‘withholding’ which the Scripture says ‘tends to poverty.’
The thrift in time is the economy of money—for it needs not Franklin to tell us that time is equivalent to money. Besides, I never knew a person who was economical of the one, who was not equally so of the other. The economy of time will, therefore, be an important branch of study.
But the study is rather difficult. For though every young man of common sense knows that an hour is sixty minutes, very few seem to know that sixty minutes make an hour. On this account, many waste fragments of time,—of one, two, three, or five minutes each—without hesitation, and apparently without regret;—never thinking that fifteen or twenty such fragments are equal to a full hour. ‘Take care of the pence, the pounds will take care of themselves,’ is not more true, than that hours will take care of themselves if you will only secure the minutes.
In order to form economical habits, several important points must be secured. You must have for every purpose and thing a time, and place; and every thing must be done at the time, and all things put in their place.
Every thing must be done at the time. Whether you attempt little or much, let every hour have its employment, in business, study, social conversation, or diversion; and unless it is on extraordinary occasions, you must not suffer your plan to be broken. It is in this way that many men who perform an incredible amount of business, have abundant leisure. And it is for want of doing business systematically that many who effect but little, never find much leisure. They spend their lives literally ‘doing nothing.’
An eminent prime minister of Holland was asked how he could perform such a vast amount of business, as it was known he did, and yet have so much leisure. ‘I do everything at the time;’ was the reply.
Some of you will say you have no room for any plan of your own; that your whole time is at the will of your master, or employer. But this is not so. Few persons are so entirely devoted to others as not to have minutes, if not hours, every day, which they can call their own. Now here it is that character is tried and proved. He alone who is wise in small matters will be wise in large ones. Whether your unoccupied moment’s amount in a day to half an hour, or an hour, or two hours, have something to do in each of them. If it is a social conversation, the moment your hour arrives, engage in it at once; if study, engage at once in that. The very fact that you have but a very few minutes at your command will create an interest in your employment during that time.
Perhaps no persons read to better purpose than those who have but very little leisure. Some of the very best minds have been formed in this manner. To repeat their names would be to mention a host of self-educated men, in this and other countries. To show what can be done, I will mention one fact which fell under my observation. A young man, about fifteen years of age, unaccustomed to study, and with a mind wholly undisciplined, read Rollin’s Ancient History through in about three months, or a fourth of a year; and few persons were ever more closely confined to laborious employment than he was during the whole time. Now to read four such works as Rollin in a year is by no means a matter to be despised.
Everything should have its place. Going into a shop, the other day, where a large number of persons were employed, I observed the following motto, in large letters, pasted on the side of the room; ‘Put everything in its proper place.’ I found the owner of the shop to be a man of order and economy.
An old gentleman of my acquaintance, who always had a place for every thing, made it a rule, if any thing was out of its place, and none of his children could find it, to blame the whole of them. This was an unreasonable measure, but produced its intended effect. His whole family follow his example; they have a place for everything, and they put everything in its place.
Unless both the foregoing rules are observed, true economy does not and cannot exist. But without economy, life is of little comparative value to ourselves or others. This trait of character is generally claimed, but more rarely possessed.
One of the greatest obstacles on the road to excellence is indolence. I have known young men who would reason finely on the value of time, and the necessity of rising early and improving every moment of it. Yet I have also known these same aspiring young men to lie dozing, an hour or two in the morning, after the wants of nature had been reasonable, and more than reasonably gratified. You can no more rouse them, with all their fine arguments, than you can a log. There they lie, completely enchained by indolence.
I have known others continually complain of the shortness of time; that they had no time for business, no time for study, &c. Yet they would lavish hours in yawning at a public house, or hesitating whether they had better go to the theatre or stay; or whether they had better get up, or indulge in ‘a little more slumber.’ Such people wear the most galling chains, and as long as they continue to wear them there is no reasoning with them.
An indolent person is scarcely human; he is a half quadruped, and of the most stupid species too. He may have good intentions of discharging a duty, while that duty is at a distance; but let it approach, let him view the time of action as near, and down go his hands in languor. He wills, perhaps; but he unwills in the next breath.
What is to be done with such a man, especially if he is a young one? He is absolutely good for nothing. Business tires him; reading fatigues him; the public service interferes with his pleasures, or restrains his freedom. His life must be passed on a bed of down. If he is employed, moments are as hours to him—if he is amused, hours are as moments. In general, his whole time eludes him, he lets it glide unheeded, like water under a bridge. Ask him what he has done with his morning,—he cannot tell you; for he has lived without reflection, and almost without knowing whether he has lived at all.
The indolent man sleeps as long as he can sleep, dresses slowly, amuses himself in conversation with the first person that calls upon him, and loiters about till dinner. Or if he engages in any employment, however important, he leaves it the moment an opportunity of talking occurs. At length dinner is served up; and after lounging at the table a long time, the evening will probably be spent as unprofitably as the morning: and this it may be, is no unfair specimen of his whole life. And is not such a wretch, for it is improper to call him a man—good for nothing? What is he good for? How can any rational being be willing to spend the precious gift of life in a manner so worthless, and so much beneath the dignity of human nature? When he is about stepping into the grave, how can he review the past with any degree of satisfaction? What is his history, whether recorded here or there,—in golden letters, or on the plainest slab—but, ‘he was born’ and ‘he died!’