The opportunist changes its color to agree with that of surrounding objects. We all of us by nature possess this quality to such a degree that our character, habits, and principles take their form and color from those of our intimate associates. Association with persons wiser, better, and more experienced than ourselves is always more or less inspiring and invigorating.
They enhance our knowledge of life. We correct our estimate by theirs and become partners in their wisdom. We enlarge our field of observation through their eyes, profit by their experience, and learn not only by what they have enjoyed but which is still more instructive from what they have suffered. If they are stronger than ourselves, we become participators in their strength.
Hence companionship with the wise and energetic never fail to have a most valuable influence on the formation of character—increasing our resources, strengthening our resolves, elevating our aims, and enabling us to exercise greater dexterity and ability in our affairs, as well as more effective helpfulness in those of others.
Young men are in general but little aware of how much their reputation is affected in the view of the public by the company they keep. The character of their associates is soon regarded as their own. If they seek the society of the worthy and the respectable, it elevates them in the public estimation, as it is evidence that they respect themselves, and are desirous to secure the respect of others. On the contrary, intimacy with persons of bad character always sinks a young man in the eyes of the public. While he, in intercourse with such persons, thinks but little of the consequences, others are making their remarks. They learn what his taste is, what sort of company he prefers, and predict, on no doubtful ground, what will be the result of his principles and character. It is the only one who is elevated in mind, character, and position, who can lift us; while the ignoble, degraded, and debased only drag us down. We may be deprived of the advantages of better and superior associations at some time or another, but, unless we seek for them, we shall not profit by them, nor be acknowledged to be worthy of them.
No man of position can allow himself to associate, without prejudice, with the profane, the Sabbath-breaking, the drunken, and the licentious; for he lowers himself, without elevating them. The sweep is not made the less black by rubbing against the well-dressed and the clean, while they are inevitably defiled. Keep company with persons rather above than below yourself; for gold in the same pocket with silver loseth both of its weight and color. Nothing elevates us so much as the presence of a spirit similar, yet superior, to our own. What is companionship where nothing that improves the intellect is communicated, and where the larger heart contracts itself to the mold and dimensions of the smaller? In all society it is advisable to associate, if possible, with the highest; not that the highest is always the best, but because, if disgusted there, you can at any time descend; but if we begin at the lowest, to ascend is impossible. It should be the aim of the young man to seek the society of the wise, the intelligent, and the good. It is always safe to be found in the society of those who, with a good heart, combine intelligence and an ability to impart information. If you wish to be respected, if you desire happiness and not misery, associate only with the intelligent and good. Once habituate yourself to a virtuous course, once secure love of good society, and no punishment would be greater than, by accident, to be obliged to associate, even for a short time, with the low and vulgar.
He that sinks into familiarity with persons much below his level will be constantly weighed down by his base connections, and, though he may easily sink lower, he will find it hard to rise again. Better be alone than in bad company. “Evil communications corrupt good manners.” Ill qualities are catching as well as diseases, and the mind is at least as much, if not a great deal more, liable to infections than the body. Go with mean people and you think life is mean. Society is the atmosphere of souls, and we necessarily imbibe something which is either infectious or salubrious. The society of virtuous persons is enjoyed beyond their company, and vice carries a sting even into solitude. The society you keep is both the indicator and former of your character. In company, when the pores of the mind are all opened, there requires more guard than usual, because the mind is then passive. In vicious company, you will feel your reverence for the dictates of conscience wears off. The name at which angels bow and devils tremble you will hear contemned and abused. The Bible will supply materials for unmeaning jests or impious buffoonery. The consequences will be a practical deviation into vice the principle will become sapped and the fences of conscience broken down.
It is not alone the low and dissipated, the vulgar and profane, from whose example and society you are in danger. These persons of reputation will despise and shun. But there are persons of apparently decent morals, of polished manners and interesting talents, but who, at the same time, is unprincipled and wicked, who make light of sacred things, scoff at religion, and deride the suggestions and scruples of a tender conscience as superstition, these are the persons whose society and influence are most to be feared. Their breath is pollution; their embrace, death. Unhappily there are many of these descriptions. They mark out their unwary victims: they gradually draw them into their toils; they strike the deadly fang, infuse the poison, and exult to see youthful virtue and parental hope wither and expire under their ruffian example. Many a young man has thus been led on by his elders in iniquity till he has been initiated into all the mysteries of debauchery and crime and ended his days a poor, outcast wretch.
Live with the culpable and you will be apt to die with the criminal. Bad company is like a nail driven into a post, which, after the first or second blow, may be drawn out with little difficulty, but, being driven into the head, it can only be withdrawn by the destruction of the wood. Be you ever so pure-minded yourself you can not associate with bad companions without falling into bad odor. Evil company is like tobacco smoke you can not belong in its presence without carrying away a taint of it. “Let no man deceive himself,” says Petrarch, “by thinking that the contagions of the soul are less than those of the body. They are yet greater; they sink deeper and come on more unsuspectedly.” From impure air we take diseases; from bad company, vice, and imperfections. Avoid, as far as you can, the company of all vicious persons whatsoever, for no vice is alone, and all are infectious.
A healthy company not only improves our manners, but also our minds, and intelligent associates will become a source of enjoyment as well as edification. Good company is that which is composed of intelligent and well-bred persons, whose language is chaste and good, whose sentiments are pure and edifying, whose deportment is such as pure and well-regulated education and correct morals dictate, and whose conduct is directed and restrained by the pure precepts of religion. When we have the advantages of such company it should then be the object of our zeal to imitate their real excellencies, copy their politeness, their carriage, their address, and the easy, well-bred turn of their conversation; but we should remember that let them shine ever so bright, their vices are so many blemishes upon their character which we should no more think of endeavoring to imitate than we should make artificial warts upon our faces because some distinguished person happened to have one there by nature.
Water will seek its level. So do the various elements of society. Tell us whom you prefer as companions and we can tell who you are like. Do you love the society of the vulgar? Then you are already debased in your sentiments. Do you seek to be with the profane? In your heart, you are like them. Are jesters and buffoons your choice companions? He who loves to laugh at folly is himself a fool. Do you love and seek the society of the wise and good? Is this your habit? Had you rather take the lowest seat among these than the highest seat with others? Then you have already learned to be good. You may not make very rapid progress, but even a good beginning is not to be despised. Hold on your way, and seek to be the companion of those that fear God. So shall you be wise for yourself and wise for eternity?