By William Lyon Phelps
What do we really mean when we say of a man, "He is too good for this world?" Do we mean exactly that, do we mean he is so far loftier in character than the average person that he seems almost out of place in a world like this? Don't we rather mean that he lacks human sympathy and understanding, and therefore can be of no real use to anybody?
If you remember the character of Hilda in Hawthorne's novel, The Marble Faun, you may remember that she used to be held up as an ideal of the religious life. "Her soul was like a star and dwelt apart." But from the selfish sanctity of its seclusion, no real good resulted; no one was aided or cheered in the struggle of life. No one could confide in her, for she could not even confide in herself. Her nature may have had the purity of an angel, but it lacked the purity of a noble woman.She was no help to sinners; she was their despair. Her purity was like that of one who hesitates to rescue a drowning man, for fear of soiling his clothes.
Hilda gave up the world and worldly pleasure; easily enough, for she abhorred it, and felt ill at ease in society. But though she gave up many things precious to the average person, she had no conception of the meaning of the word self denial.
For the true sacrifice, if one wishes to be of real use in this world, consists not in the giving of things, but in giving oneself. If a man's life consists not in the abundance of things which he possesses, so the sacrificial life consists not in the number of luxuries one surrenders, but in the devotion of oneself, in the denial of the will. There is a certain kind of purity which is fundamentally selfish.
This manner of asceticism is not particularly common nowadays, and we need not fear that it will be too generally practiced. I am calling attention to it in order to show that selfishness may take on the mask of purity or of respectability, a selfishness that springs from pure moral motives and a longing for the elevation of character.
But there is another type of respectable selfishness that is far more common, possibly more common in America than in any other country. It is not usually recognised as selfishness, but regarded as one of the greatest-perhaps the greatest of the virtues. It is seen chiefly among earnest and ambitious young men, who assume that life is not a holiday, but a serious affair, a struggle, a strictly competitive race, where if you stop a moment, even for reflexion, you are left behind.
We are bound to respect these men. They have at all events found out half the secret of life. They have set before themselves some goal, in politics, in business, in literature, and they are determined to reach it. They are equally determined to gain the prize by no dishonourable means. Their minds are full of the lessons learned from their predecessors, men who by the sacrifice of temporary pleasures, by the refusal to indulge in recreation or relaxation, have surpassed their competitors and reached the top.
We are constantly told that it is only by intense concentration, by terrific efforts day and night, and by keeping the end constantly in view that one can attain success. Surely these young men are to be admired, surely they are models, examples worthy of emulation?
Well, they are better than criminals, they are better than parasites, they are better than drones. But their driving motive is selfishness. Tennyson wrote The Palace of Art, Browning
wrote Paracelsus, because each of these poets knew that his individual danger was not what is usually known as "temptation." They knew that they would never go to hell by the crowded highway of dissipation, for they were above the mere call of the blood. Their danger lay in a high and noble ambition, which has wrecked many first-rate minds.
Modern life tends to encourage this respectable selfishness. The central law of the socalled science of Economics is selfishness. A whole science is built on one foundation-that every man in the world will get all he can for himself. The subject is naturally studied not from an ethical, but from a scientific standpoint. Life is a race.
Now I believe that Efficiency-mere practical success in the world-is as false an ideal as asceticism. If the morality of withdrawal is not good enough, neither is the morality of success. Those deserve the highest admiration and the most profound respect who have actually aided their human brethren, who have left the world better than they found it.
This is by no means a hopeless ideal of character. It is not necessary to crush a tyrant or to organise a revolution or to reconstruct society or to be a professional reformer. There are plenty of professional reformers who have tremendous enthusiasm for humanity and who have never helped an individual. Those who by unselfish lives and consideration for others elevate the tone of the community in which they live and who by their presence make others happier, these are the salt of the earth. Their daily existence is more eloquent than a sermon.
American young men and women in our High Schools and universities are not often face to face with the mystery of life. They have no conception of the amount of suffering in the world. Their own lives are comparatively free from it, in many cases free even from anxiety. These boys and girls are for the most part sensible, alert, quick-witted, and practical; what I should like to see would be a change in their ideals from mere Success to something nobler. I should like to see them devoting their intelligence and energy to the alleviation of suffering and to the elevation of human thought and life.
If one still believes that the highest happiness and satisfaction come from the attainment of any selfish ambition, no matter how worthy in itself, it is well to remember the significance of the fact that Goethe, acknowledged to be one of the wisest of men, made Faust happy only when he was unselfishly interested in the welfare of others; and to remember that Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the shrewdest of all shrewd Americans, found the greatest pleasure of his long life in two things-public service and individual acts of kindness.