The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in arts, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality, and a purpose; and first, last, midst, and without end to honor every truth by use. —Emerson
It is a custom of merchants to have an annual "taking account of stock." At such times they examine carefully the goods on hand, clear the shelves of unsaleable articles, mark down those that have become shopworn or out of season, and put new values on all for which there is unusual demand.
Just so in the thought life of a community, we find that periodically there is by general consent a taking account of stock. Old standards and ideas are removed from the shelves and carefully examined in the light of new discoveries, their character and usefulness are challenged, and their condition tested.
If they have become unserviceable for any reason, and higher thought has led to higher standards, the old theories and views of life and conduct are soon laid aside. Their defects have become apparent, and better things are in demand.
At the same time some ancient truth or teacher that has been long labeled "pagan" and put upon a shelf comes suddenly into notice; new meaning and unsuspected value are found in the proscribed philosophy. It throws a fresh light upon all the ethical problems of the day, and is in danger of becoming popular.
In this moral stock-taking we are often surprised to find the necessity of a new classification of what we have called "virtues" and "vices."
In the light of higher principles and larger knowledge we find we must change the tags that have been carelessly put on. Some virtues do not hold their color in the sunshine of the new century. Some vices prove to be "all wool and will wash."
What we thought wine has turned to vinegar; while an occasional cask we have looked upon suspiciously and placed in the darkest corner of our cellar, we find to be from some rare old vintage, when brought to the light of day, with sparkling color and a beautiful aroma.
Let us examine anew some of these things we have thought vicious, and revise our definitions where we find it necessary.
A stammerer puts his emphasis upon the words he finds most difficult to pronounce. The average man or woman will be most emphatic in his thought and conversation in condemning those qualities in which he secretly finds his greatest difficulties. He will commend the things which he most lacks. So true is this that it provides us with a pass key to character. If we judge men by the opposites of their professions, we will often get the wisest understanding of them.
They bluster always, if at all, at their weak points. A quality in which we know we are strong is one we rarely need to assert. The virtue that we praise the most is the one in which we are deficient.
The place for us to post our sentinels is where we are supposed by ourselves and our friends to have least need of them.
True virtue is unconscious of itself. It is a normal condition. Consciousness of virtue indicates vice.
Consciousness of vice suggests a truly virtuous spirit struggling for the mastery.
One of the most abused words in the language has been "freethinker," with its synonyms of "infidel" and "skeptic."
We speak of "freedom" with enthusiasm when applied to liberty of movement—emancipation from political bondage, from the tyranny of civil government.
But we have almost universally condemned "free thought."
The time has come for us to frankly admit that there is no grander term in the language than that of "freethinker," one who is truly emancipated in his thought, free from fear of opinion, from prejudice and superstition, open to perceive the truth in any quarter, without limitation of his own.
"Infidel" has been a name of reproach. It is only a geographical distinction. It is applied to one who does not accept the popular belief of the country in which he lives. It is a matter of latitude and longitude. I have a friend who has been stoned in eastern countries as an infidel, and called a "dog of a Christian," because he was not a follower of "The True Prophet," and has suffered almost the same reproach in our western world, because he could not subscribe to the theological opinions of his orthodox associates.
"Skeptic" is from the Greek. Its root meaning is "one who is looking for the truth," "who is thoughtful," "who considers," "an inquirer after facts." Yet we have warned each other against "skepticism," and abused the skeptic as a criminal because he would persist in declining to accept as truth, without inquiry, what we considered facts, embodied in religious dogmas.
The only "infidelity" is the worship of the golden calf, the reverence for things material rather than things spiritual.
This it is which results in the "quenching of the spirit."
It leads to dishonest professions of faith and creeds, which are required by conventionality, but not accepted by the heart.
A "radical" is one who seeks the roots of things. He is not content with mere assertions and superficial opinions.
A "rationalist" is one who insists upon the right to use his reason.
All these terms have been persistently hurled as epithets of abuse by the majority, against those who would not recognize their tyranny in matters of religious thought and quietly accept their opinion as authority. The things for which these seekers after truth were made to suffer have been considered "vices," have been labeled "dangerous," and deemed just grounds of suspicion, regardless of his life and character who dared to question the conventional opinion.
"Frivolity" is another virtuous vice. Under the regime of puritanism which has dominated New England for many generations, mirth and levity have been discountenanced and suppressed. Life has become so serious that many have lost the sense of joy and buoyancy which characterize the normal human animal. We have lived under an exaggerated thought of our responsibilities. No wonder that the land is filled with nervous invalids. The only medicine that many need is the vibration of a gladsome mirth, a frank and hearty laughter, more frivolity and levity of disposition, and less thought of personal salvation.
We need to cultivate the "carelessness" of which we have been so often warned; to build it upon the confidence that life is really beautiful and to be enjoyed, and not to be gotten through quickly and put off as a shoe that pinches.
Let us "take no anxious thought for the morrow." It does not help us. It befogs and wearies us most uselessly. Let us learn the meaning of "divine recklessness" and the "negligency of that trust which carries God with it."
For heaven's sake let us get away from that bondage of system and method in which we have felt so cramped that no pleasure was welcomed, unless it came within our program of the day's duties and was included in our "stint." A bit of "laziness” would soften and improve many a stern New England character.
No wonder we have become restless and discontented!
"Unrest" and "discontent" are changed to virtues when they stimulate us to seek better things.
And so we find as we progress that many of the fields that are marked "no thoroughfare" will open to us the King's highway, and many of the things marked "dangerous" conceal our highest good.
When we subject to honest analysis the fixed opinions of our day and generation, we discover vice in many virtues and virtue in many vices.
It is high time we took a new account of stock, and applied the test of principle to all things we have accepted as truth.
We often speak of evil habit when we ought to speak of the evil of habit.
It is doubtful if there is any such thing as a good habit.
When action has no reasonable cause behind it as a motive, and becomes simply automatic, there can be no life remaining in it.
It is not good habits but principles that we should teach our children.
Moral obligations to others are at least of equal importance with financial responsibilities. Yet there are many who lose sight of the one while eagerly insisting on the other, upon which they pride themselves as a special virtue, the maintenance of "business credit."
There are other bankruptcies than those which are recognized in courts of law. There are other courts from which there is no appeal and in which the prisoner is his own stern judge.