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Fine Souls and Fine Society

Emerson's assertion that 'it is the fine souls who serve us, and not what is called fine society,' is a refreshing assurance to fall back upon; for when life degenerates into an idolatry of the senses, a worship of material good, and is controlled only by the sovereignty of selfishness, its divine aim is irrevocably lost unless some achievement in the line of duty or sacrifice shall restore it to the sphere of high thought. Mr. Mallock once wittily remarked that it used to be considered an attribute of the lowest savages not to believe in a God; but it would apparently soon be considered an attribute of savage life to believe in one. This observation was made several years ago; but its latest application seems to be not only inclusive of the religious, but also of the moral attitude in contemporary life, in which belief, faith, conviction, are rigidly ruled out, and external pleasure is the aim pursued. There is a curious anomaly presented in the fact that in that portion of the community which arrogates to itself the term 'society,' the attitude toward life in its aims and aspects is as material, as crude, as ignoble as could be found among the poor and the ignorant class. We see a certain portion of the community whom vast wealth has emancipated from necessities of toil; who hold the two greatest factors of individual development and rational progress—leisure and freedom. All opportunities for the noblest culture, the most extended and refined achievements, are open to them. Society itself, in the highest sense, is a fine art, and requires leisure and freedom to develop its best possibilities. Yet as a matter of statistical data, we discover that fine society does not make fine souls—that the great and enduring achievements always have been in the past, and continue to be in the present, made by people who are working under conditions of limitation and pressure, who have to use much of their force in overcoming the difficulties before they can reach the work itself; while those persons who have nothing to do but conquer on the spiritual side of life turn from it to engage in the trivial and the material. It is little wonder that pessimism is the logical outcome of a life given over to mere personal pleasure and spectacular amusement. The spirit that says, 'Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die/ is not the spirit that is laying hold on any of the things that make life worth the living. Where life represents nothing but the worship of the body—that it shall be well cared for, well clad, and constantly amused—it is little wonder that there can be no convictions of immortality, or perhaps hardly the wish for it. The first cause of all discontent, all weariness, all jealousy, bitterness, and vanity of life is materialism. It is the corrosive element that rusts away all the pure gold of energy and of aspiration.

'Man is not changed,' says Mazzini, 'by whitewashing or gilding his habitation; a people cannot be regenerated by teaching them the worship of enjoyment; they cannot be taught a spirit of sacrifice by speaking to them of material rewards. It is the soul which creates to itself a body, the idea which makes for itself a habitation,...by devoting himself and purifying himself by good works and holy sorrow. It must not be said to him, Enjoy—life is the right to happiness; but rather, Work—life is a duty; do good, without thinking of the consequences to yourself. He must not be taught, To each according to his passions; but rather, To each according to his love.'

When, out of the life of scenic beauty and spectacular amusement, its votaries come to say: 'Pleasure is all there is of life; no one ever does anything for any motive save that of vanity and greed; authors write only for vanity or for money; Johns Hopkins endows a university simply for the selfish purpose of perpetuating his name; the belle who spends hundreds of dollars on one gown probably does more good than the philanthropist who makes higher education possible for a larger number; no life has any significance; and to believe that one has a message to give, a work to do, a responsibility to meet, is insufferable arrogance; ministers are as selfish for greed and gain as other men; the churches are nothing but women's club-houses; wealth is the only rank; and though, if a person has it not, he may sometimes be received by society, he never can be in society'—when such a creed as this is formulated and expressed in the literal words given here, as the typical views of the individual speaking and of the leisure class represented, what can be thought of the course which thus eliminates all moral principle, and takes from life all value of significance? Is this the outcome of great fortunes—to produce this ignominious attitude, this base and common greed for enjoyment? How is this point of view any higher than the crude materialism of the ignorant, the low, and the untrained? Is this the attitude out of which will come artistic, literary, scientific, or philosophical achievement? The question answers itself. Aspiration, to say nothing of inspiration, is stifled in such an atmosphere. Neither learning nor genius can arise from it.

That it is the fine souls who serve us, and not what is called fine society, is not only eminently true, but a truth very much to the point in a practical way, in these days when wealth arrogates to itself the exclusive basis of social life, and believes that they who can build palaces become thereby princes by some occult process of transubstantiation. Yet is there nothing more vulgar than the faith that the parvenu he comes a prince by virtue of gilded setting. The true aristocracy of America lies still in genius, intellect, and culture, whatever may be the claim in the life of representation. To allege that this or that magnate sprang from humble origin is the province of sham and superficiality, and has no part in a true aristocracy. It is the direction in which one's life is moving, the range of affinities that he attracts, the quality of his nature, by which the true test of aristocracy falls, and not in the least whether he was born in this condition or that. To be horn with refined tastes and moral instincts is to be well born, whether it be in the limited outward circumstances that have largely characterized the greatest and noblest in American life, or in the purple and fine linen of latter-day luxury. As a matter of record in America, nearly all permanent greatness has originated in comparatively limited circumstances—to wit, Emerson, whose early life was one of even actual privation; Lowell, whose father had the modest comfort of a hard-working and self-denying minister in early days; Edward Everett Hale, who told us in the Forum that he grew up in the days 'when an American gentleman might have to put his hand to anything, and there was no service to which he could not give dignity, and none to which he should not give himself if there were need.' Examples need not be multiplied, but they will readily recur to one—from Abraham Lincoln reading by pine-knots, to Howells reading Longfellow's poems while the old mill wheezed away.

Fine society is not made. It is not to be bought with a price. It must grow. It is the result of evolution. 'Noble aims and sincere devotion to them, the highest development of mind and heart, the fine aroma of cultivation which springs from the intimacy with all that human genius has achieved in every kind, simplicity and integrity, a soul whose sweetness overflows in the manner and makes the voice winning and the movement graceful—here is the recipe for fine society; and although much of this is impossible—as, for instance, high and various cultivation—without wealth, yet wealth of itself cannot supply the lowest element. The wealth of a foolish man is a pedestal, which, the more he accumulates, elevates him higher, and reveals his deformity to a broader circle. These most obvious facts are rarely remembered. Gilded vulgarity believes itself to be gold.'

When it arrogates to itself the exclusive claim to gold, it is time its pretensions were stripped away and its barrenness revealed. The only fine society—that which is composed of fine souls—is exclusive, but not in a vulgar way. All that does not belong to it drops away by a spiritual law. All that does belong to it comes by spiritual gravitation. Pine society is the graceful, genial, sympathetic intercourse of fine souls. It is a festival over which the gods themselves preside. It is not spectacular. It is not to be manufactured out of a sudden rise in stocks. It does not depend on the market. The noble words of Julia Ward Howe hold the final truth that crowns this train of speculation:

'To me the worship of wealth means, in the present,' says Mrs. Howe, 'the crowning of low merit with undeserved honor, the setting of successful villainy above unsuccessful virtue. It means absolute neglect and isolation for the few who follow a high heart's love through want and pain, through evil and good report. It means the bringing of all human resources, material and intellectual, to one dead level of brilliant exhibition, a second "Field of the Cloth of Gold," to show that the barbaric love of splendor still lives in man, with the thirst for blood and other quasi-animal passions. It means in the future some such sad downfall as Spain had when the gold and silver of America had gorged her soldiers and nobles; something like what France experienced after Louis XIV and XV. I am no prophet, and least of all a prophet of evil; but where, oh, where, shall we find the antidote to this metallic poison? Perhaps in the homoeopathic principle of cure. When the money miracle shall be complete, when the gold Midas shall have turned everything to gold, then the human heart will cry for flesh and blood, for brain and muscles. Then shall manhood be at a premium and money at a discount.' The final word on society considered as a fine art, considered nobly and with full recognition of its high purpose, must always be this word of America's most representative woman—Julia Ward Howe.

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Lilian Whiting

  • Born on October 3rd, 1859 in Niagara Falls, New York and died in 1942
  • Author and journalist
  • Edited The Boston Traveler and The Boston Budget
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