There is a profound truth at the bottom of Mrs. Browning's assertion that—
Through scorning nothing.
There is no quality which is more corrosive to all true life or endeavor than that of contempt. Nor does it spring from any superiority of character or gifts, however fondly one who manifests it may lay that flattering unction to his soul. Contempt is not the product of spiritual affluence, but of spiritual poverty. It is the great nature, not the narrow one, that is keenest in discernment and that is most swift to recognize all that is fine or noble in any effort. There is no criticism so severe, so carping, as that of the person who could least accomplish the work he views with such disdain. So true is this that absolute denunciation is almost invariably the product of absolute ignorance.
There is a phrase much in use in the world of letters, that of creative criticism. It is a branch of literary art second only to that of poetry; and when a literary review or art criticism is written by a master in this phase of expression, the reader gains not only a clear and discriminative idea of the work discussed, but also much collateral knowledge of a positive kind. The merely negative writing that points out errors or failures is of little value in comparison with the positive kind that, while revealing these, also discloses the accompanying excellences, and the means and measures of a true success.
The analogy holds true in life. The critic of character who can only point out weakness and mistaken endeavor is, at most, of a negative value in progress. If to the keen vision for defects he adds contempt for the defects he discovers, his criticism on life has the effect to paralyze human endeavor. It requires some ability to see reasons for doubt; but it always requires more ability, and that of a higher order, to see reasons for belief.
It is an important factor in social harmony to learn to accept people for what they are, rather than to find fault because they are not something else. You may be, at times, bored by the too ardent devotion and profuse demonstrations of a regard which clothes itself in all variety of material forms, and showers upon you an accumulating avalanche of visible remembrances. You grow tired of too great subjectivity, and long for the plane of the rational and the impersonal. And still the emotional warmth of friendship is not so common that one can afford to banish it or altogether ignore its claims. The ideal friend, who blends the wide outlook on life and activity in its larger and more permanent interest with the higher possibilities of personal thought and tenderness, is too rare to serve as a prototype. One extreme is found in one person and the other in someone else, and rarely are they united in the same nature. But there is wisdom in accepting people as we do pictures, and placing them in the right light.
There are few characters or few pursuits that will excite the contempt of one who views them seriously, and sees them in their larger relation to life as a whole. Character is not a fixed and definite creation—that is, at any time ever made—but it is always making. It is continually in evolution. There are usually latent possibilities to be considered. There is always the possible inflorescence.
The mental attitude of contempt towards any phase of human activity not only represses or even paralyses the energy of its object, but it is almost equally fatal, too, to one who habitually cultivates this state of reflection. It is only abounding love and trust and faith that produce abounding energy. To him who believes in nothing, nothing can exist. It is the exhaustion of the spiritual atmosphere.
More Articles by This Author 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