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Ethical Relations

The science of living is the knowledge of relationship, of man to God, and this is religion and metaphysics; of man to man, and this is ethics. And one is spiritual no less than the other; for man to man, what is that but spirit to spirit? There is, then, a transcendental side of ethics—an unwritten law, above and beyond the code, that acts over our heads: a spirit that militates for or against our act though that be in accord with the accepted letter of moral science. Unless we act with the knowledge and agreement of this, our ethical relations are not eminently practical but still speculative; for whatsoever is done to the letter alone is as often defeated by the spirit of our act.

Since weak minds are receptive to whatever negative suggestions they may receive, what if the published account of crime, while upholding the letter, prove to be a sin against the spirit of ethics? What if nostrum advertisements were designed to beget in the foolish mind the very symptoms for which they announce a cure? What if the slaughter-house were a crime against ethics—and the arsenal and the powder factory; and peace commissions, and vegetarian tendencies and the protection of birds, all in the nature of an awakening and a broader perception of ethics?

There is a science of everydayness and commonplaceness as well as of great ends; and it is in little things that any disparity between the letter and the spirit of our ethics is the sooner revealed. Hospitality must be complete or it misses the mark; hospitality of ideas and of good-will—no less than of wines and viands. If our hostess be glum her culinary efforts are wasted. Whatever is done at the expense of harmonious relationship defeats its own ends and is poor economy. Household economics may not stop short at the consideration of things, but must include mental states, and provide against mental wear and tear. Good fare will never offset a lack of amiability and bonhomie. It is not enough to provide shelter and food; we owe it as well to bring peace and cheerfulness. Better a little dust and quietness than overmuch housecleaning and a loss of poise; better a crust and sweetness of mind; yes, better far a dinner of herbs where love is.

Our relations with men are psychic and occult. It is as useless to say one thing and mean another as it is foolish to outwardly smile while we inwardly frown. The outward bearing is often hypocritical; not so with the psychic relation, which is always candid. When we talk behind the back we communicate more than we mean to. If we do not favor a man he will find it out despite any protestations to the contrary. The mental attitude prevails and is swifter and surer than speech. Children and dogs read our attitude before we have spoken. A dog is never deceived into thinking we are friendly to him. Where men are wise enough to observe this attitude and to let the outer and the inner correspond, they are repaid by truer relations with one another. But this does not imply the expression of whatever we may feel; it means the cultivation of a feeling that is worthy of expression. We are not to cover our antagonisms, but to get rid of them. Antagonisms are the bane of society; they ramify like hidden mines under our homes. It makes little difference that they are not expressed—they are always felt.

To be happy is no less a duty to be performed than an ideal to be obtained. If our philosophy makes us pessimists, if our religion produces melancholy, we had better have done with them both, for true religion and real philosophy produce no such bitter fruit. The virtue lies not so much in enduring, but in enduring cheerfully; not so much in work done or obstacles overcome, but rather in the having done this while retaining still the blessings of cheerfulness and equanimity. The presence of a cheerful man is as much a blessing as is the sunshine. Our self-poise is not yet so stable but what we are easily disconcerted by angry looks and snappish behavior; and the provocation is strong to stumble over other people's failings—to be ruffled because of another's brusqueness, irritated by another's irritability. The burden of our indebtedness to the letter of civilization is great, but to the spirit thereof it is very little. What right have we to present a sour face to the world? Human law can make no provision as to what we shall think of people; but divine law is very searching. The money obligation is but a tithe of the real indebtedness which is paid not by the sweat of the brow but by the goodness of the heart and the serenity of the mind. Touch life with the wand of cheerfulness and the dull and commonplace become instinct with vitality and interest. There is no limit to the power of cheerfulness in reconstructing and smoothing the path of everyday life.

From the home as a center emanate those influences—be they small or great—that make for civilization; and the ethics of family life, the knowledge of harmonious relationship, is fundamental in social science. Charity begins at home; charity of speech, charity of manner—above all, charity of thought. And these all take rank before charity of dollars. Where these sweet influences arise from the hearth and pervade the home, there is a point of contact of earth and heaven; and where they are wanting, there are the confines of hell.

At the root of the ethics of the home lie the rights of the unborn, and here is the beginning of charity: charity to the individual, to society, and to the race; charity to the present and to the future—yes, great charity to posterity, and to the page of history. The right to be well-born and royally welcomed, to be the children of loving union and some degree of spiritual affinity, to be the children of high purpose, of balance, and sanity, and poise—this is the demand of the coming race upon a sincere charity the world over.

To us comes a little child, arising from the sanctity of the heart: from the Invisible wafted to the world of form—a soul wrapped in the body of a child. We the magicians have summoned the Spirit of Life, and it is here. Where was emptiness, there is a something concrete—yet inscrutable. We have assumed the prerogative of creator; we have commanded the forces of nature, and infinite time and infinite space, the laws of the universe—Titan and Cyclops—obey and do seem to wait upon us. The fiat has gone forth that a soul should become incarnate, and the heavens have opened and down through the royal highway it has come. A child has come among us: a sprite, an elf, a bit of sunshine—and we call this birth. There it lies fresh from the mother world, summoned from the presence of the Supreme. Spirit of the Sublime, whence have you come and whither do you go; and who are we who thus enjoin and then call you child? Not alone to our own ends do we marry and are given in marriage. We are the factotums of a mighty purpose which surges into and through us, carrying us off our feet—impelling us irresistibly: actors in the sacred drama of life—going through the parts assigned but knowing not the purpose of it all. To us it is left to give an impress to the mind; of us is demanded the inheritance of sanity and love that is to be a factor in society, in history, in the sum of human happiness. But the Soul acknowledges a higher motherhood and fatherhood than ours—tarries with us and then passes on its stately way.

Because we love wife or child let us not hold them so close they are stifled. A complete love is without fear, and the perfect love for the creature implies a corresponding love for the Creator. Whenever we show fearfulness we betray a lack of trust; and to that extent is our love imperfect—to that degree is it less than love. We may never love the creature more than the Creator; we may never reckon without God, try how we will. Whenever it is attempted, parental love degenerates into anxiety—and a consuming fear defeats the ends of love.

Our child is first God's child; we are but the foster-parents. Permit Him, then, to participate in the guidance of His child. Why should we assume the entire responsibility who are manifestly unfit? If we look to it that our example be worthy, God will undertake that 'the child shall profit by it. There are families in which the children seem mere faded negatives of the grown folks, of such undue vigilance are they the victims. The individuality of the young people is suppressed; what wonder the boys kick over the traces, and the girls are not happy at home. "Let me alone," is the cry of many a suppressed spirit chafing under this foolish vigilance. When we learn the efficacy of suggestion we need not depend on the rod of coercion; when we perceive the power of example we shall deliver no homilies on what not to do. Children are reflectors for parental thought, and elder discords sink deep in little minds; let us be chary of our reproofs, then, for the spirit of ethics is very exacting.

Nowhere is tact more necessary nor its exercise more difficult than in the family and among intimates. Acquaintanceship usually provokes us to what tact we have at our command; friendship not infrequently would dispense with it; kinship usually ignores it. Tact is not dissimulation but adroitness; a judicious consideration of personal peculiarities whereby the individual may be skillfully led out and away from these—where bluntness would serve to intensify them. Where maladroitness reproves and preaches, tact diverts and suggests, and carries the day. As the recognition of individual needs, tact becomes the instrument of education, for we are not to pour the mind of childhood into set forms as we would empty lead into bullet molds, but to discover the true bent and to divert and encourage it in that direction. When the spirit of the age frowns down the individual, genius hides. We may infer such a spirit to have been lacking in a Golden or an Augustan Age, and that society respected the desire for original effort, as now it applauds successful results but discourages the apprenticeship.

And yet do we owe a debt to the seemingly tactless. There are men whose mission lies in their very idiosyncrasies; they put their friends to the test as to whether their regard be sterling, by subjecting them continually to the ordeal of a trying egotism. They are forever laying little traps for us, and if our philosophy is not real we are constantly getting entangled and receiving little wounds and scratches to our feelings—that is, our egotism. They provoke us to being broad to compensate for their narrowness; to being liberal to offset their intolerance. Have we a point of pride, it is become in their hands a whip with which to lash us. Are we oversensitive, they ride rough shod over us until we are forced to overcome it. Are we indifferent or lackadaisical, have we a peculiarity—they stumble over it until the obstruction is removed. They are emery to our roughness and our rustiness; under their merciless polishing we begin to shine. These men are to us at first like chestnut burrs—we never touch them without pricking the fingers. But no sincere person ever persisted in his intercourse with such a one without coming at length to acknowledge the benefit derived in patience and tolerance, and feeling grateful to his erstwhile tormentor.

It is the blessing of society that it gives us the necessary polishing and removes the unseemly and jagged edges and protuberances. It is the bane of too much society that it finally polishes its members all down to the same measure until they have no more apparent individuality than so many bullets, or the sands on the shore. The moral is: Do not expose yourself too constantly to the destructive machine. Relinquish your rough edges but withdraw before your very identity has been smoothed away.

It never pays to be frivolous; we must play games in earnest, laugh in earnest, make merry in earnest. We do well that alone which we do with the whole heart. To act with any lesser purpose involves a certain dissipation. It is not the doing of a thing nor the doing of nothing that counts, so much as it is the way in which it is done. To be able at times to do nothing, and to do it in earnest, implies a certain high state of concentration and fixity of purpose. The best workmen have learned the value of absolute repose.

Action! and forever action! Shall we be surfeited with action while we perish for want of thought? Acts engender consequences which stream from them like the tails of comets. Read the account of a day's crimes and misdoings and it would seem that men were best off asleep. How much is learned that must be unlearned; how much builded that must come down—done that must be undone! Some

would have it that if we are not continually in action we are wasting time; but let them be grateful to the hours they spend in sleep, for then at least they are not sowing the wind—for where is the man who can yet preserve his integrity to God and to the Soul throughout one entire day? What are troubles and vicissitudes but the consequences of former indiscretions; and the present the outcome of the past, and today the sum of all days which have been. What can any man receive that he does not deserve? Shall we accuse the divine order—|who are not yet able to perceive the spirit of ethics? Let us lay aside this child's play of three-score years and ten, and deal with life. Until the continuity of life has become to us axiomatic we are still within the grave. Inaction, then, were better than false action. Unless we can do something to the purpose let us sit and fold the hands, and not mar the day. We must finally admit that our activity, like force itself, is efficient in proportion as it is subtle and refined. The less the smoke the hotter the blaze. The noise and bustle of inefficient action is as the smoke of a poor fire. Silence is the womb of great action; and it is in the silence that we live deeply, think truly, act divinely. Hence be not misled by the semblance of action nor by the appearance of inaction; but consider the strength that lies in calmness, the might of self-control, the vast psychic forces which operate in silence.

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Stanton Davis Kirkham

  • Born on December 7th, 1868 in Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France and died on January 6th, 1944 in New York City.
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Quoted in As a Man Thinketh by James Allen
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