THERE is no more wonderful or more moving thought than that of personal responsibility. It seems to go straight to the centre of our being, which is not the mind or the conscience or the heart, but the will. A voice seems to say: " To thee, individually, O Man, is given a task. Thou art not one of a mass merely: thou countest by thyself. Thou art what no one else in the world is. Thou hast a duty that no one else in the world can do. Sacred art thou in the plan of the world. Revere thyself, then, and fill out thy arc of the great circle of duty. Without thee that circle must remain forever incomplete !"
The first lesson of personal ethics is self-reverence. Morality is sometimes resolved into sympathy and regard for others. But there is something due ourselves as truly as to father or mother or wife or sister or friend; the same reason that exists for respecting them exists for respecting ourselves. I want no one to show signs of respect to me who does not stand on his own ground, and in his bearing and demeanor show that he has an equal sense of what is due himself. I cannot conceive anything more lamentable than that one should think that obligation first arises when we consider the claims of others, and that in his personal and private life he may do this or that, and just as he pleases, because it concerns himself alone. He who questions that there is a duty to himself is liable to question, sooner or later, whether there be any real duty to others; for others are only human beings like himself, and if he feels no obligation to himself, why should he to them ? The truth is, all are sacred, others and himself. To each one is given a task, to each one particularly and individually, as if no one else were in existence ; and the task must, to a certain extent, be accomplished by each one separately and alone.
What are the things for which we are thus personally responsible; what are the things over which we ourselves have control ? First, certainly, our private habits. These may be known by no one but ourselves, yet we are as responsible for them as if they were known to all the world. We are responsible, not merely because of their effect upon others, but because of their effect upon ourselves, because we ought to have pure habits, since these alone are worthy of human beings. Every one should be watchful of himself, should take an honest pride in ruling his own impulses, in avoiding all temptations that he knows may be too strong for him, in keeping his body as well as his soul what is unseen and what is seen sweet and clean. Tell me, if it were possible, what a man's private and most solitary habits are, and I will tell you whether he really respects himself, whether whatever decency and respectability he has are for show or are a part of his very fibre and make-up as a man. I have read of some one who, when alone, sat down to dinner with the same regard for form and ceremony as if he were entertaining a company of friends. His instinct, at least, was right; for whatever measure of form and ceremony is proper on such an occasion is so because human beings sit down to the table, and not because of their number. All our private habits should reveal our sense of what is due to the humanity in us. Therefore we should not drink to excess or eat to excess, for this is brutish; therefore we should control all our appetites, otherwise there is the abdication of the reason, which makes the truly human part of us; therefore the body should be treated with reverence, because it is the abode and tabernacle of our humanity; therefore neglect of the person and slovenliness are disgusting, because they reveal the lack of a sense of what is becoming to a man. By every unchaste act, by every surrender of reason to passion, by all excess and by all meanness in our manner of life, by neglect of the body as well as neglect of the soul, the fair humanity that is in us and ought to be reflected in our person and behavior is dishonored ; we sink to the level of the animal instead of rising to the stature of the man.
Another field wherein we alone have control, is that of our personal aims in life. An aim is nowise set save by the person whose aim it is. An aim is simply the direction of our own will. A good aim cannot be given to a man save by himself. He may hear of it, but it is not his own till he makes it so. Our outward acts may be constrained, they may not express us; but the will is the centre and citadel of our personality, and no power in heaven or in earth is master there but ourselves. With this magnificent power we can choose higher or lower aims, we can direct the channel of our life in this or that direction ; or, if we will, we can refuse to aim at anything at all, and simply drift, and become waifs and ignoble wanderers on the earth. Now, any aim is better than none; but the highest aim is alone worthy of a man. What is the highest aim ? I will venture to reply that it is to contribute to an ideal order of human life. The other answers commonly given are either ignoble or unreal to us. To save one's soul, who of us can consider that the noblest aim we can have ? To glorify God and enjoy him forever,how far away and unreal and unpractical does that seem to us! To seek the kingdom of God, ah ! but what is the kingdom of God ? To do the will of God, but who will tell us what the will of God means ? for that sanction has, in the course of man's religious history, covered almost every conceivable aim of man, high and low, devilish and divine. But to contribute to an ideal order of human life seems to me an aim that man can lay hold of; and it is an exalted aim. For we love this human life of ours, and wish to see it lifted to its ideal. We love it most truly, not for what it is, but for what it may be. We are in love with its ideal. The aim I have proposed is legitimate for the merchant, for the lawyer, for the physician, for the mother, for the child, for the workingman. One may accomplish little, yet he can have the aim; and the aim is that for which alone we are responsible, and may give significance to our smallest actions and a priceless value even to our ineffectual strivings.