For the higher law is not a beautiful speculation to indulge in ; it calls for a higher life. If we win a thought in advance of the common practice of the day, it is a summons to us to lift our life to a new level, and contribute so much to the onward movement of the world. If we are but vaguely ill at ease, as we think of the present condition of society, it may be that thereby the spirit of progress marks us out and gives us the first presentiments of the work it has for us to do. Discontent because our personal wants and wishes are not gratified may be far from noble ; but discontent with ourselves and our lives in view of the suggestions of an idea that calls us up higher, there is something almost sacred about that. Every stirring of this discontent signifies that we are not really at home in the world as it is; that in some sense we have a better country, and belong to another order of things. There are those who tell us it will not do to have our ideals too high ; that this would unfit us for life as it is. They forget that it is not necessarily our place to accept life as it is, that our duty may be to help make it over. It is sometimes said, with reference to our public life, that to act with entire honesty and self-respect one needs always to live in a pure atmosphere, and it is added that the atmosphere of politics is impure. Is one, then, to accept his atmosphere, as if it were something given to him, and not to know that he may be himself a factor in creating it ? A man with a too keen sense of rectitude, says Herbert Spencer, a too elevated standard of conduct, might find life intolerable and impossible.1 Impossible ? No, unless in those rare times when for high reasons it were better not to live. Intolerable ? Yes; and the sense that it was so would prompt to the necessary efforts to make life tolerable. Intolerable wrongs? then we will overthrow them. Intolerable circumstances?then we will revolt against them.
" He either fears his fate too much, Or his deserts too small, Who dares not put it to the touch, To gain or lose it all." 2
But with a thought of some higher good, I, in real truth, believe that we cannot lose or fail. The world is meant to go that way, it is in its make and nature to do so; and every effort, every thought, is simply a new beginning, a new impulse to that onward movement. The only thing that fails in this world is wrong, fails, though it takes men and nations with it, and involves them in ruin. The good is that which preserves and keeps alive. I almost fancy at times that if a perfectly just society should ever come to be, it would never cease ; that the elements would wax kind for it; that the earth would put off its day of final destruction to do it honor, or if that dire event should ever come, that the divine society would then be transported to some happy isles, "ever fertile, clear in atmosphere, and unvexed with storms," and be dowered with immortality. But whether or no, we belong to such a society. The higher law that sounds within us is sign that we belong to another state than that in which we live, to a divine commonwealth; and a man is to remember this higher citizenship as he walks the streets of his earthly city, it is to keep him erect while he walks there, and from aught that is unbecoming or mean or common. Lying is not the law of that ideal commonwealth, and it is not for him to lie ; honor is before gain there, and his first thought should be to keep himself spotless here ; selfishness is not neatly matched with selfishness there, and it is for him to live in an element of disinterested love now. The only thing he may have now that he will find no room for there, is indignation at and resistance to wrong; and even these cannot become settled habits with him, for they exist only to the end of removing all wrong; and when that time shall come, should he ever see it, delight and joy and thanksgiving will take the place of all other emotions. To act now, not according to our poor human statutes and conventions, but according to the higher perfect law that we know only within our own breast; to live here as the citizen of an ideal kingdom, that, it seems to me, were the proudest distinction a man could crave. That kingdom is not yet; only the thought and the law of it are in us, and the kingdom is to be. We are to make that kingdom, and we know of its possibilities nowhere else than here. A great creative responsibility rests upon mankind and upon us for our measure of the task. To be as good as our fathers, said Phillips, we must be better. The duties of their day were new to them ; let it not surprise us if there are duties for us and the future that have never dawned on mankind before. Duty is like the truth, we are ever discovering it. The principles, the great laws, may be old: their applications, their practical meaning in our lives, are ever new.
1 Education, p. 169.
2 Marquis of Montrose (1612-1650).
" New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth ; They must upward, still, and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth ! "1
1 J. R. Lowell.