Once in a while we need to turn back on these busy lives of ours, and ask how far this aim is really regulative of them. Are the actions we are doing, the sort of lives we are leading, tending toward an ideal form of human life; are they such as, if they were general in the community, would bring that ideal form of life nearer to the earth ? Let the merchant ask himself what are the customs, the maxims of his trade; and if they are not what they should be, is he by consenting to them helping to perpetuate them, or is he striving to change them ? Let the lawyer and the physician ask themselves as to the morality of their professions, and whether the supreme aim is keeping them from aught that is dishonorable, and constraining them to seek to elevate the tone and practice of their professions in every possible way. Let the mother ask herself, " Am I training my child so that it will be a new factor in the world, or merely a perpetuator of old-time prejudices and hatreds and shams ? " Let the child too have its solemn hour, when it shall nurse its growing soul on deeds of heroism and faithfulness, and ask itself whether it too could venture for an idea, and be patient under adversity and the world's contempt. Let the workingman ask himself, "What is my motive; and would it if it were general tend to an ideal form of life ? Do I work merely for hire, or do I take pride in a piece of honest, thorough work ? In my demand for changes, perhaps revolutions, in the industrial world, am I actuated by the spirit of malice and revenge or by the simple thought of justice ? " Yes, even the unemployed workingman may feel the pressure of that supreme aim upon him, and in his sorest misfortune may will to commit no crime, and though he be insulted, not to insult again, and to bear even to the death rather than do a wrong to others. Everywhere does this supreme aim hold good; everywhere may it take from the pride of those who are great, and give dignity to those who are humble. How quickly does it recall us from those aims in which it is so easy to settle down! To earn a comfortable living, and provide for wife and children, how many seem to have this practically as their aim in life! But there is nothing peculiarly human about this; beavers and the whole tribe of animals do the same. Man has intelligence, has imagination, has a moral nature, has dreams of universal justice ; yet sometimes he forgets the dignity and glory that belong to him, turns his back on his dreams, perverts his conscience, loses his imagination, and uses his godlike intelligence only so far as to provide for himself a comfortable living, perhaps in his selfishness and hardness leaving even wife and children out. O Friend, lift up thy thoughts ! think of what thou art called to be! Light up thy heart, thy imagination, and thy life with a great aim ! Do it, because with all thy hoarding and saving thou art wasting thyself, becoming little while thou shouldst be becoming great, growing old while thou shouldst be keeping ever young, turning life into a game of profit and loss while it should be an opportunity for all noble action and the service of all good causes !
The old religion contains a subtle word, " Thou must be born again." Strange and unmeaning to us as is the theological dogma that has been based upon it, it hides a vital truth. 'T is not the mending of our actions that is first needed; 't is not the forming of this or that habit; 't is not any outward change. It is the renovation of the fountains of our life; it is the making victorious a new aim in life ; it is the changing our thoughts and experiencing the transforming power of a new purpose. This does not alone help us in one particular, but in all: it involves an advance along the whole line of duty. And the difference from the old religion is simply, that, while it seems to say that such a purpose must come from God, we say that it must be formed by ourselves. "We do not fall on our knees and pray : we arise, and summon our energies, and resolve. And though the old nature in us may not yield at once, though old faults may persist and old habits be stubborn, yet we can gradually win the victory over them ; and our connection with that Supreme Power which upholds the world and supports the human soul, is simply in the belief that he is behind us and beneath us and above us, and pours his all-mightiness into us, so that we can ourselves do all that in our nature we are summoned to do.
Not only the supreme dominant aim of our lives, but our motives in all our actions, are under our control ; and for purifying them we are responsible. It is here that the ethics based entirely on the results of our actions altogether fails. An action may have exactly the same results, yet at one time have moral worth and at another have none. A dollar given to a poor man will go just so far, provide so much bread, whether given to rid one's self of his presence or out of love for the man. But an act of the former sort is not a moral act at all. It is wonderful how completely our moral value is hidden from all the world but ourselves, and yet how in importance it transcends all else we can think of. I would not ignore the question of results in the theory of ethics. Our acts must not only be moral, they must be right, they must correspond with an objective standard; and with the determination of that, the results of our actions have a great deal to do. An action is right which tends to the good of humanity, the results of which are actually beneficial to humanity. A moral action is one that, in addition, aims at the good of humanity. It is not enough to be perfectly righteous, we must mean to be righteous; and in our so meaning, wanting, purposing, our whole moral worth consists. The real life of man is not the seen, but the unseen one; what we see are but effects, the causes are hidden away. The world is satisfied with a certain decorousness, and we ourselves all too easily incline to take the world's standard ; but in our graver moments we know what a surface thing it is, and that our unclean thoughts, our jealousies, our envies and spites, and all our littlenesses and uncharitablenesses, though no one else knows of them, are the things that defile us. Oh for a clean heart! Oh to be holy within! to be as pure in our own eyes as we would be in the eyes of the world without! Oh to banish all selfishness, and to look on others only with love ! so that if we chide or are severe toward them it shall not be in anger; so that if they wrong us we shall not hate them, and if we are injured, we shall not injure again. The highest care, after all, of each one should be for himself, and for that which is most personal to himself. There, in that inner realm, no one else can help him. Each morning, I conceive, a man might well arise, and say, " This day I welcome to my heart all good thoughts, and will that they should prompt and guide all my action. I banish hate, I banish spite, I banish all low cunning and greed; and I will not let a word escape my lips, or an act be done, that truth and honor and love cannot sanction !" It is easier, I know, to control our actions than our motives. It takes great watchfulness, it may involve a long discipline, and mean many a struggle to be able to banish an unworthy thought as soon as it appears, to check an unholy impulse as soon as it arises. It implies that we have ourselves well in hand, that the will is strong. Ah ! but this is our task, this is that to which we are called. There were no honor in easy victories. To contend against odds, to hold to the fight after defeat once and twice, yes, though the body is weak and the heart is faint, to keep the purpose strong,there is glory in that; and into the secrets of such a strife the angels might well look with wonder and awe. 'T was Hesiod of old who said that before the temple of virtue the immortal gods had placed labor, and the way to it was long and steep. 'T is hard to know, indeed, what good thing in life is to be had for the asking. The whole significance of our being is that we are made imperfect, and called to be perfect.