Or take an illustration from business life. What honorable man does not place truth before success in business ? Who does not feel that he ought to be truthful, whether it will be advantageous to him or not ? Who does not feel that truth gives the ideal for business life, and own it in his thoughts, if not in his practice, — and want to know how business can be arranged so that there will not be even the semblance of a necessity for anything else ? What is many a man's secret disturbance about the matter but a kind of confession that the idea ought to rule, that something he catches a glimpse of within is in its nature commanding and authoritative, and that with it he must somehow make peace ? What matters it that men once had little or no notion of truthfulness, that they have learned it, that many have still to learn it, that it is still an ideal, and in advance of the general practice of men ? I only ask, Is our confidence in it any less on these accounts; is not progress only towards it; is not all departure from it retrogression ; though men should cease to own it, even in the scant measure they do now, would they not be culpably, unmistakably in the wrong?
And so with all the institutions of society and all the relations of human life, — there is an ideal and a law for them ; and for each and every separate one an ideal and a law fitted to its particular nature and constitution. For the family, for the State, for business, in all their departments, there is a true and perfect way of conducting them ; for every individual life there is an ideal which it is to find and follow. For even if we have not grasped the ideal, we believe that it is there. We know that we do not make and cannot change the conditions of bodily health, that we have to learn them ; that there is indeed an ideal method of living which would insure to every one who would follow it perfect physical health and strength. We believe that the conditions of social welfare and prosperity, the sources of peace and satisfaction for each individual soul, are equally fixed. There is some form of society which would secure universal well-being ; there is some ideal type of thinking, feeling, and acting that would, when realized, make a perfect human being. We know the law that makes this marvel of order, this regularity, this punctuality, this movement without jar which we see in the outward world. How simple and yet how far-reaching is the law of gravitation ! But the law that would turn this chaos of human life into a cosmos, we do not know. It differs from the law of gravitation very plainly, in that it does not act necessarily: if it did, we should have already an order here comparable to that we see in the material world. But we have to discover it; and when we shall have discovered it, we shall have to give it the free consent of our wills. We have indeed already gained some notion of it. We know to a certain extent what makes for order and peace among men. What we call the moral ideal is so much of it as we know. But how much more is there yet to know ! Even the idea of justice, which is the best part of our moral ideal, — who understands it, who fathoms it, who sees all that it means and must mean to the future ?
Ethics calls us away to these visions of the higher and the better. It is a science of life, not as it is, but as it ought to be, — as it would be if it were transfigured with its idea. It means looking at life from the highest standpoint; it means unhesitatingly taking our stand there, and fearing not to criticise the actual life of men according to the ideal standard. It may be no welcome task to pass judgment on ourselves, yet if we are real in the matter of moral culture, I do not see how we can avoid doing so. If we have given way to unworthy passion, if we have done an ungenerous thing, if for selfish reasons we have broken a promise, — if in any way we have followed the lower rather than the higher reason, let us not treat the matter as of no consequence, but remember it and judge ourselves for it; yes, better in some way to try to atone for it than to pass it by with indifference. Still less welcome is it to pass judgment upon others. How easy to excuse a friend where we would not excuse ourselves ! How hard to have any one whom we love sink in our estimation ! The question is, Which comes first, loyalty to a person or to truth ? I am sure that while there is often not enough of charity in the world, there is also much false charity; and that while nothing is more uncalled for than censoriousness, and the presuming to be keeper of another's conscience; and that at no time are we so called to purify ourselves of all mere personal feeling as when we judge of another, — yet when truth compels us, we should judge, remembering that not out of any personal regard are we to forget the requirements of the ideal standard.
Moreover, as we read history we are to take our moral judgment with us. How great the temptation will often be to abandon our moral convictions, so frequently do the facts of history seem to do violence to them!
" Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne," — how does the sense of this make us almost doubt at times whether there is any right or any wrong; whether our ideas of right, instead of unalterable laws of human action, are not entirely relative and conventional things, or even illusory ! These are the temptations of the moral idealist. Refreshing are the words of those who do not fail in their moral convictions, however poorly these may be confirmed by the actual course of history. Seneca, speaking of the Roman Consul Sulla, called his fortune "the crime of the gods."1 I confess to an unbounded admiration for the saying. Though it savors of impiety, it hides what is to my mind the deepest and the only piety. For what was the history, and particularly the end of that man, — starting as he did with a fortune given him by a courtesan, making his way by the help of it over thousands of the wronged and slain to the arbitrary dictatorship of his city ; retiring from office in old age, with ambition sated, to his villa to practise again the voluptuous habits of his youth; and then finally dying peacefully, his funeral attended by hundreds whom he had captivated by his recklessness, and whose minds he had debauched, — what is all this but a satire on every sentiment of justice ? " History alone could have dared to tell us of a peaceful end to such a life as his; and history, again and again, repeats the defiance to our moral sense." 1 Was it not natural for Seneca, with the popular view of the gods as guiding and ruling in the affairs of men, to say that this good fortune of Sulla was the crime of the gods ? What grand impiety, — what a measuring not only of men but of gods by the standard of moral ideas! For this is ever the test of a true man, — will he yield up his ideal conviction to any amount of contrary facts; will he take his stand and keep it contra mundum, and though the ruling powers of the world, visible and invisible, were opposed to him ? To lose the sense of an ideal right, to yield it up before a show of might, — that is the only infidelity, the only atheism we need have any fear of. Then, indeed, a fairer world than that we see about us — the world of moral truth and moral beauty — would be shattered and broken, and in the ruins it were hardly worth while to live. In this feeling, though I would stand alone, I do not stand alone, and have the company of men called utilitarians and materialists as well as many others.
1 Consolatio ad Marciam, xii. 6. 3.