The field of our thoughts is a wide one; the field of our actions is ordinarily a narrow one. Ethics covers both. It asks that we have just thoughts, true thoughts, everywhere; it gives the ideal also for each day's smallest and, as it may seem, most insignificant actions. The real world to most of us is not at all large; it is so near and commonplace that we are apt to slight it. Our real world, that which we daily see and are acting in the midst of almost constantly, is made up of those in our own household, of a few friends, and of a few more acquaintances, and of ourselves. Yet it is here that our actions tell, and here that our responsibility centres.
The home lies closest about us. How tender we should be there ! What solace ought every member of that intimate circle to find there! If in the world without we feel that we are misunderstood and misjudged, how should the fret and depression that come from it vanish and dissipate as we return to that loving, genial atmosphere and to those generous hearts who take us at our best, and by trusting us tend to keep us so ! What opportunity equals that of parents toward their children, that of elder brothers or sisters toward the younger ? With what ample consideration should we treat those who are not so strong as others, not so bright in mind, or who have some failing that causes the world to look down upon them, and the sense of which brings to themselves at times confusion and mortification ! How watchful we should be about hurting them! How we should strive to keep in them something of that self-respect which is the basis of all the virtues ! What is more pitiable than a child ignored or contemptuously treated at home ? Yet, strangely enough, those who are brought nearest to us, and for whom we can do most, we sometimes treat the most coolly and for them do the least. Many a man who is courtesy itself to other women, comes to show little to his wife; many a son who has great deference for men in general, shows little before his own father; many a young woman who has ample consideration for the failings of her sex, is yet impatient and ungenerous toward her own sisters. Oh that we might learn that our nearest duties are the highest; that we might think more and more tenderly of those whom we daily and perhaps hourly see; that we might keep our reverence for them ; that we might bear with them, and always have the will to do them good ! Father, mother, wife, child, brother, sister, — thou wilt never know any as precious as these ; none who have such a right to thy love ; none for whom thou wilt ever have a right to do so much!
Nothing more befits a man in his intercourse with his acquaintances than magnanimity, — a certain largeness of temper and soul. It might be almost called the courtesy due to human nature as such to be generous toward it. Men are so constituted that if we think evil of them we are apt to find some evil, and if we look for what is good we find the good instead.
Magnanimity means looking for the good, expecting it, not being willing to allow the contrary till we are forced to. It means, where there are two interpretations of a man's conduct possible, the being inclined to take the more generous one, — not out of charity, but because of an instinct of breadth and liberality. Magnanimity is ordinarily thought to consist in overlooking injuries, but I should say it was more truly shown in unwillingness to credit them. Sometimes we are like the boys who put chips on their shoulders and dare some one to knock them off; and then injuries come to us that are never meant to be injuries, that exist only in our active imagination and our suspicious minds. "Trifles light as air," says Shakspeare, " are to the jealous confirmations strong as proofs of holy writ;" but to the magnanimous they are like those discords of which George Eliot speaks, that, " quenched by meeting harmonies, die in the large and charitable air." I have seen misunderstandings arise between persons who I am sure meant no ill to one another, yet simply because each was jealous of his own rights and suspicious that the other was willing to wrong him, involved themselves in grave and sad complications ; and I have thought that the way out of the difficulty was not in finding how far each was right and each was wrong, but in the gaining by both of a larger and nobler temper. I see no way to go along smoothly in the world without an habitual large-mindedness. There are so many "touchy" persons, to use a colloquial phrase, who are making others uncomfortable all the time, and, what is quite as bad, making themselves uncomfortable too. They are on the watch, as it were, lest some one trespass on their rights; they constantly misinterpret others, and come to wear often a gently injured air, which would be amusing were it not so annoying. All this is the opposite of magnanimity. A magnanimous man never doubts that others will respect him. He is impatient with those who magnify trifles ; he is conscious of rectitude in himself, and believes in it in others in spite of a few appearances to the contrary.
And what an occasion for magnanimity arises in the little differences of opinion, in the discussions between friends and acquaintances, that often arise! How profitless many of our discussions are, because we persist in keeping our own point of view, and do not even try to understand what the other person really means ! How we are apt to seize upon some trifling mistake, to magnify some petty error, and overlook the drift and tenor of the differing opinion as a whole ! What a change it would be, if neglecting these minor blemishes we seized upon the main idea of the person with whom we are conversing, and sought to do justice to it, and to understand it! Surely, one has little confidence in the truth of his own view who is not willing for a moment to entertain a different one. A discussion never should degenerate into a dispute; if ill-will arises, there should be an end of it. Bigotry can never be conquered by bigotry. Bigotry can only be conquered by candor, and by a noble breadth of view that will make even the idea of the bigot swim in a sea of larger thought. Let Liberals not harbor narrow prejudices against those of Jewish or Christian faith. Let us be willing to consider all the truth there is in the old religions, all the services they have rendered mankind, all the uses to which their nobler adherents are still putting them in the world. And let us do this not grudgingly, or as if we were conceding something, but with a truth-loving spirit; and this spirit will perchance pass to those with whom we converse, and lead them to deal with us in a fairer temper. The test of any set of views is, after all, to what extent open, candid, truth-loving minds can hold them. The best argument in our favor lies in the noble temper we at all times show, in our aversion to all the tricks by which the passions and prejudices of men are stirred, in our magnanimity to friend and foe alike.
Another disposition, upon which the smoothing and sweetening of our daily life much depends, is thoughtfulness about little things. There is much conceit and nonsense about what makes the gentleman or lady. One essential mark of such persons, I should say, is mindfulness of little attentions, the habit of rendering little kindnesses of which the ordinary, grosser man or woman scarcely thinks. The root of courtesy, after self-respect, is in a fine sympathy with others. We widely err in thinking that great things are necessary to make us happy. A woman does not ask much from her husband; but she asks his love, — and this shown in numberless, trifling ways. You do not count on great favors from your friend; but a little, done with real friendship, goes a long way with you. I verily believe that the happiness of most of us, so far as others are concerned, depends more on their manner, their look, their voice, their evident friendliness for us, than upon anything they can do for us. 1 believe that nothing so contributes to the evenness and serenity and cheerfulness of our own minds as the habit of saying pleasant words, rendering little attentions, and doing little insignificant services which we should be ashamed to speak of, after they are done. " Small service is true service while it lasts," says Wordsworth : yes, if we put love into it. It is these small services that bind friends, that keep the love of lovers fresh. They are the flower of courtesy: they go to make up what the same poet calls:
" That best portion of a good man's life, — His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love".