With these explanations let me proceed to my task. What are more natural and commonplace experiences with us than our wishes and wants ? But if we reflect a moment, it is easy to see that they have an ideal significance. We do not wish for what we have or for what we are already; we wish for what we have not or are not, for what we are without, for what, in the literal sense, we want. What is then the wished-for object but a possibility or an idea ? If we stop to think, we shall see that all our wishes and wants go out to ideas. It may seem strange that we should often set more store by what is not than by what is. Why should we, it may be asked. We cannot answer save by saying that it seems a part of our nature to do so. As it belongs to us to hear and see, so it does to think of what we do not hear or see, to be discontented; to reach out, to form ideals. Perhaps it is a provision for progress, for life, for movement; for if one is conscious of no wants, if he has no wishes, nor ideals, what is he practically but dead, without an incentive to movement, without the possibility even of becoming more than he is ?
Our ideas are, however, of two kinds. It is a long way from a child's craving for a doll or a sled to a young man's or a young woman's desire to lead a pure, blameless life, or the mature person's craving to see justice reflected in the general arrangements of society. There is a difference, indeed, all through life between our longings after what we may call happiness, comfort, prosperity, enjoyment, and those after goodness, unselfishness, and purity. We cannot say we ought to be happy, but only that we should like to be; but we do say that we ought to be good, and this even if we do not wish to be, if our matter-of-fact desires chance at any moment to be clean of a contrary sort. In a word, the note of authority seems to go along with a certain class of ideas. We live amid ideas to the extent that we really live at all; but some of the ideas we simply crave, and others seem to bind us, — some we can make a goal for our lives if we choose, and others seem fixed for us, so that we cannot turn from them without inwardly experiencing some kind of disgrace. There is no necessary dishonor in not having a home and a family, or in not entering on a business career. But with a home, to be unfaithful to it, or in business to forget the laws of truth and honor there, is morally blameworthy. To read this or that book on a leisure afternoon, or to leave our books altogether and take a stroll, or, once out, to turn our steps along this street or that, — there is nothing to bind us in any of these alternatives ; it may be that no one is better than another ; the only " better " may be to suit our mood, to do according to our own sweet will. But often we are in the face of alternatives, one of which has a distinct urgency about it; we know it to be better, even though we do not choose it; it seems to have a claim upon us whether we will or no, and our real task is not to wait and see if our natural choice will not change, but to change it, to choose ever the true and the good. Now, those ideas (from out the countless number that throng our minds) that have this urgency about them, that are intrinsically better and seem to constrain us, we call moral ideas; the sum of them make what we call morality.
Morality is thus in essence ideal. It is not what men do, but what they ought to do; not what they wish, but what they ought to wish. It is as with truth. Truth is not what one happens to think; it is not this or that belief which one may cherish, but that which corresponds to the fact of things. And so with art: a picture or a statue is not a work of art because the brush or the chisel has been used in producing it, but because it reflects in some degree the ideal of the beautiful. Let me use some very simple illustrations of the ideal nature of morality. Happily, kindliness belongs by a gift of nature to most men ; it finds a special field of operation in the home, where others are brought so near to us, — how much sweeter and more beautiful is the life of the family where kindliness is the law! But suppose that in some family this ceases to be the law; that some member of it forgets to show this spirit, easily loses his temper, and grows irritable, surly, and cross; and that this affects the life of the family, and the quiet, genial kindliness that was wont to be there goes and leaves faint traces of itself, — do we hesitate to say that kindliness is still the true ideal for that family; that though it is no longer there, it ought to be there, and all should be pervaded with its spirit ? Because the facts have come to be contrary to the ideal, have we now doubt about the ideal itself ? Surely not. What difference does it make that mankind has come from a time of unspeakable barbarism in the past, when there was no kindliness and no ideal of it; that men have learned the ideal, that many have still to learn it; that the practice of the best of us hardly corresponds to our ideal, that the ideal itself may grow completer and finer ? The only question is, is it not a true ideal, could there have been progress in the past in any other direction than toward it; is it possible that there can be any progress in the future that is away from it ? No ; the family life of man may go actually in one way or another, but it can only go one way and go right. There is an ideal for it that we cannot conceive as changing.
Or take an illustration from the political life of men. The prime concern of the State should be for justice. I do not say this has been the case, or that it is perfectly so now. The State has often stood simply for power; the head of the State has often made others his slaves, — men have held property, even life, at his mercy. But does any one hesitate to say that the State should stand for justice, that this makes an ideal for it; that there can be progress only in one direction ; that if the State comes to be in the possession of men or classes of men, who rule for their own and not for the general good, this would be retrogression ? Suppose that any government now makes a distinction between those who are equally men, but are of different color; or that, in effect, it has one law for the rich and another, or none, for the poor, — should we not hear something within us calling and demanding that this be changed ? Is there not something commanding, something imperative in the thought of universal justice ? Justice, — it is a commonplace word ; but is it even in our democratic republic a commonplace thing ? What is it, then ? It is an idea, — and one which though it were never realized, would not cease to give the ideal, and the only ideal, for human government. Not all the tyrants of the past, and no will or combined will of the mightiest to-day, can change it. The supreme political problem is to find it out completely, and to establish it perfectly; and if human governments do not establish it, not the idea, but they, will be humbled and cast down. He who stands by justice — let him be aware of it — and who stands the firmer and speaks the louder when justice seems to fail, stands by an idea. Let him keep his faith though it does fail, for in truth justice might never be on this earth, and yet not lose one particle of its ideal worth and its ideal authority.