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CHAPTER V I.
LOVE OF MORAL EXCELLENCE.
It has been well and eloquently said, in speaking of the distinctive attributes of man, that “It is the love of the great, and the good, and the beautiful, detached from all personal, and even from all individual interests, which makes him in a true sense a man, and establishes a sensible relation between himself, and somewhat more extended, more durable than the world."*
This principle, like the love of truth, may be considered under two aspects: as it affects our moral nature, or our intellect. When acting on the latter, it becomes the source of the higher efforts of imagination, of all that is beautiful in art, sublime in poetry, and inventive in science. When it is developed in the moral nature, it becomes one of the strongest motives to virtue, and from the love of goodness, purity, and truth, rises to its full consummation in the love of God. That virtue of which it is not the motive, that religion of which it is not the essence, are the offspring of fear or of superstition, and deserve not the sacred names which they venture to assume.
We shall revert hereafter to the influence of this lofty affection of the mind on imagination, and those arts which flow from it; here our remarks will be confined exclusively to its moral effects on character. Few inquiries are more important; for if we find that the love of goodness and truth is the ruling motive of every really virtuous act, we at once exclude all those lower motives which have led some philosophers to suppose that vir.
Woman's Rights and Duties, Vol. I. p. 288.
tue was only a more refined selfishness. The characteristic of love is disinterestedness, and our love of what is good and great must be as disinterested as any other affection we are capable of feeling. To the mind animated by it, goodness and purity become objects of desire in themselves, and are pursued for their own sake; they seem emanations from Him who, on his invisible throne, is known to us only by his attributes; and his will is submitted to with loving reverence, because we trust and believe that, however mysterious to us, it is still the expression of those unchangeable attributes of wisdom and goodness that we reverence and adore. Where this feeling exists, the lower motives of emulation, desire of praise, and self-interest, which are too often the secret springs of actions seemingly virtuous, find no place in the heart.
Were the love of excellence more carefully developed in education, it would combine with the love of truth to sweep away that enormous mass of shams which makes the surface of society a hollow mask. Instead of fair appearances, we should have the reality of goodness; instead of the constant effort to seem, we should have the earnest endeavor to be, what is good and true. We should care less for praise, and more for praiseworthiness.
The striking want of humility which is almost a characteristic of youth in our days, indicates the absence of that reverence for superiority which is a part of the love of excellence. There is, indeed, plenty of that spurious humility, which is but vanity in disguise; the affected confession of inferiority, which conceals real mortification at the superiority of others; or the unreasoning submission of the understanding to an authority arbitrarily chosen ; but real humility, earnest as it is simple, is truly rare. It is founded on the perception and love of excellence, which makes us feel how far we fall short of our standard ; and is not mortified at superiority, because ever striving to attain the excellence it admires. Humility is seldom found in the ignorant, never in the frivolous; for they are as incapable of appreciating what is above them, as they are of feeling their own deficiencies. It belongs only to those earnest minds whom
the long contemplation and pursuit of excellence has taught to bow down before it in lowly reverence, and to estimate the distance which separates the noblest human soul from its own ideal. Shallow minds survey the universe with a careless glance, and think they have sounded all its depths; while Newton, looking back on labors which had opened a new world to science, spoke of himself as of a child on the shore of a vast ocean, where he had gathered a few shells, but had left the ocean itself unexplored.*
It is this characteristic of humility which gives it such decided prominence in the Christian code of morals. Christianity,
. by revealing to us a moral perfection of which the human mind had formed before only very inadequate conceptions, naturally placed humility, or the sense of our immeasurable distance from that perfection, among its essential principles. Its object was to arouse mankind, by the perception and love of goodness, to earnest endeavors after moral purity ; but these endeavors could only result from the deep-felt sense of imperfection. As all education, whether of ourselves or others, should have the same object, it must, to be successful, be worked out by the same principles.
Reverence, on which such humility is founded, is inseparably connected with the love of excellence; it is the emotion with which we contemplate whatever is morally beautiful; the homage of earnest minds to whatever in human nature still bears the impress of the Divine. There is much said in these days concerning this quality, and a great outcry made about the want of it; but the complaint comes from two very different parties, and therefore bears with cach a very different meaning. One party consider reverence as synonymous with deference to authority, and especially to their authority, or that which they have set up and called sacred, because they are satisfied to bow to it themselves. The reverence they would exact is mostly for forms and names, for shadows and formulæ, the idols of their own den,” which they would fain enshrine in the sanctu
* See Life of Newton. Library of Useful Knowledge, p 87.
aries of other men's hearts. The other party consider reverence in its true and noble sense, but unfortunately they have occasionally carried their views to an extravagant length, which has exposed them to ridicule; or have expressed them in feeble poetry, or in prose that can be called English only from the difficulty of assigning it to any other more appropriate name.
The importance of reverence is best proved by showing the defects of character which follow the want of it; and, indeed, if we remember that reverence is only another word for respect for what is truly respectable, admiration for what is truly admirable, it would seem that even the labor of this exposition might be spared. The frivolity of the young, the worldliness of the old, the influence exercised by wealth and fashion, apart from all those moral qualities which alone should win approbation and command deference, the unworthy attachments, the degrading marriages, the shallow ridicule which sneers from society the expression of earnest and lofty feeling, the worldly and servile religion which unites the worship of God to the service of Mammon, - all these would vanish if we could introduce into the seething mass of levity, worldliness, and superstition that one regenerating principle of love of moral excellence, with that reverence for whatever partakes of its nature, which necessarily flows from it.
Great admiration for intellectual acquirements is sometimes a source of danger to the young, by leading them to overlook qualities of the heart incomparably more precious. Highly as we may prize intellect, our love and reverence should first be. long to goodness, or we are in danger of giving them where goodness is wanting. The worship of intellect is particularly dangerous to women whose own powers of mind are above the ordinary level. They grow weary of the insipidity that so commonly surrounds them; they are dazzled by the brilliancy and the talent of men, in whose ambition or love of fame their own ambition readily sympathizes; their woman's nature leads them to cling to some superior strength, while the aspiring voice within misdirects their choice, and it is not till later that they find they had overlooked what really deserved respect and confidence in pursuing this brilliant phantom. As year after year teaches us more of this world of trial and sorrow, we renounce the false worship of our youth, and learn to revere the less showy qualities of the heart, to love the moral excellence we had almost been tempted to despise, to seek and honor it, however lowly its garb, or unadorned by the gifts of intellect. Beautiful indeed are those gifts, but, separated from goodness, they lose their highest worth, while moral beauty is like the pure and priceless pearl, whose value remains the same, though no rare or costly setting shows it forth to advantage.
Reverence, like humility, is essentially the feeling of earnest minds. The shallow and the frivolous are always irreverent, as they are presumptuous, because they are incapable of discerning what deserves to be revered. Unfortunately, from their numbers and position, they give the tone to general society, and consequently minds of a different stamp are daily pained by the prevalent irreverence of thought and speech. These tendencies are fostered by the too common habit in conversation, of dwelling only upon the low and ridiculous points of character and manner; whilst the living sparks of truth and beauty, which exist even in the midst of coarseness and corruption, and which keep up our respect for our kind, are lost sight of. Men would rather laugh than admire ; accordingly, every thing that can produce laughter, whether absurd speech, ill-natured wit, or foolish gossip, is circulated with avidity, and received with applause ; while a noble sentiment or a generous action, if repeated at all, are listened to in cold, sympathizing silence. Even the admiration which is really excited, few venture to express, and the emotion which some may feel, they conceal or repress, that the company may not be startled or embarrassed by the introduction of a higher tone. This strongly exemplifies the perversion of natural feeling, under the influence of frivolous society. In a large and mixed assemblage, as that of a theatre or public meeting, even though the coarse and the vulgar form the majority, generous sentiment or action awakens a chord in the human breast, which is loudly responded to; the coldness or the sneer belongs to the false refinement of circles, where fear