Immagini della pagina


be an effort, how exertion is unfelt, how pride sinks into humility, how existence itself seems merged in the existeuce of another, and nothing can touch us but as it touches the being we love. Hence the best cure for selfishness is a genuine and deep affection, if indeed the long indulgence of the low selfish instincts have not so far contracted the soul as to leave it incapable of so exalted a feeling. From its very concentration on one object, however, an attachment of this nature may, perhaps, no less effectually exclude general benevolence; at any rate such a mode of cure is not within our own power; but it is within our power habitually to repress the tendency to dwell upon and magnify all that relates to self, to fix attention on the feelings and claims of others, and to place ourselves by a mental effort in their position, so as to judge from their own point of view of what is due to them. Simple justice requires as much as this; but the very effort to do to another as we would be done by, tends to arouse our natural sympathies, which, when brought into play, and constantly exercised, will at last produce active and steady benevolence.

No human being is so absolutely destitute of these sympathies as never to have felt their genial influence. Could we imagine such a thing we should reject him as no longer human. Accordingly we find the great masters of poetry preserving even in their darkest pictures of human nature that one bright spot of tenderness, that one answering chord of feeling, without which the portrait would be that of monsters, not men. Even the murderous hand of Lady Macbeth is arrested by the resemblance of her victim to "her father as he slept!" Even Shylock could mourn for his daughter as well as for his ducats. We may also observe that where those natural feelings seem completely destroyed, the poet takes care to indicate how they have been turned by outrage into gall and bitterness. The insults of the Christian made the Jew Shylock the wretch we behold him. Richard the Third revenges on his race the cruel and unmerited contumely heaped on his personal deformity. Even Iago is prompted by revenge for supposed wrongs. In each case we can still feel that they are men, not fiends, and some degree of sympathy is awakened even for them by the feeling that had they been treated with more fairness they might not have become the monsters we abhor.

The same feeling carried into real life would lead us to regard with more leniency, not the crime, but the criminal, and to remember that under more favourable circumstances he might have escaped the guilt which excites our indignation. It would also make us more cautious not to awaken by word or deed those bitter or angry feelings in a fellow-creature, which, in too many cases, have been the first instigators to crime, and which, even




when not carried into action, fester in the mind and poison the purest sources of virtue.

In this country it cannot be said that there is any deficiency of that form of benevolence which is shown in relieving distress. Our hospitals and schools and public establishments for every kind of suffering, our private societies stretching out a helping hand to the poor and needy over the whole surface of the land, proclaim that the spirit of charity is not wanting. How lamentable then are the evils in the mode of administering charity, owing to which so small an amount of permanent good is done, in proportion to the means employed; while each day the separation between rich and poor widens more and more, and their feelings, views, and apparent interests come into stronger opposition. Some of this may be attributed to the working of our social institutions, but much also, it is to be feared, to the injudicious conduct of zealous and well-meaning but mistaken people. We may observe, in passing, that very erroneous notions are sometimes entertained as to the merit of charity. People are apt to think themselves very charitable when they have given away a certain sum of money, but if we only give what we can easily spare, after all our own comforts and luxuries are provided for, we are scarcely entitled to claim much praise. The widow who threw her mite into the treasury was esteemed more charitable than the affluent Pharisee who threw in of his abundance. The large sum may indeed do most good, but the merit of the giver must be judged by his motives, and the degree of selfdenial he has exercised.

But money is not always, nor even often, the first requisite in works of charity. We are apt to attach an undue importance to its efficacy in all cases, and to imagine that nothing can be done without it. It is, nevertheless, a remarkable fact, and well known to those who have paid attention to the subject, that in many places where money has been most liberally bestowed, and every means of relief used which money could supply, the poor have remained in a state of misery and degradation, both physical and moral, equal to, if not greater, than that which exists in other places, where they have been left to themselves. If we inquire into the cause of this strange result, we shall find it in the careless or the injudicious manner in which the money has been distributed. In some cases it is lavished in proportion to the importunity of the applicants without inquiry and without rule. In others, and those too common, it acts as a bribe to the profession of certain opinions and conformity to certain modes of worship; and, consequently, as a direct encouragement to fraud and hypocrisy. The only test that should regulate the distribution of


money is that the distress be real and inevitable, and nothing should be more carefully avoided than teaching the poor to depend on the bounty of the rich, instead of their own exertions. After all, money can only be a secondary instrument in raising the condition of the lower classes. It is not enough to satisfy their animal wants. We must influence their moral nature, touch their hearts by sympathy, learn to understand their modes of thought, that we may adapt our instructions to them. The moral evil which is at the bottom of so much distress must be traced out to its causes, and those causes removed by patient and judicious management, before we can look for great or permanent improvement.


The duty of charity considered in this light requires no inconsiderable sacrifice of time and thought to its due performance; a sacrifice which men engrossed with professional business, or women at the head of large families, are not always able to make. Although, therefore, all are bound to do the utmost that is in their power, the larger proportion of the work seems to fall naturally to the share of the less busy classes of society, and to be more particularly incumbent on single women, who, having fewer exclusive ties, fewer home duties to engross their thoughts, are more free to devote time, and feeling, and intellect, to the general duties of benevolence, and who, as we before remarked, would find in them a sphere of action, and full employment for those energies and affections which otherwise become the source of morbid discontent.

So long as there is suffering to be relieved, and ignorance to be enlightened, so long must there be active duty to be performed by every one whose circumstances and education have given them means and leisure to perform it. And where, in the whole circle of human duties, can we find a nobler one than this of bringing knowledge to the ignorant mind, of raising the degraded one, of following, though but afar off, the steps of Him who went about doing good? If the task be undertaken and carried on in the right spirit, it will benefit her who performs it no less than the object of her charity. The constant exercise of observation, sympathy, judgment, and decision, needed to make our charity really useful, and the knowledge required to assume conscientiously the office of guides and teachers of the ignorant,* will prove the best cultivation of those habits of mind which most raise the conduct and character of women.

There is much complaint made of the ingratitude of the poor,

*See Remarks on the evils of Ignorance in Women's Intercourse with the Poor, chap. i., p. 28.



but we can testify from personal knowledge, that the complaint is much exaggerated, and that the poor are seldom ungrateful when they are treated with real sympathy as human beings, and not as creatures of an inferior kind. They will, indeed, take thanklessly what is given carelessly, and the charity which should be a bond of kindness between rich and poor too often widens the breach which divides them, by making the former angry at the poor man's ingratitude, whilst the latter is embittered by the rich man's want of sympathy:

"Sweet is the tear that from some Howard's eye,
Drops on the cheek of one he lifts from earth;
But he who works me good with unmoved face,
Does it but half, -he chills me while he aids,
My benefactor, not my brother man.'

Many who are zealous in the cause of benevolence rather irritate than do good, by their want of reverence for the feelings of those they wish to benefit. They intrude into the dwellings of the poor at all times and hours, inquire into all their affairs, lecture the parents in the presence of their children, find fault with every thing that does not exactly suit their own notions, insist upon the adoption of their opinions, and generally end by exclaiming at the perversity and unteachableness of poor people, whilst the latter are probably equally disgusted with the unwarrantable interference and rude disregard of their feelings and prejudices shown by their would-be benefactors. It would be better for both parties, if more of the courtesy which is the outward manifestation of reverence and kindly feeling, and which is due to every human being, were brought into their mutual intercourse; if the superior in rank laid aside some of his pride and superior knowledge, and would condescend to learn from his humbler neighbour some of the lessons of patient suffering, of active self-denying kindness, of humble faith, and unwearying affection, which may often be found amongst the poorest and lowest, and might well shame him who, in the midst of comfort and even luxury, scruples not to repine if one drop of bitterness be mixed in his overflowing cup.

The same want of benevolence, as an habitual principle of action, is observable in families as in general society and intercourse with the poor. It is not uncommon to find real and deep affection existing between the members of a family, and yet a total absence of mutual courtesy, forbearance, or even kindliness of manner. Their affection seems locked up in their hearts against some great. trial, whilst in every-day life, bickering irritation, and complete disregard of each other's tastes and opinions, make the family circle a scene of perpetual discord and discomfort. We are daily aston




ished to see people who would sacrifice their lives for each other, unable to control the slightest ebullition of temper, to repress the irritating word, the rude contradiction, which makes them a mutual torment. Here it is evident that the love which "suffereth long," and "is not easily provoked," is not the principle of action. Only those who have lived in families where this discord prevails, can judge of the amount of misery produced by it, and which far exceeds that caused by the real misfortunes of life. It is the "thorn in the flesh" which, ever pricking and festering, produces a more irritating wound, and one more difficult to heal, than the heavy blow of adversity. The latter often calls out all the latent virtues of the character; the former only brings into view its defects. "The happiness of life," says Coleridge, "is made up of minute fractions, the little soon-forgotten charities of a kiss or a smile, a kind look, a heart-felt compliment, in the disguise of playful raillery, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable thought and genial feeling." But these are just the things which we are apt to look down upon as too trifling to be worth attending to. There is a dignity and grandeur in great generosity and self-devotion, that excites our enthusiasm, and diminishes the pain of the sacrifice. But we forget that there is as true a dignity in the life spent in acts of kindness and charity, in the unceasing exercise of love, in things too minute to be noticed, too habitual to attract praise, but which require a more continual forgetfulness of self, a more enduring feeling of affection, than any one act of heroic self-devotion.

Even where domestic dissension makes home more like an earthly hell than the resting-place of love and peace, which it ought to be, it is difficult to estimate how much this evil might be mitigated by one individual acting consistently and unobtrusively on the principle of true benevolence. Many girls brought up in such homes, think of nothing but the means of escaping from them; but it would be better, if, instead of attempting to fly from the sphere of duty appointed to them, they were to try whether by performing that duty in all its extent, they could not make their situation more tolerable. We do not deny the misery they have to bear, but we do maintain that they have more power to diminish it than is usually supposed. "The soft answer which turneth away wrath," the watchful care to prevent or remove all needless causes of irritation, the conciliating words spoken in season, the silent influence of steady principle shown in every act and word;-these are things within the reach of every one, and which, however humble our position and pretensions, will not fail to have their effect, and finally perhaps to triumph over the evil to which they are opposed. As the waters of Marah

« IndietroContinua »