Great Principles and Small Duties

Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856


It is observable that the trivial services of social life are best performed, and the lesser particles of domestic happiness are most skillfully organized by the deepest and the loveliest heart. It is an error to suppose that plain minds are the best administrators of small duties. Who does not know how wretched a contradiction such a rule receives in the moral economy of many a home? how often the daily troubles, the swarm of blessed cares, the innumerable minutiae of arrangement in a family, prove quite too much for the generalship of feeble minds, and even the clever selfishness of strong ones. How a petty and scrupulous anxiety in defending with infinite perseverance some small and almost invisible point of frugality, surrenders the greater unobserved, and while saving money, ruins minds. How, on the other hand, a rough and unmellowed sagacity 'rules' indeed, and without defeat but while maintaining in action the mechanism of government, creates a constant and intolerable friction, a gathering together of reluctant wills, a groaning under the consciousness of force, that make the movements of life fret and chafe incessantly?

But where, in the presiding genius of a home, taste and sympathy unite (and in their genuine forms they cannot be separated) the intelligent feeling for moral beauty, and the deep heart of domestic love with, what ease, what mastery, what graceful disposition, do the seeming trivialities of life fall into order, and drop a blessing as they take their place! How do the hours steal away, unnoticed but by the precious fruits they leave! And by the self-renunciation of affection there comes a spontaneous adjustment of various wills; and not an innocent pleasure is lost, not a pure taste offended, nor a peculiar temper unconsidered; and every day has its silent achievements of wisdom, and every night its retrospect of piety and love; and the tranquil thoughts, that in the evening meditation come down with the starlight, seem like the serenade of angels, bringing in melody the peace of God!

Wherever this picture is realized, it is not by microscopic solicitude of spirit but by comprehension of mind, and enlargement of heart; by that breadth and refinement of moral view which discerns everything in due proportion, and in avoiding an intense elaboration of trifles, has energy to spare for what is great; in short, by a perception akin to that of God, whose providing frugality is on an infinite scale, vigilant alike in Heaven and on earth; whose art colors a universe with beauty, and touches with its pencil the petals of a flower. A soul thus pure and large disowns the paltry rules of dignity, the silly notions of great, by which fashion distorts God's real proportions; is utterly delivered from the spirit of contempt. And, in consulting for the benignant administration of life, will learn many a truth, and discharge many ant office, from which lesser beings, esteeming themselves greater, would shrink from as ignoble.

But in truth, nothing is degrading which a high and graceful purpose ennobles; and offices the most menial cease to be menial, the moment they are wrought in love. What thousand services are rendered, ay, and by delicate hands, around the bed of sickness, which, else considered lowly, become at once holy and quite inalienable rights! To smooth the pillow, to offer the draught, to soothe or obey the wishes of the delirious, to sit for hours as the mere sentinel of the feverish sleep these things are suddenly erected, by their relation to hope and life, into sacred privileges.

And experience is perpetually bringing occasions, similar in kind, though of less persuasive poignancy, when a true eye and a loving heart will quickly see the relations of things thrown into a new position, and calling for a sacrifice of conventional order to the higher laws of the affections; and alike without condescension and without ostentation, will noiselessly take the post of service and do the kindly deed.

Thus it is that the lesser graces display themselves most richly, like the leaves and flowers of life, where there is the deepest and the widest root of love; not like the staring and artificial blossoms of dry custom that, winter or summer, cannot change; but living petals woven in Nature's workshop and folded by her tender skill, opening and shutting morning and night, glancing and trembling in the sunshine and in the breeze. This easy capacity of great affections for small duties is the peculiar triumph of the highest spirit of love.