How to Attain True Greatness
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1852
"My voice shall yet be heard in those halls!" said a young man, whom we will call James Abercrombie, to his friend Harvey Nelson, as the two walked slowly, arm in arm, through the beautiful grounds of the Capitol at Washington.
"Your ambition rises," Nelson replied, with a smile. "A seat in our State Legislature was, at one time, your highest aim."
"Yes. But as we ascend the mountain, our prospect becomes enlarged. Why should I limit my hopes to any halfway position, when I have only to resolve that I will reach the highest point? I feel, Harvey, that I have within me the power to do anything that I choose. And I am resolved that the world shall know me as one of its great men."
"Some, if they were to hear you speak thus, James, might smile at what they would consider a weak and vain assumption. But I know that you have a mind capable of accomplishing great things; that you have only to use the means — and take an elevated position as the natural result. Still I must say, that I do not like the spirit in which you speak of these things."
"You seem to desire an elevated station more for the glory of the position, than for the enlarged sphere of usefulness that it must necessarily open to you."
"I do not think, Harvey," his friend replied, "that I am influenced by the mere glory of greatness to press forward. There is something too unsubstantial in that. Look at the advantages that must result to me, if I attain a high place."
"In either case, I cannot fully approve your motive."
"Then, from what motive would you have me act, Harvey? I am sure that I know of none other sufficiently strong to urge me into activity. Both of these have their influence; and, in combination, form the impulse which gives life to my resolutions."
"There is a much higher, and purer, and more powerful motive, James. A motive to which I have just alluded."
"What is that?"
"The end of being useful to our fellow-men."
"You may act from that motive, if you can, Harvey, but I shall not attempt the vain task. It is too high and pure for me."
"Do not say so. We may attain high motives of action, as well as attain, by great intellectual efforts, high positions in the world."
"It is a moral law, that any peculiar tendency or quality of the mind grows stronger by indulgence. The converse of the proposition is, of course, true also. You feel, then, that your motives of action are selfish — that they regard your own elevation and honor as first, and good to your neighbor as only secondary. Now, by opposing instead of indulging this propensity to make all things minister to self — it must grow weaker, as a natural consequence. Is not that clear?"
"Why, yes, I believe it is; or at least, the inference is a logical one, though I must confess that I do not see it as an unquestionable truth."
"That is because your natural feelings are altogether opposed to it."
"Perhaps so — for undoubtedly they are. I cannot see anything so very desirable in the motive of which you speak, that I should seek to act from it. There is something tame in the idea of striving only to do good to others."
"It really pains me to hear you say so," the friend replied in a serious tone. "But now that we are on this subject, you must pardon me if I attempt to make you see in a rational light, the truth that it is a much nobler effort to do good to others, than to seek only our own glory."
"Well, go on."
"You have, doubtless, heard the term 'God-like' used, as indicating a high degree of excellence in some individual, who has stood prominently before the eyes of his fellow-men?"
"And to your mind it is no doubt clear, that the nearer we can approach the character of God, the higher will be the position that we attain?"
"And that the purest motives from which we can act, are an approach toward those from which we see Him acting."
"Now, so far as we can judge of His motives of action, as exhibited in His Word and in His Works — do we see a desire manifested to promote His own glory, or to do good to His creatures, and make them happy?"
"Well, I cannot say, at this moment, for I have not thought upon the subject."
"Suppose, then, we think of it now. It is certainly worth a little serious attention. And first, let us refer to God's Word, in which we shall certainly find a transcript of His character. In that, we perceive a constant reference to his nature as being, in one of its principal constituents, love. Not love of himself, but love going out in the desire to benefit His creatures. And His wisdom, which infinitely transcends that of man, is ever active in devising means whereby to render those creatures happy. And not only is His love ever burning with the desire to do good to His creatures, and His wisdom ever devising the best means for this end, but His divine love and His divine wisdom unite in divine activity, producing all that is required to give true happiness to all. In all parts of His Word, we discover evidences of the strongest character, which go to prove that such is the nature and activity of the Lord.
"There could have been no seeking of His own glory, when he assumed a material body, that he might redeem man from the corruptions of his own fallen nature, and from the influence and power of Hell. Little glory was ascribed to him by the wicked men who persecuted him, and condemned him, and finally put him to death. But he sought not His own glory. In his works, how clearly displayed is His divine benevolence! I need only direct your thoughts to nature. I need only refer you to the fact that the Lord causes the sun to shine upon the evil and the good, and the rain to fall alike upon the just and the unjust. Even upon those who oppose His laws, and despise and hate his precepts, does He pour down streams of perpetual blessings. How unlike man — selfish, vain man — ever seeking his own glory."
"You draw a strong picture, Harvey," the friend said.
"But is it not a true one?"
"Very well. Now if we are seeking to be truly great, let us imitate Him who made us and all the glorious things by which we are surrounded. He who would be chief among you, said the Lord to his disciples, let him be your servant. Even Jesus washed his disciples' feet."
"Yes, but Harvey, I do not profess to be governed by Christian principle. I only account myself a moral man."
"But there cannot be any true morality without true religion."
"That is a new doctrine."
"I think not. It seems to me to be as old as the Divine Word of God. To be truly moral is to regard others as well as ourselves in all our actions. And this we can never do apart from the potency and life of a Christian principle."
"But what do you mean by a Christian principle?"
"I mean a principle of pure love to the Lord, united with an unselfish love to our neighbor, flowing out in a desire to do him good."
"But no man can have these. It is impossible for anyone to feel the unselfish love of which you speak."
"Of course it is, naturally — for man is born into hereditary evils. But if he truly desires to rise out of these evils into a higher and better state, the Lord will be active in his efforts. And in just so far as he truly shuns evils as sins against him, looking to him all the while for assistance, will he remove those evils from their central position in his mind, and then the opposite good of those evils will flow in to take their place, (for spiritually, as well as naturally, there can be no vacuum,) and he will be a new man. Then, and only then, can he begin to lead truly a moral life. Before, he may be externally moral from mere external restraints; now, he becomes moral from an internal principle. Do you apprehend the difference?"
"Yes, I believe that I do. But I must confess that I cannot see how I am ever to act from the motives you propose. If I wait for them, I shall stand still and do nothing."
"Still, you can make the effort. Everything must have a beginning. Only let the seed be planted in your mind, and, like the seed which seems so small and insignificant, it will soon exhibit signs of life, and presently shoot up, and put forth its green leaves, and, if fostered, give a permanent strength that will be superior to the power of every tempest of evil principles that may rage against it."
"Your reasonings and analogies are very beautiful, and no doubt true, but I cannot feel their force," James Abercrombie said, with something in his tone and manner so like a distaste for the whole subject, that his friend felt unwilling to press it further upon his attention.
The two young men here introduced, had just graduated at one of our first literary institutions, and were about selecting professions. But in doing so, their acknowledged motives were, as may be gathered from what has gone before, very different. The one avowed a determination to be what he called a great man, that he might have the glory of greatness. The other tried to cherish a higher and better motive of action.
Abercrombie was not long in deciding upon a profession. His choice was law. And the reason of his choice was, not that he might be useful to his fellow-men, but because in the profession of law he could come in contact with the great mass of the people in a way to make just such an impression upon them as he wished. In the practice of law, too, he could bring out his powers of oratory, and cultivate a habit of public speaking. It would, in fact, be a school in which to prepare himself for a broader sphere of action in the legislative halls of his country; for, at no point below a seat in the national legislature, did his ambition rest.
"You have made your choice, I presume, before this," he said to his friend Harvey, in allusion to this subject.
"Indeed, I have not," was the reply. "And I never felt so much at a loss how to make a decision in my life."
"Well, I should think that you might decide very readily. I found no difficulty."
"Then you have settled that matter?"
"Oh, certainly — law is to be my sphere of action — or rather, my stepping-stone to a higher place."
"I cannot so easily decide the matter!"
"Why not? If you study law, you will rise, inevitably. And in this profession, there is a much broader field of action for a man of talent, than there is in any other profession."
"Perhaps you are right. But the difficult question with me is — 'Can I be as useful in it?'"
"Nonsense, Harvey! Do put away these foolish notions. If you don't, they will be the ruin of you."
"I hope not. But if they do, I shall be ruined in a good cause."
"I am really afraid, Harvey," Abercrombie said in a serious tone, "that you pretend these pious sentiments — or are self-deceived. It is my opinion that no man can act from such motives as you declare to be yours."
"I did not know that I had declared myself governed by such motives. To say that, I know, would be saying too much, for I am painfully conscious of the existence and activity of motives very opposite. But what I mean to say is, that I am so clearly convinced that the motives of which I speak are the true ones, that I will not permit myself to come wholly under the influence of such as are opposite. And that is why I find a difficulty in choosing a profession. If I would permit myself to think only of rising in the world, for the sake of the world's estimation, I should not hesitate long. But I am afraid of confirming what I feel to be evil. And therefore it is that I am resolved to compel myself to choose from purer ends."
"Then you are no longer a free agent."
"Because, in that kind of compulsion, you cease to act from freedom."
"Is it right, James, for us to compel ourselves to do right — when we are inclined to do wrong? Certainly there is more freedom in being able to resist evil — than in being bound by it hand and foot, so as to be its passive slave."
"You are a strange reasoner, Harvey."
"If my conclusions are not rational, controvert them."
"And have to talk forever?"
"No doubt you would, James, to drive me from positions that are to me as true as that the sun shines in Heaven."
"Exactly, and therefore it is useless to argue with you. But, to drop that point of the subject, to what profession do you most incline?"
"Then why not choose it?"
"Perhaps I shall. But I wish first to define with myself my own position. I must understand truly upon what ground I stand, or I will not move forward one inch."
"Well, you must define your own position for yourself, for I don't see that I can help you much." And there the subject was dropped.
It was some time before the debate in Harvey's mind was decided. His predilections were all in favor of the law — but in thinking of it, ambition and purely selfish views would arise in his mind, and cause him to hesitate, for he did not wish to act from them. At last he decided to become a law student, with the acknowledgment to himself that he had low and selfish motives in his mind, but with the determination to oppose them and put them away, whenever they should arise into activity. Under this settled principle of action, he entered upon the study of the profession he had chosen.
Thus, with two opposite leading motives did the young men commence life. Let us see the result of these motives upon their characters and success after the lapse of ten years. Let us see which is farthest on the road to true greatness.
Both, in an ardent and untiring devotion to the duties of their profession, had already risen to a degree of eminence, as lawyers, rarely attained under double the number of years of patient toil. But there was a difference in the estimation in which both were held by those who could discriminate. And this was apparent in the character of the cases referred to them.
A doubtful case, involving serious outcomes, was almost certain to be placed in the hands of Abercrombie, for his acuteness and tact, and determination to succeed at all hazards, if possible, made him a very desirable advocate under these circumstances. Indeed, he often said that he would rather have a bad cause to plead than a good one, for there was some "honor" in success where everything was against the case.
On the contrary, in the community where Harvey had settled, but few thought of submitting to him a case that had not justice upon its side; and in such a case, he was never known to fail. He did not seek to bewilder the minds of a jury or of the court by sophistry, or to confuse a witness by paltry tricks; but his course was straightforward and manly, developing the truth at every step with a clearness that made it apparent to all.
"It's all your fault!" said an unsuccessful client to him one day in an angry tone.
"No, sir, it was the fault of your cause. It was a bad one."
"But I should have gained it, if you had mystified that stupid witness, as you could easily enough have done."
"Perhaps I might; but I did not choose to do that."
"It was your duty, sir, as an advocate, to use every possible means to gain the cause of your client."
"Not dishonest means, remember. Bring me a good cause — and I will do you justice. But when you place me in a position where success can only be had in the violation of another's rights — I will always regard justice first. Right and justice have the first claims upon me — my client the next."
"It's the last cause you will ever have of mine, then!" replied the angry client.
"And most certainly the last I want, if you have no higher claims than those you presented in the present instance."
About the same time that this incident occurred, an individual, indicted for a large robbery, sent for Lawyer Abercrombie. That individual came to the prisoner's cell, and held a preliminary interview with him.
"And the first thing to be done, if I take charge of your case," said the lawyer, "is for you to make a clean confession to me of everything. You know that the law protects you in this. It is necessary that I may know exactly the ground upon which we stand, that I may keep the prosecution at fault."
The prisoner, in answer to this, made promptly a full confession of his guilt, and stated where a large portion of the property he had taken was concealed.
"And now," said he, after his confession, "do you think that you can clear me?"
"Oh yes, easily enough, if I have sufficient inducement to devote myself to the case."
"Will five thousand dollars secure your best efforts?"
"Very well. The day after I am cleared, I will place that sum in your hands."
"You shall be cleared," was the positive answer. And he was cleared. Justice was subverted — property to a large value lost to the rightful owner — and an accomplished villain turned loose upon the community, by the dishonest tact and eloquence of a skillful lawyer.
In these two instances, we have an exhibition of the characters of the two individuals, ripening for maturity. Both possessing fine talents, both were eminent, both successful — but the one was a curse — and the other a blessing to society. And all this, because their motives and ends of life were different.
Time passed on, and Abercrombie, as the mere tool of a political party, elected by trick and management, under circumstances humiliating to a man of feeling and principle, became a representative in the State legislature. But he was a representative, and this soothing opiate to his ambition quieted every unpleasant emotion. Conscious, in the state of political feeling, that there was little or no possible chance of maintaining even his present elevation, much less of rising higher, unless he became pliant in the hands of those who had elected him — he allowed all ideas of the general good to recede from his mind, and gave himself up wholly to furthering the schemes and interested views of his own party. By this means, he was enabled to maintain his position.
But what a sacrifice for an honorable, high-minded man! A few years in the State legislature, where he was an active member, prepared him for going up higher. He was, accordingly, nominated for Congress, and elected, but by the same means that had accomplished all of his previous elections. And he went there under the mistaken idea that he was becoming a great man, when it was not with any particular reference to his fitness for becoming a representative of one section of the country for the good of the whole that he was sent there — but as a fit tool for the performance of selfish party ends. Thus he became the exponent in Congress of the same principles that he had laid down for his own government, namely, such as were thoroughly selfish.
In the course of time, it so happened that, as eminent lawyers, the two individuals we have introduced were again thrown together as inhabitants of the same city, and became practitioners at the same bar. At first, Abercrombie did not fear Harvey; but he soon learned that, as an opponent, not even he could gain over him, unless his cause were just.
For some years Abercrombie went regularly to Congress, usually elected over the opposing candidate by a large majority — for his party far outnumbered the other. At length the time seemed to have arrived for him to take another step upwards. The senatorial term for the district in which he lived was about to expire, and there was to be an election for a United States senator. For this vacancy he was nominated as a candidate by his party, and as that was the strongest party, he looked confidently for an election. The opposing interest cast about them for some time, and at last fixed upon Harvey, who, after mature deliberation, accepted the nomination.
It is needless here to recapitulate the principles which governed these two individuals; they have already been fully stated. At the time that they became rivals for a high station, each had confirmed in himself the views of life expressed many years before, and was acting them out fully. One was thoroughly selfish — the other strove to regard, in all that he did, the good of others.
A few months before the day of election, a woman dressed in deep mourning came into the office of Mr. Harvey. She stated that she was a widow with a large family — that her husband had been dead about a year, and that the executor of her husband's estate, formerly his partner in business, was about to deprive her of all the property that had been left to her for the maintenance of her family and the education of her children, under the plea that there were, in reality, no assets, after the settlement of the estate.
"Well, madam, what do you wish done?" asked Mr. Harvey, a good deal interested in the woman's case.
"I want justice, sir — and no more. If there are really no assets — then I want nothing. But if there is, as I am confident that there must be a handsome property really due me — then I wish my rights maintained. Will you undertake my case?"
"Certainly I will, madam; and if there is justice on your side, I will see that justice is done."
Accordingly, suit was brought against the executor, who at once employed Abercrombie, with the promise of a large fee, if he gained the cause for him.
By some means, the facts of the case, or at least that such a case was to come up, became known through the medium of the newspapers, and also that the two rival candidates were to be opposed to each other. Much interest was excited, and when the trial came on, the court-room was crowded. The case occupied the attention of the court for three days, during which time Abercrombie made some of the most brilliant speeches that had ever fallen from his lips. He managed his case, too, with a tact, spirit, and sagacity, unusual even for him, as keen a lawyer as he was.
To all this, Harvey opposed a steady, clear, and rational mode of presenting the claims of the individual he represented, so that conviction attended him at every step. It was in vain that Abercrombie would tear into tatters the lucid arguments, full of calm and truthful positions, that he presented — he would gather them all up again, and present them in new and still more convincing forms. At every step of the trial, it was plainly evident to all, opponents and friends, that Abercrombie cared solely for success in his cause, and nothing for justice; and as the sympathies of nearly all were in favor of the widow, his manner of conducting the case was exceedingly offensive to nearly every one. On the contrary, in Harvey, all could see a deep and conscientious regard for justice. He never took any undue advantage of his opponent, and resorted to no tricks and pretenses to blind and confuse him, but steadily presented the justice of the side he argued, in bold and strong relief, against the evident, wicked injustice of the defendant.
At last the trial came to a close, and the whole case was submitted to the jury, who decided that the widow's cause was just. This righteous decision was received by a universal burst of applause. Abercrombie was deeply chagrined at the result, and this feeling was apparent to all — so apparent, that nearly everyone, friends and enemies, were indignant at him. In an electioneering handbill, which came out in two or three days afterward, was this appeal:
"Why do we send a man to the Senate-chamber of the United States? To legislate from generous and enlarged principles — or to be a narrow, selfish seeker of his own glory? Do we want the generous philanthropist there — the man who loves justice for its own sake — the man of strong natural powers, rendered stronger and clearer by honest principles? — or the narrow-minded time-server — the man who would sacrifice anything, even the liberties of his country, for a selfish end — the legal oppressor of the widow and the fatherless? Need these questions be answered from honest, high-souled voters? No! let every man answer for himself, when he goes to assert the rights of a freeman."
This, and similar appeals, added to the general disapprobation already felt, completed the work. Harvey was elected to fill the vacant seat in the Senate for the ensuing six years, by a majority of double the votes polled for Abercrombie.
From that time, the latter took his position as a third-rate man. Indeed, he never afterward reached even to the House of Representatives at Washington, while Harvey still retains his place in the Senate-chamber, one of the most esteemed and valuable members of that distinguished body.
No man, we would remark, in closing this sketch, can ever be a truly great man, who is not a good and honest man. The mere selfishness of ambition defeats its own ends; while the generous impulse to do good to others, gives to every man a power and an influence which must be felt and appreciated.