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Criticism - FAME AND GLORY Post by :poakland Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :1632

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Criticism - FAME AND GLORY

Notice of an Address before the Literary Society of Amherst College, by Charles Sumner.

THE learned and eloquent author of the pamphlet lying before us with the above title belongs to a class, happily on the increase in our country, who venture to do homage to unpopular truths in defiance of the social and political tyranny of opinion which has made so many of our statesmen, orators, and divines the mere playthings and shuttlecocks of popular impulses for evil far oftener than for good. His first production, the _True Grandeur of Nations_, written for the anniversary of American Independence, was not more remarkable for its evidences of a highly cultivated taste and wide historical research than for its inculcation of a high morality,--the demand for practical Christianity in nations as well as individuals. It burned no incense under the nostrils of an already inflated and vain people. It gratified them by no rhetorical falsehoods about "the land of the free and the home of the brave." It did not apostrophize military heroes, nor strut "red wat shod" over the plains of battle, nor call up, like another Ezekiel, from the valley of vision the dry bones thereof. It uttered none of the precious scoundrel cant, so much in vogue after the annexation of Texas was determined upon, about the destiny of the United States to enter in and possess the lands of all whose destiny it is to live next us, and to plant everywhere the "peculiar institutions" of a peculiarly Christian and chosen people, the landstealing propensity of whose progressive republicanism is declared to be in accordance with the will and by the grace of God, and who, like the Scotch freebooter,--

"Pattering an Ave Mary
When he rode on a border forray,"--

while trampling on the rights of a sister republic, and re-creating slavery where that republic had abolished it, talk piously of "the designs of Providence" and the Anglo-Saxon instrumentalities thereof in "extending the area of freedom." On the contrary, the author portrayed the evils of war and proved its incompatibility with Christianity,-- contrasting with its ghastly triumphs the mild victories of peace and love. Our true mission, he taught, was not to act over in the New World the barbarous game which has desolated the Old; but to offer to the nations of the earth, warring and discordant, oppressed and oppressing, the beautiful example of a free and happy people studying the things which make for peace,--Democracy and Christianity walking hand in hand, blessing and being blessed.

His next public effort, an Address before the Literary Society of his Alma Mater, was in the same vein. He improved the occasion of the recent death of four distinguished members of that fraternity to delineate his beautiful ideal of the jurist, the scholar, the artist, and the philanthropist, aided by the models furnished by the lives of such men as Pickering, Story, Allston, and Channing. Here, also, he makes greatness to consist of goodness: war and slavery and all their offspring of evil are surveyed in the light of the morality of the New Testament. He looks hopefully forward to the coming of that day when the sword shall devour no longer, when labor shall grind no longer in the prison-house, and the peace and freedom of a realized and acted-out Christianity shall overspread the earth, and the golden age predicted by the seers and poets alike of Paganism and Christianity shall become a reality.

The Address now before us, with the same general object in view, is more direct and practical. We can scarcely conceive of a discourse better adapted to prepare the young American, just issuing from his collegiate retirement, for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. It treats the desire of fame and honor as one native to the human heart, felt to a certain extent by all as a part of our common being,--a motive, although by no means the most exalted, of human conduct; and the lesson it would inculcate is, that no true and permanent fame can be founded except in labors which promote the happiness of mankind. To use the language of Dr. South, "God is the fountain of honor; the conduit by which He conveys it to the sons of men are virtuous and generous practices." The author presents the beautiful examples of St. Pierre, Milton, Howard, and Clarkson,--men whose fame rests on the firm foundation of goodness,--for the study and imitation of the young candidate for that true glory which belongs to those who live, not for themselves, but for their race. "Neither present fame, nor war, nor power, nor wealth, nor knowledge alone shall secure an entrance to the true and noble Valhalla. There shall be gathered only those who have toiled each in his vocation for the welfare of others." "Justice and benevolence are higher than knowledge and power It is by His goodness that God is most truly known; so also is the great man. When Moses said to the Lord, Show me Thy glory, the Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee."

We copy the closing paragraph of the Address, the inspiring sentiment of which will find a response in all generous and hopeful hearts:--

"Let us reverse the very poles of the worship of past ages. Men have thus far bowed down before stocks, stones, insects, crocodiles, golden calves,--graven images, often of cunning workmanship, wrought with Phidian skill, of ivory, of ebony, of marble, but all false gods. Let them worship in future the true God, our Father, as He is in heaven and in the beneficent labors of His children on earth. Then farewell to the siren song of a worldly ambition! Farewell to the vain desire of mere literary success or oratorical display! Farewell to the distempered longings for office! Farewell to the dismal, blood-red phantom of martial renown! Fame and glory may then continue, as in times past, the reflection of public opinion; but of an opinion sure and steadfast, without change or fickleness, enlightened by those two sons of Christian truth,--love to God and love to man. From the serene illumination of these duties all the forms of selfishness shall retreat like evil spirits at the dawn of day. Then shall the happiness of the poor and lowly and the education of the ignorant have uncounted friends. The cause of those who are in prison shall find fresh voices; the majesty of peace other vindicators; the sufferings of the slave new and gushing floods of sympathy. Then, at last, shall the brotherhood of man stand confessed; ever filling the souls of all with a more generous life; ever prompting to deeds of beneficence; conquering the heathen prejudices of country, color, and race; guiding the judgment of the historian; animating the verse of the poet and the eloquence of the orator; ennobling human thought and conduct; and inspiring those good works by which alone we may attain to the heights of true glory. Good works! Such even now is the heavenly ladder on which angels are ascending and descending, while weary humanity, on pillows of storfe, slumbers heavily at its feet."

We know how easy it is to sneer at such anticipations of a better future as baseless and visionary. The shrewd but narrow-eyed man of the world laughs at the suggestion that there car: be any stronger motive than selfishness, any higher morality than that of the broker's board. The man who relies for salvation from the consequences of an evil and selfish life upon the verbal orthodoxy of a creed presents the depravity and weakness of human nature as insuperable obstacles in the way of the general amelioration of the condition of a world lying in wickedness. He counts it heretical and dangerous to act upon the supposition that the same human nature which, in his own case and that of his associates, can confront all perils, overcome all obstacles, and outstrip the whirlwind in the pursuit of gain,--which makes the strong elements its servants, taming and subjugating the very lightnings of heaven to work out its own purposes of self-aggrandizement,--must necessarily, and by an ordination of Providence, become weak as water, when engaged in works of love and goodwill, looking for the coming of a better day for humanity, with faith in the promises of the Gospel, and relying upon Him, who, in calling man to the great task-field of duty, has not mocked him with the mournful necessity of laboring in vain. We have been pained more than words can express to see young, generous hearts, yearning with strong desires to consecrate themselves to the cause of their fellow-men, checked and chilled by the ridicule of worldly-wise conservatism, and the solemn rebukes of practical infidelity in the guise of a piety which professes to love the unseen Father, while disregarding the claims of His visible children. Visionary! Were not the good St. Pierre, and Fenelon, and Howard, and Clarkson visionaries also?

What was John Woolman, to the wise and prudent of his day, but an amiable enthusiast? What, to those of our own, is such an angel of mercy as Dorothea Dix? Who will not, in view of the labors of such philanthropists, adopt the language of Jonathan Edwards: "If these things be enthusiasms and the fruits of a distempered brain, let my brain be evermore possessed with this happy distemper"?

It must, however, be confessed that there is a cant of philanthropy too general and abstract for any practical purpose,--a morbid sentimentalism,--which contents itself with whining over real or imaginary present evil, and predicting a better state somewhere in the future, but really doing nothing to remove the one or hasten the coming of the other. To its view the present condition of things is all wrong; no green hillock or twig rises over the waste deluge; the heaven above is utterly dark and starless: yet, somehow, out of this darkness which may be felt, the light is to burst forth miraculously; wrong, sin, pain, and sorrow are to be banished from the renovated world, and earth become a vast epicurean garden or Mahometan heaven.

"The land, unploughed, shall yield her crop;
Pure honey from the oak shall drop;
The fountain shall run milk;
The thistle shall the lily bear;
And every bramble roses wear,
And every worm make silk."

(Ben Jenson's Golden Age Restored.)

There are, in short, perfectionist reformers as well as religionists, who wait to see the salvation which it is the task of humanity itself to work out, and who look down from a region of ineffable self-complacence on their dusty and toiling brethren who are resolutely doing whatsoever their hands find to do for the removal of the evils around them.

The emblem of practical Christianity is the Samaritan stooping over the wounded Jew. No fastidious hand can lift from the dust fallen humanity and bind up its unsightly gashes. Sentimental lamentation over evil and suffering may be indulged in until it becomes a sort of melancholy luxury, like the "weeping for Thammuz" by the apostate daughters of Jerusalem. Our faith in a better day for the race is strong; but we feel quite sure it will come in spite of such abstract reformers, and not by reason of them. The evils which possess humanity are of a kind which go not out by their delicate appliances.

The author of the Address under consideration is not of this class. He has boldly, and at no small cost, grappled with the great social and political wrong of our country,--chattel slavery. Looking, as we have seen, hopefully to the future, he is nevertheless one of those who can respond to the words of a true poet and true man:--

"He is a coward who would borrow
A charm against the present sorrow
From the vague future's promise of delight
As life's alarums nearer roll,
The ancestral buckler calls,
Self-clanging, from the walls
In the high temple of the soul!"

(James Russell Lowell.)

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