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´╗┐Title: On Being Human
Author: Wilson, Woodrow
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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On Being Human

Woodrow Wilson
Ph.D., Litt.D., LL.D.
President of the United States

From the Atlantic Monthly

On Being Human


"The rarest sort of a book," says Mr. Bagehot, slyly, is "a book
to read"; and "the knack in style is to write like a human
being." It is painfully evident, upon experiment, that not many
of the books which come teeming from our presses every year are
meant to be read. They are meant, it may be, to be pondered; it
is hoped, no doubt, they may instruct, or inform, or startle, or
arouse, or reform, or provoke, or amuse us; but we read, if we
have the true reader's zest and plate, not to grow more knowing,
but to be less pent up and bound within a little circle,--as
those who take their pleasure, and not as those who laboriously
seek instruction,--as a means of seeing and enjoying the world
of men and affairs. We wish companionship and renewal of spirit,
enrichment of thought and the full adventure of the mind; and we
desire fair company, and a larger world in which to find them.

No one who loves the masters who may be communed with and read
but must see, therefore, and resent the error of making the text
of any one of them a source to draw grammar from, forcing the
parts of speech to stand out stark and cold from the warm text;
or a store of samples whence to draw rhetorical instances,
setting up figures of speech singly and without support of any
neighbor phrase, to be stared at curiously and with intent to
copy or dissect! Here is grammar done without deliberation: the
phrases carry their meaning simply and by a sort of limpid
reflection; the thought is a living thing, not an image
ingeniously contrived and wrought. Pray leave the text whole: it
has no meaning piecemeal; at any rate, not that best, wholesome
meaning, as of a frank and genial friend who talks, not for
himself or for his phrase, but for you. It is questionable morals
to dismember a living frame to seek for its obscure fountains of

When you say that a book was meant to be read, you mean, for one
thing, of course, that it was not meant to be studied. You do not
study a good story, or a haunting poem, or a battle song, or a
love ballad, or any moving narrative, whether it be out of
history or out of fiction--nor any argument, even, that moves
vital in the field of action. You do not have to study these
things; they reveal themselves, you do not stay to see how. They
remain with you, and will not be forgotten or laid by. They cling
like a personal experience, and become the mind's intimates. You
devour a book meant to be read, not because you would fill
yourself or have an anxious care to be nourished, but because it
contains such stuff as it makes the mind hungry to look upon.
Neither do you read it to kill time, but to lengthen time,
rather, adding to its natural usury by living the more abundantly
while it lasts, joining another's life and thought to your own.

There are a few children in every generation, as Mr. Bagehot
reminds us, who think the natural thing to do with any book is to
read it. "There is an argument from design in the subject," as he
says; "if the book was not meant to be read for that purpose, for
what purpose was it meant?" These are the young eyes to which
books yield up great treasure, almost in spite of themselves, as
if they had been penetrated by some swift, enlarging power of
vision which only the young know. It is these youngsters to whom
books give up the long ages of history, "the wonderful series
going back to the times of old patriarchs with their flocks and
herds"--I am quoting Mr. Bagehot again--"the keen-eyed Greek,
the stately Roman, the watching Jew, the uncouth Goth, the horrid
Hun, the settled picture of the unchanging East, the restless
shifting of the rapid West, the rise of the cold and classical
civilization, its fall, the rough impetuous Middle Ages, the
vague warm picture of ourselves and home. When did we learn
these? Not yesterday nor today, but long ago, in the first dawn
of reason, in the original flow of fancy." Books will not yield
to us so richly when we are older. The argument from design
fails. We return to the staid authors we read long ago, and do
not find in them the vital, speaking images that used to lie
there upon the page. Our own fancy is gone, and the author never
had any. We are driven in upon the books meant to be read.

These are books written by human beings, indeed, but with no
general quality belonging to the kind--with a special tone and
temper, rather, a spirit out of the common, touched with a light
that shines clear out of some great source of light which not
every man can uncover. We call this spirit human because it moves
us, quickens a like life in ourselves, makes us glow with a sort
of ardor of self-discovery. It touches the springs of fancy or of
action within us, and makes our own life seem more quick and
vital. We do not call every book that moves us human. Some seem
written with knowledge of the black art, set our base passions
aflame, disclose motives at which we shudder--the more because
we feel their reality and power; and we know that this is of the
devil, and not the fruitage of any quality that distinguishes us
as men. We are distinguished as men by the qualities that mark us
different from the beasts. When we call a thing human we have a
spiritual ideal in mind. It may not be an ideal of that which is
perfect, but it moves at least upon an upland level where the air
is sweet; it holds an image of man erect and constant, going
abroad with undaunted steps, looking with frank and open gaze
upon all the fortunes of his day, feeling even and again--

    "...the joy
    Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
    Of something far more deeply interfused.
    Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.
    And the round ocean and the living air,
    And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
    A motion and a spirit, that impels
    All thinking things."

Say what we may of the errors and the degrading sins of our kind,
we do not willingly make what is worst in us the distinguishing
trait of what is human. When we declare, with Bagehot, that the
author whom we love writes like a human being, we are not
sneering at him; we do not say it with a leer. It is in token of
admiration, rather. He makes us like our humankind. There is a
noble passion in what he says, a wholesome humor that echoes
genial comradeships; a certain reasonableness and moderation in
what is thought and said; an air of the open day, in which things
are seen whole and in their right colors, rather than of the
close study or the academic class-room. We do not want our poetry
from grammarians, nor our tales from philologists, nor our
history from theorists. Their human nature is subtly transmuted
into something less broad and catholic and of the general world.
Neither do we want our political economy from tradesmen nor our
statesmanship from mere politicians, but from those who see more
and care for more than these men see or care for.


Once--it is a thought which troubles us--once it was a simple
enough matter to be a human being, but now it is deeply
difficult; because life was once simple, but is now complex,
confused, multifarious. Haste, anxiety, preoccupation, the need
to specialize and make machines of ourselves, have transformed
the once simple world, and we are apprised that it will not be
without effort that we shall keep the broad human traits which
have so far made the earth habitable. We have seen our modern
life accumulate, hot and restless, in great cities--and we
cannot say that the change is not natural: we see in it, on the
contrary, the fulfillment of an inevitable law of change, which
is no doubt a law of growth, and not of decay. And yet we look
upon the portentous thing with a great distaste, and doubt with
what altered passions we shall come out of it. The huge, rushing,
aggregate life of a great city--the crushing crowds in the
streets, where friends seldom meet and there are few greetings;
the thunderous noise of trade and industry that speaks of nothing
but gain and competition, and a consuming fever that checks the
natural courses of the kindly blood; no leisure anywhere, no
quiet, no restful ease, no wise repose--all this shocks us. It
is inhumane. It does not seem human. How much more likely does it
appear that we shall find men sane and human about a country
fireside, upon the streets of quiet villages, where all are
neighbors, where groups of friends gather easily, and a constant
sympathy makes the very air seem native! Why should not the city
seem infinitely more human than the hamlet? Why should not human
traits the more abound where human beings teem millions strong?

Because the city curtails man of his wholeness, specializes him,
quickens some powers, stunts others, gives him a sharp edge, and
a temper like that of steel, makes him unfit for nothing so much
as to sit still. Men have indeed written like human beings in the
midst of great cities, but not often when they have shared the
city's characteristic life, its struggle for place and for gain.
There are not many places that belong to a city's life to which
you can "invite your soul." Its haste, its preoccupations, its
anxieties, its rushing noise as of men driven, its ringing cries,
distract you. It offers no quiet for reflection; it permits no
retirement to any who share its life. It is a place of little
tasks, of narrowed functions, of aggregate and not of individual
strength. The great machine dominates its little parts, and its
Society is as much of a machine as its business.

 "This tract which the river of Time
 Now flows through with us, is the plain.
 Gone is the calm of its earlier shore.
 Border'd by cities, and hoarse
 With a thousand cries is its stream.
 And we on its breasts, our minds
 Are confused as the cries which we hear,
 Changing and sot as the sights which we see.

 "And we say that repose has fled
 Forever the course of the river of Time
 That cities will crowd to its edge
 In a blacker, incessanter line;
 That the din will be more on its banks,
 Denser the trade on its stream,
 Flatter the plain where it flows,
 Fiercer the sun overhead,
 That never will those on its breast
 See an enobling sight,
 Drink of the feeling of quiet again.

 "But what was before us we know not,
 And we know not what shall succeed.

 "Haply, the river of Time--
 As it grows, as the towns on its marge
 Fling their wavering lights
 On a wider, statelier stream--
 May acquire, if not the calm
 Of its early mountainous shore,
 Yet a solemn peace of its own.

 "And the width of the waters, the hush
 Of the gray expanse where he floats,
 Freshening its current and spotted with foam
 As it draws to the Ocean, may strike
 Peace to the soul of the man on its breast--
 As the pale waste widens around him,
 As the banks fade dinner away,
 As the stars come out, and the night-wind
 Brings up the stream
 Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea."

We cannot easily see the large measure and abiding purpose of the
novel age in which we stand young and confused. The view that
shall clear our minds and quicken us to act as those who know
their task and its distant consummation will come with better
knowledge and completer self-possession. It shall not be a
night-wind, but an air that shall blow out of the widening east
and with the coming of the light, and shall bring us, with the
morning, "murmurs and scents of the infinite sea." Who can doubt
that man has grown more and more human with each step of that
slow process which has brought him knowledge, self-restraint,
the arts of intercourse, and the revelations of real joy? Man has
more and more lived with his fellow-men, and it is society that
has humanized him--the development of society into a infinitely
various school of discipline and ordered skill. He has been made
more human by schooling, by growing more self-possessed--less
violent, less tumultuous; holding himself in hand, and moving
always with a certain poise of spirit; not forever clapping his
hand to the hilt of his sword, but preferring, rather, to play
with a subtler skill upon the springs of action. This is our
conception of the truly human man: a man in whom there is a just
balance of faculties, a catholic sympathy--no brawler, no
fanatic, no pharisee; not too credulous in hope, not too
desperate in purpose; warm, but not hasty; ardent, and full of
definite power, but not running about to be pleased and deceived
by every new thing.

It is a genial image, of men we love--an image of men warm and
true of heart, direct and unhesitating in courage, generous,
magnanimous, faithful, steadfast, capable of a deep devotion and
self-forgetfulness. But the age changes, and with it must change
our ideals of human quality. Not that we would give up what we
have loved: we would add what a new life demands. In a new age
men must acquire a new capacity, must be men upon a new scale,
and with added qualities. We shall need a new Renaissance,
ushered in by a new "humanistic" movement, in which we shall add
our present minute, introspective study of ourselves, our jails,
our slums, our nervecenters, our shifts to live, almost as morbid
as medieval religion, a rediscovery of the round world, and of
man's place in it, now that its face has changed. We study the
world, but not yet with intent to school our hearts and tastes,
broaden our natures, and know our fellow-men as comrades rather
than as phenomena; with purpose, rather, to build up bodies of
critical doctrine and provide ourselves with theses. That,
surely, is not the truly humanizing way in which to take the air
of the world. Man is much more than a "rational being," and lives
more by sympathies and impressions than by conclusions. It
darkens his eyes and dries up the wells of his humanity to be
forever in search of doctrine. We need wholesome, experiencing
natures, I dare affirm, much more than we need sound reasoning.


Take life in the large view, and we are most reasonable when we
seek that which is most wholesome and tonic for our natures as a
whole; and we know, when we put aside pedantry, that the great
middle object in life--the object that lies between religion on
one hand, and food and clothing on the other, establishing our
average levels of achievement--the excellent golden mean, is,
not to be learned, but to be human beings in all the wide and
genial meaning of the term. Does the age hinder? Do its many
interests distract us when we would plan our discipline,
determine our duty, clarify our ideals? It is the more necessary
that we should ask ourselves what it is that is demanded of us,
if we would fit our qualities to meet the new tests. Let us
remind ourselves that to be human is, for one thing, to speak and
act with a certain note of gentleness, a quality mixed of
spontaneity and intelligence. This is necessary for wholesome
life in any age, but particularly amidst confused affairs and
shifting standards. Genuineness is not mere simplicity, for that
may lack vitality, and genuineness does not. We expect what we
call genuine to have pith and strength of fiber. Genuineness is a
quality which we sometimes mean to include when we speak of
individuality. Individuality is lost the moment you submit to
passing modes or fashions, the creations of an artificial
society; and so is genuineness. No man is genuine who is forever
trying to pattern his life after the lives of other people--
unless, indeed, he be a genuine dolt. But individuality is by no
means the same as genuineness; for individuality may be
associated with the most extreme and even ridiculous
eccentricity, while genuineness we conceive to be always
wholesome, balanced, and touched with dignity. It is a quality
that goes with good sense and self-respect. It is a sort of
robust moral sanity, mixed of elements both moral and
intellectual. It is found in natures too strong to be mere
trimmers and conformers, too well poised and thoughtful to fling
off into intemperate protest and revolt. Laughter is genuine
which has in it neither the shrill, hysterical note of mere
excitement nor the hard, metallic twang of the cynic's sneer--
which rings in the honest voice of gracious good humor, which is
innocent and unsatirical. Speech is genuine which is without
silliness, affectation, or pretense. That character is genuine
which seems built by nature rather than by convention, which is
stuff of independence and of good courage. Nothing spurious,
bastard, begotten out of true wedlock of the mind; nothing
adulterated and seeming to be what it is not; nothing unreal, can
ever get place among the nobility of things genuine, natural, of
pure stock and unmistakable lineage. It is a prerogative of every
truly human being to come out from the low estate of those who
are merely gregarious and of the herd, and show his innate powers
cultivated and yet unspoiled--sound, unmixed, free from
imitation; showing that individualization without extravagance
which is genuineness.

But how? By what means is this self-liberation to be effected--
this emancipation from affection and the bondage of being like
other people? Is it open to us to choose to be genuine? I see
nothing insuperable in the way, except for those who are
hopelessly lacking in a sense of humor. It depends upon the range
and scale of your observation whether you can strike the balance
of genuineness or not. If you live in a small and petty world,
you will be subject to its standards; but if you live in a large
world, you will see that standards are innumerable--some old,
some new, some made by the noble-minded and made to last, some
made by the weak-minded and destined to perish, some lasting from
age to age, some only from day to day--and that a choice must be
made among them. It is then that your sense of humor will assist
you. You are, you will perceive, upon a long journey, and it will
seem to you ridiculous to change your life and discipline your
instincts to conform with the usages of a single inn by the way.
You will distinguish the essentials from the accidents, and deem
the accidents something meant for your amusement. The strongest
natures do not need to wait for these slow lessons of
observation, to be got by conning life: their sheer vigor makes
it impossible for them to conform to fashion or care for times
and seasons. But the rest of us must cultivate knowledge of the
world in the large, get our offing, reaching a comparative point
of view, before we can become with steady confidence our own
masters and pilots. The art of being humans begins with the
practice of being genuine, and following standards of conduct
which the world has tested. If your life is not various and you
cannot know the best people, who set the standards of sincerity,
your reading at least can be various, and you may look at your
little circle through the best books, under the guidance of
writers who have known life and loved the truth.


And then genuineness will bring serenity--which I take to be
another mark of the right development of the true human being,
certainly in an age passionate and confused as this in which we
live. Of course serenity does not always go with genuineness. We
must say of Dr. Johnson that he was genuine, and yet we know that
the stormy tyrant of the Turk's Head Tavern was not serene.
Carlyle was genuine (though that is not quite the first adjective
we should choose to describe him), but of serenity he allowed
cooks and cocks and every modern and every ancient sham to
deprive him. Serenity is a product, no doubt, of two very
different things, namely, vision and digestion. Not the eye only,
but the courses of the blood must be clear, if we would find
serenity. Our word "serene" contains a picture. Its image is of
the calm evening when the stars are out and the still night comes
on; when the dew is on the grass and the wind does not stir; when
the day's work is over, and the evening meal, and thought falls
clear in the quiet hour. It is the hour of reflection--and it is
human to reflect. Who shall contrive to be human without this
evening hour, which drives turmoil out, and gives the soul its
seasons of self-recollection? Serenity is not a thing to beget
inaction. It only checks excitement and uncalculating haste. It
does not exclude ardor or the heat of battle: it keeps ardor from
extravagance, prevents the battle from becoming a mere aimless
melee. The great captains of the world have been men who were
calm in the moment of crisis; who were calm, too, in the long
planning which preceded crisis; who went into battle with a
serenity infinitely ominous for those whom they attack. We
instinctively associate serenity with the highest types of power
among men, seeing in it the poise of knowledge and calm vision,
the supreme heat and mastery which is without splutter or noise
of any kind. The art of power in this sort is no doubt learned in
hours of reflection, by those who are not born with it. What
rebuke of aimless excitement there is to be got out of a little
reflection, when we have been inveighing against the corruption
and decadence of our own days, if only we have provided ourselves
with a little knowledge of the past wherewith to balance our
thought! As bad times as these, or any we shall see, have been
reformed, but not by protests. They have been made glorious
instead of shameful by the men who kept their heads and struck
with sure self-possession in the fight. The world is very human,
not a bit given to adopting virtues for the sakes of those who
merely bemoan its vices, and we are most effective when we are
most calmly in possession of our senses.

So far is serenity from being a thing of slackness or inaction
that it seems bred, rather, by an equable energy, a satisfying
activity. It may be found in the midst of that alert interest in
affairs which is, it may be, the distinguishing trait of
developed manhood. You distinguish man from the brute by his
intelligent curiosity, his play of mind beyond the narrow field
of instinct, his perception of cause and effect in matters to him
indifferent, his appreciation of motive and calculation of
results. He is interested in the world about him, and even in the
great universe of which it forms a part, not merely as a thing he
would use, satisfy his wants and grow great by, but as a field to
stretch his mind in, for love of journeyings and excursions in
the large realm of thought. Your full-bred human being loves a
run afield with his understanding. With what images does he not
surround himself and store his mind! With what fondness does he
con travelers' tales and credit poets' fancies! With what
patience does he follow science and pore upon old records, and
with what eagerness does he ask the news of the day! No great
part of what he learns immediately touches his own life or the
course of his own affairs: he is not pursuing a business, but
satisfying as he can an insatiable mind. No doubt the highest
form of this noble curiosity is that which leads us, without
self-interest, to look abroad upon all the field of man's life at
home and in society, seeking more excellent forms of government,
more righteous ways of labor, more elevating forms of art, and
which makes the greater among us statesmen, reformers,
philanthropists, artists, critics, men of letters. It is
certainly human to mind your neighbor's business as well as your
own. Gossips are only sociologists upon a mean and petty scale.
The art of being human lifts to be a better level than that of
gossip; it leaves mere chatter behind, as too reminiscent of a
lower stage of existence, and is compassed by those whose outlook
is wide enough to serve for guidance and a choosing of ways.


Luckily we are not the first human beings.  We have come into a
great heritage of interesting things, collected and piled all
about us by the curiousity of past generations. And so our
interest is selective. Our education consists in learning
intelligent choice. Our energies do not clash or compete: each is
free to take his own path to knowledge. Each has that choice,
which is man's alone, of the life he shall live, and finds out
first or last that the art in living is not only to be genuine
and one's own master, but also to learn mastery in perception and
preference. Your true woodsman needs not to follow the dusty
highway through the forest nor search for any path, but goes
straight from glade to glade as if upon an open way, having some
privy understanding with the taller trees, some compass in his
senses. So there is the subtle craft in finding ways for the
mind, too. Keep but your eyes alert and your ears quick, as you
move among men and among books, and you shall find yourself
possessed at last of a new sense, the sense of the pathfinder.
Have you never marked the eyes of a man who has seen the world he
has lived in: the eyes of the sea-captain, who has watched his
life through the changes of the heavens; the eyes of the
huntsman, nature's gossip and familiar; the eyes of the man of
affairs, accustomed to command in moments of exigency? You are at
once aware that they are eyes which can see. There is something
in them that you do not find in other eyes, and you have read the
life of the man when you have divined what it is. Let the thing
serve as a figure. So ought alert interest in the world of men
and thought to serve each one of us that we shall have the quick
perceiving vision, taking meanings at a glance, reading
suggestions as if they were expositions. You shall not otherwise
get full value of your humanity. What good shall it do you else
that the long generations of men which have gone before have
filled the world with great store of everything that may make you
wise and your life various? Will you not take the usury of the
past, if it may be had for the taking? Here is the world humanity
has made: will you take full citizenship in it, or will you live
in it as dull, as slow to receive, as unenfranchised, as the
idlers for whom civilization has no uses, or the deadened
toilers, men or beasts, whose labor shuts the door on choice?

That man seems to me a little less than human who lives as if our
life in the world were but just begun, thinking only of the
things of sense, recking nothing of the infinite thronging and
assemblage of affairs the great stage over, or of the old wisdom
that has ruled the world. That is, if he have the choice. Great
masses of our fellow-men are shut out from choosing, by reason of
absorbing toil, and it is part of the enlightenment of our age
that our understandings are being opened to the workingman's need
of a little leisure wherein to look about him and clear his
vision of the dust of the workshop. We know that there is a
drudgery which is inhuman, let it but encompass the whole life,
with only heavy sleep between task and task. We know that those
who are so bound can have no freedom to be men, that their very
spirits are in bondage. It is part of our philanthropy--it
should be part of our statesmanship--to ease the burden as we
can, and enfranchise those who spend and are spent for the
sustenance of the race. But what shall we say of those who are
free and yet choose littleness and bondage, or of those who,
though they might see the whole face of society, nevertheless
choose to spend all a life's space poring upon some single vice
or blemish? I would not for the world discredit any sort of
philanthropy except the small and churlish sort which seeks to
reform by nagging--the sort which exaggerates petty vices into
great ones, and runs atilt against windmills, while everywhere
colossal shams and abuses go unexposed, unrebuked. Is it because
we are better at being common scolds than at being wise advisers
that we prefer little reforms to big ones? Are we to allow the
poor personal habits of other people to absorb and quite use up
all our fine indignation? It will be a bad day for society when
sentimentalists are encouraged to suggest all the measures that
shall be taken for the betterment of the race. I, for one,
sometimes sigh for the generation of "leading people" and of good
people who shall see things steadily and see them whole; who
shall show a handsome justness and a large sanity of view, an
opportune tolerance for details, that happen to be awry, in order
that they may spend their energy, not without self-possession, in
some generous mission which shall make right principles shine
upon the people's life. They would bring with them an age of
large moralities, a spacious time, a day of vision.

Knowledge has come into the world in vain if it is not to
emancipate those who may have it from narrowness, censoriousness,
fussiness, an intemperate zeal for petty things. It would be a
most pleasant, a truly humane world, would we but open our ears
with a more generous welcome to the clear voices that ring in
those writings upon life and affairs which mankind has chosen to
keep. Not many splenetic books, not many intemperate, not many
bigoted, have kept men's confidence; and the mind that is
impatient, or intolerant, or hoodwinked, or shut in to a petty
view shall have no part in carrying men forward to a true
humanity, shall never stand as examples of the true humankind.
What is truly human has always upon it the broad light of what is
genial, fit to support life, cordial, and of a catholic spirit of
helpfulness. Your true human being has eyes and keeps his balance
in the world; deems nothing uninteresting that comes from life;
clarifies his vision and gives health to his eyes by using them
upon things near and things far. The brute beast has but a single
neighborhood, a single, narrow round of existence; the gain of
being human accrues in the choice of change and variety and of
experience far and wide, with all the world for stage--a stage
set and appointed by this very art of choice--all future
generations for witnesses and audience. When you talk with a man
who has in his nature and acquirements that freedom from
constraint which goes with the full franchise of humanity, he
turns easily with topic to topic; does not fall silent or dull
when you leave some single field of thought such as unwise men
make a prison of. The men who will not be broken from a little
set of subjects, who talk earnestly, hotly, with a sort of
fierceness, of certain special schemes of conduct, and look
coldly upon everything else, render you infinitely uneasy, as if
there were in them a force abnormal and which rocked toward an
upset of the mind; but from the man whose interest swings from
thought to thought with the zest and poise and pleasure of the
old traveler, eager for what is new, glad to look again upon what
is old, you come away with faculties warmed and heartened--with
the feeling of having been comrade for a little with a genuine
human being. It is a large world and a round world, and men grow
human by seeing all its play of force and folly.


Let no one suppose that efficiency is lost by such breadth and
catholicity of view. We deceive ourselves with instances, look at
sharp crises in the world's affairs, and imagine that intense and
narrow men have made history for us. Poise, balance, a nice and
equable exercise of force, are not, it is true, the things the
world ordinarily seeks for or most applauds in its heroes. It is
apt to esteem that man most human who has his qualities in a
certain exaggeration, whose courage is passionate, whose
generosity is without deliberation, whose just action is without
premeditation, whose spirit runs toward its favorite objects with
an infectious and reckless ardor, whose wisdom is no child of
slow prudence. We love Achilles more than Diomedes, and Ulysses
not at all. But these are standards left over from a ruder state
of society: we should have passed by this time the Homeric stage
of mind--should have heroes suited to our age. Nay, we have
erected different standards, and do make a different choice, when
we see in any man fulfillment of our real ideals. Let a modern
instance serve as test. Could any man hesitate to say that
Abraham Lincoln was more human than William Lloyd Garrison? Does
not every one know that it was the practical Free-Soilers who made
emancipation possible, and not the hot, impracticable
Abolitionists; that the country was infinitely more moved by
Lincoln's temperate sagacity than by any man's enthusiasm,
instinctively trusted the man who saw the whole situation and kept
his balance, instinctively held off from those who refused to see
more than one thing? We know how serviceable the intense and
headlong agitator was in bringing to their feet men fit for
action; but we feel uneasy while he lives, and vouchsafe him our
full sympathy only when he is dead. We know that the genial forces
of nature which work daily, equably, and without violence are
infinitely more serviceable, infinitely more admirable, than the
rude violence of the storm, however necessary or excellent the
purification it may have wrought. Should we seek to name the most
human man among those who let the nation to its struggle with
slavery, and yet was no statesmen, we should, of course, name
Lowell. We know that his humor went further than any man's passion
toward setting tolerant men atingle with the new impulses of the
day. We naturally hold back from those who are intemperate and can
never stop to smile, and are deeply reassured to see a twinkle in
a reformer's eye. We are glad to see earnest men laugh. It breaks
the strain. If it be wholesome laughter, it dispels all suspicion
of spite, and is like the gleam of light upon running water,
lifting sullen shadows, suggesting clear depths.

Surely it is this soundness of nature, this broad and genial
quality, this full-blooded, full-orbed sanity of spirit, which
gives the men we love that wide-eyed sympathy which gives hope
and power to humanity, which gives range to every good quality
and is so excellent a credential of genuine manhood. Let your
life and your thought be narrow, and your sympathy will shrink to
a like scale. It is a quality which follows the seeing mind
afield, which waits on experience. It is not a mere sentiment. It
goes not with pity so much as with a penetrative understanding of
other men's lives and hopes and temptations. Ignorance of these
things makes it worthless. Its best tutors are observations and
experience, and these serve only those who keep clear eyes and a
wide field of vision. It is exercise and discipline upon such a
scale, too, which strengthen, which for ordinary men come near to
creating, that capacity to reason upon affairs and to plan for
action which we always reckon upon finding in every man who has
studied to perfect his native force. This new day in which we
live cries a challenge to us. Steam and electricity have reduced
nations to neighborhoods; have made travel pastime, and news a
thing for everybody. Cheap printing has made knowledge a vulgar
commodity. Our eyes look, almost without choice, upon the very
world itself, and the word "human" is filled with new meaning.
Our ideals broaden to suit the wide day in which we live. We
crave, not cloistered virtue--it is impossible any longer to
keep the cloister--but a robust spirit that shall take the air
in the great world, know men in all their kinds, choose its way
amid the bustle with all self-possession, with wise genuineness,
in calmness, and yet with the quick eye of interest and the quick
pulse of power. It is again a day for Shakespeare's spirit--a
day more various, more ardent, more provoking to valor and every
large design, even than "the spacious times of great Elizabeth,"
when all the world seemed new; and if we cannot find another
bard, come out of a new Warwickshire, to hold once more the
mirror up to nature, it will not be because the stage is not set
for him. The time is such an one as he might rejoice to look
upon; and if we would serve it as it should be served, we should
seek to be human after his wide-eyed sort. The serenity of power;
the naturalness that is nature's poise and mark of genuineness;
the unsleeping interest in all affairs, all fancies, all things
believed or done; the catholic understanding, tolerance,
enjoyment, of all classes and conditions of men; the conceiving
imagination, the planning purpose, the creating thought, the
wholesome, laughing humor, the quiet insight, the universal
coinage of the brain--are not these the marvelous gifts and
qualities we mark in Shakespeare when we call him the greatest
among men? And shall not these rounded and perfect powers serve
us as our ideal of what it is to be a finished human being?

We live for our own age--an age like Shakespeare's, when an old
world is passing away, a new world coming in--an age of new
speculation and every new adventure of the mind; a full stage, an
intricate plot, a universal play of passion, an outcome no man
can foresee. It is to this world, this sweep of action, that our
understandings must be stretched and fitted; it is in this age we
must show our human quality. We must measure ourselves by the
task, accept the pace set for us, make shift to know what we are
about. How free and liberal should be the scale of our sympathy,
how catholic our understanding of the world in which we live, how
poised and masterful our action in the midst of so great affairs!
We should school our ears to know the voices that are genuine,
our thought to take the truth when it is spoken, our spirits to
feel the zest of the day. It is within our choice to be mean
company or with great, to consort with the wise or with the
foolish, now that the great world has spoken to us in the
literature of all tongues and voices. The best selected human
nature will tell in the making of the future, and the art of
being human is the art of freedom and of force.

The End.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "On Being Human" ***

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