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- The Nature of Goodness - 23/23 -

be allowed to escape. This great world of ours does not stand still. Every moment its conditions are altering. Whatever action fits it now will be pretty sure to be a slight misfit next year. No one can be thoroughly good who is not a flexible person, capable of drawing back his trains, reexamining them, and bringing them into better adjustment to his purposes.

It is meaningless, then, to ask whether we should be intuitive and spontaneous, or considerate and deliberate. There is no such alternative. We need both dispositions. We should seek to attain a condition of swift spontaneity, of abounding freedom, of the absence of all restraint, and should not rest satisfied with the conditions in which we were born. But we must not suffer that even the new nature should be allowed to become altogether natural. It should be but the natural engine for spiritual ends, itself repeatedly scrutinized with a view to their better fulfillment.


The doctrine of the three stages of conduct, elaborated in this chapter, explains some curious anomalies in the bestowal of praise, and at the same time receives from that doctrine farther elucidation. When is conduct praiseworthy? When may we fairly claim honor from our fellows and ourselves? There is a ready answer. Nothing is praiseworthy which is not the result of effort. I do not praise a lady for her beauty, I admire her. The athlete's splendid body I envy, wishing that mine were like it. But I do not praise him. Or does the reader hesitate; and while acknowledging that admiration and envy may be our leading feelings here, think that a certain measure of praise is also due? It may be. Perhaps the lady has been kind enough by care to heighten her beauty. Perhaps those powerful muscles are partly the result of daily discipline. These persons, then, are not undeserving of praise, at least to the extent that they have used effort. Seeing a collection of china, I admire the china, but praise the collector. It is hard to obtain such pieces. Large expense is required, long training too, and constant watchfulness. Accordingly I am interested in more than the collection. I give praise to the owner. A learned man we admire, honor, envy, but also praise. His wisdom is the result of effort.

Plainly, then, praise and blame are attributable exclusively to spiritual beings. Nature is unfit for honor. We may admire her, may wish that our ways were like hers, and envy her great law-abiding calm. But it would be foolish to praise her, or even to blame when her volcanoes overwhelm our friends. We praise spirit only, conscious deeds. Where self-directed action forces its path to a worthy goal, we rightly praise the director.

Now, if all this is true, there seems often-times a strange unsuitableness in praise. We may well decline to receive it. To praise some of our good qualities, pretty fundamental ones too, often strikes us as insulting. You are asked a sudden question and put in a difficult strait for an answer. "Yes," I say, "but you actually did tell the truth. I wish to congratulate you. You were successful and deserve much praise." But who would feel comfortable under such eulogy? And why not? If telling the truth is a spiritual excellence and the result of effort, why should it not be praised? But there lies the trouble. I assumed that to be a truth-teller required strain on your part. In reality it would have required greater strain for falsehood. It might then seem that I should praise those who are not easily excellent, since I am forbidden to praise those who are. And something like this seems actually approved. If a boy on the street, who has been trained hardly to distinguish truth from lies, some day stumbles into a bit of truth, I may justly praise him. "Splendid fellow! No word of falsehood there!" But when I see the father of his country bearing his little hatchet, praise is unfit; for George Washington cannot tell a lie.

Absurd as this conclusion appears, I believe it states our soundest moral judgment; for praise never escapes an element of disparagement. It implies that the unexpected has happened. If I praise a man for learning, it is because I had supposed him ignorant; if for helping the unfortunate, I hint that I did not anticipate that he would regard any but himself. Wherever praise appears, we cannot evade the suggestion that excellence is a matter of surprise. And as nobody likes to be thought ill-adapted to excellence, praise may rightly be resented.

It is true, there is a group of cases where praise seems differently employed. We can praise those whom we recognize as high and lifted up. "Sing praises unto the Lord, sing praises," the Psalmist says. And our hearts respond. We feel it altogether appropriate. We do not disparage God by daily praise. No, but the element of disparagement is still present, for we are really disparaging ourselves. That is the true significance of praise offered to the confessedly great. For them, the praise is inappropriate. But it is, nevertheless, appropriate that it should be offered by us little people who stand below and look up. Praising the wise man, I really declare my ignorance to be so great that I have difficulty in conceiving myself in his place. For me, it would require long years of forbidding work before I could attain to his wisdom. And even in the extreme form of this praise of superiors, substantially the same meaning holds. We praise God in order to abase ourselves. Him we cannot really praise. That we understand at the start. He is beyond commendation. Excellence covers him like a garment, and is not attained, like ours, by struggle through obstacles. Yet this difference between him and us we can only express by trying to imagine ourselves like him, and saying how difficult such excellence would then be. We have here, therefore, a sort of reversed praise, where the disparagement which praise always carries falls exclusively on the praiser. And such cases are by no means uncommon, cases in which there is at least a pretense on the praiser's part of setting himself below the one praised. But praise usually proceeds down from above, and then, implicitly, we disparage him whom we profess to exalt.

Nor do I see how this is to be avoided; for praise belongs to goodness gained by effort, while excellence is not reached till effort ceases in second nature. To assert through praise that goodness is still a struggle is to set the good man back from our third stage to our second. In fact by the time he really reaches excellence praise has lost its fitness, goodness now being easier than badness, and no longer something difficult, unexpected, and demanding reward. For this reason those persons are usually most greedy of praise who have a rather low opinion of themselves. Being afraid that they are not remarkable, they are peculiarly delighted when people assure them that they are. Accordingly the greatest protection against vanity is pride. The proud man, assured of his powers, hears the little praisers and is amused. How much more he knows about it than they! Inner worth stops the greedy ear. When we have something to be vain about, we are seldom vain.


But if all this is true, why should praise be sweet? In candor most of us will own that there is little else so desired. When almost every other form of dependence is laid by, to our secret hearts the good words of neighbors are dear. And well they may be! Our pleasure testifies how closely we are knitted together. We cannot be satisfied with a separated consciousness, but demand that the consciousness of all shall respond to our own. A glorious infirmity then! And the peculiar sweetness which praise brings is grounded in the consciousness of our weakness. In certain regions of my life, it is true, goodness has become fairly natural; and there of course praise strikes me as ill-adjusted and distasteful. I do not like to have my manners praised, my honesty, or my diligence. But there are other tracts where I know I am still in the stage of conscious effort. In this extensive region, aware of my feebleness and hearing an inward call to greater heights, it will always be cheering to hear those about me say, "Well done!" Of course in saying this they will inevitably hint that I have not yet reached an end, and their praises will displease unless I too am ready to acknowledge my incompleteness. But when this is acknowledged, praise is welcome and invigorating. I suspect we deal in it too little. If imagination were more active, and we were more willing to enter sympathetically the inner life of our struggling and imperfect comrades, we should bestow it more liberally. Occasion is always at hand. None of us ever quite passes beyond the deliberate, conscious, and praise-deserving line. In some parts of our being we are farther advanced, and may there be experiencing the peace and assurance of a considerable second nature. But there too perpetual verification is necessary. And so many tracts remain unsubdued or capable of higher cultivation that throughout our lives, perhaps on into eternity, effort will still find room for work, and suitable praises may attend it.


James's Psychology, ch. iv.

Bain's Emotions and the Will, ch. ix.

Wundt's Facts of the Moral Life, ch. iii.

Stephen's Science of Ethics, ch. vii. Section iii.

Martineau's Types of Ethical Theory, pt. ii. bk. i. ch. iii.

The Nature of Goodness - 23/23

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