Jealousy, envy, animosities and selfishness no doubt play a great part in life and disguise themselves under many specious forms, and the cynical moralist was not wholly wrong when he declared that 'Virtue would not go so far if Vanity did not keep her company,' and that not only our crimes but even many of what are deemed our best acts may be traced to selfish motives.
Friendship is a mere exchange of interests in which each man only seeks to gain something from the other; that most women are only pure because they are untempted and regret that the temptation does not come; that if we acknowledge some faults it is in order to persuade ourselves that we have no greater ones, or in order, by our confession, to regain the good opinion of our neighbours; that if we praise another it is merely that we may ourselves in turn be praised; that the tears we shed over a deathbed, if they are not hypocritical tears intended only to impress our neighbours, are only due to our conviction that we have ourselves lost a source of pleasure or of gain; that envy so predominates in the world that it is only men of inferior intellect or women of inferior beauty who are sincerely liked by those about them; that all virtue is an egotistic calculation, conscious or unconscious.
No one can look with an unjaundiced eye upon the world without perceiving the enormous amount of disinterested, self-sacrificing benevolence that pervades it; the countless lives that are spent not only harmlessly and inoffensively but also in the constant discharge of duties; in constant and often painful labour for the good of others.
The spectacle of suffering naturally elicits compassion. Kindness naturally produces gratitude. The sympathies of men naturally move on the side of the good rather than of the bad. This is true not only of the things that immediately concern us, but also in the perfectly disinterested judgments we form of the[Pg 79] events of history or of the characters in fiction and poetry. Great exhibitions of heroism and self-sacrifice touch a genuine chord of enthusiasm. The affections of the domestic circle are the rule and not the exception; patriotism can elicit great outbursts of purely unselfish generosity and induce multitudes to risk or sacrifice their lives for causes which are quite other than their own selfish interests. Human nature indeed has its moral as well as its physical needs, and naturally and instinctively seeks some object of interest and enthusiasm outside itself.
If we look again into the vice and sin that undoubtedly disfigure the world we shall find much reason to believe that what is exceptional in human nature is not the evil tendency but the restraining conscience, and that it is chiefly the weakness of the distinctively human quality that is the origin of the evil. It is impossible indeed, with the knowledge we now possess, to deny to animals some measure both of reason and of the moral sense.
Most crimes spring not from anything wrong in the original and primal desire but from the imperfection of this higher, distinct or superadded element in our nature. The crimes of dishonesty and envy, when duly analysed, have at their basis simply a desire for the desirable—a natural and inevitable feeling. What is absent is the restraint which makes men refrain from taking or trying to take desirable things that belong to another. Sensual faults spring from a perfectly natural impulse, but the restraint which confines the action of that impulse to defined circumstances is wanting. Much, too, of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to a simple want of imagination which prevents us from adequately realising the sufferings of others.
Immoderate and uncontrolled desires are the root of most human crimes, but at the same time the self-restraint that limits desire, or self-seeking, by the rights of others, seems to be mainly, though not wholly, the prerogative of man.
Some of the very worst acts of which man can be guilty are acts which are commonly untouched by law and only faintly censured by opinion. Political crimes which a false and sickly sentiment so readily condones are conspicuous among them. Men who have been gambling for wealth and power with the lives and fortunes of multitudes; men who for their own personal ambition are prepared to sacrifice the most vital interests of their country; men who in time of great national danger and excitement deliberately launch falsehood after falsehood in the public press in the well-founded conviction that they will do their evil work before they can be contradicted, may be met shameless, and almost uncensured, in Parliaments and drawing-rooms. The amount of false statement in the world which cannot be attributed to mere carelessness, inaccuracy, or exaggeration, but which is plainly both deliberate and malevolent, can hardly be overrated. Sometimes it is due to a mere desire to create a lucrative sensation, or to gratify a personal dislike, or even to an unprovoked malevolence which takes pleasure in inflicting pain.
In truth, while it is a gross libel upon human nature to deny the vast amount of genuine kindness, self-sacrifice and even heroism that exists in the world, it is equally idle to deny the deplorable weakness of self-restraint, the great force and the widespread influence of purely evil passions in the affairs of men.
(Excerpts from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky, E-text prepared by Delphine Lettau, Martin Pettit, and the Project Gutenberg Online Distributed Proofreading Team)