Man comes into the world with mental and moral characteristics which he can only very imperfectly influence and a large proportion of the external circumstances of his life lie wholly or mainly beyond his control. Every one also recognizes how large a part of the unhappiness of most men may be directly traced to their own voluntary and deliberate acts.
In the words of Burke, 'It is the prerogative of man to be in a great degree a creature of his own making.' There are men whose whole lives are spent in willing one thing and desiring the opposite and all morality depends upon the supposition that we have at least some freedom of choice between good and evil.
No human being can prevent himself from viewing certain acts with an indignation, shame, remorse, resentment, gratitude, enthusiasm, praise or blame, which would be perfectly unmeaning and irrational if these acts could not have been avoided. We can have no higher evidence on the subject than is derived from this fact. It is impossible to explain the mystery of free will, but until a man ceases to feel these emotions he has not succeeded in disbelieving in it. The feelings of all men and the vocabularies of all languages attest the universality of the belief.
Men continually forget that Happiness is a condition of Mind and not a disposition of circumstances, and one of the most common of errors is that of confusing happiness with the means of happiness, sacrificing the first for the attainment of the second. It is the error of the miser, who begins by seeking money for the enjoyment it procures and ends by making the mere acquisition of money his sole object, pursuing it to the sacrifice of all rational ends and pleasures. Circumstances and Character both contribute to Happiness, but the proportionate attention paid to one or other of these great departments not only varies largely with different individuals, but also with different nations and in different ages.
All the sensational philosophies from Bacon and Locke to our own day tend to concentrate attention on the external circumstances and conditions of happiness. And the same tendency will be naturally found in the most active, industrial and progressive nations; where life is very full and busy; where its competitions are most keen; where scientific discoveries are rapidly multiplying pleasures or diminishing pains; where town life with its constant hurry and change is the most prominent. In such spheres men naturally incline to seek happiness from without rather than from within, or, in other words, to seek it much less by acting directly on the mind and character than through the indirect method of improved circumstances.
Smoking in manhood, when practiced in moderation, is a very innocent and probably beneficent practice, but it is well known how deleterious it is to young boys, and how many of them have taken to it through no other motive than a desire to appear older than they are—that surest of all signs that we are very young. How often have the far more pernicious habits of drinking, or gambling, or frequenting corrupt society been acquired through a similar motive, or through the mere desire to enjoy the charm of a forbidden pleasure or to stand well with some dissipated companions! How large a proportion of lifelong female debility is due to an early habit of tight lacing, springing only from the silliest vanity! How many lives have been sacrificed through the careless recklessness which refused to take the trouble of changing wet clothes! How many have been shattered and shortened by excess in things which in moderation are harmless, useful, or praiseworthy,—by the broken blood-vessel, due to excess in some healthy athletic exercise or game; by the ruined brain overstrained in order to win some paltry prize! It is melancholy to observe how many lives have been broken down, ruined or corrupted in attempts to realize some supreme and unattainable desire; through the impulse of overmastering passion, of powerful and perhaps irresistible temptation. It is still sadder to observe how large a proportion of the failures of life may be ultimately traced to the most insignificant causes and might have been avoided without any serious effort either of intellect or will.
How different would have been the condition of the world, and how far greater would have been the popularity of strong monarchy if at the time when such a form of government generally prevailed rulers had had the intelligence to put before them the improvement of the health and the prolongation of the lives of their subjects as the main object of their policy rather than military glory or the acquisition of territory or mere ostentatious and selfish display!
It is very evident that a healthy, long and prosperous life is more likely to be attained by industry, moderation and purity than by the opposite courses. It is very evident that drunkenness and sensuality ruin health and shorten life; that idleness, gambling and disorderly habits ruin prosperity; that ill-temper, selfishness and envy kill friendship and provoke animosities and dislike; that in every well-regulated society there is at least a general coincidence between the path of duty and the path of prosperity; dishonesty, violence and disregard for the rights of others naturally and usually bringing their punishment either from law or from public opinion or from both.
The pleasures of vice are often real, but they are commonly transient and they leave legacies of suffering, weakness, or care behind them. The nobler pleasures for the most part grow and strengthen with advancing years. The passions of youth, when duly regulated, gradually transform themselves into habits, interests and steady affections, and it is in the long forecasts of life that the superiority of virtue as an element of happiness becomes most apparent.
Few things have done more harm in the world than disproportioned compassion. It is a law of our being that we are only deeply moved by sufferings we distinctly realize and the degrees in which different kinds of suffering appeal to the imagination bear no proportion to their real magnitude. The most benevolent man will read of an earthquake in Japan or a plague in South America with a callousness he would never display towards some untimely death or some painful accident in his immediate neighborhood, and in general the suffering of a prominent and isolated individual strikes us much more forcibly than that of an undistinguished multitude. Few deaths are so prominent, and therefore few produce such widespread compassion, as those of conspicuous criminals. It is no exaggeration to say that the death of an 'interesting' murderer will often arouse much stronger feelings than were ever excited by the death of his victim; or by the deaths of brave soldiers who perished by disease or by the sword in some obscure expedition in a remote country. This mode of judgment acts promptly upon conduct.
To see things in their true proportion, to escape the magnifying influence of a morbid imagination, should be one of the chief aims of life, and in no fields is it more needed than in those we have been reviewing. At the same time every age has its own ideal moral type towards which the strongest and best influences of the time converge. The history of morals is essentially a history of the changes that take place not so much in our conception of what is right and wrong as in the proportionate place and prominence we assign to different virtues and vices. There are large groups of moral qualities which in some ages of the world's history have been regarded as of supreme importance, while in other ages they are thrown into the background, and there are corresponding groups of vices which are treated in some periods as very serious and in others as very trivial.
The human mind has much more power of distinguishing between right and wrong, and between true and false, than of estimating with accuracy the comparative gravity of opposite evils. It is nearly always right in judging between right and wrong. It is generally wrong in estimating degrees of guilt, and the root of its error lies in the extreme difficulty of putting ourselves into the place of those whose characters or circumstances are radically different from our own. This want of imagination acts widely on our judgment of what is good as well as of what is bad.
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. 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 analyzed, have at their basis simply a desire for the desirable—a natural and inevitable feeling. What is absent is the restraint which makes men refrains from taking or trying to take desirable things that belong to another.
(Adapted from The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Map of Life, by William Edward Hartpole Lecky)