Chapter 58

  1. Dignity

“The dignity of man into your hands is given,

Oh keep it well, with you it sinks or lifts itself to heaven.”

— Schiller.

Dignity denotes that propriety of mien and carriage which is appropriate to the different walks and ranks of life. In regard to our intercourse with men we should often reflect, not only whether our conduct is proper and correct, but whether it is urbane and dignified. Dignity of carriage is nearly always associated with high endowments; the reverse is, at any rate, true, that high endowments are associated with dignity. “A trifling air and manner bespeaks a thoughtless and silly mind,” saith a Chinese proverb, “but a grave and majestic outside is, as it were, the palace of the soul.”

True dignity is never gained by place, and never lost when honors are withdrawn. There may be dignity in a hovel as well as in a court; in one who depends on the sweat of his brow as well as one who is placed, by reason of his wealth, in a position of independence. In all ranks and classes it is equally acceptable and worthy of esteem. True dignity is without arms. It does not deal in vain and ostentatious parade. In proportion as we gratify our own self-esteem by a love of display we commonly forfeit to the same degree the respect of those whose good opinion is worth possessing. A dignified manner is not necessarily an imposing manner; for true dignity is but the outward expression of inherent worth of character, but an imposing manner is generally ostentatious in degree, and as such may be taken as an evidence of imposition. That dignity which seeks to make an ostentatious display is often only a veil between us and the real truth of things. It is only the false mask of appearance put on to conceal inherent defects.

The ennobling quality of all politeness is dignity. Have you not noticed that there are some persons who possess an inexpressible charm of manner—a something which attracts our love instantaneously, when they have neither wealth, position, nor talents? You will find that a dignity of manner characterizes their actions, and that a spirit of dignity hovers around them. On the other hand, have you not seen persons of wealth who were surrounded by luxury and all the comforts of affluence, yet, in lacking a spirit of dignity, lacked the essential to render their lives influential for good? Where there is an inherent want of dignity in the character, how many distinguished and even noble acquisitions are required to supply its place! But when a natural dignity of character exists, what a prepossession does it enlist in its favor, and with how few substantial and real excellencies are we able to pass creditably through the world!

There are three kinds of dignity which either adorn or deface human character. There is the dignity of etiquette and good manners, which is often of an artificial kind, and is a creature of rules and ceremonies, and not of the heart. The second is the dignity of pride and arrogance. This is a presumptuous dignity arising from self-conceit and egotism. It is thoroughly selfish in its nature. It is more a spirit of haughtiness and cold reserve than of true dignity. Then there is the dignity of compassion and kindness. This is that true dignity which ennobles life. It arises, not from selfishness, but from kindness of heart, and from a sense of the importance of life.

Some men find it almost impossible to discover the line which separates dignity from conceit. Dignity is a splendid personal quality if it be of the right sort. To possess it is to be above meanness, above cringing, above any thing that is low and unseemly. It holds up its head, even among poverty and outward shabbiness, and looks the world bravely in the face. It is innate manliness that outward garb can not change. But conceit is a very different quality, and its possessor is very far from being dignified, though he doubtlessly considers himself to be so. He looks upon himself as the grand center of his, social system, and upon all others as satellites, whose particular business is to revolve around him. The assumption may not take shape in words, but it comes out in his manner all the same. Let him undertake to be amiable, and there is a sort of royal condescension; he takes the attitude of stooping rather than that of one reaching out friendly hands to his equals. All this would be offensive and somewhat exasperating were it not ridiculous. But we laugh in charitable good nature, and pity his absurdities. There is little use in trying to point them out to him. He is so hoodwinked by his overshadowing self-esteem that he can not see. True dignity does not consist in haughty self-assurance. In resolving to be dignified let us see to it that we strive for the true kind.

In counseling dignity we advise no spirit of cold hauteur and pride, but we do counsel such outward walk and conversations as shall become one who has a just appreciation of life and its possibilities. One who is always given to light and flippant remarks, and always assuming a free and easy style in his demeanor, can not carry such an impression of power as one who bears about him the impression of a man among men by his dignified and decorous bearing. True dignity exists independent of—

“Studied gestures or well-practiced smiles.”

Its seat should be in the mind, and then it will not be found wanting in the manner. It is often strikingly and eloquently displayed in the bearings of those utterly unacquainted with the strict rules of etiquette. If one has a modest consciousness of his own worth, and a sincere desire to be of worth to others, he must necessarily display true dignity in his manner and bearing towards others.

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