- True Nobility
“Greatness, thou gaudy torment of our souls,
The wise man’s fetters, and the rage of fools.”
There is so much in this world that is artificial, so much that glitters in borrowed light, that it is not singular that moral greatness and nobility are often counterfeited by some baser metal—so much so that it is no slight task to discriminate rightly between the true and the false, and to determine wherein true nobility doth consist. When we carefully consider the nature of man we readily admit that it is in the possession of moral and intellectual powers that his superiority over the brute world consists.
In the society of his fellow-men man ought not to be rated by his possessions, by his stores of gold, by his office of honor or trust; these are but temporary and accidental advantages, and the next turn of fortune may tear them from his grasp. The light of fame, though it shines with ever so clear a light, is able to dispel the darkness of death but a little ways. The greatest characters of antiquity are but little known. Curiosity follows them in vain, for the veil of oblivion successfully hides the greater portion of their lives.
The world ofttimes knows nothing of its greatest men. Their lives were passed in obscurity, but real nobility of character was theirs, and this is nearly always unseen and unknown. He who in tattered garments toils on the way may, and often does, possess more real nobility of spirit than he who is driven past in a chariot. It is the mind that makes the heart rich; and as the sun breaks through the darkest clouds, so honor peereth in the meanest habit. Public martyrdom of every shade has a certain éclat and popularity connected with it that will often bear men up to endure its trials with courage; but those who suffer alone, without sympathy, for truth or principle—those who, unnoticed by men, maintain their part, and, in obscurity and amid discouragement, patiently fulfill their trust—these are the real heroes of the age, and the suffering they bear is real greatness.
It is refreshing to read the account of some of the truly great men and women, whose lives of usefulness have done much for the alleviation of the world’s misery. And, after all, there is no true nobility except as it displays itself in good deeds. Says Matthew Henry: “Nothing can make a man truly great but being truly good, and partaking of God’s holiness.” That which constitutes human goodness, human greatness, and human nobleness is not the degree of enlightenment with which men pursue their own advantages, but it is self-forgetfulness, self-sacrifice, and the disregard of personal advantages, remote or contingent, because some other line of conduct is nearer right. The greatest man is he who chooses right with the most invincible resolution; who resists the sorest temptations from within and without; who bears the heaviest burdens cheerfully; who is calmest in storms, and most fearless under menaces and frowns.
Some persons are great only in their ability to do evil. Such appears to have constituted the greatness of many of those individuals who drenched the world in blood that their ambition might be satisfied. They may possess the most astonishing mental qualities, yet may be overruled for evil instead of good. Men of the most brilliant qualities need only a due admixture of pride, ambition, and selfishness to be great only in evil ways. Energy without integrity of character and a soul of goodness may only represent the embodied principle of evil. But when the elements of character are brought into action by a determinate will, and influenced by high purposes, man enters upon, and courageously perseveres in, the path of duty at whatever cost of worldly interests, he may be said to approach the summit of his being—to possess true nobility of character; he is the embodiment of the highest idea of manliness.
The life of such a man becomes repeated in the life and actions of others. He is just and upright, in his business dealings, in his public actions, and in his family life. He will be honest in all things—in his works and in his words. He will be generous and merciful to his opponent—to those who are weaker as well as those stronger than himself. “The man of noble spirit converts all occurrences into experience, between which experience and his reason there is marriage, and the issue are his actions. He moves by affection, not for affection; he loves glory, scorns shame, and governeth and obeyeth with one countenance, for it comes from one consideration. Knowing reason to be no idle gift of nature he is the steersman of his own destiny. Truth is his goddess, and he takes pains to get her, not to look like her. Unto the society of men he is a sun whose clearness directs in a regular motion. He is the wise man’s friend, the example of the indifferent, the medicine of the vicious. Thus time goeth not from him, but with him, and he feels age more by the strength of his soul than by the weakness of his body. Thus feels he no pain, but esteems all such things as friends that desire to file off his fetters and help him out of prison.”
True nobility of spirit is always modest in expression. The grace of an action is gone as soon as we are convinced that it was done only that third persons might applaud the act. But he who is truly great, and does good because it is his duty, is not at all anxious that others should witness his acts. His aim is to do good because it is right. His nobility does not show itself in waiting and watching for some chance to do a great good at once. Greatness can only be rightly estimated when minuteness is justly reverenced. Greatness is the aggregation of minuteness; nor can its sublimity be felt truthfully by any mind unaccustomed to the watching of what is least. His nobility consists in being great in little things. All the little details of life are attended to, and thus the soul is prepared for great ones. There is more true nobility in duty faithfully done than in any one great act when others are looking on and signifying their approval, and thus by their sympathy spurring the soul on to greater exertions.
It is impossible to conceive of a truly great character, and not think of one imbued with the spirit of kindness. Nobility of spirit will not dwell with the haughty in manner. It delights to take up its abode with the generous and tender-hearted, those who seek to relieve the misery of others as they would their own. If you contrast the career of Napoleon Bonaparte and Florence Nightingale, though one filled all Europe with the terror of his name, doubt not that in the scale of moral greatness the latter far outweighs the former. Kindness is the most powerful instrument in the world to move men’s hearts, and a word in kindness spoken will often do more for the furtherance of your cause than any amount of angry reasoning. Therefore, it is not singular that one whose whole life is spent in the exercise of kindness should possess a peculiar power over the lives of others—in effect, wield such an influence over them as marks him as one of the truly great.
Nobility of character is also reverential. The possession of this quality marks the noblest and highest type of manhood and womanhood. Reverence for things consecrated by the homage of generations, for high objects, pure thoughts, and noble aims, for the great men of former times and the high-minded workers among our contemporaries. Reverence is alike indispensable to the happiness of individuals, of families, and of nations. Without it there can be no trust, no faith, no confidence, either in God or man—neither social peace nor social progress. Reverence is but another name for love, which binds men to each other, and all to God.
The rewards of a life of moral greatness rests with posterity. Great men are like the oaks, under the branches of which men are happy in finding a refuge in times of storm and rain. But when the danger is past they, take pleasure in cutting the bark and breaking the branches. As long as human nature is such a mass of contradictions this is not to be wondered at. But the influence of such men is ever working, and will sooner or later show itself. Men such as these are the true life-blood of the country to which they belong. They elevate and uphold it, fortify and ennoble it, and shed a glory over it by the example of life and character which they have bequeathed to it. “The names and manners of great men,” says an able writer, “are the dowry of a nation.” Whenever national life begins to quicken, the dead heroes rise in the memory of men. These men of noble principles are the salt of the earth. In death, as well as life, their example lives in their country, a stimulus and encouragement to all who have the soul to adopt it.
Nobility of character is within the reach of all. It is the result of patient endeavors after a life of goodness, and, when acquired, can not be swept away unless by the consent of its possessor. Wealth may be lost by no fault of its possessor, but greatness of soul is an abiding quality. One may fail in his other aims; the many accidents of life may bring to naught his most patient endeavors after worldly fame or success; but he who strives for nobility of character will not fail of reward, if he but diligently seek the same by earnest resolve and patient labor. Is there not in this a lesson of patience for many who are almost weary of striving for better things? If success does not crown their ambitious efforts, will they not be sustained by the smile of an approving conscience? Strong in this, they can wait with patience till, in the fullness of time, their reward cometh.
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