You have known people who started out in youth with a soul like a sword- keen, bright and uncompromising. Then came what Shelley called “the contagion of the world’s slow stain.” That comes to most of us. We begin aiming for the best, and gradually find that honour and truth and steadfastness don’t mean so much as we thought.
Playwrights George Kaufman -Moss Hart once wrote a curiously effective drama, Merrily we Roll Along. They told their story in reverse, introducing Robinson, a dissolute playwright, and working backwards through his life, showing how he got like that. As the piece ended he was delivering an address on his last day at school and declaiming, “‘This above all: to thine own self be true.” Merrily We Roll Along was not a notable success- partly; perhaps, because it brought us face to with the contrast between what are and what we wanted to be.
Once you get started, it isn’t hard to make a fine mental collection of Robinsons. Youth is naturally idealistic. I think even our modern pragmatic youngsters begin with a will to develop what Immanuel Kant called “that divine man within us.” And then, slowly, comes a subtle undermining, brick by brick.
Older and-we are sure- wiser people smile at our faiths. Secretly, and a little shamefacedly, we believe in love, marriage, loyalty, courage and incorruptibility. We find that love and marriage are really good jokes, treated lightly and scornfully by every comedian; we discover that loyalty- to one’s life partner, anyway-is merely stupid and dull.
Somebody once told me that you couldn’t drive a nail, no matter how small, into a beam, no matter how great, without weakening the timber. Certainly the foundations of our high resolves begin crumbling with these tiny punctures. Disloyalty to your wife isn’t serious; well, then, how serious is a little disloyalty to your friend? And, after all, isn’t this leaning backwards to be honest rather silly? So-and-so, for instance, is crooked, and everyone knows it, but he’s re-elected regularly; and, of course, all politicians are crooked, so what of it? What price glory and honour and incorruptibility when everybody else-well, nearly everybody-has thrown the cargo overboard and won the blue riband thereby? Weren’t those early ideals of ours rather foolish, juvenile and impractical?
Utopian Dream. I suppose so, but they were fine, too. A world in which everyone believed in the purity of women and the nobility of men, and acted accordingly, would be a very different world, but a grand place to live in. And, contemplating the adolescence through which we scorned the wrong, some of us must wish, with the Cardinal in Robert Marshall’s comedy A Royal Family, that “we could be born old, and grow younger and cleaner and ever simpler and more innocent, until at last, with the white souls of little children, we lay us down to eternal sleep.”
Our Achilles’ heel, of course, is what Phillips Russell, in his biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, calls “grubby thing-worship.” Men who do not want much cannot be much tempted. Emerson felt no urge to compromise; no difficulty in preserving, “with perfect sweetness, in the midst of the crowd, the independence of solitude.”
In 12 years Emerson’s first book, Nature, sold 500 copies. Yet he was undisturbed by this lack of appreciation. Knowing himself, he could be true to himself. Aware of his strength, he did not have to seek power through money or praise.
When his address to the Divinity School at Cambridge filled the air round his head with critical brickbats, he wrote, “I shall go on just as before, seeing whatever I can, and telling what I see.” This is the serene indomitability of greatness of all men who have served the world by refusing to be turned away from their vision- and it is a steadfastness difficult, if not impossible, for people avid for possessions.
This well-nigh universal hunger, ever increasing and ever artfully stimulated, supplies a continual succession of detour signs along the straight and narrow path. We must keep up with the Joneses. For many of us, that is the sole measure of progress. Emerson said Jesus was the one man who “was true to what is in you and me,” but Jesus did not live in an age in which every newspaper and magazine apprised people of needs they had never felt before, nor among men who regarded poverty as certain proof of inadequacy. I’m not suggesting blasphemously that this would have changed Jesus, but I do suggest that to remain unchanged by it requires something of divinity ..
Luckily, that “something of divinity” is not yet extinct. There are still a good many colours nailed to the mast. Our legislative halls may not be crowded with men who would rather be right than be Prime Minister, but there are thousands in our schools, pulpits and laboratories. These are the people who love the job for the job’s sake, and have no material interests of equal strength. There are a few of them in the arts and professions, a few more in business and, I suppose, one or twosomewhere- in politics. And the remarkable thing is how often these folk win the day.
My deepest conviction is that “if the single man plants himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” It takes a big man to do that, and the big man nearly always wins. And I don’t mean only spiritually, either. The first newspaper publisher who threw out lying advertisements must have been advised pretty generally that he was headed for the rocks. I believe the first man who says, “This is my faith, and I don’t give a damn how many votes it costs me I” might be agreeably surprised at the result. The man most needed today is the man who is not afraid.
The world’s slow stain comes of many things~ of self-distrust, self–satisfaction, indolence, weariness, cynicism, false values, or lack of cultural interest or of individual standards. But its chief acid is fear. Fear of “failure,” of poverty, of being condemned.
Every nation needs the man who isn’t afraid to fail. We need a better understanding of what failure really is. Most of us know pretty well by instinct what is best in ourselves. Insofar as we turn away from that, through hope of reward or dread of penalty, we are smeared with the world’s stain.
Judas, with his 30 pieces of silver, was a failure.
Christ, on the Cross, was the greatest figure of time and eternity.
The Reader’s Digest. May /968