Right Living as a Fine Art


The youth who plans the life of affairs is in danger of despising the brooding that feeds the hidden life. We can never rightly estimate our indebtedness to those who have gone apart to “think quietly.”

All law and jurisprudence go back to Moses for forty years brooding in an empty, voiceless desert upon the principles of eternal justice. All astronomy goes back to Ptolemy, who looked out upon a weary waste of sand and turned his vision toward a highway paved with stars and suns. Our poetry and literature begins with Homer, blind indeed to earthly sights and sciences, but who traced with an inner eye, the strifes of gods and men, and gave his inner thoughts immortal form and beauty. All modern science begins with that scholar who for fifty years was unknown in the forum or market-place, for Charles Darwin was “studying hard and thinking quietly” in his little garden, where he watched his seeds, earthworms, his beetles and doves.

The air of London is so charged with deadly acids that the lime tree alone flourishes there, for the reason that it sheds its bark each year, thus casting off the defiled garment. But there is a mountain peak in the Himalayas so high that it towers beyond the reach of snows and rains, and a scientist has said, an open page might there remain unsoiled by dust through passing centuries. And to those who “think quietly” it is given to rise into the upper air. Dwelling upon the heights, these may look down upon all heated centers with their soot and grime, their stacked houses, reeking gutters, the din and noise of wheels, the hoarse roar of the clashing streets, and in these hours of reverie, the soul marvels that it was ever tossed about upon these furious currents of ambition.

Hours there are when Fame whispers, “Joy is not in me.” Ambition, worn with its fierce fever, whispers, “Joy is not in me.” Success confesses, “Joy is not in me.” In such hours happy the youth who has learned in solitude to go apart and find that happiness that “the world can neither give nor take away.”


And when the soul has gone toward full-orbed splendor and stands forth clothed with full manhood the sage condenses the wisdom of a thousand volumes into four maxims, “Act frankly, talk gently, await occasions, hurry never.”

The principle of acting frankly demands truth in the hidden parts, rebukes him whose method is “the iron hand in a velvet glove,” smites the Machiavelian policy of smiling gently while arranging instruments of death. In their ignorance shrewd men advise the youth to cloak his keen desire beneath an outer indifference. But small men use lying artifices and disguises to protect themselves. Conscious of weakness, inferiority fears frankness. Great men are as open as glass bee-hives and as transparent as the sunbeams, for they are conscious of their enormous reserves. Nature permits no flower or fruit to conceal its real self. The violet frankly tells its story; the decaying fruit frankly reveals its nature. No flaming candle pretends to light while emitting rays of blackness. Victories won by concealment are lying victories. All these battles must be fought over again. The law of frankness is the law of truth, that is at once the foundation of character and crowns the structure with strength and beauty.

Vast issues also are involved in the injunction “to talk gently.” Noise is weakness. Bluster is inferiority rising into consciousness. The rattle of machinery means waste power somewhere. Rushing forward at the rate of thousands of miles an hour, the planets are noiseless as sunbeams, because they represent power that is harnessed and subdued. Silently the dewdrop falls upon some crimson-tipped flower. Yet the electric energy necessary to crystallize that drop would hurl a car from Cambridge to Boston. Those forces manifest in thunder are nature’s weakest forces. Her monarch energies work silently in the roots and harvests, or lift, without rattle of engine or noise of wheel, countless millions of tons of water from ocean into the air. For gentleness is not weakness. Only giants can be gentle. Fronting an emergency weakness is agitated, but strength is calm and cool. Gentleness is controlled strength. The giant _is_ gentle, because his vast energies are restrained, subdued, and wisely used. The test of all great work is the ease with which it is done. Scott writes one of his priceless chapters before breakfast. Ruskin says Turner finished a whole drawing in a morning, before going out to shoot, without strain or struggle. The highest eloquence also is not a spasmodic effort, but the quiet manifestation of years of preparation. But this easy effort has infinite reserve lying back of it. There is a profound philosophy in this injunction, “Talk gently,” and act quietly.

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