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An essay by Hamilton Wright Mabie


Title:     Character
Author: Hamilton Wright Mabie [More Titles by Mabie]

Superiority of any kind involves discipline, self-denial, and self- sacrifice. It is the law of excellence that he who would secure it must pay for it. In this way the intellectual process is bound up with the moral process, and a man must give his character firmness and fibre before he can make his talent effective or his genius fruitful. The way of the most gifted workman is no easier than that of the most mediocre; he learns his lesson more easily, but he must learn the same lesson. The familiar story of the Sleeping Princess protected by a hedge of thorns, told in so many languages, is a parable of all success of a high order. The highest prizes are always guarded from the facile hand; they exact patience, persistence, intelligence, and force. If they were easily secured they would be easily misused; it rarely happens, however, that a man of high artistic gifts degrades his talent. He may set it to unprofitable uses, but he rarely makes merchandise of it. A Rembrandt, Thackeray, or Lowell cannot do inferior work for personal ends without suffering that devouring remorse which accompanies the conscience of the artist, and turns all ignoble popular successes into mockeries and scourges.

Moral education precedes mastership in every art, because the training which mastery involves reacts upon character and gives it steadiness and solidity. Great writers have sometimes lived careless, irresponsible lives, but they have always paid a great price for self-indulgence. The work of an irresponsible man of genius always suggests the loss which society has suffered by reason of his moral instability. Such men have done charming work; they have touched their creations with the magic of natural grace and the beauty of fresh and rich feeling; but they miss that completeness and finality which carry with them the conviction that the man has put forth all that was in him. We value what they have done, but we are always asking whether they could not have done more. Genius is of so rare and vital a nature that it will flash through all manner of obscurations, but there is a vast difference between the light which shines through a clear medium and that which is dimmed and reflected by a murky atmosphere. A man of Chatterton's temperament will give evidence of the possession of genius, but how far removed he is, in influence, position, and power, from a Tennyson or a Wordsworth!

The connection between sane living and sound work is a physiological and psychological necessity. The time, strength, poise, capacity for sustained work, steadiness of will, involved in the successful performance of great tasks or the production of great artistic creations exclude from the race all save those who bring to it health, vigour, and energy. It is unnecessary to inquire with regard to the habits of the man who builds up a great business enterprise or who secures genuine financial reputation and authority; these achievements always involve self-control, courage, persistence, and moral vigour. They are beyond the reach of the self- indulgent man. The man whose weakness of will makes him the victim of appetite or passion may make brilliant efforts, but he is incapable of sustained effort; he may do beautiful things from time to time, he cannot do beautiful things continuously and on a large scale. A Villon may give the world a few songs of notable sweetness or power; he cannot give the world a Divine Comedy or the plays of Corneille.

Every attempt to dissever art from character, however brilliantly sustained, is doomed to failure because the instinct, the intelligence, and the experience of the race are against it. Physiology and psychology are as definite as religion in their declarations on this matter; it is not a question of dogma or even of faith; it is a question of elementary laws and of common sense. All modern investigation goes to show the subtle and vital relations which exist between the different parts of a man's nature, and the certainty of the reaction of one part upon another; so that whatever touches the body ultimately touches the innermost nature of the man, and whatever affects the spirit eventually leaves its record on the physique. Every piece of genuine work which comes from a man's hand bears the impress of and is stamped with the quality of his whole being; it is the complex product of all that the man is and of all that be has done; it is the result of his genius, his industry, and his character.

Goethe saw clearly, as every critic of insight must see, that the artist is conditioned on the man; that whenever a man does anything which has greatness in it he does it with his whole nature. Into his verse the poet puts his body, his mind, and his soul; he is as powerless to detach his work from his past as he is to detach himself from it; and one of the saddest penalties of his misdoings is their survival in his work. The dulness of the poet's ear shows itself in the defective melody of his verse; for both metre and rhythm have a physiological basis; they represent and express the harmony which is in the body when the body is finely attuned to the spirit. Dull senses and a sluggish body are never found in connection with a great command of the melodic quality in language.

Goethe, with his deep insight, held so uncompromisingly to the unity of man and his works, that he would not have tried to escape the criticism of his nature which his works, adequately interpreted, suggest. He would have expected to find his moral limitations reproduced in his art. He indicated the fundamental principle when he said that his works, taken together, constituted one great confession. And this may be affirmed of every man's work; it is inevitably, and by the law of his nature, a disclosure of what he is, and what he is depends largely upon what he has been. Men have nowhere more conspicuously failed to escape themselves than in their works. Literary history, especially, is a practically unused treasure- house of moral illustration and teaching; for in no other record of human activity is the dependence of a man's work on his nature more constantly and strikingly brought out. The subtle relation between temperament, genius, environment, and character is in constant evidence to the student of literature; and he learns at last the primary truth that because a man's work is a revelation of the man, it is, therefore, as much a matter of his character as of his genius. The order of the world is moral in every fibre; men may do what they please within certain limits, and because they do what they please society seems to be in a state of moral chaos; but every word and deed reacts instantly on the man, and this reaction is so inevitable that since time began not one violator of any law of life has ever escaped the penalty. He has paid the price of his word or his deed on the instant in its reaction upon his character. God does not punish men; they punish themselves in their own natures and in the work of their hands. When Mirabeau, in the consciousness of the possession of the most masterful genius of his time, rose to speak in the States General, he became aware that his dissolute past was standing beside him and mocking him. His vast power, honestly put forth for great ends, was neutralised by a record which made belief in him almost impossible. In bitterness of soul he learned that genius and character are bound together by indissoluble ties, and that genius without character is like oil that blazes up and dies down about a shattered lamp. More than once, in words full of the deepest pathos, he recognised the immense value of character in men of far less ability than himself. The words which Mrs. Ward puts into the mouth of Henri Regnault are memorable as embodying searching criticism: "No, we don't lack brains, we French. All the same, I tell you, in the whole of that room there are about half-a-dozen people,-- oh, not so many!--not nearly so many!--who will ever make a mark, even for their own generation, who will ever strike anything out of nature that is worth having--wrestle with her to any purpose. Why? Because they have every sort of capacity--every sort of cleverness--and no _character!"_

If a man is insensibly determining the quality of his work by everything which he is doing; if he is fixing the excellence of its workmanship by the standards he is accepting and the habits he is forming; if he is creating in advance its spiritual content and significance by the quality which his own nature is unconsciously taking on; and if he is determining its quantity and force by the strength, persistence, and steadfastness which he is developing, it is clear that work rests ultimately upon character, and that character conditions work in quality, content, skill, and mass.

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Hamilton Wright Mabie's essay: Character