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An essay by Agnes Repplier

The Benefactor

Title:     The Benefactor
Author: Agnes Repplier [More Titles by Repplier]

"He is a good man who can receive a gift well."--EMERSON.

There is a sacredness of humility in such an admission which wins pardon for all the unlovely things which Emerson has crowded into a few pages upon "Gifts." Recognizing that his own goodness stopped short of this exalted point, he pauses for a moment in his able and bitter self-defence to pay tribute to a generosity he is too honest to claim. After all, who but Charles Lamb ever _did_ receive gifts well? Scott tried, to be sure. No man ever sinned less than he against the law of kindness. But Lamb did not need to try. He had it in his heart of gold to feel pleasure in the presents which his friends took pleasure in giving him. The character and quality of the gifts were not determining factors. We cannot analyze this disposition. We can only admire it from afar.

"I look upon it as a point of morality to be obliged to those who endeavour to oblige me," says Sterne; and the sentiment, like most of Sterne's sentiments, is remarkably graceful. It has all the freshness of a principle never fagged out by practice. The rugged fashion in which Emerson lived up to his burdensome ideals prompted him to less engaging utterances. "It is not the office of a man to receive gifts," he writes viciously. "How dare you give them? We wish to be self-sustained. We do not quite forgive a giver. The hand that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten."

Carlyle is almost as disquieting. He searches for, and consequently finds, unworthy feelings both in the man who gives, and holds himself to be a benefactor, and in the man who receives, and burdens himself with a sense of obligation. He professes a stern dislike for presents, fearing lest they should undermine his moral stability; but a man so up in morals must have been well aware that he ran no great risk of parting with his stock in trade. He probably hated getting what he did not want, and finding himself expected to be grateful for it. This is a sentiment common to lesser men than Carlyle, and as old as the oldest gift-bearer. It has furnished food for fables, inspiration for satirists, and cruel stories at which the light-hearted laugh. Mr. James Payn used to tell the tale of an advocate who unwisely saved a client from the gallows which he should have graced; and the man, inspired by the best of motives, sent his benefactor from the West Indies a case of pineapples in which a colony of centipedes had bred so generously that they routed every servant from the unfortunate lawyer's house, and dwelt hideously and permanently in his kitchen. "A purchase is cheaper than a gift," says a wily old Italian proverb, steeped in the wisdom of the centuries.

The principle which prompts the selection of gifts--since selected they all are by some one--is for the most part a mystery. I never but once heard any reasonable solution, and that was volunteered by an old lady who had been listening in silence to a conversation on the engrossing subject of Christmas presents. It was a conversation at once animated and depressing. The time was at hand when none of us could hope to escape these tokens of regard, and the elaborate and ingenious character of their unfitness was frankly and fairly discussed. What baffled us was the theory of choice. Suddenly the old lady flooded this dark problem with light by observing that she always purchased her presents at bazaars. She said she knew they were useless, and that nobody wanted them, but that she considered it her duty to help the bazaars. She had the air of one conscious of well-doing, and sure of her reward. It did not seem to occur to her that the reward should, in justice, be passed on with the purchases. The necessities of charitable organizations called for a sacrifice, and, rising to the emergency, she sacrificed her friends.

A good many years have passed over our heads since Thackeray launched his invectives at the Christmas tributes he held in heartiest hatred,--the books which every season brought in its train, and which were never meant to be read. Their mission was fulfilled when they were sent by aunt to niece, by uncle to nephew, by friend to hapless friend. They were "gift-books" in the exclusive sense of the word. Thackeray was wont to declare that these vapid, brightly bound volumes played havoc with the happy homes of England, just as the New Year bonbons played havoc with the homes of France. Perhaps, of the two countries, France suffered less. The candy soon disappeared, leaving only impaired digestions in its wake. The books remained to encumber shelves, and bore humanity afresh.

"Mol, je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison";

and they are at least less permanently oppressive. "When thou makest presents," said old John Fuller, "let them be of such things as will last long; to the end that they may be in some sort immortal, and may frequently refresh the memory of the receiver." But this excellent advice--excellent for the simple and spacious age in which it was written--presupposes the "immortal" presents to wear well. Theologians teach us that immortality is not necessarily a blessing.

A vast deal of ingenuity is wasted every year in evoking the undesirable, in the careful construction of objects which burden life. Frankenstein was a large rather than an isolated example. The civilized world so teems with elaborate and unlovely inutilities, with things which seem foreign to any reasonable conditions of existence, that we are sometimes disposed to envy the savage who wears all his simple wardrobe without being covered, and who sees all his simple possessions in a corner of his empty hut. What pleasant spaces meet the savage eye! What admirable vacancies soothe the savage soul! No embroidered bag is needed to hold his sponge or his slippers. No painted box is destined for his postal cards. No decorated tablet waits for his laundry list. No ornate wall-pocket yawns for his unpaid bills. He smokes without cigarette-cases. He dances without cotillion favours. He enjoys all rational diversions, unfretted by the superfluities with which we have weighted them. Life, notwithstanding its pleasures, remains endurable to him.

Above all, he does not undermine his own moral integrity by vicarious benevolence, by helping the needy at his friend's expense. The great principle of giving away what one does not want to keep is probably as familiar to the savage as to his civilized, or semi-civilized brother. That vivacious traveller, Pere Huc, tells us he has seen a Tartar chief at dinner gravely hand over to an underling a piece of gristle he found himself unable to masticate, and that the gift was received with every semblance of gratitude and delight. But there is a simple straightforwardness about an act like this which commends it to our understanding. The Tartar did not assume the gristle to be palatable. He did not veil his motives for parting with it. He did not expand with the emotions of a philanthropist. And he did not expect the Heavens to smile upon his deed.

One word must be said in behalf of the punctilious giver, of the man who repays a gift as scrupulously as he returns a blow. He wants to please, but he is baffled by not knowing, and by not being sympathetic enough to divine, what his inarticulate friend desires. And if he does know, he may still vacillate between his friend's sense of the becoming and his own. The "Spectator," in a mood of unwonted subtlety, tells us that there is a "mild treachery" in giving what we feel to be bad, because we are aware that the recipient will think it very good. If, for example, we hold garnets to be ugly and vulgar, we must not send them to a friend who considers them rich and splendid. "A gift should represent common ground."

This is so well said that it sounds like the easy thing it isn't. Which of us has not nobly striven, and ignobly failed, to preserve our honest purpose without challenging the taste of our friends? It is hard to tell what people really prize. Heine begged for a button from George Sand's trousers, and who shall say whether enthusiasm or malice prompted the request? Mr. Oscar Browning, who as Master at Eton must have known whereof he spoke, insisted that it was a mistake to give a boy a well-bound book if you expected him to read it. Yet binding plays a conspicuous part in the selection of Christmas and birthday presents. Dr. Johnson went a step farther, and said that nobody wanted to read _any_ book which was given to him;--the mere fact that it was given, instead of being bought, borrowed, or ravished from a friend's shelves, militated against its readable qualities. Perhaps the Doctor was thinking of authors' copies. Otherwise the remark is the most discouraging one on record.

Yet when all the ungracious things have been said and forgotten, when the hard old proverbs have exhausted their unwelcome wisdom, and we have smiled wearily over the deeper cynicisms of Richelieu and Talleyrand, where shall we turn for relief but to Emerson, who has atoned in his own fashion for the harshness of his own words. It is not only that he recognizes the goodness of the man who receives a gift well; but he sees, and sees clearly, that there can be no question between friends of giving or receiving, no possible room for generosity or gratitude. "The gift to be true must be the flowing of the giver unto me, correspondent to my flowing unto him. When the waters are at a level, then my goods pass to him, and his to me. All his are mine, all mine, his."

Critics have been disposed to think that this is an elevation too lofty for plain human beings to climb, an air too rarified for them to breathe; and that it ill befitted a man who churlishly resented the simple, stupid kindnesses of life, to take so sublime a tone, to claim so fine a virtue. We cannot hope to scale great moral heights by ignoring petty obligations.

Yet Emerson does not go a step beyond Plato in his conception of the "level waters" of friendship. He states his position lucidly, and with a rational understanding of all that it involves. His vision is wide enough to embrace its everlasting truth. Plato says the same thing in simpler language. He offers his truth as self-evident, and in no need of demonstration. When Lysis and Menexenus greet Socrates at the gymnasia, the philosopher asks which of the two youths is the elder.

"'That,' said Menexenus, 'is a matter of dispute between us.'

"'And which is the nobler? Is that also a matter of dispute?'

"'Yes, certainly.'

"'And another disputed point is which is the fairer?'

"The two boys laughed.

"'I shall not ask which is the richer, for you are friends, are you not?'

"'We are friends.'

"'And friends have all things in common, so that one of you can be no richer than the other, if you say truly that you are friends.'

"They assented, and at that moment Menexenus was called away by some one who came and said that the master of the gymnasia wanted him."[1]

[Footnote 1: Lysis. Translated by Jowett.]

This is all. To Plato's way of thinking, the situation explained itself. The two boys could not share their beauty nor their strength, but money was a thing to pass from hand to hand. It was not, and it never could be, a matter for competition. The last lesson taught an Athenian youth was the duty of outstripping his neighbour in the hard race for wealth.

And where shall we turn for a practical illustration of friendship, as conceived by Emerson and Plato? Where shall we see the level waters, the "mine is thine" which we think too exalted for plain living? No need to search far, and no need to search amid the good and great. It is a pleasure to find what we seek in the annals of the flagrantly sinful, of that notorious Duke of Queensberry, "Old Q," who has been so liberally and justly censured by Wordsworth and Burns, by Leigh Hunt and Sir George Trevelyan, and who was, in truth, gamester, roue,--and friend. In the last capacity he was called upon to listen to the woes of George Selwyn, who, having lost at Newmarket more money than he could possibly hope to pay, saw ruin staring him in the face. There is in Selwyn's letter a note of eloquent misery. He was, save when lulled to sleep in Parliament, a man of many words. There is in the letter of Lord March (he had not yet succeeded to the Queensberry title and estates) nothing but a quiet exposition of Plato's theory of friendship. Selwyn's debts and his friend's money are intercommunicable. The amount required has been placed that morning at the banker's. "I depend more," writes Lord March, "upon the continuance of our friendship than upon anything else in the world, because I have so many reasons to know you, and I am sure I know myself. _There will be no bankruptcy without we are bankrupt together._"

Here are the waters flowing on a level, flowing between two men of the world; one of them great enough to give, without deeming himself a benefactor, and the other good enough to receive a gift well.

[The end]
Agnes Repplier's essay: The Benefactor