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The Practical Mans Mistakes


There is a man whom everybody knows, and whom many people admire, though I am persuaded that he commonly receives more respect than he deserves. He has been a pew-holder in many dif ferent churches. He has however attended them rather from the force of habit, or because he has thought it to be for his social advantage, than be cause he has any particular sympathy with the preaching, or much respect for the work in which the Church is chiefly engaged. He is a familiar figure in Wall Street, and is noted for his keenness and shrewdness, his energy and industry. He has great confidence in himself, and is commonly suc cessful in his commercial schemes. He is very careful to keep all sentiment out of his business, and sometimes seems harsh and even cruel toward those with whom he deals. But it is considered safe to trust his judgment, and he is seldom de ceived through an over-confidence in other men. He is a member of various boards of administra tion, and his influence in these is not friendly to large undertakings, but commonly favors a cautious, economical, and conservative policy. He is inter ested in politics, local and national, and here he invariably votes with his party. He is a firm be liever in the regular organization, and approves, upon the whole, of the methods by which partisan success is secured. He is not, indeed, blind to certain abuses and evils connected with these, but he regards them as inevitable, and he says that as men are actually constituted, a high degree of po litical morality is an illusive dream.

I say that everybody knows this man. For I am not speaking of an individual, I am speaking of a type. The figure which I wish to set before your eyes is that of the so-called"practical man."He is the man who prides himself on his freedom from illusions. He sees things as they are. He has been trained in the school of experience. He has a clear and exact knowledge of other men. He understands the conditions under which the work of the world is carried on. He has a very definite notion as to that which is possible, and that which it is absurd to attempt. He has measured the mo tives by which men are governed, and discerned the objects on which their hearts are really set. He is therefore never carried away by enthusiasm. Nothing can tempt him to engage in a quixotic en terprise. The rule of his life is that only those ends are worth seeking which one has good reason to believe that he can finally attain. He holds that in everything a prudent man will observe a just proportion between his efforts and his aims.

There is no one for whom the practical man has a greater contempt than for the idealist or the vi sionary; and he makes no distinction between the two. There is, however, a very important distinc tion between them. The visionary is the man who is aiming at things that are obviously impracticable, like building a bridge across the ocean or a railway to the moon; his schemes are idle and fanciful; his brain is unbalanced, so that he mistakes dreams for realities, and in his fantastic and illogical con duct shows that he lacks common sense. Such a man is to be pitied rather than despised, but no in telligent person can either trust or greatly respect him.

The idealist, on the other hand, is distinguished from the so-called practical man, not so much by the methods that he adopts as by the ends that he aims at. And these, again, are different, not so much in kind as in degree. They are those ob jects of pursuit which are highest and best. He does not ask what is expedient, but what is right; not what is agreeable, but what is true. His desire is to know the truth, and to act in conformity with it. His endeavor is to do right, and to make other people do right. And his standard of that which is right and true is not the prevailing senti ment of the day, but the judgment of an enlight ened conscience, a clear understanding, a lofty and pure imagination. He is not satisfied for himself to aim at anything lower than absolute righteous ness and truth; and so far as his relations with other men are concerned, he would bring them and hold them to the same standard. This is the idealist, and you see at once how widely he differs in his way of looking at things from the practical man. And the practical man has a supreme con tempt for him.

This is one reason at least why he has so little respect for the Church. It is composed of ideal ists. The worst of these are its ministers. Utterly ignorant of actual life, with a purely scholastic con ception of human nature, living in retirement from the arena on which other men are struggling, and having no faintest conception of the temptations to which they are exposed and the real motives by which they are governed, the minister of the gospel is engaged in presenting ideals of character which he himself does not attain, and which nobody else can hope to attain in this life. His judgment in practical matters is worth nothing, and no intelli gent man will pay much attention to anything he says. It is quite true, of course, that he gets these ideals and principles and standards of character out of the Bible, but the Bible is an ideal book, and the practical man has little use for it. It is a curious product of the ancient and oriental mind, but it is not adapted to the present day. The sys tem of religion contained in it has an evident charm for dreamy and poetic natures, and its doctrines and principles might do very well in an ideal world; but in the actual condition of human so ciety, the morality enjoined in the Bible is wholly impracticable; and the representations found in the New Testament of things beyond our sight and reach are too indefinite and uncertain to occupy the attention of a man who is governed by reason and who sees things as they are.

Then the work which the Church has undertaken to do is partly unnecessary and partly preposterous. What more visionary enterprise, for example, have men ever engaged in than that of foreign missions - the attempt to convert the whole world to Christianity. One might as well try to transform all the trees of the forest into cedars or palms. If the Church were concerned with that which is practi cal, it would confine its attention to the heathen at home. And yet what it has attempted to do for these is not what they really need. It is trying to make converts of them, to get their names upon its rolls, and lead them to declare themselves Chris tians. What it ought to be doing is to improve the sanitary and social conditions under which they are living, to relieve their poverty and distress, to provide them with proper food and clothing, and set them in the way of greater physical comfort; and their spiritual welfare can be taken in hand by and by.

And if the practical man does not approve of the work which the Church is trying to do, he has also very little respect for the thorough sincerity of those who compose the Church. They are indeed idealists in theory, but in point of fact, he says, they are just like other people. These extravagant notions, these lofty standards and aims, - they do not carry them into their business, and for the very good reason that all business is impossible on any such basis."And you know it, "he says, "you who call yourselves Christians! You know that a man cannot be honest and true, in the ideal sense of those words, and be successful in mercantile life at the present day. You are therefore simply adding hypocrisy to your other failures and sins. You might fax better lay aside such extravagant pretensions, and let your religion, like mine, con sist in doing about right, in doing as well as you can, in view of the conditions in which you are placed." So, too, as to politics. Nothing is more absurd than the notion that the political life of this city or country, at the present day, can be raised to an ideal level. You have to take men as you find them and do the best you can with them. You must have an elaborate organization, or everything will be in confusion. And such an organization must deal with men as they are. If you want votes, you must pay for them, either in bank-bills or in offices. A great deal of hard and disagreeable work must be done, and done by those who are not influenced by patriotic and unselfish motives. Many of the most useful men of the party are men who are morally corrupt. But their services cannot on this account be dispensed with. And they are really no worse than multitudes of those who com pose the community itself. The idea of an admin istration in which the public offices shall be held by men who administer them only for the public good, is the dream of an idle idealism. We want prac tical methods which will give us practical results.

I cannot undertake to exhibit in detail the work ing of such a man's mind, but I am sure that you will recognize from this rapid sketch a type of char acter very common among us. There have always been such men. They are the natural product of a keen, commercial, and competitive age. They command a certain amount of admiration. They exert a wide and deplorable influence. For, after all, ideals exist. They are natural to all of us. They commonly have, in our earlier years, great vividness and beauty. They exercise a command ing power over us until they are shattered, or until we voluntarily abandon them. And in consider ing the contrast between one who is inspired and governed by them and one who is not, it is worth while for us to observe two or three serious mistakes which are made by the practical man.

The first is that of underestimating human nature. Men are sordid, indeed, and selfish and cunning, often treacherous and often false. But the earth would long since have become a mere den of wild beasts, if it were not for the nobler impulses which are also natural to them. If you judge them by what you see of them in the daily intercourse of life, you are apt to form a very poor opinion of them, especially if their narrowness, their greed, or their obstinacy baffles you in your plans. It is impossible to mingle with them without having this baser side of their nature often thrust upon your notice. And yet they are really better than they often seem to be. And to deny the existence of a pure disinterestedness, a genuine honor, a true nobility of spirit among those whom we call the masses of mankind, is to commit one of the greatest errors into which it is possible to fall. There are reserves, as it were, in human nature, of heroism and self-sacrifice and high aspiration, which are always latent in men's souls, and are often mag nificently revealed in their action. To imagine that they are not there because they do not show themselves to us all the time, is as if one were to deny the reality of those prodigious fires that are slumbering in the heart of the earth because every day is not marked by a volcanic eruption, or to assert that there is no electricity in the atmosphere because the roll of the thunder is not constantly heard. One sometimes brings disaster on himself by excessive confidence in the honor, truthfulness, and high-mindedness of others. But he who goes to the opposite extreme, and adopts the old Latin maxim that every man should be presumed to be a wolf until you find out that he is not, makes a practical mistake whose consequences are more serious still. A man who has his own ideals, and believes that others also have theirs, who is not afraid to trust them, who boldly appeals to them in the interest of that which is noble and true, shows a clearer perception of what they really are, than your practical man who thinks he knows them so well. I do not say that this view of human nature is more attractive than the other. I say that the candid observation of life and the careful study of history show it to be more accurate also. The practical man professes to have great respect for facts, and the fact is that men in general are a great deal better than he believes them to be.

This is his first mistake. The second is that by his repudiation of what he calls idealism, he de prives himself of the power to do much for his fellow-men. You might suppose, that with the long attention he has given to the conditions of success ful work, and with his clear understanding of human deficiencies and wants, he would be just the man to help forward the work of moral and social reform; the man who would be most certain not to waste his strength; the man to whom others would go, with the assurance that they would receive from him the most judicious counsel and the most effective aid. But the trouble with him is that he lacks the motive which must be behind every real effort for the moral improvement of others. He has no strong faith in human nature. He has no large conception of what it may become. He has no hope of any considerable improvement in its actual condition; and consequently he lacks all enthusiasm, and even boasts of his lack of it. But it requires a great energy to induce any one to labor persistently, and to enable him to labor successfully, for the welfare of others. It involves a vast amount of self-sacri fice; it requires a prodigious deal of patience. It will not be done by any one who has not within himself an inexhaustible spring of courage and hope. All these the man of ideals has. And they sustain him under discouragement. They inspire him with a hope that never fails and a zeal that never flags. It is a fact of history which cannot be questioned that all the men who have really helped forward in any large way the progress of the human race have been idealists and enthusiasts. The practical man stands by and criticises and sneers. They labor and suffer and die. And he is forgotten. And they are immortal. In a certain sense he was right. The things they strove for were impossible. But their faith and enthusiasm have accomplished the impossible, as faith and enthusiasm are always doing and will do to the end of time.

Then, again, in the third place, the practical man who has dethroned his own ideals, and who treats the ideals of others as an empty superstition, makes the serious mistake of dooming himself to inevitable deterioration. It has been well said that"if there is one lesson more than another which history has to teach, it is this: that without fidelity to unrealized ideals, there can be no solid advance ment in any department of life. And the secret of all retrograde experiences, whether in individuals or in nations, is to be found in their loss of those spiritual elements in man which have hitherto lighted and fed the torch of civilization. No greater misfortune can possibly happen to a man or to a nation than that which arises from meagre am bitions and a cramped and petty outlook. It is not always gross and sensual things by which they are degraded. It is enough that they should be im mersed in things mundane and material, given over to the brittle gods of an unideal life, to the lust of wealth, the love of ease and self-indulgence, to the things that are below the level of the house-tops, rather than to those which dwell among the stars."This process of deterioration is subtle and slow, but it inevitably takes place in one who has re nounced his ideals and has become a worshiper of that, and that alone, which lies within the horizon of his actual vision. No one can remain stationary in his moral and spiritual life, any more than a star can stand still in its orbit. He will go forward or backward, upward or downward, as he is led on by high ideals, or suffers himself to be pulled down by earthly views and sensuous passions. Emerson's quaint phrase, « Hitch your wagon to a star, "has in it a great truth. The world, with its low stand ards, its fierce competitions, its glittering rewards, is certain to enchant and enchain the mind that is not always peering into the invisible and reaching forth toward the ideal. There is but a step be tween what is often called a practical view of things and utter cynicism and misanthropy. Even if our ideals were mere phantasms, the power to form and the disposition to pursue them would be our only salvation from the pessimism which is infecting like an Asiatic plague so many spirits in our time. But it can never be that an illusion is better than the truth. And the reason why a man who insults the ideal inevitably goes down, is that he has com mitted sacrilege against the truth; he has insulted human nature; and he pays the penalty of his sin by being forced downward to the level on which he falsely imagined that other men were living.

And then, once more, he who takes such views of life, and regulates his conduct by them, cuts himself off from sympathy with all the noblest and best of mankind. There have been cynics hereto fore in every age, - men who scoffed at the ideal; who measured their fellow-men by the standard of their own miserable ideas and aspirations; men without faith in humanity, or in a God whose abso lute righteousness and truth are reflected back, how ever imperfectly, from the character of the highest creature He has made. There have always been such men. But the great mass of mankind, cer tainly the great leaders of mankind, have been men of ideals. All the progress which the race has made, from the grey dawn of its history down to the present day, has been the result of its often blind but still persistent endeavor to reach an ever receding goal. Men have never been content with the knowledge, the power, the comfort, or even the moral excellence, which they have at any moment attained. They have always been reaching out and pressing on toward something higher and better, toward an ideal, in other words, imperfectly con ceived, perhaps, and never actually realized, but ever drawing them upward with an irresistible power. Here is the secret of the progress that has thus far been made in individual character, in so cial refinement and purity, in civil liberty and order. The ideal of what a man should be, of what society should be, of what the state should be, has always floated before men's minds, not like a phantom of their own crude imagination, but like an angel flashing upon them out of some higher sphere. It is often saddening to study the wayward and halting course by which they have struggled onward to the point at which they stand to-day; but there is also something magnificent in the sight of this irrepressible and splendid effort to rise out of actual conditions of ignorance and suffering, of confusion and wrong, into something nearer the ideal of personal and public happiness and virtue.

And now the man who says that all this is merely chasing a will-o'-the-wisp, that it is better to rest content with things as they are, that anything like a thoroughgoing reform in personal character or in the life of society is an idle dream, - such a man simply steps aside out of the ranks, while the march of humanity goes on. He has no share in it. He has no sympathy with it. He can do nothing to help it. But past him or over him it will go, till somewhere and at some time the vision is fulfilled, and the ideal so long cherished and so long sought is actually realized.

For humanity sweeps onward; where to-day the martyr stands, On the morrow crouches Judas, with the silver in his hands; Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn, While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return To glean up the scattered ashes into History's golden urn.

I submit to you, then, that it is the part of prac tical wisdom to respect your ideals, to believe in them, to cherish them; for this is at least one secret of the highest happiness, the largest growth, the widest usefulness. Beware of the influences which would tend to persuade you that it is not worth while to expect or strive for anything really great and noble, either for yourself or others; that you will always be substantially what you now are; and that the world is destined to drift on forever, very much as it is doing now. Beware of the per nicious influence of those who tell you that in the realm of personal character, in society, and in the state, the evils which you observe and deplore can not be remedied, that you must accept men and things as you find them, and put up with what you cannot help. It is not so. Not the practical man but the idealist holds the true philosophy of life. You need not always live, unless you choose to do so, on the low, malarial plains where you are now dwelling. The hills are all around you, calling you up to their wider vision and their purer air. What if you cannot reach the shining summits, or tarry there even if you should succeed in scaling them? You can reach a higher level than that whereon you are standing now. The idealist is not of necessity an idiot. He does not for a moment suppose that absolute truth and absolute righteousness can be at tained here in this imperfect and sinful world. But he will not for this reason cease to aspire after them, or to strive to come as near to them as he can. And in this he finds the glory of life and its unfailing inspiration. He finds his outlook broad ened and his character strengthened and elevated, even though he has not reached, and knows that he will never reach in this life, the absolute ideal that he seeks. But he knows also that his security as well as his happiness lies in keeping it steadily in view.

And if this is the dictate of practical wisdom, it certainly is the great lesson of the gospel. Reli gion, as the practical man says, is concerned with ideals. Ideals so absolute, so glorious, as those which are contained in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, can be found nowhere else. But here precisely is the secret of its power, not over the imagination only, but over the conscience and the heart. It appeals to our natural idealism. But instead of some vague conception of our own minds, it gives us a definite statement of God's thought and purpose for us. And it sets before us the highest and best of all possible ideals, embodied in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. No man can speak lightly of the ideal life, who believes in the Bible and tries to live according to it. For it is perfectly uncompromising in its demand that we shall be satisfied with nothing less than the persist ent and determined endeavor to imitate the ex ample and keep the commandments of our divine Master. If it required anything less than this, or if it confirmed us in our moral indifference or hopelessness, we should know that it was not from God. It would not meet our spiritual needs. It would have no power to renew and ennoble the secret sources of character. And therefore we who believe and rejoice in it as the word of God, are bound to manifest a spirit of loyalty to the highest ideals in everything we have to do, - in our daily conduct, in our domestic life, in our business, in our studies, in our various professions, in our obli gations and our opportunities as citizens. Any thing less than this involves disloyalty to Christ, disbelief in our own souls, unfaithfulness to our heavenly calling. We may not, we certainly shall not, in this life attain the shining mark on which our eyes are fixed. But if the word of God may be trusted, we shall reach it hereafter, when at last we shall be like Him whom we have followed to the end.

life, ideals, ideal, human and character