PROFESSION AND PRACTICE
by William Lyon Phelps
Beautiful lines which show that the man who wrote them had a clear conception of true religion are these
Thus to relieve the wretched was his pride,
And even his failings leaned to virtue's side;
But in his duty prompt at every call,
He watched and wept,
he prayed and felt for all;
And, as a bird each foud endearment tries
To tempt its new-fledged offspring to the skies,
He tried each art,
reproved each dull delay,
Allured to brighter worlds,
and led the way.
The man who wrote them is thus described by James Boswell: "Those who were in any way distinguished excited envy in him to so ridiculous an excess that the instances of it are hardly credible. When accompanying two beautiful young ladies with their mother on a tour of France, he was seriously angry that more attention was paid to them than to him." Goldsmith wrote of virtue, modesty, sweet unselfishness in the most convincing manner; his words were more convincing than his behaviour. He allured to brighter worlds, but did not lead the way.
Schopenhauer, the great philosopher of pessimism, taught that absolute asceticism was the only true religion and method of escape from the ills of life; but he never practiced it, and told his disciples to mind his precepts and not his example. Unfortunately, whenever any one gives advice in the field of morality or religion, the first person on whom we test its practical value is the preacher. Emerson remarked, "What you are thunders so loud I cannot hear what you say."
No great writer of modern times has written more persuasively of the Christian way of life than Tolstoi; there is no doubt that his stories and tracts have had an immense influence on millions of readers and have inspired them toward unselfishness, kindness and humility. But of all great Russian writers, Tolstoi himself was the most difficult to get along with; he could not bear to hear any other writer praised and was lacking in the grace of appreciation. His rival, Turgenev, who had no religious belief of any kind, excelled Tolstoi in the virtues of modesty, unselfishness and consideration for others.
One of the many reasons why the art of bringing up children is the most difficult of all arts is that it is essential for parents to set a daily example. All the moral precepts in the world will not seriously impress children if their parents do not in their daily life come somewhere near the ideals they hold up. The child will after a fashion love his parents anyhow, but as he grows older and begins to compare what he has been taught with what he sees, the child is transformed into a judge. This partly explains that fear of their own children which so many parents secretly feel.
If the parents make their small children go to church and stay home themselves, the children quite naturally regard church-going as one of the numerous penalties imposed on youth and look forward to maturity as an escape from this and many other unpleasant compulsions. If parents impress on their children the necessity of telling the truth, they must not themselves tell lies; they are being watched by the sharpest eyes in the world.
Although in a certain sense we are all hypocrites-for no one can live up to his ideals-we hate any flagrant case of hypocrisy. I suppose one reason we have a sneaking admiration for pirates is that pirates are not hypocrites. There is no doubt that professional pirates are more generally admired than professional politicians.
I do not say that politicians are hypocrites; I say that pirates are not.
It is the personalities of great leaders, much more than their sayings, that have had a beneficial influence. The sayings of Jesus very word that has come down to us-can be read through in three hours. But from His life and character flows a vital force, tremendously effective after nineteen centuries. Very few people read the literary compositions of Sir Philip Sidney, but millions have been influenced by his life and character. The pure, unselfish life of George Herbert is more efficacious than his poems; and consider Saint Francis!
The Christian Church has had in every century of its existence able, honest, determined foes, who have done their best to destroy it; it is probable that they have done it no injury. Nor have the frank sensualists and materialists hurt it at all. It has been injured only by its professed friends.
If a physician opens an office, his most dangerous foes are not his competitors, that is to say, other doctors; his most dangerous foes are those of his patients who say, "Well, I took his medicine, and it did me no good." The best advertising is done by one's sincere friends and admirers; the good word about the new doctor, or the new novel, or the new play, is passed along.
The Christian religion professes to make those who accept it better and happier; every one who professes it and exhibits none of its graces is a powerful argument against its validity. A man's foes are those of his own household.
Sometimes I think religion should first of all show itself in good manners; that is, in true politeness, consideration for others, kindness and deference without servility. Such persons are those we love to meet and be with; they are good advertisements of their religion; they will not have to talk about it because its effects are so plainly and attractively seen.