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Authors: Newell Dwight Hillis

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When thoughts compacted into habits have determined character and destiny for the individual, they go on and secure their social progress. When God would order a great upward movement for society, He drops a great idea into the mind of some leader. Such energies divine have these thoughts that they create new epochs in history. Through Luther the thought of liberty in church and state set tyrants trembling and thrones tottering. Through Cromwell the thought of personal rights became a weapon powerful enough utterly to destroy that citadel of iniquity named the divine right of kings. It was a great moral thought called the "Golden Rule" that shotted the cannon of the North for victory and spiked the cannon of the South for defeat. Measureless is the might of a moral idea. It exceeds the force of earthquakes and the might of tidal waves. The reason why no scholar or historian can forecast the events and institutions of the next century is that none can tell what great idea God will drop into the soul of some man ordained to be its voice and prophet.

Now the omnipotence of thoughts is not without reason. Man is the child of genius because he is the child of God. Those beautiful words, "made in His image," tell us that the human mechanism is patterned after the divine. Reason and memory in man answer to those faculties in God, as do conscience and the moral sentiments. In creative genius man alone is a sharer with God. As the Infinite One passing through space leaves behind those shining footsteps called suns and stars, glowing and sparkling upon planets innumerable, so man's mind, moving through life, leaves behind a pathway all shining with books, laws, liberties and homes. Of all the wonderful things God hath made, man the wonderer is himself the most wonderful. No casket owned by a king, filled with gems and sparkling jewels, ever held such treasure as God hath put into this casket of bones and sinew. The imagination cannot paint in colors too rich this being, who is a miniature edition of infinity. It is not fiction, but fact, to say that reason is a loom; only where Jacquard's mechanism weaves a few yards of silk and satin, reason weaves conversation, sympathy, songs, poems, eloquence--textures all immortal. And memory is a gallery; only where the Louvre holds a few pictures of the past, memory waving her wonder-working wand brings back all faces, living and dead, causing mountains and battle-fields, with all distant scenes, to pass before the mind in solemn procession.

The Bank of England has indeed a mechanism that tests coins and throws out all light weights. But judgment is an instrument testing things invisible, weighing arguments and motives, testing principles and characters. And the desires, are they not like unto the richly laden argosies of commerce? And fancy, hath it not the skill of artist and architect? Imagination, working in the realm of the useful, turns iron into engines. Imagination, working in realms of the beautiful, turns pigments into pictures. Imagination, working in the realms of thought, can turn things true into sciences, and things good into ethical systems. Well did the philosopher say that the greatest star is the one standing at the little end of the telescope, the one looking, not looked at nor looked for. When some Agassiz dredging the Atlantic tells us what animals lived there a million years ago, the scientist's mind seems an abyss deeper than the sea itself; and when Tyndall, climbing to the top of the Matterhorn, reads on that rock-page all the events of the ancient world, the mountain is dwarfed to an ant hill and becomes insignificant in the presence of the mountain-minded scholar. Hunters tell us that when crossing a swamp they leap from one hummock of grass to another. But Herschel and Proctor, exploring the heavenly world, step from star to star. The husbandman, squeezing a cluster of grapes in his cup, does but interpret to us the way in which the scholar squeezes planets and suns to brim the cup of knowledge for man's thirsting soul. This vast and wondrous world without is matched by man's rich and various mind within! Well did Emerson exclaim, "Man, thou palace of sight and sound, carrying in thy senses the nights and mornings, the summers and winters; carrying in thy brain the geometry of the City of God, in thy heart all the bowers of love, and all the realms of right and wrong."

Such being the nature of the mind, consider its prodigious fruitfulness in thought. If all the processes of the mind were reduced to material volume, the thoughts of each moment would fill a page, the thoughts of each hour would fill a chapter, the thoughts of each day would fill a volume, the emotions of a year would fill a small library of many volumes. Value might be wanting, but not bulk. It is given to the eye to behold the harvests wrought by the secret force of roots and sunbeams. But if all the products of the soul could be made visible to the eye and ear, how marvelous would be these exhalations, rising and filling all the air. Were all the emotions and passions and dreams of one single day fully revealed, what dramas would there be beyond all the tragedies man's hand hath ever indicated! Consider what fertility the mind hath! Consider how many trains of thought reason takes up each hour. Consider all that belongs to a man as an animal, his fears and passions, defensory in nature. Consider his social equipment, with all the possible moods and combinations of affections. Consider the vast activities of his reason working outward, and the imagination working upward. Sometimes in the morning man's thoughts are for number and strength like unto the strength of armies. Sometimes in the night his aspirations exhale heavenward with all the purity and beauty of the clouds. Consider also how life's conflicts and warfare inflame man's faculties and hasten their process.

Consider how courage, despondency, hope and fear, friendship and enmity, increase the activities. Consider man's ambitions--steeds of the sun with incredible swiftness dragging forward the soul's chariot. Consider the rivalries among men. What intensities of thought are induced thereby! Consider that toward one's friends the mind sends forth thoughts that are almoners of bounty and angels of mercy. But consider that man is over against his enemy, with a mind like unto a walled city filled with armed men. Consider how in life's conflicts, thoughts become the swords of anger, the clubs of envy, stings for hissing hatred. Consider that in times of great excitement the soul literally blazes and burns, exhaling emotions and thoughts as a planet exhales light and heat. Wondrous the power of the loom newly invented, that with marvelous swiftness weaves in silk figures of flowers and trees and birds. But the uttermost speed of those flying shuttles is slowness itself compared to the swiftness of the mental loom, that without noise or clangor weaves fabrics eternal out of the warp and woof of affection and thought, of passion and purpose. Consider that every man is not simply two men, but a score of men. All the climatic disturbances in nature, all distemperatures through heat and cold, wet and dry, summer and winter, do but answer in number and variety to the moods in man's brain. Not the all-producing summer is so rich in bounty as the mind is rich in thought when working its regnant and creative moods. Vast are the buildings man's hands have reared; sweet are the songs man's mind hath sung; lovely the faces man's hand hath painted; but the silent songs the soul hears, the invisible pictures the mind sees, the secret buildings the imagination rears, these are a thousand-fold more beautiful than any as yet embodied in this material world.

The Spanish have a proverb that "He who sows thoughts will reap acts, habits, and character," for destiny itself is determined by thinking. Life is won or lost by its master thoughts. As nothing reveals character like the company we like and keep, so nothing foretells futurity like the thoughts over which we brood. It was said of John Keats that his face was the face of one who had seen a vision. So long had his inner eye been fixed upon beauty, so long had he loved that vision splendid, so long had he lived with it, that not only did his soul take on the loveliness of what he contemplated, but the very lines of the poet's face were chiseled into beauty by those sculptors called thoughts and ideals. When Wordsworth speaks of the girl's beauty as "born of murmuring sound," the poet indicates his belief that the girl's long love of the sweet briar and the thrush's song, her tender care of her favorite flowers, had ended in the saturation of her own face with sweetness. Swiftly do we become like the thoughts we love. Scholars have noticed that old persons who have "lived long together, 'midst sunshine and 'midst cloudy weather," come at length to look as nearly alike as do brother and sister: Emerson explains this likeness by saying that long thinking the same thoughts and loving the same objects mould similarity into the features. Nor is there any beauty in the face of youth or maiden that can long survive sourness in the disposition or discontent in the heart.

Contrariwise, all have seen faces very plain naturally that have become positively radiant because the beautiful soul that is enmeshed in and stands behind the muscles has shone through and beautified all of the facial tissues. Two of our great novelists have made a special study of the architectural power of thoughts. Dickens exhibits Monks as beginning his career as an innocent and beautiful child; but as ending his life as a mass of solid bestiality, a mere chunk of fleshed iniquity. It was thinking upon vice and vulgarity that transformed the angel's face into the countenance of a demon. Hawthorne has made a similar study of Chillingworth, whose moral deterioration began through evil thinking when face and physique were fully matured. Chillingworth stood forth in middle life a thoughtful, earnest, and just man; but, during his absence, he suffered a grievous wrong. Not knowing the identity of his enemy, the physician came to suspect his friend. By skillful questions he digged into Dimmesdale's heart as the sexton might delve into the grave in search of a possible jewel upon a dead man's breast. When suspicion had strengthened into certainty, enmity became hatred. Then, for two years, Chillingworth tortured his victim as once inquisitors tortured men by tweaking the flesh with red-hot pincers. Soon the face of the physician, once so gentle and just, took on an aspect sinister and malign. Children feared him, men shivered in his presence--they knew not why. Once the magistrate saw the light glimmering in his eyes "with flames that burned blue, like the ghastly fire that darted out of Bunyan's awful doorway on the hillside and quivered in the Pilgrim's face." All this is Hawthorne's way of telling us how thoughts determine character and shape destiny. He who thinks of mean and ugly things will soon show mud in the bottom of his eye. Ugliness within soon fouls the facial tissues. But he who thinks of "things true and just and lovely" will, by his thinking, be transformed into the image of the ideal he contemplates, even as the rose becomes red by exposing its bosom to the sunbeams and soaking each petal in the sun's fine rays.

Not only are thoughts the builders of character for the individual; they are also the architects of states and nations. All this wonderful fabric lying over our land like a beautiful garment is a fabric spun and woven out of ideas. Each outer substance was builded by an inner sentiment. What the eye sees are stone and brick and iron united by masons and carpenters, but the forces that hold these material things together are not iron bands, but thoughts and beliefs. Destroy the life-nerve running up through the tree, and the rings of wood will soon fall apart. Destroy the thoughts and beliefs of our people, and its homes, colleges and institutions will decline and decay. Thrust a million Mohammedans into our land, and their inner thoughts will realize themselves in mosques, minarets, and harems. But thrust a million Americans into Asia Minor and straightway their thoughts will take on these visible shapes called houses and factories, temples of learning, altars of praise and prayer. For what we call Saxon civilization is only a magnificent incarnation of a certain mental type and a moral character. Not only individuals, but nations are such stuff as thoughts are made of.

In his famous story of archery Virgil represents Acestes as shooting his arrow with such force that it took fire as it flew and went up into the air all aflame, thus opening from the place where the archer stood a pathway of light into the heavens. Now it is given to man's thoughts to fulfill this beautiful story, in that they open up shining pathways along which the human steps may move. On the practical side, it is by the thinking alone that man solves his bread-winning problem. Standing, each in his place, using his strongest faculty and working in the line of least resistance, each must conquer for himself food and support. To say that society owes us a living or to consume more than we produce is to sink to the level of pauper and parasite. The successful man is one whose thoughts about his bread-winning problem have been wise thoughts; paupers and tramps, with their hunger and rags, are men who have thought foolishly about how they could best earn a livelihood.

He who has one strong faculty, the using of which would give delight and success, yet passes it by, to use a weaker faculty, is doomed to mediocrity and heart-breaking failure. The eagle has powerful muscles under the wings, but slender and feeble legs; the fawn lacks the weight of the draught horse, but has limbs for swiftness. Now, if an eagle should become a competitor in a walking race and if the fawn should enter the list of draught horses, we should have that which answers precisely to the way in which some men seek to gain their livelihood, by tying up their strongest gift and using their feeblest faculties. When it is said that only five merchants out of a hundred succeed we perceive that the great majority of men do not think to any purpose in choosing an occupation. Recalling his friends who had misfitted themselves, Sidney Smith once said: "If we represent the occupations of life by holes in a table, some round, some square, some oblong, and persons by bits of wood of like shapes, we shall generally find that the triangular person has got into the square hole, the oblong into the triangular, while the square person has squeezed himself into the round hole." For lack of wise thinking beforehand, multitudes have died of broken hearts midst failure and misery who might have achieved great happiness and success had they used their thoughts in choosing their life-work. He who approaches his task with a leaden heart is out of the race before he is in it. Success means that the heart loves what the hand does. The bread-winning problem is the one that touches us first and most closely, and to wise thoughts only is it given to solve that problem.

BOOK: A Man's Value to Society
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