From Courage by Charles Wagner
THE old stoics had this saying among themselves, Nihil mirari, — “Do not be astonished at anything.” The sense of it is plain; it means that we must not allow ourselves to be overawed by men or things, to be frightened or disconcerted. A man should retain his self-possession, and be master of himself, amid all the impressions that he receives. This is certainly a good rule. It is in happy contrast with the fickleness of our moods and the neurotic tendencies of the times. Such a maxim is like a soothing and refreshing bath; after it, one’s eyes are clearer, one’s arms stronger, one’s step more alert. Let us often repeat to ourselves this old saying which has reassured and sustained the courage of so many, and which fulfilled, for those whose device it was, the office of a sure and steadfast friend, who took them by the hand in the hour of trouble, and said, “Be calm, have courage, be wise, and all will come out right!”
There is another way of translating the adage against which I wish to protest, precisely because it is so common. Our contemporaries adopt the Nihil mirari, but they translate it, “Let us admire nothing.” If those who conform to the rule thus modified were old men, I should not permit myself to attack them. I should say to myself, “They are tired of life; to their old organs everything seems old; they have lost the faculty of admiring, as they have lost their sense of hearing, or the capacity to sleep, or the appetite of twenty.” Such is not the case, however. Those who undertake to admire nothing are young men. To admire anything seems to them humiliating. It is all very well for children to open their eyes wide and stare at men and things with that serious and surprised air, which shows that they believe what they see. One must leave that kind of emotion in the nursery, with one’s petticoats, one’s last doll, and all the forgotten toys of one’s tender years. A man must not admire anything. Nothing should surprise or excite him. To admire is to be a dupe, to let oneself be taken in. A serious young man should not put himself in the ridiculous position of “swallowing” anything. To be able to say solemnly, in every situation: “Oh, I know that; that’s an old story; ” to be tired of everything before having experienced anything,—this is the pose of your young man. Among his comrades he who admires the least passes for the strongest-minded, and is almost sure to be the most admired; for if it be a servile attitude of mind to feel admiration, to be admired is one of the noblest delights of life. Thus a spirit has spread among youth, and in the schools and ateliers, whose ideal is to have no ideal. From this to respecting nothing and no one is but a step.
This spirit of belittling and scoffing is the order of the day; and one of the manifestations of this unfortunate tendency is that we meet together more willingly to cry down a thing than to honour an illustrious memory, or to do homage to a great citizen. To my mind, one of the worst misfortunes that can happen to you when you are young is to be inoculated with this spirit of which I speak. If there be anything which is not young, it is this spirit. To feel respect shows the quality of a young man, as the bouquet of the wine shows from which province it came. Thus, wherever I discover an absence of respect, I say to myself, “That smells of vinegar.” We must get rid of this tendency. It is a source of weakness, of decrepitude. It is an enemy, and one of the most dangerous.
We live through respect, and we perish through scoffing. Plato banished musicians from his republic because he wrongly believed that music enervated man’s courage. As for me, I declare war against this spirit of mockery; I wish that it might be hunted down, and exterminated, like those parasites which are nourished in our marrow and blood. Let us chase the scoffer; and, on the other hand, let us cherish admiration, respect, and enthusiasm in all their forms, as among the elements of a healthy morality, and the source of strong wills. All that I have to say on this subject I shall try to say under the heading of Heroic Education.
What is a hero? He is a man of larger stature than his fellows, who has lived an intenser and wider human life than the majority; a being who concentrates in his mind and heart the aspirations of a whole epoch, and gives them powerful expression; or it may be that he is a man who appears above the crowd to accomplish one deed, but one so great, so fine, that it immortalises him.
When we study the history of humanity, we see heroes appearing at the beginning of every great movement. Their example is contagious; some virtue emanates from them and takes possession of others. It is their privilege to arouse enthusiasm, hope, and light. They are the saviours of hopeless times, the guides in dark days, the pioneers of the future, the pure and noble victims who die for justice and truth, in order to pave the way for them. But what influence would they have without the respect, admiration, and enthusiasm which they excite in us? It is by dint of admiring them that we become capable of profiting by their virtues. What is true of the hero, is true of everything that is heroic, to no matter what degree. Everything that is great, everything that is beautiful, everything that is pure and sacred, penetrates to our hearts through our respect and admiration. These are the senses by which we perceive the high realities of the soul….
I am not speaking here of our illustrious heroes, but of those obscure, unknown, unnamed heroes of whom the world is full. It is for them that I ask of youth eyes and ears to perceive, and a heart to admire. It is time to put a stop to this superstition of evil, to this invidious pessimism, propagated by conversation, by the press, by our novels, according to which there is nothing good anywhere in the world. The fanatic apostles of this superstition are so convinced of their belief, that when they meet a man of heart and generous action along their road, or in history, they prefer to impute to him low motives rather than to accept them for such as they are. The result is that the majority are more and more disposed to find only thieves and rogues in the world, and to seem to wait with resignation the occasion to become such themselves. Out upon this school of degradation, this conspiracy for ignominy!
The good exists; I shall prove it to you. Suppose that you found yourself in the midst of a large assembly, in a big hall, and that all of a sudden your neighbour said to you, “Do you know that everything here, the floor beneath you, the galleries, the columns, the walls, are rotten? ” Do you think that you would believe what he said to you, and that this objection would not immediately present itself to your mind: “How is it possible for this rotten edifice to stand beneath the great weight of this assembly? There must still be some beams to hold, some parts of the wall that are solid, some columns that are strong.” Such is the case in human society. The proof that certain good elements still exist is that this society has not yet gone to pieces. If there were only untrustworthy cashiers, venal writers, hypocritical priests, bribed officers, dishonest employees, men without conscience, women without modesty, homes that are disunited, ungrateful children, depraved young people, — we should long since have been buried beneath our own ruins.
Where is this good, of which I speak, to be found? We must seek for it. Those who seek for it and are capable of seeing it, will find it. I urge many young people to investigate this unknown region. They will discover many salutary herbs which will serve them as elixirs.
The truth is, that no one has any idea of the number of good people who live about us. The amount of suffering patiently borne, the injuries pardoned, the sacrifices made, the disinterested efforts, are impossible to count. It is a world full of unknown splendours, like the profound grottoes lighted by the marvellous lamp of Aladdin. These are the reserves of the future; these are the silent streams that run beneath the earth, and without which the sources of good would long since have become exhausted, and the world have returned to barbarism. Happy is he who can explore the sacred depths! At first, one feels profane, small, out of place. There are people of such a simple benevolence, of such natural disinterestedness, that one feels poor and unworthy beside them; but this is a grief which is salutary, a humiliation which exalts us. What can be better for a young man than to feel himself small and inferior in the presence of truth, of abnegation, and of pure goodness? If he is troubled, moved, bewildered, downcast; if he weeps; if his life, when compared with those which he sees about him, seems to him like a childish sketch by the side of a canvas of a great master, — so much the better for him. This humility is a proof in his favour, and places him at once in the path of progress. They say that young nightingales, whose voices are not yet formed, are very unhappy when they come into the presence of those older birds who fill the nights of summer with their music. When they hear them, they cease to sing, and remain silent for a long time. This is neither from a spirit of envy nor ill temper; but the ideal presented to them bewilders and disturbs them. They listen, they are intoxicated by the melody, and while thinking, perhaps, in their little bird brains, —
“I can never hope to equal thee!”
they become so inspired that they end by singing in their turn.
Hail to the good listener!