Dead In Earnest
It is the live coal that kindles others, not the dead. What
made Demosthenes the greatest of all orators was that he
appeared the most entirely possessed by the feelings he wished
to inspire. The effect produced by Charles Fox, who by the
exaggerations of party spirit, was often compared to
Demosthenes, seems to have arisen wholly from this earnestness,
which made up for the want of almost
every grace, both of
manner and style.
Twelve poor men taken out of boats and creeks, without any help
of learning, should conquer the world to the cross.
For his heart was in his work, and the heart
Giveth grace unto every art.
He did it with all his heart and prospered.
The only conclusive evidence of a man's sincerity is that he
gives himself for a principle. Words, money, all things else
are comparatively easy to give away; but when a man makes a
gift of his daily life and practice, it is plain that the
truth, whatever it may be, has taken possession of him.
"The emotions," says Whipple, "may all be included in the single word
'enthusiasm,' or that impulsive force which liberates the mental power
from the ice of timidity as spring loosens the streams from the grasp
of winter, and sends them forth in a rejoicing rush. The mind of youth,
when impelled by this original strength and enthusiasm of Nature, is
keen, eager, inquisitive, intense, audacious, rapidly assimilating facts
into faculties and knowledge into power, and above all teeming with that
joyous fullness of creative life which radiates thoughts as
inspirations, and magnetizes as well as informs."
"Columbus, my hero," exclaims Carlyle, "royalist sea-king of all! It is
no friendly environment this of thine, in the waste, deep waters; around
thee mutinous discouraged souls, behind thee disgrace and ruin, before
thee the unpenetrated veil of night. Brother, these wild
water-mountains, bounding from their deep bases (ten miles deep, I am
told), are not there on thy behalf! Meseems _they_ have other work than
floating thee forward:--and the huge winds, that sweep from Ursa Major
to the tropics and equator, dancing their giant-waltz through the
kingdoms of chaos and immensity, they care little about filling rightly
or filling wrongly the small shoulder-of-mutton sails in this cockle
skiff of thine! Thou art not among articulate-speaking friends, my
brother; thou art among immeasurable dumb monsters, tumbling, howling
wide as the world here. Secret, far-off, invisible to all hearts but
thine, there lies a help in them: see how thou wilt get at that.
Patiently thou wilt wait till the mad southwester spend itself, saving
thyself by dexterous science of defence the while: valiantly, with swift
decision, wilt thou strike in, when the favoring east wind, the
possible, springs up. Mutiny of men thou wilt sternly repress; weakness,
despondency, thou wilt cheerily encourage: thou wilt swallow down
complaint, unreason, weariness, weakness of others and thyself;--how
much wilt thou swallow down? There shall be a depth of silence in thee,
deeper than this sea, which is but ten miles deep: a silence
unsoundable; known to God only. Thou shalt be a great man. Yes, my
world-soldier, thou of the world marine-service,--thou wilt have to be
greater than this tumultuous unmeasured world here round thee is: thou,
in thy strong soul, as with wrestler's arms, shall embrace it, harness
it down; and make it bear thee on,--to new Americas, or whither God
With what concentration of purpose did Washington put the whole weight
of his character into the scales of our cause in the Revolution! With
what earnest singleness of aim did Lincoln in the cabinet, Grant in the
field, throw his whole soul into the contest of our civil war?
The power of Phillips Brooks, at which men wondered, lay in his
"No matter what your work is," says Emerson, "let it be yours; no matter
if you are a tinker or preacher, blacksmith or president, let what you
are doing be organic, let it be in your bones, and you open the door by
which the affluence of heaven and earth shall stream into you." Again,
he says: "God will not have His works made manifest by cowards. A man is
relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his
best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace.
It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt, his genius
deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope."
"I do not know how it is with others when speaking on an important
question," said Henry Clay; "but on such occasions I seem to be
unconscious of the external world. Wholly engrossed by the subject
before me, I lose all sense of personal identity, of time, or of
"I have been so busy for twenty years trying to save the souls of other
people," said Livingstone, "that I had forgotten that I have one of my
own until a savage auditor asked me if I felt the influence of the
religion I was advocating."
"Well, I've worked hard enough for it," said Malibran when a critic
expressed his admiration of her D in alt, reached by running up three
octaves from low D; "I've been chasing it for a month. I pursued it
everywhere,--when I was dressing, when I was doing my hair; and at last
I found it on the toe of a shoe that I was putting on."
"People smile at the enthusiasm of youth," said Charles Kingsley; "that
enthusiasm which they themselves secretly look back at with a sigh,
perhaps unconscious that it is partly their own fault that they ever
"Should I die this minute," said Nelson at an important crisis, "want of
frigates would be found written on my heart."
Said Dr. Arnold, the celebrated instructor: "I feel more and more the
need of intercourse with men who take life in earnest. It is painful to
me to be always on the surface of things. Not that I wish for much of
what is called religious conversation. That is often apt to be on the
surface. But I want a sign which one catches by a sort of masonry, that
a man knows what he is about in life. When I find this it opens my heart
with as fresh a sympathy as when I was twenty years younger."
Archimedes, the greatest geometer of antiquity, was consulted by the
king in regard to a gold crown suspected of being fraudulently alloyed
with silver. While considering the best method of detecting any fraud,
he plunged into a full bathing tub; and, with the thought that the water
that overflowed must be equal in weight to his body, he discovered the
method of obtaining the bulk of the crown compared with an equally
heavy mass of pure gold. Excited by the discovery, he ran through the
streets undressed, crying, "I have found it."
Equally celebrated is his remark, "Give me where to stand and I will
move the world."
His only remark to the Roman soldier who entered his room while engaged
in geometrical study, was, "Don't step on my circle."
Refusing to follow the soldier to Marcellus, who had captured the city,
he was killed on the spot. He is said to have remarked, "My head, but
not my circle."
"Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world," says
Emerson, "is the triumph of some enthusiasm. The victories of the Arabs
after Mahomet, who, in a few years, from a small and mean beginning,
established a larger empire than that of Rome, is an example. They did
they knew not what. The naked Derar, horsed on an idea, was found an
overmatch for a troop of cavalry. The women fought like men and
conquered the Roman men. They were miserably equipped, miserably fed.
They were temperance troops. There was neither brandy nor flesh needed
to feed them. They conquered Asia and Africa and Spain on barley. The
Caliph Omar's walking-stick struck more terror into those who saw it
than another man's sword."
Horace Vernet's enthusiasm and devotion to the one idea of his life knew
no bounds. He had himself lashed to the mast in a terrible gale on the
Mediterranean when all others on board were seized with terror, and with
great delight sketched the towering waves which threatened every minute
to swallow the vessel. Several writers tell the story that a great
artist, Giotto, about to paint the crucifixion, induced a poor man to
let him bind him upon a cross in order that he might get a better idea
of the terrible scene that he was about to put upon the canvas. He
promised faithfully that he would release his model in an hour, but to
the latter's horror the painter seized a dagger and plunged it into his
heart; and, while the blood was streaming from the ghastly wound,
painted his death agony.
Beecher was a very dull boy and was the last member of the family of
whom anything was expected. He had a weak memory, and disliked study. He
shunned society and wanted to go to sea. Even when he went to college
many of his classmates stood ahead of him, who have fallen into
oblivion. But when he was converted his whole life changed: he was full
of enthusiasm, hopefulness and zeal. Nothing was too menial for him to
undertake to carry his purpose. He chopped wood, built the fire in his
little church in Lawrenceburg, Ind., of only eighteen members, cleaned
the lamps, swept the floor and washed the windows. He built the fire,
baked, washed, when his wife was ill. The pent-up enthusiasm of his
ambitious life burst the barriers of his inhospitable surroundings until
he blossomed out into America's greatest pulpit orator.
When Handel was a little boy he bought a clavichord, hid it in the
attic, and went there at night to play upon it, muffling the strings
with small pieces of fine woolen cloth so that the sounds should not
wake the family. Michael Angelo neglected school to copy drawings which
he dared not carry home. Murillo filled the margin of his school-book
with drawings. Dryden read Polybius before he was ten years old. Le
Brum, when a boy, drew with a piece of charcoal on the walls of the
house. Pope wrote excellent verses at fourteen. Blaise Pascal, the
French mathematician, composed at sixteen a tract on the conic sections.
Professor Agassiz was so enthusiastic in his work and so loved the
fishes, the fowl and the cattle that it is said these creatures would
die for him to give him their skeletons. His father wanted him to fit
for commercial life, but the fish haunted him day and night.
Confucius said that "he was so eager in the pursuit of knowledge that he
forgot his food;" and that, "in the joy of its attainment, he forgot his
sorrows;" and that "he did not even perceive that old age was coming
"That boy tries to make himself useful," said an employer of the errand
boy, George W. Childs. It is this trying to be useful and helpful that
promotes us in life.
Once, when Mr. Harvey, an accomplished mathematician, was in a
bookseller's shop, he saw a poor lad of mean appearance enter and write
something on a slip of paper and give it to the proprietor. On inquiry
he found this was a poor deaf boy, Kitto, who afterward became one of
the most noted Biblical scholars in the world, and who wrote his first
book in the poor-house. He had come to borrow a book. When a lad he had
fallen backward from a ladder thirty-five feet upon the pavement with a
load of slates that he was carrying to the roof. The poor lad was so
thirsty for books that he would borrow from booksellers who would loan
them to him out of pity, read them and return them.
The _Youth's Companion_ says that Mr. Edison in his new biography--his
"Life and Inventions"--describes the accidental method by which he
discovered the principle of the phonograph. There is a kind of accident
that happens only to a certain kind of man.
"I was singing to the mouthpiece of a telephone," Mr. Edison says, "when
the vibrations of the voice sent the fine steel point into my finger.
That set me to thinking. If I could record the actions of the point,
and send the point over the same surface afterward, I saw no reason why
the thing would not talk.
"I tried the experiment first on a slip of telegraph paper and found
that the point made an alphabet. I shouted the words 'Halloo! Halloo!'
into the mouthpiece, ran the paper back over the steel point, and heard
a faint 'Halloo! Halloo!' in return.
"I determined to make a machine that would work accurately, and gave my
assistants instructions, telling them what I had discovered. They
laughed at me. That's the whole story. The phonograph is the result of
the pricking of a finger."
It is one thing to hit upon an idea, however, and another thing to carry
it out to perfection. The machine would talk, but, like many young
children, it had difficulty with certain sounds--in the present case
with aspirants and sibilants. Mr. Edison's biographers say, but the
statement is somewhat exaggerated:
"He has frequently spent from fifteen to twenty hours daily, for six or
seven months on a stretch, dinning the word 'Spezia,' for example, into
the stubborn surface of the wax. 'Spezia,' roared the inventor, 'Pezia'
lisped the phonograph in tones of ladylike reserve, and so on through
thousands of graded repetitions till the desired results were obtained.
"The primary education of the phonograph was comical in the extreme. To
hear those grave and reverend signors, rich in scientific honors,
Mary had a little lamb,
A little lamb, _lamb_, LAMB,
and elaborating that point with anxious gravity, was to receive a
practical demonstration of the eternal unfitness of things."
Milton, when blind, old and poor, showed a royal cheerfulness and never
"bated one jot of heart or hope, but steered right onward."
Dickens' characters seemed to possess him, and haunt him day and night
until properly portrayed in his stories.
At a time when it was considered dangerous to society in Europe for the
common people to read books and listen to lectures on any but religious
subjects, Charles Knight determined to enlighten the masses by cheap
literature. He believed that a paper could be instructive and not be
dull, cheap without being wicked. He started the _Penny Magazine_, which
acquired a circulation of 200,000 the first year. Knight projected the
_Penny Cyclopedia_, the _Library of Entertaining Knowledge_, _Half-Hours
With the Best Authors_, and other useful books at a low price. His whole
adult life was spent in the work of elevating the common people by
cheap, yet wholesome, publications. He died in poverty, but grateful
people have erected a noble monument over his ashes.
Demosthenes roused the torpid spirits of his countrymen to a vigorous
effort to preserve their independence against the designs of an
ambitious and artful prince, and Philip had just reason to say he was
more afraid of that man than of all the fleets and armies of the
Horace Greeley was a hampered genius who never had a chance to show
himself until he started the _Tribune_, into which he poured his whole
individuality, life and soul.
Emerson lost the first years of his life trying to be somebody else. He
finally came to himself and said: "If a single man plant himself
indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the whole world will come
round to him in the end." "Though we travel the world over to find the
beautiful we must carry it with us or we find it not." "The man that
stands by himself the universe stands by him also." "Take Michael
Angelo's course, 'to confide in one's self and be something of worth and
value.'" "None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or
commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him
Many unknown writers would make fame and fortune if, like Bunyan and
Milton and Dickens and George Eliot and Scott and Emerson, they would
write their own lives in their MSS., if they would write about things
they have seen, that they have felt, that they have known. It is life
thoughts that stir and convince, that move and persuade, that carry
their very iron particles into the blood. The real heaven has never been
outdone by the ideal.
Neither poverty nor misfortune could keep Linnaeus from his botany.
The English and Austrian armies called Napoleon the
one-hundred-thousand-man. His presence was considered equal to that
force in battle.
The lesson he teaches is that which vigor always teaches--that there is
always room for it. To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man's
life an answer.