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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : DISCOURSE III. THE STRIFE FOR PRECEDENCE.

Humanity In The City by E. H. Chapin



And if a man strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully. -- II. TIMOTHY, ii.5.

In walking the streets of the city, there rises the interesting question -- What are the various motives which animate these restless people, and send them to and fro? As a French author has well observed, -- |The necessaries of life do not occasion, at most, a third part of the hurry.| They are comparatively few who struggle among these busy waves for a bare subsistence. There are others who are impelled by some of the deepest affections of the human heart, and who toil day after day with noble self-sacrifice for the comfort of dependent parents, and helpless children. While others still run on errands of mercy, and work in the harness of unrelaxing duty. But when we have taken all these influences into the account, and made the most of them, there remains a large quantity of activity which, as we trace it to its spring, we shall find issuing from a desire for influence, for notoriety, for some kind of personal distinction. The city, -- in this instance, as in many others, representing the world at large, -- is essentially a race-course, or battle-field, in which, through forms of ambitious effort, and cunning method, and plodding labor, and ostentation, the aspirations of thousands appear and carry on a Strife for Precedence.

And, in selecting this phase of human life as the theme of the present discourse, I observe in the first place -- that the desire for precedence is one of the deepest and most subtle motives in the soul of man. It is prolific of disguises. It is not merely under the mask which we may put on before other people, but it glides through various transformations of self-deceit; like the evil genius in the fairy tale, now dwindling to a mere seed, now bursting into a devouring fire. When, with an honest purpose, we probe it and pluck at it, still we may detect it in the lowest socket of the heart. Often it is most vital when we feel most sure that it is vanquished. It delights in the garb of humility, and finds its food in the profession of self-renunciation. See its grossest expression in the desire for physical superiority -- the glory of the victor in the Grecian games, or the modern pugilist with the champion's belt. This is the reason why men, priding themselves upon qualities in which they are equalled by any mastiff and excelled by any horse, will stand up and batter one another into a mass of blood and bruises. And if we analyze the merit of some conqueror upon a hundred battle-fields, we shall find ingredients almost as coarse. Only there was a larger impulse, and more genius to light the way; so that his combat in the ring became achievement, and his success fame. The outside difference was in the value of the stakes; but the huzzas did not rise much nearer to heaven in the one instance than in the other. And when we get at the real centre of all those plaudits, we find only a little throbbing atom, a little human heart, all on fire with the lust for supremacy.

But these are the more palpable shapes of this desire for Precedence. It works more covertly, but with no less energy. I need not -- for I cannot -- specify all the instances in which it acts. It would constitute a more concise statement to affirm where it does not act. It is sufficiently apparent in the scramble of the market and the parade of the street; at the toilette of beauty; in the etiquette of the drawing-room, where people sit as if in a cavern of icicles; in the spurious patriotism of politics; and too often, it is to be feared, in the highest seats of the synagogue, and where men lift holy hands of prayer. It is the scholar's inspiration. When he comes to the steep and rugged way, it helps him to make a foot-hold, and the thorns blossom into roses as he climbs. Sometimes, even, it saturates the plan of the philanthropist, and peppers the milk of his charity with an inconsistent wrath.

It seems an unhappy, as it must often be an unjust method, to attribute any appearance of good conduct to the meanest possible motive. It is a policy that makes a man afraid of his best friends. He feels that every draft he makes upon human honor, or affection, is liable to be cashed with counterfeit bills. If there were no alternative between the cleverness that suspects everybody, and the credulity that trusts everybody, I think I had rather be one of the dupes than one of the oracles. For, really, there is less misery in being cheated than in that kind of wisdom which perceives, or thinks it perceives, that all mankind are cheats. But, while simple fact forbids our assuming either of these extremes, we must, nevertheless, in reasoning upon the phenomena of human conduct, allow large scope for the influence of which I am now treating. For, as I have already intimated, we shall find it lurking under numerous forms. In discussing the question of Slavery, for instance, it is often said -- that it is for the interest of the master to take good care of his human as he does of his brute stock -- to see that they are well-fed, clothed, &c. And so it is for his interest to do this. But how often does the lust for supremacy over-ride interest itself! How often does an imperious personality thrust itself forward in the most absurd ways, damaging its own property and welfare, just as a boy breaks his top, or a balked rider shoots his horse, or an independent congregationalist locks his pew-door, as much as to say -- |There, the world knows one thing about me, at least. It knows that I am master and owner here!|

But I observe, further, that, while this desire for Precedence is common among men of all conditions, there are some modes of its expression which are peculiarly excited in a democratic form of society. That which is the open glory of a community like ours, is with many a secret vexation and shame. People boast here of the equality of our institutions, and then try their best to break up the social level. In a genuine Aristocracy, where they have endeavored to preserve a gulf-stream of noble blood in the midst of the plebeian Atlantic, and a man holds his distinction by the color of the bark on his family tree, and the kind of sap that circulates through it, there is no danger of any unpleasant mistakes. The hard palm of Labor may cross the gloved hand of Leisure, and nobody will suspect that the select is too familiar with the vulgar. Consequently, there is a good deal of affability and prime manliness, besides those associations of sentiment and imagination which, if there must be an aristocracy, lend it an artistic consistency. But here, where everybody says that all men are equal, and everybody is afraid they will be; where there are no adamantine barriers of birth and caste; people are anxiously exclusive. And though the forms of aristocracy flourish more gorgeously in their native soil, the genuine virus can be found in New York almost as readily as in London, or Vienna. And the virus breaks out in the most absurd shapes of liveries and titles. And these forms of aspiration are not only absurd because they are inconsistent, but because they illustrate no real ground of precedence. They are superficial and uncertain. They do not pertain to the man but to his accidents. He gains by them no intrinsic glory, no permanent good. To employ the language of the text, by these he strives for masteries; but he does not strive lawfully, and so he is not crowned. And this leads me to say something respecting what is false, and what is legitimate, in that strife for Precedence which is so amply illustrated in the life of the City.

Let us, then, consider some of the forms which this struggle assumes in the streets and the dwellings around us. I remark, in the first place, that it inspires much of the effort for wealth. I believe there are but few, comparatively, who are anxious to make money merely for the sake of piling it up, and counting it out. There may be a mania of this kind, in which men become enamored of Mammon for his own sake, and hug him to their breasts, and kiss his golden lips, with all the ardor of lovers. Still, I suspect that the genuine miser -- that is, one who loves money for itself alone -- is an exceptional man. But every man who is not absolutely inactive and useless in the world, is moved by some kind of passion. For, it is not correct to speak of outliving our passions. We may outlive the passion of young, fresh love, that makes the world a May-time of blossoms and of roses. We may outlive the passion for selfish fame, because some transcendent claim of duty snatches us up to a sublimer level. We may change these earlier forms for the passion of philanthropy, the passion for truth, the passion of holy conviction. But so long as we live at all, we do not outlive passion. And with many the most persistent desire is for that precedence which attends the possession of wealth. That miser, as you call him, with a face like parchment, and in whose nature all the springs of emotion seem to have grown rusty with long disuse, is animated by a secret flame that keeps him all a-glow. It is the consciousness of power -- the mightiest power of the present age -- the power of money. Those figures which he scrawls at his writing-desk involve a more potent magic than the cabalistic cyphers of Doctor Dee, or Cornelius Agrippa. His hand presses the spring of an influence that casts midnight or sunshine over the World of Traffic, and shakes entire blocks of real estate with a speculative earthquake. It is not the Czar or the Sultan, but the Capitalist, that makes war or preserves peace. The destinies of the time are enacted not in Congress or Parliament, but in the Bank of England and in Wall street. It is a mighty power that sits on 'Change, and inspires the great movements of the world; sending its messengers panting through the deep and feeling around the globe with telegraphic nerves. And one may well be more ambitious to wield a portion of this power than to speak in senates, or to sit upon a throne. Here is something that will raise him above the common level; will pay him for long years of sacrifice and contumely; will hide meanness of birth, and scantiness of education, and paint over the stains of damaged character. Here is the most feasible way of distinction in a democracy. The doors of respectability and honor turn on silver hinges. Gravity relaxes, fashion gives way, beauty smiles, and talent defers, before the man of money. He may be an ignoramus, but he possesses the golden alphabet. He may be a boor, but Plutus lends a charm which eclipses the grace of Apollo. He may have accumulated his wealth in a way which would make an intelligent hyena ashamed of himself, but he has accumulated it, and the past is forgotten. I do not mean to say that, as the general rule, wealth is thus associated, but I believe that one great motive for money-getting, is the consciousness of the power and the distinction that accompany its possession; and so, many a man in the thick dust of the mart -- though it may not always be clear to himself -- is really engaged in a strife for Precedence.

Again, consider the illustrations of this strife in the Style of Living. It is really a battle of chairs and mirrors, of plate and equipage, and is the spring of the monstrous extravagance that characterizes our city life. For I suppose there is no place on the earth where people have run into such gorgeous nonsense as here -- turning home into a Parisian toy-shop, absorbing the price of a good farm in the ornaments of a parlor, and hanging up a judge's salary in a single chandelier. Not that I accept the standard of absolute necessity, or agree with those who cry out -- |Have nothing but what is absolutely useful!| For, if the universe had been cast after their type, there would have been no embroidery on the wings of the butterfly, and the awful summit of Mont Blanc would have yielded fire-wood. There is an instinct of beauty and grace implanted in our nature, which demands elegance and even luxury, and the bare necessaries of life do not answer every purpose. And, to say nothing of the employment which these accessories of refinement afford for thousands -- for I have spoken of this in the previous series -- the most sturdy utilitarian is not consistent with his theory. He defers to the social condition around him to such an extent that he sleeps on a bed instead of a bench, and wears broadcloth instead of untanned sheepskin. And, therefore, others might say, and say truly, that a good deal that is actually superfluous is the fruit of certain social proprieties which cannot, with any consistency, be violated. Our style of living may lawfully run from the bare necessaries of existence, through the stages of comfort and convenience, even into luxury, according to our condition and means. But in some of the style of living in this very city, there is neither good taste, social propriety, nor common sense. It is an apoplectic splendor; a melo-dramatic glitter; in one word, a vulgar spirit of social rivalry blossoming in lace, brocade, gilding, and fresco. It is one way of getting a head taller than another upon this democratic level. It is a carpet contest for the mastery in what is called |society.| And if one mourns over the exuberant selfishness that lifts its pinnacles out of this dreary sea of hunger and despair, and wonders that so many live wrapped in the idea that they were created merely to be gratified; he can hardly help being amused, on the other hand, at this fashionable strife for precedence, and the methods which it developes.

But enough has been said to illustrate the false element in the great struggle for Human Precedence. This vicious principle is most comprehensively stated in the proposition, that there is no substantial ground of supremacy in anything that is merely accidental or external to a man. These things may sometimes stand as symbols of true merit and greatness, but they are not themselves proofs of precedence. A man's wealth may be the fruit of noble energy and honest toil, and he may exert a wide influence by virtue of that intrinsic ability of which his good fortune is the sign. Indeed, the more I study the world the more I acquire a respect for these kings of enterprise -- these heroes of practical effort -- who, feeling that they have been sent into the world to do something, do not fold their hands and shut their eyes in ideal dreams, or stumble at discrepancies, but lay hold of what lies about them -- rough stone, timber, iron, brass, -- and become what it is really a noble compliment to say of any man -- |the architects of their own fortune.| I have great respect for these men who drive the wheels, and kindle the furnaces, and launch the ships, and build the edifices, and keep this sea of every-day action perpetually agitated by the keels of their endeavor. Their claims to precedence, however, consist not in their wealth, but in that which accumulates the wealth. But the man who rests merely upon what he has, occupies no substantial ground of supremacy. And if this is the case with those whose claim hangs merely upon what they are worth in the world of money, it is at least equally so with those who set their title to precedence upon their style of dress or living. For how uncertain are all these things! depending upon the fickle currents of fortune; throwing the honors into our hands to-day, and transferring them to our neighbor to-morrow! How tantalizing this conflict, in which victory changes with the fashion, and we feel weak or strong according to the verdict of a clique! And all these rivalries and envies and aspirations, what a confession of personal feebleness they really are! How slightly a true man feels them, who knows that he is not mere silk or furniture, and never frets about his place in the world; but just slides into it by the gravitation of his nature, and swings there as easily as a star! But the mere leader of fashion has no genuine claim to supremacy; at least, no abiding assurance of it. He has embroidered his title upon his waistcoat, and carries his worth in his watch-chain; and if he is allowed any real precedence for this it is almost a moral swindle, -- a way of obtaining goods under false pretences. But without running into more minute discussion, I say again -- that there is no substantial ground of supremacy in aught that is merely accidental or external; and he who rests upon such claims stands upon a pedestal as uncertain as it is spurious.

|If a man strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.| This was the old rule of the Grecian games, which would not permit the prize to be gained by any unfair or incomplete methods. It was applied by the apostle to a specific work -- the great work of the Christian ministry. But it is a law which prevails in all human action. And, while it suggests that spurious precedence for which there is so much striving, it also indicates the fact that there is a real difference of degree among men, and that there are proper methods of obtaining supremacy.

And, as I look around in the populous city, in order to illustrate the grounds of this lawful precedence, I observe, in the first place, that there are men who occupy the higher places by ordinance of nature so to speak; or, more properly, by the purpose of God. It is a fact in nature that all men are created equal, and it is also a fact in nature that all men are not equal. All men are created equal as to the essential rights and privileges of humanity. They have a claim to live; they have an impartial share in the Divine Love; they have a right to liberty, to freedom of thought and of limb, by a constitution older than any historical document, drawn up in the court of God's decrees and authenticated by His handwriting in the soul. Thus far all men are created equal, and, if it turns out otherwise with them, it ensues from what is made by man, not what is commanded by Heaven. But so far as quantity of nature is concerned -- original capacity and spiritual gifts -- men are not equal. And if it is asked -- |Why are they not equal?| I answer, it is by appointment of the same Sovereign Mind which has ordained that |one star shall differ from another star in glory.| But each form of being has its own capacities, and if these are filled the moral harmony is secured. Through all prevails the law of compensation, balancing the vicissitudes of experience. And, among these diversities of human capacity, some must of necessity occupy the highest place -- men whose native genius carries them up in a splendid orbit, and endows them with control. And the world at large always acknowledges the rectitude of this appointment. It cherishes no envy toward men of this kind, but renders them spontaneous homage.

But, although this genius, this original power, rises to a natural supremacy, it does not involve the most legitimate element of precedence. There is no real ground of merit in the natural talents of a man, any more than there is a ground of merit in personal beauty, or family descent. He has nothing but what has been given him -- the five talents instead of his neighbor's one talent -- and, so long as he does not use them to their best purpose, there is only an admirable possibility, no merit of achievement.

And all genuine merit -- that which entitles one to some ground of human precedence -- comes from personal achievement in life; substantially, from the stock of actual benefit which one has contributed to the world, and which has become assimilated to his own spiritual nature. The ground of precedence -- so far as it is lawful for man to think of anything like precedence at all -- is not in outward possessions, not in gifts, but in uses. And here is thrown open a broad and noble field, depending not upon genius or station, but upon will, and therefore accessible to every man. Here is an arena where one may strive lawfully, emulous to build up his own inner nature, emulous to let such power as he possesses go out in blessings for the world. A field for all of us, my friends, right here in the dense city, amidst the hurrying feet, the clang of machinery, and the roar of wheels. And the condition of the game is, not large capacity but good purpose and loyal endeavor; not to strive greatly but to strive lawfully.

And, I observe once more, that the real claim to precedence is not eagerly snatched by us, but comes to us. It is not in seeming but in being, and it makes no essential difference whether the world confesses it or not, so long as we actually have it, working in our consciousness of duty and drawing our consolation from inward resources. Here, my friend, is your work -- here is the field of opportunity, which, however broad and rich absolutely, is for you great and pregnant with incalculable possibilities. And though men may not see its best results, they are nevertheless real, and develop in your own soul a light and power, a ground and fabric of precedence that cannot be shaken, and will never vanish away.

And yet, to a large extent, the world does confess this true supremacy. For, let me ask, who among these crowds of citizens are really honored? Not those who are so eagerly and vainly striving in their narrow, conventional circle, heedful merely of the rules of their own little game. But those who actually fill an honorable place in life. How much acknowledged dignity is there in that man who just accepts his station and makes the most of it, filling it with patience and self-sacrifice and achieving the victory of principle and affection! How much genuine nobleness in the quiet, unconscious discharge of duty! The field for precedence is it not a broad one, and close at hand? And is there no alternative between a frivolous and outside distinction, and some great theatre of action large enough to fill and dazzle the world's eye? Daily, right around us, there are occasions that summon up all the energies of manhood as with a trumpet-peal. See yonder! where the conflagration, bursting through marble walls, casts a terrible splendor down the street and reddens the midnight sky. What an enemy has broken loose among us, devouring the achievements of human skill and the hopes of enterprise! What shall stay it? With a triumphant shout it snaps the fetters of stone; it roars with victory; it bends its flaming crest towards peaceful homes where men and mothers and babes lie in unconscious slumber. The bell beats; and what old bugle-strain, what pibroch, what rattling drum, ever sounded a more perilous call? And on what battle-field that you have read of was there ever displayed a loftier heroism, a more dauntless energy, than that man displays who, with the unconscious courage of duty, plunges into the furnace, mounts the quivering walls, and, making his own body a barrier between his fellow-men and the flame, stands there scorched, bruised, bleeding, and beats the red terror back and beats it down, with that irresistible energy which always springs from the human will bent upon a noble purpose?

And so, in other forms, more quiet and more sacred, where the anticipation of public applause does not furnish its motive, men are exercising a heroism, and working achievements, that make dim and pale the trophies that are plucked from fields of war and in lists of glittering renown. And when these things are known the hearts of men render a spontaneous honor, and admit the genuine titles of supremacy. Yet, if this true achievement in life is not known or confessed by the world, its results really exist, and impart their inalienable strength and blessing to the soul, while as the grounds of false supremacy dissolve all gives way.

And, my friends, the tendency of things is to bring out more and more these real claims to human precedence, and to throw all spurious titles into the shade. This is the radical purport of true democracy, which I take to be the social synonym of Christianity. I have shown what inconsistencies and false distinctions swarm here in our midst, under the profession of republican equality. This, however, is because names are not things. I don't call that |democracy| which is simply the domineering spirit of self-exaltation in a new shape. For there is no essential difference whether we call the social order a monarchy or a commonwealth; whether its leading men are Charles and Louis, or Robespierre and Cromwell. If we must have the old social fallacies, they appear more attractive with the old symbols. In that case, I would rather not have them changed. For, when I look merely at the sentimental side of things, I feel sorry when the so-called |Royal Martyr,| with a dignity which contrasts with his past conduct, stretches his head upon the block; or when the pitiless insults of a Parisian mob are hurled upon the head of the beautiful Marie Antoinette. A poetic regret and enthusiasm is awakened by the associations that cluster about the Golden Lion and the Bourbon Lilies. And, when I turn to those grim Ironsides, or those frantic Jacobins, the work they are doing looks savage enough. But, with a more discriminating vision, I perceive that that rude popular storm, which desolates palaces and shatters crowns, embosoms a rectifying process which, tumbling all false distinctions from their pedestals, shall by-and-by heave up the platform of social justice, and reveal the true dignity of man. The essential work of democracy is not the destruction of forms; is not the giant arm of revolution, striking the hours of human progress by the crash of falling thrones. But its great work is construction -- is in changing the very spirit of institutions -- and it asserts its legitimacy and bases its claims upon the Christian doctrine of the human soul.

Therefore, I regard these spurious claims to precedence -- these endeavors after social distinction by virtue of riches, and equipage, and wardrobes -- as only evidences of a transition-state. Men, letting go the feudal forms, and still assuming that there is some ground of human precedence, as there really is, have adopted these false expressions of it. They will in turn pass away, and give place to more genuine methods.

But let it be remembered, that these false forms of precedence are not only inconsistent with our social professions and institutions, but they are futile because they are contrary to the Divine Law. Our endeavors in life have a twofold operation, and we must count not only their effect upon others but their reaction upon the fabric of our own inner being. For, whatever honor men may attribute to us, we know that there is no real, substantial ground of supremacy except in the excellence and power of our own spiritual nature. And this is acquired not in ostentatious and selfish striving, but when self is least thought of; in the calm work of duty, and when all conception of human merit fades into the Glory of God. And this is the great end to be desired -- this strength and exaltation of the soul. This imparts the profoundest significance to that great life-struggle which goes on in these crowded streets. The city! what is it but a vast amphitheatre, filled with racers, with charioteers, with eager competitors; surrounded by an unseen and awful array of witnesses? And here, daily, the lists are opened, and men contend for success, for station, for power. But these are meretricious and perishable awards. The real prize is a spiritual gain, a crown that |fadeth not away.| And, if we comprehend the great purpose of existence at all -- if we look with any eagerness to its intrinsic issues and its final result; we shall heed that decree of Divine Wisdom and Justice that comes down to us through all the vicissitude of life -- through all the hurry and turmoil and contention. |If a man strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully.|

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