Motives to Duty
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For the Spirit of the Age.
MOTIVES TO DUTY.
BY J. K. INGALLS.
Modern philosophy has attempted to exhibit a balanced account between benevolence and cupidity, and to show how the promotion of the public good will result to individual advantage. And this is true enough in a general sense, but does not admit of that specific application which could alone make it effective as a motive. However logical it may be to refer all action to self-love, the individual soul can never realize its truth; especially if swayed by the spirit of the Master, who calmly contemplated the sacrifice of all, even of earthly existence, so that he might serve Man and perform his duty to God. The past is radiant with heroic examples, which a material philosophy has no power to explain. Doubtless there are many grades of self-love, exhibited in agreement with wisdom as well as folly; but it is the greatest absurdity to suppose that the truly benevolent mind, the conscientious spirit is guided by a cool calculation as to the results of any course, and before moving is first assured that the reaction will be personally beneficial. Might is right, whether the world will approve or condemn it: whether it will elevate you to a throne or a cross for being governed by its dictates. Kindness is kindness, whether the person you relieve will return your favors with friendship or studied treachery. The consideration of results do not constitute springs of action. Not until our noble nature has prompted to action, by its intuitive perceptions of what will accord with love and conscience, does worldly prudence come in with its estimate of consequences. To allow these to take a place among motives is to descend to their level in all our conduct, and reduce the whole question of morals to a mere system of expedients.
It is true that the internal results of action are always correspondent to the quantity and quality of the actuating motives; but it is not true that the individual can determine with certainty what will be the external result to him from the discharge of a certain duty. Philosophy has confounded the internal with the external consequences of action, whereas they only correspond to each other in the generals—not in particulars. He who saves his outward life by expedients, loses his true life; and he only knows spiritual life who would brave the loss of physical existence to maintain the law of life in the mind.
That selfishness which is directed entirely to the pursuit of individual good, by more open and adroit methods, seems on the point of culmination:—heaven speed its decline! It pervades all the secular and business departments of life, and has attained a conspicuous position in our religion and even in our systems of social and moral reform. Men must be honest—must not violate the current business maxims, if they hope to succeed in their schemes for realizing fortunes out of the toil of others. They must be religious to secure personal gain. The sensual and illegitimate temporal pleasures are placed in one scale, and heaven with its future pleasures in the other. Then with hell for a make-weight it is shown that the latter preponderates on the logical beam. It is even attempted to prove that men will be benefitted pecuniarily by a conscientious observance of the Sabbath and the varied formalities of the Sects. Men are called upon to be temperate because it is more profitable than intemperance. The most sacred rights and duties of mankind are measured by a mercenary scale. Slavery should be abolished because free labor is cheaper, and would increase the wealth of the employer more rapidly. Go where you may this selfism meets you. You must advance or retrograde—advocate war or peace, as they will make good a particular business and give opportunity to speculation.
This irreligious and ungodly parley with Mammon has wrought out results not few but questionable. A total recklessness of the general good; the corruptions of trade; the adulteration of almost every article of commerce; an irresponsible monopoly of all the bounties of heaven, and all the products of labor; the multiplication of the learned, scheming and useful classes, that swarm the land, like the locusts of Egypt, “ devouring every green thing ;” the desecration of morals and religion, to justify existing wrongs; a system of politics, where no questions of right, but only of expediency are entertained; a system of law and public justice, which counts the chances of personal advancement; and a religious profession for securing individual emolument, are some of the beauties of this temporizing philosophy, this counting-house morality. So false is it to all principle, that under its rule, not the culprit, but the victim is punished; not the coward, but the hero falls; not the lover, but the violator of justice is honored, while upon the head devoted to truth, to man, falls all the vengeance of the World God. Not lovers of self, but of man, have been the true teachers, leaders, heroes and martyrs—yet the world has ever honored the others. Nations will stand by and see each other reduced to despotism, calculating the chances of obtaining their own freedom by negotiation. They are willing to purchase immunities at the expense of a neighbor’s thralldom. And individuals who are boisterous for their own freedom, will treacherously abandon, or help enslave others.
Too much importance should not be attached to the influence of principles, of morals and philosophy. It is probably true that the times exert as great an influence over the philosophy as the philosophy over the times. They rest upon each other. Both at present are most cowardly and selfish, and their influence upon each other is most deleterious. Nothing great or good will be accomplished in or for this age, until there arise self-sacrificing spirits; those who will not make as a first inquiry concerning any measure whether it is likely to bring them honor, ease or increased premiums, but simply whether it is just and fitting to be done, though they might not be able to get a living out of it. The men whose highest principle consists of worldly prudence, are entirely unfitted to the coming era. The destinies of our future shall be shaped, as the destinies of all times have been, by men whose rule of policy and estimate of forces shall not be based on a skilfully balanced account book. They will rather upturn the whole calculations of Mammon, and demonstrate once more to the world, what has so long remained a problem in Christendom, that Love of God and of Man can make one true, although, in the place of filling his purse, it should require the sacrifice of every earthly hope and comfort. And this lesson has to be taught the world, and learned by it, ere it can make any advance except towards perdition. Parker Pillsbury’s Deacon, who thought to make a good speculation by damming up “ the river of water of life” to drive cotton machinery in the New Jerusalem, had a better conception of heaven than those politicians and religionists have of a truly Christian and democratic Socialism who imagine that the present prerogative of wealth, monopoly, individual aggrandizement and sectarian animosity can work anything but ruin to society and the race. We need to have done, once and for ever, with this material philosophy. It may have accomplished good, but its day is over; and if we would not go with it we must lay it aside. Many things must be done from a sense of right, independent of personal interest. The rising generation must be educated, and you must be taxed to do it, whether with or without a benefit to yourself. The teacher must abandon awhile his own pursuits, and, without direct intellectual benefit, labor to bring up the youthful mind to a comprehension of truths and principles old and familiar to him. The Poet and Prophet must give forth thoughts, diffuse hopes, and shed abroad a light that will never be reflected upon them. They have freely received, they must freely give. The Philosopher will make discoveries and inventions of incalculable benefit to the world, and be denied even the honor that belongs to him. Not by a motive of quid pro quo were Franklin and Newton incited to unfold the laws of electricity and the mighty powers of steam. The truth is that life and action are attractive to many, as well as the spoils of office to the politician, the beef and plum-pudding to the glutton, or even the cent per cent to the miser.
The aims and estimations of the world need elevating. To do any act of kindness, to visit the sick, to relieve distress, to proffer friendly advice, is above all sordid considerations; and he who attempts to account for his interest in such things on the ground that some time he may be in a condition to need such kind offices himself does injustice to the nobleness of his own nature, through a strange deference to a corrupt but current sentiment. The sun claims no return, but gives forth its light and heat, all for the blessedness of shining. The earth yields its stores of wealth only for the blessedness of giving. And is Man, the image of God, less godlike than these external forms. They have a poor understanding of the human mind who attempt to influence it to good or duty by appeals to its selfishness. This is all too strong now, and needs discouragement. Man is not merely an empty receptacle; his soul, for he has a soul, is permeated with the divine qualities of action—providence and dispensation. The Law of Love is the great Law of his being.
Joshua King Ingalls, “Motives to Duty,” Spirit of the Age, II, 3 (January 19, 1850), 42-43.