The Spike: or, Victoria University College Review, October 1919
Look at all the really great and good men.
Why do we call them good and great? Because
they dare to be true to themselves, they dare to be
what they are."
To-day, as all through history, men and women are looking back on the past with a sigh of regret that men of genius and outstanding ability are no longer appearing amongst us. We seem to imagine that in such men as Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton the race has exhausted itself and can offer nothing but mediocrity to men of the future. Johnson, speaking of an author who declared that "he had been able to learn nothing from the writings of his predecessors," breaks out "With what hopes of success can he attempt that in which greater abilities have hitherto miscarried? Or with what peculiar force does he suppose himself invigorated, that difficulties hitherto invincible should give way before him?" It is hardly charitable to suppose that Johnson really believed that what had proved "invincible" in the past would prove invincible in the future. Nevertheless his words reveal something of the same spirit which moved Burke to lament that the age of chivalry had gone. That spirit is not dead yet, and I for one firmly believe that its existence is an obstacle to progress. It is not my purpose, however, to write a thesis on this topic. Instead of lamenting the past and bewailing the lack of power and originality in the men of our generation, let us rather ask ourselves how we can contribute to the intellectual and moral progress of the race.
Though it is now almost a platitude to say that at no time in the world's history have depth of thought and originality of ideas been more necessary than now, it is still a fact, and we need to remind ourselves of it. During the last five years the world has realised, as never before, that man's chief aim is perfection. Every human being has some influence, good or bad, on the progress of the race. Just as the dead "have forged our chains of being for good or ill," so we are forging the chains of being for future generations. For good or ill? That is what we have to ask ourselves. This is a time when the world wants abundance of light on every problem which is engaging its attention, and surely, if university education is of any benefit at all, it should equip us to make some contribution towards solving these problems. Just as men and women differ in personal appearance, so they differ in mind and ability, and for each of us there is some work in the world which we can do better than anybody else—some place which only we can fill. It should then be our aim to qualify ourselves for this work and to develop our powers that those who come after us
"Shall not drag us to their judgment-bar,
And curse the heritage which we bequeath."
One of the greatest hindrances to progress to-day is the spirit of insincerity which pervades society, and is all too prevalent in the University. Selfish ambition and a desire to appear better than we are, are ruining our oppotunities of ever filling our proper sphere. Insincerity is destroying our originality and dwarfing our powers. We strive for originality, we strive to excel, in that very striving we frustrate our own ends. "That virtue of originality which men so strive after," says Ruskin, page 29 "is not newness .... it is only genuineness." "The merit of originality," says Carlyle, "is not novelty; it is sincerity." The only way to be original is to be true to one's self; and this principle applies to all branches of human effort. How many men who have sought distinction in literature have failed because they have disregarded this precept? In their effort to cultivate style, they have sacrificed sincerity and truth. Even the great Dr Johnson in his early days was not free from this form of insincerity, and Macaulay's delinquencies are well known. Yet Ruskin tells us that "no noble nor right style was ever yet founded but out of a sincere heart." "The value of the tidings brought by literature," says George Henry Lewes, "is determined by their authenticity. We cannot demand from every man that he have unusual depth of insight or exceptional experience, but we demand of him that he gives us of his best, and his best cannot be another's." Again and again Ruskin and Carlyle insist on this principle of sincerity in literature, art, architecture, and morals. "Of great a man I will venture to assert that it is incredible he should have been other than true. It seems to me the primary foundation of him, and of all that can be in him. ... I should say 'sincerity,' a deep, great, genuine sincerity, is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic." (Carlyle). "In all great schools of art .... an artist is praised .... for contributing, in the measure of his strength, to some great achievement, to be completed by the unity of multitudes and the sequence of ages." (Ruskin). Again Carlyle says. "If hero mean 'sincere man,' why not every one of us be a hero?"
And why not? Let us be sincere. Let us not try to appear better than we are. It is right and necessary that we have ideals, but it is wrong that we should seem to have attained to them, when we know in our own hearts that we fall far below them.
Sincerity, again I say, sincerity! The old maxim, "Know thyself," is indispensable to our full development; let us take it to our hearts; but let us not forget that only second in importance to it is that other maxim "Be thyself."