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DUTY

an essay by James Platt

"Forgetting his duty towards God, his sovereign lord, and his country."

--HALLAM

"England expects every man to do his duty."

"If we do our duty to our own minds, we shall soon come to do it to the world."

--GOETHE

"He walked, attended
By a strong-aiding champion--Conscience."

--MILTON

IT is the duty of every man to consider his relations to God and his fellow-men, and to understand what he owes to both, morally and naturally, as well as legally. Actions that are done from an active conscientiousness urging us to do our duty, are of a higher character than those that are done simply to comply with the requirements of the laws or social customs of the age we live in. We fail in our duty, in the obligations we are under to the moral laws, if we simply act because it is the "custom" so to do. A man with a properly constituted mind will be obedient to his parents or superiors, yield submission to just authority, and do his duty in exposing and stopping any abuse of those in authority, but in a dutiful and constitutional manner. From a sense of duty, a conscientious person performs that which is due, or that which law, justice, or propriety requires, and is respected to those who have the natural or legal authority to require his services. Contrast the manner of a son or employee to his parent or employer when controlled by a sense of duty; the action is done in a way that evidences he is respectful and deferential as an employee acting from a sense of duty will be, and submissive and reverential as a son influenced by dutiful affection would be. What a contrast when this sense of duty is absent! To the employer sullen and disrespectful; doing the work, perhaps, allotted, but doing it in such a manner as to irritate and annoy; submissive, but only like a beaten hound, who dreads the consequences to himself if he dare disobey the mandate of his master. As a son, it is a still more painful sight when, the sense of duty absent, the child rebels, refuses to do as asked, or, if he feels it must be done, does it in such a manner that your only regret is that he is a child of yours. "Every rogue has begun by being a bad son." (CHINESE). "Duty" is so important in every stage of life--from the child to the parent, the parent to the child; the husband to the wife, the wife to the husband; the employer to the employed, the employed to the employer; the citizen to the State, the State to the citizen--that their duties require to be brought before the people more prominently than they are done.

"Duty"--how few understand it! The majority will tell you it consists in "not daring to doubt what theologians say is truth," or, to make money, to leave those that follow you free from want or the necessity of working for a living. Both errors. It is man's highest duty and greatest privilege to "think" for himself; and to try to make life happier for his fellow men whilst here, instead of making money to leave behind him. It is the duty of every man to try his utmost to improve his position in life; but it is a more imperative duty upon every man to lead a life of temperance, and of intellectual and moral improvement. The Blue Ribbon movement is very popular just now, is said to be doing a great good; but its benefit must be transient, because a man, temperate or a total abstainer because a popular custom or public opinion exacts it, has not the virtue of temperance, nor, what is of still greater importance, he is not influenced by that strong self-denial from a sense of duty within him, without which there can be no permanent reliance on his temperance habits. We live in an age of sudden transition; society has broken from many of its old moorings, and is tossed on a restless and stormy ocean. Opinions no longer afford that steady guidance which in former times supplied the place of private judgment and individual principle. There is no truth which sophistry does not now assail, no falsehood which may not become a party bond, even leading men, from a mistaken idea of duty, to outrage and assassination. Our leaders and teachers have a heavy responsibility in the age we live in. They should not try to attain their views by the temporary but brittle chains of public opinion, but be content to wait the result, and use their powers to fix deep, rational convictions in individuals, and strive their utmost to awaken man's reason to eternal truth, and his conscience to immutable duty. A man who does his duty because it is the custom, like the man who abstains because of other men's opinions and practices, simply reflects what exists around him--it is not his own duteous act or virtue; it lies on the surface, it has not penetrated his soul. The mind which passively yields to "public opinion" will become debilitated, not invigorated.

Instead of this course, I advocate the opposite policy--an appeal to each man's moral independence, the moral courage to do what is right, from a sense of duty to their God, their fellow-men, and themselves, that will enable them to withstand public sentiment. One of our greatest social curses is the looking down upon work and workers. The young are made to regard workers with disgust, because at the school they are sent to they dare not say their father is this or that. The son of many a tradesman lives an awful life if it be known what his father is. "Why alter your name?" I said to a tradesman. "To oblige my son; where he is, they would refuse to mix with him if it were known his father was in business." Why not try and eradicate this cancer growing in our midst? Tell men they are born to, and should be trained for, work--that it is honourable to belong to workers--that it is a disgrace to be a drone. The following are three specimens of this genteel, do-nothing class. A letter came to us for a small article--only ten shillings--with the crest and address of a man in a good social position. Therein it was stated, "Send the article and the bill, and I will remit." Not getting the money, we write, and find it is a younger son, who had gone abroad, but showing his want of honour and duty by not remitting as he had promissed. We write the elder brother, that if he has any respect for the "honour" of his brother, he will remit us the money, but get no reply. The other, a fair sample of the "masher" breed, faultlessly got up, his only object in life apparently to be well got up and to lounge about. He called about a dishonoured bill: "No use pressing me; if you do, my allowance will be stopped, and my creditors will get nothing." In the Times, June 1, 1883, in the Court of Bankruptcy, it is reported: The bankrupt,----, of----, "Esquire," applied to pass his examination. His statement of affairs returned liabilities of £16,223, with assets of £3 5s. "There was no opposition, and the bankrupt passed." Comment would be superfluous; but what a state of society this indicates, and what a life to lead! Educated, mixing in good society, in debt, never earning a penny in their lives, no sense of duty or self-respect within them; yet, socially, these parasites are "gentlemen"! Successful men, as a rule, train their sons unwisely; they over-educate them. Their boys must go to college; at college, they mix with a class that look down upon workers; when they leave college, they are too old to begin, where a youth should begin, at the bottom, and work up; their habits are utterly opposed to those of any house of business; their tastes and inclinations and friends render them totally unfit to follow in their fathers' footsteps. Society condones the self-made man; his work is considered to be his "hobby;" "could not live unless he went to the City," &c.; but society is not so lenient to the son's going to business and doing therein daily work. The young men are not able to rise above the sneers and ridicule of their set, who regard as vulgar the man who earns his bread, instead of regarding it as a virtue to belong to the great fraternity of working men, to those by whose skill and industry we derive almost all the comforts of life.

It requires great moral courage to do what you think your duty when opposed to public opinion. Mr. Forster is one of the rare men who have the courage of their convictions. He refused to be under the despotism of the caucus. He told the Government to do its duty towards the nation who had been our friend during the Zulu War--to act up to the Convention, or withdraw it. At Tullamore, March 6, 1882, he had the courage to face the Irish people, and tell them that it was his duty "to save men from outrage, to prevent their being threatened and ill-treated when they are going through their daily work, to enable them to earn their living as they choose to earn it;" he rebuked the crowd for "maiming people and killing people because they have been doing what they had a perfect right to do, and in some cases for doing, or being suspected of doing, what it was their duty to do--namely, paying their lawful debts." "I saw an eviction thirty years ago, and it had an effect upon me. I went to Tulla, and saw at the workhouse there a poor fellow lying in bed. He was a poor farmer who had paid his rent. Fifteen or sixteen men broke into his house, and in the middle of the night pulled him our of his bed and told him they would punish him. The wife went to her knees and pleaded for herself and the five helpless children. "Will you kill their father?" They discharged a gun filled with shot into his leg, shattering it; he is dead. Do what you will to remedy abuses, but for your own credit's sake, as men, stop such horrible outrages, that are not only a disgrace to Ireland, but to mankind." The leaders of the Land League may have acted from a sense of duty, but the time must come when they will feel a remorse and shame at the horrible brutalities that by their instigation have been committed. Great is the responsibility of those who have an influence upon, and direct public opinion; such men ought to act rationally, generously, heroically--not passionately, tyranically, and with the old spirit of persecution. They ought to be disinterested; their position enjoins on them a regard for the rights of others, and lays on them obligations which they ought to have the courage to discharge. The public man who only studies his own interest is not to be envied, however successful he may be; for no man, however hardened by selfishness, can deny that there springs up within him a great idea in opposition to interest--the idea of duty; that an inward voice calls him, more or less distinctly, to revere and exercise impartial justice and universal goodwill. Duty and morality have been discussed in all ages, but there can be no doubt that "disinterestedness is the very soul of virtue." Hobbes taught, in the middle of the seventeenth century, "that we approve of virtuous actions, or of actions beneficial to society, from self-love; because we know that whatever promotes the interest of society has, on that very account, an indirect tendency to promote our own." Mandeville published in the beginning of the last century, as his theory of morals, "that by nature man is utterly selfish; that, among other desires which he likes to gratify, he has received a strong appetite for praise; that the founders of society, availing themselves of this propensity, instituted the custom of dealing out a certain measure of applause for each sacrifice made by selfishness to the public good, and called the sacrifice virtue." "Men are led, accordingly, to purchase this praise by a fair barter;" and the moral virtues, to use Mandeville's strong expressions, are "the political offspring which flattery begot upon pride." And hence, when we see virtue, we see only the indulgence of some selfish feeling, or the compromise for this indulgence in expectation of some praise. Dr. Paley, the most popular of all authors on moral philosophy, does not admit a natural sentiment of justice as the foundation of virtue, but is also an adherent of the selfish system, under a modified form. He makes virtue consist in "the doing good to mankind, in obedience to the will of God, and for the sake of everlasting happiness." According to this doctrine, "the will of God is our rule, but private happiness our motive;" which is just selfishness in another form.

We owe to phrenology the decision of that important point in moral science, whether men are so constituted that they can act from a sense of duty, without being biassed in their conduct by any consideration of self-interest. Phrenology settles upon a firm basis, "that a power or faculty exists, the object of which is to produce the sentiment of justice or the feeling of duty and obligation, independent of selfishness, hope of reward, fear of punishment, or any extrinsic motive; a faculty, in short, the natural language of which is, Fiat justitia, suat caelum" (GEORGE COMBE). This faculty has a large influence upon our lives; it is an important element in constituting a practical judgment and an upright and consistent character. Hence, its cultivation in children is of great importance. Teach them, by example and precept, to do "their duty." What a pleasure it is to come into contact with this "select band," the rare few one meets with whose conduct is regulated by the nicest sentiments of justice! There is an earnestness, integrity, and directness of manner, which inspires us with confidence, gives us a conviction of sincerity. Train your children to act justly, from a sense of duty, from the love of justice, unbiased by fear, interest, or any sinister motive. When the sense of duty is strong within a man, his conscientiousness enables him to take a wider range than the merely legal rights of others. It prompts those in whom it is strong to do justice in judging of the conduct, the opinions, and the talents of others. The sense of duty makes us scrupulous, and as ready to condemn ourselves as to find fault with others. It leads to punctuality in keeping appointments, because it is unjust to sacrifice the time of others; it prompts the payment of debts when due, and to pay the full amount that is due, as a point of justice to whom they are due. It makes an employee act conscientiously, giving to his work a character of duty or obligation; it checks frivolity or waste of time. It makes the employer a strict disciplinarian; to him the business of life is a serious matter, and his soul revolts at inattention or error; but if exact and rigid, such men are just. They could not complain of an employee, to avoid paying him an advance in salary, depreciate quality to get an article at a lower price, or demur to quantity supplied, so as to evade full payment of a bill.

"Duty" is reprinted from Platt's Essays. James Platt. London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., 1884.

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