Chapter XIX Principles: Justice In Motive

Principles, Bad and Good.––There is a certain class of opinions of which we must take special heed. Sometimes we get them from others, sometimes we think them out for ourselves; but, in either case, we make them our own because we act upon them. These opinions rule our conduct, and they are called Principles because they are princeps, first or chief in importance of all the opinions we hold. We speak of a well-principled boy, a man of principle, a young woman of high principles; but everyone has principles––that is, everyone has a few chief and leading opinions upon which every bit of his conduct is based. The boy who is late for roll-call, cribs his translation, shirks both games and work, may not know it, but he is acting upon principle. His principles may not even have found their way into words, but, if we fish for them, they come up something in this form: 'What's the good of doing more than you can help?' 'What's the good of hurrying a fellow? I'm not going to hustle!' 'It's all rot anyway, I shall never have to talk Latin.' These, and the like, are the principles on which his whole conduct is based. He has allowed himself in thinking the thoughts of the slothful and negligent until he cannot get away from them. People call him an unprincipled boy, but probably there are no unprincipled persons; he is a boy who has deliberately chosen bad principles upon which to build all his conduct.

Another fellow is punctual, prompt, and diligent in his work; he hardly knows why himself, but he has gathered, by degrees, certain principles upon which he cannot help acting. He remembers that he owes it to his parents and teachers to work; that what he owes, he ought to do; it is his duty. Again, he recognises that knowledge is delightful, and that his business while he is young is to get all he can of it. He sees, too, that his future career depends upon his present work; that he is making in the schoolroom the man that is to be. He may have heard such things as these said at home or at school, or they may have come into his head, he does not know how; but, anyway, he has taken them for his chief things, his principles, and he acts upon them always. In both cases the conduct of the boys is ruled by their principles; to account for the difference between the two we must go back to their choice of principles; and the choosing of these is a very important part of life.

How to Distinguish.––The traveller who arrives at a foreign station or port is often both amused and annoyed at the number of porters who clamour for his luggage, the number of hotel omnibuses which try to get possession of him. Just so clamorous and tiresome are the principles that are forced upon us by almost everyone we meet, by the very books and papers we read, the pictures we look at.

From the first we may detect a difference. Good principles are offered to us in an unobtrusive way, with little force and little urging. Bad principles are clamorous and urgent, drowning the voice of conscience by noisy talk, inviting us to go the way we are inclined and to do the thing we like.

Our Principles 'Writ Large.'––It is an interesting fact, that, though a person's principles of conduct are often not put into words, they are always written in characters of their own. Everyone carries his rules of conduct writ large upon his countenance, that he who runs may read. It is well to remember this, because, though we may like a boy who has slothfulness or self-indulgence, envy or malice, dishonesty, cruelty, or greed, written about his eyes and mouth, yet we like him with a difference. We are on our guard against the particular bad principle which he chooses to follow, and while we may enjoy his wit or cleverness, we do not admit him to intimacy, or allow him a voice in our own choice of principles of conduct.

'But what are my principles?' you say; 'I'm sure I don't know'; and, indeed, we need not trouble ourselves much to find out; this is a case where lookers-on see most of the game, and some of the youngest persons we know are better acquainted with our principles than we are ourselves. Our part is simply to take heed; to ask ourselves, now and then, why we are always running after Jones, for instance. Is it that he flatters us? puts false ideas of manliness, perhaps foul ideas of pleasure, into our heads? If so, our principles are in fault. We choose a friend who will minister to what is bad in us. Do we stick to Brown because 'he's an honest old chap,' and tells us straight when he thinks we are silly or lazy? Good for us if so. Do we join with other fellows in calling Smith a sneak, a cad, or a muff, when he has distinguished himself in some school study? If so, we must be careful; envy is perhaps the principle which chooses that no one shall be better than ourselves.

We gather our principles unconsciously; but they are our masters; and it is our business every now and then to catch one of them, look it in the face, and question ourselves as to the manner of conduct such a principle must bring forth.