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President Lowell's Baccalaureate Sermon to the Harvard class of 1920, given in Appleton Chapel at 4 P. M. on Sunday was on the subject of "Jonah."
"Narratives are of two kinds. One of them history, deals with real events; the other, fiction, with imaginary ones. This last, when used to inculcate a moral, we call fable or parable. The Bible is full of both kinds of narratives. The book of Jonah is a case in point.
"If the book is a parable intended to inculcate a moral, we can well inquire what lesson it is designed to teach, for the moral may be no less important today than in the remote period when the book was written. Jonah was a reformer who felt that he had a mission to rebuke the immorality, the material motives, the levity, and the lack of serious thought in the great city of his time. But he sought to occupy himself with other things, or, as the writer describes it, he tried to flee from the presence of God. But in vain, Even on the sea he could not escape; and at last his conscience, as we should say today, forced him to do his duty. At the second call he went to Nineveb. What was his mission there? Obviously to call the people to repentance. Never, as you may observe, was he informed that Nineveh would be destroyed, or even directed to threaten the people with overthrow. But it was, of course, understood that calamity would befall them if they did not repent--yet clearly only if they did not do so. The object was repentance, not destruction. The threat of the consequences of their sin was the means of bringing about reform. It was the argument Jonah was to use, the weapon he was to employ; but he had the threat so firmly fixed in his mind that it became the subject of his prophecy and he lost from sight the ultimate object for which it was to be used.
Unity of Aim Assured by War
"He went to Nineveh and foretold the destruction of the city. His preaching was so powerful that to his astonishment the whole people immediately repented in sackcloth and ashes. The object of his mission was accomplished with miraculous speed; the destruction, which was to follow a persistence in sin, was avoided and did not take place; but having fore told evil, he was disappointed that it did not come. He was angry with himself and with God, and retired to brood in solitude over the failure of his prophecy. The moral, then, is that of the man who becomes so intent upon the means of achieving his object that he mistakes the means for the end, and by his passion for it blinds himself to the good he might have accomplished or perchance has actually attained."
President Lowell then drew attention to the singular pertinence of this moral to the life of a forcible man in the "ordinary currents of our time." During the war there was the comfort of having a plain duty to perform, with no moral questions to decide. The great object, never lost from sight, was winning the victory; a man's duty his courses prescribed, was to obey orders, and this was true whether he served in the armed forces or as a civilian. But with the ceasing of hostilities this singleness of aim has changed, as man again becomes a self-directed unit. Unity of effort has been succeeded by dispersion of aims, due to post-bellum reversion to self-determination, both of ends to pursue and means to obtain them.
The Example of the Family Man
"A man with a family of children," continued President Lowell, "intends, very properly, to provide for them. His business is exacting; his affairs are prosperous, but he has not much leisure to devote to his boys. He comes to think mainly of the material possessions his children will enjoy, rather than of their character and usefulness. In time he dies, leaving a large fortune, and his sons lead innocent, harmless, but useless lives. His aim was their welfare, and yet, by mistaking the means for the end, he has failed to make them as happy as he might.
"Let us take another example. A man goes into public life; personal ambition he is ready to put aside for the nation's good. He is convinced that this good is best promoted by a certain cause or a particular party, and as time goes on this becomes so fixed in his mind that he is ready to sacrifice almost anything for its benefit. He loses his sense of proportion, and becomes a blind partisan. This is perhaps the chief cause of the evils in public life.
Losing Sight of the Real Object
"Take again the man of science who longs to make a discovery that will advance the welfare of mankind. But he finds that others are encroaching on his field, or getting the credit for his work; and at last his interest is more engaged with the fame he hopes to attain than with the benefit his discoveries will confer.
"Failures of this kind to see aright beset everyone in every occupation, and they are most insidious because unconscious. Jonah in success lost sight of the real object of his work. The same may be true in failure.
"Observe that the cases I have mention of losing the true end from sight are those of men essentially good. There are bad men who intend to do wrong. Perhaps there would be little use in preaching to them; and it is probable that the aggregate inability of mankind to reach a higher level is due less to deliberate wrongdoing than to the defects of men who mean on the whole to do right. Jonah did no harm in the parable because God disposed otherwise; he lost sight of his object, not because he could not see it, but because he did not try to.
Higher Life Only One Worth Living
"The man who knows what he wants and how he means to get it is very apt to succeed; and this is not more true of material aims than of higher ones. The object of true religion in every age and every clime has been to search out those things that are of eternal value. Ascetics and mystics have sometimes carried their exaltation so far as to despise the things by which mankind must live, but the great mass of men have erred in the other direction, by seeking only the things of the present. True religion and spiritual wisdom consist in regarding the lower as steps to the higher, without losing sight of the end to which they are only a means.
"Whatever a man's opinions on religious questions may be, if he considers seriously the highest end he can have in life, if he keeps that end steadily before his mind, he will be a man of elevated character. If the world means more than a senseless struggle for material pleasure at the expense of others, the higher life is the only one that is worthy living, and it can be attained only by keeping the ultimate goal always before the eyes."
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