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President Lowell, in Baccalaureate Sermon to Class of 1923, Declares Lasting Favorable Judgement Given for Moral Effort


President Lowell delivered the Baccalaureate Sermon on last Sunday afternoon, June 17, at 4 o'clock to the class of 1923. The address was given in Appleton Chapel before the entire Senior Class, and President Lowell this year took his text from I Corinthians, chapter three, verses 11 to 15, inclusive.

The sermon in full follows:

Men of religious and moral earnestness have sought to attain the perfect life by two different paths--contemplation and service.

Let us not hastily reject either, Christ sent forth his disciples two and two for service, but he also said that Mary who, while her sister served, sat at this feet and heard his words had chosen the good part.

Christianity Emphasizes Contemplation

All the great religions of the world have commended both attitudes, while placing more emphasis on one than the other or an emphasis on each varying at different times. It was in a period of Christianity when a life of contemplation was more revered than philanthropic service that was coined the phrase "Laborare est orare".

Nor is it needful to separate the two. The most active men are not always the least thoughtful, or the most meditative backward in good works. Solitude is not essential to contemplation; the Greek philosophers were constantly engaged in teaching and disputation. For most men profound thought is stimulated both by contemplation and interchange of ideas, each in seasonable measure.

Ours An Age of Action

Today we live in an age of action, rather than of contemplation, perhaps excessively so, and therefore St. Paul's words appeal to us. They have in fact a peculiarly modern ring, for the first impression they produce is that of measuring the value of acts by the results attained rather than by the moral purpose involved. We are prone to rate among the virtuous those who have conferred benefits upon mankind regardless of the motives that actuated them; and the effect is good, insofar as it encourages others to do the like. But this is not the attitude expressed by St. Paul in the text. He is treating only of works done for what he esteems the highest possible motive, for he speaks of building upon "this foundation" of morality, saying that no other can any man lay. He assumed the moral purpose.

Observe also, for the same reason, that he is not contrasting good acts with evil ones. It is not the comparison of the sheep and the goats; of the good man whose works will follow him, and the bad man who will be weighed down by them. He is discriminating among different works all well intentioned; among those which he compares to gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and stubble, although all done from moral motives; in other words between good works of high, of moderate or of trifling value, and he rates them according to their enduring quality when tried by fire. It is this that gives the serious aspect to his statement of the severe ordeal to which a good man's good works will be subjected.

Permanent Merit Will Endure

Every man's work is in fact tried by fire, that is, by the most searching test which, in the lapse of time, can be applied. What is trivial or ephemeral is soon destroyed, while that which has permanent merit will endure. It is a laudable ambition to strive to achieve results of lasting value, although these are by no means always the ones that bulk largest at the time or are the most conspicuous. If fame delight, you, if to be talked about, to have your name and portrait in the public press, the object is not difficult to attain for people who care about it, and will devote some effort and a little skill thereto. Verily they have their reward, and one that, like riches and other worldly prizes, is a gratification to those whose hearts are set upon it; but in the sight of God not to be compared with work, inconspicuous perhaps to men, that has been built into the permanent fabric of other human souls. If your aim be more than selfish gratification, if it be to accomplish something that will make men happler and better, then the more enduring its effects the more it is worth doing. It may be done in any line of human activity. It may be done, indeed is most commonly done, in connection with earning a livelihood. One does not have to seek strange paths to find it, for it lies close at hand in every familiar field of endeavor; not only in the great arts, sciences and literature, but in the professions and in business of all kinds. The man who carries on his work, whatever it may be, with a clear view of its total effect for good upon the community; the upright man who so conducts himself that if others followed his example the world would live upon a higher plane; the man who so brings up his children, or others committed to his charge, that they can never lose the lofty principles he has given them, instils an influence that will spread from generation to generation far beyond his sight. Much of the good in our natures has come to us mediately from men and women we never saw, of whom sometimes we have never heard; and any one may do the same for others yet unborn.

Success Result of Moral Effort

What if a man strive for the good that is enduring but does not succeed? What if his efforts are frustrated by his own mistakes or by circumstances beyond his control? St. Paul does not speak of this. He says that if any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. The man of whom he says this is one who has done a perishable work. How about him who seeks to build solidly but falls? The work that he has not done is left undone, but if this be from lack of tools or opportunity, and not from negligence or moral fault, he can expect to hear the judgement, "well done, good and faithful servant", for that comes as the reward not of success, but of moral effort.

Moreover, let us not forget certain facts about success which are not always borne in mind when passing hasty judgements on our fellows. It has been asserted by military critics that a nation is never finally beaten in war until it believes itself beaten. With not less accuracy it may be said that so long as a man lives he has not failed unless he believes that he has failed. Mark! believes that he has failed, or perhaps one ought to say believes that he is a failure, not is convinced that some particular effort, adventure or plan of his has failed. The difference is vital. The man who runs his head repeatedly into the same stone wall has the kind of head least likely to be affected by the process. He shows perseverance, but not determination to succeed. Wisdom consists in changing the method as the result of experience while retaining the object; or to state the same thing in a larger way, if the purpose of a man in life is to do something of real value, and after sufficient trial he becomes convinced that his abilities or circumstances do not justify a belief that he can do so in the direction that he first proposed, he is not a failure if he strike out undiscouraged on another line.

This has been the case in some of the most fruitful careers. Many successful men have failed in the pursuit in which they finally became eminent, or in some other, before they learned how and where to apply their strength. Every school boy is familiar with the story of Bruce taking courage when he saw the spider spin her web on the seventh trial Abraham Lincoln's early life was far from promising. Twice he attempted to conduct a local store only to have the enterprise come to a hopeless end in a few months. Goodyear tried one experiment after another before he lit upon the method of treating rubber that has made it one of the essential substances in the civilization of the present day. Captain Mahan applied to one publisher after another to print his book on the "Influence of Sea Power on History", but all in vain, so that he was on the point of giving up the attempt, when Parkman, it is said, persuaded Little, Brown and Company to take it. Even then it had a scant sale, until its merit was recognized in England, and in a few years he became the American best known abroad. To come nearer home, our late benefactor, Henry L. Higginson, in early life studied music for several years in Europe, but finding himself unfitted for a musical career, came home, shortly before the Civil War. Severely wounded as a cavalry officer in the Army of the Potomac, he recovered only as it closed. He then tried an adventure in raising cotton in the South, followed by another in oil wells in the West, both unfortunate, and it was not until after these failures that he entered the firm where he laid the solid foundation for the fortune and public philanthropy that made him the first citizen of his city. William James in youth essayed to be an artist, then went through the Medical School, but never practiced medicine or made any notable success in medical science. It was not until the age of forty-eight that he achieved a reputation by his work on psychology, a subject in which he had gradually become deeply interested. From this he was led to philosophy, and at his death no living philosopher had greater fame than he.

Seeming Failures Often Successes

Examples of this kind might be multiplied indefinitely, but these are enough for our purpose. Some of them are cases where the early failures were in the same field in which success was afterwards attained; others were cases where the final triumph was in a subject quite different from that of the early efforts. In some of them the obstacles came from outside; in others from a false start in the wrong direction. In all, the end was a notable contribution to the world. Probably each of these men would, throughout his life, have marked as disappointments many lesser things besides the obvious ones that have been here observed. To the ambitious in the best sense of the term, it often, seems that life is an unending series of failures which in the total sum make up success. The higher the goal a man sets before himself the more frequently will he fall short of its attainment, and feel that he has failed when in fact he has accomplished much.

I have said that so long as a man lives he has not failed unless he believes that he has failed, and sometimes not even then. Among the great prophets, reformers, and leaders of mankind some have died thinking that their labors had been in vain, their mission a failure or their cause lost, when in fact after their death their work has borne abundant fruit from generation to generation. If this is true of them it is no less true of countless others unknown to fame but by the good they have done shining in God's firmament as the start for ever. There has never been a failure greater than to his disciples Christ's appeared to be on Calvary. They thought it had been he who should have redeemed Israel, but at the time they took all for lost. In St. John's gospel the very last account of Christ's appearance opens with a failure that was a prelude to something far beyond any success hoped for. Seven of the disciples, not knowing what to do, returned to their former occupation as fishermen. They went forth, entered into a ship and spent the whole night casting their nets. That night, we are told, they caught nothing, "but when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore.

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