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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter VIII.

Of Wisdom, Virtue, and Morality, of Law and Duty

[1]WISDOM is a science whereby we distinguish things that are good for the soul from those that are not. It is the science of sciences, because it alone knows their value, their exact importance, their true use, their dangers, and their purpose.

[2]Wisdom is rest in the light. Happy are the minds lofty enough to be at ease in that radiance.

[3]Consult the ancients, listen to the aged. He cannot be wise who depends on his own wisdom, nor learned who depends on his own knowledge.

[4]Wisdom is the strength of the weak.

[5]The combination of knowledge and illusion is the charm of life and of art.

[6]Common sense suits itself to the ways of the world. Wisdom tries to conform to the ways of Heaven.

[7]Human wisdom keeps the ills of life at a distance. Divine wisdom alone can put us in possession of true joy. In seeking human wisdom we must use action; but in seeking divine wisdom we must use repose and meditation.

[8]Whenever our judgments and our feelings lack patience, they also lack wisdom and virtue.

[9]Never regret the time that was needed for doing good.

[10]Never cut what you can unravel.

[11]Goodness is the health of the soul. It gives a savour to life’s humblest herbs.

[12]Goodness loves to diffuse itself, and those who have it love to give it.

[13]Virtue by calculation is the virtue of vice.

[14]His own virtue and the happiness of others are the two ends of man’s life on earth. His own happiness, in truth, is his highest aim; but it is not what he should seek for; it is only what he may expect and obtain, if he be worthy.

[15]In the pursuit of goodness there is some use in making our witness before the world as satisfactory as we can.

[16]Necessity may render a doubtful action innocent; but it cannot make it praiseworthy.

[17]Perfect innocence is perfect ignorance. It is neither prudent nor cautious, and one cannot build upon it: but it is a lovable quality, which we revere almost as much as virtue, and love more.

[18]We are not innocent when we harm ourselves.

[19]Women think that whatever they dare do they may do.

[20]No virtue seems small when it is shown on a great stage.

[21]Perhaps, for worldly success, we ought to have virtues that make us beloved, and faults that make us feared.

[22]Good people of every sort are easy to deceive, because, loving goodness passionately, they easily believe in everything which gives them the hope of it.

[23]Everything should be done as good people wish.

[24]Everything may be learnt, even goodness.

[25]Let every vice in others produce a virtue in you. Let anger make you gentle, avarice make you generous, and excess make you temperate.

[26]Morality must have a Heaven, just as a picture must have atmosphere.

[27]There are some people who keep their morality in the piece: it is a stuff of which they never make themselves a coat.

[28]A conscience to oneself, a morality to oneself, a religion to oneself!—These things, by their nature, cannot be private.

[29]No one can see except by his own lamp, but he can walk and act by the light of another.

[30]We must be provided with anchor, and ballast: that is to say, with fixed and steadfast opinions. Keep your ballast, and rest on your anchors, without drifting. For the rest, let fly the colours, and let swell the sails; the mast only must keep steady.

[31]A maxim is the exact and noble expression of an important and undeniable truth.

[32]Maxims are to the intelligence what laws are to conduct; they do not enlighten, but they guide, they direct, they save us insensibly. It is the thread in the labyrinth, the compass during the night.

[33]Never set forth evil maxims, however well expressed, to catch the attention and memory of mankind.

[34]Often one has the feeling of a truth, without holding it as an opinion, and then it is lawful to direct our conduct by what we feel, and not by what we think. There are even some very grave matters, and most important questions, in dealing with which our ideas must spring from feeling; if they have any other source, all will go wrong.

[35]Clear ideas are good for speaking; but it is nearly always on some confused ideas that we act. It is they which direct life.

[36]There are a great many decisions into which our judgment does not enter at all. We decide without evidence, from weariness or in haste, in order to put an end to a tiresome inquiry, or to some uncertainty in ourselves that torments us; we decide at last by will, but not by intelligence.

[37]Reason may warn us what to avoid; the heart alone tells what must be done. God is in our conscience; but not in our gropings. When we argue, we walk alone, and without Him.

[38]To think what we do not feel, is to lie to ourselves. Everything that we think we must think with our whole being, soul and body.

[39]To perform the smallest actions from the greatest motives, and to see in the smallest things the widest relations, is the best way of perfecting within us our feeling self and our thinking self.

[40]To oppose nature to law, our own reasoning to established custom, and our own conscience to public opinion, is but to oppose the uncertain to the certain, the unknown to the known, the singular to the universal.

[41]The goal is not always meant to be reached, but to serve as a mark for our aim. So is it with the precept that we are to love our enemies.

[42]Let us think of the highest law as neither in us, nor in the world about us, but above us.

[43]When we act, we must follow the rules, and when we judge, we must allow for exceptions.

[44]He who lives without an aim, and, as it were, at random, lives a dull life. In the moral life, if we wish for pleasure, we must propose to ourselves an aim and reach it; now every aim is a limit. Not only is there no goodness where there is no rule and law, but there is not even pleasure. Even the games of children have laws, and could not exist without them; these laws are a constraint, and yet, the more strictly they are observed, the greater is the enjoyment.

[45]There is a repose in order, that endears to men the authority which establishes law and insures their submission to it.

[46]Let us beware of making a mere proposition of something that is a precept, a law, a commandment.

[47]In lawless times, even worthy men become less worthy. Life becomes like a bridge without a breastwork, whence the passionate hurl themselves into vice at their will, and the drunken without their will. In good times we are better, and in evil times worse than ourselves.

[48]Every man must have within him a force which makes even his most secret actions bend to law; he must bring to bear upon himself, his thought and action, the vision of his intelligence and the arm of his will. Every one should be the magistrate, the king, the judge of himself.

[49]If sensation is to be the rule of judgment, a gust of wind, a cloud, a vapour, changes the law.

[50]What is duty? With regard to ourselves, it is to be independent of the senses, and with regard to others, it is to be untiring in giving help and support; help to live well, to do well, to will well, to wish well; help by agreement and by opposition, by giving and by withholding, by firmness and by compliance, by praise and by blame, by silence and by words, by what is pleasant and by what is painful. Dwellers on the same earth, travellers of the same hour, and companions along the same road, we ought to help one another; and when we reach the resting-place, we shall have first to render an account of what each has done for the happiness of the rest—for joy, or for goodness. A kind look will win its reward.

[51]It is equally easy to prove our liberty, either by crime, which means resisting the bent of our nature towards right-doing, or by acts of goodness, which mean a deflection of its bent towards pleasure.

[52]Without duty, life is soft and boneless; it cannot hold itself together.

[53]We must not look duty in the face, but listen to it, and obey, with eyes down. There is something impudent in lifting the veil between us and what is sacred.

[54]Alas!—always busied with other people’s duties, and never with our own!