Chapter 3: A High Opinion of Oneself

Twelve Tests of Character
by Harry Emerson Fosdick

Chapter 3: A High Opinion of Oneself

Every right-minded person feels horrified at the banditry which has disgraced our cities since the war. When one stops to analyze the reason why we feel that horror the explanation is clear. The bandits have exhibited a type of character in whose eyes little, if anything, is sacred. Human life itself is not sacred -- they murder for a song. Truth is not sacred -- they lie with ease. Friendship is not sacred -- they betray their own without a qualm.

In what sharp contrast, on the other hand, stand the men who respect life’s sanctities. An old Edinburgh weaver used habitually to pray, "O God, help me to hold a high opinion of myself." One imagines behind that Scotchman’s life such a home as Burns described in "The Cotter’s Saturday Night," where the profound meanings of religion and right living were bred into the very marrow of the children. And this was the practical issue in the weaver’s case -- he felt in his life things too valuable to be misused, too fine to be profaned, and, remembering them, he held a high opinion of himself.

Every admirable character in history can be interpreted in terms of such lofty self-respect. If Joseph resists the solicitations of impurity, it is because he thinks that his honor is sacred. If the three hundred at Thermopylæ withstand with rememberable courage the assault of the Persians, it is because they think that their loyalty is sacred. If martyrs have gone to the stake rather than lie, it is because they have believed that their truth is sacred. Spinoza, the philosopher, lived long ago in Holland, and ground and polished lenses for a living while he thought great thoughts of God. Louis XIV offered him pension and patronage if he would dedicate even one book to His Majesty. But Spinoza did not approve of Louis XIV, and so he continued to polish lenses and to live with his thoughts. He had a high opinion of himself. A prelate in New Zealand was warned by the authorities in England that if he persisted in his course they would cut down his salary. "You can get very good fish here in the bay," he wrote back, "and I know a place in the woods where you can dig up roots that you can eat." Plainly he had a high opinion of himself.

No training of children matters much that does not put at the center of their lives such self-esteem. Rules and regulations are necessary, admonitions and rebukes, and all the fallible machinery by which a household is run. But the one abiding service which a fine home can do the children is to put deep into the grain of them the consciousness that in themselves is something sacred, rather than violate which they would better die. "Taste," said Ruskin, "is the only morality." Understand "taste" deeply enough and that is true. All parents know that the time will come when the external supports which they have built up around their children will fall away and the particular admonitions which they have given will be forgotten. But perhaps the home will have given the children something deeper, a sure and sensitive taste which loves good and shrinks from evil, which feels instinctively that life’s spiritual values, its purities and fidelities and truths, are too fine to be profaned.

It is for this reason that the mere denunciation of our young people, thundering against them and calling down upon them the penalties of the moral law, does so little good. Undoubtedly the penalties of the moral law are terrific, and our modern cleverness will not evade them. A bullet may leap from the rifle’s mouth crying "What care I for gravitation? I will go as I will!" For all its speed, however, it will not beat out gravitation in the end. Gravitation never lets go. It hangs on tremendously. Sooner or later that bullet will come down. So our moral wildness will never escape the moral law. But strenuous insistence on that fact does not cure the situation. The deeper trouble with all of us, both older and younger, is not that we lack knowledge of external penalties, but that we lack a fine sense of inward sanctities. If a violin had been made in the first place by Antonio Stradivari himself and if skilled hands had played upon it the compositions of the masters, any cheap endeavor to make it hiccup with syncopated jazz would be resented. The violin would be ashamed. That quick sense of possessing in ourselves something inwardly fine that must not be desecrated is essential to great character. It is one of the supreme gifts that any home can give to its children. It is generally caught by contagion, not taught by admonition. It is instinctive self-respect -- the resistance of a man who holds a high opinion of himself against the profanation of his holy things.

Ex-President Eliot, of Harvard, says that the strongest appeal that he was ever able to bring to bear on wayward boys consisted in making clear to them how much they had been sacrificed for and how much their failure would mean to those who cared. If we seek an explanation of that motive’s power we must start with the fact that when anything is sacrificed for, from a battle-flag to a boy, it gains sacredness. One feels that it ought not to be desecrated. Get any boy vitally to recognize that he is the object of sacrifice and what you have done is to lift his own opinion of his worth. Every man who has had a great mother understands that long after her special words have been forgotten her abiding influence continues in an immeasurable heightening of life’s sacredness. To have been the object of such love is to become too valuable to waste.

Dr. Eliot really was appealing to the motive of the Cross; he was sending those boys away saying to themselves, whether they ever put it into words or not, "I have been sacrificed for, and my life is worth too much to throw away."

All great teachers and all great parents have relied upon that method of producing character. They have not lifted human quality primarily by thundering against sin; they have lifted it by heightening the positive conception of life’s dignity and value. Professor Gilbert Murray, of Oxford, says that once he took up a copy of Macbeth which had belonged to Andrew Bradley, the Shakespearean scholar, and he read in it a scene which he knew almost by heart and which he had supposed that he understood. But he adds that as he read Bradley’s penciled notes on the margin he discovered that he had been missing about half a dozen points on every page. The spiritual seers have had that effect upon their fellows; they have disclosed in the familiar passages of human life significant values that were being missed. Because of their insight men have seen that life is finer and more meaningful than they had supposed. To have friends whose lives we can elevate or depress by our influence is sacred. To be entrusted with little children is sacred. To have powers by which we can make this earth a more decent place is sacred. To be a child of God is sacred. And honor, honesty, truthfulness, fidelity, and love are sacred. Such is the insight by the leverage of which the spiritual seers have lifted men, and by which high-minded parents have trained high-minded children. For when any one vitally believes that anything is sacred he will shrink from sacrilege.


The need of such self-respect in modern life is not far to seek. There used to be a barn on the crest of the Chautauqua hills so placed that its ridgepole was a watershed between two great river systems. For the drops of rain which fell upon one side flowed into Lake Erie and so out, by the St. Lawrence River, into the Atlantic, and the drops which fell upon the other side flowed into Lake Chautauqua and so out, by the Ohio River and the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico. With what fascination we boys used to watch it rain on that roof and to wonder at the far-sundered destinies of the drops which fell so near together!

Such a decisive element in character is this matter of self-respect. To have it in good working order and at one’s disposal on short notice is generally the determining factor in a man’s life. When a ship goes down at sea there is no time to argue out the pros and cons of right action. If a man lets women and children go first it is because something in him, call it what you will, a sense of honor, self-respect, rises up imperatively to decide the matter without debate. Only those men get through life unscathed by dishonor in whom self-respect is ingrained.

The sin of age is cool, shrewd, calculating; the sin of youth is passionate, tumultuous and swift. It is committed with headlong impetuosity. The life is smirched, defiled, it may be ruined, before there has been time to think. Temptations swoop down on youth with stormy suddenness. Restraints like fear of consequence are swept aside. So far as ill result is concerned, the youth longs to run the Jolly Roger to the masthead and sail in. Only one thing will save him from disaster. It may be that there is in him a sense of honor, a quick consciousness of something which must not be desecrated. All the fine influences that have played upon his life have helped to put it there. His home, his best friends, his hours of serious thought and reading, his worship in the church, his inward prayers -- such influences have deposited in him this saving core of character. Driven back he may be through all his outward defenses, but his victory lies at last in that inextinguishable resentment against sacrilege which rises up even at the last moment to cry "No, before God -- not that!"

One of the finest expressions of this spirit ever given us is contained in a single verse of Tennyson’s ascription to the Queen: "O Loyal to the royal in thyself." All greatness in character is associated with that. As one considers its implications one is inclined to think that all of ethics and an important part of religion are contained in it -- "Loyal to the royal in thyself."


One field where this test of character has clear application is the relationship between the sexes. The modern age has become obsessed by the idea that the cure of our ills is to be found in the spread of biological information. Out of an old-fashioned reticence which, while not afraid to call a spade a spade, did by common consent leave some spades undiscussed, we have come into an age when we discuss everything publicly, not to say blatantly. "If only our young people were properly informed," we have said, "all would be right." Well, our contemporary young people do certainly seem to be informed. They seem to know everything that there is to know on the matter of sex. But it is an open question how much solid improvement has come in consequence.

This is no plea for the policy of hush. Ignorance is no cure for anything. God at creation said "Let there be light," and he has never created anything since without that introductory word. The sunlight of wholesome knowledge can disperse the fogs of morbid curiosity and misinformation, and all movements to bring that about are salutary. Parents who do not themselves take this responsibility with their own children are sinners against society. But that truth is no excuse for what is happening today.

A supposedly intelligent woman who prides herself on her progressiveness went to see a drama that would have tickled Nero’s fancy to a T. It dragged the mind through scenes of vice, and at the end, as a sop to decency, made the sinner suffer for his sins. "Wonderful!" said the woman. "How much good that must be doing!" That is stark nonsense. Must we learn all over again in this realm what so laboriously we have had to learn in others? Our fathers used to witness the public execution of criminals. The theory was that the sight of violent death in punishment for crime would teach the people a lesson. But it did no such thing. The penologists learned that after public executions murders and crimes of violence increased. They discovered that "brutality begets brutality." In consequence, we keep our executions behind closed doors.

So, too, it is arrant imbecility for us to suppose that our unashamed and vociferous sex interest, our sex dramas, sex novels, sex films, sex lectures, and sex caricatures of psychoanalysis, with all their information, are helping to cleanse the life of our youth. Their effect is not cleansing but coarsening. They do not waken the aspiration for purity; they accustom the mind to impurity. We cannot wash our linen clean in dirty water.

The ultimate protection of youth against uncleanliness lies in an inbred respect for life’s sanctities. A mother who has given to her son a deep reverence for womanhood has rendered to his purity the fundamental service. A church that has undergirded a youth with the positive consciousness that his life is sacred has conferred the indispensable gift. Often in matters of sex this respect for life’s sanctities is associated with a sense of mystery, fortunately not yet dissipated by pestilential amateurs trying to save the world by telling all they know. Without that inward sense of honor, no information matters; with it, it is surprising what admirable results previous generations with all their reticence often obtained.

When we were children and had to cross a creek on a single log, we learned a trick which stood us in good stead. If we looked down at the swirling water underneath, the chances were more than even that we would fall in. But if we picked out a tree upon the other bank and held our heads up to look at it we could walk across. The trouble with our generation’s present method of dealing with the sex problem lies in the endlessly repeated call to look down. "Look down," cry the books. "Consider how appalling impurity is!" "Look down," cry the plays. "Consider the terrible aftermath of impurity!" "Look down," cry the reformers. "See the horrible pit of impurity into which you are likely to fall!" Is it not about time that tune should be changed? How would it be if more voices were raised telling the young people to look up?

The positive ideal of a clean life that holds a high opinion of itself is youth’s ultimate protection. Phillips Brooks put it once in unforgettable words: "To keep clear of concealment, to keep clear of the need of concealment, to do nothing which he might not do out on the middle of Boston Common at noon-day, -- I cannot say how more and more that seems to me to be the glory of a young man’s life. It is an awful hour when the first necessity of hiding anything comes. . . . Put off that day as long as possible. Put it off forever if you can."

Self-respect like this establishes an instinctive quarantine in the mind. A self-respecting man, like a self-respecting country, will not allow plagues and pestilences to enter his ports. A ship may be very popular, with folk of prestige and wealth aboard to increase its credit, but if it carries pestilence it has to stop. Such a quarantine of the mind is inevitably set up in a man who holds a high opinion of himself, and nothing is more needed today among our youth.


One reason why it is of vital concern to every citizen, whatever his special form of religious belief, that real religion should flourish in the commonwealth is that religion has always taught men thus to respect life’s sanctities. Go into any land in any generation and religion has always been saying about something, "This must not be desecrated." To be sure, it may have been only a painted stick, a hideous idol, an altar red with sacrificial blood. Yet even in its crude and cruel forms religion has been doing humanity this service: it has kept alive the consciousness of something in human life which must not be violated. Imagine some scene where Roman armies fall upon a little country, sure in time to be crushed under the heel of the conqueror. See the feeble band of desperate men and women as they leave their city walls to the invader, give up their homes and hearths and draw in about their temple and their shrine. As they fall in defense of their holy place, for all the poor form of their devotion, there is this element of sublimity: they do believe that something in life is so sacred that a man would better die than have it violated.

No civilization will long survive the loss of that conviction. When that conviction appears in its finest form, it lifts life to its highest levels. One of the distinctive marks of Christianity at its best is that it teaches men to hold a very lofty opinion of themselves. They are children of God, made in his image, destined for his character. Not an outward temple, but the inward shrine of man’s personality with all its possibilities and powers is seen to be infinitely sacred. Men say about themselves things the like of which they never had said before -- "now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be." Men even dare to think that because their spiritual lives are the offspring of the Eternal Spirit, they are of essential importance in his eyes and have, therefore, illimitable possibilities and a glorious destiny. One central effect of religion at its best has been immeasurably to increase man’s self-respect.

If one protests, upon the contrary, that Christianity has often depressed man’s view of himself, insisting terribly on his sinfulness and depravity, the answer is plain. Only when you start by appreciating the high value of anything are you likely with any energy to deplore its prostitution. It is said that a servant once beat the household rugs with the master’s flute. She doubtless was well content with the performance, but he was not. He knew what a flute was for. He raged at its misuse. So Christianity, loftily estimating what human personality was meant to be, has raged against sin, has said terrific things about man’s wickedness, not because it held a low opinion of him, but because it held a high opinion.

One of the most important intellectual and practical problems of our time is the maintenance of this high estimate of the worth and greatness of human life against the devastating effects of a materialistic philosophy. The final result of materialism is to strip all sanctity from life, reduce everything to the activity of physical atoms, make human spirits helpless cogs in a gigantic mechanism, and in the end to present a picture of humanity born of the dust, doomed to the dust, without spiritual origin, spiritual meaning, or spiritual destiny. That undercuts everything that is excellent and august and beautiful in humanity. Many people treat religion as a negligible matter. The fact is that religion is fighting the battle for something indispensable to human welfare: the sense of something sacred here which must not be profaned.


Approaching religion from this angle, one sees that almost everybody has a religion of some sort. There are only a few lives without a spot of sacredness somewhere. A stranger may for hours wander about some old and poor quarter of London, peering into the show windows, casually interested in the traffic of the street, wondering at the hurly-burly of the city, and then, when least expecting it, may light upon some church so hidden that one easily could miss it. Slipping in, he will find an ancient shrine where kings have worshipped and martyrs lie buried, with glorious old windows where the light shines through the scenes of the Savior’s passion. So in the heart of many a man, overtopped and smothered by "business," unsuspected by his chance acquaintances, is to be found a hidden shrine. He is not so utterly irreligious as he sometimes seems. There is something in his life concerning which, at least at times, he feels a profound sense of sacredness.

Moreover, this hidden shrine, which often seems uninfluential, sometimes asserts itself with overwhelming power. Why is it so hard to sin? Why, when the lower passions gain control, can we not give them vent and be at peace as are the beasts? They are not ashamed. They do not do what we do -- go around for years with dark memories in our hearts at the thought of which we cringe and yet to which with fascinated reminiscence our minds miserably return. Here is a man who has vilely wronged his family in such a way that he can never be found out; yet he brings the family to the minister’s confessional and there pours out the story of his guilt. His hidden sanctities have risen in revolt. The temple of the living God in him has cried out against its desecration. For the sense of sin is the sense of sacrilege.

Indeed, anyone who starts by holding a high opinion of himself will certainly end by being ashamed of himself. Self-esteem and self-conceit are opposites. When a man thinks loftily of his life’s meaning he is hard to satisfy. The real reason why so many people think too much of themselves is that they do not think enough of themselves.

Few things are more important in our civilization than churches which worthily and intelligently will fulfill this inner function of religion, which will beget and develop in men a controlling sense of life’s sanctities.

Indeed, this is indispensable not only to individual quality but to social reform. Every great moral campaign in history has been a protest against sacrilege. This is true of the crusades. When those knights headed for the Holy Land on a campaign that would cost the lives of so many of them, it was because they felt that something on earth, even though only an empty sepulcher in Palestine, was sacred and must not be desecrated. So, too, the driving power of all modern social movements is resentment against sacrilege. Child labor is sacrilege, for little children are holy and ought not to be ground up in our industrial order. War is sacrilege, for the personalities of men and women, boys and girls are sacred, and war debauches them. The liquor traffic is sacrilege, for it seeks profit from the damnation of human souls. Twelve-hour shifts in industry and inadequate compensation and indecent conditions of living are sacrilege, for they wrong human personality.

One often hears it said that religion has no business to try to decide economic and international questions. That statement can be so interpreted as to be true. But one thing is the business of religion; it always has been the business of religion -- to lay its hands upon life’s holy places and insist that they shall not be violated. The ministers of religion used to emphasize the sanctity of temples, shrines, the bones of saints, and holy relics. Now, however, religion will lay her hands on the real sanctity -- human personality -- and will fight with all the fierceness of the crusaders against its profanation.

This, then, is the conclusion of the matter: life can be either consecration or desecration, and no test of character goes much deeper than the decision as to which of these two it shall be.