The Virginian looked on at this, silent and somber. He could scarcely interfere between another man and his own beast. Neither he nor Balaam was among those who say their prayers. Yet in this omission they were not equal. A half-great poet once had a wholly great day, and in that great day he was able to write a poem that has lived and become, with many, a household word. He called it The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And it is rich with many lines that possess the memory; but these are the golden ones:—
He prayeth well who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
These lines are pure gold. They are good to teach children; because after the children come to be men, they may believe at least some part of them still. The Virginian did not know them,—but his heart had taught him many things. I doubt if Balaam knew them either. But on him they would have been as pearls to swine.
This is an interesting little book. The father of all the Westerns and it’s easy to see why. It sets up the frontier morality of good versus evil that all subsequent westerns seem to embody. But it goes deeper than Hollywood usually does, exploring what happens when good must do evil in order to be good. I think my favorite part of the book are the two chapters, “Progress of the Lost Dog,” from which the above quote is taken, and, “Balaam and Pedro.” In many ways they seem to come out of nowhere, as many of the episodes of the book do, but together they comprise an engaging and tight little morality play about archetypal elements of human nature in conflict with one another.
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The cow-boys were told that not only they could do no good, but that if they did continue to, it would not help them. Nay, more, not only honest deeds availed them nothing, but even if they accepted this especial creed which was being explained to them as necessary for salvation, still it might not save them. Their sin was indeed the cause of their damnation, yet, keeping from sin, they might nevertheless be lost. It had all been settled for them not only before they were born, but before Adam was shaped. Having told them this, he invited them to glorify the Creator of the scheme. Even if damned, they must praise the person who had made them expressly for damnation.
Sometimes life is full of funny coincidences. The perfectly random elements that decide the order of books I read, brings this one and this little passage within it to my attention at the same time I’m trudging through Rick Warren’s treatise on the purpose of life (which had an even more random trajectory into my world). Thanks, Owen, for summing up my thoughts so well, even writing them as you did 103 years ago. Rick, how many people have been conned by your tired philosophy since Owen’s time?
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Judge Henry sat thinking, waiting until school should be out. He did not at all relish what lay before him. He would like to have got out of it. He had been a federal judge; he had been an upright judge; he had met the responsibilities of his difficult office not only with learning, which is desirable, but also with courage and common sense besides, and these are essential. He had been a staunch servant of the law. And now he was invited to defend that which, at first sight, nay, even at second and third sight, must always seem a defiance of the law more injurious than crime itself. Every good man in this world has convictions about right and wrong. They are his soul’s riches, his spiritual gold. When his conduct is at variance with these, he knows that it is a departure, a falling; and this is a simple and clear matter. If falling were all that ever happened to a good man, all his days would be a simple matter of striving and repentance. But it is not all. There come to him certain junctures, crises, when life, like a highwayman, springs upon him, demanding that he stand and deliver his convictions in the name of some righteous cause, bidding him do evil that good may come. I cannot say that I believe in doing evil that good may come. I do not. I think that any man who honestly justifies such a course deceived himself. But this I can say: to call any act evil, instantly begs the question. Many an act that man does is right or wrong according to the time and place which form, so to speak, its context; strip it of its particular circumstances, and you tear away its meaning. Gentlemen reformers, beware of this common practice of yours! Beware of calling an act evil on Tuesday because that same act was evil on Monday!
Do you fail to follow my meaning? Then here is an illustration. On Monday I walk over my neighbor’s field; there is no wrong in such walking. By Tuesday he has put up a sign that trespassers will be prosecuted according to law. I walk again on Tuesday, and am a law-breaker. Do you begin to see my point? Or are you inclined to object to the illustration because the walking on Tuesday was not wrong, but merely illegal? Then here is another illustration which you will find a trifle more embarrassing to answer. Consider carefully, let me beg you, the case of a young man and young woman who walk out of a door on Tuesday, pronounced man and wife by a third party inside the door. It matters not that on Monday they were, in their own hearts, sacredly vowed to each other. If they had omitted stepping inside that door, if they had dispensed with that third party, and gone away on Monday sacredly vowed to each other in their own hearts, you would have scarcely found their conduct moral. Consider these things carefully—the sign-post and the third party—and the difference they make, And now, for a finish, we will return to the sign-post.
Suppose that I went over my neighbor’s field on Tuesday, after the sign-post was put up, because I saw a murder about to be committed in the field, and therefore ran in and stopped it. Was I doing evil that good might come? Do you not think that to stay out and let the murder be done would have been the evil act in this case? To disobey the sign-post was right; and I trust that you now perceive the same act may wear as many different hues of right or wrong as the rainbow, according to the atmosphere in which it is done. It is not safe to say of any man, “He did evil that good might come.” Was the thing that he did, in the first place, evil? That is the question.
Forgive my asking you to use your mind. It is a thing which no novelist should expect of his reader, and we will go back at once to Judge Henry and his meditations about lynching.