This is a moral maxim. one which very beautifully expresses the superiority of ethical over material merit. It will do immense good to mankind if the noble and lofty teachings embodied in this and other such maxims were duly unfolded and their implications clearly explained.
Life is a development in which the endeavor of man should be to travel daily towards greater and greater perfection. A life which has no direction to move in and in which one only lives in the physical sense is called ‘vegetation,’ which means living like a thing without mind, growing merely physically. Such a life is a descending from the higher human level to a lower unconscious and unthinking level. The superiority of man over the rest of the creation consists in nothing but in this possession of a mind and an urge to excel in things of the mind and the spirit rather than in things of the body.
From this point we come to the next. What are the great directions in which human life is to seek its perfection or the fulness of its development ? These directions are variously called moral aims, ideals or values. An ideal is a state of perfection towards which we must endeavour to travel, but which is so high that we human beings, with our limited span of life and the so many weaknesses inherent in us, may never hope to achieve it. But there is great merit even in having felt the urge and the pull of the ideal and in having made an effort to rise towards it.
A value means an idea which represents something which is good in itself rather than for the sake of something else. A little distinction will make what we mean hy value exactly clearly. Wealth is a good thing, but it is not good in itself. It is good only in so far as it helps us to achieve some other ends, for example, the necessities of life, power, influence, etc. These other things which come as a consequence of possessing wealth in their own turn may not be good in themselves, but may only be a means to still further ends. On the other hand, contemplating nobility is something good in itself ; it is desirable in itself, and we cannot imagine it to be only an intervening stage to the attainment of something higher than itself. It is itself the highest. It is, therefore, ‘value’.
The maxim which stands at the head of this essay expresses the conception of a value. Our criterion of judgment in life is ordinarily limited and shallow. We are carried away either by stupidity or by selfishness in valuing things of a lower kind. Thus, we feel more pride in associating with a stupid rich man than with a wise poor one; we regard a man who is socially influential as fundamentally better than one who is not so influential. These are all wrong criteria and. wrong judgements. Goodness does not lie in wealth or in power. These are merely amoral or non-moral things, neither good nor had. Their goodness or hadness is to be determined by the direction which they take, by the use to which they are put. The thing which is really good, and which determines whether a man is good or ‘handsome,’ whether he is worthy of our praise or not, is this quality of doing something ‘handsome,’ that is morally good.