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Concerning People Who Know They Are Going Wrong
by [?]

Moralists in general have made a somewhat serious error in supposing that one has only to show a man the true aspect of any given evil in order to make sure of his avoiding it. Of late so many sad things have been witnessed in public and private life that one is tempted to doubt whether abstract morality is of any use whatever in the world. One may tell a man that a certain course is dangerous or fatal; one may show by every device of logic and illustration that he should avoid the said course, and he will fully admit the truth of one’s contentions; yet he is not deterred from his folly, and he goes on toward ruin with a sort of blind abandonment. “Blind,” I say. That is but a formal phrase; for it happens that the very men and women who wreck their lives by doing foolish things are those who are keenest in detecting folly and wisest in giving advice to others. “Educate the people, and you will find that a steady diminution of vice, debauchery, and criminality must set in.” I am not talking about criminality at present; but I am bound to say that no amount of enlightenment seems to diminish the tendency toward forms of folly which approach criminality. It is almost confounding to see how lucid of mind and how sane in theoretical judgment are the men who sometimes steep themselves in folly and even in vice. A wicked man boasted much of his own wickedness to some fellow-travellers during a brief sea-voyage. He said, “I like doing wrong for the sake of doing it. When you know you are outraging the senses of decent people there is a kind of excitement about it.” This contemptible cynic told with glee stories of his own vileness which made good men look at him with scorn; but he fancied himself the cleverest of men. With the grave nearly ready for him, he could chuckle over things which he had done–things which proved him base, although none of them brought him within measurable distance of the dock. But such instances are quite rare. The man whose vision is lucid, but who nevertheless goes wrong, is usually a prey to constant misery or to downright remorse. Look at Burns’s epitaph, composed by himself for himself. It is a dreadful thing. It is more than verse; it is a sermon, a prophecy, a word of doom; and it tells with matchless terseness the story of many men who are at this hour passing to grim ruin either of body or soul or both. Burns had such magnificent common sense that in his last two lines he sums up almost everything that is worth saying on the subject; and yet that fatal lack of will which I have so often lamented made all his theoretical good sense as naught He could give one every essential of morality and conduct–in theory–and he was one of the most convincing and wise preachers who ever lived; but that mournful epitaph summarises the results of all his mighty gifts; and I think that it should be learned by all young men, on the chance that some few might possibly be warned and convinced. Advice is of scanty use to men of keen reason who are capable of composing precepts for themselves; but to the duller sort I certainly think that the flash of a sudden revelation given in concise words is beneficial. Here is poor Burns’s saying–

Is there a man whose judgment clear
Can others teach the course to steer,
Yet runs himself life’s mad career
Wild as the wave?
Here pause, and through the starting tear
Survey this grave.

The poor inhabitant below
Was quick to learn and wise to know,
And keenly felt the kindly glow
And softer flame;
But thoughtless follies laid him low
And stained his name.