Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 19

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A very high standard, again, involves the possession of rare virtues, and rare virtues are like rare plants or animals, things that have not been able to hold their own in the world.  A virtue to be serviceable must, like gold, be alloyed with some commoner but more durable metal.

People divide off vice and virtue as though they were two things, neither of which had with it anything of the other.  This is not so.  There is no useful virtue which has not some alloy of vice, and hardly any vice, if any, which carries not with it a little dash of virtue; virtue and vice are like life and death, or mind and matter—things which cannot exist without being qualified by their opposite.  The most absolute life contains death, and the corpse is still in many respects living; so also it has been said, “If thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss,” which shows that even the highest ideal we can conceive will yet admit so much compromise with vice as shall countenance the poor abuses of the time, if they are not too outrageous.  That vice pays homage to virtue is notorious; we call this hypocrisy; there should be a word found for the homage which virtue not unfrequently pays, or at any rate would be wise in paying, to vice.

I grant that some men will find happiness in having what we all feel to be a higher moral standard than others.  If they go in for this, however, they must be content with virtue as her own reward, and not grumble if they find lofty Quixotism an expensive luxury, whose rewards belong to a kingdom that is not of this world.  They must not wonder if they cut a poor figure in trying to make the most of both worlds.  Disbelieve as we may the details of the accounts which record the growth of the Christian religion, yet a great part of Christian teaching will remain as true as though we accepted the details.  We cannot serve God and Mammon; strait is the way and narrow is the gate which leads to what those who live by faith hold to be best worth having, and there is no way of saying this better than the Bible has done.  It is well there should be some who think thus, as it is well there should be speculators in commerce, who will often burn their fingers—but it is not well that the majority should leave the “mean” and beaten path.

For most men, and most circumstances, pleasure—tangible material prosperity in this world—is the safest test of virtue.  Progress has ever been through the pleasures rather than through the extreme sharp virtues, and the most virtuous have leaned to excess rather than to asceticism.  To use a commercial metaphor, competition is so keen, and the margin of profits has been cut down so closely that virtue cannot afford to throw any bona fide chance away, and must base her action rather on the actual moneying out of conduct than on a flattering prospectus.  She will not therefore neglect—as some do who are prudent and economical enough in other matters—the important factor of our chance of escaping detection, or at any rate of our dying first.  A reasonable virtue will give this chance its due value, neither more nor less.

Pleasure, after all, is a safer guide than either right or duty.  For hard as it is to know what gives us pleasure, right and duty are often still harder to distinguish and, if we go wrong with them, will lead us into just as sorry a plight as a mistaken opinion concerning pleasure.  When men burn their fingers through following after pleasure they find out their mistake and get to see where they have gone wrong more easily than when they have burnt them through following after a fancied duty, or a fancied idea concerning right virtue.  The devil, in fact, when he dresses himself in angel’s clothes, can only be detected by experts of exceptional skill, and so often does he adopt this disguise that it is hardly safe to be seen talking to an angel at all, and prudent people will follow after pleasure as a more homely but more respectable and on the whole much more trustworthy guide.

Returning to Mr Pontifex, over and above his having lived long and prosperously, he left numerous offspring, to all of whom he communicated not only his physical and mental characteristics, with no more than the usual amount of modification, but also no small share of characteristics which are less easily transmitted—I mean his pecuniary characteristics.  It may be said that he acquired these by sitting still and letting money run, as it were, right up against him, but against how many does not money run who do not take it when it does, or who, even if they hold it for a little while, cannot so incorporate it with themselves that it shall descend through them to their offspring?  Mr Pontifex did this.  He kept what he may be said to have made, and money is like a reputation for ability—more easily made than kept.

Take him, then, for all in all, I am not inclined to be so severe upon him as my father was.  Judge him according to any very lofty standard, and he is nowhere.  Judge him according to a fair average standard, and there is not much fault to be found with him.  I have said what I have said in the foregoing chapter once for all, and shall not break my thread to repeat it.  It should go without saying in modification of the verdict which the reader may be inclined to pass too hastily, not only upon Mr George Pontifex, but also upon Theobald and Christina.  And now I will continue my story.