Essay Unselfishness

Next to modesty and simplicity I class the moral virtue of unselfishness. It is very characteristic that we have no other word for this noble quality than the mere negation of its opposite—the most prevalent vice in the world. Why can we not describe it better? Because in particular connections it has other names—loyalty, devotion, self-sacrifice, which occupy a part of the ground with more especial attributes. We are not here concerned with these heights of human nature, 55with the nobility of grand and pathetic moments. What shows itself in these as devotion and self-sacrifice bears in our commonplace life a negative and non-descriptive name, and is yet a very distinct and valuable quality, distinct from simplicity, distinct even from sympathy, with which it is so often allied; it may display itself in all kinds of men and women who take part in a conversation. It is not less important to the silent man than to the talkative man, though the latter case is the more obvious. The good talker who monopolises conversation, who insists on keeping other people waiting that he may finish his story, who tells anecdotes which are evidently unpleasant to some of the company, but will not forego his joke for the sake of others—the social bully who makes butts of the more retiring, and sallies at their expense, is the most obvious case of a man failing from selfishness, and losing the great 56natural advantages he possesses through want of the opposite quality. This is the man too who interrupts others, who refuses to exercise for a moment that patience which he so often exacts.

I have spoken of these people as failures, and such they really are, in the truest and highest sense, for they certainly kill more conversation than they create, nor do they understand that the very meaning of the word implies a contribution-feast, an eranos as the Greeks would say, not the entertainment provided by a single host. But alas! in a lesser and looser sense these people often dominate society for years, and are even sought out as social conveniences, who will keep things going at a dinner table, and supply the defects of silence and dulness so painfully common in English more than in other societies. But the punishment of the selfish talker is sure to come at last, when he lives till his vivacity and his power of acquiring 57new things fail, while he still presumes on his old reputation. He is then discovered to be an intolerable bore, which, indeed from a higher point of view, was always the case; and thereupon society, which is as selfish as he is, and insists on being amused at all costs, throws him aside with contempt. He has perhaps still one place of refuge; he may become a high priest in that great modern temple of selfishness—his club; but even there his popularity has waned, and he sinks into the old age unfriended and unsociable—ἄφιλον ἀπροσὀμιλον—which Sophocles regarded as one of the tragic features in the life of man.

  • 20. I turn now to a far more common, but less observed and less censured case of social selfishness, which requires urgently to be brought into the light of criticism. No man requires to practise unselfishness more than the silent man; for as everybody is able 58to contribute and ought to contribute something, so the man who thrusts himself into society to enjoy the talk of others, and will take no trouble to help, to suggest, or to encourage, is really a serious criminal. I have known a person of good position, and not the least wanting in brains, who would insist in sitting at dinner between the two most agreeable people in the room, in order that he might eat and listen, while under no circumstances would he make the smallest effort to entertain in return. These silent people not only take all they can get in society for nothing, but they take it without the smallest gratitude, and have the audacity afterwards to censure those who have laboured for their amusement.

I ask the reader’s pardon for illustrating this important fact by a personal anecdote. In a country house where I was staying, the host had invited the colonel commanding a neighbouring dèpôt and his wife to 59dinner, and the conversation was flagging seriously. Some mention of New Zealand in that day’s papers suggested it as a topic, upon which a couple of us brought out all we knew about New Zealand, discussed the natives, then savages generally, and so restored the fortunes of the evening. The colonel and his wife still sat silent. When they were gone, we said to the host that we thought it very hard work to entertain people who would not say anything to anybody. He replied that they had said something as they got into their carriage. What was it? The colonel observed that it was very impertinent of people to talk about countries they had never seen, especially in presence of a man like himself, who had not only lived for years in New Zealand, but had written a book about it! This was the thanks we got.

  • 21. There is another special scope for unselfishness in society, which may 60fitly find its place here. In every company there may be people either socially or intellectually inferior to the rest, who feel themselves somewhat out of it(to use a vulgar phrase), and whom the selfish man, the big talker, the ambitious man is apt to ignore. And yet these very people may be in possession of knowledge or of mental qualities which will be of the highest value in conversation. It requires unselfishness to watch them, to appeal to their sympathies, to draw them into the stream and make them feel that instead of being outsiders they are really among people anxious to know what they think and hear what they have to say. Many a time have I seen an unknown and obscure person drawn in this way and become the leading feature in a delightful evening, for fresh and curious knowledge, which suddenly springs from an unexpected source, can hardly fail to be profoundly interesting, 61and to stimulate all the active minds that hear it. Thus I remember a stupid young man successfully probed by an intelligent person, till it accidentally came out that he knew all about the wild cattle in Lord Tankerville’s park (Chillingham Forest). From that moment he took the lead in the conversation, and excited a most interesting discussion, in which several very dull country farmers took an animated interest.

All this can be done by mere intellectual unselfishness, by the man or woman who considers that each person in a society should be attended to, and if possible compelled to contribute to the general entertainment. But it is both rare to find this kind of unselfishness and difficult to apply it without the subsidiary faculty or constitution of mind, which many think the whole root of good conversation—I mean sympathy.

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