Today in My Commonplace


I found more in Sir Gibbie (affiliate link) to think about. This is one long paragraph from the author… His main character, although dim, is angelically good, and he anticipates that people be annoyed at how unrealistic this is. Here it is, in one giant, unwieldy paragraph.

If any one thinks I am unfaithful to human fact, and overcharge the description of this child, I on my side doubt the extent of the experience of that man or woman. I admit the child a rarity, but a rarity in the right direction, and therefore a being with whom humanity has the greater need to be made acquainted. I admit that the best things are the commonest, but the highest types and the best combinations of them are the rarest. There is more love in the world than anything else, for instance; but the best love and the individual in whom love is supreme are the rarest of all things. That for which humanity has the strongest claim upon its workmen, is the representation of its own best; but the loudest demand of the present day is for the representation of that grade of humanity of which men see the most—that type of things which could never have been but that it might pass. The demand marks the commonness, narrowness, low-levelled satisfaction of the age. It loves its own—not that which might be, and ought to be its own—not its better self, infinitely higher than its present, for the sake of whose approach it exists. I do not think that the age is worse in this respect than those which have preceded it, but that vulgarity, and a certain vile contentment swelling to self-admiration, have become more vocal than hitherto; just as unbelief, which I think in reality less prevailing than in former ages, has become largely more articulate, and thereby more loud and peremptory. But whatever the demand of the age, I insist that that which ought to be presented to its beholding, is the common good uncommonly developed, and that not because of its rarity, but because it is truer to humanity. Shall I admit those conditions, those facts, to be true exponents of humanity, which, except they be changed, purified, or abandoned, must soon cause that humanity to cease from its very name, must destroy its very being? To make the admission would be to assert that a house may be divided against itself, and yet stand. It is the noble, not the failure from the noble, that is the true human; and if I must show the failure, let it ever be with an eye to the final possible, yea, imperative, success. But in our day, a man who will accept any oddity of idiosyncratic development in manners, tastes, or habits, will refuse, not only as improbable, but as inconsistent with human nature, the representation of a man trying to be merely as noble as is absolutely essential to his being—except, indeed, he be at the same time represented as failing utterly in the attempt, and compelled to fall back upon the imperfections of humanity, and acknowledge them as its laws. Its improbability, judged by the experience of most men I admit; its unreality in fact I deny; and its absolute unity with the true idea of humanity, I believe and assert.

Now, I know not everyone reads 140-year-old English every day, so really it’s tempting to immediately go not only into TL;DR mode, it’s almost tempting to go into TC;DR mode, where C stands for complicated.

But I really liked this paragraph so much that I’m just going to have to break it down for you and force you to notice the deep thoughts therein.

Yes, Macdonald readily admits–the goodness of little Gibbie is a rarity, but it’s a rarity of the right kind. Humanity at large really needs to be exposed to the examples of uncommon goodness far more than what is usually demanded from literature (and I might add, TV shows and movies)… that is, a faithful representation of the mediocre.

Think about it. The demand is for believably flawed heroes. People don’t want to read about the nearly-perfect; they don’t want to have to compare themselves to a hero and find themselves so much less than their hero. It’s much easier to live with the comforting fact, that yes, Hero A is pretty awesome, but hey, he’s not so much different from myself, given Huge Failing #1. He’s a flawed hero. Maybe I’m a flawed hero. Sometimes, we seem to be more concerned with feeling good about our flawed selves than we are concerned with aspiring to be less flawed. We want to be satisfied with ourselves, not forced to put forth effort and become a better person.

Macdonald insists though, that we must have presented to our view, the stories of insanely good people. Sure the stories of the common certainly have their place, but not to the exclusion of the stories of the uncommonly virtuous. After all, if we wallow in our failings, and even celebrate our failings, a downfall is sure to come. Aspiring to be greater is what will help humanity.

Now, of course, I’m looking at my little rehash of what Macdonald said, and I find it lacking. This calls for a re-read of the original paragraph. And then a really long, really deep think.




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