MY BROTHER'S KEEPER
Letters from James Alexander (1804-1859)
to his younger brother, on the virtues and
vices, the duties and dangers of youth.
My dear brother,
The ancients made fortitude one of the four cardinal virtues; meaning by this term, not merely the power of enduring pain—but everything that we now call courage; and they used to say, with truth, that where there was no fortitude, the other virtues were left defenseless. I have often thought that half the bad actions of boys arise from a sort of cowardice, a lack of manly independence. Peter will not wear his new hat for several days after he gets it, for fear James will laugh at him. And James, though he knows it is wrong to play truant, does so, lest Charles should think him a coward.
Make it a rule for life to do what you know to be right, no matter what others think or say. Do your duty, and leave the consequences to God. Some people lose their souls from neglect of this. They know very well that they ought to pray, and read the Scriptures, and attend on other means of grace, and own Christ by a public profession; but they are afraid of the scoffs of the world-they hesitate-they procrastinate-they are lost.
Remember, my dear boy, that you are now forming your character for life. When you trained the woodbine vine around the columns of our piazza, its stock was very slender. You could bend it with your finger and thumb. I looked at it yesterday; it is as thick as my wrist, and perfectly hard and immovable. You might break it—but you could not possibly alter its twists. The woodbine vine has a habit of being twisted. This habit was formed when it was tender and supple. If it had been trained between long iron bars, I suppose it might have got a habit of being straight. But it is now too late to straighten it.
Now, is it not possible that my dear brother is growing crooked? You understand my meaning. Is it not possible that you are getting habits which are wrong? My heart's wish is for you to grow up in such a way as to be erect, upright, and noble—in all your principles. If you are always calculating what John, or Maria, or this man, or those girls, or the world at large will think of you—it is certain you can never have any manly firmness. I wish you to begin from the hour you read this, to do what is right in every particular case, in spite of what ignorant or wicked youth may say.
There is Lewis Lee, your Philadelphia acquaintance. He is altogether a slave to other people's notions. I remember that last summer he refused to accompany his mother to the steamboat, because he had found out that some young men in Chestnut Street had made fun of the cut of his coat. Lewis cannot bear to be the object of ridicule. Again I say, be independent. Try to get right opinions, and to do right acts; and bid defiance to the idle remarks of others.
But do not be hasty in forming opinions—nor obstinate in retaining them. Take the advice of the wise and the good, and use every means to learn the best path. Only stick to it when you are sure that you are in it.
Lack of this courage and firmness ruins thousands of young men every year. In our colleges, most of the disturbances and rebellions which take place are from this source. A few youth, who are perhaps already in disgrace, entice a number of others into their plots; and the latter, like silly sheep, follow wherever the ringleaders go. Why? O, because it would expose them to contempt or insult to go back, or return to honorable obedience. They put on a bold face—but they are chicken-hearted in reality. Not one of them can stand alone, or think for himself. O beware of such yielding weakness! "Fear God, my children," said a great Frenchman, "have no other fear."
Your affectionate brother,