The Nature of Goodness
by George Herbert Palmer

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Public Domain Books

George Herbert Palmer, (1842-1933)
Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy and Civil Polity
Harvard University
Portrait: 1926, 40 x 30 inches, Oil

V. Self-Development


Conceivably a being such, as has been described might advance no farther. Conscious he might be, observant of everything going on within him and without; occupied too with inducing the very changes he observes, and yet with no aim to enlarge himself or improve the world through any of the changes so induced. Complete within himself at the beginning, he might be equally so at the close, his activity being undertaken for the mere sake of action, and not for any beneficial results following in its train. Still, even such a being would be better off while acting than if quiet, and by his readiness to act would show that he felt the need of at least temporary betterment. In actual cases the need goes deeper.

A being capable of self-direction ordinarily has capacities imperfectly realized. Changing other things, he also changes himself; and it becomes a part of his aim in action to make these changes advantageous, and each act helpfully reactive. Accordingly the aim at self-development regularly attends self-direction. I could not, therefore, properly discuss my last topic without in some measure anticipating this. Every ideal of action, I was obliged to say, includes within it an aim at some sort of betterment of the actor. Our business, then, in the present chapter is not to announce a new theme, but simply to render explicit what before was implied. We must detach from action the influence which it throws back upon us, the actors. We must make this influence plain, exhibit its method, and show wherein it differs from other processes in some respects similar.


The most obvious fact about self-development is that it is a species of change, and that change is associated with sadness. Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher of the Greeks, discovered this fact five hundred years before Christ. “Nothing abides,” he said, “all is fleeting.” We stand in a moving tide, unable to bathe twice in the same stream; before we can stoop a second time the flood is gone. In every age this is the common theme of lamentation for poet, moralist, common man and woman. All other causes of sadness are secondary to it. As soon as we have comprehended anything, have fitted it to our lives and learned to love it, it is gone.

Such is the aspect which change ordinarily presents. It is tied up with grief. We regard what is precious as stable; and yet we are obliged to confess that nothing on earth is stable–nothing among physical things, and just as little among mental and spiritual things. But there are many kinds of change. We are apt to confuse them with one another, and in so doing to carry over to the nobler sorts thoughts applicable only to the lower. In beginning, then, the discussion of self-development, I think it will conduce to clearness if I offer a conspectus of all imaginable changes. I will set them in groups and show their different kinds, exhibiting first those which are most elementary, then those more complex, and finally those so dark and important that they pass over into a region of mystery and paradox.


Probably all will agree that the simplest possible change is the accidental sort, that where only relations of space are altered. My watch, now lying in the middle of the desk, is shifted to the right side, is laid in its case, or is lost in the street. I call these changes accidental, because they in no way affect the nature of the watch. They are not really changes in it, but in its surroundings. The watch still remains what it was before. To the same group we might refer a large number of other changes where no inner alteration is wrought. The watch is now in a brilliant light; I lay my hand on it, and it is in darkness. Its place has not been changed, but that of the light has been. Many of the commonest changes in life are of this sort. They are accidental or extraneous changes. In them, through all its change, the thing abides. There is no necessary alteration of its nature.


But unhappily this is not the only species of change. It is not that which has brought a wail from the ages, when men have seen what they prize slip away. The common root of sorrow has been destructive change. Holding the watch in my hand, I may drop it on the floor; and at once the crystal, which has been so transparently protective, is gone. If the floor is of stone, the back of the watch may be wrenched away, the wheels of its delicate machinery jarred asunder. Destruction has come upon it, and not merely an extraneous accident. In consequence of altered surroundings, dissolution is wrought within. Change of a lamentable sort has come. What before was a beautiful whole, organically constituted in the way described in my first two chapters, has been torn asunder. What we formerly beheld with delight has disappeared.

And let us not accept false comfort. We often hear it said that, after all, destruction is an illusion. There is no such thing. What is once in the world is here forever. No particle of the watch can by any possibility be lost. And what is true of the watch is true of things far higher, of persons even. When persons decay and die, may not their destruction be only in outward seeming? We cannot imagine absolute cessation. As well imagine an absolute beginning. There is no loss. Everything abides. Only to our apprehension do destructive changes occur. We are all familiar with consolation of this sort, and how inwardly unsatisfactory it is! For while it is true that no particle of the watch is destroyed, it is precisely those particles which were in our minds of little consequence. Almost equally well they might have been of gold, silver, or steel. The precious part of the, watch was the organization of its particles, and that is gone. The face and form of my friend can indeed be blotted out in no single item. But I care nothing for its material items, The totality may be wrecked, and it is that totality to which my affections cling. And so it is in the world around–material remains, organic wholeness goes. It is almost a sarcasm of nature that she counts our precious things so cheap, while the bricks and mortar of which these are made–matters on which no human affection can fasten–she holds for everlasting. The lamentations of the ages, then, have not erred. Something tragic is involved in the framework of the universe. In order to abide, divulsion must occur. Destruction of organism is going on all around us, and ever will go on. Things must unceasingly be torn apart. One might call this destructive and lamentable change the only steadfast feature of the world.


Yet after all, and often in this very process of divulsion, we catch glimpses of a nobler sort of change, For there is a third species to which I might perhaps give the name of transforming: change. When, for example, a certain portion of oxygen and a certain portion of hydrogen, each having its own distinctive qualities, are brought into contact with one another, they utterly change. The qualities of both disappear, and a new set of qualities takes their place. The old ones are gone,–gone, but not lost; for they have been transformed into new ones of a predetermined and constant kind. Only a single sort of change is open to these elements when in each other’s presence, and in precisely that way they will always change. In so changing they do not, it is true, fully keep their past; but a fixed relation to it they do keep, and under certain conditions may return to it again. The transforming changes of chemistry, then, are of a different nature from those of the mechanic destruction just described. In those the ruined organism leaves not a wrack behind. In chemic change something definite is held, something that originally was planned and can he prophesied. An end is attained: the fixed combination of just so much oxygen with just so much hydrogen for the making of the new substance, water. Here change is productive, and is not mere waste, as in organic destruction. Something, however, is lost–the old qualities; for these cannot be restored except through the disruption of the new substance, the water in which they are combined.


But there is a more peculiar change of a higher order still, that which we speak of as development, evolution, growth. This sort of change might be described as movement toward a mark. When the seed begins to be transformed in the earth, it is adapted not merely to the next stage; but that stage has reference to one farther on, and that to still others. It would hardly be a metaphor to declare that the whole elm is already prophesied when its seed is laid in the earth. For though the entire tree is not there, though in order that the seed may become an elm it must have a helpful environment, still a certain plan of movement elmwards is, we may say, already schemed in the seed. Here accordingly, change–far from being a loss–is a continual increment and revelation. And since the later stages successively disclose the meaning of those which went before, these later stages might with accuracy he styled the truth of their predecessors, and those be accounted in comparison trivial and meaningless until thus changed. This sort of change carries its past along with it. In the destructive changes which we were lamenting a moment ago, the past was lost and the new began as an independent affair. Even in chemic change this was true to a certain extent. Yet there, though the past was lost, a future was prophesied. In the case of development the future, so far from annihilating the past, is its exhibition on a larger scale. The full significance of any single stage is not manifest until the final one is reached.

I suppose when we arrive at this thought of change as expressing development, our lamentation may well turn to rejoicing. Possibly this may be the reason why the gloom which is a noticeable feature of the thought of many preceding centuries has in our time somewhat disappeared. While our ambitions are generally wider, and we might seem, therefore, more exposed to disappointment, I think the last half of the century which has closed has been a time of large hopefulness. Perhaps it has not yet gone so far as rejoicing, for failure and sorrow are still by no means extirpated. But at least the thoughts of our day have become turned rather to the future than the past, a result which has attended the wider comprehension of development. To call development the discovery of our century would, however, be absurd. Aristotle bases his whole philosophy upon it, and it was already venerable in his time. Yet the many writers who have expounded the doctrine during the last fifty years have brought the thought of it home to the common man. It has entered into daily life as never before, and has done much to protect us against the sadness of destructive change. Perceiving that changes, apparently destructive, repeatedly bring to light meaning previously undisclosed, we more willingly than our ancestors part with the imperfect that a path to the perfect may be opened.

Is not this, then, the great conception of change which we now need to study as self-development? I believe not. One essential feature is omitted. In the typical example which I have just reviewed, the growth of an elm from its seed, we cannot say that the seed expands itself with a view to becoming a tree. That would be to carry over into the tree’s existence notions borrowed from an alien sphere. Indeed, to assert that there has been any genuine development from the seed up to the finished tree is to use terms in an accommodated, metaphoric, and hypothetical way. Development there certainly has been as estimated by an outsider, an onlooker, but not as perceived by the tree itself. It has not known where it was going. Out of the unknown earth the seed pushes its way into the still less known air. But in doing so it is devoid of purpose. Nor, if we endow it with consciousness, can we suppose it would behold its end and seek it. The forces driving it toward that end are not conscious forces; they are mechanic forces. Through every stage it is pushed from behind, not drawn from before. There is no causative goal set up, alluring the seed onward. In speaking as if there were, we employ language which can have significance only for rational beings. We may hold that there is a rational plan of the universe which that seed is fulfilling. But if so, the plan does not belong to the seed. It is imposed from without, and the seed does its bidding unawares.


But we may imagine a different state of affairs. Let us assume that when the seed sprouted it foreknew the elm that was to be. Every time it sucked in its slight moisture it was gently adapting this nourishment to the fulfillment of its ultimate end, asking itself whether the small material had better be bestowed on the left bough or the right, whether certain leaves should curve more obliquely toward the sun, and whether it had better wave its branches and catch the passing breeze or leave them quiet. If we could rightly imagine such a state of things, our tree would be much unlike its brothers of the forest; for, superintending its own development, it would be not a thing at all but a person. We persons are in this very way entrusted with our growth. A plan there is, a normal mode of growth, a significance to which we may attain. But that significance is not imposed on us from without, as an inevitable event, already settled through our past. On the contrary, we detect it afar as a possibility, are thus put in charge of it, and so become in large degree our own upbuilders. Development is movement toward a mark. In self-development the mark to be reached is in the conscious keeping of him who is to reach it. Toward it he may more or less fully direct his course.

And what an astonishing state of things then appears! Self-development involves a kind of contradiction in terms. How can I build if at present there is no I? Why should I build if at present there is an I? Whichever alternative we take, we fall into what looks like absurdity. Yet on that absurdity personal life is based. There is no avoiding it. Wordsworth has daringly stated the paradox: “So build we up the being that we are.” On coming into the world we are only sketched out. Of each of us there is a ground plan of which we progressively become aware. Hidden from us in our early years, it resides in the minds of our parents, just as the plan of the tree’s structure is in the keeping of nature. Gradually through our advancing years and the care of those around us we catch sight of what we might be. Detecting in ourselves possibilities, we make out their relation to a plan not yet realized. We accordingly take ourselves in hand and say, “If any personal good is to come to me, it must be of my making. I cannot own myself till I am largely the author of myself. From day to day I must construct, and whenever I act study how the action will affect my betterment,–whether by performing it I am likely to degrade or to consolidate myself.” And to this process there must be no end.

Obviously, nothing like this could occur if our actual condition were our ideal condition. Self-development is open only to a being in whom there are possibilities as yet unfulfilled. The things around us have their definite constitution. They can do exactly thus and no more. What shall be the effect of any impulse falling on them is already assured. If the condition of the brutes is anything like that which we disrespectfully attributed to them, then they are in the same case; they too are shut up to fixed responses, and have in them no unfulfilled capacities. It is the possession of such empty capacities which makes us personal. Well has it been said that he who can declare, “I am that I am,” is either God or a brute. No human being can say it. To describe myself as if I were a settled fact is to make myself a thing. My life is in that which may be. The ideals of existence are my realities, and “ought” is my peculiar verb. “Is” has no other application to a person than to mark how far he has advanced along his ideal line. Were he to pause at any point as if complete, he would cease to be a person.


But it is necessary to trace somewhat carefully the method of such self-development. How do we proceed? Before the architect built the State House, he drew up a plan of the finished building, and there was no moving of stone, mortar, or tool, till everything was complete on paper. Each workman who did anything subsequently did it in deference to that perfected design. Each stone brought for the great structure was numbered for its place and had its jointing cut in adaptation to the remaining stones. If, then, each one of us is to become an architect of himself, it might seem necessary to lay out a plan of our complete existence before setting out in life, or at whatever moment we become aware that henceforth our construction is to be in our own charge. Only with such a plan in hand would orderly building seem possible. This is a common belief, but in my judgment an erroneous one. Indeed the whole analogy of the architect and his mechanisms is misleading. We rarely have in mind the total plan of our unrealized being and rarely ought we to have. Our work begins at a different point. We do not, like the architect, usually begin with a thought of completion. Bather we are first stirred by a sense of weakness.

In my own education I find this to be true. After some years as a boy in a Boston public school, I went to Phillips Academy in Andover, then to Harvard College, and subsequently to a German university, and why did I do all this? Did I have in mind the picture of myself as a learned man? I will not deny that such a fancy drifted through my brain. But it was indistinct and occasional. I did not even know what it was to be a learned man. I do not know now. The driving force that was on me was something quite different. I found myself disagreeably ignorant. Reading books and newspapers, I continually found matters referred to of which I knew nothing. Looking out on the universe, I did not understand it; and looking into the yet more marvelous universe within, I was still more grievously perplexed. I thought life not worth living on such terms. I determined to get rid of my ignorance and to endure such limitations of knowledge no longer. Is there, I asked, any place where at least a portion of my stupidity may be set aside? I removed a little fraction at school, but revealed also enormous expanses which I had not suspected before. I therefore pressed on farther, and to-day am still engaged in the almost hopeless attempt to extirpate my ignorance. What incites me continually is the sense of how small I am, not that which a few moments ago seemed my best incentive–the picture of myself as large. That on the whole has had comparatively little influence. Of course I do not assert that we are altogether without visions of a larger life. That is far from being the case. Were it so, desire would cease. We must contrast the poverty of the present with the fullness of a possible future, or we should not incline to turn from that present. Yet our grand driving force is that sense of limitation, of want or need, which was discussed in the last chapter. And our aim is rather at a better than at a best, at the removal of some small distinct hindrance than at arrival at a completed goal. We come upon excellence piecemeal, and do not, like the architect, look upon it in its entirety at the outset.

Yet in the pursuit of this “better,” the more vividly we can figure the coming stages, the more easily will they be attained. For this purpose the careers of those who have gone before us are helpful,– reports about the great ones of the past, and the revelations of themselves which they have left us in literature and institutions. Example is a powerful agent in making our footsteps quick and true. But it has its dangers, and may be a means of terrifying unless we feel that even in our low estate there are capacities allying us with our exemplar. The first vision of excellence is overwhelming. We draw back, knowing that we do not look like that, and we cannot bear to behold what is so superior. But by degrees, feeling our kinship with excellence, we are befriended.

I would not, then, make rigid statements in regard to this point of method. Grateful as I believe we should be for every sense of need, this is obviously not enough. To some extent we must have in mind the betterment which we may obtain through supplying that need. Yet I do not think a full plan of our ultimate goal is usually desirable. In small matters it is often possible and convenient. I plan my stay in Europe before going there. I figure my business prospects before forming a partnership. But in profounder affairs, I more wisely set out from the thought of the present, and the patent need of improving it, than from the future with its ideal perfection. Goethe’s rule is a good one:–

    “Willst du ins Unendliche schreiten?
     So sucht das Endliche, nach allen Seiten.”

Would you reach the infinite? Then enter into finite things, working out all that they contain.


If in working them out a test is wanted to enable us to decide whether we are working wisely or to our harm, I believe such a test may be found in the congruity of the new with the old. Shall I by adding a fresh power to myself strengthen those I already possess? By taking this path, rich in a certain sort of good as it undoubtedly is, shall I be diverted from paths where my special goods lie? Here I am, a student of ethics. A friend calls and tells me of the charms of astronomy, a study undoubtedly majestic and delightful. Since I desire to take all knowledge for my province, why not hurry off at once to study astronomy? No indeed. No astronomy for me. I draw a ring about that subject and say, “Precious subject, fundamentally valuable for all men. But I will remain ignorant of it, because it is not quite congruous with the studies I already have on hand.” That must be my test: not how important is the study itself, but how important is it for me? How far will it help me to accept and develop those limitations to which I am now pledged?

In this acceptance of limitation, therefore, which seems at first so humiliating, I believe we have the starting point of all self- development. Our very imperfections, once accepted, prove our best means of discerning more. That is a profound remark of Hegel’s that knowledge of a limit is a knowledge beyond that limit. Let us consider for a moment what it means. Suppose I should come upon Kaspar Hauser, shut in his little room. “And how long have you been here,” I ask. “Ever since I was born,” he answers. “Indeed! How much, then, do you know?” “Nothing beyond the walls of this room.” Might I not fairly reply, “You contradict yourself. How can you know anything about walls of a room unless you also know of much beyond them?” We cannot conceive a limit except as a limit from something. Accordingly, when we detect our ignorance we become by that very fact not ignorant. We have gone beyond ourselves and have seen that we are not what we should be. And this is the way of self-development. Becoming aware of our imperfections, we by that very fact continually lay hold on whatever perfect is within our reach.


When then we ask whether at any moment we are fully persons, we must answer, No. The actual extent of personality is at any time small. It is rather a goal than something ever attained. We have seen that it is not to be described in terms of the verb “to be.” We cannot say “I am a person,” but, only “I ought to be a person. I am seeking to be.” The great body of our life is, we know, a purely natural affair. Our instincts, our wayward impulses, our unconnected disorderly purposes– these, which fill the larger portion of our existence, do not express our personal nature. Each of them goes on its own way, neglectful of the whole. Therefore we must confess that at no time can we account ourselves completed persons. Justly we use such strange expressions as “He is much of a person,” “He is very little of a person.” Personality is an affair of degree. We are moving toward it, but have not yet arrived. “Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.” And can we ever arrive? I do not see how. We are chasing a flying goal. The nearer we approach, the farther it removes. Shall we call this fact discouraging, then, or even say that self-development is a useless process, since it never can be fulfilled? I think not. I should rather specify this feature of it as our chief source of encouragement; for I hold that only those aims which do thus contain an infinite element and are, strictly speaking, unattainable, move mankind to passionate pursuit. Probably all will agree that riches, fame, and wisdom are ideals which predominantly move us, and they are all unattainable. Suppose, some morning, when I see a merchant setting off for his office quite too early, I ask him why he is hastening so. He answers, “Why, there is money to be made. And as I intend to be a rich man some day, I must leave home comforts and be prompt at my desk.” But I persist, “You have forgotten something. It occurs to me that you never can be rich. No rich man was ever seen. Whoever has obtained a million dollars can get a million more, and the man of two millions can become one of three. Obviously, then, neither you nor any one can become a completely rich man.” Should I stay that merchant from his exit by remarks of this kind? If he answered at all, he would merely say, “Don’t read too much. You had better mix more with men.”

And I should get no better treatment from the scholar, the man who is seeking wisdom. It is true no really wise man ever was on earth, or ever will be. But that is the very reason why we are all so impassioned for wisdom, because every bit we seize only opens the door to more. If we could get it in full, if some time or other, knowing that we are now wise, we could sit down in our armchairs with nothing further to do, it would be a death blow to our colleges. Nobody would attend them or care for wisdom longer. An aim which one can reach, and discover to be finally ended, moves only children. They will make collections of birds’ eggs, though conceivably they might obtain every species in the neighborhood. But these are not the things which excite earnest men. They run after fame, because they can never be quite famous. They may become known to every person on their street, but there is the street beyond. Or to every one in their town, but there are other towns. Or if to every person on earth, there are still the after ages. Entire fame cannot be had; and exactly on that account it stirs every impulse of our nature in pursuit.

Now the aim at personal perfection is precisely of this sort. As servants of righteousness we cannot accept any other precept than “Be ye perfect as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” But we know such perfection to be unattainable, Yet I sometimes doubt whether we state the matter truly so. Would it not be juster to say that perfection can always be attained, and that it is about the only thing which can be? We might well say of all the infinite ideals that they differ from the finite ones simply in this, that the finite can be attained but once, and then are ended, while the infinite are continually attained. At no moment of his life shall the merchant be cut off from becoming richer, or the scholar from growing wiser, or the public benefactor from acquiring further fame. These aims, then, are always attainable; for in them what we think of as the goal is not, as in other cases, a single point which, once reached, renders the rest of life useless and listless. The goal here is the line of increase. To be moving along that line should be our daily endeavor. Our proper utterance should be, “I was never so good as to-day, and I hope never to be so bad again.”


But when we have seen how slender is our actual perfection, how slight must be reckoned the attainment of personality at any moment, we are brought face to face with the profound problem of its possible extent. How far can the self be developed? Infinitely? Is each one of us an infinite being? I will not say so. I do not like to make a statement which runs beyond my own experience. But confining myself to this, let us see what it will show.

When at any time I seek to perfect myself, does my attainment of any grade of improvement prevent or further another step? All will agree that it simply opens a new door. Perhaps I am seeking to withdraw from habits of mendacity, and beginning to tell the truth. Then every time I tell the truth I shall discover more truth to tell. And will this process ever come to an end? I have nothing to do with “evers.” I can only say that each time I try it, advance is more possible, not less possible. In the personal life there is, if I may say so, no provision for checkage. As I understand it, in the animal life there is such provision. In my first chapter I was pointing out the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic goodness; and I said that the table’s entering into use and holding objects on its top tended to destroy it, though we might imagine a magic table in which every exercise of function would be preservative. Now in the personal nature we find just such a magical provision. Each time a person normally exerts himself he makes further exertion in those normal ways more possible.

And if this is true of all personal action within our experience, what right have we to set a limit to it anywhere? It may not be suitable to say that I know myself infinite, but it is certainly true that I cannot conceive myself as finite. I can readily see that this body of mine has in it what I have called a provision for checkage. Every time the blood moves in my veins it leaves its little deposit. Further motion of that blood is slightly impeded. But every time a moral purpose moves my life, it makes the next move surer. It is impossible to draw lines of limitation in moral development.


Such, then, is the vast conception with which we have been dealing. Goodness, to be personal, must express perpetual self-development. All the moral aims of life may be summed up in the single word, “self- realization.” Could I fully realize myself, I should have fulfilled all righteousness, and this view is sanctioned by the Great Teacher when he asks, “What shall a man give in exchange for his life?"–his life, his soul, his self. If any one fully believed this, and lived as if all his desires were fulfilled so long as he had opportunities of self-development, he might be said to have insured himself against every catastrophe. Little could harm him. Whatever occurred, instead of exclaiming, “How calamitous!” he would simply ask, “What fresh opportunities do these strange circumstances present for enlarged living? Let me add this new discipline to what I had before. Seeking as I am to become expanded into the infinite, this experience discloses a new avenue thither. All things work together for good to them that love the Lord.”


Bradley’s Ethical Studies, essay vi.

Green’s Prolegomena of Ethics, bk. iii. ch. ii.

Alexander’s Moral Order and Progress, bk. iii. ch. iv.

Muirhead’s Elements of Ethics, bk. iii. ch. iii.

Mackenzie’s Manual of Ethics, pt. i. ch. vii.

Dewey in Philos. Journal, Dec., 1893.


Preface.  •  I. The Double Aspect of Goodness  •  II. Misconceptions of Goodness  •  III. Self-Consciousness  •  IV. Self-Direction  •  V. Self-Development  •  VI. Self-Sacrifice  •  VII. Nature and Spirit  •  VII. The Three Stages of Goodness

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