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The Grapes We Can't Reach

The grapes we can’t reach are not, as a general thing, sour grapes; and it is a despicable kind of philosophy that asserts them to be so. Why should we despise good things because we do not possess them? Cicero, indeed, says that “if we do not have wealth, there is nothing better and nobler than to despise it.” But this assertion was artificial in the case of Cicero, and it is no nearer the truth now than it was two thousand years ago.

In fact, on the question of money this dictum appeals to us with great force; for though it may be true that some of the best things of life cannot be bought with money, it is equally true that there are other good things that nothing but money can buy. Therefore, to follow Cicero’s advice and despise wealth if we have not got it, is to despise a great many excellent things; and not only that, it is to despise also the power of imparting these excellent things to other people. The golden grapes may be out of our reach, but we need not say the fruit is sour; rather let us give thanks that others have been able to gather and press the rich vintage and to give graciously to the world of its wine of consolation.

In the same way it has long been, fashionable to assert a contempt for “the bubble reputation,” whether sought on the battlefield or in the senate, or forum, or study. But why despise one of the grandest moral forces in the universe? For when a man can get out of self to follow the fortunes of an idea, when he can fall in love with a cause, when he can fight for some public good, when he can forfeit life, if need be, for his conviction, the “reputation” that is sure to follow such abnegation and courage is not a “bubble;” it is a glorious fact,—one through which the general level of humanity is raised and the whole world impelled forward.


I do not say that all persons who conscientiously use to their utmost ability the one or two talents they possess are not as happy as they can be. Thank God! life can be full in small measures. But if any man or woman has been given five or ten talents, I do say they have no right to keep them for their own delectation, falling back upon such cheap sentiments as the hollowness of fame and the “bubble reputation.” Fame is not a bubble; it is a power whose beneficent achievements have done a great deal toward making this world a comfortable dwelling-place.

A great many high-sounding maxims in use at the present day have lost their application. There was a time, centuries ago, when the humiliations attending any upward climb were sufficient to deter a sensitive, honorable soul. But such days are forever past. Any one now bearing precious gifts for humanity finds the gates lifted up and a wide entrance ready for him. Men and women can make what mark they are able to make, and the world stands watching with sympathetic heart. They will not find its “reputation” a “bubble.”

Another fine, windy theme of warning from “sour-grape” philosophers is the hollowness of friendship and the general insincerity of the world. They have “seen through” the world, they know all its falseness and worthlessness; and, as the world is far too busy to dispute their assertions or to defend itself, the superior discernment of this class of people is not brought to accurate accounting. As a matter of fact, however, people generally get just as much consideration from the world, and just as much fidelity from their friends, as they deserve. A friend may ask us to dinner, but not therefore should we expect that he share his purse with us. Community of taste and sentiment does not imply community of goods. But, for all this, friendship is not hollow, nor are the grapes of its hospitality sour.

I may notice here the prevalent opinion that there is no such friendship now in the world as there used to be. “There are no Davids and Jonathans now,” say the unbelievers in humanity. Very true, for David and Jonathan did not belong to the nineteenth century. To keep up such a friendship, we require, not a spare hour now and then, but an amount of certain and continuous leisure. There are still great friendships among boys at school and young men in college, for they have a large amount of steady leisure; and this is necessary to signal friendship. When we have more time, we shall have more and stronger friendships.

The vanity of life, the deceitfulness of women, the falseness of love, the impossibility of happiness, the passing away of all that is lovely and of good report, are old, old, old texts of complaint. Men and women talk about them until they feel ever so much better than the rest of the world; and such talk enables them to look down with proper contempt upon the hypocrisies of society,—that is, of their next-door neighbors and near acquaintances,—and fosters a comfortable, but dangerous self-esteem. The world, upon the whole, is a good world to those who try to be good and to do good, and every year it is growing better. During the last fifty years how much it has grown! How sympathetic, how charitable, how evangelizing it has become! Yes, indeed, if we choose to do so, we shall meet with far more good hearts than bad ones, and the topmost grapes are not sour.




Amelia E. Barr