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A Man of the World
Annie Payson Call
First digital edition 2017 by Gianluca Ruffini
There are two worlds in the minds of men: the one is artificial, selfish, and personal, the other is real and universal; the one is limited, material, essentially of the earth, the other supposes a kind of larger cosmopolitanism, and has no geographical limits at all; it is as wide as humanity itself, and only bounded by the capacity for experience, insight, and sympathy in the mind and heart of man. A true man of the world, therefore, is not primarily of it, a true man of the world must know and understand the world; and in order to do so, he should be able at any time to get it into perspective.
Charles Dickens says that by a man who knows the world is too frequently understood “a man who knows all the villains in it.” It is of course, by gentlemen, also understood that a man who knows the world knows all its manners and customs, and can adapt himself to them easily and entirely, wherever he may be. But this external polish does not preclude the idea, even among so-called well-bred men, that a man who knows the world knows all the villains in it, and such a man may be more or less of a villain himself, provided he has the cleverness and the ingenuity to hide his villainy. To a certain extent the appearance of virtue has been always more or less of a necessity in the world, but the moral standards in social, professional, and business life are inconsistent and mixed. Even in essentials the highest standards are often modified to suit the preference of the majority. It is not always considered dishonorable for a man to cheat in business, so long as the cheating is done without interfering in any way with the general customs of the business world.
When we say that a man of the world is generally understood to be a man who “knows all the villains in it,” it seems at first sight an extreme statement, but as the world goes now, it certainly represents the general tendency of thought. The distinction is too seldom made between a man of the world and a worldly man, between a man who really knows the world as it is and a man whose familiarity with it is narrow and sordid. When people speak of “seeing life” they seldom mean seeing the best of it.