The Moral Compass Stories for a Life's Journey

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 7/1/2008
  • Publisher: INGRAM

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The inspiring and instructive companion volume to "The Book of Virtues" offers many more examples of good and bad, right and wrong, in great works from literature and in exemplary stories from history.

Table of Contents

Home and Hearth
Into the World
Standing Fast
Easing the Path
Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives
Citizenship and Leadership
What We Live By
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.


All children need bread and shelter. But a true home, of course, is much more than that. Children also need love and order and, because they are not born knowing the difference between right and wrong, a place where they can begin to develop a moral sense. The transmission of virtues is one important reason for a home, and attention to the virtues is one of the important ties that bind a family together. "It is the peculiarity of man, in comparison with the rest of the animal world," Aristotle wrote, "that he alone possesses a perception of good and evil, of the just and the unjust, and of other similar qualities; and it is association in these things which makes a family."

And so home is the place where we receive our first instruction in the virtues. It is our first moral training ground, the place where we can come to know right from wrong through the nurturing and protective care of those who love us more than anyone else. Our character takes shape under the guidance of thedos anddon'ts, the instructions, the exhortations we encounter around the house. Equally important, our moral sense emerges under the influence of examples set by mother, father, sisters, and brothers. In the familiar world of home and hearth, we learn the habits of virtue that will fortify us when we venture into the world.

In this chapter we find some of these lessons of home and hearth. We find family members helping each other along, and looking toward each other for help. We find siblings showing what "brotherhood" and "sisterhood" really mean. We see children learning about chores and responsibilities and self-sacrifice, and learning to help parents out of love. We encounter young hearts giving loving obedience. We witness the growth of conscience, of a desire to live up to the expectations of those who love us. We witness how our loyalty and courage and perseverance see families through hard times with a love that can overcome any number of obstacles.

Of course, no home is perfect. Home can be the place where we get our first look at vices as well as virtues. And, unfortunately, some homes are simply not good places -- not all homes are havens; not all hearths have a warm glow. Butallhomes teach lessons, even if they are the wrong kind of lessons. And so even though many homes do not resemble the best ones we find in these pages, the stories here are no less valuable because they give us all something at which to aim. They remind us of the kind of conditions families need and the attention children deserve. We set these examples before our eyes in order to keep raising our sights and our efforts.

These first lessons stay with us long after we leave home. In our affections and our memories, they remain forever a part of us, often the most cherished part of us. "Where shall a man find sweetness to surpass his own home and parents?" Odysseus asks in Homer'sOdyssey. "In far lands he shall not, though he find a house of gold." The early experiences of home become a moral compass point, guiding and instructing us for the rest of life's journey.

And in one sense, the moral journey that begins with leaving home is the search for opportunities to offer others the same nurture and love we received in our own childhood. The memory of home becomes a past, an experience, an ideal we seek to re-create in our later lives, and in the new lives we shepherd into the world. We build our own homes, offer our own lessons, nurture our own children in the strength and knowledge once gained beside the first warm hearth of home.


The first notes we hear are those cradle songs that spring from a parent's heart. Lullabies abound in every age and every culture. By such promises of nurture and protection babies find trust to rest and grow.Hush, little baby, don't say a word,
Papa's going to buy you a mockingbird.
And if that mockingbird won't sing,
Papa's going to buy you a diamond ring.
If that diamond ring turns brass,
Papa's going to buy you a looking glass.
If that looking glass gets broke,
Papa's going to buy you a billy goat.
If that billy goat won't pull,
Papa's going to buy you a cart and bull.
If that cart and bull turns over,
Papa's going to buy you a dog named Rover.
If that dog named Rover won't bark,
Papa's going to buy you a horse and cart.
If that horse and cart fall down,
You'll still be the sweetest babv in town!

Johannes BrahmsLullaby and good night, with roses bedight,
With lilies bedecked, is baby's wee bed.
Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blest,
Lay thee down now and rest, may thy slumber be blest.

Alfred TennysonSweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea,
Low, low, breathe and blow,
Wind of the western sea!
Over the rolling waters go,
Come from the dying moon, and blow,
Blow him again to me;
While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps.

Sleep and rest, sleep and rest,
Father will come to thee soon;
Rest, rest, on mother's breast,
Father will come to thee soon;
Father will come to his babe in the nest,
Silver sails all out of the west
Under the silver moon:
Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.

Adapted from Hugh T. Kerr

Home is the place where first lessons are learned. And it is the place where much of what you do, you do for love.

There was once a boy named Bradley. When he was about eight years old, he fell into the habit of thinking of everything in terms of money. He wanted to know the price of everything he saw, and if it didn't cost a great deal, it did not seem to him to be worth anything at all.

But there are a great many things money cannot buy. And some of them are the best things in the world.

One morning when Bradley came down to breakfast, he put a little piece of paper, neatly folded, on his mother's plate. His mother opened it, and she could hardly believe it, but this is what her son had written:Mother owes Bradley:
For running errands 3 dollars
For taking out the trash 2 dollars
For sweeping the floor 2 dollars
Extras 1 dollar
Total that Mother owes Bradley 8 dollars

His mother smiled when she read that, but she did not say anything.

When lunchtime came she put the bill on Bradley's plate along with eight dollars. Bradley's eyes lit up when he saw the money. He stuffed it into his pocket as fast as he could and started dreaming about what he would buy with his reward.

All at once he saw there was another piece of paper besides his plate, neatly folded, just like the first one. When he opened it up, he found it was a bill from his mother. It read:Bradley owes Mother:
For being good to him nothing
For nursing him through his chicken pox nothing
For shirts and shoes and toys nothing
For his meals and beautiful room nothing
Total that Bradley owes Mother nothing

Bradley sat looking at this new bill, without saying a word. After a few minutes he got up, pulled the eight dollars out of his pocket, and placed them in his mother's hand.

And after that, he helped his mother for love.

M. F. Cowdery

In this tough story from a Civil War-era school reader, we find another kind of lesson that some homes offer. Here is a father giving his son stern but loving moral instruction.

There was once a farmer who had a son named John, a boy very apt to be thoughtless, and careless about doing what he was told to do.

One day his father said to him, "John, you are so careless and forgetful, that every time you do wrong, I shall drive a nail into this post, to remind you how often you are naughty. And every time you do right I will draw one out." His father did as he said he would, and every day he had one and sometimes a great many nails to drive in, but very seldom one to draw out.

At last John saw that the post was quite covered with nails, and he began to be ashamed of having so many faults. He resolved to be a better boy, and the next day he was so good and industrious that several nails came out. The day after it was the same thing, and so on for a long time, till at length only one nail remained. His father then called him, and said: "Look, John, here is the very last nail, and now I'm going to draw it out. Are you not glad?"

John looked at the post, and then, instead of expressing his joy, as his father expected, he burst into tears. "Why," said the father, "what's the matter? I should think you would be delighted; the nails are all gone."

"Yes," sobbed John, "thenailsare gone, but thescarsare there yet."

So it is, dear children, with your faults and bad habits; you may overcome them, you may by degrees cure them, but the scars remain. Now, take my advice, and whenever you find yourselves doing a wrong thing, or getting into a bad habit, stop at once. For every time you give in to it, you drive another nail, and that will leave ascaron your soul, even if the nail should be afterwards drawn out.

Robert Louis Stevenson

There is no better place to begin learning about bravery than in the safe confines of home. For many children, the first great adventure is that long, perilous journey up the stairs to bed. Making it can be a first exercise in courage.

1. GOOD NIGHTWhen the bright lamp is carried in,
The sunless hours again begin;
O'er all without, in field and lane,
The haunted night returns again.

Now we behold the embers flee
About the firelit hearth; and see
Our faces painted as we pass,
Like pictures, on the window glass.

Must we to bed indeed? Well then,
Let us arise and go like men,
And face with an undaunted tread
The long black passage up to bed.

Farewell, O brother, sister, sire!
O pleasant party round the fire!
The songs you sing, the tales you tell,
Till far tomorrow, fare ye well!

2. SHADOW MARCHAll round the house is the jet-black night;
It stares through the windowpane;
It crawls in the corners, hiding from the light,
And it moves with the moving flame.

Now my little heart goes a-beating like a drum,
With the breath of the bogy in my hair;
And all round the candle the crooked shadows come,
And go marching along up the stair.

The shadow of the balusters, the shadow of the lamp,
The shadow of the child that goes to bed --
All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp,
With the black night overhead.

3. IN PORTLast, to the chamber where I lie
My fearful footsteps patter nigh,
And come from out the cold and gloom
Into my warm and cheerful room.

There, safe arrived, we turn about
To keep the coming shadows out,
And close the happy door at last
On all the perils that we past.

Then, when Mama goes by to bed,
She shall come in with tiptoe tread,
And see me lying warm and fast
And in the Land of Nod at last.

Laura E. Richards

Brothers and sisters help each other along, first up backyard hills, and later up life-long climbs.

I cannot walk up this hill," said the little boy. "I cannot possibly do it. What will become of me? I must stay here all my life, at the foot of the hill. It is too terrible!"

"That is a pity!" said his sister. "But look, little boy! I have found such a pleasant game to play. Take a step, and see how clear a footprint you can make in the dust. Look at mine! Every single line in my foot is printed clear. Now, you try, and see if you can do as well!"

The little boy took a step.

"Mine is just as clear!" he said.

"Do you think so?" said his sister. "See mine, again here! I tread harder than you, because I am heavier, and so the print is deeper. Try again."

"Nowmine is just as deep!" cried the little boy. "See! Here, and here, and here, they are just as deep as they can be."

"Yes, that is very well," said the sister, "but now it is my turn; let me try again, and we shall see."

They kept on, step by step, matching their footprints, and laughing to see the gray dust puff up between their bare toes.

By and by the little boy looked up.

"Why," he said, "we are at the top of the hill!"

"Dear me!" said his sister. "So we are!"


This familiar Norse tale is about an age-old job for big brothers -- looking out for little brothers.

Once upon a time there were three billy goats who lived in a meadow at the foot of a mountain. They were all three brothers, and their last name was Gruff.

One fine day they said to each other, "Let's go up on the hillside, and eat grass, and make ourselves fat."

The youngest of the three started out first. After a while, he came to a bridge. Now the little billy goat did not know it, but under this bridge lived a terrible Troll, with eyes as big as a saucer, and a nose as long as a poker. As the Smallest Billy Goat Gruff went trip-trap, trip-trap over the bridge, the Troll roared out, "WHO'S THAT tripping over my bridge?"

"It's I, the Smallest Billy Goat Gruff. I'm going up on the hillside to eat grass, and make myself fat."

"Well, I'm coming to gobble you up!" roared the Troll.

"Oh, don't do that! I'm so little, I'll make scarcely a mouthful. My brother the Middle-Sized Billy Goat Gruff will be along soon. He'll make a much better meal. You'd better wait for him."

"Very well, be off with you!" said the Troll.

So the little goat ran on, trip-trap, trip-trap, across the bridge and up on the mountain, where he was safe.

Pretty soon, along came the second Billy Goat Gruff.

He wenttrip-trap, trip-trap,over the bridge.

"WHO'S THAT tripping over my bridge?" roared the Troll.

"It's I, the Middle-Sized Billy Goat Gruff. I'm going up on the hillside to eat grass, and make myself fat."

"Well, I'm coming to gobble you up!" roared the Troll.

"Oh, don't do that! I'm not very big, and I won't make much of a meal. My brother the Big Billy Goat Gruff will be along soon. He'll make a much better dinner. You'd better wait for him."

"Very well, be off with you!" said the Troll.

So the Middle-Sized Billy Goat Gruff ran on,trip-trap, trip-trap, across the bridge and up on the mountain, where he was safe.

After a while, along came the Big Billy Goat Gruff.TRIP-TRAP, TRIP-TRAPhe went over the bridge, and it creaked and groaned under his weight.

"WHO'S THAT tripping over my bridge?" roared the Troll.

"IT'S I, THE BIG BILLY GOAT GRUFF!" said the billy goat in a big voice of his own.

"Well, I'm coming to gobble you up!" roared the Troll.

"HO! HO!" laughed the Big Billy Goat Gruff. "You don't say so! Well, come along! I'll crush you to bits, body and bones!" That's what Big Billy Goat Gruff said in his big, rough voice.

Up came the Troll. He jumped on the bridge and put down his big, bushy head and ran at the billy goat. The Big Billy Goat Gruff put down his head and ran at the Troll, and they met in the middle of the bridge.

But the Big Billy Goat Gruff s head was harder than the Troll's, so he knocked him down, and thumped him about, and took him up on his horns, and threw him over the edge of the bridge, into the river below! The Troll sank out of sight, and no one ever saw him again.

Then the Big Billy Goat Gruff went up on the hillside with the other Billy Goat Gruffs, who knew all along their big brother would punish the terrible Troll. And they all ate grass, and ate grass, and ate grass, until they were so fat they could hardly walk home.Copyright © 1995 by William J. Bennett

Excerpted from The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey by William J. Bennett
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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