Others, as most legislators, politicians, lawyers, ministers, and office-holders, serve the state chiefly with their heads; and, as they rarely make any moral distinctions, they are as likely to serve the devil, without intending it, as God. A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it. A wise man will only be useful as a man, and will not submit to be "clay," and "stop a hole to keep the wind away," but leave that office to his dust at least...

Can I literally understand the first clause as "if a wise man is a man, then he will be useful"?

Does the second clause make the "not...but..." construction? What does "office" and "dust" mean?

  • 1
    During his lifetime, a wise man will not be as malleable as clay, which is good for plugging holes to keep the wind out; rather he will leave that role (that "office", of plugging whatever gap the State needs to have plugged) to his mortal remains (his "dust"). During his life he will not be malleable; he will resist the State as a man of conscience, as one who makes judgments and choices for himself. The phrase "useful as a man" refers to the kind of usefulness he will offer: a "man" is defined earlier in the passage; he will be useful "as a man (i.e. of conscience)".
    – TimR
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 14:35
  • 1
    It might help to clarify the meaning if we reposition the word only: "A wise man will be useful only as a man..." In this passage, clay, which is formless and can be readily formed, is a metaphor for the opposite of the convictions that a man with backbone, a man of conscience, will have. And the word man is used as a synonym for one who is able to think for himself and refuses to shape himself or conform to the will of the State.
    – TimR
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 14:37
  • @BenKovitz I've split them to several questions.
    – Leon Zero
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 18:46
  • @LeonZero Excellent!
    – Ben Kovitz
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 20:44

1 Answer 1


Can I literally understand the first clause as "if a wise man is a man, then he will be useful"?

Not exactly. In "only be useful as a man", the meaning of "man" is very precise and is key to understanding what's being said. In that specific use, "man" means something like "morally courageous person". So in fact what is being said that if the wise man is useful (and that allows for the possibility that you may have a wise man who is not in fact useful), his usefulness will be precisely because he is a man, i.e. a morally courageous person.

What does "office" and "dust" mean?

Here, office means "job" or "role", and is referring to the job or role of "stopping a hole..." which in this context is seen as something quite low and not very demanding in terms of moral courage. And then dust means his lifeless remains after he -- the moral being, the man -- has died and departed.

So what is being said is something like this.

A wise man is truly useful not because he is wise, but rather precisely because he is "a man", i.e. morally courageous. And an essential part of that moral courage lies in not allowing himself to be moulded (i.e be clay) according to other people's beliefs. Furthermore, he will not avoid difficult decisions by, for example, simply ignoring problems or applying a quick but ineffective fix ("stop a hole to keep the wind away"). A moral man would not stoop to do a job that involved such low and dishonorable behavior. Instead, he would rather leave that kind of job -- that "office" -- to his own corpse, when he had become mere dust.

Does the second clause make the "not...but..." construction?

I'm not sure about this one. Does the above answer it?

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