THE SIMPLE LIFE
By CHARLES WAGNER Author of The Better Way
Translated from the French by Mary Louise Hendee
GROSSET & DUNLAP Publishers, New York
Copyright, 1901, by McCLURE, PHILLIPS & CO.
I. OUR COMPLEX LIFE 1
II. THE ESSENCE OF SIMPLICITY 15
III. SIMPLICITY OF THOUGHT 22
IV. SIMPLICITY OF SPEECH 39
V. SIMPLE DUTY 52
VI. SIMPLE NEEDS 68
VII. SIMPLE PLEASURES 80
VIII. THE MERCENARY SPIRIT AND SIMPLICITY 96
IX. NOTORIETY AND THE INGLORIOUS GOOD 111
X. THE WORLD AND THE LIFE OF THE HOME 128
XI. SIMPLE BEAUTY 139
XII. PRIDE AND SIMPLICITY IN THE INTERCOURSE OF MEN 151
XIII. THE EDUCATION FOR SIMPLICITY 167
XIV. CONCLUSION 188
THE SIMPLE LIFE
OUR COMPLEX LIFE
At the home of the Blanchards, everything is topsy-turvy, and with reason. Think of it! Mlle. Yvonne is to be married Tuesday, and to-day is Friday!
Callers loaded with gifts, and tradesmen bending under packages, come and go in endless procession. The servants are at the end of their endurance. As for the family and the betrothed, they no longer have a life or a fixed abode. Their mornings are spent with dressmakers, milliners, upholsterers, jewelers, decorators, and caterers. After that, comes a rush through offices, where one waits in line, gazing vaguely at busy clerks engulfed in papers. A fortunate thing, if there be time when this is over, to run home and dress for the series of ceremonial dinners—betrothal dinners, dinners of presentation, the settlement dinner, receptions, balls. About midnight, home again, harassed and weary, to find the latest accumulation of parcels, and a deluge of letters—congratulations, felicitations, acceptances and regrets from bridesmaids and ushers, excuses of tardy tradesmen. And the contretemps of the last minute—a sudden death that disarranges the bridal party; a wretched cold that prevents a favorite cantatrice from singing, and so forth, and so forth. Those poor Blanchards! They will never be ready, and they thought they had foreseen everything!
Such has been their existence for a month. No longer possible to breathe, to rest a half-hour, to tranquillize one's thoughts. No, this is not living!
Mercifully, there is Grandmother's room. Grandmother is verging on eighty. Through many toils and much suffering, she has come to meet things with the calm assurance which life brings to men and women of high thinking and large hearts. She sits there in her arm-chair, enjoying the silence of long meditative hours. So the flood of affairs surging through the house, ebbs at her door. At the threshold of this retreat, voices are hushed and footfalls softened; and when the young fiances want to hide away for a moment, they flee to Grandmother.
"Poor children!" is her greeting. "You are worn out! Rest a little and belong to each other. All these things count for nothing. Don't let them absorb you, it isn't worth while."
They know it well, these two young people. How many times in the last weeks has their love had to make way for all sorts of conventions and futilities! Fate, at this decisive moment of their lives, seems bent upon drawing their minds away from the one thing essential, to harry them with a host of trivialities; and heartily do they approve the opinion of Grandmamma when she says, between a smile and a caress:
"Decidedly, my dears, the world is growing too complex; and it does not make people happier—quite the contrary!"
* * * * *
I also, am of Grandmamma's opinion. From the cradle to the grave, in his needs as in his pleasures, in his conception of the world and of himself, the man of modern times struggles through a maze of endless complication. Nothing is simple any longer: neither thought nor action; not pleasure, not even dying. With our own hands we have added to existence a train of hardships, and lopped off many a gratification. I believe that thousands of our fellow-men, suffering the consequences of a too artificial life, will be grateful if we try to give expression to their discontent, and to justify the regret for naturalness which vaguely oppresses them.
Let us first speak of a series of facts that put into relief the truth we wish to show.
The complexity of our life appears in the number of our material needs. It is a fact universally conceded, that our needs have grown with our resources. This is not an evil in itself; for the birth of certain needs is often a mark of progress. To feel the necessity of bathing, of wearing fresh linen, inhabiting wholesome houses, eating healthful food, and cultivating our minds, is a sign of superiority. But if certain needs exist by right, and are desirable, there are others whose effects are fatal, which, like parasites, live at our expense: numerous and imperious, they engross us completely.
Could our fathers have foreseen that we should some day have at our disposal the means and forces we now use in sustaining and defending our material life, they would have predicted for us an increase of independence, and therefore of happiness, and a decrease in competition for worldly goods: they might even have thought that through the simplification of life thus made possible, a higher degree of morality would be attained. None of these things has come to pass. Neither happiness, nor brotherly love, nor power for good has been increased. In the first place, do you think your fellow-citizens, taken as a whole, are more contented than their forefathers, and less anxious about the future? I do not ask if they should find reason to be so, but if they really are so. To see them live, it seems to me that a majority of them are discontented with their lot, and, above all, absorbed in material needs and beset with cares for the morrow. Never has the question of food and shelter been sharper or more absorbing than since we are better nourished, better clothed, and better housed than ever. He errs greatly who thinks that the query, "What shall we eat, and what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed?" presents itself to the poor alone, exposed as they are to the anguish of morrows without bread or a roof. With them the question is natural, and yet it is with them that it presents itself most simply. You must go among those who are beginning to enjoy a little ease, to learn how greatly satisfaction in what one has, may be disturbed by regret for what one lacks. And if you would see anxious care for future material good, material good in all its luxurious development, observe people of small fortune, and, above all, the rich. It is not the woman with one dress who asks most insistently how she shall be clothed, nor is it those reduced to the strictly necessary who make most question of what they shall eat to-morrow. As an inevitable consequence of the law that needs are increased by their satisfaction, the more goods a man has, the more he wants. The more assured he is of the morrow, according to the common acceptation, the more exclusively does he concern himself with how he shall live, and provide for his children and his children's children. Impossible to conceive of the fears of a man established in life—their number, their reach, and their shades of refinement.
From all this, there has arisen throughout the different social orders, modified by conditions and varying in intensity, a common agitation—a very complex mental state, best compared to the petulance of a spoiled child, at once satisfied and discontented.
* * * * *
If we have not become happier, neither have we grown more peaceful and fraternal. The more desires and needs a man has, the more occasion he finds for conflict with his fellow-men; and these conflicts are more bitter in proportion as their causes are less just. It is the law of nature to fight for bread, for the necessities. This law may seem brutal, but there is an excuse in its very harshness, and it is generally limited to elemental cruelties. Quite different is the battle for the superfluous—for ambition, privilege, inclination, luxury. Never has hunger driven man to such baseness as have envy, avarice, and thirst for pleasure. Egotism grows more maleficent as it becomes more refined. We of these times have seen an increase of hostile feeling among brothers, and our hearts are less at peace than ever.[A]
After this, is there any need to ask if we have become better? Do not the very sinews of virtue lie in man's capacity to care for something outside himself? And what place remains for one's neighbor in a life given over to material cares, to artificial needs, to the satisfaction of ambitions, grudges, and whims? The man who gives himself up entirely to the service of his appetites, makes them grow and multiply so well that they become stronger than he; and once their slave, he loses his moral sense, loses his energy, and becomes incapable of discerning and practicing the good. He has surrendered himself to the inner anarchy of desire, which in the end gives birth to outer anarchy. In the moral life we govern ourselves. In the immoral life we are governed by our needs and passions. Thus little by little, the bases of the moral life shift, and the law of judgment deviates.
For the man enslaved to numerous and exacting needs, possession is the supreme good and the source of all other good things. It is true that in the fierce struggle for possession, we come to hate those who possess, and to deny the right of property when this right is in the hands of others and not in our own. But the bitterness of attack against others' possessions is only a new proof of the extraordinary importance we attach to possession itself. In the end, people and things come to be estimated at their selling price, or according to the profit to be drawn from them. What brings nothing is worth nothing: he who has nothing, is nothing. Honest poverty risks passing for shame, and lucre, however filthy, is not greatly put to it to be accounted for merit.
Some one objects: "Then you make wholesale condemnation of progress, and would lead us back to the good old times—to asceticism perhaps."
Not at all. The desire to resuscitate the past is the most unfruitful and dangerous of Utopian dreams, and the art of good living does not consist in retiring from life. But we are trying to throw light upon one of the errors that drag most heavily upon human progress, in order to find a remedy for it—namely, the belief that man becomes happier and better by the increase of outward well-being. Nothing is falser than this pretended social axiom; on the contrary, that material prosperity without an offset, diminishes the capacity for happiness and debases character, is a fact which a thousand examples are at hand to prove. The worth of a civilization is the worth of the man at its center. When this man lacks moral rectitude, progress only makes bad worse, and further embroils social problems.
[A] The author refers to the unparalleled bitterness of the conflict in France between Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards.
* * * * *
This principle may be verified in other domains than that of material well-being. We shall speak only of education and liberty. We remember when prophets in good repute announced that to transform this wicked world into an abode fit for the gods, all that was needed was the overthrow of tyranny, ignorance, and want—those three dread powers so long in league. To-day, other preachers proclaim the same gospel. We have seen that the unquestionable diminution of want has made man neither better nor happier. Has this desirable result been more nearly attained through the great care bestowed upon instruction? It does not yet appear so, and this failure is the despair of our national educators.
Then shall we stop the people's ears, suppress public instruction, close the schools? By no means. But education, like the mass of our age's inventions, is after all only a tool; everything depends upon the workman who uses it.... So it is with liberty. It is fatal or lifegiving according to the use made of it. Is it liberty still, when it is the prerogative of criminals or heedless blunderers? Liberty is an atmosphere of the higher life, and it is only by a slow and patient inward transformation that one becomes capable of breathing it.
All life must have its law, the life of man so much the more than that of inferior beings, in that it is more precious and of nicer adjustment. This law for man is in the first place an external law, but it may become an internal law. When man has once recognized the inner law, and bowed before it, through this reverence and voluntary submission he is ripe for liberty: so long as there is no vigorous and sovereign inner law, he is incapable of breathing its air; for he will be drunken with it, maddened, morally slain. The man who guides his life by inner law, can no more live servile to outward authority than can the full-grown bird live imprisoned in the eggshell. But the man who has not yet attained to governing himself can no more live under the law of liberty than can the unfledged bird live without its protective covering. These things are terribly simple, and the series of demonstrations old and new that proves them, increases daily under our eyes. And yet we are as far as ever from understanding even the elements of this most important law. In our democracy, how many are there, great and small, who know, from having personally verified it, lived it and obeyed it, this truth without which a people is incapable of governing itself? Liberty?—it is respect; liberty?—it is obedience to the inner law; and this law is neither the good pleasure of the mighty, nor the caprice of the crowd, but the high and impersonal rule before which those who govern are the first to bow the head. Shall liberty, then, be proscribed? No; but men must be made capable and worthy of it, otherwise public life becomes impossible, and the nation, undisciplined and unrestrained, goes on through license into the inextricable tangles of demagoguery.
* * * * *
When one passes in review the individual causes that disturb and complicate our social life, by whatever names they are designated, and their list would be long, they all lead back to one general cause, which is this: the confusion of the secondary with the essential. Material comfort, education, liberty, the whole of civilization—these things constitute the frame of the picture; but the frame no more makes the picture than the frock the monk or the uniform the soldier. Here the picture is man, and man with his most intimate possessions—namely, his conscience, his character and his will. And while we have been elaborating and garnishing the frame, we have forgotten, neglected, disfigured the picture. Thus are we loaded with external good, and miserable in spiritual life; we have in abundance that which, if must be, we can go without, and are infinitely poor in the one thing needful. And when the depth of our being is stirred, with its need of loving, aspiring, fulfilling its destiny, it feels the anguish of one buried alive—is smothered under the mass of secondary things that weigh it down and deprive it of light and air.
We must search out, set free, restore to honor the true life, assign things to their proper places, and remember that the center of human progress is moral growth. What is a good lamp? It is not the most elaborate, the finest wrought, that of the most precious metal. A good lamp is a lamp that gives good light. And so also we are men and citizens, not by reason of the number of our goods and the pleasures we procure for ourselves, not through our intellectual and artistic culture, nor because of the honors and independence we enjoy; but by virtue of the strength of our moral fibre. And this is not a truth of to-day but a truth of all times.
At no epoch have the exterior conditions which man has made for himself by his industry or his knowledge, been able to exempt him from care for the state of his inner life. The face of the world alters around us, its intellectual and material factors vary; and no one can arrest these changes, whose suddenness is sometimes not short of perilous. But the important thing is that at the center of shifting circumstance man should remain man, live his life, make toward his goal. And whatever be his road, to make toward his goal, the traveler must not lose himself in crossways, nor hamper his movements with useless burdens. Let him heed well his direction and forces, and keep good faith; and that he may the better devote himself to the essential—which is to progress—at whatever sacrifice, let him simplify his baggage.
THE ESSENCE OF SIMPLICITY
Before considering the question of a practical return to the simplicity of which we dream, it will be necessary to define simplicity in its very essence. For in regard to it people commit the same error that we have just denounced, confounding the secondary with the essential, substance with form. They are tempted to believe that simplicity presents certain external characteristics by which it may be recognized, and in which it really consists. Simplicity and lowly station, plain dress, a modest dwelling, slender means, poverty—these things seem to go together. Nevertheless, this is not the case. Just now I passed three men on the street: the first in his carriage; the others on foot, and one of them shoeless. The shoeless man does not necessarily lead the least complex life of the three. It may be, indeed, that he who rides in his carriage is sincere and unaffected, in spite of his position, and is not at all the slave of his wealth; it may be also that the pedestrian in shoes neither envies him who rides nor despises him who goes unshod; and lastly, it is possible that under his rags, his feet in the dust, the third man has a hatred of simplicity, of labor, of sobriety, and dreams only of idleness and pleasure. For among the least simple and straightforward of men must be reckoned professional beggars, knights of the road, parasites, and the whole tribe of the obsequious and envious, whose aspirations are summed up in this: to arrive at seizing a morsel—the biggest possible—of that prey which the fortunate of earth consume. And to this same category, little matter what their station in life, belong the profligate, the arrogant, the miserly, the weak, the crafty. Livery counts for nothing: we must see the heart. No class has the prerogative of simplicity; no dress, however humble in appearance, is its unfailing badge. Its dwelling need not be a garret, a hut, the cell of the ascetic nor the lowliest fisherman's bark. Under all the forms in which life vests itself, in all social positions, at the top as at the bottom of the ladder, there are people who live simply, and others who do not. We do not mean by this that simplicity betrays itself in no visible signs, has not its own habits, its distinguishing tastes and ways; but this outward show, which may now and then be counterfeited, must not be confounded with its essence and its deep and wholly inward source. Simplicity is a state of mind. It dwells in the main intention of our lives. A man is simple when his chief care is the wish to be what he ought to be, that is, honestly and naturally human. And this is neither so easy nor so impossible as one might think. At bottom, it consists in putting our acts and aspirations in accordance with the law of our being, and consequently with the Eternal Intention which willed that we should be at all. Let a flower be a flower, a swallow a swallow, a rock a rock, and let a man be a man, and not a fox, a hare, a hog, or a bird of prey: this is the sum of the whole matter.
Here we are led to formulate the practical ideal of man. Everywhere in life we see certain quantities of matter and energy associated for certain ends. Substances more or less crude are thus transformed and carried to a higher degree of organization. It is not otherwise with the life of man. The human ideal is to transform life into something more excellent than itself. We may compare existence to raw material. What it is, matters less than what is made of it, as the value of a work of art lies in the flowering of the workman's skill. We bring into the world with us different gifts: one has received gold, another granite, a third marble, most of us wood or clay. Our task is to fashion these substances. Everyone knows that the most precious material may be spoiled, and he knows, too, that out of the least costly an immortal work may be shaped. Art is the realization of a permanent idea in an ephemeral form. True life is the realization of the higher virtues,—justice, love, truth, liberty, moral power,—in our daily activities, whatever they may be. And this life is possible in social conditions the most diverse, and with natural gifts the most unequal. It is not fortune or personal advantage, but our turning them to account, that constitutes the value of life. Fame adds no more than does length of days: quality is the thing.
Need we say that one does not rise to this point of view without a struggle? The spirit of simplicity is not an inherited gift, but the result of a laborious conquest. Plain living, like high thinking, is simplification. We know that science is the handful of ultimate principles gathered out of the tufted mass of facts; but what gropings to discover them! Centuries of research are often condensed into a principle that a line may state. Here the moral life presents strong analogy with the scientific. It, too, begins in a certain confusion, makes trial of itself, seeks to understand itself, and often mistakes. But by dint of action, and exacting from himself strict account of his deeds, man arrives at a better knowledge of life. Its law appears to him, and the law is this: Work out your mission. He who applies himself to aught else than the realization of this end, loses in living the raison d'etre of life. The egoist does so, the pleasure-seeker, the ambitious: he consumes existence as one eating the full corn in the blade,—he prevents it from bearing its fruit; his life is lost. Whoever, on the contrary, makes his life serve a good higher than itself, saves it in giving it. Moral precepts, which to a superficial view appear arbitrary, and seem made to spoil our zest for life, have really but one object—to preserve us from the evil of having lived in vain. That is why they are constantly leading us back into the same paths; that is why they all have the same meaning: Do not waste your life, make it bear fruit; learn how to give it, in order that it may not consume itself! Herein is summed up the experience of humanity, and this experience, which each man must remake for himself, is more precious in proportion as it costs more dear. Illumined by its light, he makes a moral advance more and more sure. Now he has his means of orientation, his internal norm to which he may lead everything back; and from the vacillating, confused, and complex being that he was, he becomes simple. By the ceaseless influence of this same law, which expands within him, and is day by day verified in fact, his opinions and habits become transformed.
Once captivated by the beauty and sublimity of the true life, by what is sacred and pathetic in this strife of humanity for truth, justice, and brotherly love, his heart holds the fascination of it. Gradually everything subordinates itself to this powerful and persistent charm. The necessary hierarchy of powers is organized within him: the essential commands, the secondary obeys, and order is born of simplicity. We may compare this organization of the interior life to that of an army. An army is strong by its discipline, and its discipline consists in respect of the inferior for the superior, and the concentration of all its energies toward a single end: discipline once relaxed, the army suffers. It will not do to let the corporal command the general. Examine carefully your life and the lives of others. Whenever something halts or jars, and complications and disorder follow, it is because the corporal has issued orders to the general. Where the natural law rules in the heart, disorder vanishes.
I despair of ever describing simplicity in any worthy fashion. All the strength of the world and all its beauty, all true joy, everything that consoles, that feeds hope, or throws a ray of light along our dark paths, everything that makes us see across our poor lives a splendid goal and a boundless future, comes to us from people of simplicity, those who have made another object of their desires than the passing satisfaction of selfishness and vanity, and have understood that the art of living is to know how to give one's life.
SIMPLICITY OF THOUGHT
It is not alone among the practical manifestations of our life that there is need of making a clearing: the domain of our ideas is in the same case. Anarchy reigns in human thought: we walk in the woods, without compass or sun, lost among the brambles and briars of infinite detail.
When once man has recognized the fact that he has an aim, and that this aim is to be a man, he organizes his thought accordingly. Every mode of thinking or judging which does not make him better and stronger, he rejects as dangerous.
And first of all he flees the too common contrariety of amusing himself with his thought. Thought is a tool, with its own proper function: it isn't a toy. Let us take an example. Here is the studio of a painter. The implements are all in place: everything indicates that this assemblage of means is arranged with view to an end. Throw the room open to apes. They will climb on the benches, swing from the cords, rig themselves in draperies, coif themselves with slippers, juggle with brushes, nibble the colors, and pierce the canvases to see what is behind the paint. I don't question their enjoyment; certainly they must find this kind of exercise extremely interesting. But an atelier is not made to let monkeys loose in. No more is thought a ground for acrobatic evolutions. A man worthy of the name, thinks as he is, as his tastes are: he goes about it with his whole heart, and not with that fitful and sterile curiosity which, under pretext of observing and noting everything, runs the risk of never experiencing a deep and true emotion or accomplishing a right deed.
Another habit in urgent need of correction, ordinary attendant on conventional life, is the mania for examining and analyzing one's self at every turn. I do not invite men to neglect introspection and the examination of conscience. The endeavor to understand one's own mental attitudes and motives of conduct is an essential element of good living. But quite other is this extreme vigilance, this incessant observation of one's life and thoughts, this dissecting of one's self, like a piece of mechanism. It is a waste of time, and goes wide of the mark. The man who, to prepare himself the better for walking, should begin by making a rigid anatomical examination of his means of locomotion, would risk dislocating something before he had taken a step. You have what you need to walk with, then forward! Take care not to fall, and use your forces with discretion. Potterers and scruple-mongers are soon reduced to inaction. It needs but a glimmer of common sense to perceive that man is not made to pass his life in a self-centered trance.
And common sense—do you not find what is designated by this name becoming as rare as the common-sense customs of other days? Common sense has become an old story. We must have something new—and we create a factitious existence, a refinement of living, that the vulgar crowd has not the wherewithal to procure. It is so agreeable to be distinguished! Instead of conducting ourselves like rational beings, and using the means most obviously at our command, we arrive, by dint of absolute genius, at the most astonishing singularities. Better off the track than on the main line! All the bodily defects and deformities that orthopedy treats, give but a feeble idea of the humps, the tortuosities, the dislocations we have inflicted upon ourselves in order to depart from simple common sense; and at our own expense we learn that one does not deform himself with impunity. Novelty, after all, is ephemeral. Nothing endures but the eternal commonplace; and if one departs from that, it is to run the most perilous risks. Happy he who is able to reclaim himself, who finds the way back to simplicity.
Good plain sense is not, as is often imagined, the innate possession of the first chance-comer, a mean and paltry equipment that has cost nothing to anyone. I would compare it to those old folk-songs, unfathered but deathless, which seem to have risen out of the very heart of the people. Good sense is a fund slowly and painfully accumulated by the labor of centuries. It is a jewel of the first water, whose value he alone understands who has lost it, or who observes the lives of others who have lost it. For my part, I think no price too great to pay for gaining it and keeping it, for the possession of eyes that see and a judgment that discerns. One takes good care of his sword, that it be not bent or rusted: with greater reason should he give heed to his thought.
But let this be well understood: an appeal to common sense is not an appeal to thought that grovels, to narrow positivism which denies everything it cannot see or touch. For to wish that man should be absorbed in material sensations, to the exclusion of the high realities of the inner life, is also a want of good sense. Here we touch upon a tender point, round which the greatest battles of humanity are waging. In truth we are striving to attain a conception of life, searching it out amid countless obscurities and griefs: and everything that touches upon spiritual realities becomes day by day more painful. In the midst of the grave perplexities and transient disorders that accompany great crises of thought, it seems more difficult than ever to escape with any simple principles. Yet necessity itself comes to our aid, as it has done for the men of all times. The program of life is terribly simple, after all, and in the fact that existence so imperiously forces herself upon us, she gives us notice that she precedes any idea of her which we may make for ourselves, and that no one can put off living pending an attempt to understand life. Our philosophies, our explanations, our beliefs are everywhere confronted by facts, and these facts, prodigious, irrefutable, call us to order when we would deduce life from our reasonings, and would wait to act until we have ended philosophizing. It is this happy necessity that prevents the world from stopping while man questions his route. Travelers of a day, we are carried along in a vast movement to which we are called upon to contribute, but which we have not foreseen, nor embraced in its entirety, nor penetrated as to its ultimate aims. Our part is to fill faithfully the role of private, which has devolved upon us, and our thought should adapt itself to the situation. Do not say that we live in more trying times than our ancestors, for things seen from afar are often seen imperfectly: it is moreover scarcely gracious to complain of not having been born in the days of one's grandfather. What we may believe least contestable on the subject is this: from the beginning of the world it has been hard to see clearly; right thinking has been difficult everywhere and always. In the matter the ancients were in no wise privileged above the moderns, and it might be added that there is no difference between men when they are considered from this point of view. Master and servant, teacher and learner, writer and artisan discern truth at the same cost. The light that humanity acquires in advancing is no doubt of the greatest use; but it also multiplies the number and extent of human problems. The difficulty is never removed, the mind always encounters its obstacle. The unknown controls us and hems us in on all sides. But just as one need not exhaust a spring to quench his thirst, so we need not know everything to live. Humanity lives and always has lived on certain elemental provisions.
We will try to point them out. First of all, humanity lives by confidence. In so doing it but reflects, commensurate with its conscious thought, that which is the hidden source of all beings. An imperturbable faith in the stability of the universe and its intelligent ordering, sleeps in everything that exists. The flowers, the trees, the beasts of the field, live in calm strength, in entire security. There is confidence in the falling rain, in dawning day, in the brook running to the sea. Everything that is seems to say: "I am, therefore I should be; there are good reasons for this, rest assured."
So, too, mankind lives by confidence. From the simple fact that he is, man has within him the sufficient reason for his being—a pledge of assurance. He reposes in the power which has willed that he should be. To safeguard this confidence, to see that nothing disconcerts it, to cultivate it, render it more personal, more evident—toward this should tend the first effort of our thought. All that augments confidence within us is good, for from confidence is born the life without haste, tranquil energy, calm action, the love of life and its fruitful labor. Deep-seated confidence is the mysterious spring that sets in motion the energy within us. It is our nutriment. By it man lives, much more than by the bread he eats. And so everything that shakes this confidence is evil—poison, not food.
Dangerous is every system of thought that attacks the very fact of life, declaring it to be an evil. Life has been too often wrongly estimated in this century. What wonder that the tree withers when its roots are watered with corrosives. And there is an extremely simple reflection that might be made in the face of all this negation. You say life is an evil. Well; what remedy for it do you offer? Can you combat it, suppress it? I do not ask you to suppress your own life, to commit suicide;—of what advantage would that be to us?—but to suppress life, not merely human life, but life at its deep and hidden origin, all this upspringing of existence that pushes toward the light and, to your mind, is rushing to misfortune; I ask you to suppress the will to live that trembles through the immensities of space, to suppress in short the source of life. Can you do it? No. Then leave us in peace. Since no one can hold life in check, is it not better to respect it and use it than to go about making other people disgusted with it? When one knows that certain food is dangerous to health, he does not eat it, and when a certain fashion of thinking robs us of confidence, cheerfulness and strength, we should reject that, certain not only that it is a nutriment noxious to the mind, but also that it is false. There is no truth for man but in thoughts that are human, and pessimism is inhuman. Besides, it wants as much in modesty as in logic. To permit one's self to count as evil this prodigious thing that we call life, one needs have seen its very foundation, almost to have made it. What a strange attitude is that of certain great thinkers of our times! They act as if they had created the world, very long ago, in their youth, but decidedly it was a mistake, and they had well repented it.
Let us nourish ourselves from other meat; strengthen our souls with cheering thoughts. What is truest for man is what best fortifies him.
* * * * *
If mankind lives by confidence, it lives also by hope—that form of confidence which turns toward the future. All life is a result and an aspiration, all that exists supposes an origin and tends toward an end. Life is progression: progression is aspiration. The progress of the future is an infinitude of hope. Hope is at the root of things, and must be reflected in the heart of man. No hope, no life. The same power which brought us into being, urges us to go up higher. What is the meaning of this persistent instinct which pushes us on? The true meaning is that something is to result from life, that out of it is being wrought a good greater than itself, toward which it slowly moves, and that this painful sower called man, needs, like every sower, to count on the morrow. The history of humanity is the history of indomitable hope; otherwise everything would have been over long ago. To press forward under his burdens, to guide himself in the night, to retrieve his falls and his failures, to escape despair even in death, man has need of hoping always, and sometimes against all hope. Here is the cordial that sustains him. Had we only logic, we should have long ago drawn the conclusion: Death has everywhere the last word!—and we should be dead of the idea. But we have hope, and that is why we live and believe in life.
Suso, the great monk and mystic, one of the simplest and best men that ever lived, had a touching custom: whenever he encountered a woman, were she the poorest and oldest, he stepped respectfully aside, though his bare feet must tread among thorns or in the gutter. "I do that," he said, "to render homage to our Holy Lady, the Virgin Mary." Let us offer to hope a like reverence. If we meet it in the shape of a blade of wheat piercing the furrow; a bird brooding on its nest; a poor wounded beast, recovering itself, rising and continuing its way; a peasant ploughing and sowing a field that has been ravaged by flood or hail; a nation slowly repairing its losses and healing its wounds—under whatever guise of humanity or suffering it appears to us, let us salute it! When we encounter it in legends, in untutored songs, in simple creeds, let us still salute it! for it is always the same, indestructible, the immortal daughter of God.
We do not dare hope enough. The men of our day have developed strange timidities. The apprehension that the sky will fall—that acme of absurdity among the fears of our Gallic forefathers—has entered our own hearts. Does the rain-drop doubt the ocean? the ray mistrust the sun? Our senile wisdom has arrived at this prodigy. It resembles those testy old pedagogues whose chief office is to rail at the merry pranks or the youthful enthusiasms of their pupils. It is time to become little children once more, to learn again to stand with clasped hands and wide eyes before the mystery around us; to remember that, in spite of our knowledge, what we know is but a trifle, and that the world is greater than our mind, which is well; for being so prodigious, it must hold in reserve untold resources, and we may allow it some credit without accusing ourselves of improvidence. Let us not treat it as creditors do an insolvent debtor: we should fire its courage, relight the sacred flame of hope. Since the sun still rises, since earth puts forth her blossoms anew, since the bird builds its nest, and the mother smiles at her child, let us have the courage to be men, and commit the rest to Him who has numbered the stars. For my part, I would I might find glowing words to say to whomsoever has lost heart in these times of disillusion: Rouse your courage, hope on; he is sure of being least deluded who has the daring to do that; the most ingenuous hope is nearer truth than the most rational despair.
* * * * *
Another source of light on the path of human life is goodness. I am not of those who believe in the natural perfection of man, and teach that society corrupts him. On the contrary, of all forms of evil, the one which most dismays me is heredity. But I sometimes ask myself how it is that this effete and deadly virus of low instincts, of vices inoculated in the blood, the whole assemblage of disabilities imposed upon us by the past—how all this has not got the better of us. It must be because of something else. This other thing is love.
Given the unknown brooding above our heads, our limited intelligence, the grievous and contradictory enigma of human destiny, falsehood, hatred, corruption, suffering, death—what can we think, what do? To all these questions a sublime and mysterious voice has answered: Love your fellow-men. Love must indeed be divine, like faith and hope, since she cannot die when so many powers are arrayed against her. She has to combat the natural ferocity of what may be called the beast in man; she has to meet ruse, force, self-interest, above all, ingratitude. How is it that she passes pure and scathless in the midst of these dark enemies, like the prophet of the sacred legend among the roaring beasts? It is because her enemies are of the earth, and love is from above. Horns, teeth, claws, eyes full of murderous fire, are powerless against the swift wing that soars toward the heights and eludes them. Thus love escapes the undertakings of her foes. She does even better: she has sometimes known the fine triumph of winning over her persecutors: she has seen the wild beasts grow calm, lie down at her feet, obey her law.
At the very heart of the Christian faith, the most sublime of its teachings, and to him who penetrates its deepest sense, the most human, is this: To save lost humanity, the invisible God came to dwell among us, in the form of a man, and willed to make Himself known by this single sign: Love.
Healing, consoling, tender to the unfortunate, even to the evil, love engenders light beneath her feet. She clarifies, she simplifies. She has chosen the humblest part—to bind up wounds, wipe away tears, relieve distress, soothe aching hearts, pardon, make peace; yet it is of love that we have the greatest need. And as we meditate on the best way to render thought fruitful, simple, really conformable to our destiny, the method sums itself up in these words: Have confidence and hope; be kind.
I would not discourage lofty speculation, dissuade any one whomsoever from brooding over the problems of the unknown, over the vast abysses of science or philosophy. But we have always to come back from these far journeys to the point where we are, often to a place where we seem to stand marking time with no result. There are conditions of life and social complications in which the sage, the thinker, and the ignorant are alike unable to see clearly. The present age has often brought us face to face with such situations; I am sure that he who meets them with our method will soon recognize its worth.
* * * * *
Since I have touched here upon religious ground, at least in a general way, someone may ask me to say in a few simple words, what religion is the best; and I gladly express myself on this subject. But it might be better not to put the question in this form. All religions have, of necessity, certain fixed characteristics, and each has its inherent qualities or defects. Strictly speaking, then, they may be compared among themselves: but there are always involuntary partialities or foregone conclusions. It is better to put the question otherwise, and ask: Is my own religion good, and how may I know it? To this question, this answer: Your religion is good if it is vital and active, if it nourishes in you confidence, hope, love, and a sentiment of the infinite value of existence; if it is allied with what is best in you against what is worst, and holds forever before you the necessity of becoming a new man; if it makes you understand that pain is a deliverer; if it increases your respect for the conscience of others; if it renders forgiveness more easy, fortune less arrogant, duty more dear, the beyond less visionary. If it does these things it is good, little matter its name: however rudimentary it may be, when it fills this office it comes from the true source, it binds you to man and to God.
But does it perchance serve to make you think yourself better than others, quibble over texts, wear sour looks, domineer over others' consciences or give your own over to bondage; stifle your scruples, follow religious forms for fashion or gain, do good in the hope of escaping future punishment?—oh, then, if you proclaim yourself the follower of Buddha, Moses, Mahomet, or even Christ, your religion is worthless—it separates you from God and man.
I have not perhaps the right to speak thus in my own name; but others have so spoken before me who are greater than I, and notably He who recounted to the questioning scribe the parable of the Good Samaritan. I intrench myself behind His authority.
SIMPLICITY OF SPEECH
Speech is the chief revelation of the mind, the first visible form that it takes. As the thought, so the speech. To better one's life in the way of simplicity, one must set a watch on his lips and his pen. Let the word be as genuine as the thought, as artless, as valid: think justly, speak frankly.
All social relations have their roots in mutual trust, and this trust is maintained by each man's sincerity. Once sincerity diminishes, confidence is weakened, society suffers, apprehension is born. This is true in the province of both natural and spiritual interests. With people whom we distrust, it is as difficult to do business as to search for scientific truth, arrive at religious harmony, or attain to justice. When one must first question words and intentions, and start from the premise that everything said and written is meant to offer us illusion in place of truth, life becomes strangely complicated. This is the case to-day. There is so much craft, so much diplomacy, so much subtle legerdemain, that we all have no end of trouble to inform ourselves on the simplest subject and the one that most concerns us. Probably what I have just said would suffice to show my thought, and each one's experience might bring to its support an ample commentary with illustrations. But I am none the less moved to insist on this point, and to strengthen my position with examples.
Formerly the means of communication between men were considerably restricted. It was natural to suppose that in perfecting and multiplying avenues of information, a better understanding would be brought about. Nations would learn to love each other as they became acquainted; citizens of one country would feel themselves bound in closer brotherhood as more light was thrown on what concerned their common life. When printing was invented, the cry arose: fiat lux! and with better cause when the habit of reading and the taste for newspapers increased. Why should not men have reasoned thus:—"Two lights illumine better than one, and many better than two: the more periodicals and books there are, the better we shall know what happens, and those who wish to write history after us will be right fortunate; their hands will be full of documents"? Nothing could have seemed more evident. Alas! this reasoning was based upon the nature and capacity of the instruments, without taking into account the human element, always the most important factor. And what has really come about is this: that cavilers, calumniators, and crooks—all gentlemen glib of tongue, who know better than any one else how to turn voice and pen to account—have taken the utmost advantage of these extended means for circulating thought, with the result that the men of our times have the greatest difficulty in the world to know the truth about their own age and their own affairs. For every newspaper that fosters good feeling and good understanding between nations, by trying to rightly inform its neighbors and to study them without reservations, how many spread defamation and distrust! What unnatural and dangerous currents of opinion set in motion! what false alarms and malicious interpretations of words and facts! And in domestic affairs we are not much better informed than in foreign. As to commercial, industrial, and agricultural interests, political parties and social tendencies, or the personality of public men, it is alike difficult to obtain a disinterested opinion. The more newspapers one reads, the less clearly he sees in these matters. There are days when after having read them all, and admitting that he takes them at their word, the reader finds himself obliged to draw this conclusion:—Unquestionably nothing but corruption can be found any longer—no men of integrity except a few journalists. But the last part of the conclusion falls in its turn. It appears that the chroniclers devour each other. The reader has under his eyes a spectacle somewhat like the cartoon entitled, "The Combat of the Serpents." After having gorged themselves with everything around them, the reptiles fall upon each other, and there remain upon the field of battle two tails.
And not the common people alone feel this embarrassment, but the cultivated also—almost everybody shares it. In politics, finance, business—even in science, art, literature and religion, there is everywhere disguise, trickery, wire-pulling; one truth for the public, another for the initiated. The result is that everybody is deceived. It is vain to be behind the scenes on one stage; a man cannot be there on them all, and the very people who deceive others with the most ability, are in turn deceived when they need to count upon the sincerity of their neighbors.
The result of such practices is the degradation of human speech. It is degraded first in the eyes of those who manipulate it as a base instrument. No word is respected by sophists, casuists, and quibblers, men who are moved only by a rage for gaining their point, or who assume that their interests are alone worth considering. Their penalty is to be forced to judge others by the rule they follow themselves: Say what profits and not what is true. They can no longer take any one seriously—a sad state of mind for those who write or teach! How lightly must one hold his readers and hearers to approach them in such an attitude! To him who has preserved enough honesty, nothing is more repugnant than the careless irony of an acrobat of the tongue or pen, who tries to dupe honest and ingenuous men. On one side openness, sincerity, the desire to be enlightened; on the other, chicanery making game of the public! But he knows not, the liar, how far he is misleading himself. The capital on which he lives is confidence, and nothing equals the confidence of the people, unless it be their distrust when once they find themselves betrayed. They may follow for a time the exploiters of their artlessness, but then their friendly humor turns to hate. Doors which stood wide open offer an impassable front of wood, and ears once attentive are deaf. And the pity is that they have closed not to the evil alone, but to the good. This is the crime of those who distort and degrade speech: they shake confidence generally. We consider as a calamity the debasement of the currency, the lowering of interest, the abolition of credit:—there is a misfortune greater than these: the loss of confidence, of that moral credit which honest people give one another, and which makes speech circulate like an authentic currency. Away with counterfeiters, speculators, rotten financiers, for they bring under suspicion even the coin of the realm. Away with the makers of counterfeit speech, for because of them there is no longer confidence in anyone or anything, and what they say and write is not worth a continental.
You see how urgent it is that each should guard his lips, chasten his pen, and aspire to simplicity of speech. No more perversion of sense, circumlocution, reticence, tergiversation! these things serve only to complicate and bewilder. Be men; speak the speech of honor. An hour of plain-dealing does more for the salvation of the world than years of duplicity.
* * * * *
A word now about a national bias, to those who have a veneration for diction and style. Assuredly there can be no quarrel with the taste for grace and elegance of speech. I am of opinion that one cannot say too well what he has to say. But it does not follow that the things best said and best written are most studied. Words should serve the fact, and not substitute themselves for it and make it forgotten in its embellishment. The greatest things are those which gain the most by being said most simply, since thus they show themselves for what they are: you do not throw over them the veil, however transparent, of beautiful discourse, nor that shadow so fatal to truth, called the writer's vanity. Nothing so strong, nothing so persuasive, as simplicity! There are sacred emotions, cruel griefs, splendid heroisms, passionate enthusiasms that a look, a movement, a cry interprets better than beautifully rounded periods. The most precious possessions of the heart of humanity manifest themselves most simply. To be convincing, a thing must be true, and certain truths are more evident when they come in the speech of ingenuousness, even weakness, than when they fall from lips too well trained, or are proclaimed with trumpets. And these rules are good for each of us in his every-day life. No one can imagine what profit would accrue to his moral life from the constant observation of this principle: Be sincere, moderate, simple in the expression of your feelings and opinions, in private and public alike; never pass beyond bounds, give out faithfully what is within you, and above all, watch!—that is the main thing.
For the danger in fine words is that they live from a life of their own. They are servants of distinction, that have kept their titles but no longer perform their functions—of which royal courts offer us example. You speak well, write well, and all is said. How many people content themselves with speaking, and believe that it exempts them from acting! And those who listen are content with having heard them. So it sometimes happens that a life may in the end be made up of a few well-turned speeches, a few fine books, and a few great plays. As for practicing what is so magisterially set forth, that is the last thing thought of. And if we pass from the world of talent to spheres which the mediocre exploit, there, in a pell-mell of confusion, we see those who think that we are in the world to talk and hear others talk—the great and hopeless rout of babblers, of everything that prates, bawls, and perorates and, after all, finds that there isn't talking enough. They all forget that those who make the least noise do the most work. An engine that expends all its steam in whistling, has nothing left with which to turn wheels. Then let us cultivate silence. All that we can save in noise we gain in power.
* * * * *
These reflections lead us to consider a similar subject, also very worthy of attention: I mean what has been called "the vice of the superlative." If we study the inhabitants of a country, we notice differences of temperament, of which the language shows signs. Here the people are calm and phlegmatic; their speech is jejune, lacks color. Elsewhere temperaments are more evenly balanced; one finds precision, the word exactly fitted to the thing. But farther on—effect of the sun, the air, the wine perhaps—hot blood courses in the veins, tempers are excitable, language is extravagant, and the simplest things are said in the strongest terms.
If the type of speech varies with climate, it differs also with epochs. Compare the language, written or spoken, of our own times with that of certain other periods of our history. Under the old regime, people spoke differently than at the time of the Revolution, and we have not the same language as the men of 1830, 1848, or the Second Empire. In general, language is now characterized by greater simplicity: we no longer wear perukes, we no longer write in lace frills: but there is one significant difference between us and almost all of our ancestors—and it is the source of our exaggerations—our nervousness. Upon over-excited nervous systems—and Heaven knows that to have nerves is no longer an aristocratic privilege!—words do not produce the same impression as under normal conditions. And quite as truly, simple language does not suffice the man of over-wrought sensibilities when he tries to express what he feels. In private life, in public, in books, on the stage, calm and temperate speech has given place to excess. The means that novelists and playwrights employ to galvanize the public mind and compel its attention, are to be found again, in their rudiments, in our most commonplace conversations, in our letter-writing, and above all in public speaking. Our performances in language compared to those of a man well-balanced and serene, are what our hand-writing is compared to that of our fathers. The fault is laid to steel pens. If only the truth were acknowledged!—Geese, then, could save us! But the evil goes deeper; it is in ourselves. We write like men possessed: the pen of our ancestors was more restful, more sure. Here we face one of the results of our modern life, so complicated and so terribly exhaustive of energy. It leaves us impatient, breathless, in perpetual trepidation. Our hand-writing, like our speech, suffers thereby and betrays us. Let us go back from the effect to the cause, and understand well the warning it brings us!
What good can come from this habit of exaggerated speech? False interpreters of our own impressions, we can not but warp the minds of our fellow-men as well as our own. Between people who exaggerate, good understanding ceases. Ruffled tempers, violent and useless disputes, hasty judgments devoid of all moderation, the utmost extravagance in education and social life—these things are the result of intemperance of speech.
* * * * *
May I be permitted, in this appeal for simplicity of speech, to frame a wish whose fulfilment would have the happiest results? I ask for simplicity in literature, not only as one of the best remedies for the dejection of our souls—blases, jaded, weary of eccentricities—but also as a pledge and source of social union. I ask also for simplicity in art. Our art and our literature are reserved for the privileged few of education and fortune. But do not misunderstand me. I do not ask poets, novelists, and painters to descend from the heights and walk along the mountain-sides, finding their satisfaction in mediocrity; but, on the contrary, to mount higher. The truly popular is not that which appeals to a certain class of society ordinarily called the common people; the truly popular is what is common to all classes and unites them. The sources of inspiration from which perfect art springs are in the depths of the human heart, in the eternal realities of life before which all men are equal. And the sources of a popular language must be found in the small number of simple and vigorous forms which express elementary sensations, and draw the master lines of human destiny. In them are truth, power, grandeur, immortality. Is there not enough in such an ideal to kindle the enthusiasm of youth, which, sensible that the sacred flame of the beautiful is burning within, feels pity, and to the disdainful adage, Odi profanum vulgus, prefers this more humane saying, Misereor super turbam. As for me, I have no artistic authority, but from out the multitude where I live, I have the right to raise my cry to those who have been given talents, and say to them: Labor for men whom the world forgets, make yourselves intelligible to the humble, so shall you accomplish a work of emancipation and peace; so shall you open again the springs whence those masters drew, whose works have defied the ages because they knew how to clothe genius in simplicity.
When we talk to children on a subject that annoys them, they call our attention to some pigeon on the roof, giving food to its little one, or some coachman down in the street who is abusing his horse. Sometimes they even maliciously propose one of those alarming questions that put the minds of parents on the rack; all this to divert attention from the distressing topic. I fear that in the face of duty we are big children, and, when that is the theme, seek subterfuges to distract us.
The first sophism consists in asking ourselves if there is such a thing as duty in the abstract, or if this word does not cover one of the numerous illusions of our forefathers. For duty, in truth, supposes liberty, and the question of liberty leads us into metaphysics. How can we talk of liberty so long as this grave problem of free-will is not solved? Theoretically there is no objection to this; and if life were a theory, and we were here to work out a complete system of the universe, it would be absurd to concern ourselves with duty until we had clarified the subject of liberty, determined its conditions, fixed its limits.
But life is not a theory. In this question of practical morality, as in the others, life has preceded hypothesis, and there is no room to believe that she ever yields it place. This liberty—relative, I admit, like everything we are acquainted with, for that matter—this duty whose existence we question, is none the less the basis of all the judgments we pass upon ourselves and our fellow-men. We hold each other to a certain extent responsible for our deeds and exploits.
The most ardent theorist, once outside of his theory, scruples not a whit to approve or disapprove the acts of others, to take measures against his enemies, to appeal to the generosity and justice of those he would dissuade from an unworthy step. One can no more rid himself of the notion of moral obligation than of that of time or space; and as surely as we must resign ourselves to walking before we know how to define this space through which we move and this time that measures our movements, so surely must we submit to moral obligation before having put our finger on its deep-hidden roots. Moral law dominates man, whether he respects or defies it. See how it is in every-day life: each one is ready to cast his stone at him who neglects a plain duty, even if he allege that he has not yet arrived at philosophic certitude. Everybody will say to him, and with excellent reason: "Sir, we are men before everything. First play your part, do your duty as citizen, father, son; after that you shall return to the course of your meditations."
However, let us be well understood. We should not wish to turn anyone away from scrupulous research into the foundations of morality. No thought which leads men to concern themselves once more with these grave questions, could be useless or indifferent. We simply challenge the thinker to find a way to wait till he has unearthed these foundations, before he does an act of humanity, of honesty or dishonesty, of valor or cowardice. And most of all do we wish to formulate a reply for all the insincere who have never tried to philosophize, and for ourselves when we would offer our state of philosophic doubt in justification of our practical omissions. From the simple fact that we are men, before all theorizing, positive, or negative, about duty, we have the peremptory law to conduct ourselves like men. There is no getting out of it.
But he little knows the resources of the human heart, who counts on the effect of such a reply. It matters not that it is itself unanswerable; it cannot keep other questions from arising. The sum of our pretexts for evading duty is equal to the sum of the sands of the sea or the stars of heaven.
We take refuge, then, behind duty that is obscure, difficult, contradictory. And these are certainly words to call up painful memories. To be a man of duty and to question one's route, grope in the dark, feel one's self torn between the contrary solicitations of conflicting calls, or again, to face a duty gigantic, overwhelming, beyond our strength—what is harder! And such things happen. We would neither deny nor contest the tragedy in certain situations or the anguish of certain lives. And yet, duty rarely has to make itself plain across such conflicting circumstances, or to be struck out from the tortured mind like lightning from a storm-cloud. Such formidable shocks are exceptional. Well for us if we stand staunch when they come! But if no one is astonished that oaks are uprooted by the whirlwind, that a wayfarer stumbles at night on an unknown road, or that a soldier caught between two fires is vanquished, no more should he condemn without appeal those who have been worsted in almost superhuman moral conflicts. To succumb under the force of numbers or obstacles has never been counted a disgrace.
So my weapons are at the service of those who intrench themselves behind the impregnable rampart of duty ill-defined, complicated or contradictory. But it is not that which occupies me to-day; it is of plain, I had almost said easy duty, that I wish to speak.
* * * * *
We have yearly three or four high feast days, and many ordinary ones: there are likewise some very great and dark combats to wage, but beside these is the multitude of plain and simple duties. Now, while in the great encounters our equipment is generally adequate, it is precisely in the little emergencies that we are found wanting. Without fear of being misled by a paradoxical form of thought, I affirm, then, that the essential thing is to fulfil our simple duties and exercise elementary justice. In general, those who lose their souls do so not because they fail to rise to difficult duty, but because they neglect to perform that which is simple. Let us illustrate this truth.
He who tries to penetrate into the humble underworld of society is not slow to discover great misery, physical and moral. And the closer he looks, the greater number of unfortunates does he discover, till in the end this assembly of the wretched appears to him like a great black world, in whose presence the individual and his means of relief are reduced to helplessness. It is true that he feels impelled to run to the succor of these unfortunates, but at the same time he asks himself, "What is the use?" The case is certainly heartrending. Some, in despair, end by doing nothing. They lack neither pity nor good intention, but these bear no fruit. They are wrong. Often a man has not the means to do good on a large scale, but that is not a reason for failing to do it at all. So many people absolve themselves from any action, on the ground that there is too much to do! They should be recalled to simple duty, and this duty in the case of which we speak is that each one, according to his resources, leisure and capacity, should create relations for himself among the world's disinherited. There are people who by the exercise of a little good-will have succeeded in enrolling themselves among the followers of ministers, and have ingratiated themselves with princes. Why should you not succeed in forming relations with the poor, and in making acquaintances among the workers who lack somewhat the necessities of life? When a few families are known, with their histories, their antecedents and their difficulties, you may be of the greatest use to them by acting the part of a brother, with the moral and material aid that is yours to give. It is true, you will have attacked only one little corner, but you will have done what you could, and perhaps have led another on to follow you. Instead of stopping at the knowledge that much wretchedness, hatred, disunion and vice exist in society, you will have introduced a little good among these evils. And by however slow degrees such kindness as yours is emulated, the good will sensibly increase and the evil diminish. Even were you to remain alone in this undertaking, you would have the assurance that in fulfilling the duty, plain as a child's, which offered itself, you were doing the only reasonable thing. If you have felt it so, you have found out one of the secrets of right living.
In its dreams, man's ambition embraces vast limits, but it is rarely given us to achieve great things, and even then, a quick and sure success always rests on a groundwork of patient preparation. Fidelity in small things is at the base of every great achievement. We too often forget this, and yet no truth needs more to be kept in mind, particularly in the troubled eras of history and in the crises of individual life. In shipwreck a splintered beam, an oar, any scrap of wreckage, saves us. On the tumbling waves of life, when everything seems shattered to fragments, let us not forget that a single one of these poor bits may become our plank of safety. To despise the remnants is demoralization.
You are a ruined man, or you are stricken by a great bereavement, or again, you see the fruit of toilsome years perish before your eyes. You cannot rebuild your fortune, raise the dead, recover your lost toil, and in the face of the inevitable, your arms drop. Then you neglect to care for your person, to keep your house, to guide your children. All this is pardonable, and how easy to understand! But it is exceedingly dangerous. To fold one's hands and let things take their course, is to transform one evil into worse. You who think that you have nothing left to lose, will by that very thought lose what you have. Gather up the fragments that remain to you, and keep them with scrupulous care. In good time this little that is yours will be your consolation. The effort made will come to your relief, as the effort missed will turn against you. If nothing but a branch is left for you to cling to, cling to that branch; and if you stand alone in defense of a losing cause, do not throw down your arms to join the rout. After the deluge a few survivors repeopled the earth. The future sometimes rests in a single life as truly as life sometimes hangs by a thread. For strength, go to history and Nature. From the long travail of both you will learn that failure and fortune alike may come from the slightest cause, that it is not wise to neglect detail, and, above all, that we must know how to wait and to begin again.
In speaking of simple duty I cannot help thinking of military life, and the examples it offers to combatants in this great struggle. He would little understand his soldier's duty who, the army once beaten, should cease to brush his garments, polish his rifle, and observe discipline. "But what would be the use?" perhaps you ask. Are there not various fashions of being vanquished? Is it an indifferent matter to add to defeat, discouragement, disorder, and demoralization? No, it should never be forgotten that the least display of energy in these terrible moments is a sign of life and hope. At once everybody feels that all is not lost.
During the disastrous retreat of 1813-1814, in the heart of the winter, when it had become almost impossible to present any sort of appearance, a general, I know not who, one morning presented himself to Napoleon, in full dress and freshly shaven. Seeing him thus, in the midst of the general demoralization, as elaborately attired as if for parade, the Emperor said: My general, you are a brave man!
* * * * *
Again, the plain duty is the near duty. A very common weakness keeps many people from finding what is near them interesting; they see that only on its paltry side. The distant, on the contrary, draws and fascinates them. In this way a fabulous amount of good-will is wasted. People burn with ardor for humanity, for the public good, for righting distant wrongs; they walk through life, their eyes fixed on marvelous sights along the horizon, treading meanwhile on the feet of passers-by, or jostling them without being aware of their existence.
Strange infirmity, that keeps us from seeing our fellows at our very doors! People widely read and far-travelled are often not acquainted with their fellow-citizens, great or small. Their lives depend upon the cooeperation of a multitude of beings whose lot remains to them quite indifferent. Not those to whom they owe their knowledge and culture, not their rulers, nor those who serve them and supply their needs, have ever attracted their attention. That there is ingratitude or improvidence in not knowing one's workmen, one's servants, all those in short with whom one has indispensable social relations—this has never come into their minds. Others go much farther. To certain wives, their husbands are strangers, and conversely. There are parents who do not know their children: their development, their thoughts, the dangers they run, the hopes they cherish, are to them a closed book. Many children do not know their parents, have no suspicion of their difficulties and struggles, no conception of their aims. And I am not speaking of those piteously disordered homes where all the relations are false, but of honorable families. Only, all these people are greatly preoccupied: each has his outside interest that fills all his time. The distant duty—very attractive, I don't deny—claims them entirely, and they are not conscious of the duty near at hand. I fear they will have their trouble for their pains. Each person's base of operations is the field of his immediate duty. Neglect this field, and all you undertake at a distance is compromised. First, then, be of your own country, your own city, your own home, your own church, your own work-shop; then, if you can, set out from this to go beyond it. That is the plain and natural order, and a man must fortify himself with very bad reasons to arrive at reversing it. At all events, the result of so strange a confusion of duties is that many people employ their time in all sorts of affairs except those in which we have a right to demand it. Each is occupied with something else than what concerns him, is absent from his post, ignores his trade. This is what complicates life. And it would be so simple for each one to be about his own matter.
* * * * *
Another form of simple duty. When damage is done, who should repair it? He who did it. This is just, but it is only theory, and the consequence of following the theory would be the evil in force until the malefactors were found and had offset it. But suppose they are not found? or suppose they can not or will not make amends?
The rain falls on your head through a hole in the roof, or the wind blows in at a broken window. Will you wait to find the man who caused the mischief? You would certainly think that absurd. And yet such is often the practice. Children indignantly protest, "I didn't put it there, and I shall not take it away!" And most men reason after the same fashion. It is logic. But it is not the kind of logic that makes the world move forward.
On the contrary, what we must learn, and what life repeats to us daily, is that the injury done by one must be repaired by another. One tears down, another builds up; one defaces, another restores; one stirs up quarrels, another appeases them; one makes tears to flow, another wipes them away; one lives for evil-doing, another dies for the right. And in the workings of this grievous law lies salvation. This also is logic, but a logic of facts which makes the logic of theories pale. The conclusion of the matter is not doubtful; a single-hearted man draws it thus: given the evil, the great thing is to make it good, and to set about it on the spot; well indeed if Messrs. the Malefactors will contribute to the reparation; but experience warns us not to count too much on their aid.
* * * * *
But however simple duty may be, there is still need of strength to do it. In what does this strength consist, or where is it found? One could scarcely tire of asking. Duty is for man an enemy and an intruder, so long as it appears as an appeal from without. When it comes in through the door, he leaves by the window; when it blocks up the windows, he escapes by the roof. The more plainly we see it coming, the more surely we flee. It is like those police, representatives of public order and official justice, whom an adroit thief succeeds in evading. Alas! the officer, though he finally collar the thief, can only conduct him to the station, not along the right road. Before man is able to accomplish his duty, he must fall into the hands of another power than that which says, "Do this, do that; shun this, shun that, or else beware!"
This is an interior power; it is love. When a man hates his work, or goes about it with indifference, all the forces of earth cannot make him follow it with enthusiasm. But he who loves his office moves of himself; not only is it needless to compel him, but it would be impossible to turn him aside. And this is true of everybody. The great thing is to have felt the sanctity and immortal beauty in our obscure destiny; to have been led by a series of experiences to love this life for its griefs and its hopes, to love men for their weakness and their greatness, and to belong to humanity through the heart, the intelligence and the soul. Then an unknown power takes possession of us, as the wind of the sails of a ship, and bears us toward pity and justice. And yielding to its irresistible impulse, we say: I cannot help it, something is there stronger than I. In so saying, the men of all times and places have designated a power that is above humanity, but which may dwell in men's hearts. And everything truly lofty within us appears to us as a manifestation of this mystery beyond. Noble feelings, like great thoughts and deeds, are things of inspiration. When the tree buds and bears fruit, it is because it draws vital forces from the soil, and receives light and warmth from the sun. If a man, in his humble sphere, in the midst of the ignorance and faults that are his inevitably, consecrates himself sincerely to his task, it is because he is in contact with the eternal source of goodness. This central force manifests itself under a thousand forms. Sometimes it is indomitable energy; sometimes winning tenderness; sometimes the militant spirit that grasps and uproots the evil; sometimes maternal solicitude, gathering to its arms from the wayside where it was perishing, some bruised and forgotten life; sometimes the humble patience of long research. All that it touches bears its seal, and the men it inspires know that through it we live and have our being. To serve it is their pleasure and reward. They are satisfied to be its instruments, and they no longer look at the outward glory of their office, well knowing that nothing is great, nothing small, but that our life and our deeds are only of worth because of the spirit which breathes through them.
When we buy a bird of the fancier, the good man tells us briefly what is necessary for our new pensioner, and the whole thing—hygiene, food, and the rest—is comprehended in a dozen words. Likewise, to sum up the necessities of most men, a few concise lines would answer. Their regime is in general of supreme simplicity, and so long as they follow it, all is well with them, as with every obedient child of Mother Nature. Let them depart from it, complications arise, health fails, gayety vanishes. Only simple and natural living can keep a body in full vigor. Instead of remembering this basic principle, we fall into the strangest aberrations.
What material things does a man need to live under the best conditions? A healthful diet, simple clothing, a sanitary dwelling-place, air and exercise. I am not going to enter into hygienic details, compose menus, or discuss model tenements and dress reform. My aim is to point out a direction and tell what advantage would come to each of us from ordering his life in a spirit of simplicity. To know that this spirit does not rule in our society we need but watch the lives of men of all classes. Ask different people, of very unlike surroundings, this question: What do you need to live? You will see how they respond. Nothing is more instructive. For some aboriginals of the Parisian asphalt, there is no life possible outside a region bounded by certain boulevards. There one finds the respirable air, the illuminating light, normal heat, classic cookery, and, in moderation, so many other things without which it would not be worth the while to promenade this round ball.
On the various rungs of the bourgeois ladder people reply to the question, what is necessary to live? by figures varying with the degree of their ambition or education: and by education is oftenest understood the outward customs of life, the style of house, dress, table—an education precisely skin-deep. Upward from a certain income, fee, or salary, life becomes possible: below that it is impossible. We have seen men commit suicide because their means had fallen under a certain minimum. They preferred to disappear rather than retrench. Observe that this minimum, the cause of their despair, would have been sufficient for others of less exacting needs, and enviable to men whose tastes are modest.
On lofty mountains vegetation changes with the altitude. There is the region of ordinary flora, that of the forests, that of pastures, that of bare rocks and glaciers. Above a certain zone wheat is no longer found, but the vine still prospers. The oak ceases in the low regions, the pine flourishes at considerable heights. Human life, with its needs, reminds one of these phenomena of vegetation.
At a certain altitude of fortune the financier thrives, the club-man, the society woman, all those in short for whom the strictly necessary includes a certain number of domestics and equipages, as well as several town and country houses. Further on flourishes the rich upper middle class, with its own standards and life. In other regions we find men of ample, moderate, or small means, and very unlike exigencies. Then come the people—artisans, day-laborers, peasants, in short, the masses, who live dense and serried like the thick, sturdy growths on the summits of the mountains, where the larger vegetation can no longer find nourishment. In all these different regions of society men live, and no matter in which particular regions they flourish, all are alike human beings, bearing the same mark. How strange that among fellows there should be such a prodigious difference in requirements! And here the analogies of our comparison fail us. Plants and animals of the same families have identical wants. In human life we observe quite the contrary. What conclusion shall we draw from this, if not that with us there is a considerable elasticity in the nature and number of needs?
Is it well, is it favorable to the development of the individual and his happiness, and to the development and happiness of society, that man should have a multitude of needs, and bend his energies to their satisfaction? Let us return for a moment to our comparison with inferior beings. Provided that their essential wants are satisfied, they live content. Is this true of men? No. In all classes of society we find discontent. I leave completely out of the question those who lack the necessities of life. One cannot with justice count in the number of malcontents those from whom hunger, cold, and misery wring complaints. I am considering now that multitude of people who live under conditions at least supportable. Whence comes their heart-burning? Why is it found not only among those of modest though sufficient means, but also under shades of ever-increasing refinement, all along the ascending scale, even to opulence and the summits of social place? They talk of the contented middle classes. Who talk of them? People who, judging from without, think that as soon as one begins to enjoy ease he ought to be satisfied. But the middle classes themselves—do they consider themselves satisfied? Not the least in the world. If there are people at once rich and content, be assured that they are content because they know how to be so, not because they are rich. An animal is satisfied when it has eaten; it lies down and sleeps. A man also can lie down and sleep for a time, but it never lasts. When he becomes accustomed to this contentment, he tires of it and demands a greater. Man's appetite is not appeased by food; it increases with eating. This may seem absurd, but it is strictly true.
And the fact that those who make the most outcry are almost always those who should find the best reasons for contentment, proves unquestionably that happiness is not allied to the number of our needs and the zeal we put into their cultivation. It is for everyone's interest to let this truth sink deep into his mind. If it does not, if he does not by decisive action succeed in limiting his needs, he risks a descent, insensible and beyond retreat, along the declivity of desire.
He who lives to eat, drink, sleep, dress, take his walk,—in short, pamper himself all that he can—be it the courtier basking in the sun, the drunken laborer, the commoner serving his belly, the woman absorbed in her toilettes, the profligate of low estate or high, or simply the ordinary pleasure-lover, a "good fellow," but too obedient to material needs—that man or woman is on the downward way of desire, and the descent is fatal. Those who follow it obey the same laws as a body on an inclined plane. Dupes of an illusion forever repeated, they think: "Just a few steps more, the last, toward the thing down there that we covet; then we will halt." But the velocity they gain sweeps them on, and the further they go the less able they are to resist it.
Here is the secret of the unrest, the madness, of many of our contemporaries. Having condemned their will to the service of their appetites, they suffer the penalty. They are delivered up to violent passions which devour their flesh, crush their bones, suck their blood, and cannot be sated. This is not a lofty moral denunciation. I have been listening to what life says, and have recorded, as I heard them, some of the truths that resound in every square.
Has drunkenness, inventive as it is of new drinks, found the means of quenching thirst? Not at all. It might rather be called the art of making thirst inextinguishable. Frank libertinage, does it deaden the sting of the senses? No; it envenoms it, converts natural desire into a morbid obsession and makes it the dominant passion. Let your needs rule you, pamper them—you will see them multiply like insects in the sun. The more you give them, the more they demand. He is senseless who seeks for happiness in material prosperity alone. As well undertake to fill the cask of the Danaides. To those who have millions, millions are wanting; to those who have thousands, thousands. Others lack a twenty-franc piece or a hundred sous. When they have a chicken in the pot, they ask for a goose; when they have the goose, they wish it were a turkey, and so on. We shall never learn how fatal this tendency is. There are too many humble people who wish to imitate the great, too many poor working-men who ape the well-to-do middle classes, too many shop-girls who play at being ladies, too many clerks who act the club-man or sportsman; and among those in easy circumstances and the rich, are too many people who forget that what they possess could serve a better purpose than procuring pleasure for themselves, only to find in the end that one never has enough. Our needs, in place of the servants that they should be, have become a turbulent and seditious crowd, a legion of tyrants in miniature. A man enslaved to his needs may best be compared to a bear with a ring in its nose, that is led about and made to dance at will. The likeness is not flattering, but you will grant that it is true. It is in the train of their own needs that so many of those men are dragged along who rant for liberty, progress, and I don't know what else. They cannot take a step without asking themselves if it might not irritate their masters. How many men and women have gone on and on, even to dishonesty, for the sole reason that they had too many needs and could not resign themselves to simple living. There are many guests in the chambers of Mazas who could give us much light on the subject of too exigent needs.
Let me tell you the story of an excellent man whom I knew. He tenderly loved his wife and children, and they all lived together, in France, in comfort and plenty, but with little of the luxury the wife coveted. Always short of money, though with a little management he might have been at ease, he ended by exiling himself to a distant colony, leaving his wife and children in the mother country. I don't know how the poor man can feel off there; but his family has a finer apartment, more beautiful toilettes, and what passes for an equipage. At present they are perfectly contented, but soon they will be used to this luxury—rudimentary after all. Then Madam will find her furniture common and her equipage mean. If this man loves his wife—and that cannot be doubted—he will migrate to the moon if there is hope of a larger stipend. In other cases the roles are reversed, and the wife and children are sacrificed to the ravenous needs of the head of the family, whom an irregular life, play, and countless other costly follies have robbed of all dignity. Between his appetites and his role of father he has decided for the former, and he slowly drifts toward the most abject egoism.
This forgetfulness of all responsibility, this gradual benumbing of noble feeling, is not alone to be found among pleasure-seekers of the upper classes: the people also are infected. I know more than one little household, which ought to be happy, where the mother has only pain and heartache day and night, the children are barefoot, and there is great ado for bread. Why? Because too much money is needed by the father. To speak only of the expenditure for alcohol, everybody knows the proportions that has reached in the last twenty years. The sums swallowed up in this gulf are fabulous—twice the indemnity of the war of 1870. How many legitimate needs could have been satisfied with that which has been thrown away on these artificial ones! The reign of wants is by no means the reign of brotherhood. The more things a man desires for himself, the less he can do for his neighbor, and even for those attached to him by ties of blood.
* * * * *
The destruction of happiness, independence, moral fineness, even of the sentiment of common interests—such is the result of the reign of needs. A multitude of other unfortunate things might be added, of which not the least is the disturbance of the public welfare. When society has too great needs, it is absorbed with the present, sacrifices to it the conquests of the past, immolates to it the future. After us the deluge! To raze the forests in order to get gold; to squander your patrimony in youth, destroying in a day the fruit of long years; to warm your house by burning your furniture; to burden the future with debts for the sake of present pleasure; to live by expedients and sow for the morrow trouble, sickness, ruin, envy and hate—the enumeration of all the misdeeds of this fatal regime has no end.
On the other hand, if we hold to simple needs we avoid all these evils and replace them by measureless good. That temperance and sobriety are the best guardians of health is an old story. They spare him who observes them many a misery that saddens existence; they insure him health, love of action, mental poise. Whether it be a question of food, dress, or dwelling, simplicity of taste is also a source of independence and safety. The more simply you live, the more secure is your future; you are less at the mercy of surprises and reverses. An illness or a period of idleness does not suffice to dispossess you: a change of position, even considerable, does not put you to confusion. Having simple needs, you find it less painful to accustom yourself to the hazards of fortune. You remain a man, though you lose your office or your income, because the foundation on which your life rests is not your table, your cellar, your horses, your goods and chattels, or your money. In adversity you will not act like a nursling deprived of its bottle and rattle. Stronger, better armed for the struggle, presenting, like those with shaven heads, less advantage to the hands of your enemy, you will also be of more profit to your neighbor. For you will not rouse his jealousy, his base desires or his censure, by your luxury, your prodigality, or the spectacle of a sycophant's life; and, less absorbed in your own comfort, you will find the means of working for that of others.
Do you find life amusing in these days? For my part, on the whole, it seems rather depressing, and I fear that my opinion is not altogether personal. As I observe the lives of my contemporaries, and listen to their talk, I find myself unhappily confirmed in the opinion that they do not get much pleasure out of things. And certainly it is not from lack of trying; but it must be acknowledged that their success is meagre. Where can the fault be?
Some accuse politics or business; others social problems or militarism. We meet only an embarrassment of choice when we start to unstring the chaplet of our carking cares. Suppose we set out in pursuit of pleasure. There is too much pepper in our soup to make it palatable. Our arms are filled with a multitude of embarrassments, any one of which would be enough to spoil our temper. From morning till night, wherever we go, the people we meet are hurried, worried, preoccupied. Some have spilt their good blood in the miserable conflicts of petty politics: others are disheartened by the meanness and jealousy they have encountered in the world of literature or art. Commercial competition troubles the sleep of not a few. The crowded curricula of study and the exigencies of their opening careers, spoil life for young men. The working classes suffer the consequences of a ceaseless industrial struggle. It is becoming disagreeable to govern, because authority is diminishing; to teach, because respect is vanishing. Wherever one turns there is matter for discontent.
And yet history shows us certain epochs of upheaval which were as lacking in idyllic tranquillity as is our own, but which the gravest events did not prevent from being gay. It even seems as if the seriousness of affairs, the uncertainty of the morrow, the violence of social convulsions, sometimes became a new source of vitality. It is not a rare thing to hear soldiers singing between two battles, and I think myself nowise mistaken in saying that human joy has celebrated its finest triumphs under the greatest tests of endurance. But to sleep peacefully on the eve of battle or to exult at the stake, men had then the stimulus of an internal harmony which we perhaps lack. Joy is not in things, it is in us, and I hold to the belief that the causes of our present unrest, of this contagious discontent spreading everywhere, are in us at least as much as in exterior conditions.
To give one's self up heartily to diversion one must feel himself on a solid basis, must believe in life and find it within him. And here lies our weakness. So many of us—even, alas! the younger men—are at variance with life; and I do not speak of philosophers only. How do you think a man can be amused while he has his doubts whether after all life is worth living? Besides this, one observes a disquieting depression of vital force, which must be attributed to the abuse man makes of his sensations. Excess of all kinds has blurred our senses and poisoned our faculty for happiness. Human nature succumbs under the irregularities imposed upon it. Deeply attainted at its root, the desire to live, persistent in spite of everything, seeks satisfaction in cheats and baubles. In medical science we have recourse to artificial respiration, artificial alimentation, and galvanism. So, too, around expiring pleasure we see a crowd of its votaries, exerting themselves to reawaken it, to reanimate it Most ingenious means have been invented; it can never be said that expense has been spared. Everything has been tried, the possible and the impossible. But in all these complicated alembics no one has ever arrived at distilling a drop of veritable joy. We must not confound pleasure with the instruments of pleasure. To be a painter, does it suffice to arm one's self with a brush, or does the purchase at great cost of a Stradivarius make one a musician? No more, if you had the whole paraphernalia of amusement in the perfection of its ingenuity, would it advance you upon your road. But with a bit of crayon a great artist makes an immortal sketch. It needs talent or genius to paint; and to amuse one's self, the faculty of being happy: whoever possesses it is amused at slight cost. This faculty is destroyed by scepticism, artificial living, over-abuse; it is fostered by confidence, moderation and normal habits of thought and action.
An excellent proof of my proposition, and one very easily encountered, lies in the fact that wherever life is simple and sane, true pleasure accompanies it as fragrance does uncultivated flowers. Be this life hard, hampered, devoid of all things ordinarily considered as the very conditions of pleasure, the rare and delicate plant, joy, flourishes there. It springs up between the flags of the pavement, on an arid wall, in the fissure of a rock. We ask ourselves how it comes, and whence: but it lives; while in the soft warmth of conservatories or in fields richly fertilized you cultivate it at a golden cost to see it fade and die in your hand.
Ask actors what audience is happiest at the play; they will tell you the popular one. The reason is not hard to grasp. To these people the play is an exception, they are not bored by it from over-indulgence. And, too, to them it is a rest from rude toil. The pleasure they enjoy they have honestly earned, and they know its cost as they know that of each sou earned by the sweat of their labor. More, they have not frequented the wings, they have no intrigues with the actresses, they do not see the wires pulled. To them it is all real. And so they feel pleasure unalloyed. I think I see the sated sceptic, whose monocle glistens in that box, cast a disdainful glance over the smiling crowd.
"Poor stupid creatures, ignorant and gross!"
And yet they are the true livers, while he is an artificial product, a mannikin, incapable of experiencing this fine and salutary intoxication of an hour of frank pleasure.
Unhappily, ingenuousness is disappearing, even in the rural districts. We see the people of our cities, and those of the country in their turn, breaking with the good traditions. The mind, warped by alcohol, by the passion for gambling, and by unhealthy literature, contracts little by little perverted tastes. Artificial life makes irruption into communities once simple in their pleasures, and it is like phylloxera to the vine. The robust tree of rustic joy finds its sap drained, its leaves turning yellow.