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Conduct Of Life:
Manners When Travelling
How To Dress
Achieve Happiness
Of A Happy Life And Wherein It Consists
Man The Maker Of Happiness
Happiness Through The Pursuit And Use Of Money
The Art Of Having Time
The Miracle Of Tact
Frienship - Part 1
Friendship - Part 2
Friendship - Part 3
The Simple Life
The Essence Of Simplicity
Right Living As A Fine Art

The Essence Of Simplicity

( Originally Published 1913 )

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 labour, 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 liv ing, 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 groupings 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 form 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 simplicity 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 fas cination 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.

I see no possible way of doing without money. The only thing that theorists or legislators, who accuse it of all our ills, has hitherto achieved, has been to change its name or form. But they have never been able to dispense with a symbol representative of the commercial value of things. One might as well wish to do away with written language as to do away with money. Nevertheless, this question of a circulating medium is very troublesome. It forms one of the chief elements of complication in our life. The economic difficulties amid which we still flounder, social conventionalities, and the entire organization of modern life, have carried gold to a rank so eminent that it is not astonishing to find the imagination of man attributing to it a sort of royalty. And it is on this side that we shall attack the problem.

The term money has for appendage that of merchandise. If there were no merchandise there would be no money; but as long as there is merchandise, there will be money, little matter under what form. The source of all the abuses which center around money lies in a lack of discrimination. People have confused under the term and idea of merchandise, things which have no relation with one another. They have attempted to give a venal value to things which neither could have it nor ought to. The idea of purchase and sale has invaded ground where it may justly be considered an enemy and a usurper. It is reasonable that wheat, potatoes, wine, fabrics, should be bought and sold, and it is perfectly natural that a man's labour procure him rights to life, and that there be put into his hands something whose value represents them; but here already the analogy ceases to be complete. A man's labour is not merchandise in the same sense as a sack of flour or a ton of coal. Into this labour enter elements which cannot be valued in money. In short, there are things which can in no wise be bought: Sleep, for instance; knowledge of the future; talent. He who offers them for sale must be considered a fool or an impostor. And yet there are gentlement who coin money by such traffic. They sell what does not belong to them, and their dupes pay fictitious values in veritable coin. So, too, there are dealers in pleasures, dealers in love, dealers in miracles, dealers in patriotism, and the title of merchant, so honourable when it represents a man selling that which is in truth a commodity of trade, becomes the worst of stigmas when there is question of the heart, of religion, of country.

Almost all men are agreed that to barter with one's sentiments, his honour, his cloth, his pen, or his note, is infamous. Unfortunately this idea, which suffers no contradiction as a theory and which thus stated seems rather a commonplace than a high moral truth, has infinite trouble to make its way in practice. Traffic has invaded the world. The money-changers are established even in the sanctuary, and by sanctuary I do not mean religious things alone, but whatever mankind holds sacred and inviolable. It is not gold that complicates, corrupts, and debases life; it is our mercenary spirit.

The mercenary spirit resolves everything into a single question: How much is that going to bring me? and sums up everything in a single axiom: With money you can pro cure anything. Following these two principles of conduct, a society may descend to a degree of infamy impossible to describe or to imagine.

How much is it going to bring me? This question, so legitimate while it concerns those precautions which each ought to take to assure his subsistence by his labour, becomes pernicious as soon as it passes its limits and dominates the whole life. This is so true that it vitiates even the toil which gains our daily bread. I furnish paid labour; nothing could be better; but if to inspire me in this labour I have only the desire to get the pay, nothing could be worse. A man whose only motive for action is his `vages, does a bad piece of work. What interests him is not the doing,-it's the gold. If he can retrench in pains without lessening his gains, be assured that he will do it. Plowman, mason, factory labourer, he who loves not his work puts into it neither interest nor dignity-is, in short, a bad workman. It is not well to confide one's life to a doctor who is wholly engrossed in his fees, for the spring of his action is the desire to garnish his purse with the contents of yours. If it is for his interest that you should suffer longer, he is capable of fostering your malady, instead of fortifying your strength. The instructor of children who cares for his work only so far as it brings him profit, is a sad teacher; for his pay is indifferent, and his teaching more indifferent still. Of what value is the mercenary journalist? The day you write for the dollar, your prose is not worth the dollar you write for. The more elevated in kind is the object of human labour, the more the mercenary spirit, if it be present, makes this labour void and corrupts it. There are a thousand reasons to say that all toil merits its wage, that every man who devotes his energies to providing for his life should have his place in the sun, and that he who does nothing useful, does not gain his livelihood, in short, is only a parasite. But there is no greater social error than to make gain the sole motive of action. The best we put into our work-be that work done by strength of muscle, warmth of heart, or concentration of mind-is precisely that for which no one can pay us. Nothing better proves that man is not a machine than this fact; two men at work with the same forces and the same movements, produce totally different results. Where lies the cause of this phenomenon? In the divergence of their intentions. One has the mercenary spirit, the other has singleness of purpose. Both receive their pay, but the labour of the one is barren; the other has put his soul into his work. The work of the first is like a grain of sand, out of which nothing comes through all eternity; the other's work is like a living seed thrown into the ground; it germinates and brings forth harvests. This is the secret which explains why so many people have failed while employing the very processes by which others succeed. Automatons do not reproduce their kind, and mercenary labour yields no fruit.

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