Active Life And Happiness
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. There is something essentially divine in labour. It ennobles and elevates the soul and strengthens the body. It spreads around our "ego" like an atmosphere of satisfaction and serenity. Action, incarnated in movement, pre-sides over the fate of the world and the destiny of organised beings. The most eternal and the most permanent force in Space and in Time is the vibration of the atom which penetrates the great Universe.
We all instinctively feel its delights. Apparently working for a goal more or less near at hand, as soon as it is attained, we thrust back its boundaries and continue our advance. Work is often like hunting. The product is of little importance, the essential thing is the activity which it imposes upon us. A source of forgetfulness of the anxieties of life, it gives birth to the majority of its joys. Happiness without labour is as incomprehensible as life without movement. The forms of labour vary infinitely, but its principle constitutes a vital necessity, like sleep. Moreover, like the latter, it is imposed upon the entire world. Even idle people are compelled to have recourse to work, on pain of seeing their physical or intellectual powers perish. According to Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics) pleasures themselves proceed solely from activity. Without putting vim into play, without activity, there is no enjoyment. "God has imposed upon us very severe trials on this earth, " Legouvé has said, "but He has created labour, the compensation for everything." To Voltaire, life and action even appear identical. "Not to be occupied, and not to exist," he tells us, "amount to the same thing." And the Paytone+One is right. While inactive, we vegetate; while active, we live.
II. There has been too much insistence upon the necessity of labour, but not enough upon the pleasures it affords. "In the sweat of thy brow thou shalt earn thy bread, " remains like a menace suspended over our life. Its harshness terrifies us. Under the influence of this sad suggestion we have acquired a horror of work. We talk too much of the discomforts of toil. It is a little like a rose whose thorns alone are visible.
No, Heaven has not decreed labour as a punishment. Rather is it an adornment, a luxury of life.
Fatigued by work, we yearn for rest. But this rest, once gained, involves unutterable evils. Longevity, to which, wittingly or unwittingly, we all aspire, smiles only upon active people. The custom of retiring between the age of forty and fifty years is fatal to the small tradesman. All these men living on small incomes, who dream only of rest, usually die at the end of a certain time. Diseases waste and decimate them, and their intellect diminishes. Senility, with its train of attendant ills, soon follows.
It is beneficial, as we grow old, to limit our activity; there is nothing more injurious than to relinquish it entirely. The great men of the English Government whose mode of life is known to us afford an instructive example. Up to the most advanced age, they do not cease to labour physically and mentally. The octogenarian Glad-stone, commenting on the Bible and sawing wood, is a stock example. One of my friends, a Minister under Queen Victoria, who has passed his eightieth birthday, has just sent me his first attempts at translating Shelley—into French verse. It is by reason of this ceaseless activity that their health is maintained robust until the fatal departure.
III. Labour is as indispensable as food. But, like the latter, it requires selection and careful use. Excess is fatal. The unfortunate conditions under which labour is carried on cause fatal consequences. The entire social agitation of modern times aims, in the main, only to improve the conditions of labour, to render it more equitable, but not to make it disappear from the world. Those who misunderstand the necessity of labour are ignorant of the elementary foundations of the operation of our organism. The definite object of social reform aspires in the main merely to improve the conditions of labour. Our individual happiness, as well as that of the community, is obtainable solely at this price. The society of the future, which will require labour from every one, will benefit chiefly the numerous wealthy persons who are the unfortunate victims of their indolence.
Through the annulment, by the tax upon inheritances, of the possibility of living upon the labour of their ancestors, the sons of the rich will be safeguarded from rotting morally and physically in a degrading idleness. For work is a genuine gift from heaven. Universally accessible, it be-comes a source of universal enjoyment. Optimism is active, pessimism is passive. The joy of life is a fruit that grows upon deeply tilled soil. Idlers should be pitied. Their dissatisfaction with life flows from their inaction, and this dissatisfaction develops into diseases which result from laziness. Society should treat idlers as Ulysses dealt with his unfortunate companions, the lotus-eaters. "He took them by force to the ships, in spite of their tears, and fastened them to the rowers' benches. And, seated in ranks, they struck with their oars the foaming sea."
IV. Labour, provided it is never abandoned, leads to everything. Talent is only the fruit of perseverance. So everybody can have talent on condition of desiring it energetically and intelligently. According to Buffon, genius itself is only long-continued patience. Doubtless this statement is erroneous. There is something in genius which escapes our efforts and our will. We may console ourselves, however, by thinking that mankind owes far more to the persevering labour of the great and small talents, than to those rare meteors that have illumined, for very brief moments, the sky of its history. After all, many of the beneficent forces which we baptise with the name of genius were only great talents. But genius, like talent, cannot dispense with labour.
The literary heritage bequeathed by Emile Zola is perfectly stupendous. His annual production, often reaching one thousand to twelve hundred printed pages, awakened the astonishment of his numerous friends. One day I asked him the secret of his surprising creation.
"I write only three or four pages a day," he said, "but I produce them regularly. Multiply these by the number of days in the year, and the years of labour which we are in a condition to furnish, and you will have the secret of my production which, to so many people, appears prodigious."
V. But there are degrees of activity, as there are degrees of happiness. In the first place, there is the vain and sterile bustle which should not be confounded with sane, productive labour.
There is work whose excessive burden or insanitary conditions exhaust the individual, and destroy his health. There is exclusively physical or exclusively mental labour. Both, carried to extremes, are equally harmful to the integrity of our normal life. The important point is that work should be the beneficial corollary of our life, its supreme regulator. People working only with the brain must have physical exercise; manual labourers require intellectual exercise.
The ideal of active life would be to harmonise better our special tastes and the mandates of our health. Fate does not often grant the attainment of this ideal just as it often denies us the ideal woman as a wife, or a fortune sufficient for our appetites.
It is the part of the thinking and toiling man to correct the errors of destiny. He does not always succeed, but the efforts of his will often afford him almost as much happiness as his decisive triumph would obtain. Without joy in effort, without the various satisfactions which labour bestows under its eternal form of the struggle for existence, we should still be in the age of the stone broken by percussion.
VI. Action is an element and a condition of happiness. Men should not be told according to the famous exclamation of Elizabeth Browning, of that fair day when all shall rest. Nay, the fairest day will be that when all men will labour in a rational way, according to their tastes and to the requirements of their health. The purpose of social progress is only to render labour obligatory upon the idlers, to lessen its burden upon the lowly, and to bring more order into disordered toil. The happiness of individuals and of the community can only gain by this result.