A Few Catechisms Of Happiness
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. The reception was a most brilliant one. Around the hostess, whose drawing-room was noted as the gathering-place of all whom Paris numbered as celebrities in the domain of literature and of art, there were grouped, on this evening, several men of much renown in the world of intellect. Heaven and earth,—incidentally Paradise,—were being discussed. It was a regular tilt of swift repartees, witty sayings, subtle comments. A tinge of pleasant malice, under a varnish of toleration, dominated this tournament.
A young man, striving to attract attention, uttered several clever witticisms. His musical voice and lively remarks won universal approval.
" Where did he come from? What does he do?"
He had received point-blank the most expressive—because silent—flattery, and his desire to shine, to emerge from obscurity, was aroused. His eloquence, lashed by his first successes, made him take giddy leaps. He did not notice the weariness of his listeners, the amused faces of his rivals. Gradually, recovering his senses, he perceived that the game was lost. By a few new turns, he tried again to win the battle. But the charm was broken. Fifteen minutes later, the brilliant minds were gathered in another corner of the drawing-room.
One felt in the surrounding atmosphere the anguish of a destiny on the eve of extinction. A growing reputation had just been laid to rest.
Before our eyes had been unfolded one of the numerous little dramas of the drawing-room. They have their profound melancholy and their deep sadness. Well-poised minds will express doubt over an incident unworthy of stirring their sensibility. Yet nothing, in itself, is either great or small. All depends upon our own conception of things. In the eyes of this whole little world, the point in question was an irremediable catastrophe. The victim was suffering. His face was contracted with pain, and his eyes were dimmed.
We left the company together. The unfortunate fellow walked with drooping head. He was humbled and prostrated, like a gambler who has lost his last stake.
"How sparkling your mind is!" I said to him. He looked at me doubtfully. Was he dealing with a malicious joker, or a benevolent connoisseur? People are always connoisseurs, when they know how to appreciate our gifts and talents.
I held out my hand to him.
" Yes, " I said, "you have a remarkable intellect. But it has one defect. It does not seem to be aware of the eloquence of silence. If, after having delighted the company, you had known how to listen and to admire the others, your triumph would have been assured. The true conversationalist is the man who knows how to listen. When he adds to this the gift of being able to say a few sensible words, he becomes irresistible."
Months and months elapsed. One morning I received this little note :
"I have profited by your advice. I appreciate the power of silence. I no longer make useless efforts. I attend patiently to the chatter of others. They like me immensely. I say little. This permits me to weigh my words, and wins the praises of all those to whom I listen."
In fact, X is now considered one of the most brilliant men in the capital.
I have reflected a great deal upon the bearing of this trivial incident. How many times have we not witnessed the spectacle of people eagerly destroying their own interests? The chatterboxes everywhere form the enormous majority. All contribute their utmost to render the society of men by no means enviable. Yet it is not always a physiological necessity to talk which causes the various torments of people. Most frequently, it is the invincible necessity of pleasing. Why have we not been taught the advantages of silence?
II. The most insignificant fruits of experience on the tree of our knowledge are piously culled. Why, in the domain of morality, are the woes and disappointments of our ancestors left unutilised? These lessons, crystallised into a condensed form, and constantly placed before our eyes, would perhaps end in changing our nature. Sublime magic of words! In any case, they might spare us many errors and many tears.
The religions have always reduced their wisdom into morsels. But the religious formulas, too far removed from life, principally affected those who had retired from it. The human beings near at hand must have the honey of actual life, which could and ought to be utilised under all circumstances.
III. We desire to render productive the blood shed by soldiers upon the field of battle. We wish to be reimbursed for the losses occasioned by war. What is life except the continual battle of men against fate? An eternal conflict. Begun hundreds of thousands of years ago, it will end only with the disappearance of the last survivor of the human race. Let us make the victors speak. Let us listen to the groans of the wounded and of the dying. In the vast cemetery of the past rest the secrets of the happiness of the future.
For experience always costs too dearly. We should err in wishing to have it encompass our life. That would be like desiring merchants to acquire the secrets of success at the cost of great losses or successive failures. A ship captain does not learn his profession in a series of shipwrecks. Certain experiences even deprive us of the possibility of deriving profit from them.
It is not always easy to make those who are gone interpose. So let us also listen to the living, and draw from their tears and their smiles, their disappointments and their triumphs, a few guiding ideas. Above all, do not let us lose our own joys, but through the ashes and the rust with which circumstances cover our souls, let us allow them to speak. Pausing before the waves which are bearing it away, let us hearken to the voice of life. Solemn and musical, it points out how to avoid tortuous and deceptive paths. Perhaps it will also indicate the easiest ascent toward success.
The catechism, or rather the catechisms of life! The catechism of physical health! The catechism of intellectual and moral health! The catechism of success! The catechism of happiness! Fruits of the wisdom and of the thought of others, they would permit us to use the tears and the joys of our neighbours for the benefit of our own future.
How many flowers are culled in the great garden of our existence! We do wrong to let them fade and perish. It would be so easy to enjoy their intoxicating fragrance, which is released under the action of destiny as is the perfume of the flowers under the breeze of the night.
IV. We know the beautiful answer of a medieval theologian, who had been asked to define the essence of religion while he was balancing on one foot.
" Love your neighbour as yourselves, " he replied.
Certain sciences of life could also be condensed, if not into a few lines, at least into a few pages. The form they will take when they have come from the lapidary will dishearten many of the unbelievers. We expect the roads of happiness, like those which lead to Heaven, to be very long, and especially very complex. Yet there are candid souls that go there by the simplest ways. And the road they pursue is the best one.
Let us try to imitate these souls by plucking from the tree of life a few fruits which are full of flavour. Their quality will not be always of the choicest. There will even be bitter and utterly bad fruits, for it is necessary to have a rare gift to be able to choose unerringly, and I shall not be so absurd as to claim this gift myself. But, by reflecting upon the benefit these fruits afford, we shall perceive the possibility of securing finer and more nutritious specimens. We shall also discover how profitless it is to leave them unused. And then more skilful gardeners will obtain for them greater flavour, and, above all, more tempting forms. Here are some of the articles of a catechism of happiness. We may begin with that of our moral existence. We will proceed by a presentation, in a few words, a sort of short formula, of one experience of life, and mention as a commentary its attractions and its benefits.
Happiness is the child of our will. The stronger this is, the more beautiful is its product. There are people who are happy, thanks to mere chance, but this happiness is ephemeral. The lightest breeze lays it low; it is uprooted and destroyed by the least adversity. Only by the exertion of our will can it be consolidated. When we deter-mine to be happy at any cost, when we bend life to the exigency of our happiness, the latter rises triumphantly and majestically against the entire world. Thought, subjugated by our desire to be happy, breathes upon the frowns of fortune and converts them into smiles. Then we even laugh at fatality. The latter no doubt is potent, but it can accomplish nothing against the impossible. Unhappiness cannot enter our souls when, adequately armed, they repel their foes.
The incidents of life, provided we do not reflect upon them, do not form part of ourselves. They glide over our souls like water over rocks. To enjoy our individual happiness, it must be seized while passing. Otherwise it flies as do the phantoms of a dream. We complain of the brief duration of our life. By pausing before its manifestations, we render it more intense. Above all, we shall render it more advantageous for our future. Let us pause in preference before our happiness. How many times it has fallen to my lot to talk with people who ought to have been very happy ! Always busy, they had not understood the conditions of their happiness, and it has passed.
They were even unhappy from having shut their eyes to the causes for their happiness. We must look at our own life, then we shall love it more.
A Harmonious Life Ought to Embrace the Past, the Present, and the Future
The past contains, like a strong-box, the treasures of the life which has been lived. These treasures are ours. We dispose of them according to our pleasure. We linger over the happy moments, we reject the painful ones, and we reflect upon the facts that are pregnant with instruction. In this way we multiply the instants of happiness and enrich our lives. The future is like the present. We enjoy it through the imagination. The past, which serves for instruction, is also a source of pleasures.
We must also think again of its sorrows, for we must recall our lives. The sweetness and the goodness of things are ours only at this price. They comfort us for disappointments and give existence its value.
Let us Avoid Anger
The gentleness of indulgence disarms the wicked, and nourishes our own souls with honey. It averts from us the wrath which brings in its train in-justice and vengeance. Anger is a venom dangerous to the soul and destructive to the body. When it takes possession of our "ego," it penetrates the most mysterious corners. A source of weakness, it degrades man, and renders him inferior to the person against whom it is exercised.
To live rightly, it is necessary to possess the consciousness of the dignity of man. This quality adorns life and fills it with happiness. There is no superior or inferior position, for all positions are dependent upon our consciousness which, like the sun, shines alike upon the lofty and the humble. The art of living is merely the art of conducting ourselves worthily under the smiles and the frowns of fortune and evincing humanity in our deeds and in our thoughts, thus dominating them, instead of being their slaves.
We must believe in human dignity, that ruling faith animating and guiding our existence. Thus we feel ourselves penetrated by the bond which unites us to the great All. Whether we be deists or atheists, this bond will be for us a source of pride, of energy, of consolation, of encouragement. Then we shall truly live, and we shall also labour more humanely, more joyously.
Happiness Depends upon the Extent of our Love
The soul that is filled with affection resembles a well-lighted room. Love and kindness illumine and revive our consciousness. But we often lavish kindness or, friendship upon those undeserving of it. Such expenditure ought not to be too deeply regretted, for the satisfactions which they afford us, nevertheless, remain great and whole-some. The pleasure which the exercise of kind feelings affords is good for us, and we cannot be deprived of this benefit. Whoever shows himself unworthy is like the diseased tree which, before dying, gives us its fruits, without desiring to do so.
Life Is Effort, Labour, Action
This is a thought which all who are dreaming in their retirement should keep in view. To with-draw from life is to attract death. The asserted repose is only the torpor of our body and our mind.
Both weaken and offer an easy prey to their natural enemies, diseases.
Those who speak ill of action and rush toward repose resemble people who would seek joy in the silence of the tombs. The pleasure is brief, for the semblance of death is swiftly transformed into death itself.
Courtesy as the Basis of Success
Courtesy conquers everything and costs us nothing. Thanks to it, the most insignificant man derives a positive benefit. It is a token which leads to the presumption of agreeable gifts: kindness, gentleness, a good education. Not to use courtesy, would be equivalent to casting away a treasure which is offered gratis. When politeness comes from the heart, it reaches hearts, and protects us as artillery protects the army which is following. We advance through life pleasantly, for everything yields to its magic power which conquers on its way both hearts and imaginations.
V. If, from the moral domain, we pass to that of physical health, we shall perceive still better the profound influence of these guiding thoughts. They ought to direct us, like lighthouses along the numberless pathways of our life. Health is one of the fundamental causes of happiness.
People who are well regard things sanely. They are almost always optimistic. Life in itself is not an evil. Bad digestion counts nine tenths in our gloomy ideas. Cure yourself, we ought to say to the pessimists, and life will present itself to you in all its charms.
Yet mankind is becoming more and more sad and disenchanted. This is because humanity is moving farther and farther away from whole-some principles. We talk far too much of social hygiene, but we do far too little to realise it in life. Dr. J. Héricourt shows that the government and society are rivalling each other in the task of propagating diseases.' Comparison with past ages affords us too facile consolations. We forget that the conditions of existence have radically changed. Human agglomerations have become too dense; the waters we drink are more apt to be infected; we live far less in the open air; we work too much with our brains, and too little with our muscles. The generations which immediately preceded us have suffered from too many bloody and violent revolutions. They have bequeathed a morbid heritage of unsettled nerves and feeble organisms. The bad germs of our ancestors are committing ravages in us, like the evil microbes, multiplied during the centuries in the waters and in the air.
Sooner or later social hygiene will triumph. It will establish its reign over the societies of the future with the majesty of a law of collective safety. While awaiting its victory, we all ought to watch over our own well-being, before advancing to the conquest of the general welfare. This will only hasten its advent.
The human race, to be reformed morally, must, above all, be reformed physically. The two forms of health are connected, and afford each other mutual support. Mankind, qualified for happiness, will not only be better, it will also be more sane.
Here, as elsewhere, we can do much for ourselves, through our own efforts. A breviary of health, containing in condensed form the most important rules to follow, might regenerate humanity. These reminders, placed constantly before our eyes, would permeate our consciousness.
Imagine several generations submitting docilely to these beneficent suggestions. The pleasure of living, under their influence, would be changed into the luxury of living.
Let us instance, by way of examples, a few directions for living sanely. Let us trust to comprehensive souls. Through these few separate leaves, a perception is afforded of the beauty and of the utility of the entire plant from which these leaves are detached.
Let us Avoid Excess in Food
Almost all persons eat two or three times as much as the human organism requires. The products of excessive and poorly assimilated alimentation cause an efflorescence of toxins. Our weakened bodies become the refuge of all sorts of diseases. Our moral being, in its turn, is also vigorously attacked. Life becomes a burden. In proportion to the approach of maladies, the joy of living and happiness recede.
We ought to be on our guard against our appetite. We should master instead of submitting to it, a laconic precept upon the adoption of which often depends the welfare of a long and happy life.
Let us Harmonise our Mental and our Physical Activity
There is an imperious necessity for exercising at the same time our muscles and our brains. A sane and powerful mentality demands a sound and substantial body. Manual labourers ought to use their minds. The right to intellectual culture is the fundamental right of the working class, as the right of making their muscles work belongs to the liberal professions. But it is not sufficient to grant a right, the possibility of exercising it should also be assured. Upon the balance between our muscular and our cerebral life depends the rational improvement and the happiness of the human race.
Our individual health is not only the foundation of our own happiness, but it also contributes to the happiness of the community. Excesses committed injure visibly only ourselves, but they are equally harmful to our immediate environment, to the community, to the State. They also wrong future generations. Incalculable in their consequences, our transgressions against the vital principles of our organism thus become actual offences.
It is man's duty to practice physical morality. Attacks upon the laws of health, though difficult to define and to punish, nevertheless remain offences, while sometimes assuming the gravity of crimes.
VI. We are almost constantly witnessing the spectacle of enormous efforts to obtain moderate results. In political and social life majestic engines are brought forward to heat little glasses of water. Costly meetings of sovereigns, accompanied with reviews of their armies, are organised, which have no influence upon the progress of things. Elaborate laws are promulgated which change nothing. They resemble the imposing buildings that afford no one shelter.
These sights are familiar. They no longer cause astonishment. But the contrary scandalises us. A little turbine intended to move a complex machine leaves us incredulous.
The influence which these maxims, so easily drawn up and maintained, can exert upon the moral and the physical health of human beings will not be readily admitted. We believe far more readily in the power of big books whose ideas escape us, as trees are lost in vast forests. Yet these precepts might be as numerous as the infinite aspects of life. They might sum up its entire philosophy by placing it within the reach of every mind, of every heart.
VII. We are grateful to a friend when, in a difficult moment, he pushes us into a path that is favourable to our happiness. These fruits of wisdom would exercise the functions of these prudent friends. The flowers of experience gathered among neighbours would thus be utilised; as also those which have grown in the gardens of our minds. These cautions would often be like the seeds which, carelessly flung upon the soil, produce beneficent trees. Amid the intersecting roads the pathway of our safety would be easily found. Thanks to the seeds which have been scattered, our minds will grow.
Adapted to the understanding of juvenile brains, these delightful precepts of wisdom might easily increase experience before maturity. These maxims would be dissolved in the youthful minds as foods easily assimilable are mingled with our organism. Repeated to satiety, they would be-come an integral part.
There are undoubtedly books of maxims, of aphorisms, or of detached thoughts. But the idea which guides these is rather that of amusing or of shocking our imagination. We do not take their instructions seriously. This anxiety to instruct, usually absent in authors, is still more so among those who read their works.
VIII. Breviaries, as we conceive them, will be true manuals of life. Their contents, chosen with method and discernment, should be engraved upon our memories in a beautiful and attractive form. Their thoughts should be like those royal gifts which, often undeserved, fall into our lives and cover them with magnificence and splendour. Utilitarian manuals for young and old, they would form a peerless pedagogy, a pedagogy of the happy life.
Thanks to them, the soul could be rendered more sensitive to happiness and happiness more solicitous for our souls. Placed in the hands of youths, they could do much for the education and elevation of minds.
In their condensed form, far from stifling, they would enlarge our minds, by making them mature more rapidly, in their applications to the wisdom of life.
These summaries of the experiences of the outer life would facilitate the unfolding of the inner one, as the fortune inherited from their fathers facilitates the increase of the wealth of the sons. The catechism of life will perhaps be a subject of instruction in a few half-scores of years. And doubtless it will not be the subject that the pupils will study with the least diligence and love. The pupils will see, in this way, the most instructive aspects of life. They will learn from a tender age the means of driving away sorrow and attracting happiness.
Our demonstration may not be entirely convincing. This tells against our eloquence, but not against our idea. -A bad guide, I have chosen a bad path. It may be that I have inadequately described the charms. Test these by seeking them yourself. Compose a breviary of life, based upon your own observations. Try to keep it henceforth before your eyes. To understand its advantages more readily, begin with that of physical health. Its effects are more prompt, and for that very reason, more convincing. Reduced to a score of precepts, the suggested breviary would spare us many disappointments. These instructions, ever present to our minds, would bar the way of a double number of maladies. We should live more happily, while at the same time living longer.