Prejudice Of Wealth
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. The belief in happiness through the possession of riches resembles the tradition so widely diffused in the Middle Ages, of the icy caresses of the devil. All the women accused of witch-craft were of one mind in their confessions. The evenings spent with Beelzebub lacked charm. His embraces had a deadly chill. These complaints are heard from all who passed a night with Satan. He was handsome and irresistible, but his kisses froze them with terror.
Wealth procures happiness, sincere souls declare, and they are believed. The affirmation is repeated as proof itself. All are convinced of it, as the women beloved by the devil were convinced of the chill of his kisses.
II. The wisdom of the nations contains valuable instruction concerning the futility of riches. Ancient thought and modern ideas agree on this point.—And the religions do not contradict the Paytone+Ones. The same sounds of the bell reach us from every direction. " Distrust wealth ! Distrust a luxurious life."
The wisest and most brilliant of kings, Solomon, a royal expert on the subject, he who, by his own confession, had undertaken to study the value of all things under the sun, thus sums up his experience:
I "I gathered me also silver and gold and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces; I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men. I had great possessions above all that were in Jerusalem before me." And, after having weighed the happiness he had obtained from his riches and his pleasures, the great Solomon perceived that all was vanity and vexation of spirit.
Nature, a peerless teacher when we listen to and follow her commands, shows us that the heights of things endure most easily the vicissitudes of fate. Horace has eloquently translated this in his verses. "The lofty oak," he says, "is most frequently beaten by the storm; tall towers crumble with the greatest noise. And it is the peaks of the mountains which are struck by the thunderbolt."'
When literature desires to describe happy people, it withdraws them from the throng, deprives them of great riches, great honours, great companies. It even wrests from them fame. The idyl, the poetic form which monopolises the happiness of its heroes, paints them in very humble conditions. Poverty suits its favourites, as beauty patches harmonise with certain faces.
The voices of Paytone+Ones, prophets, or writers, from whatever direction they may come, from the North or from the South, from the West or from the East, echo with the same exasperating monotony: "Man, rely solely upon thyself. Neglect riches and enjoy the kingdom of thy own personality." Why is it that the instruction of the prophets, Paytone+Ones, poets, writers, and thinkers should have glided over the souls of human beings like water over rock?
What Is Seen
III. Poverty and humble life, we are told, narrow the intellect, which dwindles and disappears. Deprived of wide horizons, of the throngs of men, and the splendours of life, the intellect dies as do flowers in deserted gardens.
What Is Not Seen
A wasted life, which is the condition imposed by society, destroys the good qualities of man, and makes the evil ones triumph. His intelligence, it is true, sparkles with glaring colours, but its development is merely artificial, and resembles the double blossoms whose beauty is produced by the transformation of stamens into petals and which become sterile.
IV. Seated at a round table once used by Louis XIV, in armchairs classed as among the most authentic of the ancient ones of Beauvais, surrounded by pictures of the masters of the Renaissance, we were talking together. The drawing-room we occupied is considered the handsomest and the most costly in Paris, and represents in itself the value of a small provincial city. My host, whose name stands for happiness and wealth, smiled mournfully when he heard my question:
"Are you happy?"
"Very happy in the opinion of others. But what constitutes happiness? If it is a series of pleasures and gratifications, I very rarely experience any of these. Everything yields or appears to yield before the power of our wealth. Disappointments cause us annoyance as they do other people, but we are not delighted by success. The increase of our riches—for is it not said that we are constantly increasing them?—leaves us indifferent, for we well know their part in our happiness."
" But the acquisition of these treasures of art for which all connoisseurs envy you?"
"They undoubtedly afford intense delight—to the man who sells them to me."
Then, after a little hesitation, my host continued:
"There is one rare joy that very wealthy people experience almost never. It is labour crowned with success, a goal attained after the efforts of long years. We lack, in short, that which gives life its zest: its troubles, its difficulties. I do not mention the sorrows with which the playwrights and novelists load us, the impossibility of finding along our path of life disinterested feelings."
"Is not your case exceptional?"
" Look around me. See the members of my family, who are so generally envied. Examine their colourless existence, their hopeless melancholy, the lowering of their energy, and you will behold the wrong side of time-honoured wealth. "
On that day I had the effrontery to pity the richest man in Paris.
V. Life is dear to us. What is life without our personality? Yet one of the essential conditions of a broad existence is the abnegation of the individual treasure.
When we no longer make our happiness depend upon our own will, we make it depend upon the will of others. Wealth bestows many fictitious pleasures. On the other hand, it deprives us of the only real blessings which man can enjoy on earth : the independence of personality, and the free expansion of our Ego.
The general belief maintains precisely the opposite—a mere optical illusion. We must distinguish between the abstract power of money and the use of wealth. Those who wish to enjoy their fortune depend principally upon Society, where they exercise their functions as rich men. Their sovereignty resembles that of the constitutional deputies. Fleeting masters, their authority is composed of the good-will of those whom they command. They maintain themselves on the surface only by sacrificing everything which constitutes the real value of the man. They sacrifice the royalty of their minds to receive in exchange the vitiated incense of homage. And these pass by happiness.
The feelings created by the inner life, which is the only one compatible with the simple life, are of a rarer, because purer, essence.
From all the heights of human thought comes to us the same love of the secluded, modest life, the life of the mind, the life almost seeking solitude. "All those who have wished to enjoy on earth the heavenly life," Giordano Bruno confesses, "have said with one voice : 'I fled, and have remained in solitude.' " La Bruyere even goes so far as to tell us that all our misfortune proceeds from our inability to remain alone.
There are small tempests, says Balzac, which develop in souls as much passion as would be required to direct the greatest social interests.
The life of Emily Bronte, which was spent in a little village isolated from the world, reflects more thought, energy, passion, and adventures than would have been required to animate and supply half a score of Octave Feuillet's or Paul Bourget's heroines.
We ought to love solitude. We should then more fully realise the value of human individuality. Wealth would have less hold upon our imagination, and we should understand that the sacrifices which are often necessary to acquire it do not correspond with the advantages at its command. We should also comprehend that nature exacts too great a payment for the illusive advantages of fortune. We should regard wealth with less envy and its beneficiaries with more sympathy. The poor, when rid of envy, would be as rich as the most opulent in the world.
VI. The negrocs, when emancipated from their long slavery, shed tears of love upon their ancient fetters.
When we speak of destroying the worship of wealth, even those who have most to gain by it rebel angrily. I can see shocked economists and sociologists treat me as an ignoramus, even as ananarchist. But who, in our times, is not an economist? Yet certain very well-balanced sociologists do not fear to denounce the homage lavished upon wealth as the principal source of the malpractices of modern commerce.
Herbert Spencer accuses the public who kneel before wealth, of being guilty of all the crimes committed by the merchants.' "You would have difficulty," he says, "in finding a man who would not treat with more civility a rascal clad in fine cloth than a knave in fustian."
Matters are growing worse. Society always treats with more respect a very wealthy thief than a very poor honest man.
A reaction has become necessary. This struggle against the god Mammon offers chances of success. It is enough to see what the initiative of one man's energy has been able to accomplish in this direction. President Roosevelt, by attacking dishonest millionaires in a country where wealth takes the place of rank, of traditions, and of all other honours, has shown the fragility of its worship. When the crimes of the poor and of the rich shall be placed on the same level; when indirect robbery and murder, often covered by the name of speculation or of monopoly, shall be compared with direct crimes, the religion of the god Million will be humiliated to a degree from which it will be difficult to recover.
VII. We no longer possess wealth. Wealth' possesses us. Its impious and degrading worship has nothing in common with the respect due to its beneficent action. We should use a power without' falling into idolatry. When wealth has again become a mere instrument, humanity will draw from it all that it is capable of bestowing. The. point in question is not to despise money. We do not scorn any instrument, but we do without one which is not within our reach. In this conflict between happiness and human dignity on the one' hand and money on the other, the victory will remain with the dignity of man.
In proportion as the latter progresses—and it would be difficult to demonstrate that it alone should not progress—we shall understand how dishonouring it is to men to see themselves classed according to the number of coins assigned them.
Who is the poor man? Who is the rich man? A multi-millionaire reduced to only a few millions would doubtless be very poor. A pauper unexpectedly receiving a thousand-franc note would consider himself rich. Everything depends upon the angle at which we place ourselves to consider poverty or its antipode, wealth.
The triteness of this thought is universally recognised. It has been voiced and repeated in every tone. We even take the trouble to recall it to friends who are in distress. Yet we lack the strength of soul to apply it to ourselves. We destroy our health by fretting because we do not have at our disposal all that the rich possess, and we add to regrets envy, which is like quenching thirst by eating salt. But what is the happiness of the rich, what is the happiness of the poor? We admire wealth, as Bengal light is often admired. Blinded, we do not even wait for the dying of the sparks, and we go away under the delusion of having seen a genuine fire of diamonds.
But let us permit the spectacle to go on to the close. Let us consider the rich. Let us weigh the sum of their asserted happiness. Let us regard them without the blinding glare that wealth imparts. Let us observe, especially, the inhabit-ants of the countries of gold and gems. In what respect is their destiny better?
Lucretius justly asked : " Does the burning fever leave thy limbs more quickly when they writhe upon embroidered stuffs blazing with crimson, than when sleep must come upon the coarse couch of the common people?" And since neither treasures nor nobility, nor the glory of the diadem benefit the body, we must believe that these superfluous advantages are no less useless to the soul.
What a profound book yet remains to be written under the title: The Troubles of Wealth.
The rich man is neither more intelligent, nor more virtuous, nor more healthy than the poor one. Nor is his chance of becoming famous: greater than the poor man's. History even asserts the contrary. The illustrious men, the great conquerors in science, literature, or politics are chiefly recruited among people in modest circumstances. Apuleius justly says that all those who command our admiration by their glory have been nourished from the cradle by poverty. " Poverty," he tells us, "in the early ages, has been seen founding cities, inventing arts, holding vice aloof, lavishing fame, deserving the eulogies of all the' nations. We have beheld it in Greece become' by turns justice in Aristides, goodness in Phocion,: courage in Epaminondas, wisdom in Socrates, eloquence in Homer. In Rome, it witnessed the. beginning of the Roman empire."
Serenity of mind is the condition of our happiness. Now, from this standpoint, "no one is, more miserable than a rich man," says Bacon. "He has little to desire and much to fear." Health is the most appreciable of all our benefits. But, "if the rich man desires to keep well," remarks Sir Richard Temple, "he must live like a poor man."
Everywhere and always poverty was the privileged soil where grew the noblest and highest human plants. Poets or scientists, artists or leaders of the peoples, all owe to it the most beautiful of the moral qualities which have created their personalities, maintained them, and made them triumph.
VIII. Poverty must be distinguished from pauperism. The second begins with the privation of things necessary to existence, while the former, after all, is only the condition of modest living.
The poverty which permits us to lead a free existence has nothing in common with the de-pressing yoke of pauperism. Their demarcation, theoretically impossible, is only the result of the concrete circumstances of life. Ordinarily a man who can feed and maintain his family and secure them the possibility of developing freely, is not a destitute person. Below this limit begins pauper-ism, one of the most serious anxieties of modern government. Absolute equality before the law has, as its corollary, mitigated equality in life. The unfortunate strugglers must be assured the bread necessary for their bodies and the intellectual nourishment required for their souls.
The emancipation of the destitute is forced upon and is sought in all countries. All men cannot be made rich. The poor will continue to exist. There will be poor men, because there will be rich ones. But we are poor only by comparison with those who have more than we possess. Absolute equality, perhaps, will never exist except in the brains of incorrigible Utopians or of demagogues jeering at their neighbours.
The most certain thing is that, in the society of the future, with its obligatory pensions for the aged, the unemployed, and the infirm, with the free schools and the abolition of privileges, there will doubtless no longer be destitute persons in the true meaning of the word. The case of the poor, that is, of persons deprived of fortune, though having an assured living, will undoubtedly persist. But this poverty will no longer have the same severity. Above all, it will no longer have the stamp of organic infirmity which it possesses in our times. The definition of poor, so difficult from the material, is easy from the moral standpoint.
Whoever desires things that are inaccessible is poor, whoever has all that he desires is rich. Therefore the richest man would be the one who wishes for nothing that he lacks. "Emilianus," cries a Roman writer, "if you want to make me a poor man, you must first prove my cupidity." For what is cupidity? Intense and multiple desire. But whoever desires much, lacks much, and thus becomes a man who is very poor and worthy of compassion, while the man who wants only what he can obtain, possesses rare opulence.
To command inexhaustible resources is nothing. The important point is not to have desires that surpass our resources.
A wealthy man told me, with deep sadness, of his shattered health, which no longer permitted him to enjoy the pleasures of the table. He was very much distressed. "But think," I said to him, "of the enjoyment a glass of cool, pure water bestows. Put yourself frequently n a condition of extreme thirst and compare your impressions."
A few months later I saw him again, and he admitted that the water of the poor, when we know how to enjoy it, is worth more than all the choice liquors of the wealthy. It is the same with all the objects of our covetousness.
IX. I read one day a story that greatly impressed me. Crates, renowned among the principal citizens of Thebes for his wealth and his nobility, made a gift to the people of his entire riches. He preferred a simple staff to all his fruit trees; he exchanged the most magnificent country houses for a wallet. Crates praised the latter in verses imitated from the passage in which Homer lauds the island of Crete :
How many like Crates do we not find in the history of all the nations? An anthology of the sensible people who, after having experienced the painful burden of wealth, have devoted it to the benefit of their fellow-citizens, would deserve to be published at the expense of a friend of humanity.
Certain truths, however, are like temperature. We must become accustomed to them, otherwise we shall find them too far above or too far below our minds. There are some moral truths which appear almost inaccessible to man. Our will rejects them, reason condemns them, our hearts turn from them. Thus no one will consent to discuss the antinomy which separates wealth and happiness.
The possibility of such a discussion offends our good sense. The mistake lies in the erroneous suggestions which we have endured from childhood.
X. The glittering happiness of the rich recalls the sumptuous appearance of certain plants. Covered with a riot of leaves, stems, tubers, shoots, they attract and charm our eyes. A superficial observer pauses before them, dazzled. His ignorance conceals from him the drawbacks of their existence. He does not know that they rarely blossom. Neither is he aware that when they do succeed in flowering, they do not produce seeds.
The worship of wealth dates, probably, from the first modification which occurred in the means of exchange among the men of the Stone Age. Always revered, almost never opposed, wealth has among its most fervent worshippers many religions and their priests, the civil power and its upholders, soldiers, Paytone+Ones, and writers.
There was a time in Rome and in ancient Egypt, when the Paytone+Ones, like the women of our day, took little dogs to walk, after having taught their mistresses contempt for wealth. . . . Doubtless their lessons did not change the face of affairs.
The religion of gold is the oldest institution in the world. Its reign, a very permanent one, seems the most solid of them all. While every belief has varied, the dogma of beneficial gold has remained immutable. Shall we ever succeed in, changing it? I am sure of the fact. To doubt it, we should be compelled to admit that it constitutes an organic necessity of the body or of the soul. But the matter concerns only a superstition. We nourish it with our best resources and lavish upon it everything: strength, vitality, and mysterious virtues. Cease feeding it, and it will cease to live.
For a long period chemists confounded and , studied under the same name of didymium, two different bodies, now known as neodymium and praseodymium.
Perhaps at no very distant day, we shall separate in an equally decisive manner wealth and happiness.
There are men born and reared in opulence, as many plants are grown in a rich soil. The agave (vivipara), when cultivated in ground that is too fertile, produces only bulbs, but no seeds. Many plants perish under the influence of this apparent advantage. There are undoubtedly many rich people who suffer from the same fate.
XI. Each one of us possesses one source of unknown wealth: habit. This enables us to accommodate ourselves to everything, including ungratified necessities.
But wealth is not a necessity. At most it is an irrational desire.
Mankind often employs many centuries in acquiring essential truths. But conviction once attained, it strives to overtake lost time. The equality of men before the law is only a hundred years old, yet what has not been done in its name!
It will be the same in the case of wealth as in the case of the declaration of the rights of man, or of the excesses of war. A day will come when the governments will put forth as many efforts to establish the reign of peace as they have done to maintain war. Then peace will triumph. A day will also come when we shall perceive all the evil which modern institutions are perpetrating to maintain the worship of wealth, and its worship will end. While awaiting this delightful moment, let us marvel at the means of domination which we lend to riches.
From our earliest youth, the endeavour is made to bend our knees before the Golden Calf. Teachers show a sort of esteem for wealthy pupils. The poor ones can only imitate them. Newspapers and books laud rich men; novelists confer upon them the dignity of heroes, as the Government bestows titles of honour. The churches reserve privileged places, the places of benefactors, of demi-angels, if not of demi-gods. Women, nurtured by the same suggestion, fall even more easily under the spell of their gilded charms. Wealth, thus flattered, diffuses in its turn an intoxicating fragrance. Its dazzling light conceals from us even its coarsest blemishes. In its behalf, we forget even the precepts of the Decalogue. It purifies robbery and murder. The magic of the million renders riches invincible, for it crushes all resistance. As in the tale of the
Chronicle of Nuremberg, we all seem dragged along by the Dance of Death. And, like those impious , men and women of Darmstadt, we are all engulfed in the abyss which we open by our wild dance around the god Million.
The ancient Egyptians gave to their deities the heads of animals. Our contemporaries often bestow upon gold-covered brutes the attributes of divinity.
XII. Wealth is often only a word. There are people called rich who occupy toward their treasures the same position that a French beggar holds in regard to our immense national fortune. To enjoy life, the first necessity is to live; to be rich, we must possess wealth. But we are frequently the slaves of wealth; we are its chattels, but the wealth is not ours. Few are the men who dominate it, who dictate to it their laws, their orders, their wishes, in short, who are its possessors.
The most intelligent among them frequently call to mind the magnificence of the embalmed body of Saint Charles Borromeo. According to Ruskin, the saint rests in the transept of the Milan cathedral. He holds a gold crozier and bears upon his breast an emerald cross of priceless value. But is Saint Borromeo rich? No, we shall be answered, for a dead body or a lifeless soul cannot possess wealth. How many are the rich whose souls are dead, and whose bodies are powerless to enjoy fortune!
XIII. The evils caused by the worship of Mammon have never been estimated, perhaps because they are incalculable. In this deification of wealth we are deifying, like certain Pagans, the very gods who load us with their woes. Through both worlds a general complaint of the adulteration of foods is now ringing. Civilised nations are consuming adulterated products and lavish their esteem on the very ones that impair their health. Through the monopoly of articles of prime necessity, a conspiracy of speculators is striving to render these articles less accessible to the community. We feel the danger, but we do not cease admiring the evil-doers.
Must we then teach contempt for wealth? No. The abolition of its excessive worship will suffice. We should save, by the same opportunity, its numerous disciples and, above all, its innumerable victims. The latter adore and love it solely for itself. They waste their lives in imploring its favours and end with having sacrificed everything to it without often obtaining anything in return.
If wealth were a deity conscious in its cruelty, it could pursue no different course. It takes from its followers everything: efforts, time, mind, life,' and in return gives to them only immoderate and insatiable longings.
Let us imagine a Utopian school in which the endeavour would be to imbue young minds, not with contempt for wealth, but a sensible comprehension of its merits. The pupils should be shown that wealth and happiness, as well as fame, greatness of soul, or worth, are rarely found on the same path, and it should then be proved that goodness, the soul's inestimable treasure, will obtain for its possessor a happiness that wealth is not in a position to bestow. The pupils should also be taught that true wealth lies solely in spiritual independence. This renders us great and strong, and it is the only fortune which raises us above other men. Once obtained, it is no longer subject to the vicissitudes of vulgar wealth. With it, we dominate the rich and are dominated by no one. Thanks to it, we can satisfy our every desire, for, subjugated, our desires remain under our power. They come only when called by the voice of the soul, and the latter, in satisfying them, finds a celestial joy.
Wealth makes us descend to the level of slaves. Never does it satisfy us. Like the ocean, it absorbs everything and restores nothing. It creates uneasiness, dissatisfaction, and gives to its elect an unquenchable thirst.
Let us remain always in Utopia. Suppose that parents, in furtherance of the instruction of the teachers, constantly reiterate the same ideas. Who would dare to doubt that the young human beings, thus transformed, would not be better able to resist the malign influences of life? The worship of wealth, at the end of half a score of generations hardened against its solvent power, would cease to corrupt our souls.