Pride And Simplicity In Social Relations
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IT WOULD, perhaps, be difficult to prove a subject better qualified than pride to prove that the obstacles to a better life, stronger and more peaceful, are more in ourselves than in circumstances. The diversity and, above all, the contrast of social situations, inevitably cause all sorts of conflicts to surge upon us. But how many of these relations between members of the same society would not be, in spite of all, simplified if we put another spirit in the frame traced in external necessities ! Let us be well persuaded that it is not after all the difference in classes, functions, the so dissimilar forms of our destinies, which embroil men. If that were the case we should see an idyllic peace reign between colleagues, comrades, and all men with analogous interests and similar destiny. Every one knows, on the contrary, that the bitterest quarrels are those which arise among similar beings, and that there is no war worse than civil war. But what hinders men from living in accord is, before all, pride. Pride makes man like a hedge hog, which cannot touch any one without wounding him. Let us speak first of the pride of the great ones.
What displeases me in the rich man who passes in his carriage, is not his equipage, nor his toilette, nor the number and swiftness of his domestic service. It is his scorn. That he has a great fortune does not wound me unless I have a hateful disposition, but that he throws mud on me, rides over my body, shows in his whole attitude that I count for nothing in his eyes be-cause I am not rich like him; that is where I feel the hurt, and with good reason. He imposes a suffering upon me, and after all a suffering quite useless. He insults me and humiliates me gratuitously. It is not what is vulgar in him, but what there is the noblest in me, which rises in face of that wounding pride. Do not accuse me of envy, for I feel none. It is my dignity as man that is touched. It is useless to seek far to illustrate one's impressions. All men who have seen life have had many experiences which will justify our words in their eyes. In certain centers devoted to material interests, pride of wealth dominates to such a point that men quote each other as they quote values on the exchange. Esteem is measured according to the contents of the strong-box. Good society is composed of big. fortunes ; the middle class, lesser fortunes. Then come the people of little means, and those of nothing.
On all occasions they act upon that principle. And he who, relatively rich, has shown his disdain for those less opulent than himself, is watered, in his turn, with the disdain of his superiors in fortune. Thus the rage of comparison saps from summit to foundation. Such a center is as though prepared to order for the cultivation of the worst sentiments ; but it is not the riches, it is the spirit they put into them that we should accuse. Some rich men have not that coarse conception—above all, those who, from father to son, are accustomed to ease. But they forget that there is a certain delicacy in not causing the contrasts to be too marked. Sup-posing that there is no harm in the enjoyment of a great superfluity, is it indispensable to spread out this superfluity, to shock the eyes of those who have not the necessaries, and to affix this luxury close to poverty? Good taste and a sort of modesty will always hinder a portly man from speaking of his vigorous appetite, his peaceful slumber, of his joy in living, by the side of some one who is fading away with consumption. Many rich men lack tact, and sometimes by that they lack even pity and prudence. Are they not from then on badly inspired in complaining of the envy of others, after having done all in their power to provoke it?
But what they lack most is discernment, when they put their pride in their fortune, or when they let themselves drift unconsciously with the seductions of luxury. Firstly, it is to fall into a puerile confusion to consider riches a personal quality. One could not mistake, in a fashion more simple, between the reciprocal value of the envelope and its contents. I do not wish to bear too heavily on that question ; it is too painful. And, yet, can one hinder oneself from saying to those interested : "Take care ; do not confound what you possess with what you are. Learn the seamy side of the splendors of the world, that you may see the childishnes and moral misery of them more forcibly. Pride in truth lays traps too ridiculous for us. We must suspect a companion which makes us hateful to our neighbor and causes us to lose our clearness of vision"?
Those who deliver themselves up to the pride of wealth forget another point—and the most important of all—which is, that to possess is a social function. Without doubt, individual property is as legitimate as the existence even of the individual and as his liberty. Those two things are inseparable, and it is an Utopia, full of dangers, to attack such elementary bases of all life. But the individual belongs to society with all his fibres, and all he does should be done in view of the whole. To possess is, therefore, less of a privilege, which it pleases him to glorify, than a charge whose gravity he feels. Just as it requires one to serve an apprenticeship, often difficult, to be able to exercise all the social functions, so does that function which is called riches exact an apprenticeship. The greater part of the people, poor or rich, imagine that in opulence there is nothing to do but to let one's self live. That is why so few people know how to be rich. In the hand of a too great number wealth is, according to a jovial and redoubtable comparison of Luther's, like a harp in a donkey's hoofs—they have no idea of how to use it.
So, when one meets a man, rich and simple at the same time, that is to say, who considers his riches as a means of filling his humane mission, we should respectfully salute him, for he is certainly somebody. He has conquered obstacles, surmounted trials, and triumphed in the vulgar or subtile temptations. He does not confound the contents of his purse with those of his brains. or his heart, and it is not in figures that he esteems his fellow-men. His exceptional situation, far from lifting him up, humiliates him, because he really feels all that he lacks to reach the heights of Es duty. He has remained a man, and that is to say all. He is approachable, willing to help, and, far from raising with his goods a barrier to separate him from the rest of men, he makes of them a means of drawing more near to them. Although the trade of being rich has been singularly spoiled by so many men, proud and egotistical, this one succeeds in making himself appreciated by whoever is not insensible to justice. Every one, when approaching him and seeing his life, is obliged to turn to himself and ask: "What would have become of me under the same circumstances? Should I have that modesty, that indifference, that probity, which causes one to act with his .own as if it belonged to another ?" So long as there is a world and a human society there will be those harsh conflicts of interest; so long as envy and egotism exist on the earth, nothing will be more respectable than riches filled with the spirit of simplicity. It will do more than to win par-don ; it will win love.
More malevolent than pride inspired by wealth, is that inspired by power, and by power I mean here all powers which one man may have over another, whether it is great or little. I see no way of avoiding that there should be men in the world unequally powerful. All organization supposes a hierarchy of forces. We can never go beyond that. But I fear that if the taste for power is very widely spread, the spirit of power will be lost. By understanding it badly and by misusing it, those who hold any parcel of authority almost every-where end by compromising it.
Power exercises a powerful influence over him who holds it. It needs a strong hand not to be troubled by it. This sort of dementia, which claimed the Roman emperors in the days of their despotic power, is a universal malady, whose symptoms have existed in all ages. A tyrant sleeps in every man, and only waits a propitious occasion to awaken. Now this tyrant is the worst enemy of authority, because he furnishes us an intolerable caricature of it. From there come a multitude of social complications, frictions and hatreds. All men who have said, "You will do this because it is my will," or, better, "because it is my good pleasure," do evil work. There is something in each of us which invites us to resist personal power, and this something is very respectable. For at bottom we are equal, and there is no person who has the right to exact obedience of me because he is he, and I am I. In this case, his command abases me, and it is not permitted to let one's self be abased.
One must have lived in schools, studios, in the ad-ministration of public offices, to have followed closely the relations between men and servants; to have stopped a little everywhere where the supremacy of man is exercised over man, to have an idea of what those do who practice their power with arrogance. Of every free soul they make a soul enslaved, that is to say, a soul in revolt. And it seems that this terrible anti-social effect is more surely produced when he who commands is near the condition of the one who obeys. The most implacable tyrant is the small tyrant. A foreman in a workshop, or an overseer, puts more ferocity in his proceedings than the director or the owner. Such a corporal is harder on his soldiers than the colonel. In certain houses, where madame has not much more education than her maid, the relations between them are like those between a galley-slave and his guard. Everywhere woe to whoever falls into the hands of a subaltern, drunk with his authority.
We forget too much that the first duty of whoever exercises power is humility. Grandeur is not the authority. It is not we who are the law. The law is above all heads. We interpret it only ; but to make it valuable in the eyes of others we must first be submissive to it ourselves. Commandment and obedience in human society are, after all, but two forms of the same virtue, voluntary servitude. The most of the time we are not obeyed because we have not obeyed first.
The secret of moral ascendancy belongs to those who command with simplicity. They soften by the mind the hardness of the fact. Their power is not in gold lace, nor in the title, nor in disciplinary measures. They do not require ferule or threats, and yet they obtain everything. Why? Because each one feels that he is, himself, willing to do anything. That which confers on one man the right to ask a sacrifice of an-other man—his time, his money, his passions, and even his life—is that not only is he resolved to make all those sacrifices himself, but he has inwardly made them in advance. In the order which is given by a man animated by this spirit there is, I know not what power, which is communicated to him who should obey, and aids him to do his duty.
In all the walks of human activity there are chiefs who inspire, sustain, electrify their soldiers. Under their direction a troop does prodigies. They feel capable with them of all efforts, ready to go through fire, according to the popular expression, and with enthusiasm they would pass through it.
But there are not only the prides of the great; there are also the prides of the small ones, that low morgue which is the worthy pendant of the higher one. The root of these two prides is identical. The man who says, "the law is me," is not only that arrogant and imperious being who provokes insurrection by his attitude alone; it is still the subaltern, whose wooden head will not admit that there is anything above him.
There are positively a quantity of people whom all superiority irritates. For them all advice is an offence ; all criticism an imposture ; all orders an attempt on their liberty. They will not accept any rules ; to respect any-thing or any one seems to them like mental aberration. They say in their manner, "Aside from us there is no place for any one."
Of this haughty family are also those who are intractable and susceptible to excess; who, in humbler conditions, never succeed in being contented, and who fulfill their duties with the airs of victims. At the bottom of these grieving spirits there is a misplaced self-love. They do not know how to keep their post simply ; and they complicate their lives, and those of others, by ridiculous exactions and unjust after-thoughts.
When one takes the pains to study men at close range, one is surprised to find that pride has its haunts among those whom we call humble. Such is the power of this vice that it succeeds in forming around the lives of those who live in the most modest conditions a thick wall, which isolates them from their neighbors. They are there intrenched, barricaded in their ambitions and disdains, as unattainable as the powerful ones of the earth behind their aristocratic prejudices. Obscure or illustrious, pride drapes itself in its sombre royalty of enmity to the human kind. It is the same in its misery and in its grandeur, powerless and solitary, distrusting everything and complicating everything. And we can never repeat enough, that if there is so much hatred and hostility between the different classes, it is less to the external fatalities than to the inward fatality that we owe them. The antagonism of interests and the contrasts of situations dig ditches between us—no one can deny it—but pride transforms those ditches into abysses, and in reality it is they only who cry from one bank to the other, "There is nothing in common between you and us."
We have not yet finished with pride, but it is impossible to picture it under all of its forms. I blame it, above all, when it meddles with knowledge and sterilizes it. We owe knowledge, like riches and power, to our fellow-beings. It is a social force which should serve—and it cannot, unless those who know remain in heart near those who do not know. When knowledge transforms itself into an instrument of ambition, it destroys itself.
What shall we say of the pride of the good people? —for it exists, and renders even virtue hateful. The just who repent of the evil that others do, live in a solidarity and in a social truth. On the contrary, the just who despise others for their faults and their crookedness, intrench themselves against humanity, and their qualities, descended to the rank of a vain ornament of their vanity, become similar to those riches which kindness does not inspire, to that authority which does not temper the spirit of obedience. As much as the haughty rich, and the arrogant master, prideful virtue is detestable. It gives man features and an attitude that reveal, I know not what, that is belligerent. Its example drives us away instead of drawing us to them, and those whom this virtue deigns to honor with its benefits feel as if they had received a blow.
Let us sum up and conclude.
It is an error to think that our advantages, whatever they are, should be put to the service of our vanity. Each one of them constitutes for him who enjoys it an obligation and not an object for self-glorification. The material goods, power, knowledge, and the qualities of the heart and mind become as many causes of discord when they serve to nourish pride. They are only beneficent when they remain subjects of modesty for those who possess them. Let us be humble if we possess much, because that proves that we are debtors. All that a man has he owes to some one, and are we sure of being able to pay our debts ?
Let us be humble if we are vested with some important function and if we hold in our hands the fate of others, for it is impossible that a clear-seeing man does not feel himself under such grave duties.
Let us be humble if we have many acquaintances, for they serve us but the better to authenticate the greatness of the unknown, and to compare the little that we have discovered by ourselves with the mass of what we owe to the pains of others.
In sum, let us be humble above all, if we are virtuous, because no one can better feel his defects than he who has been drilled, and more than any one he should feel the need of being indulgent to others, and to suffer for others who are doing wrong.
And what do you do with the necessary distinctions? —some. one may say. With so much simplicity are you not going to efface that sentiment of distance which it is necessary to maintain for the proper working of a society?
I am not of the opinion that it would be well to sup-press the distances and distinctions. But I think that what distinguishes a man is not found in grade, in function, neither in the uniform, nor in the fortune, but in him alone. More than any other epoch, ours has torn away the vanity of purely external things. To be some one now it does not suffice any longer to wear the mantle of an emperor or a royal crown. What good would it serve to wear gold lace, have a coat of arms, or a ribbon? Certainly, external signs are not to be condemned, they have their signification and their utility, but on condition that they cover something and not emptiness. The day when they mean nothing they become useless and dangerous. The only way to distinguish one's self is to be better. If you wish that the social distinctions, so necessary, so respectable in themselves, should be effectually respected, you must first make yourself worthy of them. Otherwise you will contribute to making them hated and despised. It is a thing unfortunately too certain that respect is at a low ebb with us, and it is certainly not the fault of the distinctions suitable to mark what they wish should be respected. The cause of the evil is in the belief that a high position exempts him who occupies it from observing the current duties of life. In lifting ourselves we believe that we are lifted above the law. And so we forget that the spirit of modesty and obedience should grow with the occasion. It results that those who demand the most respect for their charge do the least to merit it. That is why respect is diminishing.
The only distinction necessary is this which consists in the desire to be better. The man who tries to be-come better becomes more humble, more adorable, and more familiar even with those who owe him respect. But as it gains by being better known, hierarchy loses nothing, and it reaps all the more respect where it sowed the least pride.