Simplicity - Conclusion
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I THINK I have indicated sufficiently the spirit and the manifestations of the simple life to give a glimpse of the fact that there is in it a whole forgotten world of strength and beauty. They who have sufficient energy to detach themselves from the dreadful inutilities with which our existence is embarrassed can conquer it. They will soon perceive that, in renouncing a few superficial satisfactions, a few puerile ambitions, they will add to their faculty of being happy and their power for justice.
These results bear as much on private as public life. It is incontestable that, in struggling against the feverish tendency to shine, in ceasing to make the satisfaction of our desires the aim of our activity, in returning to modest tastes and the true life, we will be working to consolidate our family. And another spirit will breathe in our houses, creating new manners and surroundings, more favorable to the education of childhood. Little by little our young men and our young girls will feel themselves directed towards an ideal more elevated and at the same time more realizable. This interior transformation will exercise its influence on public spirit at length. The same as the solidity of a wall depends on the grain and consistency of the mortar which cements it, the same energy of public life depends on the individual value and their powers of cohesion. The great desideratum of our epoch is the culture of the social element which is the human individual. Everything in the actual organization of society brings us back to that element. In neglecting it we are in danger of losing the benefit of progress itself and to cause even the most persevering efforts to turn against us. If in ceaselessly working over a tool the workman diminishes its value what good will be the engines of which he disposes ? To make worse by their very qualities the faults of him who uses them without discernment or conscience. The wheels of the great modern machine are infinitely delicate. Malevolence, lack of skill, or corruption can all produce troubles otherwise redoubtable than in the more or less rudimentary organism of the society of other days. We must therefore watch over the quality of the individual, called in whatever measure to contribute to the working of that machine, so that he may be at once solid and loyal, and taking his inspiration from the central law of life, be himself and be brotherly. All in and out-side of us simplifies and unifies itself under the influence of that law, which is the same for all and to which each one should lead his actions, for our essential interests are not contrary; they are identical. In cultivating the spirit of simplicity we come, then, to give to public life greater and stronger cohesion.
The phenomena of decomposition and breaking down which we notice bring themselves back to the same causeŚlack of solidity and lack of cohesion. One can never say often enough how much the small interests of caste, of circles, of steeples, the bitter search for personal comfort are contrary to the social good, and in consequence fatal, destroying the happiness of the individual. A society in which every one is concerned solely for his own comfort is organized disorder. No other lesson comes from these irreducible conflicts of our trenchant egotisms.
We resemble too closely those people who never claim family ties except to ask some advantage or other, and not to do them honor. On all the rungs of the social ladder we make new demands. We pretend to be all creditors ; no one owns to being a debtor. Our dealings with our co-citizens consist in inviting them in an amiable or arrogant tone to pay us what they owe. We reach nothing good with that spirit. For at bottom it is the spirit of privilege, that eternal enemy of the common law, that obstacle ceaselessly being born anew, enemy of a brotherly feeling.
In a lecture which he gave in 1882, M. Renan said that a nation was a spiritual family, and he added that "The essence of a nation is that all the individuals have many things in common, and also that they should have forgotten many things." It is important to know what one must forget and what remember, not only in the past but in every-day life. That which divides us en-cumbers our memories, what unites us effaces. Each one, in the luminous point of his memory, guards the lively and sharp sentiment of his secondary quality, which is to be a personage, cultivator, industrial, in letters, functionary, proletary, bourgeois, or political or religious sectarian, but his essential quality which is to be a child of the country and a man, is relegated to the shade. It is scarcely at all that a man keeps theoretic notion. The result is that that which occupies us and dictates our actions is precisely that which separates us from others, and there remains almost no place for that spirit of union which is like the soul of the people.
The result is that we hold to the evil souvenirs in the spirits of our fellow-beings. Men animated with the spirit of minutiae, exclusive, haughty, rub against each other daily. They cannot meet without awakening the sentiment of their divisions and their rivalry. Slowly there gathers in their memory a provision of reciprocal bad will, of distrust and bitterness. All that is the evil spirit, with its consequences.
We must extirpate it from amongst us. Remember; forget ! This is what we should say every morning, in all our relations and all our functions. Remember the essential, forget the secondary. How much better we should fill our duties as citizens, if the most humble and the highest nourished themselves with this spirit. How we would cultivate good remembrances in the minds of our neighbors in scattering amiable actions there, in sparing them the things they are obliged to say, in spite of themselves, with hatred in their hearts, "I shall never forget that."
The spirit of simplicity is a very great magician. He corrects asperities, he constructs bridges over ravines and abysses, draws together hands and hearts. The forms in which he dresses himself in the world are infinite in number. But never does he appear more admirable than when throwing light across the fatal barriers of situations, of interests, prejudices, triumphing over the worst obstacles, permitting those whom everything seemed to separate to know each other, to esteem each other and to love each other. That is the real social cement which builds a people.