The Simple Word
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
SPEECH is the great organ which reveals the mind, the first visible form that it gives itself. As is the thought so is the speech. To reform one's life in the sense of simplicity one must watch over word and pen. Let the word be simple, like the thought, and that it may be sincere and that it may be sure, think justly; speak frankly.
Social relations have for their base mutual confidence, and this confidence is nourished by the sincerity of each. As soon as sincerity diminishes, confidence changes, affinities suffer, and insecurity is born. This is true both in the domain of material and spiritual interests. With people whom we must ceaselessly distrust it is as difficult to carry on commerce and industry as to seek a scientific truth or pursue a religious under-standing or to realize justice. When each one is obliged to control words and intentions, and depart from the principle that all that is written and said has for aim to serve your illusion in place of truth, life becomes strangely complicated. It is so for all of us. There are too many malignant ones, diplomats who play an underhand game and apply themselves to deceive each other, and that is why each one takes so much pains to inform himself on the things the most simple, and yet which are of the greatest import to himself. Probably what I have just said will suffice to indicate my thought and the experience of each one can bring forth an ample commentary with illustrations to support it. But, I am no less anxious to insist on this point, and to surround myself with examples.
In other times men had but small and insufficient means of communication between them. It was legitimate to suppose that in perfecting and in multiplying the means of information they would add to the light. Nations learned to love each other in knowing each other better, the citizens of the same country felt themselves bound by a closer brotherhood, were better enlightened on all things touching their common life. When printed works were created they cried: Fiat lux. and with greater reason yet when the habit of reading and the taste for newspapers spread. Why did they not reason thus : two lights give more light than one, and several more than two? The more newspapers and books there are the better one will know what is passing, and those who would write history after us will be fortunate—they will have their hands full of documents. Nothing seemed more evident. Alas, they based their reasoning on the tools and calculated with-out the human element which is everywhere the most important factor. So it happened that the sophists, the crafty, the calumniators, all the men with the loosely-hung tongues who know how better than any one to juggle with words and pen profited largely by all these means of multiplying and spreading thought. What is the result? That our contemporaries have all the difficulties in the world to know the truth about their own personal affairs and their own times. For the few news-papers that cultivate international good feeling, by trying to teach their neighbors equitably and to study them without hidden thoughts, how many there are that sow distrust and calumny! How many fictitious and unhealthy currents are created in public opinion, with false stories, malevolent interpretations of facts of words ! We are not much better instructed on our internal affairs than on foreign countries ; nor on the interests of commerce, industry or agriculture, nor on the political parties, nor the social tendencies, nor of persons occupied in public affairs, is it easy to obtain disinterested information. The more one reads the newspapers the less clearly one sees. There are days when after having read them and admitting that one believes their word, the reader will see himself obliged to draw this conclusion, "Decidedly there are none but tarnished men everywhere." There are no men of integrity but the chroniclers. But that last part of the conclusion will fall in its turn. The chroniclers, in fact, eat each other. The reader would have before his eyes a spectacle analogous to that represented in the caricature called the combat of the serpents. After having devoured everything around them the two reptiles attack each other and begin to swallow each other so that there remain on the battlefield but two tails.
And, it is not the man of the people alone who is thus embarrassed; there are the cultivated people, there are almost everybody. In politics, in finance, in business, even in science, the arts, literature and religion, there is everywhere underhand work, plots and wire-pulling. There is one truth for exportation and another for the initiated. It follows that all are deceived, for though one may be of one kitchen he is never of them all, and the very ones who deceive others with the greatest ad-dress are deceived in their turn, when they have need to count upon the sincerity of another.
The result of this kind of practice is the degradation c human speech. It is degraded first in the eyes of those who use it as a vile instrument. There is no speech respected for the debaters, the fault-finders, the sophists, and all those who are animated but by the rage of appearing to he in the right, or the pretention that their interests alone are respectable. Their chastisement is to be obliged to judge others by the rule they follow themselves, which is: To say that which profits and not that which is true.
They can no longer take any one seriously. A sad state of mind for such as write, speak and teach. How they must despise their hearers and their readers to go before them in such a state of mind ! For one who has kept a foundation of honesty, nothing is more revolting than the irony fallen from one of these acrobats of the pen, or of speech, who tries to add to the number a few more good but too confiding people. On one hand resignation, sincerity, the desire for enlightenment, and on the other the profligacy that mocks the public. But he does not know, the liar, how far he deceives himself. The capital on which he lives is confidence, and nothing can equal the confidence of the people unless it is its distrust as soon as it feels that it is betrayed. The public may follow for a time these exploiters of simplicity. But after that its receptive humor changes to aversion ; the doors that swung wide open now offer 'impenetrable wooden visages, and ears once open are now closed. Alas ! they close not only to the evil but to the good also. And it is there the crime of those who twist and degrade speech. They shake the general confidence. We consider the degradation of money as a calamity, the fall in stocks the ruin of credit, but a greater misfortune than that is the loss of confidence, of this moral credit which honest people accord each other, and which makes a word circulate like authentic money. Down with the counterfeiters, the speculators, the wormy financiers, for they make us suspect even the money of the realm! Down with the counterfeiters of the pen and of speech, for they do what has destroyed confidence until no one believes anything or any one any more, and until the value of what they say or write resembles those banknotes of Saint Farce.
It can be seen how very urgent it is that each one should watch over himself, guard his tongue, chastise his pen and aspire toward simplicity. No more changed meanings, fewer circumlocutions, not so many reticences and tergiversations ! They serve but to embroil us. Be men; have one word. One hour of sincerity does more for the welfare of the world than years of profligacy.
A word now of a national breadth, and which is addressed to those who have the superstition of speech and the demonstrations of style. Certainly we must not blame those persons who enjoy an elegant word or a delicate literature. I am of the opinion that we can never say what we have to say too well. But it does not follow that the best said and best written things are prepared. Words should serve the fact, and not substitute, and not cause one to lose sight of it in ornamentation. The greatest things are those which gain most in being told with simplicity, because they show themselves just as they are. You do not throw over them even the transparent veil of fine words, nor that shadow so fatal to truth which is called the vanity of the author or orator. Nothing is stronger, nothing more persuasive than simplicity. There are sacred emotions, cruel pains, great devotions, passionate enthusiasms that one look, one gesture, or one cry would show plainer than the most beautifully turned phrases. The most precious possession in the heart of humanity shows itself the most simply. To persuade, one must be true, and certain truths are best understood if they come from simple lips, infirm ones even, as if they fell from mouths weary with talking, or proclaimed with the full force of the lungs. These rules are good for every one in the daily life. No one can imagine what profit he can gain for his moral life by the constant observation of this principle, to be true, sober, simple in expression of his sentiments and his convictions, in private as in public, never to exceed the measure, to faithfully translate that which is in us, and above all to remember. That is the principal thing.
For, the danger of fine words is that they live a clean life. They are the distinguished servitors who have guarded their titles and do not fulfil their functions, as royal courts offer us examples. "You have spoken well; you have written well, is well and suffices."
How many men there have been who were contented to speak, and who believed that that relieved them of the obligation of action. And those who have listened to them contented themselves in having listened to them. It thus happens that a life may consist, after all, but in a few well-turned discourses, a few fine books, and some good plays. As to practicing what they so authoritatively display they rarely think of it. And, if we pass from the domain of men of talent to the lower regions which those of mediocre gifts exploit ; there in that obscure pell-mell, we will see in action all those who think we are on the earth to talk and to hear talking, the immense and despairing crowd of talkers, of all the brawlers, who prattle or perorate, and after that find that they have not talked enough. They forget that those who make the least noise do the most work. A machine which expends its steam in whistling has no more to turn its wheels. Therefore, cultivate silence. All that you retrench on the noise you will gain in force.
These reflections lead us to neighboring subjects, very worthy also to occupy our attention. I wish to speak of that which could be called exaggeration of language. When one studies the people of one country, one notices among them differences of temperament of which the language bears traces. Here the population is rather phlegmatic and calm; it employs diminutives, and lengthened words. Elsewhere the temperaments are well balanced ; we hear the word exactly adapted to the thing. But farther—effect of the sun, the air, the wine, perhaps a warmer blood flows in the veins; they have their "heads close to their bonnets" and expression runs to extremes ; superlatives enamel the language, and to say the most simple things they use the strongest terms.
If the manner of language varies according to climates, it differs also according to the different epochs. Compare the language written and spoken in these times with that of certain other periods in our history. Under the ancien regime they spoke differently from the time of the revolution, and we have not the same language used by men of 183o, of 1848, or the Second Empire. In general the language has a simpler form now ; we have no more wigs; we do not sit down to order lace cuffs; but one sign differentiates us from almost all our ancestors, our nervousness, the source of our exaggerations.
Under these excited nervous systems, a little sickly—and God knows that to be nervous is no longer a privilege belonging to the aristocracy—words do not produce the same effect as on the normal man. And, in inverse ratio, to the nervous man, the term simple does not suffice when he seeks to explain what he feels. In ordinary life, in public life, in literature and in the theater the calm and sober language has given place to an excessive violence. The means which novelists and comedians have employed to galvanize public mind and force its attention, finds itself at the rudimentary state in our most ordinary conversations, in the epistolary style, and, above all, in the polemic. Our manners of language are to those of the calm and imposing man what our writing is compared with that of our fathers. They blame it to steel pens. If that were only true!
The geese will save us then. But the evil lies deeper and is in ourselves. We have the writings of perturbed and disordered ones, while the pens of our forefathers traced over paper in surer and more reposeful manner. Here we are facing one of the results of that modern life which is so complex and which consumes our energy to such a terrible degree. It leaves us impatient, breathless and in perpetual trepidation. Our literature, like our language, feels it and betrays us. From the effect let us return to the source and understand the warning thus given us. What good can come of that habit of exaggeration of one's language? Unfaithful interpreters of our own impressions, we cannot help but bend the spirit of our fellow-men and our own by our exaggerations. People who continually exaggerate cease to understand each other. The result of intemperate speech is irritation of dispositions, violent and sterile discussions, precipitate judgments without bounds and the gravest excesses in education and social relations.
Permit me in this appeal for simple speech to formulate a wish whose accomplishment would have the happiest result. I ask for a simple literature, not only as one of the best remedies for our worn-out souls, overdriven, wearied of eccentricities, but also as a gauge and a source of social union. I ask also for a simple art. Our arts and our literature are reserved to those privileged by fortune and education. But, let me be well understood. I do not ask poets, novelists, nor artists to descend from their heights to walk half way and content themselves with mediocrity, but an the contrary to mount still higher. It is popular, not that which pleases a certain class of society that is of common accord called popular. That is popular which is common to all and which unites them. The sources of the inspiration of which may be born a simple art are in the depths of the human heart : in the eternal realities of life before which all are equal. And the sources of popular language are to be sought in the small number of simple and strong forms such as express the elementary sentiments and the most powerful lines of human destiny. In that lie truth, grandeur and immortality. Is there not in such an ideal the means of inflaming the young people who, feeling the warmth of the beautiful and sacred fire, know pity and prefer to the disdainful adage, "Odi profanum vulgus" that word otherwise human, " Misereor super turbam"? As to myself, I have no artistic authority, but among the crowd where I live I have the right to lift my voice toward those who have talent and to say to them, "Work for those who are forgotten. Make yourself understood of the humble. Thus you would do a work of enfranchisement and pacification; thus you will open again the sources where the masters of old drew their inspiration, those masters whose creations have defied ages because they knew how to clothe their genius with simplicity."