The Simple Needs
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WHEN one buys a bird of the bird-seller the good man tells us briefly what we must do for our new pensioner, and all that, hygiene, food and the rest, is contained in a few words. To sum up in the same way the essential needs of the greater part of beings a few summary indications will suffice. Their rule is in general of an extreme simplicity, and so long as they follow it they keep in good health, like children who obey Mother Nature. Let them step aside and complications arrive, the health suffers, gayety disappears. Simple and natural life alone can maintain an organism in its fullest vigor. By failing to remember this elementary principle we fall into strange aberrations.
What does a man need for his material life in the best possible conditions? A healthy diet, simple garments, a salubrious dwelling and air and movement. I shall not enter into the details of hygiene, nor compose menus, nor indicate what kind of a house he should occupy nor the cut of his clothes. My aim is to mark a direction and to say what advantage there is for each one to order his life in a spirit of simplicity. To assure ourselves that this spirit does not reign enough in our social life, it suffices to see how men of all classes live. Ask different individuals from distinct classes of life this question: "What do you need to live?" You will hear what they answer. There is nothing more instructive than that.
For some, autochtones of Parisian asphalt, there is no life possible outside a certain region circumscribed by a few boulevards. There the air is breathable, the light bright, the temperature normal, the classic kitchen and all one desires of so many other things without which it would be scarcely worth while to promenade on this round machine of oursóthe world.
To the different rungs on the ladder of bourgeois life, they answer to the question of what they need to live, by a cipher, varying according to the degree of ambition or education, and by education one under-stands most often the external habits of life, the way they are lodged, fed and clothedóan education all on the surface. Understood a certain income, of profit or salary, life becomes possible. Below that it is impossible. We have seen people commit suicide because their means have fallen below a certain minimum. They preferred to disappear rather than to restrain themselves. Note that this minimum, the cause of their despair, would have been very acceptable to others of less exacting needs, and enviable for people of modest tastes.
In the mountains the flora change according to the altitude. There is the region of ordinary cultivation, that of forests, that of pasturages, and that of bare rocks and glaciers. After leaving a certain zone we find no more wheat, while the vine prospers. The oak ceases to grow in a comparatively low plane, and the pine is pleased with considerable altitudes. Human life with its needs recalls those phenomena of vegetation.
At a certain altitude of fortune we see the financier succeed, the club man, the worldlings, and in short all those for whom strict necessity understands a certain number of servants, and equipages, as well as several domiciles in and out of the city. Next we find the burgesses, good citizens with their clean manners and habits. We see, flourishing in other regions, comfortable ease, middling or modest and of categories of exactions very unequal. Then come the small people, the artisans, the laborers, the peasants, the mass in fact who live hard, and scantily like the fine grass on the summits of the mountains, there where the larger specimens of the vegetable kingdom do not find nourishment. In all the different provinces of society they live. And those who grow there are men as are the rest. It seems strange that among fellow-men such prodigious differences in needs could be. And here the analogy of our comparison abandons us. Plants and animals of the same family have identical needs. Human life brings us to other observations quite contrary. What conclusion shall we draw if it is not that there is a considerable elasticity in the nature and number of our needs?
Is it useful, is it favorable to the development and happiness of the individual, to the developments and happiness of society, that man should have a multitude of needs and apply himself to satisfy them? But, first, we will take up again our comparison with the inferior beings. Once their essential needs are satisfied they live contented. Is it so with human society? No. In all the degrees we encounter discontent. I except completely here those who lack the necessaries. One could not without injustice assimilate with the discontented ones those from whom the cold, hunger and misery force moans. I wish to speak only of that multitude of people who live in condition after all supportable. From whence comes their discontent? Why is it met with not only among those whose condition, though modest, is sufficient, but again under shades of difference always more refined, up to opulence and to the summit of social conditions?
They speak of the portly bourgeois. Who speaks of them? Those who, judging from the outside, think that, given the time during which they have devoted themselves to money making, they really ought to consider it enough. But do they themselves think so? Not the least in the world. If there are rich and contented people, be sure that they are not contented because they are rich, but because they have learned to be contented. An animal is satisfied because it has eaten. It lies down and sleeps. A man also may lie down and sleep for a certain length of time; but that does not last long ; he accustoms himself to his wellbeing, wearies of it and demands a greater. The appetite is not appeased in a man by his food ; it comes as he eats. That may appear absurd, but it is the absolute truth.
And the fact that those who complain the most are almost always the ones who would have the most reasons to declare themselves satisfied, proves clearly that happiness is not attached to the number of our needs and the haste which we employ to cultivate them. Every one is interested in penetrating this truth for himself. If he does not do it, if by an act of energy he does not manage to limit his exactions, he risks finding himself insensibly sliding down the incline of desire.
The man who lives to eat, to drink, to sleep, to dress, to travel, to give himself in fact all that he can give himself, whether he is the parasite lying in the sun, the drunken toiler, the bourgeois, servant of his stomach, the woman absorbed in her toilette, the jovial fellow of low class, or the jolly fellow of mark, or that he be simply the vulgar epicurean, though good fellow, too docile as to material needs; that man, we say, is started on the incline of desire, and that incline is fatal. Those who go down obey the same laws as the body rolling down an inclined plane. A prey to an illusion ceaselessly being renewed, they say to themselves: "Just a few steps more, the last toward that object below which attracts our covetousness, then we will stop." But the added velocity draws them onward. The farther they go the less they can resist.
That is the secret of the agitation, of the madness of many of our contemporaries. Having condemned their wills to the slavery of their appetites, they receive the chastisement of their works. They are delivered to savage and implacable desires, which eat their flesh, crush their bones, drink their blood and are never satisfied. I am not preaching here a transcendant moral ; I listen to the speech of life, noting in the transit a few of the truths which are echoed from all the cross-roads.
Has drunkenness, so inventive of new beverages, found a means of quenching thirst? No., they might sooner call it the art to preserve thirst and render it inextinguishable. Does shamelessness dull the spur of our senses? No, it exasperates it and converts the natural desire into a morbid obsession, a fixed idea. Let your needs reign and entertain them ; you will see them multiply like insects in the sun. The more you have given them the more they will ask. He is insensate who seeks happiness in only well-being. It would be as easy as to undertake to fill the tank of Danaides. To those who have millions lack other millions ; to those who have thousands, they lack thousands. Others lack pieces of twenty francs, or a hundred sous. When they have a chicken in the pot they want goose ; when they have the goose they would have a turkey, and so on. They will never learn how terrible that tendency is. There are too many small ones who would imitate the great, too many toilers who ape the bourgeois, too many of the daughters of the people who try to appear young ladies, too many small employees who pretend to be clubmen and sportsrmen, and in the class of comfortable ease, and among the rich, too many persons forget that what they possess could be better employed than in giving themselves all sorts of pleasures, only to find after all that they never have enough of them. Our needs, from being servants as they should be, have be-come a crowd, turbulent and undisciplined, a legion of tyrants on tip-toe. One cannot better compare the man who is slave to his needs than with a bear which has a ring through his nose, and which they make dance at will. The comparison is not flattering, but admit that it is true. It is by their needs that they are drawn, so many men, to struggle, shout and talk of liberty, of progress, and I know not what else. They do not know how to take one step in life without asking if that will not annoy their masters. How many men and women have gone nearer and nearer even to dishonesty, for the sole reason that they had too many needs and could not resign themselves to live simply ! There are many pensioners in the prison cells at Mazas who could tell us many things on the danger of too exacting needs.
Let me tell you the story of a good man I knew. He loved his wife and children tenderly, and lived in France from the results of his labor, in a comfortable ease, but which was far from sufficing for the luxurious needs of his wife. Always short of money, whereas he could have lived comfortably with a little simplicity, he ended by exiling himself to a distant colony where he earns much money, leaving his family in the mother country. I do not know what that unfortunate man must think there, so far away, but his family has a finer apartment, handsomer clothes and a sort of an equipage. For the moment their contentment is extreme. But they will be soon accustomed to this luxury. which is after all rudimentary. In a short time madame will find her furniture mean, and her carriage poor. If that man loves his wife as we cannot doubt he does, he would emigrate to the moon to earn a larger salary. Elsewhere the roles are reversed, and it is the woman and the children who are sacrificed to the voracious needs of the head of the family whose irregular life, gaming and many other costly follies cause him to forget his duties. Between his appetites and his paternal position he has decided for the first and slowly he drifts toward the vilest egotism.
This forgetfulness of all dignity, this progressive paralysis of noble sentiments is not found among the gamesters of the wealthy class alone. The man of the people is also attacked by it. I know many little families where happiness might reign, but where you will see a poor mother of a family who has but grief and sorrow day and night, children without shoes, and often great anxiety for the daily bread. Why? Be-cause the father must have too much money. Not to speak of the expense in alcohol, every one knows the proportions it has reached in the last twenty years. The sums swallowed in this mighty gulf are fabulous, double the ransom of the war of 1870. How many legitimate needs could be satisfied with what is thrown away in pasturage to fictitious needs ! The reign of needs is not that of joint good, quite the contrary. The more things a man must have for himself, the less will he do for his neighbor, even for those who are attached to him by the ties of blood.
Diminution of happiness, independence, moral delicacy, even the sentiments of solidarity, such is the result of the reign of needs. One could add a multitude of other evils, of which the least is not the shaking of the public fortune and health. The societies which have the greatest needs absorb themselves in the present, and sacrifice to it the conquests of the past and the immortal future. After us the deluge ! To raze the forests to have the money for them, eat one's wheat in the tender blade, destroy in one day the fruit of a long labor, burn the furniture to warm themselves, load the future with debts to make the present moment agreeable, to live by expedients, to sow difficulties for the morrow, sickness, ruin, envy, hatredsówe should never finish if we would enumerate all the misdeeds of this dreadful reign.
On the contrary, if we hold to simple needs, we avoid all these discomforts and we replace them by a multitude of advantages. It is an old story that sobriety and temperance are the best guardians of health. To him who observes them they spare him many of those miseries which sadden existence; they assure him health, love of action and intellectual equilibrium. Whether it relates to his food, his clothing, his habitation, simplicity of taste is, besides, a source of independence and security. The more simply you live, the more you safeguard your future. You are less at the mercy of surprises, or contrary chances. An illness or a respite from labor will not suffice to throw you on the pavement. A change of situation, even a notable one, will not unseat you. Having simple tastes, it is less painful to accommodate yourself to the chances of fortune. You will remain a man while losing your position or your revenue, because the founda tion on which your life rests is not your table, your cellar, your stable, your furniture, nor your money. You will not act in adversity like a nursling, from whom they take his bottle or his rattle. Stronger, better armed for battle, offering, like those whose heads are shaven, less hold for the adversary's hands, you will be, besides, more useful to your neighbor. You will not excite his jealousy, nor his lower appetites, nor reprobation on account of your luxury, by the iniquity of your expenses, by the spectacle of a parasitic existenc, and less exacting for your own well-being you will keep the means of working for that of others.