The Mercenary Spirit And Simplicity
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
WE HAVE just elbowed in passing a certain widely spread prejudice, which attributes a magic power to money. Brought so near to a burning ground, we will not avoid it ; but we will set foot on it, persuaded that there are many truths to tell. They are not new, but they are so forgotten.
I do not see any means of getting along without money. All that certain theorists and legislators have been able to do up to this day, they who accuse it of all our evils, has been to change the name or form. But they have never been able to get along without a representative sign of the commercial value of things. To wish to suppress money is an attempt analogous to that of suppressing writing. It is not less true, though, that the question of money is very troublesome. It forms one of the principal elements of our complex life. The economic difficulties where we are struggling, social conventions and all the agencies of modern life, have brought money to a rank so high that it is not astonishing that human imagination attributes to it a sort of royalty. And it is on this side that we should attack the problem.
The term of money has for pendant that of merchandise. If there was no merchandise money would not exist. But so long as there is merchandise there will be money, it matters little under what form. The source of all the abuse of which money has been the target, the center, resides in a confusion. We have confouned in that term, and in the notion of merchandise, objects which do not in the least belong to each other. We have wished to give a mercenary value to things which have not, and should not, have any. The ideas of purchase and sale have invaded provinces where they should rightly be considered, and justly so, as strangers, enemies, usurpers. It is legitimate that wheat, potatoes, wine and stuffs should be sold, and that people should buy them. It is perfectly natural that the labor of a man should procure for him rights to life, and that they should place in his hand a value representing his rights. But here the analogy already ceases to be complete. A man's work is not a merchandise in the same meaning as a sack of wheat or a quintal of coal. There enter into this labor elements that we cannot estimate in money. In short, there are things which cannot be bought : sleep, for instance ; knowledge of the future, or talent. He who offers them may be regarded as insane or an impostor. Still, there are men who coin money with things. They sell that which does not belong to them, and their dupes pay their illusory values in genuine coin. And so there are also merchants of pleasure, merchants of love, merchants of miracles, merchants of patriotism; and this title of merchant, which is so honorable when it represents that which is a real commercial commodity, becomes the worst of blights when it relates to the things of the heart, religion, or of the country.
Almost everybody is in accord in finding shameful the traffic in one's sentiments, his honor, his robe of office, his pen, or his mandate. Unfortunately, that which suffers no contradiction in theory, that which, as we say, resembles a banality more than a high moral truth, has the utmost difficulty to enter into practice. Traffic has invaded the world. The merchants are installed up to the sanctuary—and by sanctuary I mean not only religious things, but all that humanity holds sacred and inviolate. It is not money which complicates life; it is our mercenary spirit which corrupts and adulterates it.
The mercenary spirit brings us to one single question : "How much will that bring me ?" He resumes it all in an axiom : "With money one can procure anything." With those two principles of conduct a society can descend to degrees of infamy that are impossible to picture or to imagine.
How much will it bring me? That question, so legitimate when it regards the precautions that each one should take to assure his subsistence by his work, be-comes terrible as soon as it overflows its limits and dominates all one's life. That is so true that it destroys even the labor which is our breadwinner. I furnish paid labor, nothing better, but if I have no other inspiration during this labor than to get my pay, nothing is worse. A man who has for motive of action his salary only, does poor work. What interests him is not his work but the money. If he can shirk his work without cutting his pay be sure he will do it. Mason, laborer, mechanic, he who does not love his labor and does not put interest or dignity into it, is a bad workman.
The physician who thinks only of his fee is a man to whom it would not be well to confide one's life, for what actuates him is the desire to garnish his purse at the expense of yours. If it is to his interest that you should suffer a long time, he is capable of cultivating your ailment instead of restoring your health. He who cares only for the profit in the instruction of children is a poor professor, for the profit is mediocre, but his teaching even poorer. What does mercenary journalism value? The day when you write only for the penny, your prose ceases to be worth even that penny. The nearer human labor touches objects of an elevated nature, the more the mercenary spirit, if it intervenes, sterilizes and corrupts it. They are a thousand times right who say that all work merits a compensation, that all men who consecrate their efforts to entertain life should have their place in the sunshine; and whosoever does nothing useful does not earn his living—in a word, is but a parasite. But there is no graver social error than to reach a point where to reap a gain becomes the sole motive of action. The best of us which we put into our work, let it be force of arms, warmth of heart, or the tension of intelligence, is precisely what no one can pay us for. Nothing proves more clearly that man is not a machine than this fact : two men at work with the same strength, the same gestures, produce results entirely different. Where is the cause of this phenomenon? In the divergence of their intentions. One has a mercenary spirit, and the other a simple soul. Both receive their pay ; but the work of one is sterile, the other has put his soul in his work. The work of the first is like the grain of sand which remains to all eternity a grain of sand out of which nothing can come; while the other is like the living seed thrown to the earth : it germinates and brings harvest. There is no other way to explain why so many persons have not succeeded, while employing the same external means as the others. Automatons do not reproduce and the labor of a mercenary person brings forth no fruit.
Without doubt we are obliged to bow before the economic facts ; to recognize the difficulties of life. From day to day it becomes a more urgent question how to properly combine one's means of action, to be able to feed, clothe, lodge and bring up one's family. He who does not calculate and foresee is a visionary, a blockhead, to be sooner or later obliged to hold out his hand to those whose parsimony he despises. And yet what would become of us if this kind of care entirely absorbed us? if, perfectly accountable, we wished to measure our effort with the money that it brings, to do nothing more that would not end in a receipt, and consider useless and lost pains all which could not be aligned in ciphers in an account book?
Were our mothers paid anything for loving us, for bringing us up? What would become of our filial piety if we wished to be paid something to love and care for our old parents?
What does it bring, to tell the truth ? Disagreement, sometimes suffering and persecutions. To defend one's country? Weariness, wounds, and sometimes death. To do good? Annoyances, ingratitude, and even resentments. Into all the essential functions of humanity devotion enters. I defy the finest calculators to maintain themselves in the world without ever appealing to other things than calculation. Doubtless those who have known how to "wind their balls of wool" are considered intelligent. But look at them closely. In those balls how many threads they owe to the devotion of the simples! Would they have succeeded so well if they had met but clever men of their own kind, whose device is, "No money, no Swisses"? Let us proclaim loudly, it is thanks to a few who do not count too rigorously, that the world is upheld! The noblest services rendered, the hardest tasks, are in general slightly or not at all remunerated. Fortunately, there will always be men ready for disinterested functions, and even for those which are paid only in suffering, and which cost money, repose and life. The part which falls to these men is often painful, and not without discouragements. Who among us has not heard painful experiences, where the narrator regretted his past kindnesses, the trouble he had taken only to gather disappointments? They generally end their confidences by saying: "I was stupid enough to do this or that." Sometimes they have reason to judge thus because it is always wrong to throw pearls before swine, but how many lives there are whose sole really beautiful acts are precisely those of which they repent because of the ingratitude of men! What we should wish for humanity is that the number of these stupid actions will continue to grow.
I have now come to the creed of the mercenary spirit. Its quality is its briefness. For the mercenary man, the law and the prophets are contained in this one axiom : "With money one can procure anything." To look at social life, superficially, nothing is more evident. "Sinews of war," "Sounding proofs," "The key that opens all doors," "King of the universe." To gather all that is said regarding the glory and power of money would make a litany longer than that sung in honor of the Virgin Mary. One must have been without a cent, if only for one day or two, and to have tried to live in this world where we are, to have an idea of that which lacks to him whose purse is empty. I ask those who enjoy contrasts and unexpected situations to try to live without money one-half week only, far from their friends and acquaintances, and amid strange surroundings. They will have more experience in fortyeight-hours than an established man will gain in a whole year. Alas! ! these experiences are made by some against their will, and when absolute ruin falls upon them; though they may remain in their own country, among the companions of their youth, their old collaborators, and even those who are under obligations to them, they pretend not to know them. With what bitterness do they comment on the mercenary creed, "With money one can have everything; without money impossible to have anything." You become a pariah, a leper, away from whom every one turns. Flies alight on dead bodies; men go to money. As soon as money is gone the place becomes empty. It has caused many tears to flow, this mercenary creed—bitter tears, tears of blood wept by those same ones, perhaps, who, before, were among the worshippers of the golden calf.
And yet this creed is false, archi-false. I shall not march to the attack with the old legends such as that .of the rich man, lost in the desert, who could not purchase a drop of water with all his money, nor that of the decrepit millionaire, who would give half of his possessions to a penniless lad, to buy his twenty years and his robust health. So many men among those who have money, and above all, those who have none, smile at this truth as one of the most stereotyped ones known. But I call upon the remembrance and experience of all to touch this coarse lie which covers an axiom that every one repeats as he goes.
Garnish your purse the best you can and let us go together to some watering-place, of which there are many. I wish to say, one of those places formerly unknown, filled with simple people, respectful and kindly, among whom one could live well and without great expense. Renown, with its hundred trumpets, has drawn them from the shadow, has taught them what they could make of the situation, of their climate, and their persons. You go on the faith of renown, and you flatter yourself that with your money you can procure for yourself a peaceable retreat, and that, far from the fictitious and civilized world, you can weave a little poetry in the web of your days. The first impression is good ; the natural frame, and certain patriarchal costumes, slow to disappear, strike you favorably at first. But as the days go by the impression is spoiled, the underside appears. That which you had considered authentic age, like the furniture of ordinary families, is but a trick to mystify those who swallow it. There are tickets on everything; everything is for sale, from the ground to the inhabitants. These primitive men have become the most tricky of business men. Given your money, they have solved the problem of procuring it at the least expense. These are but the threads, traps, spread everywhere like spider webs, and the fly that these people are waiting for is you. That is what twenty or thirty years of mercenary reign has made of a population that was once so simple and honest, and contact with whom was good for wornout city dwellers. Home-made bread has disappeared, and butter comes from factories. They possess to a marvel the best method of skimming the milk, and the latest recipes for adulterating the wines; they have all the vices of city dwellers without their virtues.
When leaving you count your money. Much of it is gone, and you complain. You are wrong. One does not ever pay too high a price for the knowledge that there are things that cannot be procured for money alone.
You need in your house an intelligent and capable employee. Try to find that rare bird. According to the principle that you can have everything for money, you should be able, following your offer of salary—mediocre, ordinary, very good, or excellent—to find employees mediocre, ordinary, very good, or superior. But all who apply for the vacant position will range themselves in that last category, and doubtless will have procured certificates to support their pretensions. It is true that nine times out of ten, at practical trial, it will be found that these clever persons will totally lack the necessary qualifications. Why, then, did they engage themselves with you ? They should, in truth, have answered you as in the comedy, when they ask the expensive cook who knew how to do nothing, "Why did you say you were a cordon bleu?" "Why, to get paid." That is a great affair. You will always find persons who like to get large salaries. You will find fewer capacities. And if it is probity that you seek, the difficulties augment. You will find mercenaries easily ; devotion is another thing. Be it far from me to deny the existence of devoted servants, and of employees both honest and intelligent. But you will meet as many, and often more, among the poorly paid than ?among those more richly compensated. And it matters little where they are found, you may be sure that their devotion is not from interest, but because they nave kept a foundation of simplicity which makes them capable of self-abnegation.
They go on repeating everywhere that money is the "sinews of war." Doubtless, war costs much money, and of that we know something. Is that to say that to defend oneself against one's enemies and honor one's flag, it suffices that that country be rich? The Greeks once undertook to prove the contrary to the Persians, and that proof will never cease to be repeated in history. With gold one can buy vessels, cannon, horses, but military genius cannot be bought, neither can political wisdom, discipline nor enthusiasm. Put billions into the hands of your recruiters and tell them to bring you a great captain and an army of ragged recruits. You will find a hundred captains for only a thousand soldiers, but send them to the front and you will have the value of your money.
At least could we but believe that with money alone it would be possible to solace all miseries and do good. Alas ! that, too, is an illusion which we must throw aside. Money, in large or small sums, is a seed which causes abuses to germinate. Unless one adds intelligence to kindness, and a large experience with men, you will do nothing but harm, and you will greatly risk corrupting those who receive your bounties, and those whom you have appointed to distribute them.
Money will not do everything. It is a power, but is not allpowerful. Nothing complicates life, nothing so demoralizes man, nothing falsifies the normal movements of society so much as the development of the mercenary spirit. Wherever it reigns it is deception for all. One can no longer confide in any thing or per-son, nor obtain any worthy thing. We are not detractors of money, but we must apply the common law to it : "Everything in its place ; every one in his rank." When money, which should be our servant, becomes a tyrannical force, disrespectful of moral life, of dignity and liberty; when some strive to procure it at all costs, bringing to the market that which is not merchandise, while others, who possess riches, think to themselves that they can obtain of others things not permitted any one to sell or buy, we must rise against that coarse and criminal superstition, shout loudly to the imposture, "May your money perish with you !" That which man has the most precious he has generally received gratuitously, that he may learn to give it gratuitously.