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The Simple Life Post by :Rod_Cortez Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :April 2011 Read :2211

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The Simple Life

There is a good deal of talk just now about "the simple life," and though I would not go so far as to say that there is a movement in the direction of it, yet the talk that one hears on many sides proves, at all events, that people take a certain interest in the question.

Part of it is a pose no doubt; there is a distinguished, and I would add very charming, lady of my acquaintance, who has the subject constantly on her lips. Her method of practising simplicity is a delightful one, as all her methods are. In addition to the three magnificent residences which she already possesses, she has bought a cottage in a secluded part of the country; she has spent a large sum of money in adding to it; it is furnished with that stately austerity which can only be achieved at great expense. She motors down there, perhaps three times in the year, and spends three days there, on each visit, with two or three friends who are equally in love with simplicity; I was fortunate enough, the other day, to be included in one of these parties; the only signs of simplicity to the complex mind were that there were only five courses at dinner, that we drank champagne out of rather old- fashioned long glasses, and that two goats were tethered in a corner of the lawn. The goats I understood were the seal and symbol of the simple life. No use was made of them, and they were decidedly in the way, but without them life would have been complicated at once.

When we went off again in the motor, my charming hostess waved her hand at the little cottage, as we turned the corner, with a sigh, as of one condemned by a stern fate to abjure the rural felicity which she loved, and then settled down with delighted zest to discuss her programme of social engagements for the next few weeks.

It had certainly been very delightful; we had talked all day long; we had wandered, adoring simplicity, on the village green; we had attended an evening service in the church; we had consumed exquisitely cooked meals about an hour before the usual time, because to breakfast at eight and to dine at seven was all part of the pretty game. I ventured to ask my hostess how she would like to spend six months in her cottage comparatively alone, and she replied with deep conviction, "I should adore it; I would give all I possess to be able to do it." "Then it is nothing," I said, "but a sense of duty that tears you away?" To which she made no answer except to shake her head mournfully, and to give me a penetrating smile.

I cannot help wondering whether the people who talk about the simple life have any idea what it means; I do not think that my fair hostess's desire for it is altogether a pose. One who lives, as she does, in the centre of the fashionable world, must inevitably tire of it from time to time. She meets the same people over and over again, she hears the same stories, the same jokes; she is not exactly an intellectual woman, though she has a taste for books and music; the interest for her, in the world in which she lives, is the changing relations of people, their affinities, their aversions, their loves and hates, their warmth and their coldness. What underlies the shifting scene, the endless entertainments, the country-house visits, the ebb and flow of society, is really the mystery of sex. People with not very much to do but to amuse themselves, with no prescribed duties, with few intellectual interests, become preoccupied in what is the great underlying force in the world, the passion of love; the talk that goes on, dull and tiresome as it appears to an outsider, is all charged with the secret influence; it is not what is said that matters; it is what is implied by manner and glance and inflection of tone. This atmosphere of electrical emotion is, for a good many years of their lives, the native air of these fair and unoccupied women. Men drift into it and out of it, and it provides for them often no more than a beautiful and thrilling episode; they become interested in sport, in agriculture, in politics, in business; but with women it is different; lovers and husbands, emotional friendships with other women--these constitute the business of life for a time; and then perhaps the tranquillizing and purer love of children, the troubles and joys of growing boys and girls, come in to fill the mind with a serener and kindlier, though not less passionate an emotion; and so life passes, and age draws near.

It is thus easier for men to lead the simple life than women, because they find it natural to grow absorbed in some definite and tangible occupation; and, after all, the essence of the simple life is that it can be lived in any milieu and under any circumstances. It does not require a cottage orne and a motor, though these are not inconsistent with it, if only they are natural.

I would try to trace what I believe the essence of the simple life to be; it lies very far down in the spirit, among the roots of life. The first requisite is a perfect sincerity of character. This implies many things: it means a joyful temperance of soul, a certain clearness and strength of temperament. The truly simple person must not be vague and indeterminate, swayed by desire or shifting emotion; he must meet others with a candid frankness, he must have no petty ambitions, he must have wide and genial interests, he must be quick to discern what is beautiful and wise; he must have a clear and straightforward point of view; he must act on his own intuitions and beliefs, not simply try to find out what other people are thinking and try to think it too; he must in short be free from conventionality. The essence of the really simple character is that a man should accept his environment and circle; if he is born in the so-called world, he need not seek to fly from it. Such a character as I have described has a marvellous power of evoking what is sincere and simple in other natures; such a one will tend to believe that other people are as straightforward and genuine as himself; and he will not be wholly mistaken, because when they are with him, they will be simple too. The simple person will have a strong, but not a Pharisaical, sense of duty; he will probably credit other people with the same sense of duty, and he will not often feel himself bound to disapprove of others, reserving his indignation for any instances of cruelty, meanness, falseness, and selfishness that he may encounter. He will not be suspicious or envious. Yet he will not necessarily be what is called a religious man, because his religion will be rather vital than technical. To be religious in the technical sense of the word --to care, that is, for religious services and solemnities, for priestly influences, for intricate doctrinal emotions--implies a strong artistic sense, and is often very far removed from any simplicity of conduct. But on the other hand the simple man will have a strong sense of responsibility, a deep confidence in the Will of God and His high purposes.

And thus the simple man will scarcely be a man of leisure, because there is so much that he will desire to do, and which he will feel called upon to do. Whatever he considers to be his work, he will do with a cheerful energy, which will sustain him far beyond the threshold of fatigue. His personal wants will be few; he will not care for spending money for the sake of spending it, but he will be liberal and generous whenever there is need. He will be uneasy in luxury. He will be a lover of the open air and of the country, but his aim will be exercise, and the sense of health and vigour, rather than amusement. He will never be reduced to asking himself how he is going to spend the day, for the present day, and a long perspective of days ahead, will already be full by anticipation. He will take work, amusement, people, as they come, and he will not be apt to make plans or to arrange parties, because he will expect to find in ordinary life the amusement and the interest that he desires. He will be above all things tender-hearted, kind, and fearless. He will not take fancies to people, or easily discard a friend; but he will be courteous, kind to all weakness, compassionate to awkwardness, fond of children, good-natured, loving laughter and peacefulness; he will not be easily disappointed, and he will have no time to be fretful, if things do not turn out exactly as he desires.

I have known such persons in every rank of life. They are the people who can be depended upon to do what they undertake, to understand the difficulties of others, to sympathize, to help. The essence of it all is a great absence of self-consciousness, and such people as I have described would be genuinely surprised, as a rule, if they were told that they were living a different life from the lives of others.

This simplicity of nature is not often found in conjunction with very great artistic or intellectual gifts; but when it is so found, it is one of the most perfect combinations in the world.

The one thing that is entirely fatal to simplicity is the desire to stimulate the curiosity of others in the matter. The most conspicuous instance of this, in literature, is the case of Thoreau, who is by many regarded as the apostle of the simple life. Thoreau was a man of extremely simple tastes, it is true. He ate pulse, whatever that may be, and drank water; he was deeply interested in the contemplation of nature, and he loved to disembarrass himself of all the apparatus of life. It was really that he hated trouble more than anything in the world; he found that by working six weeks in the year, he could earn enough to enable him to live in a hut in a wood for the rest of the twelvemonth; he did his household work himself, and his little stock of money sufficed to buy him food and clothes, and to meet his small expenses. But Thoreau was indolent rather than simple; and what spoilt his simplicity was that he was for ever hoping that he would be observed and admired; he was for ever peeping out of the corner of his eye, to see if inquisitive strangers were hovering about to observe the hermit at his contemplation. If he had really loved simplicity best, he would have lived his life and not troubled himself about what other people thought of him; but instead of that he found his own simplicity a deeply interesting and refreshing subject of contemplation. He was for ever looking at himself in the glass, and describing to others the rugged, sunbrowned, slovenly, solemn person that he saw there.

And then, too, it was easier for Thoreau to make money than it would be for the ordinary artisan. When Thoreau wrote his famous maxim, "To maintain oneself on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime," he did not add that he was himself a man of remarkable mechanical gifts; he made, when he was disposed, admirable pencils, he was an excellent land-surveyor, and an author as well; moreover, he was a celibate by nature. He would no doubt have found, if he had had a wife and children, and no aptitude for skilled labour, that he would have had to work as hard as any one else.

Thoreau had, too, a quality which is in itself an economical thing. He did not care in the least for society. He said that he would rather "keep bachelor's hall in hell than go to board in heaven." He was not a sociable man, and sociability is in itself expensive. He had, it is true, some devoted friends, but it seems that he would have done anything for them except see them. He was a man of many virtues and no vices, but he was most at his ease with faddists. Not that he avoided his fellow-men; he was always ready to see people, to talk, to play with children, but on the other hand society was not essential to him. Yet, just and virtuous as he was, there was something radically unamiable about him: "I love Henry," one of his friends said of him, "but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree." He was in fact an egotist with strong fancies and preferences; and, though he was an ascetic by preference, he cannot be called a simple-minded man, because the essence of simplicity is not to ride a hobby hard. He thought and talked too much about simplicity; and the fact is that simplicity, like humility, cannot exist side by side with self-consciousness. The moment that a man is conscious that he is simple and humble, he is simple and humble no longer. You cannot become humble by reminding people constantly, like Uriah Heep, of your humility; similarly you cannot become simple, by doing elaborately, and making a parade of doing, the things that the simple man would do without thinking about them.

It is almost true to say that the people who are most in love with simplicity are often the most complicated natures. They become weary of their own complexity, and they fancy that by acting on a certain regimen they can arrive at tranquillity of soul. It is in reality just the other way. One must become simple in soul first, and the simple setting follows as a matter of course. If a man can purge himself of ambition, and social pride, and ostentation, and the desire of praise, his life falls at once into a simple mould, because keeping up appearances is the most expensive thing in the world; to begin with eating pulse and drinking water, is as if a man were to wear his hair like Tennyson, and expect to become a poet thereby. Asceticism is the sign and not the cause of simplicity. The simple life will become easy and common enough when people have simple minds and hearts, when they do the duties that lie ready to their hand, and do not crave for recognition.

Neither can simplicity be brought about by a movement. There is nothing which is more fatal to it than that people should meet to discuss the subject; it can only be done by individuals, and in comparative isolation. A friend of mine dreamed the other day that she was discussing the subject of mission services with a stranger; she defended them in her dream with great warmth and rhetoric: when she had done, her companion said, "Well, to tell you the truth, I don't believe in people being inspired IN ROWS." This oracular saying has a profound truth in it--that salvation is not to be found in public meetings; and that to assemble a number of persons, and to address them on the subject of simplicity, is the surest way to miss the charm of that secluded virtue.

The worst of it is that the real, practical, moral simplicity of which I have been speaking is not an attractive thing to a generation fond of movement and excitement; what they desire is a picturesque mise-en-scene, a simplicity which comes as a little pretty interlude to busy life; they do not desire it in its entirety and continuously. They would find it dull, triste, ennuyant.

Thus it must fall into the hands of individuals to practise it, who are sincerely enamoured of quietness and peace. The simple man must have a deep fund of natural joy and zest; he must bring his own seasoning to the plain fare of life; but if he loves the face of nature, and books, and his fellow-men, and above all, work, there is no need for him to go out into the wilderness in pursuit of a transcendental ideal. But those whose spirits flag and droop in solitude; who open their eyes upon the world, and wonder what they will find to do; who love talk and laughter and amusement; who crave for alcoholic mirth, and the song of them that feast, had better make no pretence of pursuing a spirit which haunts the country lane and the village street, the rough pasture beside the brimming stream, the forest glade, with the fragrant breeze blowing cool out of the wood. Simplicity, to be successfully attained, must be the result of a passionate instinct, not of a picturesque curiosity; and it is useless to lament that one has no time to possess one's soul, if, when one visits the innermost chamber, there is nothing there but cobwebs and ugly dust.


(The end)
Arthur C. Benson's essay: The Simple Life

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