Clement M. Hammond, “Then and Now” (1884)

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XXII.

CONTENTMENT AND AMBITION.

Boston, October 24, 2085.

My Dear Louise:

In course of conversation with Mr. De Demain recently, I remarked that I presumed contentment to be the leading characteristic of the people of the time. I was entirely innocent in my allusion, and had no idea of the storm that it would raise.

“Contentment? the thing that poets and fools sighed for; the thing that the rich and powerful wanted for the poor and weak! It was ambition—the opposite to contentment—that first brought organized life from inorganic protoplasm. It is ambition that has caused all development, both physical and mental, since.

“Contentment means stagnation. Contentment kept the savage a savage. Contentment made slaves of men. Contentment kept men in ignorance and poverty. Contentment of the many made rulers of the few.

“Contentment never did one thing for the advancement of humanity. It never moved a stone, it never cut a tree, it never built a fire, it never provided shelter, it never painted a picture, it never wrote a line, it never sang a song, it never taught a lesson.

“Contentment never made a discovery, it never conceived an idea, it never made an exertion.

“Contentment was the fruit of the lotus that benumbed the senses of the people, tied hands and feet, stopped thought, and turned them over as slaves to the ambitious. The moment ambition broke through the crust of contentment, there was advancement. While the laborer was contented with his lot, employers could easily become millionnaires. Business was good, interest was high, rents were high. The blessings of contentment were preached from the pulpit, taught in the schools and by the newspapers, scribbled about by poets, and talked of on the street-corners by fools and pharisees. Ambition was pictured as a terrible curse, but the picturers did not pose as examples. It was contentment that gave powers to giant monopolies; it was discontent—undefined ambition—that curbed those powers. Contentment was satisfied with the State; ambition gave birth to Anarchy, and the mother did not die in childbirth.

“Contentment under Anarchy! Were there contentment, there would be no such thing as Anarchy. Anarchy is not stagnant; Anarchy is progressive, constantly, rapidly changing and advancing. Anarchy is not a rule, it is not a law, it is not a standard. I can tell you what it is and what it has been, but I cannot tell you what it will be, except that it can never be contentment.

“Ambition is a tool. Put in the hands of a few men, it makes all others slaves to them; put in the hands of all men, it gives plenty and happiness to all, and makes humanity constantly greater and grander.

“Ambition is not a desire to conquer men, to rule states, to control monopolies, to become a millionnaire,—it is a desire to improve, to advance, to have more, to enjoy more and suffer less. Could there be any nobler motive? Could there be any better state of society than that under which such a desire is given the greatest scope?

“Contentment ate its crust and drank its water while Gould and Vanderbilt piled up millions and ate and drank the best the world afforded.

“There is no place for contentment under Anarchy. It is a mould that the sunlight of Liberty has killed. There are no germs of the unhealthy fungus left.

“There is but one thing with which we are content, and that is Anarchy. If that were not progressive in proportion to our ambitions, we should not be content with that.”

If this is true that Mr. De Demain says,—that there is no contentment under Anarchy,—what a peculiar state of existence it must be in which the people of today are placed! And still he says they are happy, and I confess myself that they appear so. Can it be that we in 1885 did not know the true meaning of happiness? Or is happiness, like most other things, but a progressive state, whose fullest development may never be reached, yet whose influence may constantly be brighter?

I will leave it for you to decide.

Josephine.

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About Shawn P. Wilbur 2166 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.