The Arena 29 no. 4 (April 1903): 345.
A PLEA FOR SIMPLER LIVING.
Samuel Milton “Golden Rule” Jones
The following words from a flaming advertisement recently I caught my eye: “Why don’t you marry the girl? We’ll help you.” They were from the advertisement of an instalment house—that is, a business house that sells furniture on the instalment plan, generally asking a very large price in the first place, only to take it back in many instances after those who have purchased have partly paid for it, and after months and perhaps years of agony in trying to extricate themselves from the burden of debt have in the end seen their goods taken from the house, put in the furniture van and conveyed back to the instalment house, usually to be rubbed up, repolished, and again sold to the next confiding victim whose ambition has been stimulated to venture beyond the limits of his ability to pay, and who by so doing takes upon himself involuntary servitude or slavery to the instalment people.
These operations are repeated indefinitely, and the result of the successive surrenders and heartrending sacrifices on the part of the poor is by the alchemy of business converted into dividends and vulgar luxuries, both of which are supposed to be enjoyed by idle owners. But in reality the ultimate effect of these luxuries and dividends is moral disintegration to those who possess them.
I do not believe that there is any one delusion or evil that is responsible for more misery, wretchedness, and downright despair than that which seems completely to possess the large majority of those who esteem themselves the best society, and which may be summed up in the belief that life consists in things. The shrewd business man, knowing this weakness, turns it to his own selfish advantage in a thousand ways similar to the one alluded to above. After much serious reflection I have almost concluded that it is just as immoral to get things that we cannot pay for, by running in debt for them, as it is to get them in any other way without paying for them.
Let us not delude ourselves into the belief that it is the fault of the dealer. It is his business to sell his goods, but he cannot compel any human being to buy them; and the misery that I would avert is due to the yielding temptation born of the imperfect understanding as to what constitutes the true end, aim, and enjoyment of life. Before we can be free we must be emancipated from these misconceptions of the fundamentals of life, and this emancipation must come from within.
I can conceive of no more important or worthy work for ministers, teachers, and other molders of public opinion than a high-minded and serious attempt to stimulate in the minds of all the people a noble and consistent ideal of a perfectly simple, free, yet artistic and beautiful life. We have not yet begun to understand how very little we really require—how easily our actual necessities incident to a happy life may be supplied.
In proportion as we get away from the artificiality and from the slavery that requires us to do as other people do—in proportion as we live a wholesome, normal, free life, and allow our varying tastes to express themselves untrameled by the arbitrary dictates of conventionalism—we will grow in health, happiness, independence, and true greatness.
Now, as to what we actually need. I believe a condition of life is possible—nay, is attainable here and now—where each one can have free access to everything that is needful to develop the individual to the highest possibilities of soul and body. And first I find that we need air. We have a right to pure air, and singularly enough we each need about the same amount of air in order to have a healthy body and in order to have a beautiful body—for this, too, is our right. But we do not need to hoard the air; we do not need to lay up air for a rainy day; we cannot store it; but we can freely have as much as we will use, and no matter how much we use the supply is not lessened.
Now, this law in every detail, I believe, applies to every other thing required for the development of a perfect life just as clearly as it does to air. Though we may not be able to understand its application, it only requires a little study of this fundamental principle to bring us to an understanding of the sound philosophy set forth in the German saying: “Zu viel und su wenig sind ungesund.”
It is perfectly clear to me that in the development of a pure democracy we have much to learn about the value and importance of simple living. In the social philosophy that fills the air to-day, I am constantly impressed with the thought that there is altogether too much importance attached to the stomach. Again and again it is dinned into my ears, “A man must eat.” While admitting the truth of this statement I must add that it will be well for a man to remember that it is probable more human life is destroyed by overeating than by starvation. Of the truth of this proposition I do not think any careful observer can have a doubt. Probably a hundred people are made sick or plant the seeds of disease within themselves by overeating or improper eating for every one that is injured by fasting.
Only to-day at the hospital in the police station a poor man sought to appeal to my sympathy by telling me that he had fainted in the street from want of food. “How long had you fasted?” I inquired. “I had nothing but a sandwich for two days,” he replied. He was rather discomfited when I replied:
“That ought not to injure you, I am sure, for I myself have fasted once five days and another time four, taking absolutely nothing but water.” “And did you walk?” he said: “Walked every day; besides that I was suffering from a real sickness, and the fast cured me.” I really felt that it was worth while to have had such an experience to shock this unfortunate brother into a realization of the fact that “man does not live by bread alone.”
The fact that we can have life and have it more abundantly, while practically ignoring or living above the anxieties that distress the common mind, seems to be coming to me day by day with a force that makes it in the nature of a revelation, and without any apology I become personal. I am writing truth, and truth never needs apology. For more than a year I have eaten but two meals a day, leaving out breakfast and taking my first meal at 11:30, and some of the very best meals that I have eaten during that time have consisted of rye or whole-wheat bread and Schweitzer cheese, with perhaps a few dates as a dessert.
“Hunger is the best sauce” is a true adage, and, when we understand the processes of life to the extent that we learn to eat to live rather than to live to eat, we begin to have a conception of the outrage that we perpetrate by eating when we are not hungry. Much depends upon the plane we are living upon. Gluttony and drunkenness are the same soft of offenses. As long as one is a victim of appetite, it matters not particularly what form the dissipation may take, although there is more hope for the salvation of one who is the victim of almost any kind of an appetite than the insatiable one for “things”—useless things. The appetite for luxuries and the idleness and laziness that luxurious living breeds are, without doubt, the most destructive agencies that civilized man has to contend against to-day.
When the working young man and working young woman become emancipated from the desire to ape the idle rich, they will not be attracted by such appeals as that to which we have referred. They will learn the beauty of simple living; they will learn that along all the highways that lead to happiness, to health, to life, there are well-defined guide-boards, and each one bears the magic label, Simplicity.
All hope for democratic America must rest upon the production of a race of healthy, able-bodied fathers and mothers that can only be developed by an entire abandonment of the lazy and enervating kind of life that is destroying the idle and depraved, both rich and poor, and the adoption instead of the simple and natural modes that lead to life and life everlasting. Goldsmith saw it when, contemplating the beauty of the simple lives of the villagers, he said:
“O Luxury, thou curst by heaven’s decree,
How ill-exchanged are things like these for thee!
How do thy potions with insidious joy
Diffuse their pleasures only to destroy!”
SAMUEL M. JONES.