Whatever view be taken of the fact that many commonplaces are exploded, it is certain that their reconstruction must always be a work of time. Commonplaces, like proverbs, represent, according to the well-known saying, the wisdom of many, and the wit, or perhaps the eloquence, of one; and before they can be summed up in a single phrase, the elements from which they are collected must have become part of the furniture of ordinary minds. However remote may be the prospect of contributing to such a result, it must always be curious to inquire into the foundation of sayings which once exercised a real and not an injurious influence on the thoughts of mankind.
Few commonplaces were more popular, up to a very late period, or have more entirely gone out of fashion, than those which denounced luxury. The well-known lines of Juvenal may be taken as a palmary illustration of their character:
"Nunc patimur longa pacis mala: saevior urbiVarious applications of this sentiment held their place as part of the accumulated wisdom of mankind, till the latter part of the last century, but at present they are altogether out of date, and are usually supposed to have absolutely no application whatever to our own state of society. Several broad and important reasons may be assigned for this change— particularly in so far as it affects our own country. In the first place, the greater part of the national energy has since the peace been directed to the accumulation of wealth or of the means of providing it, whilst this process has been further dignified by the application to it of a vast number of scientific inventions. Moreover, the philanthropic side of religion has been invested of late years with a prominence which it never had before. The theory, or rather the sentiment that it is the special function of Christianity to remove or to mitigate the physical sufferings of mankind, to do away with slavery, to cure disease, and to relieve and instruct misfortune and poverty, has attained within the last century a prominence which is surprising to those who look at the history of Christianity as a whole, and who remember for how many centuries it occupied a very different position in the world. Lastly, the only branch of inquiry, except, perhaps, statistics, which, being conversant with human action, has attained anything approaching to the precision of a science, is political economy; and this study is exclusively occupied with the production, and in a smaller degree, with the distribution of wealth. It has thus come to pass that the love of money, which an Apostle declared to be the root of all evil, by which men pierce themselves through with many sorrows, has come in these days to be looked upon as combining in its favour the suffrages of experience, religion, and philosophy. The history of human speculation presents few more singular changes of sentiment.
Luxuria incubuit, victumque ulciscitur orbem.
Prima peregrinos obscena pecunia mores
Intulit, et turpi fregerunt saecula luxu
It would be impossible within reasonable limits to examine this curious subject with any approach to fulness, but it may be practicable to make a few observations upon it which may tend to suggest that the modern view of the subject is, at any rate, less entirely right than it is usually assumed to be.
Luxury, like all words which are used for the purposes of praise or blame, is extremely vague. It sometimes means everything which is not absolutely necessary to the maintenance of life. It sometimes means everything which confers, in an unusual degree, any of the pleasures which Bentham would have described as self-regarding. If it is confined to the first sense it ceases altogether to imply praise or blame. If it is confined to the second, it would be very unjust to apply it to the age in which we live. Our generation is not by any means remarkable for wasteful prodigality or debauchery. Amongst the wealthier part of society there was probably never a larger amount of general sobriety and propriety of life. There is of course a small number of extraordinarily rich people, who live in great splendour, but they do not waste their money by gambling, by debauchery, by riotous living. Those who do are a small and a confessedly disreputable minority. Those who, without being wealthy, are still in easy circumstances, are even less luxurious in this sense of the word. There was never, probably, in any age or country, a larger mass of comfortable, respectable people, than is now to be found in these islands. It could hardly, however, appear inappropriate to apply the epithet "luxurious" to our age. Probably no nation was ever so rich, and it would be hard to mention one in which riches have had more power to confer everything which human nature desires, or in which that power has been more thoroughly recognized, or more devoutly worshiped. In what sense, then, would the word be appropriate? It will be found, upon examination, to imply, in so far as it implies reproach, that having a reasonable and solid standard of comfort, we attach too much importance to attaining it.
Those who wish to know what luxury means, in relation to an Englishman in easy circumstances, may obtain much light on the subject by spending a few hours (and they might easily spend very many) in walking through the miles upon miles of the streets of London in which such Englishmen live. In Bayswater and Paddington, in Bloomsbury, in Pimlico, in Brompton, in Camberwell, and in other districts too numerous to mention, there are thousands of houses which no one would live in who had not a family, and which no one who has a family can live in unless he is prepared to spend from £600 to £1,500 a year. London, however, is but one illustration of this. Others are to be found in or near every large town in England. Edgebaston, Clifton, and Birkenhead swarm with such houses, whilst Brighton, Cheltenham, Leamington, Bath, Scarborough, and Tunbridge Wells, and other places of the same kind, are almost entirely built for the convenience of those who live in them. What does luxury mean, in relation to such people as these? It certainly does not mean that they are debauched or riotous, and though the contrary is often asserted, it does not mean, or rather it would be unjust to use it as meaning, that they are extravagant, buying things that they do not want, or paying for them more than they are worth. It is one of the petty nuisances of the day to be bored by suggestions, which imply that it is possible, by minute economy, to live like a gentleman upon a fabulously small income. It would, generally speaking, take less time and trouble to earn a large one. There may, no doubt, be a few people who have a special aptitude for making a little money go a long way, and under whose hands a shilling can be screwed into fourteen-pence, but they are the exceptions, and generally speaking, one moderately sensible person, who has to live at any given rate, will get about as much for his shilling as other moderately sensible people who live at the same rate. If they try to get more they will find that they pay for it in other ways. The physician will have to pay less attention to his patients, the lawyer to his briefs, the merchant to his business. Even a clerk in a Government office, or a clergyman with a small living, might probably make more in an evening by writing magazine articles than he would save by spending the same time in plotting with his wife about contrivances for washing at home, or going to market instead of dealing with the shops. Shops only exist because it is more convenient to the consumer to deal with a middle-man than to deal with the producer. He must either pay for the convenience in his bills, or expend an equivalent in time, temper, and shoe-leather. The experience of mankind seems to prove that the first course is almost always the best.
The objects upon which the income of the inhabitants of such houses are expended are principally three—a large family, health, and refinement. That the human race is to be suffered to increase and multiply indefinitely, and without any reference to general or individual convenience, is the postulate which is assumed by all classes, not of European, but of English society, and though some of our most distinguished writers have dissented from it, the fact of its all but universal prevalence cannot be disputed. It is fair to add, that in the existing state of education and morals, interference with it even by general discussion of the subject, would hardly be desirable, as it would involve dangers even more serious than those which are involved in its prevalence and application. Health is beginning to be looked upon as almost equally necessary ; and although its advantages are obvious enough, its extreme costliness is not so generally remembered. Health, especially in the case of young children, means a roomy house, good drainage, plenty of food, careful nursing, proper medical attendance, and occasional change of air. This works in two ways. Not only do individual children cost a great deal, but they live longer than they used to. In former times children were not provided with the means of health so liberally as they are now. The consequence was that more of them died in infancy than at present, and that those who lived cost less. Refinement is another enormous source of expense. Many obvious influences have greatly cultivated the tastes of the present generation. The enormous popularity of novels, in particular, can hardly have failed to give an increasingly sentimental turn to the intercourse between the sexes. A larger proportion of men than was formerly the case look for friends and companions in their wives. They wish them to be able to understand and care for their pursuits, and to sympathize in their feelings. Every improvement in education will infallibly extend the area of such feelings, which, moreover, apply to the children as well as to the wife. A refined and educated father will, in proportion to the force of his parental feelings, be intolerant of the notion that his sons and daughters are to grow up to different pursuits and a different standard of taste and feeling from his own; but if his wife is to be his friend and companion she cannot be his servant. If she is to read the same sort of books, to follow the same trains of thought, to sympathize with and to advise upon his intellectual or professional avocations, she must be something more than a mere housekeeper, a mere nurse, or even a mere governess. If his children are ultimately to grow up into gentlemen and ladies, they must be educated as such —they must continue, that is, to be dependent upon him, in the case of the boys, till the age of twenty-one or twenty-two at least; in the case of the daughters, till marriage; and during this long period they must be supplied with an education which is immensely expensive; and of which the expense can hardly be diminished if it continues as at present to be given by men and women who have themselves had as good an education as money can buy. The teacher of a national school in these days is apprenticed for five years, and passes two more in a normal college before he is supposed to be qualified to teach the children of labourers and mechanics to read, write, and cypher. It cannot but be expected under these circumstances that schools for the mastership of which the ablest men at the universities eagerly compete, should be extremely dear.
It may be objected to this that whatever may be the expensiveness of marriage and health, refinement costs nothing; and an appeal may be made to the pictures which the correspondents of newspapers and the authors of novels have often drawn of virtuous mechanics who refresh themselves after a hard day's work by reading metaphysics; of the wives of poor curates who can not only look after a large family of young children, but contribute the largest element to their husbands' theological views, and take the principal part of his management of the parish off his hands; and of affectionate daughters who diffuse refinement over families to whom they spare the expense of housemaids. Such descriptions are either totally false, or applicable only to the rarest exceptions. An all but universal experience conclusively proves that the mind is subdued to what it works in. A man who passes his life in a succession of petty but absorbing occupations, almost infallibly dwarfs and narrows his understanding; and the consequence is even more certain with a woman. Hardly any woman who passes her whole life in domestic drudgery will be more than a domestic drudge. If a man of intellectual tastes and pursuits wishes his wife to care for and share in them, he must in almost every case be prepared to pay the price in the shape of servants' wages. To be either a housekeeper, a cook, a nurse, a governess, or a wife, is a profession in itself; exceptions apart, no one person can combine all the characters in herself.
It follows from this, that the combination of an unlimited family, with ample means of health and refinement for all its members, is an extremely expensive matter, and that the enormous expenditure of the easy classes of English society is explained by the supposition that this is the standard of comfort which they adopt, and which they are determined on attaining at the price of almost any effort. It may be said, if this is what is meant by luxury, why should not people be luxurious? What higher object can men propose to themselves than the attainment of such results? Might not a man consider his life well spent, if by honest means he had educated in health and strength a large family of children to be refined and intelligent men and women, enjoying, in the meantime, the society of a companion worthy of his love?
Much more lies in the answer to these questions than is generally supposed. To some, nothing less appears to lie in them than the whole future destiny of this great nation, and no answer appears to be appropriate but the most emphatic denial that language can supply. It is undoubtedly true that it would be well for many men if they could give so good an account of the talents in their charge, and it would probably be well for still more if they had never had any talents, or any place at all in this mysterious world; but it would be an unspeakable misfortune if the procuring of domestic comfort came to be recognized as the ideal of human life. It is impossible to say why men were made, but assuming that they were made for some purpose, of which the faculties which they possess afford evidence, it follows that they were intended to do many other things besides providing for their families and enjoying their society. They were meant to know, to act, and to feel—to know everything which the mind is able to contemplate, to name, and to classify; to do everything which the will, prompted by the passions and guided by the conscience, can undertake; and, subject to the same guidance, to feel in its utmost vigour every emotion which the contemplation of the various persons and objects which surround us can excite. This view of the objects of life affords an almost infinite scope for human activity in different directions; but it also shows that it is in the highest degree dangerous to its beauty and its worth to allow any one side of life to become the object of idolatry; and there are many reasons for thinking that domestic happiness is rapidly assuming that position in the minds of the more comfortable classes of Englishmen. The virtues and the weaknesses of our national character combine to produce this effect. We are affectionate and sober-minded. We love what is substantial; we love what is practicable ; we love what is definite; and we love what is thorough; but, on the other hand, we are apt, especially in these days, to be timid in thought, we have a strong dash of vulgarity, and we have a certain tendency to pettiness. Domestic happiness is nearly the only good thing which is not inconsistent with our faults, whilst it deeply gratifies most of our virtues. Many other causes might be assigned for the sort of idolatry with which we regard our ideal. The failure of what claimed to be virtues of a larger type at the French Revolution; the miseries and scandals with which domestic vice filled the history of the last century; the immense development of physical science which of necessity produces its results by small steps, and the general neglect of moral speculations and the broader theories which they involve, are amongst the number; but the causes of this state of things are less important than its effects. They may be traced in almost every department of life, and might be specified to almost any extent.
Perhaps the broadest of all these effects is to be found in the distribution of men in the various walks of life. It will be found that nearly all our ablest men adopt pursuits which are almost exclusively practical. Anyone who knows the Universities, will say that hardly any young man now takes orders whose talents are in the least degree above the average. Of those who adopt literature as a profession, how many are there who rise much above the level of small jokers and sentimental novelists? Many considerable books have been written by Englishmen in this generation, but they have mostly been written by rich men. If M. Guizot had been an Englishman, he would have been, no doubt, a great man; but it is very unlikely that he would have been a great writer. It is not a fair illustration of the same point, but it is a significant fact, that in the legal profession hardly any man of real ability understands by law anything else than briefs. One of the most learned and high-minded men that ever honoured it—the late Mr. John Austin—was a memorable, but he was almost a solitary, exception. There are, indeed, law reformers in the present day in abundance; but no one ever takes up that branch of the profession who could hope to attract attention in any other.
It is a singular and an affecting thing, to see how every manifestation of human energy bears witness to the shrewdness of the current maxim, that a large income is a necessary of life. Whatever is done for money is done admirably well. No nation in the world ever turned out such workmanship as ours, material or intellectual. The shops and the newspapers contain excellent specimens of each. Give a man a specific thing to make or to write, and pay him well for it, and you may with a little trouble secure an excellent article; but the ability which does these things so well, might have been and ought to have been trained to far higher things, which for the most part are left undone, because the clever workman thinks himself bound to earn what will keep himself, his wife, and his six or seven children, up to the established standard of comfort. What was at first a necessity, perhaps an unwelcome one, becomes by degrees a habit and a pleasure, and men who might have done memorable and noble things, if they had learnt in time to consider the doing of such things a subject worth living for, lose the power and the wish to live for other than fireside purposes. Indeed, those purposes are so complete as far as they go, they are so very pleasant, and so thoroughly irreproachable that it seems the simplest and most sensible thing in the world to give up for them that which it is easy to describe as nonsense and romance.
Such a course is no doubt easy, and in some points of view sensible; but it was not the course which gave us what we call our civilization, and it will be a cruel irony, indeed, if the labours of so many generations of saints and heroes have at last no better result than that of introducing their descendants to an ignominious lubberland, over which they make their little pilgrimage, with no thought of anything beyond the richness of its crops. A paradise of comfort would be a hell, ignorant of its own misery.
It thus appears that the nature of luxury in the present day is an exaggerated appetite for solid advantages, and that the evil which it threatens to produce is the establishment of a narrow conception of the objects of life by which the exercise of the higher faculties of the mind will be first discouraged and ultimately prevented. The difficulty of proving the disease to be one, increases its danger. The worship of domestic comfort is preached up so prettily and in so many attractive shapes, and the thing itself is in its proper place, so good, that the injury done by overrating it is not apparent; indeed, its direct bad effects are manifested principally in a minority, which ought to be silent and thoughtful. Average men are not worse, or more petty than usual, perhaps they are rather better than they have sometimes been, certainly they are more comfortable; but it is not the average men of a generation who do the most towards the general elevation and expansion of human nature. This is the task of the minority, and if the average tone of feeling and thought is such, that the majority seduce or degrade them, the greatest of all calamities is inflicted on mankind. Our only living poet prophesied, with unnecessary enthusiasm, the advent of a period when the common sense of most should hold a fretful realm in awe, and the expression certainly has the merit of expressing pretty exactly what the "common sense of most" is capable of doing. It can restrict and coerce and prevent disturbances, but it can give neither light nor life. It can lay the earth to "slumber, lapt in universal law," like the Roman empire, but it could not make another Europe. That can only be done by great men, great acts, and great thoughts, and how are these to be had? Like all other things they must be bought, though neither money nor comfort can buy them. Their price is a breadth and freedom of mind, hardly compatible with constant immersion in that struggle for a large income, which for the reasons just mentioned absorbs the energies of our ablest men. A man who is to do great things must be conversant with great thoughts, and must reflect on the great interests of life in a worthy manner; but for this, he must have a degree of leisure and independence, which is very often inconsistent with the attainment of the various elements of the modern ideal of comfort.
This, however, is not all. Every man is so profoundly affected by the temper of the society in which he lives, that to be in any degree considerable he must have sufficient sympathy with the general temper of his generation, to be able, without affectation, to wear its dress, and to speak its language. There are few sadder spectacles than men who are forced to be eccentric, that their superiority may be recognized, and who sink into the privileged buffoons of a society of which they should be instructors, and which tolerates their occasional wisdom for the sake of their uniform grotesqueness. The constant and quiet recognition of the relative magnitude of different pursuits, and the humility which yields to moral and intellectual superiority on its own ground, not as a matter of patronage, nor as an effort of virtue, but as a matter of course, are the greatest aids which commonplace men can give to their superiors, and the greatest discouragement which they can throw in the way of flatterers and charlatans.
It is by reason of its deficiency in these respects that the atmosphere in which the comfortable classes of modern English society live, is most unfavourable to intellectual and moral stature, and that changes in it are the indispensable condition of growth. Its most unwholesome ingredient is the intense self-satisfaction by which it is pervaded. All the voices which have any real influence with an Englishman in easy circumstances, combine to stimulate a low form of energy, which stifles every high one. The newspapers extol his wisdom by assuming that the average intelligence which he represents is, under the name of public opinion, the ultimate and irresponsible ruler of the nation; the novels which he and his family devour with insatiable greediness have no tendency to rouse his imagination, to say nothing of his mind. They are pictures of the everyday life to which he has always been accustomed—sarcastic, sentimental, or ludicrous, as the case may be—but never rising to anything which could ever suggest the existence of tragic dignity or ideal beauty. The human mind has made considerable advances in the last three-and-twenty centuries; but the thousands of Greeks who could enjoy not only Euripides, but Homer and Aeschylus, were superior, in some important points, to the millions of Englishmen who in their inmost hearts prefer Pickwick to Shakespeare. Even the religion of the present day is made to suit the level of commonplace Englishmen. There was a time when Christianity meant the embodiment of all truth and holiness in the midst of a world lying in wickedness. It afterwards included law, liberty, and knowledge, as opposed to the energetic ignorance of the northern barbarians. It now too often means philanthropic societies—excellent things as far as they go, but rather small. Any doctrine now is given up if it either seems uncomfortable or likely to make a disturbance. It is almost universally assumed that the truth of an opinion is tested by its consistency with cheerful views of life and nature. Unpleasant doctrines are only preached under incredible forms, and thus serve to spice the enjoyments which they would otherwise destroy.
The question how these things may be remedied is as difficult as it is momentous. Grown-up men and women can hardly expect by taking thought to add cubits to their stature; but anything is better than to be contented dwarfs. The remedies to be complete must be co-ordinate with the disease; and the first and easiest, but the most indispensable of them all, is to recognize their necessity. One of the most important truths which can be impressed on mankind is, that they and their comforts fill a very small space in the universe: that virtue and wisdom, that knowledge, science and art, were meant for much more than to provide them with cheerful families and happy homes; and that the order and peace which they enjoy will be curses, instead of blessings, if they become idols, if they blind them to the vastness and the wonderful mystery of the universe in which they live; and if they withdraw their eyes from looking upon themselves as sinful and purblind dust and ashes. These sentiments, unhappily, find little favour with most of those who command the public attention. Such men generally flatter the complacency which they ought to destroy, and teach others to regard learning, science, and wit as the playthings by which idle hours may be made idler, and by which the sense of dulness designed by nature as a friendly warning against the abuse of comfort may be prevented from inflicting its wholesome chastisements.
Cornhill Magazine, September 1860.