is some confusion, is there not, in our minds when we
think of our civilization, and balance its benefits
against its perplexities, as we do? Our often complaints
against it may be justly made only against our own misconception.
moments of irritation we are in the habit of finding
fault with modern civilization, as we call it; and in
a pique we turn our backs on town and society and betake
ourselves to more or less sequestered resorts where
we promise ourselves the enjoyment of nature and a return
to simplicity. But in reality what we are fleeing from
is not civilization but our own vulgar and rather stupid
multiplication [Page 231] of effects,
our overelaborate accumulation of mere machinery.
true civilization one need never tire. Indeed, it is
impossible to tire of it, since civilization is a state
of growth, — is the constant actualization of
our best ideals, — is nothing more than the realization
of our best selves.
I suppose, is the best we can attain in our progress
toward perfection. That road is long and difficult,
and there are many illusions in the way to delay the
traveller and turn him aside. Not the least of these
illusion are things, gross material possession, which
we deem at times quite necessary to our comfort and
which we come to count as an essential factor in civilized
life. But material possessions are only means to an
end; and it depends entirely on our use of them whether
or not they aid us in the task of civilizing our life.
A Bushman is not civilized merely by being placed in
a palace or in a luxurious New York hotel; though decent
[Page 232] and comfortable surroundings
are an almost essential help in humanizing the spirit.
Nor could a civilized man like Lincoln or Marcus Aurelius
or John Wesley be made barbarous by being housed in
a cave or a tepee. In fact, in the first case, the palace
or the hotel might be eminently glaring and hideous
and debasing to the spirit, in spite of all its luxury,
while in the second case our civilized tenant of the
cave could more readily give his own complexion to his
surroundings for the time being.
case is simply this; In our task of civilizing ourselves
there are certain necessities of the animal man that
must be met, that remain constant, whatever his state.
He must be housed and clothed and fed. His children
must be reared and trained, and provision must be made
against sickness and incapacity. Now, the means which
man takes to do these things are infinitely various.
He may do them very simply, as the Indians used to do
them, and as the African [Page 233] and
the Eskimo still does them; or he may do them with enormous
elaboration and multiplicity of detail, as the Londoner
and the New Yorker does them to-day. But it is to be
noted that the manner of doing these things is not in
any way an essential part of civilization. A man may
have at his command all the luxuries of the twentieth
century, and still lack all the rudiments of civilization.
Almost any thoughtful person will acknowledge this strange
confusion of ideas of ours, and yet it is because we
continually confuse material prosperity with spiritual
and intellectual progress that we are so retarded in
the path to perfection.
it is only common sense that we should get our necessary
man’s work done as quickly and easily as possible.
To be fed and clothed and housed is the prime consideration.
Very well, then, let us have this done with utmost expedition.
Let us invent all manner of contrivances of wood and
iron and steam and electricity to save ourselves labour
[Page 234] in providing these common
requirements. Surely we have worked marvels of ingenuity
in that direction! But what then? How shall we employ
ourselves? What shall we do when these first human wants
are satisfied? Shall we go on elaborating the means
of living, or shall we devote some time to life itself,
to civilizing ourselves?
a certain point is reached, the increase of material
possessions is a palpable burden, a mere incumbrance
to us in our attempt to civilize and humanize existence.
To command happiness in my life, I must be master of
conditions, so far as I can. I must have within my power
the means of satisfying my needs. I must have, if you
will, the luxuries of the day. But if I simply keep
on multiplying my physical needs, so that it absorbs
all my energy to satisfy them, I am no longer a master
of conditions, but their slave. I do not command my
wants; my wants command me. The essential man in me
is arrested and absorbed in mere means of [Page
235] living, and has no energy nor intelligence
left for living itself.
all the while it is folly to turn our back on civilization.
For in all this great mass of material prosperity is
hidden the leisure which can make a higher civilization
possible. And if I find a city life a burden because
of its endless demands and material engrossments, I
am not, therefore, to become an embittered faultfinder
with my age. It were more sensible to take moderately
from the abundant store which modern ingenuity has provided,
and, having simplified my needs, devote myself to beautifying
my inner life, and to making life about me more interesting
and happy. For so I shall be forwarding civilization
— civilizing myself and those with whom I must
come in contact, not by overloading myself with endless
are good and delightful and necessary. But they are
only good and delightful and necessary in so far as
they minister to happiness. They cannot of themselves
[Page 236] give us happiness; they
can only give the possibility of happiness and immunity
from want. It is we ourselves who must distil from this
immunity and possibility the honey of joy which we all
does not reside in all those things which we give our
lives so breathlessly to obtain; it is to be found in
the hearts of our friends, in the thought and science
and art of the day. And if the civilization of my time
seem to me hard and mean and materialistic, the fault
is probably in my own mind as much as in my neighbour’s
millions. [Page 237]