Luxury of Being Poor
first thought you would say that the luxury of being poor,
like the luxury of going barefoot, is only a luxury of
going barefoot, is only a luxury when it is not a necessity.
But that statement is too epigrammatic for the sober truth.
And truth is a goddess whose beauty best appears in diaphanous
simplicity, without the oriental broideries of the too
curious and too civilized mind. It is nearer the truth
to say that as there is always an actual luxury in going
barefoot, so there always is an actual luxury in being
poor. If we do not always relish being poor, it is because
we do not appreciate our blessings.
I am sorry for any one who cannot
afford to be poor. Certainly to enjoy the luxury to the
fullest extent one must be a gentleman or [Page
175] a genius. But even without either of these
advantages there is cause for thanksgiving in a modest
amount of poverty. If you are poor, think of the endless
burden of impediments of all sorts you escape from day
to day, – houses, servants, tailors, teas, –
a thousand cares and annoyances which press upon the rich
and crush them back into the fat clay from which they
came. There are rich people who are good, and there are
rich people who are happy, but they are so at how great
a cost! It is the old story of the savage over again.
“Why don’t you work?” “What for?”
“So that you may be rich.” “Why should
I wish to be rich?” “So that you need do nothing.”
“But I do nothing now.”
If you are rich you cannot be
free. You have obligations you cannot shirk. But the greatest
freedom of the poor is the freedom of spirit. If I am
poor, I am not obliged to be always on parade, always
living at a tension, always presenting an appearance.
My outward circumstance is so insignificant that [Page
176] I can forget it altogether and occupy my
mind with the higher life. That is why it is good for
a philosopher to be poor, – he has nothing to divert
him from his noblest self. He may have the luxury of a
free and untrammelled life. Voluntary poverty, such as
that of the ecclesiastical orders, is a great positive
virtue and a means of happiness. The mere act of renunciation
in itself is no virtue. If you forego the pleasure of
a new gown, and still keep hankering after it, that is
no virtue, and does you little good. But if you abstain
from buying it, saying to yourself, “Thank heaven,
I am free from one more encumbrance,” you are already
on the road to the Celestial City.
In order to have the goods of
this world you must be strenuous, unsleeping, given to
hard work. You must will and energize day in and day out.
You must impose your way on others, and bend them to your
purpose. You must strive and never rest. (Unless, of course,
you are dishonest, and make your [Page 177] money
instead of earning it.) And for most people who are cast
into the world with responsibility already upon them,
such a life of endeavour is necessary. Others may be depending
upon them, – the aged, the helpless, the unfortunate.
They cannot shun the demands of humanity. They dare not
indulge their own love of freedom. They cannot afford
to be poor.
But if no one worked, we should
have few of the decencies of life, our climate being what
it is. Yes, I know that. I am not championing any fundamental
philosophy. I am only insisting that we do not appreciate
the luxury of freedom there is in poverty.
Cease to worry. Do not try to
reason yourself into submission. Just dismiss your will
entirely. Let it go out and play. Forget it. Then you
may truly begin to live the greater life. Your own inner
truer personality will have time and space to grow. You
will breathe more freely and feel yourself a part of larger
life. If poverty only makes us [Page 178] strive
the harder (not work, but strive) then it is a curse and
not a blessing. But that depends on our own mind. To be
able to enjoy this beautiful earth and our strange, rich,
wonderful life, it is necessary to be free, to keep a
spirit untrammelled by outward things and untarnished
by error. To be soured by poverty or to be hardened by
it is a mistake, an error of thought. Instead of enjoying
our life, we are cramping ourselves. It is just as if
we were set at a feast and sulkily refused to enjoy a
few dishes because we could not reach everything on the
table and make ourselves sick, like foolish children that
Children do not mind poverty.
It is not until they grow and cultivate their wilful individuality,
that unhappiness and discontent overtake them. It is in
their disregard of circumstance that we still may imitate
them. They enjoy being barefoot and having nothing, until
some mistaken grown-up makes them ashamed of it [Page
O artist, know that unless you
can afford to be poor, you can never reach the full height
of your power. You can never abandon strife, and insistence,
and your own small worldly will. You can never be merged
into the greater sweep of being whence inspiration flows.
Do you tell me that competition
and struggle are necessary to make you produce your best?
If that is the mainspring of your art, is your art all
it might be? Are you not merely an artisan? If you were
an artist, you would sit down in supreme contentment and
rags, painting for the joy of it alone. If you could afford
never to sell a picture your work would be ten times as
good as it is, and it would grow better every year. The
brooding soul ripens; the anxious mind withers and blights.
It is not good for you to live richly in cities, because
it is hard to deny yourself. You must first be poor and
lonely and dejected; then you must think of the luxury
of your freedom; so you will enter into possession [Page
180] of yourself; and you will be glad and free
and creative and strong. There is no other gladness; there
is no other freedom; there is no other greatness [Page