Civilization is that which tends to make a man the best sort of national unit, and progress is his approach to that ideal. On this point the collective wisdom of the ages seems to be agreed; namely, that man in best sub-serving his own ends, consciously or unconsciously sub-serves the national ends in so doing. Or—in the noble words of Plato—"In Heaven, methinks, is laid up a pattern of the ideal Commonwealth, which he who desires may behold, and beholding may set his own house in order."
How then can a man so set his own house in order that he may best serve the general good, and help to realize this ideal Commonwealth upon earth?
It is here we find that the inherited wisdom of the world, religious, moral and social, seems to be at one in the statement that luxury, far from being a token of civilization, is indeed most anti-civic in its effect, and that true progress, instead of adding to our burden of needs, consists in lowering them to a very simple standard. Simplicity of habit is health; luxury but another name for disease, and as a disease undoubtedly has it affected the body politic throughout history. In every nation self-indulgence has been a synonym for decay; the scepter passes to other hands, and the slave of his own desires becomes veritably the slave to the desires of others.
It cannot be without meaning that so many of the religions of the world have united in the teaching of simplicity. From the words of Christ, with their strange pity for those who have great possessions, to the Renunciation of Buddha, and the stoic scorn of wealth, the one thought is dominant. Flee these deceits; no soul's health lies this way. Purity and peace, the love of men, and the Divine Vision, are the inheritance of those who have cast aside all earthly impediment in running the race that is set before them—and of these only. But what is the practical outcome of this stern gospel? What shall we do ourselves? In its upheaval of what are called the lower classes, Fate may answer this question for us in the next hundred years—But meanwhile? Meanwhile, beginning, as all reforms should do, with little things, it seems that personal habits should be re-considered. A greater temperance in food, for instance, would benefit the health of most both physically and morally. It cannot be that three meat meals a day, with all their paraphernalia of servants, cookery, and expense, are necessary to any human being. Yet this is a common English habit. It is custom and certainly not reason which ensures its continuance and those who have had the courage to break through its convention have gained the reward of better health, and freedom from many of the foolish cares we bind upon our own backs. No one knows until they have made the experiment how much may easily be achieved in this direction, and how great are the results in proportion to the small self-denial they entail.
Then there is the question of dress, and the whole chain of our wants and desires—a chain indeed, since it binds us into slavery! This is not our true life, which is something most alien to all this false seeming. Yet the possibility of freedom lies in our own hands. It has been said: "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hours." And this is simple truth. We cannot have the best of both worlds. "The gods sell everything at a fair price,"—and, if luxury and self-indulgence are what we elect to buy, we can have them unquestionably, but at a cost which will be exacted to the uttermost farthing.
Shoots higher much than he that means a tree.