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THE FINE ART OF SIMPLE LIVING
BY MAURICE FRANCIS EGAN
Author of "Everybody's St. Francis," "The Wiles of Sexton Maginnis," etc.
HE Emperor Caligula-it is recounted by the same historian who inspired Mr. Bernard Shaw with his idea of the character of Julius Cæsar-remarked on his death-bed, "I have lived as simple a life as I could in the high station to which the gods called me." These pathetic words are not usually commented on in the accounts of this very interesting man, but they seem to hold a clue to the interpretation of the fine art of simple living.
Simplicity for the rich is not the same as simplicity for the poor. Riches are so common in our time, that even the humble cannot escape occasional contact with the millionaire. I remember once dining at the table of a host and hostess who were reputed to be worth millions of dollars in the currency of the United States. The dinner opened with barley soup, and the hostess seemed particularly proud of a large joint of mutton, garnished with caper sauce. "Everybody praises us for being so simple," she said, with that exasperating giggle in which the simple rich occasionally indulge. But it struck me that the nice hot barley soup and the excellent mutton and caper sauce, -no better than I had frequently eaten in my own frugal way,—were extremely ostentatious and in very bad taste. Caligula, with all his faults, would never have made such a mistake, and no doubt this gave him some consolation at the end of a life which he must have felt was incomplete. He had never realized the aspirations of his youth, because some of his friends whom he most hated remained to outlive him.
The hostess, not content with calling attention to the admirable mutton, said, "Most people expect terrapin when they come to our house."
"But they do not get it," I remarked, with an audible sigh, and being pressed, I was forced to admit that I not only expected terrapin when I dined with millionaires, but gold plate and napkin-rings
studded with a ruby or two. If these napkin-rings should happen to be marked with the initials of the guest and offered as souvenirs, nothing, from the point of view of a thoughtful man, could be more appropriate. As a rule, the rich are rather intelligent, but not very sparkling. They are too limited in their affections; for wealth, if it does not produce egotism, at least encourages egoism.
Now, what is the use of a millionaire's pretending he is not rich? He may not be able to play the violin or the guitar or even bridge with elegance and skill, he may know nothing of the poets, and look at the great masters of painting through the eye of his agents; but he does possess one solid quality which nobody can deny: he is rich. With this chord of richness, if he understands the fine art of simple living in its true sense, he can play many pleasant variations. The harmonics of riches may be made very pleasant, and not at all annoying to anybody. The rich do not really annoy us with their display of wealth; they irritate us only when we are not allowed to participate in these displays.
It ought to be remembered that we bless the world with the talents with which Providence has gifted us. Emerson used to say that a man should make his gift to his friend something characteristic of himself. The poet should give his poem, the painter his picture, and the housewife her pumpkin pie or doughnuts. Now, what has the rich man to give the witty, gifted persons congregated about his board but that which is most characteristic of himself-the things that money can buy? Your rich friend is ordinarily not really simple. He is economical, and being economical, he covers this trait with a surface varnish of simplicity, which never deceives the elect. His principles, he says, will not allow him to give money to a friend except at the usual rate of interest; but when you suggest that his
principles are merely prejudices, he falls back on the principles of his friends..
"No gentleman," he will say, "will accept money as a gift." But when you remind him that the man in question would perhaps prefer to be his simple friend rather than a gentleman, he scoffs at the idea, and buttons his check-book more tightly in his coat-pocket. To practise To practise the fine art of simple living, a man must be himself; he must not pretend to be poor. If he does, he ceases to be simple, and he certainly fails to be elegant. Only the simple can be elegant, if they have the price.
Now from what I have said, I think it is plain that what we call simplicity in the wealthy is often the height of vulgar ostentation. If you offer the wife of a rich friend a humble bunch of daisies or a bouquet of potato blossoms, she will not let them appear as part of the garniture of her table unless she expects college professors or poor relatives, thus showing a tendency to force her ideas of simplicity on people who expect quite other things from her. If a poet, for instance, presents his poems to the amiable millionaire, and the amiable millionaire responds with a copy of his own early compositions, all the rules of simplicity are outraged. The poet receives a shock. He is made to be less serene; he may even be tempted to dislike the millionaire, which is wrong, for the end of the fine art of simple living is to produce serenity. The simplicity of the rich ought to be the exercise of the gift of magnificence. A really rich man ought to be magnificent; if he fails to show this gift, the only valid excuse we ought to accept is that he has overdrawn his income for charities.
Now theology, as understood in some countries, has limited very narrowly the graces of God. Fénelon says of a great lady of the court of Louis XIV that a grace of God in her case was affability and tact; and it is recorded that an observant ecclesiastic once said of another great lady that her special grace was to be the best-dressed woman in London. But from the point of view of the modern conscience, the definitions implied in these sayings about the essence of the grace of God are rather shocking. Nevertheless, all things of life which make for beauty and serenity must be looked on as gifts
from a higher sphere, no matter what the modern purists may say.
Seriously, the end of the art of living is to live, and the principal object of the spiritual directors of those old days which produced Sir Thomas More and later Mme. de Sévigné, and others, was to assist life to be lived. It was not then the rule to believe that there was only one life and nothing afterward; but that this one life, no matter what came afterward, was to be gone through with as much graciousness as possible. One's spiritual director in those days was not as exigeant as the modern pietist, and the conscience of the time, though by no means easier than the conscience of the present, was neither so nervous nor so restless. In fact, the ordinary conscience of to-day is rather more restless than scrupulous. A court confessor in the day of Mme. de Sévigné might tolerate the décolletée gowns or even some of the gossip of his penitents, but he expected them to examine their conscience, to discover whether they had sinned against simplicity or not.
In a time when simplicity was looked on as one of the usual virtues, life had many more charms than it has now. This is the key to the declaration of many of the fortunate folk who escaped the guillotine, that nobody knew the sweetness of life who had not lived before the French Revolution. And this was probably because nearly everybody in the same class spoke the same language of the mind. If one reads the memoirs of the two reigns preceding the French Revolution, one discovers that simplicity and a certain elegance went hand in hand with many qualities that were not graces of God. The worst enemy of simplicity is selfconsciousness and a desire to seem to be what one is not. These two qualities make for restlessness, and whatever may be said of our ancestors before the French Revolution, no matter of what nation they were, they were not restless.
The least simple and the least elegant of all reigns in France was probably that of Louis Philippe, for the reason that Louis Philippe and his entourage had determined to be simple. Of all the ladies left over from the preceding régime, the least simple and the least elegant was Mme. de Genlis, who had molded the mind of Louis Philippe and given a third-rate tone
of pretension to the time. Everybody said, "I will be simple," and everybody tried hard for simplicity, just as everybody now seems to be trying hard to have "red blood" or to be "efficient," or "to let a little sunshine in."
Even when the horrible restlessness induced by those indefatigable talkers, Voltaire and Rousseau, had begun to infect French society, we see in the delightful memoirs of Gouverneur Morris that nobody hesitated to ask for a dinner whenever he was hungry, and no hostess was at all inconvenienced when he asked for it. When this can be done among friends, when conversation and ease are preferred to the material adornments of the board, then simplicity has been achieved without effort, and one has begun to understand the first rudiments of the fine art of simple living.
Simplicity and elegance do not always go together, as we know. Once in Ireland, while some of our friends were waiting for luncheon, which was somewhat delayed, the cook suddenly appeared, and demanded in a ferocious tone, "Have anny of yez taken the leg of mutton?" As it happened, nobody had. Before any one could answer, the cook and the host and the guests caught sight of the favorite dog disappearing in the shrubbery with the pièce de résistance. It was recovered after a hot pursuit. All this was simple, but scarcely elegant. Nevertheless, it was better for the appetite than a cocktail.
Some of our English friends achieve an elegant simplicity, which is as unstudied as it is effective. To lunch off cold mutton and chutney sauce, with Stilton cheese "to follow," accompanied by a pitcher of home-brewed ale, attended by four flunkies, subservient and impassive, is the height of elegance and the depth of simplicity; but it is only elegant and simple when it is altogether unconscious. Your host likes cold mutton; a morning's walk in the fields gives him an appetite. He does not hanker to begin his meal with up-standing goblets of grape-fruit and maraschino cherries tied with red ribbon, or some of the landscape cookery to which a love of novelty draws us; it would strike him with embarrassment. The essence of simplicity seems to be ease; the aim of simplicity is undoubtedly forgetfulness of self or of that part of self which stands
in the way of agreeable intercourse. In a word, luxuries which become common, every-day things cease to be luxuries, and when they are emphasized as luxuries they do not add anything to the elegance of life, and they take away its simplicity. Besides, every-day life, to be lived comfortably and self-respectably, must have its climaxes. If our English friend, whose butler and footmen are descendants of the butlers and footmen who have watched his ancestors eat cold grouse and cold mutton to the accompaniment of homebrewed ale for centuries, should not take the attendance of his flunkies as a matter of course, he would cease to be simple and consequently lose his self-respect. The doing of anything for effect is the red spider in the rose of the simple life.
It is the custom of American publicists to assume that we know nothing of the fine art of simple living. People who spend their days in modern sky-scrapers and their nights in apartment-houses, where mushrooms or a white elephant can be produced by the hands of an electric clock, implore us to go back to the farm, that we may be simple. The consequence is that people who rush to deserted farms because they were deserted, find them overpopulated, and so much in the spirit of the twentieth century that even the cows are milked by machinery. Now, a cow milked by machinery is certainly not in accordance with the ideas of the simple life we are to cherish. In fact, we have begun to suffer from an access of manufactured simplicity as much as we suffered for a time from an access of manufactured cheerfulness.
Nearly every part of our country, it is true, is becoming more and more restless. This is said to be due to the competitive race for the luxuries of life; but in many parts of the South one still finds that the fine art of simple living has been achieved without effect; yet the very people who are begging us to be simple and to relieve stony soils of the reproach of desertion, look on the lives of some of our Southern fellow-citizens as unprogressive and inefficient. These Southerners, however, do not live by maxims. They are too selfrespectful to be pretentious and too desirous to be peaceful to join the mad race for luxuries which they could value only because they are esteemed by other people.
It is not the chase for what we really want that spoils life; it is the mad rush for what other people think we ought to have. Your Southern gentleman, -the race is not yet extinct,-whom I have in mind, likes his broad porch in the summer, his boxwood hedge, his slow stroll by the bay and through the pines. He is as interested in the curing of his hams by his ancestral receipt as he is in the local politics, which is saying a great deal. If you are his guest, he welcomes you with evident delight. He gives you fresh air, a spacious room in which to live, sound, plain food, the loan of a gun, agreeable conversation, and the right to be friendly with nature and all human things about you.
Horatius Flaccus, who has frequently been acclaimed as an adept in the elegant art of simplicity, lays great stress on those adornments that make life worth living. You may remember his beginning of the twenty-ninth ode, second book. Of course you do.
It is to be assumed that we all remember it, though to remember any thing out of Horace or Vergil or the Bible is not considered the proper thing in these days; for neither Horace nor Vergil nor the Bible have as yet been put in tabloid form. It is evident from the beginning of the poet's invitation, that Mæcenas is a gourmet and not a Philistine. Horatius wrote:
Thou, sprung from Tuscan kings, Mellowing wine waits in its chaste cask for thee,
Fragrant balms for the anointing of thy hair,
And roses to adorn and soothe thy brow.
He does not speak of the solid part of the feast. He does not offer, as Mesdames, the aunts of M. le Comte de Provence, did, just before the French Revolution, a menu which begins with four hors-d'œuvres, two soups, two "grosses pièces," including "le rôt de bif, du mouton de Bellevue," two relevés, which consist of chicken with rice and a sucking pig à la broche, and then meanders gently through twelve entrées and a dozen more entremets. All France, however, at this time was not so devoted to gormandizing as Louis XVI and his brother, the Comte de Provence. Phi
lippe Égalité, a much misunderstood gentleman, by the way, satisfied himself just before he went to the guillotine with a dozen oysters and a bottle of white wine.
It was evident that Mæcenas would not be attracted by the vulgar announcements of extraordinary food, and that, if we may judge from the poems of Horatius, he understood what elegant simplicity meant. Horatius is never tired of his ancestral silver. It is his; he adorns it with flowers, if you like, with narcissi in the spring and with roses in the summer, but he always looks on it with satisfaction as the expression of himself, and he is glad to honor his guest by displaying it as the best he has. It is certain that no matter how the fashions at Rome might change, how often the vulgar Tremalchio might displace his Tyrean purple for new tissues from Paris or brocades from Venice, Horatius would have made no alterations. He left the iridescent modes to the vulgar. He was not a "man who lives and moves and has his being in the realism of ordinary stock ideas"-"A man," as Mr. Birrill adds, "who is as blind to the future as he is dead to the past." He was not the kind of man who wallows in mission furniture because "mission" is the rage, who fills his rooms with imitations of Louis XVI because everybody is going in for white and gold and mock tapestries, who drags ancient and uncomfortable chairs from his garret because he is so dead to the past as not to be able to reconstruct it, and to see that much that was old was good only in its own environment. He does not melt his ancestral silver because fashion decrees that he must have orange-spoons and a new kind of spade for asparagus. The cult of the old because it is old adds as much to the pretentiousness of life as undue attention to the changing fashions of the new.
It seems to be understood to-day that the conduct of the interior of the house depends entirely on the woman. is supposed to have a moderate interest in the management of a garden, if he is fortunate enough to have one, but everything that is connected with life in the inside of the house is supposed to belong to the kingdom of the ladies. This was not always so. One has only to dip into that most delightful of all books on the secrets
of the art of living, the "Physiologie du goût" of Brillat-Savarin, to discover this. Sir Thomas More, for all his wit and wisdom, had a serious interest in the haunch of venison that occasionally awaited him at Chelsea on his return from court; George Washington put some thought into the choice of the surtout of porcelain which he asked his friend Gouverneur Morris to send him from France; and the older country gentleman of leisure in all countries was so anxious to make his table interesting that he was capable of inventing hunting exploits to sharpen the appetites of his guests. People were even induced to eat rabbit by his interesting accounts of his skill in shooting that relative to the famous friend of the Marquis de Carabas. In our older cities there was a time when the careful master of a house did not consider it be neath his dignity to go to market in person to choose his joint and his vegetables with taste and discretion. It is a shocking thing, one that will be very much disputed, to say that the fine art of simple living is decaying because all the really important arts of the household are left to the ladies.
As an example, few women really care for a garden unless by chance it is forced on them. They like to read about gardens. I know a very charming woman who collects books on gardens; but she has built a big music-room in her city house over the only plot where spring and summer flowers used to grow and where her mother's parsley bed was famous. She would as soon use a garden tool as fail to manicure her nails; she says that she dreams of gardens, but that she cannot imagine a garden without a gardener, or conceive of a garden that does not cost a great deal of money.
It is not the men who enter into that deplorable competition that forces the price of living to such heights as make the judicious tremble. It is not the men who despise violets when they are in season and look on roses as things of naught when they are not exotic. Every normal man wants a garden because, in his blundering way, he perhaps sees that no man can approach the perfect life in this world without a garden. I once knew by accident a king and a Carmelite nun. The king endured his palace, but lived in his
garden; before he came to die he escaped from his splendid rooms to roam in his garden even on misty days. The nun moved heaven and earth, though she had forsworn the things of this world, to acquire a garden for her convent; and those devotees of the simple life of poverty, the Franciscans, like the king I have mentioned, could not conceive life endurable without a garden. To kings and friars, each at the end of a straight line, gardens are not luxuries; they are necessaries.
There are people to-day who prefer an automobile to a garden; but these people, sane as they appear to be, and respectable as some of them like to be thought, will never understand the rudiments of the fine art of simple living while they remain in their depraved state of mind.
No man can practise elegant simplicity without a grate fire inside and a garden outside. The French idea seems to be a large room with a slippery floor and very little else; the German idea is a small room filled with heirlooms and everything except fresh air. The Frenchman will manage to get a garden somehow, but the German, who is not so ingenious in this way, will cut off the light from his windows with a collection of flower-pots and even put up painted transparencies in which the Rhine may be seen rushing through the moats of ancient castles. Everywhere, except in our own country, gardens, or imitations of them, seem to be necessities.
If simplicity of life consists in the smooth working of every-day affairs without any effort of one, it is impossible to live elegantly and simply without a certain number of servants; and yet the requisite number of servants is virtually an impossibility in any part of the United States except among the very rich. We are told over and over again that the absence of a "servant class" in our country is the cause of the anxiety written on nearly every woman's brow when she proposes to "entertain" guests; but the real cause is the state of mind of the hostess who assumes that her guests demand that she shall be a sacrifice to their expectations. The moment she begins to feel that she must "entertain," her brow becomes dark with depression and her blood feverish with fears; there is no joy in it at all.
She has the sole responsibility not