Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
On vicarious asceticism
That luxury is enervating is a proposition which has been maintained by most moralists ever since the time of Diogenes. When the arguments for this point of view are advanced by a philosopher who lives in a tub, we may listen to him with respect, since obviously he himself believes them. In fact, up to a point their validity may be admitted. I have never myself tried living in a tub, which would be unpleasant except in a Mediterranean climate; but I have lived with great contentment in a labourer's cottage. The voluntary simple life, chosen in order to have leisure for interesting pursuits, has much to recommend it, and no doubt many of the rich spend more on the acquisition of material possessions than they would if they pursued happiness wisely.
But arguments against luxury have a rather different flavour when they are addressed by the rich to the poor with a view to making them contented with their lot, or even willing to accept lower wages. In the early nineteenth century, in England, all the forces of upper-class religion were devoted to persuading people that the poor could only be kept virtuous by low wages and that, since virtue is the greatest of goods, it was the duty of Christian employers to reduce wages to the utmost possible extent. The more prosperous wage earners were portrayed as monsters of wickedness because of their wealth. For example the frame-work knitters received, on the average, the princely wage of fourteen or fifteen shillings a week for working twelve or thirteen hours a day. In 1812, the Rev. J. T. Becker, who knew them well, pointed out the deplorable results:
'Abundance thus rapidly acquired by those who were ignorant of its proper application hastened the progress of luxury and licentiousness, and the lower orders were almost universally corrupted by profusion and depravity scarcely to be credited by those who are strangers to our district. Among the men the discussion of politics, the destruction of game, or the dissipation of the ale houses was substituted for the duties of their occupation during the former part of the week, and in the remaining three or four days a sufficiency was earned for defraying the current expenses.'
It must not be supposed that this reverend gentleman was in any way peculiar. His point of view was that of all upper-class moralists. The only thing that produced a change was the coming of democracy : when working men acquired the vote, politicians had to speak of them with respect, and gradually this practice spread to other public utterances, though in private the rich still continued to think that the poor were corrupted by too much wealth.
There has been a similar development in regard to women. Until they had the vote, it was thought that they must enjoy, for example, abstinence from smoking. When one asks oneself what men gained by preventing women from enjoying cigarettes, one can only conclude that the power of issuing prohibitions was in itself so delightful as to cause a whole code of feminine behaviour to grow up in order that men might be able to gloat over the pleasures denied to the opposite sex.
When Gregory VII was engaged in enforcing the celibacy of the clergy, he called in the help of the laity, who, even when happily married themselves, were delighted at the opportunity of persecuting parish priests and their wives.
It is the strength of this impulse in human nature that makes democracy necessary. Democracy is desirable, not because the ordinary voter has any political wisdom, but because any section of mankind which has a monopoly of power is sure to invent theories designed to prove that the rest of mankind had better do without the good things of life. This is one of the least amiable traits of human nature, but history shows that there is no adequate protection against it except the just distribution of political power throughout all classes and both sexes.