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The Contented Man

The word content is not inspiring nowadays; rather it is irritating
because it is dull. It prepares the mind for a little sermon in the style
of the Vicar of Wakefield about how you and I should be satisfied with our
countrified innocence and our simple village sports. The word, however,
has two meanings, somewhat singularly connected; the "sweet content" of
the poet and the "cubic content" of the mathematician. Some distinguish
these by stressing the different syllables. Thus, it might happen to any
of us, at some social juncture, to remark gaily, "Of the content of the
King of the Cannibal Islands' Stewpot I am content to be ignorant"; or
"Not content with measuring the cubic content of my safe, you are stealing
the spoons." And there really is an analogy between the mathematical and
the moral use of the term, for lack of the observation of which the latter
has been much weakened and misused.

The preaching of contentment is in disrepute, well deserved in so far that
the moral is really quite inapplicable to the anarchy and insane peril of
our tall and toppling cities. Content suggests some kind of security; and
it is not strange that our workers should often think about rising above
their position, since they have so continually to think about sinking
below it. The philanthropist who urges the poor to saving and simple
pleasures deserves all the derision that he gets. To advise people to be
content with what they have got may or may not be sound moral philosophy.

But to urge people to be content with what they haven't got is a piece of
impudence hard for even the English poor to pardon. But though the creed
of content is unsuited to certain special riddles and wrongs, it remains
true for the normal of mortal life. We speak of divine discontent;
discontent may sometimes be a divine thing, but content must always be the
human thing. It may be true that a particular man, in his relation to
his master or his neighbour, to his country or his enemies, will do well
to be fiercely unsatisfied or thirsting for an angry justice. But it is
not true, no sane person can call it true, that man as a whole in his
general attitude towards the world, in his posture towards death or green
fields, towards the weather or the baby, will be wise to cultivate
dissatisfaction. In a broad estimate of our earthly experience, the great
truism on the tablet remains: he must not covet his neighbour's ox nor his
ass nor anything that is his. In highly complex and scientific
civilisations he may sometimes find himself forced into an exceptional
vigilance. But, then, in highly complex and scientific civilisations,
nine times out of ten, he only wants his own ass back.

But I wish to urge the case for cubic content; in which (even more than in
moral content) I take a personal interest. Now, moral content has been
undervalued and neglected because of its separation from the other meaning.
It has become a negative rather than a positive thing. In some accounts
of contentment it seems to be little more than a meek despair.

But this is not the true meaning of the term; it should stand for the idea
of a positive and thorough appreciation of the content of anything; for
feeling the substance and not merely the surface of experience.
"Content" ought to mean in English, as it does in French, being pleased;
placidly, perhaps, but still positively pleased. Being contented with
bread and cheese ought not to mean not caring what you eat. It ought to
mean caring for bread and cheese; handling and enjoying the cubic content
of the bread and cheese and adding it to your own. Being content with an
attic ought not to mean being unable to move from it and resigned to
living in it. It ought to mean appreciating what there is to appreciate
in such a position; such as the quaint and elvish slope of the ceiling or
the sublime aerial view of the opposite chimney-pots. And in this sense
contentment is a real and even an active virtue; it is not only
affirmative, but creative. The poet in the attic does not forget the
attic in poetic musings; he remembers whatever the attic has of poetry; he
realises how high, how starry, how cool, how unadorned and simple--in
short, how Attic is the attic.

True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of
getting out of any situation all that there is in it. It is arduous and
it is rare. The absence of this digestive talent is what makes so cold
and incredible the tales of so many people who say they have been
"through" things; when it is evident that they have come out on the other
side quite unchanged. A man might have gone "through" a plum pudding as a
bullet might go through a plum pudding; it depends on the size of the
pudding--and the man. But the awful and sacred question is "Has the
pudding been through him?" Has he tasted, appreciated, and absorbed the
solid pudding, with its three dimensions and its three thousand tastes and
smells? Can he offer himself to the eyes of men as one who has cubically
conquered and contained a pudding?

In the same way we may ask of those who profess to have passed through
trivial or tragic experiences whether they have absorbed the content of
them; whether they licked up such living water as there was. It is a
pertinent question in connection with many modern problems.

Thus the young genius says, "I have lived in my dreary and squalid village
before I found success in Paris or Vienna." The sound philosopher will
answer, "You have never lived in your village, or you would not call it
dreary and squalid."

Thus the Imperialist, the Colonial idealist (who commonly speaks and
always thinks with a Yankee accent) will say, "I've been right away from
these little muddy islands, and seen God's great seas and prairies." The
sound philosopher will reply, "You have never been in these islands; you
have never seen the weald of Sussex or the plain of Salisbury; otherwise
you could never have called them either muddy or little."

Thus the Suffragette will say, "I have passed through the paltry duties of
pots and pans, the drudgery of the vulgar kitchen; but I have come out to
intellectual liberty." The sound philosopher will answer, "You have never
passed through the kitchen, or you never would call it vulgar. Wiser and
stronger women than you have really seen a poetry in pots and pans;
naturally, because there is a poetry in them." It is right for the
village violinist to climb into fame in Paris or Vienna; it is right for
the stray Englishman to climb across the high shoulder of the world; it is
right for the woman to climb into whatever cathedrae or high places she
can allow to her sexual dignity. But it is wrong that any of these
climbers should kick the ladder by which they have climbed. But indeed
these bitter people who record their experiences really record their lack
of experiences. It is the countryman who has not succeeded in being a
countryman who comes up to London. It is the clerk who has not succeeded
in being a clerk who tries (on vegetarian principles) to be a countryman.
And the woman with a past is generally a woman angry about the past she
never had.

When you have really exhausted an experience you always reverence and love
it. The two things that nearly all of us have thoroughly and really been
through are childhood and youth. And though we would not have them back
again on any account, we feel that they are both beautiful, because we
have drunk them dry.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton