Book 8, Chapter 07 : Objection to this System from the Benefits of Luxury
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Book 8, Chapter 07
The objections we have hitherto examined, attack the practicabilty of a system of equality. But there are not wanting reasoners, the tendency of whose arguments is to show that, omitting the practicability, it is not even desirable. One of the objections they advance, is as follows.
They lay it down as a maxim, in the first instance, and the truth of this maxim we shall not contend with them, "that refinement is better than ignorance. It is better to be a man than a brute. Those attributes therefore, which separate the man from the brute, are most worthy of our affection and cultivation. Elegance of taste, refinement of sentiment, depth of penetration, and largeness of science, are among the noblest ornaments of man. But all these," say they, "are connected with inequality; they are the growth of luxury. It is luxury, by which palaces are built, and cities peopled. It is for the purpose of obtaining a share of the luxury which he witnesses in his richer neighbors, that the artificer exerts the refinements of his skill. To this cause we are indebted, for the arts of architecture, painting, music and poetry. Art would never have been cultivated, if a state of inequality had not enabled some men to purchase, and excited others to acquire the talent which was necessary to sell. In a state of equality, we must always have remained, and with equality restored, we must again become, barbarians. Thus we see [as in the system of optimism1] disorder, selfishness, monopoly and distress, all of them seeming discords, contributing to the admirable harmony and magnificence of the whole. The intellectual improvement and enlargement we witness and hope for, was worth purchasing at the expence of partial injustice and distress2."
This view of the subject, under various forms, has been very extensive in its effects. It probably contributed to make Rousseau an advocate of the savage state. Undoubtedly, we must not permit ourselves to think slightly, of the mischiefs that accrue from a state of inequality. If it be necessary that the great mass of mankind should be condemned to slavery, and, stranger still, to ignorance, that a few may be enlightened, certainly those moralists are not to be blamed, who doubted whether perpetual rudeness were not preferable to such a gift. Fortunately this is by no means the real alternative.
Perhaps a state of luxury, such as is here described, and a state of inequality, might be a stage through which it was necessary to pass, in order to arrive at the goal of civilization. The only security we can ultimately have for an equality of conditions, is a general persuasion of the iniquity of accumulation, and the uselessness of wealth, in the purchase of happiness. But this persuasion could not be established in a savage state; nor indeed can it be maintained, if we should fall back into barbarism. It was the spectacle of inequality, that first excited the grossness of barbarians to persevering exertion, as a means of acquiring. It was perservering exertion, that first gave the reality, and the sense, of that leisure, which has served the purposes of literature and art.
But, though inequality were necessary as the prelude to civilization, it is not necessary to its support. We may throw down the scaffolding, when the edifice is complete. We have at large endeavored to show3, that the love of our fellow men, the love of distinction, and whatever motive is most allied to the energies of the human mind, will remain, when the enchantments of wealth are dissolved. He who has tasted the pleasures of refinement and knowledge, will not relapse into ignorance.
The better to understand the futility of the present objection, it may be proper to enter into a more accurate conideration of the sense of the term luxury. It depends upon the meaning in which it is understood, to determine whether it is to be regarded as a virtue or a vise. If we understand by a luxury, something which is to be enjoyed exclusively by some, at the expence of undue privations, and a partial burthen upon others; to indulge ourselves in luxury is then a vise. But, if we understand by luxury, which is frequently the case, every accomodation which is not absolutely necessary to maintain us in sound and heathful existence, the procuring and communication of luxuries may then be virtuous. The end of virtue, is to add to the sum of pleasurable sensation. The beacon and regulator of virtue, is impartiality, that we shall not give that exertion to procure the pleasure of an individual, which might have been employed in procuring the pleasure of many individuals. Within these limits every man is laudably employed, who procures to himself or his neighbor a real accession of pleausre; and he is censurable, who neglects any occasion of being so employed. We ought not to study that we may live, but to live that we may replenish existence with the greatest numebr of unallayed, exquisite and substantial enjoyments.
Let us apply these reflections to the state of equality we have endeavored to delineate. It appeared in that delineation4, that the labor of half an hour per diem on the part of every individual in the community, would probably be sufficient to procure for all the necessaries of life. This quantity of industry therefore, thogh prscribed by no law, and inforced by no direct penalty, would be most powerfully imposed upon the strong in intellect, by a sense of justice, and upon the weak, by a sense of shame. After this, how would men spend the remainder of their time? Not probably in idleness, not all men, and the whole of their time, in the pursuit of intellectual attainments. There are many things, the fruit of human industry, which, though not to be classed among the necessaries of life, are highly conducive to our well being. The criterion of these things will appear, when we have ascertained what those accommodations are which will give us real pleasure, afer the insinuations of vanity and ostentation shall have dismissed. A considerable portion of time would probably be dedicated, in an enlightened community, to the production of such accommodations. A labor of this sort is perhapos not inconsistent with the most desirable state of human existence. Laborious employment is a calamity now, because it is imperiously prescribed upon men as the condition of their existence, and because it shuts them out from a fair participation in the means of knowledge and improvement. When it shall be rendered in the strictest sense voluntary, when it shall cease to interfere with our improvement, and rather become a part of it, or at worst be converted into a source of amusement and variety, it may then be no longer a calamity, but a benfit. Thus it appears that a state of equality need not be a state of Stoical simplicty, but is compatible with considerable accommodation, and even, in some sense, with splendor; at least, if by spendour we understand copiousness of accommodation, and variety of invention for the purposes of accomodation. Those persons therefore who may be concluded to have small appearance of reason, who confound such a state with the state of the savage; or who suppose that the acquistition of the former, is to be considered as having a tendency to lead to the latter.
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