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    The Contented Man

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    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.
    If you're writing a The Contented Man essay and need some advice, post your Gilbert Keith Chesterton essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

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