Right Living as a Fine Art


Among those gifted spirits who have toiled tirelessly to carry the individual life up to unity, symmetry and beauty, let us hasten to mention the name of Channing. The child of genius, he was gifted with a literary style that lent strange fascination to all his speech. But great as he was in intellect, his character shone with such splendor as to eclipse his genius. He was of goodness all compact.

Early the winds of adversity beat against his little bark. Invalidism and misfortune, too, threatened to destroy his career. But bearing up amid all misfortune, he slowly wrought out his ideal of life as a fine art. Patiently he perfected his dreams. Daily he practiced frugality, honor, justice, faith, love and prayer. He met storm with calm; he met provocation with patience; he met organized iniquity with faith in God’s eternal truth; he met ingratitude and enmity with forgiveness and love.

At last he completed his symphony of an ideal life, that he hoped would help the youth and maiden to make each day as inspiring as a song, each deed as holy as a prayer, each character as perfect as a picture. For he felt that the life of child and youth, of patriot and parent should have a loveliness beyond that of any flower or landscape, and a majesty not found in any cataract or mountain, being clothed also with a beauty that does not inhere in Canova’s marble and a permanency that is not possessed by Von Riles’ cathedral, a structure builded of thoughts and hopes and aspirations, of tears and prayers, and purposes, whose foundation is eternal truth.


In founding his ideal life upon contentment with small means, Channing pleads for simplicity and the return to “plain living and high thinking.” He would fain double the soul’s leisure by halving its wants.

Looking out upon his age, he beheld young men crazed with a mania for money. He saw them refusing to cross the college threshold, closing the book, neglecting conversation, despising friendship, postponing marriage, that they might increase their goods. Yet he remembered that earth’s most gifted children have been content with small means, achieving their greatest triumphs midst comparative poverty.


The Divine Carpenter and His immortal band dwelt far from luxury. Poor indeed were Socrates, the reformer, and Epictetus, the slave, and Virgil, the poet. Burns, too, and Wordsworth and Coleridge, with Keats and Shelley–all these dwelt midway between poverty and riches. When that young English scholar learned that his relatives had willed him a fortune of £5,000 he wrote the dying man begging him to abandon his design, saying that he already had one servant, and that added care and responsibility meant the cutting off of a few minutes for study in the morning and a few minutes for reflection at night.


Here are our own Hawthorne and Longfellow–“content with small means.” Here is Emerson resigning his church in Boston and leaving fame behind him, that upon the little farm at Concord he might escape the thousand and one details that robbed his soul of its simplicity. Here is Thoreau building his log cabin by Walden pond, living on forty dollars a year because he saw that man was being “destroyed by his unwieldy and overgrown establishment, cluttered with much furniture and tripped with his own traps, ruined by luxury and heedless expense, whose only hope was in rigid economy and Spartan simplicity.”

Ours is a world where Cervantes writes Don Quixote living upon three bowls of porridge brought by the jailer of the prison. The German philosopher asked one cluster of grapes, one glass of milk and a slice of bread twice each day. Having completed his philosophy, the old scholar looked back upon forty happy years, saying that every fine dinner his friends had given him had blunted his brain for one day, while indigestion consumed an amount of vital energy that would have sufficed for one page of good writing.

A wise youth will think twice before embarking upon a career involving large wealth. Some there are possessed of vast property whose duty it is to carry bravely their heavy burden in the interest of society and the increase of life’s comforts, conveniences and happiness. Yet wise Agur’s prayer still holds: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” Whittier, on his little farm, refusing a princely sum for a lecture, was content with small means. Wendell Phillips, preferring the slave and the contempt of Boston’s merchants and her patrician society, chose to “be worthy, not respectable.” Some Ruskin, distributing his bonds and stocks and lands to found workingmen’s clubs, art schools and colleges, that he might have more leisure for enriching his imagination and heart, chose to “be wealthy, not rich.” Needing many forms of wisdom, our age needs none more than the grace to “live content with small means, seeking elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion.”

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