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How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day
by Arnold Bennett
PREFACE TO THIS EDITION
This preface, though placed at the beginning, as a preface must be,
should be read at the end of the book.
I have received a large amount of correspondence concerning this
small work, and many reviews of it--some of them nearly as long
as the book itself--have been printed. But scarcely any of the
comment has been adverse. Some people have objected to a
frivolity of tone; but as the tone is not, in my opinion, at all
frivolous, this objection did not impress me; and had no weightier
reproach been put forward I might almost have been persuaded that
the volume was flawless! A more serious stricture has, however,
been offered--not in the press, but by sundry obviously sincere
correspondents--and I must deal with it. A reference to page 43
will show that I anticipated and feared this disapprobation. The
sentence against which protests have been made is as follows:--
"In the majority of instances he [the typical man] does not
precisely feel a passion for his business; at best he does not
dislike it. He begins his business functions with some reluctance,
as late as he can, and he ends them with joy, as early as he can.
And his engines, while he is engaged in his business, are seldom at
their full 'h.p.'"
I am assured, in accents of unmistakable sincerity, that there are
many business men--not merely those in high positions or with fine
prospects, but modest subordinates with no hope of ever being
much better off--who do enjoy their business functions, who do not
shirk them, who do not arrive at the office as late as possible and
depart as early as possible, who, in a word, put the whole of their
force into their day's work and are genuinely fatigued at the end
I am ready to believe it. I do believe it. I know it. I always
knew it. Both in London and in the provinces it has been my lot to
spend long years in subordinate situations of business; and the fact
did not escape me that a certain proportion of my peers showed what
amounted to an honest passion for their duties, and that while
engaged in those duties they were really *living* to the fullest
extent of which they were capable. But I remain convinced that
these fortunate and happy individuals (happier perhaps than they
guessed) did not and do not constitute a majority, or anything like
a majority. I remain convinced that the majority of decent average
conscientious men of business (men with aspirations and ideals) do
not as a rule go home of a night genuinely tired. I remain
convinced that they put not as much but as little of themselves as
they conscientiously can into the earning of a livelihood, and that
their vocation bores rather than interests them.
Nevertheless, I admit that the minority is of sufficient importance
to merit attention, and that I ought not to have ignored it so
completely as I did do. The whole difficulty of the hard-working
minority was put in a single colloquial sentence by one of my
correspondents. He wrote: "I am just as keen as anyone on doing
something to 'exceed my programme,' but allow me to tell you that
when I get home at six thirty p.m. I am not anything like so fresh
as you seem to imagine."
Now I must point out that the case of the minority, who throw
themselves with passion and gusto into their daily business task, is
infinitely less deplorable than the case of the majority, who go
half-heartedly and feebly through their official day. The former
are less in need of advice "how to live." At any rate during their
official day of, say, eight hours they are really alive; their
engines are giving the full indicated "h.p." The other eight
working hours of their day may be badly organised, or even frittered
away; but it is less disastrous to waste eight hours a day than
sixteen hours a day; it is better to have lived a bit than never to
have lived at all. The real tragedy is the tragedy of the man who is
braced to effort neither in the office nor out of it, and to this
man this book is primarily addressed. "But," says the other and
more fortunate man, "although my ordinary programme is bigger than
his, I want to exceed my programme too! I am living a bit; I want
to live more. But I really can't do another day's work on the top of
my official day."
The fact is, I, the author, ought to have foreseen that I should
appeal most strongly to those who already had an interest in
existence. It is always the man who has tasted life who demands
more of it. And it is always the man who never gets out of bed
who is the most difficult to rouse.
Well, you of the minority, let us assume that the intensity of your
daily money-getting will not allow you to carry out quite all the
suggestions in the following pages. Some of the suggestions may
yet stand. I admit that you may not be able to use the time spent
on the journey home at night; but the suggestion for the journey to
the office in the morning is as practicable for you as for anybody.
And that weekly interval of forty hours, from Saturday to Monday, is
yours just as much as the other man's, though a slight accumulation
of fatigue may prevent you from employing the whole of your "h.p."
upon it. There remains, then, the important portion of the three or
more evenings a week. You tell me flatly that you are too tired to
do anything outside your programme at night. In reply to which I
tell you flatly that if your ordinary day's work is thus exhausting,
then the balance of your life is wrong and must be adjusted. A
man's powers ought not to be monopolised by his ordinary day's work.
What, then, is to be done?
The obvious thing to do is to circumvent your ardour for your
ordinary day's work by a ruse. Employ your engines in something
beyond the programme before, and not after, you employ them on the
programme itself. Briefly, get up earlier in the morning. You say
you cannot. You say it is impossible for you to go earlier to bed
of a night--to do so would upset the entire household. I do not
think it is quite impossible to go to bed earlier at night. I think
that if you persist in rising earlier, and the consequence is
insufficiency of sleep, you will soon find a way of going to bed
earlier. But my impression is that the consequences of rising
earlier will not be an insufficiency of sleep. My impression,
growing stronger every year, is that sleep is partly a matter of
habit--and of slackness. I am convinced that most people sleep as
long as they do because they are at a loss for any other diversion.
How much sleep do you think is daily obtained by the powerful
healthy man who daily rattles up your street in charge of Carter
Patterson's van? I have consulted a doctor on this point. He is a
doctor who for twenty-four years has had a large general practice in
a large flourishing suburb of London, inhabited by exactly such
people as you and me. He is a curt man, and his answer was curt:
"Most people sleep themselves stupid."
He went on to give his opinion that nine men out of ten would have
better health and more fun out of life if they spent less time in
Other doctors have confirmed this judgment, which, of course, does
not apply to growing youths.
Rise an hour, an hour and a half, or even two hours earlier; and--if
you must--retire earlier when you can. In the matter of exceeding
programmes, you will accomplish as much in one morning hour as
in two evening hours. "But," you say, "I couldn't begin without
some food, and servants." Surely, my dear sir, in an age when an
excellent spirit-lamp (including a saucepan) can be bought for less
than a shilling, you are not going to allow your highest welfare to
depend upon the precarious immediate co-operation of a fellow
creature! Instruct the fellow creature, whoever she may be, at
night. Tell her to put a tray in a suitable position over night.
On that tray two biscuits, a cup and saucer, a box of matches and a
spirit-lamp; on the lamp, the saucepan; on the saucepan, the lid--
but turned the wrong way up; on the reversed lid, the small teapot,
containing a minute quantity of tea leaves. You will then have to
strike a match--that is all. In three minutes the water boils, and
you pour it into the teapot (which is already warm). In three more
minutes the tea is infused. You can begin your day while drinking
it. These details may seem trivial to the foolish, but to the
thoughtful they will not seem trivial. The proper, wise balancing
of one's whole life may depend upon the feasibility of a cup of tea
at an unusual hour.
I THE DAILY MIRACLE, 21
II THE DESIRE TO EXCEED ONE'S PROGRAMME, 28
III PRECAUTIONS BEFORE BEGINNING, 35
IV THE CAUSE OF THE TROUBLE, 42
V TENNIS AND THE IMMORTAL SOUL, 49
VI REMEMBER HUMAN NATURE, 56
VII CONTROLLING THE MIND, 62
VIII THE REFLECTIVE MOOD, 69
IX INTEREST IN THE ARTS, 76
X NOTHING IN LIFE IS HUMDRUM, 83
XI SERIOUS READING, 90
XII DANGERS TO AVOID, 97
THE DAILY MIRACLE
"Yes, he's one of those men that don't know how to manage.
Good situation. Regular income. Quite enough for luxuries
as well as needs. Not really extravagant. And yet the fellow's
always in difficulties. Somehow he gets nothing out of his
money. Excellent flat--half empty! Always looks as if he'd had
the brokers in. New suit--old hat! Magnificent necktie--baggy
trousers! Asks you to dinner: cut glass--bad mutton, or Turkish
coffee--cracked cup! He can't understand it. Explanation simply
is that he fritters his income away. Wish I had the half of it!
I'd show him--"
So we have most of us criticised, at one time or another, in our
We are nearly all chancellors of the exchequer: it is the pride of
the moment. Newspapers are full of articles explaining how to live
on such-and-such a sum, and these articles provoke a correspondence
whose violence proves the interest they excite. Recently, in a
daily organ, a battle raged round the question whether a woman can
exist nicely in the country on L85 a year. I have seen an essay,
"How to live on eight shillings a week." But I have never seen an
essay, "How to live on twenty-four hours a day." Yet it has been
said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time
is a great deal more than money. If you have time you can obtain
money--usually. But though you have the wealth of a cloak-room
attendant at the Carlton Hotel, you cannot buy yourself a minute
more time than I have, or the cat by the fire has.
Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time.
It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is
possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily
miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You
wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with
twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of
your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A
highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular
as the commodity itself!
For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And
no one receives either more or less than you receive.
Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no
aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is
never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no
punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you
will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. Mo mysterious
power will say:--"This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not
deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter." It is more certain
than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays.
Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into
debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste
to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it
is kept for you.
I said the affair was a miracle. Is it not?
You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it
you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the
evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective
use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling
actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness--the elusive prize
that you are all clutching for, my friends!--depends on that.
Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they
are, are not full of "How to live on a given income of time,"
instead of "How to live on a given income of money"! Money is far
commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is
just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in
If one can't contrive to live on a certain income of money, one
earns a little more--or steals it, or advertises for it. One
doesn't necessarily muddle one's life because one can't quite manage
on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it
guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an
income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper
items of expenditure, one does muddle one's life definitely. The
supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say
"lives," I do not mean exists, nor "muddles through." Which of us
is free from that uneasy feeling that the "great spending
departments" of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be?
Which of us is quite sure that his fine suit is not surmounted by a
shameful hat, or that in attending to the crockery he has forgotten
the quality of the food? Which of us is not saying to himself--
which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: "I shall
alter that when I have a little more time"?
We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had,
all the time there is. It is the realisation of this profound and
neglected truth (which, by the way, I have not discovered) that has
led me to the minute practical examination of daily time-
THE DESIRE TO EXCEED ONE'S PROGRAMME
"But," someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything
except the point, "what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours
a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I
do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper
competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has
only twenty-four hours a day, to content one's self with twenty-four
hours a day!"
To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are
precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty
years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state
your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to
you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you
exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my
loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my
companions in distress--that innumerable band of souls who are
haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip
by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able
to get their lives into proper working order.
If we analyse that feeling, we shall perceive it to be, primarily,
one of uneasiness, of expectation, of looking forward, of
aspiration. It is a source of constant discomfort, for it behaves
like a skeleton at the feast of all our enjoyments. We go to the
theatre and laugh; but between the acts it raises a skinny finger at
us. We rush violently for the last train, and while we are cooling
a long age on the platform waiting for the last train, it promenades
its bones up and down by our side and inquires: "O man, what hast
thou done with thy youth? What art thou doing with thine age?" You
may urge that this feeling of continuous looking forward, of
aspiration, is part of life itself, and inseparable from life
But there are degrees. A man may desire to go to Mecca. His
conscience tells him that he ought to go to Mecca. He fares forth,
either by the aid of Cook's, or unassisted; he may probably never
reach Mecca; he may drown before he gets to Port Said; he may perish
ingloriously on the coast of the Red Sea; his desire may remain
eternally frustrate. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble him.
But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who,
desiring to reach Mecca, and harried by the desire to reach Mecca,
never leaves Brixton.
It is something to have left Brixton. Most of us have not left
Brixton. We have not even taken a cab to Ludgate Circus and
inquired from Cook's the price of a conducted tour. And our excuse
to ourselves is that there are only twenty-four hours in the day.
If we further analyse our vague, uneasy aspiration, we shall, I
think, see that it springs from a fixed idea that we ought to do
something in addition to those things which we are loyally and
morally obliged to do. We are obliged, by various codes written and
unwritten, to maintain ourselves and our families (if any) in health
and comfort, to pay our debts, to save, to increase our prosperity
by increasing our efficiency. A task sufficiently difficult! A
task which very few of us achieve! A task often beyond our skill!
yet, if we succeed in it, as we sometimes do, we are not satisfied;
the skeleton is still with us.
And even when we realise that the task is beyond our skill, that
our powers cannot cope with it, we feel that we should be less
discontented if we gave to our powers, already overtaxed, something
still further to do.
And such is, indeed, the fact. The wish to accomplish something
outside their formal programme is common to all men who in the
course of evolution have risen past a certain level.
Until an effort is made to satisfy that wish, the sense of uneasy
waiting for something to start which has not started will remain to
disturb the peace of the soul. That wish has been called by many
names. It is one form of the universal desire for knowledge. And
it is so strong that men whose whole lives have been given to the
systematic acquirement of knowledge have been driven by it to
overstep the limits of their programme in search of still more
knowledge. Even Herbert Spencer, in my opinion the greatest mind
that ever lived, was often forced by it into agreeable little
backwaters of inquiry.
I imagine that in the majority of people who are conscious of the
wish to live--that is to say, people who have intellectual
curiosity--the aspiration to exceed formal programmes takes a
literary shape. They would like to embark on a course of reading.
Decidedly the British people are becoming more and more literary.
But I would point out that literature by no means comprises the
whole field of knowledge, and that the disturbing thirst to improve
one's self--to increase one's knowledge--may well be slaked quite
apart from literature. With the various ways of slaking I shall
deal later. Here I merely point out to those who have no natural
sympathy with literature that literature is not the only well.
PRECAUTIONS BEFORE BEGINNING
Now that I have succeeded (if succeeded I have) in persuading you to
admit to yourself that you are constantly haunted by a suppressed
dissatisfaction with your own arrangement of your daily life; and
that the primal cause of that inconvenient dissatisfaction is the
feeling that you are every day leaving undone something which you
would like to do, and which, indeed, you are always hoping to do
when you have "more time"; and now that I have drawn your attention
to the glaring, dazzling truth that you never will have "more time,"
since you already have all the time there is--you expect me to let
you into some wonderful secret by which you may at any rate approach
the ideal of a perfect arrangement of the day, and by which,
therefore, that haunting, unpleasant, daily disappointment of things
left undone will be got rid of!
I have found no such wonderful secret. Nor do I expect to find it,
nor do I expect that anyone else will ever find it. It is
undiscovered. When you first began to gather my drift, perhaps
there was a resurrection of hope in your breast. Perhaps you said
to yourself, "This man will show me an easy, unfatiguing way of
doing what I have so long in vain wished to do." Alas, no! The
fact is that there is no easy way, no royal road. The path to Mecca
is extremely hard and stony, and the worst of it is that you never
quite get there after all.
The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one's life
so that one may live fully and comfortably within one's daily budget
of twenty-four hours is the calm realisation of the extreme
difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort
which it demands. I cannot too strongly insist on this.
If you imagine that you will be able to achieve your ideal by
ingeniously planning out a time-table with a pen on a piece of
paper, you had better give up hope at once. If you are not prepared
for discouragements and disillusions; if you will not be content
with a small result for a big effort, then do not begin. Lie down
again and resume the uneasy doze which you call your existence.
It is very sad, is it not, very depressing and sombre? And yet I
think it is rather fine, too, this necessity for the tense bracing
of the will before anything worth doing can be done. I rather like
it myself. I feel it to be the chief thing that differentiates me
from the cat by the fire.
"Well," you say, "assume that I am braced for the battle. Assume
that I have carefully weighed and comprehended your ponderous
remarks; how do I begin?" Dear sir, you simply begin. There is no
magic method of beginning. If a man standing on the edge of a
swimming-bath and wanting to jump into the cold water should ask
you, "How do I begin to jump?" you would merely reply, "Just jump.
Take hold of your nerves, and jump."
As I have previously said, the chief beauty about the constant
supply of time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next
year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as
perfect, as unspoilt, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a
single moment in all your career. Which fact is very gratifying and
reassuring. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.
Therefore no object is served in waiting till next week, or even
until to-morrow. You may fancy that the water will be warmer next
week. It won't. It will be colder.
But before you begin, let me murmur a few words of warning in your
Let me principally warn you against your own ardour. Ardour in
well-doing is a misleading and a treacherous thing. It cries out
loudly for employment; you can't satisfy it at first; it wants more
and more; it is eager to move mountains and divert the course of
rivers. It isn't content till it perspires. And then, too often,
when it feels the perspiration on its brow, it wearies all of a
sudden and dies, without even putting itself to the trouble of
saying, "I've had enough of this."
Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite
a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially
A failure or so, in itself, would not matter, if it did not incur a
loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence. But just as nothing
succeeds like success, so nothing fails like failure. Most people
who are ruined are ruined by attempting too much. Therefore, in
setting out on the immense enterprise of living fully and
comfortably within the narrow limits of twenty-four hours a day, let
us avoid at any cost the risk of an early failure. I will not agree
that, in this business at any rate, a glorious failure is better
than a petty success. I am all for the petty success. A glorious
failure leads to nothing; a petty success may lead to a success that
is not petty.
So let us begin to examine the budget of the day's time. You say
your day is already full to overflowing. How? You actually spend
in earning your livelihood--how much? Seven hours, on the average?
And in actual sleep, seven? I will add two hours, and be generous.
And I will defy you to account to me on the spur of the moment for
the other eight hours.
THE CAUSE OF THE TROUBLES
In order to come to grips at once with the question of time-
expenditure in all its actuality, I must choose an individual case
for examination. I can only deal with one case, and that case
cannot be the average case, because there is no such case as the
average case, just as there is no such man as the average man.
Every man and every man's case is special.
But if I take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose
office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes
morning and night in travelling between his house door and his
office door, I shall have got as near to the average as facts
permit. There are men who have to work longer for a living, but
there are others who do not have to work so long.
Fortunately the financial side of existence does not interest us
here; for our present purpose the clerk at a pound a week is exactly
as well off as the millionaire in Carlton House-terrace.
Now the great and profound mistake which my typical man makes in
regard to his day is a mistake of general attitude, a mistake which
vitiates and weakens two-thirds of his energies and interests. In
the majority of instances he does not precisely feel a passion for
his business; at best he does not dislike it. He begins his
business functions with reluctance, as late as he can, and he ends
them with joy, as early as he can. And his engines while he is
engaged in his business are seldom at their full "h.p." (I know
that I shall be accused by angry readers of traducing the city
worker; but I am pretty thoroughly acquainted with the City, and I
stick to what I say.)
Yet in spite of all this he persists in looking upon those hours
from ten to six as "the day," to which the ten hours preceding them
and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and
epilogue. Such an attitude, unconscious though it be, of course
kills his interest in the odd sixteen hours, with the result that,
even if he does not waste them, he does not count them; he regards
them simply as margin.
This general attitude is utterly illogical and unhealthy, since it
formally gives the central prominence to a patch of time and a bunch
of activities which the man's one idea is to "get through" and have
"done with." If a man makes two-thirds of his existence subservient
to one-third, for which admittedly he has no absolutely feverish
zest, how can he hope to live fully and completely? He cannot.
If my typical man wishes to live fully and completely he must, in
his mind, arrange a day within a day. And this inner day, a Chinese
box in a larger Chinese box, must begin at 6 p.m. and end at 10 a.m.
It is a day of sixteen hours; and during all these sixteen hours he
has nothing whatever to do but cultivate his body and his soul and
his fellow men. During those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a
wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just
as good as a man with a private income. This must be his attitude.
And his attitude is all important. His success in life (much more
important than the amount of estate upon what his executors will
have to pay estate duty) depends on it.
What? You say that full energy given to those sixteen hours will
lessen the value of the business eight? Not so. On the contrary,
it will assuredly increase the value of the business eight. One of
the chief things which my typical man has to learn is that the
mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do
not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want is change--not rest,
except in sleep.
I shall now examine the typical man's current method of employing
the sixteen hours that are entirely his, beginning with his
uprising. I will merely indicate things which he does and which I
think he ought not to do, postponing my suggestions for "planting"
the times which I shall have cleared--as a settler clears spaces in
In justice to him I must say that he wastes very little time before
he leaves the house in the morning at 9.10. In too many houses he
gets up at nine, breakfasts between 9.7 and 9.9 1/2, and then bolts.
But immediately he bangs the front door his mental faculties, which
are tireless, become idle. He walks to the station in a condition
of mental coma. Arrived there, he usually has to wait for the
train. On hundreds of suburban stations every morning you see men
calmly strolling up and down platforms while railway companies
unblushingly rob them of time, which is more than money. Hundreds
of thousands of hours are thus lost every day simply because my
typical man thinks so little of time that it has never occurred to
him to take quite easy precautions against the risk of its loss.
He has a solid coin of time to spend every day--call it a sovereign.
He must get change for it, and in getting change he is content to
Supposing that in selling him a ticket the company said, "We will
change you a sovereign, but we shall charge you three halfpence for
doing so," what would my typical man exclaim? Yet that is the
equivalent of what the company does when it robs him of five minutes
twice a day.
You say I am dealing with minutiae. I am. And later on I will
Now will you kindly buy your paper and step into the train?
TENNIS AND THE IMMORTAL SOUL
You get into the morning train with your newspaper, and you calmly
and majestically give yourself up to your newspaper. You do not
hurry. You know you have at least half an hour of security in front
of you. As your glance lingers idly at the advertisements of
shipping and of songs on the outer pages, your air is the air of a
leisured man, wealthy in time, of a man from some planet where there
are a hundred and twenty-four hours a day instead of twenty-four. I
am an impassioned reader of newspapers. I read five English and two
French dailies, and the news-agents alone know how many weeklies,
regularly. I am obliged to mention this personal fact lest I should
be accused of a prejudice against newspapers when I say that I
object to the reading of newspapers in the morning train. Newspapers
are produced with rapidity, to be read with rapidity. There is no
place in my daily programme for newspapers. I read them as I may in
odd moments. But I do read them. The idea of devoting to them
thirty or forty consecutive minutes of wonderful solitude (for
nowhere can one more perfectly immerse one's self in one's self than
in a compartment full of silent, withdrawn, smoking males) is to me
repugnant. I cannot possibly allow you to scatter priceless pearls
of time with such Oriental lavishness. You are not the Shah of
time. Let me respectfully remind you that you have no more time than
I have. No newspaper reading in trains! I have already "put by"
about three-quarters of an hour for use.
Now you reach your office. And I abandon you there till six
o'clock. I am aware that you have nominally an hour (often in
reality an hour and a half) in the midst of the day, less than half
of which time is given to eating. But I will leave you all that to
spend as you choose. You may read your newspapers then.
I meet you again as you emerge from your office. You are pale and
tired. At any rate, your wife says you are pale, and you give her to
understand that you are tired. During the journey home you have
been gradually working up the tired feeling. The tired feeling
hangs heavy over the mighty suburbs of London like a virtuous and
melancholy cloud, particularly in winter. You don't eat immediately
on your arrival home. But in about an hour or so you feel as if you
could sit up and take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you
smoke, seriously; you see friends; you potter; you play cards; you
flirt with a book; you note that old age is creeping on; you take a
stroll; you caress the piano.... By Jove! a quarter past eleven.
You then devote quite forty minutes to thinking about going to bed;
and it is conceivable that you are acquainted with a genuinely good
whisky. At last you go to bed, exhausted by the day's work. Six
hours, probably more, have gone since you left the office--gone like
a dream, gone like magic, unaccountably gone!
That is a fair sample case. But you say: "It's all very well for
you to talk. A man *is* tired. A man must see his friends. He
can't always be on the stretch." Just so. But when you arrange to
go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman) what happens?
You rush to the suburbs; you spare no toil to make yourself glorious
in fine raiment; you rush back to town in another train; you keep
yourself on the stretch for four hours, if not five; you take her
home; you take yourself home. You don't spend three-quarters of an
hour in "thinking about" going to bed. You go. Friends and fatigue
have equally been forgotten, and the evening has seemed so
exquisitely long (or perhaps too short)! And do you remember that
time when you were persuaded to sing in the chorus of the amateur
operatic society, and slaved two hours every other night for three
months? Can you deny that when you have something definite to look
forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your
energy--the thought of that something gives a glow and a more
intense vitality to the whole day?
What I suggest is that at six o'clock you look facts in the face and
admit that you are not tired (because you are not, you know), and
that you arrange your evening so that it is not cut in the middle by
a meal. By so doing you will have a clear expanse of at least three
hours. I do not suggest that you should employ three hours every
night of your life in using up your mental energy. But I do suggest
that you might, for a commencement, employ an hour and a half every
other evening in some important and consecutive cultivation of the
mind. You will still be left with three evenings for friends,
bridge, tennis, domestic scenes, odd reading, pipes, gardening,
pottering, and prize competitions. You will still have the terrific
wealth of forty-five hours between 2 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m.
Monday. If you persevere you will soon want to pass four evenings,
and perhaps five, in some sustained endeavour to be genuinely alive.
And you will fall out of that habit of muttering to yourself at
11.15 p.m., "Time to be thinking about going to bed." The man who
begins to go to bed forty minutes before he opens his bedroom door
is bored; that is to say, he is not living.
But remember, at the start, those ninety nocturnal minutes thrice a
week must be the most important minutes in the ten thousand and
eighty. They must be sacred, quite as sacred as a dramatic
rehearsal or a tennis match. Instead of saying, "Sorry I can't see
you, old chap, but I have to run off to the tennis club," you must
say, "...but I have to work." This, I admit, is intensely difficult
to say. Tennis is so much more urgent than the immortal soul.
REMEMBER HUMAN NATURE
I have incidentally mentioned the vast expanse of forty-four hours
between leaving business at 2 p.m. on Saturday and returning to
business at 10 a.m. on Monday. And here I must touch on the point
whether the week should consist of six days or of seven. For many
years--in fact, until I was approaching forty--my own week consisted
of seven days. I was constantly being informed by older and wiser
people that more work, more genuine living, could be got out of six
days than out of seven.
And it is certainly true that now, with one day in seven in which I
follow no programme and make no effort save what the caprice of the
moment dictates, I appreciate intensely the moral value of a weekly
rest. Nevertheless, had I my life to arrange over again, I would do
again as I have done. Only those who have lived at the full stretch
seven days a week for a long time can appreciate the full beauty of
a regular recurring idleness. Moreover, I am ageing. And it is a
question of age. In cases of abounding youth and exceptional energy
and desire for effort I should say unhesitatingly: Keep going, day
in, day out.
But in the average case I should say: Confine your formal programme
(super-programme, I mean) to six days a week. If you find yourself
wishing to extend it, extend it, but only in proportion to your
wish; and count the time extra as a windfall, not as regular income,
so that you can return to a six-day programme without the sensation
of being poorer, of being a backslider.
Let us now see where we stand. So far we have marked for saving out
of the waste of days, half an hour at least on six mornings a week,
and one hour and a half on three evenings a week. Total, seven
hours and a half a week.
I propose to be content with that seven hours and a half for the
present. "What?" you cry. "You pretend to show us how to live, and
you only deal with seven hours and a half out of a hundred and
sixty-eight! Are you going to perform a miracle with your seven
hours and a half?" Well, not to mince the matter, I am--if you will
kindly let me! That is to say, I am going to ask you to attempt an
experience which, while perfectly natural and explicable, has all
the air of a miracle. My contention is that the full use of those
seven-and-a-half hours will quicken the whole life of the week, add
zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the
most banal occupations. You practise physical exercises for a mere
ten minutes morning and evening, and yet you are not astonished when
your physical health and strength are beneficially affected every
hour of the day, and your whole physical outlook changed. Why
should you be astonished that an average of over an hour a day given
to the mind should permanently and completely enliven the whole
activity of the mind?
More time might assuredly be given to the cultivation of one's self.
And in proportion as the time was longer the results would be
greater. But I prefer to begin with what looks like a trifling
It is not really a trifling effort, as those will discover who have
yet to essay it. To "clear" even seven hours and a half from the
jungle is passably difficult. For some sacrifice has to be made.
One may have spent one's time badly, but one did spend it; one did
do something with it, however ill-advised that something may have
been. To do something else means a change of habits.
And habits are the very dickens to change! Further, any change,
even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and
discomforts. If you imagine that you will be able to devote seven
hours and a half a week to serious, continuous effort, and still
live your old life, you are mistaken. I repeat that some sacrifice,
and an immense deal of volition, will be necessary. And it is
because I know the difficulty, it is because I know the almost
disastrous effect of failure in such an enterprise, that I earnestly
advise a very humble beginning. You must safeguard your self-
respect. Self-respect is at the root of all purposefulness, and a
failure in an enterprise deliberately planned deals a desperate
wound at one's self-respect. Hence I iterate and reiterate: Start
When you have conscientiously given seven hours and a half a week to
the cultivation of your vitality for three months--then you may
begin to sing louder and tell yourself what wondrous things you are
capable of doing.
Before coming to the method of using the indicated hours, I have one
final suggestion to make. That is, as regards the evenings, to
allow much more than an hour and a half in which to do the work of
an hour and a half. Remember the chance of accidents. Remember
human nature. And give yourself, say, from 9 to 11.30 for your task
of ninety minutes.
CONTROLLING THE MIND
People say: "One can't help one's thoughts." But one can. The
control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since
nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing
hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme
importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious
brain is patent. This idea is one of the oldest platitudes, but it
is a platitude whose profound truth and urgency most people live and
die without realising. People complain of the lack of power to
concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power, if they
And without the power to concentrate--that is to say, without the
power to dictate to the brain its task and to ensure obedience--true
life is impossible. Mind control is the first element of a full
Hence, it seems to me, the first business of the day should be to
put the mind through its paces. You look after your body, inside
and out; you run grave danger in hacking hairs off your skin; you
employ a whole army of individuals, from the milkman to the pig-
killer, to enable you to bribe your stomach into decent behaviour.
Why not devote a little attention to the far more delicate machinery
of the mind, especially as you will require no extraneous aid? It
is for this portion of the art and craft of living that I have
reserved the time from the moment of quitting your door to the
moment of arriving at your office.
"What? I am to cultivate my mind in the street, on the platform, in
the train, and in the crowded street again?" Precisely. Nothing
simpler! No tools required! Not even a book. Nevertheless, the
affair is not easy.
When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no
matter what, to begin with). You will not have gone ten yards
before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is
larking round the corner with another subject.
Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the
station you will have brought it back about forty times. Do not
despair. Continue. Keep it up. You will succeed. You cannot by
any chance fail if you persevere. It is idle to pretend that your
mind is incapable of concentration. Do you not remember that morning
when you received a disquieting letter which demanded a very
carefully-worded answer? How you kept your mind steadily on the
subject of the answer, without a second's intermission, until you
reached your office; whereupon you instantly sat down and wrote the
answer? That was a case in which *you* were roused by circumstances
to such a degree of vitality that you were able to dominate your
mind like a tyrant. You would have no trifling. You insisted that
its work should be done, and its work was done.
By the regular practice of concentration (as to which there is no
secret--save the secret of perseverance) you can tyrannise over
your mind (which is not the highest part of *you*) every hour of the
day, and in no matter what place. The exercise is a very convenient
one. If you got into your morning train with a pair of dumb-bells
for your muscles or an encyclopaedia in ten volumes for your
learning, you would probably excite remark. But as you walk in the
street, or sit in the corner of the compartment behind a pipe, or
"strap-hang" on the Subterranean, who is to know that you are
engaged in the most important of daily acts? What asinine boor can
laugh at you?
I do not care what you concentrate on, so long as you concentrate.
It is the mere disciplining of the thinking machine that counts.
But still, you may as well kill two birds with one stone, and
concentrate on something useful. I suggest--it is only a
suggestion--a little chapter of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus.
Do not, I beg, shy at their names. For myself, I know nothing more
"actual," more bursting with plain common-sense, applicable to the
daily life of plain persons like you and me (who hate airs, pose,
and nonsense) than Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. Read a chapter--
and so short they are, the chapters!--in the evening and
concentrate on it the next morning. You will see.
Yes, my friend, it is useless for you to try to disguise the fact.
I can hear your brain like a telephone at my ear. You are saying to
yourself: "This fellow was doing pretty well up to his seventh
chapter. He had begun to interest me faintly. But what he says
about thinking in trains, and concentration, and so on, is not for
me. It may be well enough for some folks, but it isn't in my line."
It is for you, I passionately repeat; it is for you. Indeed, you
are the very man I am aiming at.
Throw away the suggestion, and you throw away the most precious
suggestion that was ever offered to you. It is not my suggestion.
It is the suggestion of the most sensible, practical, hard-headed
men who have walked the earth. I only give it you at second-hand.
Try it. Get your mind in hand. And see how the process cures half
the evils of life--especially worry, that miserable, avoidable,
THE REFLECTIVE MOOD
The exercise of concentrating the mind (to which at least half an
hour a day should be given) is a mere preliminary, like scales on
the piano. Having acquired power over that most unruly member of
one's complex organism, one has naturally to put it to the yoke.
Useless to possess an obedient mind unless one profits to the
furthest possible degree by its obedience. A prolonged primary
course of study is indicated.
Now as to what this course of study should be there cannot be any
question; there never has been any question. All the sensible
people of all ages are agreed upon it. And it is not literature,
nor is it any other art, nor is it history, nor is it any science.
It is the study of one's self. Man, know thyself. These words are
so hackneyed that verily I blush to write them. Yet they must be
written, for they need to be written. (I take back my blush, being
ashamed of it.) Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase
is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which
everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious
put into practice. I don't know why. I am entirely convinced that
what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average
well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.
We do not reflect. I mean that we do not reflect upon genuinely
important things; upon the problem of our happiness, upon the main
direction in which we are going, upon what life is giving to us,
upon the share which reason has (or has not) in determining our
actions, and upon the relation between our principles and our
And yet you are in search of happiness, are you not? Have you
The chances are that you have not. The chances are that you have
already come to believe that happiness is unattainable. But men
have attained it. And they have attained it by realising that
happiness does not spring from the procuring of physical or mental
pleasure, but from the development of reason and the adjustment of
conduct to principles.
I suppose that you will not have the audacity to deny this. And if
you admit it, and still devote no part of your day to the deliberate
consideration of your reason, principles, and conduct, you admit
also that while striving for a certain thing you are regularly
leaving undone the one act which is necessary to the attainment of
Now, shall I blush, or will you?
Do not fear that I mean to thrust certain principles upon your
attention. I care not (in this place) what your principles are.
Your principles may induce you to believe in the righteousness of
burglary. I don't mind. All I urge is that a life in which conduct
does not fairly well accord with principles is a silly life; and
that conduct can only be made to accord with principles by means of
daily examination, reflection, and resolution. What leads to the
permanent sorrowfulness of burglars is that their principles are
contrary to burglary. If they genuinely believed in the moral
excellence of burglary, penal servitude would simply mean so many
happy years for them; all martyrs are happy years for them; all
martyrs are happy, because their conduct and their principles agree.
As for reason (which makes conduct, and is not unconnected with the
making of principles), it plays a far smaller part in our lives than
we fancy. We are supposed to be reasonable but we are much more
instinctive than reasonable. And the less we reflect, the less
reasonable we shall be. The next time you get cross with the waiter
because your steak is over-cooked, ask reason to step into the
cabinet-room of your mind, and consult her. She will probably tell
you that the waiter did not cook the steak, and had no control over
the cooking of the steak; and that even if he alone was to blame,
you accomplished nothing good by getting cross; you merely lost your
dignity, looked a fool in the eyes of sensible men, and soured the
waiter, while producing no effect whatever on the steak.
The result of this consultation with reason (for which she makes no
charge) will be that when once more your steak is over-cooked you
will treat the waiter as a fellow-creature, remain quite calm in a
kindly spirit, and politely insist on having a fresh steak. The
gain will be obvious and solid.
In the formation or modification of principles, and the practice of
conduct, much help can be derived from printed books (issued at
sixpence each and upwards). I mentioned in my last chapter Marcus
Aurelius and Epictetus. Certain even more widely known works will
occur at once to the memory. I may also mention Pascal, La Bruyere,
and Emerson. For myself, you do not catch me travelling without my
Marcus Aurelius. Yes, books are valuable. But not reading of books
will take the place of a daily, candid, honest examination of what
one has recently done, and what one is about to do--of a steady
looking at one's self in the face (disconcerting though the sight
When shall this important business be accomplished? The solitude of
the evening journey home appears to me to be suitable for it. A
reflective mood naturally follows the exertion of having earned the
day's living. Of course if, instead of attending to an elementary
and profoundly important duty, you prefer to read the paper (which
you might just as well read while waiting for your dinner) I have
nothing to say. But attend to it at some time of the day you must.
I now come to the evening hours.
INTEREST IN THE ARTS
Many people pursue a regular and uninterrupted course of idleness in
the evenings because they think that there is no alternative to
idleness but the study of literature; and they do not happen to have
a taste for literature. This is a great mistake.
Of course it is impossible, or at any rate very difficult, properly
to study anything whatever without the aid of printed books. But if
you desire to understand the deeper depths of bridge or of boat-
sailing you would not be deterred by your lack of interest in
literature from reading the best books on bridge or boat-sailing.
We must, therefore, distinguish between literature, and books
treating of subjects not literary. I shall come to literature in
Let me now remark to those who have never read Meredith, and who are
capable of being unmoved by a discussion as to whether Mr. Stephen
Phillips is or is not a true poet, that they are perfectly within
their rights. It is not a crime not to love literature. It is not a
sign of imbecility. The mandarins of literature will order out to
instant execution the unfortunate individual who does not
comprehend, say, the influence of Wordsworth on Tennyson. But that
is only their impudence. Where would they be, I wonder, if
requested to explain the influences that went to make Tschaikowsky's
There are enormous fields of knowledge quite outside literature
which will yield magnificent results to cultivators. For example
(since I have just mentioned the most popular piece of high-class
music in England to-day), I am reminded that the Promenade Concerts
begin in August. You go to them. You smoke your cigar or cigarette
(and I regret to say that you strike your matches during the soft
bars of the "Lohengrin" overture), and you enjoy the music. But you
say you cannot play the piano or the fiddle, or even the banjo; that
you know nothing of music.
What does that matter? That you have a genuine taste for music is
proved by the fact that, in order to fill his hall with you and your
peers, the conductor is obliged to provide programmes from which bad
music is almost entirely excluded (a change from the old Covent
Now surely your inability to perform "The Maiden's Prayer" on a
piano need not prevent you from making yourself familiar with the
construction of the orchestra to which you listen a couple of nights
a week during a couple of months! As things are, you probably think
of the orchestra as a heterogeneous mass of instruments producing a
confused agreeable mass of sound. You do not listen for details
because you have never trained your ears to listen to details.
If you were asked to name the instruments which play the great theme
at the beginning of the C minor symphony you could not name them for
your life's sake. Yet you admire the C minor symphony. It has
thrilled you. It will thrill you again. You have even talked about
it, in an expansive mood, to that lady--you know whom I mean. And
all you can positively state about the C minor symphony is that
Beethoven composed it and that it is a "jolly fine thing."
Now, if you have read, say, Mr. Krehbiel's "How to Listen to Music"
(which can be got at any bookseller's for less than the price of a
stall at the Alhambra, and which contains photographs of all the
orchestral instruments and plans of the arrangement of orchestras)
you would next go to a promenade concert with an astonishing
intensification of interest in it. Instead of a confused mass, the
orchestra would appear to you as what it is--a marvellously balanced
organism whose various groups of members each have a different and
an indispensable function. You would spy out the instruments, and
listen for their respective sounds. You would know the gulf that
separates a French horn from an English horn, and you would perceive
why a player of the hautboy gets higher wages than a fiddler, though
the fiddle is the more difficult instrument. You would *live* at a
promenade concert, whereas previously you had merely existed there
in a state of beatific coma, like a baby gazing at a bright object.
The foundations of a genuine, systematic knowledge of music might be
laid. You might specialise your inquiries either on a particular
form of music (such as the symphony), or on the works of a
particular composer. At the end of a year of forty-eight weeks of
three brief evenings each, combined with a study of programmes and
attendances at concerts chosen out of your increasing knowledge, you
would really know something about music, even though you were as far
off as ever from jangling "The Maiden's Prayer" on the piano.
"But I hate music!" you say. My dear sir, I respect you.
What applies to music applies to the other arts. I might mention
Mr. Clermont Witt's "How to Look at Pictures," or Mr. Russell
Sturgis's "How to Judge Architecture," as beginnings (merely
beginnings) of systematic vitalising knowledge in other arts, the
materials for whose study abound in London.
"I hate all the arts!" you say. My dear sir, I respect you more and
I will deal with your case next, before coming to literature.
NOTHING IN LIFE IS HUMDRUM
Art is a great thing. But it is not the greatest. The most
important of all perceptions is the continual perception of cause
and effect--in other words, the perception of the continuous
development of the universe--in still other words, the perception of
the course of evolution. When one has thoroughly got imbued into
one's head the leading truth that nothing happens without a cause,
one grows not only large-minded, but large-hearted.
It is hard to have one's watch stolen, but one reflects that the
thief of the watch became a thief from causes of heredity and
environment which are as interesting as they are scientifically
comprehensible; and one buys another watch, if not with joy, at any
rate with a philosophy that makes bitterness impossible. One loses,
in the study of cause and effect, that absurd air which so many
people have of being always shocked and pained by the curiousness of
life. Such people live amid human nature as if human nature were a
foreign country full of awful foreign customs. But, having reached
maturity, one ought surely to be ashamed of being a stranger in a
The study of cause and effect, while it lessens the painfulness of
life, adds to life's picturesqueness. The man to whom evolution is
but a name looks at the sea as a grandiose, monotonous spectacle,
which he can witness in August for three shillings third-class
return. The man who is imbued with the idea of development, of
continuous cause and effect, perceives in the sea an element which
in the day-before-yesterday of geology was vapour, which yesterday
was boiling, and which to-morrow will inevitably be ice.
He perceives that a liquid is merely something on its way to be
solid, and he is penetrated by a sense of the tremendous, changeful
picturesqueness of life. Nothing will afford a more durable
satisfaction than the constantly cultivated appreciation of this.
It is the end of all science.
Cause and effect are to be found everywhere. Rents went up in
Shepherd's Bush. It was painful and shocking that rents should go
up in Shepherd's Bush. But to a certain point we are all scientific
students of cause and effect, and there was not a clerk lunching at
a Lyons Restaurant who did not scientifically put two and two
together and see in the (once) Two-penny Tube the cause of an
excessive demand for wigwams in Shepherd's Bush, and in the
excessive demand for wigwams the cause of the increase in the price
"Simple!" you say, disdainfully. Everything--the whole complex
movement of the universe--is as simple as that--when you can
sufficiently put two and two together. And, my dear sir, perhaps
you happen to be an estate agent's clerk, and you hate the arts, and
you want to foster your immortal soul, and you can't be interested
in your business because it's so humdrum.
Nothing is humdrum.
The tremendous, changeful picturesqueness of life is marvellously
shown in an estate agent's office. What! There was a block of
traffic in Oxford Street; to avoid the block people actually began
to travel under the cellars and drains, and the result was a rise of
rents in Shepherd's Bush! And you say that isn't picturesque!
Suppose you were to study, in this spirit, the property question in
London for an hour and a half every other evening. Would it not give
zest to your business, and transform your whole life?
You would arrive at more difficult problems. And you would be able
to tell us why, as the natural result of cause and effect, the
longest straight street in London is about a yard and a half in
length, while the longest absolutely straight street in Paris
extends for miles. I think you will admit that in an estate agent's
clerk I have not chosen an example that specially favours my
You are a bank clerk, and you have not read that breathless romance
(disguised as a scientific study), Walter Bagehot's "Lombard
Street"? Ah, my dear sir, if you had begun with that, and followed
it up for ninety minutes every other evening, how enthralling your
business would be to you, and how much more clearly you would
understand human nature.
You are "penned in town," but you love excursions to the country and
the observation of wild life-certainly a heart-enlarging diversion.
Why don't you walk out of your house door, in your slippers, to the
nearest gas lamp of a night with a butterfly net, and observe the
wild life of common and rare moths that is beating about it, and
co-ordinate the knowledge thus obtained and build a superstructure
on it, and at last get to know something about something?
You need not be devoted to the arts, not to literature, in order to
The whole field of daily habit and scene is waiting to satisfy that
curiosity which means life, and the satisfaction of which means an
I promised to deal with your case, O man who hates art and
literature, and I have dealt with it. I now come to the case of the
person, happily very common, who does "like reading."
Novels are excluded from "serious reading," so that the man who,
bent on self-improvement, has been deciding to devote ninety minutes
three times a week to a complete study of the works of Charles
Dickens will be well advised to alter his plans. The reason is not
that novels are not serious--some of the great literature of the
world is in the form of prose fiction--the reason is that bad
novels ought not to be read, and that good novels never demand any
appreciable mental application on the part of the reader. It is only
the bad parts of Meredith's novels that are difficult. A good novel
rushes you forward like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the
end, perhaps breathless, but unexhausted. The best novels involve
the least strain. Now in the cultivation of the mind one of the
most important factors is precisely the feeling of strain, of
difficulty, of a task which one part of you is anxious to achieve
and another part of you is anxious to shirk; and that feeling
cannot be got in facing a novel. You do not set your teeth in order
to read "Anna Karenina." Therefore, though you should read novels,
you should not read them in those ninety minutes.
Imaginative poetry produces a far greater mental strain than novels.
It produces probably the severest strain of any form of literature.
It is the highest form of literature. It yields the highest form of
pleasure, and teaches the highest form of wisdom. In a word, there
is nothing to compare with it. I say this with sad consciousness of
the fact that the majority of people do not read poetry.
I am persuaded that many excellent persons, if they were confronted
with the alternatives of reading "Paradise Lost" and going round
Trafalgar Square at noonday on their knees in sack-cloth, would
choose the ordeal of public ridicule. Still, I will never cease
advising my friends and enemies to read poetry before anything.
If poetry is what is called "a sealed book" to you, begin by reading
Hazlitt's famous essay on the nature of "poetry in general." It is
the best thing of its kind in English, and no one who has read it
can possibly be under the misapprehension that poetry is a mediaeval
torture, or a mad elephant, or a gun that will go off by itself and
kill at forty paces. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the mental
state of the man who, after reading Hazlitt's essay, is not urgently
desirous of reading some poetry before his next meal. If the essay
so inspires you I would suggest that you make a commencement with
purely narrative poetry.
There is an infinitely finer English novel, written by a woman, than
anything by George Eliot or the Brontes, or even Jane Austen, which
perhaps you have not read. Its title is "Aurora Leigh," and its
author E.B. Browning. It happens to be written in verse, and to
contain a considerable amount of genuinely fine poetry. Decide to
read that book through, even if you die for it. Forget that it is
fine poetry. Read it simply for the story and the social ideas. And
when you have done, ask yourself honestly whether you still dislike
poetry. I have known more than one person to whom "Aurora Leigh" has
been the means of proving that in assuming they hated poetry they
were entirely mistaken.
Of course, if, after Hazlitt, and such an experiment made in the
light of Hazlitt, you are finally assured that there is something in
you which is antagonistic to poetry, you must be content with
history or philosophy. I shall regret it, yet not inconsolably.
"The Decline and Fall" is not to be named in the same day with
"Paradise Lost," but it is a vastly pretty thing; and Herbert
Spencer's "First Principles" simply laughs at the claims of poetry
and refuses to be accepted as aught but the most majestic product of
any human mind. I do not suggest that either of these works is
suitable for a tyro in mental strains. But I see no reason why any
man of average intelligence should not, after a year of continuous
reading, be fit to assault the supreme masterpieces of history or
philosophy. The great convenience of masterpieces is that they are
so astonishingly lucid.
I suggest no particular work as a start. The attempt would be
futile in the space of my command. But I have two general
suggestions of a certain importance. The first is to define the
direction and scope of your efforts. Choose a limited period, or a
limited subject, or a single author. Say to yourself: "I will know
something about the French Revolution, or the rise of railways, or
the works of John Keats." And during a given period, to be settled
beforehand, confine yourself to your choice. There is much pleasure
to be derived from being a specialist.
The second suggestion is to think as well as to read. I know people
who read and read, and for all the good it does them they might just
as well cut bread-and-butter. They take to reading as better men
take to drink. They fly through the shires of literature on a
motor-car, their sole object being motion. They will tell you how
many books they have read in a year.
Unless you give at least forty-five minutes to careful, fatiguing
reflection (it is an awful bore at first) upon what you are reading,
your ninety minutes of a night are chiefly wasted. This means that
your pace will be slow.
Forget the goal; think only of the surrounding country; and after a
period, perhaps when you least expect it, you will suddenly find
yourself in a lovely town on a hill.
DANGERS TO AVOID
I cannot terminate these hints, often, I fear, too didactic and
abrupt, upon the full use of one's time to the great end of living
(as distinguished from vegetating) without briefly referring to
certain dangers which lie in wait for the sincere aspirant towards
life. The first is the terrible danger of becoming that most odious
and least supportable of persons--a prig. Now a prig is a pert
fellow who gives himself airs of superior wisdom. A prig is a
pompous fool who has gone out for a ceremonial walk, and without
knowing it has lost an important part of his attire, namely, his
sense of humour. A prig is a tedious individual who, having made a
discovery, is so impressed by his discovery that he is capable of
being gravely displeased because the entire world is not also
impressed by it. Unconsciously to become a prig is an easy and a
Hence, when one sets forth on the enterprise of using all one's
time, it is just as well to remember that one's own time, and not
other people's time, is the material with which one has to deal;
that the earth rolled on pretty comfortably before one began to
balance a budget of the hours, and that it will continue to roll on
pretty comfortably whether or not one succeeds in one's new role of
chancellor of the exchequer of time. It is as well not to chatter
too much about what one is doing, and not to betray a too-pained
sadness at the spectacle of a whole world deliberately wasting so
many hours out of every day, and therefore never really living. It
will be found, ultimately, that in taking care of one's self one has
quite all one can do.
Another danger is the danger of being tied to a programme like a
slave to a chariot. One's programme must not be allowed to run away
with one. It must be respected, but it must not be worshipped as a
fetish. A programme of daily employ is not a religion.
This seems obvious. Yet I know men whose lives are a burden to
themselves and a distressing burden to their relatives and friends
simply because they have failed to appreciate the obvious. "Oh,
no," I have heard the martyred wife exclaim, "Arthur always takes
the dog out for exercise at eight o'clock and he always begins to
read at a quarter to nine. So it's quite out of the question that
we should. . ." etc., etc. And the note of absolute finality in
that plaintive voice reveals the unsuspected and ridiculous tragedy
of a career.
On the other hand, a programme is a programme. And unless it is
treated with deference it ceases to be anything but a poor joke. To
treat one's programme with exactly the right amount of deference, to
live with not too much and not too little elasticity, is scarcely
the simple affair it may appear to the inexperienced.
And still another danger is the danger of developing a policy of
rush, of being gradually more and more obsessed by what one has to
do next. In this way one may come to exist as in a prison, and one's
life may cease to be one's own. One may take the dog out for a walk
at eight o'clock, and meditate the whole time on the fact that one
must begin to read at a quarter to nine, and that one must not be
And the occasional deliberate breaking of one's programme will not
help to mend matters. The evil springs not from persisting without
elasticity in what one has attempted, but from originally attempting
too much, from filling one's programme till it runs over. The only
cure is to reconstitute the programme, and to attempt less.
But the appetite for knowledge grows by what it feeds on, and there
are men who come to like a constant breathless hurry of endeavour.
Of them it may be said that a constant breathless hurry is better
than an eternal doze.
In any case, if the programme exhibits a tendency to be oppressive,
and yet one wishes not to modify it, an excellent palliative is to
pass with exaggerated deliberation from one portion of it to
another; for example, to spend five minutes in perfect mental
quiescence between chaining up the St. Bernard and opening the book;
in other words, to waste five minutes with the entire consciousness
of wasting them.
The last, and chiefest danger which I would indicate, is one to
which I have already referred--the risk of a failure at the
commencement of the enterprise.
I must insist on it.
A failure at the commencement may easily kill outright the newborn
impulse towards a complete vitality, and therefore every precaution
should be observed to avoid it. The impulse must not be over-taxed.
Let the pace of the first lap be even absurdly slow, but let it be
as regular as possible.
And, having once decided to achieve a certain task, achieve it at
all costs of tedium and distaste. The gain in self-confidence of
having accomplished a tiresome labour is immense.
Finally, in choosing the first occupations of those evening hours,
be guided by nothing whatever but your taste and natural
It is a fine thing to be a walking encyclopaedia of philosophy, but
if you happen to have no liking for philosophy, and to have a like
for the natural history of street-cries, much better leave
philosophy alone, and take to street-cries.