The Way We Live Now
 
What I want: moderate desires

 

Diogenes, the Corinthian philosopher, was once asked by Alexander what favour he would request of the great conqueror, and his answer was that the conqueror should stand a little aside so that he could enjoy the sunshine. This was the cynical man who went about in the daytime with a lantern to look for an honest man. He had only one rough garment for winter and summer and he slept and lived in a tub. Once he had a cup, but on learning that he could drink water from his hands, he threw it away, believing that by doing so he had one less desire in this world.

Diogenes represents to us moderns an ideal very much opposite to ours, which seems to measure progress by the number of men’s wants and luxuries, and for that reason the story provokes in us a sort of nervous envy. The fact is that we are in confusion about what we really want. Modern man (and woman, dare I say?) is in an advanced degree of perplexity about many problems. And even ‘alternative life-styles’ and ‘counter cultures’ nowadays almost inevitably involve the iPod, the mobile phone and the television. Where would West African culture be, I ask myself of an evening as the sounds waft up from the Parish Hall, without modern electronic amplification?

Now it is of course easy to tear Diogenes to pieces. First of all, he lived in a gentle Mediterranean climate. No lady therefore need be ashamed that, living in a colder country than Greece, she wants an ample winter coat. Secondly, I do not respect any man who does not keep enough underwear to be able to send it to the laundry and still change it every day. A Diogenes in a storybook may exhale a certain spiritual fragrance, but a Diogenes at the next desk in the office would be an altogether different tale. Thirdly, it is dangerous to teach the young that kind of ideal. We want them, after all, to develop at the very least a love of books, for which Diogenes, apparently, did not care twopence. Fourthly, Diogenes lived in an age before the invention of the novel. And for those who live after, to imagine life without the constant critique of that parallel reality is nigh on impossible.

Christian culture, to be sure, has had its share of grumpy ascetics. I suspect that Bernard of Clairvaux – who preached the crusade at Vezelay but wisely did not go on it himself, and was described by his contemporaries as a ‘great lover of God and hater of the brethren’ – was something of a Diogenes. But Christian asceticism was always tempered by a love of culture and of books. We owe the survival of learning in a barbarous age to rough-shod vegetarians in stone sheds on Irish promontories. They tended, on their rocky outcrops, what was to flower in the twelfth century into a new and generous humanism.

Generally, I would say, it is the man who has many wants, hopes and desires who lives the richer and more complete life, not the one who goes on in life indifferent to the things around him. The tramp wandering the streets of Lewisham who does not admire and envy a snug fireside, seen through half-closed curtains, is decidedly a lower, not a higher kind of animal.

The trick, then, is not to stifle but to moderate desires; to know what you want and to know why you want them. Diogenes is partly right. There is no point in wanting things simply because they are, and they are available; nor in wanting them because other people have them. This is the modern malady which makes Diogenes sometimes appear like a hero to us.

But in our best and sanest moments we know that Diogenes’ god cannot be our god, that we want many things in life, and that these things are definitely good for us. The man who knows what he wants is a happy man. I think I know what I want. Here are the things that would make me happy – and perhaps even holy. It will seem to you a long list – which I suppose it is. But it is nearly a definitive list. It is gratifying to know that most of these things I already have, and that my appetites are waning. I shall not want other things.

I want an old house, with solid woodwork, that is warm in the winter and quiet in a storm. I want a comfortable high-backed chair to read in and a strong lamp beside it because my eyes are failing. I want books beside it that I really want to read, books in fact that I have already read, and that I will profit from reading again. No James Joyce and no T.S. Eliot. And you can put Karl Marx, Immanuel Kant and Søren Kierkegaard on a far shelf which I will never be bothered to reach.

I want a church that is ordered, simple and beautiful, where the people say their prayers and care for one another out of unaffected love. I want a daily Mass, the scent of incense and as little interference as possible from bishops and archdeacons. I want my godchildren to be nourished by the same faith which has given me hope and consolation. I want George Herbert, Thomas Traherne and Sir Thomas Browne.

I want old friends. Fresh acquaintances are stimulating and amusing, but old friends are the best, familiar as life itself; friends to whom one need not be polite, and who tell all their troubles, matrimonial and otherwise; who can quote Keats and Shakespeare and crack slightly indecent jokes in the same breath; friends who are spiritually rich but who can take trivialities with appropriate seriousness; friends who have fixed and definite opinions about persons and things, who have their private beliefs and respect mine.

I want a decent market close at hand where I can buy everything fresh every day. I want to cook my own food and be able to take my time eating it. I want lots of vegetables and clear thin soups. I want the cooker to be gas, the saucepans to be heavy. I want to bake my own bread.

I want furniture whose history I know, and objects which have survived my tempestuous childhood. I want the same cleaning lady for years and years and years, who never rearranges my papers; who dusts round things she knows to be important; who tells me intimate details of the life of her family while she mops the kitchen floor.

I want the winters to be cold again. I want to watch kites soaring above the Heath against a clear winter sky. I want a garden small enough to manage, which traps the latest sun. I want apricots and Victoria plums which I have harvested myself. I want windows from which one can see the changing seasons in the branches of trees. And the song of blackbirds at first light.

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