The Conquest Of Comfort

All men crave comfort. But few are capable of experiencing it.

For men are of two kinds: those who can understand, and those who cannot. And only those are capable of experiencing comfort who are capable of understanding it.

What is here said concerning the quest of comfort may mean something to those who can understand. It will mean absolutely nothing to those who cannot.


. . . No secret can be told
To any who divined it not before;
None uninitiate by many a presage
Will comprehend the language of the message
Although proclaimed aloud for evermore.47

Life is a sequence: birth, growth, consciousness, joy, pain, reproduction, decay and death.

We have this sequence somehow or other to live. How shall we live it, and what shall we think about it?

There can be no conquest of comfort, even though we surround ourselves with all the comforts which civilization offers us, until we answer this question for ourselves and put into the answer what ever may be needed of the accumulated knowledge of mankind, of personal experience, and of the understanding that makes for wisdom.

Life, it is true, will still remain “a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” but we will be able at least to console ourselves for enduring it at all.

Few indeed are those of us who achieve the privilege of answering this question for ourselves. Most of us never even ask ourselves the question because we accept the answer which society provides for us in conventional custom, conventional law, conventional religion.

For we are born subject to the tyranny of conventions.

We begin to absorb conventions from the moment we take suck at our mothers’ breasts. And we continue to absorb them thereafter until we die. We live out our allotted span surrounded, immersed and engulfed by them. It is a miracle if we escape the credulity which makes the masses of mankind believe in them; it is twice a miracle if we develop the scepticism which makes it possible for us to detect the falsehoods in them; it is thrice a miracle if we discover how often they become the barriers to our comfort.

For the society into which we are born is not of any intelligent being’s contriving. It is a chaos of irrational, contradictory, cowardly conventions which have acquired validity not because of inherent truth and goodness and beauty but through the inertia of great antiquity and general consent.

If we discover that the conventions which civilization accepts and which civilization generally imposes upon us are merely the compromises of the timid and fearful, stupid and ignorant masses with the ideas launched throughout the ages by exceptional men, we will not hesitate to abandon them and to replace conventions with principles of conduct which represent the deliberate application of wisdom to every phase of life.

This is an elemental fact about the good life which our present morality does not recognize. Intelligence is suspected today, on the theological theory, flattering to the inferior masses of mankind, that intelligence is of the devil.

To the herd-minded there is no inconsistency in the belief that men may be intelligent and yet immoral, and good even though they be fools.

Now while intelligent men may live the good life, ignorant and conventional men can never do so. Ignorant men cannot be truly good. They can only be innocent.

To live the good life, we must eat freely of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

To the herd-minded who accept the conventions because they “know” them to proceed from truth, the universe presents no unsolvable riddle; life no inexplicable miracle; consciousness no impenetrable mystery. For them the riddles of the universe do not exist. Convention fills the infinite spaces of the cosmos for them with a god. It makes life purposeful for them with a promise of paradise. It makes consciousness free for them by endowing human kind with an immortal soul. Why should they therefore spend time struggling to understand life—concerning which they think they already know the truth?

Unfortunately for ourselves and for mankind, even the quality minded are influenced and governed by whole encyclopedias of equally false facts, false hopes and false fears. This is our poignant tragedy: that so many of us potentially capable of understanding, accept these armies of conventional falsehoods because we dare not take the time to question them.

We never get to ask “What is truth?” because we can not spare the time to ask “What is falsehood?”

We have not the time—the time to read, to converse, to work, to play—which is necessary to acquire wisdom.

We cannot—because we are too busy.

We are too busy, in this particular civilization, keeping our factories producing—telephoning, dictating, conferring, producing and marketing, advertising and selling, financing and profiteering—to devote time to the acquisition of wisdom. And so we continue the dupes of the colossal delusion that the conquest of comfort consists of nothing but the accumulation and consumption of the creature comforts that our factories produce.

Not every man is capable of understanding. Men are born with different potentialities for acquiring wisdom. The idiot is born with zero potentialities. The perfect man with one hundred percent.

Both throughout their lives react to their environments, but their reactions to them—even when their environments are identical—are different. A piece of quartz may be subjected to all the artistic polishing of the most skillful lapidary; it will never become a diamond. The final result of the polishing—the quartz’s reaction to it—is conditioned by the original stuff of which the gem is composed. The moron may be educated to the nth degree, he remains a moron even though educated. So it is with every man’s reaction to environment. Let his environment be what it will, his reaction to it will vary with his potentialities. And since potentialities are unknowable, the ratio of the influence of potentiality upon the reaction to environment is indeterminable.

How much of his potentialities each man realizes is determined by his environment—the effect upon him of his family, school, friends, work—by the totality of all the circumstances and conditions of his life. These determine what sort of man he will finally become, and how much understanding he acquires, much as the diamond polishing determines what sort of diamond will finally emerge from the rough, but potentially beautiful, gem. This environmental polishing process is man’s real education. It is real education as contrasted with the academic education to which the term “education” is generally confined.

What each man manages to extract and to incorporate into his personality from exposure to his environment determines the extent to which he realizes his potentialities. More than his potentialities however, nothing that he may do and no educational process—nothing in his environment—will enable him to realize. The quartz, no matter how much it be polished, can never be anything more than perfectly polished quartz.

Reduced to a mathematical equation we may say:

R = xPE

in which represents man’s reaction to life—the individual’s reaction to environment—his real education—expressed in percentages of perfect reaction; represents man’s potentialities—his inherent capacity for acquiring knowledge, intelligence, wisdom—expressed in percentages of perfect potentiality; represents the individual environment—home, school, church, work; parents, friends, associates; party, religion, nationality—the totality of his circumstances and conditions—expressed in percentages of perfect environment; while x represents the ratio of the influence exerted by his potentialities upon his reactions to environment—the effect which his capacity for learning has upon what he learns from his environment.

To illustrate: two men begin life with different potentialities: Mr. Potentially Inferior begins with 10 percent of perfect potentiality; Mr. Potentially Superior begins with 100. Environment now determines for them how much of their potentialities they will realize.

Mr. Potentially Inferior, if he encounters an environment only one percent perfect, will be educated to only a portion of his possibilities. But if he experiences an environment of 10 percent, he will fully realize his potentialities and attain to a reaction to life of 10 percent of possible perfection.

If Mr. Potentially Superior passes through life in an environment of only one percent, he may not even develop to the degree that Potentially Inferior does in an environment of 10 percent, in spite of the fact that he has ten times the potentialities of Potentially Inferior. But if Potentially Superior’s environment is 10 percent, or the same as Potentially Inferior’s, Superior will be many times wiser than Inferior because his enormously greater aptitude for wisdom enables him to extract much more from the same educational opportunities.

If Potentially Superior’s experiences are, however, only one percent; if they are such that he passes through life in an environment which fails to develop his possibilities; if he lives in a crude environment without contact with the accumulated wisdom of the ages, in spite of his high potentialities he will probably be an illiterate, untravelled, ignorant man; a mere rough diamond. He will be one of mankind’s “mute, inglorious Miltons.”

But if Superior’s experience were to be just the opposite; if he were to live in an environment which developed his potentialities and if every circumstance of his life combined to develop his capacities; if he found in various individuals, various books and various experiences those burning flashes of insight which make life forever afterward more comprehensible, then he would far surpass Inferior.

For Inferior’s reaction to life, no matter what his educational opportunities, can never get beyond 10 percent of possible perfection. Superior, however, can assimilate when Inferior no longer can. He can learn from environments of more than 10 percent—indeed, if he has a potentiality of 100, he will never stop learning and will become wise to a degree that is inconceivable to the man of such limited potentialities as Inferior.

Inferior can never rise above the herd. Inferior’s capacity for climbing out from the overwhelming mass of falsehoods with which all men are environed is too small to enable him to really understand.

But Superior can. He has the necessary capacity, if he is given, or gives himself, the chance. He can Begin his warfare upon the all-encircling falsehoods of our civilized conventions with some assurance that he will someday attain wisdom if he is free to make the necessary effort.

And he must make that effort.

For Superior is potentially a man of wisdom. He must make himself wise in actuality because every potentially wise man is confronted by the alternatives of suffering frustration, or of securing the freedom to live wisely.

In nothing is the difference between the inferior average man and the superior exceptional man more clearly revealed than in the complacence with which the average man accepts the falsehoods of our conventions, and the energy with which the superior man tries to free himself from these conventional falsehoods—these innumerable falsehoods asserted as facts, accepted as facts, generally acted upon as facts but which a little investigation reveals as incompatible with the facts they purpose to describe or explain.

Fortunately these falsehoods, which constitute what may be called the barriers to wisdom, (and therefore to comfort), usually reveal themselves in self-contradictions. The comparison of one group of conventional beliefs with another tends to reveal these contradictions. Through such comparisons conventional false hoods can be made to destroy themselves. The destruction of the more important of these barriers to wisdom is therefore an essential first step towards the attainment of wisdom itself.

It is a futile waste of time for us to look to modern “applied” science for wisdom. modern science has been made the hopeless serving-maid of the modern factory. It is concerned with the problem of how the factory can be made to produce and distribute more and more, not the question of how we should live and what we should think about life.

As to “pure” science—well, its so-called laws of nature may tell us how we live but they do not tell us how we should live. They may tell us how we think, but they do not tell us what we should think.

For science seeks no further than its natural laws. It seeks these laws as if there were such things as natural laws.

Nature, however, knows no laws. Nature is as sublimely indifferent to us and our concerns as is god himself.

What we call natural laws are merely our own interpretations of nature’s undesigned and inexorable sequence of changing appearances. The uniformities and the regularities which we think we have found and which we assume to be universal and immutable and which we dignify by the name of natural law—these sequences which we apprehend and measure and record most of all need rationalization.

We have too credulously accepted the idea of inexpugnable natural law.

We have assumed that without it there could be no scientific ordering of knowledge.

Yet a metaphysic which begins with the negation of natural law furnishes us just as sound a basis for an understandable universe as does one which begins with the affirmation of natural law. And such a metaphysic may actually aid us in arriving at a better statement of the question of the absolute itself.

There is no more reason why we should accept the prevalence of law and order than there is reason for us to accept the absence of law and order. One hypothesis is just as reasonable as the other.

The view of nature as a series of events occurring in an in variable order without the intervention of mutable personal agencies is of very recent origin. Before the age of Newton and Darwin practically all men thought of nature—as the savage still thinks—as mutable, local, irregular and nonsequential. And men begot, lived and died in spite of the fact that they thought of the world as the plaything of propitiable supernatural beings. Now we have universally accepted the idea of law, and are blind to the fact that what we call law, is simply the ideas of a particular set of thinkers at a particular time.

Ultimately we shall discover the natural law itself can only be relative—and law therefore only to us.

Assume that the universe is chaos—that there is no ultimate order to it whatsoever. What we apprehend as orderly—the sequence of causes and effects to which we give the name of natural law then becomes sequential only to us. It is orderly only in our minds.

The universe is apparently orderly, not necessarily orderly.

The sequences which we see have order, universality, immutability only relatively to our point of observation—relative to us and our limitations in time and space and understanding. But, they may have no sequence at all viewed from the standpoint of eternal time or infinite space.

We are creatures that pick out of all the chaotic facts and incidents which we apprehend certain ones apparently related to each other causally, and upon the basis of these identified relationships we build our magics and religions, our sciences and philosophies. To us they have a well-nigh absolute validity. But no matter how valid to us, they do not preclude the possibility that there may be no design, no order, no uniformity, no law, no inexorability in the totality of all events in all time and all space.

The consequence of this assumption must be considered: why does the attainment of some sort of order have such an importance to us? Why science and philosophy? Why our unending effort at understanding?

The answer is twofold: order, even if it is of our own devising, has for us a survival value, and to the extent of its correspondence with truth it makes real comfort possible to us. The wiser we are, the profounder our knowledge, the deeper our understanding, the greater are the probabilities of our survival and flic greater are the possibilities of our conquest of comfort. If we touch a hot stove with our fingers, we discover a natural law, if we may use the term natural law a little freely: fire invariably burns flesh. It always has burned it; it always will. The comprehension of sequences of this sort contributes manifestly both to survival and comfort even though they leave untouched the ultimate reality of what takes place when flesh is exposed to fire.

It is even possible to argue that every animate creature, and perhaps in some way everything inanimate as well, survives and is comfortable only if it develops for itself apparently inexorable sequences in nature, and adapts itself to them. For the evocation of a relatively orderly scheme in nature according to which it then governs its own existence is not an exclusive prerogative of human beings. Each creature which evokes a routine that enables it to adapt itself to the minor changes in the sequences of nature survives and lives more comfortably than it otherwise could. But the moment some major sequence develops which negates what seemed to it an immutable state of affairs and which is beyond its range of adaptation, discomfort sets in and destruction begins.

The whole universe is filled with things, animate and inanimate, intelligent and unintelligent, and of every gradation between these extremes, which are ceaselessly adapting themselves to their environments—which invent sequences to assist them in the process of adaptation—sequences to some of which mankind gives the august name of natural laws—and yet the existence of all these orders, laws, religions, philosophies, conventions, traditions, customs—the existence of all these patterns of being and action with which life is guided and governed—does not reduce by a particle the probability that the totality of all the events in the universe is chaos.

Mankind’s patterns have validity for man only to the extent to which they contribute to his survival and comfort.

In far the greatest number of its manifestations human life is governed by what might well be called race-patterns. These patterns become life-routines, life-habits and life-instincts.

In all the lower, the physiological aspects of life, the race-patterns are well-nigh absolute. And we observe them instinctively. But in the higher, the conscious aspects, the race-patterns are subject to change by the individual. Yet even on these higher planes of being and action where wisdom can function for us, most of us tend to accept the conventional patterns, many of which are manifest barriers to the comfortable life. Most of us endure the discomforts which they inflict upon us because we are not sensitive enough to be conscious of them, or because we believe the discomforts inescapable and so deliberately accommodate ourselves to them.

Most of us tend to depart in no way from the patterns which the masses of men have somehow or other accepted and to which they have given a false validity though conventionalization. We travel with the stream of conventions and not against it or even at an angle to it. We hew no new paths—adopt no new ideas and ideals—create no new folkways—devise no superior patterns for our own conduct—make no intelligent effort to attain comfort because we are not free to do so.

Only as we free ourselves from servitude to arbitrary and non-creative routines; from conventions which do not contribute to comfort—only as wc give ourselves the time and leisure necessary to develop wisdom, do we begin consciously to create patterns of our own and so take on one of the attributes which give dignity to the conception of deity.

We may be interested in the qualitative aspects of living, but if we are not free to devote ourselves to their cultivation we can never succeed in the conquest of comfort.

Ultimately the ideas of quality-minded men—the ideas of the men who are free to devote themselves to the application of wisdom to every aspect of life—are absorbed into the race and culture patterns of all mankind. Their ideas are imposed through the agency of conventionalizations upon mankind and accepted by all types of men. The pattern which a Havelock Ellis creates for conduct; which a Michelangelo creates for art; which a Charles Darwin creates for philosophy, is first accepted by the alert and intelligent minority; it is then conventionalized, and so ultimately imposed upon all mankind.

Today modern art is sweeping over America like a rash. Quantity-minded men are persuading and making the herd minded accept modern art. The masses are accepting a new style in art, precisely as they accept a new style in dress, because they cannot avoid doing so. And ultimately they acquiesce in the im position, enjoy it, rejoice in it and even defend it. They do not, of course, understand the ideas which intrigue the proponents of modern art any more than they understand Ellis, or Michelangelo, or Darwin, but some trace of the ideas of the quality minded survives in the conduct of the herd, and if the ideas are good, quality-minded men may inwardly rejoice at the grim irony which enables them in this round-about fashion to impose upon all mankind their methods of enduring life.

“In the beginning” man lived briefly and flamingly. Instinct reigned undisputed. Man was the creature of his elemental needs, and was whipped and driven by blind biologic and physiologie necessity. Only when the quality-minded began to find themselves sufficiently free for the consideration of how men should live and what they should think, did the conscious patterning of conduct for survival, for comfort, for understanding begin.

These free men—or partly free men—who could give at least some time to the cultivation of wisdom, are the men who formulate what we may call mankind’s laws of normality: norms deduced from the study of the necessities of human beings; norms which must be observed if men are to live comfortably; norms the violation of which are followed by premature decay and premature death.

It is just as natural for human beings to be diseased as to be perfectly healthy; to decay as to grow; to die prematurely as to the of old age. But it is not just as normal.

To the extent of his ability to formulate these norms and thus to introduce more intelligence into existence on his little speck of the universe, man is god.

He becomes the creator of that which did not exist before.

He imposes an order which he has created upon the universe.

For the norms which he creates tend to affect and modify mankind’s subsequent being and action, and thus to introduce a design, a law, an order in the universe when otherwise there would have been only chance and chaos.

Confucius, Socrates, Schopenhauer; Darwin, Newton, Copernicus; Phidias, Michelangelo, Rembrandt; Wagner, Beethoven; Goethe, Voltaire, Shakespeare—men like these are not godlike; they are by the supreme test of creativity the only gods there are.

These norms are slowly and with great difficulty being established by men who are free to study man as an animal, as a creature who strives to satisfy his needs and desires and as a self conscious being.

Man is an animal, with animal appetites and animal limitations. By finding out what is essential to the normal functioning of man as an animal, we can determine what we ourselves should eat and drink; what we should do to keep physiologically comfortable.

Man is a necessitous creature. He needs food, clothing and shelter; he needs companionship, marriage, parenthood and he needs knowledge.

By finding out how man functions when he normally satisfies his needs or desires, or how he malfunctions when he fails in doing so, we can determine how we should secure our living; what sort of social life we should lead; how we should educate ourselves.

Man is a self-conscious being. He is forever seeking to justify his existence, his struggles, his pains, his joys; forever striving to explain his being through philosophy.

By finding out what is man’s place in nature; how he struggles for survival and what pains and joys are normal to that process, we make understanding possible and so attain the wisdom which alone can dignify existence.

Without understanding there can be no wisdom.

Understanding must do for the wise man what tradition, habit, instinct, custom, law and convention do for the average man.

The conduct of the masses of average men, their subjective as well as objective behavior, consists of mere trial-and-error reactions to the universe in which they find themselves. Conventional conduct has for them survival value. It is a race-preservation mechanism.

That which convention dictates furnishes a guide to life even to the least understanding average man. The wise man, if he is to survive, must meet the same pragmatic tests for which the conventions were evolved. His conduct may therefore be objectively quite like that which convention dictates. But that makes him only the more unlike the average man. He is like the average man only to those incapable of distinguishing between motive and action—between conduct which is in one case conscious and voluntary and the other unconscious and involuntary.

Both the average man and the wise man work. Both are objectively performing similar actions. But subjectively their behavior is different. Their motivation is not the same. One works because he has to work. He accepts his “job” without thinking much about the matter. The other works because he has thought the matter through and has deliberately decided that work—of the right kind—is essential to the superior life.

Today mankind lives odiously, gracelessly, vulgarly, because the world belongs to quantity-minded men who cannot distinguish between the enjoyment of the comforts of life and the enjoyment of the comfortable life itself.

Life will remain more ugly than beautiful until the quality minded men who can show all of mankind how to live comfortably, are free to be more and more directly the architects of mankind’s conventions and the arbiters of its conduct.

Quality-minded men must therefore free themselves more and more from servility to quantity-minded men and to the institutions dominated by the quantity-minded. First, for their own sakes—that they and their posterity shall be comfortable; and then for mankind’s sake—that their pattern of living may the sooner be imitated by the masses of men.

For in the conquest of comfort for themselves, they bring about the conquest of comfort for all mankind. How they live and what they think, in spite of the fools, the prudes and the bigots, and in spite of the exploitation of their ideas by quantity-minded men, is ultimately accepted and imitated by the masses of herd-minded men.

It has always been so.

It will always be so.

For it is thus that the ideas of the quality-minded ultimately impose themselves upon mankind.

It is an ugly world, my friends. Perhaps it may be made a beautiful world, my friends.

It is an evil world, my friends. Perhaps it may be made a good world, my friends.

It is a foolish world, my friends. Perhaps it may be made a wise world, my friends.

Free yourselves, my friends, and it becomes yours to make it what you will.

For thus spake Zarathustra!

Next Section | The Barriers To Comfort