living like kings

In 1996 Mark Helprin wrote an extraordinary essay for Forbes called “The Acceleration of Tranquility.” (A poorly formatted and probably copyright-infringing version of the essay may be found here.) He begins the essay with two portraits, the first of a California businessman in the year 2016, the second of an English Member of Parliament in 1906. And then he reflects, at some length, on the differences. One passage from the essay — which I have read many times since its first appearance — has been floating through my mind in the past few days:

Put quite simply, the life of the British statesman was superior because he was allowed rest and reflection, his contemplation could seek its own level, and his tranquility was unaccelerated. While he was in his time a member of a privileged class unburdened by many practical necessities, today most Americans have similar resources and freedoms, and yet they, like their contemporaries in even the most exalted positions, have chosen a different standard, closer to that of the first paradigm.

The life of the exemplary statesman, then dependent upon a large staff of underpaid servants, and children working in mines and mills (if not in Lancashire, then certainly in India), is now available to almost anyone. Even if in one’s working hours one does not sit in the cabinet room at No.10 Downing Street, one can have a quiet refuge, dignified dress, paper, a fountain pen, books, postage, Mozart with astonishing fidelity and ease, an excellent diet, much time to one’s self, the opportunity to travel, a few nice pieces of furniture and decoration, medical care far beyond what the British statesman might have dreamed of, and, yes, a single-malt scotch in a crystal glass, for less than the average middle-class income. If you think not, then add up the prices and see how it is that people with a strong sense of what they want, need, and do not require can live like kings of a sort if they exhibit the appropriate discipline and self-restraint.

Requisite, I believe, for correcting the first paradigm until it approximates the second, and bringing to the second (without jeopardizing it) the excitements and benefits of the first, are the discipline, values, and clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we grapple with necessity and to disappear when by our ingenuity we float free of it.