On the Art of Living with Others by Sir Arthur Helps — Paragraph-wise explanation
On The Art Of Living With Others
By Sir Arthur Helps
About the author … Arthur Helps (1813-1875) was a thinker, and writer of great eminence. He was born in London. He went to the elite Eton for his schooling, and later to Trinity College of Cambridge University. He had in-depth understanding of social and cultural matters, and could advance his own original ideas lucidly. This acumen earned him the membership of the Cambridge Apostles – a think tank of great thinking brains of his time. He served as a bureaucrat under the British government, and in the process developed an astute understanding of economic affairs. The Queen knighted him for his service to the country and for his contribution to the academic world.
Sir Arthur Helps had an incisive understanding of society, conflicts, wars, and moral values. This enabled him to write essays with brilliantly expounded ideas. Like the legendary Francis Bacon, Sir Arthur Helps contributed to human quest for a harmonious living, preempting acrimony, and conflict resolution.
The first paragraph …..
The “Iliad” for war; the “Odyssey” for wandering; but where is the great domestic epic? Yet it is but commonplace to say that passions may rage round a tea-table which would not have misbecome men dashing at one another in war chariots; and evolutions of patience and temper are performed at the fireside, worthy to be compared with the Retreat of the Ten Thousand. Men have worshipped some fantastic being for living alone in a wilderness; but social martyrdoms place no saints upon the calendar.
Meaning .. We all know ‘Lliad’, the Greek epic poem about the siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek city states. This ancient literary masterpiece is assumed to be written by Homer. As a sequel to ‘Lliad’, Homer wrote ‘Odyssey’. The two poems were written in the 8th century B.C. For any student of literature or History in the West, reading of these two epics is considered mandatory.
‘Lliad’ is a war poem, where as ‘Odysseys’ is about the long tortuous return journey of Homer to his homeland. The journey took ten long years during which Homer and his warriors had to face many unexpected dangers.
Sir Arthur Helps laments that these two epics cover war and an apparent aimless wandering. People read it with relish, but there is no such epic or literary work to guide humans about the way to live happily, and harmoniously.
Sadly, it is common sight among us to see people flying at each other’s neck over some minor contentious issue. By doing so, they indulge in dishonorable conduct, but in the heat of the moment, they forget all discretion. Humans have traditionally revered people who live reclusive lives forsaking the comforts of family and society. In contrast, human beings do not accord the same amount of adulation for those noble men and women who have laboured hard all their lives to teach people how to live in peace and harmony. The author laments such lack of judgement on the part of society.
Second paragraph ...
We may blind ourselves to it if we like, but the hatreds and disgusts that there are behind friendship, relationship, service, and, indeed, proximity of all kinds, is one of the darkest spots upon earth. The various relations of life, which bring people together, cannot, as we know, be perfectly fulfilled except in a state where there will, perhaps, be no occasion for any of them. It is no harm, however, to endeavor to see whether there are any methods which make these relations in the least degree more harmonious now.
Meaning .. The author states that as a member of the society, we are bound to be attached to others. We can have friends, wife, siblings, parents, colleagues, subordinates, boses, and many more. We interact with them during the course of our daily lives. Such relationship is often mired in hatred, disgust, envy, intolerance etc. These are the dark spots of human existence as a community. We may choose to ignore these dark spots, but that would be a folly. We inherently get attached to one another, and there is no way we can keep these toxic feelings out of our lives. Only an ideal society, can be free from such corrosive traits. However, the author pleads, it is worth trying to find ways to minimize the damage the toxic feelings do to our smooth, peaceful, and harmonious living.
Third paragraph ..
In the first place, if people are to live happily together, they must not fancy, because they are thrown together now, that all their lives have been exactly similar up to the present time, that they started exactly alike, and that they are to be for the future of the same mind. A thorough conviction of the difference of men is the great thing to be assured of in social knowledge: it is to life what Newton’s law is to astronomy. Sometimes men have a knowledge of it with regard to the world in general: they do not expect the outer world to agree with them in all points, but are vexed at not being able to drive their own tastes and opinions into those they live with. Diversities distress them. They will not see that there are many forms of virtue and wisdom. Yet we might as well say: “Why all these stars; why this difference; why not all one star?”
Meaning ..The author proceeds to suggest some dos and don’ts to his readers so that they keep acrimony and rancour away from their relationships. The first thing is not to feel too important about yourselves. By a quirk of circumstances, people find themselves in the same domain and in the same community. It is fallacious to assume that all were born and brought up exactly in the same way , and with the same opportunities. Similarly, it is wrong to assume that all will reach the same level of status and wealth and prosperity in the future. We are all born different, with different backgrounds, different talents, and of course, different destinies. Such disparity is inherent. It can’t be undone or wished away. Like Newton’s Laws are fundamental to Science, difference among individuals is fundamental to community living. People know the other person is different in outlook, intelligence and wisdom. Despite knowing this, they try to argue and convince the other person to accept his views on different subjects. Such vaingloriousness creates rancour and seldom succeeds to bring the other person around. In stead, such efforts to sway the other person to fall in line creates bitterness and irritation. Such proud people are intolerant and can’t reconcile themselves to a different view point. It is as stupid as saying that the sky can have just one type of stars instead of so many different types.
Fourth paragraph ..
Many of the rules for people living together in peace follow from the above. For instance, not to interfere unreasonably with others, not to ridicule their tastes, not to question and requestion their resolves, not to indulge in perpetual comment on their proceedings, and to delight in their having other pursuits than ours, are all based upon a thorough perception of the simple fact that they are not we.
Meaning ..So, it’s clear that people must accept that there is inherent difference between individuals, in every aspect — their genes, body construction, mental capabilities, political views, food preferences, etc. etc. Appreciating this difference and learning to live with it holds the key to avoiding friction, discord, and malice. One must learn not to be needlessly intrusive into other’s affairs. Not poking nose in other people’s matters is a good trait. One shouldn’t ridicule other’s tastes and repeatedly mock them for their passions and convictions. For example, if a person loves classical songs, or wandering around alone in forests, or just cooking, and spends a lot of time and energy, we must never deride them for their special likes or dislikes. Consistent criticism miffs them. It creates irritation, and resentment. For happy living, keep away from judging people for their views or passions. We all must accept that our fellow community man is a different human being.
Fifth paragraph ….
Another rule for living happily with others is to avoid having stock subjects of disputation. It mostly happens, when people live much together, that they come to have certain set topics, around which, from frequent dispute, there is such a growth of angry words, mortified vanity, and the like, that the original subject of difference becomes a standing subject for quarrel; and there is a tendency in all minor disputes to drift down to it.
Meaning … Another golden rule for avoiding discord is to steer clear of contentious topics during chats. When people live quite close to each other, like in a family, or an office, they meet too often. As is human nature, they begin to talk. On such occasions, don’t raise contentious topics. In India cow slaughter is a divisive issue. Some abhor it, others practice it as their means of livelihood. Both sides have polarized positions on this matter. During friendly chats, never raise such topics. Otherwise, sparks will fly in no time, and painful misunderstanding may result.
Sixth paragraph …
Again, if people wish to live well together, they must not hold too much to logic, and suppose that everything is to be settled by sufficient reason. Dr. Johnson saw this clearly with regard to married people, when he said: “Wretched would be the pair above all names of wretchedness, who should be doomed to adjust by reason every morning all the minute detail of a domestic day.” But the application should be much more general than he made it. There is no time for such reasonings, and nothing that is worth them. And when we recollect how two lawyers, or two politicians, can go on contending, and that there is no end of one-sided reasoning on any subject, we shall not be sure that such contention is the best mode for arriving at truth. But certainly it is not the way to arrive at good temper.
Meaning .. The sagacious author has one more advice to give. He says rationality, proof, logic etc. are extremely important for advancement of Science and furtherance of knowledge. However, excessive emphasis on logic often has a jarring effect on smooth human interaction. For example, we can’t logically explain why we fall in love, admire a painting, write a song, or even why and how God created us. Since so much irrationality, emotion, and abstractness is built into our brains, we can not and must not harp on it at every step of our living. Stressing on logic in our interactions with people around us can be particularly irksome to people. Dr. Johnson had seen this danger in the married life of people. For example, a wife may suggest to her husband to go and mend the garden together on a Sunday morning. Instead of acceding to her innocuous and well-meaning request, the logic-crazy husband can say he will earn 100 dollars by going out to do overtime in his factory. Calling in a gardener to do the job might cost just about 50 dollars. So, he will go and do overtime in the factory, and not join her in the garden work. Obviously, he is being indifferent and cruel towards her. Such people are like wood, with no emotions and no love. They live and think like robots, because they lay undue emphasis on logic. In the same way, many divisive issues in our public sphere, like women’s clothing, meat-eating, reservation for the downtrodden classes can’t be handled by logical reasoning. These issues need empathy, sensitivity, and accommodative spirit. Logic plays a very limited role in such matters. Logic is essential in law courts, as it simplifies the examination of the merit of a case, but extending logic to other spheres of life is a bad idea.
Seventh paragraph ….
If you would be loved as a companion, avoid unnecessary criticism upon those with whom you live. The number of people who have taken out judge’s patents for themselves is very large in any society. Now it would be hard for a man to live with another who was always criticising his actions, even if it were kindly and just criticism. It would be like living between the glasses of a microscope. But these self-elected judges, like their prototypes, are very apt to have the persons they judge brought before them in the guise of culprits.
Meaning … Finding faults in others relentlessly is a bad habit. Whether it is ur wife, or colleague, student or children, no one likes to be derided for every shortcoming, real or imaginary. It is very hurtful for the person at the receiving end. Only judges are trained to incisively examine the depositions, and discover lacuna in them. By doing this, the judges can correctly discern the merit or otherwise of a case. However, we are just common folks, not judges. Behaving like one can cause severe dislike in others for us. It can impair harmonious living.
Eighth paragraph …
One of the most provoking forms of the criticism above alluded to is that which may be called criticism over the shoulder. “Had I been consulted,” “Had you listened to me,” “But you always will,” and such short scraps of sentences may remind many of us of dissertations which we have suffered and inflicted, and of which we cannot call to mind any soothing effect.
Meaning .. Sometimes people behave or talk as if they are very wise and intelligent, but they do it in hindsight, not at the spur of the moment. Such grandstanding is nothing but expedient. By saying that we could have done a thing the right way or avoided a problem through our wisdom is an opportunistic act. It hurts the other person unfairly, below the belt. Passing critical comments like this inflicts pain in others. Such propensity must be eschewed.
Ninth paragraph ..
Another rule is, not to let familiarity swallow up all courtesy. Many of us have a habit of saying to those with whom we live such things as we say about strangers behind their backs. There is no place, however, where real politeness is of more value than where we mostly think it would be superfluous. You may say more truth, or rather speak out more plainly, to your associates, but not less courteously, than you do to strangers.
Meaning … There is another common failing that besmirches our relationships and creates misunderstanding. When we mix with another person quite intimately for long duration of the day. It can be our colleague, family member, or servant etc. Such familiarity often makes us forget to extend the minimum courtesy to them. At times, we don’t wish our colleagues. We tend to take our wive’s role in the kitchen to be guaranteed. This is a very unfortunate trait. Just because we see our wives or colleagues so often does not mean that they forfeit their due of complements or kind words, or just some formal greetings. When dealing with strangers, we are mindful of the social civilities, but while talking to our near and dear ones, we tend to be curt, blunt, and rude. Such tendency is an impediment to harmonious and friendly living.
Tenth paragraph ….
Again, we must not expect more from the society of our friends and companions than it can give; and especially must not expect contrary things. It is somewhat arrogant to talk of travelling over other minds (mind being, for what we know, infinite): but still we become familiar with the upper views, tastes, and tempers of our associates. And it is hardly in man to estimate justly what is familiar to him. In travelling along at night, as Hazlitt says, we catch a glimpse into cheerful-looking rooms with lights blazing in them, and we conclude, involuntarily, how happy the inmates must be. Yet there is heaven and hell in those rooms, the same heaven and hell that we have known in others.
Meaning … The author is of the view that we shouldn’t expect our friends and society to give us things that they simply can’t. Building up expectations brings disappointment and misunderstanding. We can expect our neighbourhood doctor to attend to any illness at dead of night, but expecting to maintain vigil over the sick person the whole of next day is totally unwarranted. After all, he has to go to his hospital and do his routine duties. In the same way, we can count upon our servant to do household chores is alright, but expecting him to coach our school-going child is asking a bit too much. We tend to assume that we have a full understanding of their mind and capacities of others around us. This is far from true. We can’t understand the limits of other people’s strengths and weaknesses. The author gives an example. While walking on the road, a well-lit house from afar might give an impression that it is a lively place, and those dwelling in it are joyful and happy. Such conclusion might be totally misleading. It could be an unhappy home where the inmates are squabbling incessantly, or ill, or are living under some external threat. The well-lit outward view can never confirm that happiness abounds in the place.
Eleventh paragraph ….
There are two great classes of promoters of social happiness; cheerful people, and people who have some reticence. The latter are more secure benefits to society even than the former. They are non-conductors of all the heats and animosities around them. To have peace in a house, or a family, or any social circle, the members of it must beware of passing on hasty and uncharitable speeches, which, the whole of the context seldom being told, is often not conveying but creating mischief. They must be very good people to avoid doing the; for let human nature say what it will, it likes sometimes to look on at a quarrel; and that, not altogether from ill-nature, but from a love of excitement – for the same reason that Charles II liked to attend the debates in the Lords, because they were “as good as a play.”
Meaning … Sir Arthur Helps says that there are broadly two classes of people who promote social happiness. One group is the group of cheerful people, who never feel sad or despondent despite their setbacks. The other group is of people who are quite miser in their words, and seldom vent their inner feelings in public. They keep grief and joy to themselves. Whie living in a group, that could be a family, an office, or a congregation, chatterboxes cause much problem by blurting out inappropriate comments. This infuriates others. Such motor-mouths cause instant disharmony, and disgust. Words lifted from elsewhere without any context, and uttered gives a distorted picture of things. As a result, innocent people feel slighted and insulted. So, restraint in talking is a great virtue. It helps to keep disagreements at bay.. When a discord happens, and a quarrel starts, people in the vicinity watch it instinctively, although they may not be having any ulterior motive in the ugly exchange.King Charles ii watched the debates in the House of Commons to watch the lively debates in which rival speakers rebut one another with wit, and humour.
Twelfth paragraph …..
We come now to the consideration of temper, which might have been expected to be treated first. But to cut off the means and causes of bad temper is, perhaps, of as much importance as any direct dealing with the temper itself. Besides, it is probable that in small social circles there is more suffering from unkindness than ill-temper. Anger is a thing that those who live under us suffer more from than those who live with us. But all the forms of ill-humor and sour-sensitiveness, which especially belong to equal intimacy (though indeed they are common to all), are best to be met by impassiveness. When two sensitive persons are shut up together, they go on vexing each other with a reproductive irritability. But sensitive and hard people get on well together. The supply of temper is not altogether out of the usual laws of supply and demand.
Meaning …. A person who loses his cool for minor reasons is a distinct disrupter of social harmony. Such imperious people become rude and cause hurt to others for no great reason. These hot-tempered people must learn to rein in their anger, so that they do not utter nasty words while in a group. In a small circle, unkindness can be more toxic than bad temper. We observe that people who work under us suffer more due to our uncontrolled anger, than those who are at par with us in status, and live with us. The best way to counter such tendencies to vent anger on others, and show rude behaviour is to remain calm and show retributive reaction at all. It is seen that two sensitive persons tend to get embroiled in verbal diatribes unceasingly. The angry exchanges do not stop. On the contrary, a sensitive person, and an equanimous person do not get into fights. They can peacefully co-exist with each other. We have learnt that when supply goes up, demand falls, and vice versa. In somewhat similar way, when a person becomes unduly jittery and il-tempered, the other person’s passivity tends to neutralize the former’s belligerance.
Thirteenth paragraph …
Intimate friends and relations should be careful when they go out into the world together, or admit others to their own circle, that they do not make a bad use of the knowledge which they have gained of each other by their intimacy. Nothing is more common than this, and did it not mostly proceed from mere carelessness it would be superlatively ungenerous. You seldom need wait for the written life of a man to hear about his weaknesses, or what are supposed to be such, if you know his intimate friends, or meet him in company with them.
Meaning .. Intimate friends or relations like brother-sister, husband-wife etc. are privy to certain embarrassing facts about one another. For example, a sister might be knowing that her brother had failed twice in mathematics during his school days. When this small group admits a stranger to it, the members of the old group must never divulge the home truths to the new friend. Indiscrete mention of such embarrassing facts might offend the mate. Thus, it can lead to anger and shame. Carelessness while talking my lead to such slippage of tongue. The victim’s reputation is harmed by such callous disclosure of their weaknesses. Such irresponsible behaviour must be curbed.
Fourteenth paragraph ….
Lastly, in conciliating those we live with, it is most surely done, not by consulting their interests, nor by giving way to their opinions, so much as by not offending their tastes. The most refined part of us lies in this region of taste, which is perhaps a result of our whole being rather than a part of our nature. and at any rate is the region of our most subtle sympathies and antipathies.
Meaning ….While concluding his advice, Sir Arthur Helps says that for happy, harmonious and cohesive living, one should take extra care not to offend the other person’s tastes. Such discretion yields better results than learning about their interests and accepting their view points. Such caution is a noble trait. It is rooted in our whole nature. Instinctively, we might like or dislike something, but being able to keep such preferences under wraps is important for healthy relationships.
Fifteenth paragraph ….
It may be said that if the great principles of Christianity were attended to, all such rules, suggestions, and observations as the above would be needless. True enough! Great principles are at the bottom of all things; but to apply them to daily life, many little rules, precautions, and insights are needed. Such things hold a middle place between real life and principles, as form does between matter and spirit: moulding the one and expressing the other.
Meaning … Finally, the author says that scrupulous adherence to the fundamental Christian values will meet all that is written above. By being a devout Christian, one can get the full benefit of the above bits of advice. But, while trying to follow the true and authentic Christian values, one might falter in many real life situations. So, the author says, the common man must follow a middle path that is practical and possible and is in conformity with Christian values. This is why, the above counsel is important for us.