I read the quote below today in Les Misérables. It makes me think of the ideas of “positive psychology” that certain admirable characteristics are achievable only after surviving desperate circumstances, of which extreme poverty is the most common. Most people in modern Britain have not had the experience but many immigrants have, which is another argument–beyond the familiar economic argument–of how immigrants ring great benefits to a society.
“Extreme poverty,” writes Victor Hugo in , “ [is] a stern and terrible trial which brings the weak to infamy and the strong to nobility; the crucible into which Destiny casts a man, to make of him a ne’er-do-well or a demi-god….
Poverty in youth, when it is mastered, has the sovereign quality that it concentrates the will-power upon striving and the spirit upon hope. By stripping our material existence to its essentials and exposing its drabness, it fosters in us an inexpressible longing for the ideal life. The well-to-do young man is offered a hundred dazzling and crude distractions – horses, hunting and gambling, richfood, tobacco, and all the rest – occupations for his baser nature at the expense of everything in him that is high-minded and sensitive. The poor young man struggles to stay alive; he contrives to eat, and his only solace is in dreaming. His only theatre is the free show that God provides, the sky and the stars, flowers and children, mankind whose sufferings he shares and the created world in which he is trying his wings. He lives so close to humanity that he sees its soul, so close to the divine creation that he sees God. He dreams and feels his own greatness; dreams again and feels tenderness. He progresses from the egotism of the man who suffers to the compassion of the man who meditates, and an admirable sentiment is born in him, of self-forgetfulness and feeling for others. Reflecting on the countless delights that nature showers on minds open to receive them, and denied to those whose minds are closed, he ends, a millionaire of the spirit, by pitying the millionaire of nothing but money. All hatred disappears from his heart as enlightenment grows in him. Indeed, is he really unhappy? No, he is not. A young man’s poverty is never miserable. Any youngster, poor as he may be, with health and strength, a buoyant stride and clear eyes, hot-flowing blood, dark hair, fresh cheeks, white teeth and clean breath, is an object of envy to any aged emperor. And then, he gets up every morning to earn his livelihood, and while his hands are busily employed his backbone gains in pride and his mind gains in ideas. His day’s work done, he returns to the delights of his contemplative life. He may live with feet enmeshed in affliction and frustration, hard-set on earth amid the brambles and sometimes deep in mud; but his head is in the stars. He is steadfast and serene, gentle, peaceable, alert, sober-minded, content with little, and benevolent; and he blesses God for having bestowed on him those two riches which the rich so often lack – work, which makes a man free, and thought, which makes him worthy of freedom.”
Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables (Classics) (p. 591). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.