On the Art of Living with Others – Summary

On the Art of Living with Others by Sir Arthur Helps explores the tensions between private life and the obligations of public life.


Helps begins the essay with a question that leads to an obvious thinking. He says that great literary works have been written on various themes, like, ‘Iliad’ which is written on the theme of war and we have ‘Odyssey’ which is written on the theme of wandering. All these works, as Helps mentions, are great literary pieces of work written by some great literary minds. But to his concern, nothing great has been written on the theme of ‘domestic life’ of the people in general. No work speaks at length about the various activities that take place in the lives of a common man which is filled with innumerous events. He believes that all those events can form a perfect background with a social theme as the centre of a literary epic.

Speaking about the very common places within the house where any two people or more come together to have a conversation, Helps says that arguments may take place between people at the tea table. Expression of anger or impatience exhibited while people having a conversation near the fireplace can be compared with the Retreat of the Ten Thousand. All these events can become excellent themes of an epic literary work.

He admits that the great literary personalities, through their work, have celebrated some fantastic people and other beings for living alone in wilderness, but none had spoken about the people who live together, sharing a bond. None have appreciated the efforts, love and patience put in by such people, hence, they find no place in the eyes of the people at large.

Helps continues his thoughts by emphasizing upon a brutal fact of human nature. He gives the choice to the reader to either accept the fact or choose to remain ignorant, though it would remain unaffected on the validity of the particular human nature. It goes like –

“…. 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.”

Helps says that be it any relationship in life, either private or a social relationship, it cannot be perfectly fulfilled with even the tiniest tinge of hatred in it. Only then can any relation be harmonious. He, therefore, puts forth his willingness to explore various ways which can turn relationships further more in-tune.

The first method which people must put to use to live happily together is to accept diversity. All their lives, they had been the same, be it their childhood or youth. They even imagine their future to be the same unchanged. Hence, people get blown away by the contradictions in the nature and thought of their fellow beings and this hampers the harmony between the relationship shared by them with others. Helps says that people should not be ignorant and rather accept the difference in the nature and opinion of men in a social context. He states the example of Newton’s Law which does not fit in the field of astronomy, for at various levels it defies Newton’s Law. Similar is life, everything has various versions to it due to the existing social diversity.

Helps says that at times great men have knowledge with them with regards to the world in general which they don’t expect will be supported thoroughly. At certain points and parameters, this knowledge will be challenged. Despite knowing this, such men get vexed on finding themselves helpless at convincing the very people whom they live with. It is so, because the people with whom one lives together, shares a relationship, cannot be ‘forced’ into accepting one’s opinion. Diversity distresses them and they fail to acknowledge the other virtues and acts of wisdom displayed by those with whom they share a relation.

Helps says that people who live together peacefully, follow the above rule of accepting diversity in opinion and nature of the fellow beings. People with the intention of living together in peace practice certain things like “not to interfere unreasonably with others, not to ridicule their tastes, not to question and re-question their resolves, not to indulge in perpetual comment on their proceeding…”

Hence, when one wishes to live together peacefully in a relation, they refrain and restrict themselves from interfering in other’s acts, don’t ridicule their taste, don’t doubt and question their resolve. Also, one avoids unnecessary commenting on their acts. Such people who take delight in the diversity and differences in the opinion of others accept the fact that “they are not we.” Had everyone been of the same mind-set, then man wouldn’t have been unique in nature. There would merely had been clones.

Another rule, which Helps mentions, that people follow for leading a happy life with others is, to avoid keeping a stock of topics wherein they can indulge into baseless conversations leading to disputes. Helps says that it’s a common thing between people who live together, to end up a conversation in fighting and mortified vanity when they happen to indulge in conversations that lead to frequent dispute. The dispute rises to the level wherein the original subject of difference is lost. It becomes a standing subject, whereas the parties involved in the dispute end up souring their relationship. Hence, Helps says that such topics of dispute should be purposely avoided as they have a common tendency to lead to quarrel.

Continuing with his set of rules, Helps suggests that too much logic should be avoided if people wish to live together peacefully. Not everything needs to be supported with logic in an informal relationship. Quoting Dr. Johnson’s view regarding married couples, Helps continues, that the worst of the married couple is one which reasons all the minute details of their family life every morning. Such a couple tops the list of the wretched relationship.

Helps though states that this rule should not be merely limited to married couples. It should be followed in general too, for there’s no time for such worthless reasonings. Stating the examples of lawyers and politicians, Helps says that they are the best contenders in reasoning on any subject and speak at length by questioning every logic put forth in an argument. But in all this, one may not be certain to arrive at the truth but can be certain of leading to disputes. Hence, trying to find out excess of logic in a relation is futile.

Avoiding unnecessary criticism is another rule to be followed if one wishes to be loved as a companion. Making a satirical remark on the society, Helps says that there already exists a large number of people from the society who like to judge everything pertaining to others’ life. They seem to self-declare themselves as the beneficiary judges of the society. Now, if somebody who lives together with others’ also starts criticizing the other person’s action, it would be too harsh on him. In such a case, the intention of the criticism, be it done for good, holds insignificant and stands as nothing more than an absolute criticism.

A person who is criticized by the people he lives together with as well as the society, for him life would seem like living under a microscope; nothing personal and always open to the eyes of criticism. The self-proclaimed judges like to have the person standing before them, at the time of criticism, as a pre-defined culprit.

Helps, here, elaborates one of the various forms of criticism which is generally applied in the already stated criticism used in a relationship. In Help’s words, it can be called ‘criticism over the shoulder’. Phrases like “Had I been consulted,” “Had you listened to me,” “But you always will,” etc. remind us of the numerous instances wherein we have suffered and inflicted them leading to unnecessary pain to our souls.

Being courteous to our people with whom one lives together is another rule which Helps suggests to follow, if one wishes to live together peacefully. One needs to be polite with the ones we live with and can’t be superficial to them like one behaves with a stranger. We speak politely, only superficially with a stranger but behind his back we tend to speak about him in a crude manner. Whereas, contrary to it, we speak rudely with our dear ones under the pretext of speaking plain truth and not pleasing them. Here, Helps suggests that one may speak the truth but should be polite and courteous in his tone and manner, for our dear ones can’t be treated and should not be treated at par with strangers.

Helps suggests the readers to be conscious in their expectations from others, which includes friends and companions. It is foolish to be over expectant of others by superficially looking at the available resources with them, for we cannot define their intentions. It will rather be an over-confident statement to make if one says of being aware of other’s willingness to help more than they can. The irony of the situation is that, man fails to evaluate the love and goodness of his own people with whom he lives and hence, fails to justly define the limit of expectations one can make from their dear ones. Referring to Hazlitt, Helps further verifies the lack of judgement that people have. Looking at a room blazing with lights, one easily concludes it to be a heaven on earth for being occupied with the most cheerful people of all. Yet we fail to acknowledge that evil coexists with goodness. So, just by being friends with somebody one cannot rely to have all his expectations fulfilled. This characteristic feature of limitless generosity can only be found in our dear ones.

Helps states that there exists two classes of people, who can be termed as the promoters of social happiness; one is the kind of people who are cheerful and the other’s are the ones who are quiet, reserved and modest in nature.

The latter, in Helps opinion, are believed to be more conscious of social happiness than a cheerful person, for they remain neutral to the hatred and conflicts prevailing around them. By being of such a mettle, they refrain from indulging into any arguments or quarrels and help maintain peace and harmony.

For a healthy and harmonious surrounding, be it at home or some social circle, the people should refrain from passing an hasty speeches which bring no good and only result in mischief and quarrels. Such conversations revolve around meaningless context and are notorious in form. Helps says that people who get involved in such mischief may not be bad or notorious, but solely out of excitement they might participate in quarrels, nothing to do with ill intentions. It’s the similar case how Charles II liked to attend the debates in the Lords, not for participation, but for the sole reason that they were “as good as a play”.

Helps now mentions about the involvement of bad temper as a reason to hamper peace between the people who live together. He says that the reason he stated the various actions to be followed beforehand in order to avoid conflict was to first understand the basic reason of anyone losing his temper. Once the reasons are known, the losing out to bad temper can also be battled. Moreover, in his opinion, Helps says that in small social circles people and relationships tend to suffer more from unkindness than ill-temper. Anger is more harmful for people who are somewhat under us than those who live with us. It’s a human tendency to suppress the weak. Any form of ill-humour is unhealthy for any two individuals or society at large, hence, one should avoid such a demeanour. Helps states a situation wherein if two sensitive people are made to stay together by themselves then they keep on complaining which leads to increased level of irritation between the two. Whereas, if a sensitive and a practical person is made to stay together in each other’s company then they happen to get along well.

Helps now advices the readers that intimate friends or relations should be very careful when they socialize with the outer world or when they involve a stranger into their group. They should never misuse their knowledge about each other which they have gained during the course of building up the emotional bond. But in reality, people tend to spill the beans about another person to a total stranger out of sheer carelessness. But if purposely done, it can be counted as the acts of highest degree of ungenerous behavior ever depicted. Helps says that one need not long for knowing the weakness of someone’s intimate friend. If that someone is known to us, the one can be assured of knowing all the minute details shared out of utter carelessness.

Lastly, Helps says that in order to have a peaceful relationship with the ones we live together with, we need not necessarily take care of their likings or follow their opinions. We only need to be careful about not offending their tastes which is the result of our acknowledging their entire personality.

Speaking about following the principles of Christianity, anyone following those principles need not make use of any of the stated rules, suggestions or observations. Great principles lie within everything in the nature. But one needs to follow many rules, precautions and a great insight to apply these principles in daily life. Such efforts fall between the real life and principles, just like form exists between matter and spirit. The thought lies in mounding one and expressing the other.

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