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Hermann Hesse on Moderation and Life's Small Pleasures


A prudent attitude towards the pleasures in life will lead to the enjoyment of existence.

The world we inhabit, compulsive, urgent, inundated by time, will at times inadvertently obscure the simplest and most beautiful sources of joy. It’s easy to blame work, modern life or new technologies for our frequent dissatisfaction, but these are only symptoms of something more; the absence of a capacity that’s easily recovered, and one that’s as simple as it is beautiful.

For the writer, Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), the urgency, that need to be occupied and then to live in a state of compulsive productivity – doing, rather than simply being – is the crucial drama of modern existence. But the Swiss author has an answer which, while seemingly obvious and simple, implies a superior understanding, one capable of changing our relationship with the world.

In a visionary 1905 essay, “On Little Pleasures,” Hesse began by describing the real problem. “Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor.” He continues by pointing out our most frequent source of dissatisfaction. “But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” This compulsion to seek pleasure only generates more dissatisfaction, and one which, paradoxically, has to be constantly satiated.

Hesse’s proposed solution is, however, refreshing and simple:

“I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: Moderate enjoyment is double enjoyment. And: Do not overlook the little joys!”

Herman Hesse and his cat

According to Hesse, moderation requires great courage, at least in the face of the societies in which we live and in the company of the people we know. Simply put, try this exercise: imagine that a man accustomed to seeing art exhibits full of spectacular works spent an hour or more observing but a single masterpiece and then decided to “… content himself with that for the day.” No doubt, Hesse asserts, this man would learn something.

Finally, the writer asserts that the ability to enjoy the small pleasures of life is intimately connected with the habit of moderation. It’s a capacity we all had, originally, but which is diminished by the whirlwind of modern life. Moderation is the source of love, joy, and poetry within our busy lives. In regard to the truly grand pleasures, Hesse recommends saving them for holidays or for really appropriate moments.

“On Small Pleasures” is a brief invitation to do what Hesse defines as opening one’s eyes to the world because learning to enjoy in small doses allows for a more lasting sense of fullness and satisfaction. These small pleasures, like unseen sources of light, shine around us and vary with each person, while showing an answer. And the small sacrifices implied by moderation will only become more valuable.
In closing his essay, Hesse makes one small, discreetly illuminated recommendation:

Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another, the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky, and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.

And it’s true. Why should we be willing to lose ourselves within pieces of heaven? The beauty of a garden fence covered in branches? The gallantry of a dog? A group of children? A beautiful face? The sound of your own voice? A piece of fruit? Or a melody sung by someone in the distance?

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