'Let us begin at the beginning,' continued Owen, taking no notice of these interruptions. 'First of all, what do you mean by Poverty?'
'Why, if you've got no money, of course,' said Crass impatiently.
The others laughed disdainfully. It seemed to them such a foolish question.
'Well, that's true enough as far as it goes,' returned Owen, ' that is, as things are arranged in the world at present. But money itself is not wealth: it's of no use whatever.'
At this there was another outburst of jeering laughter.
'Supposing for example that you and Harlow were shipwrecked on a desolate island, and YOU had saved nothing from the wreck but a bag containing a thousand sovereigns, and he had a tin of biscuits and a bottle of water.'
'Make it beer!' cried Harlow appealingly.
'Who would be the richer man, you or Harlow?'
'But then you see we ain't shipwrecked on no dissolute island at all,' sneered Crass. 'That's the worst of your arguments. You can't never get very far without supposing some bloody ridclus thing or other. Never mind about supposing things wot ain't true; let's 'ave facts and common sense.'
''Ear, 'ear,' said old Linden. 'That's wot we want--a little common sense.'
'What do YOU mean by poverty, then?' asked Easton.
'What I call poverty is when people are not able to secure for themselves all the benefits of civilization; the necessaries, comforts, pleasures and refinements of life, leisure, books, theatres, pictures, music, holidays, travel, good and beautiful homes, good clothes, good and pleasant food.'
Everybody laughed. It was so ridiculous. The idea of the likes of THEM wanting or having such things! Any doubts that any of them had entertained as to Owen's sanity disappeared. The man was as mad as a March hare.
'If a man is only able to provide himself and his family with the bare necessaries of existence, that man's family is living in poverty. Since he cannot enjoy the advantages of civilization he might just as well be a savage: better, in fact, for a savage knows nothing of what he is deprived. What we call civilization--the accumulation of knowledge which has come down to us from our forefathers--is the fruit of thousands of years of human thought and toil. It is not the result of the labour of the ancestors of any separate class of people who exist today, and therefore it is by right the common heritage of all. Every little child that is born into the world, no matter whether he is clever or full, whether he is physically perfect or lame, or blind; no matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal--he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before.'
Some of them began to wonder whether Owen was not sane after all. He certainly must be a clever sort of chap to be able to talk like this. It sounded almost like something out of a book, and most of them could not understand one half of it.
'Why is it,' continued Owen, 'that we are not only deprived of our inheritance--we are not only deprived of nearly all the benefits of civilization, but we and our children are also often unable to obtain even the bare necessaries of existence?'
No one answered.