The Death of Marcus Aurelius

The Death of Marcus Aurelius

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Vanitas 29

Kevin Best, Vanitas Still Life with Pochette

Arts, Wealth, Pleasure, and Philosophy

Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, Arts, Wealth, Pleasure, and Philosophy (1800)

Michael Leunig 11

The Wisdom of Solomon 7:15-23

[15] May God grant that I speak with judgment
and have thought worthy of what I have received,
for he is the guide even of wisdom
and the corrector of the wise.
[16] For both we and our words are in his hand,
as are all understanding and skill in crafts.
[17] For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,
to know the structure of the world and the
activity of the elements;
[18] the beginning and end and middle of times,
the alternations of the solstices and the changes
of the seasons,
[19] the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,
[20] the natures of animals and the tempers of wild beasts,
the powers of spirits and the reasonings of men,
the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;
[21] I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,
[22] for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me.
For in her there is a spirit that is intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
mobile, clear, unpolluted,
distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen,
[23] beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety,
all-powerful, overseeing all,
and penetrating through all spirits
that are intelligent and pure and most subtle.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

A Hermit Praying

Hubert Robert, A Hermit Praying in the Ruins of a Roman Temple (c. 1760)

Musonius Rufus, Lectures 20.1

Lecture 20: On furnishings. 


Related to and in harmony with extravagance in houses is all the matter of furnishings within the house—couches, tables, coverlets, drinking cups, and similar objects—completely surpassing all needs and going far beyond necessity. 


There are ivory and silver, yes, even golden couches, tables of similar materials, coverlets of purple and other colors difficult to obtain, cups made of gold and silver, some of marble or some similar material rivaling gold and silver in costliness. 


All these things are eagerly sought for, although a pallet furnishes us a place to lie on no worse than a silver or ivory couch, and a rough cloak is quite as suitable to cover it as a purple or crimson coverlet; it is possible for us to eat quite safely from a wooden table without longing for one of silver. Yes, and one can drink from earthenware cups which are quite as good for quenching the thirst as goblets of gold; and the wine which is poured into them is not tainted, but yields a fragrance sweeter than from cups of gold or silver. 


It may seem lazy of me to understand someone else’s words by pointing to yet another passage from a completely different author, but when the shoe fits so well, there is surely no shame in wearing it. 


I was not as keen on the musical version as most everyone else seemed to be back in the 1980’s, but the original book of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables shakes me to the core. Bishop Myriel speaks here with the voice of a true Stoic; I imagine that Musonius would have approved. 


The event that immediately follows this section is also profoundly moving, but I won’t spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know the story. Myriel will always be one of my literary heroes. 


"Monseigneur, the man is gone! The silver has been stolen!"


As she uttered this exclamation, her eyes fell upon a corner of the garden, where traces of the wall having been scaled were visible. The coping of the wall had been torn away.


"Stay! That is the way he went. He jumped over into Cochefilet Lane. Ah, the abomination! He has stolen our silver!"


The Bishop remained silent for a moment; then he raised his grave eyes, and said gently to Madame Magloire:


"And, in the first place, was that silver ours?"


Madame Magloire was speechless. Another silence ensued; then the Bishop went on:


"Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently."


 "Alas! Jesus!" returned Madame Magloire. "It is not for my sake, nor for Mademoiselle's. It makes no difference to us. But it is for the sake of Monseigneur. What is Monseigneur to eat with now?"


The Bishop gazed at her with an air of amazement.


"Ah, come! Are there no such things as pewter forks and spoons?"


Madame Magloire shrugged her shoulders.


"Pewter has an odor."


"Iron forks and spoons, then."


Madame Magloire made an expressive grimace.


"Iron has a taste."


"Very well," said the Bishop; "wooden ones then."


A few moments later he was breakfasting at the very table at which Jean Valjean had sat on the previous evening. As he ate his breakfast, Monseigneur Welcome remarked gayly to his sister, who said nothing, and to Madame Magloire, who was grumbling under her breath, that one really does not need either fork or spoon, even of wood, in order to dip a bit of bread in a cup of milk. . . . 

Written in 6/2000

The Art of Peace 63

The techniques of the Art of Peace are neither fast nor slow, nor are they inside or outside. They transcend time and space. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Seneca, Moral Letters 3.6

In like manner you should rebuke these two kinds of men—both those who always lack repose, and those who are always in repose. For love of bustle is not industry—it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind. And true repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation; that kind of repose is slackness and inertia.
Therefore, you should note the following saying, taken from my reading in Pomponius: "Some men shrink into dark corners, to such a degree that they see darkly by day." No, men should combine these tendencies, and he who reposes should act and he who acts should take repose. 
Discuss the problem with Nature; she will tell you that she has created both day and night. Farewell.
Just as there are people who share too much and people who share too little, so too there are people who do too much and people who do too little. 
This further example of falling into extremes is an ideal illustration, since the contrast between the excess and the deficiency is so vivid, and it is rare indeed to come across someone who has actually achieved the right balance between them. 
I have known very many people who are frantic workers, in a constant state of anxiety about completing as many tasks as possible, in as little time possible, all for a mysterious sort of success. 
Sometimes they want worldly rewards, and sometimes they just want to feel diverted by chores, but in almost all cases they have abandoned peace of mind for the sake of busywork.
I have also known very many people who are lazy bums, indifferent to the world around them, and willing to abandon any sense of responsibility. They may not even be gluttons for pleasure, simply resigned instead only to surrender. 
Sometimes they feel that their past failures are irredeemable, and sometimes they have just been pampered and spoiled, but in almost all cases they have abandoned peace of mind due to despair. 
And how often will I find that person who knows what work is for, and what leisure is for, and is able to find the harmony and complementarity between the two? 
I have no right to condemn anyone at all, because I haven’t really managed it myself. I have days when I can’t stop moving, afraid that if I did so I would have to gaze at myself, and I have days when I refuse to even get out of bed, afraid of everything out there.
My struggle to find the right way to trust has the same sort of instability. At one moment I spill my soul to the worst possible companion, and at another moment I run away in terror from the best possible companion. 
The girl I dated all through college was chronically dishonest, and yet I never found the courage to court the kind girl who sat next to me in all my history classes for four years, because I was afraid that she would laugh at me. 
I know all too well that tendency to shrink away, to hide in a shadowy corner, on account of the risks that are involved; I was a master of that for many years. But where is the actual risk, and what do I really have to lose? 
Nature made both light and darkness, just as Nature made both pleasure and pain. The choice to engage or to run away, and the choice to reach out my hand in love or to cower inside my lonely shell, is entirely up to me, and is in no way determined by what others may say or do. 
If I am judging with wisdom and acting with virtue, nothing can really hurt me. Finding that precious balance, the mean between extremes, is entirely within my power, to go as I will go, even as the world goes as the world will go. 

Written in 2/2012

Vanitas 28

Simon Luttichuys, Vanitas (1667)

Fragments of Parmenides 18

Moreover, it is immovable in the bonds of mighty chains, without beginning and without end; since coming into being and passing away have been driven afar, and true belief has cast them away. It is the same, and it rests in the self-same place, abiding in itself.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Fish, "View from the Hill"

My sense of nostalgia, spurred on by the nipping of the Black Dog, will often make it difficult for me to appreciate memories. I immediately see the worst in them, and I instinctively wish to turn away.

I once didn't touch a fine musical instrument, or even look at it, for many years, on account of the emotional baggage that went with it. I have books,  CD's, and DVD's on my shelves I cannot bring myself to read, listen to, or watch to this very day.

Even as my thinking would slowly but surely improve, this problem only seemed to get worse, as if some force was pushing back at me. A part of me, I suppose, wished to remain miserable and close my eyes to anything involving pain. 

It may take some time to embrace the fact the both the pain and the pleasure are necessary parts of life, as well as necessary means to finding peace and joy. 

I have an especially pleasant recollection of spending a summer in Austria with the girl I thought would be my best friend forever. She flew in a few weeks after I did, and I felt like my heart would explode when I met her at the airport in Graz. I felt even more twitterpated when I saw that she had brought along recent tapes I had made for her, including this album by Fish, who had just recently departed from my favorite band, Marillion. 

And so, like foolish kids, we listened to it together, over and over, often splitting the headphones, as kids will still do to this day. We would loudly sing out lines from it together, full of melodrama, and then laugh at one another. These were surely the best of times. 

My usefulness to her passed within the next year or so, and then the album sat ignored for almost twenty years. I constantly listened to everything else by Marillion or by Fish, but not this record. It just hurt too much. It's a shame, because it's probably his best work. 

And the other day I dusted it off, and I finally played it again. Was it agonizing? Hell, yes. Was to worth it? Absolutely. 

I had not really grasped the meaning of this song back then, and I now saw how it would have helped me not to have neglected it. It actually contains the gist of most everything I have struggled to come to terms with over the years. 

We are all sold an image, an ideal of a perfect life, and we usually fall for it, hook, line, and sinker. The illusions of success defined by power, wealth, and fame are what drive us, and we are then willing to abandon everything else in pursuit of this fantasy. 

"It will all be better when I get this, or win that, or achieve whatever I have been told is worth achieving."

And in the meantime, we forget justice, we forget compassion, we forget love. We are told to climb the hill, and to push everyone else aside, even to trample on them, and then we will see further. 

A friend once described the song better than I can: "You work your ass off to make money, and you spend the money to buy crap, and you make a giant hill of the crap. Then you stand up on your hill, having pissed on the people down below, and you suddenly have the nagging sense that you just wasted an entire life to see further, when all you needed was to see deeper."

At the age of twenty, I thought it was a great song. At the age of forty, it is now a profound song. Did it describe all of my own foolishness, years before I did any of it? Yes, it most certainly did. 

Written in 7/2010

Fish, "View from the Hill" from Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors (1990)

You sit and think that everything is coming up roses
But you can't see the weeds that entangle your feet
You can't see the wood for the trees 'cause the forest is burning
And you say it's the smoke in your eyes that's making you cry

They sold you the view from a hill
They told you that the view from the hill would be
Further than you have ever seen before
They sold you the view from a hill
They sold you the view from a hill

You were a dancer and a chancer, a poet and a fool
To the royalty of mayhem you were breaking all the rules
Your decadence outstanding, your hopes flying high
One eye looking over your shoulder, one eye on the hill

You used to say you were scared of heights, you said you got dizzy

You said you didn't like your feet being too far off the ground
But they said that up there you'd find the air would be clearer
Promised you more space to move and more room to breathe

They sold you the view from a hill
They told you that the view from the hill
Is further than you'd ever seen before

You were holding out forever, thought they'd never turn your mind
Your ideals they were higher than you ever could have climbed
We thought they couldn't buy you, that the price would be too high
That the riches there on offer they just wouldn't turn your eyes
But your conscience it was locked up in the prisons of your schemes
Your judgment it was blinded by your visions and your dreams
Praying and hoping that the view from the hill
Is wider than you've ever seen before
For the view from the hill we held our heads so high (smell the roses)

All the loved ones that you lied to are strangers left behind

All the ones that really mattered well you stood on as you climbed
You were holding out forever for your fathers and your peers
Holding out for everyone that ever walked in here
The edge was inside and you rode it all the way
You were playing the games that you learned yesterday
Hanging around like a fool with a name
You are holding your place for the view, the view from the hill

They sold you a view from a hill
Took it all for a view from a hill
And you find the views no further than you've seen before

They sold you the view from a hill
They sold you the view from a hill
And you stood and took the view from the hill

It's simply coming up roses

Sayings of Heraclitus 37

Swine wash in the mire, and barnyard fowls in dust. 

Seneca, Moral Letters 3.5

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. 
Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. 
But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.
I was never a gregarious person, and I couldn’t help but always feel deeply anxious around other people, so I never had the chance to be that fellow who shared too much with everyone else. 
I did, however, share far too much with a very select few people, imagining that they were the special soulmates I craved. The error was just as tragic, because the method of selection was completely off. 
Having found myself burned, I apparently thought it better that I should freeze, and thus began many years of deliberate isolation. It was just as foolish, though it seemed to make sense at the time, as I was working only from how I felt, not from what I was willing to understand. 
Even when I am, at the moment, oblivious to all the deeper workings inside me, I can still recognize that something is amiss by the simple fact that I am swinging from one extreme to another. There will be far too much of something one day, and then suddenly far too little of something the next. How exhausting and how fruitless. 
There are all sorts of pithy sayings to help us through life, along the lines of loving ourselves more, or not giving away too much, and yet none of them will make any sense without an awareness of the mean between excess and deficiency. 
That balance is not a matter of social convention, or the whim of the moment, or the coldness of abstract doctrine. That Goldilocks zone is found through the measure of Nature herself, which is discovered through wisdom. 
“I don’t feel like I love you anymore!” is in and of itself a meaningless phrase, since it fails to see that love is a choice, an act of the will informed by awareness, and not merely a sentiment. 
So it is also with any sort of trust. To trust a “friend” on a gut instinct, or on the fancy of a passion, was always what got me into trouble. I do not wish to suggest that it is wrong to feel intensely, since my own disposition is subject to deep emotion. I do, however, wish to suggest that feeling without first thinking will always be random and rudderless. 
When in doubt, I now try to follow Seneca’s advice. Is it better to be too open or too closed? Neither one is better, because what is best is found between them. 

Written in 2/2012

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Tidbits from Montaigne 19

A man of understanding has lost nothing, if he has himself. 

—Michel de Montaigne, Essays 1.39

Seneca, Moral Letters 3.4

Speak as boldly with him as with yourself. As to yourself, although you should live in such a way that you trust your own self with nothing which you could not entrust even to your enemy, yet, since certain matters occur which convention keeps secret, you should share with a friend at least all your worries and reflections. 
Regard him as loyal, and you will make him loyal. Some, for example, fearing to be deceived, have taught men to deceive; by their suspicions they have given their friend the right to do wrong. Why need I keep back any words in the presence of my friend? Why should I not regard myself as alone when in his company?
This is another one of those wonderful passages that taught me something more every time I returned to it. 
The first time, I nodded in agreement with the general principle, recognizing that friendship can only come from unconditional honesty, trust, and self-giving. 
If a friend is truly a second self, then why should I not share with him everything I would share with myself? I must be careful, of course, to accept both my own limitations as well as his, but what little I am capable of offering must be provided without hesitation. 
The second time, I wondered how Seneca managed to describe my own particular situation so accurately. 
Whenever such intimate union was lacking, I always met with failure and disappointment, but whenever a bond of conviction was present, I was able to act with confidence. The greater my own love, the greater an opportunity I then give another to love in return. Where I hesitate and require conditions, we both grow weaker. 
The third time, I realized how I had no one but myself to blame for following fake friends, and for actually encouraging them to be fake. 
It is easy for me to blame others for the pain of failed companionship, to play the part of the victim, yet my suffering arose from my own hasty commitments, and I have foolishly given another an even greater opportunity to act poorly when I offer a misguided trust. 
Perhaps my own experience has been especially unfortunate, or perhaps, as is more likely, I chose to be drawn to all the wrong people, but I find it terribly naïve to simply assume that people have my best interests at heart. 
There are indeed some who will act with genuine concern, and they are the ones I should carefully seek out. Their seeming rarity makes them appear all the more precious. 
There are also many, however, who are unwilling or incapable of loving others for their own sake, and I am doing neither myself nor them any favors if I insist upon friendship where none can be present. 
Let me treat all people with the justice they rightly deserve, yet I should also choose my friends far more wisely than I have in the past. The words “I love you” are empty without a trust won by deeds. Some of us have had to learn that the hard way. 

Written in 2/2012