you say, science itself will teach man (though to my mind it’s a superfluous luxury) that he never has really had any caprice or will of his own, and that he himself is something of the nature of a piano-key or the stop of an organ, and that there are, besides, things called the laws of nature; so that everything he does is not done by his willing it, but is done of itself, by the laws of nature. Consequently we have only to discover these laws of nature, and man will no longer have to answer for his actions and life will become exceedingly easy for him. All human actions will then, of course, be tabulated according to these laws, mathematically, like tables of logarithms up to 108,000, and entered in an index; or, better still, there would be published certain edifying works of the nature of encyclopaedic lexicons, in which everything will be so clearly calculated and explained that there will be no more actions or adventures in the world.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (Niccolo Machiavelli (1821 – 1881) , Notes from the Underworld, Part 1, chap. 6
I confess, I’m a latecomer to the classics of Ancient Greece and Rome. I loved the Greek (and Norse) myths as a kid, but I’d not really read any original work until maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
By pure chance, I started with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. There was no better place to start; relevant, accessible and blessedly short. I’m still pitifully under-read, but I’ve since enjoyed Aristotle, Homer, Seneca and Epictetus.
Suitably “born-again”, I now think everyone should read some ancient classics. But, why bother? The Art of Manliness blog has a persuasive essay, here.
To that, I would just add my own three reasons.
Those books written 1,800 to 2,500 years ago can often feel strangely contemporary. The world the ancients describe, the human condition, the challenges, even the values feel familiar. Why? Because we evolve slowly. Strip away our BMWs and iPhones and not much has changed. When Aristotle tells you that the essence of storytelling is “pity, fear, catharsis”, he is still correct. As Marcus Aurelius observes,
To see the things of the present moment is to see all that is now, all that has been since time began, and all that shall be unto the world’s end; for all things are of one kind and one form. [Meditations, 6.37]
Because those millenia-old texts are still relevant, they help put things in perspective. Brexit, Trump or the idiot on the end of the phone are probably not going to bring the end of days.
Equally, some things are old, and go deeper, than we think. For example, many (though not all) of the values we believe to be Christian you’ll find in Homer, eight centuries earlier.
The classics put things in perspective.
Why are the classics classic? It’s not because they were ordained as such centuries ago. Each generation visits them anew and deems them worthy of passing on to the next generation. As with Aristotle or Aurelius, so with Sun Tsu, Machiavelli or Shakespeare – you have the distilled wisdom of the ages.
From all of human history, the classics bring you the best bits. It’s like a greatest hits of history.
There is, after all, a good reason why we don’t still celebrate the sitcoms of Shakespeare’s neighbour, Bert.
Where to start?
I find Meditations pithy and accessible. Another great place to start is T.E. Lawrence’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey. Lawrence (that is Lawrence of Arabia) rendered his translation in prose form, like a novel, rather than in verse which makes for an easier read. Along the way, you’ll meet the cyclops, the sirens and the witch Circe.
The Art of Manliness article has a great reading list to get started with and, as it points out, many of these are now available free online.
So, cheaper than Netflix, curl up with a classic for January.
Bob Dylan, The Complete Album Collection Vol. One. Happy 2019!
This all started with a trip to the Mondo Scripto exhibition at the Halcyon Gallery, back in November.
I’m not a big fan of Dylan’s drawings, but the event took me back to the lyrics and the songs which, of course, are sublime. Then, I was blessed with some new stuff for Christmas (Trouble No More, from the Bootleg Series) .
And then the itch started. I remember this collection being released in 2013. In its original form, it came with a Harmonica-shaped USB stick containing all the the music for easy download. I really wanted it back then, but I resisted. It contains every studio and live album by Bob Dylan, from 1962’s eponymous debut to 2012’s Tempest (his last album, so far, of original material). That’s 41 albums in all.
It doesn’t include the Bootleg Series, of which there are now 14 albums, and the various Greatest Hits collections have been replaced with a two-disc collection, Side Tracks, that sweeps up all the otherwise unreleased tracks.
Some of these albums I’ve only had on vinyl. Others I’ve never heard (Together Through Life, Christmas In The Heart, anyone?).
At first inspection, it looks fantastic. Each disk is in a miniature card reproduction of its original sleeve. Obviously, the sleeve notes become too small to read, but they are included in a nice little hard-back book, along with the original artwork.
Perhaps, I should just start at You’re No Good and work my way through, track by track.
I may be some time.
If your generosity is good and sincere it may pass unnoticed and it will not save you from being reproached for its opposite. If you want to sustain a reputation for generosity, therefore, you have to be ostentatiously lavish; and a prince acting in that fashion will soon squander all his resources…
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527), The Prince, chapter 16
If you’re like me, planning and resolving for the new year is a slow-cooked, ruminative affair. However, if you are still in planning mode, here’s a couple of posts to kick-start that move from planning to doing.
Your Word 2019
Choose a word. Any word. One word. Make it yours. Whiteboard it. Write it every day on your planner, put the word on a handful of 3 by 5 cards and place them in strategic places as an ever-present reminder. Get a personal T-shirt printed with it. Learn it in ten other languages. Grab it now: meditate on it, reflect on it; live it, breathe it and nurture it. For 2019.
Read the full 101, here. Number 92 is Story-teller.
The top 5%
In every field, extraordinary benefits go to those seen as being in the top five percent. One out of twenty.
Sure, the biggest prizes go to the once-in-a-generation superstar. But that’s largely out of reach. It turns out, though, that if you’re thoughtful and diligent, the top 5% is attainable.
Read the rest, here.
1.Rank relationships higher than projects.
7.Write more thank-you notes.
The full list, here.
So, no excuses now. Stop planning and start doing.
When books have all seized up like the book in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult media, we wonder if you
Will find flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?
Louis MacNeice (1907-1963), Poems Selected by Michael Longley