Echoes through time: no more actions or adventures in the world

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

3 good reasons to curl up with a classic

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.

1. Relevance

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]

2. Perspective

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.

3. Distillation

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.

 

Echoes through time: a reputation for generosity

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

Echoes through time: the entire range of human fortunes

Exile, torture, war, shipwreck … We should set before our eyes the entire range of human fortunes, and calibrate our thoughts about the future not by the usual scale of events but by the magnitude of what could happen. If we wish not to be overwhelmed, stunned by rare occurrences as if they were unparalleled, we must take a comprehensive view of fortune.

… whatever we mortals construct is condemned to be mortal We live amid things that will die. … Let us, therefore, shape our minds to be such as will understand and endure our lot, knowing that fortune shrinks from nothing.

Seneca (4 BC – AD 65),  Moral Letters to Lucilius (91.8, 91.12, 91.15)

 

Image: Andrew Munro

We are imperfect people functioning in imperfect systems within an imperfect world @execupundit

Very wise words from Execupundit’s Michael Wade:

I don’t know where many young people get the idea that they and the world are supposed to be perfect but that is a cause of paralysis in the first case and delusion in the second.

Let’s start with the first. Being reasonably good in most jobs will put you close to super-star status. Do you think Babe Ruth or Ted Williams always hit home runs? Is every play by Shakespeare great?

 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash