On the Shortness of Life (by Seneca)

Lucius-Annaeus-SenecaMy Thoughts On Using Time Wisely

Many of you have already heard me describe my (perhaps idiosyncratic) perspective on life and the method I’ve developed to help me utilize my time wisely.  For those of you that have not, allow me to summarize briefly in hopes that it might be beneficial for you as well.  I offer this perspective not as a panacea, but as a simple template which you might tailor to better fit the particular circumstances of your particular life.  In short, I hope that my thoughts on this topic might function as a plow, clearing the way of some impediments and leaving you with a relatively less obstructed boulevard down which you might travel.  I offer nothing groundbreaking here; only practical steps which have benefited me.

In light of the fact that I am a finite and ephemeral human being, graced with an uncertain time on earth, it is imperative that I make the most of the time that I am given.  Plato was on to something in declaring that the only life worth living is one which is closely examined.   I have often speculated that Plato chose the phrase “examined life” because it speaks to a proactive approach to life–a life lived with forethought–with the necessary corollary being that time (and life itself), if not examined, tends to pass us unawares.  It seems that time, like currency, finds its value in those things for which it is expended (desiderata); time is a means to some specific end(s).

A necessary element of using one’s time wisely is to develop criteria whereby one can distinguish between those things which are more or less valuable.   I think the best way to go about this is to think backward from the end of life.  I imagine a man on his death-bed is hit by many regrets, but I also imagine he is ambushed by many thoughts and memories, which, in light of his current circumstances, now take upon a shade of worthlessness.  For example, I highly doubt that a very elderly person would honestly say to themselves “I wish I watched more TV” or “I wish I spent more time entertaining myself.”  On the other side of the coin, there must necessarily be things in which we wish we would have invested more time, and these things are usually of a higher, more noble nature.

Accordingly, I try to ask myself (1) whether a given choice or action is something which, looking back from the end of life, I would deem as an appropriate use of my finite allotment of time, and (2) whether a given choice or action results in my learning something valuable.  When viewed from this perspective, I can guarantee you that certain things will grow “strangely dim” in light of things of true importance.  Human ephemerality need not beget the transitory, in fact, it begs for actions, desires, and thoughts which transcend the moment.  The examined life is the life which tries to invest each moment wisely toward some specific telos, or end.

I think we moderns tend to “kill” time, rather than to “invest” it  — a most unfortunate tragedy.  Here, as is often the case, a phrase of common parlance betrays a crucial deficiency of culture.

Seneca’s Thoughts on Using Time Wisely

One unfortunate side effect of my continued reading of classic texts is that my thoughts, which I once assumed were novel, are, at best, echoes of past authors who expressed them with greater lucidity than I could ever muster.  Such is the case with Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae (On the Shortness of Life).  Writing nearly 2,000 years ago, Seneca taught his Stoic disciples–in this case, Pausinias–a way of life which combated the excesses of Roman society.  His forebodings are quite applicable to those living in Twenty-First Century America–a culture that might not be so far removed from First Century Rome.  Seneca, more than simply arguing against wasted time, establishes a beautiful vision of a life well-lived.  I will have succeeded in my present endeavor if I can convince even one of you to read Seneca’s letter or to take serious the topic of human ephemerality.  Let us now take a look at his thoughts on the topic.

Beginning at an unexpected point, Seneca argues against the nearly universal opinion that life is simply too short.  In perhaps the most memorable quote of the book, he says,

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.  Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.  But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.  So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.  Just as when an ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

Seneca would suggest that life is wasted in a variety of ways.  While “insatiable greed” and “laborious dedication to useless tasks” are certainly things to avoid, for Seneca, the most common enemy of time well-spent is a fickle nature — something which he asserts is pathological in humanity.  He says, “Many pursue no fixed goal, but are tossed about in ever-changing designs by a fickleness which is shifting, inconstant and never satisfied with itself.  Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly — so much so that I cannot doubt the truth of that oracular remark of the greatest of poets: ‘It is a small part of life we really live.’”  Like Seneca, I often think that mankind has been born with  what I have termed “temporal myopia”, getting caught up in day-to-day survival, rather than setting our eyes upon and seeking out the good, the true, and the beautiful.  Even if we know what we should be, we often lack the ability/willpower to live each passing day in accordance with that goal.

To Seneca, our temporal myopia stems from a life lived in service to the passions, to the natural desires. In true Stoic fashion, Seneca argues that our desires are by nature fickle, changing, and aimless.   It is rationality which allows us to transcend the ephemeral and to actively pursue things of a higher nature, and habituation, which allows us to implement this sublime vision in our day-to-day lives.  In this way, Seneca’s Stoic ethics are clearly influenced by Aristotle’s conception of virtue (as presented in the Nicomachean Ethics).

Seneca goes on to describe man’s paradoxical greed over trifling things in contrast with his flippancy in giving away that which is most valuable: time.  He says,

“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.  So, I would like to fasten on someone from the older generation and say to him: ‘I see that you have come to the last stage of human life; you are close upon your hundredth year, or even beyond: come now, hold an audit of your life….You will realize that you are dying prematurely.” 

To substantiate this claim, Seneca cites Cicero and Augustus, some of Rome’s most “accomplished” figureheads, and shows that, for all their years of striving and achieving, they were not at all happy or contented.  At the end of their lives, these men wished, as must countless others, that they had spent their time less on gaining political power or fame, and more on those things which fall under that beautifully complex word of Greek origin: leisure.  (More on the topic of leisure in a forthcoming post…)

To Seneca, there is an art to living, which must be learned, and can only be learned, by the active exertion of the mind.  In a passage reminiscent of Plato’s famous statement that philosophers always pursue death and dying, Seneca says, “But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die.”  He goes on to say,

“Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.  But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day….  So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.  For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage, just a long tossing about.” 

Often we conflate a long life with a good life, even though, as Seneca shows, these things are minimally related.  Often one can live long, but rare indeed is the one who can be said to have made life long.

Betraying his obvious Stoic perspective, Seneca suggests that we not fight the past nor the future, but live in the present, which is the proper domain of human agency.  He says, “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.  You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours.  What are you looking at?  To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”  Naturally, in asking how to effectively live, Seneca comes to the conclusion that one must seize the day (carpe diem), taking advantage of each passing moment.  However, his is not an appeal to what is expedient or to what one simply desires at a given moment; Seneca would suggest that one must reflect on the past which enables one to choose what is beneficial in the present, and, in so doing, lay the foundation for a promising future.

“Life is divided into three periods: past, present, and future.  Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.  For this last is the one over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be brought back to anyone’s control.  But this is what preoccupied people lose: for they have no time to look back at their past, and ever if they did, it is not pleasant to recall the activities they are ashamed of….  And yet this is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune’s sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness.  It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession.”

Necessary to making wise choices in the moment, is the contemplation of what it is to live well, and this requires both reflection and leisure.  There is a balance that must be sought between reflection and action, as reflection allows for a depth or meaning of action, and action translates potential energy into the kinetic variety.  Even in this, Seneca is careful to distinguish between a calm, reflective leisure and life of indolence: “Some men are preoccupied even in their leisure…. You could not call theirs a life of leisure, but an idle preoccupation.”  This phrase “idle preoccupation” is paradoxical in just such a way as to help us understand that curious state in which mankind often finds itself.

Being a philosopher, Seneca obviously upholds the life of philosophy as the model which is best able to understand, and therefore best able to utilize, one’s finite allotment of time.  He says,

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only those are really alive.  For they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs.  All the years that have passed before them are added to their own.  Unless we are very ungrateful, all those distinguished founders of holy creeds were born for us and prepare for us a way of life….  We are excluded from no age, but we have access to them all; and if we are prepare in loftiness of mind to pass beyond the narrow confines of human weakness, there is a long period of time through which we can roam.  We can argue with Socrates, express doubt with Carneades, cultivate retirement with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, and exceed its limits with the Cynics.  Since nature allows us to enter into a partnership with every age, why not turn from this brief and transient spell of time and give ourselves whole-heartedly to the past, which is limitless and eternal and can be shared with better men than we?”

Speaking of communing with the great thinkers of the past, Seneca goes on to say,

“None of these will be too busy to see you, none of these will not send his visitor away happier and more devoted to himself, none of these will allow anyone to depart empty-handed.  They are all at home to all mortals by night and by day.  None of these will force you to die but all will teach you how to die.  none of them will exhaust your years, but each will contribute his years to yours….  We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance.  But we can choose whose children we would like to be.  There are households of the noblest intellects: choose the one into which you wish to be adopted, and you will inherit not only their name but their property too.”

In contrast with the person who communes with the past and uses his time wisely, life is short for those “who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”  Not only a life of fear, but a life of anticipation can itself paradoxically unravel the future: “They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing the dawn.”   Finally, Seneca goes on to argue that a life of acquisition results in a very short life because that which is acquired must be guarded by even greater toil, leaving an individual no time for the enjoyment of life.  Similarly, life, lived by default, seems to be a “succession of preoccupations” which stifles the enjoyment of life itself.

After he provided his student with a list of things to avoid, Seneca finally comes to his positive suggestions for a life well-lived: promise “higher and greater things of yourself.”  He suggests that Pausinias take up “sacred and lofty studies” including “the substance of God, his will, his mode of life”, “the love and practice of the virtues”, “forgetfulness of the passions,” “the knowledge of how to live and die,” and a “life of deep tranquility.”  Seneca would say the same to us.

Conclusion

Forsaking the trivial in favor of higher things is exactly what we need to hear.  Like Pausinias, we have been blessed with a sufficient amount of time and sundry other gifts; let us not waste what has been given to us.  Let us use our positions of relative richness to pursue virtue and magnanimity.  Perhaps we could learn from the Stoic perspective on life, not being  anxious of the future nor stuck in the past, and always utilizing the present to establish those character traits and virtues which are the proper desire of people striving for excellence.  We are blessed with exactly the amount of time we need…if we choose to utilize it. It requires great wisdom indeed to calculate the proper equilibrium of action and reflection which results in human flourishing, but it is well worth it.  Life tends to constrain itself to the lowest common denominator if it is not actively and purposefully shaped, so it is imperative that we examine our lives to see what is important, and live each day with those goals in mind.

As I discussed at the outset, I think the best way to begin is by identifying those specific things in your life which are worth the investiture of your finite allotment of time.   Live not in the past, nor in the future, but keeping both in mind, live immediately; live well.

Memento mori et vivere.

-Jacob Wolf

1 Comment

Filed under Classics, Philosophy

New Year’s Resolutions, The American Dream, and The Great Gatsby

Gatsby_1925_jacketAnother New Year, the long anticipated 2014 has already rolled around the corner. Reflecting on the toils, efforts, victories, and failures of the previous year, Americans once again unite in crafting New Year’s Resolutions to live better lives, pay off their debt, land a new job, or find new love. We ready ourselves for yet another desperate assault up the ladder of life–And then we fall. Whether we trip on the first step, or the third, we sooner or later lose our footing and fail in many of our resolutions by the year’s end. Based on historical precedent, I have little hope that 2014 will be any different. Never daunted, we regroup, renew our efforts, and try again. Pursuing that wisp of smoke, that green light, of the American Dream.

Three days after New Year’s Eve, I had the chance to finally watch the film rendition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Enthralled by the film and the book’s reflections on The American Dream, I could not help drawing several connections to our commonly made New Year’s Resolutions. In the classic story, Nick Caraway, a Yale man hoping to strike it big in the bond business in the Roaring Twenties, gives the account of his eccentric neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Living in a colossal mansion outside of New York City, Gatsby was famed for holding dazzling weekly parties; everyone who was anyone attended and laughter, music, and liquor ran freely. A virtual icon of the American Dream, we learn of the humble origins of Gatsby and his tragic dreams that become entangled with his love with Daisy. Gatsby spared no effort to reach Daisy, who was symbolized by the green light that shone from the end of Daisy’s dock on the opposite side of the harbor, yet always came up short. Never doubting himself, he always thought if tomorrow he just tried a little harder, he could finally reach her.  Sound familiar?

The fact is the dream that Gatsby held, which (allowing for variations) we all hold, is ultimately impossible to reach. The American Dream is fundamentally flawed. The pursuit of material wealth, power, and personal achievement will always be just out of reach. While we should not neglect our material life, we need to realize that there is deeper meaning to our daily struggles and dreams in life. Unfortunately, it was too late for Gatsby to learn this lesson. The classic view of the American Dream is flawed; there is a deeper meaning in the world, and a reformed Dream is in order.

What is the American Dream? It is not hard to describe, although it may take many forms. The traditional image comes to mind of a factory worker, a young entrepreneur, or a family setting off in a wagon looking for a better life out West. The idea that, striving hard enough, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and do anything we desire. All one needs is the will to succeed. It is also important to note that the American Dream, like so many of our New Year’s Resolutions, has a particular material element. We would like a slightly larger house, a remodeled kitchen, a new car, and a better job to pay for it all. While it usually includes earthly riches, there is often also a certain degree of prestige and power that is blended in, especially for the more politically ambitious. Occasionally, this dream is complemented with more relational desires such as developing stronger relationships with family, friends, and acquaintances. Three things are always required: a goal or dream, an undying sense of will power, and ensured reward in the end. A dream fundamentally flawed.

Fitzgerald fittingly described the holes of this dream in the last few lines of Gatsby, where Caraway is left describing the dream and lifestyle pursued by his extraordinary neighbor:

            I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock… Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—

            So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Gatsby never reached his goal, and most Americans never will. The goal will always have the despicable habit of moving one step further down the road. In the Roaring Twenties, the stock market boomed, men were made wealthy overnight, and suddenly everything seemed possible. However, it is quickly apparent that these goals will never satisfy. As the wise Solomon observed in Ecclesiastes 5:10, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity.” Personal material gains are relative. There will always be someone with more. Greed greases the whole system.

Somewhat ironically, Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations and the intellectual father of much of the modern capitalistic system associated with the American Dream warned of this myth. Near one of his classic passages in which he describes the invisible hand, the hypothesized hand that guides everyone’s individual ambitions into serving the general good, Smith critiques the very system of material desires that provide fuel for his economic system:

            Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body… though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to disease, to danger, and to death… It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind.

Even Smith recognizes that blatant material goals that motivate people are really mere trifles. These trifles are not reserved for super-rich, but are often available to those of the most humble means. The beggar in the streets has much of the same security, “that kings are fighting for.” In which case, what is the point? Toys, a new car, a new speedboat, or one more fine dress will do little to bring one true happiness and do even less to protect one from the real calamities of life. Gatsby always thought that he was merely one step away from achieving his dream, yet even the Great Gatsby’s dreams crashed and burned, and slipped into the past.

If we are not to pursue the American Dream, what are we to pursue? What do we really want in life? While true happiness has always been an elusive subject that has received the treatment of dozens of books and lectures, I would humbly suggest two areas that should be the core of our dreams and desires: relationships and spiritual growth.

Ultimately, people hold a central position in God’s creation. When Jesus Christ came down to earth, what did he do? With whom did he associate? He related with people, especially common folk. About a year ago I remember a speaker to our college Chapel who made this point crystal clear to his young audience: “Jesus was always serving the person in front of him.” Instead viewing people as obstacles to get around to achieve our goals, or worse, as tools to achieve our ambitions, we should focus our efforts on serving the people, whoever they may be, that we encounter in life.

The centrality of building life-long relationships is commonly referred to throughout literature and movies. Over the Christmas break, I also happened to finally watch Disney’s 2009 film The Princess and the Frog (a bit behind on the ball, right?). I was shocked to see how clearly the film exemplified the core position that relationships should have in our dreams. In one of the key musical numbers, Mama Odie, a “good” witch-doctor who fulfills the sage archetype, asks the two amphibian protagonists to “dig a little deeper” to uncover their dreams. Instead of Prince Naveen pursuing riches or Tiana placing all of her hopes in owning a restaurant, Mama Odie encouraged them to find happiness in the people around them, and in their case, each other. While it is always dangerous to place all your worth in other people, growing quality friendships and relationships will prove to be more long lasting than the mere pursuit of physical wealth or power.

However, people also fail and should not be the sole source of our happiness. Ultimately, we must place our ultimate fulfillment in life in something that transcends our earthly forms. Cars rust, cherished books collect dust, fancy homes deteriorate. Regardless of how firmly we set off to fulfill this year’s New Year’s Resolutions, we are probably already feeling the short-sightedness of many of these goals. A transcendent goal is needed. We need something that is permanent, something that will not only pass the test of time in our lives, but in the lives of our children and great grandfathers. For myself? I have found this ultimate value in the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. I know that in the end, faithfulness and growth in him is true progress in life. He will stand like a rock against both the highs and lows that the worrisome tide of life will continually sweep upon us. It is critical to have an eternal center to your goals. It is also important to note that this isn’t even strictly Christian advice, as Stephen Covey wrote in the The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:

The spiritual dimension is your core, your center, your commitment to your value system. It’s a very private area of life and a supremely important one. It draws upon the sources that inspire and uplift you and tie you to the timeless truths of all humanity. And people do it very differently.

While there will be perpetual struggles, wars within our fallen selves, we can at least find a degree of security in our relationships and our focus on God.

This is a reformed dream. It is a dream no longer dependent on material success, personal advancement, or prestigious titles. Please do not misunderstand me, I do not believe that all material concerns and motives to be folly. On the contrary, we live in a physical world and it is necessary for us to maintain ourselves. As C. S. Lewis noted, “to like doing what must be done is a characteristic that has survival value.” Despite the chinks in the Great Gatsby’s dreams, they were at least partially redeemed in and of themselves by the very drive that they inspired in him. Nick Caraway, reflecting on this characteristic in the beginning of the book, described it as a, “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life… an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again,” and as he called out to his fated neighbor at the close of the book, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Gatsby’s determination and drive should be admired, not despised. They key to his downfall, and our potential salvation, is not his energy but his object. As we make New Year’s Resolutions, as we should, we must always remember to keep a pure and proper end in mind. We will never “beat the ratchet,” and even if we do, what then? We must be careful not to be that sad soul, who, upon becoming so exciting in climbing the great ladder of life, reaches the top only to realize that he has been climbing the wrong wall.

~Adam Saxton

1 Comment

Filed under Literature, Miscellaneous

The Christening of The Digital Symposium

OdysseyWelcome to The Digital Symposium.  We are a group of individuals with an interest in the liberal arts who are committed to seeking a depth of understanding in all that we do and think.  We have launched this blog to begin a conversation about ideas, for like Richard Weaver, we emphatically assert that “ideas have consequences.”  This blog is a means for us to sharpen our thinking through the art of writing, to engage in conversation/dialectic to “rightfully divide the truth,” and to spark anew (or rekindle) in our readers a passion for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Like Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates, many individuals claim that devotion to the life of the mind necessarily leads to one being lost in the clouds — wholly out of touch with the “human world.”  To this, we reply that intellectual growth need not be pedantic nor esoteric.  We aim to be philosophers in the truest sense of the word: “lovers of wisdom.”  That being said, we remain human, so we would appreciate grace should we lapse into sophism, for our ultimate goal is to stumble upon wisdom, and specifically that wisdom which leads to virtue, or right living.  ‘Writing in the 1st Century A.D., Seneca clearly noted the difference between learning for the sake of learning and learning for the sake of cultivating virtue:

What, in your opinion, I say, would be the point in trying to determine the respective ages of Achilles and Patroclus?  Do you raise the question, ‘Through what regions did Ulysses stray?’ instead of trying to prevent ourselves from going astray at all times?  We have no leisure to hear lectures on the question whether [Ulysses] was sea-tossed between Italy and Sicily, or outside our unknown world…; we ourselves encounter storms of the spirit, which toss us daily, and our depravity drives us into all the ills which troubled Ulysses….  Show me rather, by the example of Ulysses, how I am to love my country, my wife, my father, and how, even after suffering shipwreck, I am to sail toward these ends, honorable as they are.

It is toward these ends that we pursue learning.  If ever we think we are learned, let us judge and be judged by the fruit we bear and the degree of virtue we embody.  If not exactly ‘practical,’ virtue is at least ‘practicable’ — and we should utilize our resources to develop selflessness and magnanimity.  In doing so, we may be making the ultimate rebellion against modern society.  Irving Babbitt, the (in)famous proponent of American Humanism, seems to have caught on to this theme when he wrote, “Even though the whole world seems bent on living the quantitative life, the college should remember that its business is to make of its graduates men of quality in the real and not the conventional meaning of the term.  In this way it will do its share toward creating that aristocracy of character and intelligence that is needed in a community like ours to take the place of an aristocracy of birth, and to counteract the tendency toward an aristocracy of money.”  In so far as we seek excellence, it is only in character and wisdom; this should be the ultimate goal of education.

Here at The Digital Symposium, we make no claims to novelty, for, indeed, I would suggest, originality is far too prevalent in the modern world.  Here we seek to accumulate and incorporate the wisdom of the ages into a sensible, thoughtful, and, most importantly, truthful method of living.  Truth should always take precedence over novelty, a fact which all too often forgotten.  Mortimer Adler reminds us this proper hierarchy, saying:

No higher commendation can be given any work of the human mind than to praise it for the measure of truth it has achieved; by the same token, to criticize it adversely for its failure in this respect is to treat it with the seriousness that a serious work deserves.  Yet, strangely enough, in recent years, for the first time in Western history, there is a dwindling concern with this criterion of excellence.  Books win the plaudits of the critics and gain widespread popular attention almost to the extent that they flout the truth – the more outrageously they do so, the better.  Many readers…employ other standards for judging, and praising or condemning, the books they read – their novelty, their sensationalism, their seductiveness, their force, and even their power to bemuse or befuddle the mind, but not their truth, their clarity or their power to enlighten.

If we tend toward anything, it will be proclivity toward that which is ancient.  This is not because we seek Eden in the annals of history, but because we seek to free ourselves from what I refer to as ‘the tyranny of the present’ — or, in Burke’s phrase, we seek to take advantage of the wisdom of the species.  C.S. Lewis beautifully described this mindset in his little known essay On the Reading of Old Books, in which he said, “The only palliative [against the tyranny of the present] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.  Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past.  People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes.”  By reading and writing we hope to reveal, understand, and correct the errors that are so prevalent in the culture around us.

As we christen The Digital Symposium (and lives devoted to intellectual excellence and virtue), may it be said of us as was once recounted of Basil the Great, that the galleons of our lives be “laden with all the learning attainable by the nature of man.”

Bon voyage.

-Jacob Wolf

 

1 Comment

Filed under Classics, Education, Miscellaneous, Philosophy