The Fortress Of The Mind

[Author’s Note:  This essay first appeared in published form in February 2015 as a chapter of my book Pantheon.  Since I use the phrase Fortress of the Mind as my motto and colophon, I wanted readers to know its origin and special significance to me.]


In H.G. Wells’s 1904 short story The Country Of The Blind, an explorer in the remote Bolivian Andes discovers a long-isolated society of people who have become blind due to some congenital aberration, amplified by generations of inbreeding.  The society has developed and been maintained with no awareness of their destitution of vision.  He is taken in by the people and befriended by them.  When he tries to explain to them the meaning of sight and the visual wonders of the world, they laugh at his delusions.

The natives, comfortable in their amaurosis, conclude that this wild-talking outsider is to be pitied, yet observed closely because of his apparent capacity for subversion.   Falling in love with a local woman, his persistent efforts to explain the concept of vision to her lands him in trouble with the local elders, who conclude that he is suffering from a virus and should be forcibly blinded “for his own good.”  Getting wind of this plan, the explorer is forced to make a desperate escape through the mountains, nearly losing his life in the process.

It is a parable, to be sure, and one of timeless resonance.  New ideas rarely find a warm embrace in unfamiliar arms.  The capacity to appreciate the new and the bold is borne by souls tempered with the heat of knowledge, and the anvil of experience.  Only the educated are free, and only the free can be educated; the rest remain indentured servants, whether they occupy a high office or a dungeon.  In environments uncongenial to creative thought, the thinking man’s first imperative is the preservation of his moral purpose.  What is this moral purpose?

It is the maintenance of our internal compass, and the nourishment of our virtue, tranquility, courage, and honor.  Staying true to one’s moral purpose involves the ignoring of things over which we have no control, and the directing of applied industry on the things which we do control.  Let others consume their efforts in pointless trifles.  Let others drain their energy in futile worries.  As Epictetus says,


Let others practice lawsuits, others problems, others syllogisms; [you yourself should] practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled.[1]


Our focus, in other words, should be on how to deal with the inevitable hardships of life, rather than on the pettiness and drudgery of routine existence.  We should imagine our lives as something akin to a ball game, Epictetus further counsels us.[2]  In a ball game, we do not concern ourselves with the nature of the ball itself, but more with the catching, throwing, or kicking of it.  What matters to us is how we handle the game.  We can imagine life to be this ball game, with the ball being a life event that befalls us.

The life event may be good, or it may be bad; but we should not concern ourselves with this unduly.  Whether the ball is good or bad, what matters is how we catch or throw it.  Externalities in themselves, like balls in a game, cannot harm us; it is how we deal with such things that will contribute to the preservation of our moral purpose.  “A platform and a prison,” he concludes, “is each a place, the one high, and the other low; but your moral purpose can be kept the same, if you wish to keep it the same, in either place.”[3]

This is admirable stoicism.  Yet there are times when a man’s external environment may be so hostile, and so toxic, to his moral purpose, that he may find it expedient to adopt the position of exile.  He removes himself from the offending environment, either physically or spiritually.  Exile may come in two forms: internal and external.  Internal exile is a man’s physical location in his country of origin, but his spiritual withdrawal from the culture of that country.

Instead, the man of virtue seeks the company of like-minded souls for support and sustenance, with frequent travels abroad for a refreshing change of perspective.  External exile is the physical removal of oneself from his country of origin to another country, usually for an extended period.  We will discuss external exile here first.

The humanist Francesco Filelfo’s dialogue On Exile (more properly, Commentationes Florentinae de exilio) is to me the definitive statement on the subject.  Written around 1440, it takes the form of a conversation among notable Florentines, including Poggio Bracciolini.  It is a tome thoroughly classical in its tone and advocacy.  Filelfo takes as his starting point the idea that the only thing that should concern us is our own virtue:

Only the wise man is happy, only he is blessed, and only he participates in the Divine.  It is not he who believes that delicate and transitory Fortune, or the alluring and seductive pleasures of the flesh, should be placed ahead of the constitution and health of the soul.  The fool, because he erects Fortune as a goddess, is ignorant of the power and dignity of the soul, and refers everything back to the pleasures of the body.  And when he is most miserable, that is when he believes the greatest felicity and immorality is to be enjoyed.[4]

Is external exile a good thing, or an indifferent one?  How may a man best cope with the strain and loss of dignity that often accompanies exile?  These are the questions that concern the members of Filelfo’s dialogue, and that concern us.  Cicero reminds us in Tusculan Disputations that

Your country is where you do well.[5]

Filelfo echoes this sentiment.  Exile may be a misfortune, the members of the dialogue tell us, yet the soul of the great and virtuous man will never allow itself to be destroyed by the vagaries of Fortune.  If we have cultivated the habit of living our lives in the pursuit of our moral purpose (virtue), then we will have nothing to fear from external exile.  We, ensconced in our fortress of virtue, will remain untouched.  Focusing on externalities over which we have no control—such as riches, pleasure, and fooleries—leads us astray, and permits us to be seduced by false allurements of Fortune.


The riches of life are not to be found in these illusions; they are found in the honest pursuit of a balanced life, focused on virtue.  He who has never lusted after fame will never fear infamy; he who holds the enticements of wealth in slight contempt will never fear the onset of financial hardships.  Exile, in fact, may even make a man better, by permitting him a fresh perspective on things, and actuating a stimulating intercourse with foreign ways.

But what if a man is coerced into exile?  Is it not a tragedy to be separated from one’s own homeland?  Not necessarily, says one of Filelfo’s mouthpieces, Palla Strozzi.  For a man possessed of an “outstanding and unconquerable mind” (excelso animo et invicto), this type of hardship will prove to be only a minor impediment to continued happiness.  The wise man, the man of virtue, does not derive his satisfaction from external circumstances, but rather on the superlative qualities he has cultivated within himself through his virtuous pursuit of a moral purpose.

To the question Num malum putas patria carere (“Do you believe it bad to be deprived of a homeland?”), Filelfo’s answer to us is a resounding “no.”  History bears out this assertion, he says.  Many historical figures from ages past have had to flee their native lands due to the stupidity of fellow citizens, or the venality of rulers.[6]

While the mind of a wise man may be tried and tested by the experience, no evil may befall him; he remains safely protected in his fortress of virtue.  Filelfo’s book advances an elegantly stoic argument for dealing with the alienation and sense of loss that comes with external exile.  Its stern ethic of endurance is probably the only realistic method that could be used to cope with exile; but by its insistence on virtue, it places itself beyond the reach for all but the most disciplined and hardy souls.


But perhaps this must be so.  Some will use the opportunity of exile to gain perspective, take up productive pursuits, and find an enriching life outside the fetters of the old ways; some will languish, and sink into obscurity and despair.  The choice, as always, is ours.  The best summary we can make of these arguments is this quote, appearing in the third book of his treatise and relating a timeless truth:

Choice is not an end; but it is applied to things for an end.  The will, however, is a finality.[7]

The power of the will controls the outcome of the matter, and remains paramount.  So much for the matter of external exile.

We will now consider internal exile, or that form of exile produced when a man remains in his country, but finds himself alienated from his immediate surroundings.  Men similarly disposed and seeking the same ends tend to find each other; like frogs scattered about along the edge of a pond, or moths fluttering about a light, they inevitably congregate.

Where the knowledge being sought is not favored by the mainstream, secret societies are the result.  One of the most mysterious and esoteric fraternities known to history was the so-called “Brethren of Purity.”[8]  In fact, they were so successful at concealing their numbers, membership, and goals that even today we know very little about them.

The Brethren were an Islamic philosophical fraternity, Isma’ili in sectarian affiliation, and active in Iraq during the tenth century A.D.  Their chief legacy is a collection of fifty-two “letters” or “epistles” that purport to summarize the most important fields of knowledge: physical sciences, mathematics, theology, language, and psychology.  In their complete form, the collected letters fill four thick volumes.  The Brethren had all of the hallmarks of a true intellectual “guild”: there were ranks and levels of membership, coordinated meeting times and places, and a common purpose.

But what was this purpose?  They clearly believed that the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge—in whatever form—would be a way for the enlightened man to liberate himself from the earthly prison of the body.  With the Neoplatonist tone that permeates all of Arabic medieval philosophy, the letters of the Brethren allude to the mystic union with the Divine, and call for using esoteric knowledge as a means to achieve this goal.

The Arabic prose style of the letters is intimate and intoxicating in its poetic use of religious imagery.  The fog of translation can approximate the meaning of this type of literature, but cannot do it full justice.  In describing their purpose, the Brethren tell us:

Know, O my brother, that we do not envy the kings of the two worlds, and do not breathe in the pathways of the sons of the world, but we seek the heavenly king and the pathways of the angels, which are the wings of the second, third, and fourth. Our essence is of the heavenly essence, and our world is the upper world.  We, therefore, are foreign prisoners in the captivity of Nature, drowning men in the sea of primordial matter, in a crime that was due to our father Adam (the original man), when he deceived his enemy the Devil when he said: ‘You took liberties with the angelic Tree of Heaven heedlessly. You showed them deception, as when you tasted of the Tree, you spread to them their disgrace.[9]

Man is seen as “prisoner in the captivity of Nature, drowning…in a sea of primordial matter.”  This is an image that Plotinus himself would have approved of.  The way to escape this prison of matter was through the enlightenment of knowledge of every field.  The wisdom thereby accrued would bind together the fraternity, and enable them to achieve union with the Divine.  Sharing esoteric knowledge with the unworthy was forbidden; the Brethren had no illusions about the egalitarian nature of knowledge.  The following passage is illustrative:

Know, O my pious and merciful brother, that we do not hide our secrets from people out of fear of the power of rulers the earth, or out of caution of causing disturbances among the people, but out of concern for preservation of the talents All-Powerful God given to us, as when he entrusted the Messiah when he said: “Do not place wisdom in those outside our group, for that would be an injustice to it; and do not forbid wisdom from those worthy of it, for that would be an injustice to them.”[10]

Those who failed to heed the knowledge imparted by the Brothers would be adrift, lost in a wilderness of stumbling ignorance:

And know, O my brother, that doubt lies in what we have warned of, and the answer in what we have mentioned and is known; the ignorant man does not know it, and has no understanding of it, for he is heedless in his drunkenness, and lost in his ignorance.[11]

We know that the Brethren of Purity flourished in 8th century Iraq, but history loses sight of them after that.  Perhaps it was merged into other organizations, or broke down into smaller groups.  We do not know.

There have been many similar fraternal organizations in history, organized around the principle of cultivating esoteric knowledge, and with a similar preoccupation with secrecy.  The Pythagoreans of ancient Italy, for example, considered mathematical knowledge nearly divine in origin, and imposed strict secrecy on their society’s members.  Similar practices surrounded astronomical knowledge collected by the Babylonians, Chaldeans, and certain priestly sects in Egypt.

The masonic lodges of Europe which emerged during the Enlightenment were (in theory) organized around the principle of the transmission of knowledge.  A seeker of wisdom, finding himself subjected to internal exile, might be drawn to such groups.  He would take comfort in the presence of like-minded souls; he would stimulate his creativity with intellectual commerce; and he would find an outlet for his masculine tribal instinct.

Exile, whether internal or external, cannot crush the spirit of the man of virtue.  Maintaining his moral purpose, and secure in his mental redoubt, he finds ways of overcoming the barriers placed before him.  The mind is a fortress, its casements arranged with stones hewn from the quarry of hard experience and relentless struggle.  No assault can capture this citadel, or force entry into its sanctum.




[1] Discourses II.2.

[2] Id. II.5.

[3] Id. II.7.

[4] Solus profecto sapiens felix est, solus beatus, solus divinitatis particeps.  Non enim is est qui aut fragilem caducamque fortunam virtutis stabilitati et firmitudini, aut dulcedinem corporis titillantemque laeticiam animi gravitati atque constantiae anteponendam censeat.  Nam stultus, quoniam deam sibi fortunam constituerit, et quae vis animi, quae dignitas sit ignorant et omnia ad corporis voluptatem refert.  Cumque maxime miser est, tum se felicitate maxima frui immortalique opinatur.  See De Keyser, J. Francisco Filelfo: On Exile, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press (2013), bk. I.5.  I have used this edition of Filelfo’s text.

[5] Patria est, ubicumque est bene.  Tusc. Disp. V.108.

[6] Aut enim ineptias civium ac principium, aut invidiam fugere coacti sunt.  De Exilio, I.203.

[7] Ad haec election non est finis, sed eorum quae ad finem referuntur.  Voluntas autem finis est.  Id. III.148.

[8] اخوان الصفاء is the original name, which may be rendered “Brethren of Purity” or “Brethren of Serenity.”

[9] The original here reads:

و اعلم ايها الاخ انّا لا نحسُد ملوك الارضين و لا تنافس في مراتب ابناء الدنيا, لاكن نطلب الملك اسماوي و مراتب

الملاءكة الدين هم اُولو اَجنحةٍ مثنى و ثلاث و رباع, لان جوهرنا جوهر سماوي, عالمنا عالم عُلويّ, و نحن هاهنا اسرى غرباء في اسر الطبيعة, غرقى في بحر الهَيُولى بجناية كانت من ابينا آدم الاول حين خدعه عدوه اللعين اِذ قال “هل ادلُّك على شجرة الخلد و ملكٍ لا يبلى.  فدلالهما بغرور فلما ذاقا الشجرة بدت لهما سوآتهما.

Letters of the Brethren of Purity, Beirut: Dar Al Sader (2011), vol. IV, p. 166.  Nearly any passage selected at random from the four volumes has the same ethereal tone.

[10] The original here reads:

و اعلم ,ايها الاخ البار ارحيم , انّا لا نكتُم اسرارنا عن الناس خوفاً من سطوة الملوك  ذوي السلطنة الارضية, و لا حذراً من شغب جمهور العوامّ, و لكن صيانةً لمواهب الله عز و جل لنا كما اوصى المسيح فقال “لا تضعوا الحكمة عند غير اهلها فتظلموها و لا تمنعوها اهلها فتظلموهم.”

See Letters of the Brethren of Purity, Beirut: Dar Al Sader (2011), vol. IV, p. 166.

[11] My rendering of this sentence (Id. at p. 272):

و اعلم ايها الاخ ان الشاكّ فيما ذكرناه, و الرادّ فيما وصفناه معروفٌ في ذالك لانه جاهل لا علم له و لا معرفة عنده,  فهو لاه في سكرته, تاءىه في ضلالته.