Our trusted friend Ibn Muqaffa provides us with the following advice which I have committed to memory:
For there are five things, which any one may call his friends, which are his surest support on every occasion, his protecting companions in his journey through life, and the source from which he may draw the supply of his natural wants. The first of these is the knowledge of how to guard against evil; the second are virtuous habits; the third, freedom from doubt; the fourth, generosity of character; and the fifth, good conduct.
It will be useful for us to say something more about each of these protecting companions.
1. The knowledge of how to guard against evil. I find that this knowledge is very much underestimated. Most advice centers around how to extricate one from pernicious situations; but little or no attention is given to avoiding evil before it insinuates itself in one’s life. Prevention is easier than remedial cures, as we know. One of youth’s major shortcomings is its inability to detect trouble in its formative stages. A man must develop a nose for it. He must have all his senses actuated to the detection of evil well before such evil latches on to him. Some have an innate ability to ferret out trouble; some much less so. To develop this skill, I find that a man must learn to detach himself from his surroundings; he must develop a kind of extra-corporeal sensitivity, an eye-in-the-sky awareness that is able to look down on events with studied dispassion. For it is emotion that blinds us to reality; it is our own ego that obscures the sight of danger.
And yet evil is unavoidable in life. One cannot get along in the world without some jostling with it. The man of sense will detect it, learn to compartmentalize it, and will not hesitate for a moment to deal with it if circumstances so require. But at the same time, he will never forget what it really is, and will not hesitate to sever his connections to it at the first opportunity. For evil cannot really be reformed; malice has a way of concealing itself in a dormant state for a long time, only to renew itself at some future date. In such cases it is wise not to be near it. Statements of affability and friendship cannot be trusted in these situations. Conciliation in the short-term, but termination in the long-term: this is a prescription for dealing with evil.
2. Knowledge of virtuous habits. We have discussed this topic many times in these pages. Readers should consult On Duties and On Moral Ends for detailed examinations of these matters. But I would like to mention several virtuous habits that I think are of the highest importance: and these are thrift, good judgment, and diligence. By thrift I mean the saving of money, and the ability not to waste it. In our modern era of increasing control and shrinking options, a man must do all he can to preserve his independence and mobility. A store of lucre means freedom; for no bondage is so restrictive as the inability to move from one place to another. Money should not be hoarded for its own sake, or to satisfy voluptuary desires, but to serve as an arsenal of freedom. He who travels and sees the world liberates his mind, and prevents its confinement within the boundaries of parochialism. The second quality, good judgment, is something that can only be acquired from experience and contact with the world. It is uncommon to see a youth with an intrinsic sense of judgment. Seasoning and experience are its prerequisites.
Now with regard to diligence, I can say that it is absolutely essential. We live in an era of short attention spans, endless talk, and abortive efforts; few have the ability to concentrate with single-minded intensity on a project over a sustained period of time. We are more likely to see that most common feature of our age, the internet braggart, endlessly talking and planning, but always coming up short in the way of verifiable accomplishment. And on this subject, it will not be out-of-place here for me to relate another anecdote from my friend Ibn Muqaffa.
He tells us that there was once a religious man who used to receive a daily supply of olive oil and honey from a certain merchant. The man would consume a certain quantity of it every day, and put the remainder of the oil and honey in a jar and hang it from a nail on his wall. One day he was leaning back in his couch with a walking-stick in hand, dreaming about the market prices of oil and honey. He thought to himself, “I will sell what I have in this jar, and with the proceeds I will buy some goats. Each of these goats will produce a kid every six months. Soon I will have a good number of them.” According to his mental calculations, he would have a huge number within a few years. And he thought to himself, further, that he could then sell some of these goats and buy a few head of cattle. With this cattle he could till more land, and buy more land, then hire more workmen to help him, and then sell additional plots of land. With the proceeds from such sales, he would be able to buy a larger house, and increase the estate of his family.
These were the religious man’s pleasant thoughts as he reclined in his couch. And yet he allowed himself to indulge in even more fancies. Once he had increased his estate, he dreamed, he would be able to marry a beautiful woman, who could then help him raise a family. He would have several children, and he would raise them to become learned and quick-witted. And if, he thought to himself, any of his children disappointed him, he would not hesitate to discipline them with his staff. As he imagined this, he raised his staff vigorously in the air for emphasis. The top of his staff struck the ceramic jar of oil and honey that was hanging on the wall, and promptly shattered; and its contents ran over his head and body. He felt precisely like the fool he was. From this story we are advised not to speculate on goals, but to take action on them. Idle fantasizing and talking mean nothing, and soon bring men to ruin.
3. Freedom from doubt. Here again is an underappreciated quality. Modern man is crippled by anxiety, stress, and worry. There are many reasons for this: the lack of support men receive from society today, the lack of clear direction and purpose, and an educational system that destroys their natural instincts and inclinations. He who walks with the purpose and assurance of a conqueror will find he is nearly alone. If you cannot find someone who believes in you, you must believe in yourself. You must become your own supporter. It is always that glimmer of doubt that holds a man back at the crucial moments. We must train ourselves to banish those negative and self-defeating thoughts. Confidence is not easy to come by; I find that it is one of those things that is not a permanent condition. Sometimes we feel it, and sometimes we do not. It is not an end-state that one arrives at and resides forever. It can be snatched away in an instant: and this is why we must constantly be working to reinforce it.
4. Generosity of character. This is equivalent to that intangible magnitudo animi (greatness of soul) I discussed in Cicero’s On Duties and On Moral Ends. A man must possess that elusive, intangible quality of “greatness of spirit” if he is to leave his mark on the world in a positive way. It is not easy to define. I see it as a mixture of charisma, generosity, humanity, justice, and goodness, all rolled into one aggregated quality. While it is not easy to define, it is very easy to discern in the lives of history’s great men, whom we have here studied so often.
5. Good conduct. Practical application is the cement that binds together all the qualities mentioned above. For something to make a difference, it must not only be discussed, it must be practiced. Good conduct is nothing more than acting in the right way, that is, acting in a way that is consistent with what we have described above. I do not need to say any more about this.
These, then, are our five protecting companions.
Read more in On Duties:
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