Seven Pillars Of A Noble Youth

It has been said, my son, that a society which neglects its youth is a society unworthy of survival.  For while libraries and museums may be repositories of our cultural heritage, it is the youth that embody our sentient aspirations, and, through their activities, redeem our errors with the vitality of innocence.  Yet surging waters require dams and embankments to control their flows; their energies must be checked and directed into proper channels, lest the raw force of effluence create a destructive tide.  To this end I offer some words of advice.  I have drawn up seven of them; there are probably many more, but certainly there are none less.

My obligation is to pass on what I have learned, if I have indeed learned anything.  In this matter, age gives me no inherent prerogatives:  I wish to earn your respect and your devotion through guidance that will prove useful, rather than carping.  Old fools abound; they are nothing but young fools whom time has neither seasoned nor chastened.  The great fifth-century scholar and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, in a letter to his friend Audax, has rightly said,

Where is the prerogative of those who, solely due to the fact that they are older, rose in opposition to the innate character of the young? [1]

At the age of fifty-one, I strain my eyes to look across the widening chasm of the years, in the hope that some faint specks of meaning may be adduced from the landscape, or some monuments may stand out in the umbrage of sunset; I count myself no wiser than any other man, only perhaps the possessor of a better vantage-point.  Here, then, are seven supports of a fruitful life.

Physical Fitness.  You knew, my son, that this would be a priority in my mind.  It is a tiresome adage to say that a sound mind cannot reside in a sound body—but was any platitude so timelessly true, so foundational in its importance?  As for the specifics of how you would construct a healthy body, I need not linger.  There are more than enough trainers, coaches, and books that can instruct you in this far better than I.  Use them, and do something.  May I, then, expend some words on the benefits of fitness that I have observed?  My limbs are fully functional; my hands and feet strong, my fingers able to grasp and hold with whatever tenacity my mind directs.  I can run and walk long distances, and lift heavy loads; I feel the burden of these activities on my joints and frame, but I am thankful that I am capable.

Being physically fit has brought me these tangible benefits:  I am able to think with clarity and acuity; I can endure pain more easily than my peers; I can effectively manage the burdens of stress; I gain the respect of clients and colleagues; I am protected from small injuries and sicknesses; and my vanity receives a small measure of satisfaction, in that I remain attractive to women.  These benefits will enable you to persevere when others cannot.  You must not make the cult of the body an end in itself; for too much attention to a man’s appearance is effeminate, and unbecoming of a great soul.  You are not a god, and you must never think of yourself as divine; for he who holds on too tightly to this mortal life will remain incapable of great deeds of bravery and sacrifice.  So maintain your vessel, so that it serves you well; but know, my son, that while the body is mortal and impermanent, the soul is immutable and eternal.

Reading and Literature.  Just as the body must be tilled and cultivated, my son, so must the mind.  It is more the task of youth to activate the imagination, rather than to satiate it completely.  If I may speak honestly, I will tell you this:  as a young man you will only understand a small fraction of a work of literature.  You will be unable to comprehend it fully until your elder years; you lack the passage of years, with the associated pains, toils, crises, punishments, victories, travels, and confusing whirlpools of life.  This is not your fault, but a reality of life.  But do not let this fact deter you:  you must dive into the waters, and fill your mind with great things.  Even if you understand only a small fraction, that is enough.  Your mind will make note of its momentary satisfaction, and you will return to the book later in life.  And when you do this, it will mean something entirely different to you.  You will be able to make all those connections you were unable to make in your early twenties; you will nod your head in sober understanding at the dramas and tragedies described.  Your reading should focus on the classics of various nations, with an emphasis on philosophy, biography, history, and creative literature in the form of novels and narrative poems.  Yet you should also enjoy yourself with the written word; the mind needs rest, and sometimes a pulp novel can much to raise a man’s morale.

No, I will not burden you with lists of books here, because you already know the names of many great books.  Read them, and save them.  You will return to the good ones again and again in your future years.  You do not need to read with any particular purpose in mind:  for a book is a friend, my son, and each man must make his own friends.  I only ask that you do not allow your reading to consume too much of your time; life is to be lived, and there is often more wisdom to be gained in the market-places and gymnasia than in the alcoves of libraries.  As Sidonius says in a letter to his friend Syagrius,

He who moderately cultivates a field, owns it; but if he cultivates it too much, it owns him. [2]

So tend this field, and then move on.

Social Intercourse.  Great men do not squirrel themselves away in cabinets.  An isolated, amputated man does not live; he needs social intercourse with both men and women.  In your friendships with other men, my son, try to see things from the perspective of the other.  The vast majority of men are neither entirely good nor irredeemably evil; it is only circumstance that makes them fall somewhere along this curve of extremes.  Take care to preserve your own health and interests, for the first duty of an organism is survival; but allow your heart some openings to pity and sympathy.  Remember that, no matter how high you may have risen, Fortune may cut you off at the knees at any time.  The unfortunate man you see there:  he could very well be you under different circumstances.  Be quick to support and encourage, and slow to anger.  Avoid grudges, simmering resentments, and vendettas:  these do nothing for you, and are expensive to maintain.

Do not neglect your relations with women.  A man must understand the motivations of women, and must be attuned to her sensitivities.  Women generally have acuter senses in social relations than men, and there is much to be learned from them.  Failure to do this will cause a man much unhappiness and anguish.  There is much about women that will be mysterious and unfamiliar to you, since men and women have different priorities and needs; to understand them, you must interact with them, associate with them, and feel the stirrings of Eros.  Young men feel with great intensity the sexual impulse; middle age somewhat calms these fires, but they never entirely subside.  Neglect of healthy intercourse with the opposite sex feeds all kinds of destructive neuroses.  Do not be a failure in love for too long.  You, as a man, must take the initiative in your dealings with women.  Know that no one emerges from the arms of Venus without scars; but it is these scars which give life its meaning.  The only way to fail is to do nothing at all.  No matter the magnitude of any past defeat, one must never retreat into seclusion.  Nothing is more pathetic, and more unbecoming of a man, than the bitter whiner who is morbidly fixated on the presumed faults of women.

Military Service.  I imagine here that I will be met by angry opposition.  But I believe now, and have always believed, that military service (for both men and women) should be mandatory for some period of time.  I will let the politicians decide the precise length of time; for me, two years would be sufficient.  Now I know that the military is not right for everyone, but it was right for me, and put me on the correct path.  If you are unable to be in the military, then some form of rigorous public service may be a useful substitute.  Theodore Roosevelt never lived down the shame he felt at the knowledge that his father had bought his way out of the army during the Civil War.  Military training teaches one how to get along with a group; how to endure pain; how to give orders, and how to obey them; how to sublimate the ego to the needs of the group; how to focus on objectives, and how to fight for those objectives; how to perform under stress; how to endure deprivation and denial of luxury; and how to perform useful trades or tasks.  The old Spartans marched in close-order to the cadence of the flute and anapestic verses; and their shared sufferings and experiences forged a nation.  In modern America, there are too many arrogant egos, too much focus on the rights of the individual, and not enough focus on the needs of the group.  With regard to military service, Cicero says,

What do you think of the military exercises of the legions?  The forward march, the attack, the war-cry—how much labor is required to do these things!  These drills shape the battlefield mental state that fortifies soldiers to face physical harm.  If you place before them untrained soldiers of equal morale, the untrained ones will look like women.  Why is there such a big difference between green enlistees and veteran fighters, as we have learned from experience?  The age of a new recruit often usually gives them an advantage, but it is habit that teaches a man to bear burdens and think little of being wounded.  [Tusc. Disp. II.16]

Productive Work.  Life, my son, is not for idlers or shirkers.  Dunces, dorks, knobs, pudwacks, and dirtbags are behind every corner, and lurk under every rock.  All of them are hunting for excuses not to do work, or seeking rationales for their failures to take the initiative.  Has anything great in this life ever been gained without arduous work?  Was Marcus Agrippa’s Pantheon in Rome elevated to the skies through prayers and benedictions alone?  Or did men actually have to mix the concrete, erect the scaffolding, and measure the structural supports and tolerances?  Well, what do you think?  Find some work in which you can excel, and that you enjoy.  You must find a balance between these two things:  work you enjoy, and work that provides you the ability to survive.  It is no good if you do something you enjoy, but earns you nothing:  this is a hobby, not a job.  And you will not be able to work for long at a job you detest.  So there must be found a fulcrum upon which these divergent quantities may be balanced.  When you find that both quantities–practicality and enjoyment–are about equal, my son, I say this:  it is more important to focus on what you should be, instead on what you should have.

Avoidance of Bad Situations.  Half of life is making the right choices; the other half is avoiding bad situations and individuals.  I have seen many men of ability be derailed in life through association with trouble.  It is not enough to be a good man:  one must avoid bad situations with heightened presence of mind.  Every young man, whether he knows it or is oblivious to it, walks along a tightrope stretched over burning coals.  If you inhale, my son, you can even now smell the carbon fumes.  On all sides, you will find whirlpools, vortices, fires, and bottomless pits.  These things should not imbue you with fear; they are part of the natural order of things, and can be managed with prudence.  Avoid any association with illegal or questionable activity.  Avoid booking passage on leaking ships.  Avoid employment in doomed enterprises.  Avoid darkened alleys, pathways leading along precipices, snowy peaks, sudden storms, and ocean floors.  Know, my son, that some places are not meant for human visitation.

Avoiding Bad Individuals.  Closely connected with the preceding pillar is the admonition of avoiding bad individuals.  A good man’s life can be permanently ruined through association with the wrong sorts of people.  One must become an expert judge of character in order to distinguish the good from the bad, of course; but this is what reading and life experiences must prepare us for.  The tension here is between time and wisdom:  usually wisdom and judgment of people is acquired at a late age, at a time when it does us less good than when we are young.  There is this race between acquiring wisdom, and the passage of time.  The only remedy here is this:  effort.  One must exert a great effort in learning to judge character, and judge others, in order to learn what good character looks like, and what bad character looks like.  One of the disease of modern America is an inability to differentiate between good character and bad; scammers, frauds, and con-men are lauded as genial heroes, while men of virtue and character toil away in silence and obscurity.  As one acquires knowledge of character, one will easily be able to assess another person after only a few interactions.  You will be able to distinguish the solid performers from the unreliable carnival-barkers; you will know who can be trusted, and who must be watched carefully.

These, then, are my views on what should be important to a young man.  Know, my son, that I was once just like you are now.  I was awed by the responsibilities of life, by the profusion of requirements, rules, and restrictions; and I chafed under the control of authorities that I both detested and craved.  I know that the thoughts I have sketched above will likely mean little to you know.  But my fondest hope is that, somewhere in the recesses of your mind, one or another of my phrases will find a home—that they might stick there like errant seeds, and, at some point in the future, germinate into useful knowledge.  Life will forever be an unfinished work, my son; perfection is known only to the denizens of Olympus, and perhaps not even to them.  But you must not be deterred; let not the immensity of the work sap your confidence.  Be not like our friend Sidonius, when he said,

I began to write; but after becoming aware of the work, and appreciating its difficulty, I had misgivings about even starting. [3]

_____________________________________

[1] Ubi etiam illorum praerogativa, qui contra indolem iuniorum sola occasione praecedentis aetatis intumescebant?

[2] Agrum si mediocriter colas, possides; si nimium, possideris. 

[3] Coeperam scribere; sed operis arrepti fasce perspecto taeduit inchoasse. 

Read more in the extensive collection of essays, Digest:

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