In his short biography of the poet Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson makes the following comment:
The man who threatens the world is always ridiculous; for the world can easily go on without him, and in a short time will cease to miss him. I have heard of an idiot, who used to revenge his vexations by lying all night upon the bridge. There is nothing, says Juvenal, that a man will not believe in his own favor.
It often happens that we find comfort in the belief that we are indispensable and irreplaceable. And yet even a short period of reflection will be enough to dispel this vain conceit. The world is mostly apathetic to human concerns. No one is truly indispensable; the millstones of the world will continue to grind on, with us or without us. This is not a new lesson, but a very ancient one; and there are countless passages in poetry and prose that have driven this point home. Recall, reader, that passage in Herodotus where Xerxes watches his thousands of infantry cross the Hellespont, and becomes dejected by the thought that, with the inexorable passage of time, not a single one of his men will soon remain alive. I recently came upon some truly eloquent verses in the pages of Ibn Khallikan, in his biography of the eighth-century Persian grammarian, linguist, and poet Yunus Ibn Habib. Consider the perceptive but melancholy sentiment expressed here:
Do you know the history of ancient times? No! You are ignorant and misled.
Whom think you that destiny will render immortal? Who has always a guardian, so that he may not be harmed?
What has become of Chosroes, the Chosroes of kings, Anushrewan?
What has become of Sapur before him? The noble race of Asfar, kings of the Romans, have left no recollection worthy of being recalled.
Think of the founder of Al-Hadr, when he built it and when tribute was paid to him by the countries situated on the Tigris and the Khabur.
He lined it with marble, coated it with plaster, and, on its pinnacles, the birds built their nests.
The vicissitudes of time alarmed him not, but his kingdom departed from him and the door of his palace was abandoned.
Think of the lord of al-Khawarnak, when he looked, one day, from the top of his castle—and reflection leads to wisdom—he rejoiced in his kingdom and his ample possessions;
He contemplated with pleasure the river flowing before him and the palace of Al-Sadir,
Then his heart was troubled and he said: “What is the felicity of living beings who are always journeying towards their death?
After enjoying prosperity, ruling over a kingdom and a people, they fall as
An inheritance to the grave, and become like the dry leaves which are blown about by the east wind and by the west.” [IV.588]
We may remind the reader that Chosroes and Anushrewan were ancient Persian kings; and the phrase “noble race of Asfar, kings of the Romans” was a reference to the Roman emperors after Vespasian. (Apparently the Arabic phrase Banu Al-Asfar was a reference to the successors of the emperor Vespasian, who had the name Flavius; and Flavius then became confused with, or corrupted into, Flavus). Expressing the same feeling, but in a much more intimate and personal way, is the following line from the North African (i.e., Maghribi) king Yusuf Ibn Abd Al-Mu’min:
The succession of days and nights has rolled up that which I unfolded, and the fair large-eyed maidens know me no longer. [IV.476]
This is an elegant formulation. With the phrase “that which I unfolded,” the poet is referring to the fabric of his own life. That is, he sees his life as a garment or a blanket, and the relentless passage of days and nights has “rolled up” the garment, or scroll, of his life. It is a wonderful metaphor, saturated with sadness. And yet sadness is not the correct response to the awareness of the fleeting nature of all things. Why should we be distressed by morose feelings? Why should we allow these burdensome thoughts to oppress our minds? There is something defeatist in this, something not quite worthy of a true man.
It seems to me that the better attitude is the one counseled by Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations, when he says (III.16) that we should not feel morose at all about these things. He who becomes aware of life’s fleeting passage should not be drowned in sadness; in fact he should become, by this realization, immunized to sadness. The man who takes the time to reflect on the passage of time is fulfilling one of the primary duties of the study of wisdom. And he thereby reaps two rewards: he advances his mental powers with the pleasure of philosophy, and when adversities come, he discovers a way to heal himself. This healing comes in a triplicate form: (1) when adverse fortune hits him, he will already have spent time reflecting on the role of chance and bad luck, and will thus be prepared; (2) he will have already understood that trials and hardships have to be endured with masculine fortitude; and (3) that most things in this life are out of our control, and that we can only be blamed for the things that lie within that control. So, instead of becoming dejected and morose about the passage of time and the seeming futility of human efforts, we should instead become strengthened by a proper philosophical perspective.
Consider then this quote by one Al-Qadi Al-Fadil, which is taken from a letter composed as a eulogy to the conqueror and statesman Saladin. It encapsulates the type of courageous outlook that stands in contrast to the melancholy tone of the verses quoted previously:
The bands of terror which he [Saladin] sends against the foe appear in the shape of horsemen watching from the heights, or in the form of spectres going to haunt their places of repose… Your servant [Saladin] would not have acted as he did, had he not been anxious to obtain that supreme felicity; neither would he have undergone those sufferings, had he not the hope of gaining that favor. Sometimes insulted by the evil-tongued, he wounded them to the heart by the contempt he showed them; sometimes the cauldrons of their thoughts would boil over, but he allayed that ebullition by his patience and his endurance.
He who seeks for greatness must encounter perils; he who tries to make a profitable speculation must have courage; he who undertakes to disperse a crowd of foes must fight. Treaties of peace are soft under the teeth of foreign infidels; therefore, since they tear them, he also must bite and lacerate them. The hilts of the swords are so weak in the hands of those infidels who brandish them, that he is induced to break them completely. [IV.521]
And so this must be our course of action as well. We must break the hold of anxieties and distresses on our minds; and we must reflect properly on the meaning of the passage of time, and why this kind of wisdom makes us stronger, not weaker. For the purpose of the study of wisdom is not that we should never feel oppressed by anxiety and depression. Its purpose, rather, is that we should gain the ability to overpower such distresses with a supreme confidence and an assurance that springs from the awareness of the nature of human affairs. It is this knowledge that enables the forward movement needed for lasting victories. Take heart, break the hilt of the sword wielded by time, and banish sorrow.
Read more in On Moral Ends and Digest: