The rhetorician Libanius, who lived from about A.D. 314 to 392, wrote a letter of consolation to the emperor Julian after the city of Nicomedia was devastated by an earthquake in A.D. 358. The letter contains the following sentence:
So not only is Sophocles’s maxim true, that “Wise lords are formed by converse with the wise,” but also an emperor’s wisdom may, for his associates, be an incentive to virtue. [Trans. by A.F. Norman]
It is certainly true that discourse with the wise brings out our better characteristics, and nurtures wisdom. But the converse is, unfortunately, also true: that constant association with dunces and dolts cultivates duncery even in the best of men. Of dunces and their attributes, much has been written; but it seems to me that a certain negative species of personality has not received its just share of condemnation. This type consistently displays a behavior linked to, and fostered by, the timorous, overly fearful, and bureaucratically obsessed culture we have created for ourselves in so many things. Dean Acheson, President Harry Truman’s vigorous Secretary of State, called this personality “the re-examinist.” In his memoir Present at the Creation, Acheson fleshes out the re-examiner’s character in some detail:
Just at this juncture [in the midst of international crises in the early 1950s] the new species had emerged and was named the re-examinist because its distinctive call was “Let’s re-examine all our policies and programs.”…Perhaps…the new species was one without memory or constancy. Perhaps it was distinctive of pulling up its crops every morning to see what had been planted or from doubt as to whether they should have been. Perhaps this species was noted for re-examining its spouse each morning over the breakfast table and reappraising the relationship, or for the habit of its members in showing up at their offices wondering why they ever got into such a business or associated with such people.
A wise navigator re-examined his course every day or night by checking his relation to the sun or the stars, but doubtless re-examinists continually asked themselves whether it had been a good idea to have started, or would be wise to continue on that particular voyage…We might…get a clue to the nature of this species by noting that it obviously did not think of itself as part of a great moving stream of life.
Such is the existence of the re-examiner. Acheson was referring to the short-sighted critics of his defense policies who fretted, moaned, and spluttered every time some challenging obstacle on the road was encountered. Every crisis became an opportunity for second-guessing, panicking, self-doubting, and fear. And just as it was in the politics of Acheson’s era, so does this personality type manifest itself in our personal relations today.
Beware the re-examiner at your shoulder. Beware his seductive whisperings in your ears. The re-examiner, essentially a fearful, cowardly man, never misses an opportunity to fill you with apprehension and self-doubt. Because he does very little himself, he wants no one else to do anything, either. The re-examiner is the self-appointed master of all things; all you have to do is ask him for his expert evaluation. The re-examiner’s views are irrefutable, because they can always be re-examined and changed in retrospect. He watches everything you do and say very carefully, in order to gather ammunition for his re-examinations. The re-examiner has no imagination or vision for original ideas; his sole purpose is to re-examine the original ideas of others. He is a timid, vacillating man, but disguises these qualities behind an officious wall of self-claimed expertise. His claims to pragmatism and clear-headedness are simply jealousy and opportunism in disguise.
When attempting to accomplish anything of value, one must form and cultivate an indelible vision that can survive the jolts and shocks of transitory crises. Nothing of any import can be concluded in a fortnight. Once plans have been drafted and a course of action decided, let events take their course. Tinkering, tweaking, or tampering with sound designs guarantees failure. There is wisdom in leaving matters alone. As Virgil says,
Many things advance better in the chill of night
Or when at first light, the morning star sprinkles the land with dew.
This obsession to re-examine and re-evaluate everything leads us to abandon the field before the crops have even had a chance to ripen. Patience is a virtue forever praised but feebly practiced. Knowing when to take action is critical; but knowing when to take no action is also critical. In time, that which is good and precious will return to us. The rhetorician Libanius relates an amusing tale in this regard in his Autobiography (148—150).
Libanius says that he possessed a copy of Thucydides’s history that meant a great deal to him. It was a very portable copy. Its writing was fine and delicate. Carrying it around was to him more pleasure than burden. “Never again could I derive such pleasure,” he tells us, “from reading it in another copy.” Bibliophiles will understand exactly what Libanius means: some books are just a joy to hold and read. But the old rhetorician made some mistakes in how he handled himself. He was very loud in his praise of his book, and this attracted the attention of thieves. Good copies of famous texts were not as cheap then as they are now; before mass printing, everything was copied laboriously by hand. Eventually his precious book was stolen.
Libanius had to give up the search for the book, and realized he could do little more than grieve at its loss. He lost his appetite to read Thucydides; the experience was not quite the same when reading him on a different papyrus. He resigned himself to the situation and moved on with his life. In time, however, Fortune provided him a solution. Earlier he had written letters to his friends describing his cherished copy of Thucydides, and how he had lost it. Since the volume was distinctive in shape, size, and appearance, the description had resonated with friends.
Without Libanius’s even intending it, word circulated about his stolen book. Eventually, a student who had inadvertently bought the stolen book stepped forward and disclosed this fact to Libanius. He was reunited with his volume. “So I took it,” he says, “and welcomed it like a long-lost child unexpectedly restored. I went off rejoicing, and both then and now I owe my thanks to Fortune. Let him who likes laugh at me for making a mountain out of a mole hill.”
We rejoice with him, and reflect on the mysterious workings of Fortune, who rewards those patient enough to allow her to perform her work without constantly re-examining her every gesture and footprint.
Read more on issues related to character and decision in the acclaimed translation of Cicero’s On Duties: