We have previously discussed the Book of Kalila and Dimna in these pages. Its source material can be traced to the Indian classic The Panchatantra of Vishnu Sarma. And it is from this book that the following fable originates.
There are two things that a man must learn to accept in life: the inherent ambiguities in choosing between alternatives, and the omnipresence of suffering. Consider the story told about Socrates in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers (II.33): a young man asked the philosopher for his advice on whether he should get married. The old man told him that there were good arguments both for and against the proposition, and that he would regret whatever decision he made. “If you do not get married,” he said, “you may be lonely and your bloodline will die out; if you do get married, you may be henpecked, beset by financial strains, and dubious in-laws. You may also have to tolerate bad children.”
The birthdate of the philologist and grammarian Yacub Ibn Al-Sikkit (ابو يوسف يعقوب ابن السكيت) is not known with certainty, but 800 A.D. is a reliable estimate. His father enjoyed notoriety and prestige in court circles, and may have conferred on his son some access to the corridors of power. The sobriquet “Al-Sikkit” was given to him because of his taciturnity, for the Arabic verb sakata (سكت) means “to be silent.” However, as the reader will soon discover, he was evidently not silent enough.
One of Herodotus’s charms is that he is always willing to share a good tale. Some of these stories he apparently believes; others strike him as dubious. Either way, he considers them imporant, and dutifully records their details. “Those who find such things credible,” he warns us, “must make what use of them they will of the stories of the Egyptians. My own responsibility, however, as it has been throughout my writing of this entire narrative, is simply to record whatever I may be told by my sources [II.123].”
I made an effort today to visit the house and museum of Benjamin Constant in the Santa Teresa neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. I had visited it some years ago and thought it would be a good idea to see it again to gain some perspective. The site was closed for renovations, unfortunately, so I had to content myself with a few photographs of the surrounding area. These can be found below.
I have lately been rereading Candace Millard’s excellent River of Doubt, a narrative of Theodore Roosevelt’s ill-fated sojourn through the Amazon in 1914. As is well known, the expedition was plagued by a lack of adequate food supplies and equipment. This fact nearly caused the entire project to unravel once it was deep in the Amazon.
We are afflicted by different vices in different periods of life. While much energy is spent in discussing the pitfalls and failings of youth, it is just as important to be mindful of the pitfalls of old age. It seems to me that these are especially difficult to correct if not identified for what they are; and just as ivy may slowly encroach on a neighboring plant and choke the life out of it, so may the vices of old age bring what may once have been an admirable life to a miserable conclusion.