The Nakedness Of The Soul

I have just finished watching a reality television series on Netflix called Alone:  The Arctic.  I believe it was originally produced by the History Channel.  Now before you roll your eyes and dismiss what I have to say out of hand, I would ask you for a fear hearing.  Hear me out, dear reader:  for I too once retained your same squint-eyed skepticism.

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The Gravitation Of Noble Souls

In one of his letters to his brother Quintus, Marcus Tullius Cicero makes the following observation:

The more virtuous a man is, the less he considers others to be evil.  [Letters to Quintus I.4.12]

The idea is the same as that expressed in an old Korean proverb, which I remember from my residence in that country many years ago:  “In the eyes of a Buddha, everything is Buddha-like; but to a pig’s eyes, everything appears piggish.”  The proverb sounds much more beautiful, of course, in the original Korean; but the point remains valid.  A great spirit—a soul imbued with a certain nobility—finds it difficult to comprehend, or accept, venality and baseness displayed by others.  Such a man can be trained to recognize and avoid these things, but they will always retain an air of incomprehensibility to him, as if they were fundamentally anathema to his soul.  Why is this?

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The Wisdom Of Ibn Abd Al-Barr Of Spain

The Iberian peninsula’s uniqueness derives from the fact that its shores have been washed by successive cultural waves:  Roman, Gothic, Arab, and then indigenous Christian.  No other region of Europe has acted as a similar crossroad, or has stimulated a comparable fermentation.  Each of these civilizational tides altered the terrain as it flowed in, and then receded.  We now turn, once again, to the world of medieval Arabic scholarship, and attempt to pry open its chests of mysterious treasures.

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Acute Vision For Others, Feeble Sight For Ourselves

I recall reading somewhere that both Archimedes and the mathematician Leonhard Euler never liked to explain how they arrived at their discoveries.  They took care to remove all the scaffolding before presenting their magnificent edifices to posterity; we saw the finished product, but not the arduous labor that was necessary to create it.  This may be an exaggeration, at least in the case of Archimedes, whose lost Method was finally unearthed in Istanbul in 1906; but I think the point is sufficiently true, for enough famous names, to merit some reflection.

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The Power Of Physical Gestures

We have forgotten the importance of physical gestures, and lost the power to use them effectively.  The modern man mumbles hesitatingly through his daily conversations with speech, intonation, and physical movements that betray his supreme lack of confidence and paralyzed will; his sentences are strung together with drooping, truncated, insipid copulas and expressions that are just as uninspiring as his limp-wristed gesticulations, his distended paunch, and his lack of musculature.  Grunting and stumbling have now replaced fluency of communication, grace of artistry, and the supple movement of a divine form towards a noble goal.  Since the words flowing from so many mouths now mean so little, we can expect the gestures of such speakers to echo the hollowness of their words.  It seems that T.S. Elio’s descriptive lines in “The Hollow Men” have become fact:

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The Horns Of Dilemmas

There are times to act decisively, times to observe events and await opportunities, and times to discuss.  There are also times to say nothing at all.  Aesop tells a story to make this point.  A monkey, he says, was once taken as a shipboard pet by a Grecian sailor.  When the sailor’s vessel approached Attica’s Cape Sounion, a storm arose and the ship capsized; all aboard ship were tossed into the sea, but a dolphin appeared and prevented the monkey from drowning.

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The Insanity Of The Daughters Of Proetus

Pliny’s Natural History (XXV.47) contains a passage that discusses hellebore, a medicinal plant that in ancient times was used to treat insanity.  One variety of hellebore, he says, is called melampodion, a name acquired from a shepherd named Melampus, who noticed that the plant had a purgative effect on his female goats (capras purgari pasto illo animadvertentem) once they had eaten it.  This milk, we are told, cured “the daughters of Proetus of madness.”  Pliny even describes a detailed ritual supposedly used to collect the plant.  But who were the daughters of Proetus?  What story is being referenced?

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Before Acquiring The Horse, One Must Build The Stable

In the year 357 A.D., twenty-seven years after the empire’s capital had been moved to Constantinople, the emperor Constantius II visited Rome.  He was awed by its architectural splendor, which at that time was still substantially preserved.  He visited the center of the city and the extensive suburbs; the sanctuaries of Tarpeian Jove, “transcendent to the same extent as heavenly things rise above those of earth” (quantum terrenis divina praecellunt); the extensive baths; the amphitheatres; the immortal Pantheon, “arched in high grandeur, like a smooth neighborhood” (velut regionem teretem speciosa celsitudine fornicatam), and whose lofty niches were still adorned with the statues of former emperors; the Forum of Peace; the Oleum; and all the other brilliant monuments of this venerable jewel of a city.

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The Wisdom Of Ibn Al-Muzarra

The writer and scholar Yamut Ibn Al-Muzarra’ (يموت ابن المزرع) was a native of Basra, Iraq.  In the words of his biographer Ibn Khallikan, he was known as “an accomplished literary scholar, and well-versed in history.”  His name (Yamut) was a source of some consternation for him as a young man, for it is the third-person active form of the Arabic verb “to die” (مات).  He apparently never fulfilled his obligation of visiting the sick in hospitals, for fear that his name would bring misfortune upon patients confined to bed.  “The name,” he said, “which l received from my father has been a great annoyance to me.  So when I go to visit the sick and am asked my name, I answer, ‘The son of Al-Muzarra,’ and suppress my real name.”

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On The Death Of Seneca

There is a preparatory plaster statue, very finely executed by Eduardo Barrón, on display at the Museo Nacional del Prado Museum in Madrid.  It is called Nero and Seneca, and it was completed in 1904.  Barrón never produced a final version in marble or bronze; and although it remains a preliminary study, it is a powerfully evocative depiction of two strong personalities.  Seneca points at a passage in an unrolled book before him, and is leaning towards Nero, evidently to make some pedagogic point.  The young Nero, whom Seneca had the misfortune to tutor, remains slouched in his chair, a clenched fist pressed against his temple in sullen opposition to the lesson his teacher is attempting to expound.

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