The State Of Common Life

In 1773 Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell made a journey through some of the more remote parts of Scotland.  Each of them wrote his own account of the journey, and I am currently absorbed in reading Johnson’s impressions in his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.  As always, he stimulates and fascinates:  his eye for detail is superb, and like the best of writers he combines wit, dry observation, and philosophic pronouncements.

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The Moderation And Control Of Anger

Anger is an insidious thing.  It can twine and wind its way around the soul, like ivy over some physical impediment, and slowly throttle our more beneficent instincts.  This creeping control does not happen all at once; it happens gradually, imperceptibly, one gradus at a time.  When speaking to someone on the phone, I often find my voice gradually rising with a surplus of emotion.  You can barely notice it happening, but it happens still.  Anger then finds a ready opportunity to intrude itself.  Anger is also deceptive:  it makes us believe we are taking action to solve some problem, when in fact we are doing nothing to solve the problem.  Anger is a liar.  He is a deceiver.

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The Wisdom And Generosity Of Yahya Ibn Khalid

Yahya Ibn Khalid (يحيى بن خالد‎) was an influential figure during the tenure of Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid.  We do not know the precise date of his birth, but he was the son of Khalid Ibn Barmak, a member of the powerful Persian family known as the Barmakids.  The third Abbasid caliph, Al-Mahdi, tasked Yahya Ibn Khalid around 778 A.D. with the education of his son Harun.  Yahya must have perceived the seeds of greatness in the young Harun, for he tried to convince the fourth Abbasid caliph Al-Hadi to elevate Harun to a high position of leadership.  This was a mistake.  Al-Hadi had his own son in mind for the position, and so tossed Yahya into prison; but Fate would eventually smile on Yahya.

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Burst Away From The Shore, And Head For the Open Ocean

The Latin poet Claudian lived from about 370 to 404 A.D.  He was born in Egypt but as an adult associated himself with the imperial court at Rome.  One of his more famous works is the unfinished epic “The Rape of Proserpina” (De Raptu Proserpinae).  The poem contains a short prologue which I have translated as follows:

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The Dolphin Of Hippo

Pliny the Younger described in one of his letters a story noted both for its sadness and its revelatory quality on a characteristic of human nature.  The letter was written to the poet Caninius Rufus (IX.33), and in it Pliny recounts extraordinary interactions between a boy and a dolphin.  I am not quite sure whether the word “friendship” would be appropriate in this context, but one could say that the relations between the two looked very much like this.

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Grave Offenses, And Little Thanks

In a letter to Titinius Capito, the Roman official and career lawyer Pliny discusses the idea of writing a book of history.  Of particular concern to him was the choice of topic:  he was uncertain whether he should treat an ancient or a modern subject.  Valid arguments existed for both options.  An older subject might allow for a more considered perspective, far removed from the passions of immediate memory; whereas the treatment of a current subject might inflame unreasonable emotions in his readers.  Pliny has serious doubts about choosing a subject that might be within the living memory of his readers.  He summarizes his feelings with this sentence:

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The Cultivation Of A Sense Of Humor

To be lacking in a sense of humor is a true misfortune.  I would not go so far as to call it an offense against others; but it certainly is a detriment to oneself.  Social media seems to magnify our sense of self-importance; and when self-importance escalates, so does our sense of grim momentousness.  There is nothing wrong with being serious, of course, up to a certain point.  But there must be some kind of pressure-value to release the steam-engine’s expanding vapors.  And if the first duty of the philosopher is to be clear, then certainly his second obligation is not to take himself too seriously.  The truly wise know when to laugh.

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