In this podcast, we discuss a serious subject. A reader explains that his family has just lost a young child, and he is searching for advice on how to deal with this calamity. I offer some suggestions drawn from Plutarch’s letter of consolation to his wife on the death of his two-year-old daughter Timoxena. We also discuss anecdotes from other sources (e.g., Cicero’s views on grief, the life of P.T. Barnum, etc.), and my own personal experiences. Fiat voluntas tua.Continue reading
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.
As a man hopefully grows in experience and knowledge, he will begin to notice a curious thing. The knowledge that he continues to acquire, and the sights that he continues to see here and there, subtly redirect him back to where he first departed. It is almost as if some grand cosmic joke is at work. Now when I say we return to where we first started, I do not mean that we return as ignorant as when we first left. We have grown, matured, and become more complete; there is no going back to the old ways and old days. And yet, as knowledge grows, we begin to long for the places of our youth: the sights and sounds of our younger days, and the pleasant connections to eras past. Wisdom reduces all things to their essentials.
There used to exist a literary genre called the consolatio, or consolatory essay. It is the type of thing that would be written by one person to another on the event of some terrible personal tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one. Sometimes (e.g., in the case of Boethius) the writer simply wrote it for himself. The ancient authors recognized it as a form of oratory, but it has been out of fashion for a long time now.
Here is a sly and amusing story that I came across in Plutarch this weekend. We find it in his Life of Demetrius (Ch. 27). It is short, but effective.
There was an Egyptian pharaoh named Bakenranef, who was known to the Greeks as Bocchoris (names of foreign rulers and notables were often Hellenized by historians). According to the chronicler Manetho, he ruled Lower Egypt as a king of the Twenty-Fourth Dynasty from 725 to 720 B.C. According to tradition, he was famous for his wisdom and prudence.
I was eating today at one of those a kilo places in Rio: one of those places where the food is purchased by the total weight. The greater the quantity of food, the greater the price. It turned out to be an opportunity for reflection on the price not of food, but of achievement.
Where food is concerned, nourishment is measured in quantities, by weight. But so is life, or mortality, in a way.
For the doctors of medicine assure us that one can die just as readily from overeating, as from under-eating. Excess is just as much a danger as dearth. And in the developed world, it is more of a danger. For few of us will be faced with the prospect of starvation in our lives. More likely, our challenges will come from the over-abundance of choices, from the temptations of bounty.
Here is a morsel to chew on.
I was reading a bit of Plutarch this morning and came across a passage that is worth sharing. It is from the Life of Timoleon (6):
Plutarch’s essay On Socrates’s Personal Deity (593A-594A) contains an idea that I find appealing. He proposes that every man has a “personal deity” that looks out for him and helps him in a time of need.
We can think of this deity as a kind of guardian angel.
The personal deity is an experienced attendant-god or demi-god, who is well-versed in the struggles of life. He now watches over the struggles of mortal man, and every now and then reaches down to help those he believes are deserving of his aid.
Plutarch’s essay On God’s Slowness to Punish (563C et seq.) relates a vivid fable on the punishments meted out to those to commit evil acts in their lives. It also relates to us the requirements and possibilities for moral redemption.
The fable takes the form of an out-of-body experience that has much to say about ethics and human responsibility. But it is parable rich in metaphor and meaning. Readers can interpret it in a variety of ways.
This is the story.
There was a native of the town of Soli named Aridaeus. He indulged himself in every type of sensual and mortal passion that he could, and was undeterred by the effects that these pursuits caused to others. He quickly exhausted his money, and turned to a life of crime. His sole motivation was profit and gain.
We cannot always choose our circumstances, but we can adapt our minds and attitudes to the circumstances we are presented with. Plato, in the Republic (604c5 ff.), famously compared life to a game of dice that was structured at two levels: the throw of the dice (over which we have no control), and the way in which we deal with the results of the throw. This same dice analogy is found in Epictetus (II.5.3). Our attitudes mold our lives. If we do not adapt our attitudes to our circumstances, we will be like the man who carries a hidden sickness wherever he goes. He travels here and there, always seeking a better environment, but he finds himself equally miserable wherever he is. Why is this? It is because the problem lies in his mind.