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064 - On Philosophers, New And Old - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Such is the bounty of philosophy: though all are capable of being fed with what is already on offer, still we are ever creating new dishes to suit the palette of modern tastes.
Trail with hikers walking alongside grassy fields - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

I am never so engaged with companions as when I am sitting by myself in my study. When I am with friends, we converse about the topics of the day. These are the things that excite us, and are designed to outrage us. For the news is entertainment first and foremost, and information is secondary at best. Indeed, relevant information presented in context has the tendency to calm passions, not inflame them, so you will not find it often in today’s media.

We talk of friends, absent and present. Your name came up, Deuteros, and talking of you gives me joy second only to being with you. Much of the talk of friends is mundane. A promotion, an acquisition, a setback, a fall; parents moving from frailty to illness to death’s door; children and their youthful mistakes. Knowing what pitfalls lie ahead on the path is no safeguard against stumbling. It does not help a parent to tell their child such things, for some mistakes must be lived to be learned.

And, amidst the necessary lubrication that smooths all conversations, there is periodically a topic of worth and weight. But how few are the moments when such topics are safely raised. If any are feeling stressed or unprepared, or if another has some news they wish to share, or if someone is distracted by a ping from their phone, the moment is gone, extinguished before it had a chance to flame into a meaningful exchange.

In my office I have a most attentive audience. They eagerly await my return, and I can almost hear them saying, “Finally! Someone has come to treat with our ideas.” Here there are no distractions I do not create myself, no interruptions I do not myself introduce, no superficialities to keep me from delving beneath the surface of things.

All the examples I need are on display before me: the good deeds I can revisit, and ponder the reasons why; the failures, faults, and blows of fortune I observe from a safe distance, and I need not offer condolences for these deeds are also done and gone. I have nothing less than the condensed wisdom of the ages, the best from thousands of years and millions of people. What kind of person would I be if I was unmoved in the presence of this multitude?

Confucius and the Buddha, half a world apart, yet closer in spirit than many who live on neighboring streets. The Bible and the Quran, seemingly leading down opposite paths, yet treading the same ground more often than not. Plato and Aristotle, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, each building on the solid foundations of the last. And I haven’t even gotten to the contributions of the last two millennium, Deuteros!

We each have the materials at hand to keep building the palace of human knowledge and wisdom. Whether we are merely dusting off cobwebs in an existing great hall, rekindling light to shine again out freshly washed windows, or renovating a room that has fallen into disrepair from lack of use. Some of us will go so far as to commence construction of an entire new wing, for humanity is growing, and the many mouths need shelter and nourishment.

Such is the bounty of philosophy: though all are capable of being fed with what is already on offer, still we are ever creating new dishes to suit the palette of modern tastes. The goal of the meal is the same – to bring succor and feed life – but each generation is given the instructions to the printing press and encouraged to add to the book of recipes.

Though I may never leave the four corners of my study, my dear Deuteros, I roam the halls of our human palace of wisdom freely and widely. And where I find a window shuttered or a door blocked, and sometimes even a brick wall in my way, I am resolved to break through, pick up the rubble lying about, and keep on building.

Be well.

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