27 May 2012

Jeffersonian Advice

I am fascinated by the refined nature of intellectuals in preceding generations, who saw a broad education as essential in forming individual characters, and who took character in general seriously -- who dwelled on concepts like virtue and prudence which are yawned at today. Recently someone shared a letter from Thomas Jefferson giving advice to his young nephew, Peter Carr, and it is replete with interesting gems.

_To Peter Carr_
_Paris, August 19, 1785_
DEAR PETER, -- I received, by Mr. Mazzei, your letter of April the 20th. I am much mortified to hear that you have lost so much time; and that when you arrived in Williamsburg, you were not at all advanced from what you were when you left Monticello. Time now begins to be precious to you. Every day you lose, will retard a day your entrance on that public stage whereon you may begin to be useful to yourself. However, the way to repair the loss is to improve the future time. I trust, that with your dispositions, even the acquisition of science is a pleasing employment. I can assure you, that the possession of it is, what (next to an honest heart) will above all things render you dear to your friends, and give you fame and promotion in your own country. When your mind shall be well improved with science, nothing will be necessary to place you in the highest points of view, but to pursue the interests of your country, the interests of your friends, and your own interests also, with the purest integrity, the most chaste honor. The defect of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises; being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death. If ever you find yourself environed with difficulties and perplexing circumstances, out of which you are at a loss how to extricate yourself, do what is right, and be assured that that will extricate you the best out of the worst situations. Though you cannot see, when you take one step, what will be the next, yet follow truth, justice, and plain dealing, and never fear their leading you out of the labyrinth, in the easiest manner possible. The knot which you thought a Gordian one, will untie itself before you. Nothing is so mistaken as the supposition, that a person is to extricate himself from a difficulty, by intrigue, by chicanery, by dissimulation, by trimming, by an untruth, by an injustice. This increases the difficulties ten fold; and those who pursue these methods, get themselves so involved at length, that they can turn no way but their infamy becomes more exposed. It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.

An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second. It is time for you now to begin to be choice in your reading; to begin to pursue a regular course in it; and not to suffer yourself to be turned to the right or left by reading any thing out of that course. I have long ago digested a plan for you, suited to the circumstances in which you will be placed. This I will detail to you, from time to time, as you advance. For the present, I advise you to begin a course of antient history, reading every thing in the original and not in translations. First read Goldsmith's history of Greece. This will give you a digested view of that field. Then take up antient history in the detail, reading the following books, in the following order: Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophontis Hellenica, Xenophontis Anabasis, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, Justin. This shall form the first stage of your historical reading, and is all I need mention to you now. The next, will be of Roman history (*). From that, we will come down to modern history. In Greek and Latin poetry, you have read or will read at school, Virgil, Terence, Horace, Anacreon, Theocritus, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles. Read also Milton's Paradise Lost, Shakspeare, Ossian, Pope's and Swift's works, in order to form your style in your own language. In morality, read Epictetus, Xenophontis Memorabilia, Plato's Socratic dialogues, Cicero's philosophies, Antoninus, and Seneca. In order to assure a certain progress in this reading, consider what hours you have free from the school and the exercises of the school. Give about two of them, every day, to exercise; for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives a moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise, and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body, and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks. Never think of taking a book with you. The object of walking is to relax the mind. You should therefore not permit yourself even to think while you walk; but divert your attention by the objects surrounding you. Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far. The Europeans value themselves on having subdued the horse to the uses of man; but I doubt whether we have not lost more than we have gained, by the use of this animal. No one has occasioned so much, the degeneracy of the human body. An Indian goes on foot nearly as far in a day, for a long journey, as an enfeebled white does on his horse; and he will tire the best horses. There is no habit you will value so much as that of walking far without fatigue. I would advise you to take your exercise in the afternoon: not because it is the best time for exercise, for certainly it is not; but because it is the best time to spare from your studies; and habit will soon reconcile it to health, and render it nearly as useful as if you gave to that the more precious hours of the day. A little walk of half an hour, in the morning, when you first rise, is advisable also. It shakes off sleep, and produces other good effects in the animal economy. Rise at a fixed and an early hour, and go to bed at a fixed and early hour also. Sitting up late at night is injurious to the health, and not useful to the mind. Having ascribed proper hours to exercise, divide what remain, (I mean of your vacant hours) into three portions. Give the principal to History, the other two, which should be shorter, to Philosophy and Poetry. Write to me once every month or two, and let me know the progress you make. Tell me in what manner you employ every hour in the day. The plan I have proposed for you is adapted to your present situation only. When that is changed, I shall propose a corresponding change of plan. I have ordered the following books to be sent to you from London, to the care of Mr. Madison. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon's Hellenics, Anabasis and Memorabilia, Cicero's works, Baretti's Spanish and English Dictionary, Martin's Philosophical Grammar, and Martin's Philosophia Britannica. I will send you the following from hence. Bezout's Mathematics, De la Lande's Astronomy, Muschenbrock's Physics, Quintus Curtius, Justin, a Spanish Grammar, and some Spanish books. You will observe that Martin, Bezout, De la Lande, and Muschenbrock are not in the preceding plan. They are not to be opened till you go to the University. You are now, I expect, learning French. You must push this; because the books which will be put into your hands when you advance into Mathematics, Natural philosophy, Natural history, &c. will be mostly French, these sciences being better treated by the French than the English writers. Our future connection with Spain renders that the most necessary of the modern languages, after the French. When you become a public man, you may have occasion for it, and the circumstance of your possessing that language, may give you a preference over other candidates. I have nothing further to add for the present, but husband well your time, cherish your instructors, strive to make every body your friend; and be assured that nothing will be so pleasing, as your success, to, Dear Peter,
Your's affectionately,
(*) Livy, Sullust, Caesar, Cicero's epistles, Suetonius, Tacitus, Gibbon.

20 May 2012


If I've learned anything in the last ten or so years of my life, it's to appreciate the fact that there's much in it I can't control...especially fate. Time and again I've set myself on a course of action and decided: "This is it. This is the way my life will go," only to look back later and realize how short-sighted I was. Regardless of the thoroughness of our plans, of the care and thought we put into them, they do not always come to pass...and this is not something to be bemoaned, either, because our plans for the future aren't necessarily the best that we might have pursued. In deviating from plans, either by accident or thoughtlessness, we may in fact put ourselves in a situation where we are better served.

For my own part, part of me sometimes thinks I might have been better off had I gone directly to university after high school, bypassing community college and the 'wasted' years between my graduation there and my entrance into a full university. But had I not gone to that community college, I would not have met particular people, people who changed my life.  And the time I spent working a factory between college and university was most formative to the person I am today. It was there that I learned to be an adult, to stand on my own two feet - there that I learned the value of money and time, there that I started to question the way society worked. If I had gone directly to university following high school graduation, would I have gained anything by it? Would a Pentecostal boy have appreciated the intellectual stimulation of the university? Would I have flourished intellectually as an adult had the soil of my mind not already been tilled by those difficult years following graduation where I struggled to find myself?

I do not know, but I'm tempted to say, I doubt it. Maybe early separation from Pentecostalism would have freed my mind more quickly, but I for one think whatever mental strength I have came from the fact that I had to fight for my ideals, my thoughts, and my beliefs against oppressive dogma.  There are other examples in this theme; for instance, when I moved to university I became friends with someone who betrayed me, and while part of me thinks if I had known that in advance I would have avoided him from the start, I am glad for the experience.  The end of that friendship changed my life dramatically; it introduced me to the study of Stoicism, and  made me aware of my own weaknesses. It gave me humility, which I never anticipated needing or profiting by.  These little events could make quite a list. Time and again my plans for life have fallen apart, and for a time I thought myself lessened for it. I might groan at my mistakes, or regret hoped-for opportunities that never transpired. I might think my life had derailed...but every time my life has gone off the route I had planned for it, I've somehow found myself better off for it.

A more traditional person might say this is the Hand of God active in my life, moving me to where I am intended to be, working to ensure the best outcome. This is not the attitude I take, but when I reflect on my life I can't help but feel a sudden burst of gratitude. I didn't intend to live the life I'm living now, but I'm happy.

You may have heard the saying that fortune favors the prepared mind. This question of destiny is to me an interplay between fortune and virtue. Fortune, the happenstance of life, is fickle. It is a mistake to believe we can direct its course, either by praying to deities or relying on good luck tokens. For us, it is chaotic. One small action can set into action a course of events that leads in a different direction that we might have ever intended. We can't plan fortune;  but we might manage it.

I mentioned an interplay between fortune and virtue, virtue being (in this case)  preparing ourselves for the fickleness of fate. We do this in part by not becoming attached to any one series of events: we can't predict the ultimate outcome, so the attachment is foolish. An excellent choice one moment might set us up for great failure down the road, and a mistake might be a launching pad for greater success than we could ever imagine.

 I'm reminded of a favorite fable or proverb I read a few years ago while doing readings in Buddhist philosophy.

There was a man in a distant village with a prized horse, and one day the horse ran away.  The man's neighbors approached him in sympathy, saying, "How terrible this is! Your best horse, gone! You must be distraught." The man only shrugged, and said, "We'll see."

Shortly thereafter the horse reappeared, but he had attracted followers, his own herd. There were dozens of horses, and the man and his son corralled them all. They had enough animals to begin breeding them! Profits would be enormous! And the neighbors came by to celebrate, saying, "What a marvelous stroke of luck! You must be so pleased!". But  to their surprise, the man only shrugged, and said -- "We'll see."

The next day one of the horses kicked out at the man's sons; both of his legs were broken. Again the neighbors came in sympathy, saying, "Your only son, crippled! How terrible!".  And the man shrugged, and said, "We'll see."

A few months later, the nation went to war, and all the villages were called upon to send their young men into battle. The village's young men all went, with the exception of the crippled boy, who could not march. The nation's forces met in battle, and all of the village's sons were lost on the field. The grieving parents came to the man and said to him, "Of all of us, only your son has been spared. You must be pleased."

And again, the man shrugged, and again, he said: "We'll see". 

The fable ends there because all must end somewhere, but the point is that this interchange between the man and the villagers could have gone on forever. Life is never finished:  it is a perpetual chain of events. We can never see what awaits us.  That in mind, another way to be prepared for fate  is to anticipate the responses we might need if life goes awry. For instance, I am saving up to go to graduate school and get a degree in library science --but I am also trying to find a way to learn less specialized skills, because there's no way of knowing that librarianship will be a viable career. The jobs may not be there, or the few which are may not enough to support me.  That in mind, I want more resiliency.  I also think we need to be courageous enough not to shy away from unexpected roads. Not only must we let go of plans which have been rendered impossible, but we have to move forward...and that is difficult to change-adverse creatures like ourselves. For my own part, I take courage in the words of Marcus Aurelius, who advised himself not to fear the future....for we will meet it with the same reason we have with us today.

All that we can do, essentially, is the best that we can do.  We must make the best choices we can, in any given circumstance. If these turn out to be the wrong choices, or choices inferior to others (in hindsight), there is nothing to be gained in berating ourselves for these mistakes. We are not omniscient; we cannot account for everything, We have to make these choices moment to moment, based on information which is limited at best.  Life is not a gaming competition: there's no scoreboard, no judge, no points to stack against one another. We're alive, so we might as well enjoy it.