Category Archives: Writing

Elves are not men – Tolkien

In a note to letter 212 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, the master of fantasy writes:

In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes ‘storial’ and not mythical, being in fact human literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men. (p. 285, second note)

This footnote caught my eye. Preliminaries are: Hobbits are men. Tolkien says as much in his letters, that Hobbits are part of the world of Men, not of Elves or of Dwarves. They a particular culture and breed of person who is, inwardly, human. This is important because the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings lies in their being told from a Hobbit’s-eye view. You start small, local, parochial, and expand into a much bigger, broader, badder world, hopefully changing for the better along the way.

Second preliminary is that here we see that Tolkien is well aware of the psychological aspect of the novel. In his famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Prof. Tolkien is keen to point out that the main point of a story — fairy story, short story, novel — is not the exploration of the human psyche but the telling of a story; this is made as a genre distinction agains the more psychological mode of storytelling found on the stage, as well as the at times purely psychological world of poetry. Of course, the stage used to be filled with naught but poetry. (Something T. S. Eliot tried restoring with Murder in the Cathedral.)

Preliminaries aside, as a reader of fantasy and science fiction and occasional dabbler into world building (or ‘sub-creation’ in Tolkien’s terms), this is an important point that could be forgotten. When you read Tolkien’s descriptions of who Elves are, what their function in the Creator’s world is, what their nature/substance is, what little is utterable about their culture and society, it is clear that they are not human beings. They are Elvish beings.

This means that, besides immortality and a longing for a world where time stands still, alongside a capacity for sub-creative art and linguistic generation, Elves are psychologically distinct from humans. Their ways are not our ways. Their thoughts are not our thoughts. Their reasoning may be different from ours. Certainly their emotions are. Their longevity also means that they have an entirely different approach to memory, I have no doubt.

Tolkien is aware of the world he has made, as well as the limitations of the authorial act.

When I think on the Dragonlance novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight that I read aeons ago, it strikes me that the half-elven character was little more than a man with pointed ears and elf-skills. That is — his psychology was entirely human. This is no fault of the authors. I have a feeling it would take extraordinary dexterity that few, if any, authors have to be able to render an entirely alien psychology.

And if one were to succeed, I think the story would become much less accessible to the reader.

Here we see, yet again, the wisdom and care of Tolkien not just in creating his world but in writing his novels.

Characters take on lives of their own…

… and sometimes their authors don’t necessarily ‘create’ them.

I am reading two books from that delightful group of second-quarter Oxford literati known as The Inklings but Also Dorothy L. Sayers Who Wasn’t an Inkling (What with no Inklings Being Ladies). One is The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, carefully selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter with some help from (the ever-present) Christopher Tolkien; a birthday gift from my delightful wife. The letters are fine specimens of epistolography (a genre whose ancient form I discussed once) and give us insight both into the development of The Lord of the Rings and the mind of Tolkien — father, philologist, Roman Catholic. I am at a stage of my life where it is his philology and Roman Catholicism that interest me most.

The other book is The Mind of the Maker by Dorothy L. Sayers, which is an extended discussion of the analogical language we use about God. Her goal is to unpack the historic creeds through the analogy of a maker, since God is described as ‘creator’. The theory is that if humans are made in the image of God, then they, too, must analogically be ‘creators’ of a sort as well. The kind of maker Sayers has chosen is the author, since she is herself an authoress — but she believes her analogy would hold in other creative arts as well.

In  one of his letters to Christopher, Tolkien says:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir — and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by a lot of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices … (letter 66, p. 79)

Because only so many letters or poems or essays or short stories can be consumed at one go, I alternate between the two books. Thus I soon found some amusing anecdotes from Sayers in her chapter about predestination, such as this conversation:

“I am sure Lord Peter will end up as a convinced Christian.”
“From what I know of him, nothing is more unlikely.”
“But as a Christian yourself, you must want him to be one.”
“He would be horribly embarrassed by any such suggestion.”
“But he’s far too intelligent and far too nice, not to be a Christian.”
“My dear lady, Peter is not the Ideal Man; he is an eighteenth-century Whig gentleman, born a little out of his time, and doubtful whether any claim to possess a soul is not a rather vulgar piece of presumption.”
“I am disappointed.”
“I’m afraid I can’t help that.”
(p. 105)

Of course, one would like Lord Peter Wimsey to convert. But is such a thing in accord with the character as Sayers has created him? And once Faramir has strode into the story, Tolkien must ask, ‘What sort of brother would Boromir have? What sort of sons would Denethor be? What sort of father is Denethor?’

Although I am a mere occasional dabbler in fiction, part of the creation of verisimilitude is the willingness to allow the worlds and characters to produce what they will, regardless of the will of the creator — so long as it is fitting. From what Sayers says, and from the letters of Tolkien, there is still much slog and careful work. But once you’ve established Wimsey, you cannot do things with him because you simply fancy doing them. And if the story produces a Faramir — well, that’s only fitting.

As a Faramir fan, I’m quite glad he decided to turn up.

What can we learn from one of our oldest canon law manuscripts

kn28-0212_160 incipit of epistulae decretalesSo today I finished off one round of work on a manuscript that lives in Cologne at the Erzbischöfliche Diözesan- und Dombibliothek; its shelfmark is 212. The collection of documents in this manuscript is called — originally — Collectio Coloniensis. In my notes, I just call it K. I’ll refer to the manuscript as Cologne 212 from hereon in.

Cologne 212 is a manuscript from the turn of the seventh century (so, c. 600) written in a single column in a half-uncial hand. Rather than describe what a half uncial is, I refer the reader to the image on the left. It is also written in scripta continua — continuous writing. No breaks between words. This can be annoying. In fact, if you take your eyes off this massive block of text too long, it becomes very difficult to find your place again.

Cologne 212 is a very exciting manuscript for my research because — regardless of how early the collections that dwell within them were compiled — most of the manuscripts I work with are Carolingian or later — so, eighth- or ninth-century books; like the manuscript I talked about most recently. Cologne 212, then, is potentially very significant. It was written during the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604) and shows us at an undeniably precise moment what knowledge of Canon Law was like in Gaul (‘France’ as you call it today) as well as the state of the texts (how good/bad they are). Because most of our collections, even when dated early, exist in later manuscripts, manuscripts like Cologne 212 shold pique the interest of every canon law scholar.

Just to give you an idea, one canonical collection (collection of material pertinent to canon law) that is related to the collection in Cologne 212 is called Frisingensis Prima. Scholars date the collection to about a century before Coloniensis. Its manuscript (Cologne, Clm 6243) is from the late 700s. One of our other earliest collections is called the Collectio Quesnelliana; Quesnelliana is dated to sometime around 495, maybe a bit after. It is transmitted in seven manuscripts, of the eighth, ninth, and twelfth centuries. The earliest securely dated Quesnelliana manuscripts are from c. 780. Another canonical collection that many scholars (but not Rosamond McKitterick!) date early — 500-525 — is the Vaticana; two of its manuscripts are eighth-century, and the third is ninth-. Another early sixth-century collection is Sanblasiana — its earliest manuscript is eighth-century. The very famous Dionysiana, in its form with papal letters from c. 525,  exists in nothing earlier than the ninth century. I could go on.

Cologne 212, then, is special. It is an early canonical collection that is contemporary with its manuscript. Only a few early collections exist in manuscripts so close to them in time. Out of the canonical collections I surveyed in my Ph.D., only three, in fact. The other two are: the sixth-century Corbeiensis in a sixth-century manuscript (Paris, lat. 12097); seventh-century Albigensis in a seventh-century manuscript (Toulouse 364 + Paris, lat. 8901).

Cologne 212 is not only close in time to its gathering — its gathering is close in time to the composition of its texts. Amongst its varied contents, it contains canons from the Second Council of Vaison in 529, the Fifth Council of Orléans in 549, and a letter from Pope John II to Caesarius of Arles from 534. Several other sets of documents from sixth-century councils and Caesarius are contained herein — mere decades after their composition.

The texts I’m looking at — letters from Popes Siricius (384-399), Innocent I (401-417), Zosimus (417-418), Celestine I (422-432), and Leo I (440-461) — are on the whole less than two centuries out from their original composition. Not bad, all things considered.

So, what did I find in Cologne 212? Well, yesterday and today I was looking at the group of papal letters associated with all of the above popes except Leo. It comes in this manuscript with the heading, ‘INCP CAN URBICANI.’ As a result, the selection of letters immediately following (not including Siricius, but anyway…) goes by the name ‘Canones Urbicani’ in the scholarly literature. These letters, whether in this particular order or not, come up in a number of different manuscripts, and the textual criticism of them is my current project.

Vat. Reg. lat. 1997

Vat. Reg. lat. 1997

My initial response to the text of these letters as I went through Cologne 212 was that they share a lot of variants with W and Te (as I term Collectio Weingartensis, in this manuscript in Stuttgart, and Collectio Teatina in Vat. Reg. lat. 1997). I am still trying to sort out W in my mind, but I do know, having studied Vat. Reg. lat. 1997 a lot, Te is definitively Italian and shares a lot of readings with a lot of other Italian canonical collections. So Gaul and Italy are not so far apart — yet. I still have a lot of other manuscripts to look at, some of them from Gaul.

Unfortunately, Cologne 212 is not a perfect manuscript. As you can see on this page, the letter of Celestine I to the Bishops of Apulia and Calabria runs into the text of his letter to the Bishops of Viennensis and Narbonensis — the former letter ends at ‘blanditus inludat’ in the second-last line. But instead of giving the date and then a new heading, the text runs into chapter IV (as divided in the Ballerini edition from 1757 now in Patrologia Latina 56) of the latter letter, ‘ordinatus uero quosdam’.

This, as it turns out, is common for the rest of this group of letters. A few more chapters fall out of this letter, and then again in the letter of Pope Siricius of Himerius of Tarragona. So, as far as those missing chapters are concerned, ‘low quality’. Presumably it was copied from a damaged exemplar.

But I also found something I’m still thinking about.

In Siricius’ letter to Himerius (from 385), Rome’s bishop is telling his Spanish colleague about how clergy shold go through the ranks. In the edition I’m collating against (not the Ballerini; unsure what their text is here) — and every manuscript I’ve read thus far — we read:

acolythus et subdiaconus esse debebit; postque ad diaconii gradum

[having lived content with a wife…] he will be allowed to be an acolyte and a subdeacon; and after, to the rank of deacon

Yes, this is only a sentence fragment. But Cologne 212 adds two interesting phrases. Its text reads:

quinque annis acolitus et subdiaconus esse debebit postquae tricensimo anno ad diaconii gradum

[having lived content with a wife…] for five years, he will be allowed to be an acolyte and subdeacon, and after, in his thirtieth year, to the rank of deacon

Since these temporal phrases don’t turn up in the other manuscripts I’ve looked at for this letter — Dionysiana, Dionysio-Hadriana, Weingartensis, Teatina — the temptation is to reject them, especially Dionysiana and Teatina are definitely old and definitiely Italian — even if their manuscripts are newer.

Another reason to reject them is that they are the sort of thing I expect to be added to canon law manuscripts. These manuscripts were written as sources for canon law, I believe. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that someone would slip in information that makes them more practical. These are standard canonical time periods and ages. If Siricius didn’t actually write them, a scribe could imagine that he had. Indeed, a scribe could have written them as interlinear notes that were later incorporated. That’s how these things work.

You have to read between the lines. Just in case someone else was.

Whither will the blogs go?

I was chatting last night with my internal examiner (I suppose now he is a colleague!) about the fact that I would like to write essays about my subjects, not just ‘what a scholarly article should be’. This was in response to someone telling me what a scholarly article ought to be in response to one of mine that didn’t meet the person’s criteria.

Anyway, I would like to write essays — say, an exploration of consolatio in Cicero’s letters and in Christian letters, just teasing out themes and interesting things, not necessarily saying something new or driving home a very narrow, very specific fact. Or perhaps a wide-ranging exploration of western Christology after Chalcedon but, again, an essay rooted in exploring ideas and culture and writing prose. Not proving anything. Or even a conceptual-philosophical monstrum such as an extended study in Dionysian liberation theology. Not saying anything new. Just saying things.

Tom said that there used to be journals for such essays, but now everyone wants the groundbreaking articles with ‘impact’, trying to up themselves in the European journal rankings. Essays, the familiar essay, are just not on the table.

One could, he supposed, use a blog to that end.

And I sort of do, but not often.

However, he went on to say, the problem with blogs is — what will happen to them? Where will blogging content go? Will people be able to find a blogged essay five, ten, fifteen years from now? Furthermore, there is no peer review process. So the essay might be a nice piece of writing based on rubbish facts. Who can judge? (Well, on this blog, RWB serves as my peer reviewer!) Finally, who reads blogs? I have two blogs — one has a bit of reach, but this one (that which bears my name) has a much smaller draw. Perhaps 10-20 at best. My wife. My mother. A brother or sister. A few friends.

And what happens to this blog in a month, two months, a year?

Words, you see, are fragile.

We seem to think that digital publishing is an adequate replacement for print.

But is it?

As I say, I have two blogs. I have had four. And before that, I had a Tripod page where I uploaded stuff I wrote. And before that Geocities. One of my blogs I think still exists, hosted on my sister’s server in Saskatchewan, but it seemed like every time I posted a blog I crashed the server, so I migrated here.

Where is all of the digital material from the 1990s?

That is the question that was posed to me when I postulated editing Leo’s letters through a peer-reviewed online source such as the Library of Digital Latin Texts. It’s true that much of our earlier issues of durability have theoretically been addressed, but how can we be truly sure until a decade or two has elapsed? By which time it is too late. Print is still the most durable.

After, of course, clay tablets — which come in second place after stone. I doubt Hammurabi was over-concerned with lasting into the next decade:

My pic of the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre

My pic of the Code of Hammurabi in the Louvre

However, most of us run the risk of living out Keats’ tombstone — one whose name was writ on water — not the durability of Hammurabi’s law code.

Anyway, what will happen to this blog? The other blog? All the blogs? Will they survive?

And can they really replace the familiar essay, as exemplified by Charles Lamb?

Passing milestones and jumping through hoops: Getting a PhD

I am now — finally and officially — a doctor. It took four years and almost a month to get here, with most of the milestones and hoops transpiring over the past few months.

On 2 July, after 3 years and 10 months of intense research and furious writing that ended in a long day of formatting and creating a Table of Contents and such exciting things, I submitted two soft-bound copies of my PhD thesis to be examined, one would be sent to my external examiner, the other to my internal examiner. The submission of a thesis is, as an event, something of an anticlimax. You go to a little window at the Postgraduate Office and drop off the copies. No song and dance. To offset this fact, they have a plastic jar of candies from which you may choose one. I had something called a Drumstick that proved very chewy.

Before that milestone, I had to jump through the hoop of submitting paperwork that made me eligible to submit and alerted my examiners to my impending thesis.

The next milestone came very quickly on 6 August when I had my viva, my viva voce examination (defence). It was less a cross-examination/interrogation and more a thorough conversation about my research, pushing me to go farther on some issues than I was willing/had space to in the thesis itself. It was really good; they both liked it and had some very helpful feedback.

This was the big milestone for me. For some people, it’s submission. But submission was a grand anticlimax, not only because of the circumstances but also because the work itself was still untried, unproved. What would the outcome be? There was still too much uncertainty at submission. But after my viva, I knew what they thought of my work. And I knew that there were only minor corrections to do before I could submit the final copy and be officially awarded my PhD.

The next hoop that had to be jumped (and this one not by me!) was the submission of the examiners’ report to the committee that reviews vivas before officially letting me know what the corrections were to be. Unfortunately, due to a technical error, the examiners’ report did not reach the committee in time for their 17 August meeting (no one’s fault). I, nonetheless, had a copy of this report, so I was able to do my corrections before the committee’s meeting on 18 September.

Corrections are neither a milestone nor a hoop. They are a requirement (for all but a very select few), ranging from typos to factual errors to amplified bibliographies to added/rewritten chapters. Thankfully I only had typos and bibliographies to be amplified, as well as changing my citation of Gregory of Tours from Historia Francorum to Historiae (full stop).

Only 18 September, I received the e-mail from the committee approving my examiners’ corrections. I sent my corrected copy off to my internal examiner. He then had to approve my corrections, that I had done them correctly. This he did on Monday.

The next milestone involved several hoops. Not only must the final copy of the thesis be hardbound like a book with golden lettering on the spine, not only must it include things like the abstract and lay summary as well as a signed declaration that it’s my own work, not only must it be laid out and paginated in a very particular, detailed manner — it must also come with a piece of paperwork and a CD with a pdf of the thesis.

This is the hoop that makes the least sense whatsoever.


What is this, 2001?

I remembering burning CDs in 2001.

But most people don’t run around burning CDs anymore. I, at least, have an optical drive in my big laptop, so burning a CD was not difficult. But, really, in an age when Master’s students don’t even submit hard copies of their theses but only a digital, online copy, why can PhDs not be submitted digitally in such a way? Anyway, I bought ten CDs (one is not an option) and burned one.

Then it turns out that the quickest anyone in Edinburgh can hardbind a thesis is 24 hours, and that the university printer is not the one who can do it that quickly. So, on Tuesday, when I thought I was going to be passing another milestone, the final hoop had me waiting until Wednesday while Mail Boxes, Etc. did their job.

They did a fine job, and on Wednesday I successfully passed the final milestone by jumping through these hoops. Here I am:

IMG_20150923_113941And now I have a copy of this letter, making it all real:

PhD Letter


Making (or constructing) history

When you sit down to read a book about history, it is not always apparent where the narrative set out by the modern authors has come from. Indeed, it often looks like a straightforward story of Person A doing Thing Y, while Person B does Thing Z in response. And no one need question if that is how things actually occurred. Or perhaps one assumes that modern history-writing is simply a pooling of different narrative accounts of the same events by earlier history writers — taking, say, Livy and cutting out all the bits that modern, rational, scientific history discounts, and giving us the ‘pure’ story of ancient Rome, simple, no problem.

Well, even if we actually had narrative sources like Livy for all of history, that still wouldn’t be the way we construct the stories you read in histories.

This morning I was reading through Chapter 1 of my PhD thesis in preparation for my upcoming ‘viva’ (viva voce examination). In this chapter, I discuss the life and papacy of Leo the Great from two perspectives: first, from sources he didn’t write, second, from his letters with a little support from the sermons. Leo’s correspondence is our best source for the events of his tenure in the Roman episcopate as well as for the middle decades of the fifth century more broadly.

Where to look for those other, non-Leo sources? A person might assume that the tantalisingly-titled Liber Pontificalis, or ‘Book of Pontiffs’ would be a good place to start. This contains biographies of all the Bishops of Rome into the fifteenth century, being added to successively over the years. However, the earliest layer of this series of episcopal biographies dates to the early 500s, so it is not contemporary with Leo, who died in 461. Still, it’s only about 50 years later. That’s not bad, is it? After all, our earliest narrative history of Alexander the Great is Quintus Curtius Rufus, writing over 300 years after the Macedonian conqueror died. But we know that there are lost sources that Curtius would have used, so we do not fear to use it.

As it turns out, though, not all narrative sources are created equal, and whoever wrote the Liber Pontificalis didn’t really know what he was talking about at this stage — since we have other, earlier sources (say, Leo’s letters!), we can judge how well this book tells the story of Leo. And even if some details might be true, others aren’t.

Where do we turn now, then? What can we do to construct our story? We turn to the contemporary sources for the history of fifth-century Rome. None of our surviving Latin sources for this period gives us a tidy narrative like Livy or Tacitus. We have to make it ourselves. For Leo, we turn to a different kind of history-writing, very different from the garbled biography of the Liber Pontificalis and the extensive histories of Ammianus and Gregory of Tours — the chronicle.

Chronicles, in case someone has misled you, are a genre of scientific history writing concerning with chronology. They are brief, annalistic accounts of major events organised by year. Here’s an online translation of the Chronicle of Jerome from 2005; you can also take a look at The Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, The Gallic Chronicle of 452, and The Chronicle of Marius of Avenches, from From Roman to Merovingian Gaul: A Reader by Alexander Callander Murray on Scribd. They look non-biased (but they aren’t because nothing is), and different chroniclers have different interests. Some like to tell you about strange stellar phenomena; others will tell you about church councils; some mention great battles; others great heresies; most of them most of these things to one degree or another. The entries, I repeat, are short, and organised chronologically. The genre existed in the ancient Near East, and forms of it in the Graeco-Roman world; its origins have nothing to do with Easter Tables and, in fact, nothing to do with Christianity. Finally, longer narrative histories of the Middle Ages are obviously not chronicles; they are closer to histories such as those by Tacitus and Gregory of Tours.*

For Leo, two such chronicles are important, that by Prosper of Aquitaine, finished in 455, and that of Hydatius, written in 467. Prosper wrote in Gaul, Hydatius in northwestern Spain. From these we are able to piece together a lot of facts and information about Leo’s pontificate and the wider history of the Roman Empire at the time, although both also display a certain amount of local concern. This local concern is helpful, since Hydatius shows us the impact that some of Leo’s anti-Manichaean activities had in Spain, as well as the local context of the letter he wrote to Turribius of Astorga about Priscillianism.

Prosper is especially important because he tells us about Leo’s meeting with Attila in 452 and then his attempt to dissuade Geiseric from sacking Rome in 455. Prosper is very helpful for 455, telling us about Valentinian III’s assassination of the patrician general Aetius, then the assassination of Valentinian, the accession of Petronius Maximus, and then the Vandal sack under Geiseric, during which Petronius was killed (Hydatius says a mob did the deed). Prosper also tells us, in this year, about how the date of Easter was promoted as one date by the tenacious will of Proterius of Alexandria against the proposed date of Leo.

For Attila, we also have the sixth-century historian Jordanes whose Getica, a history of the Goths, deals with Attila in detail. More detailed and more reliable is the Greek historian Priscus, who exists only in fragments, but who went on a delegation from Constantinople to Attila in 449 (if my date is correct). Later sources of Leo meeting Attila turn it into the, stuff of legend, including sword-bearing apostles and the like.

For the Vandal sack, Procopius of Caesarea’s account of the Vandal war of Belisarius is also of help, discussing the loot Geiseric and his men took. For the events of 455, the seventh-century Greek historian John of Antioch is also of assistance.

Besides Attila, Leo is best known for his role in the convening of the Council of Chalcedon and its outcome. This happened in 451, although if we had only Prosper, we’d think it was 453. Besides Leo’s voluminous correspondence surrounding the event, we have the full acts of the council, taken down by stenographers. You can, if you so desire, read a blow-by-blow account of everything that took place, including a lot of shouting and some great awkward silences. Most of the chronicles are very summary about Chalcedon, but Evagrius Scholasticus, c. 593, wrote a fairly extensive account (in case the three-volume version seems a bit much to you).

Unlike Evagrius Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History or Procopius or the chroniclers, the acts of Chalcedon are not narrative history but what we call documentary evidence. That is, it was not produced after the fact to tell a story but is an official document produced at the time. Leo’s letters would count as such evidence. The wider fifth-century context of Leo’s papacy is greatly aided by such documentary evidence; Leo’s papacy is directly illumined by two imperial edicts that serve to support Leo’s own rulings in canon law, as well as some other imperial documents concerning the treatment of bishops on the road to Chalcedon, and a letter of Marcian concerning an anti-Chalcedonian monk who tried usurping the episcopate of Jerusalem when Juvenal, Jerusalem’s bishop, voted in favour of Chalcedon’s doctrinal statement.

Although it seems long, these are the genres the ancient historian has to work with, the textual evidence for the deeds of the past. This is the raw material we are given, and then we try to construct logical, coherent accounts of events out of them. One source gives some evidence; how reliable is it? Another source gives other evidence — do we trust it? A third source is corroborated by some archaeology. What about that fourth source that is late but plausible? Taking these things and teasing out the details is what the historian does. And it’s good fun.

*For more, see R. W. Burgess and Michael Kulikowski, Mosaics of Time Vol 1.

How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.