A Good Wife

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Nothing is better for man than a good wife…
Hesiod, Works and Days

One might wonder whether that is an overstatement.

It was once suggested to me that Thanksgiving is a good time to focus on one thing for which we are grateful. It now strikes me that this practice will be especially fitting when a particular gift is not just one gift among others. Certain gifts somehow embody so much more; even the whole.

What if who I am—indeed, who it has been given to me to be—cannot be separated from this particular gift? What if my reception, be it ever so inadequate, of this gift has been the ground from which other gifts—some of them persons!—have been given to me?

Some men do not have a wife; there are vocations other than marriage. Some married men, alas, may not have a good wife; they, I suppose, must try to find the gift even in this. And then some, God-forbid, have a good wife, but do not receive and respond to that gift. Perhaps for some of us it is still not too late: to respond, to live in gratitude.

I see a great task before me. But only a fool would turn away.

Naturally speaking, what greater good indeed is there for me, than my good wife? God grant me the strength not only to have gratitude, but to live it.

Hesiod (8th century B.C.) was a Greek contemporary of Homer, and likewise an epic poet.

Image: When the Kye Come Hame, Scottish

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The Land of Storybooks

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At evening when the lamp is lit,
Around the fire my parents sit;
They sit at home and talk and sing,
And do not play at anything.

Now, with my little gun, I crawl
All in the dark along the wall,
And follow round the forest track
Away behind the sofa back.

There, in the night, where none can spy,
All in my hunter’s camp I lie,
And play at books that I have read
Till it is time to go to bed.   …                      Robert Louis Stevenson

The scene is a picture of peace. A child goes about his way, secure in the presence of his parents. The parents talk and sing, maybe even do some hand-work. Together. Nothing takes them away, or apart; not even their own worries or concerns. Anchored in that union, the child is free to wander—into foreign lands, even into danger. He’s always at home, no matter where he goes.

This child’s simple yet pressing needs are fulfilled, right here at home. This experience, this reality, he will carry with him the rest of his life.

The land of storybooks should not be in storybooks alone. Some children would give anything to have just one such evening. What children want, and need, can seem so far away; yet it is close at hand. Our homes can be the land of storybooks. Such is within our power. And it needs to be done, for the sake of our children. And for own sake too.

R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) is the great Scottish author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child’s Garden of Verses, and other classics.

Illustration by Margaret Tarrant

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If Sartre is Right

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“If man…is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he will himself have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature…” Jean-Paul Sartre, in ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’

A man will be what he will have made himself to be.

Aristotle would concur. But for Aristotle all the drama of this statement is rooted in the fact that there is a human nature. A man can choose to respond to the ‘given’—or we could say the gift—of human nature. Will I put first things first, according to the order that I discover? It is up to me; nobody can walk the walk for me.

But if Sartre is right, the only walk there is, is the walk I or others will choose to walk. I am master not only of my own actions, but of good and evil itself.

A sign that Sartre is wrong is not that he has pointed out too great a burden. Rather, he has not comprehended something yet greater. The greatness of a good that is for man, but not designed by man.

Aristotle: “[the distinction of good and evil] may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature.” Indeed such may be thought.

But when we lay our head on our pillow tonight, we should rest assured: the true goal of our self-making-through-action is already written, and it is something we could never have conceived. Our glorious burden is to transcribe it, to make it a reality in our lives.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is a major figure in the philosophy of existentialism.

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Slaughtering Pigs Today

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Today begins the annual pig slaughter at my home. It is always a momentous occasion. Of its many unforgettable moments I think my favorite is when the pig’s carcass has been split in half lengthwise, and laid out on our antique oak butcher board.

A side of a pig is one of the great wonders of the natural world. Here intersects the life of an amazing animal with the nourishment and conviviality of people. A shoulder is a cluster of muscles, tendons, etc. that enable this cloven hoofed animal to amble through pasture or woods. It is likewise the perfect object for barbecuing and pulling unto a feast fit for the marriage celebration of a princess. The side that provides insulation for vital organs can be smoked and broiled in strips whose odor speaks of Sunday morning with family, and whose savor is perhaps the most universally approved of tastes. The rear leg that renders a pig truck-like in strength is transformed through months or years of salt and sugar curing into a food of connoisseurs and backwoodsman alike.

Were there not so much to do during the slaughter it would be worth standing back for a while. Studying that side carefully one can see, maybe even smell and taste, so many moments of human life. This too is a great moment of human life. Standing at the butcher board flanked with friends and family, there are few places that I would rather be.

Photo: Starting the process of eviscerating. If I look a bit tentative, it is because this is the first pig I ever slaughtered. That was ten years ago, under the watchful eye of my mentor Jimmie Seal. May you be enjoying unending life, Jimmmie; your generosity will not be forgotten.

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Gestures: A Meeting of Body and Soul

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“Imitations practiced from youth become part of nature and settle into habits of gesture, voice, and thought.” Plato, Republic III

Plato showed great concern about how people move and use their bodies. Bodily gestures have significance; and they are connected to deeper realities, especially the dispositions of our soul.

His immediate prescription here was that youth not act parts in plays that are compromising or base. But the point clearly has a broader significance. He connects three things: bodily gestures, ways of speaking, and ways of thinking. The habits of the upright person in all three of these areas are of a piece with one another.

One can wonder what Plato would think of bodily gestures now commonly performed; or those not commonly performed. We might conjecture that he would find them consistent with our ways of speaking, and ways of thinking.

Gestures of respect and deference were once common. And they went hand in hand with ways of speaking, and thinking. Lifting of the hat, bowing of the head; even bending of the knee. Erect stature; hands out of pockets; looking directly at a person. Or when modesty demands, not looking directly.

Once upon a time people were trained in posture. Not simply because it matches a certain kind of speech. Posture itself speaks, sometimes volumes—that I’m listening, that I care, that I know my place, that I respect myself, that I respect you.

Such training was rooted in the conviction not only that gestures are signs of already formed interior dispositions, but also that they can actually cultivate the very dispositions they signify. This is a truth both bracing and encouraging for us.

Young people need to be formed in the manifold ways of goodness. Perhaps we adults need to be re-formed. Yet our re-formation might indeed give the young something they can imitate, that will settle into habits of gesture, voice, and thought.

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.

Image: Norman Rockwell’s Saying Grace

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Silence of Monks

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“For it becomes the master to speak and to teach, but it beseems the disciple to be silent and to listen.” The Rule of St. Benedict

Fall break. I am spending a week with fourteen college students, plus my son, living the life—as near as we can—of the Benedictine monks of Clear Creek in Oklahoma. It is truly an experience of another life. A life that has the power to change the world. Indeed, once upon a time it did. A life from which we—even though most of us must live a different life—can learn much.

Perhaps the most striking feature is the silence. St. Benedict both commands silence and forbids idleness. Silence with a purpose. Silence with urgency, but peace. Silence because something needs to be done, which can only be done in silence. Silence because something needs to be learned. Through listening.

Upon seeing and hearing such silence one is struck by how strange it is. How can they do this?

Then light begins to dawn. How can the rest of us not emulate this? Somehow. For the sake of human life.

St. Benedict (480-543) is considered the father of western monasticism.

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Discussing Virtue, Daily

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“It is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others…” Socrates, The Apology

Philosophers can get a bad rap—among other things for discussing issues far removed from the exigencies of daily life. This is not surprising, given that many recent philosophers have given up the project of addressing life’s fundamental questions.

Not so with Socrates. He had an uncanny focus on the essential, and a striking combination of boldness and humility. Confident that the fundamental questions can be answered, he was never satisfied with the answers he had. So he kept looking and considering, and this especially by discussing.

Socrates’ discussion of virtue was not academic. It had the urgency of a discussion about how to earn a daily wage, or how to find the way home when lost. All else paled in face of the challenge of how to become the man he knew he should be. And he knew he couldn’t figure it out on his own; or if he ever stopped asking the same questions.

We could expect no more of Socrates than this fidelity in making inquiry into the most burning questions. And even if our daily schedules are more challenging than his, perhaps we should expect no less of ourselves.

The thought of Socrates (c. 469 B.C.-399 B.C.) is known primarily through the writings of his great student Plato. Plato’s Apology gives an account of the trial in which Socrates was condemned to death by an Athenian jury.

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