Divine Descent

Greek-Gods

“I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known
Above high air of heaven by my fame,
Carrying with me in my ships our gods
Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.
I look for Italy to be my fatherland,
And my descent is from all-highest Jove.”
Virgil, The Aeneid

Aeneas says he’s descended from the highest of the gods. Having such lineage set him apart from other men. Most men are just men. As proud as they may be of their lineage, they do not dare claim descent from any but other men.

Does any god claim descent from men? It seems not. An offspring of man is—by that very fact—not fully divine. The divine is diminished, compromised by the intermingling.

Or so it always seemed. Reasonably. But perhaps men have thought about this wrongly; and someone had to open our eyes to reality.

The surest sign of the divine is to raise up that which it touches.

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics.

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Living Pleasantly from the Land

Brueghel-Spring

“In the first place, thanks to those who work it, the land bears not only the means for people to live, but also bears the means for them to live pleasantly.”
Xenophon, The Estate Manager

This past week I planted my spring greens. There is something about placing seeds in the ground. As though you the planter begin to swell with the same new life of the seeds: a new beginning, a new season. New life.

The ground yields up plants, which enable people to live. Not only to live, but to live pleasantly. Does Xenophon have in mind the crispness of a spinach leaf, the sweetness of peas, the tang of the vine-ripened tomato? Or does he have in mind a late-winter sowing—in recently snow-enriched soil, or a rosy-skied summer morning weeding with your children at your side? Or maybe he has in mind what the prophet Isaiah speaks of: eating the fruit of vines you yourself have planted (Is 65:21).

There is so much life—pleasant life—hidden in dark soil. It is there, waiting. Waiting to be received, by the hand that is open in cultivation. Would that more of us open our hands, together.

Xenophon (430-354 B.C.) was a soldier, historian, and philosopher of Athens. Like Plato he wrote dialogues featuring Socrates as a great teacher. Among,  these dialogues is Oeconomicus, translated as The Estate Manager, in which we get an insight into the structure and principles of the ancient household.

Image: Spring, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)

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The Death of a Tree

CutPoplar1I have never thought much about the death of trees. Until today.

I have thought about the death of farm animals, since I kill with my own hands the pigs that I’ve raised, with my own hands. I have often wished they could supply us with the food that nourishes and brings joy and conviviality, without their having to die. But such cannot be. I am convinced that the meat of animals is a gift for human life—to be received with gratitude and care; and this requires that animals be killed. It seems to me fitting that I kill at least some of the animals that I eat. It helps me keep me in mind what my eating of meat requires—of people and of pigs.

Today a tree was cut down. It wasn’t a uniquely majestic tree. But majestic it was, while it still stood alive. Through a miscommunication with the men who are doing a selective cutting of trees in the woods owned—if one can speak of ‘owning’ things that are alive—by my mother, this tree (and indeed some others) were accidentally cut down. The reason this tree was special to me is not to the point. It just was. And now it is gone, on the way to a lumber mill where no one will ever know—will someone at least pause to wonder?—the majesty that belonged to it, and what it meant to me, in its native earth, the very soil I call home. Today was rather traumatic for me, and it gave me occasion to think about trees, and life.

Is it unfitting to be concerned about trees, when so many people suffer in so many ways? Perhaps. But then again, maybe having a true appreciation of trees is somehow a part of knowing who we are, and how to live.

I still intend to use wood and things made of wood, which nourish and bring joy and conviviality. But I resolve never again to take wood for granted; nor the trees, whose life and death, give us wood, and life.

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Picture-Books in Winter

ReadingAloud

“Water now is turned to stone
Nurse and I can walk upon;
Still we find the flowing brooks
In the picture storybooks.

How am I to sing your praise,
Happy chimney-corner days,
Sitting safe in nursery nooks,
Reading picture storybooks?”

Robert Louis Stevenson

So many ugly images. They seem to saturate our everyday. The news can be relentless. Winter weather too conspires against us, weighing spirits down.

But then there are picture-books. Read out loud. Together. For what more can we ask? What better can we do?

Days and evenings come and go. So much to do, and so hard to find the time. Childhood—precious childhood!–passing by.

There is yet time, time for us to step out-of-time; to rest in what really matters. The reality of story books.

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

Image by Swedish author and illustrator Elsa Beskow

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Clean Eyes

carnation,lily,lily,rose1

“Again, one time Sophocles, who was Pericles’ fellow-commissioner in the generalship, was going on board with him, and praised the beauty of a youth they met with on the way to the ship. ‘Sophocles,’ said he, ‘a general ought not only to have clean hands but also clean eyes’.”
Plutarch, Life of Pericles

Just what was Pericles’ point? Is there something wrong with praising the beauty of a youth? In some sense, surely not.

But Plutarch relates this story as part of his portrait of Pericles as an upright man. The reader is to conclude that this incident reveals some aspect of Pericles’ good character.

There must have been something in how Sophocles pointed out the beauty of the youth. For there is a way of looking that is actually a way of taking. Just as hands can take what is not their own—and thus be unclean, so can eyes.

Eyes are designed to see. But as a matter of righteousness, and for the sake of seeing, some things should not be looked upon. From some things we need to withhold our glance. Somehow to look upon these things—as an act of selfish grasping—blinds us. It takes away our power to see and to love things as they really are.

Only if we discipline our eyes, if we are willing not to grasp through looking, will we ever really be able to see, and to appreciate, the beauty of others.

Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.

Image: “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” by John Singer Sargent

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Remembering Death

Tombstone

“You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Genesis

Some images are striking reminders of death. There are few like seeing your name etched on a gravestone.

In my case it was seeing only part of my name—the one that really counts: the one I share with my father.

Last spring my parents’ gravestone arrived to be placed by the mound of my father’s grave. Not really wanting to look, I braced myself as the boom on the truck swung the block into the air. There it was: CUDDEBACK. All caps in an elegant font, above the Christian names of my parents.

The dates that bookend Dad’s eighty years are inscribed neatly below his name. But there is only the date of birth for Mom, and then a space—empty of everything but foreboding.

As the man put the finishing touches on the cement that holds the marker to its base, I enquired about how the ‘other date’ would be entered for my mother. He answered that they have an etching machine they bring on site, when it comes to that. “But let’s hope that’s not for a good long time,” he politely added.

That is surely a reasonable hope, at least on some level. Yet I wonder how my mother experiences it. I’m not inclined to ask. Her approach might be a little different from the grave worker. After eighty years of life, and the loss of your spouse, do you hope for a ‘good long time?’ Perhaps.

Why might any of us hope for a long life? Isn’t life ultimately a matter of living-together? Life in genuine isolation—from relationships of love—is almost not life at all. So hope for life, it seems, is hope for some kind of living-together.

That day last spring I might as well have seen my own name on a gravestone, accompanied by the first of the dates that will circumscribe my life. Will that other date be in spring, like the beautiful day that my father’s gravestone arrived? Perhaps it will be during a midwinter storm, or a lazy summer day. Will it have been expected, or will it be a matter for alarmed retelling among those that know me?

I think the main question—and one that most significantly hangs in the balance—is whether it will be a day that closes a life truly well-lived in the presence of those for whom and with whom it should be. Will that second date of mine be one of real closure for something reasonably fit to be closed? Or will those who stand around the grave be inclined to think of what could have and should have been?

The answer to this question is fundamentally in my power, though the date itself certainly is not. It is remarkable to consider the contrast: what is in our power, and what is not. That little space on a gravestone points to this contrast. I will try to remember that space.

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The Slavery of Women, and Men

Slave

“But among barbarians no distinction is made between women and slaves…”
Aristotle, Politics

Barbarians can be accused of a number of things, but presumably they cannot be accused of considering themselves civilized. Nor did they see themselves as a society in which the position of woman was improving.

In light of a movie opening this weekend we might make a self-examination through the lens of Aristotle.

The Greeks are not a good example of how to treat women, or of how to treat those they called slaves. But nonetheless, Aristotle could not be clearer on this fundamental point: women are free persons and should not be treated as existing for the sake of another. It is characteristic of slaves to be subject to the designs of another—the master. Not so with women.

For Aristotle a distinctive mark of barbarians is that they do not see this truth about women. They do not distinguish between women and slaves. Much to the detriment of all.

This week many people have been baffled by the warm reception, even hearty defense, of a movie glorifying the sexual subjection of women. Aristotle can give us a helpful if grim angle of insight.

To treat another person fundamentally in terms of one’s own needs or wants, ignoring the person’s dignity, is to treat that person as a slave. Somehow—even in the face of much rhetoric about human rights, and the liberation of women—our society is living a contradiction. In various ways we condone, either explicitly or implicitly, the treatment of women as slaves. An honest assessment of the pervasive presence of pornography, for instance, verifies this point.

The pornography industry itself exploits countless women–a devastating but practically ignored fact. But perhaps more to the point, the use of pornography builds an attitude that women should serve the selfish desires of men. Such an attitude precludes the possibility of a true relationship between man and woman.

Aristotle actually proceeds to make another assertion about barbarians: “They are a community of slaves, male and female.” Perhaps this is a cautionary tale for us: those who treat women as slaves, are actually slaves themselves, unable to distinguish slavery and freedom.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher.

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