Wednesday, February 8, 2017


A certain segment of the American population has worked itself into quite a tizzy over our new political state of affairs.  How can I tell?  The old standby clichés are being paraded on a daily basis.  "Hitler"!  "Nazi"!  "Fascism"! And we mustn't forget:  "Nineteen Eighty-Four"!   "Orwellian"!  (Because this is high volume outrage, exclamation marks are mandatory.)

Words such as these empty our culture of all reason and reasonableness.     I am tempted to embark upon a rant at this point, but I have no desire to add to the clamor.  Instead, the words of Marcus Aurelius come to mind:

"Say thus to thyself every morning:  today I may have to do with some intermeddler in other men's affairs, with an ungrateful man; an insolent, or a crafty, or an envious, or an unsociable selfish man.  These bad qualities have befallen them through their ignorance of what things are truly good or evil.  But I have fully comprehended the nature of good, as only what is beautiful and honourable; and of evil, that it is always deformed and shameful; and the nature of those persons too who mistake their aim; that they are my kinsmen, by partaking, not of the same blood or seed, but of the same intelligent divine part; and that I cannot be hurt by any of them, since none of them can involve me in anything dishonourable or deformed.

"I cannot be angry at my kinsmen, or hate them.  We were formed by nature for mutual assistance, as the two feet, the hands, the eyelids, the upper and lower rows of teeth.  Opposition to each other is contrary to nature:  All anger and aversion is an opposition."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Section 1, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1742), pages 62-63.

Our time here is short.  Were we placed here to repeat meaningless clichés?

Our life in this world --
to what shall I compare it?
It is like a boat
     rowing out at break of day,
leaving not a trace behind.

Sami Mansei (early 8th century) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 51.

William Ratcliffe, "Cottage Interior" (1920)

Please do not read any political partisanship into these thoughts, dear reader.  As I mentioned in my post of November 11, I did not vote in the presidential election.  Moreover, as I have stated here on more than one occasion, this is not a political blog.  But I have often commented on the destruction of the human by the politicization of people's lives.  Hence:  the shouting of contentless clichés in the streets and through the electronic air.

A thought by Epictetus:

"That which gives men disquiet, and makes their lives miserable, is not the nature of things as they really are, but the notions and opinions which they form to themselves concerning them."

Epictetus, The Enchiridion, Section 5, in  George Stanhope (translator), Epictetus, His Morals, with Simplicius, His Comment (Fifth Edition, 1741), page 60.

The politicization of culture and of human beings involves the creation of competing fictitious versions of reality.  This contrived way of viewing the world persuades the politicized that their lives are defined, even validated, by the political beliefs they espouse.  In a politicized world of empty words, where does the individual human soul fit in?  It doesn't.

One cannot be sure of living
     even until the evening.

In the dim dawn light
     I watch the waves in the wake
          of a departing boat.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 291.

Anthony Eyton, "A Kitchen Range" (1984)

As I have noted here in the past, I am quite content to live my life in accordance with certain truisms.  Why?  Because they are true.  Here is a truism by which I try to live (failing every day):  The best way to effect change is through individual acts of kindness and decency.

"Spend your time no longer in discoursing on what are the qualities of the good man, but in actually being such."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book X, Section 16, in Francis Hutcheson and James Moor (translators), The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, page 243.

Most of us know these things.  Human beings have known them for millennia.  But we are diverted by trifles.  The identity of the President of the United States is a trifle, as is the identity of the Prime Minister of X, the Premier of Y, and the Emperor of Z.  Another truism:  Life is too short for trifles of this sort.

Over waves now at peace --
a boat seen rowing away.

Sōgi (1421-1502) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, page 318.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "The Cottage Window"


Laura D said...

Thanks for your voice of reason, Stephen, and for redirecting our attention to what is universal in humanity and away from what is trivial and partisan.

Stephen Pentz said...

Laura D: Thank you very much. That's kind of you to say. Of course, I am most definitely no saint, and, as I stated in the post, I fail each day to follow the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and others. But I do know that I have had my fill of politics for a lifetime.

Thank you again. I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

James said...

Do we not already know the ancient truths... they are always here with us while we set them aside for the latest word. And then come back to them, changed, humbled, accepting what we know and what we dont know on equal terms and know now we are truly at just the beginning. Much of our life a detour sometimes and then the first step is it had to be just like this, just like it was, everything already in that perfect balance. Thanks for the reminder... like you I am forever straying from the path I already know by heart!

Stephen Pentz said...

James: Thank you very much: that is a wonderful way of putting things. I completely agree with your thoughts: the truths have always been there, in all ages and in all places. Not just in Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, of course, but (to cite just a few examples that immediately come to mind) in Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the Buddha, Bashō, Saigyō, et cetera.

If you have been visiting the blog in the past, you will know that I disagree with the common modern notion that humanity is embarked on a steady course of "progress," and that modernity represents the pinnacle of human development. This is an absolutely false notion. As you state, we continually forget the truths, head off on "detours," have to retrace our steps, and then have to begin again. Fortunately, as you say, the first step is always there to be taken, and we do have guides from the past.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts. I hope you will return soon.

Venetia said...

This morning, after a tumultuous five weeks of marital turmoil and disclosure I arrived, on waking to recalling Cavafy's Ithaca, and sought it and read it. This is what poetry and your site is for. This morning the monsters are faint and have their backs turned away. Thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Venetia: Thank you very much for sharing those thoughts. I entirely agree that poetry can help us to place things in perspective, to reorient ourselves, to retrace our steps, or to follow a new path. And you recalled a wonderful poem: "Ithaka" is moving and inspiring, so I can understand why it had the impact it did on you.

Thank you for visiting, and thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

Jeff said...

I agree with you, Stephen, about attempting to life a good life without letting politics diminish it, but in recent months I've seen claims that not getting sufficiently worked up about politics is a privilege or a luxury. Interestingly, these claims always come from highly privileged people, and I've yet to see a persuasive argument, only professions of faith.

I would wither and become useless to my community, my loved ones, and the world if I allowed the clods and monsters of our national politics to crowd out poetry, art, and nature from my already too-cluttered mind. I lived in D.C. for 21 years, and I can't remember ever having met anyone there who was ennobled by the futile hatred that arises when they give awful people attention they don't deserve. People who doubt that, say, a pensive and enlightening poetry website isn't on their side may wish to reconsider what their "side" actually is.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: Thank you very much for those thoughtful observations. We all have to establish our priorities, and I am with you: I will not let politics "crowd out poetry, art, and nature" from my life. The emotional and mental energy that some people expend on politics appalls me. But perhaps I simply have a lower level of energy available to me.

I completely disagree with those who espouse the view that "not getting sufficiently worked up about politics is a privilege or a luxury." Such a concept is, from my view, based upon the erroneous presumption that the political is an essential part of human life. It isn't. But that's only my opinion. (Although I won't be shamed into thinking otherwise by the politicized. There is a puritanical, shaming element in many of the politicized which is quite off-putting, and of which they are oblivious.)

I also agree with you (and this has certainly been made clearer than ever in the aftermath of Brexit and the presidential election) that the end result of the politicization of life is often hatred (and stereotyping and superciliousness). As you say, no one is ever "ennobled" in such circumstances.

In a recent post (February 12), Nige of the blog Nigeness notes that Brexit has shown "how completely many of our fellow citizens have lost all sense of proportion, let alone basic human decency." This is absolutely true, and it is equally true of the aftermath of our presidential election. It is dismaying and disheartening (although, alas, not surprising) to see the disappearance of "basic human decency" in some quarters. Which is why we each have to make our choices, and establish our priorities.

It turns out that a Roman Emperor from the 2nd Century A. D. has had it right all along: "I cannot be angry at my kinsmen, or hate them. . . Opposition to each other is contrary to nature: All anger and aversion is an opposition."

Again, thank you very much for sharing your perspective on these things, which I greatly value. As ever, it is a delight to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by.

erin said...

in a world which celebrates meaninglessness, i always find pleasure and meaning here.

"Our time here is short. Were we placed here to repeat meaningless clichés?"

a wonderful poem which demonstrates time and maybe teaches us a little about how we measure inside it, "A Lesson in Time" by Kim Stafford. i wonder if you've encountered it before.

A Lesson in Time

We stood on a forest road at the meadow’s edge
so Joe could teach the story of geologic time.
Mateo set a little flag—red tatter

on a rusted wire—to mark the miasmic
gathering when earth first clenched dust
by the stern affection we call gravity.

In the meadow, grass wavered, and was still.
Then Charles began to step off eons
through the Hadean Period, as low sun

lit the pines gold. We arrived at
the Iron Catastrophe. Mateo set a flag
and Ruby laid down a stem of grass.

Under a sky made blue by oxygen
bacteria had formed, once volcanism
spewed steam from burnt stone, we

marched on. At each extinction, or
new creation, Mateo set a flag
and Ruby placed her stem of grass,

until Joe pulled two hairs from
my head to set in the dust. “The thickness
of these two strands,” he said, “we’ll call

the span of civilization.” Mateo set a flag,
and Ruby placed a stem of grass.

Tim Guirl said...

Mr. Pentz--One of the reasons I read here is to be reminded of what is important in our lives, to discover a perspective that balances universal truths with the the hubbub of daily life. It is helpful for my perspective to hold the daily newspaper in one hand and timeless truths in the other. A favorite aphoristic antidote to the present is, "This too shall pass".

Stephen Pentz said...

erin: I appreciate your kind words about the blog. Thank you. And thank you as well for the poem by Kim Stafford. I have never read any of his poems, but I have read a few prose pieces he wrote about his father. I can hear a bit of his father in the poem. The poem puts things in lovely perspective, doesn't it? I think it goes well with the Japanese poems in the post as well.

It's always nice to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Guirl: I greatly appreciate your kind words. Thank you very much. What I post here is my own attempt to find perspective. It sounds like you have more fortitude than me: you'll rarely find me with a newspaper in hand! What I find there disturbs me too much.

I agree that "This too shall pass" is a fine piece of wisdom to bear in mind. As you can tell from the post, I have been reading Marcus Aurelius recently, and this passage comes to mind: "All things are transitory, and, as it were, but for a day; both those who remember, and the things and persons remembered." Meditations, Book IV, Section 35. I consider statements such as these to be (to borrow from you) "timeless truths" that we ought not to forget.

As always, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts.

Billyboy said...

I attended the funeral of an old friend yesterday. An old man .... a wit, a raconteur, a lover of the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. The playing of the Raglan Road on the fiddle as the coffin left the Chapel, brought tears to my eyes. He would have loved it.
On the subject of eternity Stephen .... I find comfort in this comment attributed to Wittgenstein: "Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean, not infinite temporal duration, but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present".
I try, and often fail, to live in the present each day! But where is my friend? The priest's words about eternal life leave me confused.

Stephen Pentz said...

Billyboy: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts. I'm sorry for the loss of your friend. I can understand why the playing of "Raglan Road" would bring tears to your eyes. I've always loved the version by Van Morrison and the Chieftains. (Which is liable to bring tears to my eyes even when there is nothing sad in my life!)

You and I are on the same wavelength when it comes to that passage from Wittgenstein: most of what he has written goes over my head, but that section of the Tractatus is one that I have never forgotten. (The sentence beginning "If we take eternity to mean . . ." has appeared here on several occasions, in fact.) It is a wonderful passage.

As you probably know, Wittgenstein's two sentences about death parallel an observation made by Epicurus. Matthew Arnold rendered Epicurus's thoughts as follows in a fragment from his unfinished poem "Lucretius":

For while we are, Lucretius, death is not,
And when death is, why, we have ceased to be --
So death can touch us never.

As for living in the present: I fail at that daily! But I will never stop trying.

Thank you again. I hope you'll return soon.

Andrew said...

I find myself increasingly perplexed by the shinkei poem.

I suppose a passing is acknowledged only after it has passed

Stephen Pentz said...

Andrew: Thank you for those thoughts. In a note to Shinkei's poem, Steven Carter states that it is "an echo of" Sami Mansei's poem that appears at the beginning of the post. The linking image is, of course, the departing boat and its disappearing wake. We, and everything around us, are as evanescent as the boat and its wake. But I fear I am missing your point.

Thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.