Monthly Archives: September 17, 2014

Speak Truth

“The nobles of Persia, in the bosom of luxury and despotism, preserved a strong sense of personal gallantry and national honor.  From the age of seven years they were taught to speak truth, to shoot with the bow, and to ride; and it was universally confessed, that in the two last of these arts they had made a more than common proficiency.” (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter viii)

“No man quite understands his own artful dodges from the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” (Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim) The art of speaking truth, it seems, is not as easily mastered as the skills of horse-riding and archery.  The difficulty in speaking the truth, simple as it may sound, is not hard to explain.  Truth is generally insensitive, and often harsh; it stubbornly refuses to account for the fragile egos of those who stumble upon it.  And so, particularly when ‘truth’ relates to ourselves, we avoid it speaking about it like the plague.  “Truth is a torch, but a monstrously huge one; which is why we are all just intent on getting past it, our eyes blinking as we go, ever terrified of getting burnt. (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections).

Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, recognized the difficulty – and greatness – of speaking truth about oneself.  He writes that “if a man is able to settle his mind and reflect, and perceives that he is drowning in falsehood, and that even his service of God is rooted in falsehood, and he cries out to God and yearns to draw close to the truth, he will arouse the attribute of truth from above and draw […]

By |September 17, 2014|

When Books become Vegetables

With lofty ambition and high minded intentions, I erect small libraries of books upon my night table, eagerly anticipating the vacation I’ve planned for months.  Finally – finally! – there will be time to work through the collection of edifying, ‘nutritious’ books that I’ve assembled over the course of the year based on glowing book reviews and recommendations from friends.  But inevitably, I find myself sitting on a lounge chair, struggling through chapter 2 of Thinking Fast and Slow (which, as Jordan Ellenberg quipped, is more slow than fast), wondering what the fuss is all about.  It’s a terrible conundrum; continuing with the book is a painful proposition, but putting it away is an admission of defeat.  And so, unwilling to give up without a fight, I chip away at chapters 3 and 4 and slowly wade into the endless abyss of chapter 5, finally slipping into a well-deserved nap.  But that’s as far as I get; back from vacation – and still in the middle of chapter 5 – I guiltily return the book to my night table, where it will slowly be buried by next year’s collection of unread books.

I’m not the first person, I suspect, to force myself to continue a book that I’ve started, believing, somehow, that it is ‘good for me’ – like green peppers and raw carrots.  But Samuel Johnson, the great 18th century author, would disapprove:  “Idleness is a disease which must be combated; but I would not advise a rigid adherence to a particular plan of study.  I myself have never persisted in any plan for two days together.  A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task […]

By |September 10, 2014|

Sullen Obstinacy or Authenticity?

“We have described the religious harmony of the ancient world, and the facility with which the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions.  A single people refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind… the Jews.  The sullen obstinacy with which they maintained their peculiar rites and unsocial manners seemed to mark them out a distinct species of men, who boldly professed, or who faintly disguised, their implacable hatred to the rest of human-kind… According to the maxims of universal toleration, the Romans protected a superstition which they despised.  The polite Augustus condescended to give orders that sacrifices should be offered for his prosperity in the temple of Jerusalem; while the meanest of the posterity of Abraham, who should have paid the same homage to the Jupiter of the Capitol, would have been an object of abhorrence to himself and to his brethren…”  (Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XV)

In ancient times, the more enlightened Roman Emperors adopted a policy of toleration towards the great multitude of polytheistic religions that abounded throughout the Roman Empire.  Though they privately ridiculed the superstitions of their subjects, they publicly celebrated and worshipped the gods of the people, “condescending to act a part on the theatre of superstition… conceal[ing] the sentiments of an Atheist under the sacerdotal robes.  They approached, with the same inward contempt, and the same external reverence, the altars of the Libyan, the Olympian, or the Capitoline Jupiter.” (Gibbon, ibid., Chapter II)  The citizens and subjects of Rome generally followed the example of their masters; for much of its history, the subdued subjects of the Roman Empire embraced a “more the merrier” form […]

By |September 5, 2014|