Saturday, November 03, 2007

`There is Nothing He Desires Not to Know'

The best teachers wish only to outlive their usefulness. They have done so when their students are equipped to live and think autonomously, which does not mean in a manner ruled by self will alone, or in a moral or intellectual vacuum. Rather, the teacher’s lessons have been become second nature, including the lesson that learning is never complete and judgment never without flaw. In short, we need frequent reminders. A teacher (in the broadest sense) once told me: “You’re not a slow learner; you’re a quick forgetter.” In “A Premonition, of the Title and Use of Characters,” his 1608 introduction to Characters of Vertues and Vices [original spellings retained throughout], Joseph Hall urges readers to heed the wisdom of the ancients:

“The Divines of the old Heathens were their Morall Philosophers: These received the Acts of an inbred law, in the Sinai of Nature, and delivered them with many expositions to the multitude: There were the Overseers of manners, Correctors of vices, Directors of lives, Doctors of virtue, which yet taught their people the body of their naturall Divinity, not after one manner….drawing out the true lineaments of every virtue and vice, so lively, that who saw the medals, might know the face: which Art they significantly tearmed Charactery.”

Hall’s teacher here, his “Morall Philosopher,” is Theophrastus, founder of the genre Hall is introducing to English. Theophrastus was Greek and lived from 370 until about 285 BCE. What little we know of him comes from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers, written 400 years later. His real name was Tyrtamus. According to legend, “Theophrastus” was an honorific bestowed by Aristotle, meaning “divine expression,” because of his gift for conversation. Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle, and may have derived the his notion of emblematic “characters” from the latter’s analysis of character in Book IV of the Nicomachean Ethics (for instance, the marvelously named megalopsuchos, Aristotle’s man whose actions indicate largeness of spirit). In “The Prooeme” [defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “An introductory discourse at the beginning of a piece of writing; a preface, preamble.”], Hall acknowledges his debt to Theophrastus:

“This Worke shall save the labor of exhorting, and disswasion. I have here done it as I could, following that ancient Master of Morality, who thought this the fittest taske for the ninety and ninth yeare of his age, and the profitablest monument that he could leave for a fare-well to his Grecians.”

In distilled characters, in “types,” Hall embodies 11 virtues and 15 vices – an interesting and probably inevitable disparity. He follows the method articulated by Theophrastus almost 2,000 years earlier, in the Greek’s “Proem” to The Characters:

“Often before now have I applied my thoughts to the puzzling question — one, probably, which will puzzle me for ever — why it is that, while all Greece lies under the same sky and all the Greeks are educated alike, it has befallen us to have characters so variously constituted. For a long time, Polycles, I have been a student of human nature; I have lived ninety years and nine; I have associated, too, with many and diverse natures; and, having observed side by side, with great closeness, both the good and the worthless among men, I conceived that I ought to write a book about the practices in life of either sort.”

Theophratus, almost two and a half millennia ago, is puzzled by a matter that remains puzzling to us: Why are people so various? Why are some good and others less so? As moderns, heirs of Proust and Freud (and Shakespeare), we accept that most men and women embody a spectrum of moral qualities, and this spectrum can shift over a lifetime. Some will object that “Characters” are too static, too pure an embodiment of a single quality. Of course, this is true but the form is instructive. A character without moral or psychological nuance offers a more readily useful litmus test against which to evaluate ourselves. In Characters of Vertues and Vices, Hall distils 11 virtues and 15 vices – probably an inevitable disparity. In “Of the Wise Man,” he writes:

“There is nothing that he desires not to know; but most and first himselfe: and not so much his own strength, as his weaknesses; neither is his knowledge reduced to discourse, but practice. Hee is a skilfull Logician, not by nature so much as use; his working mind doth nothing all his time but make syllogisms, and draw out conclusions, every thing that he sees and heares, serves for one of the premises: with these he cares first to informe himselfe, then to direct others.”

Readers who know their Seneca and Montaigne will hear familiar echoes. This, too, will sound familiar, on the teaching theme mentioned above, from “He is a Happy Man”:

“That hath learn’d to read himself more than all books; and hath so taken out this lesson, that he can never forget it; That after many traverses of thoughts, is grown to know what he may trust to, and stands now equally armed for all events.”

On to the vices. Here is an excerpt from “Of the Vaine-glorious,” with whom the blogosphere, among other places, is overrun:

“All his humour rises up into the froth of ostentation; which if it once settle, falls downe into a narrow roome. If the excesse be in the understanding part, all his wit is in print; the Presse hath left his head empty; yea, not only what he had, but what he could borrow without leave….To conclude, he is ever on the Stage, and acts still a glorious part abroad, when no man caries a baser heart, no man is more sordid and carelesse at home. He is a Spanish Souldier on an Italian Theater; a Bladder full of wind, a skin full of words, a fooles wonder, and a wise mans foole.”

The volume I am using is titled Heaven upon Earth and Characters of Vertues and Vices, edited, and with an introduction and notes, by Rudolf Kirk, published in 1948 by Rutgers University Press. Occasionally, I detect traces of Theophrastus and Hall in the witty, compact lines of J.V. Cunningham, whose great theme, the otherness of others and our responsibility to respect that otherness, is suited to the genre. Here is an epigram from 1944:

“This Humanist whom know beliefs constrained
Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained.”

And here is “The Solipsist,” from 1943-44:

“There is no moral treason;
Others are you. Your hence
Is personal consequence;
Desire is reason.

“There is no moral strife.
None falls in the abysm
Who dwells there, solipsism
His way of life.”

1 comment:

Joe(new york) said...

A great Salinger short story form his Nine Stories is "For Esme with Love and Squalor." I read it for the first time in 1964 and stil enjoy rereading it.

Esquire Magazine was also a wonderful vehicle for the short story and in the 70's produced a 60th anniversary compendium of fiction and non fiction works by major authors.