Friday, September 6

Essential/Non-Essential Knowledge

...I have collected together all that was essential in the beginning; I am now collecting together whatever then escaped me; nor, by Hercules, if you ask me, do I think that, after the rules which govern our conduct have been stated, it is very much to the purpose to discuss the other questions which have been raised more for the exercise of our intellects than for the health of our minds. The cynic Demetrius, who in my opinion was a great man even if compared with the greatest philosophers, had an admirable saying about this, that one gained more by having a few wise precepts ready and in common use than by learning many without having them at hand. "The best wrestler," he would say, "is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them. It does not matter how many of them he knows, if he knows enough to give him the victory; and so in this subject of ours there are many points of interest, but few of importance. You need not know what is the system of the ocean tides, why each seventh year leaves its mark upon the human body, why the more distant parts of a long portico do not keep their true proportion, but seem to approach one another until at last the spaces between the columns disappear, how it can be that twins are conceived separately, though they are born together, whether both result from one, or each from a separate act, why those whose birth was the same should have such different fates in life, and dwell at the greatest possible distance from one another, although they were born touching one another; it will not do you much harm to pass over matters which we are not permitted to know, and which we should not profit by knowing. Truths so obscure may be neglected with impunity. Nor can we complain that nature deals hardly with us, for there is nothing which is hard to discover except those things by which we gain nothing beyond the credit of having discovered them; whatever things tend to make us better or happier are either obvious or easily discovered. Your mind can rise superior to the accidents of life, if it can raise itself above fears and not greedily covet boundless wealth, but has learned to seek for riches within itself; if it has cast out the fear of men and gods, and has learned that it has not much to fear from man, and nothing to fear from God; if by scorning all those things which make life miserable while they adorn it, the mind can soar to such a height as to see clearly that death cannot be the beginning of any trouble, though it is the end of many; if it can dedicate itself to righteousness and think any path easy which leads to it; if, being a gregarious creature, and born for the common good, it regards the world as the universal home, if it keeps its conscience clear towards God and lives always as though in public, fearing itself more than other men, then it avoids all storms, it stands on firm ground in fair daylight, and has brought to perfection its knowledge of all that is useful and essential. All that remains serves merely to amuse our leisure; yet, when once anchored in safety, the mind may consider these matters also, though it can derive no strength, but only culture from their discussion."(Seneca. On Benefits. Book 7.)

Even at that hour when the grey sky of St. Petersburg is shrouded in total darkness and all its race of officials have dined and sated the...