Category Archives: Literary and Philosophical Gems

The Wit and Wisdom of Byron

I am having such a good time reading Byron’s Don Juan would like to share some passages from the first canto of  what might be the language’s most enjoyable long poem. [The witty lines are so sharp and smooth that one often forgets that the stanzas are in the exceptionally difficult ‘ottava rima’ form.]

ON LOVE

1.116
Oh Plato, Plato, you have paved the way
With your confounded fantasies to more
Immoral conduct by the fancied sway
Your system feigns o’er the controlless core
Of human hearts than all the long array
Of poets and romancers…
1.117
…But who, alas, can love and then be wise?
Not that remorse did not oppose temptation;
A little she strove and much repented,
And whispering, ‘I will ne’er consent’—consented.
1.65
…Yet he was jealous, though he did not show it,
For jealousy dislikes the world to know it.
1.62
Wedded she was some years and to a man
Of fifty, and such husbands are in plenty;
And yet I think instead of such a one
‘twere better to have two of five and twenty…

On Humans [and especially “progress”]

1.129
What opposite discoveries we have seen,
Signs of true genius and of empty pockets!
One makes new noses, one a guillotine,
One breaks your bones, one sets them in their sockets…

1. 132
This is the patent age of new inventions
For killing bodies and saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions…
[These] are ways to benefit mankind, as true
Perhaps as shooting them at Waterloo.

1.133
Man’s a phenomenon, one knows not what,
And wonderful beyond all wondrous measure.
‘tis pity though in this sublime world that
Pleasure’s a sine and sometimes sin’s a pleasure.
Few mortals know what end they would be at,
But whether glory, power or love or treasure,
The path is through perplexing ways, and when
The goal is gained, we die you know—and then?

Miscellaneous Passages of Extraordinary Wit:

1. 183
None can say that this was not good advice;
The only mischief was it came too late.
Of all experience ‘tis the usual price,
A sort of income tax laid on by fate…
1.77
Sweet is a legacy, and passing sweet
The unexpected death of some old lady
Or gentleman of seventy years complete,
Who’ve made ‘us youth’ wait too, too long already
For an estate or cash or country-seat…
1.83
…A quiet conscience makes one so serene.
Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That all the apostles would have done as they did.

1.218
What is the end of fame? ‘Tis but to fill
A certain portion of uncertain paper.
Some liken it to climbing up a hill,
Whose summit, like all hills, is lost in vapour.
For this men write, speak, preach, and heroes kill,
And bards burn what they call their midnight taper,
To have, when the original is dust,
A name, a wretched picture, and worse bust.

Ann the Famous and John the Unknown (Part II)

For reasons I can’t explain, this delightfully odd piece [from  http://storytimewithjohn.com ] made me laugh quite a bit:

Storytime with John

image

I am well past the point of attempting to understand these ramblings. 

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Lucretius on Philosophy

Some brilliant lines from one of the greatest figures in Western letters–the philosopher/poet Lucretius:

Lucretius The Nature of Things [The A.E. Stallings Translation]
[Book V] (lines on the value of the philosopher)

…But if you think the deeds of Hercules compare somehow, [to the work of the philosopher]
You stray from truth and common sense. For what harm could come now
To us from the gaping jaws of the Nemean lion? And what more
Have we to fear now from that bristly brute, the Arcadian boar? [and several other monsters slain by Hercules]
…And yet what dangers threaten if the mind is not washed clear,
What battles we unwillingly invite into the heart!
How biting are desire’s cares that worry man apart,
How menacing the fears! And then consider Pride and Wrath
And Lust—and the catastrophes which are their aftermath—
And Gluttony and Sloth. And he who’s conquered all these, then,
And banished them from the mind—not by the sword, but by the pen—
Shouldn’t he be numbered with the gods and not with men?
[lines 22-24, 42-52]

Wisdom from Seneca

All passages come from Seneca’s priceless The Letters of a Stoic [the Robin Campbell translation]

“Letter II”…It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interests, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already (34).

 

“Letter III”
-Trusting everyone is as much a fault as trusting no one (though I should call the first the worthier and the second the safer behaviour) (36).

“Letter V”
-The very name of philosophy, however modest the manner in which it is pursued, is unpopular enough as it is: imagine what the reaction would be if we started dissociating ourselves from the conventions of society. Inwardly everything should be different but our outward face should conform with the crowd…Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to, but better than that of the mob. Otherwise we shall repel and alienate the very people whose reform we desire; we shall make them, moreover, reluctant to imitate us in anything for fear they may have to imitate us in everything (37).
-…one’s life should be a compromise between the ideal and the popular morality. People should admire our way of life but they should at the same time find it understandable (37-38).

’Cease to hope,’ he [Hecato] says, ‘and you will cease to fear.’ …Widely different though they are, the two of them march in unison like a prisoner and the escort he is handcuffed to. Fear keeps pace with hope…both belong to a mind in suspense, to a mind in a state of anxiety through looking into the future. Both are mainly due to projecting our thoughts far ahead of us instead of adapting ourselves to the present. Thus it is that foresight, the greatest blessing humanity has been given, is transformed into a curse. Wild animals run from the dangers they actually see, and once they have escaped them worry no more. We however are tormented alike by what is past and what is to come. A number of our blessings do us harm, for memory brings back the agony of fear while foresight brings it on prematurely. No one confines his unhappiness to the present (38).

“Letter XVI”
-…making noble resolutions is not as important as keeping the resolutions you have made already. You have to preserve and fortify your pertinacity until the will to good becomes a disposition to good (63).

 

“Letter XVIII

...it takes a more developed sense of fitness, on the other hand, not to make oneself a person apart, to be neither indistinguishable from those about one nor conspicuous by one’s difference, to do the same things but not in quite the same manner (66-67).
-It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. .If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him so training before it comes.

“Letter XXXVIII”
-What is required is not a lot of words but effectual ones.
-…precepts have the same features as seeds: they are of compact dimensions and they produce impressive results—given, as I say, the right sort of mind, to grasp at and assimilate them. The mind will then respond by being in its turn creative and will produce a yield exceeding what was put into it. (82)

“Letter XL”
-…there’s no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed (95).

“Letter XCI”
So the spirit must be trained to a realization of its lot. It must come to see that there is nothing fortune will shrink from, that she wields the same authority over emperor and empire alike and the same power over cities as over men. There’s no ground for resentment in all this. We’ve entered into a world in which these are the terms life is lived on—if you’re satisfied with that, submit to them, if you’re not, get out, whatever way you please. Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, make your peace with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties (181-82).

From Ovid’s *Metamorphoses* [Lines on Impermanence and Inter-being];

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses [Lines on Impermanence and Inter-being]; all passages from the Horace Gregory translation (which, unfortunately, does not contain line numbers. The passages appear in the section called “The Philosopher,” who seems to be Pythagoras]

And so I ride (which is my metaphor)
A full-sailed ship upon an endless sea,
A universe where nothing stays the same.
Sea, sky, wind, earth, and time forever changing—
Time like a river in its ceaseless motion:
On, on, each speeding hour cannot stand still,
But as waves, thrust by waves, drive waves before them
So time runs first or follows forever new:
The flying moment gone, what once seemed never
Is now, which vanishes before we say it,
Each disappearing moment in a cycle,
Each loss replaced within the living hour

[Book XV, p. 419]

Nothing retains the shape of what it was,
And Nature, always making old things new,
Proves nothing dies within the universe,
But takes another being in new forms.
What is called birth is change from what we were,
And death the shape of being left behind.
Though all things melt or grow from here to there,
Yet the same balance of the world remains.

Nothing, no nothing keeps its outward show,
For golden ages turn to years of iron;
And Fortune changes many looks of places.
I’ve seen land turn to miles of flood-tossed waters,
Or land rise up within a restless sea;
Shells have been found upon a sanded plain
With never an ocean or a ship in sight,
Someone has seen an anchor turn to rust,
Caught among brushes on a mountaintop.
Stormed by great cataracts, a wide plateau
Turns to a valley and Spring floods have swept
Far hills into chambers of the sea.
And where a swamp once flowed beneath the willows,
Is now a strip of sand, and where a desert was,
A little lake sways under growing reeds.
[p. 421-22]

*Hamlet*–impermanence and inter-being

Hamlet [5.1.198-205]

Hamlet:

Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander
returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make
loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted
might they not stop a beer barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!

4.3.26-30 [King=K, Hamlet=H]
H: A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a
king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.

K: What dost thou mean by this?

H:
Nothing but to show you how a king may go a
progress through the guts of a beggar.