28 November 2014


Epictetus, Enchiridion (XLVIII) in The Works of Epictetus, tr. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1890), p. 220:
The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person is that he never looks for either help or harm from himself, but only from externals. The condition and characteristic of a philosopher is that he looks to himself for all help or harm.

25 November 2014

A Bottom of Good Sense

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, Vol. IV (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1887), pp. 114-115:
Talking of a very respectable author, he told us a curious circumstance in his life, which was, that he had married a printer's devil. REYNOLDS. 'A printer's devil, Sir! Why, I thought a printer's devil was a creature with a black face and in rags.' JOHNSON. 'Yes, Sir. But I suppose, he had her face washed, and put clean clothes on her. (Then looking very serious, and very earnest.) And she did not disgrace him; the woman had a bottom of good sense.' The word bottom thus introduced, was so ludicrous when contrasted with his gravity, that most of us could not forbear tittering and laughing; though I recollect that the Bishop of Killaloe kept his countenance with perfect steadiness, while Miss Hannah More slyly hid her face behind a lady's back who sat on the same settee with her. His pride could not bear that any expression of his should excite ridicule, when he did not intend it; he therefore resolved to assume and exercise despotick power, glanced sternly around, and called out in a strong tone, 'Where's the merriment?' Then collecting himself, and looking aweful, to make us feel how he could impose restraint, and as it were searching his mind for a still more ludicrous word, he slowly pronounced, 'I say the woman was fundamentally sensible;' as if he had said, hear this now, and laugh if you dare. We all sat composed as at a funeral.

24 November 2014


Herbert Spencer, "Re-Barbarization," Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton, 1902), p. 184:
While bodily superiority is coming to the front, mental superiority is retreating into the background. It has long been remarked that a noted athlete is more honoured than a student who has come out highest from the examinations; and if there needs ocular proof we have it in the illustrated papers, which continually reproduce photographs of competing crews and competing teams, while nowhere do we see a photograph of, say, all the wranglers* of the year. How extreme is this predominance of athleticism is shown by the fact that Sir Michael Foster, when a candidate for the representation of the University of London, was described as specially fitted because he was a good cricketer! "All cricketers will, of course, vote for him," wrote in The Times a B.A. who had "played in the same eleven with him." Thus various changes point back to those medieval days when courage and bodily power were the sole qualifications of the ruling classes, while such culture as existed was confined to priests and the inmates of monasteries.
* A wrangler is a Cambridge University student who has obtained first-class honours in the mathematics tripos. The university stopped revealing their names in 1909. The names of the Boat Race crew are still published, though.

20 November 2014

A Good, Cosy, Dull Time

Samuel McChord Crothers, The Gentle Reader (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1910), pp. 5-6:
I sometimes fear that reading, in the old-fashioned sense, may become a lost art. The habit of resorting to the printed page for information is an excellent one, but it is not what I have in mind. A person wants something and knows where to get it. He goes to a book just as he goes to a department store. Knowledge is a commodity done up in a neat parcel. So that the article is well made he does not care either for the manufacturer or the dealer.

Literature, properly so called, is quite different from this, and literary values inhere not in things or even in ideas, but in persons. There are some rare spirits that have imparted themselves to their words. The book then becomes a person, and reading comes to be a kind of conversation. The reader is not passive, as if he were listening to a lecture on The Ethics of the Babylonians. He is sitting by his fireside, and old friends drop in on him. He knows their habits and whims, and is glad to see them and to interchange thought. They are perfectly at their ease, and there is all the time in the world, and if he yawns now and then nobody is offended, and if he prefers to follow a thought of his own rather than theirs there is no discourtesy in leaving them. If his friends are dull this evening, it is because he would have it so; that is why he invited them. He wants to have a good, cosy, dull time.

18 November 2014

Slippered Ease

Hamilton Wright Mabie, "A Comment on Some Recent Books," Essays from the Chap Book (Chicago: Herbert S. Stone & Co., 1896), pp. 158-159:
In our slippered ease, protected by orderly government, by written constitutions, by a police who are always in evidence, we sometimes forget of what perilous stuff we are made, and how inseparable from human life are those elements of tragedy which from time to time startle us in our repose, and make us aware that the most awful pages of history may be rewritten in the record of our own day. It will be a dull day if the time ever comes when uncertainty and peril are banished from the life of men. When the seas are no longer tossed by storms, the joy and the training of eye, hand, and heart in seamanship will go out. The antique virtues of courage, endurance, and high-hearted sacrifice cannot perish without the loss of that which makes it worth while to live; but these qualities, which give heroic fibre to character, cannot be developed if danger and uncertainty are to be banished from human experience. A stable world is essential to progress, but a world without the element of peril would comfort the body and destroy the soul. In some form the temper of the adventurer, the explorer, the sailor, and the soldier must be preserved in an orderly and peaceful society; that sluggish stability for which business interests are always praying would make money abundant, but impoverish the money-getters. There would be nothing worth buying in a community in which men were no longer tempted and life had no longer that interest which grows out of its dramatic possibilities.

17 November 2014

An Infallible Touchstone

Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism; Second Series (London: Macmillan, 1888), pp. 16-17:
Indeed there can be no more useful help for discovering what poetry belongs to the class of the truly excellent, and can therefore do us most good, than to have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and to apply them as a touchstone to other poetry. Of course we are not to require this other poetry to resemble them; it may be very dissimilar. But if we have any tact we shall find them, when we have lodged them well in our minds, an infallible touchstone for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality, and also the degree of this quality, in all other poetry which we may place beside them.
A related post: Every Man's Anthology

13 November 2014

A Confounded Swindle

George Gissing, New Grub Street, Vol. I (London: Smith, Elder, 1891), pp. 303-304:
   'Oh,' pursued Jasper, 'when did you see Whelpdale last?'
   'Haven't seen him for a long time.'
   'You don't know what he's doing? The fellow has set up as a "literary adviser." He has an advertisement in The Study every week. "To Young Authors and Literary Aspirants" — something of the kind. "Advice given on choice of subjects, MSS. read, corrected, and recommended to publishers. Moderate terms." A fact! And what's more, he made six guineas in the first fortnight; so he says, at all events. Now that's one of the finest jokes I ever heard. A man who can't get anyone to publish his own books makes a living by telling other people how to write!'
   'But it's a confounded swindle!'
   'Oh, I don't know. He's capable of correcting the grammar of "literary aspirants," and as for recommending to publishers — well, anyone can recommend, I suppose.'
   Reardon's indignation yielded to laughter.
   'It's not impossible that he may thrive by this kind of thing.'
   'Not at all,' assented Jasper.

10 November 2014

Progress and Prosperity

Herbert Spencer, "Some Regrets," Facts and Comments (New York: D. Appleton, 1902), p.7:
I detest that conception of social progress which presents as its aim, increase of population, growth of wealth, spread of commerce. In the politico-economic ideal of human existence there is contemplated quantity only and not quality. Instead of an immense amount of life of low type I would far sooner see half the amount of life of a high type. A prosperity which is exhibited in Board-of-Trade tables year by year increasing their totals, is to a large extent not a prosperity but an adversity. Increase in the swarms of people whose existence is subordinated to material development is rather to be lamented than to be rejoiced over. We assume that our form of social life under which, speaking generally, men toil to-day that they may gain the means of toiling tomorrow, is a satisfactory form, and profess ourselves anxious to spread it all over the world; while we speak with reprobation of the relatively easy and contented lives passed by many of the peoples we call uncivilized.

9 November 2014

The Mess Table

H. Rex Freston, "The Mess Table," The Quest of Truth and Other Poems (Oxford: B. H. Blackwell, 1916), p. 38:
Sometimes, above the talk and wine
  That round the long white table flow,
There fall upon my startled ears,
  The voices that I used to know.

And looking round the lighted room,
  Each in his own familiar chair,
With laughing eyes that greet my eyes,
  I see the dead men sitting there.

The dead men's faces glow and shine
  With jest and laughter as of old;
The dead men's voices come and go;
  And yet my heart is strangely cold.

For one long moment they remain:
  And then, as through a mist, I see
The new men sitting in the chairs,
  Where once the dead men used to be.
Freston was killed in action at La Boisselle, France on January 24, 1916.

A related post: Strange to Think

5 November 2014

It Makes the Kidneys Ache

Florentius the scribe (c.920 - c.978) in his colophon to Pope Gregory's Moralia, quoted in Catherine Brown's "Remember the Hand: Bodies and Bookmaking in Early Medieval Spain." Word & Image, Vol. 27, No. 3 (2011), 262-278 (at p. 272):
One who knows little of writing thinks it no labor at all. For if you want to know I will explain to you in detail how heavy is the burden of writing. It makes the eyes misty. It twists the back. It breaks the ribs and belly. It makes the kidneys ache and fills the whole body with every kind of annoyance. So, reader, turn the pages slowly, and keep your fingers far away from the letters, for just as hail damages crops, so a useless reader ruins both writing and book. For as home port is sweet to the sailor, so is the final line sweet to the writer. 
The Latin:
quia qui nescit scribere laborem nullum extimat esse nam si uelis scire singulatim nuntio tibi quam grabe est scribturae pondus. oculis caliginem facit. dorsum incurbat. costas et uentrem frangit. renibus dolorem inmittit et omne corpus fastidium nutrit. ideo tu lector lente folias uersa. longe a litteris digitos tene quia sicut grando fecunditatem telluris tollit sic lector inutilis scribturam et librum euertit. nam quam suauis est nauigantibus portum extremum ita et scribtori nobissimus uersus. 

3 November 2014

Get Enough Sleep

Christopher Knight shares the wisdom he gained during 27 years of solitude, from an article by Michael Finkel in the September issue of GQ Magazine:
True hermits, according to Chris, do not write books, do not have friends, and do not answer questions. I asked why he didn't at least keep a journal in the woods. Chris scoffed. "I expected to die out there. Who would read my journal? You? I'd rather take it to my grave." The only reason he was talking to me now, he said, is because he was locked in jail and needed practice interacting with others.

"But you must have thought about things," I said. "About your life, about the human condition."

Chris became surprisingly introspective. "I did examine myself," he said. "Solitude did increase my perception. But here's the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn't even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free."

That was nice. But still, I pressed on, there must have been some grand insight revealed to him in the wild.

He returned to silence. Whether he was thinking or fuming or both, I couldn't tell. Though he did arrive at an answer. I felt like some great mystic was about to reveal the Meaning of Life.

"Get enough sleep."

He set his jaw in a way that conveyed he wouldn't be saying more. This is what he'd learned. I accepted it as truth.
Thanks to Laudator Temporis Acti, from whom I first learned of the North Pond Hermit.

cf. Charles Bukowski, who gives similar advice in this interview.