We Are Still Growing

“The plays of Shakespeare marshal themselves in the beyond. They stand in a place outside of our deduction. Their cosmos is greater than our philosophy. They are like the forces of nature and the operations of life in the vivid world about us. We may measure our intellectual growth by the new horizons we see opening within them. So long as they continue to live and change, to expand and deepen, to be filled with new harmony and new suggestion, we may rest content; we are still growing. At the moment we think we have comprehended them, at the moment we see them as stationary things, we may be sure something is wrong; we are beginning to petrify. Our fresh interest in life has been arrested.” (John Jay Chapman, A Study of Romeo, 1899)

The Third Dimension

“In times of peace, workers or employers or university professors unite for a while on particular issues, permitting temporary generalizations. But all statements based on national or professional classifications are always misleading. Even in constituted bodies that poll their members — a legislature or a medical association — there are always minorities of whom what is true is the exact opposite of the majority truth. Minorities may be overlooked in practical affairs, but in critical judgments, in histories, in anything resembling a desire to know, the recording of divergence is the third dimension necessary to a lifelike portrayal. The urge is strong to speak of groups as if their actions formed an indivisible whole, and it is hard to be sure which of the infinite number of differences are significant, but usually that discovery is the point of the investigation, as when Napoleon III consulted his prefects to find out whether France was ready for war with Prussia. More than half said no: he disregarded them in favor of the other, more congenial view, and so put himself back into the state of ignorance from which he had tried to lift himself by asking. The same error is committed in any assumption of unanimity.” (Jacques Barzun, Race: A Study in Superstition)

From This Angle

“Purpose and point of view — perspectivism — inevitably shape our human truths. Familiar phrases record this necessity: ‘from this angle,’ ‘considering this aspect,’ ‘relatively to the norms of that time,’ ‘all other things being equal,’ and the like, show how difficult it is to tell the truth without specifying the perspective.” (Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James, 93)

One Step at a Time

“Even as I have experienced in many other occasions what Caesar says, that things often appear greater to us from a distance than near, so I have found that when I was healthy I had a much greater horror of sicknesses than when I felt them. The good spirits, pleasure, and strength I now enjoy make the other state appear to me so disproportionate to this one, that by imagination I magnify those inconveniences by half, and think of them as much heavier than I find they are when I have them on my shoulders…. Let us see how, in those ordinary changes and declines that we suffer, nature hides from us the sense of our loss and decay. What has an old man left of the vigor of his youth, and of his past life?

“Alas! how scant a share of life the old have left! MAXIMIANUS

“Caesar, observing the decrepit appearance of a soldier of his guard, an exhausted and broken man, who came to him in the street to ask leave to kill himself, replied humorously: ‘So you think you’re alive.’ If we fell into such a change suddenly, I don’t think we could endure it. But, when we are led by Nature’s hand down a gentle and virtually imperceptible slope, bit by bit, one step at a time, she rolls us into this wretched state and makes us familiar with it; so that we feel no shock when youth dies within us, which in essence and in truth is a harder death than the complete death of a languishing life or the death of old age; inasmuch as the leap is not so cruel from a painful life to no life as from a sweet and flourishing life to a grievous and painful one.” (I:20, 63, Frame)

To Judge of Great and Lofty Things

“Each man is as well or as badly off as he thinks he is. Not the man of whom it is thought, but the one who thinks it of himself, is happy. And by just this fact belief gains reality and truth. Fortune does us neither good nor harm; she only offers us the material and the seed of them, which our soul, more powerful than she, turns and applies as it pleases, sole cause and mistress of its happy or unhappy condition. External circumstances take their savor and color from the inner constitution, just as clothes keep us warm not by their heat but by our own, which they are fitted to foster and nourish; he who would shelter a cold body with them would get the same service for cold; thus are snow and ice preserved…. Things are not that painful or difficult of themselves; it is our weakness and cowardice that make them so. To judge of great and lofty things we need a soul of the same caliber; otherwise we attribute to them the vice that is our won. A straight oar looks bent in the water. What matters is not merely that we see the thing, but how we see it.” (I:15, 47, Frame)