It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.
Plutarch, Greek historian and biographer, 46 to 120 AD
When I began Augustine’s Alley three years ago after my brother died, my initial posts were released in a torrent as from a broken dam. For years I have been thinking about Faith, Reason and Science and how they dance and intertwine with each other in our pursuit of truth and meaning. Writing the blog was a heartfelt relief from the pressure of keeping those thoughts bottled up and it was an effective therapy from the stress of my brother’s long decline from ALS. The blog also coincided with the discovery of the Savoie family history confirming our Savoie family legends and discovery our connections to some of Catholicism’s influential and inspiring saints.
I choose Saint Augustine as the blog’s namesake because of his tireless pursuit of truth and ultimately his courage in going to where ever that pursuit of truth would lead him to, even if it cost him personally. Greek philosopher Aristotle’s maxim “The Unexamined Life isn’t Worth Living” provided Augustine’s Alley with it’s motto. Aristotle believed that self-reflection, inquiry and contemplation of truth were essential to human nature. Lurking in the background is medieval philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas (Also the Savoie family’s 20th great Uncle). Great Uncle Saint Thomas, standing on the shoulders of Aristotle and Augustine, put the Catholic faith on a firm foundation of reason.
If this all sounds like a goodbye to Augustine’s Alley it isn’t. However, it is an admission that that blog writing is hard to sustain in the long run. If you have been a follower of blogs you can count many them that have faded away in neglect. Nevertheless, Augustine’s Alley is here to stay.
OK, If Augustine’s Alley is staying then what’s the point? It’s fashionable among elites to today to deride the ancients as irrelevant as best, ethnocentric at worse and that there is no value in the study of the lives and thoughts of ancient “dead guys.” After all, the thinking goes, we are modern, we are hip and enlightened far above anyone born before 1900.
Ironically, ancient philosophers and historians asked similar questions of those who came hundreds of years before them. Plutarch began his “Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans” as a project for others and not himself. Like many of us today, he saw himself as a sufficiently educated and had no need of the wisdom of the past. A couple of lives in, while writing the beginning of a biographical sketch of Greek general Timoleon, Plutarch had a revelation. As he put it: It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of looking glass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life.”
Aristotle noted that the beginning of wisdom is to first acknowledge how little we really know and understand. True learning takes humility, and without it learning becomes route memorization or even worse just indoctrination without contemplation of truth. Plutarch himself was humbled studying the lives of the noble Greeks and Romans who came before him. It was only then in that spirit of openness that Plutarch was able to draw out lessons of virtues and flaws and reflect them to himself and grow in wisdom.
So why the classics? Why study ancient philosophers? Because true education draws us to truth, makes us grow in virtue as individuals and as a society. The pursuit of philosophy, in a true spirit of open inquiry and humility, make us truly human. As Plutarch notes:
Education and study, and the favor of the muses, confer no greater benefit on those that seek them, than these humanizing and civilizing lessons, which teach our natural qualities to submit to the limitations prescribed by reason, and to avoid the wildness of extremes.
But virtue, by the bare statement of its actions, can so affect men’s minds as to create at once both admiration of the things done and the desire to imitate the doers of them.
So that it becomes a man’s duty to pursue and make after the best and choicest of everything, that he may not only employ his contemplation, but may also be improved by it.
Post Script Notes:
Augustine’s Alley story on my family history can be found here..
for my brother Davy’s story… https://augustinesalley.wordpress.com/2014/10/24/als-and-a-rosary-miracle/
Anyone who works in a dynamic and stress full office environment can understand the pitfalls of office politics. I found this gem from from Plutarch that I printed and promptly posted on the wall next to my desk:
So true it is that the minds of men are easily shaken and carried off from their own sentiments through the casual commendation or reproof of others, unless the judgments that we make, and the purposes we conceive, be confirmed by reason and philosophy, and thus obtain strength and steadiness.
I certainly have had occasion to glance at it while at work.
So what are you reading now? It’s fashionable to fuss and obsess over what we put in our mouths but ignore the effects of what we are putting in our minds. As Plutarch noted of the ill effects of junk reading:
With like reason may we blame those who misuse that love of inquiry and observation which nature has implanted in our souls, by expanding it on objects unworthy of the attention either their eyes or their ears, while they disregard such as are excellent in themselves, and would do them some good.
Maybe its time to go on that mental diet for our philosophical health? For some ideas please look at my post of Britannica’s Great Books.
Post Script notes #2: Plutarch has been posted for a few hours now and after reflecting on what I wrote, I feel I may have shortchanged this man and his work. The Roman and Greeks presented to us by Plutarch are real human beings and not just in a historical sense. Plutarch conjures up intricate and tangible portraits of real people, all with a mix of virtues and vices, and strengths and weaknesses navigating a tough and sometimes terrifying world. It’s good stuff and in my opinion exceeds even Game of Thrones in drama. Why? Because it’s real…