Miscellanea: On Vanity, Loss and Redemption of Time
KT introduces a new form of article named miscellanea, in the vein of Ancient and Hellenistic designation for treating various subjects in non-systematic manner – short interpretations of various passages drawn from a variety of sources – ancient authors, the lives of saints, classical or more contemporary authors and others.
At the end we give moral of the stories, just like in the good old days when drawing a morally uplifting conclusion from the story was not something to frown at.
We present the excerpt from Plutarch’s Parallel Lives – The life of the Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paulus.
He fought in the third, final Macedonian war, winning a decisive battle at Pydna in 168, resulting in a complete Macedonian collapse and annexation into the expanding Roman Empire.
The excerpt at hand is a scene in the general’s tent following the battle and the humiliating surrender of the last Macedonian King, Perseus.
Aemilius calls his sons and son-in-laws, as well as his younger commanders – all of whom were “drunk with success”- and offered the following speech (translation M.M.):
„Does the joy of the present moment allow one to become so bold as to be full of pride for having defeated a people, a city or a kingdom or, on the contrary, does fate in this case display to the one who is at war this very turning of the tides, as an example of the powerlessness common to all men, in order to teach one not to regard anything as stable and everlasting?
Is there such a moment, when people can have faith in their own power, if in that very moment when one defeats another, such a one is forced to have fear of [his own] fate, because destiny – offering its favors now to one, the next moment to another – mixes the very moment of joy with fear and discouragement?
Or – having seen the whole inheritance of Alexander crumble at your feet in less than an hour (he who reached the highest peaks of political and military power) and having seen kings now receiving their food and drink from the very hands of their enemies, kings who until this day had at their disposal tens of thousands of infantry men and cavalry numbering in thousands – having seen all this, do you believe that we and our things have any everlasting quality in the face of time?
Will you, young men, not let go of this pride and arrogance brought about by this victory, and will you not humble yourselves before what awaits in the future, fearing the day in which the daimon will decide the reversal of our present joy?”
The peak of success in this world is the vantage point from where the abyss of desolation is most clearly seen. Movement can never be halted while in this world and once you have reached the highest point possible the only direction in which this movement can possibly continue is downwards. To delude oneself in thinking that one can make the wheel stop while at the peak is like trying to make the Sun remain forever at midday and prevent it to set.
At the heart of the modern mentality burrows the false idea of progress, coupled with an utopian ideal: that progress can continue indefinitely, that improvement can be continuous and never ending and that the secular version of the heaven on Earth can be achieved in this world.
In reality, all these are empty notions trying in vain to mask the void at their core, serve to make one forget the ultimate truth of our mortality and of the transitory nature of everything in this world – that is, if people don’t take an even more extreme route and claim that death itself can be overcome through technology and science. Modern life is a constant agitation and frenetic drive for improvement without any final goal. The means are numberless, the purpose none.
But there is one certainty which is always present both at the collective and the individual level: all civilizations collapse and all people die. To realize this existentially is not the cause for nihilistic despair or resignation but the key to a true understanding of the meaning of this life and the way to live it properly.
As for the different cycles present in the course of one’s life, they too are inevitable and based on laws which are beyond our capability to control through will power.
An objection can certainly be raised, namely that the words of Aemilius Paulus cited above are those of a (Stoic) pagan, who believed in the implacability of fate; but we, as Christians, believe that God is the ruler of fate and everything in history and time and in this life, as well, is under His control.
This is certainly true; however, we must disentangle the real message of the Gospel from a false conception born out of an idolatry for comfort: namely, the fact that about the only promise made in the Gospels for this life is that we will face trouble, burdens, suffering in general – in other words, a cross.
Whatever its nature and however it manifests in our lives, suffering is unavoidable. In the Old Testament, as well, this theme is ever present; at most, there are promises made by God to some – like kings Solomon and Hezekia – that they will live their days in peace and will not see the coming disaster with their own eyes (see 3 Kings 11:12 and 4 Kings 20:19, both from the Septuaginta).
So the changing of fortunes, the ascending and descending cycles and the unstable nature of everything around us (and in us) is purely and simply a reality of the fallen world – a reality to which our passions contribute in making it worse and increasing its speed. This is why just about every religious tradition insists on detachment from the things in this life. Even if the complete renunciation is only accessible to a few, all are called to detach themselves, even in the midst of the abundance, and to be conscious of the fact that it is very possible to lose everything in a single day.
So the question is: can we let go of that contradictory impulse making us hope for an ideal state in this life; for an unmoving happiness in this world?
The one who thinks this is easy should study his own heart a little closer. There is a hiliast dwelling inside everyone, especially in every child of modernity. I suspect that the first step that one has to take is: during a calm sea and a clear sky one has to be thankful and ask God not for this situation to endure forever, but to strengthen one for the inevitable coming of the storm.
The great Roman general seems to have done just this, in his own way, according to his understanding of the world – and he wasn’t wrong to prepare for such a thing. Indeed, a little later on, just as he was about to celebrate his triumph a little later, one of his sons died and a second one followed immediately after the celebration.
Such examples should have a sobering effect on us, who are all too ready to believe that “we are entitled” to an existence devoid of hardship and suffering and are ever ready to throw the blame everywhere around us when this is revealed to be only an illusion.
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