In all of the reading I’ve done over the years, I’ve collected certain quotes and passages that have resonated with me in some way or another. While I have a bunch of these quotes in storage, there are four that I come back to frequently, and which I would call my favorites. Some of these I have written about before, but I figured I’d refresh my readers’ memories of them and why I like them so much.
Seneca, on discovery
The time will come when diligent research over long periods will bring to light things which now lie hidden. A single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject… And so this knowledge will be unfolded through long successive ages. There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them… Many discoveries are reserved for ages still to come, when memory of us will have been effaced. Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has something for every age to investigate… Nature does not reveal her mysteries once and for all.Natural Questions, Book 7, somewhere in the 1st century A.D.
I wish I could recall where I first discovered this quote, but it is lost to me. In one of the earliest versions of Microsof Outlook, I had a note–one of those digital sticky notes–with this quote on it. That had to be from the mid-to-late 1990s. But even that was transferred from an old Word for DOS 5.5 document that I had during college, and I think it was there that I discovered the quote, but I can’t remember how.
One theme that runs through all 11 volumes of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization is that human nature is fairly consistent over time. The concerns people have today are many of the same concerns they had 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 years ago. So are their joys and enterainments, and frequently, their contemplations of the world. Seneca’s quote illustrates this. It is timeless. You could put these words into mouth of a contemporary scientist and they will ring just as true now as they did back in Seneca’s day.
What, I wonder whenever I ponder this quote, would Seneca make of our modern world, filled with “discoveries… reserved for ages still to come”? I suspect he’d repeat his thought verbatim.
Abd er-Rahman III, on the meaning of happiness
I have now reigned above fifty years in victory and peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to be wanting for my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot: they amount to fourteen. O man, place not thy confidence in this present world!
I first encountered this quote in the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s memoir, In Joy Still Felt. It comes up as part of an amusing tale that gives rise to notion that Asimov had a photographic memory. The quote itself is incidental to the passage. But it struck me as a powerful message when I first read it.
I came across the quote again, years later, in the fourth volume of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization, The Age of Faith, where I learned more about the man behind the quote. Durant wrote,
Abd-er Rahman III (912-61) is the culminating figure of this Umayyad dynasty in Spain. Coming to power at twenty-one, he found “Adaluz” tgorn by racial faction, religious animosity, sporadic brigandage, adn the efforts of Seville and Toledo to establish their independence of Cordova. Though a man of refinement, famous for generosity and courtesy, he laid a firm hand upon the situation, quelled the rebellious cities, and subdued the Arab aristocrats who wished, like their French contemporaries, to enjoy a feudal sovereighnty on their rich estates.
“When he died,” Durant wrote, “he left behind him, in his own handwriting, a mdoest estimate of human life.” This was the quote that struck me when I discovered it in Asimov’s memoir.
A cynical take on this quote is that it is a long-winded version of “money cannot buy happiness.” I took it differently. I think the message is to ask oneself what “pure and genuine happiness” means. The answer will, of course, be different for everyone. For Abd-er Rahman III, all of the power, riches, and honors of the world couldn’t supply what he considered to be pure happiness. What is left out of the quote is perhaps the most interesting thing of all. What did pure and genuine happiness mean to Abd-er Rahman III? What was it about those fourteen days out of nearly 18,000 in his life that made them unique?
Friedrich Schiller, on stupidity
Against stupidity, the very gods themselves contend in vain.The Maid of Orleans
My dictionary has several definitions for the word “stupid,” but the one I generally think of as most accurate is “marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting.” Moreover, I’d add a word to that definition: “marked by or resulting from deliberate unreasoned thinking or acting.”
In my mind, stupidity is a deliberate ignorance; a willful dismall of facts and reason. It has nothing to do with one’s mental faculties. “Smart” people can can act with great stupidity, as the lessons of history have taught us again and again.
Friedrich Schiller understood this at the turn of the 19th century when his play, “The Maid of Orleans” was first produced. The line above, from the play, captures the frustration with willful ignorance susccicntly. It has become my go-to line when I detect such stupidity in the news.
This is a great line because it so susscinct, and yet, it captures the utter frustration I feel when I see stupidity in action. It also goes a step further, easing the burden of such frustration by offering the tempting notion that even the very gods could not hope to deal rationally with the irrational.
Harlan Ellison, on stupidity
The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.
Education, science, reason, culture, these are all of the things we need more of to improve our lot in life. Stupidty is the acid that eats away at these tools. I have no patience for blatent stupidity, as I have definted it above. Neither did Harlan Ellison, and one of my favroite quips on stupidity is this one by Harlan. The question he leaves open for us to answer for ourselves, of course, is of the two–hydroden and stupidity–which is more common?
Written on March 31, 2022.
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