Whenever we have a good snow I love to go for a walk in the woods. Walking in the wintry wonderland has always calmed and refreshed my soul. It’s a therapeutic activity. This love for walking in the snow started when I was a kid. We’d get a good snow and school would be cancelled, so I’d usually play in the snow half the day and then sometime after dark I’d go out and walk in the snow. I can still remember those nighttime walks in my old Virginia Beach, Virginia, neighborhood. No one would be out but me. There was a alluring peace and stillness in the thick, frosty air. It was a tranquilness and calm enticed by the gentle sounds of falling snow, the low roar of the wind in the tree tops, and that icey crunching sound my boots made as I stepped in the virgin snow.
Back then I didn’t have woods behind our house, but since 2001 I’ve had acres of woods to walk in when the snows came. And in some ways it’s even better now, because most of the time since, say, around 2014, I’ve had a little partner. My youngest son loves nature and, like his dad, loves to walk in the snowy woods. We had a good snow on January 5th and the temperatures have been frigid, so we’ve had 2 good days where we’ve taken some time to go for a walk together in the wintery woods. These walks with my son have been special. It’s just the two of us walking and talking and helping each other hike through the woods. “We’re a team, dad.” “Isn’t this beautiful dad.” “It’s so calm and peaceful out here, dad.” “Love you dad.”
These are walks I will always cherish and remember.
I remember Mark Twain using a shovel as symbolism to describe the need for checking one’s conscience—seeing if it’s still there under all the inevitable compromises and accumulating weight of life. I don’t remember the exact phrase, but roughly speaking it could be stated as follows:
I handed him a shovel.
“What’s this for?”
“Your conscience. Go dig for it.”
When I first read it I chuckled at the simplicity and blunt straightforwardness of it. I liked the metaphor. Twain was being humorous, of course. But humor can be one of the best ways—via the backdoor of laughter—to communicate a simple, but sometimes resisted, truth about ourselves or others. The idea of digging deep down to find the moral and spiritual ore is an archetype of the ages. Like most everyone I know, I have to find the symbolic shovel and go excavate from time to time…I hit rock periodically, break the damn thing, and have to get another shovel. They can break easy you see, and so the digging can be tiresome and frustrating and sometimes I throw the damn shovel in the bushes and storm off.
But, like all of us, I know the digging needs to be done, has to be done, from time to time, if I’m to keep my soul and not lose my way. And so I always keep a shovel near by and try never to let life’s weight get too burdensome before I go digging and clearing out the excess around the core.
Thumbing through a book of essays by Alfred North Whitehead, I came across these words I’d underlined years ago while reading the book:
Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.
Whitehead was defending, or praising really, the superior nature of classical education (reading classics) in shaping a strong moral character. It’s a model based, in large part, on the study of great people in history. Thomas Carlyle once said “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” The idea is that people primarily shape events and history by their actions. By studying the lives of renowned people we learn about “the evil that men do,*” or the nobility they can rise to, or the compromises they’ve made between these two extremes. We witness the subtleties of human personality. We see that life really isn’t, in large part, black or white but black and white. We learn just how human these great people actually were while also learning how they overcame many of the same difficulties we all face in spite of life’s head winds and the internal struggles of their own character. Through it all we can get a vision, even if not in perfect focus, of greatness in the human realm.
Whether people have an innate moral goodness or not is still debatable, but there is overwhelming scientific evidence that supports the idea that “the environment” has a big impact on the moral development of people. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t have the research, but they knew this to be true by experience. So ancient students not only learned poetry, history, music, math and about the lives of great Greeks and Romans, but their masters (parents, teachers, or tutors) were responsible for modeling the moral ideal and enforcing the civic/moral behavior expected from a man or woman of a civilized society. And then as the students moved into society and began families and became active citizens, they were expected to uphold these civilized values and model them to the next generation and to their fellow citizens. At least that was the ideal. It’s a conceptual idea captured in the ancient Greek word paideia.
The classical ideal stayed with Western civilization for a long time and finally started breaking up in the early part of the 20th century. World wars and the need for advanced educations in science, math, and technology pushed aside (understandably) the studying of the lives of ancient Greeks and Romans. Of course classical education didn’t die all together but evolved over the past century from strictly a study of the ancients to the study of the Great Books.
In this competitive world, students naturally seek educations that advance their job prospects, not necessarily their personal enrichment, civic awareness, or moral world view—of course, without a good degree of the latter, the former is likely to shrink as wealth and power pools around the few at the top…hmmm, kind of like it is now. No ideal is perfect and certainly western civilization has not been all good in practice or implication, but it’s an ideal or set of beliefs (moral and political) that have made the West the most advanced, most prosperous, freest collection of societies the world has ever known. This is worth remembering as we witness the growing attacks, and disillusionment with, its foundations from those on the far left and far right politically.
For Whitehead and the ancients, greatness, in the moral sphere, was mostly a product of social osmosis. If we are exposed to a “habitual vision of greatness,” via our readings (education) and life examples, there’s a good chance that vision will take hold and become a part of us. Regardless of whether anyone cares to read ancient texts or biographies in general, it’s a model with strong merit and, in my view, the best way to shape and lead a truly great society.
Our nation could really use some visions of greatness in both the realms of political and business leadership right now. It’s sorely lacking. We need leaders, especially in government, willing to sacrifice—like, say, an FDR—their own personal or class interests for the sake of others and the greater good of our society. But we’re seeing so much of the opposite right now. On the private sector side corporate statesmanship seems mostly gone and the tide of big business executive “greed,” the Gordon Gekkos of business (who now also run our government), have seized the moment, like an oligarchic plague over democratic Athens.
We don’t have the help of classical education as a shaper of our society anymore, and, of course, even if we had there’s no guarantee things would be any different. But we can still hope there’s a return to the ideal that modeling greatness matters at all levels of leadership in our society. We can still hope some people actually have and believe in a noble and dignified vision of society and are determined to live by it. We can still hope—and demand via our civic duty to vote!—that we have government leaders who model nobility in actions and words. We need leaders, in both business and government, with a noble vision that’s inclusive and dignified and not just one that’s all about their personal wealth, influence, or tribal loyalties. There are so many reasons Americans need a vision of greatness in Washington D.C. right now. But instead of a Cicero or a Marcus Aurelius we have a Nero…that tweets while the nation yearns.
The change starts with each of us. We need true visions of greatness. Let’s expect and demand a selfless and dignified vision of greatness from our government and business leaders. Our future, and that of our children, is at stake.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” — George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
Sometimes when I’m reading a good book I pause for a moment to think over a very insightful passage or section I’ve just completed. Something I’m sure all serious readers do. For me, the writer has connected a number of ideas and has set my mind to work reflecting on its larger significance. This, for me, is what true education is about. From time to time, I write my reflections in a journal or jot a note on a piece of paper and insert it in the back of the book. Recently, while going through some books in my bookroom, I found a piece of paper, a reflection, folded in the back of a biography I’d read years ago with the following written on it:
It is human personality that most interest us. All through the great writings of classical authors we are most moved by greatly drawn characters. The results of character bumping up against circumstance and how individuals respond, this is what makes literature so powerful and meaningful. Think of Plutarch, Dickens, and Twain, these authors bring characters to life on the page. They live in our mind, if only briefly, sharing, in some sense giving us the experience of, their emotions, their hopes, and their tragedies. We move with them. We learn through a process of association and empathy. Feeling—empathically—what has happened to others allows us to connect with people across time and space. We share in their humanity. We learn. It is through this process that we can hold hands with the past.
I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone! —Ebenezer Scrooge