“I render my thanks and return to my work, to the blank page which every day awaits us poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”
Imagine hearing those words at the conclusion of a brief speech by a laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature at an extravagant banquet.
Pablo Neruda, who died on September 23, 1973, was a poet and diplomat from Chile who, in 1971, received this prize.
Here is an excerpt from his acceptance speech:
Rule Four of Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life is: “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.”
In this chapter, Peterson discusses how choosing to take responsibility is fundamental to being useful and leading a meaningful life. As usual, he weaves a range of sources together from the Hebrew Bible, to Egyptian myths, to Pinocchio and Peter Pan.
The section of this chapter that especially interested me is about conscience. Since conscience is a word that does not have a great deal of resonance in our contemporary culture, Peterson patiently expounds upon what conscience is and how it works.
Here is the relevant excerpt:
Today’s the anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas More who was executed for refusing to swear the Oath of Supremacy.
I find it interesting to note that this 1535 oath began with the words, “I [name] do utterly testifie and declare in my Conscience, that the Kings Highnesse is the onely Supreame Governour of this Realme, and all other his Highnesse Dominions and Countries, as well in all Spirituall or Ecclesiasticall things or causes, as Temporall […].”
In a collection of More’s correspondence written before his death, Father Alvaro De Silva writes in the introduction that More used the word conscience more than 100 times throughout these letters.
More would not say with the solemnity of assertion that he “declares in his conscience” something he believed to be false.
Now conscience is not a word that has widespread resonance and people are not usually asked about what they “declare in their Conscience.”
Yet, there is a reason why the deaths of martyrs are worth remembering long beyond the memory of the powerful people who martyred them.
This evening I am reflecting on two famous Italians who died on this date – one is Niccolò Machiavelli who died in 1527 and the other is Aloysius de Gonzaga, S.J. who died in 1591. The latter lived fewer than half as many years than the former. And, while Machiavelli is certainly on more course syllabi today, Aloysius de Gonzaga is a canonized saint whose example and spirit continues to be invoked from generation to generation.
Aloysius de Gonzaga came from an affluent and influential family. He decided, however, to renounce his aristocratic lifestyle and joined the Jesuits while he was still a teenager. When there was a plague in Rome in 1591, Aloysius insisted on volunteering at a hospital and it was in this context that he contracted the disease and died when he was just 23.
What does a 23-year-old who died in the sixteenth century have to teach young people today living in the 21st century?
Here is a summary of Pope Francis’ remarks on this point to high schoolers: