One of my favourite classical texts is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. In writing about the lives of noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch said his intention was not so much to write history as to write edifying moral biographies.
He said, “For I do not write Histories, but Lives; nor do the most conspicuous acts of necessity exhibit a man’s virtue or his vice, but oftentimes some slight circumstance, a word, or a jest, shows a man’s character better than battles with the slaughter of tens of thousands, and the greatest arrays of armies and sieges of cities. Now, as painters produce a likeness by a representation of the countenance and the expression of the eyes, without troubling themselves about the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to look rather into the signs of a man’s character, and thus give a portrait of his life, leaving others to describe great events and battles.”
In introducing the life of Lycurgus, Plutarch even admits, “Concerning Lycurgus the lawgiver, in general, nothing can be said which is not disputed, since indeed there are different accounts of his birth, his travels, his death, and above all, of his work as lawmaker and statesman.”
Nevertheless, he has much to say about Lycurgus and his efforts “to make his people free-minded, self-sufficing, and moderate in all their ways.”
One section that I found particularly interesting is about burial. Here’s what Plutarch tells us:
Today I began reading The Ball and the Cross by G.K. Chesterton, which a friend just gave to me.
Early on in it, two men are brought before a police magistrate named Cumberland Vane. One of the men is a atheist named Mr. Turnbull who owns a secular bookshop and the other is a Catholic named Evan MacIan, who broke the window of Mr. Turnbull’s shop.
When Mr. Vane asks MacIan why he broke the window, he replied, “Because [Mr. Turnbull] blasphemed Our Lady.”
The magistrate then considers MacIan insane and asks, “What conceivable right have you to break other people’s windows because their opinions do not agree with yours? This man only gave expression to his sincere belief.”
In this provocative and imaginative paragraph, MacIan responds:
If he had said of my mother what he said of the Mother of God, there is not a club of clean men in Europe that would deny my right to call him out. If he had said it of my wife, you English would yourselves have pardoned me for beating him like a dog in the market place. Your worship, I have no mother; I have no wife. I have only that which the poor have equally with the rich; which the lonely have equally with the man of many friends. To me this whole strange world is homely, because in the heart of it there is a home; to me this cruel world is kindly, because higher than the heavens there is something more human than humanity. If a man must not fight for this, may he fight for anything? I would fight for my friend, but if I lost my friend, I should still be there. I would fight for my country, but if I lost my country, I should still exist. But if what that devil dreams were true, I should not be—I should burst like a bubble and be gone. I could not live in that imbecile universe. Shall I not fight for my own existence?”
What makes the fight worthwhile, in spite of everything?
And what it is that is worthy of the fight ultimately?
How, at first disappointing, and then irrelevant, would the greatest earthly victories and worldly successes be if good did not ultimately triumph over evil and life and love did not ultimately conquer death?
Photo: Soldiers receiving Communion
Recently, in a discussion about the military, a friend of mine recalled receiving a letter when he was 18 asking him whether he would like to join the military in Belgium. This Canadian friend of mine had a Belgian grandfather, but had never visited the country. “After I received the letter from Belgium, it did make me wonder why I never received such a letter from Canada,” he reflected.
The military is not on most Canadians’ minds, particularly because Canada has one of the lowest rates of per capita military involvement in the world. According to this Macleans article, “[looking at] military personnel per capita […] leaves Canada the fourth-lowest number, with 0.0018 per person. In this instance, Canada is only beaten by India, Brazil, and China, whose large armed forces are eclipsed by their giant populations.”
Canadians are blessed to live in such a peaceful country with the best neighbour on whom we can rely for cooperation on our security interests. However, the meagre percentage of our population that serves in the military bespeaks a weakness in our cultivation of civic responsibility and even of the value of a noble patriotism.
In a short essay, Gilbert Meilaender reflected on attending a workshop on “advance directives” at a nearby hospital. Throughout the workshop, participants expressed their intent not to be a burden on their family members at the end of life. But the more Meilaender thought about this, the more he determined that this was not his view. He reflected, “I don’t know how to make the point other than too crassly–other than by saying that I want to be a burden to my loved ones.”
He then goes on to discuss the various ways he cared for his children that “burdened” him but that he certainly does not resent – teaching sports, playing games, attending recitals, volunteering at school, negotiating dinner choices. While he does not begrudge these things, he does ask, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other–and to find, almost miraculously that others are willing, even happy to carry such burdens?”