From the pragmatic stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, to the poets and playwright's of Ancient Greece, the contrasts between Greek and Roman culture is stark. Eric Hoffer (the longshoreman-philosopher who took a vow of professional poverty so that he could concentrate on his work), wrote the following passage in his book The Passionate State of Mind. Immediately upon reading, I thought of the juxtaposition of Greek/Roman living (the numerical list below was extracted by me to help clarify the passage), Hoffer writes:
We acquire a sense of worth either by:
- Realizing our talents
- Keeping busy
- Identifying with something apart from us - be it a cause, a leader, a group, possessions and the like
Of the three, the path of realization is the most difficult. It is taken only when other avenues to a sense of worth are more or less blocked. Men of talent have to be encouraged and goaded to engage in creative work. Their groans and laments echo through the ages.
Hoffer then contrasts action versus cultivation of the spirit. He includes a reference to the 19th century of Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, and others whom the critic Van Wyck Brooks documents in The Flowering of New England, a period of cultural blossoming, plucked at its zenith for the utilitarianism of action:
Action is a highroad to self-confidence and esteem. Where it is open, all energies flow toward it. It comes readily to most people, and its rewards are tangible. The cultivation of the spirit is elusive and difficult, and the tendency toward it is rarely spontaneous. Where the opportunities for action are many, cultural creativeness is likely to be neglected. The cultural flowering of New England came to an almost abrupt end with the opening of the West. The relative cultural sterility of the Romans might perhaps be explained by their empire rather than by an innate lack of genius. The best talents were attracted by the rewards of administrative posts just as the best talents in America are attracted by the rewards of a business career.
Where the opportunities for action are many, cultural creativeness is likely to be neglected. Our continual search for self-worth finds an easy diversion through the action of busyness or our alliance with causes. Sacrificed on the altar of busyness is the rooted-down realization of ourselves, the true knowledge of our worthiness. Some causes are crucial. They enable us to advance social justice but can cloud our vision about who we are and why we exist. Jon Kabat-Zinn references an antidote to this through the medium of meditation:
Dwelling in stillness and looking inward for some part of each day, we touch what is most real and reliable in ourselves and most easily overlooked and undeveloped. Where we can be centered in ourselves, even for brief persons of time in the face of the pull of the outer world, not having to look elsewhere for something to fill us up or make us happy, we can be at home where we find ourselves, at peace with things as they are, moment by moment.
In this same chapter (Going Inside), Kabat-Zinn quotes the Tao Te Ching:
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.
The little-known lyrical poet Johannes Bobrowski in his poem "Nymph" hints that we once naturally possessed this rootedness:
Time of the cicada, white
time, when the boy sat by
the water, resting
a round forehead on his arms. Where
has he gone?
Displaced, extracted from the verdant soil of youth. Some have washed upon the beaches of adulthood, bones carried aloft by the crashing swell, spit upon dry land to rot; instead, the awakened choose to transplant into new soil. Henry David Thoreau was rescued from this divergent path of action/busyness and emerged with an identity well known to us today but, at the time, he was full of misgivings and dark doubts:
Beneath the gigantic resolve Thoreau showed the world and by which he is popularly known today, there ran in him a subterranean current of self-doubt and mistrust. He was rescued from it by the slowly revealed vision of a vocation, as the roiling clouds of a New England winter's day eventually break apart, revealing the presence of the abiding blue. - Spirit of Place, Frederick Turner
Henry Miller wrote that the secret of Thoreau's influence, "is a very simple one. He was a man of principle whose thought and behavior were in complete agreement." It is Thoreau's rootedness, perhaps what we might even consider a relentless pursuit of rootedness that revealed his identity.
[People] measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is ...
- Emerson, Self-Reliance