Well, it’s been entirely too long since I posted commonplace quotes! And it appears that I have read entirely too many good books since then: I have collected one hundred and twenty-eight quotes since that post. So, let’s see what if I can pick a favorite dozen… which is like to be a hard task, considering that I picked those hundred and twenty-two as just so many gems of writing, the best things I encountered while reading. First, though, I’d like to share what my physical commonplace book looks like. October’s quotes, as it happens, are not copied into it—I am a hundred and forty-one quotes behind in it—but I’ve been having fun with writing in it, which makes catching up more enjoyable. Instead of page after page of none-too-elegant printing, it now looks more like this:
While the hand-lettering here is very imperfect, I enjoyed doing it. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough that I can write directly with a pen without making mistakes… but on to more recently captured quotes!
As we did last time, let’s start with a little common sense:
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” That’s William Shakespeare, right? Correct. And also, of course, radical relativism. But what I failed to recognize (even as I and my classmates were embracing this relativistic phrase as our personal motto) was that Shakespeare never said that. He wrote it, yes, but Polonius said it. And Polonius is a blithering idiot.Professor Joseph Pearce in a WCC commencement speech for the class of 2018
Tacitus’ Annals make for a rather depressing read. They tell of wicked person after wicked person, of men and women consumed by lust for pleasure, power, and wealth, caring nothing for what is right. Private murders and murders through false legal cases abound. Those in authority are either corrupted in their own right or so weak, like the emperor Claudius, that they allow others to be the real rulers. Vice and greed seem to be the norm, from the imperial palace through Rome and out to the eastern provinces and subject states. I have recently read of very, very few upstanding figures in Tacitus, and they are far overshadowed by the bad ones. Oh, how fallen, how changed, the Rome of the Annals is from the Rome of Livy’s early History. Where is Horatius now? Where Mucius? Where Cloelia? Where Cincinnatus?
Livy’s history, indeed, has its dark spots as well as its light. His noble, brave, virtuous characters are needed because of base, cowardly, vice-filled actions. To Lucretia there is Sextus Tarquin; Brutus’ own children turn traitor; and I think there are few things more against the Roman honor and ideals than the young men going up into the capitol and leaving their aged and unnecessary fathers behind them to welcome the barbarians. But even in his darkest places, Livy gives us examples of virtue to love and rejoice over as well as examples of vice to abhor. Tacitus’ Rome, on the other hand, seems to be made up only of Tarquins and Tullias.
On Thursday morning, there was a great deal of smoke in the air—so much smoke that when the sun rose, we could look at it. Not just when the sun’s edge was a golden gem on the horizon, glittering through the trees: when it was half an hour up, we could still look at it, like a dull red light in the grey sky. It was small, strangely and almost frighteningly small, when it was revealed to be only the apparent size of the moon.
But it reminded me of the physiological impossibility Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato tells of a people trapped inside a cave, able to see only shadows on the cave’s wall. One of these prisoners is freed, and forced to turn so that he can see the fire and puppets which were making the shadows. At first, though, he is dazzled by the fire, and does not believe that the puppets are half so real as the shadows he has known all his life. Yet despite his resistance, he is brought up out of the cave and into the daylight. Gradually, he is able to see the things of the upper world; shadows first, later things in moonlight, and at last the sunlit world. Then, says Plato,
Last of all, he would be able to look at the Sun and contemplate its nature, not as it appears when reflected in water or any alien medium, but as it is itself in its own domain.Plato, The Republic, Book VII, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford
According to my mother, there are people who think that, because they have seen the Narnia movies, they do not need to read the books. They know what happened. After all, it’s not as if the White Witch wins in the book, or a major good character dies. Mrs. Beaver does come out better by a sewing machine in the book—but that sort of thing hardly seems important enough to change that once you have watched the movie, you don’t really need to read the book.
Viewing this as very untrue, my brother and I have the opposite problem. While recently watching the movie versions of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we have never quite suspended our criticism: I think it is part of our Vanderpol Family Pride and the way that we consider ourselves as seeing books. Throughout both movies, we have been commenting to each other, our eyes often meeting as we both react to the same egregious incident—‘That’s not the way it really happened!’ ‘What are the Death Eaters doing? They can’t fly without broomsticks!’ ‘It wasn’t like that!’ ‘The Witch’s castle isn’t that close to the Beavers’ house!’ ‘Peter wouldn’t say that!’ ‘It wasn’t Cho—that was completely unnecessary!’ ‘That definitely—did—not—happen in the book!’ ‘They skipped good stuff there!’ ‘Not polar bears!’
Grandpa Gary recently found a newspaper article which he thought might interest me, an article about an essay contest sponsored by the Nevada County Bar Association. The annual contest is open to all Nevada County high school students. This year’s topic is the separation of powers as framework for freedom, with an emphasis on party affairs. They gave some questions to consider, and on Monday (that being the due date), I set to work on some brainstorming. The prompt page gave some questions to guide essay development, and I tried writing down a short answer to each. When I came back after doing math, there seemed to be most promise in the question about whether our political muddle would be assuaged by reallocating senators based on population.
Eliminating the electoral college or reallocating senators by population would decidedly not help. If we did this, the states wouldn’t all be as represented. The large states would be in control of all the government, leaving the small states with little say. Whatever parties were dominant in them would have the power—it wouldn’t really matter what parties were dominant in small states like Rhode Island.
As a CM student, I keep a commonplace book—a practice which was once common to most well-educated people. This is a place where I can copy down and keep near me especially beautiful or important or thought-provoking or amusing quotes from what I read. While I’m backlogged on copying these into my physical commonplace book, I’ve encountered some lovely thoughts recently, and I thought I’d share some of them with you.
To start, some common sense from George MacDonald. The Princess and the Goblin is the second book I have read aloud. Hannah, Justin, and I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together, then Irene and Curdie’s first adventures. We’re onto The Princess and Curdie now.
“That’s all nonsense,” said Curdie. “I don’t know what you mean.”George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin
“Then if you don’t know what I mean, what right have you to call it nonsense?” asked the princess, a little offended.
“Come in,” said the Bishop.Victor Hugo, Les Miserables, pages 85 and 86
The door opened. A singular and violent group made its appearance on the threshold. Three men were holding a fourth man by the collar. The three men were gendarmes; the other was Jean Valjean.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
Jean Valjean stole the bishop’s silver while the bishop’s guest. In the morning, he is arrested and brought back to the bishop. And before Valjean is even accused of stealing the silverware, the bishop gives the thief silver candlesticks as well.
This of the bishop’s is assuredly a very unjust act.
True, the Lord says: “But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39-41). But isn’t this a direction for behavior in the face of adversity—not of restitution?
‘Do you ever visit a farm,’ I asked Mom, ‘and get the feeling that you know how to do nothing of any use whatsoever?’
‘I was just thinking about that,’ she said. ‘I’ve read Wendell Berry, and that counts for—exactly nothing.’
We were in the car on Lazy Valley Ranch, in between the barn where you got registered and directed and the u-pick blueberry patch. I don’t know what parts of the surroundings went together, but it was the overall effect that was important to us. The blue-and-white buildings looked practical and aged. A large open shed overflowed with rusty pieces of what, perhaps not having eyes to see with at a brief glance, I can only call junk. More-or-less dry fields held horses, cows, a donkey, and an emu. Another field had several large pieces of equipment in it and hay bales scattered through it. The vehicles looked long and well used. And we felt like unnecessary and inferior city mice.
I’m reading Hannah Coulter right now, Mom just reread it and is reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays, and we’ve both recently read an interview with Berry in the CiRCE Institute’s FORMA magazine. Part of the message we’re getting is about the value and usefulness of small farms, and—in some ways—the unnecessariness or less-wholeness of sophisticated modern ways of life. Going to Lazy Valley Ranch, this farm which looked like something out of Wendell Berry, brought our reading and considering into a new proximity. I at least felt ashamed of being in the Tahoe there among those rusty vehicles, as if it were a faux pas of some sort (though Mom pointed out that that’s rather funny, as many Americans would look distinctly down at our chunky 2005 eight-seater).
Most of us who have an idea of God offer thanksgiving to Him occasionally, whether when our blessings are brought unusually to our notice or when a prayer—for an opportunity, for a success, for the recovery of a loved one—is answered. But these thanksgivings can be few and far between; the Lord has told us through Scripture that He is honored by our thanksgiving, and we ought to make thanksgiving often. These frequent thanksgivings should be habitual in two ways—that we often have voluntary-involuntary liftings of the soul toward God in thanksgiving, and that at regular intervals we remember what we are thankful to Him for. We should remember that we all have many, many things to be thankful for: the gift of life and family, the gladness of work, whatever amount of health the Lord has given us, the pleasantness of our clothing. To go outside, even when we are in the city, should always be a joy to us, and we should thank God for it.
Praise, too, we should often offer to God—He has told us that He is pleased and honored by our praise, as the human artisan is honored and pleased by judicious praise of his work. The works of God for which we may offer praise are always before us, from the trees outside my window to the iPad I am writing this narration on—because God designed the world in which the human artisans could discover, the way of making the device. The wonders that the scientists show us of the universe are wonders by seeing which we can see more the wonders that God has wrought; and we should offer Him praise for them.
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.