I listen to audio books daily. I find them, in part, a type of ear-blinker, a vocal filter for the noise about. They (almost) replace (almost all of the time) the voice of the monologist inside my head – but inadvertence, a disturbance like a falling leaf or an acorn dropping on my shoulder, can muffle the sound track and cause me to try to walk in reverse, as if to play back the narration I have missed. Yes, I listen while I walk: exercise and diversion, along back roads in the tangles of suburbia. I can associate fiddle head fern with Anna Karenina’s leap into oblivion. Staring at the verge of the road as the novel screeches to climax produces strange links: I walk and think: that is where Anna died, just there by the granite rock blocking the run-off in a dry wash.
In reaction against a surfeit of audio fiction, I chose one of the local library’s Great Courses: Timothy Luke Johnson’s Greco-Roman Moralists, largely because I recognized the lecturer as a frequent contributor to Commonweal. I was not disappointed and now find signals of Cicero’s “On Duty” and Plutarch’s Moralia among the shedding beeches and fallen oak leaves.
To struggle up a steep hill conscious of the puffing effort needed to mount the summit has all the more relevance when set against classical admonitions to practice, repeatedly, virtuous acts and so approach a moral summit. Professor Johnson lectures enthusiastically, declaring at one stage that he is more a follower of Epictetus than of any other philosopher – and he makes a strong case for the moral vision and practice of his mentor. Perhaps more striking are the lectures on Plutarch in which he contrasts the world view of this thinker, especially as regards the conduct of the virtuous life, with the vacuity of so many of us who blindly follow the promptings of modernity. The concluding lecture, “The Missing Page in Philosophy’s Story,” makes an interesting case for the role of philosophy in later antiquity (stronger than at any other time, before or since in the West) and discusses why so few university courses in philosophy mention Musonius Rufus, Dio Chrysostom, Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch or Philo of Alexandria – the focus of his study. Modern courses in philosophy and the history of philosophy are about ideas and theories, not about living the just life. Professor Johnson’s authors directed their attention to daily life and the cultivation of virtue. That they were so prolific, and that they were representative of many more such writers, indicates the popularity if not the influence of their moral treatises.
I wish only that I could retain the information he presented if not follow the moral guidelines he reviewed, so clearly, in these ancient writings. Twelve hours of lecture contain a great deal to grasp, so I was again pleasantly surprised when someone suggested that I follow the course with reading Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy, a work that treated similar themes.
This is not an academic study but a knowledgeable book that wears considerable learning lightly; de Botton poses various crises in life and considers the “consolations” philosophers might offer. He is particularly strong on Epicurus, redeeming the much maligned philosopher from charges of excess and luxury – this a helpful complement to Johnson’s treatment.
By far the greatest warmth in his consideration is generated in the discussion of Montaigne. de Botton quotes so liberally from his sources that his text takes on the liveliness of his (translated) original. The one image I shall always keep is that of Montaigne’s ceiling, whose beams were decorated by painted apothegms. The fifty-seven succinct warnings that he had inscribed testified to the limitations of philosophy and the pretension of human reason. Stern antidotes for one who was so learned in the classics.
I have to reflect on the strange and wonderful woodland company I keep, as I try to avoid reckless pickup trucks and precarious road shoulders. The disconnect between the lively discussions I am graced to hear and the at times threatening environment in which I walk proves happily symbolic: the path of virtue and the vicissitudes of life. If so simple an exercise as a morning walk could be the just way.