Could it be that we are mere vessels, mere "pottery works" as Anatole France writes (via) we are, claiming that life doesn't look anything like an "examination-room". Our answer may depend on whether meaning is seen to extend beyond the life, say as the large and small lives overflow into the splash or sober impact of Martial's ep/odes, hand-copied, press printed, pixelled, reaching us across space and time. On whether it is worth the effort to work on merit, to frame a life in words, to say nothing of the memory, heart.
The words are often those of interpretation, how to read the life, beyond the dictates of genre or mores of the day, what we choose to leave in and out, focus on. Where there is focus, there is decision, and there is learning, via the informed response - and we are back to the exam room. Confucius spoke of the importance of "unfolding the aim" of admonition in a way that is reminiscent of the Stoic emphasis on learning how to make intelligent use of appearances (φαντασία). Possibly comparable to the almost desperate virtue depicted in Thomas Hardy's novels, Confucius says: "Learn as if you could not reach your object, and were always fearing also lest you should lose it." In this world, if we are dealing with the potsherds of discarded lives described by Anatole, there will be at least one archaeologist on hand to study it.
But Anatole's sentiment will not be so soon conciliated; he mentions the mystery of pain which he describes not in those words but in the illustration of the child that dies at birth. And who better to consult about pain than Hardy who has chosen it for his focus; "reminding us is that poor human beings had never asked for life on any
terms, much less on such terms as have been forced upon them ... The gods are unjust, and we are equally scourged for those virtues
which we have striven to preserve through such difficulty and such pain", writes Herbert L. Stewart in "Thomas Hardy as a Teacher".
I am sure I have written before how I was introduced to Hardy at 13 when alone in boarding school sick bay and the reverend headmaster brought up to me Hardy's Mayor. The headmaster introduced the book as one dearest to him; the headmaster being no ordinary man but one I consider of rather deep faith, who taught us that the menacing is but a projection on a screen, not threatening the nature of things. It is in this way that I came to associate Hardy's books not with the pessimism most people see in them but with a hope we will be shaken from our mechanical dream. Tonight, I read my first ever criticism of Hardy, and find I am not alone in my reading, shared also by Stewart.
In Hardy's novels, "an all too natural sequence of events has led an innocent victim to unredeemed and unredeemable misfortune" writes Stewart. Yet we are pushed to consider, "What is likely to happen to the most ardent moral convictions, when
they are understood as by-products of a morally indifferent
world-machine?" This is what we come to if we are not reading "superficially" because for Hardy, "justice must be done though the heavens fall" and the characters unredeemed. It is the Melian dialogue all over again. The Stoic purple thread: the high price that brings exemplary beauty to the rest (viz. Epictetus' Discourses 2). "The things we do for the best turn out to have been for the worst," Stewart writes of Hardy's novels - but Jude remains, not obscure but a paragon of loyalty, of the attempt, of all the other dreams that have gone unrecorded, obscured by the invisibility of class, timing, or whatever else.
"The riddle for all those who at present make so much of the mystery of pain lies just here, that only for those who take what is essentially a religious view of the world is that mystery acute, so that those whom it troubles most are bearing unconscious witness to the faith which they cannot accept" Stewart writes - of the categorical types of criticism to have emerged in the modern West or since antiquity if I understood the premise of Epictetus' "Against the Academics".
There is learning and there is learning, one might say glibly. The impersonal, illusory Encyclopédie vs. the εὔρεσις of dialectics and the world map of τόποι. In the Analects, we read: "'Ts'ze, you think, I suppose, that I am one who learns many things and keeps them in memory?' Tsze-kung replied, 'Yes, but perhaps it is not so?' 'No,' was the answer; 'I seek a unity all-pervading.'" This approaches the flow of Taoism, and one wonders whether it nears, too, the τὸ εὔρουν or εὔροια that George Long defines as "flowing easily" though it is translated as "happiness". According to this learning, one is to seek the ideal called truth ("anxious to see clearly" as problematic as it is, particularly in deed, as all these texts concur; Confucius himself claims he is deficient in this respect). In the Analects, it is written that man is not to be bound to partisanship but truth: Man is not a utensil. 君子不器. He is not a vessel, though maybe an argument could be made in a deeply figurative sense that so long as he feels his cracks (or is wary of "becloudings"), his metaphorical mind can share in the "unity all-pervading".
There are cracks. There are faults. It can be so heavy sometimes that perhaps one would like to think in terms of vessels not of men. That would certainly shrug off the unasked for responsibility of being alive, which, just like in the school room, has its rewards and gifts for the diligent student. Here we are, we can be plain or purple. As for all the faults, like Seneca's, for example, whose letters I have yet to tire of returning to, observed of as inconsistent with his school's teachings: does this make his writings on the whole less helpful? Or perhaps we are faced with a Hardyan example of being pushed to think morally.
There is much to be said about what to say and what to keep silent on or let drop from focus - like those cracks and faults, for example. One learns the hard way to stop zooming in on one's shortcomings: exaggeration is not a virtue. Toelken writes of Native American tribes who do not name directly the hibernating, furred animal lest it be in that way summoned, a powerful observation on the power of thought. In some countries it is taboo to name obvious problems, most inhabitants having learned to hide that ugly painfulness behind a mask of humourous evasion (those not having learned being pitied or ridiculed if despondently). Confucius writes of fathers and sons concealing each other's misconduct (let us remember though that he also writes of the rectification of names, thereby such concealment applies to fathers and sons who act such, respectfully) and also notes, "The reason the ancients did not readily give utterance to their words was that they feared lest their actions should not come up to them". How much needs to be said, seen and what, to what end?
In an April letter to Lucceius, Cicero writes, "And so I again and again ask you outright, both to praise those actions of mine in warmer terms than you perhaps feel, and in that respect to neglect the laws of history." We can frame lives, weave them in our looms. This is also a source of great confusion not to mention partisanship. Some thinkers extend beyond their school, if in a few threads of "parallel sensitivities" which do not seek to reduce the original context.
"'Why must one be so severe? If a man purify himself to wait upon me, I receive him so purified, without guaranteeing his past conduct.' The Master said, 'Is virtue a thing remote? I wish to be virtuous, and lo! virtue is at hand'", 述而.