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Sans Bankers & Politicians
Philosophers – They Influence Our Lives
We are more deeply influenced by the great philosophers than we realize. Throughout millennia pearls of wisdom and words of famous thinkers have seeped into the collective unconscious and changed us for the better. One dull or sunny day long ago, biblical and ancient classical thinkers uttered bons mots we still respect today. From the branches of philosophy and ethics acorns fell, seeds of insight. The Ancient Greeks would have been astonished to picture us consulting them centuries later, never mind googling them on the internet.
Socrates In the 4th century spoke of moral excellence, logic and sophistry. His pupil Plato said that “All the gold which is under or upon the earth is not enough to give in exchange for virtue, the most virtuous being those who are so without seeking to appear so.” If only Plato had been a banker or a politician.
Aristotle suggested happiness as our goal, and friendship. What would he think of the Me-generation? Confucius advocated state led capitalism, courtesy and conduct for the betterment of those below us. If only he was up for election now. Walter Bagehot defined the English Constitution in 1807, famously still unwritten but more or less functioning to this day. Rachel Carson alerted us to contamination, envisaging a sea of troubles. We take our cues from these great thinkers.
The philosopher with greatest impact on my life was Pollyanna. Before you smile, don’t knock what you haven’t tried. Thousands who have never read her book mock her for her seemingly facile Glad Game. For those ignorant of the details, she was a deprived orphan, an American girl in trying circumstances adopted by an elderly duo bemused by her buoyant spirit. Pollyanna adopted a positive outlook on life to cope with her misfortunes.
I was eleven when my Mother bought me her book. In the early mornings I read Pollyanna aloud to her in bed because the story was uplifting and in tune with my age. My Mother left school at fourteen, educated prior to that by nuns whose most memorable lesson was silencing the class to hear a pin drop, and after it fell inaudibly to the floor, saying dramatically to the hushed pupils, “Forever and ever your soul will burn in hell if you don’t go to Mass on Sundays.” Despite this ominous warning, she was a skilled lateral thinker, a cheerful, outgoing and much beloved Mother. Her education prepared her poorly for life, but she was naturally wise and gave good counsel. She told me “Your Nana always said, the secret to happiness is to forget you exist,” and I bought it, until a time when my concentration was focused so keenly on the needs of others to the point of forgetting myself, I had to pull back from the brink of insanity.
Pollyanna advocated looking for something to be glad about in every situation. It’s always there if you know where to look. If you are out boating and it starts to rain, be glad you are not up s**t creek without a paddle. If your aging joints ache, reflect that some unlucky friends died before arthritis had time to set in. I wrecked my back in an accident in gym when I was fourteen and forever after was forbidden to play sports. I did my homework during gym lessons, leaving my evenings freer to relax. Sixty years later it still hurts sometimes, but it didn’t stop me dancing and having babies, and today when my back aches I think, “This is not old age, you felt like this at 35.”
I took Pollyanna at her word. As a child it was an easy exercise to find the glad in every setback. I lived in a loving, secure family. When my brother was depressed by rain I thought how glad the plants were for a drink. It became more problematic in my thirties. My husband’s work as a government scientist caused us to move every five years or so, around England and Wales, changing schools, leaving our friends behind and starting over. I told the boys it was a great opportunity to experience life in different parts of the United Kingdom. To explain our rootlessness I said, “Our roots flourish in a plant pot, we can adapt to living anywhere. Home is where the family is.”
Sons four and five arrived as twins when the baby was 16 months old, in addition to two aged 6 and 8. The memory of Pollyanna faded amidst the dismay of three hourly feeds around the clock and three babies in diapers for a year (and they were not disposable). So tired. But six months later, after I’d fantasized about smothering them before taking an overdose because I couldn’t cope and nobody else wanted the job, and then realized I’d have to euthanize my Mother too because she couldn’t have stood it (I thought their father would be fine), Pollyanna whispered in my ear, “Don’t be silly. That would be genocide. OK, you only wanted three, which two are you going to send back?” I loved them all fiercely, and from then on protected and nurtured them with every ounce of effort necessary through their tender years, our divorce while three were still in school and for twenty years more until they all emerged as competent adults, educated, upright citizens, with immense potential to apply their skills as advocated by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pollyanna.
I’m glad I didn’t know that the adventurous spirit in their genes would cause them to emigrate to Ireland, Virginia, Arizona and Australia, taking all twelve grandchildren abroad, and not one of them would have an English accent. I found it difficult indeed to come to terms with losing them, telling myself that our gene pool had gone global. Scant satisfaction, I’d prefer them dropping in for tea.
The thing that makes me glad these days is that I followed one young family to America and found new friends and adventures in Virginia. There is the joy of seeing my two young grandsons here and teaching them the glad game. I see my sons as model fathers, examples of moral excellence and virtue, resilient in the face of challenge, hardworking and regularly counting their blessings, although if they read this they would all collectively protest, “Oh, Mum.”
- Image: Statue of Socrates at the Louvre - photo taken by Wiki user Sting and used under Creative Commons license
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