I watched the BBC series The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice recently and felt depressed – addicted as well, but depressed. My problem? I didn’t feel connected to anybody in the story. I couldn’t fully empathise. I acknowledge descent from people like them – probably in a humbler station of life than those who got the attention. I could offer gratitude and respect for their fecundity/virility, for their resilience, for doing the best they could with the life on offer. I felt uneasy at the display of their mortal remains on TV. But connection? Not really.
So where would I look for living ancestry? If we take the Eurasia of the time as a whole we find, as part of the cultural mix, an acute consciousness of something painful and awry in the military-aristocratic cultures of the day, perhaps in the very cosmos itself. We can follow this as a persistent theme in powerful emergent literatures. Such indeed was the revulsion that some teachers and writers became world and life denying. But that’s not true of everyone. The words below, attributed to the early Chinese Taoist Lao Tzu, seem grounded enough:
Brim-fill the bowl,
It’ll spill over.
Keep sharpening the blade,
You’ll soon blunt it.
Nobody can protect a house full of gold and jade.
Wealth, status, pride
Are their own ruin.
To do good, work well, and lie low
Is the way of the blessing. (1)
In Athens, a little closer to home, Socrates suggested that our highest good lies in our moral centre and best self, and that all external goods, such as bodily pleasure, health and social reputation are correspondingly of subordinate value. Essential good was to be sought within rather than in externals. Socrates himself was famous for the simplicity of his way of life. His ascetic follower Diogenes, a kind of crazy wisdom master described by Plato as “Socrates gone mad”, is said to have had a late life encounter with the young Alexander of Macedon, soon to become ‘the Great’. Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, reckoning that if Diogenes came up with something it would establish a relationship of patronage and dependency. Diogenes was sitting against a wall and had been enjoying the sunshine until Alexander came along and loomed over him. So he requested the King to stand away from his sun. Alexander went on to fight his way through the Persian Empire all the way to India. There he cornered a group of gymnosophists (= naked sages, either Jain or Yogi) and happily repeated his pattern of asking clever questions and receiving sagely answers.
I am not a follower of Lao Tzu, Socrates or Diogenes, but I do feel connected to them. I have involved them in my contemplative inquiry. In this sense they are my ancestors. Edited and mythologised though they may be, they speak to me over the centuries. I realize that literary wisdom comes out of older, oral traditions. Humans are capable of wisdom and it doesn’t depend on writing. The Tao Te Ching is an anthology of verses passed from teachers to pupils who were expected to memorise them. I understand that their initial recording and publication were controversial in their day. Socrates and Diogenes didn’t care much for writing: they left that to others. I do not doubt that there were paths and people of wisdom in the Celtic-speaking lands – people who stuck by the way of personal relationship and oral transmission in their teaching: this is, after all, the rumoured way of the Druids. I just doubt that we would find them amongst the princes, warriors and court Druids presented in The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice.
So my Samhain thoughts this year turn to exemplars, teachers and sharers of wisdom – firstly and obviously those who are publicly known and remembered; secondly and perhaps more importantly with those who remain unknown but whose invisible influence has leavened the life of the world.
- Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: a book about the Way and the Power of the Way (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J. P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) Shambhala: Boston & London, 1998.