Having finished “Walden” and “A Sand County Almanac,” I reached for the next book on my bedside table pile, which was “The American Puritans,” edited by Perry Miller.
“I’m reading about the Puritans now,” I said to Mary. A shadow passed across her face as she heard that, recalling the statue we’d seen of a Puritan in Pittsburgh, which had been as scary as hell. Like my dad, the statue had seemed to me, angular, stern, but with a long, flowing cloak instead of a tweed jacket.
And what had I learned so far? she asked, wary of my habit of immersing myself in the books I read. Would I, she wondered, jettison Thoreau and Aldo Leopold for Cotton Mather?
“Oh, I’ve just begun, nothing so far, except that they were stoical.”
“I think fanatical would be more like it.”
How right she was I was to learn, having read on a little more. I should listen to her more often. Freedom of religion or speech was the last thing on their minds.
As for Stoicism, it was of interest to her that a Times reader had cited Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations” in a compendium of life-changing books it published recently. You learn in it what she already knows, to wit that the divine spirit is within us, that kindness is our natural bent, that virtue is its own reward, and that death reunites the soul with the substance of the universe — a prescription for a well-considered, fruitful life, not one shackled by ideology and the urge to prescribe and proscribe.
It was of interest to me, a sportswriter, leafing through the copy I had in my office, to read Marcus’s references to wrestling — at one point likening a Stoic to “a wrestler in the greatest contest of all, not to be overthrown by any passion,” and, further along, saying “the art of living resembles wrestling more than dancing.”
One perks up too on reading in Seneca that “the man who lives extravagantly wants his manner of living to be on everybody’s lips as long as he is alive. He thinks he is wasting his time if he is not being talked about.”
But the following, from “Meditations,” may be my best guide in our daily intercourse: “Habituate yourself not to be inattentive to what another has to say and, so far as possible, be in the mind of the speaker.”