Wisdom of the Pyre

A man is as much affected pleasurably or painfully by the image of a thing past or future, as by the image of a thing present. – Spinoza, [Ethics, Part III, Proposition 28] from- Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio

An assignment into the stacks undid me and I came out with more books than I went in with. Does this mean I am a failure as a library worker? Every book or film someone checks out or returns I want to ask them: Did you like it? Oh! I’ve seen that/ read that, what did you think? I’m not one hundred percent sure if there is some librarian code of ethics that should prevent me from being so inquisitive, I mean, no one ever asked me, but – I get excited. Most of the time I maintain the professional veneer of disinterest, as boring as that is. Today when I bounded out of my chair to get a textbook for a student he asked me if I had had a good day because I was “glowing.” Am I glowing? I asked my young coworker who’s a bit of a twat so pretended to ignore me. I was in an euphoria of books, I had a small pile beside me on the desk that I rapaciously devoured.

Having just finished Book One of Herodotus I was fully primed to read Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. The discussion between Solon and Croesus, in Herodotus was particularly on point:

“We hear you have wandered through much of the world in search for knowledge, so I really can’t resist asking you now whether you have yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in happiness and prosperity” He asked this in the hope that he would be declared the happiest and most prosperous of all, but Solon had no intention of flattering him. – The Landmark Herodotus, The Histories (19)

If you don’t know the answer I will tell you: Solon tells Croesus that one cannot be declared “happy” until they are dead, before that, they are merely fortunate. This news irritates Croesus, but as he, later,  stands on the pyre made for him in his defeat by Cyrus (of Persia) he finally gets it. Solon, Solon, Solon is all he can say as the fire ignites, and this of course moves the intelligent Cyrus to inquiry, and then mercy.

With life, you just don’t know what each day will bring. Good news for those of us that may be experiencing difficulties, and sobering news for those that think themselves entitled.

Meanwhile, my eldest son is insisting on paying double for a turkey this Thanksgiving because he wants to be sure that the turkey “felt happy.”

Well, according to Mr. Damasio, I now know there is difference between feeling and emotion. And, for me, omnivore that I am, this makes a difference. As a feeling species, it makes sense. I am all for treating animals humanely, even if it means paying double- we  should in fact- eat less, eat better. Fine. But why deny the pleasure of our palates? The beautiful gift of sustenance? A turkey doesn’t feeland all living organisms must eat. But if we can ensure that our turkey can say at the end- the emotions reacted to were positive: I, and Mr. Turkey- if he were sentient, would be satisfied. This is life.

Furthermore, based on, although admittedly stretching,  the other fascinating book I pulled off the stacks,  The Emperor of Scent, I am deeply concerned that all the meat recognizing enzymes in my body have something to do. As I bound out of my chair to actually “do” something in my library job, I well know, the saddest thing of all – is to have nothing to do.

Herodotus Book Two


15 responses to “Wisdom of the Pyre

  1. Dana Jennings Rohn

    I believe it is Winnie the Pooh, who ponders the earthly question, is it the eating of the honey that is the highest pleasure, or that moment just before it is eaten?

  2. Some things are meant to be together:
    The moment before is the o, and the eating is the m. Om.

  3. Boredom is an unrecognised killer, and one which you seem constitutionally immune or at least resistant to. . Keeping busy is the ultimate therapy. Another great post.

  4. Wait a minute! “A turkey doesn’t feel?” This sounds like what my kids overheard our adult neighbor telling his son, the the deer don’t feel it when you shoot them. My kids and I disagree. I’m not saying it’s “a crime” to shoot them, but I think any pet owner can tell you that animals do “Feel” it when you try to pry a sticker out of their paw!!!
    Otherwise, I can’t argue with you.

    • I don’t mean feel in the sense of touch. Feelings – as in, the order of consciousness above reactionary emoting. That is a large part of what the book is about, the difference between emotions and feelings – feelings require a sort of “map of oneself,” memory…thought.
      I don’t know for sure, but I’d say there are some animals that feel, but turkeys?- Definitely not. They may in fact be too stupid to even feel in the touch sense of the word.

      The point is, happiness is a luxury that neither I nor the turkey can afford.

  5. I always swear I’ll come back to your blog to get ideas for new books to read.

  6. What did you think of Herodotus Polymnia, Book III?

    “. . . before these weapons of the gods you must have seen how the proudest palaces and the loftiest trees fall and perish.”

    His eyes were wide open.

  7. I’ll let you know when I get there! I’ve only just finished Book I. But I do like the combination of history, myth, storytelling all woven into one, and told with a bit of personality. It’s quite good.

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