Is a truism a truism if written in A.D. 76? Can platitudes possibly be buried in ta-da words–describing what we have come to know well and that has been regurgitated in popular culture, self-help manuals, and online feel-good courses crashing toward today?
For several years, I’ve turned for wisdom to a great tome of lived storytelling: The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology from classical era to the present, edited by master contemporary American essayist Phillip Lopate.
First up: A scant four pages penned by one of those single-named demi-god Greeks with squirrely beards.
One day, while on the road to Athens, a messenger sent tidings to Plutarch of his little daughter’s death. He dashed off a consolation letter to his wife meant to ease her inside and outside of a wrenching absence.
“After the birth of our four sons you yearned for a daughter and I seized the opportunity of giving her your name,” he wrote.
To paraphrase Plutarch seems like a criminal literary act and impossible to do justice to but I shall nevertheless attempt it.
Remember the good, he more or less said.
Speaking of grief:
“It becomes us ill, inculpating our own lives, to find fault with a single blot, as in a book, when all the rest is clean and unstained.”
Remember the joys, he urged her. Illogical, he said, to dwell in sorrow.
“I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities [in Tixoxena] which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind.
“Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymeme (handmaiden to Helen of Troy) who said: ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’”
Plutarch, Clymeme, Little Tixoxena and Big Tixoxena spent their lives around death then died young themselves. In that slant of light, how could they do other than lift their faces and feel the still warmth?
And we should attempt to do the same. But of course I speak only for myself. I shall attempt to do the same, remembering Plutarch with thanks.