The Secret to a Great Life: Amor Fati

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe great Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that philosophy was not just a theoretical discipline but a way of life. During his life (55 – 135 AD), he endured and saw more than his share of adversity. He was born a slave and was crippled (there are conflicting accounts: he was either born that way or one of his masters crushed his leg). Eventually, after the death of Nero in 68 AD, Epictetus obtained his freedom and traveled to Epirus, Greece to teach philosophy. Fortunately for us, his wisdom and teachings are preserved in the Discourses and Enchiridion. The secret to a great life, according to Epictetus, was what Nietzsche called amor fati, a Latin term meaning “a love of fate” or “love of one’s fate.” Specifically, Epictetus wrote: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” In other words, don’t curse your fate: accept it — furthermore: love it. Epictetus and the stoics believed that everything that happens in one’s life — whether good or bad — is fate’s way of reaching its ultimate purpose: shaping you into the person you should be.

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The Greatest Love Letters of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf literatureThe 20-year correspondence between Pierre Abelard (1079-1142), a medieval French scholastic theologian and philosopher, and Heloise d’Argenteuil (c 1090-1164), a French Latin and Greek scholar (and later a nun), are considered some of the greatest love letters of all time. The letters were originally written in Latin and first published in Paris in 1616 (one of very rate first editions is owned by the British Museum). However, it wasn’t until 1722 that the letters were finally published in English. Since then, more than 60 editions have been published. Nevertheless, the important point to make is that long ago, people did not share their affection with fleeting, impulsive texts, tweets, and emojis — they actually took the time to write thoughtful handwritten letters to one another, conveying their love with eloquence, romance, and profound depth of feeling. But you be the judge — compare this stunningly beautiful and eloquent passage from Heloise to Abelard, in which she extols the virtue of letters, with any text or tweets you have ever read:

“If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give  such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons them­selves were present; they have all the tenderness, and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.

We may write to each other; so innocent a pleasure is not denied us. Let us not lose through negligence the only happiness which is left us, and the only one perhaps which the malice of our enemies can never ravish from us. I shall read that you are my husband and you shall see me sign myself your wife. In spite of all our misfortunes you may be what you please in your letter. Letters were first invented for consoling such solitary wretches as myself. Having lost the substantial pleasures of seeing and possessing you, I shall in some measure compensate this loss by the satisfaction I shall find in your writing. There I shall read your most sacred thoughts; I shall carry them always about with me, I shall kiss them every moment; if you can be capable of any jealousy let it be for the fond caresses I shall bestow upon your letters, and envy only the happi­ness of those rivals. That writing may be no trouble to you, write always to me carelessly and without study; I had rather read the dictates of the heart than of the brain. I cannot live if you will not tell me that you still love me; but that language ought to be so natural to you, that I believe you cannot speak otherwise to me without violence to yourself. And since by this melancholy relation to your friend you have awakened all my sorrows, ‘tis but reasonable you should allay them by some tokens of your unchanging love.” [From Letter II, The Love Letters of Abelard and Heloise edited by Honnor Morten, 1908]”

The remarkable story of forbidden love begins when Abelard and Heloise first met. At that time, Abelard, 37 years old, was the Professor of Logic and Canon at Notre Dame. He was one of the most celebrated men of his day — a brilliant, respected intellectual and teacher. Heloise, 19 years old, was his student, a Latin and Greek scholar. Initially Abelard was her tutor, but they fell deeply in love and continued their affair for some time at the home of her uncle and guardian, Fulbert. Marriage was out of the question since it would have prevented Abelard’s advancement in the Church and caused a scandal at the university. Nevertheless, they consummated their passionate love and had a child out of wedlock (a son, named get this — Astrolabe, after the scientific instrument that measures the altitude of a celestial body). To avoid Fulbert’s wrath, Abelard married Heloise, something she resisted. But she humiliated her uncle when she repeatedly denied the marriage and preferred to be called Abelard’s mistress. To protect her from her uncle, Abelard suggested that Heloise hide at a convent at Argenteuil where she had been brought up (although she lived there, she had not taken vows). Fulbert was incensed and wanted to punish and humiliate the professor. Filbert hired some thugs to storm into Abelard’s chambers and castrate him. Disfigured and fearing for his life, Abelard (now 40) fled the university and became a monk at the Monastery of St. Denis. He also encouraged Heloise to take vows as a nun, so that she was safe and no man could have her. She initially protested but eventually consented, and at the age of 22, took her vows. Fast forward ten years. Heloise received a letter from Abelard in which he discussed his unhappiness. She wrote back, revealing the pent-up passion from a decade of restraint. The lovers subsequently exchanged four letters after that and then, suddenly, the letters stopped. Abelard died of scurvy, at the age of 63, in 1142 at the priory of St. Marcel. Twenty years later Heloise, who had become the head of a convent, died. They were buried next to one another. Almost 600 years later, Josephine Bonaparte was so moved by their story, she ordered that their remains be moved to the Pere Lachiase Cemetery in Paris, where lovers from all over the world come to pay tribute to the famous couple by leaving letters at the tomb. The most passionate and romantic love stories of all time is also immortalized in Alexander Pope’s 1717 poem, “Eloisa to Abelard.”

In the introduction to the 1908 edition, Honnor Morten describes the legacy of Abelard and Heloise this way: “Abelard, the great leader and logician, his treatises are forgotten, his fame as a philosopher is dead — only his love letters live. And Heloise, the beautiful and the learned, who stands second to Sapho, is known merely as an example of the passionate devotion of woman. So they remain to us, the typical lovers; he with man’s mania to master, she with woman’s one desire to submit. No love letters that have ever been written but have contained phrases common to one another and to be found here; but no love letters that have ever been published have equalled these in the old passionate tale of the struggle to forget — to sink the love of the human in the love of the divine.”

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There’s a Word for That: Agathokakological

atkins-bookshelf-wordsWhen you dive into the incredible 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary and open Volume I (A-Bazouki), you come across this wonderful word: agathokakological, an adjective meaning “containing both good and evil.” A perfect word for modern times, no? The word was first used by English poet Robert Southey (1774-1843), one of England’s Poet Laureates, in 1843: “For indeed upon the agathokakological globe there are opposite qualities always to be found.” The word, which the OED identifies as a nonce word, is derived from the Ancient Greek agathos (meaning “good”) and kakos (meaning “bad”). The word is a real mouthful; it is pronounced “a gath o CAC o la ji kel.” Despite the fact that the dichotomy of good and evil is so common in religion, philosophy, and psychology, the word agathokakological is rarely used in those contexts. Go figure. So the next time a discussion of good and evil comes up, use the word nonchalantly to impress your friends and help bring the word into the mainstream. #agathokakological

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An Artist Must Be Content to Deliver Himself Wholly Up To It


alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn a letter written on April 3, 1855, legendary British author Charles Dickens explains to Mrs. Winter that his craft makes huge demands on his time and he must therefore politely decline many social invitations: “A necessity is upon me now — as at most times — of wandering about in my old wild way, to think. I could no more resist this on Sunday or yesterday than a man can dispense with food, or a horse can help himself from being driven. I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me, and sometimes, for months together, put everything else away from me. If I had not known long ago that my place could never be held, unless I were at any moment ready to devote myself to it entirely, I should have dropped out of it very soon. All this I can hardly expect you to understand — or the restlessness and waywardness of an author’s mind. You have never seen it before you, or lived with it, or had occasion to think or care about it, and you cannot have the necessary consideration for it. “It is only half an hour,” —  “It is only an afternoon,” — “It is only an evening,” people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes, — or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometimes worry a whole day. These are the penalties paid for writing books. Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go my way whether or no.”

In short, Dickens believed that a writer had to be very disciplined. In his own case, Dickens not only had to set aside enough time in his schedule to write when the muses inspired him, but he also had to make time to carefully study and ponder human nature. Biographer Fred Kaplan, who has written a highly-regarded biography of Dickens, shares a very illuminating story of when Henry James and Dickens met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1867. Although terribly brief, their encounter was an epiphany in James’s life. He observed Dickens alone in a room and noted his aura of authority and discipline; James described the famous author’s look as a “merciless, military gaze.” Kaplan explains: “[James] realized that Dickens could get maximum amount of life out of the smallest experience. That, combined with his talent, was conducive to the creation of great art… James learned that the great artist has to use his energy in the most disciplined and ruthless way.” Like Shakespeare, Dickens had the instinctive ability to place humanity under a microscope — meticulously probing, dissecting, distilling, analyzing  — to collect the fodder for his life’s work.

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The Singer Who Inspired Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

In his autobiography, King explained that he wrote his speech at the Willard Hotel in Washington the night before the MOW, which was held on August 28, 1963. Prior to going up to his room, he had assembled his aides and asked them for suggestions for the speech. In the past, he had used the dream metaphor. Just two months earlier in June, at a speech delivered at Cobo Hall in Detroit, he said: “I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.” The other metaphor he frequently used as the “bad check’, i.e, that the country wrote blacks a bad check, promising liberty and equality, but failing to honor it. Since speakers at the MOW were told they only had five minutes to speak, King didn’t think he had time to use both metaphors. [Later he was told that he could take whatever time he needed.] So he listened to his aides and said: “My brothers, I understand. I appreciate all the suggestions. Now let me go and counsel with the Lord.”

King spent the evening writing the speech in longhand, editing as he wrote, trying to find the right rhythm of words and phrases. Finally, he completed the speech by 4:00 am and handed the speech to an aid so that it could be typed up and delivered to the press. In the speech, King referenced the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. But no where in that manuscript were the words “I have a dream.” 

King was the last speaker of the day. He spoke after Mahalia Jackson sang and then a speech by Rabbi Joachim Prinz from the American Jewish Congress. He stepped up to the podium, carrying the manuscript, and read from it. As he reached the conclusion of the speech, he realized that the sentences he had written did not flow. He was supposed to read “go back to our communities as members of the international association for the advancement of creative dissatisfaction” and instead improvised a sentence that employed anaphora: “Go back to Mississippi; go back to Alabama; go back to South Carolina; go back to Georgia; go back to Louisiana; go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.” And this it was exactly at this moment, that Mahalia Jackson changed the course of one of the most famous speeches in history. Sitting near Kind, she yelled out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” When he heard that, King instantly turned aside from the manuscript and followed his intuition; and he began: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…”

King’s memorable 17-minute speech was powerful, soaring, and emotional. It brough men and women to tears according to eyewitnesses. Half a century later, the speech continues to resonate and inspire; moreover it is considered a rhetorical masterpiece. Political speech analyst, Richard Greene writes: “The speech is perfect in every way. The use of language, the emotional build-up, the penetrating message and the flawless delivery are, plain and simple, perfection.” Today, in a world inundated by tweets, a speech of this calibre is amazingly rare (had it occurred today, thousands would be reducing this remarkable oration to four simple words “I have a dream”) — and it towers above most others because it was delivered with so much conviction and passion. Through the use of repetition (anaphora), rhythm, diction, contrasting metaphors, biblical and historical references, and strong visual images — 70 in all — King crafted a perfect and impassioned speech about racial injustice and the hope for a world of true equality. Greene concludes, “To this day, the emotional impact of this speech reverberates to those who heard it then as well as those who first hear it now. Like the Gettysburg Address, it is a speech with lasting impact.”

So the next time you hear the “I Have a Dream” speech, you can thank Mahalia Jackson for her remark that altered the course of the speech — and of history. And may her act inspire you: when you see that someone needs some encouragement, don’t be afraid to speak out.

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For further reading: Words That Shook The World: 100 Years of Unforgettable Speeches and Events by Richard Greene
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson

The Amazing Healing Power of Love and Compassion

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my extraordinary life, it’s the amazing healing power of love and compassion. For example, I played the concert for 9/11 in New York in Madison Square Garden, which was an extremely moving experience because of the audience. Nobody came there worrying about whether the person next to them voted for another party, was a different color, was a different religion, had a different sexuality. They came there en masse, as a group of people to share love. And I I think we need so much more of that in our sick world, at the moment. Sometimes its hard to believe that we’re in 2019 and what I read in the newspapers — and its not just here– it’s all over the world,  cause I go everywhere. So I truly believe that love is the cure for what ails us at the moment. And this next song is all about that… [Begins to sing “Believe” from the 1995 album, Made in England]: I believe in love, it’s all we got / Love has no boundaries, costs nothing to touch / War makes money, cancer sleeps / Curled up in my father and that means something to me / Churches and dictators, politics and papers / Everything crumbles sooner or later / But love, I believe in love…”

Elton John speaking to the crowd at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, on January 19, 2019 during his Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. Remarkably, at the age of 71, John is playing 300 concerts over three years across the globe in this final tour. In his 50 year career, he has played more than 4,000 concerts. As a philanthropist, he established the Elton John Aids Foundation in 1992. To date, the foundation has raised more than $400 million to support innovative HIV prevention, education programs, and care and support services to people living with HIV.

We Have to Be True in Order to Know the Truth

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I am not one who believes that a man has to show his religious party card before one can speak to [God]. And I am well aware that there are plenty of people who shy away from religion and its institutional aspect precisely because of a certain abuse of this kind of thing. God asks of us, first of all, sincerity and truth. Conformity is not the first requisite, or the second, or the tenth. I do not know where it may stand on the list or whether it is on the list at all, since God has not shown me His list. But since He has made us for the truth, it stands to reason that we have to be true in order to know the truth.”

Excerpt from a letter from Thomas Merton (1915-1968) to Steve Eisner, dated February 1962, from Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis. Merton was an American Trappist monk who wore many hats: poet, writer, theologian, mystic, scholar of comparative religion, and social activist. He was a prolific author, having written more than 70 books. His best-known work is The Steven Storey Mountain (1948), an autobiography, considered one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century by the National Review. He was a passionate advocate of interfaith dialogue, i.e., the positive interaction between individuals of different religious, spiritual, or humanistic beliefs at both the institutional and individual levels.

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