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Archive for March 14th, 2010

Norman’s Woe is a coastal reef in Gloucester Massachusetts immortalized by the tragic poem ” The wreck of the Hesperus” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells of the captain of a ship, the Hesperus, who met a fierce storm off the Eastern coast of New England. His daughter was onboard. Other senior crewman offered their good counsel but the captain was filled with hubris and refused to hear it.

In trying to save his daughter from the ravaging seas, he had her strapped to the mast to avoid the threat of seeing her swept overboard by the tall and ferocious waves crashing on deck. Horribly, all perished, including the girl, who drowned as the ship capsized and, having been tied to the mast, was unable to free herself and possibly survive the calamity.

The tale of an innocent’s death and that of all crewman on the reef is a cautionary fable loosely based on a devastating blizzard that in fact did occur off the coast of New England in 1839. The story rings in my ears as I read the wonderful just published book, Breakfast with Socrates, by Robert Rowland Smith.

In this breezy and very accessible retelling of the legacy of philosophy, Smith places each of many of the great philosophers in the midst of our everyday experiences, and we get an opportunity to briefly “dine with them” and imagine conversation on the questions with which we struggle as we navigate the mysteries, triumphs, and travails of our lives. All of this got me to thinking about the enormous treasure trove that is the classics.

Each of the great books, treasures that have withstood the test of time, offer enlightened and ever fresh commentary on our condition. Each of the voices from the ancient choir of the lovers of wisdom offer free counsel to anyone with the courage and mental fortitude to embrace it. Yet, the overwhelming lack of interest, generally speaking, in the classical library remains an undeniable reality.

The cry for relevance, practical plug-and-play utility, and small-minded self-help prescriptions is deafening. It is as if two meals are served: One a banquet of culinary genius, gourmet foods and great wines, and all for free, and it is rejected; while the other,  a grease-stained bag of fast food burgers costing far more than it’s worth, offering unwholesome calories, and containing excessive undisclosed filler materials and meat shot full of antibiotics and hormones, is the one hastily chosen and enthusiastically consumed.

It is time to go back, all of us, regardless of how well versed we are in the classics in general and the writings of the great philosophers in particular, and set up a renewed daily diet of wholesome calories. Furthermore, here’s the irony, like the free gourmet meal, the classics can be downloaded for free.

It is time to learn the lesson of the Hesperus and listen to the counsel of elder sages who speak to us from the deep recesses of recorded history. We can still save the young girl,  the archetypal Sophia, who is the the very soul of Wisdom. We can still rescue her from drowning in the turbulent and vicious seas of postmodernity and 21st century egoism and spiritual consumerism. We can resuscitate her and so revel in the sweetness of her voice, the alertness of her sight, and youthful embrace of the real.

At daybreak, on the bleak sea-beach,
A fisherman stood aghast,
To see the form of a maiden fair,
Lashed close to a drifting mast.

The salt sea was frozen on her breast,
The salt tears in her eyes;
And he saw her hair, like the brown sea-weed,
On the billows fall and rise.

Such was the wreck of the Hesperus,
In the midnight and the snow!
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!

Excerpted from the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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