Sorrowful Abundance

Everybody knows about that C.S. Lewis quote in which he says that you should always read a certain proportion of older books to newer books because the older ones do not share your biases and will thus likely help you see even seemingly familiar things in a different light.

This will be my first installment of a probably irregular series that will illustrate the truth of Lewis’s dictum. For my first outing, I’ve chosen the following quote from the poet Hesiod, a contemporary of the Homer who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hesiod writes:

“It is good to take from what is available, but sorrow to the heart to be wanting what is not available. I suggest you reflect on this.” (Works and Days, 364)

I believe that this is a principle we can’t easily understand, for our technology has created an artificial world in which nearly anything is available just whenever we want it.

Pause and think about that and you’ll see what I mean. Want a certain fruit or vegetable that, in terms of the climate you live in and the present time of year shouldn’t be available? No problem! Just hop in the car and go down to your favorite grocery store and get that thing and bring it back and bon appetit!

What could be simpler? And after all, isn’t the ability to do this sort of thing regarding just about anything you want anytime you want one of the wonderful blessings of our time? I mean, can you imagine living in ancient or medieval times when, as I’ve actually seen some over-enthusiastic advocates of our culture’s superfluity day, everybody wore hair shirts and was always starving to death? No thanks! Progress has liberated us from all that sort of awful stuff, and as both Americans and American Christians, don’t we just have a birthright to this kind of prosperity?

But if we really want to call ourselves practitioners of classical education, shouldn’t we take the classical sources that underlie that mode of education much more seriously on their own terms? Shouldn’t we take C.S. Lewis’ dictum more seriously by reading the old books with an eye towards what we might learn from them rather than only towards what we can criticize them for? Read the short quote from Hesiod again:

“It is good to take from what is available, but sorrow to the heart to be wanting what is not available. I suggest you reflect on this.” (Works and Days, 364)

What might we be missing if we just quickly pass our eyes over these words on the way to checking off the box that says we have “read Hesiod” as efficiently as possible so that we can move on with our real lives? What if we were to read these words a bit more slowly and reflectively, ask what he means by each term, and then compare the total meaning to how we ourselves live?

If we were to do this, I think it would quickly become clear that unlike Hesiod, who lived in the world much more in touch with nature, we don’t readily grasp that there ought to be limits on our desires. It ought not to be the case that no matter what we desire, somebody has figured out a way to provide it for us, conveniently and attractively packaged, easily available in quantity, and cheap enough that we’ll go get it just because we want it.

We might start to see – really see – what is always right in front of us but which we constantly take for granted because we don’t tend to closely, reflectively examine perspectives on the world that are radically different from our own.

That is, we might start to really see that there are serious ethical and spiritual ramifications to the fact that we don’t live in a world where “not available” is a category that typically constrains our desires and actions. We might start to wonder whether there’s a real downside to our unbelievable superfluity of resources and the financial ability to make the most of them. And if we were really ambitious intellectually, we might start to notice some ways that the phenomenon of unmoderated desire, driven by the fantastic superfluity that has banished “not available,” has created a world ethically hostile to Christianity, not to mention the old style pagan concept of Virtue itself.

Unlike Hesiod, we’re not going to have sorrow of heart because we want what is not available. Rather the converse is true: we’re going to wind up with lots of sorrow of heart because we want all kinds of things that are available, but that shouldn’t be – and which wouldn’t be if we lived in the world governed by natural limitations rather than the constant and frantic quest to overcome them by artificial means that only encourage the development of immoderate, and sometimes even unnatural, desires.

We are absolutely and utterly awash in choices, so much so that we’re often paralyzed when trying to make seemingly simple decisions about meals, pens, shoes, cars, and dozens of other things that are just part of ordinary life and which really shouldn’t consume so much of our time and create so much anxiety. And this is even before we get to really important things like who we will associate with, how seriously we will take agreements we have made with other people when they seem to be suddenly inconvenient for us, or even where we will go to church to get our fantastically self-centered concept of our own needs met in the best way possible for our own satisfaction.

In all these ways and many more, our unbelievable plenitude, which in our unreflective moments we think ought to bring us so much joy, are in reality bringers of sorrow. Because our technology has allowed us to practically banish the old kind of want, we have each and every one of us been shaped all of our lives without any significant care for the types, qualities, and needful limitations of the other kind of want.

As Hesiod said, “I suggest [we] reflect on this.” The quote is pretty short. But like most pithy things our classical sources say, it contains a great deal more depth than the few words in which it is said at first seemed to convey.