Week 7: 23 October 2011
Comedian and author of The Ancient Guide to Modern Life
Live a life examined
So, this may sound perverse, given that you’re citizens, but I want to urge you to remember that, as John Donne put it, no man is an island. You probably know the poem, but if you don’t, here are a couple of lines from it.
‘No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’
The Latin word for island is insula, from which we of course get the English word ‘insular’. And that is what I would like to propose we try hard not to be: neither geographically, nor temporally. I think island-dwellers more than anyone need to bear in mind that they must look outwards as well as inwards. I think we are pretty good at remembering we’re not isolated in space and geography, but that we are all part of one world now; but I think we often struggle to remember that we are also not isolated in time and history, and nor should we be.
The Irish statesman, Edmund Burke, once said that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. And he was absolutely right. Actually, we only have to look at the cyclical nature of the economy – of bubbles, booms and busts – to see that history routinely repeats itself whether we know it or not.
So only by learning about, and at least trying to learn from, our collective past, can we hope to achieve more than our ancestors. Or even achieve as much. I worry that we have become too keen to see sciences, maths and engineering as ‘useful’ (which they undoubtedly are), and the arts and humanities as merely decorative (which they most certainly are not). I really worry that we may be forgetting that history, philosophy, and my own subject, Classics, are not just soul-enhancing, they are practical too. And that feeding our souls may not seem important compared to actual, physical hunger, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact, if we are to live a life which could in any way be described as civilised, it’s vital.
So, please make time to read the odd book about a time and a place you don’t know much about. Think a little about what it must have been like to be not-you and live in a time and a place that are not-yours. Compassion is never wasted, and nor is knowledge. Sometimes the only way we value things is to compare them to others: so let’s make sure that we follow the advice of Socrates, who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Live a life examined – investigate the world around you, even the parts you will never see and the people you will never or could never meet.
You won’t be sorry.
Have fun on the island. See you around, I hope.
Natalie Haynes is a broadcaster and writer. She was also an award-winning stand-up comedian for ten years before she turned to writing full-time. She has written and presented many documentaries for BBC Radio 4, on subjects ranging from Greek tragedy and soap opera to urban chicken-keeping. For more information visit www.nataliehaynes.com