William Blakes’ Proverbs of Hell are a bit like Jenny Holzer’s Truisms – some you get some you don’t, some resonate some clang. Still thinking about some of the things which I think constitute the good life, four of his proverbs capture something:
When thou seest an Eagle thou sees a portion of Genius, lift up thy head!
What is now proved was once only imagin’d
One thought fills immensity
The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship
Why these four? First I’ve noticed that ‘noticing’ enriches life immensely. One simple trick I’ve stumbled upon is to look up. It generally lifts the spirits. Today I looked up, sat in slow traffic, and saw a beautiful Victorian clock and frontage high above an otherwise grim discount store. There is a little spray of golden flowers and thistles on top of Big Ben which glints in the sun when I cycle past in a morning. I’ve noticed most old buildings have something special adorning their top storey. Look up and there’s light, clouds, planes, Eagles – you get the picture.
Second I’m reading the Greek myths at the moment and it is staggering, as with ancient philosophy and science, how much we knew then of people and their foibles, but how little we knew of science and how the world works. We all carry today an amazing storehouse of knowledge and ideas just because of the era we live in. It would have amazed the ancients.
How lucky we are. But despite all that knowledge there is still so much to learn and discover that one thought can still fill immensity. I learned yesterday we’ve only just discovered that dogs like cats don’t ladle water when they slop it up, they form a tube with their tongues and draw it up though pressure – it takes three laps to create a column of water in the dog’s tongue which connects water to mouth. Amazing. Not sure our old dog ever mastered it given the soggy mess he always made on the kitchen floor.
Finally friends. Aristotle triages them into three types: transactional, fun and friends in contemplation. The third are the very best, but, as I once heard Desmond Tutu say, there is no human without other humans – friends and other people are our human web.
Look up, imagine, think and talk with friends – four principles which, I think, work just as well today as in Aristotle or Blake’s days.