Recently, the Borders bookstore in Westbury announced its closure and in its final weeks sold off its stock of books at discounts that rose as the supply of books shrank.
In the course of several trips there prior to its final closing, I purchased a number of Penguin Classics and other translated works of ancient historians and philosophers. As I wrote in a post I did on reading the works of Saint Augustine, when you read the writings of educated people from the past, it is a fascinating opportunity to see the world through their eyes. Often times, what you get is a combination of profound ignorance mixed with tremendous wisdom and keen insight, and the occasional surprise when you see that a person living some two millennia ago knew of something that you did not expect them to.
For example, one of the books I purchased was a Penguin Classics collection of some of the writings of Cicero, a Roman orator and statesman, called On The Good Life. One of the selections is from Discussions At Tusculum, which is written in the format of a dialogue between two persons, though one of the speakers, presumably meant to represent Cicero himself, tends to monopolize the discussion. At one point, the Cicero character talks about the experience of physical pain and of people who willingly embrace pain even to the point of death.
In one of his examples, Cicero describes the Indian practice of sati, "And Indian women too, when the husband of one of them dies, compete with one another to decide which of their number he loved the best (because each man usually has more than one wife). Whereupon the woman who is proclaimed the winner, escorted by her relations, joyfully joins her husband on the funeral pyre, and the loser goes sadly away."
Since the Discussions At Tusculum were written sometime in 44BCE, Cicero's description of sati is evidence that the tradition of Hindu widows joining their deceased husbands on the funeral pyre dates back at least to the 1st century BCE, if not longer. Given the tremendous distance that separates Italy and India, it is also indicative of how trade networks connected disparate places and served not only as conduits for the exchange of goods, but for information about far away places and peoples where the trade goods originated.
Another ancient classic I am currently in the middle of readings is The Modern Classic Library's edition of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. More a collection of random jottings of whatever came into the second century Roman emperor's mind than a coherent work, the Meditations is a mixed bag of wisdom, melancholy, and occasional morbidity, such as when Marcus writes "The stench of decay. Rotting meat in a bag. Look at it clearly. If you can."
Nevertheless, there are quite a few nuggets of practical wisdom and observations that resonate just as well today as they did when Marcus wrote them. When it comes to the topic of confronting injustice and oppression in the world, it is not uncommon for someone to quote Edmund Burke's famous line "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." The emperor Marcus Aurelius was ahead of Burke by some 1,600 years when he wrote a simpler version of the same thing, "And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing."
Since I'm not quite finished reading the Meditations, I can't say yet what my favorite passage is, but among the ones I have underlined*, the following is probably a leading candidate:
"Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren't packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human - however imperfectly - and fully embrace the pursuit that you have embarked upon."
*Yes, I have not yet made the leap to buying a Kindle, Nook or other kind of e-reader. Eventually I will probably get around to it, but I still like to hold a physical book in my hand and underline or circle passages that interest me. Since many of the books I read are history books containing maps and pictures, I don't know how well they fare in e-book format. If anyone knows, please feel free to share in the comments section. Lastly, one thing you can't do with an e-book that you can do with a physical book is to get it signed by the author.