The poet Phaedrus (c. 15 B.C.- 50 A.D.) was a Roman slave who is credited with collecting various fables that were current in his time and rendering them into simple but elegant Latin verses called senarii (iambic verse). Most of his fables were drawn from Greek sources, chiefly those of Aesop. His purpose, he says in the prologue to his work, was twofold: “to draw a smile, and to provide prudent counsel for life”. In this goal he largely succeeded, for his collection of fables was consistently popular through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
One fable has held a particular resonance for me. It is called “On the Shipwreck of Simonides” (Phaedrus IV.22). I translate it as follows:
The learned man always contains riches within himself.
Simonides, who wrote beautiful verses, in order to
More easily ward off poverty,
Began to travel around the cities of Asia,
Singing the praises of notables for financial reward.
Having become wealthy by this type of compensation,
He wanted to return to his native land by sea
(He was, they say, born on the island of Chios).
So he boarded a ship, which broke apart in the middle
Of the sea, because of its old age, and a horrible storm.
Some people collected their bags, others their precious
Things to sustain their lives.
One curious person said to Simonides:
“Simonides, you really have nothing for yourself to take?”
He said, “I already have all of my things with me”.
Then a few swam away, but most perished due
To the weight of their possessions.
Then robbers came: they took what each man
Had recovered, leaving them naked.
By chance there was an ancient city near, called Clazomenae,
To which the shipwrecked men made their way.
Here there happened to be a learned man,
Who had read the verses of Simonides, and
Was a great admirer of him from afar, never having met him.
Recognizing Simonides, he received him warmly, adorning him
With clothing, financial support, and family servants.
The other shipwreck victims carried their blank slates,
Begging for food.
Simonides saw them, and spoke: “I said all my things were with me.
And what you brought away from the ship, is gone.”
Our most valuable possession, so says Phaedrus, is our own store of knowledge and experience. Even if we lose all else, as long as we retain our reservoir of knowledge, then we will be able to start over. All of us will eventually encounter severe hardship in life. No one floats through life on a magic carpet, untouched by tragedy. Misfortune knocks on every man’s door eventually. It is the measure of a man to see how well he handles such misfortunes; staring into the abyss, we find our true character.
Know, my brother, that you will eventually be buffeted by storms, disasters, or extreme hardships. In such situations, a man may lose his material possessions, his job, or his financial support. If one has not spent his life in productive activity by increasing his knowledge and experience, then he will be ill-prepared to weather the extreme shock of misfortune. The acquisition of knowledge and wisdom provides a maturity and seasoning that can prepare the soul for weathering the dislocation and shock of tragedy.
Focus on yourself, brother. I do not say that possessions are unimportant. It is only that you and your development are far more important. Cultivate yourself, your knowledge, your experience, your body, your health, your mind. The disciplined and strenuous pursuit of such goals will shape your character and strengthen it. For in the end, your knowledge and experience are really the only things you own. All else is transitory, is shadow, is illusion. All else can be snatched away from you in an instant. It can happen in the blink of an eye.
So do not waste your time in useless trifles. Those who place the focus of their efforts on foolish pursuits not only exhaust and debase themselves, but they also waste precious time. Education and knowledge can arm you against the vicissitudes of fate, and the cruelties of life. Turn away from the pursuits of vanity, for they will fail you in your hour of need. They will not satisfy you, and their senseless pursuit will devour your spirit.
No matter the environment, and no matter the circumstance, the learned man always contains a store of riches within himself. He shall want for nothing.
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