Last week, I released a new book entitled Pantheon: Adventures In History, Biography, And The Mind. Here I hope to explain what the book is about, and what things readers can expect to gain from it.
Broadly speaking, this collection of essays concerns moral philosophy. Our goal is to answer these questions: (1) What traits of character promote right conduct, action, and thinking? (2) What systems of thought enable us to achieve our full potential? We use examples from history and biography to illuminate our answers.
Entertainment and instruction go hand-in-hand. In Pantheon, the reader is thrown into the thick of the action right from the beginning. We are not narrowly confined to time and place: I leap across the centuries, and across man’s varied intellectual traditions, to find the best answers to the important questions affecting us.
The book begins with this quote by the Italian humanist Bartolomeo Fonzio from 1511, which sets the tone for the whole:
So advance, fight unflinchingly with steel, and bring to bear standard against standard, weapon against weapon, and chest against chest. And I, the spectator of your fortitude…will be there, and will honor each of you according to his merits.
We begin with a series of “extracts,” then follow with a historical fiction prologue. The tale is one of perseverance and triumph. We then launch into the essays proper. A final “afterword” aims to tie together the varied strands of meaning explored in the text. The book is about 275 pages in its printed version.
The extended prologue plunges us into the incredible story of the hunt for the lost tomb of Tutankhamen:
…The morning light began to beat heavier on the sepia-toned walls of the valley. It was strange, he thought, how a location can impart such a spirit of place. Despite all the bustle of activity that went on here, one had the feeling of an oppressive mortality that permeated every stone of the valley. It was as if the place had served host for so many tombs, for so many thousands of years, that it was geologically incapable of performing any other purpose. No matter how many living souls paraded through here, the place still felt like a mausoleum. I’ve been here too long, he whispered to himself. All of these kings in this quiet, dusty valley once believed themselves to be immune from the grip of mortality and the advances of time’s march. And yet look at them now…
I have always believed that the best way to make a point, and to entertain at the same time, is through the use of historical or biographical example. By keeping company with great men, we cannot help but become greater.
In nearly every case, I have made a point of turning to the original sources, in their original languages, to extract the best and most timely lessons. The result is something that can generate new lessons and new discussion, even after repeated readings.
So in one essay we find ourselves in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings on the eve of the greatest archaeological discovery in history; in another, we stumble across the frozen polar wastes with Douglas Mawson’s doomed expedition; in another, we explore the foundation of conflict and how to manage it; in another, we joust with the ghost of Christopher Hitchens in an extended dialogue; and in yet another we share the quiet study of physicist Max Planck as he rewrites the rules of modern physics.
Man is our subject, and his perfectibility is our goal.
The essays in Pantheon come from different sources. Some of them are enlarged, reworked, and expanded pieces that originally appeared in Return of Kings. Others appear here for the first time. The essays may be grouped into the following categories:
1. Historical anecdote. We discuss a specific historical incident to find out what life’s lesson may be found. (e.g., “Churchill’s Command Decision”).
2. Biographical summary. We highlight the life or career of a famous man to discern what traits of character made him great, or what personal foibles caused his undoing. (e.g., “The Limits Of Power,” “The Consolation Of The Natural World”).
3. Philosophical essay. Some important topic in the world of thought is explored, and its applicability to modern life is discussed (e.g., “The Fortress Of The Mind,” “On Detractors,” “On Conflict,” “On Love And Fate”). In one essay (“The Ghost of Christopher Hitchens”), this comes in the form of a philosophical dialogue.
For example, in one essay, “On Detractors,” we note:
Reading some masterpiece of invective against someone else may bring amusement, but there is something not quite great about it. No one ever called the insults in great speeches great. They may be amusing, but they are not the stuff of greatness. Insults always carry some sort of embedded taint. Of course, this is not to say that one should abandon the obligation of self-defense. If one’s vital position in work or life is threatened, then he must respond to those threats. The art of sound judgment lies in this, then: distinguishing the real threat from the buzzing of annoying flies. Not responding to the true obloquy is a moral failing just as egregious as responding to the inconsequential one.
In another one, we make this observation:
I like most the analogy of the public market or the “fair.” Life, says Epictetus, can be likened to a large trade fair. Some go to the fair to sell their goods and wares, such as cattle, oil, cloth, or food. Others go as spectators. This game of life is similar. Some people, who are like cattle, are interested in nothing beyond their food and bedding. Others are content to observe passively, and are interested only in being amused by the spectacle of the “fair” of life. A small minority seek to ask what is behind the workings of the fair. Who has set it up? Who has constructed it, and what sustains it? These few are focused only on studying the intricate workings of the fair of life before they depart it forever. This small minority, says Epictetus, can expect to be laughed at by the fair’s spectators and the cattle. Spectators want only amusement, and cattle want only fodder. The true seekers want something more, and need something more. It cannot be any other way. We must persist in our questions, and press forward in our studies of this Great Fair of life, and follow the pathways that our answers illuminate.
Finally, there is one section of the book that does not fall into any of these categories, but forms a mini-book within itself. This section is a detailed summary and exegesis of Plotinus’s entire Enneads (all fifty-four treatises). This is the seminal text of Neoplatonist philosophy, and it is important for me to present it to an audience that may not be familiar with it. I provide a logical, step-by-step method of mastering this difficult and yet important intellectual tradition.
I strongly believe that the inward journey—the mystical quest for the union with the Divine—deserves some discussion. All men have this hidden potential for great things. And by tapping into our latent powers, we can literally move mountains.
Neoplatonism is a mystical philosophy that has had tremendous influence in the Western philosophical and religious tradition. In many ways, it can be seen as a “religion” without the cumbersome theological baggage that has soured many idealistic young men on speculative thought.
I hope to remedy this, or at least expose readers to a side of the world of thought that they may never have considered before. This subject has never been presented before in this way, and I expect readers will find the experience challenging and rewarding.
We all wish to become better men. We all wish to fortify ourselves against the difficulties of life. I hope I have helped in this effort. So let us together take these steps forward, linked arm in arm across the centuries with these great figures, imbued with that adventurous and inquisitive spirit that Nature in its wisdom has granted us.
I have forged the sword. It is now for you to grasp the pommel.
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