The Principle Of A Single Theme
In her introduction to Pliny’s Letters, published in 1969, Betty Radice notes that Gaius Plinius Luci filius Caecilius Secundus (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, son of Lucius of the tribe Oufentina, better known to us as Pliny the Younger) followed the principle of a single theme for his letters rather than the scholastic Rule of Three (this is based on the Latin idea of omne trium perfectum or everything that comes in threes is perfect). The Rule of Three is something we see a great deal of in literature – three piglets against the wolf; three ghostly visits in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Rumpelstiltskin spinning three times for the princess in her tower – as well as in law, philosophy and public speaking. It works well if you are trying to make a point, but can have many drawbacks when it comes to writing letters: concentrating on three different subjects or themes in a letter and allowing no deviation from the straight line of thought. The single theme idea – which I try to follow – works much better if you can concentrate on the initial idea, but still allow yourself to wander here and there with your written thoughts and, finally, come back to the original point without losing anything along the way. This is something I was taught, many years ago, when learning how to write letters or, to be more accurate, having to write letters home in class and have them graded by the English teacher. The single theme idea hones our concentration and challenges creativity, especially when writing something of a specific length such as an article or talk or even, as here, a simple letter.
At the same time, the single theme allows a good deal of leeway, so that a writer can spin his tale in many different directions and include many asides to keep the whole working well, to hold the interest of his readers and listeners. I recently wrote letters – of an equal length to that which I have written to you – on the subject of my cat and on sunsets, managing to get back to the theme I had begun with, but still encompass many different side-themes along the way. It is an exercise in thought and practice which forces the writer to concentrate and bring all his skills to the fore which, I hope, I will one day be able to do. I have seen, far too often, writers becoming lost in their attempts to cover as much as possible in one paper, and thereby failing to bring across the point which needed to be stressed most. Far better, I believe, to save and write again, or to split an idea with many possibilities into several papers or talks and always have something up your sleeve for the future. It worked well in college, and has also done me proud – without trumpeting my own horn – over many years as I have stood before small groups of people and simply talked. My college days, however, were not as you would imagine them to be and not as many people in the United States experience them, but taken between many other events, since I was working full time and doing the degree work simply for personal pleasure more than anything else. I’m not one to put certificates up on the wall, I much prefer works of art of a different nature, and I also don’t bother putting any of the letters of theoretical achievement in front of or behind my name. I’ve been in several offices around the world where a wall behind the person I was meeting was adorned with nothing but certificates of achievement yet, despite this display of learning, it was almost impossible to find a shred of intelligence, of depth, in the person at all.
Part of my personal letter writing education, which had to be such because the private school I attended left much to the students and demanded very little of their teachers and lecturers, has been gained by reading the published letters of those who have gone before us and who, despite the passage sometimes of several centuries, still manage to create an image in the mind’s eye, still manage to bring their subject, their theme across so clearly that you could almost be sitting in the Senate, in a royal court, in their writing room with them. Pliny the Younger is one of these exceptional writers, Cicero and Plato – although he did not have letters published – and Aristotle and many more, right through to Horace Walpole and Emily Dickinson, William Cowper and even Queen Elizabeth the First in more modern times. They, of course, had a completely different idea about letter writing, and about how to communicate: it is often the case that they demanded an exceptional high level of classical learning from the recipient of their letters, something which we do not have today. As a poet, William Cowper expected his readers to be conversant with other poetical works, while Pliny the Younger, Cicero and those of their times expected everyone, through their classical education, to recognise quotations without the need for a name or reference; something we cannot demand or expect today. And you will have noticed, in my last letter, that I did mention who had written some of the lines I quoted – such as Plato – but then went on without further mention, as all the remaining quotations were from Khalil Gibran’s work The Prophet, the source of one of your quotes.
I am a child of the Sixties, a time when much of the earlier standard education was being dismantled and such subjects as Latin and Greek, the Humanities or lesser liberal arts were being removed from the curriculum and replaced with subjects deemed more suitable for a modern world, when these subjects were being foisted exclusively upon the colleges and universities across the country, and general standards of entry were being lowered to accommodate the lesser skills of applicants. So, as with your education, much of mine is self-taught and achieved more through the pleasure of learning, more through the joy of finding kindred spirits from the past and comparisons for the modern world in their words and deeds, than from some lecturer spouting forth facts and figures from a distant podium in a stuffy, overcrowded multi-purpose hall. The educated of our times do not have books which they can reach their hands out to when a quotation is needed, they have the Internet, and the hope that someone else will be able to give them a speedy answer rather than forcing them to do some honest research. Libraries seldom stock anything but the latest bestsellers; researching Shakespeare’s Sonnets a few years ago, I was forced to order one book from the university library in Munich and have it sent across the country for the sake of a single reference. Thus my preference for purchasing and having my own library close to hand.
No one is too old to learn. If the idea of learning ends with a graduation ceremony – no matter at which level it might be – then there is no hope for the future of society, and certainly no hope for the future of man. As George Santayana says:
A child educated only at school is an uneducated child
and Frederick Robertson took it a stage further with:
Instruction ends in the schoolroom, but education ends only with life. A child is given to the universe to be educated.
A rare meeting of minds: the philosopher in Santayana, and the preacher in Robertson. Of course, if we want to take it a stage further still, we can take a glance at Aristotle and his thoughts on education which, with
the educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead
sums up my thoughts too: if you’re not prepared to learn, or consider yourself too old, then you might just as well wrap yourself up in a shroud and prepare for burial. Of course, there are those who take it a little too far and gain no benefit from their possible education whatsoever: I’m thinking of those who put off travelling until they reach retirement age and then, feeling the need to hurry and catch all they have missed as much as the frailty of age, end up with a ten cities in seven days package, and no strength to get out of the hotel or time to escape the tourist guide. And then there are those who cannot find the time to read a book, but spend hours in front of a television watching the scripted and unbelievable Real Lives of the Real Beverley Hills Wives, or some other programme of a similar, less than intelligent, nature.
I wonder whether any of these programmes – the Real Lives series or any of the others – are the equivalent of the cave wall, illuminated from behind the heads of the viewers and showing only the shadows of reality. It is hard to find anything which matches so perfectly: people believe what they are seeing is real life, that this is how these wives – or whatever they may be – live and, for some strange reason, they envy them. In the England of my youth we had the forerunners of the classic soap opera – none of which would have stooped to accept such a name – with tales from Coronation Street and the Crossroads Motel and, much later, Eastenders, with lifelike stories and a continuous succession of cliff-hangers. The difference here is that everyone knew they were scripted, that the whole thing was being played out by actors and actresses who had a different life away from the small screen. And still there were people who had to see the series, each time it was aired, and set their lives around the viewing times. Perhaps some will claim this as being the same as my need to read all of Plato’s works, or have the complete Cicero on my shelves to peruse at will, or even my present desire to read the complete letters of Pliny the Younger and put myself back through time to his days. That threes things were reality, compared to what people watch on the television, escapes the comprehension of many.
And so we work our way, through twisting and turning means, through a wide variety of thoughts, back towards the wonderfully named Gaius Plinius Luci filius Caecilius Secundus with your question about names. I managed to drop an absolutely wonderful one earlier, but in a very shortened form, just to keep the thread going: George Santayana’s full name being Jorge Agustin Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás which, I am sure, no one in Boston – where he lived for forty years – or Europe – outside of Spain, where he lived for the last forty years of his life – would even think of attempting. My own name, relatively simple in comparison, is Gaelic and based on the Irish version of the language, rather than the Scots so, I’m afraid, with Greek you were a little off but closer than some who, not having met me, have assumed I come either from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. I’m not sure how they figure either one of these countries to match the name – just considering the written language of the Arab world should give them some form of a hint, I would have thought – but everyone has their own ideas, and it appears that remarkably few have the experience.
I’m not sure there is a lot to be said about me, other than what appears in my letters. I’ve never been much good at writing an autobiography, or making lists of achievements, I don’t even keep a list of the various papers I’ve published or the talks I’ve given. I daresay, with some investigative skills, I could find many things hidden within the pages of my diary, but certainly not all. I am, as we all are, the sum of my past life – or lives – but not the perfect complete model others might wish to be; merely a work in progress, far from complete. To misquote Cicero, by taking his words out of context:
All those things lie hidden and enveloped in such thick shadows that no human genius is keen enough to be able to penetrate.
I am shaped as much by a refusal of permission, in my schooldays, to read T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom as by my experiences in Paris at the age of fourteen, by my delight on discovering Cicero and Pliny – amongst many others – as by my experiences in the Gulf War in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, by my memories of childhood in London as by my activities in this small town in Germany. There is such a wide gulf between these different points that it is almost impossible to form a picture and, I do not doubt, it is much the same for many who have reached or are approaching my age. What is left is some form of experience, a wealth of knowledge perhaps, and a love of discussion. And, to take up one of the points in your letter which I intend addressing in my next, we are all different according to who we are with and where we are, so a personal description, an autobiography, would not necessarily fit with what is learned over the course of time and, to my way of thinking, the learning process is far more enjoyable than the re-learning from a preconception.