“Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him statue with the gods, for in his weakness and his faith and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
“‘Thou mayest rule over sin,’ Lee. That’s it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles – only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. ‘Thou mayest, thou mayest!‘ What glory! It is true that we are weak and sick and quarrelsome, but if that is all we ever were, we would, millenniums ago, have disappeared from the face of the earth. A few remnants of fossilized jawbone, some broken teeth in strata of limestone, would be the only mark man would have left of his existence in the world. But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before. Do you see now why I told Adam tonight? I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot.”
“Do you take pride in your hurt?” Samuel asked. “Does it make you seem large and tragic? … Well, think about it. Maybe you’re playing a part on a great stage with only yourself as audience.”
A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”
I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught – in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too, – in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and weft of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard, clear questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well or ill?
Herodotus, in the Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most-favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not have asked it if he had not been worried about the answer. “Who,” he asked, “is the luckiest person in the world?” He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reassurance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, “Do you not consider me luck?”
Solon did not hesitate in his answer. “How can I tell?” he said. “You aren’t dead yet.”
“Laughter comes later, like wisdom teeth, and laughter at yourself comes last of all in a mad race with death, and sometimes it isn’t in time.”
“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the universe loves nothing so much as to change things which are and to make new things like them. For everything that exists is in a manner of that which will be.
“Thou wilt die soon and thou are not yet simple nor free from perturbations, nor without suspicion of being hurt by external things, nor kindly disposed towards all; nor dost thou yet place wisdom only in acting justly.” [Marcus Aurelius]
Lee looked up from the page, and he answered the book as he would answer one of his ancient relatives. “That is true,” he said. “It’s very hard. But don’t forget that you also say, ‘Always run the short way and the short way is the natural’ – don’t forget that.”