On Calamity

I encountered a student in tears in the hallway yesterday afternoon. He’s no one I’d paid much attention to until then except for, in the back of my mind, the suspicion that he was quite rich and some chagrin that he seemed to always arrive late to class. But he was crying his head off and over the next day I heard about all of the trouble in his life. So I was reminded again of something I too-often forget, phrased here from two quite distant points in time:

Solon, seeing a very friend of his at Athens mourning piteously, brought him into a high tower, and showed him underneath all the houses in that great city, saying to him, “Think with yourself how many sundry mournings in times past have been in all these houses, how many at this present are, and in time to come shall be, and leave off to bewail the miseries of mortal folk, as if they were your own … Suppose, if it please you, that you are with me in the top of that high hill Olympus. Behold from thence all towns,┬áprovinces, and kingdoms of the world, and think you see even so many enclosures full of human calamities. These are but only theaters and places for the purpose prepared, wherein Fortuen plays her bloody tragedies.”

— Justus Lipsius (trans. John Stradling), from Two Bookes of Constancie (1594)


If you stood on the approach to the Nihonbashi bridge in Tokyo, which hundreds of people cross every minute, and were able to elicit from each individual that went past what turmoil and confusion lay buried in his heart, you would find yourself bemused by the knowledge of that this world can do to a man, and life would be come unbearable. There would have been no applicants for the job of standing at Nihonbashi and waving a flag to direct the trams were it not for the fact that the people a man in such a position meets come as strangers, and as strangers they go on their way.

— Natsume Soseki (trans. Alan Turney), from Kusamakura (1906)

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