How unhappy I was, and how conscious you made me of my misery, on that day when I was preparing to deliver a panegyric on the emperor!  In the course of it I would tell numerous lies and for my mendacity would win the good opinion of people who knew it to be untrue.  The anxiety of the occasion was making my heart palpitate and perspire with the destructive fever of the worry, when I passed through a Milan street and noticed a destitute beggar.

Already drunk, I think, he was joking and laughing.  I groaned and spoke with the friends accompanying me about the many sufferings that result from our follies.  In all our strivings such as those efforts that were then worrying me, the goads of ambition impelled me to drag the burden of my unhappiness with me, and in dragging it to make it even worse; yet we had no goal other than to reach a carefree cheerfulness.  That beggar was already there before us, and perhaps we would never achieve it.  For what he had gained with a few coins, obtained by begging, that is the cheerfulness of temporal felicity, I was going about to reach by painfully twisted and roundabout ways.

IMG_3136.JPG – Version 2
Chora Church, Istanbul, Turkey (2008).

True joy he had not.  But my quest to fulfill my ambitions was much falser.  There was no question that he was happy and I racked with anxiety.  He had no worries; I was frenetic, and if anyone had asked me if I would prefer to be merry or to be racked with fear, I would have answered ‘to be merry’.  Yet if he asked whether I would prefer to be a beggar like that man or the kind of person I then was, I would have chosen to be myself, a bundle of anxieties and fears.  What an absurd choice!  Surely it could not be the right one.  For I ought not to have put myself above him on the ground of being better educated, a matter from which I was deriving no pleasure.  My education enabled me to seek to please men, not to impart to them any instruction, but merely to purvey pleasure …That night the beggar was going to sleep off his intoxication.  I slept and rose with mine, and was to sleep and get up again with it for many days.  Of course there is a difference in the source of a person’s pleasure.  I know it.  And the joy of a believing hope is incomparably greater than vanity.  But at that time there was also this gulf between us: he was far happier, not merely because he was soaked in cheerfulness while I was eviscerated with anxieties, but also because he had acquired wine by wishing good luck to passers-by, whereas I sought an arrogant success by telling lies.1

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1 Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics: 2008), pgs. 97-8.

Favorite Books of 2015

The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take to the blog once more to share some of the best books I read during the year.  Following fortuitous retweets from Marc Andreessen and Conor Sen last year, these annual posts have become the most frequently visited pages on the blog, with the 2014 and 2013 iterations attracting nearly one in five views.  So thanks!  I hope you find one or more of the books listed below to be an enriching read. (more…)

The Ancien Régime and the Revolution

With all the hubbub about China as of late, I thought it might be worth reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s The Ancien Régime and the Revolution (Penguin: 2008). A number of China Hands say the Party has used this book to inform their approach to domestic stability and harmony.1 I have no idea whether these assertions are true,2 but if one were a leader seeking to understand the drivers of mass movements and revolutions, The Ancien Régime would be a logical item for the reading list. (more…)


‘Intelligence differs from one man to the next,
And yet each is happy with his own insight—
Each thinks himself much brighter than the rest,
Each values and praises himself to the height.
All think their own understanding the best—
Forever lauding their superior intellect,
Forever denigrating all the rest.

‘Men who make common cause share common thoughts—thinking
Much of and ever praising one another.
But when reverses mount, those selfsame men
Find intellectual differences intervene.
Thanks to the unfathomable nature of their thoughts,
There is a difference between man and man—
Each is bewildered in a different way.
For just as a skilled doctor, having diagnosed
A disease according to the book, in practice
Prescribes a medicine to effect a cure
Specific to each case,
So men use their intellect, harnessed to insight,
To put their intended actions into practice—
And other men revile them because of that.1

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1 Saṃjaya, as quoted in W.J. Johnson (trans.), The Sauptikaparvan of the Mahābhārata – The Massacre at Night (Oxford World’s Classics: 1998), pg. 14.