When I was a child, I had great esteem and affection for an aged sire. Years had brought him wisdom, and he was kind as well as wise. So I loved him, and rejoiced much when I saw him coming towards me.
Once, as he talked with me, he said, “have you learned the lessons from nature?” I replied, that his meaning I understood not. Then said he, “Await here on the morrow, and I will hither come; if that Almighty Being should spare our lives,” said he, pointing his hand upward, “thou mayest doat upon our meeting.”
On the morrow I went forth, and looked for his coming. At last, I heard a voice speaking unto me, saying, “child, come hither.” I turned about and saw the aged man coming towards me, so I ran with joy to meet him.
Said he, “seat thyself down beside me, and listen attentively to all that I shall say. You say that you know naught of nature. What can be more delightful to the human eye than the broad and open field. We can look attentively upon all that passes around. We can look forth, and behold the brooks flowing on among sweet flowers; observe the grass that grows, the birds that fly high in the air; they soar aloft, and at last they alight upon the ground.
“The ducklings swim beside their mother in the clear stream—the hen gathers her chickens under her wings to shelter them from harm; we cast our eyes on yonder pole, and behold the spider throwing out her silvery threads from spray to spray, and the bee hastening to her hive; the ant carrying in grain for the approaching winter; to them that admire the works of nature, the fields lift up their hands and cry unto them, “industry is happiness, and idleness is an offence both to nature and to her God.”
When he questioned me of knowledge, I confessed that I knew naught of knowledge, save that which I learned of the violets that grew, and the lilly which appears from the vale, and the vines which clime my father’s bowers. I was ashamed, and felt that I had need to be taught of nature; and I yet wished to turn from the wild scenery around, and look into the moral and intellectual views of mankind.
“After I have told thee this much, thou must learn the rest for thyself,” said he. “Go at the beautiful dawning of the sun, and when I visit thee again, tell me what thou hast seen.”
At length he came; I commenced to tell him what I had seen. “I went forth, and looked attentively upon all that moved around. But no voice spake to me, and no eye regarded me. At dusk, when the evening dews were lingering upon the grass, I saw children who had played with me upon the summer turf. They, too, were untaught, unfed, and they spoke loudly, with unpleasant tongues.
“I asked them why they walked not in the pleasant path of knowledge. And they mocked at me. I said, these souls have the gift of reason, and are born to die; but they spoke more loudly, and seemed to say, ‘what seek you among us?’”
“I saw the babe that had received its last caress from its mother, the youth that seemed worn down by care, the strong man that was reared like the Oak among trees, the hoary man, that tottered like the babe, bidding a last farewell to the world. The mourners stood by, and methought that they soon would be no more.
“I saw a widow standing near an open grave; her children stood beside her, and were mourning. The widow looked as if naught, save death, would give her relief; yet, I dreampt not of her sorrow. I spake unto her, but she was silent. At last I said, what have made mothers forget their children, and not pity them when they hunger? What makes friends forget their early love, the youth to lay low in the dust, the beautiful infant to be committed to the grave? I heard a still small voice saying unto me, ‘Disregard to my laws, and for this reason, there is lamentation.’ I sighed, and said no more.
“On my way I saw a youth, sitting by the road side, I asked him why he wept? He replied, ‘Because all that was dear to me have fallen in battle.’ Said I, tell me of battle! He answered, ‘thou can’st not bear the thought.’ Then I entreated him to tell me what he had seen.
“I came,” he said, “at the close of day, when the cannons ceased their thunder, and the victor and vanquished had withdrawn. The rising moon looked down upon the pale faces of the dead. Scattered o’er the plain were many who still struggled with the pangs of death.
“They stretched out the shattered limb, yet there was no healing hand. They strove to raise their heads, but sank deeper in the blood which flowed from their own bosoms. They begged, in God’s name, that we would put them out of their misery, and their piercing shrieks entered into my soul.
“Here and there horses, mad with pain, rolled and plunged, mangling with their hoofs, the dying, or defacing the dead. Then I remembered the mourners who were left at home.” Ere he had finished, I said, ‘tell me no more of battle or of war, for I am sick to heart.’ He then arose, and I went onward.
I beheld a school house of white. The children stood like lambs before their teachers; they bowed their ears to instruction, they walked in the paths of knowledge, they were simple and single hearted, and followers of the truth. Sometimes they wept, and again they rejoiced, when none knew why. When I looked upon them, I remembered that our Saviour “took little children in his arms and blessed them.”
Then answered this aged sire, “of nature thou ast indeed seen much. Treasure it in they memory, henceforth, never to be eradicated. We are all God’s family, and he provides for all. Although there are many nations, and many stations in life, yet he watches over us, he has given us immortal souls. Some have white complexions, some are red, like our wandering natives, others have sable or olive complexions.” “But God hath made of one blood all who dwell upon the face of the earth.”
“They inhabit different climes; some a burning, some a frozen, and others a more temperate climate, but the same sun gives them warmth, the same cloud sends down rain to refresh them. Some press the liquor from the grape, some drink the juice from the palm tree, and many refresh themselves at the fountains of pure water.
“Some slumber on land, in their peaceful and quiet homes; and some upon the tossing treacherous sea. Yet God provides for all. Let us think of our fellow creatures, as under the care of that Merciful Parent, from whom all blessings proceed, and let our good deeds to those who are less fortunate than ourselves, have root in love.”
Plato, Ann. “Lessons from nature.” 1841. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Feb 2007. 02 Oct 2014 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/plato/lessons_from_nature/>.
Quotidiana site founder Patrick Madden has just published a book of his own personal essays, including pieces formerly published in the Best American Spiritual Writing and Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies. If you enjoy the classical essays on this site, you'll enjoy these contemporary ruminations as well. Soon there'll be a web page here with further information, but for now, you can find out more (and perhaps purchase a copy) at Amazon.com.
"Patrick Madden is an essayist of verve, passion, wit, and dependable moral compass. Quotidiana drew me in powerfully, from page to page and from pleasure to pleasure." —Ian Frazier
Friend of Quotidiana Kim Dana Kupperman's Welcome Table Press is hosting a one-day symposium at Fordham University on Saturday, October 15th, 2011. In Praise of the Essay: Practice & Form will feature talks and discussions by Phillip Lopate, Robin Hemley, Barbara Hurd, and more.
Changes are happening beneath the hood of Quotidiana. Sign up for our Facebook group to stay up to date on site and essay news.
Good-nature, or what is often considered as such, is the most selfish of all the virtues: it is nine times out of ten mere indolence of disposition.
It is easy to replace man, and it will take no great time, where Nature has lapsed, to replace Nature. It is always to do, by the happily easy way of doing nothing.
There are two books from whence I collect my divinity. Besides that written one of God, another of his servant, nature.
It is a part of the benignity of Nature that pain does not survive like pleasure, at any time, much less where the cause of it is an innocent one.
Whatever falls out contrary to custom we say is contrary to nature, but nothing, whatever it be, is contrary to her. Let, therefore, this universal and natural reason expel the error and astonishment that novelty brings along with it.