Every once in a while you run across someone whose towering achievements put your life into some unwelcome perspective. (Real doses of humility are always unwelcome. I reckon they have to be to be effective.) Here’s one such famous moment from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar:
[W]e are told again that, in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”
At my age all both Alexander and Caesar had accomplished some amazing things, and one of them had already died after having conquered much of the known world. Touché. And this story is doubly poignant for all of us, of course, because the man weeping over his failures is a man we remember now for his incredible military and political genius and long-lasting achievements. In the latter regard he outstripped even the man whose memory had brought him to tears.
I get something of that perspective when I read about people like Tolkien, one of my heroes—a polyglot creative genius who led a life of the kind of quiet, studious virtue really mature people only hope to attain.
But now consider one of Tolkien’s mentors. Here’s a passage from The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip & Carol Zaleski:
Joseph Wright would play a significant role in the growth of Ronald’s [JRR Tolkien’s] intellect, not only through his celebrated Gothic grammar but as Ronald’s instructor, friend, and mentor at Oxford. . . . Wright’s is one of the great Cinderella stories in the annals of English philology. Born in Yorkshire, the son of a charwoman and a miner who drank himself to death, he went on to work in Blake’s dark Satanic mills at the age of seven, changing bobbins on spinning frames and, in his spare time, selling horse manure. A lifetime of illiteracy and drudgery beckoned, but . . . Wright resisted fate, in his case successfully. When he was fifteen, a fellow mill worker taught him to read and write, using the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress for texts. Wright followed up by teaching himself Latin, French, and German through grammars purchased from his paltry income. Then he added Welsh, Greek, Lithuanian, Anglo-Saxon, Old Saxon, Old Bulgarian, and Old High German to his repertoire, acquiring a doctorate in the process at Heidelberg University. At thirty-three, he published his Middle High German Primer and later edited the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary. He became . . . England’s leading philologist, and was named professor of comparative philology at Oxford. In his breathtaking ability to master new languages, “Old Joe,”as Tolkien referred to him, served as an inspiring professional model; in his moral goodness, fortitude, and kindness, combined with his rough Yorkshire ways, he was a prototype for Tolkien’s Hobbits.
Consider this in light of the odds against Wright’s achieving anything and your admiration and shame can only deepen. Men like Wright leave the rest of us with no excuses.
And since I already touched on it, I think the cases of Wright and Tolkien should offer even more powerful and convicting examples than Caesar and Alexander because Wright and Tolkien were good men. After all, one of Plutarch’s reasons for including the anecdote quoted above was to demonstrate Caesar’s destructive ambition. The desirability of goodness over notoriety is something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last few years, and which I’ve written about here before.
Food for thought. How well are we using our lives?