Friday, 3 October 2014


For nightly lessons I've been reading from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, beginning with the Oscar-acceptance-style opening where the Roman emperor thanks all his influences.

From Sextus, I read, I learned how to tolerate ignorant people. 

“Like I don’t,” said The Girl.

Well, I said, it takes practice.

“What if I don’t think I should?” she asked. “There are a lot of really awful people in the world. Do I always have to tolerate what people say?”

Ah, I said – good point. You don’t need to tolerate someone breaking the law, or bullying others, or lying – you should stand up to them. But you do need to tolerate decent people having a different point of view than you …

“Like what?” she asked.

Well, I said… let’s say some of our neighbours think the county council should preserve the local forest for wildlife, and people around us think they should cut down the trees for firewood for poor people …

“They should just pollard them,” The Girl said. “They could have both.”

Yes, well ... let’s say they don’t know about pollarding, I said. The point is, people will come up with different ideas, and they have to be able to argue their points logically, and work things out. You might think they're completely wrong, but they think the same about you. You need to disagree but not disrespect.

“What if we can’t work things out?”

Well, you remember what Pericles said to the people of Athens? He said that people were willing to make sacrifices for their city because it was a democracy – they didn’t just believe in the government, they were the government. That only works, though, when everyone can make a logical argument for their side, listen to each other, and be willing to stand down when everyone votes against them.

The same thing works in science, I said; you gather facts and put your case together, but you have to have peers to duplicate your experiments, and they can still send you back to the drawing board.

“Scientists get together and argue?” she asked. Sure, I said – that’s part of science. Remember Francis Bacon and his WET-P system? I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “You Wonder about something, creating an Experiment to find the answer, Test it carefully, and then run it by your Peers.”

Good, I said – and that’s how you find out things.

“And then he died from doing it,” The Girl said, in the voice I’m going to hear more of when she’s a teenager.

Yes, but he died for a good cause, I said. You remember that time this afternoon when you didn’t die from botulism? That was him.

“Okaaaay,” she said grudgingly.

Good -- back to Marcus Aurelius now, I said. From my brother Severus, who introduced me to Diogenes … 

“Severus?” she asked, with the voice of a child who loves Harry Potter. Yes, I said, that’s where Snape got his name, I’m sure. Severus was the name of Marcus’ brother – Marcus Aurelius was one of the great Stoics, and apparently introduced Marcus to the works of Diogenes, one of the original Stoics of Ancient Greece.

“I know – he lived in a barrel, and weed on people he didn’t like,” The Girl said.

See, this is why I have mixed feelings about Horrible Histories, I said – I’m glad it teaches you who Diogenes was, but he was such a great philosophical mind that people remember him 33 centuries later, and I wish you remembered something else about him than that he urinated on people.

“I’m just picturing Snape as his brother now, trying to have a conversation with him,” The Girl said, and in as perfect an Alan Rickman impersonation as a ten-year-old girl can muster, speaking slowly with clenched teeth – “I wish you would stop weeing on me at family gatherings.”

We’re not going to get any further with this lesson tonight, are we? I asked, and set Marcus Aurelius aside. Shall I read Lord of the Rings?

Can we read Diary of a Wimpy Kid? She asked eagerly.

At least she’s eager to read something, I thought.

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