Something happened last Sunday that upholds the allure of thought and why those who like to read need not feel discouraged by the sarcasms of those who don’t, which occurs oftener than we may admit. As movingly reported on May 14 (by AP), “For years, Gac Filipaj mopped floors, cleaned toilets and took out the trash at Columbia University. A refugee from war-torn Yugoslavia, he eked out a living at the Ivy League school.”
But last Sunday, “The 52-year-old janitor donned a cap and gown to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in classics. As a Columbia employee, his classes were free. His favourite subject was the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca. “I love Seneca’s letters because they’re written in the spirit in which I was educated in my family: not to look for fame and fortune, but to have a simple, honest, honourable life,” he said. He earned the Columbia degree after years of studying late into the night in his Bronx apartment, where he would open his books after his shift as a “heavy cleaner”. But he’s not interested in furthering his studies to make more money. “The richness is in me, in my heart and in my head,” Filipaj said. “Not in my pockets.”
What our schooling may fail to tell us is that ‘the classics’ are classics because they speak to people over the long haul: for instance in this Latin line by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BCE): ‘Nunc est bibendum, nunc pede libero/Pulsanda tellus’, “Now for drinks, now for some dancing with a good beat.”
And how true is “Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus”, that “Mountains will heave in childbirth, and a silly little mouse will be born,” similar to our Hindi saying, “Khoda pahar, nikla chuha”.
Unsentimental Horace also said, “Nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet”, “For it is your business, when the wall next door catches fire” which could well describe our inter-linked lives as Indians.
To want to learn is human nature. May we never feel apologetic about it, for as Horace said with typical edge, “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret”, “You may drive out nature with a pitchfork, yet she’ll be constantly running back.” Or to borrow from Seneca for Filipaj’s sake, “A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature” and particularly, “Even after a bad harvest, there must be sowing.”
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture.