HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 1, 2008
From the Editor

John Turner


I spent much of yesterday in Balboa Park, the largest urban cultural park in the United States. Operated by the city of San Diego, the park is a magnificent combination of gardens, theatres, museums, eating places and art galleries. Walking through its offerings, I couldn't help but wonder what the acolytes of market capitalism would have to say of it. The park's rolling acres, of course, might have been prime business space. And now the moneymaking community has been deprived of it by civic-minded citizens of the past. I don't get much sense the current residents are ready to give it up to the glories of development.

The weather in San Diego this time of year is as close to perfect as one could wish. But its lush greenery is supplied by water pumped in from other parts of California. The city would be pretty close to a desert were it not for a great network of aqueducts. The annual rainfall is usually less than ten inches, and lately has been as little as three or four. Water doesn't get much attention from the major media, but it is one of the great problems confronting us. Where it's to come from and how it's to be used will be among the most contentious questions of the future. I don't know who's working to answer them, but I hope someone is.

When you come to a place like this from Vermont, you end up asking yourself, why do I stay there? Right now, at home, my steps are encrusted with ice, such that every going out is a grimy adventure. Reason tells me that enduring Vermont's frigidity makes no sense. And, yet, truth is that right now I would rather live there than anywhere else that's a possibility for me. I guess we have to admit that reason cannot be the only rule of life.

On the planes that took me from Washington to Los Angeles I finished reading --on my Kindle -- La Rochefoucauld's Maxims. They were strangely reassuring company on a trip I didn't really want to make. One that pleased me especially was Number 237: "No one should be praised for his goodness if he has not strength enough to be wicked. All other goodness is but too often an idleness or powerlessness of will." After reading it, I jotted in my notebook: "True. There is too much worry about being good. Most of the time we don't know what we mean by it. I would rather it be said that I was vital than have it said that I was good."

My cat Calo has no notion of being good and that's one of the things I admire about her.

Maxim 447 says: "Propriety is the least of all laws but the most obeyed." I wish I had learned that earlier in my life. Being a slave to propriety takes away more opportunities than one can count. And its reward is virtually nonexistent. Have you ever read on a tombstone: "He was always respectful of propriety"?

The translation I read was by J.W. Willis Bund and J. Main Friswell, published in London in 1871. They used, mainly, the edition of 1678, which was the last one La Rochefoucauld supervised.

Reading these observations from the middle of the 17th Century is a reminder of how little human attitudes have changed over the past three hundred years. That, in itself, is a discouragement, unless you are a true conservative, which many profess to be but almost none are.


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