Chapter 4: Curiosity & Tranquillity
The warship shoved its stolid beak around the headland, a probing nasal portent, before forcing the rest of its ungainly bulk into the bay in a series of unnatural spasms. As it lunged into view he could see the huge mainsail brailed up on the yard, straddling the mast with arms outstretched like a crucified slave, useless in the light afternoon airs; he could see the oars splashing in mechanical unison, striking the placid waters with belligerent contempt. He fancied he heard a distant cry, saw the tiller come round, the massive prow heave sluggishly, churning foam as it turned; how reluctantly the mechanical beast moved under the impetus of groaning muscles, aching sinews, whiplashed backs. A jarring discord in the midst of Nature’s harmony.
It was not a novel sight, of course, for the great naval base at Misenum regularly dispatched and received such ships. But he could never seem to ignore them, these titans of war, enforcing the pax romana through their brutally prosaic presence: obey or die. He supposed he was meant to feel a surge of patriotic pride. But he just felt a bit sad. Sometimes he saw sleek vessels from the Aegean, their triangular lateen sails billowing out sideways, their hulls tilting thrillingly at rakish angles to the wind; joyous, vivacious things. And trusty merchantmen lumbering low in the water, laden with spices and silks from Alexandria or wine from Massilia perhaps; pleasant anticipations of the next bountiful market day. And local fishermen in their rickety little skiffs skimming the surface like the gulls that followed greedily in the wake of their trailing nets; the day’s catch visible as it writhed silverish out of the water, soon to be seen again steaming or broiled on his own dinner table.
Sailors a curious species. Men unto themseleves, with their own laws, own mores, own language in many respects. Sailors who – so popular belief has it – never learned to swim, hated the water, when in harbour swore by all the gods never to board a ship again – yet were back at sea the very next day. Odi et amo, as that other poet said, a hatred and an irresistible attraction. But curious in the other sense too – intrepid explorers, their restless gaze ever on the horizon and beyond. Odysseus had been a sailor, of course, and Jason too, as had Aeneas after them; though he was not quite sure that he entirely approved of such brash adventurers. He had read of a certain scientific Greek, Pytheas if he recalled the name, who had once sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules as far as ultimate Thule, the northernmost of all lands, into the frigid zone where – incredibly – (so this Pytheas related) the midsummer sun remained in the sky all night long. A curious voyage indeed. How can it be that the sun sinks below the horizon in one place but stays above it in another? Several explanations occurred: that Thule must be at a very high altitude, so just as the summit of a mountain remains in sunlight when the valley below is in shadow, that island retains the day when the rest of the world is in night. Or that the surface of the earth is more curved than flat, like a barrel or the underside of a bowl perhaps, so the sun appears to sink for the eastern parts of the world while it remains in the western sky. Or that the sun when it moves far to the west instead of continuing under the earth during the night actually swings round to the north for a time, perhaps impelled by strong northerly winds. He did not know precisely the right answer, but he did know that there must be an answer consistent with the evidence; all that he lacked was enough evidence. Until then he would suspend judgement.
Curious indeed that most people found such suspension of judgement almost impossible. Everyone was so quick to form opinions about everything – about the utterly inscrutable will of the gods even – opinions quick to solidify into certainty: this is what we think, believe, know, so this is what you must do; this is what the gods decree, we know it for sure, so obey, obey, obey. Actual knowledge so hard to obtain, always incomplete. Better therefore to suspend judgement, or at least to hedge one’s certainties with caveats: so far as we know …to the best of our knowledge … until better information comes along. What catastophes the human race would avoid without the curse of certainty.
Curiosity an Epicurean trait? He felt the tension sometimes, the quest for tranquillity and the quest for knowledge in opposition: a stillness born of freedom from desire set against a restlessness born of curiosity. The tranquillist reduced their attachments and rested content with what nature provided; but the curious could not sit still, had to move, to search, to know. Both propensities existed within him, yet they were not easy to reconcile. He felt this much: knowledge for its own sake is not important, it must serve a purpose; knowledge that promoted peace, security, tranquillity of the mind – that was vital. Look up at the clouds as the sun begins its nightly journey below the horizon and what wonderful shapes are revealed by the upward-rising rays. Vibrant highlights of red and orange on the grey-white billows, deep shadowed crevasses slashed across the mountainous masses. And what images the mind sees: forms of animals, of humans, sharp faces, round faces, bearded faces, madly grinning faces suddenly morphed into lowering evil-eyed faces. Some pretended they saw the faces of the gods themselves revealed in such evening skies; some adduced this as evidence that the gods were watching mankind from above. Utter rot. Better, more secure knowledge provides the answer: water condensation in the atmosphere, the action of the winds, the angle of the sunlight striking the underside of the clouds, all combined with what the Greeks call pareidolia, the strong propensity of our minds to pick out familiar patterns where none actually exist. Not faces, not gods, just natural phenomena. And with that knowledge comes peace of mind: no the gods are not watching you, no that thundercloud is not the manifestation of an angry deity. You have nothing to fear.
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[Go to Chapter 4, Part 2]