Excellence and Onions

I received pushback on aspects of my last post, most of it thoughtful and much of it, unfortunately, through private channels; many concerns were overlapping and could have sparked quite the debate.  Most addressed the intersection between the ‘death of God’ (which need not be about divinity) and the development of a culture obsessed with the gratification of the body through consumption.  Good points were raised; mistakes on my part were admitted; further thoughts on the subject will be refined and reorganized.  But not today.

Today I'll write about the intersection between onions, Seneca, and Kobe Bryant.

I’ve recently realized that onions are my favorite vegetable.  Caramelized onions have always been a special treat.  For my birthday, I made myself 20 pounds of pickled onions, and made another (albeit smaller) batch last weekend. When we roast pigs at my house, we put a bed of onions underneath the meat to soak up the drippings. I like onions raw in salads, fried on tacos, and disintegrated in curries. They are versatile, delicious, and the basis for almost every one of my favorite dishes.

Onions, though, are neither memorable nor generally considered ‘excellent.’  To say that they are my favorite vegetable privileges them over vegetables like carrots or asparagus or peppers or (the overrated) kale.  Each of these vegetables is only more excellent than onions, however, when viewed for a specific purpose (whether that be a salad or a sauce).  None of them can match the the onion’s breadth.  When I personify onions, they have more fun.  When the chili pepper wants to go hang out with the Indians or the Mexicans, the onion can go when the asparagus can’t. “Hey onion!” the kale might cry, “wanna come to a salad party?”  The onion can always say yes.

So why focus so much on onions, on a vegetable so unfocused that until recently onions had never even entered my mental tournament of ‘greatest vegetable’? Because the problem of the onion—focus and breadth and excellence—is currently one of the major problems in my life.

I regularly pursue hobbies to the barest level of mediocrity and then abandon them. I start projects that die around the halfway-done mark.  I am a chronic dabbler.

I began to really be bugged by this breadth this past quarter, because I feel that I have found a field—ancient history, archaeology, classics—that I can see myself pursuing for the rest of my life.  It’s a tough field, however, with lots of names and dates and declensions and participles and meters and all sorts of types of ceramics that need to be memorized.  But, to briefly table my humility, I think I could be great at it—I just need to dedicate myself and put in the time to master it all. 

That challenge, to dedicate myself to my newfound passion (at the exclusion of everything else, seems to be the subtext), was posed to me by a text I read last quarter: “On the Shortness of Life,” by the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The short essay, which is quite excellent, addresses the problem of wasted time: “We do not have a small amount of time,” he writes (in my loose translation), “but we waste it greatly. Life is long enough as it is given to complete even the greatest things, if it is all used well.”*

For Seneca, that means stepping outside the rat race of Roman politics and pursuing a life of studied leisure, putting aside the honors and flatteries and money-making schemes of the Roman elite in favor of the life of the philosopher. Seneca’s hypocrisy aside, it is a picture of a certain ancient ideal. For those of us in the modern world, who may not have the means or desire to retire to our country estates to practice dying every day, it is a clarion call to make the most of what we have, to make the most of that one utterly finite resource placed at our disposal: time.

Kobe Bryant makes the most of his time. His workout routine is legendary. His discipline (when it comes to basketball, at least) is exemplary. He tries to make 800 shots before anyone else shows up to practice. As a recent profile in the New Yorker suggests, his life is above all dedicated to becoming the best human to play the sport of basketball in the history of the world.  Kobe Bryant is not a dabbler.  

Whenever I think of Kobe, he is a challenge to my dedication. If I wanted to be as good an ancient historian as Kobe is a basketball player, I would be in the gym every morning at 4am making sure I parsed 800 verbs before anyone else shows up for class.

I spend more of my life studying the ancient world than I spend on anything else. But I don’t do it at Kobe levels. I put in a full week of work, and I’ll try to do something else on the weekend. I like learning Greek, but I also like practicing yoga. I love reading Ammianus, but I also love reading Michael Pollan and Andrew Sullivan. I like cooking and watching baseball with my friends. And don’t even get me started on Republican intrigue, whether it involves the Gracchi or the Palins. I don’t know if I want to be the greatest ancient historian ever badly enough to sacrifice all those things. 

Even within the (narrow) field of late antiquity, I can’t decide whether to focus on the persistence of Roman fiscal structures or the archaeology of urban change or overlaps in the material culture of churches and synagogues or even something totally different like religious reinterpretations of ancient philosophical praxes. None of that even mentions the recent professorial suggestion that I should switch to being an (early) medievalist rather than a late antiquarian.  But you don’t get a PhD and a tenure track job in breadth.

For Seneca, the goal of the life of rigorous philosophical relaxation was the happy life, the vita beata. When Diotima asks Socrates what happens to the person who reaches the goal of human existence, who sees the Form of Beauty, he replies εὐδαίμων: he will be happy.* We live in a world today where we can broaden our definition of happiness beyond the ideals of a landed Mediterranean elite, but still: we should want to be happy.  After all, if we are miserable, what else matters?

Can you be happy and ignore every aspect of your life except one? Does any amount of success in a given field—even a field that you love more than anything else in the world—justify sacrificing all the things that make life worth living? Given the inevitability of our utter disintegration, the pure pleasure of just living in the world, and the nothingness of an eternity that will make even our proudest accomplishments into nothing more than two vast and trunkless legs of stone standing in the desert, do we not owe it to ourselves to seek out eudaimonia? 

In a 1999 interview, a 20 year old Kobe Bryant was asked whether he was happy. “I guess, maybe. Not really,” came the response. “I really don’t believe in happiness.

That was Kobe Bryant just a couple years removed from taking Brandy to prom. He may be the greatest of all time (he probably isn’t), but I don’t know if I can abandon all hope of good living for professional greatness. I don’t know whether I could sacrifice my one shot at life on the altar of history, even if it meant that at the end of the day a student a century from now felt obligated to skim my book for a seminar.

Maybe I would rather be an onion than an asparagus.  Onions have layers.

*De Brevitate Vitae, 1.3: non exiguum temporis habemus, sed multum perdidimus. satis longa vita et in maximarum rerum consummationem: large data est, si tota bene conlocaretur.

** Symposium, 304e7.  If you are going to complain that happiness doesn’t properly translate eudaimonia, well, I am sorry. It’s a toughie. Suggestions are welcome.

© Henry Gruber 2013