Posts Tagged g.k. chesterton

The Problem with “Civilized” Christianity

I’m sitting outside on my front porch, listening to the sound of rolling thunder and falling rain. It is one of my favorite things to experience, and perhaps my favorite type of weather. The rain calms me, reminding me of that poetic passage in Isaiah, “For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and waters the earth… and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it might give seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be… it shall not return to me void.” I love rain; but that is not the subject of this post. This post is one that is more like the thunder, the holiness of God.

As I was reading G.K. Chesterton’s grand Father Brown detective stories, I came across an interesting idea (often in these stories, Chesterton sneaks in theological quips). A criminologist was asking the old priest how he had caught so many villains, for by this time Brown was famous for his unique ability to seek out the criminal. Father Brown simply replies, “Well, you see, it’s because I murdered all those people.”

He does not mean this literally, however. What Father Brown is getting at is the fact that he can understand why someone would murder another man, why they would so desperately long after a precious stone. He compares it to a child’s desire for some sweet or candy, bringing them to point of pilfering it for themselves. When the priest is able to put himself in the thief or murderer’s position, he is able to find them with ease, saying, “If I had been in his position, and had nothing better than his philosophy, heaven alone knows what I might have done. That is just where this little religious exercise is so wholesome.”

The man he is speaking with asks him if that would give him a higher tolerance of crime. Brown goes on to say, “I know it does just the opposite. It solves the whole problem of time and sin. It gives a man his remorse beforehand… You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it.”

This brings me to the subject of this writing, the problem with civilized Christianity. By civilized I mean that type of Christianity into which we have been born today, particularly in the South of the United States, but it includes much of Western Christendom. This is not to say that anyone born into a Christian home is at odds; it is simply an idea that has been put into Christianity – or perhaps I should say “lost”.

Paul the Apostle wrote in Romans 3, “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: their feet are swift to shed blood: destruction and misery are in their ways: and the way of peace have they not known: there is no fear of God before their eyes. Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.”

So often we forget that this verse applies to us. We forget the gravity of our sin; I will honestly say that I don’t think I know the weight of my own sin. We must understand that not only have we done wicked things (and if you don’t think that you have, you do not know yourself), but that we are wicked to the very core. We are all criminals, murderers, thieves, down to the depths of our hearts. Paris Reidhead aptly puts it in calling us, “Monsters of iniquity.” This is what we are, outside of grace.

This is also why Father Brown is such an effective detective. He understands this idea, that we are at heart criminals. He understands that, in such a place, we might do the very same, if not worse. In one particular case, Father Brown has just revealed to a group of “civilized” Christians that the man they thought had slain someone in a duel was actually a treacherous, cold-blooded murderer. Father Brown’s rebuke to them is thus:

“There is,” said Father Brown dryly; “and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness to-day; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven.”

“But, hang it all,” cried Mallow, “you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?”

“No,” said the priest; “but we have to be able to pardon it.”

He stood up abruptly and looked round at them.

“We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole, but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them. Go on your own primrose path pardoning all your favourite vices and being generous to your fashionable crimes; and leave us in the darkness, vampires of the night, to console those who really need consolation; who do things really indefensible, things that neither the world nor they themselves can defend; and none but a priest will pardon. Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes; mean as St. Peter when the cock crew, and yet the dawn came.”

“The dawn,” repeated Mallow doubtfully. “You mean hope — for him?”

“Yes,” replied the other. “Let me ask you one question. You are great ladies and men of honour and secure of yourselves; you would never, you can tell yourselves, stoop to such squalid reason as that. But tell me this. If any of you had so stooped, which of you, years afterwards, when you were old and rich and safe, would have been driven by conscience or confessor to tell such a story of yourself? You say you could not commit so base a crime. Could you confess so base a crime?”

We must remember not just who we are in grace, but who we were apart from it. This is Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 2:11 – remember who you were, that you might impart grace to those who have none. We must not proudly vaunt ourselves over and against our fellow men. We must have the words of Christ on our lips, “Neither do I condemn thee. Go and sin no more.”

And in all this, the rain and thunder walk run together. The thunder cries from heaven against our crimes; the rain cleansing us from them. And both come from heaven.

 

The two stories I referenced:
http://wikilivres.info/wiki/The_Secret_of_Father_Brown/The_Chief_Mourner_of_Marne

http://wikilivres.info/wiki/The_Secret_of_Father_Brown/The_Secret_of_Flambeau

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Optimism vs. Pessimism vs. Christianity

We’ve all heard the classic illustration of the glass half full (no mystery as to which I am). Lately, I have been thinking upon these two attitudes towards life and have been wondering which, if either fits with the way Paul, Jesus or Peter viewed the world around them. As I examined my own attitude, along with the attitudes of those in the Bible and Christians in ages past, I have discovered some interesting and powerful conclusions. Will you join me in this adventure?

Optimism

As I said before, I am, by nature, something of an optimist. I fit the bill for the definition Dictionary.com gives: “the disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” Whenever someone mentions a crisis in their life or the world at large, my instinct is to think, “Surely it’s not as bad as that.” An optimist is great if you need a little brightness in your day, but terrible if you need sympathy and comfort during a crisis, because we’ll always be telling you it’s not all bad.

In one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories, the old Catholic priest comes upon the murder of what we might term a “motivational speaker”, a dear, old man who spread cheer everywhere he went. When discussing with an officer about why someone might be motivated to kill such a man, Father Brown replied,

“Yes… he was cheerful. But did he communicate his cheerfulness? Frankly, was anyone else in the house cheerful as he? (The man had a daughter and a few servants). You see,” said Father Brown, blinking modestly, “I’m not sure that the Armstrong cheerfulness is so very cheerful – for other people. You say that nobody could kill such a happy old man, but I’m not so sure… If I ever murdered somebody,” he added quite simply, “I dare say it might be an Optimist.” (The Three Tools of Death)

The problem with Optimism is that it denies the evils around it, painting them a little bit rosier than they really are. And often, as in the above murder mystery, Optimism is often a cover up for deep depression.

Pessimism

“Ah,” you might say to yourself at this point. “If Optimism is not the way, then perhaps it is found in Pessimism.” It would seem that Pessimism is better suited to the world we live in. But is it the way God wants us to view the world? According to ye old Dictionary.com, Pessimism is, “the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems.” The Pessimist is able to see the pain today and coming ahead. The problem is that, too often, that’s the extent of their view.

When I think of people who had a dim view of life, I think of the Israelites in the wilderness, particularly the ten spies who held an evil report. As the story goes, after a long journey in the wilderness, the Lord has led the people of Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. This is it – the moment that everything before this has been leading up to. Twelve spies are sent into the land and, after forty days, return with this report:

And they told him, and said, “We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.” And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” But the men that went up with him said, “We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”

God had promised; yet they believed He wasn’t able to deliver. They saw the troubles – and nothing more. Whereas the Optimist paints with rose-colored hues, a Pessimist paints in only grays and shadows.

Christianity

So what have we to stand upon? Both Optimism and Pessimism have advantages; yet neither is the way the saints of old and Christ Himself viewed the world. Paul commands us in Romans 12:15 to “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” We must not only be the smiles and cheers; we must be also to sympathize and comfort those who are weeping and mourning. We must be able to laugh and to cry.

We must also be able to clearly see the pain ahead, yet also the joy; they walk hand in hand. This is the perspective Christ had, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). The Pessimist is correct in seeing the pain; for, as Paul said, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).” But the Optimist is correct in seeing the joy even amidst the pain, for in the crisis of bonds, Paul also said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).

So often, we blame our attitudes on our personalities. I, as an Optimistic sort, feel it is hard for me to sympathize with others’ pain; does that mean I am exempt from Paul’s command in Romans 12:15? Or perhaps you are a little on the Pessimistic side; does that give you sufficient reason to “Complain about life always; and again I say, complain” (1 Opinions 4:1)? Not once is the word “personality” or similar terms in the Bible. Are we all of different sorts of personalities? Yes; but our personality is no excuse.

When we are in Christ, there is joy, peace, love and total satisfaction. If you find your heart hard when others tell you of their pains and trials, pray that God would help you to weep with those that weep. If you find it hard to feel joy in dark times, pray that you would experience joy and satisfaction in Christ. God is willing and able to help us, no matter what our troubles be, if we will ask Him. I will conclude with the words of Paul in Romans 8:

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified. What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is He that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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Fantastic Friday’s Feature: The Romance of Coffee

Good day, my fabulous Fantastic Friday’s Feature readers! Last week, I featured an essay by G.K. Chesterton on the glories of cheese (which can be found here) and so this week, as you may have gathered from the title, I am featuring another delectable dainty, known by some as the dew of heaven: coffee.

Yes, coffee. But no, I am not the one to wax eloquent about this tasty treat. My brother, Zak (who also has another guest post here on “Embracing the Fairy Tale Life”), has written a brief essay called “The Romance of Coffee” in true Chestertonian style expounding upon the wonders of this drink we enjoy known as coffee. I hope you enjoy:

Chesterton once said that we all have a tendency to overlook the startling quality of the world around us.  We are inclined to use the terms “normal” or “ordinary” to classify things which in fact viciously defy these categories.  Recently, it dawned upon me that I was guilty of this crime as it pertains to my view of coffee.  I had allowed my daily contact with this magical substance to blind me to its extraordinarily poetic properties.  Filled with remorse at such a heinous offense, I have resolved to appease my conscience by writing this eulogy for coffee, the greatest of all beverages.  Indeed, the act of drinking coffee is an act of such tremendous romance that it is with great trepidation that I wade into the waters of such a deep and mysterious subject.

The essence of romance lies in thinking that the more dangerous something is, the more beautiful it is.  Falling in love is romantic because it involves a loss of control over our actions, which is a very dangerous state of affairs.  Sacrificing your life for someone that you love is romantic because it involves danger to the physical body.  Now, the romance of coffee lies in its association with two of the most dangerous things in our world: fire and death.

One of the most attractive qualities of coffee is the warmth that it brings to those who partake of it.  However, it is sobering to realize that the warmth of coffee is quite capable of being turned to more harmful purposes.  The mugs that allow us to drink this beverage are all that restrain the destructive power of this fiery liquid.  By such modest means, we casually harness the ancient qualities of Greek fire.  However, only a slight movement of the arm would thrust this fire into the face of another, thus releasing all the potential of this primeval weapon.  We have laws that set limits to the carrying of firearms, but what laws protect us from those who carry an arsenal of portable lava?  When we see a man carrying a cup of coffee, we see a man who dares to fill his goblet at the fountain of flame.  When Prometheus gave fire to man, could he ever have foreseen how contemptuously man would regard this gift, that he would have the boldness to transform it into a consumable substance?  Not content merely to wield such an awesome power, we daily flaunt our mastery of this element by absorbing liquid fire into our very being.

Coffee also has a bitterness to its taste that carries with it an echo of the bitterness of death.  Yet, it is this bitterness that the coffee drinker loves.  Is there anything more romantic than how we so willingly give ourselves to this drink of death?  I cannot think of a more prevalent and evocative memento mori in our culture.  Even the blackness of coffee is reminiscent of death.  I never drink a cup of coffee without thinking of Socrates, who cheerfully drank the hemlock that destroyed his life.  As I drink, I participate in a symbolic martyrdom, because the essence of martyrdom is a willingness to embrace death.  The paradox of coffee is that it stimulates life and vitality, while cloaking itself in the blackness and bitterness of death.  When God gave us the gift of coffee, he was giving us the gospel in liquid form.

In all truly romantic things we will find the gospel, because the gospel is the greatest romance story of all.  It is the story of God embracing death, so that we could find life.  It is a beautiful mystery, and a mystery that no one is better suited to understand than the coffee drinker.

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Fantastic Friday’s Feature: Cheese

It may seem strange to you that I would feature a food this fantastic Friday. However, it is not because I love this food that I have chosen to feature it (though that reason is taken into consideration). I read a fantastic essay by G.K. Chesterton recently on this wonderfully food. I will leave the next portion to him. Before I do, however, I will say this, though the essay is primarily humorous. God’s glory can be found in all parts of the earth, since it all belongs to Him anyway. I’ll write more on this later. I hope you enjoy this witty essay called “Cheese”:

My forthcoming work in five volumes, `The Neglect of Cheese in European Literature,’ is a work of such unprecedented and laborious detail that it is doubtful whether I shall live to finish it. Some overflowings from such a fountain of information may therefore be permitted to springle these pages. I cannot yet wholly explain the neglect to which I refer. Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. Virgil, if I remember right, refers to it several times, but with too much Roman restraint. He does not let himself go on cheese. The only other poet that I can think of just now who seems to have had some sensibility on the point was the nameless author of the nursery rhyme which says: `If all the trees were bread and cheese’ – which is indeed a rich and gigantic vision of the higher gluttony. If all the trees were bread and cheese there would be considerable deforestation in any part of England where I was living. Wild and wide woodlands would reel and fade before me as rapidly as they ran after Orpheus. Except Virgil and this anonymous rhymer, I can recall no verse about cheese. Yet it has every quality which we require in an exalted poetry. It is a short, strong word; it rhymes to `breeze’ and `seas’ (an essential point); that it is emphatic in sound is admitted even by the civilization of the modern cities. For their citizens, with no apparent intention except emphasis, will often say `Cheese it!’ or even `Quite the cheese.’ The substance itself is imaginative. It is ancient – sometimes in the individual case, always in the type and custom. It is simple, being directly derived from milk, which is one of the ancestral drinks, not lightly to be corrupted with soda-water. You know, I hope (though I myself have only just thought of it), that the four rivers of Eden were milk, water, wine, and ale. Aerated waters only appeared after the Fall.

But cheese has another quality, which is also the very soul of song. Once in endeavouring to lecture in several places at once, I made an eccentric journey across England, a journey of so irregular and even illogical shape that it necessitated my having lunch on four successive days in four roadside inns in four different counties. In each inn they had nothing but bread and cheese; nor can I imagine why a man should want more than bread and cheese, if he can get enough of it. In each inn the cheese was good; and in each inn it was different. There was a noble Wensleydale cheese in Yorkshire, a Cheshire cheese in Cheshire, and so on. Now, it is just here that true poetic civilization differs from that paltry and mechanical civilization that holds us all in bondage. Bad customs are universal and rigid, like modern militarism. Good customs are universal and varied, like native chivalry and self-defence. Both the good and the bad civilization cover us as with a canopy, and protect us from all that is outside. But a good civilization spreads over us freely like a tree, varying and yielding because it is alive. A bad civilization stands up and sticks out above us like an umbrella – artificial, mathematical in shape; not merely universal, but uniform. So it is with the contrast between the substances that vary and the substances that are the same wherever they penetrate. By a wise doom of heaven men were commanded to eat cheese, but not the same cheese. Being really universal it varies from valley to valley. But if, let us say, we compare cheese to soap (that vastly inferior substance), we shall see that soap tends more and more to be merely Smith’s Soap or Brown’s Soap, sent automatically all over the world. If the Red Indians have soap it is Smith’s Soap. If the Grand Lama has soap it is Brown’s Soap. There is nothing subtly and strangely Buddhist, nothing tenderly Tibetan, about his soap. I fancy the Grand Lama does not eat cheese (he is not worthy), but if he does it is probably a local cheese, having some real relation to his life and outlook. Safety matches, tinned foods, patent medicines are sent all over the world; but they are not produced all over the world. Therefore there is in them a mere dead identity, never that soft play of variation which exists in things produced everywhere out of the soil, in the milk of the kine, or the fruits of the orchard. You can get a whisky and soda at every outpost of the Empire: that is why so many Empire builders go mad. But you are not tasting or touching any environment, as in the cider of Devonshire or the grapes of the Rhine. You are not approaching Nature in one of her myriad tints of mood, as in the holy act of eating cheese.

When I had done my pilgrimage in the four wayside public-houses I reached one of the great northern cities, and there I proceeded, with great rapidity and complete inconsistency, to a large and elaborate restaurant, where I knew I could get a great many things besides bread and cheese. I could get that also, however; or at least I expected to get it; but I was sharply reminded that I had entered Babylon, and left England behind. The waiter brought me cheese, indeed, but cheese cut up into contemptibly small pieces; and it is the awful fact that instead of Christian bread, he brought me biscuits. Biscuits – to one who had eaten the cheese of four great countrysides! Biscuits – to one who had proved anew for himself the sanctity of the ancient wedding between cheese and bread! I addressed the waiter in warm and moving terms. I asked him who he was that he should put asunder those whom Humanity had joined. I asked him if he did not feel, as an artist, that a solid but yielding substance like cheese went naturally with a solid, yielding substance like bread; to eat it off biscuits is like eating it off slates. I asked him if, when he said his prayers, he was so supercilious as to pray for his daily biscuits. He gave me generally to understand that he was only obeying a custom of Modern Society. I have therefore resolved to raise my voice, not against the waiter, but against Modern Society, for this huge and unparalleled modern wrong.

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Embracing the Fairy Tale Life

by Zak Ellison

In his essay “The Twelve Men”, Chesterton points out that a distressing paradox in our world is that “the more a man looks at a thing, the less he can see it”.  In other words, the more familiarity we have with something, the less likely we are to appreciate its significance.  The posters and paintings that we hang on our dorm wall soon become invisible to us.  Class material that at first excites our interest often loses its appeal as the semester drags on.  Family members that we love and admire soon get taken for granted.  In various ways, our familiarity with the world robs us of the wonder that it initially instilled in us.

Observing the behavior of children supports the truth of this paradox.  The joy of children comes from their captivation with the wonders in this world.  They have not gazed on the universe as long as we have; therefore, its beauty is still fresh in their eyes.  Children delight in playing the same games and hearing the same stories over and over again because they are still enthralled by the beauty of those things.  Who would not sustain this sense of delight if he could?  Alas, as we grow old we seem to lose something of this delight, despite life being no less beautiful.  Our eyes grow dim with age and we no longer see as clearly the rich significance in every starry sky and every blade of grass.

We are all susceptible to this joy-killing familiarity with the world.  Tolkien describes it as a man locking his beautiful possessions into a cupboard.  A man who hoards in this way still possesses his treasures, but he can no longer enjoy them (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”).  In similar fashion, the more familiar we become with the people and things in this world, the more we tend to grow numb to the depths of meaning they possess.  Unless we intentionally fight against this process, we will mentally lock up the wonders that we daily encounter; therefore, we will no longer delight in their beauty.

I am convinced that the reading of fairy tales can be a powerful weapon in this fight against the numbing effects of familiarity.  By fairy tales, I mean stories of ordinary people who find themselves in fantastic worlds where strange and magical powers are at work.  The world of fairy tales has an unexpected and startling quality about it.  Unexpected pleasures and unexpected dangers lurk around every corner, ready to ambush the hero.  There is also a sense that the fairy tale world exists for its own sake, quite apart from considerations for the hero.  The hero is expected to make his way the best he can during his adventures in this mysterious land.

Fairy tales can renew our appreciation for the world by reminding us of the wonder of God’s universe.  “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green” (Chesterton, Orthodoxy).  When a story tells us of winged horses, it invites us to ponder the miracle of horses without wings (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”).  The fantasy elements in a fairy tale recharge and stimulate our imaginations so that we can better receive the wonders of the real world.  Reading about the enchanted woods “makes all real woods a little enchanted” (Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”).  Fairy tales provide an antidote to human forgetfulness, to the indifference of familiarity.

But more than that, they teach us that we ourselves also live inside a fairy tale.  The same fundamental qualities in fairy tales also exist in our own lives.  Our life has the same unexpectedness of the hero’s adventures in fairyland.  “The supreme adventure is being born.  There we walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap.  There we see something of which we have not dreamed before.  Our father and mother lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush” (Chesterton, Heretics).  Just like in a fairy tale, God creates the characters for his story and throws them into a world of wonder and danger.  God leaves it to us either to shrink from this adventure or to embrace it.

Embracing life like a fairy tale enables us to recapture a child-like sense of astonishment.  It helps us to remember that this world, though fallen, is indeed an amazing and wondrous place.  The fairy tale mindset makes us grateful, because it reminds us that all the beauty of this world is an undeserved gift.  The story is precious because it might have been told quite differently.  God did not need to write our character into his world, but he chose to.  Like a fairy tale, this world is often hostile as well as beautiful; however, God’s word assures us that our adventures in this world are not in vain, and that there is an even greater adventure yet to come.

In our age, fairy tales have often been dismissed as suitable only for children.  But I think it’s time to bring fairy tales back out of the nursery.  They may have more to teach us than we think.

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This was a piece written by my elder brother, Zak. He is a student at Columbia International University, majoring in Humanities; he has a deep love for the older writings of humanity, preferably those who have already passed away. 

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