The Once and Future King

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”
—T.H. White (The Once and Future King)

Mr. White was a very wise man. I’ve been re-reading this book for the third time now and I am still fascinated by the story that contains a deep-rooted, allegorical philosophy that Tolkien could be proud of. Strangely enough, his story seems to echo every step I am taking in my daily life now.

Regarding this quote, I had formerly plunged myself into the task of learning or applying myself to my education only as an escape from the hectic world around me. I had never considered that the real reason for it was my passion, nay thirst, for knowledge. I use knowledge for lack of a better word, because there is more than one way to learn than by mental exercises of the rational mind: through experience, through virtue, through revelation, through emotion, through observation, through criticism, through analysis, through the senses, through the heart. Even in the book, White’s version of “learning” is not merely sitting at a desk, poring over pages of thickly set books. Instead, Merlin gives a hands-on experience to the young prince by turning him into various creatures. He is made to “be put into the shoes” of another. At times, human are contiguous, narrow-minded creatures even in a social setting. Learning is the opening of the mind, previously empty or tabula raza to all notions except its own intuitions, which is then filled by its perceptions, perceptions that are juxtaposed and pondered within the human reflective capacity.That is, we are not meant to memorize and regurgitate knowledge, but to think for ourselves, as cliche an expression that may seem. Thinking for oneself implies this opening of the mind, but also the creative use of all the epistemology we gain in order to consolidate ourselves (through action and aspiration) as fulfilled individuals, best symbolized by Arthur pulling the sword from the stone and becoming king.

My hypothesis wonders if we learn best through our experiences of fear and pain, as these memories seem to stand out more prominently in the human mind than say, a math problem. It would seem from King Arthur’s life, our remembrance of the most tragic events of the legend is stronger than others.  Are humans made for sorrow?

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