My tutor at Cambridge, Professor Nick Hammond, authority on the history of ancient Macedonia and on the life of Alexander the Great, used to coach me on what he called “exercises of the mind.” He knew I played tennis for the university and he put it to me that just as I trained hard for the tennis so should I stretch to exhaustion the muscles of the mind. Once he gave me to read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and to read it again until my brain could at least begin to make some sense (not much I confess) of its hard and complex ideas.
A full life, he also told me, involved extensive exploration. In youth this might very well mean setting forth to experience lands and cultures far and wide. But as important was travelling within merely the circumference of your skull and that never ended. He was right of course. Before long, explorations in the mind become more important than travelling in the flesh.
Here are a few explorations; there are dozens every day if one reads enough.
One is threatened life and limb every hour of the day. One only has to see the gory headlines or read the latest health warning, for instance, that Alzheimer’s may be caused by not brushing your teeth properly to realise that risk is ever-present in our lives.
These days, as increasing age makes the discovery of new lands much less likely, it remains perfectly possible to voyage in the mind as adventurously as ever by reading books and talking to good friends.
Winston Churchill, exasperated by opposition politicians constantly questioning his policies and his own credentials and frustrated by having to consult and compromise on measures which in his judgement were straightforward and ripe for introduction without hesitation, once exploded: “Democracy is the worst kind of government!” Then he paused, thought a little bit, considered the alternatives and ruefully concluded – “Except all the others.” Democracy ensures, or should ensure, that the differing views, varied cultural persuasions and diverging concepts of how the people’s affairs should be managed are allowed expression and none ever squeezed into resentful, and eventually festering, silence.
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