The Rarest Man I' The World
Bill Long 10/28/07
Celebrating Essay # 3000
One of Shakespeare's lesser-known tragedies is Coriolanus--the story of the Roman consul and general who betrays Rome after he is exiled for berating, humiliating and despising the Roman plebians. So stunned and hurt is he by the exile that he makes his way to the house of Aufidius, the general of the hated (by Rome) Volscians in order to volunteer to lead a campaign against Rome. But he goes to the Volscians in tattered clothes and without weapons so that he would be unrecognized. When he arrives at Aufidius' home, a great banquet is going on. Coriolanus enters the kitchen and has a long conversation with several of the servants. They know immediately that someone out of the ordinary is with them, though they can't "put their finger" on who this strange, powerful and courtly visitor is. After Coriolanus reveals himself and joins Aufidius, the servants retire to speak about this marvelously amazing guest that they had entertained. Here is the conversation:
"Second Servingman: By my hand, I had thought to have strucken him with a cudgel; and yet my mind gave me his clothes made a false report of him.
First Servingman: What an arm he has! he turned me about with his finger and his thumb, as one would set up a top.
Second Servingman: Nay, I knew by his face that there was something in him: he had, sir, a kind of face, methought,--I cannot tell how to term it.
First Servingman: He had so; looking as it were--would I were hanged, but I thought there was more in him than I could think.
Second Servingman: So did I, I'll be sworn: he is simply the rarest man i' the world," Coriolanus, IV, v.
From Shakespeare to Today
"Rare" is a frequently-appearing term in Shakespeare which denotes something "unusual in respect of some good quality; of uncommon excellence or merit; remarkably good or fine.." (OED). The superlative, of course, means that it is quite unique.
When I first ran across that passage in Shakespeare, I immediately stopped. I memorized the forty or fifty line encounter between Coriolanus and Aufidius in the scene, but I couldn't keep my mind off the bolded lines above, especially the italicized bolded lines. In some sense which seemed to violate American democratic sensibilities, I knew the passage was true about me. I had felt it since I was eight years of age, but through my acquaintance with Evangelical religion and various "equalizing" philosophies in my 20s and 30s, I denied the possibility of its being true. We were all "equal" before God, and that was that. But my egalitarian ideology could not tamp down completely the feeling that is expressed in the words: "the rarest man i' the world." It is not as if I either try to cultivate or get rid of this thought; it is as constantly present with me as is the reality of my maleness or of my being a parent of two children.
I think the statement is true of me in three ways: in terms of my mind, in terms of my heart, and in terms of my mind-heart in conjunction with each other. Let me describe each.
Three things about my mind that come out in my writing and relations with people, which makes it the "rarest" mind, are its generative capacity, its scope of interest and its precision in grasp and expression. A clarification is in order. No one generates ideas ex nihilo; everyone draws upon images, language, experiences or texts which really get the "ball rolling." But the process of drawing on images and connecting them across time and text is the generative process. This I have, in great measure. In addition, my mind is a polymathic one. It reaches into several subjects and wants to understand them in depths that match the depth that leading scholars try to understand a phenomenon. Finally, it is a mind that seeks and expresses precision. Precision is necessary not simply with facts and dates, but also with ideas. My mind, at age 55, is able to distinguish, isolate, identify, question and elicit factual and theoretical knowledge which opens a subject in ways that many others can't imitate. In addition, I have the ability to put these thoughts into a readily accessible written form (these essays) which, I hope, will help to contribute to a new understanding of how we learn and in what knowledge consists. This is true of me; I have the 'rarest' mind in the world.
I used to think that I was emotionally stunted. I recall sitting on a bus while a freshman at Brown University in Fall 1970 and going to the gym to work out. I said to myself that I wanted to be a "Christian Stoic," a person who was committed to faith but was of imperturbable countenance and heart. There were many things I wanted to avoid facing from my early days (perhaps essays here will explore those things). But as time went on, and especially in the last five or so years, I have seen the depths of my heart. This is easier illustrated than defined. It is not captured necessarily in "warm thoughts" for people or in weeping with those who weep. It is more accurately expressed in an ability to get access to another person's heart often within two or three questions of meeting them. It can at times be sort of a "game," but I try not to let it become one. It arises, I have determined, from the great desire to use my knowledge to connect rather than divide people, to empower rather than to overpower, to serve rather than to dominate.
In almost every encounter with people (at least in the United States), I am able to "sense" and get to the issues on the person's heart right away. In fact, the most unique example of this was when I was in Saudi Arabia in Jan. 1993 with some American scholars. Our Saudi hosts were distinguished generals, political scientists, members of the royal family, etc. I was sitting next to one at my table and we struck up a conversation (thankfully, in English). I saw his name, mentioned a person whose name I had once seen--that was identical to my host's. I recall that he had that led a revolt against Abdul Azziz in the 1920s in a particular place in Saudi Arabia. The gentleman looked deeply at me and said, "How did you know about my father?" That led to a kind of deep conversation that humbled and touched me deeply.
Rarest--in Mind and Heart
When the mind and heart are put together (and who really can separate them), I present a "package" that also is "the rarest." It combines with humor, "presentness," and focused energy. I don't need to describe it further. It comes out.
Of course, there is a shadow side to all of this--sometimes I simply "turn it all off" and there is very little that happens between me and another person. But those times are not very frequent anymore. I am fortunate to be of sound mind, good pen, good health, adequate resources and brimming energy. I am grateful for each day of my life.
I have written these 3000 essays, along with an autobiography and several other pieces, in the last four years. It is the equivalent now of 45 200-page books. I don't just measure my accomplishments by the pages, though that is one factor that should be kept in mind. Most of all, I feel now that I am a free man, able to dart here and there, to linger on issues with care, and to write it all for an ever-increasing and, I hope, appreciative audience. It is because I am, in truth, the "rarest man i' the world."