French philosopher Pascal is renowned for his famous aphorism: “Man is a cogitative reed.” He implies that human existence is as delicate as a reed, susceptible to the perils of the universe. Nevertheless, despite this vulnerability, human beings possess a grandeur surpassing anything in the cosmos, for they possess a sentient soul. Naturally, we cannot and should not dismiss the indispensability of physical life, but the magnificence of humanity resides within its spiritual realm. As individuals, we are devoid of hierarchical divisions. Only through the lens of the soul can one discern distinctions of nobility versus mediocrity, even nobility versus abhorrence.
More than two millennia ago, the Roman army laid siege to a Greek city. In their midst, they discovered an elderly man, crouched upon the sand, engrossed in the study of a diagram. This man was none other than Archimedes, the preeminent physicist of ancient times. Tragically, he met his demise at the hands of a Roman soldier’s blade, and in that somber moment, he uttered but a single phrase: “Tread not upon my circle!” To him, the geometric figure he had inscribed on the ground possessed greater value than his own life.
Prior to this event, during the epoch of Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Eurasia, he encountered the philosopher Diogenes reclining on the ground, basking under the sun’s rays. Alexander queried, “How may I be of service to you?” To this, Diogenes replied, “Shade me not from the sun!” In his estimation, the illustrious military triumphs of Alexander the Great paled in significance when contrasted with the profundity of his contemplation beneath the sun. These two brief narratives, passed down through the annals of time, serve as testaments to the veneration that the extraordinary denizens of ancient Greece accorded to the life of the soul. They esteemed their thoughts above all else, including their own lives, and they esteemed the life of the soul above any extrinsic pursuits, even those of great authority and grandeur.
The cherishment of inner spiritual riches over external material possessions stands as an enduring characteristic shared by sages throughout the ages. The esteemed British writer Wilde embarked on a journey to the United States. Upon his arrival, a customs officer inquired if he had anything to declare. In response, he declared, “I possess naught but my talent.” His pride emanated from the realization that he possessed nothing of material worth, yet possessed an artistic talent that defied monetary measurement. This proud writer, in one of his works, conveys to us that “there exists naught more precious in the world than the human soul, and naught that can rival its worth.”
Indeed, there exists no need to merely cite examples of these renowned individuals. Instead, let us devote a modicum of attention to the phenomena that surround us. On numerous occasions, I have beheld the radiance of soulful existence shining brilliantly amidst the mundane backdrop.
Once, while traveling by train, the locomotive hurtled forward, and the carriage reverberated with noise. Passengers conversed, played cards, and indulged in snacks. Yet, amidst this commotion, a young woman nestled within a corner of the carriage, engrossed in the pages of a book. She read with such unwavering focus, occasionally jotting notes within a petite notebook she carried. It was as though she remained oblivious to the clamor surrounding her. Gazing upon her serene silhouette, seemingly bathed in an ethereal glow, I felt a surge of emotion, reminiscent of my own boyhood. During that time, I resembled her in every way. Regardless of the tumultuous environment, as long as a captivating book found its way into my grasp, all else would fade from consciousness. Now, having become a writer myself with several published works, I envy this young woman, deeply immersed in her reading. I find myself reminiscing endlessly about the days of youth that have gradually receded, where I, too, pursued such purity of purpose.
Whenever a grand exhibition of world-renowned paintings graces Beijing, countless anonymous young painters scrimp and save, forsaking their basic needs, to finance their journey from various corners of our nation. They converge upon the capital to linger before these masterpieces. When I stand amidst the exhibition hall, beholding these eager countenances uplifted with fervor, my heart brims with emotion. I whisper to myself: “The years of youthful devotion, untainted by worldly concerns, truly constitute the pinnacle of existence.”
Several years have since passed, and it often plagues my thoughts—what has befallen the young woman on the train and those passionate souls within the exhibition hall? Based on my observations, most individuals harbor lofty ideals during their youthful years, only to succumb to an ever-increasing practicality as they mature. Pressured by the struggle for survival and enticed by material gain, individuals redirect their attention and energy towards the external world, neglecting their inner realms. The consequence is a diminished and hollowed soul, leaving behind a body consumed by worldly pursuits. Few tragedies rival this for humanity. Inwardly, I yearn for the preservation of their pure aspirations, hoping they evade the path of desolation.