Norman Douglas’s South Wind

An elderly Count attempts to pass on to the young Denis such wisdom as he has learned.

Denis: What did he say?

Elderly Count: The old teacher? Let me see…He said: do not be discomposed by the opinions of inept persons. Do not swim with the crowd. They who are all things to their neighbors, cease to be anything to themselves. Even a diamond can have too many facets.

Avoid the attrition of vulgar minds; keep your edges intact. He also said: A man can protect himself with fists or sword but his best weapon is his intellect. A weapon must be forged in the fire. The fire, in our case, is tribulation. It must also be kept untarnished. If the mind is clean, the body can take care of itself.

He said: delve deeply; not too deeply into the past, for it may make you derivative; nor yet into yourself—it will make you introspective. Delve into the living world and strive to bind yourself to its movement by a chain of your own welding. Once that contact is established, you are unassailable. Externalize yourself! He told me many things of this kind.

You think I was consoled by his words? Not in the slightest degree. I was annoyed. It struck me, at the moment, as quite ordinary advice. In fact, I thought him rather a hypocrite; anyone could have spoken as he did! I was so disappointed that I went to him next day and told him frankly what I thought of his counsel. He said—do you know what he said?

Denis: I cannot even guess.

Elderly Count: He said: ‘What is all wisdom save a collection of platitudes? Take fifty of our current proverbial sayings—they are so trite, so threadbare, that we can hardly bring our lips to utter them. None the less they embody the concentrated experience of the race, and the man who orders his life according to their teaching cannot go far wrong.

How easy that seems! Has any one ever done so? Never. Has any man ever attained to inner harmony by pondering the experience of others? Not since the world began! He must pass through the fire.

Denis: I had no teacher like that. He must have been a man of the right kind.

Elderly Count: Oh, he meant well, the old rascal