In roughly 60 AD, when a Roman Emperor known as Nero was reigning, the poet Persius wrote the telling and gloomy admonition: “What you live out is what belongs to our world—after death you will become ashes, a spirit soul, and a story.” For the sake of this blog, I am not concerned with the way one might parse that statement spiritually—i.e., I leave aside the notion of a “spirit soul” (manes in the original). Rather, I want to focus on the last word of Persius’ dictum: “story” (fabula).
That word fabula is obviously related to the word “fable,” and in addition to “story,” one might render it even as “tale.” The gloomy Persius reminds his reader that he or she will be talked about after death; you will become an object of discussion; your life will be remembered. A scene in A Christmas Carol comes to mind: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come brings Ebenezer Scrooge to overhear the conversation of a charwoman with the undertaker. They chat about the dismantling of Scrooge’s room even as his body lay there. Their tone is markedly unsympathetic, for Scrooge had left such a legacy. He had lived his life only for himself, for his coffers. The decisions he had made and his sudden departure from this life had left him only to be a fabula, not one to be perpetuated in glowing terms, but in the starkly cold terms that befit his starkly cold life.
And it is possible to stop there, and I’m sorry to say that someone who never thinks about Persius’ dictum might just do so incidentally. Yet the word fabula has another obvious cognate, no less obvious than “fable.” The word I have in mind, of course, is “fabulous.” And fabulous is just what I want to talk about in this blog, for just when I might have thought that I would be all travelled out, I find myself in a fabulous place, Williamsburg, Virginia. Why I am here I leave aside. Rather, I simply look to the story of this place to address Persius’ dictum.
Founded at the end of the first third of the seventeenth century, Williamsburg became Virginia’s capital in 1699, serving as such for the next eighty years. Thus, it played a pivotal role in the planning of the revolution that took place in the 1770s. Its school of higher learning, the College of William and Mary, was founded in 1693 and is America’s second oldest such institution. It is a marvelous school to this day and is the birthplace of the highest honorary society, the societas philosophiae, known as Phi Beta Kappa.
But it is not about the exciting details of Williamsburg’s history or Phi Beta Kappa’s origin developed by five students over several glasses of beer in a chamber known as the “Apollo Room” in a bar called Raleigh Tavern that I want to discuss here, but rather the story behind them. For those well-educated founders of that then quite secret (but obviously a badly kept one since chapters started popping up at numerous universities outside of William and Mary) society must have recognized the truth of Persius’ dictum.
In so doing, they most certainly recognized something else: that how we define that fabula, what we make of our own story, and how we transmit it, won’t necessarily change its more difficult characteristics and features—that is, if you’ve had a personally difficult time in life, simply looking at it positively won’t change what has happened to you—but how you define your story, how you interpret the data so that you can move on will very much define the future that abides.
So, those insightful youths, led by John Heath, the society’s first president, founded Phi Beta Kappa over beer many years ago in December of 1776, while our country was still itself struggling to be established. Yet even in the midst of that struggle, they took the time to lay out what they believed to be the tenets of liberal learning. They did so because they understood that there is a legacy involved, when it comes to the word fabula, one that is inherent in the very word itself.
That legacy can either be that we become a “mere story” and maybe a bad one at that, or that it be a “fabulous” one, like that of Williamsburg, a place preserving to this day more than merely old-world charm. It preserves history, it is associated closely with history, the history of our nation, the history of liberal education, and beyond that, the history of the world, for those young men in a tavern established more than merely accidentally, and certainly not without consequence, the tenets of liberal learning that continues to influence to this day higher education (and thus education in general) throughout the world. Their legacy, Williamsburg’s legacy, is truly fabulous.
In closing, perhaps by now the truth of Persius’ old dictum will appear to be obvious enough: the choices we make and the boldness with which we act will define our legacy. We can be merely a story that nobody will tell or we can choose the fabulous, to make fabulous choices, and in so doing, to do fabulous things. One visit to the Apollo Room reminded me of all that, and I thus raise a glass in the Raleigh after many a year to the fabulous. Won’t you join me?