Impossible Decisions…

adeo nihil est cuique se vilius
Seneca, L. A., Epistulae Morales XLII.7

Christmas last, my family was gathered around a table, opening crackers.

It seems that each year the crackers and the accompanying box get heavier. This year, along with the customary brightly-coloured paper hat, joke, and philosophical thought, a relative clutched a small book of cards.

These were labelled ‘Impossible Decisions!’ It was perhaps an idea from someone, somewhere to help those who can no longer chat convivially at the table among kin and cotton. Soon, challenges were being read out with gusto such as:

Would you rather you could only speak in rhyme or could only communicate through drawings?

It was overwhelming to see 100 such conundra collected together like an anthology of short poems.

I’ve been thinking about decisions for a long time. Some of that was as a sort of preparation for what was ahead, as a younger man, some later in life as I was confronted with various apparently important decisions, including those appearing as a consequence of a force majeure. Forces majeures may remove the optionality though, and make the decision for one. . .

Circa 1275AD, a real decision was to be made by Bondone, the humble tiller of the soil.

Who was Bondone? Well, he was Giotto’s father. According to Vasari (The Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550)), a gentleman artist called Cimabue, who was passing through their village, noticed the drawings by the 10-year-old boy Giotto that he had made of animals like the few sheep he had been given by his father to tend, and the nature nearby, and was so impressed that he wanted to take the boy to his studio in Florence. Giotto was happy to go, but said that his father would have to give his blessing.

There is the decision for Bondone: to keep my son to help till the soil and look after the sheep in the village, perhaps taking over everything before I age and weaken, or, to let him go off, away from me and our humble and rooted family, to the Big City with an unknown gentleman, to learn the skills of various fine arts. Perhaps since he had a number of siblings, the little one was of course sent packing, if indeed there was much to pack.

Years later, having fraternised with people like Dante, whose master he painted, Giotto became known as a great artist; his portrayal of a frightened Christ child being presented by His mother Mary to Simeon, in the private Scrovegni Chapel, located in Padua, is said to be an extraordinary thing. The risks did not materialise, and the positives, we assume, outweighed the family missing the talented son.

We must of course note the very different subjective viewpoints of ‘general posterity’ and that decision for Bondone, his son and family in that village 14 miles from Florence, in the late thirteenth century.

Seneca urges his reader, particularly Lucilius, to whom he was writing, but in the end, all of us, to think not only about the values, the positives of a choice, but also the negatives, and he lists some of them:

danger, anxiety, lost honour, personal freedom and loss of time, …among others.

Many of life’s decisions do not have a simple and immediate answer, but we can choose to try to make them in a better way, and there is a selection of methods to choose from.

I put it to you that there are better and worse ways to do it, and that choosing to be consistent may well be better in the end.

Is the effort required in going beyond ‘gut instinct’ of more value than its gains? When is this so?

There are perhaps some very large decisions that perhaps really ought to be made more rigorously.

Following the wisdom of ancients like Seneca, we can all learn to assess the real not the notional position, ‘own ourselves’, avoid over- or perhaps more often, under-valuing ourselves, and find our own way forward.

We do not give up. . .