The Wise General / Joshua Alan Sturgill
I recently heard the story of a wise general who wanted to promote some of his soldiers into the ranks of his officers. In order to discern which were the best candidates for leadership, the general disguised himself as a new recruit and went to live secretly with those under his command. The general was amazed at the variety he encountered among his men. Some seemed brave, but were merely foolish. Some seemed generous, but were merely craving attention. Many who had flattered him to his face spoke harshly about him in what they thought to be his absence.
After a few weeks in the soldiers’ camp, the general noticed one particular soldier who was slightly different from the rest. It wasn’t a notable difference at first. But the general noticed that while the other soldiers took off all their gear to clean and polish it, this soldier removed one piece at a time. He would clean his gun while fully outfitted. He would remove one shoe at a time to polish it. His uniform was always slightly less impressive than the other soldiers because he slept in it at night.
The general also noticed that, while on leave, this soldier drank and ate with his fellows, but though he seemed to always have a drink in his hand, he would make that one drink last through a whole evening. It often appeared that he was inebriated, but he was merely mirthful in the company of his friends. At a moment’s need, the soldier could soberly intervene in a fight or help a companion who had had too much to drink.
Moderate in eating, quick to laugh, not prone to useless conversation, the soldier was nearly always punctual. On the few occasions of tardiness, the general investigated and found that the soldier had put someone else’s need ahead of punctuality.
Above all, the general discovered that this particular soldier had two quiet, but outstanding qualities. First, he bore a deep and unwavering loyalty, not merely to the institution, but to his fellow soldiers. Second, he displayed a love of learning so that he was always reading, listening, thinking about both his military career and the expansion of his knowledge. The soldier had no ambition other than to care for those around him and live honorably.
I’ve heard several versions of this story. It’s a theme that shows up in fairytales and myths and scriptures. What struck me about this version is that the description of the honorable soldier could apply to true discernment in general, and to poetic knowledge in particular. The philosopher, poet and educator should have as a goal, not immediate advancement or recognition, but a long-game of developing a rich inner life—and consequently—to foster the development of interiority in others.
This lesson of this tale should apply to religious vocations as well, though unfortunately, being “religious” usually means the opposite of the soldier’s good qualities. Instead of discernment and care, religion often means narrowness, self-satisfaction and a merely external morality that masks a neglect of the inner life.
The general and the soldier had in common a life-stance of quiet observation. Isn’t this what is means to live poetically? To observe with prayerful meditation, and out of observation to act and speak and love? Rather than “fixing” all problems at once (or despairing that they can’t be fixed), the poet addresses one issue at a time. And, rather than committing to sobriety or to drunkenness (either can be an excess), the poet balances present and past, and makes the myths and archetypes of balance available to any who want to learn them.