Remember the Fifty Names
Many years ago when the earth was old and the world new a tale of creation flowered in wisdom alongside the rivers of Babylon. This ancient tale, the Enûma Eliš, tells the story of how the great Marduk gives birth to the world through righteous battle with the gods. In it Marduk forms the earth and the sky from the battered body of the vanquished god, Tiamat. He then populates his creation with the sun, moon, stars and planets. Finally, Marduk summons mankind into existence from the spilled blood of Tiamat’s husband, Kingu. The holy poets who developed the Enûma Eliš furnished fifty names for Marduk, each a testament to his wisdom and virtue. They conclude their poem with the following command for mankind:
Let the names of Marduk be held in remembrances and let the first man proclaim them;
Let the wise and the understanding consider them together!
Let the father repeat them and teach them to his son;
Let them be in the ears of the pastor and the shepherd!
Let a man rejoice in Marduk, the Lord of the gods,
That be may cause his land to be fruitful, and that he himself may have prosperity!
Implied in this command is mankind’s forgetfulness and the need of a lodestar for guidance. This is a frequent refrain among the wisdom traditions. The Septuagint, to take but one example, speaks of Wisdom as resplendent and unfading and that “taking thought of her is the perfection of prudence, and he who for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.”
Nikolai Rostov’s lodestar assumes a female personification as well. As we see in today’s chapter it is the recollection of his wife, Marya, that draws Nikolai from the chaotic waters of his own self back into a state of mental equanimity and tranquility. Remember that yesterday Nikolai backslid into a fit of thoughtless rage at Pierre’s “silly” idealism. Today Nikolai repents, realizing his error. He is reminded by contemplation of his wife. Tolstoy writes, “Had Nikolai been able to analyze his feelings he would have found that his steady, tender and proud love of his wife rested on his feeling of wonder at her spirituality and at the lofty moral world, almost beyond his reach, in which she had her being.”
To remember himself Nikolai must not forget Marya. He must carry her with him into the field as he farms, into his office as he plans and, most importantly, into the interactions he has with those who irritate him. If he does Marya’s watchful eye and guiding light will help keep him straight. This watchful eye can take the secularized form of a virtuous person like Marya or even a higher being like Marduk. The point is to remember so that you do not forget.
If you always remember that whatever you are doing in the soul or in the body, God stands by as an inspector, you will never err in all your prayers and in all your acts, but you will have God dwelling with you.
Epictetus, Fragments of Epictetus