Massey College


“Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure or fear. To be happy, you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed. You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you. To be happy, you must be wise.” —-George Santayana

These are the words carved on the stone walls around the dining hall of Massey College. During my two-month stay in the college, every now and then, I would look around the hall and read through those words. The elegant typography aside, these words would hardly fail to impress anyone who read it. But after a while, I became to wonder what the quote really tries to say.

“Know your limit”, I think, is the underlying message. Sure, there are limits of one’s physical strength, of intellectual power, of emotional range, and of spiritual heights, and it is better to know them before too late. But the real question — and that’s where the trouble starts– is what one does with the knowledge of those limits: to stay within them or to push them. Now that sounds like a trivial question with an obvious answer: Of course we should push them, which is what personal growth is all about. But Santayana seems to suggest the opposite — he says that one “must be reasonable” and “must be tamed”. It is definitely something seldom said or heard, given the proliferation of all those inspiration quotes from athletes, business leaders, academics, and peers, all urging us to push limits.

I wonder at what age Santayana uttered those words, and at what age he was “tamed”, and whether he was happy afterwards.

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Wendong Wang

A chemist who blogs

One thought on “Massey College”

  1. I have also contemplated the words. My take is that intellectuals often get diverted by interests that may not serve the world in the way their gifts were intended. The hope is that intellectuals use their gifts in a way that maximizes their potential while contributing to the world. My take is not that you should know your limits, but, rather, you should understand your gifts, develop them, and use them to benefit humanity.

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