William Alexander Percy, the uncle of the great writer Walker Percy, and one of the last Southern Stoics, was a famous host. His mansion in Greenville, Mississippi welcomed many guests, including Robert Wright, Langston Hughes, and William Faulkner. He traveled widely, too, visiting Greece, Samoa, and Paris, and spent time in Belgium fighting in WWI. Will Percy loved to playfully and honestly interrogate the people he met with deep but shapeless questions that forced their recipients to really think. Questions like “What do you love?” or “What do you live by?”
This was Will’s way of searching—to understand other people, to understand the world around him and, one can assume, to understand himself. These questions made a very deep impression on his young nephew, Walker, particularly when Will adopted him and his younger brothers after their mother’s death. Indeed, in Walker’s famous novel The Moviegoer, he has the wisest character of the book—based on Will—ask:
What do you love?
What do you live by?
What do you think is the purpose of life?
In a way, answers to these three questions are the essential quest of Stoicism too. It’s what Zeno began asking when he washed up in Athens after his shipwreck. It’s what Epictetus was prodding his students to think about and trying to answer with his responses. It’s what Marcus Aurelius was journaling about over and over again from every angle.
And it’s what we should be thinking about and asking today. To other people sure, but mostly to ourselves. Because no one is going to magically explain these things to us. They can only show us the world, and help us see it. The rest we have to figure out on our own.