Last week, our friend Felipe Guttierez died. Ever since, I have been thinking about his life and what he meant to me. And I realized that, even though I only met him in person twice, he meant an awful lot. There are a few human beings who I look up to as heroes, and he was one of them.
It is not hard to recognize a beautiful soul, even if you rarely meet them. The composer Arvo Pärt knew Benjamin Britten by his music, which was marked by a distinctive purity, something Pärt himself strove to achieve. When Britten died, Pärt was moved to dedicate an elegiac piece to the only composer of that age with whom he felt affinity. “Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten” conveys the sense of a massive bereavement, as if Earth herself were mourning the loss of some rare and necessary soul. When Felipe Gutteriez died last week, I thought of this piece because Felipe had exactly that kind of soul.
These days, the word ‘virtue’ is a slight, but it didn’t used to be that way. Ancient Roman ‘virtus’ literally means ‘manliness’ but it referred specifically to how a perfect man behaved in the public sphere. To possess virtus, a soldier had to demonstrate military prowess, prudence, justice, self-control and courage, all for the public good rather than personal glory. Charlemagne’s Code of Chivalry listed the sort of things a virtuous knight should be: humble, kind, loyal, honest, self-controlled and a defender of the weak. Similarly, the Bushidō code enjoined Samurai to demonstrate seven great virtues: integrity, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honor and loyalty.
According to these ancient codes, Felipe was a virtuous man. And when you consider that he existed in a culture that rewards self-serving bluster, that fetishizes violence and that puts private profit before public good, you begin to understand how rare that is. He led a virtuous life, not so that people would praise him but because he considered it right.
Felipe had the fortitude of a general and the tenderness of a mother. He worked hard but made it look easy. He suffered but never complained; even when he was in terrible pain, he wouldn’t mention it to friends because he abhorred pity. His discipline was unearthly. He rarely swore or raised his voice or said any insensitive thing (though anyone who made him angry would not soon forget it). He praised others generously but assiduously avoided attracting attention to his own achievements. He loved his wife and dogs with a whole-hearted, protective devotion. As a professor he considered his professional duties a sacred trust: students and colleagues had a willing ear, an erudite resource, and a sympathetic guide. And he was a perfect friend.
This all sounds like an exaggeration because this kind of virtue is difficult to maintain day after day. But it’s not an exaggeration, it’s the truth. Felipe’s sense of duty was such a defining feature that it’s hard to imagine him without it.
In person, he was graceful and dignified. Even in casual conversations, he listened carefully, as if he were a composer listening to music attentive to all the elements of a complex score. He considered what you were saying carefully and gave a response that was infused with empathy, humor and insight. And he was invariably smiling, either with real enjoyment or rueful wonder or regret.
One lovable thing about Felipe was his enjoyment of simple things. He was a professor at one of America’s most prestigious universities and so widely read so that he could speak knowledgably about law, philosophy, rhetorical theory and Science Fiction. He was fascinated by ideas involving possibility and hope—scientific developments with far-reaching implications for the future of humankind. And even though he could talk about all that, what he really liked were capybaras.
Native to South America, capybaras are the world’s large living rodents. They are very sociable and tend to live in large family groups in forested areas near large bodies of water. They have barrel-shaped bodies and webbed feet and intelligent eyes. They’re excellent swimmers and wallowers and sleepers. They are also mysteriously attractive to other species, including us. We are all– cattle tyrant, crocodile, butterfly, monkey—drawn to the serenity that radiates from the capybara core. The main attraction at Izu Shaboten Zoo in Japan, for example, is a large group of capybaras, who occasionally enjoy hotsprings infused with citrus or petals.
In the words of the jurist and sage Rumi, “Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.” In his appreciation of capybaras, of verbal gracenotes and of kindness, Felipe was one who saw. He insisted on the value of caring and kindness and he wordlessly insisted, gently and firmly, with his whole being, on the possibility of a higher life.
What is even more remarkable than the fact he existed is that he should have met a soul of equal breadth and beauty in Eileen Jones. And as distressing as Felipe’s loss is, I only have to imagine a universe where he did not find Eileen to feel wonder and gratitude for this universe, where miracles sometimes do happen.