How T. S. Eliot Found a Book That Changed His Life

“Your true educators and cultivators will reveal to you the original sense and basic stuff of your being”, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche—“something that is not ultimately amenable to education or cultivation by anyone else.” Nietzsche’s essay (which I’ve quoted often) is in one sense a paean to Arthur Schopenhauer, who changed his life. In another sense it is a description of the power of a single book and a single thinker to shape us and change the course of our lives, if we are lucky enough to come across them.

I’ve been reading a great deal of T. S. Eliot lately, and in one biography came across a Nietzschean description of how Eliot found his educator.

Where for Nietzsche it was Schopenhauer (a man whose philosophy grew out of an awful first job), for Eliot it is Jules Laforgue, the French symbolist poet who died the year before Eliot was born. In 1908, when Eliot was twenty, he went to the Harvard Union Library, one of his favourite spots for reading. Crawford describes in his biography:

T S Eliot poetry Jules Laforgue Nietzsche educator“There, upstairs, warmly protected from the December weather outside, he (Eliot) was looking through recently received books. Alert University library staff helped stock the Union’s shelves. Tom’s eye was caught by the name of Arthur Symons, and by his book’s title, The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It was a small second edition published earlier that year and just imported from London…”

Much later in his Paris Review Interview Eliot would describe that book by Symons as one that introduced him to Laforgue and therefore changed the course of his life.

Robert Crawford describes in his biography of Eliot how

“Before late 1908, Tom had never heard of Laforgue. By late 1909 he was almost his reincarnation. The experience was like falling in love. A decade later, when his marriage was in trouble, Tom used strikingly erotic language to describe the vital, transformational reading, implying, perhaps, that (though the object of attention was a dead man) it had been better than falling in love. 

Eliot described the process by saying,

“When a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person.”

It is a Nietzschean description of a true educator—an experience we should all hope to have. Crawford certainly believes that had Eliot not stumbled across Symons’ book on French symbolist poetry in the Harvard Union, he never would have become the poet he was. This reminds me of a quotation of Mark Greif, who in an essay on his own educator, philosopher Stanley Cavell, said that “What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

Why T. S. Eliot Considered Himself a “Victim” of College Elective Courses

During his time at Harvard the twentieth century’s most famous poet, T. S. Eliot, was the epitome of a liberal arts student. He studied almost everything, from art history and Greek philosophy to logic, German language, Pali and Buddhism. All of this would later combine to make his poetry an eclectic mix of global philosophies and ideas.

But twenty years after graduating, Eliot thought that the elective system at Harvard, common to all liberal arts colleges today, had let him down. In a letter to his mother he wrote:

“I was one of the victims of the “elective system”. I have always regretted that as an undergraduate I did not stick to Latin and Greek, and some mathematics, and leave alone all the things I dabbled in year after year…

I had been so interested in many things that I did nothing thoroughly, and was always thinking about new subjects that I wanted to study, instead of following out any one.”

His comment speaks to the division between American colleges and undergraduate programs in other countries—in the former dabbling is encouraged, even required, while at the latter it is made extremely difficult.

Each system has its advantages, though I’ve long come down on the side of supporting intellectual exploration in one’s undergraduate years. It was interesting to come across this very different perspective.


From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4T S Eliot letters liberal arts college electives

T. S. Eliot: “The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else”

In 1914 Thomas Stearns Eliot was four years out of Harvard and had completed his first masterpiece, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem was not yet published, but he knew it was good, and Ezra Pound had promised to help him get it placed in print (it soon would be). Eliot was living in London and was soon to head to Oxford for a year of study.

T. S. Eliot letters and his careerIt’s easy for us to look at Eliot at that point in his life and see his success as given—to wish that we had a piece of great work behind us, as he did, and to be free from financial worry, as he was, with years of further study ahead of us. But this was not at all Eliot’s state of mind at the time. In a letter of September that year to his good friend and fellow poet from Harvard Conrad Aiken, he was full of worry:

“The devil of it is that I have done nothing good since J. A. P. and writhe in impotence. The stuff I sent you is not good, is very forced in execution, though the idea was right, I think. Sometimes I think—if only I could get back to Paris. But I know I never will, for long. I must learn to talk English.

Anyway, I’m in the worry way now. Too many minor considerations. Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it’s tragic suffering — it takes you away from yourself — and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration.

I think now that all my good stuff was done before I had begun to worry — three years ago. I sometimes think it would be better to be just a clerk in a post office with nothing to worry about — but the consciousness of having made a failure of one’s life. Or a millionaire, ditto. 

The thing is to be able to look at one’s life as if it were somebody’s else — (I much prefer to say somebody else’s). That is difficult in England, almost impossible in America. — But it may be all right in the long run, (if I can get over it), perhaps tant mieux (so much the better). 

Anyway, I have been living a pleasant and useless life of late, and talking (bad) French too…


From The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1: 1989—1922. Yale University Press. Pages 62-4.

Friedrich Schiller on How Art and the Humanities Respond to the Necessities of Our Minds

“By downsizing what is most dangerous (and most essential) about our education, namely, the deep civic function of the arts and humanities”, wrote Mark Slouka, “we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens.” For many of us, this may seem obvious: the arts are essential in the development of vibrant, informed individuals, and free societies. For others, it will seem misguided. But why exactly does art contribute to a vibrant civic life? And why, these days, do there seem to be so many for whom that idea appears mistaken, and who are intent on reducing whatever funding and attention is still directed in the way of the arts?

The downsizing of the arts and the loss of their prominent role in public life is not a new phenomenon: it is precisely what Friedrich Schiller, German poet, philosopher, and playwright, set about answering in 1795 in his On the Aesthetic Education of Man. The book, first published as Weber die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, is written as a series of letters to a patron who is concerned with the role that beauty and art play in the functioning of society.

Schiller writes in his second letter of the relationship that art has to free individuals:

Schiller, Slouka and Kronman on Art in an Age of Science, and How Art Responds to the Necessities of Our Minds“Art has to leave the realm of reality, and with proper audacity elevate itself above simple need; for art is a daughter of freedom, responding not to the demands of matter, but to the necessity in our minds.

“To elevate itself above simple need” implies that art must do something for our inner lives, not just our outer ones; that it must speak to our need for self-actualisation, to use Maslow’s term from his hierarchy of needs. Art responds to the “necessity in our minds”, the kind of meaning and fulfilment that we require. And yet, Schiller writes, that was impossible in his time:

“For the present, need prevails, and bends a sunken humanity to its tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of the age, to which all powers are in thrall and all talent must pay homage.”

Need and utility, the key terms of Schiller’s age—and our own, two hundred-odd years later. Mark Slouka quotes an article in the Times describing how our education system is failing “to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy.” “Might there be another reason”, Slouka wonders in response, “for seeking to develop fluent writers? Could clear writing have some relation to clear thinking…?” But that is a mere micro-example of the broader reality that GDP is the structuring metric of our societies, and utility is how everything is forced to serve the need of the economy—never mind that our minds, and our planet, have their own necessities. 

Schiller concluded of his age, and it is equally applicable to ours, that,

“On this crude scale the spiritual virtues of art have no weight and, bereft of all encouragement, it disappears from the tumultuous market of our century. The spirit of philosophical enquiry strips the power of imagination from one province after another; the borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.”

The “tumultuous market of our century”, and the way that the “borders of art shrink as science extends its bounds.” Who would have thought our own time would be best diagnosed from two hundred years ago? Perhaps former dean of the Yale Law School Anthony Kronman had Schiller’s passage in mind when writing a chapter titled “Spirit in an Age of Science” in his new book Education’s End: How Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. 

There, Kronman writes that “Science is today the greatest authority in our lives—greater than any political or religious ideal, any cultural tradition, any legal system. We depend on science and defer to it as we do to nothing else.” On the other hand, “We do not need the humanities for technology. They cannot satisfy our desire to understand with the same decisive clarity as the natural and social sciences. What, then, do we need them for? What can their purpose and value be?”

Kronman’s answer is Schiller’s answer is Slouka’s answer: we need art and the humanities, and we need to pay close attention to them, because they alone give spirit to our inner lives. Where science forces arational beings into rational boxes, leaving gaping holes, art instead fills the “necessity of our minds.” And what is more important?

I recommend reading through Mark Slouka’s Harper’s Magazine archive, and even more than that, reading his collection Essays from the Nick of Time.  His essay Dehumanized, from which I quoted above, can be found in both.

The edition of Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man that I’ve quoted from is the 2016 Penguin Classics edition translated by Keith Tribe.

How Arthur Schopenhauer’s First Job Made Him Pessimistic For Life

Arthur Schopenhauer was not a particularly positive person, if I’m allowed such an understatement. The German philosopher wrote his famous work of metaphysics The World as Will and Representation before he was 30, and then spent the rest of his life writing in order to show how all that is wrong with the world proved his philosophy.

Here’s a taste of Schopenhauer’s view of the world:

Hollingdale on Schopenhauer's pessism, Essays and Aphorisms

“History shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes. In just the same way the life of the individual is a constant struggle, and not merely a metaphorical one against want or boredom, but also an actual struggle against other people. He discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand.”

— (From On the Suffering of the World).

Why did Schopenhauer see the world in such a deeply pessimistic way? What led him to believe that all humans can aspire to is the avoidance of pain, and what leads, contrariwise, someone like the Dalai Lama to view people as fundamentally striving for good? Their contrasting philosophies do not stem from nothing, and it is logical to think that our individual development in youth will shape our personal philosophies towards life.

Schopenhauer’s translator and biographer R. J. Hollingdale certainly takes that view of individual philosophical development, and argues that we can understand a thinker by understanding both the problems that he or she is dealing with (how they fit into a tradition of thought), as well as by understanding “those elements in his personality and background which lead him to deal with these problems in just the way he does.” Applied to Schopenhauer, Hollingdale says: “We learn that this extraordinary man has created a new metaphysic… simply in order to understand and justify his own pessimistic disposition.”

Hollingdale points to a number of episodes in Schopenhauer’s life as evidence for why he could only have developed a negative view of the world, but it is one period of his youth, between ages 17-21, that seemed above all else to shape his outlook. I want to quote this section from Hollingdale in full, because it deals not just with Schopenhauer, but with most of us; and because how we reconcile in ourselves a similar set of feelings will determine, as it did with Schopenhauer, our general outlook on the world for our lifetimes.

“This is now the crucial epoch of his [Schopenhauer’s] life. In April his father dies: the death leaves him feeling more rather than less bound to fulfil his promise to become a merchant. But the house of Schopenhauer is sold up, his mother and sister leave for Weimar, and he is left in the office of Jenisch [a trading house where he is a clerk]. And now despair begins to enter his soul. He hates the work of a clerk, and has now come to hate the whole mercantile world; at the same time his very modest education has fitted him for little else. When he is 21 he will get his share of the paternal fortune, assuming his mother has not spent it by then—but as yet he is only 17, and at 17 four years are an unimaginable eternity.

In short, Jenisch’s office becomes Schopenhauer’s blacking factory—with this difference, that Dicken’s experience was that of a little boy unable to analyse his situation and was one now fortunately rare, while Schopenhauer’s is so ordinary as to be called perhaps the common lot of middle-class youth. The capitalist world, and in particular the heart of it, the world of buying and selling, offers almost nothing a young man wants: the instincts of youth are at variance with the demands of business, and especially with those of clerking. What young man is by nature diligent, sober and regular in his habits? Respectful to ‘superiors’ and humble before wealth? Sincerely able to devote himself to what he finds boing?

One in ten thousand, perhaps. But for the great majority a ‘job’ is, depending on temperament, a torment or a tedious irrelevance which has to be endured day after day in order that, during one’s so-called ‘free time’, one will be allowed to get on with living. The situation is the most commonplace in the world. I believe it is the cause of that settled cynicism with which nine out of ten regard the ‘social order’…

This familiar feeling was what now overcame Schopenhauer: the feeling which appears when life, hitherto apparently capable of granting anything, is suddenly revealed as deception, when the colour is drained from it and the whole future seems a single grey. The essence is in the question: Is this all? Is this life?

The intensity with which the question is asked must of course vary: but when we consider that Schopenhauer was in fact a man of genius, we shall not be surprised to discover that in him its intensity was very great.”

From these four years of “greyness”, Hollingdale argues, Schopenhauer built his life’s philosophy. He was so affected by the futility and meaninglessness of his work as a clerk that he needed to find an explanation for how the majority of humans could live their lives that way. Not that he lived the rest of his life with much more colour—he had an identical daily routine that he carried out almost every day of his life, and, as he put it in his early years as a philosopher: “Life is a missliche Sache — a disagreeable thing-: I have determined to spend it in reflecting on it.”

When he eventually does inherit his father’s fortune at 21, he immediately enrols in university and discovers philosophy—and therefore himself. While we would say the rest is history, he would probably say it was merely misery.

In reflecting on Schopenhauer’s life and philosophy, I can’t help but feel that to extend one’s youthful pessimism into one’s life work is simply believe in fixity. Even if one grants that life is as Schopenhauer described it—a later version of Hobbes’ “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”—it seems a far more human response to nevertheless hope that one’s own life, and the lives of those around us, might be lived more positively. Schopenhauer’s approach was resignation; his philosophy, a justification of his resignation.

I find it far more effective to describe the world as it could be, rather than as it is. Shakespeare told us (and Montaigne before him) that the world is neither good nor bad, but it is our thinking that makes it so. Hope that we could live more positively than Schopenhauer, even in the face of a job we don’t find meaningful and the “common lot of middle-class youth”, as Hollingdale put it, and we are far more likely to make it so.

T. S. Eliot Defines Stoicism

Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him…”

In 1927 T. S. Eliot sought in an essay to explain the connection between Shakespeare and the Roman playwright and man of letters Seneca. Or rather, by pre-empting the idea that Shakespeare could be explained by Seneca, Eliot mocks the growing number of voices in literary history seeking to explain Shakespeare’s thought in terms of one thinker or another. (Recent attempts had been made to explain him in terms of Montaigne and Machiavelli).

In the midst of the essay Eliot passingly defines stoicism:

“Stoicism is the refuge for the individual in an indifferent or hostile world too big for him; it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up. Nietzsche is the most conspicuous modern instance of cheering oneself up. The stoical attitude is the reverse of Christian humility.”
It’s a remarkable definition for its unexpectedness. One imagines stoics undertaking a much deeper struggle than merely “cheering oneself up”, and yet Eliot shows us that in such a philosophy that is all we really attempt to find.
I also think it worth quoting Eliot’s not so favourable review of Seneca’s Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (or Letters from a Stoic) just for interest’s sake:

“I think it quite unlikely that Shakespeare knew anything of that extraordinarily dull and uninteresting body of Seneca’s prose, which was translated by Loge and printed in 1612.”



We Need Educators, Not Teachers

“There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anaesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded…”, wrote Nietzsche in 1873: “but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.”

Nietzsche goes on in his essay to describe how Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who had died thirteen years prior, was his “one teacher and master-discipliner” who had taught him how to “reshape the whole human being into a living, moving solar and planetary system and to identify the law governing its higher mechanics.”

Compare that description to most of the teachers we encounter in schools and universities, who don’t inspire so much as dull our senses. It’s not that any teacher means badly—it just points to the fundamental distinction between a teacher and an educator, and the fact that the latter are so rare and so valuable.

Hardly anyone draws this distinction between teachers and educators. The terms are most often used interchangeably, with some teachers trying on the title of “educator” on their Twitter profile. But the difference goes to the heart of the influence a teacher has on students’ lives, and it’s one that both students and teachers must pay attention to.

Educators versus teachers

“Let my guide remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of Carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.”

— Michel de Montaigne, On the Education of Children

Teachers teach facts, educators use facts to inspire.

Teachers teach the dates of a war, educators use the war to reflect on human morality.

Teachers teach the names and birth dates of characters in history, educators tell of the character of those characters.

Teachers teach facts; educators teach character.

Teachers teach how to find an answer, educators show why the answer matters.

Teachers teach that 1+1=2, educators show the significance of maths in our lives.

Teachers teach material for the upcoming test; educators tell us why we have tests in the first place.

Teachers teach how to write a sentence; educators know that there are no rules for good writing.

Teachers teach Hamlet; educators show us how we are all like Hamlet.

Teachers teach others’ material, but educators know that their own lives are the only true material.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach; educators use that only as their starting point.

Teachers teach what others believe, but educators know that “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Teachers teach classes; educators teach students.

Teachers think books are their material; educators know that the whole world is a “vale of soul-making.”

Teachers have a job. Educators have a calling.

Teachers teach the syllabus; educators see in students what we most need to see in ourselves, and know just how to liberate us from behind that frosted window that is youth.

Teachers teach for school. Educators, for life.

Most of us can teach. Only someone special can educate.

Most of us have teachers. Let us students all look for—hope for—an educator. And let all teachers aspire to—strive to—educate.

Captivated by Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre

I came across the Maison de Verre recently, while reading a book on furniture design. Designed by Pierre Chareau, a French architect forced to flee France to the United States during the Second World War, the “Glass House”, as its name translates, has captivated me since. This was the photo printed in the book on furniture design which I couldn’t pull my eyes away from:

Pierre Chareau Maison de Verre and architecture

Maison de Verre was designed in the late 1920s and completed in the early 30s by Chareau for a wealthy obstetrician and his wife. Two interesting limitations were placed on the design of the house, where otherwise Chareau was given almost a blank slate to design the perfect house:

  1. The house had to include the doctor’s working spaces, including offices, an examination room and a waiting room.
  2. The house was to be built in place of an older house, however the upper storey of the old house was rented long-term and the tenant refused to move out. Therefore the house had to be built below the top storey, keeping it intact.

In 2007 the house changed ownership for the first time since it was built, being bought by the former US Secretary to the Treasury Robert Rubin. Rubin has a history of collecting and restoring old cars, and he also owns one of Jean Prouve’s Maison Tropicales. (Rubin is also the guy who Rustin Silverstein wrote about in an article on the prestige paradox for the Harvard Crimson, which I wrote about here).

I’ve read basically everything about the Glass House that I’ve been able to get my hands on since. One place to start is a story done in the Times about the house’s history and its recent change in ownership. Another good primer is this one.

Even better for understanding the house was a lecture given by Rubin himself about the restoration process he’s been leading the house through. And I loved this video for all the different shots of the house, as well as wonderful descriptions of its technical aspects:

Don’t Be Distracted By the Minimalist Aesthetic

“This is not something, however, to which mere surroundings are conducive, unless the mind is at its own disposal, able at will to provide its own seclusion even in crowded moments.”

— Seneca, Letter CIV of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium

When our lives aren’t in order it’s very tempting to look for external explanations and external fixes.

For instance, so many of us today have the sense that we are too busy, too distracted, too rushed and hurried. We wake up feeling that way and the day only makes it worse. We can’t think properly, we can’t read properly. There’s always a demand on our time to distract us from what’s important.

So when we come across a solution we’re likely to grab at it. For instance:

Minimalist House and minimalist aesthetic
Minimalist House in Okinawa, Japan. Photo from Deezen.

An image like this makes a promise, and embedded within that promise is a cause and effect.

It says: if you have an uncluttered physical space, your mind will be uncluttered too. Or, the reverse: your mind is cluttered because your surroundings are cluttered.

Solutions like this are so compelling because they tell us directly what we should do, and promise salvation. Just declutter your house, and you’ll declutter your mind!

They’re also compelling because of their aestheticism. We are wired to enjoy and to seek beauty in our lives, and we are naturally drawn to certain aesthetics.

There is a link between our lives and our desire for a certain aesthetic—but unfortunately it may not be the link we hoped for.

We are drawn to a minimalist aesthetic because of the clutteredness of our minds. Our desire for this aesthetic is a response to dissatisfaction with our lives.

But we cannot rely upon a minimalist aesthetic to solve the problems inside our minds. The problems are internal not external. As the quote from Seneca above shows, it’s an age-old temptation to look to external solutions for internal problems (he wrote around two thousand years ago).

At best the aesthetic is a kind of band-aid. It distracts us from our problems. Ironic, since it is meant to clear our lives of distraction.

Band-aids help. So too might a minimalist aesthetic in our lives. But let’s not expect it to solve our problems.

An internal problem requires internal solutions. (I know in saying that that I’ll lose most readers right there. It’s not the “change your life right here and right now!” advice that most blogs give).

An uncluttered mind will take uncluttering our minds, not just our houses. It’s not easy. It takes practise. It might just take a lifetime.

Montaigne Says We Should Be Better Learned, Not More Learned

Montaigne reminds us in his essay Of Pedantry of the difference between wisdom and knowledge, and laments the fact that we naturally favour the former:

“In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgement and virtue, little news. Exclaim to our people about a passer-by “Oh, what a learned man!” and about another “Oh, what a good man!” They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect towards the first. There should be a third exclamation: “Oh, what blockheads!” We are eager to inquire: “Does he know Greek or Latin? Does he write in verse or in prose?” But whether he has become better or wiser, which would be the main thing, that is left out. We should have asked who is better learned, not who is more learned.”

To be better learned is to have learned also to apply one’s knowledge to one’s life; to be more learned is to be a walking encyclopaedia. The latter, however, is more easily measured and more easily observed, for we can always recite facts. Wisdom must be demonstrated over time, and often requires certain circumstances to be seen.

But always our aim should be to become better learned. That alone is what helps one to live.