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.”

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.

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.

Should You Be a Well-Rounded Student, or a Highly-Focused Specialist?

At my old high school it was always stressed to us that our goal should be to become an “all-round man”. (It’s an all male school). Even today this is a kind of tag line for Scots College and many high schools around the world. “Students at the College”, the website says, “are provided with opportunities in many areas to develop their potential in the areas of academia, sport, culture, service and spirituality.” The “all-round” person excels at all these things. They are the mythical “renaissance” person, the generalist, the jack-of-all-trades, someone who can speak on any subject, a person on whom nothing is ever lost.

At university the goal is the opposite. We are told that we need to become exceptional at something—that we need to focus on our major, get a paper published, get an internship in the field, read all the “literature” on the topic, write our thesis on an even narrower sub-topic. At a liberal arts college we’re encouraged to take classes outside that area, but even then we’re told to draw links back to see how those other fields can inform our area of expertise. At university the model is the distinguished professor—someone who is a recognized international expert in their field, who knows everything there is to be known about their area. The all-rounder is here viewed as the dilettante, the dabbler, someone who has no idea what they want to do with their life and so is delaying the choice. At full research universities rather than liberal arts colleges the model of the expert is even stronger.

If the goal of our education is to become the ideal that the educational institution (and by extension society) holds up, how does it make sense to have two radically opposed ideals at two stages of our education? Which should we become: the generalist or the specialist? Which is better?

The decision relates not just to the kind of student we are or the career we hope to have, but rather what kind of person we are—what we think about and read on, what we can speak about and who we associate with.

     The Origins of the Two Ideals

The two models each have long histories.

The “all-round” ideal that most high schools still follow is derived from the Greek tradition, where the liberal arts model of education was developed and practiced (liberal arts proper, not liberal arts as the term has been corrupted to today). Students took a range of subjects and developed them all, looking up to someone like Aristotle who expounded as comfortably on drama and poetry as he did on science. Aristotle himself in his Nichomachean Ethics wrote that

“We take the human function to be a certain kind of life, and take this life to be activity and actions of the soul that involve reason; hence the function of the excellent man is to do this well and finely.”

The human end, in other words, is to think and to reason well in pursuit of happiness. We contribute by thinking and reasoning and bringing our thought into contact with society. There should be no limits to what our thought encompasses. To limit ourselves to one field of thought (if we can separate fields of knowledge at all) is foolish, in this tradition.

But our colleges and universities have come to follow a very different tradition, one that came about much later than the Greek “all-round” ideal. This is the German “bildung” tradition, or that of personal development, which Anthony Kronman in his latest book has argued led directly to the research (specialist) ideal of the modern university:

“Two features of the Bildung ideal meshed in an especially close and supportive way with the requirements of specialised academic research… The first was an insistence on the one-sidedness of all responsible self-cultivation. Every human being is born with powers he or she shares with other members of the species. But no one person can develop these to full expression. Life is too short for that… To aim at a universal humanity that encompasses the whole of mankind’s powers [the Greek tradition] is not only fruitless, and hence imprudent, but self-indulgent as well. What one must do instead is develop to their fullest the distinctive talents one possesses, leaving it to others to develop theirs in turn.”

So the model of specialization that our universities follow today is derived from a totally different intellectual tradition and foundation to the model of well-roundedness of our high schools. They come from different places, and they encourage us to be different people.

     Which Ideal to Strive For?

I think it’s too simplistic to say that because university is considered “higher” education, we should follow the ideal that it puts forth. One can follow that ideal if one chooses to devote one’s life to scholarship, but the ideal might not make sense if we want something else in life.

For the record, I think “wholeness” and well-roundedness is an ideal to strive for in our personal lives. But I recognise that people go to university for a variety of reasons—and so maybe some more general advice is needed in this case.

My suggestion is that in thinking about high school and then university we should separate in our minds that stage of education from the ideal that they necessarily put forth. Going to university does not require us to become specialists, even if it encourages it; and contrariwise, one can still specialise at a high school committed to developing the “all-round” person.

That each stage of our education puts forth different ideals is as much a result of the chance development of these two kinds of institutions as it is a necessary reality.

If your mind favors thinking broadly and generally, and you push back against the pressure to specialise, then hold onto that. Don’t let the fact that you’re in a university tell you you must specialise.

If you have a deep passion for a single field and want to devote yourself to that, then specialise, regardless of any pressure you feel to broaden. (A word of caution here, however: When we are very young it is difficult to tell where else we might find passions and interests. Enforced general study at high school does make sense in many ways, because we are told that we are not yet ready to make lifelong decisions about what to devote ourselves to. But as with everything, it is an individual decision.)

At the very least, it pays to remember that the ideals we are shown daily are not ones we need to follow. It is far more important to find out who we are as individuals, and then find an ideal to match that.

On Repetition, or Why Repeating the Past Won’t Solve Our Present Problems

“Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward. Repetition, therefore, if it is possible makes a person happy, whereas recollection makes him unhappy…”  — Soren Kierkegaard

A year ago I spent time in the south island of New Zealand in a beautiful little town called Wanaka. It was mid-summer and the weather was perfect every day. I was on break from university and had no obligations or demands on my time, so each day I would read, spend time with people important to me, and go for long bike rides around the lake and up the mountains. It was a perfect week.

One day in particular stands out in my mind, and hardly a day goes by without my thinking about it. I woke up early again to a perfect day, got straight into my cycling kit, and headed out the door to ride to Queenstown, one of New Zealand’s most famous towns, which lies about eighty kilometres away from Wanaka over one of the must stunning mountain passes perhaps in the world. There is nothing individually that I can point to to describe what made this day so important for me. It was just the total experience of this long, early-morning bike ride over the Crown Range with no other traffic and no people. Maybe it was a state of flow for almost the entire day. I’m filled with positive feelings and gratitude when I think back on it.

Soren Kierkegaard Repetition — Repeating the past doesn't solve our present problems
View from the top of the Crown Range. This is my frequent repetition memory.

Whatever made the day what it was to me is secondary to its importance in my mind. That day is a yardstick against which I measure up the present.

We all have memories like this, and we all think back on them often. When the present gets tough, we can find ourselves looking back to those perfect times more and more frequently.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the desire to not just remember those times, but to repeat them. To not just think about how nice those days were, but to travel back to the same town, to stay in the same place, to re-travel the same route, eat at the same restaurants and even read the same books.

Merely remembering these times can make us melancholy, since our thinking about them indicates that the present does not live up to them. But repeating them, recreating those perfect moments in the future—would that not make us as happy again? Our desire for repetition is an attempt to reproduce past happiness in the future. The present, in this frame of mind, is merely a link whereby we can plan to link our past with our future.

But repetition does not work. And not only does it not work, but attempting it simultaneously harms us in the present, and harms our original memory of that time that was once perfect. We risk avoiding whatever problems we have in the present, and extrapolating our pasts into our futures endlessly.

1. Our environment does not determine our mental state

We commonly think that our happiness or sadness is caused by the environment we are in. In remembering the wonderful days I had in Queenstown and Wanaka, I draw a connection between those locations and my mental state at the time. This is logical, and indeed there may be a partial connection. But it’s important to realise that our environment does not determine our mental state, and that we do not see all the other factors that contributed to our happiness at that time.

What we eat has an enormous impact on our emotions. So does whether we over or under-exercise. How much we’ve slept. Who we are spending time with, what work we have to do. How satisfied we are with ourselves. These things probably influenced my happiness while I was in Wanaka far more than the fact that was in Wanaka. And yet in the present, it’s far easier to simply look back and point to the location and the environment as the cause of happiness, since it’s the most immediate in our minds.

We can repeat the environment by travelling back to that location that we remember; but we can never repeat all the other factors that contributed to our happiness, the ones that we don’t remember and cannot see. And the irony is that the former was probably not the cause of our mental state, while the latter were. So in seeking repetition, we are merely confusing causes, and seeking to repeat something that was coincidental to our happiness.

2. Desire for repetition stems from dissatisfaction with our present

We can map out the direction of our thoughts when we begin to consider repetition.

When we are satisfied with the present we do not recollect the past. When I was in Wanaka during that perfect week, I was not thinking back to other happy times and wanting to repeat them in the future. Instead I was wholly present.

So, first, we are prompted to remember happy times past by a dissatisfaction with the present. It is not enjoying what we are doing today that encourages thinking about the past.

Next, present dissatisfaction is heightened by our recollection of perfect times. Remembering the best times we’ve had draws an incredibly sharp contrast to our present, making the past memories seem even better, and the present even worse.

Next, in being led to want to repeat those previous happy times in our future, we must assume that our present dissatisfied state will continue into the future. We therefore assume that because we are not happy now, we will not be happy tomorrow or next week, and therefore need to take action to recreate the happiness we felt in our memories.

Last, if we don’t check our desire for repetition, our convictions about present dissatisfaction become so strong that we act on the impulse by booking flights, accomodation, etcetera.

The fallacy in our desire for repetition, then, is that we focus on our prior happiness as a solution to our present dissatisfaction. But because, as I described above, we can never know all the factors that contributed to previous happiness, we will never solve present dissatisfaction by trying to repeat the past.

3. Even if the external environment caused our happiness, it will have changed

In our mind, a given location is fixed. The road that I cycled along is all etched in my mind in a very specific way. Yet it is almost certain that were I to return to cycle that same road, it won’t be the same. There might be roadworks. Maybe the road will simply be a lot busier this time. Maybe they’ll have erected some safety barriers that affect the view. (Maybe this time I don’t eat enough and feel exhausted after ten kilometres). Who knows what it will be—but we can rely on the fact that the physical environment will have changed since we were last there. And in going back to someplace to repeat the past, we’ll only ever be dissatisfied whenever anything does not match entirely. We would not enjoy the present, and we’d harm the original memory we had.

4. Repetition is a recipe for avoiding the present

Say we act on repetition. We travel back to somewhere where we were once happy. Now there are two different chains of thought that can come about:

1. If the repetition worked.

Say, for a moment, that we did become as happy as we were the last time we were here. It lived up to all our expectations. It solved our dissatisfaction. Well, when it comes time to leave and return home where we were dissatisfied, our next thought will be to seek another memory to repeat in order to avoid that dissatisfaction we felt at home. Maybe we’ll start planning our next repetition before we’ve even left the location where we sought the last! In this case, we will avoid ever living in the present, because we are taught that happiness comes from looking at previous positive memories and repeating them in the future. The present, in this scenario, is merely spent in planning the future.

2. If the repetition didn’t work.

But as is far more likely, the repetition won’t work. We’ll just become dissatisfied with how nothing lives up to our memory of the place, and in the process we ruin the original memory we had. What then? We return home to the dissatisfaction that prompted us to seek this repetition; we look for another memory to repeat. Again, we begin living in the past and the future, never stopping to solve our present dissatisfaction which caused our seeking repetition.

5. Maxims

1. Let memories be memories. Be satisfied that you had that experience; it’s something no one can ever take away from you or alter.

2. Think about what in the present is causing you to reflect on past times that were supposedly “better”. Locate the dissatisfaction in the present.

3. Realise that traveling and changing your environment cannot fix the problems in your mind. The Stoics had this right. (Seneca: “If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”)

4. Focus on having new experiences in the present that might come to surpass those old memories. This way you’re not measuring up the future against your past, but ensuring entirely new memories will be created, ones that stand on their own terms without reference to the past.

5. You don’t need to travel to re-gain that positive state of mind. A simple walk in the gardens near your house might suffice.

What Is a Liberal Arts Education? Or, How to Build a Meaningful Life

The idea of the liberal arts is one of the most important ideas in education. It is also one of the most misunderstood. A liberal education—that is, an education that teaches the liberal arts—is to my mind a real education, one that teaches us not just how to do something, but what exactly we should do and what we should want in our lives. It is an antidote to the sense of meaninglessness and exhaustion that plagues so many students on campus, and follows us throughout our lives. But the problem is, universities themselves have forgotten what the liberal arts really are, and there seem very few people today who still understand what a real education is and how it can help us live meaningful lives.

With this article I want to give an historical and a philosophical account of what liberal education always was, and what it can be, if students choose. This isn’t—cannot be—exhaustive. Yet it is the article I wish I’d read about the liberal arts before I started college and university.

1. Liberal, Servile and Instrumental Arts

The “liberal arts” (or artes liberales)  always stood opposed to what were called the “servile arts” (artes serviles). “Arts” mean, essentially, ways of doing or thinking things, and “liberal” was originally used in the sense of “free”. So liberal arts were ways of doing or thinking things that were appropriate to people who are free. “Servile”, on the other hand, was used in the ancient Greek context to refer to the ways of doing or thinking things that were used by people who were not free—in other words, slaves. The liberal arts only existed with reference to arts that were not liberal.

But that distinction is long outdated. It draws upon a difference between people that, thank goodness, has not existed for quite some time. In its place, however, a new distinction has come about.

The philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his book The Voice of Liberal Learning contrasts the liberal arts to “instrumental” arts. Instrumental as in, used to achieve something else. The liberal arts in this distinction are done for their own sake, not in order to achieve other ends, while the instrumental arts are done to achieve specific ends. These ends that the instrumental arts pursue, Oakeshott says, are “exploiting the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants”:

“To be human, to have wants and to try to satisfy them, is, then, to have the use of particular skills, instrumental practices and relationships. There is no action which is not a subscription to some art, and utterance is impossible without a language. These skills, practices and relationships have to be learned. Since this learning, so far as it goes, is genuine and may be extensive, it is no surprise that there should be special places devoted to it, each concerned to initiate learners into some particular instrumental art or practice and often equipped with the opportunity of “learning on the job”, as it is called: medical schools, law schools, language schools, schools of journalism or photography, schools where one may learn to cook, to drive an automobile or to run a bassoon factory, and even polytechnics where a variety of such instrumental skills may be learned.”

As Oakeshott describes, the instrumental arts are learned at specific schools like medical schools, law schools, language schools, polytechnics and so on. The learning done at these schools is concerned with a very specific end—being a lawyer or a doctor, practising those skills in a career, earning an income.

But the instrumental arts are, on their own, never sufficient if one is to be a complete human who pursues ends that are responsible and meaningful. As Oakeshott says, “It is never enough to say of a human want: “I know how to satisfy it and I have the power to do so.” There is always something else to consider.”

That something else is this: is a given want worth satisfying? What, precisely, should I want in life?

Those are the questions of a liberal education. They do not deal with satisfying specific human wants, but in determining what it is that we should want. For Oakeshott, these are “liberal” arts because they are “liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants.”

Cardinal John Henry Newman in his important book The Idea of a University described the distinction similarly:

“That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”

And Josef Pieper in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, said that the question posed by the liberal arts is,

“Is there a sphere of human activity, one might even say of human existence, that does not need to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization?”

The instrumental arts—science and technology—allowed humans to build nuclear and chemical weapons. They were insufficient to ask the prior, and far more important question, “Should these be made?”

The instrumental arts studied at a school of law or medicine help a prodigious and ambitious young person to become a successful lawyer or doctor, well-respected and well-paid. They are insufficient for asking the prior—and necessary—questions of, “Should I be a lawyer? What kind of life would that be? What, ultimately, am I living for?”

It is the liberal arts that teach us to be responsible humans who live meaningful lives. We can and should learn instrumental arts, too—but these are best learned after one has figured out what is worth wanting.

2. The Point of a Liberal Arts Education

The first universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge), and the first colleges in the United States (Harvard and Yale)—as well as those places of learning in India and China—were all concerned with the liberal arts. They taught nothing else. They existed to be separate from the world of work and the satisfaction of wants.

At these liberal arts colleges, one did nothing for four years but read, write, and consider the important questions of human existence. One did not go to college in order to set oneself up for a good job after graduation. Students did not choose colleges based on their expected “return on investment.” They went because it was widely recognised that a young person needed time and space—four years to be precise—to figure out what it is that is worth wanting, before learning how to pursue that.

Reading literature, philosophy, and history opens students’ minds to the range of different lives that could be lived—and listening to a piece of music or observing an artwork can inspire someone to a better life. They are not read in order to become a professor of literature or philosophy, but merely to discover the full range of human existence. And this is why a liberal education is focussed on the humanities: because these alone deal with human existence.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, in a rare recent explanation of the point of college, described the reading we do at a liberal arts college by saying:

“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and we are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…

You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”

Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, pointed to the question of “Who Are You?” as at the heart of an education at a liberal arts college:

“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…

You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.

For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.”

Anthony Kronman, former Dean of the Yale Law School, says in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, that

“The goal of every undergraduate liberal arts program is to provide its students with an opportunity of this kind… All rest on the assumption that one important aim of undergraduate education is to afford the young men and women who are its beneficiaries an opportunity to reflect on the curious and inspiring adventure of life before they have gone too far in it and lost the time and perhaps the nerve for such reflections.”

Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, in his book College: What It Was, Is and Should Be quotes Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, who described college as being about

What is a liberal arts education?“Making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”

And David Foster Wallace in his commencement address at Kenyon College said that the “real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education” is about

“How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

All these explanations of liberal education have in common the idea that going to college should be about answering the fundamental questions of one’s life before it’s too late to ask them. If we do not take time from roughly ages 18-22 to do this serious thinking, it’s likely we’ll never be able to—and will live lives that are less meaningful and responsible than they could have been.

College mottos—Yale’s “lux et veritas”, for instance, or “light and truth”—hint at both the religious foundations of colleges, as well as this devotion to learning at its most fundamental.

What is inescapable is that a liberal education is an enormous privilege. It is an opportunity few are afforded—but once afforded, should be taken full advantage of.

3. Liberal Arts Colleges Today

Clearly liberal arts colleges today offer something quite different. I strongly believe that they still offer the liberal education I’ve described above—but that one has to fight for that, rather than being given it as the default.

One would expect that whatever one studies at a liberal arts college will then be a “liberal art”, and will help us work out what we should want. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Liberal arts” as the way most colleges and universities intend them today, including the Ivy Leagues, is used as nothing more than a synonym for breadth in one’s education. The term merely implies that students intend—or are encouraged—to take a variety of subjects not immediately related to one’s major or area of focus.

Breadth may well be a part of a liberal education, but it comes nowhere close to defining it. And so when we look at colleges, or are admitted and look through the course selection booklet, there is nothing to distinguish between colleges themselves, subjects, classes or professors that may allow us an “adventure in human self-understanding”, as Oakeshott called it, versus those that teach how to “exploit the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants.”

Colleges have also radically expanded the range of majors we can study, many of which are pre-professional and therefore instrumental. These majors deal with teaching students how to be or do something, rather than asking the prior questions of whether they should be or do those things. Students can go through an entire four years at a liberal arts college merely preparing for their first job, rather than undertaking a proper liberal education.

This is not the place for me to get into the reasons for this change, or its effects. Suffice it to say that the education today offered at most liberal arts colleges is not a liberal education as it was always conceived—and to better understand this, I recommend Andrew Delbanco and Anthony Kronmans’ books.

4. How to get a proper liberal education

I take it for granted that the professionalisation of our liberal arts colleges is inevitable and irrevocable. The majority of students, parents and professors demand an instrumental education even at a liberal arts college, and nothing can be done to reverse that corruption in terms. I do not complain about it—so long as students who want a liberal education are still able to get one.

The problem, however, is that because the distinction between the liberal and instrumental arts has been diminished or lost by our institutions, we simply aren’t aware of how the small decisions we make about our learning can come to radically affect the kind of education we think we can have. Most students do not know that they can have an education that deals with their lives as a whole, rather than one that deals with their first job. Everything said to us by institutions, professors, parents and classmates pushes us to receive an instrumental education, rather than a properly liberal one.

And again, I repeat—an instrumental education is necessary, because we must participate in the world towards instrumental ends. But it is best done after a truly liberal education, which first lets someone work out what ends are worth wanting.

That’s why it’s so critical we understand these distinctions that all come under the broad banner of “education”, because without an ability to discern between the liberal and instrumental arts we are blind to the way that our decisions about what to learn and when we learn them will shape our life opportunities. But more importantly, if we aren’t aware of the distinctions, we might simply miss entirely the opportunity to build the meaning into our lives that a liberal education offers.

Most students will continue to spend their time at college in the normal way, seeking instrumental ends before figuring out what ends to want. But to those who want an education of the “high old way”—to those students who think there must be more to an education than expanding one’s resume—know that it’s possible, and that it can be truly transformative. Know that there are others who also want a real education, who are likewise disappointed by what college and university has become. And know that throughout history, most of those who wrote books that we can read today understood the value and the need for a truly liberal education. They’re our guides, even if we are guided away by current university administrators from what we want in our education.

Marcus Aurelius explains why wanting a quiet spot in the woods won’t solve any of our problems

If only I had a quiet spot in a cabin in the woods or in the mountains where I could live for a while to write and to read, I often think to myself. (By the sea would be okay too). If I had that, everything would become clear. I’d be productive like I cannot be anywhere else. I’d focus on what is important, and I’d learn about myself and the world. I’d be re-energised, refreshed, ready once again to fulfil all my hopes and dreams. If only!

It’s a common lament. Few of us follow through. Some try. I only know of one to have succeeded.

Cabin Porn inspiration for your quiet place somewhere — Marcus Aurelius against travel and escapismPerhaps it’s becoming more common, too, as life appears to be getting more hectic and stressful. Cities compound the desire for escape to someplace quiet. Look at this Tumblr blog and I guarantee you’ll feel some pull towards what the site calls “Inspiration for your quiet place somewhere.” Check out this startup that helps stressed-out New Yorker-millennials escape to the woods for a few days.

But the pull towards somewhere quiet in the woods, the mountains or by the sea is also not at all new. Marcus Aurelius described it almost two thousand years ago—and in his Meditations, a series of notes to himself on how to and how not to behave, he also described to himself the foolishness of the ideal of “someplace quiet.”

“Men seek for seclusion in the wilderness, by the seashore, or in the mountains—a dream you have cherished only too fondly yourself. But such fancies are wholly unworthy of a philosophers, since at any moment you choose you can retire within yourself. Nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul; above all, he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind— the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Avail yourself often, then, of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. 

Marcus Aurelius reminds us, whenever that pull gets too strong, that we cannot expect our internal state of mind to be fixed immediately by simply going somewhere quiet in the woods. Too often we will be stressed and won’t be able to go anywhere else. We need to work out how to find peace of mind in exactly the place we are in right now—and we can find that in our own minds, if we try.

I suppose Aurelius would have thoroughly disagreed with Thoreau—he is, essentially, calling his going to live in the woods “unworthy of a philosopher.” Thoreau wished to see if he could live “deliberately”, and maybe for that he needed to go to the woods. For the rest of us, though, Aurelius poses the question: do you really need to travel to find peace of mind? Are you making an external excuse for what is an internal problem?

As Seneca pointed out before him, “your faults will follow you whithersoever you travel.”

Emerson, Self-Reliance and Education: Learning to Be Yourself

Yesterday morning I sat down to write but my mind was elsewhere. It was a sunny, windless day, and that morning freshness still hung on the trees around my house. I closed my laptop, put on walking shoes, and drove to the base of a walk I’ve been wanting to do for a while, the Red Rocks and Tip Track loop in Wellington. I took a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays with me and sat down on the grass just before the peak to read his essay Self-Reliance.

It seemed a fitting place to read the essay, somehow disconnected from the city and from other people. I’d been walking for a couple of hours and had not seen a single other person, nor could I see any of the city from where I sat. We hear ourselves best in solitude, Emerson says: “Do not seek yourself outside yourself”. Listen to what your mind tells you when free of influence, and then take those thoughts unchanged to the world.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay Self-Reliance and education
Sat here for an hour or so reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance.

Self-Reliance is said to be the essay that expounded a uniquely American philosophy. It encapsulates a pioneer spirit, the idea that you can be or do anything if you believe it in your mind. (Obama recently cited it as an important book for him.) The essay is not usually spoken of as an educational essay, but read in this light, Self-Reliance presents an ideal view of what education should help us to be and to do. It is a yardstick against which we can measure the extent to which we live up to education’s promise; it is a goal for self-aware students to strive towards in our own education.

Emerson begins Self-Reliance by commenting on real genius, and noting that success follows from believing your own mind:

“To believe in your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought it rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgement.”

We spend too much time obscuring our own thoughts and beliefs in order to please others. School, for the most part, is social acclimatisation. We learn what we should and should not say implicitly, before we understand why we should or should not say it. We become used to norms of speech and hide anything that we think and which we have not heard someone else say.

Now of all times, with a Mr. Trump in the White House, is perhaps the time to note that Emerson’s argument is not a license to be vitriolic or offensive merely because you believe it; decency and morality still apply. But we should not be afraid of saying something merely because it is not normally said, or because it might put us one rung lower on the social ladder.

The kind of thought that Emerson is talking about is individuality and intelligence—reflections on the world and on being which we have but think we should not speak of. What made people like Moses, Plato and Milton great, Emerson says, is that

“They set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men, but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. 

In every work of genius we recognise our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humoured inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side.”

When we hold an opinion contrary to the majority we should not dismiss it simply because it is not the norm. This is, in a sense, the paradox of eminence: you do not become great by saying what everyone else was saying, but to say something great that no one else was saying requires bravery against the opinions of the majority. Emerson is telling us to listen to our own minds even when they say things that others are not. “Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense”—trust your judgement, because the majority hold the majority opinion merely because it is easy and comfortable.

“These are the voices [those of our own genius] which we hear in solitude”, Emerson says:

“But they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.”

In thinking of our own education we can’t help but see the joint-stock company Emerson speaks of. We are taught—and have taught ourselves—to conform. Conformity pays dividends, to continue the company analogy. We get good grades, we get praise, we get a good job, we make good money, and so on. Self-reliance—or speaking our own genuine thoughts—will merely put us at odds with the majority of people, or even put us in difficulty in the task of earning a living.

But the educational ideal is self-reliance, helping every person to become who he or she is capable of becoming. Socrates’ exhortation that the unexamined life is not worth living is itself a kind of self-reliance; to rely on ourselves, we must know ourselves. Socrates was even put to death for speaking his mind, for being self-reliant. And Plato, who told us of Socrates, is where a tradition of genuinely liberal education stems from.

We have that ideal of self-examination and self-reliance (the two go together), but we have the reality of conformity and consistency. For many of us, college is a process of unlearning the conformity we’ve been taught up until this point; for others, it is a consolidation of conformity, planning one’s life out along those lines. We cannot expect to become independently thinking people by merely taking the education we’re given; we need to fight to educate ourselves if we are to learn to be self-reliant.

If you want to be self-reliant and trust your own mind, not participating in the vanities of society, you’ll simply have to put up with discomfort—“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” What we need to do, according to Emerson, is

“All that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 

It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

Indeed it all seemed clear to me in solitude on the top of a peak overlooking the sea and mountains. But we do not live in solitude. And our real task in educating ourselves (as opposed to being educated, which seems incompatible with self-reliance) is to come to terms with how we might trust our own minds and yet live with others. Emerson’s self-reliance is one extreme; he was “whipped” for it by society indeed, being widely criticised for many of his lectures at Harvard. The absolute conformity of others simply wanting what is easy and comfortable is the other extreme. But most philosophies of living are about finding a middle-way, “a compromise between”, as Seneca said, “the ideal and the popular morality.”

Our own self-reliance does not require Emerson’s extreme self-reliance; it is about our own self and being reliant upon it, not merely following his extreme interpretation. But total conformity does not involve the self at all. And so we must discover our own way of relying upon our selves.

Taking a long walk in the wilderness, as I found, was a good place to start with that end in mind. It can clear the head, give us perspective, allowing us to return to others not shut off from the world, but more sure of where we stand in it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson essays and Self-Reliance

The Prestige Paradox: Keeping on Running, Going Nowhere

What is prestige? Why do we chase it, and why does it so often lead us astray?

I recently came across an article in the Harvard Crimson from back in 1998. Written by Rustin Silverstein (himself a Harvard college and Harvard law graduate, who later went on to work at the Boston Consulting Group and start his own companies), the column discusses the problem of prestige at any institution where your classmates will end up running countries, or at least enormous companies and government departments. He calls the problem the “prestige paradox”, and says it works like this:

“An enterprising, promising high school senior manages to secure admission to Harvard. Soon, this lucky kid is greeted with admiration and awe by those who hear of this impressive honor. The glow continues to follow our golden child throughout her college life. Every time she meets someone on an airplane, runs into an old friend from high school or talks to Aunt Clara, she is reminded of her special distinction. She can’t help but begin to define herself by it.

The Prestige Paradox Harvard
Harvard graduates’ competition. Tough to match. Photo by NPR.

Unfortunately, however, once inside the Yard, this identity is complicated by the hundreds of other golden children that surround her. She is then faced with a problem: the rest of the world defines her by this admittedly arbitrary and superficial standard of success. But once here, this distinction is no longer so distinctive. In the midst of this impressive bunch, she must figure out how to maintain this hollow distinction.

This worry leads to irrational obsessions about how to maintain the shine of the Harvard status badge when everyone else is also wearing one. For example, you can’t be satisfied, the thinking goes, with just any grad school—anything below the mythical “Top Five” (or whatever standard is in fashion) might not cut it in the need-to-impress game. Similarly, getting a job is great, but unless it’s with a Goldman Sachs, a McKinsey or a Microsoft, survival in the prestige scene might prove difficult.

I think that describes it perfectly. It’s not that there is something inherently better about jobs at these institutions or organisations (in fact, the work itself might prove to be soul-destroying). It’s that in our desire to be loved and respected by others, we come to see only certain organisations and institutions as providing that kind of respect. And the only respect that now matters is the respect of our classmates and colleagues who are at the same institution as us—the respect of others who didn’t make it into an elite college now seems less important. So we all end up chasing the same things, competing for the same jobs, and running in the same direction.

“It’s not the case that less-prestigious alternatives wouldn’t satisfy”, Silverstein says. Rather, “satisfaction with anything less than what the conventional wisdom deems impressive raises fears of losing standing in the rat race. Contentment with less than the best might imply a slacker’s complacency, a willingness to give up on the race. Or worse, it might reveal that you couldn’t compete in the race at all.” Thus,

The only way to maintain this fragile, prestige-based self-image, then, is to acquire more prestige. Hence, the paradox: The constant hunger always leaves one, well, hungry.

We keep running, yet we get nowhere, for everywhere we go we find the same need to keep running.

At Harvard, Silverstein says, “it’s hard to resist becoming a rat”:

“The temptations to run in the rat race while here and after are all around us, with constant talk of “elite” grad schools, firms and fellowships. Running is both socially acceptable and promoted. A regular dose of healthy perspective of life outside the walls of the Yard is needed as an antidote to these temptations.

The prestige paradox is of course not unique to Harvard, or just to elite schools. The grails are largely identical today as they were when he wrote in 1998. The prestige paradox exists at every “rung” of a social hierarchy, each with their own slightly different grails. But no matter what rung you stand on, whether you’re winning the rat race or losing it, it’s fundamentally the same: you just need to keep running, but you’ll never get anywhere.

One of the final things I liked about Silverstein’s article is how he notes the positives of prestige, how it “inspires great things, like putting a man on the moon, founding a Silicon Valley powerhouse or discovering a cure for cancer.” It’s not that prestige is in itself evil, to be avoided. It’s that left to its own devices, without wisdom and perspective to keep it in check, we risk throwing away our time and our lives in pursuit of something ephemeral, feeling like a failure whenever we cannot match the heights that hard work and luck has propelled our classmates to.

In addition to the inevitable chasing, then, we should spend time at college and university discovering what helps us keep those tendencies in check. Maybe it’s in literature, or philosophy, or painting or acting; it doesn’t matter where we find respite, so long as there is some vantage point from which we can see ourselves and our own incessant chasing clearly.

Rustin’s column is worth reading in its entirety, and for another perspective on prestige, read Paul Graham’s essay where he says, “Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy.”

Sleep as a Political Issue

“Not long ago, at the kind of dinner party I rarely attend, I made the mis­take of admitting that I not only liked to sleep but liked to get at least eight hours a night whenever possible, and that nine would be better still. The reaction – a complex Pinot Noir of nervous laughter displaced by expres­sions of disbelief and condescension – suggested that my transgression had been, on some level, a political one. I was reminded of the time I’d confessed to Roger Angell that I did not much care for baseball.

My comment was immediately rebutted by testimonials to sleeplessness: two of the nine guests confessed to being insomniacs; a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters claimed indignantly that she couldn’t re­member when she had ever gotten eight hours of sleep; two other guests de­clared themselves grateful for five or six. It mattered little that I’d arranged my life differently, and accepted the sacrifices that arrangement entailed. Eight hours! There was something willful about it. Arrogant, even. Suitably chastened, I held my tongue, and escaped alone to tell Thee.
— Mark Slouka, Quitting the Paint Factory (Harper’s, November 2004). Version available without paywall here. The whole essay is thoroughly worth reading, I’ve just been thinking a lot about sleep recently, so thought I’d post this section.