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.

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.”

 

 

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:

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.

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

What Books Should We Read?: The Ones We Need, No Matter Where We Find Them

The popular blog Farnam Street, run by Shane Parrish, recently published a post arguing that we should try our best to read the books that other people are not reading:

What books should we read? Shane Parrish, Farnam Street, Haruki Murakami
I disagree.

“Most of us read the wrong things. As Haruki Murakami put it, reading what everyone else reads means you’re probably going to think what everyone else thinks. All those books from high-school? Everyone else has read them too. The best-sellers? Same

That’s not to say these books aren’t valuable. They are. They’re just not going to help you get unique insights, see problems in a different way than others, or even help you solve more problems. They will however make you sound like you’re smart because you can talk about the things everyone else is talking about. However, there is an old adage that when you do what everyone else is doing you shouldn’t be surprised to get the same results everyone else gets.”

Most of what Parrish writes is useful and insightful, but this was one of those things that I felt missed the mark. It takes a short-sighted view of reading, one that I think diminishes the reasons why we read, and encourages a zero-sum approach to books.

Do you remember the books you read in high school? Do you remember how you were changed by them, what insights they offered you in your life? I’m guessing most of us don’t; and if we do remember the books, the insights we gleaned at age 18 or younger probably aren’t those that we would glean today. We most likely focussed on themes in a book that we could recite in an essay, or sections that a teacher encouraged us to focus on.

When we read a book we read it with a certain lens on. Any great book has too many important revelations and insights on human nature for us to interpret or remember them all. We need a set of lenses in order to make sense of what we read, and to be able to ever finish a book. But those lenses themselves change over time. Shane reads with a productivity lens on; I read with an education/humanities lens on. At different periods in our lives we might try to find insights on relationships and love, careers and work, money and envy, old age and death. Our reading of a book would be different from one day to the next, let alone if spaced out by a year or more.

That’s why we will underline different passages in a book on our second reading to the first. With each additional reading, we gain different things from it. We are changed in different ways.

And we can never read every book in the world. Far better to re-read ten times the book that spoke to us in a fundamentally meaningful way (even if it’s a book everyone else is reading), than to read ten other books that may not change us at all, even if they are obscure and not being read by anyone.

The other reality is that most people don’t read properly. They read to finish a book; and they read to discover the passage that they heard quoted beforehand. But just because one passage is often-quoted does not mean it is the part of a book that will be most useful to you. I’ve often read up to a very frequently quoted section of a book and not even remembered that I’d heard the quote somewhere before; it just didn’t match what I needed from a book at this time.

Read a book slowly, and it will seem as if you read a different book to the person who read it quickly. Read it in a certain location, even, and you will get something else entirely out of it. Books are different for each person, no matter how many people read them.

It does not matter if you find a book on the bestseller list, or if it is the book that everyone else is reading. What matters is that it is the book that speaks to you, and helps you live your life. To worry, like Shane Parrish does in his post, that you are reading something that others are also reading is to miss some of the best that has ever been written. It is to read to be different, rather than reading to live a better life.

It doesn’t matter what books you read—it could be the same as everyone else—if you read it properly, read it with a certain focus, and look for what parts of the book are not the most often quoted, but are the most useful to your life.

This reminds me of a quote by one of my favourite essayists, Mark Greif:

“What matters in a book is that it is the book you need, not where in the library it may be found.”

That seems to me to be perennially true. The best thing we can do is read for ourselves, and not at all worry about what others are reading.

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