John Keats and the Vale of Soul-Making

The writer Anna Quindlen has said that “People don’t talk about the soul very much anymore. It’s so much easier to write a résumé than to craft a spirit.” I’ve always shied away from terms like “soul” and “spirit”, and perhaps that’s part of the point. A resume seems solid and certain, whereas the soul seems fluffy and vague. But we know implicitly that the latter is lasting and meaningful—important to who we are—whereas the former is fleeting. How then to think about the “soul” or “spirit”?

Two years before he died tragically of tuberculosis at age 25, John Keats wrote a letter to his brother and sister-in-law describing his philosophy of “spirit creation”.

John Keats and the Vale of Soul Making
John Keats. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

“Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making”… I say ‘Soul making’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence- There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions-but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. 

The soul, for Keats, is what makes us us. Maybe it can also be called our “identity” though that doesn’t seem to capture all of it. We all have intelligence, the ability to reason, but a soul is refined, developed; we don’t automatically have “spirit”. The world is what develops our soul—if we let it. “How then are Souls to be made?”, Keats asks, and goes on to explain:

“This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

The three “materials” of the intelligence, the heart, and the world all combine together to let us develop as people. Things in the world happen to us—loved ones die, or we fall in love; we succeed at some things, fail at others; we fall ill, or crash our bicycle. Through the heart and the intelligence we then make sense of what happens to us in the world. The process of all this is what gives us souls—we are changed by the world, and change our responses to the world in turn.

Keats uses the metaphor of a school to show how the combination of the three “materials” make us into complete people—but that everything that happens to us, both good and bad, contributes equally to our development:

“I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and yet I think I perceive it-that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible-I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to -read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!”

The bad that happens to us can affect us as much if not more than the good; it is in many ways necessary for our development. Keats felt this from personal experience as he would suffer over the next two years before dying in 1821.

I think this also explains why colleges and universities are such great places for developing our “selves”, our identities. They put us at close quarters with other people, creating a mini “world” upon which our intelligence and our hearts can act and combine together. A college is the world sped-up, and the four years that we spend there can be thought of equally as a vale of soul-making.

What’s the Point of College?: Mark Lilla on The Soldier, The Saint, The Sage and the Citizen

What is the point of college and university? There seem to be as many answers to that question as there are students and faculty, but here’s one explanation I find particularly important.

In April 2010 Mark Lilla (a professor of humanities, though a political scientist by training) delivered a lecture to all first-year undergraduates at Columbia University. Columbia is known for its “core” curriculum, a series of classes that all students at the college must take. The event was the final lecture of the students’ first year at college, and Lilla’s goal was to go back over all the texts that they’d read that year, drawing out common links between them.

Lilla’s lecture was broader than just that, for he reflected at the start on the reason why we go to college, and the reason we read all these books. College is not really about preparing for a specific career, or to maximise our potential post-graduation earnings. If that was the aim, attending college and studying the humanities is certainly not an efficient way to do it.

Instead, Lilla argues, we go to college because we have questions about what to do with our lives, and we need to explore all the ways we could live. He begins, however, by noting:

“Of course, that’s not at all what you told the admissions office on your application. You figured, correctly, that to be admitted you had to exude confidence about what Americans—and only Americans—call their life goals. And you had to demonstrate that you had a precise plan for achieving them. It was all bullshit. You know it, I know it. The real reason you were excited about college was because you had questions, buckets of questions, not life plans and powerpoint presentations.

Talking to my students, I have discovered that they’re far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.

But in our reading of so many books at university, we cannot help thinking about and exploring lives that we had never considered, and never even knew were possible:

“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.”

What could be more important? And there’s a reason that college and university come at a very specific time in our lives, roughly between the ages of 18 and 22, when we need to determine what kind of life we find worth living before we get too caught up in the world of work.

Lilla’s description of college gets straight to the heart of the matter, and by bearing it in mind, no book at college should ever be boring—for every book presents lives that we could make our own, if we wished. His lecture in its entirety is worth watching:

Barack Obama on His College Education and How He “Lived Like a Monk”

President Obama was recently interviewed by his former adviser David Axelrod for a CNN podcast. The podcast got a lot of discussion online, because in it Obama stated that he thinks he could’ve beaten Trump had he been running against him. But a different section of the interview was to me far more interesting; Obama gave a unique glimpse into his personal development while at college, and how he became a serious student.

Axelrod asks Obama, “How is it that you sort of just made the decision in the middle of your years in college that you were going to sort of transform yourself from a guy who enjoyed a party and was kind of a goof-off at Occidental College to kind of becoming an ascetic at Columbia with a much more purposeful view of life…?”

Various biographies have previously discussed Obama’s college years, but it is unique to hear Obama’s own depiction, with years of hindsight, of this period of his life. His account gives a glimpse of a few transformational years for the future president, and hints that a few years of taking oneself far too seriously are almost an inevitable part of growing up.

Obama begins by noting that “Some of this, I think, is just a kid growing up, and it turns out — and I see this in my own daughters. People go at their own pace, right?” But he gets far more specific:

“I don’t think that the more serious side of me sprang up overnight. I think it had been building. It just took longer to manifest in me than it might have in some other kids. This may be an area where the lack of structure during my high school years because my mom wasn’t always around, my grandparents, they’re older, they’re not as strict and paying attention. I’m sort of raising myself…”

Obama College Years
Occidental College, where Obama spent two years. Photo from

Asked whether there was a single transformative event that made Obama grow up and become essentially ascetic for a period, Obama says there wasn’t; “It was just sort of gradual.” He points to two things that happened during his time at Occidental College (notably, one of the first liberal arts colleges to exist on the West Coast of the United States). First, he says, he “became more socially conscious at Occidental even though I was partying”, and second, “I start thinking about what it means to be not just a man, but a black man in America.”

Obama does, however, discuss his father’s death, which seems to have acted as an impetus for changing his life suddenly. It prompted Obama to move colleges, and to radically change his lifestyle. Speaking of his father, Obama said that “What does start happening is the awareness that I don’t know him, and so I’m not going to get that much direction from him but I start needing to understand better my genesis, where’d I come from… all these things just made me brood a little bit more. And so, physically I remove myself from my old life, I go to New York.”

In New York, Obama says,

“It’s true, I live like a monk for three or four years, take myself way too seriously… Huge overcompensation, I’m humourless, and you know, have one plate and one towel and, you know—fasting on Sundays… Friends start noticing that I’m begging off going out, you know, at night because I have to read Sartre or something.

“So in retrospect, wildly pretentious. And when I read back old journals from that time… or letters that I’ve written to, you know, girls you’re courting or something, they’re impenetrable. I mean, I don’t understand what I’m saying! There’s all kinds of references to Foucault, and Franz Fanon, and I’m like, what are you talking about?”

The description of Obama’s ascetic existence brings to mind the ancient Stoic idea that one should fast each week so that one can handle anything, Thoreau’s simple and minimalist existence while in the woods, as well as many modern Minimalist movements. Obama has elsewhere talked about reading Nietzsche and Saint Augustine during this period of his life.

It’s exciting to hear someone so balanced, so in control, and so ordered in his thinking discuss a transformative period in his education. Obama seemed during those years to live by the maxim that we shouldn’t let our education get in the way of our learning. He practised different kinds of wisdom he found in books, testing them out, and in time came back from his “overcompensation” to the point of balanced wisdom that we have been able to observe since.

The full podcast is worth listening to in its entirety, and the section of the discussion I’ve quoted from here begins at 25 minutes in the dialogue.

Introducing the Liberal Arts Blog

What must we learn in order to live meaningful lives in the twenty-first century?

That’s the question the guides Liberal Arts Blog. It’s a question that cuts to the heart of how we should understand and think about education, how we should structure and live our lives, and how we can best meet the specific challenges of our century.

We’ve become too used to seeing education as merely a necessary credential to be gained before we can get on with our lives. Education stands as a hurdle to leap over; we try to jump higher, to get good grades, to get into a prestigious university, to get on with and do well in our lives.

Most people recognise at some point or other that spending almost a quarter of our lives in formal education merely so we can begin our lives proper is not a particularly intelligent use of time. Many also recognise that education is about far more than a credential—that, in Seneca’s words, “We learn not for school, but for life.” Yet our institutions and our societies disincentivise such a view. Focus on the credential, we’re told. Get back to work.

In my second to last year of high school I started a website called They Don’t Teach You This In School. Frustrated by how everything I was learning was useful only in the classroom, and was not going to help me in my life, I wanted to collect the experiences and advice of those who were wise, and to make this knowledge accessible to all. That, it seemed to me, was the real point of an education: learning how to live a meaningful life by hearing others’ wisdom. While the website didn’t work out in the end, I’ve long since thought that there should be a space online to explore what a real education is. A space not to dictate what it should be, but to have a conversation about what a meaningful education in the twenty-first century should encompass. Now in my final year of college, I’ve decided to have a go at it, picking up here where my formal education leaves off.

The “liberal arts” come the closest to describing what I hope this blog can be. The term has been diminished of late, as colleges and universities have confused their missions, but a liberal education always stood for what Michael Oakeshott called an “adventure in human self-understanding.” This blog is one person’s attempt at a liberal arts education.

Liberal Arts Blog