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.

How to Succeed at College and University

I think the first course we ever take should be “College 101” or “University 101”; in other words, how to get the most out of our time here. Four years is a long time, and without guidance on how we should be approaching it all, it’s all too easy for our college years to disappear and to be regretting later in life that we didn’t make the most of them.

These are the four things I wish someone had told me on day one.

1. The trick is to be curricular

“One of the secrets of a modern American college”, writes Mark Greif, one of my favourite essayists, “is that before undergraduates take up “extracurriculars,” or if they choose not to take up any (as I didn’t), studying is itself the passion and the activity. The challenge is to be curricular—to run through the course set by civilization up to one’s own time, and then exceed it.”

For all the talk of extracurricular life being the heart of university, that’s not the reason we’re here. It can seem strange to say, but the best way to transform your life while at college is to stick as closely as possible to your reading. (Obama did). To not only read the pages assigned, but to devour the books whole. To wake up early for no other reason than to get a seat by the window in the library and read the book from start to finish, mulling over every thought and comparing it to your own life and your own understanding of the world.

Going to college is like stepping foot into a room where the most important conversation of humanity is taking place. Perhaps unwittingly we’ve opened the door and walked through, but now inside, the best thing we can do is listen. Listen to every important thought ever put down by humanity, the disagreements between different thinkers across the ages, and judge the thoughts against our own lives.

If we’re “curricular” enough, by the end of college we should have built ourselves solid foundations upon which to shape our lives. We will have learned about love and death; how to waste a life; how to live simply; how to cope with loss; and so on for all topics that matter to us as humans— and our goal should be to find ourselves in our final year able for the first time to chime into the conversation with our own thoughts. Don’t rush it during the first few years—be content to recite what each author is saying in the conversation. Only in our final year should we take those first bold steps towards stating our own views, now that we know what has been said before.

2. We’re not here in order to get a job

And if you are, there’s something far more important you should be doing with your time.

Throughout your time at university various people will try to pressure you into thinking that the point of your time here is to get a job once you graduate. Perhaps some professors, instead of assigning an essay (which is simply a way for you to engage in that great conversation of humanity) will assign something like an infographic, because “that’s a skill employers want these days.” Perhaps your university’s career office will invite you to a meeting in which they’ll box you into a career path and encourage you to take classes related to the job you think you might want later in life. Maybe even your friends, as they start to worry about their own futures, will push you into majoring in something “practical”.

But the reality is that college is a remarkably inefficient way to get a job. That’s what all the discussion at the moment is about, with commentators lamenting the declining “return on investment” on a college degree; it gets more expensive, and it’s harder to get a job. Let’s be clear: college is not an investment. It is simply a purchase. What is it we are purchasing? Oh, nothing less than four years with which to become a real, thinking human being. It is the best purchase we will ever make, and maybe it will even come with a job at the end of it! But to think of college as being a “return on investment” before we’ve even begun will mean we look for all the wrong things while there, passing up the real value that an education offers us.

The moment college is thought of as an investment, it has become a bad one indeed, for in that thought you’ve precluded gaining the real thing that college offers.

The goal of college is to build solid foundations with which we can live the rest of our lives. It is to become a real human being, one who thinks, feels, and judges, using our capacities to the full in everything we do, from contributing in a job to building a healthy, happy family.

Always remember: you can build a career on these solid foundations of your life, but you cannot build the foundations of your life upon a career.

3. Try to discover the kind of life you want to live

“To be admitted”, says Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, “you had to exude confidence about what 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.” Finally, someone said it.

Instead, Lilla argues, students should be “far less concerned with getting what they want than figuring out just what it is that’s worth wanting.” And that latter—figuring out what is worth wanting in life—is what a liberal education affords us.

Every book we ever read shows us different possible lives we could lead. Even something as dry and seemingly lifeless as an economics textbook can at least show us what life might be like as an economics professor. Literature is filled with characters, and if it does nothing else, it gives us the ability to empathise with different people, putting ourselves in their shoes, so to speak—wondering what their lives might be like, whether we might like to be them.

When we read books, Lilla argues,

“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.”

We can never try out a thousand different lives with the single life we have, so taking four years while at college to question all these different lives and decide on which one(s) might be for us is perhaps the most valuable time we will ever spend. There’s a reason that we go to university at this point in our lives, and that is because we need to figure out our definition of success now, before too much time has gotten away from us.

4. If you’re constantly stressed and too busy to sleep, you’re doing it wrong

So many of us seem to live in a state of latent exhaustion. The irony is that the exhaustion is a status symbol—“I’m just so busy, let’s get lunch sometime”, says the acquaintance, rushing off into the distance, not to be heard from until the next time you pass them outside class (I’m sure I’m guilty)—but the exhaustion cannot be truly admitted. To admit that the exhaustion is a problem is to admit weakness, and that’s not something that we who got into these colleges can easily do.

But with every all-nighter to finish a paper there comes a decreased chance that we’ll get out of college what we came here for. It isn’t good for you, and it isn’t good for anyone else. Less sleep = more stress. More stress = worse work. Worse work = less sleep + more stress. And so on. Negativity can start affecting everything and everyone around you, and we know that mental health on university campuses is a severe issue.

The reality is that professors are on our side. They don’t want us pulling all-nighters. They don’t want us struggling. Once we realise that they are in their jobs because they want to help us learn, to get out of college what we came for, assignments can be seen as opportunities instead of struggles. If you’re given an essay topic and have simply zero interest in it, or think you won’t learn anything from doing the work, go talk to your professor and propose a new topic. They’ll allow it. And once we’re doing work that we’re interested in, everything else can often fall into place—time management, sleep, thinking positively, and working out what kind of a life we’d like to lead after university.

Remember that to be busy is a choice; and to be busy without first having done the difficult work of discovering what one believes in and wishes to work towards is to have merely, in the words of one novelist, a sense of “motion without movement”, and, in the words of another, to strive for ends that may be “chimerical or hurtful.”

Don’t fall into that trap of exhaustion. Just because everyone around us is living like that doesn’t mean we need to. Be zen.

And if other people keep you up too late—get earplugs. (I don’t have that problem thanks to a heroic best friend who silences everyone coming into the suite after 11. Thanks as always, Maria!).