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.”

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