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 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.”



We Need Educators, Not Teachers

“There may be other methods for finding oneself, for waking up to oneself out of the anaesthesia in which we are commonly enshrouded…”, wrote Nietzsche in 1873: “but I know of none better than that of reflecting upon one’s educators and cultivators.”

Nietzsche goes on in his essay to describe how Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who had died thirteen years prior, was his “one teacher and master-discipliner” who had taught him how to “reshape the whole human being into a living, moving solar and planetary system and to identify the law governing its higher mechanics.”

Compare that description to most of the teachers we encounter in schools and universities, who don’t inspire so much as dull our senses. It’s not that any teacher means badly—it just points to the fundamental distinction between a teacher and an educator, and the fact that the latter are so rare and so valuable.

Hardly anyone draws this distinction between teachers and educators. The terms are most often used interchangeably, with some teachers trying on the title of “educator” on their Twitter profile. But the difference goes to the heart of the influence a teacher has on students’ lives, and it’s one that both students and teachers must pay attention to.

Educators versus teachers

“Let my guide remember the object of his task, and let him not impress on his pupil so much the date of the destruction of Carthage as the characters of Hannibal and Scipio, nor so much where Marcellus died as why his death there showed him unworthy of his duty. Let him be taught not so much the histories as how to judge them.”

— Michel de Montaigne, On the Education of Children

Teachers teach facts, educators use facts to inspire.

Teachers teach the dates of a war, educators use the war to reflect on human morality.

Teachers teach the names and birth dates of characters in history, educators tell of the character of those characters.

Teachers teach facts; educators teach character.

Teachers teach how to find an answer, educators show why the answer matters.

Teachers teach that 1+1=2, educators show the significance of maths in our lives.

Teachers teach material for the upcoming test; educators tell us why we have tests in the first place.

Teachers teach how to write a sentence; educators know that there are no rules for good writing.

Teachers teach Hamlet; educators show us how we are all like Hamlet.

Teachers teach others’ material, but educators know that their own lives are the only true material.

Teachers teach what they’re told to teach; educators use that only as their starting point.

Teachers teach what others believe, but educators know that “to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.”

Teachers teach classes; educators teach students.

Teachers think books are their material; educators know that the whole world is a “vale of soul-making.”

Teachers have a job. Educators have a calling.

Teachers teach the syllabus; educators see in students what we most need to see in ourselves, and know just how to liberate us from behind that frosted window that is youth.

Teachers teach for school. Educators, for life.

Most of us can teach. Only someone special can educate.

Most of us have teachers. Let us students all look for—hope for—an educator. And let all teachers aspire to—strive to—educate.