Convocation, Summer 2010
Welcome to new and returning Graduate Institute students, friends, family, and colleagues.
Aristotle says in the Ethics that, “all knowledge and every intention desire[s] some good.” (1095a15) I propose to try today to articulate the good at which we are aiming in our discussions here at St. John’s. Though you have, no doubt, seen various statements of the College’s goals in our literature and on our website, I would like to approach this question from the inside, and ask what we experience as fulfillment in our best class conversations.
This is a difficult, perhaps hubristic, project for two reasons. First, as you know, we aim at no particular result in our conversations. To be sure, we limit ourselves to one particular author, one particular shared reading, in each class. But it can truly be said that we set off on uncharted waters (at least uncharted by us), with no real captain on the ship, and propose to meet whatever adventures befall us with only our native wit, our general goodwill toward each other, the courage we are able to summon in the face of the unknown, and whatever guidance we can coax from the otherwise static words before us. I do not believe I am overstating the situation. Tutors are not professors; we have no fixed interpretation to which you must subscribe. The questions we pose are as sincere—and as puzzling—as we can discover. And the eccentric idea of a conversation among 20 people with no agenda and no authority resists any simple characterization of its form and spirit.
The second difficulty is that even tutors have varied interpretations of our own activity. Each of us individually and repeatedly examines our ends and means. In this endeavor, we must set aside our idiosyncratic desires and goals: both the questions most urgent to us (whether they be “What is virtue?” or “Is language merely conventional?” or “Is God good?”) and also any personal ambitions we may have. We each must try to discern the common goals of the common activity. For the experience of a shared project is definite and incontrovertible.
Now, often when we state our joint purpose, we—like many other liberal arts institutions—speak of the cultivation of various skills. Active learning in the public context of a classroom does indeed hone one’s ability to reason, improve one’s recognition of cogent arguments, develop clear and forceful communication, train one in careful listening, and stimulate one to probe beneath surface claims. These are many goods that arise from and are necessary for our mode of learning. We set high standards for each other with respect to these arts of apprehending, knowing, and understanding. I feel sure you will be aware of your own progress in these regards, and I have no doubt you will benefit from acquiring these skills, universally acknowledged as useful.
But, when I said I wanted to ascertain the good we aim at “from the inside,” I intended to ask whether the act of conversing has its own good. To say we converse in order to acquire skills is to treat conversation as merely a means to an end. Now, I do not minimize its usefulness as a means for these purposes. But Aristotle has persuaded me to set a higher standard than the useful. He says, “that which is pursued for its own sake is more perfect than that which is pursued for the sake of something else.” (Ethics 1097a32) Now this thought may be a bit foreign to some of you. We’re all inured to encountering the question, “What will you do with that?”—especially when people discover our involvement with St. John’s. This question betrays a supreme emphasis on usefulness—often the crudest sort of usefulness, that guaranteeing career advancement or a significant increase in earning power. But surely money itself is the paradigmatic means, only useful to assist one towards some other end. The really fascinating question, the question anyone truly interested in us ought to ask, is: “What do you think fulfills you, what is your end?”
Apparently, learning is not an activity people generally think of as fulfilling. I find this attitude hard to understand. Surely, learning is often difficult; it requires energy, attention, discipline, self-awareness, and openness to change. But many fulfilling activities are difficult (playing piano, running a marathon, cooking a gourmet meal). And, unlike those activities, our classes provide occasions to clarify important issues such as: what priority to place on family or philanthropy, whether love requires self-sacrifice, how to identify a friend. Seeking answers to such questions is a noble pursuit. At least one of the goals of learning is the ability to live and act well; and we can glean much wisdom from the deepest thinkers of the Western tradition and from our joint inquiries into their profound thoughts. Learning in this way can help us discern the principles most conducive to a good life and can help us to deliberate well about the “proper object and the proper manner and the proper time” (Aristotle’s Ethics, 1142b28) consequent to such principles. Moreover, this end, of acting so as to lead the best life, seems to be an end in itself, simply choiceworthy.
However, once again the good I’ve descried is not really the good inherent in the conversation. Whatever clarity we achieve may be provoked by discussion, and certainly the proposed actions themselves would not be complete without this clarity of purpose. But if action is the goal of our conversations, then the real good is external to the classroom. And those of you about to study the Ethics will be reminded forcefully by Aristotle of the crucial role of habit and character in such action (1095b6, 1103a25-b22, 1152a31-33); intellectually grasping what virtue is may not even amount to “half the battle.” So, if we do learn in order to act, the value of the learning itself only fully manifests through yet more effort of a different kind. Even more importantly for my purpose here today, our conversations at St. John’s do not necessarily result in shared conclusions about such matters.
Is there any good we strive for together as we engage in our communal activity? Earlier I found the acquisition of arts inadequate as a candidate; perhaps the other half of the phrase “liberal arts” helps. Our education intends to be liberating; our mission statement formulates this purpose as “...seek[ing] to free human beings from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions, and inherited prejudices.” (Liberal Education in a Community of Learning, Annapolis, St. John’s College, 2003, p.1) To this end, we follow Montaigne’s advice:
Let the tutor make his charge pass everything through a sieve and lodge nothing in his head on mere authority and trust...he will choose if he can; if not, he will remain in doubt. Only the fools are certain and assured....For if he embraces Xenophon’s and Plato’s opinions by his own reasoning, they will no longer be theirs, they will be his.” (“On the Education of Children” from The Complete Essays, translated by Donald Frame, p. 111.)
As we read the books which have been the original source of many of our opinions, we become more self-aware. Seemingly self-evident ideas often appear strange and unfamiliar when confronted directly in their unmediated state; their shadowy nature as opinion accepted on mere authority is revealed. Sometimes, as we consciously evaluate the integrity of our ideas, we also become conscious of “having been wrong.” This experience is not always pleasant, but discomfort at the disagreeableness of truth may nevertheless be good. In the world outside the college, being wrong is condemned; there we’re taught to be ashamed at it, and a posture of confident, all-knowingness is cultivated. Here, instead, we cultivate a pleasure in “having been wrong.” (It takes some time to develop this pleasure.) We recognize this moment of “having been wrong” as learning.
The Greek word Plato uses for this moment is “aporia.” Often translated as “perplexity,” its etymology reveals a connotation of placelessness. We see this unrooted state in Meno’s slave boy when he realizes his assumption that he could easily name the line that forms double a square is unjustified (Meno, 84a). Naturally, a certain discomfort attends the moment—the kind of discomfort that has Meno calling Socrates names and trying to block every line of inquiry with his “captious argument” (80a, 80d). To the extent that we agree with Socrates that it is better to “feel the difficulty [we] are in,” (84a), we at the College actively pursue such discomfort as a good. We encourage the open and honest “Well, by Zeus, Socrates, I for one do not know” of the slave boy rather than Meno’s obstructionism. Of course, the slave boy has little status to lose, and perhaps his opinions about geometry are not as deeply held as the ones we need most to be liberated from.
Deeply held opinions can require a mighty convulsion in order to be overthrown. Such a convulsion may not derive only from conversation. When Achilles’ advice at the general council of Greeks in Book I of the Iliad is spurned, he is shocked and wounded. They refuse to heed him, not because his advice is unwise, but because Agamemnon’s status (he is the titular authority of the whole Greek army) trumps Achilles’ (I.281). Until that moment, Achilles seems to have assumed that his recognition by all as the best warrior warrants also the honor due the best man. The council’s violation of his assumption provokes not only volcanic wrath in Achilles, but also a retreat away from the battle and into extended meditation about his realization that the world is not as he had perceived: What has he accomplished? Why is his excellence seemingly not honored? Is there a better way of life? Why should he care about other Greeks? (IX. 315-343, 393-409, 608-619)
Perhaps such cataclysmic events are more effective than conversation in freeing us from whatever opinion fetters us. However, I think it is no accident that Achilles experiences his revelation during deliberation in council rather than during the press and urgency of hand-to-hand combat. No question about first principles can truly be entertained as one is facing “invincible hands spattered with bloody filth.” (XX. 504) And some version of this problem of capitulation to urgent concerns and accepted societal orders faces us all. As Montaigne points out in his essay “Of Custom,”
The principal effect of the power of custom is to seize and ensnare us in such a way that it is hardly within our power to get ourselves back out of its grip and return into ourselves to reflect and reason about its ordinances.
Life requires action; action requires choice; choice requires a principle; custom supplies the requisite principle. The needed perspective for questioning the community of opinion to which we belong comes only when we are forcibly removed (as cave-dwellers in Plato’s Republic must be) from that community or when we voluntarily withdraw from it (and enroll in the Graduate Institute). Rather than be at the mercy of chance events that may or may not liberate us, if we are to improve our ability to judge wisely, we need to withdraw ourselves from the crowd, consult our best selves, and begin a process of winnowing the contents of our understanding.
To this extent St. John’s is something of a “magic mountain”—like the retreat referred to in the title of the Thomas Mann novel some of you will be studying in preceptorial. The novel takes place in a sanatorium in Switzerland. People are there to undergo a cure for tuberculosis. But their struggle with sickness removes them from the everyday struggle for existence and frees them to engage in conversations about intellectual, human, emotional, political, moral, and philosophical matters. The main character Hans Castorp, while visiting his cousin, decides he wants to be ill, is attracted to the liberating, holiday atmosphere. There is also a pleasing rigor to the curative regimen, but more importantly there is time to cultivate an examination of the meaning of life in this retreat from the everyday world of capitalism.
Now, I’m disturbed by the analogy just sketched between St. John’s and a sanatorium; the connotation of illness implies the need for a cure. Unfortunately, I suppose that the way I’ve depicted the liberation of a liberal education corresponds with this idea. For I’ve analyzed the process, I think consistently with Socrates’ depiction, as a freeing from falsity and illusion. Such liberation is more a negation, the destruction of an undesired state, than a positive, healthy activity to be pursued. Even if this “freedom from” is still a goal worth pursuing, when put in terms of health, it seems incomplete in a radical way. Not surprisingly, the self-aware, self-searching characters of Mann’s Magic Mountain address this issue. At a certain point, Naphta, one of Hans Castorp’s mentors and a fellow inmate, defends illness as follows: “Disease was very human indeed. For to be man was to be ailing. Man was essentially ailing, his state of unhealthiness was what made him man...” (Magic Mountain, p. 465, Vintage International).
This justification gives insight into the possibility that the mountain is in fact a way of life. But don’t we all long to walk upright, breathe deeply without coughing, stride boldly with no shortness of breath? I cannot turn Naphta’s defense into an inspiring affirmation of a positive good—only a cheerless attempt to make a virtue of necessity. Of course, to the extent that we feel delight in the very process of being cured, of being liberated from an opinion masquerading as truth, the magic mountain is positively good. But, to the extent that the falsity cries out to be replaced by the healthy and true, our conversations, like those of Socrates himself, often remain inconclusive and bereft of the particular intellectual satisfaction attendant on clear and pure knowledge. Such unimpeded vision more properly belongs to the act of contemplation as depicted by Aristotle in Book X of the Ethics, an act which depends least of all on other people (1177a28-33) and which is most self-sufficient in the sense that it can be carried on quite apart from conversation.
Is there a positive good, a real health, achieved through conversation? It seems to me that a kind of intermediate state exists between the self-sufficient, positively good state Aristotle describes as political or communal (a state that is an end and not merely a means, a state achieved through ethical action in accordance with reason 1097b8-11, 1098a16-19) and the almost divine but isolated self-sufficient state he describes as achieved through true knowing (a state that seems more appropriate to Mt. Olympus than it does to the Magic Mountain—1141b8). I claim a third kind of self-sufficiency exists which is a hybrid of the communal and individual. The best conversation forces us simultaneously to live well with others—to practice the forms of courage, justice, moderation appropriate to conversation—and also to exercise what Aristotle calls the highest, most divine part of our individual nature (1177a20, 1177b28)—namely, reason. When, in the course of a conversation, we feel ourselves guided by some principle external to us even while we are most vitally awake to our own thoughts, then a kind of austere and noble harmony (both interpersonal and intrapersonal) comes into being. I suppose this harmony depends upon the acknowledged incompleteness of our wisdom, but the negative aspect is alchemically transformed through our energetic, dynamic activity. The completeness of attention involved, the fullness of self which must be brought, the purification of extraneous goals and motives necessary for such a moment—all produce an independently choiceworthy activity. So, while many useful goods may be aimed at in our conversation, I think I am willing to argue that THIS is the good proper to conversation, the one we really want to experience inside the classroom. I’m even willing to say that it is an end in itself, for I myself feel truly alive, truly fulfilled at such moments.