Guided by Intuition and Reason

Spring 2017 | By Yosef Trachtenberg (A15) for The College

Yosef Trachtenberg graduated from St. John's College in 2015.
Yosef Trachtenberg graduated from St. John’s College in 2015.

“Every rule has an exception, Mr. Trachtenberg,” Mr. May whispered to me as I mounted the stage to receive my diploma. As my Freshman Language tutor, he argued with patience and humor against my insistence for unequivocal rules of translation. This was my main approach to life—everything had to be logical, definite, and precise.

In many ways, that class set the tone for my time at St. John’s. What began concerning translation spread to my ethical beliefs. I wanted there to be definite, logical, and universal ethical rules so I wouldn’t need to rely on my intuitions. I didn’t understand them, so I didn’t trust them. Many philosophers we read attempted to provide a rigorous ethical system, but none were convincing. I concluded I must (for now) base my ethics on the particulars of each situation, guided by my intuition and reason.

Even as I was becoming disenchanted with logical rules for life, St. John’s was sharpening my logic. If my ideas weren’t logically sound, they would likely be challenged (they were often challenged even when they were logically sound, but on other grounds). I became skilled at spotting flaws in arguments, and my standards for accepting something as true increased significantly. If anything, I took this too far. I would find a flaw and use it to dismiss the entire argument. But a flaw doesn’t mean the conclusion is false or the argument contains nothing useful, so I learned to find value in arguments despite their flaws.

Beyond logical skills, conversations at St. John’s (both in and out of class) improved my ability to communicate. I learned when to interrupt and when to listen, how to deal with lecturing, and how to disagree without alienating. Of course, knowing what I should do doesn’t mean I always succeed at doing it.

This next change seems trivial, but may turn out to be the longest lasting effect of my education. Before St. John’s, I hadn’t sung (outside the shower) for 15 years. Freshman Chorus required me to sing, while giving me a comforting crowd to lose myself in. I came to love to sing; I still sing our chorus songs. In addition to the pleasure their beauty brings me, singing these songs recalls the community I found at St John’s.

I hadn’t expected to experience a sense of community. During high school, I withdrew from people and learned how to be happy alone. I expected to live the rest of my life with only superficial connections. At St. John’s, I met people who shared my interests, who I could have engaging conversations with, and who could inform and challenge my thinking. Moreover, I came to respect their intellectual and moral character. For the first time, I saw potential for friendships based not just on utility or pleasure, but on a shared desire to figure out how the world works, what a good life is, and how to live it.

Not everything at St. John’s was new. Sometimes, I found words for ideas I already lived by. In Epictetus’s Discourses, the statements “At first, distance yourself from what is stronger than you” and “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about those things” perfectly described my choices during my withdrawal. I found a name for what I had become.

Reading and discussing Stoic philosophy also showed me the potential for moving beyond Stoicism. While it helped me approach the world with equanimity, I found Stoicism’s limits. As a Stoic, maintaining my equanimity requires keeping a part of me isolated from people. I still want to act in a level-headed way, but I now think it possible to experience the strong emotions that arise from wholehearted connection with other people without letting them cloud my judgment. I believe such a life is nobler than a Stoic one, and while I’m just beginning to explore its possibilities, I would never have considered it before my time at St. John’s.

St. John’s enriched my life beyond measure by helping me break through many barriers I created for myself. It softened my rigid worldview, led me to like people again, and left me with a deep love of singing.