There is a sickness, traditionally called melancholy, which is particularly at home in communities of learning such as ours. Its visible form can be seen in the engraving by Duerer called Melencolia Prima. Amidst the signs and symbols of the liberal arts, especially geometry, sits heavily a winged woman. Her eyes are fixed intently on visions of nothing—she is a figure of “careless desolation” surrounded by unvalued riches. Almost all the older members of this—and any—community of learning, be they teachers or students, are well acquainted with her. So will you be, who are fresh to our enterprise, the later the more devastatingly. However, not only we, but students throughout this country, over a quarter of whose citizens are now entering schools, are subject to this malady which has, in fact, in this very decade reached epidemic proportions. It, therefore, seems right to take account of it publicly, the more so since its cause is a peculiar version of a fundamental human problem which is just now beginning to cause this nation what will turn out to be, I think, its most characteristic agony. It is the problem of poverty amidst riches. I shall try to talk about its intellectual aspect not in those facile current terms which can do little but give the victims the bleak satisfaction of having a disease at once choice and popular. I shall not mention either “identity crises” or “alienation,” nor shall I talk of “middle class values,” rejected or otherwise, and “trends in society,” rapidly increasing or the opposite. Instead, I shall begin by referring to a book, which is a compendium of the traditional wisdom concerning the nature of human unhappiness, written when the human soul had not yet become a “field” for experts. In the beginning of the seventeenth century an English scholar, Robert Burton, wrote for his own relief and for the comfort of his friends a book called The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which everyone may find his particular misery acknowledged as a human condition. Burton makes a distinction between chronic suffering, a true disease of spirit, and the occasional type, of which he says simply that “melancholy in this sense is the character of mortality.” I think that by the “character of mortality” he means the knowledge, implied in every feeling that has any urgency about it, that the time of our life is finite. Melancholy, however peculiar and complex it may be, is essentially the sometimes paralyzing and sometimes frenzying dread of “missing out,” which comes to those who have had tantalizing intimations of earthly happiness. It is the stronger the more remote death is, and so strongest in the young, for in them every day demands the renunciation of a hundred possible futures for the choice of one actual life, and the very riches of this indeterminacy may stymie the energies and induce listlessness and restless sloth. Consequently, the opposite of melancholy is riches in poverty, a serene ardour of the sort perfectly described in a Buddist song of which the translation is as follows (I have, of course, no idea what the original really says):
Well-roofed and pleasant is my little hut
And screened from winds:- Rain at thy will, thou god!
My heart is well composed, my heart is free,
And ardent is my mood. Now rain, god! rain.
Melancholy is, then, a human sickness attendant on the investment and expenditure of living time. That this is the case is shown by the kind of relief that that part of the youth of this country is indulging in which negotiates its future for an instant bliss and sells its hopes for a high moment, as the slogan goes, “right now.” Their prototype is Dr. Faustus, the melancholy scholar who buys “experiences” of the devil at the expense of all time to come; there is, in fact, a very perceptive novel of student life by John Hersey, called Too Far to Walk, which exploits this very legend of the melancholy doctor in modern dress.
This then is the sickness which particularly afflicts students, and I shall now inquire why this is so. Our freshmen will soon learn that the English word “school” is derived from the Greek word ”scholé” which means “leisure.” A student at school is a person of leisure, a human being with an abnormal wealth of time free from business, left free to confront the acknowledged riches of the spirit. And yet he often finds his appetite inept to this food, so that he who must have come because he wanted the life of study as a whole, cannot bring himself to study this or that assignment and spends his time in the frame of mind of which Paul says: “For what I would that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” Why does this happen?
There are certain reasons for student discontent which I shall not consider much since they do not seem to me to go to the heart of the matter. One has to do with the restrictions and conformities demanded by the school as a semi-public institution. A college is a civil association grounded in the body politic and entirely dependent on it for its survival. Its members, in joining this association, have in fact agreed to conform to the laws of the land. There remains, however, the vexed and vastly exaggerated question of conforming to its conventions. Here a subtle argument applies, and a student’s appreciation of it is the measure of his understanding of the nature of a liberal education. For as I shall try to show later, a proper school harbours within itself such depths of true dissent and such abysses of true radicality, that an unobtrusive cloak of ordinary behavior is essential to its internal and external survival. Those who are considering growing long beards and sporting bare feet are, though they may not know it, supported even by classical Western authority, for the last great pagan, the Emperor Julian, showed in his essay called the “Beard Hater” that it is a sign of Christian impiousness to despise beards, which are, even when thickets of lice, the philosopher’s attribute. And who has read Plato’s Symposium and does not know that bare feet are the very marks of the demon Love himself? But it is precisely because he appreciates the significance of such external signs that a serious person can afford to avoid them until he is sure that he knows what he is doing and to whom—to call such deliberate conformity hypocrisy is extremely simple-minded.
Much restlessness also arises from the fact that students, who are in these years by the plan of nature at the peak of their sexual desires, are required by serious schools to observe the rites of celibacy. In this, more than in any other respect, the rules of school-life are no mere conventions, for whoever knows anything about the life of learning will not entertain the frivolous notion that it ought to be a very natural or satisfied life, but will understand that it requires a certain tension of soul and body and a certain reserve of deferred desire. In the Symposium Aristophanes, whose business as a comedian it is to pursue the logic of ordinary and natural human behavior to its absurd end, gives a picture of constantly fulfilled desire as a frontless, faceless “two-backed beast,” within which the mediating distance through which eros needs to move has been closed, with the result that love and its attendant learning are at an end. And indeed, most of us have felt a certain loss of ardour in a generation which feels free to proceed immediately to that end.
Such then are what appear to me false irritants. There is, of course, also a genuine reason for the universal student disgust, and this has no cure but a revolution—just such a revolution, I believe, as took place when the present program was instituted at this school over a generation ago.* Let me describe, justly, I hope, what seems to me the position which must be overthrown, the position of the vast majority of those engaged in the vast business of higher education.
They consider that there are at hand ready made bodies of information and disciplines which constitute the heritage of human learning. These must be made available to the student, who may, however, be expected to choose among them and who is, therefore, expected to desire to learn the ones he elects. Moreover, a certain randomness or freedom is granted in the manner in which the subject is to be absorbed, and some resistance to the mental food is not only expected but is actually considered. Incentives such as marks are certainly used, but it is recognized that the best feeders ingest because they are hungry. The finest of the teachers under this view of learning are usually those who have themselves become, in turn, absorbed in their subject and are contributing to its advancement. The institution of learning which corresponds to this view is a vast clearing-house for the private predilections of people who are, to be sure, usually very much in earnest. This storehouse of specialist knowledge is the university, with its two major divisions of the sciences and the humanities and its combination of freedom of choice and formalization of presentation. The activity carried on there is diverse and stimulating, and yet efficiently organized, as Kant already observed, like a factory, on the principle of division of labor. It is in the nature of the set-up that the latest, the most effective, and the most highly technical and theoretically elegant field is found most captivating by bright and fresh students, and that the universities should become the breeding grounds of sophisticated theories and techniques.
Now, why is it that this veritable smorgasbord of learning is more often than not stale and tasteless for its students? It is, I think, because this view of learning regards everything which is not the latest technique as mere history, somehow fascinating to those who happen to be curious and fond of sight-seeing, but not inevitably interesting to all who are human: “For to converse with those of other centuries is almost the same thing as to travel,” says Descartes in the Discourse. The effect of engaging in such historical, or “objective,” investigations of other people’s affairs and opinions can be deadly. Let me read you what the most prophetic critic of our contemporary life, Nietzsche, wrote about the universities of 1873:
The young man is kicked through all the centuries; boys who know nothing of war, diplomacy, or commerce are considered fit to be introduced to political history. We moderns also run through art galleries and hear concerts in the same way as the young man runs through history. We can feel that one thing sounds different from another, and pronounce on the different ‘effects.’ And the power of gradually losing all feelings of strangeness or astonishment, and finally being pleased at anything, is called the historical sense or historical culture. The crowd of influences streaming on the young soul is so great, the clods of barbarism and violence flung at him so strange and overwhelming, that an assumed stupidity is his only refuge. Where there is a subtler and stronger self-consciousness we find another emotion, too—disgust. The young man has become homeless: he doubts all ideas, all moralities. He knows ‘it was different in every age, and what you are does not matter.’ No, such study of history bewilders and overwhelms. It is not necessary for youth, as the ancients show, but even in the highest degree dangerous, as the moderns show. Consider the student of history, the heir of ennui that appears even in his boyhood. He has the ‘methods’ for original work, the ‘correct ideas’ and the airs of the master at his fingers’ ends. A little isolated period of the past is marked out for sacrifice. He cleverly applies his method and produces something, or rather, in prouder phrase, “creates” something. He becomes a ‘servant of truth’ and a ruler in the great domain of history. If he was what they call ripe as a boy, he is now overripe. You only need shake him and wisdom will rattle down into your lap; but the wisdom is rotten, and every apple has its worm.
But I shall not linger on this genuine cause of student despair either, since you at St. John’s College are not, I think, confronted with it. If the sin of the universities may be defined as the perversion of tradition into history and of the liberal arts into special techniques, then the deeply conservative revolution by which the program of this college was instituted may be described as a return to the tradition of learning and the liberal arts. But as the freshman will learn all too soon, this campus too is the scene of much confusion of the spirit resulting in dreary apathy or dangerous wildness. Whatever the particular circumstances of those afflicted, in some central way our program of study is responsible. It too occasionally induces melancholy, and that in some of the most serious students, who sometimes feel a stultifying lack of fit between their human necessities and the store of learning provided, to whom the wisdom of the ages sometimes appears as a grotesque formalization of their vital problems, for whom the course of study sometimes runs aslant of, or counter to, the course of their lives. So I shall address myself now to this particular problem, which I recognize as the central legitimate difficulty of the life of learning: Why are we sometimes unable to accept the riches we have inherited? I shall do this by investigating what the liberal arts are and, in connection with this, what is meant by our tradition of learning.
For us, it is not so important to know that there are traditionally seven liberal arts as to understand why these are divided into two groups, the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. This division mirrors the double nature of learning, namely that it is always done through words on the one hand, and that these are always concerned with learnable objects on the other. The trivium, the arts of the word, deals with those skills by which thought, that which is internal to human beings, is brought out, expressed, and made communal, while the quadrivium, the arts, one might say, of the world, deals with those skills which help us to acquire as knowledge what is in the world, apart from and outside of our speech. The first group was sometimes called “exoteric,” suitable for the uninitiated since words are that of which all human beings have sufficient natural knowledge to be ready for artful instruction. Thus grammar, the art of using words correctly is, as Cassiodorus, the sixth-century author of a book fundamental for the whole subsequent liberal arts tradition, says, the principle, source and foundation of the arts. The second group was, correspondingly, called “acroamatic,” meaning the arts “to be heard,” namely by fewer and more advanced students. This distinction goes back to Plato’s Republic, in which all citizens receive some sort of education in poetry, while only certain chosen ones study precisely those arts which were later to be known as the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, dealing in turn with numbers, bodies, moving bodies, and audible moving bodies, understood as the intelligible elements which constitute the natural world. I mention this ancient and medieval distinction because, with a certain shift of meaning and blurring of lines, it still dominates the schools. The devotees, as we all know, of the literary fields often think of mathematicians and scientists as practicing black arts alien to humanity, while the latter think of the former quite simply as occupied with “trivial” matters.
Now that I have said briefly what liberal arts traditionally exist, let us take a look at their name itself. The liberal arts are the “free” or “freeing arts.” But isn’t the phrase which names them a contradiction in terms? Listen how John of Salisbury, a medieval defender of the trivium, defines “art” in his work called Metalogicon:
Art is a reasonable procedure which, using the shortcuts proper to it, brings about a facility for achieving the naturally possible. For in this procedure reason does not promise to undertake or effect the impossible, but having in view those things which can be done, it opposes, as it were, to the wasteful circuitous road of nature a shortcut, and brings into being, if I may put it this way, a faculty for mastering the difficult. For this reason, the Greeks speak of art as ‘method,’ a ‘short way,’ which avoids the extra expenditure of nature and makes straight its winding circuit, so that that which is to be done can be done more directly and easily.
And Thomas Aquinas says: “Art, then, is a method, a set course, whose pursuit has become a habit, a second nature, and whose aim is to do something and to do it efficiently. ” (It goes, of course, without saying that the activities of people called “artists” at present can be called arts only insofar as these people are fully in command of their work. But we are, in any case, not now concerned with the so-called productive or with the mechanical arts, but with the arts of learning.)
Now, to be able to do things in this way means to be a trained expert. The notion of efficient theoretical know-how, acquired by habit-forming training, by the internalizing of precepts, which dominates the modern instructional business, derives, therefore, strange to say, from the traditional liberal arts themselves. The arts are understood as curriculum subjects, scheduled and institutionalized learning programs, or as John of Salisbury himself calls them: “compendia,” sets of precepts governing a range of particulars. Since the body of such precepts needs to be developed and perfected by the concerted and continued efforts of the masters of the arts, arts-learning is always “traditional” in the two senses of the Latin word “tradere,” namely of “handing on” and of “betraying” a heritage. For the accumulation of know-how is on the one hand passed down, mostly in books, from generation to generation, and regarded as a valuable inheritance, but on the other hand, in so far as improvements and advancements in learning are made, each generation is very willing to forget and deny the perch from which it took off—and obviously, the steeper the flight, the more vehement the denial. To give an example: For almost two millennia the great tool of learning which tops off the trivium, logic, had had its most authoritative statement in a body of treatises by Aristotle called traditionally the Organon or “Instrument.” At the beginning of the seventeenth century Francis Bacon published, as part of a huge plan for the re-organization of human knowledge, a work significantly and boldly called the New Organon, in which he writes: “For after the sciences had been cultivated and handled diligently, there has risen up some man of bold disposition (he means Aristotle), and famous for methods and short ways, which people like, who has in appearance reduced them to an art, while he has, in fact only spoiled all that the others had done.” And that from a man a good quarter of whose vocabulary is, I would think, Aristotelian! The point, however, which I mean to make is that the arts-tradition, characterized by the conception of art as method, is as much behind the iconoclast as behind the scholastic.
Let us take a very brief and inadequate look at the history and meaning of this word, “method.” The Greek word methodos means simply “a way to follow” or a “pursuit.” In the dialogue The Republic, Socrates uses the word in just this way. He speaks of the “pursuit” of mathematical studies which will end in a unified view of all of these, and then goes on to speak of the “way followed by dialectic, which alone travels in such a way that it gets rid of hypotheses and comes to the source itself.” If someone were to translate “the way followed by dialectic” by the words “the dialectic method,” he would be very much misrepresenting Plato’s text, for the way of dialectic, the way of questions and answers about the nature of things, is, as I shall try to show, fundamentally different from, if not diametrically opposed to, the artful, abbreviated, problem-solving procedure which is signified by the word for us. Gradually, largely under the influence of medical writers, who particularly appropriate the word and mean by it a rationalized technique of treatment clearly communicable to an apprentice physician, method comes to be a keyword with very nearly its present meaning. An obvious and essential part of this meaning is that such a technique must be teachable, that is, there must be handy, rationally organized compendia of precepts such as are associated with a program of studies; an art must have “elements,” first beginnings through which a student is properly introduced to it. In fact, in time “method” sometimes comes to mean simply “curricular subject,” any organized public presentation. By the sixteenth century, interest in “method” as the pedagogical side of arts learning had become rampantly exaggerated. An outraged scholar (Turnèbe) of the period says: “Method—no word is more popular in our lectures these days, none more often heard none give a more delightful ring than that term.” And Ramus, the prolific rhetorician whom he is attacking and who is the great proponent of method at this time, says: “But method is used not only in the matter of arts and curricular subjects but in every matter which we wish to teach easily and clearly.” Our modern “textbooks” are the consequences of this trend.
In the next century, the method of method undergoes one of those great betrayals of which I have spoken. Having been so far largely in the service of humanist training, particularly rhetoric and logic, or, in terms of the liberal arts, in the service of the trivium, it is freshly appropriated now for the inquiry of nature, it becomes “scientific,” always with the intimation that no previous method was a true method. The work most characteristic of this development and most influential in the new understanding of the meaning of science (although by no means in the actual pursuit of it) is Descartes introduction to three physico-mathematical treatises setting out his own discoveries in optics, analytical geometry and meteorology, called significantly a Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences. It proposes essentially the introduction of quantitative, that is, mathematical, methods into the speculative or liberal arts. Descartes says: “Most of all I was delighted with mathematics because of the certainty of its demonstrations and the evidence of its reasoning, but I did not yet understand its true use, and believing that it was of service only in the mechanical arts, I was astonished that, seeing how firm and solid was its basis, no loftier edifice has been reared thereupon.” And later on:
I have never made much of those things which proceed from my own mind, and so long as I culled no other fruits from the method which I use, beyond that of satisfying myself respecting certain difficulties which pertain to the speculative sciences… I never believed myself obliged to write anything about it, but so soon as I had acquired some general notions concerning physics I believed that I could not keep them concealed…. For they caused me to see that it is possible to attain knowledge which is very useful in life and that, instead of that speculative philosophy which is taught in the Schools, we may find a practical philosophy by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, heavens and all other bodies that environ us as distinctly as we know the different crafts of our artisans, we can in the same way employ them in all those uses to which they are adopted, and thus render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.
(Incidentally, the phrase “practical philosophy” contains that very self-contradiction I am on the way to pointing out—for what in the world might an “applied” love of wisdom be?—whose end-result is that thorough debasement of philosophy which Hegel, with vicious humour, illustrates in his Encyclopedia by a new book title he found announced in an English newspaper, namely “The Art of Preserving Hair on Philosophical Principles.”) Speaking very broadly, then, ever since Descartes to be “scientific” means to introduce the Cartesian method or to approach matters of any sort as a natural scientist. As one little sample of the scope and pervasiveness of the method, I might quote from just such an application, Emile Durkheim’s fundamental essay on sociology, called “The Rules of Sociological Method.” In this book, he says: “that what the method demands is that the sociologist put himself in the same state of mind as the physicist, chemist, or physiologist.”
I have introduced this insufficient little disquisition on method to complete the description of the arts side of the liberal arts. Arts are rules for the direction of the mind, binding precepts. Medieval writers, who are still much concerned with the nature of the curricular arts, emphasize this by their understanding of the etymology of the Latin word “artes” itself. The same Cassiodorus I mentioned before, as well as Isidore of Seville, claims that arts are so called because, in Latin, “artant arte” (translated: “they bind strictly”). Thus, the arts appear to be the opposite of free or freeing. Again Cassiodorus—the work, incidentally; in which he introduces the pagan liberal arts into Christendom is called the Institutes of Divine and Worldly Arts—recognizes this problem by rather shamelessly claiming that “liberal” comes from “liber, “book, thus turning the free arts into the bookish arts, a characterization which does, of course, in view of the traditional nature of the arts, have some appropriateness. John of Salisbury, again, catches another aspect in understanding “liberal” as pertaining to “liberi,” children, so that the arts are here interpreted as the education of children, which also has some truth in it. A last medieval writer, Hugo St. Victor, in his very acute discussion of the liberal arts called the Didascalicon, the “Teacher’s Manual, ” takes full account of the fact that the arts are constraining and that they are, perforce, taught by masters to the immature: “They are indeed the best instruments and rudiments for preparing the way for the soul of a full knowledge of philosophical truth. This is why they are called the three-way (the trivium) and the four-way (the quadrivium)…. Of Pythagoras too it is said that he employed in his studies a special custom.” (I should remark here that the introduction of the quadrivium is traditionally attributed to Pythagoras, a Greek “mathematician” of the sixth century B.C., he same one who is said to have introduced the word philosophia, literally the “love of, or friendship, for wisdom”). “For seven years,” Hugo continues, “obviously corresponding to the seven liberal arts, none of his students might dare to demand of him a reason for what he said, but the words of the master had to be taken on faith until the student had heard everything and could thus find the reason for himself.” With this story, Hugo acknowledges that the very arts intended to make the independent search for knowledge possible must come to the student as to a child, in a constraining and authoritative way. We all know that this aspect of the teaching of the arts is usually predominant.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century appeared a work which crystalizes the development which I am sketching, and which foreshadows, in an almost uncanny way, the problem of our own education situation, Giambatista Vico’s expanded lecture On the Study Plan of Our Time. Vico understands what he calls “the genius of his time,” his modernity, in terms of the menacing dominance of the scientific method; the whole work is a reaction of somewhat concealed but vehement opposition to Bacon and Descartes. He describes the method of the latter, which he calls the “new critical philosophy,” as intending to be “the common instrument of all our arts and sciences,” which “supplies us with some thing fundamentally true of which we can be certain even when assailed by doubt.” There are also particular instruments such as the telescope, the microscope, the universities, the printing press, which assist in the discovery and mastery of nature and in the wide dispersion of that knowledge. But of all these the most powerful instrument is “analysis,” that is, algebra, which represents the method in all its characteristic aspects, in its brevity, ease, communicability, power. Vico, although he acknowledges these virtues, is at heart disturbed by the predominance of training in these swift and certain manipulations in the study programs of young men. He believes that “the greatest drawback of our educational plan is that we pay an excessive amount of attention to the natural sciences and not enough to matters of human conduct.” Vico, who delivered this lecture in his official capacity as Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Naples, wants to lead the university back to an emphasis on the uncertain, understood as the probable, which, he conceives, was taught in traditional logic. He wants the imagination again to be trained by poetry, the common sense by the wisdom of the ancients and the judgment by the opinions of contemporary men. In short, he wants the universities to give more weight to what we call the humanities, which are for him comprised in rhetoric. He is initiating, under the guise of the then current topic of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, the deeply shallow division of university learning into the “two cultures” of humanism and science with which we are more than ever afflicted. Now note what lies at the root of this quarrel. It is the difference between method and non-method. Let him who is not to be a physicist or mechanic, Vico says, “not spend much time as a boy or afterwards in those studies which are handed on by method.” The founders of such studies are compared to tyrants who scatter the inhabitants of a city to prevent opposition, who hobble individual judgment with rules, and gravest of all, who know nothing of free speech. The distinction between studies is based only secondarily on the nature of the objects involved, and primarily on the kind of approach used. But this distinction leads to an almost paradoxical classification. The natural sciences alone are artful, in the sense of being methodical, while all that concerns not the experts but humanity in common is artless, that is, free, but only in the sense of having no strict procedure, and being dependent on the taste and talent of each individual. Vico himself does not fail to issue a demand for the unification of the study plan of universities, but, I submit, his own understanding of the division of studies makes this unification permanently impossible, as the present state of universities, 250 years after Vico’s lecture, shows. For so long as the sciences are regarded as the rigorously reasoned but inhuman business of a group specially habituated to a certain theoretical procedure, while a vast conglomeration of interests called the humanities are in the hands of professors who do not take quite so great a professional pride in their ability to think rigorously as in the meticulousness of their sensibility, clearly no power on earth, not even that benevolent coercion, an interdisciplinary credit requirement, can persuade very many students to study seriously in both divisions. For everyone will plead that his preferences are really the expression of his aptitudes and that he has, as the case may be, that famous “block” against mathematics or against languages. And so the liberal arts disappear, torn apart into the humanly rudderless art fulness of scientific method and the willful freedom of organized idiosyncrasy. As I have tried to show, this division, driven to pernicious extremes in the universities, is in fact already inherent in the very notion of the liberal arts and in any liberal arts program, and our problem raises the possibility that the very necessity of the paradox points to some understanding which, instead of perpetuating the division, will heal it by showing it to be an indispensable and yet a mere intermediary phase of a truly human education. To point out this possibility will, among other things, mean giving aid and comfort to that serious student whose difficulties with our program are precisely that it presents him at fixed, and perhaps privately inappropriate, times with prepared problems and procedures, which may all seem to shunt aside rather than meet his own concerns and doubts. In particular, there are those well-known scandals, the so-called classics of tradition, the fore most food of solid schools, which, although presented as containing what human wisdom there is, seem to insist on speaking in terms infuriatingly remote and “academic.” And yet every student acknowledges with his act of matriculation that he is in need of an organized community of learning where there will perforce be a set sequence of studies such as can take little account of the contingencies of the single human soul, and that whatever skills and arts there are can hardly be transmitted otherwise than in the terms of those who perfected them, so that in the beginning, at least, their rules and precepts and requirements must be submitted to. What troubles him, and rightly, is how he himself fares in this beneficent assault, how the tyranny exercised by the arts can ever succeed in setting him free from confusion and impotence. The problem can now be formulated in this way: How can the arts be the freeing arts?
Let me put that same problem one last time in terms of a simple and pointed formula. Human inquiry proceeds either by setting problems or by asking questions. I would by no means claim that the distinction between them which I am about to offer is simply a general fact of language usage; in fact, the Cartesian work which formulates the “rules for the direction of the mind” toward problems specifically terms these “questions.” But it is sufficiently pervasive at present for my purpose. Vico had, very accurately, seen the essence of Descartes’ new method in an instrument which he regarded as a great danger to the human spirit, in “analysis” or algebra. Now Descartes himself received this instrument from a great but insufficiently acknowledged predecessor, Franciscus Vieta by name. His fundamental essay, which has the significant name “Introduction to the Analytical Art, ” ends with the following stupendous claim: “Finally, the analytical art appropriates to itself by right the proud problem of problems, which is: to solve every problem.” We are still or rather, more than ever, dominated by Vieta’s immense ambition. We see everywhere and in everything problems which we expect to solve by the application of some general method—that is why we submit to the tyranny of a training. We speak of the “problem of freedom” or the “problem of God.” Our griefs are called “personal problems,” and if they are expressed in a form annoying to others, “personality problems;” our aches and pains are “health problems,” our vices “drinking problems” and the like; our public statements, especially lectures, frequently recur to “the problem under examination.”
What is a problem? Again, it will be useful to go back to the original meaning of the word in Greek. A problema is simply “something thrown out before” us, anything from an outwork, that is, a defensive structure thrown out before a military camp, to a task set before someone to be done. The word was also used with a special meaning in geometry, where it signified that a construction was to be furnished rather than a theorem demonstrated. For instance, the last book of Euclid’s Elements culminates in a series of problems, the constructing of the five regular solids; and the propositions read, in abbreviated form: “to construct a pyramid”, “to construct an octahedron,” a cube, an icosahedron, a dodecahedron. An ancient commentator observes that in some sense all problems are theorems, for “we regard the generation that takes place in them as referring not to actual making but to’ knowledge,” and Euclid presents his problems in this theoretical way. But there is a procedure which is special to problems as distinct from theorems and which the Greeks called “analysis;” here is the source of this important method, which consists essentially in imagining the construction as having already been done, and then analyzing it, that is, breaking it up, to discover how it could have been done. The elements which, as the technical phrase goes, will “do the problem” are then put back together or “synthesized.” Furthermore, Aristotle, using the word “problem” in a logical context, distinguishes it, in his Topics, from the straight-forward interrogative proposition by the manner of the response expected; the problematic form constrains the answer to be an affirmative or a negative, as, for example in the question: “Is it, or is it not the case that animal is the genus of man,” while the propositional form simply asks: “Is animal the genus of man?”
We see that there are three related aspects to a problem. It is, first of all, a challenge, a publicly enunciated task requiring a solution in its own terms; secondly, its solution usually has the nature of a construction which may well be a theoretical construct; and finally and fundamentally, a problem is characteristically that which requires a solution, that is to say it requires its own abolition; a solved problem is no longer a problem, and problems once solved are very legitimately forgotten. Take as an example the famous problem of squaring the circle, attacked in the past with veritably fanatical persistence. When in 1882, this problem was solved, or rather resolved, by being proved to be insoluble, the many clever efforts made in its behalf all, at a stroke, lost their interest except for antiquarians or slightly unhinged characters, like Public Prosecutor Paravant in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, who, laying out a piece of string on the circumference of a circle, attempts to catch the problem napping, as it were, by suddenly pouncing on the string and stretching—it into the shape of a square. This self-destroying nature of a problem is acknowledged by Bacon and Vico and Kant, who all use for their new method, the method which turns every question into a soluble problem, the metaphor of Ariadne’s clue, the thread which leads Theseus out of the labyrinth to safety after he had killed the monster at the center.
Problems have a fourth aspect, which is the one most relevant in my present context. In the Republic, Socrates makes a special point of introducing problems into the quadrivium. He says: “Then in astronomy, as in geometry, we should employ problems and let the heavens alone.” We have some evidence of what he meant by “employing problems” and “letting the heavens alone,” since Plato is said to have set for his students the problem of rationalizing the irregularity of the visible heavenly motions by going beyond them to form mathematical hypotheses. The word “hypothesis” as used here designates the solution of the special kind of problem which calls for a mathematical fiction such as shall, without itself laying any claim to being true, provide a rational underpinning for the errant appearances of nature. What hypotheses are produced is never quite so interesting as that they should be producible. From this point of view Socrates’ call for the use of problems by learners, that is, the demand that they should construct hypotheses, is a demand that they should learn by exercising their skills on questions the answers to which are fundamentally indifferent. We are all very familiar with a rather low example of this teaching device: the practice problem. For instance, an analytic geometry textbook may present a student with the problem (I choose one of a multitude): “Show analytically that the latus rectum of a parabola is of length 4a.” This is the very model of a problem, showing explicitly what every problem at least implies. To begin with, the author and the student are both aware that the problem is not waiting for the latter to be solved—his solution is in itself of no interest. Furthermore, he is to “show analytically” what is required, and he understands immediately that this means “show by constructing an equation,” “show algebraically.” Just as the arts have in them the seeds of the scientific method, so the very notion of problem has in it an invitation to analysis or algebra; you will remember that analysis was originally a geometric procedure in which a construction is regarded as accomplished from the very beginning and then analyzed. But this is precisely what the fundamental algebraic form, the “formula” or equation, does for general numbers, for when I write 3x=l2, I am putting down a mathematical sentence which requires no question mark, much as if I already knew the answer, and all I need to do to make that answer explicit is to analyze out the unknown number by reorganizing the equation. Now I can simply read off: x=12/3=4. The solution, four, does away with and abolishes the problem, for when I substitute it in place of x, the equation becomes an identity, a useless tautology. But most significantly, the unknown is found wholly in terms of the original problem so that the solution reaches in no way beyond it. Now, this procedure, although most nakedly apparent in mathematics, may be used in any art, and, as some people think, even in those human enterprises which go beyond the arts, if only their terms have been compacted into recognized obstacles, outworks inviting attack, that is problems. This is, in fact, our predominant way.
Let me now say what a problem is in terms of all that has gone before. A problem is a sham question, a counterfeit question. For a genuine question is the desire for an answer, and it does not dissolve when an answer is gained anymore than love necessarily disappears because its object is won. A genuine question does not demand an answer in its own terms or on its own level, but seeks its desire wherever it may hope to find it, remaining open to any intimation its object might give. Nor will it rest satisfied by a construct or a fiction fabricated only to set it at rest, for it wants only what is in itself worth having. Problems are ultimately exercises, mere means, but questions are the serious and final human business. Let me try to formulate this once more.
Is there something which human beings have for themselves, which is so very much our own that if we found a creature that possessed that same ability we would count it as human, no matter what its shape? Or, to put it in the opposite way, a very contemporary way: Is there not something that we can be certain the most complex computer can never do? There is such a thing. The most sophisticated machine can never ask a question. For it can never feel the desire to know, which is the heart of a question. This desire, the desire in a true question, is not for a pre-conceived x, hidden but present and entangled with all the terms at hand, but for something beyond. If, for instance, I seriously ask “what human learning might be?” I do not want my question transformed into the problem of describing learning “systematically” or of “measuring it methodically,” or of finding its ”correlative phenomena,” or even of “constructing an effective theory” of learning, but I want to grasp what it truly is whenever it takes place. Here my very question implies that everything that is presented to me about learning, in observation or in books, is external and insufficient; I want to know for myself, and yet, in the common language of human beings, what makes the thing what it is. I am not looking for a pre-conceived x, unknown for the moment but so involved with and defined by the problem itself that I need only to re-arrange the terms cleverly enough to get a solution, but I want something beyond these, namely the reason why the thing is what it is, and I want this reason to be freely communicable. Every “academic” search, particularly the kind nowadays called “research,” moves strictly within the set terms of its discipline, and is therefore usually of interest only to the expert specialist, while many others can live without it: The quest of a question alone is after that without which we can hardly be said to live our lives, at least as human beings. So it is the genuineness of the desire in a question which keeps it open, keeps it from pre-judging the answer by setting it terms. There are no “traditional,” inherited, questions; every question is my own, and yet every such question is generic to human beings, insofar as they are human.
Here now is the place to say something about “the Tradition” and its relevance to the quest for truth and the love of wisdom. The unreflective opinion of the times has it that human wisdom is both cumulative and automatically transferable. We speak all the time of “our rapidly increasing knowledge,” “our recent achievements and advances,” “our breakthrough” in this or that field, as if each contemporary human magically acquired the results of the research carried on by thousands of different people. Ridiculously, we talk as if human beings were no longer born as naked little babies who have to begin the learning process at the beginning and who have perhaps a quarter century to invest in it. Now the Platonic dialogue The Statesman does envision a race of men born old and, perhaps, wise, who return in the course of their lives to a first childhood. But this race lives when the world’s time is reversed, in the Golden Age when a god sits at the temporal tiller of the cosmos. In our present mortally governed world, we have to begin at the beginning. Undeniably, the disciplines of the quadrivium, more modernly speaking, of mathematics and the sciences, are “progressive,” in the sense of being capable of becoming more and more sophisticated and potent tools of research and manipulation. But this does not for a moment mean that the young man who “inherits” such subjects in their advanced state has inherited accumulated knowledge. The wisdom of babes may indeed be powerful, but it is almost always bought at the expense of a reflective understanding of the terms and first elements of the science in question, for such an understanding becomes almost inaccessible when the beginnings of a discipline which arose progressively, that is, as a continuous sequence of problems, are relegated to mere history. Most possessors of such latter-day knowledge are, I say, prodigious babies, Peter Pans of wisdom who, incapable of remembering their past, lightly fly hither and thither over their own fantastic is lands·, having lost their mother and the ground under their feet. Those, on the other hand, who are willing, as you are, to go more slowly in order to keep solid ground underfoot, will soon find themselves involved in the dialogue of tradition. It is a telling fact that a work by the very founder of modern physics; the one which introduces the New Astronomy to the public, is itself written in dialogue form and includes among its participants his Greek predecessor: In Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Chief Two World Systems, Aristotle, the founder of the ancient physics, is literally present in the shape of a book in the pocket of one of the interlocutors; this is Galileo’s way of acknowledging that the basis of the New Sciences is the responsive repudiation of the tradition.
On the other hand, in those studies which are not progressive in their original design but only insofar as they are forcibly assimilated to the natural sciences, for instance, in psychology, anthropology, and sociology (the accounts of the soul, of man and of community) the tradition is yet more than the ground of the present—it is that present itself, for quite aside from the incidental fact that our times seem to me to show a strong decline of wisdom concerning these matters, the tradition, just because it is not progressive, consists of a conversation in which the participants listen to each other, circumvent, reinvent and echo each other, so that while temporal in its parts, it is timeless, or ever-present, as whole. It is in this sense that it seems to me possible that our West alone has a tradition, that this strange dialogue of contemporaries who are yet bound into their times, this sequence of acceptance and betrayal, can take place only through books in the Western sense, books of arguable “theory” rather than of spiritual practice. This conjecture is supported by circumstances of the following sorts: the Indians, for instance, seem to have no word for philosophy, for that search for a wisdom which is a communicable activity rather than a silent possession.
Now how are the members of this tradition established? This is the general version of the perennial question: How do we choose our seminar books?, for the tradition comes to us through books. What books are these? Are we entirely at the mercy of our library catalogs? We are, indeed. It seems to me just as possible that there are momentous manuscripts which are quite unknown as that unworthy books become canonized. But all in all, I think we can trust the consensus of reading mankind as shown in the quantity of the propagation of a book. We can do this so much the more safely because of a human fact which I have always marveled at—that worthy works attract the professional industry of legions of people who have no interest in their contents. A principal example of this in my own experience is the crowd of classical philologists, those “scientific language microscopists,” as Nietzsche calls them, who fill libraries with comment on the attendant circumstances of wisdom.
What single trait distinguishes the persons acknowledged as belonging to the tradition? Here we must refer once again to the distinction made between history and tradition. The persons of history, if there be such a science, must be, as Hegel says, nations. The persons of tradition are single and special human souls. If there be such an item as “the Greek mind,” if, for instance, it was the pervasive quirk of canonical Greeks to believe invisible gods, then the authors of the classical tradition have probably overcome that quirk and are certainly not of that mind. For these authors are usually radicals; this is why they are at worst ignored and at best considered dangerous in their own times. So that if, for instance, the Olympian gods appear in the Homeric poems, they may safely be suspected of playing there a role deeply different from that which they played in the mind of “the Greeks,” a problematic, perhaps even an ironic, role. Hence so-called “historical backgrounds” can never help to understand the central intention of works of tradition (except, perhaps, to set off the foreground of thought by contrast), since history does not make that which is valuable in the tradition—although the tradition sometimes makes history. For the authors of tradition sound a reflective descant on the common opinions of mankind and the peculiar opinions of their nation—and so these opinions sometimes modulate.
The tradition is, then, always problematic, and it is for this reason that no one is born into it. As children we become entangled in a web of accepted opinions and conventions; in youth we begin, largely by means of books, to break out of this cocoon into the light of the tradition, and this cannot help but be a laborious but momentous phase of our lives. Nowadays, most of the earliest serious reading done is contemporary, and this raises a question which I will put very outrageously: Are contemporary writings ever part of the tradition? Or, what is the same thing: Are contemporary writings ever relevant to the human condition? There seems to be no inherent reason why they should not be, though it is, perhaps, as unlikely for a “contemporary” to enter into the realm of tradition as for the camel to go through the needle’s eye, simply be cause it is essentially the agreeably conforming, even if apparently shocking, which instantaneously fascinates and becomes popular, while the tradition is always somewhat uncomfortable, not to say repulsive. Especially at present, the contemporary, with its accent on the new, the changeable and the young, tends to be sham radical, and its problems tend to be derivative and, in fact, antiquated. For to begin with, it is self-defeating to insist on newness and youth as independent goods, forgetting that newness and youth are conditions which by their very nature have no future. But more important, the easy revolt of the contemporary scene is an opposition almost entirely determined by that which is, rejects a mirror image of common current opinion; containing all the flaws of the older opponent in reverse, a counteraction in the manner of a brute body whose reaction is equal to the action upon it. Such mere behavior is truly “reactionary”: I will give an example. In 1864, Dostoyevsky published a manifesto of genuine despair over civilization called Letters from the Underworld, in which he wrote: “I solemnly declare to you that I have often wished to become an insect, but could never attain my desire.” In this century, over a generation ago; Franz Kafka wrote a dreadful story called The Metamorphosis, in which one young man, a traveling salesman, in silent desperation over what present-day jargon would call ”middle-class values” painfully turns himself into a great cockroach. In the 1960s, finally a whole swarm of young men turn themselves into Beatles with the most exuberant facility, and the underground man emerges in amiable companies, his eyes shielded against the unwonted sun, his inarticulate wisdom pinned to him on a printed button, his ways mildly lawless, his uniform completely determined by opposition to rosily wholesome suburbanity, a harmless, institutionalized latter-day version of the prophetic, criminal outcast of the Western tradition.
It is, then, the very radicality of the tradition which makes it so inaccessible. For to become absorbed in the tradition means quite simply to break away both from one’s own private idiom and the current public jargon into the language of humanity, to communicate; not in the current sense of “being effective” or “making contact,” but in the sense of entering the human community. The traditional authors, who speak that language, must always seem somewhat forbidding, for this human tongue is much more boldly simple and subtly complex than the dialect of our place and time. It takes time to grow simple and subtle and requires a certain willing trust in the wisdom of these initiators and guides, who are as yet untried strangers, but such an expense of present, youthful time is the best way of ensuring a future in which ardour will, on the whole, outweigh melancholy. For at best, a faithful student has hope of sharing the experience of Dante in his journey through the world of the soul, when, in the face of hell, his guide and teacher Virgil “placed his hand on mine, and with a cheerful countenance, which comforted me, led me into the secret things. ” And at worst he will have learned to make a knowledgeable and dignified retreat into the decent pleasures of the practical life.
But, you will recall, I entered upon this consideration of the tradition after I had defined traditional problems as sham questions, almost as if traditional learning of necessity interfered with genuine questioning. For questioning is that situation of determined openness in which the soul, willingly attentive to the apparent and the immediate, encounters even in its deepest delights certain difficulties and perplexities which, out of its very love and concern for things, it is determined to face and resolve, or not think life worth living; it is the “ardent mood” of the soul which is well-composed and free. If this enterprise is carried on with a certain trust in its possibility, it is called the love of wisdom. But the traditional questions come to the learner as “problems,” by which I mean as another’s question, which is, if anything is, a contradiction in terms. In sum, all formal study, perhaps even all purposeful conversation, must give up living thought to “formulations.” Nay more—evidently Western tradition itself must need progress along the road, which Nietzsche characterizes as leading from the forms of Plato to the formulas of algebra.
I cannot resolve this, the problem of my lecture and the question in my mind. I herewith hand it over to you, without, of course, myself relinquishing it. The study of the liberal arts, which are the public and adequate learning procedures, and of their fruits, which are the various bodies of knowledge, as well as the absorption of the reflective tradition which is based on them, can only provide materials, tools and a language for questioning; the love of wisdom itself cannot be gained by study; and for that portion of our life of learning in which our unknown source fails us—for it is more arduous to maintain the condition of openness than a state of levitation—we must expect to be sometimes prey to the mortal’s malady, the confusion of the soul induced by the futile passing of precious time. But in this understanding of that sickness there is implicit the suggestion of a cure: to fix stubbornly and determinedly on that present preparation, that acquisition of the problem-solving arts and the problem-posing tradition, which is certainly at least the pre-condition of a questioning life, a life worth living. In the words of the tradition as represented once more by the Didascalicon of Hugo St. Victor:
Therefore it seems to me that first an effort should be made in the arts, for here are the foundations of every thing and in them pure and simple truth is opened up; most of all I am thinking of the seven of which I have spoken which are the instruments of all philosophy…. But philosophy is the love and the pursuit and, in a manner of speaking, the friendship felt for wisdom; not, however, for that wisdom which is concerned with some kind of hardware and any sort of applied science and expertise—he says: quae in ferramentls quibusdam et in aliqua fabrili scientia notltiaque versatur—but of that wisdom which needs nothing and is living thought and the sole original reason for things—vivax mens et sola rerum primaeva ratio.
Republished by permission of the author from The Collegian (October 1976). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
*The program of St. John’s College requires every student to pursue the elements of the linguistic as well as the mathematical, arts; and to consider seriously certain books belonging to the reflective tradition.
The featured image is “The Smoking Student” by Jan Abel Wassenbergh (1724–1772) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.