To my mind texts, like people, are serious when they have a surface that arouses the desire to know them and the depth to fulfill that desire. I think that for us human beings only depths and mysteries induce viable desire. Many a failure of love follows on the—usually false—opinion that we have exhausted the other person’s inside, that there is no further promise of depth.
By an old tradition the first lecture of the year is dedicated to the new members of our college, to the freshman students and the freshman tutors. It is a chance to tell you something about the shape and the spirit of the Program that governs St. John’s College—and not only to tell you but perhaps even to show you.
I think I am right in this spirit when I begin by examining the class name I just called you by: freshmen. A freshman, my etymological dictionaries tell me, is a person “not tainted, sullied or worn,” a still-fresh human being, where “fresh” means, so the dictionary points out, both “frisky” and “impertinent.” Later on in the year you will learn a weighty Greek word applicable to persons of frisky impertinence. They are said to have thymos, spiritedness or plain spunk, a characteristic necessary for serious learning. This spirited frame of mind is perfectly compatible with being shy and secretly a little scared. In fact, to my mind, it is a sign of quality in newcomers to be anxious for their own dignity in the way that shows itself in spirited shyness. It is our business, the business of the faculty and of the more responsible returning students, to help your spiritedness to become serious, to emerge from the shyness, whether it be of the quiet or the boisterous sort; to help you channel your energy into a steady desire for learning and to direct your boldness toward the discovery of depth, and, moreover, to help you without leaving you tainted, sullied, and worn out. I keep saying “help,” because although great changes are bound to take place in you in these next years–do but behold the seniors: unsullied, untainted, unworn, and transfigured—we none of us know who should get the most credit besides yourself: the Program, our teaching, your friendship, or just plain time passing.
At any rate, the spirit of the college is invested in seriousness, a certain kind of seriousness—not dead seriousness but live seriousness, you might say. This seriousness shows itself on many occasions: in deep or heated conversations in the noon sun or at midnight, in marathons of effort and in the oblivion of sleep, in devoted daily preparation and in glorious goofing-off, in the willingness to try on opinions and in the need to come to conclusions. What does your school do to induce this very particular kind of seriousness?
When you chose to come to St. John’s you were, perhaps, attracted by the fact that the mode of teaching normal in higher education is quite abnormal here. I mean lectures. Only one lecture a week is an integral part of the Program, on Fridays at 8:15 P.M. Now the chief thing about a lecture is that it is prepared ahead of time. For instance, I began working on this lecture in March. A lecture ought to be the temporarily final word, the best a speaker has to give you at the moment. It should not matter whether the surface of the speech is brilliant or drab, as long as it is a deliberate and well-prepared opening of the speaker’s heart and mind to the listeners. As such it carries authority. These authoritative occasions are obviously important to the life of the school.
Yet our normal way is not the prepared lecture but the focused conversation, which is effervescent rather than prepared, provisional rather than authoritative, and participatory rather than reactive. Your tutors will not tell you but ask you; they will demonstrate not acquired knowledge but the activity of learning. One reason why the teaching of new tutors—and some of your classes will be taught by newcomers—is often most memorable to freshmen is that their learning is genuinely original and keeps sympathetic pace with yours. There is an irresistible but false local etymology of the word tutor as “one who toots,” perhaps his own horn. What the word tutor really signifies is a person who guards and watches learning. We are deliberately not called professors because we profess no special expertise.
Since you will not be told things, you will have to speak yourselves. What will you speak about? The Program will ask you to focus your conversation on certain texts—they might be books or scores or paintings. These texts have been selected over the years by us because they have the living seriousness I am trying to speak about. To my mind texts, like people, are serious when they have a surface that arouses the desire to know them and the depth to fulfill that desire. Here, then, is my announced theme for tonight: the depth that calls forth desire.
To delineate that depth I must once again distinguish our kind of conversation, the kind associated with such texts, from the kind of fellowship to be found in other places. All over this country, and wherever the conditions for some human happiness exist, there are people who know all there is to know about some field that they till with a single-minded love. This is the blessed race of buffs, aficionados, and those rare professionals who have had the grace to remain amateurs at heart. They study history or race stock cars or do biology or fly hot-air balloons. My own favorite fanatic is the young son of a graduate of St. John’s. This boy is persistently in love with fish, with the hooks, flies, sinkers, leaders, reels, and rods for catching them, with the books for studying them, with the aquaria, ponds, lakes, and oceans for observing them. When I first met him he looked up at me shyly and asked if I knew what an ichthyologist was. Since I knew some Greek I knew the etymology of the word and could tell him that it is a person who can give an account of fish, so he was satisfied with me. This boy may have his troubles but he is also acquainted with bliss.
This kind of concentrated bliss we cannot deliver to you, except perhaps in limited extracurricular ways. Instead we, or rather the Program, will drive you through centuries of time and diversities of opinion, while depriving you of the freedom and the serenity to till and to master a well-defined field of your own choosing. You will study Greek and invest hours in memorizing paradigms, but your tutorial is not a Greek class—it is a language tutorial in which Greek is studied only partly for its own virtues, and partly as a striking and, for you, a novel example of human speech and its possibilities. You will study Euclid and demonstrate many propositions, yet your tutorial is intended not to make you geometers but to allow you to think about the activity of mathematics. In short, you will be asked to read many books carefully and to study many matters in some detail only to find them passing away, becoming mere examples in the conversation. And these fugitive texts will almost all bear their excellence, their worthiness to be studied exhaustively, on their face, for we try to pick the ideal examples. This procedure is practically guaranteed to keep you off-balance, even to drive you a little crazy, since you will not often have the satisfaction of dwelling on anything and of mastering it. How do we dare do this to you?
Here is a strange but unavoidable fact: Those who plow with devotion and pleasure and increasing mastery some bounded plot on the globe of knowledge often undergo a professional deformation. They lose first the will and then the ability to go deep. To be sure, specialists are often said to know their subjects “in depth,” but that is not the depth I mean. Let me illustrate with an example I have a special affection for. I began my academic life as an archaeologist, and the first thing archaeologists do is to dig deep past the present surface of the earth, or rather they scrape it away layer by layer. But with every stratum they scrape away they find themselves at a new surface, the surface of a former age. They poke into time—a magical enough activity—but they do not pretend to pierce the nature of things. For example, there would come up from the depths of a well-shaft an ancient pot. I would catalogue it by naming its form, say: kotyle, a kind of cup; by giving its dimensions: h. 0.108 m.; diam. 0.135 m; by describing its proportions: deep-bodied, narrow-footed; by interpreting the picture painted on it: a rabbit–this is the pot-painter being funny jumping a tracking hound from behind; by conjecturing about the provenance and the stylistic influences: made in Attica under Corinthian influence; and by assigning a date: third quarter of the seventh century B.C.
Was I required to consider what I meant by dimensions, proportions, styles, images, funniness, influences, places? Not a bit—that would have meant time out and profitless distraction from my business, which was to know all about the looks and appearances of the pottery of Athens in early times. What this Program of ours offers you is exactly that time out, and that splendid distraction. People will say of you, when you have graduated, that you have acquired a broad background. But your education will have been broad only in a very incidental and sketchy way, certainly not in the fashion of a close-knit tapestry that is a continuous texture of interwoven warp and woof. Many of the books you are about to read do tie into one another. Sometimes a book written by an ancient Greek will (I am not being funny) talk back to one written by a modern American, or the opposite–the strands that connect these books seem to run back and forth and sideways through time. But some books will stand, at least as we read them, in splendid isolation, and all in all the texts we study do not add up to a texture of knowledge: There is no major called “Great Books.” How could there be competence in a tradition whose moving impulse is to undercut every wisdom in favor of a yet deeper one? There is not even agreement whether this tradition of ours advances or degenerates with time, whether its authors are all talking about the same thing, though in a different way, or in apparently similar ways about quite incomparable things.
Here is what the books do seem to me to have in common: They in tend to go into the depths of things. All the authors, even those subtly self-contradictory ones who claim that there are no depths but only surfaces, are deep in the way I mean. This desire for depth, then, is what will hold your studies here together. There is a word for this effort, to which it is my privilege to introduce you tonight. The word is philosophy. The term is put together from two Greek words, philos, an adjective used of someone who feels friendly, even passionate love, and sophia, which means wisdom or deep knowledge.
When I say that your school is devoted to philosophy, the love of deep knowledge, I mean that all our authors want to draw you deep into their matter, whether by words, symbols, notes, or visual shapes. Incidentally, in a few weeks a lecturer, a tutor from Santa Fe, will come and contradict me; he has told me that he will say that what we do needn’t bear the name of philosophy at all.
Let that be a subject for future discussion, and let me come to the heart of my lecture tonight. It is the question what depth is and how it is possible. I think we are all inclined to suppose that literal, actual depth belongs to bodies and space and that people or texts are deep only by analogy, metaphorically speaking.
I want to propose that here, as so often in philosophy, it is really the other way around: it is the body that is deep merely metaphorically, as a manner of speaking, while the soul and its expression alone are deep in the primary sense.
Certainly the depth of a body or a space is elusive. If a body has a perfectly hard and impenetrable surface, its depth must be forever beyond our experience—a kind of hard, inaccessible nothingness. On the other hand, let the physical body have a hollow in it—such caves are powerful allegories of depth and you will in the next four years come across some famous holes: the grotto of Calypso, the underground chamber in Plato’s Republic, Don Quixote’s cavern of Montesinos. Now ask yourself: Where actually is the depth? The containing boundaries of the hollow are all faces of the body, and no matter how deep you seem to be inside the body, you are still on its surface, just as I argued before about archaeological excavations.
Now consider matterless bodies, geometric solids. Euclid says in Book XI that a solid has length, breadth, and depth, but he gives us no way to tell which is which: it depends on your perspective–in fact all three dimensions are lengths delineating the surfaces that he says are the extremity of the solid. What is inside that solid, what its inwardness or true depth is, he does not feel obliged to say. These are questions you might want to raise in your mathematics tutorials: Can one get inside a geometric solid? How?
Bodies, I am suggesting, are either too hard or too involuted or too featureless or too empty to have true depth. Only divine or human beings and the texts they produce—texts made of words, notes, paint, stones, what have you—can be literally deep or profound. For I attribute depth or profundity to that which is of a truly different order from the surface that covers and hides it. And it must be the inside and foundation of just that surface, so that we can gain entrance to it through that particular outside and through no other. Every depth must be sought through its own proper surface, which it both denies or negates and supplies with significance: the surface that hides its own depth is never superficial.
Human beings seem to me the most obvious example of such depth. All human beings have a surface, namely the face and figure they present. I personally think that in real life almost all people also have an inside, their soul, their depth. But there are some famous novels in which characters are described who are nothing but empty shells. Facades that hide nothing often flaunt an insidiously unflawed beauty. Against such nearly impenetrable surfaces the people who are attracted break themselves, but if they do burst through, they fall into an abyss of nothingness.
However, these are fictions, and actual human beings have by the very fact of their humanity an inner sanctum. We begin by noting, casually, their face, their demeanor. As our interest awakens we proceed to read more carefully, to watch their appearance ardently for what it signifies. If we are lucky, they may open up to us, as we do to them. If we go about it right, this interpretative process need never come to an end, for the human inside, or to give it, once again, its proper name, the soul, is a true mystery. By a true mystery I mean a profundity whose bottom we can never seem to plumb though we have a persistent faith in its actuality. I think that for us human beings only depths and mysteries induce viable desire. For love entirely without longing is not possible among human beings. Many a failure of love follows on the—usually false—opinion that we have exhausted the other person’s inside, that there is no further promise of depth.
It is not only in respect to living human beings that depth calls forth desire. This college would not be the close human community that it is if you did not get to know some human beings deeply—which is called friendship. But such love is only the essential by-product (to coin a contradictory phrase) of our philosophical Program, a program that encourages the love of certain para-human beings. These para-human beings are the expressions of the human soul, our texts, as well as the things they talk about.
Let me take a moment to ask whether this particular desire for depth I keep referring to is common among human beings or even natural. I say it is absolutely natural and very common. You will see what I mean when I tell you what I think is the nature of desire. Desire seems to me to be a kind of negative form or a shaped emptiness in the soul, a place in the spirit expecting to be filled, a kind of psychic envelope waiting to be stuffed with its proper contents.
Now take a long leap and ask yourself what a question is. A question is a negative form or shaped emptiness in the mind, a place in thought waiting to be filled, a psychic envelope ready to be supplied with its proper message. Questions therefore have the same structure as desires. In fact questions are a subspecies of desire: a question is desire directed upon wisdom or knowledge. Therefore I might go so far as to say that this school teaches the shaping of desire—because here we practice asking deep questions. Now I think that very many, probably all, human beings would like to ask such questions if they only knew how. That is why the desire for depth is both common and natural.
What we most often, or at least most programmatically, ask questions about are those texts I have been mentioning. As I have intimated, such a text, particularly a text of words, is a curious kind of being, neither a living soul nor a mere rigid thing. What a book might be, such that it could have genuine depth, is a question that should arise over and over again in the tutorials and the seminars. That books do have depth is shown by the fact that they induce questions, the directed desire to open them up. I want to end by giving a sample of a deep text and a demonstration of the beginning of a reading, a mere knock at its gate, so to speak.
The text is a saying by Heraclitus. Heraclitus flourished about 500 B.C. He was early among those who inquired into the nature of things, and he had a contemporary antagonist, Parmenides. Heraclitus said that it is wise to agree that “All things are one.” Parmenides said things that, on the face of it, seem similar, but whether he meant the same thing as Heraclitus, or something opposite or something incomparable–that is a matter of ever-live debate. In any case, Heraclitus and Parmenides together embody the great principle of our tradition that I mentioned before; you might call it the principle of responsive differentiation.” However, I shall not try to talk about Heraclitus’s actual wisdom tonight; that along with the previous questions—”What is philosophy?”, “What is a solid?”, “What is a cave?”, “What is a book?”—I leave to future discussion. I shall attend only to the preliminaries with which Heraclitus surrounds his wisdom.
Heraclitus’s book is largely lost, though as far as we know it was not a treatise but a book of sayings. Even in ancient times it had a reputation for depth; the tragedian Euripides said of it that it required a Delian diver—the divers from the island Delos (which means the “Manifest” or “Clear”) were evidently famous for diving deep and bringing things to light.
The saying I have chosen goes:
οὐκ ἐμοῦ ἀλλὰ τοῦ λόγου ἀκούσαντας
ομολογεῖν σοφόν ἐστιν ἐν πάντα εῖναι
Transliterated it reads:
ouk emou alla tou logou akousantas homologein sophon estin hen panta einai.
On the surface this saying is in Greek and needs to be translated. Since I have argued that surfaces are, like traditional Japanese packaging, an integral part of the contents, they must be carefully and patiently undone. Now to put Heraclitus’s Greek into English is, up to a certain point, not hard. Your Greek manual will tell you about the use of the accusative and about various infinitives, and your Greek dictionaries will give you the meaning of “listening,” of “wise” (which you are already familiar with in philosophy), and of “agree.”
But then you look up logos. “Logos” is one of the tremendous words of our tradition, to which it is, once again, my privilege to introduce you. Without even looking it up, I can give you the following meanings: word and speech, saying and story, tally and tale, ratio and relation, account and explanation (that was the meaning which occurred in the word “ichthyologist”), argument and discussion, reason and reasoning, collection and gathering, the word of God and the son of God. As you learn Greek you will see what it is about the root-meaning of logos that makes this great scope of significance possible.
But how are you to choose? You are caught in a vicious circle: Unless you know what Heraclitus means by logos you cannot choose the right English translation, and unless you discover the right English word you cannot know what he means by his saying. However, sensible people find ways to scramble themselves out of this bind. Try a meaning that makes a good immediate sense: choose “reasoning.”
Listening not to me but to my reasoning, it is wise to agree that all things are one.
This yields a saying that is particularly pertinent to us, since it might be posted over every seminar door. For though we must look into each other’s faces, we must not get stuck on personalities. Each seminar member has a right to say: “Never mind me, answer my argument.” Heraclitus is introducing a great notion into the Western world here: Not who says it matters but what is said.
But there is more signifying surface to the saying. Listen to its sound and notice that in the second line the word homologein sounds like logos. “Agree” is a good first meaning but it does not preserve the similarity of sound. Homologein literally means “to say the same.” Let me try that, and for “my reasoning” I will substitute “the Saying.”
If you listen not to me but to the Saying, it is wise to say the same: that all things are one.
Now what sense does that make? What Saying? Whose saying other than Heraclitus’s own? Suppose the translation did make sense, then Heraclitus is saying that there is a saying that can be heard beyond his own, a speech to which we must listen, a speaking that it would be the part of wisdom to echo in what we say. What impersonal speech could that be? Heraclitus in fact tells us not what the logos is, but what it says, for he bids us to say the same: “All things are one.” What if this saying, of which no human being is the author, were a power whose saying and doing were one and the same? What if its speech were an act? Let me play with a third, somewhat strange, version:
Once you have listened not to me but to the Gathering, it is wise similarly to gather all things into one.
Here logos is translated as gathering or collection. It is the power that gathers everything in the world into a unified whole, the organizing power we are invited to imitate by giving a comprehensive account of the universe in speech. The logos speaks primarily; our logos becomes deep by imitating it.
I think by now the text has begun to draw us through its surface into its depth. You can see that it demands of you the playful seriousness I mentioned at the beginning, a seriousness that calls out all your capacity for careful attention to surface detail as well as your willingness to dive into the depths.
Here I shall stop. But although I am ending, I am not finished—and neither, of course, are you. If you have in fact listened not only to me but also to my argument, and if you are possessed by the proper freshman spirit, now is your moment, the part of the Friday night lecture that is the true St. John’s: the time for questions.
This essay was originally published here in June 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday. It is republished with gracious permission of the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, No. 3, 1989-1990).
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The featured image is “A Study Table” (1882) by William Harnett (1848–1892) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.