“Waldzell” is the name Hermann Hesse gives to the school in a “Pedagogical Province” brought to life in the book called “The Glass Bead Game.” St. John’s College is an American school with two campuses. The features in which Waldzell is like St. John’s as well as those in which it differs are responsive; they respond to and so address the college specifically. Hence it makes sense, and is in fact illuminating, to compare the two entities, though one be a fantasy and the other a fact.
To readers of Hermann Hesse, friends of St. John’s, or both or neither—here’s a little amusement I composed while thinking about corporeality. ~E.B.
CASTALIA and ST. JOHN’S COLLEGE:
The Pedagogical Province and the Program with a School
Written in April–May 2020, Covid-19, Eighth Week of Self-Isolation
A Jeu d’esprit with a Pertinent Appendix on Incarnate Education
Eva Brann, Presently Tutor and Quondam Dean
Castalia is the spring of the Muses, near Delphi at the foot of Parnassus, the Muses’ Mountain. The Muses are the deities of artistic and intellectual pursuits.* Our word “music,”
*Castalia was also dear to Apollo “who loves the Castalian Spring of Parnassus” (Pindar, Pythian Ode I 38). An etymological conjecture connects the name Muse to the verb manthanein, “learning,” whence our term “mathematics.” Thus the fine arts are subjects of liberal learning.
the art in which craft and mathematics are most manifestly at one, derives directly from these goddesses.
“Castalia” is the name that Hermann Hesse gives to the “Pedagogical Province” brought to life in the book called in German Das Glasperlenspiel, “The Glass Bead Game” (1943), and in some English translations Magister Ludi, “Master of the Game.” The Province is an administrative division of an imaginary North-European country, by which it is overseen and financed. In the Province there is a complex, a campus, the Vicus Lusorum, “Player’s Village” where lives the community of master players and their elite trainees. The center of this center is the school Waldzell, “Forest Cell” or, better, “Sylvan Sanctuary.”
The pedantic tone of this prelude, from which I will not be able altogether to dispense myself, belies the experience of enchantment which induced this essay. Like many young readers of the post-World War II years, the forties and fifties of the last century, I lost myself in this work as in a sort of cult scripture—little knowing, and here’s the wonder, that it gave me a foretaste, that it presaged for me, the collegial home of my working life: St. John’s. Now Covid-19 has hit and has provided leisure, the more importunate for being unescapable—deep draughts of lovely leisure, for those of us lucky enough to afford it and to know what to do with it.* I may
*Guilt-feelings aren’t much in my line because they tend to wallow self-indulgently in wrong-doing without intention of amendment. But this is the second time that they’ve overtaken me, last time because what led millions of my fellow Jews to their death brought me to the country that best quelled my worst Teutonic propensities, and so gave me not only life but a good life.
be gone before this is over, but meanwhile it’s an opportunity.
So I decided to refurbish my German, my mother tongue (though far less loved than my second language), which was wasting away from eighty years of immersion in English. The tenth decade of life being in any case a time for reminiscence and recapitulation, I thought I’d reread this book of my adolescence.* And behold! Age cannot wither it. The work seemed to have
*The other, even better loved, was Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe whose titular hero is a Beethoven lookalike. The second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh was the music of those years.
gained in depth, and, by a pertinence life rarely produces, an occasion for seeing my own college, my life and my living, from a new perspective.*
*I’ve come to believe that these late corroborations of early loves are testimonials to a life that is some sort of whole, what the Greeks call a bios as in biography, rather than a mere zoe as in zoology.
The model for Castalia appears in a work by the inevitable Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister’s Wandering or Journeyman’s Years (Part II, Ch. 8, 1829). In the initiatory terms of craft guilds, the journeyman is on the way to becoming the master that his last name implies he is meant to be. In Goethe’s Pedagogic Province, for all its guild-like features, the arts and crafts plied are really the “fine” arts. The pedagogical principle is that such artistic craft is to be communal, because all the crafts have interrelations and correspondences that must bring them together in the cooperative production of one work.* Here is the pedagogical purpose of this educational
*Imagine a self-conscious “artist” in the modern sense in the large hall with working stations for each specialty, the one that Goethe depicts!
territory: “Thinking and doing, doing and thinking, that is the sum of all wisdom.”* And the
*It is, of course, also the beginning of a lot of problems: Is the thinking that readily transforms into action, the thinking a liberal education should focus on? What of the mind’s activity that preempts action?
mood to which the Province is attuned is reverence in several defined varieties, delineated in a tone at once playfully graceful and hieratically reserved. To my apprehension, we have our own sort of communal reverence, namely the respectful admiration we accord greatness.
Hesse has absorbed this mood and elaborated Goethe’s sketchy indices into a fully fleshed-out depiction of place and personnel. Above all, he has followed the call for a hyper-art, a truly communal product. In fact he has, quite starkly, drawn the consequences of Goethe’s pointers: Such an art implies abstraction from all particularities, especially all carnality, all embodiment. The result is a curious, possibly paradoxical organism, a sophisticated rococo contrivance of invisible curlicues and inaudible grace notes. To attempt to conceive it—Hesse wisely gives not a single concrete example—is to see that it relies for its character on being the ultimate, a secondary, abstraction, an abstraction of abstraction, the essence of abstraction.*
*An essential abstraction is, indeed, a self-contradiction. Essence is the fulfilled selfhood of a being expressed in its form (Greek eidos). Abstraction, on the other hand, produces and then gives its name to a “thing drawn off,” not a form but a formula, that has left behind its substance. Thus, to speak of being, idea, form as abstraction is textbook talk and deserves (civil) quashing.
Hesse’s Pedagogical Province has, being a realized image, a political structure. Its governors and overseers reside, as mentioned above, in “Hirsland,” in northern Europe. Their financial support keeps the Players’ Province alive, and this fact will dominate the end of the book.
So too is St. John’s College under an outside authority, called the Board of Visitors and Governors, that is similarly charged.
At the head of each village complex is a magister, who is in charge of the various arts, liberal and fine, whence the Game is drawn. Among these, the magister ludi, the “master of the Game,” is preeminent. The first meaning of this title is, as Hesse points out and my Heritage Dictionary confirms, simply “schoolmaster,” overseer and tutor. Thus the magister ludi is the chief teacher of the “repeaters” (Repetenten) and the designer, as well as executor of the solemn rituals attending the festival of the yearly enactment of the game. The Deans serve the college somewhat similarly. Let this be the prelude to a comparative exposition of this pedagogical fantasy-land and the very real continental College.
I might interject here that Hesse also sketched out briefly, with ironic topicality, a dystopia, a counter-province called Normalia (in Incantations, 1948). It is located in the “West-East States Conglomerate.” Its originating sanctum sanctorum is a former insane asylum that now hosts a population of inmates certified as sane. The madmen live freely, deinstitutionalized, throughout the province—in our lingo, the new normal. It seems that the territorial image of a utopia invokes a dystopia of surrounding provinces.*
*Note that utopia, from Greek ou-topia, a “no-place,” (however, interpreted as eu-topia, the “good place”) expresses a denial of its actuality, while dystopia, the “bad-place” affirms existence.
Now to the College in the title of this essay. That would be St. John’s College, one college with two campuses. These, two thousand miles apart, are both in the United States of America. One is in the Eastern province, the State of the land of Mary and the city of Princess Anne (later Queen of England), the other in the Western State of New Mexico, in the city of Holy Faith.
When the college was named in 1616, it may have been after Saint John Chrysostom (“goldmouth”), a Greek Church Father.*
*Nine volumes of his sermons were held by the college library, and he was a favorite with some early alumni. I looked; he was—not an anti-Semite, that would be anachronistic—a Jew-hater on theological grounds. But let that be. See Charlotte Fletcher (our long-serving librarian of the last century), “1784: The Year St. John’s College Was Named,” The St. John’s Review XL 2 (1990-91), p. 43. She opts for the Evangelist, p. 58.
Is this coincidental? One of the titular heroes of Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund (“goldmouth,” 1930) bears our saint’s epithet as his name. That book was another cult classic of my adolescence. But on a Covid-19 induced rereading its residual effect (setting aside its central preachment that one-night stands are a life-principle) comes from an all-too-pertinent depiction of that fourteenth century scourge, the Bubonic Plague.
These are some scene-setting particulars. Now for some personal forefendings. The screed here submitted to anyone or nobody might well seem, to put it brutely, a little kooky, more kindly, quirky, hence in need of an apologia in the ancient sense, a defense.
I’m doing my freshman seminar by phone, a seriously taxing but better than nothing activity. A St. John’s seminar is intended to be a pedagogical occasion, a friendly conversation (even “discussion” and certainly “debate” being terms too aggressive for the spirit desired), evincing the spontaneity of mutual interest and the discipline of a common object. That object is usually a verbal text, but it might also be a composition of notes and even a painting of lines and colors—all judged by us to have elements of greatness. This enterprise owes much of its intensity to our communion, our face-to-face togetherness.
But now we are altogether in the distance-learning mode, be it by phone, “Teams,” or “Zoom.” Nothing in my life has ever focused me more on, has taught me more about, our soul’s incarnation than this strangely onerous, laborious undertaking of learning together without being together, of being in touch when very deliberately out of touch. Carnality now appears not just as the—problematic—amenity it always is, but as being of the pedagogical essence: Why is the intromission of a device into a community of learning a hopeless second best, a default mode? I shall try to grapple with that in the Appendix.
The question is the more acute since this College is—resist the denomination as much as you will—a Great Books school. Solitary reading in dorms and homes of books that are beyond us, communal conversation in seminars about the objects of our preparation, participatory attendance in tutorials whose learning matters are the liberal arts, the skills of interpreting the works of nature and of humanity—these are our learning modes. In all parts of the St. John’s Program texts are our mainstay—and texts would seem to be, as information technologists so klutzily say, “delivery systems,” devices for long-distance learning.
So I’m sitting in my study, surrounded (including the rest of the house) by some six thousand such objects, mostly books, but also scores, CD’s, tapes, even hundreds and hundreds of old records. They appear to be very adequate company. They seem to speak, never twitter, but say things I’d never have thought of myself, and what’s more they respond to my questions.* But
*That’s where Socrates’ attack on writing in the Phaedrus (275) seems to go wrong. Many books do seem to me to answer when appealed to and not always to say the same thing. So they aren’t just aids to mere memory, but they do aid recollection, that is, self-searching for truths laid up in the soul.
back to my youth and Magister Ludi. Now I see that I was then managing to reconstitute a European adolescence in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, as I am now recovering the scriptures of my youth from four-score years of latency.
This is how Magister Ludi clicked: To be sure, it is a fantasy, but a very pertinent one. So far I have intimated several similarities between Castalia and St. John’s College. Both are devoted to a prescriptive mode: Castalia has the Game with its strict rules, the College serves a Program. Both have a governance that has an external aspect, Hirsland for Castalia and a Board for us, and an internal one, the magister ludi for the Player’s campus, the Vicus Lusorum, and the deans for the college campuses. Both are territorial; Castalia is a whole province, St. John’s extends, through its two venues, over the American continent, as it were.
But let me regress to basics. Castalia is the imaginatively embodied presentation of an educational institution, in this case a training center.* This institution bears a relation to my
*“Imaginatively embodied” is yet another self-contradiction from the same realm of problems as is dephysicalized learning, a version of the problem of mankind’s incarnation.
college for which I’ve found the phrase “a consonance of difference.” I mean that the features in which Waldzell is like us as well as those in which it differs are responsive; they respond to and so address us specifically. Hence it makes sense, and is in fact illuminating, to compare the two entities, though one be a fantasy and the other a fact. By a fact, perhaps better a reality, I mean an actual existence, a being in a here and now. “Actual” means “at work just being.” “Existence” means “a thing that has emerged to be freestanding”; “here and now” means “in space and time.”
Thus St. John’s is a fact, Castalia a fiction. Nonetheless, the latter is to be taken seriously. Fictionality is not to be denigrated, and our shadow school is enough there to be appreciated. So here I go, through the looking glass.*
*My analogy here is that passing through the mirror (Lewis Carrol, “Through the Looking Glass,” 1872, the second Alice book), lands you in the realm of sameness-through-difference. It’s still my (or Alice’s) world but here the complementary otherness, the defining difference of things has now taken visible shape—in Alice’s land of wonders a droll one.
One more hermeneutic note.* In my high school days in Brooklyn, New York, there were
*That is, explaining the method of interpretation.
tests, the last-minute wake-up calls to us sluggards. They were commonly framed in these terms: “Compare and contrast x and y.” I think the terms were to be treated as demanding differentiable exercises. Jefferson and Lincoln were to be shown as satisfyingly alike, Jefferson Davis and Lincoln as deplorably different. But isn’t comparison dependent on forestalling that collapse into oneness, that passing of likeness into sameness, which is foretold by the principle of the identity of indiscernibles?*
*Leibniz: When two objects have all their properties in common they are identical.
Then doesn’t comparing involve some underlying difference and contrasting require some base similarities?*
*What distinguishes similar from identical? An old colleague and friend, Sam Kutler, trained as a mathematician, helped me greatly when I was teaching myself the calculus barely ahead of my students. He distinguished “rigorous” from “vigorous,” formalistic from intuitive, symbolic from pictorial, precise from suggestive. Start, he advised, by extracting significance and soon you will appreciate legitimacy.
In that spirit I’ll say that to be alike, things need a palpable touch, to be the same, just a soupçon of difference. By that criterion Waldzell and St. John’s are similar.
So the first similarity discerned by a contrasting comparison (or comparing contradistinction) will be a feature already brought up: Both Castalia and St. John’s live under a prescriptive plan, for the former the Game and its requirements, for the latter the Program and its demands.* Both plans are intended to condition a unified community by prescribing not only a
*That sounds unspectacular but universities host, by definition, a disparate collection of studies, “turned, twisted into one” (Latin: uni-versus), while of the several thousand American colleges, very few, as far as I know, adhere to a unified study plan. What’s in the way is the elective system adapted in the post-Civil War era. One incitement to its introduction was student apathy. (This condition is to me a poignant manifestation of “original sin,” since it persists even when the study material is magnificent, and the teachers are true believers.)
schedule of studies in which all participate, but also by adapting a distinctive pedagogy that fits the study matter naturally.
For Waldzell in Castalia, the subject is the Glass Bead Game with its rules and ceremonies and its archive housing games designed in the past. The pedagogy is deliberately elitist, competitive, disciplined and master-directed. The evidence is in the name of the students-in-training: Repetenten, “repeaters.”* These are the elite students, “the reserve and bloom” of
*Used by Hesse not in its current sense of pupils left behind and repeating, but literally as in its German translation of “repeat,” “wiederholen,” “recalling from memory.”
Castalia. It is, once more, focused on honed training rather than on liberal learning.
At St. John’s College, be it in Maryland or New Mexico, the basic similarity is the very adherence to a comprehensive plan. Its center is a list of books regarded by the faculty as being in some respect superb. The list is roughly chronological. This is not because we attach importance to the temporal position of a work, as if that were a major factor in its meaning. What we look for is rather an effective ordering that is, though not deterministic, also not nearly conventional.* A second reason is that some earlier books are preconditions for making later
*As is the alphabet.
*Blatant example: Practically any book on the list is so positioned with respect to Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit.
The attached pedagogy implies distinctive intellectual virtues. Elitism is ineradicable in any community of spirited human beings especially among the young, in whom that is charming which in their elders is absurd—that they want to shine. Yet the sense of human equality in the face of the greatness of our authors and the depth of our subjects often outweighs these natural impulses. Moreover, St. John’s is very much an American school and partakes of American democratic sentiment. Most of us don’t think that giftedness adds human value. As for competitiveness, although it is an element of American individualism, we discourage it.* We
*Except in the gym and in awarding prizes for poems, essay, and mathematical solutions. So our finest hide their light under a bushel from modesty and our cleverest from calculation.
wish our students, both in class and out, to help each other. We look for an excellence not bent on outdoing each other but on achieving a “personal best.” Learning should be too involved in substance for ambition, an essentially vacuous preoccupation, to motivate it.*
*The sometimes throat-slitting competitiveness of the academy is often carried on through the publications record. Here Castalia and St. John’s again resemble each other in different modes: Waldzell overtly discourages “creativity” since the Game is a severe discipline of abstraction. St. John’s is mindful that truth and creativity are often embattled and goes for the former. So publication is not rewarded in either; it bestows neither rank nor tenure.
The crux of the comparative difference between Waldzell and St. John’s is that between training and education. Tutors are not high class coaches but advanced fellow learners. Unlike the schoolmasters of Castalia, who have an unambiguous mission, our tutors are—as free human beings inevitably are—caught up in a quandary: how to be helpful teachers and collegial fellow-learners at once. That latter pedagogical practice is, I think, the one deriving most immediately from our subject-matter. Since it consists mostly of original texts, since consequently it is not pre-chewed, tutors and students find themselves on somewhat the same level. From which follows once more what is probably the chief pedagogical practice germane to our texts: Students participate in class, speak their minds freely, listen receptively, join in readily with queries addressed to their fellow students or to the tutor. Books of high quality call for responses that are now unabashedly tentative, now modestly definite.
Finally a word about a similarity, again with a difference, between Waldzell and St. John’s. Both plans are cohesive in delineating not only a central activity but also ancillary studies that provide the preparation needed to participate. Thus Castalia is host to a number of learning complexes, each headed by its own master, for instance a music master. Scholars there study subjects like history, from which the designers of the Game may abstract patterns.*
*The players-in-training are granted a number of years for freely-chosen studies, like our alumni who go to graduate school.
At St. John’s there are language, mathematics, and music tutorials, as well as laboratory classes which, aside from their independent substance, serve within the Program to help students read the assigned books and scores. There is a touch of training in these elements of the Program, which include learning by heart, recitation and demonstration.*
*Like all claims, this one, that tutorials are there to serve the seminar, is debated. (While conversation in the Program, in the learning mode, should not descend into oppositional debate, conversations about the Program, in the deciding mode, quite naturally will.)
In sum, repeaters and full players are highly trained professionals and specialists antecedent to becoming the abstracting universalists that constitute the fully trained band of Players; students and tutors, on the other hand, think of themselves as amateurs, ever-inadequate to their task. They are the ever-ready lovers of life-long learning, who subscribe to Socrates’ unhumble claim to know that he knows nothing.
Many more contrastive comparisons could be made between Castalia’s governance and the College’s Polity: There is an overseeing authority that has no power over the Game or the Program.* There are the continuously inter-consulting masters scattered over the Castalian
*Or the wisdom not to exercise it.
Province, as they are the two parts of the Instruction Committee in the two distinct cities of the North American continent, and there are the primi inter pares, the magister ludi and the two deans.*
*“Dean” derives from decanus, “ten-man,” the term in Church Latin for the supervisor over ten monks. He was entitled to the address spectabilis, Latin for “worth looking at, outstanding in appearance.” As a quondam dean I’m laughing: Monks! Our students! Appearance!—when dowdiness was my modus apparendi.
The overarching feature, though, that draws the fictive and the factual communities together is not a structure but an ethos, not a rule but a mood already mentioned: Reverence.*
*Hesse was, as I mentioned, preceded by Goethe in his suffusion of Castalia by this mental mood. In Wilhelm Mëister (Book II) the notion of Ehrfurcht ghosts through his various pedagogical communities. There it functions for the young in three religiously conditioned terms, to be expressed in gestural formalisms.
I should add here that Hesse might have taken the given name for his magister ludi, Joseph, from Book I of Meister’s Journeyman’s Years, which begins with assonances to the Biblical Joseph. Hesse’s master’s last name is Knecht. Its German meaning is a “menial servant,” but its etymology brings it close to English “knight.” Hesse must have had this noble meaning in mind. As magister ludi he heads the Game’s nobility, which is, in fact, an elite marked by genius. This term implies awe before unusual inborn endowments, conceived as godlike gifs of creativity and intellect. Its possessors are much favored by Goethe in the Wilhelm Meister books. The description of Joseph Knecht certainly accords with Goethean genius.
Reverence can feasibly be a secular mode, mood, attitude, feeling. It is the ready, respectful receptivity to the wonders found in nature and the mastery displayed by humans, the properly awed yet eager desire to be on familiar terms with the fine and liberal arts, the technique-driven crafts, the experimental sciences, be they mathematics or observational. In sum, it is the longing to come to grips with greatness, qualified by self-knowledge.*
*To me it is a question: Can reverence, from Latin, “to intensely (re) fear (vereri),” ever be purely secular? Is there ever not the thought of a potent power in the background?
In Castalia, pervasive reverence by the Players for each other as the choicest of souls and for the Game as a near-sacred ritual is expressed by an almost stylized, hieratic demeanor.*
*“Player,” in German Spieler, is a problematic translation, but “Gamester” is worse. It’s because in English the association with sports is so primary for “player” and with gambling for “gamester.” I think Spiel and Spieler are intended to carry with them a delicate irony, harking back to the Game’s early days when real glass beads were in play. Das Glasperlenspiel is an enchanting meditation on a human ability: To develop with most reverent seriousness a substanceless formalism, to turn our capacity to universalize into a graceful amusement—to which we then offer our devotion.
The College, as a human community, has its own kind of reverence. We require an “as if” show. After all, you can’t require a feeling, even less a mood, but you can demand demeanor: “Assume a virtue, if you have it not” (Hamlet III iv 160). The show is of a sort of preliminary reverence, namely respect. I think the moment after comes for students with some Platonic dialogue or Lobachevskian proposition or Bach invention, when the heavens open and a never-to-be-forgotten impression of being compelled to revere descends.* As for tutors, those I know
*“Compelled”—a compulsion that does not denigrate but dignifies.
pretty well spend their lives discovering wonders.*
*Probably variegated by intermittent despair. For that matter, our students’ respect for the Program isn’t all that reliable. Sometimes it’s complain, complain (though let a visitor find fault and the wagons circle). In Castalia, too, depressive lethargy and spiritual absconding occur. The magisterial management acts quickly. Usually a repeater has neglected his meditation schedule, and a meditation master is dispatched. We retain psychiatrists.
In both schools, then, learning, be it ludic or liberal, has a devotional, hieratic, even sacerdotal aspect.*
*That is certainly true of Waldzell and at least a defensible view of St. John’s. A negative corroboration came to me when, some decades ago, a dean submitted his biannual Statement of Educational Policy (a similar report is required of the magister ludi). He argued that no truly centered Program could be devoid of faith. He made no headway with our, personally very diverse, faculty. But I recall thinking then that there was in fact more faith here than could bear undivisive articulation.
A word on “school.” It will not be news to many that, to the wry amusement of our students, who, after all, study (I refrain from asserting “learn”), this word comes from schole “leisure.” Leisure is not vacancy but time free from the impositions of necessity, and free for appetitive desire, object-hungry love. Aristotle says in the first sentence of his Metaphysics that all human beings “hunger” for knowing by nature. The climax of his work reveals what the object of this desire is: a divinity whose name is Mind, Nous.
Like other grand visions of our soul’s motions, this one is afflicted with a sort of self-unsettling. Although this desire does, we hope, belong to all humans specifically, it seems to be lacking in many humans individually. Hence the misdirected call for teachers to “inspire” students. What can they do when faced with what really is, as I’ve claimed, original sin: a condition that corrupts human species-nature.
The hieratic, hence hierarchical, character of both institutions leads to the condition of the “inner circle.” Hierarchy is inevitable where order is the choice.* And where there is “degree,”
*Whoever lived through the attempts of the sixties in the last century to introduce participatory democracy into academe, knows what it dies of long before ill-temper destroys it: It leaves no time in which to live out the decisions finally made. Yet the battle will follow too:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! What discord follows; each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy. (Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida I iii 109)
rank, there will be those closer and more in the know, those who, though neither especially meritorious or duly elected, are in the confidence of the leadership.* It is unavoidable, and yet it
*My mouth dropped open: In Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman’s Years II, Bk. 3, Ch. 12, Goethe inserts a poem which, when put to a well-known tune, the craftsman sing in honor of their magistracy and its leader. It is a “naively trustful (zutraulich) song,” rendered in “a moderately merry” mode. The refrain contains the exhortation: Heil dem Führer! Presages of Nazis in highbrow humanism!
should make a thoughtful citizen uneasy.
In Castalia and Waldzell especially the inner circle consists of the most gifted repeaters, the most promising designers and players of the Game. Joseph is said to be a scrupulously impersonal preceptor, who of two appealing pupils will always prefer the one of more intellect. In fact, his closest friend, Tegularius, still in the phase of free scholarship, is a chronic fault‑finder (Nörgler), who happens to be the most sophisticated designer of the Game and so, Joseph’s collaborator.* Hesse devotes pages to the onerous effort Joseph, as newly invested
*Tegularius is Latin for tile-maker. I haven’t clued out the reference.
magister ludi, devotes to gaining the trust (shades of Wilhelm Meister) of the repeater’s band. They themselves are said to be democratic in spirit, ready to judge each other and their masters and as cooperative as they are competitive.
But they have, communally, a cruel streak. Joseph’s predecessor, a good man who has the misfortune to be untimely and inept, is hounded into suicide by the recalcitrant band, now a mob. Sometimes situations get away from the author and display their inner truth on their own. This mean moment manifests Castalia’s defect: The virtues are esthetic, not moral.
This behavior is not thinkable in the actual school. How encouraging that fact can be kinder than fiction! Where Castalia’s democracy is caste-democracy, St. John’s ethos really is humanely democratic, here meaning anti-elitist, not only in our common inadequacy before the greatness of our material that puts us pretty much on par. We also regard it as pedagogically enabling to maintain the notion that willingness eclipses giftedness. Perhaps better put: Wanting to learn is a finer talent than unearned brilliance. Yet better: Slow, quiet capabilities serve learning more reliably than does quick, glittering facility.*
*In Goethe’s Pedagogical Province one virtue is most valued: Besonnenheit (from besinnen). In Greek that would be phronesis, “mindfulness,” in English sensibility, taking heed, circumspection. Take the term in its elaborated meaning, and it reveals itself, at least to me, as the best end of the liberal arts and their counterpart in the crafts. (See Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, 2009).
In sum: Castalia’s elitism—it probably tracks Goethe’s emphasis on “genius” mentioned above—is built deep into the province, as a fundamental attitude, an inhibitingly proud, exclusionary principle of cohesion that replicates itself within itself in circles within circles, up to the master’s shadow, his professional intimate and back-up.*
*I’m grinning: Assistant Dean? Depends.
But we are not immune. There is a locution sometimes heard, usually said of fellow tutors: “He/she gets it” or “doesn’t get it.” Eventually I asked myself: “What’s the ‘It’?” And so I pulled back, thinking: “How would I know who gets it? And anyhow, did I get It? This much came clear: When the self-soothing desire to judge anticipates the descriptive ability to specify, back off. It isn’t that there isn’t an “it” to get. It’s that we should think it out, both in solitude and in communion—hear and tell ourselves and then tell and hear others, in friendly conversation—particularly with colleagues who seem not yet to have gotten it. But in truth, though I know what the locution is getting at, I never liked it.
All that is a way of saying that the Program has foundations which all of us—most of us because we believe them to be sound, some because they have the temperament for groundless but fulfilling activity—accept or condone or tolerate.*
*As for me, I harken back to the days of my youth as an archaeologist in Athens. The excavation’s unspoken motto was: Leave no Grundmauerspur undug-up. (The scrunched-up German term, meaning “foundation-wall-trace,” appeared on the maps of antiquities we used.) To me that’s the true radicalism: digging up roots (radices), exposing Grundmauerspuren, an injunction transferable from the dig to the armchair.
So, for heaven’s sake, just tell him/her, if they’re willing to listen. But yes, there are inner circles. Yet some of those on their margins are people who take their time assimilating, and among these are others who know just what to do, though they couldn’t, as said above, say why, except in banalities.
“It”—that raises the question: Does the Program have an essence, or better, essential features that, if they were lost, the College would be gone?* The continual reconsideration of the
*The Program is set out in a public description that is under continual review. Its main constituents are a list of prominent works and a set of supporting (liberal) arts, with a description of the pedagogical structure, the kinds of classes and their conduct. The Seminar is the venue for the conversation on texts, the Tutorials for the supporting arts, such as language, mathematics, music, and Laboratory for the natural sciences insofar as they require hands-on work, labor.
principles circles around such questions as: Why should our students’ initial inquiries into speech be based on a dead language (at present, Greek)? Is it essential to the Seminar that there should be coleaders (at present, two)? Is it pedagogically permissible to excerpt texts as carefully composed as are ours?* Are undergraduates capable of getting much out of little or are they
*I became allergic to snippeting at thirteen in P.S. 169. There was a terminally frustrating class called Music Appreciation. It was meant to bring culture to us Brooklyn boors. We learned to sing “This is / The Symphony / That Schubert wrote but never finished.” And then a record played the first measures of the “Unfinished,” and we were cultured.
better off getting a first acquaintance with more works? Is it pedagogically sounder to let a class struggle without resolution or should the tutor take over?*
*I’ve heard it said that the tutors truest to that title induce illumination by their silence. If ever there was one such, he was a nonesuch.
The “inner circle” syndrome can arise around the dean. In Castalia it is almost the magister’s main function to develop a crème de la crème. In Annapolis’s early years some legendary deans had, if not encouraging it, yet no scruples about this divisive indulgence. An institution under a mission—and the Program is a mission—needs a head to keep the project unified and participants united.*
*For without “degree,” some rank order, as Ulysses says with such vigorous concision (see earlier note), “each thing meets / In mere oppugnancy.”
To me it is not an idle question to ask what comes first for a true community of learning, the will to be a unity under a creed or the need to unify around a project. If the former, the institution will be dogmatic, if the latter, liberal. Both ways of being together are respectable; St. John’s, however, is a liberal community, where “liberal” means a. not training for a trade (so defined by Aristotle’s Politics VIII ii 1-2), and b. not conveying truths but promoting inquiry.
The Castalian “master of the Game” designs its yearly enactment in consultation with the repeaters and free scholars. The two deans, with the Instruction Committee, review and amend the Program.* The deans also oversee the execution of the Program by the faculty and, in
*Large alterations come before the faculty. The deans ensure that changes to the seminar list accord with the principles of the Program, unaffected by topicality. The tutors have some, limited latitude concerning the materials of the tutorials. There is much mutual consultation; the discovery of a really effective poem, exegesis, or experiment is gratefully received.
general, supervise the school’s discipline with respect to both tutors and students. Just so does the magister ludi for the Vicus Lusorum (the player’s campus) and the repeaters, the players-in-training.
In Castalia, onerous examinations are administered. At St. John’s, since the tutors see and evaluate students daily, decisions on a student’s standing depend more on reviewing tutorial reports. Here we encounter a quandary, a duplicity in our expectations not known in Castalia: While discouraging the ambition to be outstanding, we wish for excellence. A palliative is to discourage interest in grades.*
*Which we give so as not to foreclose our students’ postgraduate careers. Grades are not posted (as they were invidiously at Brooklyn College). Often did I meanly rejoice.
There are astoundingly many similarities between magister and dean, telling minor ones. Thus The Glass Bead Game is subtitled: “An Attempt at a Generally Understandable Introduction into Its History.” In other words, Castalia has its arcana, its insider’s dope, its esoterics—from a Greek comparatives “more inside”—than, I suppose, a mere history can make intelligible. In fact, Magister Ludi is the inside story of the game-maker’s defection, written to esotericize its motives.*
*“Esotericize”: I’m coining a term, the current one would be “to outer,” which conveys the inevitable concomitant of privacy-breaching.
St. John’s too has had its history written, and the motive has been to make its inner life intelligible to the public. Researched history is, however, ineradicably inadequate to this task. That is why invented fiction, Hesse’s Castalia, does its Province more justice than do us our histories.* The most hound-like historian can’t penetrate, sniff out, the offices of the magister or
*I’m foregoing a bibliography of the St. John’s College that predates the Program (1937) by 241 years. The history of the—once “New”—Program has been written, of those I’ve known, by Charlotte Fletcher, Charles Nelson, and, above all, by Winfree Smith, an early tutor. Thus his Search for the Liberal College comes closest to telling the inside story. That’s evident in the very title: “Liberal” is used here clearly for a frame of mind not an academic rubric.
History, although we read great historical texts, is not on the Program as a subject, which is a way of saying that we don’t think of it as a liberal art. I myself, though a history major in college, do not think of it as capable of revealing interiors or essences, since its materials are externals and events. I’m saying too little about too much here, so I’ll lay off.
the deans, not to speak of their private quarters or, the last esoteric resort, their souls. Moreover, there is the absolutely necessary confidentiality of some, particularly personnel-related, decision-making.*
*Though I always went for “transparency,” which functions both as the oil on troubled waters and the grease for the wheels of daily work: Let your little world copiously in on affairs, and it soon finds that there’s more jocund things of which to be in the know.
Here’s a paltry coincidence (not so to Joseph) that I noted with pleasure. He has left his office at the Province to tutor a private pupil, a youngster who will one day be influential in the large world. He has done the unheard of in Castalia; he has absconded. The boy, in turn, runs away to a mountain hide-out, clearly as a challenge to his new tutor. The place is six thousand feet high. Joseph arrives gasping for breath. So did I, arriving in Santa Fe at seven thousand feet for Joint Instruction Committee meetings. Joseph is in his mid-fifties. I was in my early sixties. Then we diverge. Joseph dies and so achieves a sudden conversion in the previously rebellious boy. I had no occasion for that. But our ultimate mission was similar. He is looking to position Castalia more securely in its secular land. The deans too need to help the president represent the college to the country. Both for recruiting and funding purposes we should be seen as enticingly unique and approachably universal. And our “publicity” should be reinforced by examples of our ways; public teaching occasions of all kinds.
The difference is that Joseph’s fictionality demands a dramatic end; our factuality calls for long-lived being at it. Castalia has no alumni, “nurslings,” to be sent into the world. Lusori live and die in the Province. We, however, have these outside insiders, and one of our pleasurable duties is to “be there for them”—a nice locution.
A few more minor comparisons. Hesse’s magister ludi longs to be free to write, as he says fondly, “a little book (Büchlein) in leisure with a good spirit.” So did a dean. Musical Joseph takes his recorder to the meeting with his pupil; the dean brought her flute to the office (and played it there at 7:30 AM, with more devotion than talent). Upon laying down his office Joseph floats free. I took days to touch ground. After having the overall charge of young adults, Joseph longs for the really young; this dean went to volunteer as a helper in a kindergarten.*
*These “terrible twos:” they were revelatory—a first outbreak of bald humanity, a first explosion of will, awkwardly evinced as willfulness, recalcitrance for its own sake. And of shame, especially in little males, who are easily crushed by rebuke (while females get offended, which bucks them up). Of course, like most gender generalizations, it’s largely nonsense. Earlier, as dean, dealing with discombobulated students, I’d already experienced the second eruption, the second round of shedding a psychic chrysalis to emerge into a new selfhood: late adolescence. Of course, I recall it in myself.
One little more mass of similarities with their illuminating differences. The Vicus Lusorum, “Players’ Campus,” is, intendedly, a bubble, invulnerable to the vagaries of the outside. It is a sort of hortus conclusus, a “hedged-in garden.”*
*A medieval notion; such a shut-off paradise was inhabited by unicorns and virgins. The lusori, all men, are forbidden to marry, but chastity is not required; they have uninhibited access to willing women. The subject of homosexuality is masked by the general estheticism of the Province, until it emerges—very delicately—in Joseph’s last pedagogical venue.
Our students, male and female, come from and return continually to the world; the less said of their chastity the better. The “bubble” question is frequently raised. I myself am all for a diaphanous overall cupola. By inhibiting worldly distractions it intensifies communal feeling and immersion in the program of studies. On leaving, our alumni may try to change the world—for the better, we hope.
In both communities there is an express expectation that the schoolmasters will exert intellectual leadership. But whereas Castalia goes sour in its absences (as described above), in a community not of trainees but of liberal learners the expressed expectation is not realized in an actual demand. The dean should be steeped in the Program but the effect is indirect. He/she should have a sure judgment about the degree of deviation the school can tolerate before losing itself; it helps to have a mind full of interpretive notions as well. But again, these capabilities will work atmospherically; we are not “producing” skilled professionals by a branded training strategy but educing thoughtful citizens on a wing and a prayer.*
*Recall Goethe’s virtue of “Besonnenheit,” “circumspection,” the dual capacity of being observant and interpretive, which make up the art of reading in the widest sense: being with and on top of things.
Joseph Knecht is persuasively depicted as possessing all the magisterial excellences: the versatility to be at once first and equal; the ability to forego special friendships* without losing
*A relation especially feared as disruptive in convents and monasteries, and so in communities that are in some sense devotional. But as so often, the other side has to be heard. Communions of lovers have a respectable history. In fact, the school where people first found full-blown personal love is often, and not incidentally, the place where they first came upon deep substantive knowledge, where subjectivity turned into receptivity.
helpful continuities with old intimates, the attentive absorption in detail without narrowed vision, the maintenance of formal courtesies without surrender to chilling formalities, the art of having a finger in every pie without being perceived to snoop, the tact to supervise so as to appear interested rather than threatening, the foresight to prepare the Province for visitations of higher authorities without impinging on its essence. All this, from the maintenance of its rituals while holding on to humanity, through practicing proactive criticism that is felt to be protective, to a respectful relation to authorities that doesn’t leave the Province exposed, all this Knecht, the greatest of the masters, achieves—by living up to his name: “verray, parfit, gentil knight” (Canterbury Tales, General Prologue 72) and lowly servant.
Incarnate deans cannot approach this imagined portrait, but those best remembered have similarities. So also will good CEO’s of companies. Oddly enough, in one respect Castalia is closer to a business concern than St. John’s could ever be, since Castalia has, as I said, a product or even two: the trained players and the annually produced Game. The College has its alumni whose embodied souls, especially their intellects, were once in its care. Like a CEO, magistri and deans have to regard the bottom line (less reddish for well-funded Castalia). But since no promise of a product is involved, the defense of the funding is more demanding.*
*The Hirsland authorities don’t seem yet to have questioned Castalia’s productivity and whether it issues a luxury product. Nonetheless, Joseph’s self-imposed prudential mission includes showing that it’s a necessary luxury—as is everything that distinguishes a good life from mere life. Is it possible that Joseph has to die before he sees through the proof of this proposition because Hesse himself had no faith in the Game?
Since neither Castalia nor the College are anybody’s birthplace or fatherland, both invest in recruiting, but it is easier for the Province since its training is tution-free.*
*It should be a salutary exercise for us to imagine whether, if it costs just nothing to come here, we would be overflowing with prospective students. Here’s a nightmare: The country is so infected with the utilitarian virus that even a free education, if it is intellectually arduous and not geared to money-making, can’t find takers. It’s imaginable but not thinkable. The Program is already eighty-three years old; in an institution, if not in a person, that bespeaks a long future.
But really, the above needs retraction. “Necessary luxury” is misplaced wit. Liberal learning comes right after the necessities of survival: food, shelter, and human care. It is existential, not in a fancy but in a basic sense. It renders possible a life of being all there, in the here and now, and consequently furnishes the conditions both for earth-rootedness and for transcendence.
In Castalia, so it seems to me, this learning is realized in a communion underlain by three principles.*
*Others are probably lurking. The three keywords are historicism, creativity, abstraction. They can be principles of avoidance or adherence, as I’ll sketch out below. On culling these from my rereading of Magister Ludi, I was suddenly seized by that intriguing notion which is the ghost in this essay’s machine: Castalia and the College are explicitly or implicitly, aversely or acceptingly concerned with the same terms. One way to put it is this: Castalia and the College have a dialectical relation, where “dialectical” means the articulable difference that confirms commonality.
It seems plausible to me that any institution of higher education that is ruled by a uniting plan must have a position on these three notions.
First, then, is ahistoricism, opposition to the attempt to attribute explanatory power to History, to impersonal forces shaping the present through the past.* Historicism thus empowers
*Here’s a made-up example: One might attribute Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to “historical forces,” among them the opposition of the working class to an unpaid pool of labor. Or when one might say that it resulted from a coincidence in Lincoln’s soul of his (well-attested) moral judgment that slavery had always been a tolerated evil and his (well-confirmed) practical judgment that the proclamation would aid rather than harm the war effort.
history as a report of research.* It, albeit itself a tissue of human judgment, asserts that human
*Herodotus introduced the term historia, “inquiry” (Persian Wars I i). I distinguish History, the bygone happening, from history, the researched account.
thinking is not free, meaning constrained only by the desire for truth, but is deterministically subservient to a supra-human power.
In Castalia this aversion to historicism expresses a distrust in mere fact, brute so-ness, unenveloped in the romance of temporal distance.*
*Of course, every fact is, in fact, the product of human contrivance. Think what goes into establishing a date—a complex highly speculative project which I’m familiar with from my days as a publishing pot-archaeologist in Athens. “Early seventh century B.C.” I would pronounce after much terminussing ante quem and post quem. Well, maybe I speculated with luck; it’s probably superseded by now.
St. John’s has a hermeneutical (text-interpretational) reason: We want our students to take the texts we read together to heart, take them seriously. “Seriously” does not mean merely “preparedly” but even more “inquiringly.” Is this writing true? Is this proof revealing? “Is this score…?”—whatever is a truth-analogue in music.
This consequence is a bold subversion of time: “When” does not matter but “what,” and all faithful human expression is contemporary. This way is not a meticulous reanimation of the past.* Our students do read history: Herodotus, Thucydides, Tacitus, Gibbon (long ago), lots of
*Of which both our cities are charming examples.
America’s founding documents. They’re not studying a genre but reading great texts—each writing on its own, as the work of art that each is.
The second adverse principle is creativity. In Castalia it is explicitly proscribed in designing the Game. The magister ludi, their chief composer, is to abstain severely from novelty. The material provided from the crafts, arts, and sciences is to be faithfully and accurately absorbed. “Poetry,” in its literal sense of “making” (from Greek, poiein), is proscribed.
So too, in the College we abstain, not forcibly but simply by enacting the Program, from one sort of expression: of innovative brilliance.*
*Of course, everyone is free to write, compose, paint; as I’ve said, we give prizes for extra-curricular “creativity.” A former dean used the word only with raised eyebrows: Only divinity creates, and there only the God of the Bible, who is interpreted to have made the world ex nihilo, that being true creativity: making from nothing.
The effect on our students of de-emphasizing the current craving for creativity is, we hope, that instead they learn to learn, developing boldness in the face of matter beyond them.*
*In fact, every work on the Program is on some level beyond all of us. Our absolute rejection of “dumbing down” is, to me, our finest intellectual virtue, analogous to courage among the moral virtues.
Our watchword (we don’t actually say it) is: “Courageous incompetence over conforming competence.”
Perhaps no other aspect of the College works more toward bringing us tutors close to our students than this aforementioned equality in the face of difficult greatness. Here is a characteristic common among our students—perhaps they come so endowed, perhaps they develop it here: Although brought up in a therapeutic society, they resent being infantilized. I glory in their willingness and ability to frame their problems intellectually.*
*“Intellectually,” rightly understood, means, to me at least: truly personal, when self has communed with self.
The third, last principle shared by the Province and the College in being a common concern divided by a mutual “oppugnancy,” is abstraction. For Castalia, the term expressly names the intellectual activity of designing the Game and its resultant product that is the Game. The elite players collect in years of specialized study and consultation the concrete materials from which they abstract a system, a symbolic abstraction.* “Abstraction” means “withdrawal”
*Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra (Dover 1992) is much read at the College as containing notions germane to the foundations of our Program. The very term, symbolic abstraction, is used in the book to encapsulate a mode, descriptive of modernity, that the College was reformed to counteract.
(Latin: trahere, “to draw,” ab, “off.”) So the Game is an abstraction, drawn off from heaps of facts, theories, diagrams, notes, and integrated into that symbolic abstraction. Thus, it is withdrawn from this material, from existence, its being in space and time. It is now an essentially conventional re-presentation, though of a hyper-sophisticated sort, served by a hybrid elite, itself abstracted from the mundanities of the world.
Hesse presents it as having the highest esthetic appeal because it is both purified of matter and shapely in form, and as making the greatest intellectual demands because it is at once formalistic and universal. Thus it is a maximally subtilized artifact. Hesse cleverly refrains from giving even one concrete example of an actual move.
The College’s Program, designed for a thinking community, is naturally engaged with abstracting and abstractions.* But, of course, it is not itself an abstraction but an index, a list, of
*Symbolic logic, which comes and goes on the Program, is a paradigm of abstraction.
materials. Much of that is philosophical and so metaphysical. We know better than to call ideal and transcendent beings abstractions.* Students will have read that the beings spoken of in
*As do clueless textbooks. A Platonic form, for example, is an abstraction neither in its coming to be nor in its way of being.
ontology, the account of Being, are not drawn off from the stuff of reality. If anything, that material which appears to the senses is thought to be derived from these misnamed abstractions. In much philosophy, matterlessness is the very precondition for true concreteness, for density of being.
In contrast to the players, our students, at least those open to philosophy, are not so likely to go in for playing with abstractions,* which they find desiccating. In fact the Program invites a
*An activity that is apt, if not carried on in a strictly observant community, to break out into seizures of carnality.
substance-seeking frame of mind. We hold to no institutional religious doctrine, but we do have a hermeneutic commitment to taking religious texts seriously in the aforesaid sense of regarding them as possibly telling truth—not to speak of appreciating the beauty they may have.
Even in our mathematics a distancing from abstraction prevails. We tend to prefer geometry to largely symbolic algebra. For in geometry books, a pictorial diagram is usually opposed to the verbal text. Such a picture, however, evinces that incipient sort of materiality which characterizes space.*
*Though presentationally, what else is possible? Even formulas are spatial; thus equations have their analogue in a lever with equal sign as fulcrum.
For space as quasi-matter, see long note on “Soul-Stuff” in Addendum.
Books too can be abstracted, and so they appear in textbooks, which we mostly avoid. We hope that original texts, primary in being at the origin of their matter and in being by authors who originate the subject, will work on them and us in this way. First they are just labor and then they become labors of love. And then they induct us into the docta ignorantia, the instructed ignorance, whose proud modesty is our esprit de corps.*
*De Docta Ignorantia (1440), “Of Learned Ignorance,” is the title of a book by Nicolas of Cusa. I’ve translated Docta as “Instructed” because “learned” conveys, falsely, scholarly learnedness, while Nicolas’s ignorance is rather a descendant of Socrates’ only acknowledged wisdom: the knowledge of his ignorance. Full disclosure: As enticing as Nicolas’s Neoplatonism is to me, I could hardly get through the mystification of his book, and I didn’t even try hard with the second text I’m about to mention.
De Ludi Globi (1463), “Of the Globe Game,” would be a likely source for The Glass Bead Game. It isn’t a source, and since it’s implausible that Hesse hadn’t heard of the dialogue, its absence has, I think, some significance. In brief, the globe in question is a sphere with a hollow in its side. The point is that every globe, every embodied sphere, has such depressions or protrusions on its surface, so that no this-worldly sphere is ever as round as it should be. That incites the question: What and where is the perfect rotundity a globe is approaching?
The Globe Game is perforce a non-source for the Castalian Game because, as it seems to me, it is seriously metaphysical, while Castalia’s Bead Game is terminally playful.
Playfulness is, to be sure, not an antithesis to, but a mode of, seriousness, and the College rings with a laughter not heard in refined Castalia: the delight in a refutational aha! moment in which the learner feels at once exposed and attended to, in a classmate’s wit, in a tutor’s intimation to certain students that this teacher knows them more lovingly than they supposed, but above all, in the occasional emergence of an all-resolving paradox, a golden moment of dialectic, and in the sudden apprehension that human thinking and the existing world are in correspondence. But this pedagogical playfulness is not a game, much less the Game.
So much for the contrasting comparison of Castalia and our College, very much an ec‑centric, a de-centering, virally induced enterprise—a self-appointed insider’s look-in from the outside. Since, however, that outside is a fiction, since the hybrid realm in which I’ve been operating is unquestionably questionable, I’d like to conclude by articulating some questions in my own, not quite canonical, terms:
Which of these pedagogical establishments deserve more adherence and respect? Is there an ascertainable primogeniture, of seniority? (One institution was re-founded by its “New” Program in 1937, the other went public as a novel in 1943.) Is a popularity among tens of thousands of fans more to be valued than the loyalty of mere thousands of alumni?* To put these
*Fans: short for “fanatics,” participants in the rites of a fanum, a temple; alumni: “nurslings.”
conceits more soberly: Are beings in the mental space of the imagination possibly as, or even more, potent than beings existing in external space and time? Here it gets seriously interesting, since the question re-raises an old and engrossing controversy concerning that curious realm I’ve written myself into: Is existence a predicate, attributed to the subject of a sentence by the copula “is” and to a substance in a thought by the judgment of its reality? Could we say: This thing, this object has, along with solidity and rotundity the property of actually being there? Could we say this globe is existent, as we say “it is round”?* Or is existence never an attribute but what
*To me affirming this unpopular claim yields a great bonus. Now non-existence stands a chance of also being attributable to (quasi)-beings thus drawing these non-beings into a through-the-looking-glass realm into a behind-the-scenes existence: the realm of fiction.
philosophers call a “position”—which is not a way of describing a thing but a mode of holding it in mind—the mental position it occupies, as acceptably real.
Yet this very reasonable view makes me uneasy. What, I ask myself, makes the thing amenable to being so positioned by me? If I’m the ultimate arbiter of existence I gain ultimate power over my world and so lose it as there for me. But if existence is at least logically attributable to things, then imagined beings stand a chance of having existence as an actual attribute by their own evidence.
So I say: “Castalia exists.” You think: “But that’s false. It’s a fantasy and doesn’t have what it takes. I can’t attribute existence to it just because it has copulated with is.” I go on: “Castalia comes endowed with a sort of immortality, at least longevity. It will outlast us both, perhaps outlast the twenty-first millennium!” In fact it’s immortal by reason of not having what it takes to die, a mortal body in time and space. So it seems to me that existence infuses things as an inside-out-and-around super-predicate.*
*As the soul pervades and surrounds the cosmos in Plato’s Timaeus.
So you ask: “Is there, then, nothing that draws the really real school closer to your heart than is the campus with the elegant Muses’ Spring?” “Yes, its very vulnerability to temporal conditions induces a sort of passionate care. I care, my colleagues care.”*
*The mention of colleagues insinuates an etymological fact of language, such as sometimes reminds us of forgotten truth: “College,” Latin collegium, is derived from “colleague,” Latin collega. It follows that the faculty is the College. Our nurslings, our students, that were with us for a little but momentous time—they passed through the place but not out of our minds. And we stay on.
Let me in my concluding paragraph revert to that necessary, thus next, inquiry: Could it be that the images of our imagination are, after all, not merely “imaginary,” our fabrication? Then whence do they come, so as to exceed in existential potency the mundane power of mere reality, of brute fact?
Addendum: Incarnate Education (Covid-19)
Both of the magnificent schools that are the subject of the contrastive comparison of the foregoing essay are unquestionably devoted to the incarnate, embodied education. Covid-19 has turned the actually existing Program in Annapolis and Santa Fe into a long-distance venture. I’ve participated. It’s better than nothing but less than good. So I’ve had to ask myself: Why should education be incarnate?* I use incarnation rather than embodiment to take advantage of the
*Incarnate: “embodied” from Latin in, “into” and “carn,” from caro, “flesh.” The ation-ending signifies both a process and a state.
theological reference: God born as a human being, the deity on earth in human form.* I hope my
*Significantly but not entirely different from the anthropomorphism of the Greek Olympians. These do not come among us to share our suffering but to amuse themselves.
Incidentally, the non-theological term is “ensouled” (Greek empsychon); here the process is not soul-into-body but body-into-soul. Latin in, “into” is more active, Greek en, “in” more static.
The flower called carnation is, charmingly, named from its pink color, the blush of healthy flesh.
choice of this term, incarnation, will be found to be justified in the following inquiry. It is pursued under the sponsorship of a human fact and a terminal mystery: Be we embodied or ensouled, to reach the target of teaching we must go through the body. The question is: How? And that question at this moment seems to devolve into this practical problem: At what distance? And that turns out, it seems to me, to have deeper aspects than medical expertise reaches.
But now to particulars. I will be—what else would you expect—defending incarnate education. But a critic might raise an eyebrow: Books and reading them is the main learning mode at St. John’s. To be sure, coming together face to face to talk about texts is what we have a campus for, where the solitary preparation comes to fruition in conversation. Yet what could be more long distance, both temporally and spatially, than our communication with, say, ancient authors, the very ones our freshmen are to commune with, to listen to, as it were, through their eyes.*
*Some students have audio versions, but I can think of several drawbacks, among them is the lost simultaneity of the printed pages that you can stick between your fingers for reference, or annotations in your own symbols, so readily made on paper pages (of course, only if you own them).
Yet books aren’t devices, instruments that mediate between inputs and outputs at optional distances.* Our Great Books are chosen by us in part because we judge them to be perfected,
*Which is why readers would not agree to the information technologists’ designation of books as “delivery systems.”
meaning: composed through and through, completely worked out.* Reading them, or conversing
*Of course, quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus, “at some time [even] good Homer drowses” (Horace, On the Poetic Art 359).
about them, is a dwelling on or in, and certainly with them. It is bringing the text to life, much as I bring my house to life by living there.* To read is to resonate to implied meaning by invoking
*Example: fourteen steps to my upstairs; a Shakespearean sonnet, one of my feet for five of his.
our own lived experience and to recover scripted pictures by arousing mental images in our mind’s eye. But above all, it’s reanimating thought-laden words by letting them discharge themselves into our reflective comprehension.
So a good book is not a device but an incitement. It has heft, and if that heft expresses a sort of incarnation, I might say, realizing the metaphor, that the book sits at the table along with everybody.*
*Our students, who have been free, by a faculty resolution from way back, to bring tablets or computers to the seminar table, by and large still come with page-turners, that is, books.
What then does it mean to be incarnate, embodied? The locution implies that something, some entity, that is ourself has entered into flesh, has become im-mattered. Its common name is soul (or used to be).
“Enter into” is interesting, because there is an alternative. In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus (34b) a divine craftsman not only en-souls the cosmos by putting soul-stuff at the center, the earth where we live, and thence stretching it throughout the universe.* He also encompasses
*Soul-stuff: An apparent contradiction in the term itself, but there are good uses. Two examples: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero speaking of his fellow spirits, melted into thin air (Tempest IV i 156). That’s in fancy, but there is also an “intelligible material” (noete hyle), such as belongs to mathematical objects (Aristotle, Metaphysics 1036 a 9); this matter is located in the imagination (Proclus, Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, ¶ 51). This quasi-material matter seems to be pure extension. It may be conceived as space-like: a sort of field rife with potential for inscribing geometric objects (Kant, First Critique, “Transcendental Aesthetic”), or as a kind of container teeming with traces for composing them (Timaeus, “Receptacle”).
Insofar as it is within a closed figure it is, I think, area, and as such shares properties with sensory matter. It is shape-transformable while remaining quantity-invariant. Thus Euclid’s proof of the Pythagorean Theorem (I 47) distributes parts of the squares on the sides of a right triangle so as to make them together coincide with the square on the line subtending that angle. In I 4 he actually shoves triangles through space to prove them coincident. It’s not permissible, since the Elements postulate no super-positioning, either by sliding in the plane or lifting into the solid dimension. Yet it’s entirely sensible.
the whole world with it, as with a diaphanous veil. So the world is not only ensouled, but, so to speak, circum-souled—not only soul in body but body in soul: ensouled body, embodied soul.
This Platonic passage comes in handy because it’s a lovely myth that reminds us that we wear our soul on our face. It looks out through our eyes, and we look into others’ eyes.* But, of
*In the dialogue Phaedrus (255c) this conceit is brought to life: The lover’s beholding of the beloved’s beauty bounces back to the eyes of the beloved, rousing his to “counter‑love.”
course, the whole face expresses the soul, and these days of Covid-19, when we go masked, that means our soul is also masked from our fellow humans. Inversely and yet more severely, so are they from us, first (but not only) because they aren’t full-faced and straight-eyed.* There is also
*An observant colleague told me that some strangers, meeting even at the permitted distance, avoid eye contact. We have to learn to read eyebrows!
the new noli me tangere, “Don’t even think of touching me.”* I read in Aristotle’s On the Soul
*Motto of the State of Maryland, and indeed, the State’s been pretty good about “social distancing.” This secular appropriation of the motto actually seems questionable. These are the resurrected Jesus’s words to Mary Magdalene (John 20:17).
something that had, though obvious, never come home to me: We have an enveloping, overall sense organ, the skin. It has apertures for seating the sense organs serving the distance-senses.*
*And openings specialized for ingesting and excreting. Textbooks on sensation and perception list as distance-senses: seeing, hearing, smelling (eyes, ears, nostrils—all dual for establishing depth, direction, and other properties of distant objects). Are the nostrils (two sense receptors in one organ) closest together because smell is almost a contact sense? Then come two contact-senses: taste (tongue) and touch (skin). Aristotle thinks that touch is first existentially—without it the animal dies (III 13), but sight is first cognitively—it is the super-sensation (malista aisthesis, III 3).
Through these we penetrate the world in its above, around, below; it becomes an environment whose regions, height, breadth, depth are determined by our human physical structure. Incoming sensation (called perception when “processed”) is, as the textbook terms imply, understood to be coming to us and into us: “afferent.” But I think non-professionals think of both sensing and perceiving as something outgoing, because we initiate and direct the activity.*
*Our eyes, the most comprehensive, most panoramic, and most closely inspecting sense organ can even shut out the visible world at will—by lids. So can a not totally respectable organ, the tongue—by teeth. And now the skin: It has the most difficulty fending off unwanted touch, because, being so global, the whole organism may have to fight or flee.
What follows? Well, in general, a deprivation. Since “social distancing” is most effective through “self-isolation” (being alone) or “staying at home” (for which the cute euphemism is “sheltering in place”), it curtails the scope of the distance senses. And since, on top of that, immediate, all-too-familiar environments cease to impinge on sense, our shrunken world also becomes discarnate, putting its solitary indweller now and then into a somewhat dreamy, not really unpleasant, fugue state. It’s a mental condition quite in sync with our economic situation: a working world suddenly laid off, without inherent economic dysfunctionality.*
*Prophets, poets, and theologians have known that for ages: Invisible deities that are too circumambient, too familiar through constant reference, become ineffective. So they hasten to incarnation. They go apparitional (like the Olympians who appear as true-to-life phantasms). Or they become auditory (like the God of the Hebrew Bible who gives voice in the national language of this Chosen). Or they even assume a fleshly integument by undergoing a human birth (like the divinity of the New Testament).
But how does all this bear on our way, the way of liberal learning? Why must, as I think, this education be incarnate?* The claim begins with a referral to our non-didactic, unteacherly
*That is, as opposed to virtual, “not actual.” Now here’s a blatant abuse of the source word: virtue!
Purest coincidence and so much the more eerily ominous: In the dictionary virtual and virus (Latin for poison) stand in dangerously close proximity.
instructional mode, truly a curiosity in academia, especially in universities. We do indeed refrain from doing much overt instruction, that “methodical direction” as which a dictionary defines professional teaching, teaching true to its name, its etymology: showing, dictating (Greek deiknynai). We hope, rather, to draw students, by means of our ardent expectation, into responsive self-teaching.*
*It goes without saying (well, actually it doesn’t) that acquiring information (in small amounts) might be a precondition of learning. But it shouldn’t be thought of as the actual activity. The general confusion between “being informed” (stuffed with fact—actually as judgment-requiring a category as any) and being intellectually involved shows up, as do so many issues, in our vocabulary itself. “Learning” as a noun, as something possessed, means a well-stocked memory and is quite compatible with obtuseness. “Learning” as participle, as something going on, means acknowledged ignorance and is a very reliable road to discernment.
If, however, we expect our students to be responsive to our matter and to us, we, in turn, assume responsibility for inciting their interest. This really questionable project seems to me to have two sides. One is that we ourselves must be overtly interesting. We must sometimes say enticingly enigmatic things (backed by the wherewithal to explicate when challenged); we must ask captivating questions and have a store of inchoate answers. In short we must prepare.
The other side is that, much like the Hippocratic doctor, we must pledge ourselves to do no harm. This is educational harm: standing in front of students and doing the talking.*
*I am omitting matters of evaluating and penalizing. Both are alien to rousing interest in learning but are necessary for our students’ mundane future. In any case, our powers to discipline are muffled. We haven’t got the means available in the days when education was often the worse for being taken with philistine earnestness: public shaming (posted grades), penalty-grading (chance-destroying C-’s), etc. None of these excruciations are, in any case, compatible with the unforcable spontaneity of liberal learning.
Venues express intentions. Our classrooms are small, and we sit around one table. No standing “in front of” and “above” (lectern on a platform) a multitude. And so I’m back to incarnate education, embodied schooling. We look at each other across the table, a few yards off, at most, using our most directedly roving and focusedly inspecting distance sense, our eyes. We listen out of one ear to people next to us, with both ears to the most distant. Sometimes we direct both senses to the same source, sometimes we listen in one direction and observe in another.*
*Smell, being pervasive, thus source-indefinite and, moreover, often in-significant or unwelcome is not, I think a seminar sense; even less so is taste, which has no public aspect unless the goody is shared. Hence my rule: if you have to eat, bring enough for all.
Hearing tells you what people mean, but sight tells you not only who is talking but it conveys how they mean what they say. But what about that enveloping close-up, that preeminently contact sense I’ve dwelled on above? It is perhaps most prominent in a classroom—by reason of not being in play.* The agreed-on inhibition of touch in situations of almost-tangency, the
*Not true in lecture halls: Two faces might be turned, with looks of virtuous attention, toward the person holding forth, while hands betoken a competing interest.
unexploitedly palpable presence of physical persons is, I want to say, the paradigm, the very exemplar of civilized intercourse.
An interjection on the devices that, their devotees claim, connect us: Take the telephone (“far-voice”), my great stand-by, which achieves the most immediate, the most nearly sensory mitigation of distance. It does it most curiously by bringing the voice, as heard in un-mediated conditions over a distance, close up to the ear. We now have a voice in our ear, but hearing is no longer quite a distance sense; it vibrates. The phone is basically a one-ear, one voice device. The voice so transmitted has lost its carnality.* In short, communications devices cannot convey
*The loss of duality, of that distance between the ears, brings about a loss of localization. Phone voices, except for background noises, have no place. The one-to-one phone line (non-visual “teaming” doesn’t work very well) brings a gain in intensity but a loss of contingency.
carnality—what else is new? So imagine that these devices will someday be so perfected that it becomes possible for people to experience a real-like “here” and a time-like “now” in a virtual environment, to live organism-like within it. Even then, I must think, it would be a problem, perhaps the problem for the reflective dwellers in this setting: How is this new world ontologically different from the old one? What are its ways of being, such that some of us are exactly made for it, and their ways of life such that they accommodate to its requirements? Is it a brave new world in the old sense of “admirable” or in the common sense of “courageous”?*
*Miranda (herself the “Admired”) says it admiringly of the ship’s company washed up on her island: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (Tempest V i 184).
Perhaps not the latter, because its aficionados withdraw into it—bugs in rugs. But then again perhaps not the former, since the little screen imposes such an enormous withdrawal from the sensory world. Is it the latitude of its reach or the constriction in size, mode, substance that engrosses human beings? Is this psychic way newly imposed or anciently latent? And when the confronting screen turns into the enclosing helmet of semi-total virtuality, which worlds will its indwellers regard as primary—their immediate environment or the now remote environment of their environment?
These are a few first puzzlings, descriptively presented. Let me tumble onto the paper some more metaphysically articulated questions.* We must hope for deep texts on virtuality
*Of course, this essay was first written on paper with a pencil. Pencils are wonderful: lead in the lead, to incarnate silent thought, and in back that saving grace, the eraser.
(that aren’t mostly cris de coeur) to help us think. The aforesaid miniaturization and discarnation of online, digital life will, I imagine, be overcome in the fully equipped virtual bubble. What will be the demands on the sense of reality? I believe that those of us not overcome by academic problematics think that we may be—indeed must be—simply unable to tell what the unperceived world looks like.* Yet it must have that within which makes it respond to our looking by offering
*Not even that it has no “look,” thus no “like.”
compatible looks or aspects. So here’s what reality offers to most of us: things in settings. For of our senses, some reach forth, reach outward, and that’s what “external” and “extended” both mean.* These senses may wait to be approached or themselves incite the whole body to achieve
*That is, the distance-senses, by their reaching and tending out bring the outside to presence for us.
tangency—and so inform us—together with their extensions, their places, containers, fields, and backgrounds—of things within them. These, in turn, appear as the entities we call “real,” as objects, meaning closed solid figures, immattered. Of course, this inquiry also has to dwell on motion and its ways of coming about.
If that is reality to people middlingly thoughtful, the question arises: Where is a perfected virtual world really located? Our first answer might be that virtual environments require minimal physical movement, and so the embubbled person can never feel quite as one would among things extended in space. But of course it may become possible to virtualize the virtually-environed body so as to make it feel mobile in its setting. The knowledge of being in an altered condition will require remembering, while modification of the various areas of the brain subserving memory might obliterate that power.* At that point this person would have a
*It would require not only the extinction of this primary memory but also of the secondary one, the memory of memory, as when we say “I remember that I used to know something about that.”
different, a new humanity. Would this new being, memory-less and, I imagine, also recollection-free, have retained an intellect recognizable for us? This latter-day mind which would, as I imagine it, have no way to wonder about anything that required delving (going down) or transcending (going up). And so questions concerning appearing versus being would be vacuous. To the bystander, however, the virtualized new human being would now be twice removed from being, would need a three-decker ontology: bubble life, embodied life, transcendent life.*
*I think back to my claim that going through the looking glass is illuminating. What’s the difference? The new man has lost his past; Alice, on the other hand, is, it seems, the same pert seven-year-old in the rabbit hole as out of it.
The bubble can keep the inmate fairly immortal, free of disease and aging, and the representational techniques can sustain their realistic phantasmagoria practically ad infinitum. Here the question arises: Can a being incapable of coming to an end be capable of caring, with its undertone of anxiety?* How is time, be it marked by the revolving heavens or by the beating
*The Immortals Gulliver meets on his third voyage, the struldbruggs, are “dead to all natural affection.”
heart, to be apprehended in the absence of memory, whence it arises?*
*An opinion, borrowed from Augustine, Confessions XI.
Well, let that be. It suddenly seems to me that the ontology of alternative reality is apt to go vapid, because, unlike real nature which, as Heraclitus says, loves to hide, the beings of human inventions are all-too-compliant under inquiry.
After all this preluding, finally to the point: Why does seriously intended education, the kind that has a program and a place and some adjuvant arousers and guardians of learning, necessarily need to be incarnate, a way of saying that its participants are to be there in the flesh, as bodies?
A Platonic dialogue seems to me to frame an answer by which to be aroused and guided. Good books usually work this way: The answers gotten from reading are questions posed to thinking. The dialogue in question is the Phaedrus.* It is the most wonderful and wonderfully
*Which our students read twice: at the end of their freshman year and of their senior year—a self-administered examination of their own growth, a shared test of the text’s staying power, and perhaps a first taste of the lifelong return to inexhaustible treasures.
scandalous philosophical writing that I know. It is composed on behalf of the learning that is driven by the love of wisdom, by philo-sophia. Here, for once, Socrates is outside the city limits, outside urban Athens where he carries on conversations with anybody who’ll hold still under questioning. Here, on the plane-tree-shaded banks of the Ilissus, Socrates lies down.* Here he
*As far as I recall, the only other dialogue that Socrates carries on lying down is the Symposium, the Phaedrus’s rival in romanticism.
tells his, for once, single companion, the golden youth Phaedrus, two myths. One of these is inside the other. They are imaginative embodiments of soul-accounting and soul-inciting.* The
*Psychologia and psychagogia.
image-complex represents the psychical condition for the kind of learning which is an ascent that transcends crafts and commodities.
Socrates represents the human soul as a contraption and as a bodily part. He describes it as a chariot (body) with a charioteer (reason), drawn by a light and a dark horse (spiritedness and desire, 246-255).* Into this image Socrates inserts an unabashedly carnal depiction, a great
*This tripartite psychology is explicated in Republic IV.
phallus (penis) in the course of erection (251b).* The soul-phallus is aroused by the sight of
*A popular image; there is a pot painting (a cheapie) of a phallus-bird, a winged bird-body with a penis-neck; see Stephen Scully’s edition, Plato’s Phaedrus (2003, p. 106). There are others.
young bodily beauty; the young boy is reciprocally impassioned.
The carnal myth comes with a crucial caveat. I’ve not read any account of the soul that does not use the body as a metaphor; I can’t imagine any. Yet the soul in the Phaedrus exceeds them all in being carnal in the strong sense—appetitive. In this dialogue the soul is aroused, incited by physical beauty to transcend the flesh.*
*To apply the myths to education, as I’m about to do, the relation here pictured needs to be inverted. The elders of learning are to incite the young to its love.
Both in the Phaedrus and in the other conversations Socrates insists that pedagogic tension collapses in the sexual exploitation of the young, even and especially if they wish it (Symposium 217). Thus the very carnality of learning, the pedagogic intimacy of older and younger, calls for abstention—as I think of it, to allow the distance senses to operate in their dual capacity of idealizing remotion and cognitive delivery.
Perhaps the starker apprehension here goes deeper. Socrates is saying that souls are capable of arousal, of erection as exciting as that undergone by the flesh. Put more completely: Souls are capable of being intensely aroused by beautiful bodies. But they transcend that incitement and rise to realms of learning that are neither carnal, nor crafts-like, nor technical, nor scientific, nor useful.*
*Carnal as in “carnal knowledge,” crafts-like as in know-how, technical as in technique-savvy, scientific as in lab work, and useful as in utilitarian. The last thing I intend is to denigrate these activities, be they carried on in a jury-rigging or a professional mode. I’m a lover of fix-it-yourself done in the former manner and equally an admirer and absorbed watcher of people being efficiently practical. But that’s all native wit plus training, while I’m here thinking of education—for which wit is not a requirement and training, although a precondition, is not the thing itself.
The speech in which Socrates delivers what I think is his mythologized theory of learning is improvised, not scripted.* He calls it a palinode, a “taking-back song,” since he has just made
*“Mythologized” is too scholarly a term for this terminally romantic work, with its sophisticated spontaneity, its spirit-infused nature, and its erotically charged atmosphere.
a speech irreverent toward Eros, arguing that a boy should give sexual favors to the man who is a non-lover rather than to one impassioned by him.*
*Not only is this speech, of which Socrates is ashamed, implausibly ignoble, it is probably also quite sneaky, since the non-lover of Socrates’ speech seems to be secretly in love with the addressee.
I think it is a heightened presentation of a not uncommon student experience: A not unreciprocated feeling not without physical awareness is the beginning—and behold, education is incarnate. For the teacher it means extra care, care to be undemonstratively interesting and unseductingly responsive.
The great experience, however, is the younger learner’s. Here’s the event, felt in later life to be archetypal, hyper-individual: The personal attraction infuses the object of learning. The body’s commotions are transfigured into the soul’s arousal.*
*A cosmos apart from psychoanalytic “sublimation,” which is, after all, an evasion.
What are the objects of learning that are thus infusible? In the short run, in my experience almost anything. But staying power seems to belong to some subjects more than to others, because they are both detailed and deep.*
*Say, mathematical physics, cognitive psychology, theological ontology. An inquiry pertinent to this essay, of interest to the medieval scholastics and to me, the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” question, would be based in all three subjects. I think the answer is an infinitude, because angels are discarnate. It is Thomas Aquinas’s opinion that angels do not have bodies. His consideration of angelic incorporeality is doubly interesting if you’re trying to think out what the consequences of being disembodied might be (Summa Theologica, Pt. I, Q. 51).
So angels could, if they wished, all collapse into a bodiless unity. Human beings, on the other hand, can be together in finite numbers precisely because they are incarnate.
But we humans do not, when the occasion suits us, find ourselves “melted into thin air.” We stay corporeally separate on earth and are therefore able to be together, each in our own incarnation.
All I’ve said, in the text or the notes of this Addendum, was meant to think out the Why? of incarnate education—as the preceding contrastive comparison of Castalia and the College was meant to think out why my school is not the venue of a Game abstracted from consequential substance. The latter conclusion, on our devotion to substance, tells me that St. John’s—never mind the occasional extravagance—should take itself very seriously. The former consideration, of our essentially incarnate education, assures me that the College indeed has an “itself”—is not an abstract institutional agglomeration but a corporeal community of learning under a remarkably thought-imbued, protection-worthy Program.
May 2020, Annapolis “on the gentle Severn’s sedgy bank” (Henry IV, Pt. I), just visible from my study, where I’m now in the tenth week of self-isolation, albeit surrounded by books, some amiable, some difficult, most both. ~E.B.
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 featured image is a photograph of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, published by Wikimedia user smi23le and slightly modified for color. The photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license and is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.