This is an edited version of a conversation between Eva Brann, the longest-serving tutor at St. John’s College, and Hamza Yusuf, President of Zaytuna College, recorded in March 2019. You can listen to the full podcast here.
Hamza Yusuf: We’re really fortunate today to have with us, I think, one of the treasures of our civilization, of what’s left of it anyway—Dr. Eva Brann, who was originally an archaeologist, but for over sixty years has been teaching at one of our great institutions for the preservation of Western tradition, culture, and civilization, at St. John’s College in Annapolis. Welcome, Dr. Brann.
Eva Brann: Oh, it’s good to be with you, Hamza.
HY: Thank you. Just to open up, philo-sophia, the love of wisdom: Why does it matter?
EB: Well, I begin right away with making a distinction. It seems to me that there is a profession called philosophy. It’s carried on in academic settings by people who make their living at it, and it’s a perfectly useful thing, like, well, other competencies. But that’s not what you’re asking about. Am I right in thinking that?
HY: Well, I think Kierkegaard said it best when he said that the emperors had such a great fear of philosophers that in order to defang them, they gave them jobs and called them professors.
EB: Yeah, that’s about what I’m thinking. But then there’s the other activity, which is not a profession but a way of life. It seems to me that it’s really not different from being all there. That is, people may not call it philosophy, but everyone does it, in so far as they want to know what they’re doing, what the point of it all is, what the meaning of their life is. All these questions that people ask themselves are philosophical questions, and the importance of it is that if you don’t do it, you’re somehow not quite alive. That seems to me to be true of the sort of philosophy we’re both talking about, the kind that isn’t carried on necessarily as a profession.
Actually, some professional philosophers are also real philosophers. I don’t want to short-change them. But it’s not a money-making, career-advancing activity, but a way of being. And it isn’t necessarily carried on in school, it’s carried on by anyone who wants to be aware of him- or herself, and of the world around them.
HY: One of the things I tell my students is that if you don’t philosophize, somebody is going to do it for you.
EB: That is very true, and then it’s called ideology. Ideology—or sophistry, for that matter—differs from philosophy in being something that’s done to you rather than something you do for yourself, among other things. There are other differences. Philo is an adjective, and philia is a noun. One means being friendly, being in a relation of friendship; the other one means the friendship itself. Sophia is, I think, rightly translated as “wisdom,” and it is different from being smart. In fact, I have grave doubts about smart people ever being wise, but that’s a personal prejudice of mine.
Philosophia is a friendly and open and affectionate attitude toward wisdom, understood not as a way of being highly intellectual or highly rational or highly competent, but as a way of musing, thinking, wondering. So that instead of letting things go by unquestioned and not unpacked, one wonders and then one thinks. It is an activity, to my mind, that has two aspects. One is that you have to do it by yourself when you’re by yourself; the other is you have to do it when you’re talking to people. In other words, you need friends to be friendly to wisdom, and you also need to be alone on occasions. That exchange between being together and being alone seems to make an important part of philosophia, and if you can’t stand to be alone by yourself, you’re very apt not to be in a philosophical frame of mind.
HY: Yes. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle goes through the virtues, the intellectual virtues—the highest one being sophia, and his understanding of that. How do you see that, and do you think it’s an accurate understanding?
EB: He says something rather mystifying. He says being friends is a virtue—that is, friendship is a virtue. Being friendly toward wisdom is certainly a virtue of some sort, but whether it’s an intellectual virtue or moral virtue seems to be an interesting question. Do you have an opinion about that?
HY: Well, I think he understood it in terms of its relationship to a type of intuition (the fundamental intelligence that human beings are given) and then the relationship to that fundamental intelligence with an acquired intelligence. There is a synergism when these are working together that produces a type of wisdom. He’s clearly talking about something that to me seems very mystical, some deep contemplation that’s the result of the perfection of one’s virtue of wisdom.
EB: What I find particularly interesting in what you’ve just said is that you began not as professional philosophers would—they begin by talking about rationality, and set it off against faith—but you began by talking about intuition, which is not the same as rationality. I think it’s absolutely right that the root of wisdom is insight, intuition. The Latin can be translated into English as “at-sight.” In other words, there’s a belief that it’s possible to have a mental vision of some sort, which is very different from being capable of rational linear argument. This is the question to me: Is this a peculiar point of view from having read a lot of ancient philosophy or is this simply the nature of the thing—that true philosophy is not so much a question of rationalizing and finding logical connections between things, but much more a matter of having intellectual vision? Is that what you were implying?
HY: I think that’s very close to what I was thinking. One of the things that strikes me as very interesting is if it begins in wonder and is also in essence sustained throughout life… One of my teachers said that, probably quoting somebody, “children and philosophers live in a state of wonder.” I think it has something to do with the newness of things. That’s one of the things that’s so difficult for people. I don’t know if you’ve read his essay “This Is Water,” but David Foster Wallace talks about the monotony of day in and day out, and how overwhelming that becomes for people. Mark Van Doren in Liberal Education talks about something that happens to people at about forty, where the monotony of life gets to them. But being in a state of wonderment I don’t think will precipitate that type of crisis, because there is a type of newness, that every moment really is a new moment.
EB: Yeah, but that’s not a novel moment—that is to say, I want to distinguish between “new” and “novel.” Novel is usually something invented to be different from everything else, but this newness is newness to me, not newness in itself.
HY: Exactly! I think that’s a really good distinction, because one of the obsessions of our culture is novelty. It’s something that in some traditions they talk about as sacred monotony. One of the things that Van Doren says is that the liberal arts… know what to do with monotony because there’s a constant honing of the skills.
EB: I want to give an example here of what you’re saying. I don’t know what made me do it, but I was looking up philosophy in one of the encyclopedias, and I found a quote there by, I think, Bernard Williams, who said that heaven must be very boring because the angels do nothing but hum one note a piece. I thought to myself, “He hasn’t got a clue.”
Look, I want to go back to what we said about wonder. I think of wonder as the secular version—or in this case, the philosophical version—of reverence. What shows itself in religious people as reverence shows itself in philosophical people as wonder.
HY: I think that’s a perfect assessment.
EB: But then I want to ruin this right away by saying that I’m not sure that, in the end, faith and philosophy are distinguishable. Every truly interesting philosophical system I’ve ever read about, from Plato through Aristotle to Kant and Hegel, is ultimately a theology—that is the final wisdom to be reached, and it has something to do with God and the realm of the transcendent. I’m not sure that the distinctions so often made between philosophy (as being secular and rational) and religion (as being, of course, transcendent and irrational) are right.
HY: I think it’s a very modern idea.
EB: A forced idea, not a natural one. And not only because almost all philosophers—not the ones who spend all their time making up difficult puzzles that they then find a solution for, but the ones who are really interested in finding a meaningful interpretation of the world as a whole—are almost all theologians. But conversely, every religious text I’ve ever read—in your kind of reading, it would be someone else, but for me, it’s Thomas Aquinas—are written by philosophers. In fact, I have colleagues who think that Thomas is more a philosopher than even a theologian. These two realms are not easily distinguishable, and if you begin by splitting them apart, you’re going to end with a split world. I don’t believe in it.
HY: Fragmented, yes. Well, I think it’s interesting because the First Philosophy—what used to be called First Philosophy, the idea of getting to first causes, that huge question of why there’s something as opposed to nothing—has to take you to some level. It has to take you to the doorstep of the ineffable.
EB: That’s exactly what I was about to add. Being is never the end; there’s always something beyond being, something that is not among the various beings in the world, and that is therefore ineffable. But in some way, one can reach for it, one can get some notion of what it is. I’m thinking of the Idea of the Good in the Republic; I’m thinking of God who is mind, and Aristotle’s nous. And it’s certainly true of the theologians—they always end with a being who is reachable not by saying anything positive…
HY: And reachable through the via negativa, through rejecting any likeness.
EB: Yeah, exactly, that’s what I’m talking about.
HY: In Islamic theology, we have a statement that the beginning theology student has to learn, which is very nice in Arabic. It says that anything that occurs to your mind, God is other than that.
EB: Yes. Then the question arises—and it’s a question that can preoccupy you once you get into it—whether this negative way (that is, this way of apprehending something by what it isn’t) can be called rational or is in some way beyond reason. I certainly think it’s not a rational way. I think reason requires positive positions.
HY: Well, there’s a great meeting between Averroes and Ibn ‘Arabī, the great theosophist from Spain. His way was just very intuitive and based on these spiritual unveilings, but he met Averroes and Averroes asked him, “Is what I’m doing the same as what you’re doing?” He said, “Yes.” Averroes smiled and then he said, “No.”
EB: Yes, and together those were the truth, right? We’ve been talking about what’s called ontology—that is, what it means to seek to know a being and what it means to follow being beyond itself. But I guess the more urgent question is how one gets people interested in it. Because to most people, if you say metaphysics, it’s bad enough; if you say ontology, it’s awful. Even our students will come to us precisely because they have some inkling about these things, even if they get bored or are put off because it all seems so difficult. The question is how to make it approachable. Do you have some notions?
HY: Well, I try to remind people that consciousness itself is really a spiritual experience, that just being alive is a spiritual experience, that the great mystery of the ocean of the intellect and what that is is an extraordinary thing, and we can see it. It’s much more evident in children because they are natural philosophers and they are natural metaphysicians. The obsessive question of every three-year-old or four-year-old is “Why?” And I think something happens between kindergarten and the end of high school, which is putting out that extraordinary flame, that desire, that all people desire to know, they want to know. Children display that incredibly. I think schooling does such a horrible job at maintaining that fire.
EB: Well, it’s partly because, especially in this country, people are afraid that they’re going to impinge on somebody’s prejudices or beliefs.
HY: Well, there’s a very aggressive secularity that’s now proselytizing. Unfortunately, religions have a pretty abysmal track record in allowing for difference. There have been so many historical examples of the repressive nature of religion when it’s in power. Christianity, in some of its iterations, didn’t allow for any dissent or any questioning. I think about these incredible intellects that were clearly seeking the truth, and because they arrived at different conclusions, they were burnt at the stake or impaled or something horrible happened to them. Even Socrates himself, just for asking troubling questions, ends up being confronted with the state. That’s one of the ironies I think of this attack on the “canon” and on these so-called dead white men, that so many of them were persecuted in their lifetime.
EB: Here’s the oddity of it: One can blame the Athenians for executing Socrates, though the number of jurors against him was very small. On the other hand, one could blame our time for not dreaming of doing anything like that!
HY: Well, I think that’s why Solzhenitsyn was so troubled when he came to America, because in Russia, people risked their lives to read him. People forget there were two great visions in the twentieth century. One was George Orwell’s and the other was Aldous Huxley’s. I think Huxley’s vision is the more accurate one. The year 1984 came along and everybody breathed a sigh of relief, feeling that maybe Orwell was wrong. But I think they forgot about soma and the Huxleyan nightmare, which is where you didn’t need to control people in that way because they were all amused, they were already in just amusement—amusing themselves to death, as Neil Postman put it….
In some ways, the power of these ideas is very threatening because they challenge all the basic assumptions that so many people are born into and grow up with. It’s always a wonderful thing to see—and I’m sure in your extraordinary career, you’ve seen this many times—these lights that go off in the minds of young people when they’re confronted with…
EB: But, Hamza, tell me something. Do you think they go off because of things you say to them? How does one do it? I mean, we are teachers, we’re supposed to do something.
HY: I like the metaphor of the midwife, that you’re birthing something, and that you help facilitate a process of awakening.
EB: In other words, you ask questions.
HY: Asking questions is certainly one of the best ways. I think that having them also feel safe enough to question themselves is very important.
EB: I think that’s right. You have to do dangerous things in safe settings. That’s what a good school is like.
HY: One of the ironies of the twentieth century, now we’re into the twenty-first century, is that for people who are attracted to literature, it becomes a secular religion, but most of what they read that they find inspiring was written by profoundly philosophical and religious people. I don’t think you can divorce the deeply dyed spirituality of Jane Austen from her works.
EB: Well, she’s a particularly good example because she was deeply devout in her private life, and yet all her clergymen are funny figures.
HY: It is wonderful that she does that, because one of the tragedies of religion is the so-called representatives, because the deep spirituality is very often in those people, such as Emily Dickinson or Jane Austen, who have these extraordinary private lives.
EB: I want to go back to the practical pedagogic aspect of that: How do you do what you called persuading people that ordinarily life has a spiritual aspect to it?
HY: Well, one thing that I would say is we have awakenings in life. One of the first awakenings is obviously just emotional awakening. Children are just steeped in emotions of joy and anger and frustration, and you see it in babies when they’re screaming until they get the breast and then they’re perfectly content. Then there’s obviously a physical awakening that occurs, the sexual awakening of the adolescent. But then there’s the intellectual awakening, and unfortunately that’s very often delayed. I think a great teacher can do it, can help facilitate that….
One of the troubling aspects of our culture—I don’t want to say it’s anti-intellectual, it’s something deeper than that. It’s a real distrust of civilization. I think a lot of our young people have really fallen under that spell. I don’t think people realize the real sacrifice in those early years. Liberal means free. My father, because he was a pianist, talked about the discipline of the piano, that if you go up and just pound on a piano, it sounds horrible, but over time, through that honing of the practice, something extraordinary happens where the person is free. It’s very disciplined. You have to learn to practice, but when you become the master, you have a type of freedom. That’s the one who leads the line and is able to go out and improvise. It’s the idea that you can break the rules of grammar once you’ve mastered the rules of grammar.
EB: There’s another side to it. On the one hand, we’ve become slightly wild. On the other hand, there’s Huck Finn. He wasn’t much for formal education and yet he’s the right type. He’s the kind of human being you’d want to be with on a raft drifting down the Mississippi.
HY: He’s a philosopher also. Some of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met are the illiterate people I met in West Africa, just extraordinary people. I think there’s something to be said for that. There’s a definite danger in the type of intellectual arrogance that comes from being steeped in tradition and in civilization. We’ve all seen those characters. They’re quite horrible.
EB: Well, the intellectuals have a lot to answer for.
HY: Exactly. But I still feel civilization is bad enough.
EB: The lack of it is just worse.
HY: The lack of it can be quite terrifying—the Hobbesian world where predation is a norm. It’s quite horrible. One of the great gifts of a civil society is to go out without fear. There’s a wonderful Arab Bedouin poet who says, “I heard the howl of a wolf and I felt some intimacy with it, and then I heard the voice of a man and I almost flew out of my skin.” Because he knows what to expect from the nature of the wolf, but the human being in a state of nature, you don’t know what you’re going to get. This is why the humanities—just the word itself is such an extraordinary word, because it does humanize us. I think there’s something quite extraordinary about the refinement that can occur to the human self through that deep discipline and through a lifelong commitment….
One of my favorite poems is a poem by Van Doren, since we’re on the topic of wisdom, philosophia. He says,
Slowly, slowly wisdom gathers:
Golden dust in the afternoon,
Somewhere between the sun and me,
Sometimes so near that I can see,
Yet never settling, late or soon.
Would that it did, and a rug of gold,
Spread west of me a mile or more:
Not large, so that I might lie,
Face up, between the earth and sky,
And know what none has known before.
Then I would tell as best I could,
The secrets of that shining place:
The web of the world, how thick, how thin,
How firm, with all things folded in;
How ancient, and how full of grace.
I think that you’re somebody who spent a lot of time in that shining place and know things that none have known before. I can see that just from my own reading of your work.
EB: I want to draw back from that a little. Do you think there are things that one can learn that none have known before?
HY: I do. I think each one of us is so unique in our composition and in our background, and in our understanding…. We have a wonderful saying in the Islamic tradition:
There are as many paths to God as there are souls of men.
Each one of us takes that unique journey that’s only ours and ours alone.
EB: Yeah, that makes sense to me—that we do it in our own way. But we don’t do a different thing. We just do it in a way specified to us as learners, but not to the object as being truthful.
HY: I don’t think it means that in some solipsistic sense of it. I think it means that it’s uniquely your own, just like your death will be uniquely your own. May you have a long life. You make the world a more shining place by being in it, Dr. Brann.
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The featured image is “Aspasia Surrounded by Greek Philosophers” (1670s) by Michel Corneille the Younger (1642–1708) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.