Eva Brann’s latest book, “Pursuits of Happiness,” is a collection of essays which range from Aeschylus to Austen, with topics spanning the nature of time itself to Sacred Scripture. Interspersed here are two parts constituting the whole of an ideal education.
Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested by Eva Brann (640 pages, Paul Dry Books, 2020)
My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. —C. S. Lewis
The first obstacle (to liberal education) is the learning situation itself. What is the ideal situation? It is the more or less continuous contact between a student and his teacher, who is another student, more advanced in many ways, but still learning himself. This situation usually does not prevail; in fact, it is extremely rare. —Jacob Klein
It is a question whose possible answer draws students every Fall to the quaint, yet deeply historical town of Annapolis, and the Georgian architecture of St. John’s College. What is an ideal education? More specifically, how does one acquire this, and how is it ideal? Students for over sixty years at St. John’s have had the good fortune of encountering a guardian of such weighty lines of inquiry in Dean Eva Brann.
Ms. Brann, who can count being a pioneering female Yale archaeologist and a National Endowment for the Humanities Medal recipient along with her tenure in Annapolis, got her first brush with classical learning as a child. In her native Berlin, she ventured to the Pergamon Museum with her father during the years spanning the end of the Weimar Republic and a much darker period in Germany’s history. The Museum’s extensive collections from the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern past were more than necessary to kindle in Ms. Brann the desire to enter a life of immense learning.
Her latest book, Pursuits of Happiness, is a collection of essays which range from Aeschylus to Austen, with topics spanning the nature of time itself to Sacred Scripture. Interspersed here are two parts constituting the whole of an ideal education. These essays address both how it may be achieved in a classroom setting and what kinds of questions may be asked in this setting. It may be gleaned that with these factors in place, when the nuts and bolts of a seminar discussion are paired with the unique variety of questions best suited to this setting, students are most encouraged to think independently. This may then be replicated elsewhere given that the proper foundations are re-established. This review shall focus on these two integral building blocks of an ideal education.
In Chapter 13 of the book, Ms. Brann focuses on what types of questions work in a seminar format. The seminar is held twice a week at St. John’s, Monday and Thursday night, and is where incoming freshmen are first introduced to the Great Books. Seminars differentiate themselves from tutorials or lectures in that the former are mandatory for all four years of one’s undergraduate study. Through seminars, students are allowed to eventually come to the truth, or lack of it, found in these books. “In sum, truth-indifference, be it juicy or dry, seems to me a deflating frame of mind, not conducive to meaning extraction.” How then does such a group of young minds approach this aim?
Ms. Brann begins this chapter defining a seminar. Definitions of course are what St. John’s College asks of students from very early on, echoing Socrates’s questioning his conversation partners on the meanings of topics spanning love, justice, and virtue. In these Platonic exchanges, what something is not is often found out before what something is. Here, Ms. Brann relates a standard seminar’s definition: “A small group of advanced students in a college or graduate school engaged in original research or intensive study under the guidance of a professor who meets regularly with them to discuss their reports and findings.” Quickly, she dispenses with this definition as it does not match the paradigm long-established at St. John’s. Firstly, between students and faculty at the College, the term “advanced” does not apply. This means both groups begin from more or less the same place, with little emphasis being put on tangential past readings pertaining to the task at hand. Secondly, the manifestation of “findings” is not of importance in a seminar. This would assume an effort to almost scientifically break apart a text, if only to find out what it really means. Instead of this, further questioning, points in need of being made clearer, and the occasional lightbulb-above-the head moment of intellectual epiphany are the optimal end-results of such a night’s inquiry.
A third point of difference between the dictionary definition of a seminar and the model utilized at St. John’s is in the method of communication itself. Discussion and argumentation, which imply a near-debate format, are not the medium. Rather, there is a firm emphasis on conversation. “We talk to each other, each to all, taking turns, sometimes surmising, sometimes making points, sometimes asking, and always listening and responding.”
There is profound commonality shared by these three unique points of divergence from a more acknowledged definition.
There may be, in every entering class of freshmen, individuals who at some point in their early lives excelled academically. Some may have already been exposed to the Ancient Greek language, which is a required element of study for all students. Needless to say, even to choose to attend an institution with this requirement marks a student of unique motivation and initiative.
Likewise, the faculty at St. John’s, although commonly referred to as Mr. or Ms. and their surnames, have terminal degrees in their own fields of academic specialization. Many of them have been published and featured in lectures at other respected institutions of higher learning.
All that said, there is no “star student” or “rock-star professor” on campus. The focus, or spotlight, is not on the students or the faculty. Instead, it is on the Great Books which make up the curriculum. These books, as it turns out, take center stage. “For a great book—and why read others in dedicated learning time?—can, if rarely, be false, be it by reason of an intentional mistake or of an intentional fraud.”
After defining the seminar, Ms. Brann continues to the medium’s most profound qualities. Perhaps to stress the importance of method, but not its reigning supreme over what is to be learned, there are established seemingly contradictory foundations of the seminar process. This is all the more notable considering much time is spent, beginning freshman year at the College, learning how to identify contradictions in one’s own and one’s classmates’ thought processes. Again, following the Socratic Method put forth millennia ago, this was one’s guide as to what one did not truly know, and chided one to seek even further for the truth of what is. Yet, here, Ms. Brann was pointing out inherent contradictions within the seminar itself. “Thus our seminar is, as a conception, a sort of unicorn, definitionally fugitive because vagrantly potent, modally composite, inherently contradictory.”
Among these was the learning relationship between faculty and students. In the seminar was seen the phenomenon of “Students’ independence and tutors’ leadership: equality of unequals and non-teaching teachers.” As stated earlier, St. John’s faculty and students are each called Mr. or Ms. and their last names. It does not matter how many advanced degrees a tutor has, and many of them who do have earned their degrees from rather prestigious institutions. Likewise, it does not enter into the conversation the status an incoming student may have had prior to matriculation, if he or she was captain of the debate or basketball team. Both faculty and students are learning from the text which negates the faculty actively “professing” to the student. Hence, the tutor’s views are not of import here, but rather it is the student who is encouraged to come up with original ways of looking at issues and dilemmas that have existed for millennia. Yet, while students are being prepared to eventually lead seminar discussions, as happens around senior year, it is beyond doubt that the seminar is still led by the tutors in charge of each class.
The manner in which a tutor can lead, while allowing students to inevitably take on this mantle, is by the example of sterling personal behavior. As Ms. Brann wrote, this was another of the seminar’s contradictions. It promoted, “Perfect freedom of expression constrained by rules of civility; intellectual permissiveness and controlled conduct.” This author remembers his very first seminar class, when the venerable tutor, the Rev. Joseph Winfree Smith, asked with a wry smile, “What was the will of Zeus in Homer’s Iliad?” Needless to say, incoming freshmen, even with the zeal of trying to make their mark on the first night of classes, could find no quick answer to such a probing query. Mr. Smith sat back and allowed the class to put forth their positions, as young and unformed as they perhaps were, only speaking out when the discussion bordered on getting off track. Due to his eschewing, raising his voice, interjecting emotionality into the conversation, or in general making the conversation revolve around himself, the class took this as an example to follow. Views were still freely expressed, but with the students learning to regulate themselves and their own conduct as a self-imposed rule.
These two contradictions, the status of faculty and students in a seminar and the freedom, with limits, guiding its practice, still pose a dilemma for a college where it is said reason alone is one’s guide. How is reason served when it houses such apparently opposing positions? It may be posited there are different kinds of contradictions. There is the kind which says there are no rules and that all is relative. This of course, if a student is paying attention, is a contradiction which self-cannibalizes. All cannot be relative because the statement saying so belongs to all and is thus now lacking objectivity. There cannot be no rules if there is a rule saying there are none. These kinds of contradictions lead to nowhere, more specifically to nowhere rational. When the light of reason dims, the only factor left is force, and force, as strong as it may be, is not the arbiter of what is right. Such was evident to Socrates, as freshmen soon learn.
Then there is this type of contradiction, as Ms. Brann wrote. “Here, in particular, are the self-contradictions, as I discern them, that the conception embraces and we actively embody…” Reading Plato, and later on Aristotle from freshman year at St. John’s College, manifests a particularly Greek understanding of freedom. If freedom means doing whatever one wants, this soon means, like in the last paragraph’s discussion, having no rules except one, the relentless demands of one’s own appetites. Again, this leads to nowhere, or rather to nowhere rational and good. But, if one freely imposes limits on oneself, echoing Ms. Brann’s “self-contradictions,” one can accept that one’s freedom means being able to limit oneself, including the appetites. This, ironically, is the type of contradiction that gets to somewhere. That destination is part of the school’s motto: to make free men and women from children by means of books. The destination, it would seem, to which this type of contradiction leads, is one where in the true sense of a liberal education a person is set free.
A fitting complement to such a method of liberal education is the kind of questioning that goes on in the St. John’s seminar. What types of questions can be gleaned from the books themselves, with the tutors such as Ms. Brann so selflessly serving as guides through the demanding lines of text? In keeping again with the Socratic example, these are both simple, and simultaneously profound.
Ms. Brann poses such in Chapter 2, via an essay on, of all possible topics, the existence of Secular Original Sin. Here, she first addressed differences she has with St. Thomas Aquinas and his work on the subject. “None of this is plausible to me: not the tricky business (which Thomas is brilliant at) of biological transmission of a psychical condition, nor the innocence of that part of the paradisiacal pair mentally acute enough to do the evil that really hurts heaven…”
With the balanced thinking intrinsic to St. John’s tutors, Ms. Brann does not entirely discount Aquinas and concurs with the latter’s manner of describing original sin as not alien to her own comprehension. “It is an ‘inordinate disposition,’ that is, a disordered temperament, expressed as ‘concupiscence,’ that is, the greedy desire for admiration and gratification…” Despite being psychologically familiar and intelligible to Ms. Brann, this concept as related by Aquinas still appears distant due to its generality. It is difficult to literally see this burden being universally shared by humanity, and as she writes, there are many people who would seem to be good by their very nature, negating any damning inheritance. Ultimately though, Ms. Brann takes a moral position wherein the assigning of guilt to someone who has not perpetrated any wrong ought not be similarly culpable as another who has performed the very offense in question.
How then can original sin exist for one who is not necessarily rebelling against a theologically eternal judge, but rather who does not perceive original sin’s universality and sees a clear disconnect between people who are either plainly innocent or immediately guilty?
Here perhaps it would be useful to ponder a quote in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, itself part of the Great Books Program at St. John’s. Leading up to the writing of this review, the author had the pleasure of a conversation with a colleague from Campion College, Professor of English, Dr. Richard Sonnenschein. This selfsame quote was shared by the latter, a citation most relevant to the question raised via Ms. Brann’s writing. For this, the author is most grateful.
In Book VII, there is an introspective address by the infamous Medea, though at this point in the narrative not yet guilty of her most odious offense. She is torn between her daughterly piety to her father King Aetes of Colchis and the feelings she is now experiencing directed to the heroic Jason. “If I could, I would be more rational. But a new power draws me on, against my will; and Cupid persuades one thing, reason another. I see which is the more proper course, and I approve of it, while I follow the wrong one.”
There exists here somewhat of a disconnect, albeit subtle, between the first two sentences and the third. Medea speaks of her waning reason. She raises the specter of some divine source for her condition, overriding her ability to decide for herself the proper course of action. Love, it would appear, tugs on one end of her will, while likewise being opposed by reason. Yet, in a moment of instantly crystalline lucidity, Medea perceives which is the superior of the two avenues of choice. She not only is able to perceive it, but also acknowledges that it is the more prudent of the two, giving it her sanction. That having been said, with incredulously dramatic resolve, she actively opts for the worse option.
It would be difficult to say Medea’s choice was an unreasoned one, a product of being overcome by passions so turgid as to render impotent wiser counsel. The key resides in what she says immediately before choosing Jason over her father. She not only knows what is better, she approves it as well. How then, knowing this, can she still maintain in choosing essentially an act of impiety?
Here is where Ms. Brann comes around to a point of convergence with Aquinas and his position on original sin. “Here Thomas is the master of the phenomena of human being. And my secular sense of inborn sin, if a world away from the theology and its rebellion, yet lives in the same universe of discourse…” In an assessment remarkably close to what St. Thomas would have posited, Ms. Brann manifests a possible answer to the earlier question on secular original sin: “…the seat of original sin is that perversion of the will called willfulness—the will coopted to the service of the self rather than of an other, be it a person, an object, a world.”
Medea, from this logic, abandons what she knows and approves is a better choice, not because of being stripped of her reason. Instead, she allows her will to act consciously and deliberately against her intellect. It may seem that Medea elects, as stated earlier in this review, to act freely. Though she does not necessarily give in to her appetites, she is likewise unwilling to check and limit her willfulness; the sense of scorning what human beings truly know is better.
The question from this point evolves into why Medea would make such a decision. What would make the will supersede the intellect and its more beneficial reasoning in this case? As original sin, and in this case a secular form of it, may be seen as the beginning of evil, Ms. Brann draws forth an interesting distinction. There would appear to be a difference between being wrong in the secular sense and more distinctively being evil. “It’s a difference analogous to Nietzsche’s between schlecht, mingily ‘base,’ and böse, juicily ‘evil’ (for example, Beyond Good and Evil no. 260).”
This particular kind of evil, even understood through a secular lens, would include: “…successful diddling of the truth, effective one-upmanship, enjoying of others’ come-uppance… in sum, inflicting preventive suffering to secure my safe superiority—self-righteousness, the enjoyment of my own goodness.” It is here perhaps that the root of Medea’s initial evil may be found, residue of original sin, theological or secular. One-upmanship and enjoying others’ misfortunes come close to how C.S. Lewis describes pride. It is inherently competitive, and when it cannot glory in one’s elevation over another, it will nag for someone else more elevated to be brought down to a lower level.
However, it is at the beginning and end of that quotation where a perversion of, oddly enough, freedom can be located. Taking joy in making truth murky assumes there is truth, which the person who wishes to make it murky, in some manner, resents. Self-righteousness and enjoying one’s own virtues shift the focus to the self, rather than on righteousness and virtue. Medea’s chosen course of action, committing impiety against her father, is for her good not because of the external standard that says it is wrong (a standard her intellect acknowledges and approves), but because it is judged so by the internal standard of her own will. This inclination of the internal will, theological and/or secular original sin, says something is good simply because the person housing the will decides it to be so. What is, reality and its truth, is considered too limiting. Thus, thirst for authenticity and originality renders mute and attempts to limit reality. This, too, is pride.
That much more can be written from this, incorporating themes from C.S. Lewis, Plato, and even Nietzsche, is testament to the richness found in possible seminar conversations at St. John’s College. Ms. Brann brings together two seemingly disparate worlds, the secular and theological, and finds confluence around something as potentially divisive as original sin.
Pursuits of Happiness serves as a capstone for the decades of Eva Brann’s work in sharing an ideal of education at St. John’s College, an ideal that apprehends the value of classical liberal learning. This standard of learning provides both method and content, which lets students in on an age-old secret. Freedom means limits, but it is only when those are self-imposed, that one may truly call oneself a free human being. And, with this new potential of true freedom, happiness is a much more tenable pursuit.
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 See here.
 See here.
 Eva Brann, Pursuits of Happiness (Philadelphia, Paul Dry Books, 2020).
 Brann, Pursuits of Happiness, 180.
 Ibid., 175.
 Ibid., 176-177.
 Ibid., 180.
 Ibid., 177.
 Ibid., 9.
 Ibid., 10.
 See here.
 Brann, Pursuits of Happiness, 11.
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