As I mentioned in previous issues of Phlit, I’m working on a new edition of my book of aphorisms. Here’s Chapter 3 of this new edition.
A. Academia Culture is an organic whole, but academia divides it into departments. Culture should be bound to life, but academia separates it from life and turns it into a trade. Culture should be free of charge, but academia makes it a commodity to be bought and sold.
Before the printing press was invented, when students couldn’t afford their own books, a professor was one who read aloud to a class; the word “lecture” comes from the Latin legere, meaning “to read.” The invention of the printing press has enabled students to buy their own books, and thus has eliminated the professor’s raison d’etre. Johnson said, “People have nowadays...got a strange opinion that every thing should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken.”1 Education takes place between an author and a reader, not between a student and a professor; one becomes educated by reading, not by listening to lectures.
B. The Scholar Academia is the home of the scholar, not of the true intellectual. For the scholar, culture is a job and a means of making a living. For the true intellectual, culture is a passion, a love affair, a mission. The true intellectual often makes a living from non-intellectual work; Kafka, for example, made a living as a bureaucrat, Thoreau as a surveyor, and Hoffer as a dockworker. To the scholar, culture is his career; to the true intellectual, culture is his life. The scholar wasn’t born for intellectual work; he would be at home in another profession — in law, medicine, business, etc. The true intellectual was born for intellectual work, and couldn’t live without it; if it didn’t exist, he would invent it. The scholar has a respected position in society, the true intellectual is an outcast from society, a stranger in the world.
Classics aren’t written by scholars. Not even one classic in a hundred was written by an academic. Classics contain personality and pathos and suffering and anger and humor, all of which scholarly books lack. Classics are written with passion, and arouse passion in those who read them. Scholarly books are dry, cold and impersonal, and don’t arouse passion in those who read them. Classics have life and vitality; cut them and blood will come out. Scholarly books are lifeless; cut them and dust will come out.
C. Reading vs. Writing Students should read more than they write. The best way to learn how to write good prose is to read good prose. Students should read the classics — for their style as well as their content. Students today are often asked to write papers that deal with a narrow subject. This encourages them to read obscure authors who treat the narrow subject that they’re writing about. Thus, students don’t read the classics, and they don’t become broadly educated.
Professors, like students, should concentrate on reading and on studying the classics, not on writing. Professors, like students, should follow Schopenhauer’s advice, and read what is good rather than write what is bad. Today’s professors spend their time either reading second-rate literature within their specialized field, or writing second-rate literature within their specialized field. They feel compelled to write; their motto is, “publish or perish.” Academia debases literature and turns it into a trade.
D. Literature vs. Journalism Modern books aren’t written to be read by future generations, they’re written for the present generation. Thus, most modern books are mere journalism, not real literature. People in earlier cultures wrote books as if they were going to last forever, as if they were going to be carved in stone. Nowadays, people write books as if they were going to last one year, then be recycled. People in earlier cultures took more pains with their letters than we take with our books; their letters were closer to being literature than our books are. Literature is gradually sinking to the level of journalism, just as education is gradually sinking to the level of vocational training.
E. What is a Classic? This question must be answered anew by each generation; each generation must redefine the classics. The body of classics must be continually rejuvenated by the addition of new books. As new books are added to the body of classics, other books must be subtracted, lest the number of classics becomes excessively large. Old classics must make way for new classics, just as a tree’s lower branches die off as it grows taller and puts forth new branches. The body of classics should be kept small enough to allow the average person to read them. Only he who has read the classics is educated. In the modern West, almost no one has read the classics since culture has been fragmented into specialized fields.
The classics should be a combination of old and new — Homer and Kafka, Shakespeare and Freud. There is a tendency, however, to regard only old books as classics. Academia is slow to recognize modern books as classics. Academia’s clock is always a few centuries slow. In the argument of “Ancients Versus Moderns,” academia usually sides with the ancients. Academia prefers old writers like Aristotle, Machiavelli and Hobbes to modern writers like Kierkegaard, Ortega and Jung.
Modern writers, other things being equal, are more important, more relevant, than old writers. Modern writers have experienced modern civilization, and can offer solutions to the problems of modern civilization. And modern writers have benefited from the advances in knowledge that have taken place in modern times. Nietzsche, for example, benefited from the advances made by Schopenhauer and Darwin, while Plato couldn’t benefit from those advances. Likewise, the philosophers of our time can benefit from the advances made by Freud and Jung, while Nietzsche couldn’t benefit from those advances.
Recently, the old argument of “Ancients Versus Moderns” has been overshadowed by another argument, an argument against the classics in general. According to this argument, the classics were chosen by white Western males, who ignored works by women and works by people of color. This argument is an extension to culture of principles that have already become dominant in politics — principles such as preferential treatment for women and minorities.
F. The Unpublished Classic Everyone can appreciate a classic when it’s established, but few can appreciate a classic when it’s still an unpublished manuscript. Consider Swann’s Way, for example: it was rejected by numerous publishers, and even Gide, the foremost critic of his era, failed to see any merit in it. Frustrated, Proust wanted to publish Swann’s Way at his own expense, but a friend persuaded him to send the manuscript to one more publisher, who returned it with a note that read, “Dear friend: I may be thicker-skinned than most, but I just can’t understand why anyone should take thirty pages to describe how he tosses about in bed because he can’t get to sleep. I clutched my head.”2 So Proust published Swann’s Way at his own expense.
The most difficult task for a critic is to appreciate an original work before it’s established. Most people wait until a book is established before praising it, just as most people clap when others clap. Only a few people clap alone.
G. Foreign Languages Why do people study foreign languages? Nowadays people usually study foreign languages for the sake of business or travel. In earlier periods, however, people studied foreign languages in order to read in those languages. They studied Greek and Latin, for example, in order to read Greek and Latin literature in the original.
There are several arguments against studying a foreign language for the sake of reading in that language. One such argument is the amount of time that must be spent doing it, which is so large that one could, during the same amount of time, read a great deal in translation. Another such argument is that people who study a foreign language usually acquire only a rough and incomplete knowledge of that language.
There are, however, several reasons to study Latin, even if one doesn’t want to read Latin literature in the original. Studying Latin improves one’s knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and thus enables one to write better in one’s own language. Is it possible to have a firm knowledge of a Latin-based language if one doesn’t know Latin? Furthermore, until recently writers assumed that their readers knew Latin, and sprinkled their works with Latin phrases; thus, knowing Latin enables one to read many books with greater understanding and enjoyment.
H. The Good Life Montaigne complained that education in his day had no effect on a person’s life, that it stuffed the brain without improving the person. Likewise, Nietzsche complained that the study of history diverted people’s attention from their own lives; “we would serve history,” wrote Nietzsche, “only so far as it serves life.”3 Nietzsche praised Greek philosophers for teaching through the example of their own lives, instead of devoting themselves to abstract questions that were remote from actual life. The goal of philosophy, like the goal of history, like the goal of education in general, should be The Good Life.
Just as Nietzsche complained that history had strayed too far from life, so too Ruskin complained that economics had strayed too far from life. Ruskin challenged the proud science of economics, and insisted that all its theories of wages, value, labor, etc. were worthless if they didn’t make people’s lives better. A nation that was wealthy in financial terms but not in quality-of-life was a nation that was on the wrong track. Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but life.”4 The goal of economics, too, should be The Good Life.
I. Bernard Berenson Goethe was a great humanist because he never lost sight of man, never lost sight of the individual human life. Whether he was engaged in scientific studies, or painting, or political affairs, or literary projects, he never forgot that the greatest masterpiece is a human being, and the greatest achievement is self-culture, self-development, bildung (to use the German term). Goethe would have agreed with the Chinese humanists who said, “it is not truth that makes man great, but man who makes truth great.”
If Goethe was the greatest humanist of the early 19th century, Bernard Berenson was the greatest humanist of the early 20th century. Goethe had said that visual art should be life-enhancing — that is, it should make us feel more alive, more eager to live, it should heighten our joy in existence, our love of the world. Berenson developed this idea, and applied it to the history of Italian painting. When he was in his thirties, Berenson began writing Italian Painters of the Renaissance, in which he argued that great art is life-enhancing. Berenson regarded the nude figure as the perfect subject for life-enhancing art; he praised Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nudes: “The pleasure we take in these savagely battling forms arises from their power to directly communicate life, to immensely heighten our sense of vitality.... The significance of all these muscular strains and pressures is so rendered that we cannot help realizing them; we imagine ourselves imitating all the movements, and exerting the force required for them.... While under the spell of this illusion [we] feel as if the elixir of life, not our own sluggish blood, were coursing through our veins.”5
Throughout his long career, Berenson continued to believe that great painting is life-enhancing. In the late 1940s, when he was in his eighties, Berenson wrote Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, in which he argued that art should provide models for people, just as Nietzsche had argued that history should provide models for people. Berenson praises paintings that provide a vision of The Good Life, paintings that “offer the noblest models for mankind to attain, models of realizable and never impossible states of being and ways of living.... Raphael’s “Disputa,” “School of Athens,” and “Parnassus” seem now, as they did fifty years ago, the clearest and most convincing visions of the perfect existence for which we yearn, and which we hope to attain.”6
Berenson was as fond of nature as he was of art, and he loved to take walks in the hills around Florence. He believed that one of the chief benefits of studying art is that it heightens one’s appreciation of nature.
Berenson’s middle years were spent writing Drawings of the Florentine Painters, which was his most detailed, most scholarly book. He worked on this book for many years; day after day, he walked from Fiesole down into Florence, and pored over drawings in the Uffizi. Later, he felt that this book was a distraction from his true calling; he felt that he should have been a generalist, not a specialist; he felt that he should have applied the idea of life-enhancement to literature, and to other branches of culture. As a young man, Berenson had aspired to be a generalist, a humanist, a second Goethe, and in his old age, he achieved this goal with books like Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts and Sketch for a Self-Portrait. “All the arts,” wrote Berenson, “poetry, music, ritual, the visual arts, the theater, must work singly and together to create the most comprehensive art of all, a humanized society, and its masterpiece, the free man: free within and free without, ready in Goethe’s untarnishable words to live manfully in the whole, the good, and the beautiful.”7
J. Kenneth Clark One of Berenson’s disciples was Kenneth Clark, who became world-famous in 1969 as a result of a TV series called Civilization. When Clark had first been introduced to Berenson’s writings, at the age of 16, he had been deeply impressed, and when a friend asked him what he wanted to do after leaving school, he replied, “Help Mr. Berenson to produce a new edition of his book on the drawings of the Florentine painters.”8 This from a teenager who had never met Berenson, and didn’t even live in the same country as Berenson! Six years later, Clark visited Italy, and was introduced to Berenson. As he was leaving, Berenson asked him if he would help with a new edition of his book on the drawings of the Florentine painters. The realization of his youthful ambition was (says Clark) “rather uncanny — like something out of a fairy-tale.”9 Thus began Clark’s two-year apprenticeship with Berenson.
One of Clark’s first loves in the world of art was Japanese prints. He felt that whatever misfortunes he suffered, whatever problems life presented him with, he could always enjoy his Japanese prints, and his other favorites. For Clark, art was a source of pleasure, art was something to live for. Clark believed that the purpose of art criticism is to keep alive or revive one’s enjoyment of an art work. Clark was an aesthetic hedonist. Academia often overlooks the “pleasure factor,” and turns culture into a task. Academics were scornful of Clark’s TV series, but laymen felt that Clark’s series strengthened their desire to live. Clark says that he received forty or fifty letters a day, and he received nine letters “from people who said that they had been on the point of committing suicide, and that my programs had saved them.”10
K. Science Scientists often say that science is rich in philosophical significance. Some scientists even say that the road to wisdom leads through science, through distant galaxies and subatomic particles. Philosophers, however, take a different view; philosophers generally regard science as irrelevant, as devoid of philosophical significance, and as a distraction from more important matters. Kierkegaard, for example, regarded science as the least important branch of knowledge, and Ortega said that science wasn’t relevant to life and didn’t give us anything to live by.
Science used to possess some philosophical significance. Scientists used to come into conflict with established religion; their findings contradicted the Bible and the Church. Scientists like Copernicus changed man’s view of the world, and contributed to the downfall of the old religious view of the world. But once this religious view had collapsed completely, science lost much of its philosophical significance. Since the 1880’s, when Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead, science has been devoid of philosophical significance. The work of Einstein, for example, is of little interest to philosophers, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle doesn’t affect the humanities since the humanities have never aspired to certainty about everything.
Science demands specialization, and prevents people from becoming broadly educated. Ortega said that specialization has made the modern scientist a learned ignoramus, a primitive, a barbarian. Only a broad education in the humanities can enrich people spiritually, and give people something to live for. The humanities offer a way of life, but science only offers a way to make a living.
Be lowly wise....|
Not to know at large of things remote
From use, obscure and subtle, but to know
That which before us lies in daily life,
Is the prime Wisdom.11
One facet of life to which Zen seems especially relevant is parenting. Zen teaches patience, of which a parent has great need since parenting involves a thousand little annoyances. Zen encourages perception rather than reflection, and thus develops in the parent a mental state akin to that of a child, and an appreciation of nature that can be transferred to a child. A Zen parent teaches his child not to regard the present as a preparation for the future, not to be preoccupied with himself, not to take himself too seriously, not to view life as a competition (for academic success, for wealth, for popularity, for moral virtue, etc.), and not to feel that he should be doing something at all times. A Zen parent instills in his child joy in existence, joy in the simplest, most ordinary things, a love of life, a love of the world.
The Good Life is not only a goal for the child, but also for the parent; a parent shouldn’t be so preoccupied with his child’s life that he forgets his own life.
A parent should remember that evil is part of human nature, there is a dark side in everyone, a shadow in everyone. The child’s misbehavior shouldn’t be countenanced, but it shouldn’t astonish us either; the child’s misbehavior should be met with understanding disapproval.
M. Oxford vs. Stratford When we hear how the theories of Copernicus, Galileo, and others were received, when we hear how those theories were ignored or ridiculed or suppressed, we think that such things couldn’t occur in our age, that our age is free and open, enlightened and advanced. Actually, the progress of truth is as slow now as it was in the past.
Academia is supposed to pursue truth, but academia is often more concerned with defending established dogmas than with discovering truth. One established dogma that academia defends is that the works attributed to Shakespeare were indeed written by William Shakespeare of Stratford. There’s little evidence supporting this dogma, and abundant evidence suggesting that these works were written by the Earl of Oxford. The evidence suggests that the Stratford man could barely write, let alone write plays, let alone write plays of extraordinary quality. But the Stratford theory still survives. The longevity of the Stratford theory reminds one of the longevity of religious dogmas.
Academia suppresses the Oxford theory, just as the church suppressed heretics. When Harvard Magazine published a defense of the Oxford theory in 1974, some Harvard professors were furious with the magazine’s editor for allowing the Oxford theory to have a hearing. A proponent of the Oxford theory would have little chance of winning a position in academia. To succeed in academia, one must espouse popular opinions and defend established dogmas.
Beginning in the nineteenth century, many leading intellectuals rejected the Stratford theory. (The leading intellectuals of a given period often reach the same conclusions; academia reaches those conclusions, too, but not until many years have passed.) Whitman, for example, emphatically rejected the Stratford theory: “I am firm against Shaksper — I mean the Avon man, the actor.” Mark Twain said he was “composedly and contentedly sure” that the Stratford man wasn’t the real author. Henry James said, “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
The nineteenth century, with its bent for historical criticism, undermined religious dogmas, and also undermined the Stratford dogma. Criticism of the Stratford dogma prompted people to ask, “if the Stratford man didn’t write those works, then who did?” Several candidates were suggested, but it was impossible to make a convincing case for any of them. Finally, an English schoolteacher, J. T. Looney, conducted a systematic search for the real author, discovered that it was the Earl of Oxford, and published his findings in 1920. Freud, after reading Looney’s book, said, “the man of Stratford... seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything.”12
But the views of leading intellectuals don’t matter to English professors; they aren’t the views of specialists. Specialists know better, specialists understand great writers better than great writers do. Specialists can write fat biographies of the Stratford man — biographies built of straw, with a foundation of sand.
N. Whitman and Shakespeare While Whitman’s own work was eminently democratic, and championed the common man, Whitman regarded Shakespeare as the exact opposite, as eminently aristocratic. He said that Shakespeare’s history plays were “conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation).... Everything possible is done in the Shakespeare plays to make the common people seem common — very common indeed.”13
Whitman rejected the conventional view that Shakespeare was from the middle class, that Shakespeare was from the small, country town of Stratford. Stratfordians often accuse Oxfordians of snobbery, but surely Whitman, the arch-democrat, can’t be accused of snobbery. Whitman remarked on the lack of evidence in support of the Stratford theory: “It is remarkable how little is known of Shaksper the actor.... The record is almost a blank — it has no substance whatever: scarcely anything that is said of him is authorized.”
Who, then, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare? “Only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves,” said Whitman, “or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.” A wolfish earl like Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Surely Whitman would have been a passionate champion of the Oxford theory, if he had lived to hear about it. The Oxford theory was discovered about fifteen years after Whitman died.
In Whitman’s time, the chief alternative to the Stratford theory was the Bacon theory, which ascribed Shakespeare’s works to the philosopher Francis Bacon. Whitman was wise enough to remain an agnostic with respect to the Bacon theory — he neither accepted it nor rejected it. Whitman was also wise enough to understand how difficult it would be to overthrow the traditional view of Shakespeare: “The typical literary man is no more able to examine this question dispassionately than a priest is to pass on objections to the doctrine of the atonement, hell, heaven: not a bit more able: the scribblers are blind from the start.” Whitman said that Stratfordians used “dirty tricks” and ad hominem attacks to discredit their opponents; this is still true today.
If Oxford was the real author of the works attributed to Shakespeare, why didn’t he publish under his own name? Why did he hide behind the pseudonym William Shakespeare? Writing plays wasn’t considered appropriate for an aristocrat. Since Oxford was close to the Queen, and since he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s chief minister, there may have been political reasons, or social reasons, to conceal his involvement with the theater.
Nothing could be printed without a government license, so the government had the power to conceal Oxford’s authorship. The true identity of “Shakespeare” sank into oblivion because the Puritans closed the theaters, and because of the English Civil War. War always grabs people’s attention, and causes them to forget matters that once held their attention. One of the casualties of the English Civil War was the truth about Shakespeare.
O. Passing Singular What sort of man was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (better known by his pseudonym “William Shakespeare”)? He was much the sort of man that one would expect: he had a superb education (he entered Cambridge at age eight, and had private tutors before that), he was from a cultured family (two of his uncles, Surrey and Sheffield, were prominent poets, and another uncle, Arthur Golding, was a scholar and translator), he was exposed to drama at an early age (his father kept his own acting troupe), he began writing while still in his teens (he probably published an early version of Romeo and Juliet at age 13, and a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses at age 17), he participated avidly in the sports of the nobility (sports like falconry, which is mentioned often in Shakespeare’s plays), he was an expert at jousting (he participated in several tournaments, and always emerged from the lists as a champion), he had a temper, and perhaps a violent streak (when he was 18, he killed a cook with his sword), he was a passionate lover (his extra-marital affair with Anne Vavasor produced a son, and also angered the Queen, who clapped him and his mistress in the Tower of London), he was eccentric (Gabriel Harvey called him “a passing singular odd man”), he was close to the Queen, and close to the levers of power (scholars had wondered how Shakespeare was so familiar with politics), and he had a passion for travel, especially for travel to countries renowned for culture (he spent several months in Italy, and planned a journey to Greece).
While traveling on the Continent, Oxford may have encountered the poet George Chapman. In one of his plays, Chapman has a character say that he encountered Oxford in Germany, and that he found him to be
...the most goodly fashion’d man|
I ever saw: from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute...
He was beside of spirit passing great
Valiant and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals.14
|1.|| Life of Johnson, Aetat. 57 back|
|2.|| André Maurois, Proust: A Biography, 9, 1 back|
|3.|| Untimely Essays, “The Use and Abuse of History” back|
|4.|| Unto This Last, “Ad Valorem” back|
|5.|| Italian Painters of the Renaissance, “Florentine Painters,” §8 back|
|6.|| Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, New York), ch. 3 back|
|7.|| Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, Conclusion. Goethe’s original: “Im guten, ganzen, shönen resolut zu leben.” back|
|8.|| K. Clark, Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 76 back|
|9.|| ibid, p. 129 back|
|10.|| The Other Half (the second volume of Clark’s memoirs), Harper & Row, 1977, ch. 4, p. 223 back|
|11.|| Milton, Paradise Lost, VIII, 174, 191. On Kierkegaard, see The Diary of Soren Kierkegaard, §114 (Philosophical Library, New York, 1960); on Ortega, see The Mission of the University, ch. 5, and The Revolt of the Masses, ch. 12. back|
|12.|| See Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, ch. 10. Nietzsche, Whittier, Galsworthy, Bismarck and others also rejected the Stratford theory. back|
|13.|| See “Walt Whitman on Shakespeare,” by Paul A. Nelson, Newsletter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, Fall, 1992 back|
|14.||The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, 1984, Dodd, Mead & Co., ch. 19 back|