Tuesday, April 06, 2010

My Library Was Dukedom Large Enough

Maybe I’m still a kook, because now, years later, my convictions about the ready availability of knowledge remain pretty much unchanged. Devoid of a degree as I am, I have never stopped reading, inquiring, and exploring the world of ideas and facts. All this is not to deny, of course, that formal education is good in its way (and naturally some specialties — law and medicine most notably — absolutely require old-fashioned collegiate training). But I still believe deeply in the worth and merit of impractical learning — that is, learning not yoked with any particular worldly ambition — and I wish that this kind of “aimless” learning could find better cultural legitimacy.

Hear, hear. Many thanks to Shanna for passing along this essay to me. I have been disappointing family, friends and teachers for a few decades with my insouciance toward "applying myself", which is to say, my refusal to try to make as much money as I can with whatever talents I have. I seem to have had a congenital aversion to that mentality, passive while I was younger, but one that has hardened into a gleeful enjoyment of thumbing my nose at conventional attitudes regarding education and money. And while I have yet to feel embarrassed about being a "loser" when it comes to worldly success, I have felt that way numerous times upon realizing that I'm wasting my enthusiasm for learning and thinking while trying to share it with someone who couldn't care less. I share Susan Jacoby's lament about how hard it is to find people with the intelligence and passion to discuss rarefied topics with such a breezy familiarity:

As the art of live conversation continues its decline, it is saddening to discover that some of the best examples of old-fashioned, discursive, passionate intellectual conversation can be found today only in books. For a glimpse of the way intellectuals used to talk, not only to one another but to anyone else who happened to be within range, one might consult a splendid, concise 1988 portrait of the maverick journalist I.F. Stone, compiled from taped conversations between Stone and the author, Andrew Patner. Stone, an autodidact who dropped out of college in his junior year, was talking about his research for a book about the trial of Socrates:

"I've often said that no one has gotten away with so much egregious nonsense out of sheer charm as Plato. It's nonsense, absolute nonsense. And the devout Platonists -- it's like a cult, they're like Moonies. I mean, Plato is a fascinating thinker and a marvelous writer and a man of comedic genius. Olympiodorus says that he wanted to be a writer of comedy, of plays and comedy -- he's supposed to have had a copy of Aristophanes on his bed when he died -- but when he met Socrates he gave that up....And you have to read him, too, not just for his system or ideas, but for the way he gets at it, for all the by-products, the joy, and the wrestle, so to speak. No other philosopher turned his philosophies into little dramas. That gives them part of their continual charm....The Phaedo is just -- I was reading the Phaedo at American University, and I just burst into tears. The kids must have thought I'd gone wacky. It's very moving. A great drama.

...And so, you understand the Greek theater and its wellsprings of freedom much better when you look at the Roman theater and comedy. And with the Greek law and the Roman law, the procedure and laws of the Greek Assembly and the Roman Assembly....I don't care much for Rome. Cicero is a big tub of crap. Typical corporation lawyer and ass-kisser of the rich and powerful. But he studied in Athens, a few centuries after the great days, and his philosophical treatises, while they're not profound, are very valuable. You consult what he has to say in the De natura deorum, De divinatione, and the Tusculan Disputations....I agree with Caesar though. He called the prose style Asiatic, by which he meant overadorned, and I think his speeches are a little too flowery."

This is what a passionate intellectual conversation sounds like -- the genuine learnedness, the intensity, the sense of communion with people who lived and died thousands of years ago. I wish I had been on the other end of that conversation. It's been a long time since I've heard anyone call Plato a purveyor of egregious nonsense, and Cicero was a big ass-kisser. One need look no further for a perfect example of the connection between the decline of reading and the decline of intellectual conversation.

I would say that they're both connected to the decline of people being interested in anything that isn't geared toward some tangible measure of success. Who wants to talk about Plato and Roman theater when there's money to be made? My orthopedic surgeon, an amateur history buff himself, used to always ask about whatever book I was reading while sitting in the room waiting on him, and we'd spend a little time discussing various topics at each visit. Once he finally asked me, "What are you going to do with all this knowledge?" Nothing, really, I said. There were practical obstacles: I didn't go to college (beyond taking classes for my own pleasure at community college for a few years), and without a degree and some type of specialized skill, there wasn't any real hope of using my interests to make money. What, is someone going to pay me to sit at home and read a bunch of obscure books? I told him that there were also countless people out there who already knew much more than I did about any given topic, so as far as I was concerned, this was all just for fun and the ability to provide interesting conversation. He didn't say anything critical of that, but I could tell he thought it was bizarre.

My father once asked me if I regretted not pursuing my love of philosophy to the extent of trying to become a professor myself. I told him that my former professor lived in a small apartment and drove a Ford Pinto; being that I was already in a similar income bracket, why would I want to acquire tens of thousands of dollars in debt for a useless degree on top of it? Another friend of mine, with a Ph.D. in philosophy, has worked all sorts of temp jobs in recent years, including at a convenience store. And yet another friend, in her late thirties, was telling me recently that she's going to be paying off her student loans until she's 67. I might not be able to get a high-paying job with only a high-school diploma, but then again, I don't necessarily need one if I'm not staggering along under the mountain of debt that all my better-educated friends have.

My former neighbor used to good-naturedly lecture me on how I was wasting my time and talents (musical and literary) living an ordinary life doing ordinary things. She was one of those spiritual-not-religious types who hadn't examined her assumptions closely enough to realize that she still carried a very Christian belief in people having a "calling" that they were obliged to heed. She preferred to say that I had a "gift" for music or writing, but it amounted to the same thing: I was obliged/destined/meant to fulfill those talents to the greatest extent possible, and if I didn't, I was lying to myself or failing my potential. I used to tweak her in return by saying that no, a "gift" implied a "giver", and maybe an obligation in return, and since there was no god, I was free to slack off as much as I wanted. And does anyone really need to be reminded how many people have single-mindedly pursued and achieved a goal only to find themselves miserable when it doesn't measure up to the fantasies they had about it?

Immaturity. Fear of failure. Selfishness. All have been suggested as reasons for my obstinate refusal to allow my "hobbies" to turn into "business". No one ever seems to consider that maybe having the luxury and freedom to pursue these things at my leisure is what makes them enjoyable and reinvigorating for me. Maybe I just know when I'm already happy, and isn't that what all our tail-chasing is supposed to be leading toward in the first place?