Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia



Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

Aug 2 2019

Meditations of Being a Writer no. 02

book spines

As a writer, I read something and hope to get something out of it: new ideas, ways of thinking, better understanding—I hope to get something.

Nine years before Edward Young (1683–1765) penned his questions on how broad reading affected Shakespeare and Milton differently, Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), though twenty-six years younger than Young, recognized the dangers of excessive hope. Johnson counsels readers as well as writers, to rethink the “anticipation of happiness”:

The understanding of a man naturally sanguine [courageous, a delight in bloodshed], may, indeed, be easily vitiated [spoiled or corrupted] by the luxurious indulgence of hope, however necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent, as some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun which gives life and beauty to the vegetable world….

Perhaps no class of the human species requires more to be cautioned against this anticipation of happiness, than those that aspire to the name of authors. A man of lively fancy no sooner finds hint moving in his mind, than he makes momentaneous excursions to the press, and to the world, and, with a little encouragement from flattery, pushes forward into future ages, and prognosticates the honours to be paid him, when envy is extinct, and faction forgotten, and those, whom partiality now suffers to obscure him, shall have given way to the triflers of as short duration as themselves. [1]

Would-be authors imagine the titles of books they want to write but fail to realize the contents such books must contain. I have a problem of too much planning, an over-abundant need to pre-read things before I write. Too much sun leads only to cancer (ask Icarus). Instead I might need to start doing less planning, more writing. As the esteemed Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky teach us:

Biases in the evaluation of compound events are particularly significant in the context of planning. The successful completion of an undertaking, such as the development of a new product, typically has a conjunctive character: for the undertaking to succeed, each of a series of events must occur. Even when each of these events is very likely, the overall probability of success can be quite low if the number of events is large. The general tendency to overestimate the probability of conjunctive events leads to unwarranted optimism in the evaluation of the likelihood that a plan will succeed or that a project will be completed on time.[2]

Or as Tacitus succinctly put it: “Our men’s over-confidence might even have led to serious disaster. But Agricola was everywhere at once,” (Agricola XXXVII).

Back to Johnson:

That the mind of man is never satisfied with the objects immediately before it, but is always breaking away from the present moment, and losing itself in schemes of future felicity; and that we forget the proper use of the time now in our power to provide for the enjoyment of that which, perhaps, may never be granted us, has been frequently remarked….

There would, however, be few enterprises of great labour or hazard undertaken, if we had not the power of magnifying the advantages which we persuade ourselves to expect from them when the knight of La Mancha gravely recounts to his companion the adventures by which he is to signalize himself in such a manner, that he shall be summoned to the support of empires, solicited to accept the heiress of the crown which he has preserved, have honours and riches to scatter about him, and an island to bestow on his worthy squire, very few readers, amidst their mirth or pity, can deny that they have admitted visions of the same kind; though they have not, perhaps, expected events equally strange, or by means equally inadequate. When we pity him we reflect on our own disappointments; and when we laugh, our hearts inform us that he is not more ridiculous than ourselves, except that he [Quixote] tells what we [other writers, including Cervantes] have only thought.

In other words, too often writers magnify their advantages for their own advantage, never considering how such magnification distorts the goal of actually writing something that is worth reading (and rereading). I see advantages in pre-reading before writing. But I magnify those advantages, and like ants at the mercy of children, get burned by the magnification.



[1] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, no. 02, Saturday, 24 March 1750. Johnson’s line of—“As some plants are destroyed by too open exposure to that sun”—might be compared to Hamlet being “too much in the sun,” (I, ii, 67).

[2] Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases,” Science 185 (1974) in Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 428.

Jul 19 2019

Evil Elvis

porticos in Bologna, Italia

This is one of Rod’s better columns in a while. But there are things one can be nit picky about, such as when I read:

There is a certain sort of tiresome person who, whenever you bring up the steep and consequential decline of cultural standards, can be counted on to say, “People used to think Elvis was evil.” If a cable network ever stages live executions or barnyard orgies, these same people will turn up mouthing the same cliche. This line is not an aid to thinking clearly, but is an obstacle to it. It’s meant to assuage the consciences of those who say it, and to grant them permission not to think about the troubling thing in front of their noses.

…. as if some of the enemies of Elvis were not interested in a WASP-led theocracy against godless communism, as if their antagonism against black music and black music appropriated by white singers was something other than an effort to maintain their power and influence over all non-affluent WASPs and all non-WASPs? (Were not the enemies of Elvis also the enemies of Catholic-all-too-Catholic JFK?)…. 

But overall this is a great post–particularly the part about the Atlanta airport and the elusive sense of “home” shared between strangers.

UPDATE: I guess what I mean to say is that the “troubling thing in front of” my nose, is that WASPy extremism is just as extreme as “barnyard orgies” and broadcasting “live executions.”

Jul 12 2019

Meditations on Writing no. 1

book spines
Meditations on Writing no. 1

I’ve felt some anxiety lately over the quality of my writing. Maybe I rely too much on quotation, too much name-dropping…. Perhaps I need to focus more on personal experience––more personal family stories, anecdotes from my travels through Europe, or my discoveries in genealogy? I think my writing needs more personal experience of life, less pre-published exegesis from the library.

Perhaps it’s all a question of means over ends—what Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) was writing about in 1780 with his biography of the poet Edward Young (1683–1765):

The attention which Young bestowed upon the perusal of books is not unworthy imitation. When any passage pleased him he appears to have folded down the leaf. On these passages he bestowed a second reading. But the labours of man are too frequently vain. Before he returned to much of what he had once approved he died. Many of his books, which I have seen, are by those notes of approbation so swelled beyond their real bulk that they will hardly shut…. (“Life of Young,” Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (c. 1779–81))

So Young did a lot of reading, found good passages and marked them, but ran out of time to use them. He couldn’t get back around to rereading what he knew was worth rereading so he could then use it in his own writing.

Young himself speculated on Shakespeare and Milton’s range of reading, and how it affected the quality of their work:

Who knows whether Shakespeare might not have thought less, if he had read more? Who knows if he might not have laboured under the load of [Ben] Johnson’s learning? … If Milton had spared some of his learning, his muse would have gained more glory, than he would have lost, by it. (Conjectures on Original Composition, (c. 1759), ed. Edith J. Morley (Oxford: Manchester University Press; London: Longman’s Green & Co, 1918) 35, 36)

Yes, writers must read in order to be writers. But reading can impart no magical powers of writing onto the writer who reads. The quintessence will not be transmuted.

Jun 12 2019

Reading in the Hospital

porticos in Bologna, Italia

C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once confessed what his ideal reading situation would be:

Johnson once described the ideal happiness which he would choose if he were regardless of futurity. My own choice, with the same reservation, would be to read the Italian epic—to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day. (The Allegory of Love, (Oxford UP, 1936; Second Edition, 1946) 304)

Lewis is referring (I think) to Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) choice of Shakespeare:

Having fallen into a very serious frame of mind, in which mutual expressions of kindness passed between us, such as would be thought too vain in me to repeat, I talked with regret of the sad inevitable certainty that one of us must survive the other.

JOHNSON. ‘Yes, Sir, that is an affecting consideration. I remember Swift, in one of his letters to Pope, says, “I intend to come over, that we may meet once more; and when we must part, it is what happens to all human beings.”’

BOSWELL. ‘The hope that we shall see our departed friends again must support the mind.’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, yes, Sir.’ Boswell. ‘There is a strange unwillingness to part with life, independent of serious fears as to futurity. A reverend friend of ours [Dr. Percy] tells me, that he feels an uneasiness at the thoughts of leaving his house, his study, his books.’

JOHNSON. ‘This is foolish in [Percy]. A man need not be uneasy on these grounds: for, as he will retain his consciousness, he may say with the philosopher, Omnia mea mecum porto. [‘All that is mine, I carry with me,’ Cicero, Paradoxa, i]’

BOSWELL. ‘True, Sir: we may carry our books in our heads; but still there is something painful in the thought of leaving for ever what has given us pleasure. I remember, many years ago, when my imagination was warm, and I happened to be in a melancholy mood, it distressed me to think of going into a state of being in which Shakepeare’s poetry did not exist. A lady, whom I then much admired, a very amiable woman, humoured my fancy, and relieved me by saying, “The first thing you will meet with in the other world will be an elegant copy of Shakspeare’s works, presented to you.”’

Dr. Johnson smiled benignantly at this, and did not appear to disapprove of the notion…. (Boswell, Life of Johnson, ÆTAT 69, April 1778)

But compare Lewis’s preferred hospital to those in Thomas More’s (1478–1535) Utopia (c. 1516), where:

hospital patients get first priority—oh yes, there are four hospitals in the suburbs, just outside the walls. Each of them is about the size of a small town. The idea of this is to prevent overcrowding, and facilitate the isolation of infectious cases. These hospitals are so well run, and so well supplied with all types of medical equipment, the nurses are so sympathetic and conscientious, and there are so many experienced doctors constantly available, that, though nobody’s forced to go there, practically everyone would rather be ill in hospital than at home. (Utopia (c. 1516, 1551), trans. Paul Turner, (New York: Penguin, 1965) II, 61–62)

To be a patient in Utopia is to be a king: everyone attends to you. Compare Mayra Hornbacher: “Hospital policy is to impose the least level of restriction possible,” (Madness: a Bipolar Life, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008) 5).

Jun 5 2019

Walking with Thoreau

In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau writes:

You must walk like a camel which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking. When a traveller asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered “Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.”

I’ve been in a Thoreau-esque mood lately. I’ve been gardening, photographing, paying closer attention to the nature around me, trying to figure out how this relates to my writing, wondering how it might make me a better writer.

Some highlights:

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Different day, different lizard

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An anole
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Wildflowers at the farm #wildflowers

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Green Lizzy #lizard

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May 8 2019

Pruning the Paragraphs

Pruning the Paragraphs

Here is a paragraph I had to prune from an essay I’m finishing up but that I think still has some worthwhile comparisons:

One also wonders whether some reactions spawned by Jussie Smollett’s alleged attack, qualify for “religiofication,” which is what American philosopher and longshoreman Eric Hoffer once defined as “the art of turning practical purposes into holy causes.”* If Smollett staged such an attack, he would be not unlike the innkeeper at the beginning of the Quixote (I, iii). For the innkeeper is someone who, being something of a knight in his younger days, is willing to placate his meddlesome guest Alonso Quijano. Quijano went mad by reading too many books of chivalry, and now wishes to be ordained into knighthood under the name Don Quixote. The innkeeper believes that by pretending (or acting) to be a knight, and going through the motions of ordination, he will send this madman on his way, and away from the inn where he causes mischief. In doing so, the innkeeper almost plays Don Quixote’s game-of-pretend better than the Don himself, for the innkeeper has inverted Hoffer’s formula and turned the Don’s holy cause into a practical purpose.

*Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) § 1, p. 15.

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Cedar waxwings eating nandina

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Mar 27 2019

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Thucydides and Our Refusal to Debate Neighbors-as-Enemies

Today I’m reading some things I haven’t quite got around to:

And in reading those things above, it reminded me of a passage toward the end of the manuscript to Thucydides‘ (460-400 BC) unfinished History, where he observes:

The Assembly and the Council of the Bean* still met notwithstanding, although they discussed nothing that was not approved of by the conspirators, who both supplied the speakers, and reviewed in advance what they were to say.

Fear, and the sight of the numbers of the conspirators, closed the mouths of the rest; or if any ventured to rise in opposition, he was presently put to death in some convenient way, and there was neither search for the murderers nor justice to be had against them if suspected; but the people remained motionless, being so thoroughly cowed that men thought themselves lucky to escape violence, even when they held their tongues.

An exaggerated belief in the numbers of the conspirators also demoralised the people, rendered helpless by the magnitude of the city, and by their want of intelligence with each other, and being without means of finding out what those numbers really were.

For the same reason it was impossible for any one to open his grief to a neighbour and to concert measures to defend himself, as he would have had to speak either to one whom he did not know, or whom he knew but did not trust.

Indeed all the popular party approached each other with suspicion, each thinking his neighbour concerned in what was going on, the conspirators having in their ranks persons whom no one could ever have believed capable of joining an oligarchy; and these it was who made the many so suspicious, and so helped to procure impunity for the few, by confirming the commons in their mistrust of one another.

Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Everyman Library (New York: J. M. Dent, 1910) (8.66).

*The Council of the Bean was so-called because voted were indicated and tallied by a jar of differently colored beans.

Mar 1 2019

What The Hell Does “Culture” Mean, Anyway?

What the Hell Does “Culture” Mean, Anyway?

Let’s ask Leo Strauss (1899-1973):

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary. The single goal of mankind is conceived by him as in a sense super-human: he speaks of the super-man of the future. The super-man is meant to unite in himself Jerusalem and Athens on the highest level.(“Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections,” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.)


Democracy is then not indeed mass rule but mass culture …. An illiterate society at its best is a society ruled by age-old ancestral custom which it traces to original founders, gods or sons of gods or pupils of gods; since there are no letters in such a society, the late heirs cannot be in direct contact with the original founders…. Hence an illiterate society cannot consistently act on its principle that the best is the oldest…. (Strauss “What is Liberal Education?” Address Delivered at the Tenth Annual Graduation Exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults. June 6, 1959)

Feb 12 2019

What I Don’t Know

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

What I Don’t Know

From Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book that took me thirteenth months to complete:

The notion that we have limited access to the workings of our minds is difficult to accept because, naturally it is alien to our experience, but it is true: you know far less about yourself than you feel you do…. [1]

the confidence that people have in their intuitions is not a reliable guide to their validity. In other words, do not trust anyone—including yourself—to tell you how much you should trust their judgment….[2]

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.[3]



[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) 52.

[2] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 239–40.

[3] Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 402.