What is an Outside Scholar

NOTE: The following is 1st draft of a chapter which I wrote for a book I am currently working on.  I decided to cut the chapter as being outside the scope of the book but it seemed a shame to waste it, so I decided to post it here, particularly since parts of it relate so various of my Great Books posts.

So far in this book I have used the term outside scholar fairly casually to refer to Victor Sharrow and those like him. Before proceeding, I think it is time to expand on what I mean when I use this label. First, though, I think it is appropriate that we review a bit of history about scholarship in general.

A scholar is a person who creates knowledge by a process called research and transmits it to others, usually through writing. In contemporary usage the term often connotes a profession. In the truest and most historic sense, however, scholarship is a vocation; scholars are driven by intellectual curiosity, love of knowledge, and a desire to create a permanent legacy for other scholars who will come later. A person with the true scholarly vocation will usually find a way to pursue their interests regardless of what formal profession they follow to make a living. In fact, the idea of a professional scholar who is paid for their studies is largely an invention of the modern age.

In our western tradition this conception of scholarship has its roots, like much else in our society, in the Golden Age of classical Greece when literate men began to research science, philosophy, and history and record their conclusions on scrolls which they allowed other scholars to borrow and copy, birthing the concept of scholarly publication. Typical of these men were the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. The first of these was a merchant, while the other two were career military men but all three were fascinated by recent history and the causes and effects of war. After collecting and comparing oral histories and visiting the some of the locations where important events had occurred, they wrote books which not only chronicle history, but also analyzed it. There works are still read and studied today1.

Thucydides, at least, was fully cognizant of his drive to leave a permanent intellectual legacy, writing,

“It will be enough for me…if these words of mine are judged useful by those who want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and which (human nature being what it is) will, at some time or other and in much the same ways, be repeated in the future. My work is not a piece of writing designed to meet the taste of an immediate public, but was done to last forever.”

Thucydides knew Herodotus personally and was influenced by his book. Xenophon would have been acquainted with the work of both and seems to have written the Hellenica as a direct sequel to Thucydides’ work. Nevertheless, it never occurred to these men, or their contemporary colleagues whose work is now lost, to think of themselves as a community or school of historic scholars. They merely shared a common interest. It was the philosophers of Greece who originated the idea of an academy. The original academy was a grove of trees outside Athens where teachers met with their students. The academy became an actual institution when Plato joined with other local philosophers to create a school, holding classes in his home or the nearby gymnasium. Aristotle, the son of the Macedonian Royal Physician, studied there for several years before returning to Macedon to found his own academy, the Lyceum. Philosophers in Greece had always supplemented their incomes by teaching the sons of the local aristocracy. Formal academies were a way of persuading the students to come to them, rather than wandering the country in search of students. Academies in the pattern of Plato’s came and went in the Hellenic until the very end of the ancient period. From the first century of onward the Christianity began to dominate the intellectual life of the West, gradually replacing the more secular philosophy of classical antiquity. By the time the Western Roman empire collapsed, most learning was concentrated in the Church. Literacy rates dropped throughout Europe and the secular members of the upper classes found they were too busy fighting for survival to devote time to scholarship. The Eastern empire survived and was spared the worst effects of the Dark Ages, but the Byzantine mind was increasingly inclined towards mysticism and away from rational scholarship. In 529 the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of the last incarnation of the Athenian Academy, an event which some historians consider to be the official end of the ancient era and the beginning of the medieval period.

For nearly 1000 years, the church, particularly the monasteries, had a virtual monopoly on scholarship. Nearly everyone who learned to read and write was taught by clerics and most of what books still survived were the property of the church. The first universities were an outgrowth of earlier monastic schools and existed mainly to train priests and church officials2. Even those rare lay scholars who did not accept ordination pursued their studies with and within the church organization, or not at all.

All of this began to change around the end of the 15th century. The invention of the printing press and availability of paper drastically lowered the cost of books. Rising economic prosperity allowed more lay people in the upper class and the emerging bourgeoisie the luxury of an extended education. Since the 13th century, classical works which had long been lost in Europe but had survived in the Islamic world had begun to make their way back into the libraries of the West. Now they could be purchased and read by the laity. A new kind of intellectual, began to emerge throughout Europe to help build the modern age .

These renaissance men had more in common with the scholars of classical Athens than with monks of the Middle Ages. Typical of them was Niccolò Machiavelli. Machiavelli was a Florentine politician. After finding himself on the wrong side of a coup, he found himself unemployed and was forced to retire to the countryside. His best known work, The Prince was an unsuccessful attempt to showcase his knowledge of political science and recent history in the hopes that a powerful noble would notice and offer him a position. Permanently shut out of politics, he consoled himself by reading the classics and writing a scholarly commentary on the works of Livy. Machiavelli might be the first successful outside scholar of the modern age. In fact, at least some historians feel that the publication of his works mark the start of the modern age3. Machiavelli was a layman and out of favor with the establishment. His major works were not published until after his death and were officially banned by the Church. Even today The Prince, while widely read, remains controversial. Despite this, Machiavelli’s eventual influence on western thought is incontestable .

Perhaps the greatest of all the Enlightenment outsiders, though, was Spinoza. Born in 1632 to a family of Portuguese Jews who had fled to Amsterdam to escape the Inquisition, he showed a scholarly turn and was initially expected to become a rabbi. His curiosity soon drove him beyond the Torah, Talmud, and orthodox judaica into the Cabala and other esoteric studies. Then, after taking Latin lessons from a gentile freethinker, he proceeded to devour every philosophical text he could find, from Aristotle to Descartes. By then the young philosopher was beginning to harbor theories that made the elders of the synagogue extremely nervous .

Intellectual life among the Dutch Jews of the 17th century was closely circumscribed. Holland was one of the only places in Europe that was not closed to them in that period, and they remained only at the sufferance of their Protestant Christian hosts. Driven by the dual imperatives to maintain their cultural unity and to avoid giving offense to the Christians, they focused their studies on the Torah and avoided dangerous speculation. Young Spinoza, who had now begun saying things like “Angels are probably only hallucinations” and “The Bible uses figurative language and isn’t meant to be taken literally,” was not just a destabilizing influence, but was all too likely to bring down the wrath of the Christian majority on the Jewish community .

At the age of 24 Spinoza given a choice: he could either accept an annuity of 1,000 florins in return for keeping his unorthodox theories to himself, or he could be excommunicated from the Jewish faith. He chose excommunication. Europe had recently concluded a series of brutal wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants which raged intermittently for 126 years. Religious affiliation was still the single most important factor in the personal identity of most people and to not belong to an organized religion was unthinkable. Yet Spinoza never converted to another faith. Changing his first name from Baruch to Benedict, he moved into an attic apartment and spent the rest of his life writing books on philosophy while he supported himself by grinding lenses. Later, when his reputation began to grow, he turned down financial support from Lois XIV of France and even a prestigious university professorship on the grounds that accepting money from the government would irrevocably compromise his freedom to philosophize.

Of his five works (one unfinished) only two could be safely published during his life: a commentary on the philosophy of Decarte and the Theologico-Political Treatise, which was immediately placed on the index of banned books and had to be sold with a false cover and only the author’s initials on the title page. Among the inflammatory ideas contained in the book is the idea that the Bible is written in figurative language. The key to understanding it is to study the historical, biographical, and cultural context in which the authors lived,

The universal rule, then, in interpreting Scripture is to accept nothing as an authoritative Scriptural statement which we do not perceive very clearly when we examine it in the light of its history.

… such a history should relate the environment of all the prophetic books extant; that is, the life, the conduct, and the studies of the author of each book, who he was, what was the occasion, and the epoch of his writing, whom did he write for, and in what language. Further, it should inquire into the fate of each book: how it was first received, into whose hands it fell, how many different versions there were of it, by whose advice was it received into the Bible, and, lastly, how all the books now universally accepted as sacred, were united into a single whole.

All such information should, as I have said, be contained in the ‘history’ of Scripture. For, in order to know what statements are set forth as laws, and what as moral precepts, it is important to be acquainted with the life, the conduct, and the pursuits of their author: moreover, it becomes easier to explain a man’s writings in proportion as we have more intimate knowledge of his genius and temperament.

Further, that we may not confound precepts which are eternal with those which served only a temporary purpose, or were only meant for a few, we should know what was the occasion, the time, the age, in which each book was written, and to what nation it was addressed. Lastly, we should have knowledge on the other points I have mentioned, in order to be sure, in addition to the authenticity of the work, that it has not been tampered with by sacrilegious hands, or whether errors can have crept in, and, if so, whether they have been corrected by men sufficiently skilled and worthy of credence. All these things should be known, that we may not be led away by blind impulse to accept whatever is thrust on our notice, instead of only that which is sure and indisputable.

Today, this viewpoint is at the core of all but the most fundamentalist bible Judeo-Christian bible study, but it was revolutionary in 1670. In fact, the Theologico-Political Treatise is barely studied or quoted today, except by historians, because most of its arguments are now taken for granted in mainstream western thought.

Spinoza’s greatest work is his Ethics which solidified his reputation, along with Descartes and Leibniz, as one of the three greatest rationalist philosophers. It would be hard to exaggerate the extent of Spinoza’s influence on the next 500 years of modern philosophy. His impact on Judaism, once his people were ready to reclaim him, was equally pervasive. He has been called “The “first modern secular Jew” and credited with originating many of the core ideas of Reform Judaism .

Even as Machiavelli, Spinoza, and numerous other freethinkers were revolutionizing Western thought from outside any organized intellectual establishment, new forces were making themselves felt throughout Western Civilization4. Universities, which had first appeared in the medieval period, multiplied through the modern period, first in Europe and then in the New World5. Meanwhile scholars and learned professionals, seeing the value of communication and collaboration, began to organize themselves into societies. Typical of these was the Royal Society, founded in 1660, of which Henry Oldenburg, one of Spinoza’s best friends, was the first secretary. The, often overlapping, influence of the universities and societies on the growth of knowledge was overwhelmingly positive. However, as time went on a divide began to appear between the “elite” scholars who attended and taught at universities and/or belonged to scholarly societies and the “amateur” scholars who did not. A new Academy was forming which had the power to give or withhold approval and legitimacy to scholarly efforts.

The implicit narrative began to be that outside scholars were undisciplined and underprivileged. By the end of the Enlightenment, efforts were made to bring the most brilliant of them into the fold, which many accepted joyfully. Spinoza was exceptional in turning down a university position when it was offered. More typical was Samuel Johnson, that brilliant titan of English letters, who was given an honorary doctorate and referred to as “Dr Johnson” by academics forever more. Benjamin Franklin, a self-educated man who spent his early career as the archetypal outside scholar, happily accepted his own honorary doctorate and membership in the Royal Society in later life, glorying in his hard-won academic legitimacy.

As time went on, it became harder even for exceptional outsiders to gain admission to the ivory tower of academia. The Academy had emerged as a new international priesthood, with a hold over scholarship almost as strong as the church had enjoyed in the previous age. Only those who had served their novitiate and displayed appropriately orthodox dogmas could be ordained.

Rise of the Modern University

While universities first appeared in the middle ages and can, in at least in theory, be placed into the tradition of higher education which began with the Athenian academy, most of the traits which we associate with the modern university first appeared in the 19th century. It was in this period when two major schools of thought emerged which still shape thinking about the role of the university. One of these viewpoints was articulated by Cardinal John Henry Newman, in a series of lectures given in Dublin in the 1850s. Newman’s view was shaped by his own experiences at Oxford which, like the other “ancient universities” of the British Islands was then in the process of transitioning from training aristocrats to providing a liberal education for the new class of skilled bourgeoisie. He argued that the primary role of a university was to provide a generalized education. Research was a less important mission than teaching. Indeed, research could be more efficiently conducted outside the university,

The view taken of a University in these Discourses is the following:—That it is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science. … …there are other institutions far more suited to act as instruments of stimulating philosophical inquiry, and extending the boundaries of our knowledge, than a University. Such, for instance, are the literary and scientific “Academies,”… … To discover and to teach are distinct functions; they are also distinct gifts, and are not commonly found united in the same person. He, too, who spends his day in dispensing his existing knowledge to all comers is unlikely to have either leisure or energy to acquire new .

The Newman model of the university’s mission was highly influential in the United Kingdom and, to a lesser extent, on liberal arts colleges in America .

Meanwhile, in Germany, another model was emerging based on the University of Berlin, founded by Wilhelm von Humboldt in 1810. In the Humboldt type university teaching and research were inseparable. The university was a sort of knowledge factory. Students learned by being involved, albeit at a very low level, in the critical investigation of truth. The overall prestige of a university was based on the quality of research it generated. The Humboldt model became wildly popular on the continent because Humboldt type research systems were seen as a major factor in Germany’s economic growth. When the US began building its state university system with the passage of the Morrill Acts in 1862 and 1890, the Humboldt model was taken as a template for the ideal public university .

Until World War II most new universities in Europe and the Americas were based on the Humboldt paradigm. After the war, however, pressures to provide mass education to all citizens, combined with population pressures from the baby boom and the passage of the GI Bill in the US, which allowed returning soldiers to finance higher education, created demand for a third type of university. Neither Newman nor Humboldt type schools were physically capable of absorbing the influx of new students, which pushed student-to-faculty ratios to an historic high. nor were the new–primarily first generation–students particularly interested either in gaining a generalized liberal education or engaging in research. They came to school to learn technical skills and gain specialized diplomas which would increase their incomes. In response to this demand, the second half of the twentieth century saw a wave of new polytechnic schools, vocational schools that reinvented themselves as “technical universities”, and, finally, for profit “universities”. At these new schools basic research, if conducted at all, was a distinctly secondary pursuit. The need for faculty in these institutions paved the way a type of second-class academic whose primary job was lecturing to students who would never themselves become scholars .

Older universities, forced to compete with the new technical schools for funding, faculty, and students, began to adopt some of their traits. Student-to-faculty ratios rose, universities began doing more applied research, and an increasing number of specialized professional degree programs appeared in catalogs. Many older universities added professional schools, which allowed them to attract talented students who might otherwise go to a technical university while charging them tuition at a much higher rate than that for “research” graduate degrees. In 1908 Harvard began offering a new graduate degree, the Master of Business Administration (MBA), which was essentially a vocati9onal diploma for corporate executives. Other major research universities rapidly followed. Today the MBA is the most awarded graduate degree world-wide. Some MBA students are involved with research and a few go on to PhD programs, but the degree is not seen as preparation for a research career. In most business schools that offer PhD programs, MBA and PhD candidates are admitted based on different criteria and are almost completely segregated from each other throughout their studies. An MBA, even if they are a talented researcher, has almost no chance of landing a tenure-track academic job after graduation. There are around 800,000 of them graduating every year and every one of them, if they choose to do research, is, by definition, an outside scholar6.

The result of these four decades of competitive convergence, the typical state university of today has a case of institutional schizophrenia. One side of the split personality is a Humboltian research university in which research teams, led by tenured professors assisted by a chosen few students, spend their time competing for grant money and cranking out papers. The other side is a career school in which lecturers and graduate teaching assistants cater to legions of undergraduates’ and professional students’ need to diplomas which will allow them to take their places among the ranks of the bourgeoisies.

The same period over which the university attained its final form has seen the stratification of the scholarly community into four rigid castes, with relatively little mobility between them. The two upper castes make up the Academy, while the two lower castes are outsiders. At the top are the professional researchers. Most often they are tenured professors at a research university, or hold an analogous position at a public or private research facility. This caste not only has little trouble getting their research published and accepted, but because they control the peer review process, conference agendas, and PhD committees, are able to give or withhold the stamp of legitimacy to scholars of the lower castes. Below them are the lecturers, scholars who have either failed to reach the upper class, or whose main interest is education. Their main function is undergraduate and professional education but if they can somehow find the time and money for research they can often get it published. Below them are the professionals who hold specialized doctoral or masters degrees in law, business, medicine, engineering, education or other fields. They they generally are generally able to publish applied research in their own field, generally under the auspices of a professional association, but are discouraged from pure or theoretical research. At the lowest level are the autodidacts. These scholars, no matter what their level of interest, ability, and knowledge, have not managed to obtain the graduate degree which is the minimum requirement for scholarly legitimacy. In general, they have no access to journals, conferences, or “respectable” academic presses and are totally ignored by the academy. The avenues open to them to communicate their work–“popular” nonfiction, Internet blogs and predatory, for-profit journals, have little reach even among their own caste.

One of the most universal traits of all four castes in specialization. Despite a certain amount of lip service to multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary scholarship, 21st century scholars tend to confine their work to incredibly narrow disciplines. The typical modern scholar is thus defined by their place in a rigid system which labels and circumscribes them according to type of (or lack of) institution, rank, and specialty. There is no place in such a system for a Benjamin Franklin, a Francis Bacon, or even an Aristotle or Spinoza.

Historian John Lukacs explains this phenomenon as part of a process of bureaucratization which has continued in all aspects of Western Civilization throughout the modern age, reaching new heights in the twentieth century, “In this increasingly bureaucratized world, little more than the possession of various diplomas mattered. Since admission to certain schools–rather than the consequently almost automatic acquisition of degrees–depended on increasingly competitive examinations, the word ’meritocracy’ was coined…In reality the term ’meritocracy’ was misleading. As in so many other spheres of life the rules that governed the practices and functions of schools and universities were bureaucratic rather than meritocratic.” Securing admission to a program and earning a degree is only the first step for someone seeking an academic career. In the US it takes around ten years for the average PhD student to earn their degree, counting from the receipt of their bachelor’s . Once they take the examinations and submit to copious paperwork to gain admission to a program, they are presented with a list of required courses, further exams, and residency requirements to gain the degree. The only requirement that is designed purely to test the student’s skill as a writer and researcher is the dissertation. Even in this area following the correct format and submitting the appropriate paperwork often becomes nearly as important as the actual scholarship. In many fields, particularly the physical sciences, the PhD program is not even seen as adequate preparation for independent research and students are expected to spend further years in one or more “post-doc” research appointments to gain further experience.

Newly made PhDs as next subjected to yet another “meritocratic” sorting process. The lucky and well-connected are placed in “tenure track” positions as assistant professors. The second tier secure positions as lecturers–second class faculty who have no prospect of tenure and are expected to teach heavy course loads to free up the professors for research. The rest, an increasing percentage of the total, eke out a living as part time adjunct instructors, often commuting to three or more schools in a week in order to earn a living income. These “gypsies”, as they are referred to by their more fortunate colleagues, live in hope that a full time position will materialize, but the odds are stacked against them. It is hardly surprising that so many PhD students either fail to complete their degree or, having obtained it, give up and leave academia forever. Some of them have no choice: a gap in employment of more than a few months, or two much time spent as an adjunct, is often seen as a black mark in an academic’s career, permanently excluding them from consideration for full time positions7.

As for those lucky few, the small percentage of scholars who make it onto the tenure track, they are privileged to spend the next six or seven years working sixty hour weeks while they accumulate the requisite ticket punches for promotion. If all goes well they gain tenure around year seven, finally making it into full membership in the academy. If something goes wrong, or the university simply decides that it doesn’t need any more associate professors at the moment, they are thanked and excused and leave to start over from the beginning .

An associate professor working towards tenure has no incentive to take risks. A large volume of acceptable publications is always less risky than a few brilliant ones. Research that is two controversial, or steps on the toes of a member of the tenure committee, can easily wreck their career. Some of them tell themselves that they will play it safe until they get tenure, then work on the projects that they really want to do. A few follow through on this, but it is hard to radically change the direction of one’s research after seven years of escalating commitment. Many of them, after spending two decades of their research career playing it safe, have no idea how to take risks even if they wanted to.

Everything in the career path of an academic selects for risk avoiding individuals who know how to play the system. Successful professors have all the same character traits of a career bureaucrat. Worse, by the time they achieve tenure they have been thoroughly socialized to look down on any scholar who has not managed to survive the same process. At the same time, they have spent years acquiring narrowly specialized knowledge, working mostly with people in the same discipline, and being warned by their mentors not to have opinions or do work outside their field8

American research universities are incredibly good at their main function, which is rigorous, deep research in narrowly defined areas. They focus on training the kind of scholars that they need for this mission. Unfortunately, these specialized professors are much less effective at some of the other functions which have traditionally been associated with scholars. Teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level, is generally fobbed off on lecturers and graduate students. Practical applications, particularly those involving interdisciplinary knowledge, tend to be the province or corporate R&D organizations, where researchers are expected to pursue projects that will make a profit for the company and which only share their findings with competitors when it is in their interest. The task of advising policymakers is carried out by staff intellectuals at government agencies–which are, more or less by definition–even more bureaucratic and conservative than the universities.

But what of those scholars who follow the more traditional model, more like the great thinkers of the ancient world and the enlightenment? What about those who left the academy after earning a graduate degree–PhD, masters or professional, but still have an interest in doing real scholarly research and creating knowledge or affecting public policy? What about autodidacts who never had a formal education at all but, after a lifetime of reading are now ready to write serious nonfiction works? Is it even possible for these outside scholars to make a contribution in the modern era?

So far in this book, I have deliberately avoided writing any autobiographical details because I felt it would distract from the purpose of the work. Now, however, in the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that I too am one of these outsiders, and the answers to these questions affect me personally. I attended professional school at a major research university, earning an MBA. While there I did original research and completed a thesis which was later published as my first book. Several professors strongly urged my to continue on and finish a PhD. Upon examining what would actually be required, and the personal and family sacrifices that I would need to make, I decided that it wasn’t worth it. I am still doing primary research in my specialty, but I am finding every aspect of it more difficult now that I am now affiliated with an institution: it is much harder to obtain grant funding, I have trouble getting the journals and database access I need, and I no longer have a departmental fund to pay my way to conferences. When I go to publish in journals I find that the burden of proving my credibility is on me; without the name of an institution under my byline, the assumption is that I don’t have the qualifications to publish. I am far from the only one in this situation, though. Later, I will talk about some of the changes which are making life easier for us.

  1. Read together Books V-XII of Herodotus’ Histories, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Hellenica form a continuous trilogy of the history of Greece and her neighbors from just before the Greco-Persian wars up to the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War, a period of approximately 136 years.
  2. Note the modern similarity between academic regalia and monastic habits.
  3. Alan Bloom argues that Machiavelli was the philosopher who began the Enlightenment. According to Bloom, it was Machiavelli who first suggested that the philosophers of western civilization, who had formerly been dependent on the patronage of the aristocracy, should “change camps” and espouse democracy, reason, and the theory of rights–some of the most characteristic concepts of the modern age–as these would create a society that offered them greater protection and scope for their talents.
  4. My discussion has necessarily been limited in scope to the history of Western Civilization. Other societies have their own scholarly traditions and institutions, some of which predate Western civilization itself. Likewise, they have had their own outside scholars who toiled outside the scholarly establishment and gained legitimacy and influence only late in life or even centuries after their deaths. Confucius is but one example. As the modern age continued, however, the ruling and intellectual classes of the East were increasingly educated by the Academy of the West. By the 20th century the Academy was completely international, and organized on the Western Model. See Eberhard.
  5. Even the destruction and upheavals of the Wars of Religion did little to slow the spread of universities. In fact, some of the most famous universities were founded as gambits in the struggle between Protestants and Catholics. For example, Trinity College in Dublin was established on the orders of Elizabeth I to educate the sons of her protestant subjects in Ireland without subjecting them to the corruptive influences of Catholicism.
  6. During orientation on my first day of business school I raised my hand and asked an associate dean about research opportunities for MBA students. He laughed and said “If you want to do research, what are you doing in the MBA program? You should have applied as a PhD.”
  7. For purposes of discussion I have focused on the career path of scholars at a research university. Many PhDs also work for government agencies or for-profit research organizations which have their own bureaucratic hurdles.
  8. At American universities and schools in other countries that are based on the American model, the basic unit of organization is the department, which consists of all of the university’s specialists in a particular discipline. At English universities, on the other hand, the basic unit is the college, which will typically include one professor from each discipline. English professors, and European academics in general, also tend to be more involved with teaching and administration than their American colleagues. See Eagleton for a delightful overview of some of the differences.


Anderson, Robert. “The ‘Idea of a University’ today.” History and
Politics (2010). http://www.historyandpolicy.org/hp/research/papers/policy-paper-98.html.

Bloom, Allan David. The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Copulsky, Jerome E. “The Last Prophet: Spinoza and the Political Theology of Moses Hess.” University of Chicago Divinity School, 2008. https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/imce/pdfs/webforum/032008/copulsky_last_prophet.pdf.

Durant, Will. The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. Kindle Ed. Aristeus, 2014.

Eagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America. 2013

Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. 3rd ed. [org. pub. 1969]. Project Gutenberg, 2006. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/17695.

Herodotus. The Persian War. Translated by William Shepherd. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Hoffer, Thomas B., and Vincent Welch. Time to degree of U.S. Research doctorate Recipients. National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, March 2006. http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf06312/.

Lukacs, John. At the end of an Age. New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2002.

Machiavelli, Niccoló. The Prince. Translated by George Bull. LondoEagleton, Terry. Across the pond: an Englishman’s view of America.
2013n; New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin. Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24526

Newman, John Henry. The University: Its Rise and Progress. Edited by Kevin A. Straight. Montrose, CA: Creative Minority Productions, 2015.

O’Brien, Keith. “The Ronin Insitute for wayward academics: a bold new idea to solve the PhD crises.” Boston Globe  (May 27, 2012). https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2012/05/26/new-idea-for-unemployed-academics/UUZOGe1KNWvUXDl7Yae1IL/story.html.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. The ethics of Spinoza: the road to inner freedom. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1976.

Spinoza, Benedictus de. Theologico-Political Treatise. Translated by R.H.M. Elwes. Project Gutenberg, 1997. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/990.

Spinoza, Benedictus de, and Joseph Ratner. “The Life of Spinoza.” in The philosophy of Spinoza, [org. pub. 1926]. Project Gutenberg, 2010. https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31205.

Thucydides. Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1954.

Xenophon. Hellenica. Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. Champaign, Ill.: Project Gutenberg, 2008. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1174


Plotinus’ Impact on Civilization



I’m nearly done reading the works of Plotinus—a simple statement, to sum up nine months of work. Plotinus’ Enneads have been, for me, the hardest material to read in my program of reading the Great Books. They are even slightly worse than Spinoza’s Ethics, which is an accomplishment indeed.

To be fair, the last thing that Plotinus thought he was writing was a basic introduction to his philosophical system. All of his written works were intended as discussion notes for seminar like classes with his advanced students. His student Porphyry did the best he could to edit them into a cohesive book, considering this was never the intended purpose. It is a shame that most of Porphyry’s own writings have been lost. For all we know, he wrote his own introductory book on Plotinian Philosophy, or at least essays that would have made his teacher’s writings more accessible. As it is, though, Plotinus is hard going.

So why take the time to read the Enneads? Well, there’s always Mortimer Adler‘s argument that reading the very hardest of the great books is the most effective way to improve your reading and, ultimately, your writing. This, or course, is my main reason for doing the Great Books project at all. But in the case of the Enneads we should also consider the incredible breath and magnitude of the work’s influence on at least two major world civilizations: our own Western Civilization and Islam.

One of the key culture complexes in Western Civ. is Christianity, and Christianity contained a major neo-Platonist strain from the very beginning, starting with the works of Paul and John. Plotinus, the greatest of the neo-Platonists, was unashamedly pagan yet, even during his own lifetime (circa 203-270 CE) many of his ideas were adopted by Christian writers. After his death his works continued to be taught in Rome and elsewhere, where they were studied by the newly converted Augustine, who saw them as the key to understanding Christianity. From Augustine to Abelard, Plotinian neo-Platonism was the dominant factor in medieval Christian theology and philosophy. After Abelard the influence other major wellspring of Western Philosophy, Aristotle, waxed while that of Platonism, including Plotinus, waned. Now, however, particularly since Jung’s writing, the balance seems to be tipping back towards Platonic idealism. Even a brief survey of the various “new thought” movements, such as Science of Mind shows them to be laden with various platonic ideas. The same is true of archetypal psychology, where frequently quote Plotinus and acknowledge their debts to him.

Meanwhile, a couple centuries after Plotinus a new religion, Islam, emerged and quickly expended into an international civilization. In the early days Mohamed and his immediate successors were more concerned with morality than with philosophy or theology. As Islam matured intellectually, however, in the seventh or eighth century, its thinkers began to get serious about theology, and especially metaphysics and eschatology. Like Augustine before them they found most of what they needed in Plotinus, adopting the idea of the Logos or World Soul as the primary force of creation and the theory that human souls, as emanations of the world soul, could be perfected through virtue to become one with God. The golden age of Islamic philosophy lasted from about 700 CE to about 1000 CE. During this time, most of the greatest philosophers in Islam such as Ibin Sina (Avicenna), al Kindi, and al Biruni, studied and were heavily influenced by Plotinus’ Enneads. Meanwhile new sects of Islam, particularly the Sufi, fastened on the mystical aspect pf Plotinus’ teaching and embedded it in their own practices.

It is impossible to overstate the contributions of Plotinus to these two religions and the civilizations to which they belong, and that alone means that it is worth it to study the Enneads…even if they take nine months to read.

Further Reading
Durant, Will. Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster. 1944.
Durant, Will. The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster. 1950.
Henry, Paul. “The Place of Plotinus in the History of Thought” in The Enneads. Penguin. 1991.
Holmes, Earnest, The Science of Mind. Putnam.  1997.

Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.

Aristotle on the Soul

In our modern era a book titled “Of the Soul” could be nothing but a theological work and, without thinking, I assumed that that’s what I would be reading when I started Aristotle’s De Anima. I quickly realized, though, that this work is primarily concerned with biology. Unlike Plato’s Phaedo, for example, which is also largely concerned with the soul, there is no consideration of how an individual’s moral conduct (or lack thereof) affects there soul, or how the soul’s condition relates to virtue. There are only passing references to the afterlife: Aristotle argues that a particular soul is shaped or fitted to a particular creature, and can not be transferred to another, thus refuting the Pythagorean notion of transmigration. He doubts whether a soul could can survive outside the body at all. One gets the impression, however, that both points are secondary to his main inquiry.

To Aristotle, the “soul” is nothing more or less than the essence which makes a creature alive. In a characteristically teleological Aristotelian formulation the soul is the “final cause” of the body or, conversely, the purpose of the body is to be an “organ of the soul”.

The book begins with a lengthy literature review in which Aristotle mentions previous work on the soul by Plato and many other philosophers, mostly dismissing their theories on the basis of logical errors or because they are so abstract as to be ridiculous (e.g. those theories that attempt to prove that the soul is number or geometrical figure). The remaining two thirds of the book contains a detailed examination of each of the four attributes that Aristotle identifies as belonging to different orders of besouled creatures. The first, with belongs to all life forms, is nutrition and reproduction. That is, it has a way of taking in food and using that food to continue its existence through offspring. The second, which belongs only to animals, is sensation. The third, which belongs only to higher animals, is local movement. Aristotle also hypothesizes that appetite is a necessary condition for local movement and imagination for appetite, so all three attributes will necessarily be found together. Finally, humans alone, of all besouled creatures known to Aristotle, have the attribute of reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

The souls of plants allow for nutrition and reproduction, but not sensation, movement, or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.

Lower animals have sensation, but are incapable of movement or reason.


As is typically the case with Aristotle’s scientific works, De Anima is well organized and the conclusions are logical based on the facts he had to work with. Numerous details are completely wrong because of his reliance on the “four elements” model of physical science and lack of all but the most basic scientific instruments. Nonetheless, at least from a biological point of view, his general definition of the soul and the attributes of organisms with souls still seem perfectly plausible.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.

Higher animals have imagination, appetite, and the ability to change their location.


Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

Only humans (and if the exist, gods) have the power of reason.

What is Knowledge? Plato’s Theaetetus

In Theaetetus Plato plunges into epistemology, the theory of knowledge. What is knowledge? How do we know things? How do we really know what reality is? and similar questions are the topics of discussion.

The dialog opens with a flashback to Socrates, at the end of his life shortly before his trial, talking to the geometer Theodorus about his current pupils. Theodorus tells Socrates that one, Theaetetus, shows particular promise. The youth arrives on the scene and Socrates decides to test him dialectically. After some preliminary banter, he asks Theatetus to define knowledge, Theaetetus initially starts by listing different kinds of knowledge such as geometry, calculation, shoe making, and others. After some prompting from Socrates, he states that knowledge is perception. Socrates accepts this provisionally but points out that different observers perceive things differently. Does this mean that knowledge is relative? This begins a section which introduces the debate between objectivism and subjectivism which has been a perennial question of Western philosophy. According to most of the pre-Socratic philosophers, including Protagoras, Heracleitus, and Empedocles, reality is not only relative but in a state of constant flux, so knowledge about reality is also relative and mutable.

"Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2" by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

“Theaetetus crater 4103 h1 4103 h2 (on Luna)” by James Stuby based on NASA Images [CC0 via Wikipedia]

This argument is the precursor not only to later Epicurean theories of the universe, such as we read about in Lucretius, but also foreshadows both postmodern theories of subjectivism and much of modern physics including thermodynamics, relativity, and quantum theory. For example, the passage,

Yes, Theaetetus, and there are plenty of other proofs which will show that motion is the source of what is called being and becoming, and inactivity of not-being and destruction; for fire and warmth, which are supposed to be the parent and guardian of all things, are born of movement and of friction, which is a kind of motion;–is not this then the origin of fire?

Expresses at least the glimmerings of an intuitive understanding of the laws of thermodynamics.

Socrates leads Theaetetus to explore the implications of these ideas further. He also introduces the point that mad men and dreamers see things that are not there, so perception does not necessarily lead to true knowledge. This struck me as interesting, since at the same time I was reading Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, in which the main character certainly seems to gain knowledge from events which occur only in his own mind. Be that as it may, however, Socrates’ arguments are more than enough to force Theaetetus to rescind his definition of knowledge as perception.

Socrates then steers the dialog into a discussion of the nature of memory. What about a man who has obtained true knowledge but then forgets or makes mistakes based on that knowledge?

At this point, Theaetetus needs a little help and, at the urging of Theodorus, begins to argue the opposite position. Among other things, he mentions the point that while all men might perceive things differently, wiser men and those with reason and specialized training in the subject at hand, are more likely to perceive correctly and gain true knowledge.

Socrates has another trick to spring, though, when leads Theaetetus to explore the question “What is perception?” and points out that sensory inputs are meaningless until processed by the mind (soul). He then asks about abstract concepts which can not be perceived with the senses. Theaetetus soon agrees that “[K]nowledge does not consist in impressions of sense, but in reasoning about them in that only, and not in the mere impression, truth and being can be attained[.]”

If knowledge is actually a sort of opinion, though, what about false opinions? This line of inquiry leads them back into an exploration of memory, since failure of memory is one possible cause of false opinions. This leads them back into deep waters. Socrates then points out that they have not adequately defined the verb “to know”, nor the concept of “false opinion”. With these points clarified he leads the boy on another discussion in which they define knowledge as “a way of understanding something by understanding it’s component parts.”

From this position, Socrates introduces yet a third conception of knowledge, understanding things by understanding the differences between them. But after discussing this, they conclude,

But how utterly foolish, when we are asking what is knowledge, that the reply should only be, right opinion with knowledge of difference or of anything! And so, Theatetus, knowledge is neither sensation nor true opinion, nor yet definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion?”

Since the definition itself includes the word “knowledge” and is thus circular. However, even though they have failed to provide the definition for which they were seeking, they are better for the attempt itself. Socrates then leaves for his indictment before the king archon, possibly never to see Theaetetus again.

Never mentioned explicitly, yet ever present in the dialog, is Plato’s theory of ideas. Plato believed that even though the material world is indeed mutable, imperfect, and subjective, everything in it partakes of perfect ideals or ideas which are unchanging and objective. Perhaps Socrates doesn’t bring up the theory of ideas because he wants to see if Theatetus will discover the concept on his own. Perhaps Plato is simply trying to keep the dialog to a manageable size and complexity. Or perhaps the state of epistemology conveyed in the dialog is actually as far as Socrates ever got on the subject, and this particular dialog is meant to express the master’s views without Plato’s later additions.

Parmenides of Plato

The Parmenides is Plato’s account of a meeting between the Italian-Greek philosopher Parmenides, then a venerable sage of sixty-five, and a young Socrates. Unlike earlier dialogues, which tended to focus on a particular topic, usually some aspect of virtue, it is not completely clear what Plato was trying to accomplish in the Parmenides. It is clear that Plato held Parmenides himself in high esteem, even though he would have been too young to have met him personally. A simple wish to memorialize him would not have been enough reason for him to write a dialog, however–particularly one as technical as this one. It is possible that he meant it as some sort of teaching aid for the dialectal method, but this also seems unlikely since there are so many good examples of dialectic in his earlier works. In addition, this is not the best written or most dramatic of Plato’s works. It flows awkwardly and the characters are poorly developed. It is easy to see why this has traditionally been one of the less popular Platonic dialogues with readers. So is this just an example of mid-career slump, or is there a deeper message to be gained?

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides' Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

Excavation area of Velia (Elea), Parmenides’ Birthplace, near Ascea in Campania, Italy [Wikimeida Commons user AlMare CC BY-SA 2.5]

The dialog begins in a somewhat convoluted manner as a recollection by Cephalus of a recollection by Adeimantus (Plato’s older half-brother) of the meeting. Parmenides and Zeno are in town and Socrates and his friends have gone to see Zeno recite one of his own dialogues. Afterward, Socrates begins asking questions and, in the course of the conversation, starts arguing for an early version of his (Plato’s?) theory of ideas. Parmenides breaks in and offers several objections which Socrates is unable to answer. He then advises the young philosopher to be more rigorous in exploring all the implications of his hypotheses to their ultimate conclusion. Socrates then convinces Parmenides to provide a demonstration of his dialectal methods which he does, with Adeimantus as interlocutor.

Zeno has been speaking about “the One” (as opposed to “the Many”) so Parmenides chooses to examine the null hypothesis “The One does not exist”. There follows a rather long and tortuous dialog, the main structure of which are summarized in Jowett’s preface to his translation of the dialog):

1. One is.
2. One is not.
If one is, it is nothing.
If one is not, it is everything.

But is and is not may be taken in two senses:

Either one is one,
Or, one has being,

from which opposite consequences are deduced,
1.a. If one is one, it is nothing.
1.b. If one has being, it is all things.

To which are appended two subordinate consequences:
1.aa. If one has being, all other things are.
1.bb. If one is one, all other things are not.

The same distinction is then applied to the negative hypothesis:
2.a. If one is not one, it is all things.
2.b. If one has not being, it is nothing.

Involving two parallel consequences respecting the other or remainder:
2.aa. If one is not one, other things are all.
2.bb. If one has not being, other things are not.

This is barely more easy to follow than the dialog itself. In the end, though, Parmenides proves that the one must exist:

Parmenides: Then may we not sum up the argument in a word and say truly: If one is
not, then nothing is?

Adeimantus: Certainly.

Parmenides: Let thus much be said; and further let us affirm what seems to be the truth, that, whether one is or is not, one and the others in relation to themselves and one another, all of them, in every way, are and are not, and appear to be and appear not to be.

Adeimantus: Most true.

We are told that after this Adeimantus gave up philosophy and focused on training horses.

The existence of “The One” or Unity is certainly an important part of number theory and (much later) abstract algebra, but I don’t think Plato had math on his mind when he decided to write this dialog. We don’t know as much about Parmenides as we would like, but it seems from what we do know that his primary interest was cosmology. “The One” has a central place in Platonic and neo-Platonic cosmology as the First Hypostasis of the godhead: The One, The First Existant, The Unknowable, Infinite Unity which Christian theologians would eventually equate with The Father.

The first half of the dialog might have been a chance to memorialize a respected philosopher, but I think that Plato, who was himself turning more to metaphysics and cosmology in his later career, deliberately used the second half of the dialog to record an important proof that he knew would be useful in later work by himself and his students.

Perils of Reading Great Books out of Order (Pre-Plotinus)

I am now more than a year into my program of reading the Great Books to improve myself as a writer. At the onset I promised myself that, as much as was practical, I would try to read the the books in the order they were written. This is the advice that Grand Great Books Guru Mortimer Adler gives in How to Read a Book and elsewhere, since going in order allows you to trace the development of the “great conversation” of Western thought.

I was doing pretty well until I began working my way through Plato, but then I got bogged down. After reading seven dialogues plus the book-length Republic and writing seven blog posts on Platonic philosophy, I decided to skip ahead–surely eight works were enough to give me a taste of Plato’s work, and the dialogues would still be there when I got back to them, right?

All was well until I went to read Plotinus’ Enneads. I’ve been looking forward to Plotinus: not only was he the greatest of the neo-Platonists, and a fundamental influence on early Christian philosophy, but he was the last important pagan philosopher. I knew that as soon as I finished his works I could sail merrily into the middle ages. I knew he had a reputation as a tough author, but I didn’t see how much worse he could be than those I had already read.

Unfortunately, Plotinus is not only hard to read, his work is heavily based on that of Plato and Aristotle. By the time I had made it through the introductory matter in the Penguin edition, I realized that I had gone too far too fast. Plotinus continually references The Republic, Phaedo, and The Nicomachaean Ethics–all of which I had read quickly without bothering to study them deeply or writing blog posts, as well as Timaeus, Parmenides, The Sophist, The Categories, De Anima, and The Metaphysics–all of which I had skipped in my impatience. Therefore, regretfully, I am now putting my Plotinus aside for a few weeks and going back to classical Greece. Look for more Plato and Aristotle posts in the near future.

Hesse’s Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse - coverSiddhartha is Hermann Hesse’s best known novel in the English speaking world. Unlike his earlier works which are semi-autobiographical and describe young men in dealing with crises of faith in contemporary Europe, Siddhartha is set in ancient India during the lifetime of the Buddha. When the book came out in 1927 it gave many westerners their first exposure to Eastern philosophy and religion. It is frequently included on lists of influential books of the 20th century and is a good candidate for inclusion on a Great Books reading list.

The full name of the “Supreme Buddha”, the founder of Buddhism was Siddhārtha Gautama. In Hesse’s book, however, he is represented by two discrete characters: Siddhartha, the protagonist, and Gotama, the founder of the religion.

Please note that the remainder of this post contains spoilers.

Siddhartha is a gifted son of a brahmin who is being groomed for a career in the ancient Vedic religion. In his twenties he becomes disillusioned with his fathers’ faith, which he believes is unlikely to lead to enlightenment. He and his friend Govinda leave their village and join a band of Samanas, wandering ascetic holy men who reject the teachings of the brahmins. Historically, by the time of the Buddha, their were numerous Samana sects with widely differing philosophies and practices. As portrayed by Hesse, they are very similar to the Cynic philosophers of the ancient world, who rejected all materialism and lived in voluntary poverty under a strict moral code. This is only one of the points where syncretism creeps in between Hesse’s “Eastern” novel and the Western philosophy of his literary background.

After three years Siddhartha and Govinda become frustrated with the Samanas’ program. Hearing that a new spiritual leader, Gotama, has achieved enlightenment they decide to seek him out and hear his teachings. Govinda is soon convinced and becomes a Buddhist monk. Siddhartha finds he has tremendous respect for Gotama Buddha and truly believes he is enlightened. However, he concludes that it is not possible to learn wisdom from a teacher, but only through personal experience. The split between organized religion and received authority, symbolized by Govinda and individual spiritualism and inquiry, symbolized by Siddhartha, becomes the most important theme for the rest of the book. Readers of my blog will also recall that the question of whether virtue (wisdom) can be taught was also of preeminent importance to Socrates and Plato–another incidence of Hesse’s syncretism.

After taking leave of Gotama and Govinda Siddhartha has an epiphany in which he decides to embrace materialism and accept the beauty of the universe in all its myriad forms, rejecting the idealistic philosophy of the Vedic and Buddhist religions, in which the world is seen as illusion. The parallels between his internal dialogue and the writings of the Epicureans, like Lucretius, are obvious. The practices that Siddhartha adopts are more like the bourgeoisie Epicureanism of Claudian Rome than the pure philosophy of Epicurus; he follows his new acceptance of materialism to the nearest city. Here he immediately embarks on a love affair with a high-profile courtesan, goes into business, and spends the next couple of decades making himself a wealthy self-made man. In the process he picks up a drinking problem and a gambling addiction. Finally, disgusted with himself, he walks away from everything and becomes a simple ferry-man on the banks of a river. Here, under the tutelage of a wise older ferryman he finally achieves inner peace.

The idea that philosophers should experience the world in their youth also shows up frequently in Plato, particularly in The Republic where the Guardians were not to be taught philosophy until they were thirty, and afterwards were to be turned adrift to make their way in the world for fifteen years, at which time they could assume their roles as philosopher-rulers.

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

Statue of Hermann Hesse in Calw, Germany [public domain via Wikipedia]

It is natural that Hesse, who was raised in the Western tradition and educated in a European seminary (until he suffered a crisis of faith and dropped out), would interpret Eastern philosophy through the lens of his own background. It is also probably that I, raised in the same tradition, would criticize his work through a similar lens–particularly since I have been working with Plato and Lucretius recently and their writings are fresh in my mind. It is also true that authors, once they have created an individual style and enjoyed some commercial success, tend to follow it in subsequent works. So is this just a “typical” Hermann Hesse novel, but simply told in a new setting? I thought so until I read the final two chapters, in which Siddhartha’s personal philosophy reaches an ultimate formation which is distinctly, unarguably Asian.

The opposite of every truth is just as true! That’s like this: any truth
can only be expressed and put into words when it is one-sided.
Everything is one-sided which can be thought with thoughts and said with
words, it’s all one-sided, all just one half, all lacks completeness,
roundness, oneness. When the exalted Gotama spoke in his teachings of
the world, he had to divide it into Sansara and Nirvana, into deception
and truth, into suffering and salvation. It cannot be done differently,
there is no other way for him who wants to teach. But the world itself,
what exists around us and inside of us, is never one-sided. A person or
an act is never entirely Sansara or entirely Nirvana, a person is never
entirely holy or entirely sinful. It does really seem like this,
because we are subject to deception, as if time was something real.
Time is not real, Govinda, I have experienced this often and often
again. And if time is not real, then the gap which seems to be between
the world and the eternity, between suffering and blissfulness, between
evil and good, is also a deception.

The acceptance of paradox is one of the major traits which sets Eastern thought apart from Western thought. Westerners have always sought to categorize the universe, to break it down into ideas which are either one thing or another. Easterners except that a concept can be two, apparently contradictory, things at once. Even the most famous and enduring paradoxes in Western thought, the doctrine of the Trinity, was a product of Eastern thinkers and has never sat entirely comfortably with the West.

Likewise, the acceptance of nonlinear time is a hallmark of Eastern thinking. In the East, time can be circular if not completely illusory,

The sinner, which I am and which you are, is a sinner, but in times to come he will be Brahma again, he will reach the Nirvana, will be Buddha–and now see: these ‘times to come’ are a deception, are only a parable! The sinner is not on his way to become a Buddha, he is not in the process of developing, though our capacity for thinking does not know how else to picture these things. No, within the sinner is now and today already the future Buddha, his future is already all there, you have to worship in him, in you, in everyone the Buddha which is coming into being, the possible, the hidden Buddha. The world, my friend Govinda, is not imperfect, or on a slow path towards perfection: no, it is perfect in every moment, all sin already carries the divine forgiveness in itself, all small children already have the old person in themselves, all infants already have death, all dying people the eternal life. It is not possible for any person to see how far another one has already progressed on his path; in the robber and dice-gambler, the Buddha is waiting; in the Brahman, the robber is waiting. In deep meditation, there is the possibility to put time out of existence, to see all life which was, is, and will be as if it was simultaneous, and there everything is good, everything is perfect, everything is Brahman.

When I read this last chapter I realized that everything which proceeded it was part of Hesse’s design to, masterfully, lead his Western readers to a place where they might be able to appreciate these viewpoints.

On The Nature of the Universe by Titus Lucretius Carus

On the Nature of the Universe (aka Of the Nature of Things) book cover, Penguin edition

The entire universe is constantly moving. Objects, images, even souls are really unending streams of atoms, eternally reconfiguring themselves. Everything contains the seeds of its own creation and destruction. No sooner have the atoms assumed a form than it starts to decay–whether that thing is a person, a world, or a universe. This is the world view of first century Epicureanism, which the poet Lucretius tried to spread to the masses by casting it in the form of a book-length philosophical poem called De Rerum Natura. As a poem, it was apparently a hit when it was published posthumously about 55 BCE (possibly after having been edited by Cicero, although this story is usually considered apocryphal). Nonetheless, Epicureanism never really took off in the Roman Empire. The claims that there was no afterlife, nothing except matter, and that the gods, if they existed, had no interaction with the world of men, held no resonance with the people. The takeaway point, that the philosopher should live simply, enjoying simple pleasures and avoiding ambition and the pursuit of wealth, was anathema to Roman society, which was, if possible, even more bourgeoisie than our own. Stoicism and Neoplatonism were the dominant philosophies of Rome, until both were replaced (and largely absorbed by) Christianity.  Epicurus, Lucretius, and their fellows were centuries before their time; it was not until Spinoza, their natural scion, rediscovered and built upon their ideas in the 16th century that Western Civilization began to seriously incorporate these ideas in its main stream of thought.

In Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, George Santayana writes the Epicurus was primarily a moral philosopher who adopted and adapted the natural philosophy of Democritus to support his moral platform, “Epicurus, the Herbert Spencer of antiquity, was in his natural philosophy an encyclopaedia of second-hand knowledge.”  Lucretius, on the other hand, puts the natural philosophy in the foreground in his poem, striving to present a well justified, internally consistent system–a grand unified theory, if you will. When I read it, I was surprised how many things he got right, well before his time. For instance, his understanding of air resistance is fairly sophisticated. He also correctly identified smells as being composed of tiny particles which slowly diffused through the air. He was half right when he advanced a similar explanation for light (photons sometimes behave like a particle, and sometimes like a wave depending on circumstances) but makes up for it by correctly arguing that light will move faster in a vacuum than in a medium like air or water. He also correctly identifies that the shapes of particles are an important determinant of the physical properties of substances. At times he brushes tantalizingly close to a notion of entropy.

Of course he gets plenty of things wrong, mainly because he is mistaken about some of his fundamental axioms. For instance, his anatomy suffers from the fact that he thinks the mind is lodged in the upper abdomen. He does not question that the earth is the center of the solar system. Most importantly, because he feels everything is made up of matter, he advances completely erroneous explanations for many phenomena which really involve energy. For example, he believes that lightning is a concentrated form of the kind of matter which is found in fire. He sees the human brain as being composed of a multitude of microscopic moving particles which shift around rapidly, sort of like a very complex pachinko machine.  He believes that magnets extrude microscopic fibers of iron to entangle other iron pieces. He believes that what we would call chemical bonds are caused by a physical hooking together of the shapes of atoms. Many of these errors were unavoidable, however, since he had no instruments with which to detect energy or fundamental forces. And on one level he was absolutely correct: Einstein would eventually prove, with his famous E=mc2, that everything is matter, or at least convertible into matter.

Despite these occasional quaint misconceptions, On the Nature of Things is a fascinating piece of work. To me, the epicurean viewpoint is much more intuitive that that of Plato and Aristotle, whose books I have recently been studying. I attribute this to the fact that, since my early training was in engineering, I have taken quite a few science classes in my life, so it is very easy for me to slip into the materialist/naturalist viewpoint. Then again, Spinoza–who, as I said, is the Epicureans philosophical heir–has long been one of my favorite philosophers. That being said, I find that I just can’t accept Lucretius’ contention that there is nothing beyond the material world. As fabulous and infinite as the universe (multiverse?) is, I just can’t accept that this is all there is. Lucretius seems to have been unquestioning in his atheism. For myself–even if I were not a Christian–I just find it hard to be that sure about anything.

Note About Editions:

Lucretius’ original poem was written in Latin in dactylic hexameter, a meter which isn’t compatible with English (or Latin, really–Lucretius literally couldn’t use certain words and phrases because they wouldn’t fit). English translations are either in verse or prose. The poetry translations give more of a sense of the original experience, but the prose translations are much easier to read. Project Gutenberg has William Leornards’ blank verse translation. Penguin’s prose translation (by Ronald Latham) is sold as On the Nature of the Universe. It would be preferable, of course, to read the poem in the original language, but that would require a better recollection of high school Latin than I can boast.

Off to Grad School Again

The past year and a half of focusing entirely on my writing has been intensely rewarding, but it’s time to start thinking about my formal education again. This morning I took the first steps in applying to CSUDH’s External MA in Humanities (HUX) program. The program seems flexible yet rigorous and I expect to write a thesis which will form the first draft of a future book.

So, fingers crossed and let’s hope that they will admit a business school guy/hack sci-fi writer like me.

One section of the CSU application asks for a personal statement describing my reasons “for pursuing graduate or postbaccalaureate study.” After looking at my statement I realized that it is pertinent to this blog, particularly my ongoing Great Books project, so I decided to post it here:

    During the first half of my career I mainly saw education as a process of training in skills. I earned three business degrees, took years of engineering coursework, and completed several professional certifications–learning how to do many useful things. As time went on, however, I became aware of what I was missing. True education, as distinct from mere training, should be general and liberal. The vocational degrees and training programs I completed did little to teach me about the culture, history, and language of the society in which I live. All the knowledge I acquired was specific and targeted at getting and succeeding in specific jobs. It did not address larger more general questions of the human condition.

As I entered my thirties and began spending an increased portion of my time writing, the gaps in my knowledge were made obvious, especially in the areas of literature, history, and philosophy. In order to function, a writer needs to be able to draw from a broad and deep background of cultural knowledge. But my background was unbalanced and primarily technical. To address the problem, I then spent several years deliberately expanding my reading, especially of the so-called “great books” of the Western Cannon. I was aware from the beginning that this would be a poor substitute for a true liberal education. Autodidacticism, however personally rewarding, is inefficient. I know I can learn about the humanities much more effectively if I have teachers and a program with structure.

I am now ready, both financially and intellectually, to dedicate two years of my life to the full time study of the humanities. The external MA program at CSUDH is ideal, both because of the content and because I have always done well with distance learning in the past.

The second stage of the application, which goes to the department itself, requires a longer analytical essay which I will probably also post in a few days when I am finished writing it.

1 2 3 5