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When the ancient philosophers speak of the philosophical life, one thing is immediately clear: It is a life and not a profession of which they are speaking. For the life of philosophy seems to have one reason for being—the search for truth…

eva brann collegeBy “the permanent part” of the College in the title of my address, I mean, as you have probably guessed, you, the alumni. That is not just an ingratiating way of speaking devised for the occasion, but it has some facts in its favor.

Before I explain myself, let me remind you of an occasion in which many of you have participated—the president’s Senior Dinner. One part of it that is sometimes quite moving is the Dean’s Toast to the Republic. If he is feeling thorough, it will have four parts, ascending in order of worldly magnitude and then dropping into intimate immediacy. There will be cele­brated the Republic of Plato, which is the world’s first book to set out the program of a true school, the republic of letters which is the commonwealth of all those who love the word, the republic of the United States of America which is the ground and foun­dation of our worldly being, and finally, St. John’s College, the living community of learning.

The question concerning the continuity of all these commonwealths with each other, and of each in itself, in other words, the question in all its range of the continu­ity of community has always been a preoccupation of mine. As I understand it, it is an aspect of that question that you, as alumni, want me to speak about, and I wel­come the occasion for becoming clear about it to myself. So to return to the posi­tion of the alumni within the college community.

Consider the students at any time at­tending the college. Presently they grad­uate, they go to a first degree of academic honor and are students in the strict sense no longer. The Board of the college changes all the time; its members have a fairly short term. Our last president was with us an amazingly long time—the longest or among the longest of any twentieth-century col­lege president. But he has now sworn not to set foot on either campus for a year, for a well-earned period of distance and refreshment. May our new president, whom you will meet later in the year, be with us for that length of time which betokens a good fit!—but it will not be permanent. And finally, the tutors themselves, who may seem to you to be truly permanent fixtures at Annapolis and Santa Fe—they too must retire late in life and become “emeriti,” members of the college by reason of their meritorious past but now completed service.

Alumni, on the other hand, are alumni for good. Their very name proclaims it­ they are “nurslings” who have, presum­ably, absorbed something of the college’s substance. By the college Polity all stu­dents, once matriculated, become alumni of the college, whether they leave with or without a degree, and no one can retire or “terminate” them. All other membership in the college is by choice; that of alumni alone has in it something analogous to be­ing by nature.

So as nurslings of the institution, alumni are first of all asked to nourish it in return. I know very well and have a certain limited sympathy for the complaint that when the college communicates with graduates it is too often about money—exactly the complaint parents have about their student children. It has to be. Private colleges are charitable institutions that give their serv­ices almost half free. Money-raising is the price they pay for their freedom to choose to be what they are. It can be done crudely or tactfully, but done it must be, by our president as by all other private school presidents. Of course, the response is a matter of choice. That choice may well be determined not only by a general sense of responsibility for the continuation of non­ governmental education but also by grati­tude. For example, I have a fixed, and fairly well-kept rule of sending twenty-five dollars to St. John’s whenever the institu­tions from which I graduated—whom I respected only as the employers of much admired but very remote professors and loved not at all—solicit me for money.

But, of course, the notion that the alum­ni’s relation to the college—at least to our college—begins or ends there is absurd. So let me now consider the question what constitutes the after-life of a student from its most specific to its widest aspect.

First of all, and this turns out to be by no means a mere formality, the alumni partici­pate in the governance of the college through their board representatives and informally by the weight of their organized opinion. That opinion has on occasion decided issues—such as the proposed abandonment of our old name.

The college, in turn, we all agree, owes its alumni certain reliable services and well­ organized, substance-informed occasions for their return. Among the first is the prompt and effective composition of let­ters of reference. Among the second are Homecoming with its seminars, and the ex­hilarating summer alumni seminars that take place in Santa Fe. Then there are the alumni meetings in the various cities, such as this one. For all of these affairs, the tutors who help with them volunteer their time and efforts, in acknowledgment of the permanent bond between them and their former students.

But the tutors have another kind of duty that more informal kind of duty which, were it not such a pleasure to perform, would probably not be very faithfully observed. It is a duty which, even though it is more sporadic than undergraduate teaching, is as serious and as satisfying. It is to be in some practical sense there for alumni, to write to in weal or woe, to visit on the way to a new departure or on a sentimental journey, to bring the conclusions of life to. Those visits from former stu­dents—sometimes there is time only for fif­teen minutes of conversation in the coffee shop—are always talked about among us. Nothing brings home to us the ultimate impotence of the profession of teaching and the deeply dubious character of the program as does a visit from a former stu­dent who is lost and who attributes that condition to having been touched by some unassimilable intimation of paradise or of hell in this school. Nothing gives so exhila­rating a sense of stability in change as the appearance of alumni who have so well and truly put the college in the past that it is equally well and truly present in them: an oracular saying which I am certain will have some immediate meaning for most of you, and of which I want to say more later. But the feelings with which these en­counters leave us, from disturbed regret to a sense that the deliberate benevolance we felt towards you in your student days­—good teachers are never “close” to their students—is about to turn into life-long friendship, are not my present point. That point is that alumni are in a more than metaphorical sense returning home, and have a right to be received in that spirit.

Those, then, are the continuing relations of the alumni with the college as a home community, made up of officers and two campuses and one faculty. Now I come to the after-life of alumni on their own. How does the college continue with them? It is by far the more problematic topic and a better subject for reflection.

Of course, it too has a practical and orga­nizable part. The alumni organizations are, as it were, independent extensions of the college. In bringing former students to­gether in the kind of event which is charac­teristic of St. John’s, in seminars and lectures legitimated by discussion, they propagate the life of the college and pro­vide members with the means for continu­ing to live it at their leisure. For us to hear that a city has a lively alumni group is to have a sense of having friends in the world, and to come to such a city, for example, to San Francisco, is a little like the experience of the shipwrecked Greek who, being cast up on a wild coast, saw scratched in a rock the diagram of Euclid I, 47 and said: “Here too are humans.”

(Let me hasten to add that this feeling is absurd. Humans, that is to say, people to talk to, are everywhere. And yet, absurd as it is, it is also humanly sensible, for it is hu­manly sensible to feel relieved at finding one’s own.)

This external, organized continuation of college life away from the campuses is, of course, only the expression of any inner individual continuity. Let me again begin at the easy end by giving some plain and prac­tical tutors’ answers to the questions about alumni life.

Alumni should continue reading. I imag­ine that most of you read quite a bit in the ordinary course of your lives. Much of that reading is in so-called “papers”—newspa­pers, position papers, official papers­ everything I call to myself “instrumental junk.” Many of you probably also read reams of poetry and of novels—my own favorite genre—of that mean range of excellence which goes down easily and yet nourishes the imagination. Many of you will have emerged from the program hun­gry for history written to that same standard. I have often thought that the much-bemoaned heavy tread of our pro­gram readings has in the best event this happy side effect—that it leaves students with a great appetite—some of you may re­call that the Greeks called it boulimia, “ox­ famine”—for miscellaneous reading. But this kind of reading, which we share with the rest of the literate world, is not what I have in mind.

I am thinking of a very deliberate effort. It involves, first of all, letting the time ripen, by keeping the thought in mind without pressing on to the execution. But then, when you are ready, pick up the program list. Readiness may be that the new ways of life which you have, in a healthy zest for contrast, thrown yourselves into have be­gun to fail you. It may mean that some spe­cific question has returned to preoccupy you, or that you see its true shape for the first time. It may mean simply that you feel the wave of activity floating you away from the isle of contemplation.

Pick up the list and choose a text. Then read it. Read it as experienced grown-ups reread the books of their youth: with a twinge of nostalgia for the circumstances of its first reading and with some wry admi­ration for the lordly consumption of meta­physics of which you were once capable, but after that with the critical discernment which comes from a well-digested, that is to say, half-forgotten education. That is my small but precise recommendation for doing alumni-deeds.

But now the moment has come for matters of larger scope. Let me work my way into them by dwelling on a dilemma often discussed or displayed by visiting alumni, a dilemma at once highly specific to this col­lege and of the widest human importance.

Alumni sometimes arrive with a shame­ faced and apologetic air about them. How have they sinned? They are respected at their work and loved at home, but now they have come to the place of account­ giving, and they feel wanting. The matter is this: they are not living the philosophic life.

Now that is a difficulty that I can only imagine a St. Johnnie as being oppressed by. Other students might be anxious be­fore their teachers for having failed in the world or even for having lost their soul, but they would not usually know much about or honor the philosophic life. I am always charmed by our students’ anxiety because it shows on their part a willingness to take root in a deep and wise tradition concern­ing the good life. But I am also, in turn, anxious.

Let me backtrack for a moment to be more accurate. Sometimes there really is something amiss in these uneasy visitors. They may have become enmeshed in what I will simply denominate here by its all too instantiable formula, “the hassles of contemporary living.” Or they are absorbed in the mild miseries of forgetfulness and can’t come to. But more often their account of their life is full of shy ardor and quiet intel­ligence. Then I ask myself: What on earth does he or she, what do we all mean by the philosophical life?

So the matter needs to be thought out. Let me give you some of my thoughts, some long in coming, some thought out for the occasion.

When the ancient philosophers speak of the philosophical life, the bíos philosophikós, one thing is immediately clear. It is a life and not a profession they are speaking of. Professors of philosophy have certain real disabilities in living the philosophical life. For as professors they have a position to maintain in the world, and work, not lei­sure, is their element. It is just the same with returning graduate students in phi­losophy. Sometimes they are full of inter­esting reflections on their activity, but sometimes they are so lost in their profes­sion that it makes one’s heart sink.

Not that tutors are altogether different. To be sure, one incident that did much to win my heart for the college was a salary report prepared now almost a quarter century ago by Winfree Smith.

Its preamble declared that although tu­tors were paid to live, they were not paid for their work because that was invaluable. It was invaluable both in being a pleasure and the need of their soul to perform and because its value was incapable of being quantitatively fixed. But while it is an inner truth that tutors do not work for wages, it is an external fact that we are the employees of a demanding institution, who converse by appointment, teach on schedule, and study according to a program—and to miss any of these official obligations without a reason is highly unacceptable behavior.

It follows that we too are professionals, and not free to live a daily life of absorbed contemplation. But perhaps if no one we know lives a philosophical life by reason of even the best-loved profession, it is still true that that life is compatible with any work, and any work can be done in a philo­sophical spirit. Let me pursue that.

The life of philosophy seems to me to have one external condition, leisure, and one reason for being, the search for truth. That leisure is not exhausted “time off” from work, but the free time for the sake of which the other times of one’s life are spent. Of the search for truth let me say only that it is not only a possibility but a necessity for most human beings. In whose life have there not been moments when all considerations have waned but the desire, the exigent desire, to know the truth?

The long and short of it is, I think, that like all fundamental human modes the phil­osophical life comes in graduated versions which are continuous and even comple­mentary, and those who come nearest to living it in some pure form hold its shape in trust for those who, from duty or prefer­ence, do the world’s business.

For in spite of what I said before, there are protected environments for that life, and the college is the best place I know for study and reflection. Its program and its schedules are, after all, intended to be the ladder and the handholds in the reflective climb; most of us certainly I, myself, need such prescribed paths, since a life wholly free of stimulants and constraints leaves us more melancholy than illumined. The business of our college is in the service of lei­sure; it is a true school, if I may recall to you the old chestnut, that that word itself comes from schole, Greek for “leisure.”

Of course, it is for that very reason not the so-called real world. No one knows that better than its long-term inhabitants, particularly since they also live out of it, as neighbors, consumers, taxpayers, voters, and worldwatchers. To be sure, in large academic conglomeration theoretical meg­alomania and practical impotence come together in that Lilliputian preoccupation known as academic politics. But the atmo­sphere of smaller schools is usually no more strained than that of an intensely close family, while the tutors of St. John’s, because of the common allegiance to a pro­gram with integrity, form a remarkable community of friends, willing to talk to and to trust in each other.

Not only is the philosophical life best carried on in a special place, it is even most apt to be carried on by distinctive people. That distinction seems to me to be less one of nature or kind than of circumstance and predilection. For example, our students ap­proach the leading of such a life by reason of their being in leisure circumstances, and most of us tutors come near it more through our inclination than capacity for intellection. I know that in saying all this I can be accused of showing myself a child of my time and of depreciating the philo­sophical life. Those would be heavy charges, but perhaps I must face them in the question period.

How then is this special life, the life of philosophy, related to the life of action, if they are not in principle discontinuous? I used to think that the movement back and forth between them was entirely possible. In particular, it seemed to me that someone who had thought deeply about the world should be able to act wisely in it. I was never such a fool as to think that academ­ics or intellectuals would cope particularly well with ruling responsibility, but I was thinking of philosophers, people whose thought is not divorced from the nature of things. The notion of a philosopher king­—or queen, for that matter—did not seem impossible to me. I have not totally re-­canted, but the facts of life loom larger now. I honor experience more, though that is an argument against the activity of the young as much as of the philosopher. What matters more is that the rhythm and the requirements of the two lives seem to me more irreconcilably different. From the point of view of the life of reflection, the other life seems unbearable for the contin­ual curtailment of thought and its inces­santly instrumental use, for the lack of long legatos of development and the hurried forestalling of spontaneous insight it brings with it. From the point of view of the life of action, the inability to reach conclusions without going back to the primal ameba (as Elliott Zuckerman likes to say), the obstruction of progress on mere principle, the lack of feel for possibilities, the sheer impo­tence of those who represent the other life, must be repellent. I conclude that with whatever freedom we may begin, at some time we become habituated to one or the other of the lives, and we will settle into our profession and our setting accordingly.

But there is nothing at all in this against frequent cross-overs. On the contrary, just as those who make reflection the center of their life must keep their worldly wits about them to have anything to reflect on, so those who do the world’s business can and ought to philosophize, either as a steady accompaniment of their work, or in­termittently, in their times of leisure­ whichever fits the economy of their life. I think our alumni often live just that way. Would that they knew how close to us they seem when they do it!

That is what I wanted to say about the relations between the college as an institu­tion and its alumni. Now I would like to conclude by consid­ering how alumni might cope with the col­lege insofar as it is a place and a time in their lives. I would like to entitle this sec­tion: “How rightly to forget the college.”

By forgetting I mean, to begin with, a phenomenon well known to theorists of learning—and of course, to learners. Most learning begins in proud but hesitant self­ consciousness and later subsides into a latent, yet ever active, condition. Such learning informs the soul as a second na­ture—it reshapes it with good nourishment and right exercise. It is in the hope that something of that sort has happened that alumni are called alumni. I think much of that inner shaping, that passage into the past by which what was once a time in your life becomes a permanent possession, actually takes place in the decade after you have left the place itself, and takes a con­siderable digestive effort.

Let me tell you what seem to me the signs that the passage has taken place. My recital will be illustrative rather than exhaustive, because I am not much en­chanted by analytic checklists of the lib­eral skills and attitudes, and those are, of course, what I am talking about. If you like, we can talk more about these in the ques­tion period. And my examples will be given pell-mell, mixing the sublime and the trivial—always remembering though, that “trivial” originally meant: belonging to the trivium, the triple arts of language, gram­mar, rhetoric, logic. Here, then, are some of the features of that second, that alumni­ nature, which we always recognize with deep satisfaction:

  1. An unpretentious, companionable closeness to some deep and difficult books.
  2. A fairly wide factual learning of the sort that is absorbed incidentally, in the course of trying to understand some matter.
  3. A resourceful recalcitrance toward all translation, be it from Greek into Latinate English, from common language into technical jargon, from book onto screen, from original text to popular paraphrase.
  4. A long perspective on our modern tradition which avoids either kvet­chy caviling or easy riding, because it is based on some knowledge of our roots and our revolutions.
  5. Knowing that the plural of eîdos is eîde.
  6. A carefully cherished ignorance that texts of mathematical symbols and of musical notes might be anything but essentially accessible expressions of the human soul.
  7. A determinedly naive faith in the possibility of principled political ac­tion, supported by a shrewd and ever-evolving theory of human na­ture which will neither buckle under the weight of the world’s wickedness nor invite more of it.
  8. A love for the illuminations of the studies of motion and of life, that is, physics and biology, and no disposition at all to be taken in by them.
  9. As a precipitate of many etymologies studied and many meanings dis­cussed, a constitutional inability to use even the most current words without taking thought for their ori­gin and the accumulated burden of sense they bear.
  10. A disposition toward that marriage of radical reason with reverent re­spect which was when you were there, and always will be, the best mood of the college.

Let me finish by telling the second way in which the college might pass into a rec­ollection. This way has to do with the fact that it is the place of your youth. It seems to me likely that you never had been, nor ever will be, so young again. Such places of quintessential youth tend to leave a power­ful after-image. McDowell Hall and Peterson Student Center become temples through which float diaphanous figures swathed in love and logos. Sometimes when you return, this image may suddenly fit itself onto the reality—the result will be pure romance. However, let me try to be sober about this phenomenon, for it is, I think, an indispensable instrument in the shaping of a good life—but only if the col­lege has become a true object of recollec­tion. By that, I mean that you have allowed life to carry you cheerfully away from its temporal and spatial coordinates, until the after-image has in it neither regret nor nos­talgia and has become a mere vision.

When those conditions are met, the in­ner image can and should serve as a source—a source, not the source—of shapes for a good life. Then it may provide a paradigm—a paradigm, not the paradigm—of that earthly paradise I imagine our alumni as forever trying to prepare for themselves: a community of friends held together by a love of learning. Then you will have put the college well and truly behind you.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from The St. John’s Review (Fall 1981).

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