Eva Brann, for those who are not familiar, is the former dean and currently a tutor at St. John’s College. I recently read a speech given by Ms. Brann about the “great books” education. In it, she reminds her audience that reading nothing but the classics is untenable and undesirable:
I am not, incidentally, for a reading regimen of exclusive greatness. It is too rich, like a diet of “white soup,” the cholesterol-laden concoction served in Jane Austen’s well-off houses at dinner parties. I am for reading a lot of stuff: adventure, mystery, travel, cookbooks, westerns (my favorites), historical fiction, fantasy, space and science-fiction—from fine to terrible. They are all supplements to life, experiences I could not possibly live through but would dearly like to have—vicariously.
One might even make the argument that reading Twitter feeds has some value. Say what you will about social media, but you have to admit that people staring at their phones are at least reading. (Well, some of the time, anyway.)
Ms. Brann is not the first person to advocate reading widely in addition to reading the classics. It is no surprise, of course, that the very notion is practically one of the tenets of classical liberal education.
In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, the titular narrator describes her formal education under her aunt. It is a stifling mixture of pious theology, German, classical French “(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism)”, music, domestic arts, and “a dozen books on womanhood.” The “liberal education” of a lady is circumscribed to a few particular fields that would prepare her for a life of agreeing pleasantly with her husband when his conversation is not completely over her head.
On her own, however, Aurora engages in a private and personally guided course of study. She starts with the Greek of Theophrastus and the Latin of Aelian, but she eventually devours all manner of books. Bad books, good books, “some bad and good at once.” She reads moral books, genial books, merry books, melancholy books. She, like Ms. Brann, has a firm grounding in the classics, but is eager and able to see the value in all manner of writings.
Beer of the week: Semedorato Premium- In honor of the half-Italian protagonist of Aurora Leigh, this week’s beer is the 100% Italian Semedorato Premium. Semedorato is also brewed with 100% malt, rather than with adjunct grains. This lager is pretty much what I expect out of a Mediterranean beer. It is crystal clear and quite pale. The aroma is faint and slightly sweet. The flavor is understated, but pleasant. It is a very drinkable, if unremarkable beer.
Reading of the week: Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – This excerpt is from Book One of the nine-book poem. The orphaned title character has come to live in England with her aunt. Very much in spite of the aunt’s attempts to raise Aurora to be a proper lady, Aurora becomes obsessed with literature and decides that she wants to be an author.
Question for the week: Ms. Brann’s favorite “non-classics” are westerns. What is your favorite “non-classic” genre?
Don’t leave me, she says. Or if you must leave, wait a month, a week, a day, a minute. Each and every extra second together is worth my very life.
No, I must go now.
And so, Aeneas abandons Dido. He will not tarry even for a moment. He loves her, “but the firm purpose of his heart remains.”
What would it look like for a person to have such a sense of destiny? A real person. We come to expect this sort of grand purpose in characters like Aeneas and Napoleon, but for anybody else it comes across as disillusions of grandeur. Still, this is the idea that is sold every day as the heroic archetype. From sports stars to politicians, the story goes: “he knew he was destined for greatness.”
Well what if there actually are a lot of people with Aeneas’s “firm purpose” of heart? If such people exist, it seems that only a very small percent could ever achieve anything that looks like greatness. Greatness is, by definition, exceptional. As a rule, people are not great. So if there are many people of “great resolve”, some must leave their Didos on the shore for naught. These people must give up real, tangible goods in search of their destiny. How many men have sailed off only to find that there was nothing waiting for them on the other side of the sea? How many people “knew” they were destined for great things, but things beyond their control kept them down. “Unfilled destiny” is an oxymoron; if a man is truly destined for greatness, he achieves it.
On the other hand, how many lands have gone undiscovered because it is easier to settle than it is to explore? How many men missed out on greatness because they wavered in their purpose?
In short, destiny seems to do more with conviction and effort than any supernatural guiding force. So I am destined to drink beer; the firm purpose of my palate remains. Beer of the Week: Birra Moretti – If not for Aeneas, the whole history of Italy would have changed, and this beer would never have been brewed. The bottle says that Birra Moretti is “The Beer in Italy.” I would have put “The” in italics, but I am sure that they know what they are doing. The head is nice and fluffy, but it does not last very long at all. The smell is pretty standard for an adjunct lager and the taste is fairly bland, but it is certainly a drinking beer. All things considered “The Beer in Italy” probably doesn’t stand up to well against “The Wine in Italy.”
Reading of the week: Aeneid by Virgil, Book IV – Dido sends her sister to beg for Aeneas to stay. She doesn’t go herself. Sounds pretty middle school to me.
Question of the week: Was Dido as destined to die as Aeneas was destined to leave?
“Read not… to find talk and discourse,” writes Sir Francis Bacon in his essay Of Studies. Studying for the sake of discoursing well, Bacon reckons, is mere ornamentation. This sort of study is different in kind from studying for the sheer delight of studying, which is “in privateness and retiring.” However, this is only the case if by “discourse” Bacon means “winning arguments.” Only with such a narrow definition does his claim make sense.
Discourse is an essential part of studying. In fact, the very act of questioning Bacon on this point is discourse. Even if it is done alone. The interaction between the author and the reader is discourse (even if it does seem like a rather one-sided conversation.) Moreover, the questioning is the most delightful part of studying. The act of questioning shows that there is active learning going on. And eventually, the reading and questioning becomes too delightful and one absolutely cannot refrain from talking about it with others. Or perhaps writing his own part of the dialogue that was started long ago.
After all, that is the point of this blog. Beer and study can both be enjoyed privately, but if one has a true passion for either, he will invariably seek to share it with others. Beer tastes better in the company of friends and through discourse, philosophy comes to life.
Beer of the Week: Willianbräu Weizen – Like so many beers that find their way to me, this one has an interesting origin. Willianbräu is apparently brewed in Belgium for an Italian “Brand Management” company. I think this is essentially a supermarket house-brand. Over all, it is pretty bland, but I could imagine sitting outside with a few good friends, drinking way to many of these on some warm sunny day. In fact, I rather like imagining that.
Reading of the week: Of Studies by Sir Francis Bacon – It comes as no surprise that Bacon, the great champion of philosophy for the sake of practical ends, advocates learning so that one can properly “weigh and consider” (which almost has to refer to “the judgment and disposition of business”) rather than for discourse or for leisure.
Question for the week: Bacon prescribes different studies for different intellectual goals. Does it seem likely that the mind is actually exercised differently by mathematics than by language studies?