On One Study Alone

‘Apart from what is technical, method is only the reduplication of common sense, and is best acquired by observing its use by the ablest men and in every variety of intellectual employment. Bentham acknowledged that he learned less from his own profession than from writers like Linnaeus and Cullen; and Brougham advised the student of law to begin with Dante. Liebig described his Organic Chemistry as an application of ideas found in Mills’ Logic, and a distinguished physician, not to be named lest he should overhear me, read three books to enlarge his medical mind; and they were Gibbon, Grote and Mill. He goes on to say, “An educated man cannot become so on one study alone, but must be brought under the influence of natural, civil, and moral modes of thought.”‘

Lord Acton, ‘Inaugural Lecture on the Study of History, Cambridge, June 1895’, Lectures on Modern History. 

‘The word amateur owes its evil reputation to the arts. An artist must be prepared to be a master or nothing, and must dedicate his life to his art, for the arts, of their very nature, demand perfection. In scholarship, on the other hand, a man can only be a master in one  particular field, namely as a specialist, and in some field he should be a specialist. But if he is not to forfeit his capacity as for taking a general view, he should be an amateur in as many points as possible, privately at any rate, for the increase of his own knowledge and the enrichment of his possible standpoints. Otherwise he will remain ignorant in any field lying outside of his own speciality, and perhaps, as a man, a barbarian. But the amateur, because he loves things, may, in the course of his life, find points at which to dig deep.’

Jacob Burckhardt, Reflections on History.

The Curtain of Events that has Fallen Between us and the Golden Age

And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn – how you may one day yearn – to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong. How we yearn even for the gold of a July evening on which, though things had already gone wrong, things had not gone as wrong as they were going to. How we pine for Paradise. For mother’s milk. To draw back the curtain of events that has fallen between us and the Golden Age.

So how do we know – lost in the desert – that it is to the oasis of the yet-to-come we should be travelling anyway, and not to some other green Elysium that, a long while ago, we left behind? And how do we know that this mountain of baggage called History, which we are obliged to lug with us – which slows our pace to a crawl and makes us stagger off course – is really hindering us from advancing or retreating? Which way does salvation lie? No wonder we move in circles.

Graham Swift, Waterland.

If the idea of progress has the curious effect of weakening the inclination to make intelligent provision for the future, nostalgia, its ideological twin, undermines the ability to make intelligent use of the past… “Nostalgic sentiment…cultivates  a sense of history”. But a sense of history, as we have seen, is exactly what the nostalgic attitude fails to cultivate. It idealizes the past, but not in order to understand the way in which it unavoidably influences the present and the future. Nor does it unambiguously assert the superiority of bygone days. It contains an admixture of self congratulation. By exaggerating the naive simplicity of earlier times, it implicitly celebrates the worldly wisdom of later generations. It not only misrepresents the past but diminishes the past. It attempts “less to preserve the past”, as Anthony Brandt has observed, “than to restore it, to bring it back in its original state, as if nothing had happened in the interim.” Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village, the restoration of colonial Williamsburg, and Disneyland’s “Main Street, U.S.A”, exemplify, in Brandt’s view, the passion for “historical authenticity” that seeks to recapture everything except the one thing that matters, the influence of the past on the present.

Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics.

By Finding it Good

Consent to be completely inactive and useless better to allow God to work in me, and to desire only what He desires…We must… make death itself voluntary (although it be inevitable) by finding it good – which is impossible without faith, hope and charity.

Raissa Maritain, Journals.

My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity… I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth!

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science. translated by Walter Kaufmann.


A bel esprit is not an artisan geometer but a born architect, who, while meditating on a building, is able to see it rising before his eyes complete in all its parts. He imagines and percieves its totality thanks to a reasoning that is imperceptible and instantaneous… In other words, a bel esprit is blessed with a disposition that gives him a fine and precise intuition of all the things he sees or imagines.

Pierre de Marivaux, as quoted in Styles of Enlightenment: Taste, Politics and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century France by Elena Russo.

As for the objective aspect of this aesthetic perception, that is to say the (Platonic) Idea, it may be described as that which we would have before us if time, the formal and subjective condition of our knowledge, were drawn away, like the glass lens from a kaleidoscpe.

Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On Aesthetics’, Essays and Aphorisms, translated by R. J. Hollingdale.

A Moving Scene that We are Continually Copying

‘Our mental state is one thing; our rendition of it – whether to ourselves or to others – is quite another. The complete and instantaneous perception of such a state is one thing; the detailed and continuous effort of attention we are forced to make in order to analyze it, express it, and explain it to others is quite another. Our soul is a moving scene that we are continually copying. We spend a great deal of time in rendering it faithfully, but the original exists in a completed whole, for the mind does not proceed step by step, like expression.’

Denis Diderot, Lettre sur les sourds et muets, quoted in Styles of Enlightenment: Taste, Politics and Authorship in Eighteenth-Century France by Elena Russo.

‘A man awakens, or is waked; from a simulation – as from a dream. The personality counts for little in light of these properties. The past and the future are forms of simulation. Deliberate, intentional imitation is a trifle compared with unconscious simulation or identification. Even our own self, so far as we are conscious of it, is a simulation. We end up being more “ourselves” than we ever really were. We glimpse ourselves in a single flash, summarized, and see in ourselves the results of the external acts which have culled these traits from us – and made of us a portrait.’

Paul Valéry, Analects, Collected Works.

Not Knowing Nor Able

‘I received in inheritance neither god, nor a given spot on earth from where I can draw the attention of a god: no one either legated me the well disguised fury of the skeptic, the Sioux guiles of the rationalist or the burning innocence of the atheist. So I dare not throw the stone neither at the one who believes in things which inspire me only doubt, nor at the one who cultivates his doubt as if it was not, just as well, surrounded with darkness. This stone would hit me myself because I am well certain about one thing: the need of consolation that dwells within the human being is impossible to satisfy.’

Stig Dagerman, Our Need for Consolation is Insatiable.

‘Not knowing nor able to know what religious life is, since faith isn’t acquired through reason, and unable to have faith in or even react to the abstract notion of man, we’re left with the aesthetic contemplation of life as our reason for having a soul. Impassive to the solemnity of any and all worlds, indifferent to the divine, and disdainers of what is human, we uselessly surrender ourselves to pointless sensation, cultivated in a refined Epicureanism, as befits our cerebral nerves.’

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.

Every Night, Every Morning

‘For several years running I would read a passage of Homer every night before going to bed as regularly as a good priest says his office. I began early to suck the milk of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Terence, Anacreon, Plato, and Euripides, mixed with that of Moses and the Prophets.’

Denis Diderot, Project for University.

‘There is no better recreation for the mind than the study of the ancient classics. Take any one of them into your hand, be it only for a half an hour, and you will feel yourself refreshed, relieved, purified, ennobled, strengthened: just as though you had quenched your thirst at some spring.’

Arthur Schopenhauer, ‘On the Study of Latin’, from Parerga and Paralipomena.

‘The reading of Homer every morning, with the serenity, the tranquillity, the deep sensation of moral and physical well-being which it instills in us, is the best provision to endure the vulgarities of the day.’

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Notes.

A Guiding Conception

‘Utopia, like ideology, is bad word today…But an ideal picture of society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.’

F. A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty, as quoted by Corey Robin in his article The Deep Roots of Conservatism Radicalism, Al Jazeera. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/11/20111117152046439564.html

‘No past is ideal. But only from the past do ideals arise that are not lymphatic, ideals with blood in their veins.The reactionary does not aspire to turn back, but rather to change direction.The past that he admires is not a goal but an exemplification of his dreams.  It is not a restoration for which the reactionary yearns, but for a new miracle.’

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Notes.

A Very Finite and Fixed Creature

‘Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.’

T. E. Hulme, Romanticism and Classicism.

‘That delightful inscription with which the Athenians commemorated Pompey’s visit to their city is in agreement with my view: ‘You are a god only in so far as you recognize yourself to be a man.’ The man who knows how to enjoy his existence as he ought has attained an absolute perfection, like that of the gods. We seek other conditions because we do not understand the proper use of our own, and go out of ourselves because we do not know what is within us. So it is no good our mounting on stilts, for even on stilts we have to walk with our own legs; and upon the most exalted throne on the world it is still our own bottom that we sit on.The finest lives are, in my opinion, those which conform to the common and human model in an orderly way, with no marvels and extravagances.’

Montaigne, ‘On Experience’, Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen.

‘The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin somethin bad about em, but of course that’s a high compliment in my part of the world.’

Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men.

There is No Enduring Emotion without Syntax

The concepts of the mind are pictures of things and the tongue is interpreter of those pictures; the order of God’s creatures in themselves is not only admirable and glorious but eloquent, then he that could apprehend the consequence of things in their truth and utter his apprehensions as truly, were a right orator, therefore Cicero said as much when he said Dicere recte nemo Potest nisi qui prudenter intelligit. The shame of speaking unskillfully were small if the tongue were only disgraced by it, but as the image of the king  in a seal of wax ill represented is not so much a blemish to the wax or the signet that sealeth it as to the king whom it resembleth, so disordered speech is not so much injury to the lips which give it forth, or the thoughts which put it forth, as to the proportion and coherence of things in themselves so wrongfully expressed. Yet cannot his mind be thought in tune, whose words do jar, nor his reason in frame whose sentences are preposterous, nor his fancy clear and perfect, whose utterance breaks itself into uncertainties; were it an honour to a prince to have the majesty of his embassage spoiled by a careless embassador? And is it not as great an indignity that an excellent concept and capacity, by the indilligence of an idle tongue, should be defaced?

John Hoskyns, The Life, Letters and Writings, ed L. B. Osborn.

Everything is interconnected. My readings of classical authors, who never speak of sunsets, have made many sunsets intelligible to me, in all their colours. There is a relationship between syntactical competence, by which we distinguish the values of beings, sounds and shapes, and the capacity to perceive when the blue of the sky is actually green, and how much yellow is in the blue-green of the sky. It comes down to the same thing – the capacity to discriminate. There is no enduring emotion without syntax. Immortality depends on the grammarians.

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, translated by Richard Zenith.