Greek Books, American Life
From the June 20, 2005 issue: The wisdom of Eva Brann, tutor and philosopher.
Jun 20, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 38 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Open Secrets / Inward Prospects
LET US CELEBRATE EVA BRANN, the kind old lady of St. John's College. St. John's is the Great Books school (actually two schools, in Annapolis and Santa Fe) where high thinking is carried on with democratic courtesies. The students address one another in class, not only the professor, and the professors are called "tutors." But above the polloi and the oligoi (the many and the few--at St. John's everyone learns Greek) is one person who inspires them all, sitting in the invisible throne of an unofficial monarch. Once this was the great philosopher and historian of mathematics Jacob Klein, but since his death in 1978, his successor in that post has been a remarkable woman, Eva Brann.
In her latest book, Open Secrets / Inward Prospects: Reflections on World and Soul, Eva Brann calls herself, not a lady, but "an old woman with an unconscionably young soul." But like her heroine Jane Austen she is a lady without a lady's blind eye. A Jewish immigrant from Berlin, she went to Brooklyn College and studied archaeology at Yale, then came to St. John's and to philosophy, the two together. Her life has been a balance of "leisure wrested from responsibility," of her own thinking and writing as against her teaching and service to her college. For awhile, from 1990-1997, she occupied a visible throne as Dean, but in her spare time--truly, her busy time--she has produced a high pile of publications: a book on Homer, another on Plato's Republic, a tome on The World of the Imagination, a treatise on Time and one on "No" (The Ways of Naysaying; No, Not, Nothing, and Nonbeing), a collection of essays and lectures (The Past-Present), together with an earlier book, The Paradoxes of Education in a Republic.
Open Secrets / Inward Prospects is a book of thoughts of one who thinks about everything. Such a person has a fascinating double life, says Tutor Brann, one implicit like us and the other explicit for people like her. Her life is not apart from ours but layered over it. Philosophy for her is not a profession with its own methods, its own lingo, its own ethics abstracted from ordinary life. The philosopher looks at everything, and especially at everything human, but she sees better than the rest of us living with the same things. Visiting Colonial Williamsburg, for example, she ponders the fact that the guides dressed in period costume must have on modern underwear. Considering archaeological museums, she wonders about the confusion of future archaeologists when they dig in the dust of our civilization: Won't they mix up our pots--the ones we made--with those we dug?
Tutor Brann is a happy American. She is not attracted to the life "of those Greeks of mine," with their garlic breath and bad teeth. It's their "incomparable writings" that she prizes, that she wants to discuss with her fellow Americans. This strange combination of American life and Greek books may serve us as the theme of a review of a book apparently without a theme. For Brann invites her readers to read fitfully: "Open anywhere and if it irks you try another page." She doesn't say "turn on the TV," but still the instruction sounds more like American self-indulgence than Socrates.
Americans live softly, she remarks, but they "face death better than those sitting on the sharp edge" who want to reform our self-indulgence. What a blessed life we have, where "fears are worse than facts!" America is a "made country" as opposed to the "museum-countries" of Europe, but this does not prevent it from attaining a certain artificial but unpolished ordinariness that is not fake. America can descend to philistinism but also ascend to "humane grandeur." Brann takes "wicked pleasure" in observing the innocence of students who read Nietzsche as if he were as nice as they are. It is just what Nietzsche deserves. The students' "all-American balm" neutralizes "all that nervously nasty transatlantic subtlety."
Our American shallowness is spelled out in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, with its "politically usable and intellectually dubious truths." The truths that Jefferson declared with "passionately rational certitude" were made politically usable by Madison, a much wiser man who did not share Jefferson's certitude. The cause responsible for our peace, liberty, and prosperity is our Madisonian constitution, "that miracle of modernity." She means, I think, the miracle that such beneficial politics should emerge from the dubious truths of modernity.
Modernity is discussed in the central chapter of this supposedly disordered book. Modernity, we are told, comes from modo, meaning "just now." Modernity is about novelty, the constant reworking of nature into concepts, making, or as we say, "creating," a "thingless perceptual after-world." One of these concepts is human equality, from which can come conformity, relativism, and individualism--the last being, by a miracle, the goal of our Constitution. The Constitution has "a large-minded liberality of governance" that sets limits so as to contain humans, but sets them widely so as to give them space. The "contrived newness" or "systematic production of novelty" characteristic of modernity elevates method over substance, and reason over nature. It works well for us in politics, in procedural democracy, which is "our political salvation," but it leaves us vulnerable to "eager beaver" intellectuals and academics who want to reform us.
Much of the danger comes with modern psychology that replaces soul with self. When Socrates urges "Know thyself," he means that you must learn to know the common human soul within yourself, not the peculiar disposition of your self. When, instead of learning about your endowment, you get to know your peculiarities, you start to look and soon find some excuse for them. You give up the idea of self-control and give yourself over to expert control from outside, from experts in human vagaries that have been declared no longer to be sins. And what do the experts say? They urge experimentation with yourself as if you were a scientist testing a new hypothesis on a subject. A scientific experiment of this sort cannot fail because a negative result is still something positive learned, but a spell of what is touted as "experimentation" on your soul can wreck your life.
Our principle has become Just-Now. Nobody can live by that principle consistently, and so nobody should try to do so. It's crazy to live all the time in your own time, regarding the past as a junkyard. You can instead choose to live with discrimination in the modern age, rejecting the idea of any historical necessity to stay within your zeitgeist. While the modern hurtles ahead toward the postmodern--and that very name shows that both modern and postmodern are clueless about what lies in the future--you can watch TV and rejoice in the good fortune of being an American. At the same time you can send your children to St. John's College.
Well, that is a friendly gibe. It means only that Tutor Brann wants you to recognize that there is no alternative principle to Just-Now. At least for the present. A good education, if you manage to get one, will teach you to distrust modernity but not to reject it. Our modern Constitution allows you to be critical even of modernity. It gives you the opportunity to learn about the soul, where modernity is to be distrusted. But it would be a good idea to hold fast to the Constitution, which is modern and based on the self.
It goes without saying that American higher education, always trumpeting the goal of diversity, takes no notice of the diversity it already has--think of St. John's--and that devotees of feminism, always on the lookout for disregarded heroines, overlook superior women living modest lives under our very noses, like Eva Brann.
Harvey Mansfield is the William R. Kenan Jr. professor of government at Harvard.