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.