“After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books.”
Geopolicraticus? I coined the term, in the tradition of Latinate pseudonyms (think “Publius” of the Federalist papers). There is a certain history and several ideas behind it. There is an obscure book by a medieval philosopher (John of Salisbury) titled Policraticus: The Stateman’s Handbook. It was used as a textbook in medieval and early modern times in Europe. Of course, it was written in Latin, hence the Latin-sounding “Policraticus” of the title. And then there is the Salvador Dali painting (one of my favorites) titled “Geopoliticus Child Watches the Birth of a New Man”. I considered using “Geopoliticus” as a pseudonym (directly adapted from Dali), but this seemed imitative and pedestrian. So I joined John of Salisbury with Salvador Dali and “geopolicraticus” was born in my imagination as a conglomeration of the foregoing.
In a letter to Hawthorne of 01 June 1851, Herman Melville wrote, “From my twenty-fifth year I date my life.” I sympathize, and as I began to travel at about the same age, I date my life from my first trip in Europe in 1988. As an autodidact, perhaps I view my travel with the same kind of warm memories that others reserve for their college years. But travel-as-education has this advantage: it need not come to an end. For all but the “professional student”, college years must come to an end, but one can continue to travel and continue to learn so long as one has the health and the resources.
A fuller quote from Melville’s letter runs thus, “Until I was twenty-five, I had no development at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now, that I have not unfolded within myself.” Melville was not yet ten years from the beginning of his life, as he defined it, when he wrote this. Anyone who embarks on a quest for knowledge can identify with this sentiment as well: to come of age in the life of the mind — what in his early novel, Mardi, Melville called “the world of mind” — is to embark upon an epic quest. And if it sounds pretentious to characterize one’s life as an epic quest for knowledge, we could as well borrow a phrase of Schumpeter and call the life of the mind one of creative destruction. One must clear away the detritus of one’s past life, of one’s life before awakening to the life of the mind, in order to have the free hand necessary for the creation of a life worthy of the life of the mind.
Why would anyone care about the life of the mind? Let us begin with a digression. Consider a multiply embedded quote from Sextus Empiricus, of what he relates Callimachus said of Diodorus Chronos: “The very crows on the rooftops croak about what implications are sound.” One good line deserves another, and this reminds me of another gem, although from a world as different from our own as it is from antiquity, viz. the Byzantine Empire, a civilization wholly alien to that which we know today. In the midst of furious Christological controversies that routinely disrupted this theocracy that has been described by at least one historian as, “…a machine for getting people into heaven,” Gregory Nazianzen wrote: “Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.” Hegel quotes this passage in his Philosophy of History, and uses it as proof of Byzantine decadence, which he calls, “a disgusting picture of imbecility.”
Hegel missed the point. What we find in both quotes is a remarkable level of intellectual excitement, so intense that people from all walks of life were drawn into the controversy. To a certain extent the American and French revolutions were like this, inspiring a kind of intoxication with ideas, but the ideas in question were mostly political. By the time of the Bolshevik revolution, one can imagine a similar intellectual excitement to have prevailed, but this time almost wholly political, with little to edify the masses beyond moral exhortations. Today, even political excitement is lacking. Trying to understand the excitement of the ancients with logic or the Byzantines with theology is therefore a difficult task for contemporary man.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to understand the situation of the autodidact without understanding the nature of intellectual excitement. But as no one counts it as a task worth investigating, the auto-didact remains misunderstood. Numerous writers have taken up the meaning and mission of university education (Whitehead and Ortega y Gasset, inter alia, devoted books to the topic), but no one yet, as far as I know, has written a treatise on the mission of the autodidact, the particular and peculiar calling of the individual who is drawn to scholarship though not to academic fellowship.
What distinguishes the autodidact from the product of universities? The answer to this question must vary according to the period of history in question. Dante knew the Scholastic philosophy of his day, and mentions prominent schoolmen in his Comedia, but his relation to institutionalized education must have been fundamentally different from that during the reformation, with its pamphleteering and its polemics, from that during the Enlightenment, age of gentlemen amateurs, from that of the Victorian era, with its imperial pretensions, and from that of today, when higher education has become vocational training for the monied and chattering classes. The very idea of “polite learning” in its many guises, as a social ornament for the bored and the well-to-do, as a pastime for gentlemen, as a passport to advancement for the ambitious social climber, as a method to render one agreeable company among the well-bred, the well-connected, and the wealthy—all of these things are utterly alien to the autodidact as well as to the academic. For the man who is passionate about truth, learning is nothing polite, casual, or dilettantish, and such men are to be found, if rarely, in all walks of life, and they come from both sides of the tracks.
What, then, distinguishes the autodidact? He not only teaches himself, as we might discover from an analysis of the etymology of the word alone, but he sustains and maintains himself in solitude. And because he sustains and maintains himself in solitude, intellectually speaking, his bodily sustenance and maintenance must come from elsewhere. Simply put, he earns nothing from his scholarly efforts, conducted in isolation, in the presence of neither master nor pupil, so he must earn his living otherwise. Thus the professionalism of professional academics consists in this: that, in the scholarly community, the institutionalized scholar finds himself immersed and enmeshed, body and mind, in a community that provides for the sustenance and maintenance of both. Earning a living through scholarly effort, the professional academic is simply what the ancients called a sophist. If the term now occupies an unflattering place in our language, it is no more so than the implied non-professionalism of the autodidact, for it has been a habit of mind to make of professionalism professionalism of knowledge rather than professionalism of vocation, to which professionalism we would, presumably, oppose the amateurism of the non-professional. It should then be understood why I prefer, over the traditional distinction between the professional and the non-professional, or between vocation and avocation, to employ a distinction between the institutionalized and the non-institutionalized scholar, philosopher, or what have you, for it is the fact of institutionalization that distinguishes the university wit from the autodidact.
What is significant about conducting one’s intellectual life inside or outside the context of an Institution? Surely this, too, varies over time. And with the high regard in which intellectual liberty is held today—the free market of ideas, as it is sometimes called—why would anyone elect not to be a part of an institution that can provide fellowship and community of a kind and order not to be found in the world beyond the walls of academe? It is not, today, like it was for Spinoza, when the Elector Palatine, Karl Ludwig, wrote him and offered a chair in philosophy at the University of Heidelberg to the famous recluse as long as Spinoza promised not to call into question the established religion of the state. No one need swear such an oath today, and the lack of such oaths is often put forward as proof of our present seriousness about academic freedom. And as for the usual catalog of scholarly drudgery, such as correcting papers and teaching uncomprehending students, one may respond with a rigorous quid pro quo, a one-to-one correspondence, a bijection of advantages and disadvantages, with the traditional perks of institutionalized scholarship: long summer vacations, tax deductions for books purchased, and grants for foreign travel. Therefore these mundane considerations cannot tip the balance one way or the other. We must seek the source of such a decision—to commit oneself to an institution or not to commit oneself—elsewhere in the sphere of life.
What difference does an institution make? There is a book by Erving Goffman, Asylums, that says more about the nature of life within an institution than could be adequately summarized here. Goffman’s thesis is bold and convincing: nothing less than a man’s being is at stake in his relation to an institution. In a “total institution” a man’s total being is at stake, while in an institution of less than total reach, some portion of a man’s being is at stake. It is true that a university isn’t a “total institution” like a prison or a mental institution, that the university differs in degree from these grimmer species of the genus, but it does not differ in kind, and if it is less than total in some respects, in other respects it is no less so. Historically, schools have been every bit the total institution. Fraternities and the sororities are surviving vestiges of school as a total institution, and within them, however reduced their power and influence, bodily as well as intellectual life is regimented. For the rest, those outside the fraternities and sororities, the university is a partial, not a total, institution. What is the nature of a partial institution? On what portion of life does its burden fall? Whereas in the total institution it is the ordinary bodily needs that are subject to regimentation, in the university the central focus of regimentation is curriculum, that is to say, intellectual life. And the result is that the intellectual sphere is the most compromised aspect of life at a university, the most invested in the institution, the most caught up in politics, the most regimented feature of a typical day. The students are forgiven their drinking bouts if they are able to keep up with their lessons.
Now, I have always regarded it with the greatest suspicion when a single book is singled out for praise—cave ab homine unius libri. One is in danger of having oneself identified as a crackpot who believes that the whole of human civilization has been summed in the content of one volume, the author of which must be thought a prophet to have accomplished such a feat. As Nietzsche said, the love of One is a barbarism. Rest assured that I am quite immune to this particular form of monomania. When I single out this book, Asylums, for praise, I assume that my reader understands that I am at the moment considering only a single, narrow question. This being understood, we must note the point at which the question, however narrow, comes to encompass entire lives.
While for the students a university is not a total institution, for the faculty it becomes a de facto total institution, although instead of totality one refers instead to tenure, which is universally believed to be a thing worth having. The institutionalized scholar depends, mind and body, upon his institution. Perhaps this accounts for the touchingly sentimental acknowledgements that contemporary academics make to their departments and colleagues. No scholarly book would be complete without its long list of debts and the pro forma assurance that, if any defects remain, they must be charged to the writer and not to the distinguished colleagues who read and commented upon the manuscript in its inchoate form. We need not seek a name for this culture of obsequiousness that emerges from the institution of the university, for it already has one: scholasticism. And it is not mere coincidence that this is also the name of a defunct philosophical school. Both emerged from medieval Europe and it would be difficult to say if, despite all the learning in all the universities between then and now, anything has been learned at all.
So a few words on my wasted youth, since from the above it ought to be obvious that it wasn’t spent in school. I led an utterly dissipated youth and have nothing to show for it. The fact that I dissipated my youth on books instead of wine, women, and song is scarcely relevant. The fact remains that, since I received no degree in virtue of my scholastic efforts, I have, like the usual debauchee, only the memories of what I have experienced as a comfort and consolation for my dotage. And then comes the question of middle age: if I had it all to do over again, would I rather have memories of books, or memories of more conventional forms of dissipation? It is a question that need not even be asked for the obviousness of its answer, but even as I ask such a superfluous question I know that I could not have done otherwise and, in fact, had I the ability to do otherwise I would have done so at that time.
I have self-published a couple of books, Political Economy of Globalization and Variations on the Theme of Life. I gave away a lot of copies, sent review copies all over the world, but no one buys them. C’est la vie. I have dozens of unfinished manuscripts on my computer that I will, in the fullness of time, self-publish to a similar lack of acclaim if and when I finish them. If you would like to contribute to this, or if you feel a sudden and inexplicable impulse of generosity, you can obtain instant gratification by sending me something off my Amazon wish list.
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