“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.”

Albert Camus


At home in Oregon (Clatsop County, to be specific)

At home in Oregon (rural Clatsop County, to be specific)


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.

House of Pontius Pilate, Sevilla, 1998

House of Pontius Pilate, Sevilla, 1998

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.

My first trip to Rome in 1989, with one of Bernini's angels

My first trip to Rome in 1989, with a Bernini angel

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.

Near Otovalo, Ecuador in June 2001

Near Otovalo, Ecuador in June 2001

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.”

Bicycling near the Slovakian border, September 1992

Bicycling near the Slovakian border, September 1992

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.

On the island of Mallorca in 1994

On the island of Mallorca in 1994


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.

With a runic stone in Jelling, Denmark, May 1988

With a runic stone in Jelling, Denmark, May 1988

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.

At Leblon beach, Rio de Janeiro, 1999

At Leblon beach, Rio de Janeiro, 1999


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.

Tallberg, Sweden, June 2005

Tallberg, Sweden, June 2005

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.

Horcon, Chile, 2003

Horcon, Chile, 2003


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.

Koyasan, Japan, May 2006

Koyasan, Japan, May 2006


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.

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, 1994

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, 1994

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.

Engø Gård, Norway, October 2008

Engø Gård, Norway, October 2008


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.

With a marine iguana in the Galapagos, 1993.

With a marine iguana in the Galapagos, 1993.

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.

. . . . .

Rome 1997 with the Marcus Aurelius Equestrian statue

Rome 1997 with the Marcus Aurelius Equestrian statue

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

38 Responses to “J. N. Nielsen”

  1. Nicholas Shrady said

    Dear Mr. Nielsen:

    Thank you for your kind words regarding “The Last Day”, but I am sorry that the narrator was not up to snuff (I must confess that I haven’t heard it).

    As for travel as education, I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve learned much more from the road than I ever did at Georgetown. If you are interested, try to get a copy of “Sacred Roads: Adventures from the Pilgrimage Trail” (although the book is out of print, you can pick it up for a song on the net). I think that you will enjoy the work.

    What a literate and engaging blog you have created. Hats off to you!

    Most sincerely,

    Nicholas Shrady

  2. Ricky Jey said

    So… this is all a really elaborate way of telling us you’re unemployed, right?

  3. Rene Q. Bas said

    I am one of those you sent a copy of Political Economy of Globalization. I find myself in agreement with more than 70 of your 100 theses.

    I also agree with you about the Schoolmen and scholasticism. But I hope you don’t scoff at the great mind of the original, Thomas Aquinas. If they had paid more attention to Aquinas, Hegel and Nietzsche might not have made the errors they made.

    Enjoyed reading your apologia for all of us autodidacts.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Bas,

      I am very excited to hear from someone who actually received (not to mention read) one of the copies of Political Economy of Globalization that I sent out. It is satisfying to know that all those copies didn’t simply disappear into the void.

      In writing this blog I find myself referencing the scholastics with surprising frequency, Aquinas among them, but my interest in this period of philosophy mostly lies with Ockham and the radical Ockhamists like Robert Holkot.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  4. RedWell said

    Wonderful breadth, provocative argumentation and admirable creativity — BUT I think you miss the point of institutionalized scholarship. Admittedly, much of what passes for academic work today is sterile owing to narrow professionalization in most fields. Nevertheless, in that kind of professional community, you also must defend your ideas (and your prose) before both students and colleagues. As heat tempers steel, this process leaves one’s intellectual work stronger for having faced adversity.

  5. reise said

    Even if you are not a history fan, you should the visit in Sagrada Familia is a must if you are in Barcelona. I went there and it was great.

  6. lorenza said

    I’m a town planning student at one of the most important universities in Latin America (USP) and no one ever mentions the state of some American cities such as Detroit. It’s unbelievable. So thanks for your reflections, you’re a great writer.

  7. lorenza said

    …or a cultural artifact. I write on Townscape and British town planning (and the whole suburbanization vs compact cities debate) in case you read in Portuguese. Thanks for the suggestions: I’m more and more fascinated. Lorenza Pavesi

    • geopolicraticus said

      Yes, indeed, a city is above all a cultural artifact.

      I am very sorry to say that I don’t read Portuguese, though the debate over suburbanization and compactification is fascinating and deserving of serious study. This is mostly studied in a North American context (as far as my knowledge extends), but the nature of sprawl in Latin America is very different from that of North America, and different again in the Old World.

      You might be interested in a couple of posts that I wrote about Brasília: Fifty Years of Brasília and Urban Ecology.

      It is interesting to reflect upon the ideological understanding of the city in classical antiquity, when the central political paradigm was that of the city-state rather than that of the contemporary nation-state. In antiquity it was accepted that an individual’s patriotism was primarily connected to his city, and this was expressed in many ways. To take the most famous example from antiquity, Plato’s Republic was conceived as an ideal city.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  8. Dear Mr. Nielsen,

    I am the editor-in-chief of a German online magazine for serious news and political satire, and I have a question concerning the copyright of the photo of Kim Jong-il you posted in your entry about him. Where did you take it from? And is it free? I’d reall like to use it since it is quite funny.

    Thank you for your answer.

    Lydia Th. Goldbaum

  9. I stumbled onto your site relatively recently and have been perusing it for some time since. I find it excellent and thought provoking.

    As someone intensely interested in both geopolitics and philosophy, your site constantly has me seeking additional, illuminating things to read, especially the classics of political philosophy that I have yet to have exposed myself through first hand (as opposed to mediated by interpreters).

    You may find the piece in this link interesting, http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/12/01/culture-nature-mediation/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+immanentframe+%28The+Immanent+Frame%29&utm_content=Twitter

    I would be intrigued to see a blog on it at some point.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lawson,

      Thanks for your kind comments about my writing, and thanks for bringing this very interesting blog at the Social Science Research Council to my attention. I had been previously unaware of this. I thought I would quickly dash off a post in response, but my initial reading made me realize that I will have to invest a little more thought into the matter. I will definitely take this up.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  10. Deborah said

    Hi,

    I was curious as to where you got the map “Global human migration patterns” from for your Sept 5, 2010 post entitled “Humanity as One”.

    I’m an archaeology student interested in using this map for a presentation, and would like to blow it up and print it out if I get authorization to do so. I would need to find a better jpg quality version of this image (when I’ve tried to test-print it out as is from your site, all of the words are blurred). Further, I’d like to know who made it so that I can source them for my paper.

    Thank you so much, and interesting website!
    Deborah

  11. I am mesmerized by your writing. I was looking up information on Darwin’s tree of life and stumbled across your musing. It’s the end of the semester. I have three papers due, but I will return and soak up more of your narrative. (I’ve lately returned to school — after 35 years — but I note that higher education is not exempt from the “factory farming” mentality. Sad really. You have the right idea: traveling and reading combine to make the best education.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Ms. Sommer,

      I’m very pleased to hear that you liked what you’ve read so far. I certainly hope that you’ll be back. All those nights I’ve fallen asleep over my computer hoping to finish a blog post to my satisfaction seem worth it when I get a little encouragement as in your comment.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

    • xcalibur said

      I agree, higher education has become big business in modern times.

  12. I found you at riverdaughter but it seems I have been moderated out of existence there. And then I began reading you. Two years ago this coming October I began reading Foucault 24/7 refusing to read any interpretive criticisms of him until I was finished. Then I started with Forget Foucault and began on Jean Baudrillard. I am still there after almost a year.

    So have you read both? What do you have to say about them? I am assuming you already have but I haven’t gotten there yet in your work. Your thinking on cities seems to me to fall into Baudrillard’s Order of Production: irreversibility; accumulation; reproduction (Benjamin) so I am wondering why no mention.

    I am trying to get there through media: film and literature. And to find a way to express it so that post modern theory won’t seem so esoteric.

  13. Angie said

    Enjoy seeing all your photos here!!!

    Angie Heng!!

  14. MB1 said

    Tällberg 2005, neat — I stayed there too for a few nights not allthat long ago (looks like I even stayed at the same Inn (Akerblads?).

    Interesting journal/blog.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Meatballs (if I may),

      Thanks for your interest!

      Tällberg was a truly wonderful place, with the strongest genius loci of anywhere I have been. I don’t recall the name of the inn, but it was up on a hill overlooking Lake Siljan. The breakfast, as I recall, was wonderful. I hope to return.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  15. Mr. Nielsen —

    I read your 12 November post on Public Diplomacy with great interest. As a pony-tailed Birkenstock wearing theater guy from Western Washington currently disguised as an active duty Marine Corps Public Communication Officer detailed to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and a doctoral researcher on the topic of principle-based communication as a leadership practice, I hope I don’t presume too much to suggest we might strike up a useful dialogue.

    Specifically I’d value your perspective on a Trust and Credibility oriented leadership model I developed that is slowly infiltrating its way into both military doctrine and practice. While opposition from defenders of the status quo has been reliable, beneficial analysis, synthesis and evaluation can be a tad hard to come by. Even if you sent the model back to me as a bag of broken Tinker Toys, I would welcome the critical feedback.

    I’d be pleased to correspond with you as your time and interest may allow.

    Rowing Uphill,
    Cliff W. Gilmore

  16. James M. Flagg said

    These are well written reflections, somber
    and witty. Please keep writing. Self-publish
    if you must but keep writing. Your readership
    will develop. I think you even have something
    to say that should be read because it is written
    well. You’re a writer, I have a keen discerning
    eye and taste, if I may say so. Well, I just did.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Flagg:

      Thank you very much for your kind encouragement. It is often difficult to persevere, but comments such as yours give me the continued inspiration to keep working.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  17. David Sheard said

    Dear Mr Nielsen,

    I am currently doing a project on Oedipus for my degree and in my search for images I came across an article of yours written back in 2009 (here’s the link to refresh your memory: https://geopolicraticus.wordpress.com/category/historical-periodization/classical-antiquity/page/2/).

    I was very taken with the image you used at the head of the article, as I have been unable to find anything like it replicated anywhere else. It interests me in particular as it is the only image I have found of Oedipus in the act of blinding himself, whereas the majority of images available are either before or after the act.

    I understand that the article was written quite some time ago now but if you could give me any more information about the image, any bibliographical information of any kind or perhaps your original source, I would be extremely grateful.

    Thanks for your help.

  18. Brenton camac said

    More than ever before this is an age when an individual can educate themselves independently of institutional biases and thus attain wisdom – a true knowing. It sounds like you have found that path and have embraced it. Wisdom honors and rewards those who embrace her.

  19. […] A brilliant response to this article has been written by Nick Nielsen, which you can find on his blog, Grand Strategy: The View from […]

  20. Sam said

    I concur with your analysis of institutions. I also feel this extends to a much wider world of cultural and philosophical concepts.

    Essentially, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I wish I had the discipline to write and I applaud you for it. I find myself much more involved in dialogues though and thus involved more with the back and forth and more Socratic and far less Platonic.

    I have already begun sharing your articles with friends and family as food for thought. You do an excellent job of analyzing topics, creating detailed definitions and elaborating the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions involved.

    Keep up the excellent work and I look forward to replying more in depth when I am not using a phone.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Sam,

      Thanks for your kind words, an I appreciate your forwarding some of my posts so that others will read them.

      What discipline I have in writing is really more about intrinsic interest than discipline, together with the fact that I lead an intensely solitary life, and I inevitably express myself in writing. You have noted that you are more engaged in dialogue, and a social context is less conducive to the solitary task of writing. In this connection it is interesting to note an implicit distinction among philosophers between those whose primary influence was through their students, whom they influenced after the manner of dialogue, and those whose primary influence has been through texts.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  21. Cameron J said

    I have been endlessly amazed by your thought. I came across you earlier this year through “What Kardashev Really Said” (http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=30255)r, and have been feverishly reading through your posts since then. Seeing and mulling over your work has been a turning point and acceleration for me in my development. Your thought and style is unique and attractive in many ways. Brenton camac expressed the point perfectly above. And I’m hoping to develop myself similarly – in my own way, of course.

    Never stop writing. You have many eager readers, and your books have been patiently waiting in my Amazon wishlist. I hope for more self-published works to come out.

    Thanks for everything,
    Cameron

    • geopolicraticus said

      Thanks for your kind and encouraging comments. It means a lot to me to know that someone is reading.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

  22. Leon said

    Feeling real joy in discovering your blog, quite vast and stunning.
    ¡Gracias!

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