Why the Platonist? Why triviumquadrivium? Why me?
So technically I’m a professor. But I’m also lots of other things, and the professor thing more or less happened by accident–so don’t judge me too harshly based on that one identifier. At least my students tend to think that I’m a good teacher, so maybe that makes it a little better. But I don’t want to give away my secret identity, (nor do I advertise this site to my own students), because that way I can write much more freely here than I could if it was connected to my professional profile. Maybe once I’m a more senior professor, I can link this site to my professional web page, and there won’t be anything anyone can do about it. But in the meantime, it’s best to be free, and anonymous.
In studying the arts, humanities, and the ugly-sounding but actually beautiful social sciences over the course of 15 years, I’ve learned a lot of things, though of course the main lesson is that you’ll always not know a lot more than you do know. At the same time, I’ve learned that not pursuing a life of study will usually lead to stagnation, blindness, and dogmatism, except in rare cases. I.e., if you don’t try to get out, you’ve no chance of exiting the cave. Which is fine for most people, who don’t want out anyway. On my own journey I’ve also tried to travel a lot so as to gain more perspective: book learning is of course essential, but travelling is also an important ingredient in the bread of wisdom. By this point, I’ve studied and/or taught for significant time periods in six countries, namely: the US, Canada, England, Mexico, Spain, and the Netherlands. (Note, now I can add Belgium. So that’s seven. What a nomad I’ve become!-or is that vagabond?). I’ve met a number of good people along the way, some of them still active friends, many more of them just cherished memories; and hopefully I’ve picked up and usefully share some insights that could encourage people during their own journeys out of the cave.
I suppose it’s no surprise, given my predilections as a youth, that I’ve chosen what can only be called the philosopher’s life. As Plato says in the Republic, this won’t really earn you much money, and he’s right. As Plato puts it, we have to choose either freedom, or happiness. Usually the two don’t go hand in hand. And so most people choose happiness–or, what they hope is happiness, which includes the house, the car, the 2.2 kids, and financial security. I’ve tried to choose freedom instead; and it has been trying, not least economically. Oh, I’ve finally started earning a basic almost-middle-class salary the last few years, but it’s still quite precarious, even though I’m supposedly doing quite well in my field as a researcher (and teacher). But I’m not so unrealistic as to have not prepared for financial security – I should still be all right in the long run; it’s just that if you want both time and money, you often have to take a longer road. And along the journey, I’ve chosen to maximize my time, rather than money.
Thus, I have managed to avoid having a ‘real’ job (i.e., a deadening obligation to wake up far too early, and spend my day doing essentially meaningless repetative tasks for someone else’s profit, thus atrophying my soul, and leading me to wish I was dead, or sublimate ways to commit suicide, like many of my job-holding friends do ) for nearly 15 years–meaning that on many many mornings, whether sunny, rainy, snowy, or foggy, I’ve enjoyed the privilege of getting to wake up wihout an alarm clock, hang out in my well-decorated little house and garden (one of the benefits of knowing art history is that you have a better-than-average chance of having a cosy house, because you can develop your sense of taste), and then devote myself to researching and writing on many of the topics that I’ve wanted to research and write, and enjoy mornings of tea and coffee with my ideal companion. And we’ve both talked about idealistic and practical things, seeking to advance our own understanding and appreciation of the world, for several thousand mornings and noons, and we’ve often been able to share our ideas with similarly-minded friends, and best of all, to learn from them.
We are also somewhat epicurian – these, as Morrissey once suggested, are the riches of the poor: to have really good beverages and food, and good conversation, and to have a small but pleasant and cosy and richly decorated interior (which can be done with very little money if you’re clever about it). So we do domestic life very well – and converse well, and we’re curious about a great many things, and, of course, we travel, whenever we can afford to do it, mostly in Europe (where we now live), because the history there and the traditions there are so dynamic, and so well preserved, and so many areas are so well taken care of and zoned, to this day, that parts of France, Scotland, and Italy are basically the most ideal places on earth to restore and refresh one’s soul. And I shouldn’t forget that these places are all tied up with centuries of struggle which have produced the mentalities which are celebrated on this site, the aim of which is to combine egalitarianism with idealism (something which has not yet been properly done–it’s a next step in the evolution of human thought).
And, I shouldn’t forget to add, that I’ve had the rare privilege of being a father who got to spend the majority of my children’s early childhood days at home with the kids, and who was therefore able to be an instrumental part of their lives from their birth onward, which hopefully for them was a good thing–while at the same time knowing that I was well occupied on a meaningful program of reading and scholarship, and that I could bring home enough bacon to pay the bills (most of the time). So, I wouldn’t complain too much. Still, when my best friend died in 2007, a preternaturally cool NYC schoolteacher whom the kids and parents absolutely adored, and who was such a powerful presence that even in death his spirit is responsible for a wave of new green eco-centers on the roofs of NYC schools–when he died, (I knew him since I was five, and we grew up basically as brothers - it was the 70s and 80s, and we had big yards in the suburbs, and there were woods and streams and ponds all around our development), I really wasn’t sure if maybe a permanent fuse had blown – that I would never again be as happy and optimistic as I once was. Though I also admit that having kids had a similar effect; they really do herald the next generation, and cause you to feel your age, and realize, in a deep way, that you are to be replaced (as Ovid mentions) – anyway, between the feelings of mortality surrounding the birth of my kids, and also that of having my best friend suddenly drop over when he was not even 35, well, I think it did permanently sadden me, which is really sad indeed – because it seems to indicate that you can only really be that truly happy and idealistic when you’re in your late teens and 20s, if, that is, you are ever going to be happy and idealistic – which, by accident of birth, I happened to be, thank the gods.
But anyway, those events have caused me to realize that I can’t wait forever to start publishing books on my absolute favourite topics, which cluster around trying to build an ideal society, filled with ideal individuals, and so I had better start blogging, so that, if I drop over tomorrow, at least some of this will be here, hopefully to help some people to make sense of existence. At this point, there is far more to come than is actually on this site, but hopefully, in time, it will evolve into a more coherent whole, where you will more easily see the connections between every post here: they are all related, as is symbolized by John Donne’s compass which I’m about to post about.
During my studies and researches, I’ve gotten to pick up bits of what are now far too many languages: I think that the tally is: English my native tongue, Latin, Spanish, Catalan, French, Dutch, Italian, German, and Greek, in that order. After Spanish, tho, I really can’t speak very much (and of course Latin I can’t really speak actively, but I still consider it my most ‘fluent’ language). Still, I havent really intensively studied any of these, so I’m kind of a Jack of all trades but master of none when it comes to languages (save my linguistic baby, which is Latin).
Also, I’ve managed to read far more than my fair share of the greek and roman ‘classics,’ and also studied the history of English literature; as a devotee of the Liberal Arts, I’ve made some study of political science, philosophy, art history, psychology, and economic history: I’m a big fan of an arts education, and think that it should be the only real model for university education (if some of my colleagues would get their theoretical heads out of their arses and teach their subjects as if they actually matter, again, like they did before the advent of the age of ‘theory’ in the 1960s).
Triviumquadrivium, then, is a reference to the ‘seven liberal arts,’ of ancient and medieval fame: I nearly called this site “the seven arts,” but that was too limiting. The trivium was studied first: they were the language-based, and reasoning skills. And there was a very logical reason for doing them first, namely, that the ancients, medievals and renaissance people realized that in order to become educated in the best sense of the term, you need to learn how to think, and thinking is done in words. Thus, they began with grammar – the building blocks of language, and then moved on to logic, which teaches you how to reason, argue, think critically, and evaluate in a wise fashion, before they studied rhetoric, which was the means of turning your own logical conclusions into an effective public speech – since without effective rhetoric, your own ideas did little good for anyone. Then, they studied the quadrivium, which were more mathematically based, it might seem at first, but, really, they have to do with nature, as the setting for human society. So, first they educated themselves, and then they learned about the world around them. The quadrivium consisted, beautifully, of arithmetic - which was the building blocks of studying nature, and measuring and describing it, always remembering that maths must be the handmaid of reason, or else you don’t get very far, and then they progressed to geometry, which is literally “measuring the earth.” Then, they moved on to Astronomy – or describing the working of the heavens, which accordig to Aristotle and Ptolemy were geo-centric, and which involved the sun, moon, planets and stars revolving around the earth in a great circular dance known as the ‘music of the spheres.’ And they concluded, in a wonderfully cosmic fashion, with music, which was believed to be derived from the way that the cosmos was ordered – i.e., the laws of physics, which ordered the production of sound. And when beautiful music was produced, it mirrored the great cosmic harmony of the music of the spheres. And of course, there was no reason at that time to doubt that such an orderly and miraculous universe had been purposefully created by a great creator God, who himself was identified with Truth, Justice, Reason, and Love.
With this as their history, I have found that the idea of ideals, Platonic ideals, namely: truth, justice, beauty, the good, have run through the arts since their inception, like veins of rich ore, even if in this day and age the existence of God cannot but be seriously doubtful at best. Thus, the ideals are, I think, an ideal way to summarize why it is that we pursue the arts, as I hope will become apparent through the posts, and ideally, the discussions, on this blog. So if we can’t have God, in other words, at least we can actively pursue all of the best things ever associated with him–is that not the best that we can realistically do to bring about something like what the medievals had in mind when they imagined a ‘heaven on earth?’
Hopefully, visitors will find kindred spirits here, and a place of respite in a world which could use a little help from certain strains of long-evolving wisdom. And more beauty, truth, justice, etc.
For the locus classicus of the effect of education on the soul, and incidentally an illustration of the Platonic ideal, see Plato’s Republic, Book VII. Here’s a little commentary plus synopsis, even tho I don’t really like the way Glaucon is put in bold in this exemplar (since it undermines the notion of a dialogue):