To follow knowledge like a sinking star

When I first heard of ‘Odyssean Education’ I immediately thought of Tennyson: “It little profits that an idle king…”, but realisation of why I, of strict scientific upbringing, should turn at once to great literature, that brings the essence of the Odyssean ideal, and it has little to do with Odysseus as he was, or at least as Homer portrays him.

Tennyson’s Odysseus is restless in his craving for self-education:

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

The name though is from Murray Gell-Man, in his “The Quark and the Jaguar”, suggesting the combination of education in the sciences, social sciences and the arts, which come from very differ approaches and priorities. He looked at the ancient dichotomy of the Apollonian and Dionysian – those who follow an analytical, evidence-based approach to matters, and those guided by emotion and instinct; but Gell-Man (a scientist to his boots), adds a third – ‘Odyssean’ which combines them and connects ideas through an overall approach.

….. strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I question whether there is a genuine dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. If there is, it need not be inherent and unchanging but cultivated by life experience and the individual’s career discipline. The latter is very important amongst professionals as it defines the norms by which one interacts with strangers, perhaps as an architect or an accountant or a lawyer or journalist or as an administrator, for example, forcing one to analyse the world through the requirements of the job and the common understandings of the profession. It should be no wonder that lawyers lose their imagination or journalists become cynical of everyone’s motives, or actors believe the world can be transformed by a simple rewrite. Perhaps the complexity of interpersonal and commercial relations forces each person to simplify that which they take in by squeezing all experience and reaction into an overgeneralised worldview. It is a way to stay sane, and a way to become narrow.

The Apollonian and the Dionysian are types in Greek tragedy, according to Nietzsche’s analysis of that subject. The Apollonian represents order and logic; his lines are prose monologue and dialogue. The Dionysian represents the chaotic, unbound by respectability or logic; his lines are in verse. The Apollonian suffers and the Dionysian celebrates, perhaps over the same things. The drama is in the interplay between these two. That is all very well in the pretty formulaic world of Greek tragedy, and even works a sort of straight man / funny man routine in Aristophanes, but we face the real world, not the Greek amphitheatre.

Even so, many of us wear masks, like those on the Greek stage. In professional life, the mask is expected: I spend much of my time when dealing with other people trying to get them to drop the mask. (If only they knew how tightly held and deceptive my own is.) Eventually the mask becomes part of you.

The split of personality is genuine, even off-stage. It has been much studied by psychologists, and might even have a hereditary element (something examined in an earlier article here). Like calls to like, and if the civil service, for example, attracts the Apollonian, or conservative, type, then it will recruit only from that type, set tests for entry which can only be passed by that type, and become more and more entrenched in a monoculture.

In education, both types and the many in the middle may thrive and forge their own disciplines. The deeper the education though, the more it will press to one side or the other and produce graduates unable to function otherwise. The boring science student or the louche arts student are not just stereotypes but the necessary outcome of their disciplines.

Those needed for any enterprise truly to thrive are those who fill both sides of the stage: the Odysseans. The Gell-Mann approach, recently championed by Dominic Cummings, seeks to break the dichotomy, to teach pupils to use both sides of the clay of humanity. Systems fail when there is no discipline, and systems fail when there is no imagination: success requires both, but our ideas of education and profession exclude this.

The ideal education should cultivate imagination, originality, bound-breaking, and logic, discipline and respect for order. Personality will choose how far in either direction the individual will wander, but he or she should have an understanding of all sides. If it is impossible to cultivate everyone in this way, it is still necessary that some have that rounded education, ready to follow knowledge like a sinking star. ‘I cannot rest from travel: I will drink life to the lees’. Those who have seen and known; ‘cities of men and manners, climates, councils, governments’, are required in many disciplines. One with such a rounded education must can do better than those who clutch the reins in our day.

It is not to create a knot, an elite caste of Odysseans. They could be infuriating and worse then the rest. It is instead a remodelling of education for all, from which some will benefit more, and we in turn may benefit from their work.

See also

Books

Character imbues the endeavour

Behind every successful enterprise is the character of its founder, without which it can only fade into mediocrity. History is but the biography of great men, Carlyle assures us: we prefer now to see systems and processes, but he was right: that initial spark of genius puts life into words and forms it into success or failure. The departure of that founder may often be its end.

Rome required Augustus. There could have been no Napoleonic Empire without Napoleon. As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.

A successful institution cannot be created just by one who knows that something must be done, but who knows what must be done, and how. It is not enough to determine objectives and pay hired men to pursue them: they do not have the vision nor motivation. Real objectives cannot be rendered in words but must be lived. It was the genius of the late Duke of Edinburgh that he could see the destination and the route, he could find those who shared his vision and he made them enthusiastic. He also made sure they got on with it. He was a consummate naval officer.

He did not see ideas in a one-dimensional nor black-and-white manner. His enthusiasm for science and engineering saw no contradiction in his love of nature and drive for conservation. The two do not conflict and have come to complement each other. Nature conservation is very much of our time, but before the Duke of Edinburgh took a hand it barely registered beyond the confines of the National Trust and faintly embarrassing feelings of nostalgia – but while the National Trust were content to buy to preserve and leave otherwise alone, the charities established by Prince Philip took on active research, education, engagement of local bodies, and creating a ‘conservation community’. That cannot be done without vision and a clear objective, and these cannot be achieved without the mind to direct them. The Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Wildfowl Trust (‘We formed it over dinner – duck I think it was.’); these are the product of a focussed mind.

The most popular legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which was quickly established all over the Commonwealth, and it above all bears the stamp of the Prince’s character and drive. It breeds drive, independence and resilience: I cannot imagine any committee coming up with it. Those of us who have been through it up to Gold, carry its legacy with us, which is a piece of the character of the Scheme’s founder. It has gone beyond the Commonwealth too and had imitators. (The Duke of Bragança, the man who should be King of Portugal, formed his own scheme in his homeland, but follows the template and the drive laid down by the Duke of Edinburgh.)

The challenge for a founder is to keep the foundation going beyond his time.  It is not easy.  The state built by Cromwell could be built only by Oliver, and when he died, his son Richard was unable to hold it even for a year, as Hobbes recounts:

Thus was Richard Cromwell seated on the imperial throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, successor to his father; lifted up to it by the officers of the army then in town, and congratulated by all the parts of the army throughout the three nations; scarce any garrison omitting their particular flattering addresses to him.

….The army was inconstant; he himself irresolute, and without any military glory. And though the two principal officers had a near relation to him; yet neither of them, but Lambert, was the great favourite of the army; and by courting Fleetwood to take upon him the Protectorship, and by tampering with the soldiers, he had gotten again to be a colonel. He and the rest of the officers had a council at Wallingford House, where Fleetwood dwelt, for the dispossessing of Richard; though they had not yet considered how the nations should he governed afterwards. For from the beginning of the rebellion, the method of ambition was constantly this, first to destroy, and then to consider what they should set up.

Systems are attractive, but systems are dead hands: it needs men and women of vision. Systems without new growth are restraints against the very creativity which was required for the foundation they bind. The founder must therefore not just create a system but create successors who have the life of the idea within them. Robert Baden-Powell achieved it, with a good deal of the cult of personality to follow him – each troop runs as if B-P were looking over their shoulder even today.

I think of the sudden enthusiasm for free schools, which had great success, when there was for each a directing mind. As long as that mind has remained to guide and to chide, they continue to thrive. Some were established by parents wanting a better school for their children, but they have seen their sons and daughters grow up, leave the school, and they themselves need no longer be involved: those schools can flourish only if the enthusiasm is renewed with each upcoming generation.

Now, to be fair, vision is not enough for continuance: Jordan Peterson observed that two characters are needed: it takes a liberal, creative mind to create a new endeavour, and a diligent, conservative mind to run it. The great men are those who can be both.

Some foundations of our age have fallen into dotage by following good but dead rules, the fire having gone out. Many have been captured by political activists lusting after their funds and the prestige of their name, but with no care for the original drive.

For those foundations created by the Duke of Edinburgh there is hope, because much of his drive was in creating in his successors the same vision. The Award Scheme has alumni ready to take on the world, knowing what the scheme is for. The conservation charities found a new dynamic, beyond mere preservation. He has gone, but his spirit imbues them all. Long may it last.

Going back to Carlyle, he explained his theme at greater length than an line:

Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these

The imperial system of Augustus went into decline the moment he breathed his last. Napoleon’s too as he boarded the Bellerophon to exile. Their achievements were “the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men” and nothing without them. We may hope for better from the foundations left to us where the spirit of the founder still fills them.

See also

Well, Ofsted: what do you have to say for yourself?

Come in – stand there. I am disappointed in you. Very disappointed. You’ve let me down; you’ve let the school down; and worst of all, you’ve let yourself down.

I had great hopes of you when you joined Ofsted, Libelrisk; you had excellent references from your previous school, and the glowing testimonials appeared genuine, not a way to ensure you moved you on, but now your conduct leaves me lost for words.

The work given to you to accomplished was not hard , which makes your action all the more incomprehensible. We do work our boys hard here and I make no apologies for that, and we will continue to do so, though I must tell you that you will not be here to see it. I expect hard work, but the work entrusted to you, this piece which was brought to my attention, was not hard but you chose to neglect it to the extent that it was barely considered if at all.

Did you feel it beneath your dignity to bend to the task? It is quite clear, as you have admitted, that you got another boy to do your work – a boy from computer sciences. Not content with this copying or should I say, farming out, of your prep, you did not so much as cast an eye over it to see if he had even given the right answers. He had not, as you soon found out when Mr Williamson examined the script.

There is a word for this sort of thing, Libelrisk; a very ugly word.

This is a letter which you are to take to your mother forthwith. It explains why I have spoken to you and that you will not be returning to the school this term, or at all. If you accept the position and behave as a gentleman should, then I will give you a sufficient reference for your new school, and let you be their problem.

Now take the letter and get out.

Sir Roger Scruton – in memory of greatness

All thoughts must be put aside to mourn the passing of the greatest thinker of our age – and greater too because he acted also. Sir Roger Scruton passed away yesterday. The obituaries record levelled that he left a widow and two children, but he left a mightier his legacy, namely freedom in half of Europe.

He was a philosopher, and head and shoulders above all others of our time, but I have hesitated to use that word as ‘philosopher’ has become a degraded title in the hands of unworthy sophists. If an intellectual is a man educated beyond common sense, a philosopher has become a man so intellectual that he can construct a whole world in his mind and show its truth by logic in spite of all the evidence disproving him.  Sir Roger was not like that: he saw and described reality and from it drew conclusions which the passage of time proved true.

Born in 1944, as the allied English-speaking world was preparing to strike at the beaches of Normandy to liberate half a continent, he was in his time to play a large part to liberate the other half. He was brought up in that ferment of conflicting ideas that followed the peace.  He studied in Paris, and was there in 1968, the summer of the student uprisings, and first-hand he saw the destruction created by the students’ movement; a destruction justified in their mind by some foolish slogans.  He determined from that point that he was for preserving the good, which the radicals so hated.  This was to be a pattern for his life, and the reason the left-wing intellectual establishment shunned him.

I had the privilege to be at a dinner with Sir Roger on two notable occasions, in elevated company, and heard him speak.  He was a modest man and nothing in his bearing would tell you that you were in the presence of greatness, until he spoke.  Even then, the better indication of the man was in what others have said of him.

A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin. Somehow polite opinion in Britain shunned him. James Brokenshire appears not to have known who he was when summarily dismissing him in April last year after a hit-job from the New Statesman: that was perhaps the most shocking part of that sordid affair.

In Central Europe though, he was a hero.  In the 1980s left-wing intellectuals (see definition above) had no place for a conservative thinker, but in the east, which at the time was still under the Communist jackboot, they knew all about the reality of socialism, and it was here that Roger Scruton travelled, slipping away from his minders and building, encouraging, nurturing the ‘underground universities’ which kept free thought alive. 

In 1989 the Communist world collapsed, and It was from these free thinkers, Sir Roger’s pupils, that the released states of Europe could rise to freedom and prosperity.  One such, Vaclav Havel, was a poet and so well known as the voice of liberty in the last days of tyranny in Czechoslovakia that the cry on the streets in 1989 was ‘Václav na Hrád’: ‘Vaclav to the Castle’, and to the presidential residence in Prague Castle he went.  He rewarded Sir Roger with his nation’s highest honour.

No wonder the Left hated him.  He told the truth and achieved freedom for the nations.

At home, Sir Roger was a busy academic, and wrote many books on his areas of expertise – all of them valuable and none less than brilliant. He also co-founded The Salisbury Review, named after the Third Marquess of Salisbury (and after his great-grandson, a founding patron), and he served as Editor for many years. The Salisbury Review remains the leading journal of British conservative thought and is well worth its subscription.

Another conservative philosopher, Aldous Huxley, wrote an introduction to a reprint of his great novel ‘Brave New World’ that was issued just after the Second World War, a war that come out of the rise of novel philosophies. He wrote:

I have been told by an eminent academic critic that I am a sad symptom of the failure of an intellectual class in time of crisis. The implication being, I suppose, that the professor and his colleagues are hilarious symptoms of success. The benefactors of humanity deserve due honour and commemoration. Let us build a Pantheon for professors. It should be located among the ruins of one of the gutted cities of Europe or Japan, and over the entrance to the ossuary I would inscribe, in letters six or seven feet high, the simple words: SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF THE WORLD’S EDUCATORS. SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE.

In the time that Sir Roger took his life in his hands, one such philosophy had become triumphant, and left the ancient lands in its grip to become wasted.  To this modest academic a monument extends across all the free countries of Central Europe.

Stand in the revived heart of Prague or Warsaw or Budapest to look for a monument to Sir Roger:

SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS CIRCUMSPICE.

Books

By Sir Roger Scruton:

By others:

University What It Is

That which is now called an University, is a Joyning together, and an Incorporation under one Government of many Publique Schools, in one and the same Town or City. In which, the principal Schools were ordained for the three Professions, that is to say, of the Romane Religion, of the Romane Law, and of the Art of Medicine. And for the study of Philosophy it hath no otherwise place, then as a handmaid to the Romane Religion: And since the Authority of Aristotle is onely current there, that study is not properly Philosophy, (the nature whereof dependeth not on Authors,) but Aristotelity.

And for Geometry, till of very late times it had no place at all; as being subservient to nothing but rigide Truth. And if any man by the ingenuity of his owne nature, had attained to any degree of perfection therein, hee was commonly thought a Magician, and his Art Diabolicall.

Now to descend to the particular Tenets of Vain Philosophy, derived to the Universities, and thence into the Church, partly from Aristotle, partly from Blindnesse of understanding; I shall first consider their Principles.

There is a certain Philosophia Prima, on which all other Philosophy ought to depend; and consisteth principally, in right limiting of the significations of such Appellations, or Names, as are of all others the most Universall: Which Limitations serve to avoid ambiguity, and aequivocation in Reasoning; and are commonly called Definitions; such as are the Definitions of Body, Time, Place, Matter, Forme, Essence, Subject, Substance, Accident, Power, Act, Finite, Infinite, Quantity, Quality, Motion, Action, Passion, and divers others, necessary to the explaining of a mans Conceptions concerning the Nature and Generation of Bodies. The Explication (that is, the setling of the meaning) of which, and the like Terms, is commonly in the Schools called Metaphysiques; as being a part of the Philosophy of Aristotle, which hath that for title: but it is in another sense; for there it signifieth as much, as “Books written, or placed after his naturall Philosophy:”

But the Schools take them for Books Of Supernaturall Philosophy: for the word Metaphysiques will bear both these senses. And indeed that which is there written, is for the most part so far from the possibility of being understood, and so repugnant to naturall Reason, that whosoever thinketh there is any thing to bee understood by it, must needs think it supernaturall.

……

Then for Physiques, that is, the knowledge of the subordinate, and secundary causes of naturall events; they render none at all, but empty words. If you desire to know why some kind of bodies sink naturally downwards toward the Earth, and others goe naturally from it; The Schools will tell you out of Aristotle, that the bodies that sink downwards, are Heavy; and that this Heavinesse is it that causes them to descend: But if you ask what they mean by Heavinesse, they will define it to bee an endeavour to goe to the center of the Earth: so that the cause why things sink downward, is an Endeavour to be below: which is as much as to say, that bodies descend, or ascend, because they doe. Or they will tell you the center of the Earth is the place of Rest, and Conservation for Heavy things; and therefore they endeavour to be there: As if Stones, and Metalls had a desire, or could discern the place they would bee at, as Man does; or loved Rest, as Man does not; or that a peece of Glasse were lesse safe in the Window, than falling into the Street.

See also

Books