Perpetual and immense

Some choice passages from Renée Neu Watkins’s translation (Waveland Press, 1999) of Leon Battista Alberti’s magnificently shrewd De commodis litterarum atque incommodis (The advantages and disadvantages of books), written in Latin around 1430:

[…] I have meditated and thought long and hard, searching with all my ingenuity for a subject I could treat adequately and which would prove the quality of my intellect, so as to satisfy them if it lay within me. But nothing came to mind that had not been beautifully dealt with by the divinely inspired classical authors, so that no one of our time, however learned, could deal with it better than they, nor did there seem to be some topic left of the kind they had treated, that I could handle well and with grace. The ancients had encompassed all serious and comic material, leaving to us only the opportunity to read them and the obligation to admire. Older contemporaries of ours have seized on a few subjects that lay hidden, perhaps overlooked by the ancients, and have thus gained honor and fame. If one wants glory, however, one must be willing to write something that is not perfect and ideal rather than allow oneself to grow old in erudite silence.


I earnestly beg you, my brother (if I may borrow your own phrasing in Ephebis) to read this little book of ours, correct it according to your own unswerving judgment, and by your emendations kindly make it better and more beautiful.


The life men of learning live is necessarily hard and harsh; by this I mean the ones who, as they should, abandon all other things for the sake of intellectual work. No art, however minor, demands less that total dedication if you want to excel in it. What we know to be true of all arts is most especially true of reading and writing; there is no freedom from striving at any age.


In my experience, however, you won’t find many rich men who think books, let alone the delights of study, are worth the effort.


Who, with a mind occupied by love, will be able to focus whole and steadfast attention on texts? Who can then be fully absorbed in his work, intent on the teachings, ready and able to store up and retain them? Who, when captive to the madness of love, will have the will power and intellectual vigor and enthusiasm to perfect himself in any noble art? Don’t we know how love usually affects people? Sapping energy, corrupting conduct, perverting the intelligence, loading the mind with obsessions, filling the intellect with errors, driving a man to madness: these are its well-known services, the gifts that it bestows.


A brief period away from study has the power to disperse more material than many long hours of application can restore; things placed in memory slip away faster than they can be rememorized or recaptured.

[Cf. the pianist’s quip, variously attributed to Liszt, Rubinstein, and Paderewski: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice; two days, and my friends notice; three days, and everybody notices.”]

When you wish to buy clothes, isn’t it true that your library will say to you: “You owe me that money, I forbid…” If you wish to pursue the hunt, or music, or the martial arts or sports, won’t the books says: “You are stealing this energy from us, we will not bring you fame and reputation!” If you inquire into technical knowledge or painting or three dimensional design, the philosophical disciplines will react strongly: “This is the way you defraud us of your energies. From you we will withhold knowledge of the highest things…!”


If you want to refresh your spirit by a country excursion […] the vocation you have taken up will pull you back from there to books and writing, and if you do not with much labor and long hours devote yourself totally to these, the books themselves will threaten you with shattering disgrace.


But I would not want to obscure the true nature of scholars by concluding that they devote themselves to books with no idea of pleasure. They could not perform such great labors without some notion of pleasure in their minds. There are those who willingly go into mourning, because they take pleasure from being considered very faithful and true to the memory of friendship. Many actions by which we satisfy convention and public opinion seem less painful to us than they really are. The pleasure of study, however, is such that it might better be called pain: sedentary all the time, reading all the time, thinking hard, always alone, renouncing festivities and play. I am not so bitter and hard a man that I would dare call this a pleasant way to live. […] To satisfy the desire to learn is indeed a pleasure, but the very hard work of study and the accompanying anxiety that oppresses the spirit always bring more mental torment than joy. So if we indeed take a certain pleasure in learning, huge cares and labors undermine it. There is a big difference, moreover, between the burden of fighting the intrigues and assault of enemies, which is experienced relatively briefly, and the scholar’s daily anxiety, which is perpetual and immense. For there are innumerable things in books that are supremely worth knowing, nor is it easy to describe how the desire to learn presses upon a scholar. He may participate in difficulty scholarly debates, or explore some elegant, worthy, and learned subject; while he does so, he does not sleep, does not eat, does not rest, and feels almost no satisfaction. The desire to know and to remember it all is constantly gnawing at him. He takes on immense projects, is entangled in an array of possible rhetorical devices, is constantly tense. On top of this, he is always coming across things previously unknown to him: he encounters in his reading adroit, subtle, and clever ideas, finds some unusual illustrative anecdote, or learns new refinements of the power of persuasion; these things provoke in him the desire to learn more, and he is unable to set limits or stop, nor is he granted any peace of mind as long as he has not cleared up every obscurity. Thus, as you see, the scholar is a very complex puzzle himself, and neither physically nor mentally ever, or hardly ever, gets any rest. Bleak solitude, hard labor, endless hours, great anxiety, difficulty questions, total absorption, intense anxiety—as there is no pleasure to be found in this man, so in his whole life there is almost no break in the onslaught of work and worry.

To Alberti’s unremittingly bleak, if otherwise unsurpassed, characterization of the obsessively acquisitive and self-reinforcing anxiety at the heart of bibliophilia (epistemophilia?), one might counterpose a finer appreciation of the compensating blisses and ecstasies: Barthes’s “pleasure of the text,” Feynman’s “pleasure of finding things out,” Morris’s account of “pleasure in the work itself” (which he writes about here and here), something—appropriately, I cannot remember what—in Emerson. See also: Aristotle’s “desire to know,” Wordsworth’s “bliss of solitude,” Joyce’s “luminous silent stasis of aesthetic pleasure.”

The more things have gone wrong

Colonna, in Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero, translated by Richard Dixon:

Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.

The fallacy of what was fallacious

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”:

[…] the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.


When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

As a model of discourse, compare William James on the “pretension” of possessing truth wholly; the portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs 8, here in the King James version:

1 Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?

She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.

She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.

Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.

O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.

Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things.

For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.

All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them.

They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.

10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.

11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.

12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.

Mencken on “The Truth-Seeker,” in A Mencken Chrestomathy:

The man who boasts that he habitually tells the truth is simply a man who has no respect for it. It is not a thing to be thrown about loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary. The smallest atom of truth represents some man’s bitter toil and agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-seeker’s grave upon some lonely ash-dump and a soul roasting in Hell.

Wittgenstein on suffering on behalf of truth; and Bertrand Russell’s famous remark in “The Triumph of Stupidity“:

The fundamental cause of trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

The poem that philosophically makes good the defect of languages

from Erasmus’s dedicatory letter to Pieter Gillis, secretary of Antwerp, at the opening of the Parabolae, translated by R. A. B. Mynors, in volume 23 of the Collected Works of Erasmus, published by the University of Toronto:

Friends of the commonplace and homespun sort, my open-hearted Pieter, have their idea of relationship, like their whole lives, attached to material things; and if ever they have to face a separation, they favor a frequent exchange of rings, knives, caps, and other tokens of the kind, for fear that their affection may cool when intercourse is interrupted or actually die away through the interposition of long tracts of time and space. But you and I, whose idea of friendship rests wholly in a meeting of minds and the enjoyment of studies in common, might well greet one another from time to time with presents of the mind and keepsakes of a literary description. Not that there is any risk that when our life together is interrupted we may slowly grow cold, or that the great distance which separates our bodies may loosen the close tie between our minds. Minds can develop an even closer link, the greater space that comes between them. Our aim would be that any loss due to separation in the actual enjoyment of our friendship should be made good, not without interest, by tokens of this literary kind.

And so I send a present—no common present, for you are no common friend, but many jewels in one small book. Jewels I well may call them, these parallels selected from the richly furnished world of the greatest authors of antiquity. Of late, as I reread Aristotle, Pliny, and Plutarch for the enrichment of my Adagiorum chiliades, and cleared Annaeus Seneca of the corruptions by which he was not so much disfigured as done away with altogether, I noted down by the way these passages, to make an offering for you which I knew would not be unwelcome. This I foresaw, knowing as I did your natural bent toward elegance of expression, and perceiving that not polish alone but almost all the dignity of language stems from its metaphors. For the Greek parabolê, which Cicero latinizes as collatio, a sort of comparison, is nothing more than a metaphor writ large. Of the other ornaments of style, each makes its own peculiar contribution to its charm and flexibility; metaphor taken alone adds everything in fuller measure, while all the other kinds of ornament add one thing each. Do you wish to entertain? Nothing adds more sparkle. Are you concerned to convey information? Nothing else makes your point so convincingly, so clearly. Do you intend to persuade? Nothing gives you greater penetration. Have you a mind to expatiate? Nowhere is plenty readier to your hand. Or to be brief? Nothing leaves more to the understanding. Have you a fancy to be grand? Metaphor can exalt anything, and to any height you please. Is there something you wish to play down? Nothing is more effective for bringing things down to earth. Would you be vivid and picturesque? Metaphor brings it become one’s eyes better than anything else. What gives their spice to adages, their charm to fables, their point to historical anecdotes? Metaphor, which doubles the native riches of a pithy saying, so that Solomon himself, an inspired author, chose to recommend his wise sayings to the world by calling them Parabolae. Deprive the orators of their arsenal of metaphor, and all will be thin and dull. Take metaphor and parable, parabolê, away from the Prophets and the Gospels, and you will info that a great part of their charm has gone.

Someone will say, perhaps, ‘This man has a pretty knack of making his work sound important, as though it were really difficult to produce parallels, when they lie to hand everywhere.’ But I have not chosen what was ready to hand, nor picked up pebbles on the beach; I have brought forth precious stones from the inner treasure-house of the Muses. The barber’s shop, the tawdry conversation of the marketplace are no source for what is to be worth the attention of the ears and eyes of educated men. Such things must be unearthed in the innermost secrets of nature, in the inner shrine of the arts and sciences, in the recondite narratives of the best poets or the record of eminent historians. In this field there is a twofold difficulty, and double praise is to be won. That first task is already something, to have tracked down what is really good. But it is no less labor to arrange neatly what you have discovered, just as it is something to have found a precious jewel in the first place, but there is credit to be won from its skillful mounting on a scepter or a ring. I will add an example to make my point clear. Hemlock is poisonous to man, and wine neutralizes hemlock; but if you put an admixture of wine into your hemlock, you make its venom much more immediate and quite beyond treatment, because the force and energy of the wine carries the effect of the poison more rapidly to the vital centers. Now merely to know such a rare fact in nature is surely both elegant and interesting as information. Suppose then one were to adapt this by saying that adulation poisons friendship instantly, and that what neutralizes that poison is the habit of speaking one’s mind, which Greek calls parrhesia, outspokenness. Now, if you first contaminate this freedom of speech and put a touch of it into your adulation, so that you are flattering your friend most insidiously while you most give the impression of perfect frankness, the damage is by now incurable. Would this not win credit as an ingenious application of the parallel? I think it would.


Basel, 15 October 1514

Of jewels, cf. the conclusion of Hannah Arendt’s 1968 introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations:

Whatever theoretical revisions Benjamin may subsequently have made in these theological-metaphysical convictions, his basic approach, decisive for all his literary studies, remained unchanged: not to investigate the utilitarian or communicative functions of linguistic creations, but to understand them in their crystallized and thus ultimately fragmentary form as intentionless and noncommunicative utterances of a “world essence.” What else does this mean than that he understood language as an essentially poetic phenomenon? And this is precisely what the last sentence of the Mallarmé aphorism, which he does not quote, says in unequivocal clarity: “Seulement, sachons n’existerait pas les vers: lui, philosophiquement remunère le défaut des langues, complément supérieur“—all this were true if poetry did not exist, the poem that philosophically makes good the defect of languages, is their superior complement. All of which says no more, though in a slightly more complex way, than what I mentioned before—namely, that we are dealing here with something which may not be unique but is certainly extremely rare: the gift of thinking poetically.

And this thinking, fed by the present, works with the “thought fragments” it can wrest from the past and gather about itself. Like a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea, not to excavate the bottom and bring it to light but to pry loose the rich and strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths, and to carry them to the surface, this thinking delves into the depths of the past—but not in order to resuscitate it the way it was and to contribute to the renewal of extinct ages. What guides this thinking is the conviction that although the living is subject to the ruin of the time, the process of decay is at the same time a process of crystallization, that in the depth of the sea, into which sinks and dissolves what once was alive, some things “suffer a sea-change” and survive in new crystallized forms and shapes that remain immune to the elements, as though they waited only for the pearl diver who one day will come down to them and bring them up into the world of the living—as “thought fragments,” as something “rich and strange,” and perhaps even as everlasting Urphänomene.

Wisdom will get in anyhow

from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872):

I tell you what,—he said,—there’s so much intelligence about nowadays in books and newspapers and talk that it’s mighty hard to write without getting something or other worth listening to into your essay or your volume. The foolishest book is a kind of leaky boat on a sea of wisdom; some of the wisdom will get in anyhow. Every now and then I find something in my book that seems so good to me, I can’t help thinking it must have leaked in. I suppose other people discover that it came through a leak, full as soon as I do. You must write a book or two to find out how much and how little you know and have to say. Then you must read some notices of it by somebody that loves you and one or two by somebody that hates you. You’ll find yourself a very odd piece of property after you’ve been through these experiences. They’re trying to the constitution; I’m always glad to hear that a friend is as well as can be expected after he’s had a book.

Constant and eager observation

Walter Pater, conclusion to The Renaissance, 1868; cf. Shklovsky:

Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren, vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us,—for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.

One of the most beautiful passages of Rousseau is that in the sixth book of the Confessions, where he describes the awakening in him of the literary sense. An undefinable taint of death had clung always about him, and now in early manhood he believed himself smitten by mortal disease. He asked himself how he might make as much as possible of the interval that remained; and he was not biassed by anything in his previous life when he decided that it must be by intellectual excitement, which he found just then in the clear, fresh writings of Voltaire. Well! we are all condamnés, as Victor Hugo says: we are all under sentence of death but with a sort of indefinite reprieve — les hommes sont tous condamnés mort avec des sursis indéfinis: we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more. Some spend this interval in listlessness, some in high passions, the wisest, at least among “the children of this world,” in art and song. For our one chance lies in expanding that interval, in getting as many pulsations as possible into the given time. Great passions may give us this quickened sense of life, ecstasy and sorrow of love, the various forms of enthusiastic activity, disinterested or otherwise, which come naturally to many of us. Only be sure it is passion—that it does yield you this fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness. Of such wisdom, the poetic passion, the desire of beauty, the love of art for its own sake, has most. For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.