Conversations With Great Thinkers

8. Education

by L. James Hammond
© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. Academia  Culture is an organic whole, but academia divides it into departments. Culture should be bound to life, but academia separates it from life and turns it into a trade. Culture should be free of charge, but academia makes it a commodity to be bought and sold.

Before the printing press was invented, when students couldn’t afford their own books, a professor was one who read aloud to a class; the word “lecture” comes from the Latin legere, meaning “to read.” The invention of the printing press has enabled students to buy their own books, and thus has eliminated the professor’s raison d’etre. Johnson said, “People have nowadays... got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken.”1 Education takes place between an author and a reader, not between a student and a professor; one becomes educated by reading, not by listening to lectures.

2. The Scholar  Academia is the home of the scholar, not of the true intellectual. For the scholar, culture is a job and a means of making a living. For the true intellectual, culture is a passion, a love affair, a mission. The true intellectual often makes a living from non-intellectual work; Kafka, for example, made a living as a bureaucrat, Thoreau as a surveyor, and Hoffer as a dockworker. To the scholar, culture is his career; to the true intellectual, culture is his life. The scholar wasn’t born for intellectual work; he would be at home in another profession — in law, medicine, business, etc. The true intellectual was born for intellectual work, and couldn’t live without it; if it didn’t exist, he would invent it. The scholar has a respected position in society, the true intellectual is an outcast from society, a stranger in the world.

Classics aren’t written by scholars. Not even one classic in a hundred was written by an academic. Classics contain personality and pathos and suffering and anger and humor, all of which scholarly books lack. Classics are written with passion, and arouse passion in those who read them. Scholarly books are dry, cold and impersonal, and don’t arouse passion in those who read them. Classics have life and vitality; cut them and blood will come out. Scholarly books are lifeless; cut them and dust will come out.

3. Reading vs. Writing  Students should read more than they write. The best way to learn how to write good prose is to read good prose. Students should read the classics — for their style as well as their content. Students today are often asked to write papers that deal with a narrow subject. This encourages them to read obscure authors who treat the narrow subject that they’re writing about. Thus, students don’t read the classics, and they don’t become broadly educated.

Professors, like students, should concentrate on reading and on studying the classics, not on writing. Professors, like students, should follow Schopenhauer’s advice, and read what is good rather than write what is bad. Today’s professors spend their time either reading second-rate literature within their specialized field, or writing second-rate literature within their specialized field. They feel compelled to write; their motto is, “publish or perish.” Academia debases literature and turns it into a trade.

4. Literature vs. Journalism  Modern books aren’t written to be read by future generations, they’re written for the present generation. Thus, most modern books are mere journalism, not real literature. People in earlier cultures wrote books as if they were going to last forever, as if they were going to be carved in stone. Nowadays, people write books as if they were going to last one year, then be recycled. People in earlier cultures took more pains with their letters than we take with our books; their letters were closer to being literature than our books are. Literature is gradually sinking to the level of journalism, just as education is gradually sinking to the level of vocational training.

5. What is a Classic? This question must be answered anew by each generation; each generation must redefine the classics. The body of classics must be continually rejuvenated by the addition of new books. As new books are added to the body of classics, other books must be subtracted, lest the number of classics becomes excessively large. Old classics must make way for new classics, just as a tree’s lower branches die off as it grows taller and puts forth new branches. The body of classics should be kept small enough to allow the average person to read them. In the modern West, almost no one has read the classics, since culture has been fragmented into specialized fields.

The classics should be a combination of old and new — Homer and Kafka, Shakespeare and Freud. There is a tendency, however, to regard only old books as classics. Academia is slow to recognize modern books as classics. Academia’s clock is always a few centuries slow. In the argument of “Ancients Versus Moderns,” academia usually sides with the ancients. Academia prefers old writers like Aristotle, Machiavelli and Hobbes to modern writers like Kierkegaard, Ortega and Jung.

Modern writers, other things being equal, are more important, more relevant, than old writers. Modern writers have experienced modern civilization, and can discuss the problems of modern civilization. And modern writers have benefited from the advances in knowledge that have taken place in modern times. Nietzsche, for example, benefited from the advances made by Schopenhauer and Darwin, while Plato couldn’t benefit from those advances. Likewise, the philosophers of our time can benefit from the advances made by Freud and Jung, while Nietzsche couldn’t benefit from those advances. Modern writers are also preferable with respect to language: Forster’s language, for example, is easier to read than Chaucer’s.

Recently, the old argument of “Ancients Versus Moderns” has been overshadowed by another argument, an argument against the classics in general. According to this argument, the classics were chosen by white Western males, who ignored works by women and works by people of color. This argument is an extension to culture of principles that have already become widespread elsewhere — principles such as preferential treatment for women and minorities.

6. The Unpublished Classic  Everyone can appreciate a classic when it’s established, but few can appreciate a classic when it’s still an unpublished manuscript. Consider Swann’s Way, for example: it was rejected by numerous publishers, and even Gide, the foremost critic of his era, failed to see any merit in it. Frustrated, Proust wanted to publish Swann’s Way at his own expense. But a friend persuaded him to send his manuscript to one more publisher, who returned it with a note that read, “Dear friend: I may be thicker-skinned than most, but I just can’t understand why anyone should take thirty pages to describe how he tosses about in bed because he can’t get to sleep. I clutched my head.”2 So Proust published Swann’s Way at his own expense.

The most difficult task for a critic is to appreciate an original work before it’s established. Most people wait until a book is established before praising it, just as most people clap when others clap. Only a few people clap alone.

7. Foreign Languages  Why do people study foreign languages? Nowadays people usually study foreign languages for the sake of business or travel. In earlier periods, however, people studied foreign languages in order to read in those languages. They studied Greek and Latin, for example, in order to read Greek and Latin literature in the original.

There are several arguments against studying a foreign language for the sake of reading. One such argument is the amount of time that must be spent doing it, which is so large that one could, during the same amount of time, read a great deal in translation. Another such argument is that people who study a foreign language usually acquire only a rough and incomplete knowledge of that language.

There are, however, several reasons to study Latin, even if one doesn’t want to read Latin literature in the original. Studying Latin improves one’s knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, and thus enables one to write better in one’s own language. Is it possible to have a firm knowledge of a Latin-based language if one doesn’t know Latin?

Until recently writers assumed that their readers knew Latin, and sprinkled their works with Latin phrases. Thus, knowing Latin enables one to read many books with greater understanding and enjoyment.

8. The Good Life  Montaigne complained that education in his day had no effect on a person’s life, that it stuffed the brain without improving the person. Likewise, Nietzsche complained that the study of history diverted people’s attention from their own lives; “we would serve history,” wrote Nietzsche, “only so far as it serves life.”3 Nietzsche praised Greek philosophers for teaching through the example of their own lives, instead of devoting themselves to abstract questions that were remote from actual life. The goal of philosophy, like the goal of history, like the goal of education in general, should be The Good Life.

Just as Nietzsche complained that history had strayed too far from life, so too Ruskin complained that economics had strayed too far from life. Ruskin challenged the proud science of economics, and insisted that all its theories of wages, value, labor, etc. were worthless if they didn’t make people’s lives better. A nation that was wealthy in financial terms but not in quality-of-life was a nation that was on the wrong track. Ruskin said, “There is no wealth but life.”4 The goal of economics, too, should be The Good Life.

9. Bernard Berenson  Goethe was a great humanist because he never lost sight of man, never lost sight of the individual human life. Whether he was engaged in scientific studies, or painting, or political affairs, or literary projects, he never forgot that the greatest masterpiece is a human being, and the greatest achievement is self-culture, self-development, bildung (to use the German term). Goethe would have agreed with the Chinese humanists who said, “it is not truth that makes man great, but man who makes truth great.”

If Goethe was a leading humanist of the early 19th century, Bernard Berenson was a leading humanist of the early 20th century. Goethe had said that visual art should be life-enhancing — that is, it should heighten our joy in existence, our love of the world. Berenson developed this idea, and applied it to the history of Italian painting. When he was in his thirties, Berenson began writing Italian Painters of the Renaissance, in which he argued that great art is life-enhancing. Berenson regarded the nude figure as the perfect subject for life-enhancing art; he praised Pollaiuolo’s Battle of the Nudes:

The pleasure we take in these savagely battling forms arises from their power to directly communicate life, to immensely heighten our sense of vitality.... The significance of all these muscular strains and pressures is so rendered that we cannot help realizing them; we imagine ourselves imitating all the movements, and exerting the force required for them.... While under the spell of this illusion [we] feel as if the elixir of life, not our own sluggish blood, were coursing through our veins.5

Throughout his long career, Berenson continued to believe that great painting is life-enhancing. In the late 1940s, when he was in his eighties, Berenson wrote Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts, in which he argued that art should provide models for people, just as Nietzsche had argued that history should provide models for people. Berenson praises paintings that provide a vision of The Good Life, paintings that

offer the noblest models for mankind to attain, models of realizable and never impossible states of being and ways of living.... Raphael’s “Disputa,” “School of Athens,” and “Parnassus” seem now, as they did fifty years ago, the clearest and most convincing visions of the perfect existence for which we yearn, and which we hope to attain.6

Berenson was as fond of nature as he was of art, and he loved to walk in the hills around Florence. He believed that one of the chief benefits of studying art is that it heightens one’s appreciation of nature.

Berenson’s middle years were spent writing Drawings of the Florentine Painters, which was his most detailed, most scholarly book. He worked on this book for many years; day after day, he walked from Fiesole down into Florence, and pored over drawings in the Uffizi. Later, he felt that this book was a distraction from his true calling; he felt that he should have been a generalist, not a specialist; he felt that he should have applied the idea of life-enhancement to literature, and to other branches of culture.

As a young man, Berenson had aspired to be a generalist, a humanist, a second Goethe, and in his old age, he achieved this goal with books like Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts and Sketch for a Self-Portrait. “All the arts,” wrote Berenson, “poetry, music, ritual, the visual arts, the theater, must work singly and together to create the most comprehensive art of all, a humanized society, and its masterpiece, the free man: free within and free without, ready in Goethe’s untarnishable words to live manfully in the whole, the good, and the beautiful.”7

One of Berenson’s greatest pleasures was conversation. He lamented the fact that, in the modern world, conversation is becoming a lost art, and is no longer taken seriously. Berenson says that, like other arts, conversation should have no utilitarian purpose. Berenson met several experts at monologue, like Oscar Wilde, but his favorite conversation was dialogue — an exchange of thoughts that gave birth to new thoughts. The best conversationalist, according to Berenson, was a man who is famous not for his monologues, but for his questions: Socrates. One who often conversed with Socrates, Plato, said “it is the speech of the man who knows that is alive, the written word is really but its ghost.”8 And it was with his speech, not his pen, that Socrates made his mark on history, just as Jesus and Buddha made their mark with their speech, not their pen.

The art historian Kenneth Clark, who knew many eminent intellectuals, described Berenson’s conversation thus:

It was indeed a remarkable performance, of which the reader of his later journals can form a faint impression. The flow of ideas, the range of historical reference, the intellectual curiosity and unexpected human sympathy were certainly beyond those of anyone I have met.9

Berenson especially enjoyed conversing with women. He says that people of the same sex are often divided by “jealousy, envy, and spite.”10 Jungians tell us that the shadow causes conflict between people of the same sex, but between people of the opposite sex, the shadow causes merely annoyance.

Berenson was fond of conversation and reading, but not of writing; he always wrote with reluctance. He would have understood Wilde’s remark, “I am too fond of reading books to care to write them.”11

10. Kenneth Clark  One of Berenson’s disciples was Kenneth Clark. Like Berenson, Clark understood that culture could be life-enhancing, could strengthen our desire to live.

Clark became world-famous in 1969 as a result of a TV series called Civilization. When Clark had first been introduced to Berenson’s writings, at the age of 16, he had been deeply impressed, and when a friend asked him what he wanted to do after leaving school, he replied, “Help Mr. Berenson to produce a new edition of his book on the drawings of the Florentine painters.”12 This from a teenager who had never met Berenson, and didn’t even live in the same country as Berenson!

Six years later, Clark visited Italy, and was introduced to Berenson. As he was leaving, Berenson asked him if he would help with a new edition of his book on the drawings of the Florentine painters. The realization of his youthful ambition was (says Clark) “rather uncanny — like something out of a fairy-tale.”13 Thus began Clark’s two-year apprenticeship with Berenson.

One of Clark’s first loves in the world of art was Japanese prints. He felt that whatever misfortunes he suffered, whatever problems life presented him with, he could always enjoy his Japanese prints, and his other favorites. For Clark, art was a source of pleasure, art was something to live for.

Clark believed that the purpose of art criticism is to keep alive or revive one’s enjoyment of an art work. Clark was an aesthetic hedonist. Academia often overlooks the “pleasure factor,” and turns culture into a task. Academics were scornful of Clark’s TV series, but laymen felt that Clark’s series strengthened their desire to live. Clark says that he received forty or fifty letters a day, and he received nine letters “from people who said that they had been on the point of committing suicide, and that my programs had saved them.”14 Here we have a concrete example of the life-enhancing function of culture.

11. Zen Education  Zen is practical and doesn’t try to stuff the brain with knowledge. Zen never strays from life itself. Zen touches a person deeply, it touches every breath he takes.

One facet of life to which Zen seems especially relevant is parenting. Zen teaches patience, of which a parent has great need since parenting involves a thousand little annoyances. Zen encourages perception rather than reflection, and thus develops in the parent a mental state akin to that of a child, and an appreciation of nature that can be transferred to a child. A Zen parent teaches his child not to regard the present as a preparation for the future, not to be preoccupied with himself, not to take himself too seriously, not to view life as a competition (for academic success, for wealth, for popularity, for moral virtue, etc.), and not to feel that he should be doing something at all times. A Zen parent instills in his child joy in existence, joy in the simplest, most ordinary things, a love of life, a love of the world.

The Good Life is not only a goal for the child, but also for the parent; a parent shouldn’t be so preoccupied with his child’s life that he forgets his own life.

A parent should remember that evil is part of human nature, there is a dark side in everyone, a shadow in everyone. The child’s misbehavior shouldn’t be countenanced, but it shouldn’t astonish us either; the child’s misbehavior should be met with understanding disapproval.

12. Oxford vs. Stratford  When we hear how the theories of Copernicus, Galileo, and others were received, when we hear how those theories were ignored or ridiculed or suppressed, we think that such things couldn’t occur in our age, that our age is free and open, enlightened and advanced. Actually, the progress of truth is as slow now as it was in the past.

Academia is supposed to pursue truth, but academia is often more concerned with defending established dogmas than with discovering truth. One established dogma that academia defends is that the works attributed to Shakespeare were indeed written by William Shakespeare of Stratford. There’s little evidence supporting this dogma, and abundant evidence suggesting that these works were written by the Earl of Oxford. The evidence suggests that the Stratford man could barely write, let alone write plays, let alone write plays of extraordinary quality. But the Stratford theory still survives.

Academia suppresses the Oxford theory, just as the church suppressed heretics. When Harvard Magazine published a defense of the Oxford theory in 1974, Harvard professors were furious with the magazine’s editor for allowing the Oxford theory to have a hearing. A proponent of the Oxford theory would have little chance of winning a position in academia. To succeed in academia, one must espouse popular opinions and defend established dogmas.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, many leading intellectuals rejected the Stratford theory. (The leading intellectuals of a given period often reach the same conclusions; academia reaches those conclusions, too, but not until many years have passed.) Whitman, for example, emphatically rejected the Stratford theory: “I am firm against Shaksper — I mean the Avon man, the actor.” Mark Twain said he was “composedly and contentedly sure” that the Stratford man wasn’t the real author. Henry James said, “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

Criticism of the Stratford dogma prompted people to ask, “if the Stratford man didn’t write those works, then who did?” Several candidates were suggested, but it was impossible to make a convincing case for any of them. Finally, an English schoolteacher, J. T. Looney, conducted a systematic search for the real author, discovered that it was the Earl of Oxford, and published his findings in 1920. Freud, after reading Looney’s book, said “the man of Stratford... seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything.”15

But the views of leading intellectuals don’t matter to English professors; they aren’t the views of specialists. Specialists know better, specialists understand great writers better than great writers do. Specialists can write fat biographies of the Stratford man — biographies built of straw, with a foundation of sand.

13. Discoveries, Re-discoveries  Looney’s discovery was actually a re-discovery, since the identity of “Shakespeare” was known, at least to a few people, in Shakespeare’s time. Likewise, Copernicus didn’t discover the heliocentric theory, but rather re-discovered it centuries after a Greek astronomer discovered it. Columbus didn’t discover America, but rather re-discovered it centuries after Vikings and other peoples had discovered it. How many “discoveries” are actually re-discoveries? Didn’t Plato say that all knowledge is remembering?

14. Twain and Shakespeare  Near the end of his life, in 1909, Twain wrote an essay called “Is Shakespeare Dead?” in which he discusses the Shakespeare controversy. He tells us that he has been interested in this controversy for fifty years — ever since he read a book by the American writer Delia Bacon. Twain devotes most of his essay to attacking the Stratford Theory. Twain argues that the Stratford man’s environment and education weren’t the sort to produce Hamlet. Twain describes Stratford as

a small back settlement which in that day was shabby and unclean, and densely illiterate. Of the nineteen important men charged with the government of the town, thirteen had to “make their mark” in attesting important documents, because they could not write their names. [Shakespeare’s] father could not read, and even the surmisers surmise that he did not keep a library.

Twain notes that whoever wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare had a deep knowledge of law:

At every turn and point at which the author required a metaphor, simile, or illustration, his mind ever turned first to the law. He seems almost to have thought in legal phrases, the commonest of legal expressions were ever at the end of his pen in description or illustration. That he should have descanted in lawyer language when he had a forensic subject in hand, such as Shylock’s bond, was to be expected, but the knowledge of law in “Shakespeare” was exhibited in a far different manner: it protruded itself on all occasions, appropriate or inappropriate, and mingled itself with strains of thought widely divergent from forensic subjects.16

The true author was steeped in the law; his legal knowledge was such as couldn’t have been acquired by mere reading, mere socializing with lawyers. He had a “perfect familiarity with not only the principles, axioms, and maxims, but the technicalities of English law, a knowledge so perfect and intimate that he was never incorrect and never at fault.”17 Twain describes how Stratfordians have struggled to explain the poet’s legal knowledge — how they’ve supposed that he was a clerk in a Stratford law office, etc.

Twain argues that the Stratford argument is based on conjecture:

The historians “suppose” that Shakespeare attended the Free School in Stratford from the time he was seven years old till he was thirteen. There is no evidence in existence that he ever went to school at all. The historians “infer” that he got his Latin in that school — the school which they “suppose” he attended.... It is surmised that he travelled in Italy and Germany and around, and qualified himself to put their scenic and social aspects upon paper; that he perfected himself in French, Italian and Spanish on the road.

Stratfordians resort to conjecture because evidence is lacking. “We can go to the records,” Twain writes, “and find out the life-history of every renowned race-horse of modern times — but not Shakespeare’s!”

Twain describes the Stratford man’s will as

eminently and conspicuously a business man’s will, not a poet’s. It mentioned not a single book. Books were much more precious than swords and silver-gilt bowls and second-best beds in those days, and when a departing person owned one he gave it a high place in his will. The will mentioned not a play, not a poem, not an unfinished literary work, not a scrap of manuscript of any kind. Many poets have died poor, but this is the only one in history that has died this poor; the others all left literary remains behind. Also a book. Maybe two.

Twain notes that the reaction to the Stratford man’s death wasn’t the sort of reaction that you’d expect to the death of an illustrious poet:

When Shakespeare died in Stratford it was not an event. It made no more stir in England than the death of any other forgotten theatre-actor would have made. Nobody came down from London; there were no lamenting poems, no eulogies, no national tears — there was merely silence, and nothing more. A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon, and Spenser, and Raleigh and the other distinguished literary folk of Shakespeare’s time passed from life!

In Twain’s day, the Stratford man’s chief rival was Francis Bacon. Twain doesn’t try to build a detailed case for Bacon, he simply argues that Bacon had the wonderful education, and the amazing talents, that one would expect to find in the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Twain quotes from Macaulay’s essay on Bacon:

In a letter written when he was only thirty-one, to his uncle, Lord Burleigh, [Bacon] said, “I have taken all knowledge to be my province” ....The knowledge in which Bacon excelled all men was a knowledge of the mutual relations of all departments of knowledge.

Such vast ambitions, such vast knowledge, such an inter-disciplinary approach, is what one would expect to find in a first-rate philosopher. Bacon was the Aristotle of England, and he possessed an eloquence, a rhetorical gift, that we don’t find in Aristotle. Twain points out that Bacon was fond of humor — as “Shakespeare” was.

Surely Twain is correct when he says that Bacon is a stronger candidate to be “Shakespeare” than the Stratford man. “It is evident,” Twain writes, “that [Bacon] had each and every one of the mental gifts and each and every one of the acquirements that are so prodigally displayed in the Plays and Poems, and in much higher and richer degree than any other man of his time or of any previous time.... There was only one of him; the planet could not produce two of him at one birth, nor in one age. He could have written anything that is in the Plays and Poems.” As Twain was writing these lines, Looney was building his case for Oxford, and soon Looney would show that the planet could produce two such geniuses in one age. What an age!

Twain understands how difficult it is to overthrow the Stratford Theory, weak though it is:

I am aware that when even the brightest mind in our world has been trained up from childhood in a superstition of any kind, it will never be possible for that mind, in its maturity, to examine sincerely, dispassionately, and conscientiously any evidence or any circumstance which shall seem to cast a doubt upon the validity of that superstition.... It is the way we are made. It is the way we are all made, and we can’t help it, we can’t change it.... I haven’t any idea that Shakespeare will have to vacate his pedestal this side of the year 2209.

15. Whitman and Shakespeare  While Whitman’s own work was eminently democratic, and championed the common man, Whitman regarded Shakespeare as the exact opposite, as eminently aristocratic. He said that Shakespeare’s history plays were

conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation).... Everything possible is done in the Shakespeare plays to make the common people seem common — very common indeed.18

Whitman rejected the conventional view that Shakespeare was from the middle class. Stratfordians often accuse Oxfordians of snobbery, but surely Whitman, the arch-democrat, can’t be accused of snobbery. Whitman remarked on the lack of evidence in support of the Stratford theory:

It is remarkable how little is known of Shaksper the actor.... The record is almost a blank — it has no substance whatever: scarcely anything that is said of him is authorized.

Who, then, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare? “Only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves,” said Whitman, “or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.” A wolfish earl like Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Surely Whitman would have been a passionate champion of the Oxford theory, if he had lived to hear about it. The Oxford theory was discovered about fifteen years after Whitman died.

Whitman was wise enough to remain an agnostic with respect to the Bacon theory — he neither accepted it nor rejected it (“as to Bacon, well, I don’t know”). Twain was also an agnostic with respect to the Bacon Theory: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare,” Twain said, “whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t.”

Whitman was also wise enough to understand how difficult it would be to overthrow the traditional view of Shakespeare:

The typical literary man is no more able to examine this question dispassionately than a priest is to pass on objections to the doctrine of the atonement, hell, heaven: not a bit more able: the scribblers are blind from the start.

Whitman said that Stratfordians used “dirty tricks” and ad hominem attacks to discredit their opponents; this is still true today.

If Oxford was the real author of the works attributed to Shakespeare, why didn’t he publish under his own name? Why did he hide behind the pseudonym William Shakespeare? Writing plays wasn’t considered appropriate for an aristocrat. Since Oxford was close to the Queen, and since he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s chief minister, there may have been political reasons, or social reasons, to conceal his involvement with the theater.

Nothing could be printed without a government license, so the government had the power to conceal Oxford’s authorship. The true identity of “Shakespeare” sank into oblivion because the Puritans closed the theaters, and because of the English Civil War. War always grabs people’s attention, and causes them to forget matters that formerly held their attention. One of the casualties of the English Civil War was the truth about Shakespeare.

16. Passing Singular  What sort of man was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (better known by his pseudonym “William Shakespeare”)? He was much the sort of man that one would expect: he had a superb education (he entered Cambridge at age eight, and had private tutors before that), he was from a cultured family (two of his uncles, Surrey and Sheffield, were prominent poets, and another uncle, Arthur Golding, was a scholar and translator), he was exposed to drama at an early age (his father kept his own acting troupe), he began writing while still in his teens (he probably published an early version of Romeo and Juliet at age 13, and a translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses at age 17), he went to law school (his letters show legal knowledge), he participated avidly in the sports of the nobility (sports like falconry, which is mentioned often in Shakespeare’s plays), he was an expert at jousting (he participated in several tournaments, and often emerged from the lists victorious), he had a temper, and perhaps a violent streak (when he was 17, he killed a cook with his sword), he was a passionate lover (his extra-marital affair with Anne Vavasor produced a son, and also angered the Queen, who clapped him and his mistress in the Tower of London), he was eccentric (Gabriel Harvey called him “a passing singular odd man”), he was close to the Queen, and close to the levers of power (scholars had wondered how Shakespeare was so familiar with politics), and he had a passion for travel, especially for travel to countries renowned for culture (he spent several months in Italy, and planned a journey to Greece).

While traveling on the Continent, Oxford may have encountered the poet George Chapman. In one of his plays, Chapman has a character say that he encountered Oxford in Germany, and that he found him to be

...the most goodly fashion’d man
I ever saw: from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute...
He was beside of spirit passing great
Valiant and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals.19

17. Shakespeare and Goethe  There are many parallels between Shakespeare and Goethe — aside from the obvious one that they were both great poets (when I say “Shakespeare” I mean the Earl of Oxford, just as when I say “Mark Twain” I mean Samuel Clemens). Both were “Renaissance men” with a wide range of interests: Goethe was a painter, actor and scientist, while Shakespeare was an expert in music, plants, sports, etc. Both were involved in politics, and lived in close proximity to the levers of power (Goethe, however, wasn’t involved in military affairs as Shakespeare was). Both were Northern Europeans who had a passion for Italy; they flourished in Italy, they found themselves in Italy. Goethe called Rome, “the land where I was absolutely happy for the first time in my life.”20 Shakespeare’s passion for Italy is evident in his plays, many of which are set in Italy. Both Goethe and Shakespeare were Hermetic thinkers; Goethe had a keen interest in the occult, and Jung said that Goethe’s Faust was an alchemical work from top to bottom.

Goethe regarded Shakespeare as a father-figure, a second father. Just as a young child emulates his father, so a young adult emulates his second father. Doubtless the young Goethe emulated Shakespeare. Goethe would have had a keen interest in the identity of Shakespeare, just as he would have had a keen interest in the identity of his own father. Goethe would not have understood the common view that “it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was. We have the wonderful poetry, isn’t that enough?” Shakespeare represents a high point of human achievement. If it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was, what does matter?

Goethe said, “Of what use are all the arts of a talent, if we do not find in a theatrical piece an amiable or great personality of the author? This alone influences the cultivation of the people.”21 Goethe is saying that the personality of the author not only matters, it’s the heart and soul of the drama. Goethe thinks the personality of the author (his “amiable or great personality”) provides people with a model or ideal, and can guide people toward culture, toward personal growth. Goethe himself was such a model or ideal, and often appeared in the dreams of Germans as a father-figure, an ideal.

A critic of the Oxford Theory will say, “Oxford had many faults, he was neither ‘amiable’ nor ‘great’.” I don’t deny that Oxford had faults. Goethe and Oxford both had a dark side, a shadow side. Goethe could depict Faust and Mephistopheles because he was acquainted with both, he had both within himself, he had the light and the shadow. Because of his contradictory nature, the impression Goethe made on people was contradictory. After Schiller met him, Schiller said, “it is a most peculiar mixture of love and hatred that he has inspired in me.”22 Goethe said that he knew a man “who, without saying a word, could suddenly silence a party engaged in cheerful conversation, by the mere power of his mind. Nay, he could also introduce a tone which would make everybody feel uncomfortable.”23 Doubtless this un-named man is Goethe himself. Goethe was acquainted with the occult power of the shadow.

But while Goethe and Oxford both had dark sides, they were, on the whole, great men, and impressed some of their contemporaries as such. Percival Golding said of Oxford, “I will only speak what all men’s voices confirm: He was a man in mind and body absolutely accomplished with honorable endowments.” Napoleon was more concise; after meeting Goethe, Napoleon said, “there is a man (voilà un homme).”

18. Peer Review  One of the cornerstones of academia is peer review, but peer review favors established ideas, and resists revolutionary ideas. Nicholas Negroponte, former head of the MIT Media Lab and current head of “One Laptop Per Child,” said

I was always apprehensive of the peer review system. And I still am to this day, because, if your peers are reviewing you.... they’re doing it from a point of view that is to some degree the establishment.... The peer review system suffers from often dismissing things, because they don’t fit into what we’re currently doing.24

Peer review frowns on new paradigms, like the Oxford Theory. Established scholars work within existing paradigms, they’re concerned with “normal science,” they resist revolutions. Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows new ideas to break through. A traditional encyclopedia is an organ of the establishment, and gives you the establishment view of Shakespeare. Wikipedia gives you both the Stratford Theory and the Oxford Theory.

If the Oxford Theory is true, then the academic establishment has failed miserably to understand the greatest of imaginative writers. Perhaps the establishment should re-think its methods, re-think the idea of peer review, and consider borrowing a page from Wikipedia. Perhaps Wikipedia has discovered a new approach to scholarly work, an approach that is especially well-suited to revolutionary ideas.

It’s striking how many scholars have been taken in by the Stratford Theory, and it’s also striking how many geniuses have rejected the Stratford Theory. Eissler said that, in the world of science, genius can be recognized by its discovery of new paradigms.25 The same is true in the humanities: genius has a knack for discovering new paradigms, rejecting false paradigms, being receptive to paradigms discovered by others, etc.

We tend to believe that truth is discovered by careful research, by good methodology, etc. But perhaps genius — the vision of genius — is the best way to discover truth. Eissler said, “I doubt that the generally accepted principle of striving and searching as the means by which to accomplish the goal of finding the truth [is] correct. Freud made his great discoveries when he let the truth come to him.”26 Genius usually makes its discoveries through intuition, not through laborious research; genius sees the truth. Decades of research may not be as effective in discovering truth as the vision of genius, as a flash of intuition. The Shakespeare case shows that academia is designed for the painstaking work of refining an existing paradigm; academia resists new paradigms, and thereby impedes the progress of truth.

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1. Life of Johnson, Aetat. 57 back
2. André Maurois, Proust: A Biography, 9, 1 back
3. Untimely Essays, “The Use and Abuse of History” back
4. Unto This Last, “Ad Valorem” back
5. Italian Painters of the Renaissance, “Florentine Painters,” §8 back
6. Aesthetics and History in the Visual Arts (Pantheon Books, 1948, NY), ch. 3 back
7. ibid, Conclusion. Goethe’s original: “Im guten, ganzen, shönen resolut zu leben.” back
8. See Berenson’s Sketch for a Self-Portrait, Part 2, Ch. 3 back
9. Another Part of the Wood, p. 156 back
10. ibid, Part 1, Ch. 1 back
11. Wilde, Dorian Gray, ch. 3 back
12. K. Clark, Another Part of the Wood: A Self-Portrait, Harper & Row, 1974, p. 76 back
13. ibid, p. 129 back
14. The Other Half (the second volume of Clark’s memoirs), Harper & Row, 1977, ch. 4, p. 223 back
15. See Charlton Ogburn, The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, ch. 10. Nietzsche, Whittier, Galsworthy, Bismarck and others also rejected the Stratford theory. back
16. Twain is quoting the anti-Stratford writer George Greenwood, who is quoting a lawyer named Lord Penzance. back
17. This, too, is a quote from Lord Penzance. back
18. See “Walt Whitman on Shakespeare,” by Paul A. Nelson, Newsletter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, Fall, 1992 back
19. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, 1984, Dodd, Mead & Co., ch. 19 back
20. Goethe: The History of a Man, by Emil Ludwig, ch. 7 back
21. Conversations with Eckermann, March 8, 1827 back
22. Goethe: The History of a Man, by Emil Ludwig, ch. 9 back
23. Conversations with Eckermann, 10/7/27
When I discussed Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, I noted that Farmer Boldwood could silence a cheerful party by his mere presence, his “shadow power”:
“As I read Madding Crowd, I wondered if Boldwood had some of Hardy’s own traits. Boldwood is a shadow figure, reminding me of Hamlet and Ahab. When Gabriel Oak is shearing sheep, ‘Oak’s belief that [Bathsheba] was going to stand pleasantly by [was] painfully interrupted by Farmer Boldwood’s appearance in the extremest corner of the barn. Nobody seemed to have perceived his entry, but there he certainly was. Boldwood always carried with him a social atmosphere of his own, which everybody felt who came near him; and the talk, which Bathsheba’s presence had somewhat suppressed, was now totally suspended.’” back
24. Interview on C-SPAN’s “Q & A,” 11/25/07 back
25. Talent and Genius: The Fictitious Case of Tausk contra Freud, ch. 7 back
26. ibid back