QOTD (2011-10-28); or, Slow College

From Symonds’ Memoirs:

I took to examining my thoughts and wishes with regard to the mysteries of the universe, God, nature, man. This I did seriously, almost systematically, during more than two years of reading for the Final Schools at Oxford. The studies on which I was engaged, Plato, Aristotle, the history of ancient and modern philosophy, logic, supplied me with continual food for meditation; and in the course of long walks or midnight colloquies, I compared my own eager questionings with those of many sorts of men…. A book called Essays and Reviews attracted extraordinary attention at that time; and a vehement contest about the endowment of Prof. Jowett’s chair was raging between the liberals and conservatives of the university. Theology penetrated our intellectual and social atmosphere. We talked theology at breakfast parties and at wine parties, out riding and walking, in college gardens, on the river, wherever young men and their elders met together.

I wish those who bemoan the loss, particularly in America, of this kind of liberal intellectual education, founded on the virtues of conversation and particularly of dialogue, could have been a fly on the wall of my college room last night. Last night, the night before fall break, is a time for debauched revelry in Princeton, when students attend Halloween parties and celebrate having no school for a week. I sat at home, and then over the course of the evening one, then two and three, then four friends arrived at my door. We sat around the coffee table and opened a bottle of wine and talked—and we talked and we talked, until four in the morning, about free will and the mind-body problem and whether a computer can love. I had an uncanny moment of historical déjà vu—a bit like the one I had once in the Radcliffe Camera, reading Thomas Arnold’s edition of Thucydides just like Oscar Wilde. The other week I wrote the part of my thesis that is about Symonds in 1860, reading Stallbaum’s commentary on the Phaedrus and trying to understand what Plato means when he says that love is a disease. Well into the fourth hour of our own symposium, when I found my friends and I talking about what one feels when one sees the person (or the place, or thing) one loves, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude and pride that for us, at least, the questions college students ask haven’t changed. University is a special time when you can stay up till four talking philosophy, a time when you can inhabit that academic world that revolves entirely around the virtue of conversation. As far as I am concerned, it is a crime not to avail yourself of that chance. And as far as I am concerned, there is no question that when it comes to spending my senior year well, I’d rather be at symposia than Halloween parties.

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