QOTD (2012-04-06)

As I’ve started to take stock of what it is I’ve learned and become in the past four years of college, I was much surprised by how moved I was by the following passage, from the section titled “Eros” in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind:

The eroticism of our students is lame. It is not the divine madness Socrates praised; or the enticing awareness of incompleteness and the quest to overcome it; or nature’s grace, which permits a partial being to recover his wholeness in the embrace of another, or a temporal being to long for eternity in the perpetuity of his seed; or the hope that all men will remember his deeds; or the contemplation of perfection. Eroticism is a discomfort, but one that in itself promises relief and affirms the goodness of things. It is the proof, subjective but incontrovertible, of man’s relatedness, imperfect though it may be, to others and to the whole of nature. Wonder, the source of both poetry and philosophy, is its characteristic expression. Eros demands daring from its votaries and provides a good reason for it. This longing for completeness is the longing for education, and the study of it is education. Socrates’ knowledge of ignorance is identical with his perfect knowledge of erotics. The longing for his conversations with which he infected his companions, and which was intensified after his death and has endured throughout the centuries, proved him to have been both the neediest and most grasping of lovers, and the richest and most giving of beloveds. The sex lives of our students and their reflection on them disarm such longing and make it incomprehensible to them. Reduction has robbed eros of its divinatory powers. Because they do not trust it, students have no reverence for themselves. There is almost no remaining link visible to them between what they learn in sex education and Plato’s Symposium.

[…]

I believe that the most interesting students are those who have not settled the sexual problem, who are still young, even look young for their age, who think there is much to look forward to and much they must yet grow up to, fresh and naive, excited by the mysteries to which they have not yet been fully initiated. There are some who are men and women at the age of sixteen, who have nothing more to learn about the erotic. They are adult in the sense that they will no longer change very much. They may become competent specialists, but they are flat-souled. The world is for them what it presents itself to the senses to be; it is unadorned by imagination and devoid of ideals. This flat soul is what the sexual wisdom of our time conspires to make universal.

The easy sex of teen-agers snips the golden thread linking eros to education. And popularized Freud finishes it for good by putting the seal of science on an unerotic understanding of sex. A youngster whose sexual longings consciously or unconsciously inform his studies has a very different set of experiences from one in whom such motives are not active. A trip to Florence or to Athens is one thing for a young man who hopes to meet his Beatrice on the Ponte Santa TrinitĂ  or his Socrates in the Agora, and quite another for one who goes without such aching need…. Such longing is what students most need, because the great remains of the tradition have grown senile in our care. Imagination is required to restore their youth, beauty and vitality, and then to experience their inspiration.

A significant number of students used to arrive at the university physically and spiritually virginal, expecting to lose their innocence there. Their lust was mixed into everything they thought and did. They were painfully aware that they wanted something but were not quite sure exactly what it was, what form it would take and what it all meant. The range of satisfactions intimated by their desire moved from prostitutes to Plato, and back, from the criminal to the sublime. Above all they looked for instruction. Practically everything they read in the humanities and social sciences might be a source of learning about their pain, and a path to its healing…. The itch for what appeared to be only sexual intercourse was the material manifestation of the Delphic oracle’s command, which is but a reminder of the most fundamental human desire, to “know thyself.”

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