Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From Yale Alumni Magazine, XXXIX, October 1975, 13-15.  Blanshard taught philosophy at Yale from the summer of 1945 to 1961, and for seven years was department chairman.  “The academic in retirement is a lucky man. He has been cultivating interests all his life, and he has no excuse for boredom.”  “The Americans say X is old and probably therefore dotty; the Chinese say X is old and therefore probably wise. My prejudice has always been with the Chinese.”  As the title is not stylistically Blanshard’s, I suspect that the magazine’s editor formed it out of another of this essay’s sentences, shortened it, and put it between quote marks.


“For One Who Is Liberally Educated, Life Is Far Too Short”

Brand Blanshard

“How does it seem to be an emeritus?” My own answer, for what it is worth, is that I am enjoying it immensely. I advise my friends to join me at the first opportunity.

That sounds as if I hadn’t enjoyed my teaching. But I did. I enjoyed that immensely too, though I don’t think I ever reached the height of William Lyon Phelps of lying in bed of a morning and thinking with delight of his first class. With me it was always a nervous adventure to walk into a Yale classroom. Yale boys (they were all boys in my time) are a formidable lot to speak to—alert, intelligent and responsive, but easily bored and intimidatingly expressive. They are a generous audience, generous with the enthusiasm of youth, and as ready to applaud heartily a lecture that they consider good as to hiss a bad joke or laugh derisively over a Freudian slip. I never felt quite safe until the lecture was over.

Still it was an exhilarating business. The graduate seminars were in a way more exhilarating still, since philosophy is the ideal subject to teach by the seminar method. Philosophy, as Plato said, is a dialogue, sometimes with others, sometimes with oneself, but always through a zigzag of arguments and counter-arguments. To improve Swinburne a little:


We’d hunt down truth together,

Pluck out his flying-feather

And teach his feet a measure

And find his mouth a rein.


The give-and-take of discussion with quick and able minds is an experience in which one can feel oneself growing. And that, so Spinoza thought, is the best sort of happiness.

Though I enjoyed both lecturing and discussion, reading student papers was another matter. It is the grimmest part of a teacher’s life. He can’t avoid it, or at least he shouldn’t, for writing is an essential part of learning to think or speak with precision. It is becoming a lost art among students, some of whom apparently graduate from high school without ever having written an essay in their lives.

The teacher must make his students write, and so far as practicable, he must read their writing himself. So he must be prepared to be a martyr. It isn’t the A papers that give him trouble; some of them he can even enjoy. Nor is it the papers that fall flat on their faces with carelessness; he can deal out a swift F and pass on. What he falls asleep over and must read again are the C+ productions, churned out by able students for credit only, written with obvious boredom and read with an intenser boredom.

During my 40 years of journeying with a hamper of papers on my back I resorted to a variety of desperate stratagems to save time and sanity. I once had a big assortment of rubber stamps made with such comments as “Elephantiasis” or just the inarticulate cry of anguish, “Oh, Oh, Oh.” Once I had a pile of green sheets printed with 40 of the comments that were most often needed—20 on substance and 20 on form—and I would check the relevant squares, though always adding a written comment. The method had an unexpected bonus. When the student’s first essay came back to him with that green sheet attached, he said, “So this is what the old geezer wants,” and on his succeeding papers he set out to avoid entanglement with those squares. That a pile of papers is no longer there on my desk demanding first attention is one of the joys of being an emeritus.

There are other inevitable questions that are asked of an emeritus besides “How does it seem?” One of them is, of course, “What do you think of the younger generation?” My opinion has small weight here, since I see so little of them now. But once a week I talk with some of them, and of these I can only say that they seem far ahead of what I was at their age—ready and alert in talk, wide in their interests, intelligent, keen and courteous.

But these are seniors, and a high-powered group.  What of the run-of-the-mill undergradu-ates? I know little about them except their looks, and here I am baffled. I walk into a college dining room and see a convention of Alaska trappers or Nepal hippies—unbarbered, coatless, tieless, tousled of hair and beard, decked out in checked shirts and patched antediluvian jeans, visitors who have wandered in from worlds unrealized, at least by me.

I had a divided mind about youth in the years from 1968 to 1972. The students seemed in those years to be following pied pipers who were slightly mad. Not that civil rights and anti-war crusades were undeserving of praise, but that the attacks were so often made at the wrong points. Presidents Perkins and Pusey of Cornell and Harvard were not all that wicked; and the revolt against liberal education in favor of “relevant” training for jobs has not improved the curriculum. And when the pied pipers chose to make hash of the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 rather than the Republican one in Miami, the result was a wave of disgust on which a well-known name rode into the White House by a narrow victory. The name was Nixon. Was that what the young liberals really wanted?

The fact is that youth in this country, charming and enviable as it is, is overvalued. In America youth has an aura around it; if you don’t believe it, look at the cigarette ads, where young love in green glades confers its daily benediction on nicotine. The result is that America is an odd place to retire in. It is a young people’s culture in an increasingly old people’s country. There are more than 22 million of us who are over 65. At the turn of the century we were 4 percent of the population; we are now 10 percent. By the middle of the next century we are expected to be above 25 percent.  These are facts that we have not digested or pro~ vided for. We must learn how to put to better use the 15 or 20 years that follow 65.

These years, as I said, have to me been happy years. I have always wanted to read and write, and teaching left too little time for either. Now I am scribbling delightedly the things I have long wanted to say. I published a thousand pages last year that my friends tell me are not unreadable, and am seeding an equal crop for next year. The academic in retirement is a lucky man. He has been cultivating interests all his life, and he has no excuse for boredom.

In fact, there is something in the view that only bores are bored. For one thing, what a challenge the present combination of inflation and recession offers to anyone who is economically minded.  I have never known much about economics, and it has been a satisfaction to sit down with a fat book on the subject and learn that it is a field with clear and intelligible laws whose exceptions are hardly more baffling than those of French verbs. I love poetry, too, and am inclined to think, with Sir Richard Livingstone, that poetry is read with far more understanding in middle and later life than it is in youth.  As Henry Wriston says, “If your mind grows, as it should, retirement is exciting.”

But I can’t subscribe to Browning’s


Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life for which the first was made.


Peace of mind comes from facing the facts, and the best of life is not in fact the time when your work day is cut of necessity from ten hours to four, when one can no longer play tennis or swing through the country on long walks, when you gravitate more and more to the rocking chair, and when the honing of the scythe and the swish of the reaper close in more loudly day by day. What is disquieting is not so much that the reaper is bound to catch up with you at some point not far distant; you have known that all along. It is the fact that when your body begins to sink, it may pull your mind and even your character down with it. As some Frenchman said, “Pour être mort, malheureusement il faut mourir.” Not even philosophy could halt that descent in Kant and Nietzsche and Emerson.

Nevertheless I am convinced that philosophy can do much—not the professional hairsplitting that some of us have to teach, but the quiet attempt to see things as they are. Let me set down a few of the things that I think philosophy does teach about growing old.

1. “The tragedy of growing old is remaining young,” said Dean lnge. One does not feel one’s age; one is the same person and too often tries to do the same things. I once saw “Lefty” Grove called in by Connie Mack to pitch in a crisis. There were men on base; no outs, and Ruth, Gehrig and Lazzeri coming to bat. Grove struck them all out.  Many years later I saw him try to pitch again, and the sight was pitiful. One must know when to go and try to go gracefully, not to hang forlornly on. Fortunately, the active lifetime of the philosopher is double that of the athlete. The memory of names, is the first thing to go, but that is unimportant. I found that I could think and write about as well at 70 as at 30, and with better judgment; only I could not keep at it so long.

2. Years ought to bring wisdom. Americans and Chinese take curiously different views at this point. The Americans say X is old and probably therefore dotty; the Chinese say X is old and therefore probably wise. My prejudice has always been with the Chinese. To be sure, as Bernard Shaw said, “there are cricketeers to whom age brings golf instead of wisdom.” But experience, if at all reflected on, should bear fruit. Dr. Jowett, the Master of Balliol, used to say that the last 10 years of life are the best because then you are freest from care, freest from illusion, and fullest of experience.

If I wanted wisdom in politics I would go to Walter Lippmann in his eighties; if I were looking for wisdom in philosophy, I would want to visit George Santayana, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey in their nineties. True, there are cynics about all this. It was Robert Louis Stevenson, I think, who said that the old love to give good advice because they can no longer give a bad example. And one remembers the cautionary lines:

King David and King Solomon

Led very merry lives.

With very many lady friends

And very many wives;

But when old age came creeping on

With very many qualms.

King Solomon wrote the Proverbs,

And King David wrote the Psalms.

Yes, one might say to the cynic, but don’t you wish you could do as well? At any rate, we may balance the cynic with Sir Thomas Overbury: “The good man feels old age rather by the strength of his soul than by the weakness of his body.”  

3. Even the changes in the body are not all loss. Think of the rich expressiveness in some of Rembrandt’s older faces. A Nobel prize-winner in physiology, Alexis Carrel, said: “Unwittingly our visage progressively models itself on our states of consciousness. With the advance of age it becomes more and more pregnant with the feelings, the appetites and the aspirations of the whole being.  The beauty of youth comes from the natural harmony of the lineaments of the human face. That, so rare, of an old man, from his soul.”

A senator once tried to get a postmaster’s job from Lincoln for one of his aides. ‘‘I’m afraid not,” said the President. “I don’t like his face.” “Surely you can’t be serious,” the senator said.  “You can’t blame a man for his face.”  “After 40 you can,” Lincoln replied.

Women are perhaps more troubled than men by the appearance of crows’ feet and wrinkles. So it must have been startling to many to hear from the best woman preacher I have heard, Maude Royden: “No woman can be blamed if she is not beautiful at 20, but every woman must be blamed if she is not beautiful at 50.”

4. But perhaps the most important counsel that reflection has to after is: keep your interests alive.  Not all the vacant faces that one sees on retirement-home verandas are physically necessary. The powers may be there, but nothing awakes the interest of that vacuous stare. One of the purposes of a liberal education is to provide insurance against that stare. Education is a process of learning how to learn, and to learning there is no end.  For one who is liberally educated, life is not too long, but far too short.

Catherine Drinker Bowen, in A Yankee from Olympus, says that Franklin D. Roosevelt, a few days after his inauguration, went to call on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. “He found Holmes reading Plato. The question was irresistibly, ‘Why do you read Plato, Mr. Justice?’  ‘To improve my mind, Mr. President,’ Holmes replied.” He was then 92.

In my philosophy of value, developed in my book, Reason and Goodness, the only thing in the world that has value is consciousness or experience, and the only experience that has value in itself is one that fulfills a felt need of our nature.  If the felt need, the want, the interest is not there, the mind lacks yeast and will sag like a lump of dough, even if surrounded with stimuli. The rich minds are the yeasty ones that never stay put, not even at 70, or 80, or 90. Goethe was an example. “He achieved anyhow the greatest of all triumphs,” said Lowes Dickinson, ‘‘Which is continuing to live to the last moment instead of dying prematurely at 40 and then lingering on as a rather malicious and destructive ghost, as most of us do.” His last words were “More light!:

My wish for all emeriti is that they might live like that and die like that.

Posted February 3, 2007

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