Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Conversation: `A Manifold of Some Sort'

Only slowly do footnotes reveal their treasures, at least for this sluggish reader. I’ve read Michael Oakeshott’s “Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind” (in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1962) half a dozen times over the years, and always relish its concluding sentence:

“Poetry is a sort of truancy, a dream within the dream of life, a wild flower planted among our wheat.”

But I had never pursued a lengthy quotation from William Cory tucked away at the bottom of a page. Oakeshott identifies Cory as “an Eton master,” and says he “understood education as a preparation for participation in conversation.” Here’s a portion of the passage Oakeshott cites:

“… you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.”

I knew nothing of Cory (1823-1892) but his words distilled some of my feelings about the purposes of education, how it hardly begins in school and is best sustained across a lifetime; how it is less an effort to accumulate information than a means of growing into the person one might become; how true learning is never passive. Cory reminded me of the great Nirad C. Chaudhuri and his father’s “glorification” of education as described in The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian:

“It was not with intellectual conviction alone that my father spoke of education. There was emotional fervour in his attitude, so that we got a sense that by educating ourselves we should be acquiring, not simply the means to do something else, not simply a key to other kinds of success, but some all-round and absolute goodness which was not mere skill but something desirable in itself.”

A brief online investigation suggests Cory was a gifted tutor whose extracurricular activities may have been less than wholesome. I remain impressed by his notion that one attends “a great school” – which I amend to include one’s life – “for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and for mental soberness.” On the page where he cites Cory, Oakeshott defines his understanding of “conversation”:

“It may be supposed that the diverse idioms of utterance which make up current human intercourse have some meeting-place and compose a manifold of some sort. And, as I understand it, the image of this meeting-place is not an inquiry or an argument, but a conversation.”

This sounds surprisingly like the more civilized regions of the blogosphere. Among those who, in Oakeshott’s words, “embraced [this notion] without reserve and without misgiving,” is Montaigne. Oakeshott doesn’t elaborate, but the Frenchman is certainly a model for those enrolled in a “great school” from which graduation is not an option. In “Of presumption” (Donald Frame’s translation) he writes:

“I gladly return to the subject of the ineptitude of our education. Its goal has been to make us not good or wise, but learned; it has attained this goal. It has not taught us to follow and embrace virtue and wisdom, but has imprinted in us their derivation, and etymology. We know how to decline virtue, if we cannot love it.”

Montaigne was born too soon to know we've even dropped "learned" as a goal.


Dave Lull said...

"About conversation and its concomitant, meditation, [Jacques] Barzun writes in 'Culture High and Dry' (The Culture We Deserve, Wesleyan University Press, 1989):

"'Culture in whatever form — art, thought, history, religion — is for meditation and conversation. Both are necessary sequels to the experience. Cultivation does not come automatically after exposure to the good things as health follows a dose of the right drug. If it did, orchestra players would be the most cultured people musically and copy editors the finest judges of literature. Nor does “reading up” on art suffice unless it spurs meditation and conversation. Both are actions of the mind along the path of finesse. No one can imagine a systematic conversation. As for true meditation, it excludes nothing; its virtue is to comprehend — in both senses: to understand and to take in the fullest view. Both are actions of the mind-and-heart, and therefore charged with the strongest feelings. Indeed both interior monologue and spoken dialogue aim at discerning which feelings and to what degree of each belong to an idea or an image. That is how culture reshapes the personality: it develops the self by offering the vicarious experience and thought; it puts experience in order.'"


A favorite quotation of Jacque Barzun's is:

"To my taste, the most natural and fruitful exercise of the mind is conversation. Engaging in it I find sweeter than any other activity in life, which is why if I were forced to choose, I think I would rather agree to lose my eyesight than my hearing or power of speech.
— Montaigne, Essays, III, 8"


Nige said...

Cory also wrote the much-anthologised poem Heraclitus -
'They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead.
They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed...'
I heard it read at a funeral once by someone who whimsically pronounced the name HerAClitus, with terrible results.

Levi Stahl said...

Nice catch, Nige--no matter how many times I encounter "Heraclitus," its opening lines still bring me up short.

The part of Cory's description that I found most striking was "the habit of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms." That is a rarely mentioned virtue of true education, but it is one whose lack quickly becomes painfully evident when one gets to arguing with people who've not been trained to it; disagreement becomes abhorrence so quickly as to be automatic, destroying in the process any hope of discourse.

Mr Bleaney said...

If I may, a brief follow-up to Nige's mention of "Heraclitus": the poem is a translation of an epigram by Callimachus. Kingsley Amis included it in his "Amis Anthology," noting that "the translation uses more than twice as many words as the original." Amis writes further: "This is not to say that Cory's version is somehow enervated or puffed up. What is remarkable is how different it is from the Callimachus while remaining a very close translation, in the sense that the one introduces no ideas that are not in the other."

My apologies for the detour, but I, too, am fond of "Heraclitus," and found Amis's comments interesting.