We leave our school years as unfinished learners; with age we appreciate the limits of that learning and face the reality of our obsolescence as human knowledge continues its relentless advance. The solution of course is a commitment to lifelong learning. Robert Hutchins in the introductory volume to The Great Books speaks of John Dewey’s belief that continued growth is essential to intellectual life. Hutchins expresses his sublime thought: “The twin aims that have animated mankind since the dawn of history are the conquest of nature and the conquest of drudgery…It is impossible to believe that men can long be satisfied with the kind of recreations that now occupy the bulk of their free time…A man must use his mind; he must feel that he is doing something that will develop his highest powers and contribute to the development of his fellow men, or he will cease to be a man.”2 It seems to me intellectual growth requires a mixture of the great books of the past, texts on history, contemporary literature, current news (multiple sources), and study of science.
Two millennia earlier Seneca says much the same as Hutchins: “Leisure without study is death; a tomb for the living man.” But Seneca adds to reading and study a further task – writing: “We ought not confine ourselves either to writing or to reading; the one, continuous writing, will cast a gloom over our strength and exhaust it; the other will make our strength flabby and watery. It is better to have recourse to them alternately, and to blend one with the other, so that the fruits of one’s reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen.” Full intellectual self-improvement then appears to be a blend of reading and writing. (In fact this web site is my effort to fulfill Seneca’s imperative.)
Of course this entire section and the earlier one on Ethics all entail ethical self-improvement, but it seems reasonable to pause for some ancient wisdom on the process of ethical self-perfection. Aristotle thinks the goal of human life is to be ‘good at’ being human. The Greek term for this is arête meaning human excellence or virtue. He thinks virtue is a habit or learned capacity; as one practices virtue, it becomes easier, even pleasant, much as when learning to play an instrument. Moreover, like playing an instrument, it is a capacity we always have even when not using it.3
Seneca echoes Aristotle: ” Learning virtue means unlearning vice. We should therefore proceed to the task of freeing ourselves from faults with all the more courage because when once committed to us the good is the everlasting possession. Virtue is not unlearned.” The person who wishes to have self-mastery and excel as a human must thus continually perfect virtue.
(further continued next post)