- Can I go to school, college, or some special place to learn liberally?
- Many curricula claim the liberal arts, but to learn liberally there is only one — your curriculum vitae in its original sense, the course of your life. As free, autonomous persons, making our own choices, using our own judgment, thinking for ourselves in the company of others, we can and should learn liberally throughout our lives, wherever and whenever we can.
- OK, but then — wherever and whenever — what do I aim at as I learn liberally?
- Here's a clue from someone who learned liberally: "Plato's central importance for a humanistic education — and 'humanistic education' is really tautological — is due to the fact that a prolonged encounter with Plato changes a man." You might take Plato to be the clue, but that works for only a few. "A prolonged encounter" gives us the better clue, for it works for most everyone. As one learns liberally, one aims at a prolonged encounter, one that changes a person.
- Prolonging encounters isn't so hard, but which will change me, and how?
- Learn that liberally! The verb, "to entertain," comes from French, (entre = "between" plus tenir = "to hold, keep, or grasp"), including among its senses as the word came into English, "to keep (a person, group, etc.) in a certain state or condition". Prolonged encounters do not entertain, for they are more formative. Our lives fill with encounters. We let many hold us casually between this and that, entertaining us; but we also use our judgment and choose to prolong others, not in a steady state, but in a sequence of returns, in which we uncover new possibilities for us that cumulatively mark a significant change in our course of life. With warped judgment, these recurrent encounters can spell trouble and we learn illiberally, self-destructively. With sound judgment, the cumulative change brings a welcome measure of fulfillment.
- How does one avoid warped judgment and strengthen firm judgment?
- Here's where study comes in, the examined life. Prolonged encounters consist in many repetitions, which we can easily sustain mindlessly, unconscious habits with which we drift according to the currents of fortuna. Study attends sharply to what happens in the sequence of repetitions, perceiving the opening and closing of possibilities, testing, trying, interpreting, understanding, acting and reacting. "Warped judgment" or "sound judgment" are not things out there that one avoids or envelops; they are in us, internal organs integral to the lives we form for ourselves. We avoid warping our judgment and succeed in firming our judgment by living attentively, studiously, thoughtfully, examining our courses of action with as much forethought as we can muster.
- Wait, what you say here about living seems to require a lot of leisure, all that time to be attentive, thoughtful, and on — time most of us don't have and can't afford.
- Every skill and art involves gradations of excellence and complexities of purpose, which repay close examination. Why did Socrates, himself a stonecutter, converse with craftsmen as much as the leisured well-to-do? The wise philosopher and the wise shoemaker will interact more constructively than either can with the rich fool. Read the daily news! It is not work and play now, and then be attentive, studious, and thoughtful, examining why one did what one did yesterday. Examining life takes place through a quality of awareness with which one lives the life.
- OK, but doesn't exercising some forms of awareness require more leisure than others?
- Perhaps, but we cannot be sure. The boorish aesthete and ignorant leader, and many other knaves and fools, recur in all walks and strata. Life puts to us many questions and some may be more difficult to examine well than others are. These may evoke the most perplexity and disagreement and thus around them the efforts to examine them over many generations have accreted numerous layers and aspects. Grasping all that seems to require a lot of leisure. Yet those lived questions arise from the life that each person lives and it is not clear that great insight into these lived questions requires the extraordinary leisure needed to master all the accretions. Was not Jesus an ordinary carpenter?
- What good then comes from thorough study of these difficult aspects of life?
- When people devote themselves to these questions for purposes extrinsic to them it may serve little good and possibly much harm. But insofar as the questions are real questions in the lives we lead, questions that we live — attending to, choosing between, judging with, acting on — we need to examine them as best we can. Given the complexity of the record, it is a fair bet that as we act, each of us will have to admit, "I can't be sure." But each of us might also want to lessen the degree of uncertainty we feel as best we can. It is a kind of privilege to do that at length, but no right of gatekeeping comes with that privilege, for each person lives the questions and must take responsibility for the answers she acts out. Hence, we present the Heritage of Study on these matters and invite all to engage in it as deeply as they can and should, taking account of their unique circumstances in which each conducts their lives.
Montaigne on the formation of judgment
Truth and reason are common to everyone and are no more his who spoke them first than his who speaks them later. It is no more according to Plato than according to me since both he and I equally see and understand it in the same manner. Bees pillage the flowers here and there, but they then make honey of them which is all their own; it is no longer thyme and marjoram; so the fragments borrowed from others he will transform and blend together to make a work that shall be absolutely his own; that is to say, his judgment. His education, labor, and study aim only at forming that.
- Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1961) p. 409.
- Montaigne, "Of the Education of Children," in Montaigne, Selected Essays Cotton-Hazlitt, trans. revised by Blanchard Bates, New York: The Modern Library, 1949, p. 22. Illustration from The Naturalist's Library Vol. XXVI: HONEY-BEE, Thirty-six Coloured Plates; with Portrait and Memoir of Huber, (James Duncan and William Jardine, Edinburgh: W. H. Lizars, 1840. Get from Wikisource, Plate 16, p. 336, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Naturalist%27s_Library/Bees#/media/File:Jardine_Naturalist%27s_library_Bees_Plate_16.jpg.