Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Plato, Locke, and Mill"

The Hellenistic portrait of Epicurus, a snapshot taken at the Getty Museum in Malibu.  No, this Post is not about him, but he'll do.
In the Fall of 1953, when I transferred from Art School to UC Berkeley, l had plenty of credits for Art but lots of General Education courses to catch up on.  Among them, I signed up for Philosphy 6A with Professor Stephen C. Pepper.  This was a man who could really teach.  No attempt to meet us where we were (and that still included veterans of WW II as well as Korea and adolescents just out of high school as well as many students from abroad who lived at International House and, for that matter, all over town) or to entertain us.  Plato, of course, goes down pretty easily, and his representation of Socratic method likewise.  Speaking for myself, then age 19, I was not ready to read Mill.  But I loved Locke from the first page.  Pepper obviously cared deeply for helping us with all three.  Stephen Pepper had just published his textbook on Aesthetics, and two or three semesters later I took Philosophy 136A, Aesthetics, with him, too.  With the passage of time and at an age when one can bring everything together, I find that it was the professors of my parents' and grandparents' generations (generations in my family being short), born between about 1885 and 1920, whose impression has endured.  If you Google that course number at Berkeley today, you will find that it is no longer Plato, Locke, and Mill.
What brought me back to Locke, to those initial stages of learning more than painting and pottery alone?  It was Levenson's book on Newton and the Counterfeiter.  I'm not sure whether I heard of that on the Numismatics Forum (where fakery is always fascinating) or on Science Friday (on NPR) or on Book TV, but I'd become more interested in Newton (whose Principia I cannot manage) partly as a result of reading a bit of the alchemists, unpalatable as they are to me: if Thomas Browne and then Newton and even John Locke took some of them seriously, I ought to find out why.  And my interest in counterfeiting (though before reading Levenson's chapters I hadn't realized how seriously interesting it was) is natural in someone who, from the very beginning of monetization, is deeply interested in its relation to civilization.  More than IT, I think, it changed human societies.  But poor King William!  And, well, it was John Locke who was instrumental in getting Newton made Warden of the Mint, where Newton proved that, however serious his midlife philosophical difficulties had been, there was nothing soft about his mind!  Any Englishman or Scot who may read this may wonder at my ignorance, but as Jeopardy contestants prove daily on TV, there is, barring a dark hole, no pit so abysmal as American ignorance of European history.
Now, since Locke was Newton's true and constant and lifelong friend, and I hadn't read him since the early 1950s, and I have been listening to all the blahblah about our Founders and our Constitution, and I did remember liking Locke even more than Hume, it was high time I found out why our Founders had liked him, too.  After all, Newton was not the easiest of friends.
Now, so far, the interesting thing is that Locke, only a generation younger than Browne, could almost have written our Constitution for us.  In his early work on Toleration, he has Church and State (irrespective of which religion and what kind of state) perfectly worked out, in all its ramifications.  I'll keep reading all of him.  He writes like an angel, too.  I have to ask, whether it was not the classics that I read as an undergraduate, like the professors that I idolized at that time, that literally formed my mind. It certainly wasn't Plato, whose Attic Greek is a joy but whose political ideas were everything that Werner Jaeger thought they were.
I am eager to post something promptly and get back to my reading, so I'll just state the point I want to make.  One of the best ways of directing one's own reading and adapting one's own learning to personal needs and pleasures is simply what I'm in the midst of doing.  It is a bit like stream of consciousness.  Memory, that most delightful subject of inquiry, is always engaged in it.  Some pursuits are fulfilled, others prove to have been illusory.  But you can't go wrong.
For example, I mentioned Pepper's textbook on Aestthetics, as truly mid-20th century as any could be, and I remember it well.  I find very little fault with anything I got from it, and it took me to reading others, such as Gombrich.  So I got to thinking of all the basic assumptions that my professors in art history took seriously, half of them educated in Europe before they had to leave.  I had to recall how many times in my blogs I have resorted to Riegl's ideas, and remember where I got them (since at that time I could not have managed his German).  And then, here was Eric Kandel talking to Charlie Rose.  He was Viennese and has this new book on Vienna 1900.  Even he is a little older than I am, but he imbibed much of the same modernism as I did.  Obviously, I'm going to have to read Riegl (I've read Gombrich and Panofsky over and over).  But if Kandel supposes that Egon Schiele was unknown in the 1950s  to Americans born in the 1930s...   Well, that is for another Post, and I'll keep them in Teegee Essays unless I come to write something about style as such.
It was a mantra at UC Berkeley in my day that the University saw fit to award the PhD when a student was capable of taking over responsibility for his own education.