Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The good life

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St. John's College

Seventeen years—or exactly half of my lifetime—ago, I spent six weeks at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, as a high school junior in the Telluride Associate Summer Program. It was structured around daily seminars and an extensive reading list in language and literature, with selections ranging from Plato’s Cratylus to Jane Austen’s Emma to Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. The books themselves were often wonderful, but for me, and I suspect for most of the seventeen other students who found themselves there that summer, they were really just an excuse to take part in what felt like an act of sustained intellectual liberation. We were all smart kids from a wide variety of backgrounds, but what I remember most clearly from that summer is the hunger we shared to talk about everything under the sun, especially what we saw as life’s big subjects: philosophy, religion, art, the question of what it meant to be a complete human being. And like most teenagers, we were convinced that we had figured out many of the answers already, if only we had the chance to put them into practice.

In short, it was an intense, highly idealized version of what we thought college would be, and if some of our subsequent experiences at college itself failed to live up to those expectations, it’s only because Telluride set a very high bar. At the time, I was in a perfect position to be influenced by St. John’s and the philosophy of education it afforded: I’d just picked up my own set of the Great Books of the Western World, which remain at the heart of the school’s curriculum even today, and I was primed for a life spent in the company of great authors and ideas. Ultimately, when the summer was over, I decided to apply to college elsewhere, mostly because I sensed that I’d be happier carving out a liberal arts education for myself in the heart of a larger university, and I still think it was the right choice. It’s one thing to bury yourself in Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas in a tiny school where everyone else is doing the same thing, and quite another to stick to your guns when you’re surrounded by students who, for perfectly good reasons, came to college for other experiences.

Great Books of the Western World, First Edition

Yet I’m still haunted by my six weeks there, which shaped me in ways that I’m only starting to appreciate now, when that summer lies at the midpoint of my life. These days, I see it less as a transformative moment in itself than as the first in a series of lucky breaks or decisions that led me to where I am now. On my return home, I kept reading the great books—although my resolution to get through all fifty-four volumes before I graduated from high school went unfulfilled, which was probably for the best. In college, I majored in classics, which came pretty close to that ideal of an intellectual sanctuary embedded within an international university with a lot of other things on its mind. (That was true, at least, of my undergraduate experience; it’s a little different when you try to make a career of it, and despite occasional regrets, I’m glad I escaped with just a bachelor’s degree.) Ever since, I’ve kept a little corner of my mind reserved for St. John’s and the life it exemplified, even as the years have taken me in other directions. And I still intend to get to Plotinus and Lavoisier one of these days.

Of course, I’m still left with the question of what it means to be a complete human being, and I don’t think I’m any closer to the answer than I was at seventeen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since Telluride, though, it’s that books and ideas get you only part of the way there, and, if anything, can serve as a distraction from more difficult problems. I discovered early on that the solutions to life’s dilemmas aren’t particularly complicated: simplicity, detachment, and perspective get you ninety percent of the way, a lesson we find clearly stated in Socrates, Jesus, and most worthwhile thinkers since. Understanding this on the page and putting it into practice are two very different things, however, and a philosophical precept only comes alive after it’s been learned through hard experience. That means wrong turns, bad choices, and long stretches of life in which those basic principles have been buried or forgotten. A full life consists of alternating periods of neglect and rediscovery; otherwise, it hardens into its own kind of dogmatism. But it helps if you have a touchstone, like those six weeks at St. John’s were for me, that reminds you of what ought to matter.

Written by nevalalee

July 1, 2014 at 9:26 am

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