The Sphinx (A Lecture from April, 2002)


At the gate of the school lies the sphinx who puts this question to every emerging scholar …: “How are you going to make your living?” And every [scholar] must answer or die: so the poor things believe.

We call this the system. It isn’t, really. The trouble lies in us who are so afraid of this particular sphinx. “My dear sphinx, my wants are very small, my needs still smaller. I wonder you trouble yourself about so trivial a matter. I am going to get a job in a bottle-factory, where I shall have to spend a certain number of hours a day. But that is the least of my concerns. My dear sphinx, you are a kitten at riddles. If you’d asked me, now, what am I going to do with my life, apart from the bottle-factory, you might have frightened me. As it is, really, every smoky tall chimney is an answer to you.”

Curious that when the toothless old sphinx croaks “How are you going to get your living?” our knees give way beneath us. … Do we really think we might not be able to earn our bread and butter? The odds against earning your living are one in five thousand. There are not so many odds against dying of typhoid or of being killed in a street-accident. Yet you don’t really care a snap about street-accidents or typhoid. Then why are you so afraid of dying of starvation? You’ll never die of starvation, anyhow. …

There is no cure for this craven terror of poverty save in human courage and insouciance. A sphinx has you by your cravenness. … Oedipus and all those before him might just as easily have answered the sphinx by saying … “My dear sphinx, go to school, go to school …. [H]ere you are, heaven knows how old, propounding silly riddles….” Exit the sphinx with its tail between its legs.

And so with the sphinx of our material existence. She’ll never go off with her tail between her legs till we simply jeer at her.

D. H. Lawrence.  –We have our sphinx at Auburn: she lives in and feeds on our University culture, and she speaks, all-too-often, with the voice of Bobby Lowder. [An Auburn trustee]  “How are you going to earn your living?” the Bobby-voice croaks – and our knees give way beneath us. The sphinx has us by our cravenness. We are cowards all. What we should say when she croaks is what Lawrence would have us say. “Earn my living, you crazy old bitch? Why, I’m going Jimmy-Shepherding. No, not sheep at all. Jimmishepherding ….”

One point of this answer is to ridicule the question and the questioner. Both are rather silly, really. Each of you is, with very few exceptions, going to earn a living. Each of you will probably do reasonably well. The penury that the sphinx terrifies you with is an extremely distant possibility.

As Lawrence suggests (this is the other point of the Jimmishepherding answer), the question that should frighten you is the question of what you will do when you are not earning your living. “How will you live, not from 9 to 5, but during the rest of the day’s hours? What will you do with yourself on the weekends? Will your leisure be dignified? And what kind of person will you be, what kind of worker will you be, as you work from 9 to 5?” These questions should put you in a swither. And the Bobby-voice has nothing responsive to say to them, nothing. The sphinx is stony silent.

The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living, about earning your daily bread and butter. But the sphinx does not want to talk about whether you eat as a glutton, or about what you do after mealtime. The sphinx does not want to talk about kingdoms that are to come or not; the sphinx does not want to talk about forgiving trespasses or not forgiving trespasses. No. The sphinx wants to talk about earning a living – but not about living well. The sphinx wants to talk about the difference between the rich and the poor man – but not about the difference between the good and the bad man.

William James asked himself the question “Of what use is a college training?” After some meditation, the pithiest answer he could give was “It should help you to know a good man when you see him.” Pithy, true, that answer; and wise, too. James expands on his answer:

Studying in [the proper] way, we learn what types of activity have stood the test of time; we acquire standards of the excellent and durable. All our arts and sciences and institutions are but so many quests of perfection on the part of men; and when we see how diverse the types of excellence may be, how various the tests, how flexible the adaptations, we gain a richer sense of what the terms “better” and “worse” may signify in general. Our critical sensibilities grow more accurate and less fanatical. … What the colleges … should at least try to give us, is a general sense of what, under various guises, superiority has always signified and may still signify. The feeling for a good human job anywhere, the admiration of the really admirable, the disesteem of what is cheap and trashy and impermanent, – this is what we call the critical sense, the sense for ideal value. … The sense for human superiority ought, then, to be considered our line, as boring subways is the engineer’s line and the surgeon’s is appendicitis. Our colleges ought to have lit up in us a lasting relish for the better kind of man, a loss of appetite for mediocrities, a disgust for cheapjacks. We ought to smell, as it were, the difference of quality in men and their proposals when we enter the world of affairs around us.

James said more here than I can comment on. (I recommend his essay to you for your study; it is titled “The Social Value of the College Bred.”) I will confine myself to comments on three things: First, notice that the sense for human superiority does not clash with recognizing diversity. Instead, it aids that recognition. For too long, our University culture has treated these two as if they clash. An important feature of James’ thinking here is that recognizing diversity falls out of, and is, so to speak, controlled by, the sense for human superiority. That is, diversity is recognized because the sense for human superiority reveals that superiority in a variety of times, peoples and cultures. Good human jobs occur in various settings: our sense for human superiority reveals to us that high human types can occur here and there, now and then. Diversity matters because human superiority matters.

Second, the teaching of a sense for human superiority can make a place for both the humanities and the sciences. Each can play a role in subtilizing the sense. James’ discussion of this point is one of the more complicated ones in his essay; I’ll abstract from the complications. Abstracted, James’ point is that both the humanities and the sciences can be taught in a way that educates the feeling for a good human job anywhere. James thinks that the short description of this way of teaching is teaching the biographical history of the subject. When the sciences, and even when the humanities, are not taught in this way, “literature remains grammar, art a catalogue, history a list of dates, and science a sheet of formulas and weights and measures.” Obviously, James is not condemning the teaching of grammar, of catalogues, of listed dates or of a sheet of formulas. What he is condemning is teaching that cannot or does not reach beyond these things, and in failing to reach beyond them, is teaching that leaves the student without a developed or developing sense of human superiority.

Third, the teaching of a sense for human superiority is the last things the sphinx wants to happen here or anywhere. Students taught such a sense would be able to smell the sphinx coming; they would know her for the cheapjack that she is, and be disgusted by her.

A student who has been taught the feeling for a good human job anywhere is a student who will know to reject the sphinx’s question for the silliness it is. Even more, that student will be able to answer wisely, at least in practice, the questions that students should find frightening: questions about how to live and about what sort of person or worker to be. An education that leaves these questions unanswerable, or that leaves a student to answer them only unwisely is, to borrow James’ phrase, “the very calamity and shipwreck of a higher education.”

You may, of course, still fear the sphinx. You may think what I’ve said is hopelessly otherworldly. You may. But if you do that’s just another side of your fear of the sphinx. She has browbeaten you into being lowbrow. Don’t let her do that. Fight her. Jeer at her. And listen once more to Lawrence:

To follow a high aim you must be fearless of the consequences. To promulgate a high aim and to be fearful of the consequences … is much worse than leaving high aims alone altogether. … Later, when we’ve plucked a bit of our courage up, we’ll embark on a new course of education. … Those of us that are going to starve, why, we’ll take our chance. Who has wits, and guts, doesn’t starve: neither does he care about starving. Courage, mes amis.

One response

  1. sometimes I wish I had a succinct answer to the person who asks me “so… what are you gonna do with that?” (accompanied by a sour look) after I tell them my major is philosophy.

    the only answer I can summon is that I have to, I need to.

    I do not fear the sphinx.

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