(A potable portion from a chapter of A Republic of Books, the ‘novel in progress’ to be found elsewhere on this site.)
I believe that enlightenment tends to come upon societies in much the same manner as it occurs to an individual. One day you are repeating your mistakes with all the industry of an ant in a side-walk crack and the next you awaken to the fresh bliss of a new path of truth, and the thrill of your own brilliance, and begin setting your course apart. It is not unfair to credit ourselves with this renaissance of thought, because we have usually suffered for it. But it is incorrect to assume the cause was some specific discovery of knowledge that was unleashed by our own effort alone. Typically it involves such a morass of thought, so difficult to interpret, that in order to come up with an excuse for our heroism, we are liable to invent a new philosophy. That is how religions are often born, as well as sophism, pragmatism, objectivism, empiricism, and a hundred other isms born of a sudden morn.
I am not a scholar—that is, I am not one to pursue knowledge for its own sake. I selfishly seek knowledge only when needed. I am a shopkeeper and a scribbler. My pleasure in those two things alone has filled my time and exceeds any satisfaction I might gain from parsing the rhizome of some particular root cause. Lacking those spiritual genes necessary for such attention and dedication myself, I have however long been taken with the insight of scholars, per se, and a few in particular. One of those is Walter Jackson Bate, the wise man of Harvard for many years. He was to me an ancient husk of human being when I first encountered him eating custard in a dining area at Eliot Hall. Likely then he was only as old as I am now. I was there in pursuit of books, naturally—those books the students cast off every spring like leaves in autumn. On a good day in May I could fill the back of my truck.
And on that day, as I recall, the great man sat alone at the edge of a field of tables in a darkish hall but in reflected light close by a narrow window, encased on two sides by mahogany walls, and I presumptively sat down across from him and asked—I might have said hello, or something of the sort first, I don’t recall.
“Is the universal and the ideal the same thing?”
He asked in return, “Did you read chapter four?”
Naturally, given my youth then (I would guess this was about 1974) he had assumed I was a student of his and I had just read chapter four of his great great book, From Classic to Romantic, which was the very cause, in fact, of the inquiry, for I had just discovered this masterwork on my own. But I did not have the patience of a lifetime to explore the question and wanted a quick answer. I was on my way to several dormitory rooms where students were waiting to cash in on the used volumes their parents had paid top dollar for when new.
This was a severe looking man, thin, heavy lidded and tight lipped, with the high fore-head you assume of a thinker, and I must have apologized, on hearing the hard tone of his voice, for interrupting his meal.
“Well then, you can already see it is a subject as thick as this,” and he tapped his spoon into the yellow crust of the custard. “But the answer to your question is, no. All cats are mammals but not all mammals are cats. The universal is ideal, but the ideal may not be universal.” He rubbed at a clean cheek of slack skin, and then put the hand to his mouth. “Or is it the other way around? The ideal is universal, but the universal may not be ideal? We’ll have to give that some thought.”
He was smiling when I left him, eating his custard again and looking out the window at a spring green lawn.
I have retold that story twenty or fifty times. I’ve embellished whenever the opportunity arose. But the key element remains the same. Not all mammals are cats.