Sense and Nonsense: Sitting with the Chickens

James Boswell reached Motiers, Switzerland on December 14, 1764. He had climbed on horseback over a peak he called the “Mountain Lapidosa”—the “Rocky Mountain,” probably Mount Chasseron—but almost the first thing he did was to “alight” at the door of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Boswell was twenty-four and wanted to “use his time well.” By some fast talking to an ill Rousseau, he managed to secure about twenty minutes the same day at four p.m.

At their first discussion, Rousseau told Boswell “I attach very little importance to books.” Not one to pass up such an opportunity, Boswell twitted, “Even your own books?” To this rather good sally, Rousseau replied off-handedly, “Oh, they are rigmarole,” a view, no doubt, that has divided Rousseau scholars ever since. “When I put my trust in books,” the great French philosopher continued to Boswell, evidently sensing something of the young Scotsman’s future, “I was tossed about as you are—though it is rather by talking that you have been tossed.”

Somewhat piously, Rousseau next explained, “I had nothing much here (striking his head) before I began to meditate.” Boswell objected, “But you would not have meditated to such good purpose if you had not read.” Rousseau, however, persisted, “No, I should have meditated to better purpose if I had begun sooner.” Lest we think that the logic of Rousseau’s argument leads us all into monasteries with libraries aflame, as at the end of The Name of the Rose, we do recall that Rousseau did take the trouble to write books, even if reading his own books may indeed have proved less helpful than reading those of others. However we are intellectually “tossed,” meditation of some sort seems vital, even beyond books, as Rousseau himself thought.

In a letter to Cecil Dawkins on October 27, 1957, Flannery O’Connor talked a bit about whether she had a story completely in her head before she wrote it down on paper, as Katherine Anne Porter apparently did.

Miss O’Connor then recalled, not unlike Rousseau before the young Boswell, that she had the year before given a lecture at Wesleyan College in nearby Macon. “I find young girls of that age awfully hard to talk to,” she admitted, in words calculated to soothe the heart of any average undergraduate professor.

The result was perhaps predictable:

Some of their students who have a vague urge to “express themselves” began to come regularly to see me. When they appear, they do all the talking and they have fantastic but very positive ideas about how everything is and ought to be, and they are mighty sophisticated on the outside. The visits leave me exhausted and yearning to go sit with the chickens.

Reading and writing do appear differently to the young and curious than to a relatively more settled flock. Flannery O’Connor thought she should perhaps write her books before reading them, while Rousseau, though having written books, to put something more in his head, preferred to meditate but not to read what he had written. Jean-Jacques himself, I admit, pace Allan Bloom, does make our failure to pay more attention to, say, the Emile, more bearable. Meantime, the students, like the young Scotsman on the Grand Tour or the young ladies at Wesleyan College in Macon, have very positive ideas about how everything “is and ought to be.” When it comes to the waves of history, most sensible folks are out gathering the eggs.

Sometimes I wonder what Rousseau meant by being “tossed about” by books. I take it, on the basis of the Savoyard Vicar’s Credo, which Boswell told Rousseau he admired, that Rousseau’s attraction to “meditation” was not necessarily a preference for anything other than himself. The reading of books would only confuse him or unsettle him, certainly reading the ones that led him to his present happy and meditative state.

Woody Allen once wrote his version of “My Speech to the Graduates,” in which he observed:

Contemporary man… finds himself in the midst of a crisis of faith. He is what we fashionably call “alienated.” He has seen the ravages of war, he has known natural catastrophes, he has been to singles bars. My good friend Jacques Monod spoke often of the randomness of the cosmos. He believed everything in existence occurred by pure chance with the possible exception of his breakfast, which he felt certain was made by his housekeeper.

Did Jacques Monod speak of randomness too often? Is the knowledge of who makes our breakfast the only certainty we have? Is it all then rigmarole? Is it better to sit with the chickens than to listen to chattering young ladies from Macon with their fantastic but very positive ideas?

Is there an education higher than “higher” education?

Hilaire Belloc, the great essayist, was said, in his old age, to have read nothing but the Bible, Shakespeare, and his own works. (At least I recalled, wrongly, this list from a conversation with Scott Walter. What Belloc actually read, as Scott reminded me and A.N. Wilson’s biography confirms, was rather The Diary of a Nobody, P.G. Wodehouse, and his own works—both lists distinctly noble). Since Belloc, in any case himself wrote over a hundred books, presumably he had plenty to occupy his time. The Oxford University Press recently re-issued (1984) Belloc’s The Four Men, his account of Sussex and what it is to be at home. “For men become companionable by working with their bodies,” he mused rather contrary to Rousseau, “and not with their weary noodles, and the spinning out of stuff from oneself is an inhuman thing.”

As a young man of twenty-four, James Boswell went to Geneva to meet Rousseau; he had important questions to ask the great philosopher like whether he read his own books. The young students at Macon wanted to learn to “express themselves,” and after they had told her what was wrong with the world, sent Flannery O’Connor out to sit with her beloved chickens and peafowl. Our “noodles” are weary, and we need more than the “stuff” we spin from ourselves. Woody Allen knew about alienation and who prepared breakfast. Is there an education higher than “higher education”? I ask again.

One more passage from Belloc seems fitting: “The worst thing in the world is the passing of human affection. No man who has lost a friend need fear death….” Had he written such a passage, I think even Rousseau might have found it rewarding to re-read his own works. We know Belloc did. Indeed, there is an education higher than higher education. The very books we read, hopefully also our own, ought so to tell us. With Rousseau we can agree that, had we begun earlier, we might have meditated better. In the end, however, Boswell seems more correct, we need to read to meditate, even while sitting with the chickens.

“No man who has lost a friend need fear death.” Belloc re-read that sentence because he wrote it. This is not something spun from out of weary noodles, nor much attended to in our higher education. “Contemporary man finds himself in a crisis of faith,” Woody

Allen told us. Is it still permitted to wonder if there might not be some connection between this crisis and the failure to meditate on death and friendship? However we are philosophically “tossed about,” be it by our books or, as in the case of Boswell, by our words, we need not deny the value of higher education because we suspect, as I do, that there is a case to be made for something more in the very books we often don’t in our institutions of higher learning read carefully enough—be it the Bible, Shakespeare, the works of Rousseau, Belloc, Wodehouse, Flannery O’Connor, or even Woody Allen.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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