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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

Our Ideas Are Greater Than Us

A letter to Cicero

Dear Sir,

let me express my gratitude. I have recently had the great opportunity to learn about the conclusions you reached in the course of your Tusculan Disputations. Even though I did not find myself in agreement with all the points you made, I engaged in a deep intellectual discussion and pondered the most fundamental topics. Reading your words helped me answer some of my questions and raised many others. Most importantly, I was able to learn from this experience for which I am grateful.

When I first started filling applications to liberal arts colleges in the United States several summers ago, I had a vague idea about the importance of the decision that I was just making. Small liberal arts colleges in the United States were a symbol of reputable education, beautiful campuses and considerable material resources. Never had I imagined that the true value I would find in my American experience would be quite different, however connected with the aforementioned characteristics. It seems to me that the liberal arts education that I am receiving at Connecticut College has helped me define what wisdom is and how it can be achieved. Please note the difference. I am not claiming that I, as an undergraduate, am necessarily gaining wisdom as I write this letter. But I am entirely confident that I am gaining a more perfect understanding of what wisdom is and what it is not. I am also coming to understand what I have to continue to do for the rest of my life if I ever want to claim that I have some wisdom.

In a proposal I wrote to apply to Connecticut College's Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts ( CISLA ), I wrote that the more I learn, the more I observe two phenomena.

One has been an increase in humbleness, and the other a relativization of my values. Naturally, the latter one cannot be left unheeded. If personal value systems are to reflect our complex experiences and worldview, they must strike a balance between fluidity and flexibility on the one hand, and firmness and stability on the other.

As all of us look for beliefs, ideologies and religions, so I was looking for a set of values that would guide me through life. I have found my answer in what I understand as the liberal arts approach.

There are two reasons why the liberal arts have served that unique purpose. First of all, they encompass the necessary complementarity of existence that I have long observed but could not describe until I found a clear example in your own words. I have long felt that the artificial divisions that are imposed on us, at school and elsewhere in life, are only obfuscating the true complementary nature of our experience. I was thus looking for a frame of mind that would recognize the need for an overarching explanation. Secondly, I realized that the liberal arts approach is incredibly powerful because it offers something utterly different from ideologies and religions. Rather than a specific set of ideas, a set body of knowledge, the liberal arts are an approach, a method, not an end result. That is their core strength. Instead of choosing predetermined truths and seeking to justify them with arguments that are seemingly supposed to withstand any scrutiny, the liberal arts combine the most natural sense of humbleness, curiosity and intellectual responsibility that make it unprecedentedly adaptable. The ability to realize the conditionality of knowledge, I think, is wisdom.

The point where you and I part company is your unequivocal emphasis on the extensive self. I am in full accord with your opinion that realizing one’s role within a greater whole is invaluable. However, it seems to me that you take this idea to its extreme and I have learned that the extreme of any idea is capable of doing perhaps more damage than good. You are claiming that one’s happiness depends solely on virtus, i. e. on our ability to control our own mind. As much as I agree that personal self – discipline and control are indispensable to a virtuous intellectual, I put significantly more emphasis on a certain balance. I am of the opinion that the glory that you are seeing in sapientia, virtus, and eloquentia can only be fulfilled when one accepts his own fallibility and humanity. Glory does not stem from rejecting subjective humanity, it stems from the ability to combine the objectivity of the extensive self that you are proposing and the intensive self that is just as natural to human beings. For we must not forget that you ancients, despite raising some of the deepest questions of human existence, do not have a monopoly on wisdom. Wisdom can only be gained through perpetual discussion and intellectual journey that each generation of humans must undertake. Indeed, the richness of human experience will forever remain complementary.

With deep respect,

Vladimir Chlouba

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