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Great figures are for the youth like raisins in the cake of world history. Assuredly they do belong to its actual substance, but it is actually not nearly so easy as one might suppose to separate the truly great from those who merely seem that way from some distance. Among those who merely seem great it is the historical moment and their ability to assess and to tackle things that gives them the fleeting appearance of greatness. Indeed there is no shortage of historians and biographers, not to mention mere journalists, who possess this ability to anticipate and grasp the historical moment, which is to say: the passing success, which may be taken as a sign of greatness. The corporal who from one day to the next suddenly emerges as a dictator, or the courtesan who for a short while suceeds to govern the good or evil disposition of a leader of world consequence number among the favorite figures of such historians. And the idealistically predisposed youth love, on the other hand, those who are tragic failures—the martyrs who have arrived one moment to soon or too late. But for me, and I am of course a historian of our Benedictine order, what is most appealing, surprising, and worthy of study in world history is not personalities, not coups and not successes or failures—rather my passion and unrequitable interest is devoted to those efforts (of which our congregation is one) of very ancient institutions which attempt to collect the spirit and the soul of humanity, to educate and transform it—to transform it through education, not through eugenics… into a nobility which is prepared to serve as well as to govern.
–Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel, ch. iv (1946) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, pp. 252-53 (S.H. transl.)
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”