Two Inches off the Ground

by Mark English

Sorting through some old papers, I came across a letter from John Spencer Hill who taught a Master’s course on Romanticism that I took. The letter had been written not long after his return to Canada to take up a position at the University of Ottawa. He would have been in his mid-to-late thirties and he was very upbeat and full of enthusiasm for his job and praise for his colleagues. (In fact, this praise constituted an implicit criticism of his former colleagues; he had not been particularly happy in his previous position.)

I googled his name to see what he was up to these days. Details for his courses for what looked like the following semester at the University of Ottawa came up. Only they were not for the following semester at all. These notes – frozen in time – were well over a decade old. John Hill, I realized, was dead.

I want to set out here a few recollections of the man, with some thoughts on recent changes in higher education.

I had known that he had a bit of a heart problem, but he had always seemed very energetic and fit. He played tennis. And he had planned out the books he was going to write. The final one was going to be on John’s Gospel, treated as a literary rather than a religious text. He made no secret of his personal Platonism, even if his assertion that he habitually walked two inches above the ground derives from Zen Buddhist sources (via D.T. Suzuki).

His course on Romanticism was probably the most pleasant and enjoyable course I have ever taken. This had a lot to do with his personality (very open and generous) but also with his level of expertise. He was at that time already a recognized authority on the English Romantics, and had published a number of books including The Romantic Imagination, an annotated collection of primary documents. His book A Coleridge Companion is still highly regarded.

After the late-afternoon seminars, I would often walk home with him. His house was not far from the campus. He had a wife and children, and you could usually hear the raucous sounds of play or children’s television as we bid each other farewell by the front gate.

Of an evening he liked to watch TV himself – especially police/detective dramas – as an alternative (as he put it) to going into town and smashing department store windows. There were obviously sources of stress in his life, but our conversations, though often personal, were always light and happy.

Niceness can be bland if it is unadulterated. John’s niceness was palpable but, fortunately, it was not unadulterated.

I could mention his intellectual elitism, for example. Some may see this as a serious flaw, but I don’t. He was an elitist in that he had a strong sense of intellectual values, and recognized that the sort of knowledge he was in the business of promoting and fostering was only ever going to be grasped and appreciated by a small minority.

But he was not a social elitist or a snob, and he was repulsed by any forms of elitism which rate worth merely according to external criteria.

In this connection, he told a revealing anecdote about an exchange he had with Stanley Fish. He had encountered Fish – an established and quite famous author and academic – at some kind of social-academic gathering. Hill was a graduate student at the time. Apparently he was conversing quite satisfactorily with the Great Man until the latter realized that Hill was enrolled as a Master’s rather than as a PhD student. (Hill completed a Master’s at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, before going on to the University of Toronto for his PhD.) At that point in the conversation, Fish abruptly turned away to seek out someone more worthy of his time. This snub clearly made an impact on Hill. He was not the gossipy or resentful type, and he was obviously meaning to make a serious (moral?) point.

I doubt that his telling of the story was motivated by disapproval of Fish’s opinions. Though Hill did not share Fish’s worldview or his radical relativism, I never had the sense that he was bothered by differing opinions. And I’m sure that he would have sided with Fish on a number of important topics and issues. In fact, you could see these two very different men as having certain old-fashioned, scholarly values in common. They were both gifted teachers who shared a love of and respect for language as well as a strong commitment to freedom of speech. These common causes and preoccupations would – given the general drift of the culture – have become increasingly evident over time, and I’d like to think that Hill made his peace with Fish in later years. There would have been opportunities: their paths almost certainly would have crossed again.

John and I never talked much about politics, but I have since become interested in the way Romantic and idealist commitments play into the broader social and political sphere. On the one hand, you can see Romanticism as a revolutionary doctrine in the Jacobin sense. But Romantics influenced by the aesthetics of idealism tended to reject egalitarianism and plebiscitary forms of governance in favor of elitist forms. Such views were very common on the Continent. Names that come immediately to mind are Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine in France, and Benedetto Croce in Italy. But – apart from radical leftists – very few European intellectuals of the time were not influenced by this tradition of thought.

I suspect Hill would have been very sympathetic to the general outlook of some of these continental European elitist liberals. That their hopes to replace traditional ideas of aristocracy based on birth with a meritocratic system based on intellectual and moral achievement were doomed to be disappointed does not entirely extinguish the appeal of their ideas.

He was not really a political animal, however. All he wanted, I think, was a congenial space in which to work through, discuss and teach a set of ideas and values tracing back to Plato which have been – more so during certain periods than others – a leitmotif and driving force of European intellectual and cultural history.

My interactions with John Hill occurred at a time of rapid change in the academic climate but prior to the politicization of English departments. At that time you would still find a wide variety of political and social opinion amongst academics, and generally these views were kept private. Scholarly values still held sway.

In fact, I doubt – despite his natural gift for teaching – that Hill could or would have pursued the vocation he did in today’s academic environment. Interestingly, he had begun writing crime fiction and had published two novels before his untimely death. (He is holding a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe in one of the two (very low-res) photographs of him available on the internet.)

A general point I want to raise here relates to what I see as the artificiality and arbitrariness of many (but not all) lines of demarcation between academic disciplines within the humanities.

Hill’s course was conducted within the English department and was ostensibly on Romantic poetry. But his interests (like mine) were broadly intellectual and historical and focused more on ideas than on specifically literary or stylistic questions. The two research papers I wrote for that course were really in the areas of aesthetics and the history of ideas (and focused mainly on Coleridge’s prose writings).

Over the years, the authors of books and papers on thinkers of the past and intellectual history more generally have been based in various academic departments: history, politics/political science, philosophy, classics, English, other modern language departments, etc.. As some of these and other traditional discipline areas face existential threats, opportunities arise for new structures and alliances. I am inclined to think that, as a label, intellectual history might be quite useful, especially as an umbrella term, encompassing as it does considerable parts of mainstream history as well as historical and biographical aspects of the various sciences, mainstream philosophy, aesthetics, and political and social theory. I will not make specific suggestions here, however, beyond observing that new alignments are inevitable in the face of current (and likely future) funding constraints; and also that competition for space in the curriculum, coupled with the current emphasis on skills-based disciplines, means that any attempts to introduce new (or to reinstate older) non-practical, stand-alone disciplines have little chance of success.

In the end, perhaps disciplinary (or departmental) labels don’t matter that much. It does matter, however, that various kinds of traditional scholarship be kept alive.

We need to recognize that scientific and technical knowledge is vitally – and even, perhaps, increasingly – important, for all sorts of reasons. But this kind of knowledge is not enough. There is also a need for other kinds of knowledge, specifically knowledge that is socially and historically based. We need to have knowledge of various protocols, a good grasp of our native language, and a degree of practical wisdom. We also need to have a sound understanding of where we came from, socially and culturally speaking, if we aspire to any form of intellectual maturity. Only then will we have a realistic sense of what we are and what we may become.

As things stand, basic practical skills relating to language and communication are not being well or effectively taught, except to a small minority. And the intellectual disciplines devoted to uncovering and understanding various aspects of our cultural past are fighting for their very existence. If they go, we are (I would suggest) entirely at the mercy of the social and political fads and fashions which constitute such a large component of what passes for contemporary Western culture.

19 Comments »

  1. Good teachers are rare and should be commemorated as you have done. He seems also from a look at google books to have been a wide ranging scholar. Infinity, Faith, and Time has a good chapter on Augustine and Bergson on time and duration.

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  2. Lucy

    Thank you for the kind words.

    Reading Coleridge… I guess that makes you part of the elite. 🙂

    Another Romantic, Stendhal,(not popular in his own time) dedicated his writing, with a certain amount of irony, to “the happy few”.

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  3. ombhurbhuva

    That book came out the year before Hill died. The chapter you mention – and some others – do look good, though the topics are approached from a perspective which differs from mine. Nonetheless I am surprised at the degree of overlap with my own recent interests/focus.

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  4. What a lovely tribute! Thanks to ombhurbhuva for the reference to Infinity, Faith, and Time. That is a good find.
    In the opening chapter(Fides Quaerens Intellectum), while discussing Clemens, he gives this definition of faith:
    In sum, then, faith is the capacity of spiritual recognition,
    This seemed to me to be a particularly apt definition of faith.

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  5. Just prior to the last quote he says:
    Philosophy is the “systematic Wisdom” that flows from the search for truth, resulting in the “sure and irrefragable apprehension of things divine and human”: “This wisdom – rectitude of soul and of reason, and purity of life – is the object of the desire of philosophy, which is kindly and lovingly disposed towards wisdom, and does everything to attain it.”

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  6. Thanks Mark, a very nice tribute. In my idea of a university, there would be room for lots of scholars like John Hill.

    I haven’t read Hill’s work, but I’m glad to see that reading Coleridge makes one part of an elite. Richard Holmes’s biography of him is a favourite book of mine. I especially like the very surprising chapter on Coleridge as a naval administrator in Malta.

    Alan

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  7. How very different Hill’s work is from the narrow areas of specialisation that is the standard approach of philosophers these days. Safe spaces for scholars! I met a man now a prof. In a philosophy department that I had been friendly with when we were students. Some topic came up but he begged off speaking about it because that was not his field. I assure you it was not very abstruse. His response was a professional tick.

    But a great part of the attraction of the analytic method lies in its claim to have done away with the old idea of constructive philosophy ; and the only comment which can now be made on that claim is that analytic philosophy does indeed involve a constructive philosophical doctrine, but, true to its character as a form of scepticism, declines the task of stating it.

    (from An Essay on Philosophical Method by Collingwood)

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  8. Labnut

    Thanks.

    Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen drew heavily on Greek sources and had some (for the time) very appealing and enlightened views. But if you look at what Clement believed about the celestial hierarchy (angels, archangels etc.), for example, it looks pretty weird. This side of his thought draws on esoteric sources (Judeo-Christian, Gnostic?). My point is that you need to take the whole package into account.

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  9. Alan

    Thanks.

    “In my idea of a university, there would be room for lots of scholars like John Hill.”

    But the future doesn’t look bright in this regard, does it? For universities or publishing.

    I just read a 4000-word review of Holmes’s book by John Barrell (London Review of Books). A truly formidable reviewer. Well named! He makes a general point about the (publisher- and market-driven) debasement of literary biographies. Compares this biog unfavorably with Holmes’s earlier work. Claims that Holmes takes many liberties and rearranges chronology to fit his narrative and, when he doesn’t ignore them, often misrepresents Coleridge’s ideas. I don’t know about you, but I would feel cheated if I found out that a biographer was taking liberties with the truth.

    I have no background in history, but I am coming more and more to the view that we should focus on primary sources. This is especially the case if we are interested in knowing what people believed or thought. Read their letters. Read what they wrote. (Admittedly, you often need scholarly assistance, such as a good introduction can provide.)

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  10. ombhurbhuva

    “How very different Hill’s work is from the narrow areas of specialisation that is the standard approach of philosophers these days.”

    There are areas where a high degree of specialization is not only appropriate but utterly necessary. But in the sciences, say, where this is very much the case, I would have thought that cross-disciplinary discussion and specialists in different areas talking to one another would be the norm.

    With respect to philosophy, there is a tendency to adopt approaches which mimic the sciences. This kind of scientism is indefensible in my opinion. But I don’t have sufficient knowledge to usefully comment on the current situation.

    Your Collingwood quote is too tricky for me.

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  11. I am coming more and more to the view that we should focus on primary sources.

    That is truly a large amount of hard work that most of us cannot afford. And then most of us lack the contextual knowledge to make sense of it. Regretfully most of us have to depend on secondary, interpretive sources. The real question is which secondary, interpretive sources can we depend on?

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  12. Mark:
    I am being allusive about the Collingwood critique of the Analytic and their denial of system building being a sort of system in itself. The analytics seem like tool fetishists who keep their tools on a shadowed pegboard in perfect order ready to go into action. They know where everything is. However they don’t do much with them even if they are perfect instruments.

    I enjoyed the Holmes biography. Whatever sends you to the primary sources is good. The Friend with its essays on Method is a profound work. John H. Muirhead has written on Coleridge as Philosopher (available on archive.org), Owen Barfield’s book What Coleridge Thought is a classic.

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  13. Labnut

    “Regretfully most of us have to depend on secondary, interpretive sources. The real question is which secondary, interpretive sources can we depend on?”

    Clearly this is an important question.

    But another question is: what exactly are we looking for in the first place? Obviously, different people have different interests and priorities with respect to history, biography and scholarship.

    There is always an implicit tension (is there not?) between what is sometimes called ‘exact scholarship’, on the one hand, and history and biography *as literary forms*, on the other.

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  14. Hi Mark

    Thanks for the reference to John Barrell’s review. I’ll read it with much interest. Barrell is very erudite. I’ve never seen Holmes’s expertise questioned before.

    Alan

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  15. Mark,
    Another thoughtful article; thanks. The need for a knowledge and understanding of history is needed more now than ever. And you’re quite right about the tension in Romantic political visions. between the expressed demand for ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ and the elitist aesthetics which have certainly had dreadful political consequences on occasion.

    As for Hill, he sounds like an interesting man and an interesting scholar and teacher. I would have liked to have met him.

    (Dan,
    you closed off comments for obvious reasons on the Provocations; I also am bewildered by the tenacious misunderstanding shown in some comments there.)

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  16. enough is enough.

    Yes, it was.
    The meal has a deep significance and the discussion glossed over that. I am still developing my thinking along the lines that the meal is a giving of oneself, and that mutual giving of oneself is quite foundational to the mutual trust that sustains society. By not accepting or participating in the gift of the self one engenders mistrust and one debases the giver. It is also about commitment. The reduced trust and lowered commitment allow harmful fissures to develop in society. I hope we get another opportunity to explore these issues.

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  17. Mark,

    But this kind of knowledge is not enough. There is also a need for other kinds of knowledge, specifically knowledge that is socially and historically based. We need to have knowledge of various protocols, a good grasp of our native language, and a degree of practical wisdom. We also need to have a sound understanding of where we came from, socially and culturally speaking, if we aspire to any form of intellectual maturity. Only then will we have a realistic sense of what we are and what we may become.

    I agree with this, but yet what you say is not enough. This knowledge, understanding, skill and wisdom needs to be directed to some end, to some purpose, a purpose that anchors us so that we are not blown off course by the cross-winds of desire, pleasure and satisfaction. Failing that we will have “a perpetually self-displacing culture of fad and fashion“.

    How do we find this directed end? Consider the craftsman, perhaps a fine cabinet maker, as he carefully, painstakingly, exercises all his skill to produce an article of beauty. What we see here is a love of excellence, together with a love for beauty and fitness for purpose. Consider our reaction to the falsehoods of friends or acquaintances, or to the stubborn integrity of the whistle-blower. We innately love the truth. Then consider our natural admiration for people that do great good as well as our deep abhorrence for those that do wrong. We love the good.

    Drawing this all together is the concept of love. It is our natural tendency to love excellence, to love truth, to love good and to love beauty that represents our highest and most noble end.

    We need more than “knowledge that is socially and historically based“. We need an intellectual and cultural milieu that develops this love of excellence, truth, good and beauty. This love is exhibited in enthusiasm, curiosity, commitment, diligence, perseverance and integrity. This love values other people deeply and desires their good.

    When we study the great works of the past, whether they be of philosophy, literature, art, history or whatever, we are exposed to the great love of excellence, truth, good and beauty that their creators possessed. And this exposure changes us, if we are open to change, so that love becomes more central to our lives. The goal should be to transform ourselves so that we grow in love of excellence, truth, good and beauty.

    This is where go go wrong today. We are more concerned with acquiring knowledge and skill than we are concerned with this inner transformation. We have become cynical and blasé. Part of the reason for this is becoming habituated to sensual satisfaction. This habituation to sensual satisfaction has displaced love and has drained away our desire for excellence. But the habituation becomes addiction as we become trapped in the cycle of trying to recover the initial thrills of sensuality.

    Once that is understood we can understand the appeal of asceticism, self-denialism and minimalism. It is an attempt to break out of the entrapment of habituation and addiction so that we are open to experiencing love of excellence, truth, good and beauty.

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