“Those who can’t do, teach.”

My brother recently said one evening over a table and drinks, “Those who can’t do, teach,” or something to this effect. The phrase itself I draw from the memory of a student who said it to me years ago as an insult, and though my brother said it in a slightly different way, and the situation was one of jocular table-talk, I could not help but feel, not that it was inherently insulting, but that I was at least supposed to think that it was.

Just now it occurred to me why. If education is merely training for a particular practical pursuit, as for example an internship now is or an apprenticeship used to be, then the pretentious bon mot most certainly were insulting to an educator.

But if education is the study of things of intrinsic interest—beautiful things—shared by the one who has walked the path longer and to greater lengths with those who have the same destination but less knowledge of the way, then such a comment has as little claim on the educator’s attention as it has much on that of those who think a job is the motivating goal of an education.

If I pursue what is beautiful with others, then I am doing and teaching. This I suppose is what Aristotle meant when in the Ethics he called perfect happiness—ἡ τελεία εὐδαιμονία (he teleia eudaimonia)—a contemplative activity: θεωρετικὴ ἐνέργεια (theoreticē energeia).

Contemplation and action.

To Aristotle, the suggestion that happiness (“success” is a better translation of Aristotle’s eudaimonia, as I have argued before) was available to those who act, while those who could not attain to it could merely teach others to do so, would have been absurd.

But of course I hope to ask him about this personally some day to straighten it out.

I think my contemplative friend, who soon will celebrate the anniversary of his permanent vows as a Cistercian monk, would agree. I have for a long time been remiss in finishing a letter to him I began and laid aside.

Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for helping me seek to become a better person, and not just to have better things.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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