There is something satisfying about coming full circle. The first and only full article I’ve written for the Tory was about the virtue of humility at Princeton. Now I’d like to bring my tenure as Publisher to a close with the same topic for this letter. This choice is not just a neat way to tie things together. It reflects a certain reality about my time at Princeton, a certain experience that bookends my university years.
The first few weeks at this University were humbling. I felt like Gulliver among intellectual brobdingnagians. My peers’ knowledge, talents, and experiences dwarfed my own. I realized that I knew very little at all. Three and a half years later, considerably better read, much quicker in my thought, and having had many more enriching experiences, I am on the cusp of my last semester, and still ‘what I know is that I do not know.’ The more I’ve learned at Princeton, the more I’ve discovered the gaping holes in my knowledge.
A major purpose of education, I think, is to help us look beyond our limited minds. I am reminded of two couplets from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “While from the bounded level of our mind / Short views we take nor see the lengths behind / But more advanced behold with strange surprise, / New distant scenes of endless science rise!” Study should give us a humbling perspective: we gain an awareness of the vastness of history that came before and an awe at the infinitude that humanity has yet to comprehend.
There seem to be two possible resulting attitudes for students like me who discover how little they know: cynicism or gratitude. If every answer spawns more questions, we may grow to suspect, after a while, that there are simply no answers. This cynical outlook is something of a let-down come graduation. Following Pope, on the other hand, if we reach the crest of each mountain and survey the vast new terrain with more mountains beyond, we find the prospect exhilarating: to marvel perpetually in awe of the sublime. This joy is the fruit of a humble imagination, one which appreciates the mystery of the gaps in our knowledge and rejoices out of gratitude.
Pride is the enemy of education. To quote Pope once again, “Of all the Causes which conspire to blind / Man’s erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind, / What the weak Head with strongest Bias rules, / Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.” But pride not only leads us away from truth—worse, it hardens our hearts and fills us with bitter ingratitude. How can we appreciate the sublime if our sense of proportion is out of whack? If our egos are so bloated that we do not feel small before transcendent glory, surely we cannot experience the fullness of wonder and gratitude!
So in reaching the end of the line here at Princeton, I turn once again to the virtue of humility with hope. My education both taught me how little I know and enlivened my imagination. I am full of gratitude for my small role in the grand scheme of things, and in particular, for the honor of serving as Publisher of this fine publication this past year. It is humbling to be one among the many who came before and the many to follow after. And speaking of whom, it is time now to hand off the torch to my friend John Paul Spence whom I trust will do an excellent job this coming year.
Thomas Z. Horton
The Princeton Tory