Franklin Pezzuti Dyer

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Review of the book The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse

Today there exists a cultural separation between the working class and the elite and academic class. There is an anti-intellectual movement on the rise among less-educated people, and more and more academics distance themselves from the working class and surround themselves with people that think similarly to themselves. The term “bubble” describes the personalized environment in which an elite immerses herself; thanks to Facebook and other social media, even members of the lower class can submerge themselves in a bubble, selecting who they interact with and what content they see. Bubbles prevent separated groups of society from communicating and empathizing with each other, a fact that Russia could have taken advantage of during the US elections to throw a wrench in the works of US politics. Because of this and other recent events, we know that a custom environment can result in disaster.

The book “The Glass Bead Game” by Hermann Hesse warns academics about the dangers of “the bubble,” and provides a strategy for bursting it. The book is about a complex of advanced universities called “Castalia.” It sends functionaries from its committee of education to all of the schools in the country to look for outstanding students and enroll them in a Castalian high school. A typical student would study the arts and sciences, like music theory, mathematics, visual art, writing, and philosophy, with much detail. Upon graduating from high school, he would move to one of five universities and studies these fields with even more detail. Additionally, he would learn to play “the Glass Bead Game,” an activity that synthesizes all of the academic fields with an esoteric language (which has nothing to do with glass beads). After finishing university classes, he would enjoy a few years of “free study,” during which he could study whatever interest him as rigorously as he cared to. Finally, upon finishing his free study, he would enter the Castalian hierarchy and serve for the rest of his life by completing whatever functions the committee of education assigns him.

Castalia, like a monastic order, imposes some strict rules upon its members. They cannot enjoy worldly pleasures like excessive possessions, sex, or love; working outside of the order and living with common people is also forbidden. Furthermore, although members of Castalia study the works of famous artists, Castalia dissuades them from creating their own works of art.

The protagonist, named Joseph Knecht, is a student and outstanding functionary of Castalia, until the end of the book. During his years of high school, he defends the restricted lifestyle of Castalia during a series of debates against Plinio Designori, a student from the outside that takes classes in Castalia without the intention of entering the order. After his period of free study, Knecht serves the order as a diplomat, improving the relationship between Castalia and the Catholic Church through a friendship with Father Jacobus, a venerated member of the latter. Although Knecht influences Designori and Jacobus and softens their skepticism against Castalia, their conversations have a reciprocal effect - they reveal to Knecht what seems to him an important weakness of Castalia.

Through his conversations about history with Jacobus, Knecht realizes that Castalia’s existence is fragile; the common people of his country don’t understand the importance of Castalia and the study of the arts and sciences, and they even feel disdain for its protected “bubble.” Thus, Knecht predicts that the arrival of a costly disaster like a war combined with these sentiments could cause the government to cease to finance Castalia. After reaching the most powerful position in the Castalian hierarchy, Knecht writes a letter to the committee of education warning it of this possibility. Unfortunately, possibly due to a lack of historical knowledge, the committee rejects his warning, and Knecht resigns from his position - an unprecedented action. At the end of the book, shortly after resigning, Knecht tries to go swimming and drowns, suddenly ending the book.

Although the book is about the danger of a “life of the mind,” it seems to me that it suggests a mixed perspective. Without a doubt, although it warns of its danger, it celebrates the rigorous study of the arts and sciences. It doesn’t seem like a criticism of intellectuals from a hostile point of view, but rather a friendly warning from a writer that is worried by the isolation of his beloved intellectual community; in fact, the book itself is similar to the letter that Knecht writes to the committee of education.

In addition, the book’s characters provide a model of ideal discourse through the conversations between Knecht and Designori or Jacobus. Both parties have overly extreme perspectives at the beginning of the debate - Designori and Jacobus don’t have enough respect for Castalia and intellectual pursuits, while Knecht has seldom interacted with people from outside of Castalia and can’t empathize with them. However, despite their differences, both parties participate in a civil discourse, never allowing the conversation to turn into a competition or a battle. At the end of the conversation, both have changed minds, and recognize the merits of the other’s perspective. The book emphasizes that in a sincere and meaningful discourse, both parties make themselves vulnerable and malleable.

Today, many people have forgotten this important fact. In debates, politicians refuse to change their perspective or make concessions to the opponent for fear of seeming weak, and spectators always speak of the “winner” of a debate as if it were a competition. When someone participates in a debate, they typically assume at the beginning that they already know the correct answer to the problem, and that they only have to convince the opponent that he is wrong. The committee of education commits this error when they request that Knecht serve as a diplomat and continue conversing with Jacobus and trying to change his perspective towards Castalia without imagining that Jacobus could influence Knecht as well. This phenomenon is similar to “Kripkean Dogmatism,” the practice of assuming that any statement differing with one’s own must be based on false or biased evidence, and that it can be refuted.

Unfortunately, solving modern problems in this way is more difficult due to today’s different circumstances. Knecht, Designori, and Jacobus, for example, are well-educated and value the education, giving them a few points in common. Although the majority of successful politicians are well-educated, many of the voters on whom they depend are not, and due to the anti-intellectual movement, they even have an aversion to candidates that seem intellectual. This fact dissuades politicians from resolving their differences in a civil and open-minded way. However, although they can’t be applied in all cases, the advice that the book provides can improve the quality of a debate between two educated parties that don’t prioritize maintaining appearances.

Although it was published in 1943, “The Glass Bead Game” addresses many important modern themes. First, it warns of the social danger of the separation of the intellectual elite far away from ordinary society and the working class; it predicts the eventual destruction of Castalia unless it changes its relationship with the rest of its country. Secondly, it warns of a danger on the individual level, demonstrating that Knecht can only predict the fall of Castalia after leaving it and strengthening his knowledge of history; even Knecht, the wisest man by the end of the book, dies by drowning, showing that even a person as educated as Knecht must always be conscious of his weaknesses in the real world in order to survive.

Finally, it proposes a solution to the social and individual problems through sincere debate and open discourse, offering an example of this with Knecht, Designori, and Jacobus.

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