Simon Leys: The View from the Bridge. Lectures on Learning, Reading, Writing and Going Abroad and Staying Home (1996)

First posted August 4, 2018

In 1996, Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) presented the ABC Boyer Lectures. Subsequently published under the title The View from the Bridge the lectures were serialised in China Heritage Quarterly with the permission of the author. The first lecture, Learning is presented below. The second lecture, Reading, can be found here; the third, Writing, can be read here.

The final lecture Going Abroad and Staying Home opens thus: ‘Dictators and toddlers share a curious characteristic: an inability to use the first person pronoun. They refer to them-selves by their own names, in the third person…’

Jiǎ Yǐ Bǐng Dīng (2015) – Tribute to Professor Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans)

A true university is (and has always been) anchored in values. Deprived of this holding ground, it can only drift at the caprice of all the winds and currents of fashion, and, in the end, is doomed to founder in the shallows of farce and incoherence. In a private letter (posthumously published), Hannah Arendt provided a striking insight on the relation between truth and thought that could provide an illumina-ting paradigm for the dependence of any scholarly investigation upon a pre-existing concept of values. Arendt wrote: “The chief fallacy is to believe that Truth is a result which comes at the end of a thought process. Truth, on the contrary, is always the beginning of thought… Thinking starts after an experience of Truth has struck home, so to speak. The difference between philosophers and other people is that the former refuse to let go, but not that they are the only receptacles of Truth… Truth, in other words, is not in thought, but… it is the condition for the possibility of thinking. It is both beginning and a priori….”

He who believes in nothing, sees nothing. The trap of ‘seeing through‘ things was best exposed by C.S. Lewis, at the conclusion of his memorable essay in defense of values, The Abolition of Man:

“The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too. It is no use trying ‘to see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To see through all things is the same as not to see..”


The other day I paid a visit to an old friend, who is a philosopher. I found him in his garden, pruning his roses. I could not resist making the observation that this seemed a most befitting occupation for a philosopher, but my remark made him laugh. He was quick to remind me that a number of famous philosophers had in fact shown a strong allergy to such earthy hobbies. In our own time, for instance, think of Jean-Paul Sartre: the protagonist of his most representative novel Nausea, has a sudden intuition of the fundamental absurdity of existence while crossing a public garden; the very sight of an old tree-root grotesquely twisted over the ground triggers this dreadful awareness in his mind, and the experience is of such intensity, that it makes him literally vomit—hence the title of the book. (By the same token, one might even wonder if modern existentialist philosophers would not need to take sea-sickness pills before undertaking any gardening.)

Still, I do believe that my naive observation did, in a way, hit upon a deeper truth. It was not meant to be a facile reference to Voltaire’s well-known precept (as you will remember, at the end of his philosophical tale Candide after countless horrific tribulations, Candide and his companions, having experienced all the trials, disasters, miseries and anguish that generally characterize man’s predicament, at last find shelter and rest, and discover the ultimate secret of wisdom – which is to cultivate one’s own garden). No, what I had in mind, was something even more basic. It was simply the instinctive and universal awareness that the quest of the philosopher is as ancient and as essential to the human endeavour as the primeval occupation of the peasant. The magnificent statement on spiritual development, which John Henry Newman came to use almost as a proverb – ‘Growth is the only evidence of life’ – might as well have been issued by an old farmer. 

Since the dawn of civilization – actually, since neolithic times when prehistoric man first began to settle down, to sow, to plant and to harvest – culture has sustained and defined us, and it is not by chance that we use the same word when we speak both of cultivating our gardens, and of cultivating

our minds. Indeed, culture is the true and unique signature of man. A prehistoric cave that presents material evidence of ancient occupation, may have been inhabited by pithecanthropes or other ape-like creatures, infinitely remote from us. Yet one single picture engraved or painted on its wall, however sketchy, rough, faint and faded, at once tells us a different story: a long time ago, Man was here-our ancestor, our brother. His individual presence is as immediate, unmistakable and overwhelming as that of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

Culture is the very means through which we realise the fullness of our humanity. Inasmuch as we are human, we are all producers and consumers of culture; we all experience culture in diverse forms.

In these pages, I wish simply to draw from my own personal experience: I was a teacher, I am a writer – and I shall therefore offer some reflections on a series of topics, which I would call respectively, Learning • Reading • Writing • Going Abroad and Staying Home… read more:

An Educated Man is not a Pot, an interview with Pierre Ryckmans

An Interview with Pierre Ryckmans

In Quest of the Authentic Confucius, by John Makeham