Name: Jerry Dell Ehrlich
Occupation: Author/bookstore owner
Neighborhood: National City
Where interviewed: Postmodern Bookstore, Chula Vista
What are you reading?
“I keep certain books around. I try to have every third book I read be in German, to keep up my skills. Here’s Die Kunst Des Liebens [The Art of Loving], by Erich Fromm. And I keep up with my Greek and my Roman. Also, about three months ago, I said, ‘There are a few big books I’ve got to get through. Virgil’s Aeneid, The Tin Drum, by Gunter Grass, and Goethe’s Faust. Oh, and here’s Women in the 19th Century, by Margaret Fuller.
Is there a reason why that one is in there with those others?
Margaret Fuller was brilliant; she founded and edited The Dial. She taught at the same school as Elizabeth Peabody — Peabody is the one who first published Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. And Fuller ran the meetings at Peabody’s bookstore in Boston. That’s where most of the local Transcendentalists met. They were the heartbeat of America from 1820–1880. They were against slavery, they were against the Mexican war, they were against child labor. They were for women’s suffrage and for a decent wage for hirelings. And most if not all of the Transcendentalists were Platonists. They went to Germany and came under the influence of Kant, Hegel, and Goethe — Fuller loved Goethe. I like to read anything by Platonists like them.
How was Goethe a Platonist?
He tried to be an idealist, and most idealists arise out of Platonism in some way. I defend idealism: unless people have an ideal, unless they want to do something better, nothing gets created. And in an era where faith in God was more important than science, Goethe redid the Faust legend so that, instead of being damned for selling his soul to Mephistopheles because he wanted knowledge, God forgives him. Plato taught that knowledge is the stepping stone to happiness, whereas the Church held science back. They condemned advances in medicine because it’s not depending on God. When the Christian Justinian took over the Roman Empire in 529, he destroyed all the pagan schools. That’s why Galen said that the Christians were dangerous. And in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, when they’re coming into the new world, everything is just like home, except it’s perfect, and they’re in a wonder. Finally, the leader says, “It’s all in Plato! What do they teach the children these days?” Lewis, a Christian, had all this Christian literature about heaven, but he says it’s in Plato!
You’ve given this some thought.
I was a Lutheran clergyman. I know there have been elements where the Church became really great, and I know there are great Christians. But by and large, there’s a lot of fear with the love. I lined up all the differences between Christianity and Platonism and I found I was a Platonist, so why not just come out and say it? I resigned my ministry, went back to school, and got my Ph.D in history with a minor in ancient philosophy.
And now you run a bookstore.
And I have over 16,000 books, with more than 50 books on Plato alone. I try to have books that will nourish people’s spiritual life and increase their intellectual life. I want people to come in, open their minds, and let the great people of the world speak to them. I don’t care what they end up believing; I want it running through their minds — the feelings, the thoughts. The thinking of hopelessness and the thinking of hope. That’s the whole thing about Plato: he asks all the right questions, but he doesn’t give an answer. He makes you think about it, and there are certain statements that stick with you. Like when Aristotle said that Plato was the first man to teach us that only the good can be happy. That stuck with him.