All of a sudden the names of the last authors whose work the Autodidact has consulted come back to my mind: Lambert, Langlois, Larbalétrier, Lastex, Lavergne. It is a revelation; I have understood the Autodidact’s method: he is teaching himself in alphabetical order.
I contemplate him with a sort of admiration. What willpower he must have to carry out, slowly, stubbornly, a plan on such a vast scale! One day, seven years ago (he told me once that he had been studying for seven years) he came ceremoniously into this reading room. He looked round at the countless books lining the walls, and he must have said rather like Rastignac: ‘It is between the two of us, Human Knowledge.’ Then he went and took the first book from the first shelf on the far right; he opened it at the first page, with a feeling of respect and fear combined with unshakeable determination. Today he has reached L. K after J. L after K. He has passed abruptly from the study of coleopterae to that of the quantum theory, from a work on Tamerlane to a Catholic pamphlet against Darwinism: not for a moment has he been put off stride. He has read everything; he has stored it away in his head half of what is known about parthenogenesis, half the arguments against vivisection. Behind him, before him, there is a universe. And the day approaches when, closing the last book on the last shelf on the far left, he will say to himself: ‘And now what?’
– Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Autodidact meets me at the train station and launches directly into deep discussion. He laments that we only have one day together for such important conversations. Over a brunch of pho, he begins with the main principles for living in order of importance: charity to all, love for family, education and leadership. He strived to instill these values in his son and daughter because “compassion you have to train. It’s not big suddenly.”
He sits across from me in a rumpled ill-fitting suit, talking animatedly about his research. For the last 34 years, the Autodidact privately studied up to a PhD level in six humanities and six sciences – physics, math, cosmology, biology, psychology, psychiatry, politics, law, business, society and philosophy. Thousands of books fills his home and he laughs, “I fear an earthquake. I might die in books.” He synthesizes this knowledge into his magnum opus: a dissertation on governance which already fills several large volumes. The work visibly excites him, “I think of these things day and night.”
I met him through his daughter, Uyen, a brightly shining star herself. The Autodidact speaks of his children with love and the doting of a parent who raised two compassionate intelligent people. As children, he made sure they spent time in prayer each morning in their Buddhist shrine. His son matured into the charismatic president of his college class and his daughter recently received an award for charity at medical school. Within a few years, there will be three doctors in the family and when Uyen receives her MD, the father and daughter will become a paradox (say it out loud. This is one of my favorite jokes but I’ve only been able to use it three times since I stole it from Heinlein in the seventh grade).
With the help of his children, the Autodidact plans to start a charity focused on relieving poverty in his former home of Vietnam. As a young man, he fled the communists and does not hide his antipathy to the dogma. “Karl Marx is intellectually a bum although very interdisciplinary.” When the Autodidact came to America as a refugee, he dropped his surname of Nguyen because it was also the name of the recently deposed dynasty of Vietnam who mistreated a national hero. With a proud smile, “I became Quang-Dang which means Space-Time in Vietnamese.” He embodies the American Dream: after a PhD in law, he made his money in real estate and now devotes himself to helping the human race.
“I don’t think Regan had a mind. We don’t train leaders which is the hardest job. Most leaders are lawyers but that’s not good. They don’t teach you economics. I studied law here and it’s easy. It’s so shallow. It’s just applying rules. There’s no depthful thought. Plato said you can’t be a leader until you’re 50. I have devised a training program for these leaders during that time.” He spent twenty years as an adviser to the president of Vietnam and now holds a weekly meeting with local men to hone his ideas.
Sometimes he recites a great truth in Vietnamese first and then translates: “I think therefore I am.” Because of our accents, we cannot understand each on a name like Nietzsche so I write it on a napkin. He grins knowingly. “He’s unbalanced, smart but dangerous because he pushes for superhuman but doesn’t stress charity and compassion.” He displays an easy familiarity with the great thinkers, summing them up succinctly. “When you read Kant, you swim in an ocean with no posts. It’s never practical. Too abstract.”
“The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.” We’re drinking coffee at Barnes and Nobles now after a stop at Vietnamese grocery store where he loaded me down with food I’ve never seen. He tells me about Buddhism and the six levels of existence from gods to ghosts and that it takes at least 84,000 lives for a soul to reach the level of humanity. He tells me mystical tales from his life and mentions his belief that Jesus spent fifteen years in India learning the Dharma. “I think if I meditate one million days, something might happen.”
We end our visit with an early dinner at a Vietnamese steak house. “Your purpose of life is fulfillment of capacity. Your purpose in life you have to choose. If you’re a great man, you change humankind, if you’re a small mind, you change your community or state. If you follow what I say, you will settle and put your energy to something useful.” I’ve heard that advice frequently from wise older men but I can’t seem to fight the call of the open road. He ends, “Next time we will talk on reality. It is real but not real.”