Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Fun, Interesting, and Useless Liberal Arts

President Roosevelt once paid a visit to Oliver Wendell Holmes on the judge's ninety-second birthday. Entering his library, Roosevelt found the ancient Holmes reading Plato's Republic. "Why are you reading that?" he asked. Holmes replied: "To improve my mind, Mr. President."

In our fondness for Justice Holmes, it's easy to miss the stupidity of this answer. What did Holmes need to improve his mind for? He was ninety-two! Unless Holmes agreed with Plato about immortality (he didn't), he was either lying or being foolish.

This brings up an interesting point, though: what is the point of Plato and the liberal arts? There are more arguments in their favor than there are words in this post, and all of them are wrong.

The liberal arts teach you how to think and write.” Meh. The students who excel are the ones who already know how.

Literature, art, and philosophy make us better people.” Wrong! The Nazis were erudite murderers.

"Books are valuable for their own sake." I have no idea what that means. I'm starting to think it's just nonsense.

The liberal arts give you the key to our civilization.” Maybe the civilization of 1876. Today, it’s only okay to talk about Socrates at the University of Chicago—anywhere else, you’ll be carefully avoided.
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"Cultivating the intellect lets us apprehend God and speak prophecies."
Nope.
Why, then, do I study the liberal arts? Not because I want to prepare myself for the working world. (If I really wanted to do that, I would be learning economics and spending my summers in New York instead of Maine.) Nor to improve my cocktail-party schmoozing—I already know enough trivia for that. And least of all because I want to "improve my mind"—I'll forget most of my education soon, and anyway I'll be dead one day. So why make improvement my goal

No: I study it because I like it, and there’s nothing more to it. I study it because I like Plato and Thoreau and Calvin, and because I love Wittgenstein and Milton and Tolstoy. Those people make my life fun and interesting. They teach me new ways of thinking about life and death, and they give me a hint of beauty beyond the mundane world. They also save me from spending my time dripping millimeters out of a pipette or doing regressions to test the effect of SAT prep.

(Meanwhile, a happy accident makes me grateful and bewildered: my society deems it worthwhile to let me sit down with a book for four years, and end up with decent job prospects in the end.)

So that's the bottom line: it's fun to read good books. I suspect that Holmes really thought so, too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Seventh Day

Written beside the St. Croix River on July 28th, 2013.

And God said: let us make man in our own image. He will know good and evil, and he will know the godliness of beauty.

And let him see lights above him that wheel across the sky: a billion stars and a virgin moon that mocks the earth. Let him see Katahdin and Chesuncook, each terrifying in its bigness and holy unto something unknown. Let him read the thundering Bible and the sweet Symposium. Let him hear angel-song in the mouths of elven tenors. And let him sense the white leviathans that stir in the deep, forever half-hidden from him.

Let man behold all this, but let him be cut off from it. Let him be mired in pettiness and sick with earthly life. Let him sneeze and be restless and squabble with strangers at the airport. He may see the angels of heaven in his fevered visions—but he may not struggle with a single one.

And there was evening and there was morning—a sixth day. And God repented of the curse that he had laid on man. And God said:

Let him also have peace.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Down with Growth

“Cancer will help you grow as a person.” “Paddling on the Allagash River made me stronger in all kinds of ways.” “God wants us to be constantly making ourselves better.”


It’s settled nowadays that if there’s one thing worth valuing in our lives, it’s constant self-improvement. It’s not that great to be born into riches and take over the family business; it’s wonderful to start from nothing and become the richest car-seat salesman in the country. There’s little point in being an excellent pianist—there’s tremendous point in practicing every day to get better at Für Elise.

I’m working as a camp counselor now (the cause of this blog’s fallowness), and I’m surrounded by this ethos. The boys, after all, are in a stage of their lives when everything is moving in a straight line. As Adam gets older, he gets better at sailing. His conversations get more intellectual. His face grows a beard, his voice gets deeper, and he commands more respect. To Adam and his excitable counselors, it seems like human life is all about growing up and improving himself. That’s where the secret to happiness is.

But it’s just not true. The world is full of growth, but also full of decay. People are born and grow for the first twenty years, and get stronger and smarter. But then they start to decay: by fifty we can’t run as fast, by sixty we can’t think as fast, and soon we die and all the growth that we’ve accumulated gets buried in the grave. If we invent a narrative for our lives that requires us to constantly accumulate good character, professional accomplishments, and material goods, we’re not setting ourselves up to be happy.

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Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity.
We would do well, then, to find ways of being happy that don’t involve polishing ourselves ceaselessly until it’s time to apply more polish. We must be happy both when we’re getting weaker and when we’re getting stronger. Even more importantly, we should focus on doing right by other people without worrying about what it means for our own “ethical development.”

A side-note while I’m talking about morality: Judaism has an annual Day of Atonement, a day that is filled with scripted confessions of sin. When I was growing up, I would finish the prayerbook on that day and be puzzled: if I’ve just finished repenting, why is it assumed that I’m going to need the same book next year? Isn’t it assumed that I’ve grown out of sinning now? But the rabbis who wrote the book were wiser than I was. Flesh is weak, and no one is really strong enough to improve himself to the expected level. It’s good enough, then, to sin and atone with the full consciousness that we’ll sin again despite our best efforts.


Back to the main point. Am I saying that I don’t like growth? Not at all. It’s a pleasure to watch children grow up, just like it’s fun to go to the gym every day and get steadily stronger. But I do want to help remove it from its place of culture-wide adoration. Growth is a pleasing part of human life—but it shouldn’t be our idol. After all, if it becomes our god, we will be deeply frustrated when we are denied it in the end. (Death, it seems, is always good at destroying idols.)