The Liberating Arts
OCTOBER 01, 1965 by EDMUND OPITZ
Filed Under : Arts and Music
The Reverend Mr. Opitz of the Foundation staff is active as a lecturer and seminar leader.
Everyone who wishes to pull his own weight in life needs one or more skills which his fellows think valuable to them. Most of us are not born with much talent; we have to learn to be useful. This means acquiring a "trade." The word is interesting. It implies that most of us cannot get by just being our own sweet selves; to the contrary, we have to learn to perform a service which is sufficiently attractive to our neighbor so that he will give us something he values a little less in order to enjoy that service.
And so there are training schools where we learn how to be secretaries, or mechanics, or fashion designers. At the professional level there are the traditional faculties of medicine, law, and theology; schools of science now constitute a fourth. Quite distinct from training and professional schools is the liberal arts college. The student emerges from one of these institutions after four years’ exposure to a liberal arts program with little or nothing in the way of a marketable commodity; if he has acquired an immediately marketable skill, it is usually by extracurricular means. This is as it should be, for the fundamental purpose of liberal arts education is to provide genuinely liberating experiences for the persons involved.
The Two Cultures
Everyone acknowledges the importance to society of the kinds of people who accomplish the work of the world: the engineers and technologists, the managers and manufacturers, the doctors, lawyers, chemists, and so on—the people who possess know-how, instrumental knowledge, power. But what about those who are schooled merely in the liberating arts; what role might they aspire to play in our culture?
If students have been exposed to the best that has been thought and said about man, so that they have some understanding of what it means to be a person, some understanding of the nature, destiny, and proper end of a human being, then—if such people are heeded by those with know-how and power—we might yet scrape together sufficient wisdom to save our society from being blown to pieces by the detonation of its newly released energies.
It is our fate to live at a time when enormous power is at our disposal, but only partially under our control. Control is ultimately an intellectual and spiritual thing, and we won’t know what to do with our recently acquired power until we have decided what to do with our lives. This is where schooling comes in, for it is one function of a liberal education to help us face up to this question of how to make our lives count for the things that really matter.
Every one of us has encountered persons of enormous energy and enthusiasm, bursting with ideas which sound plausible, but whose projects fizzle out without getting anywhere. I knew such a man. He had written a widely noticed book during the thirties, and since that time had started numerous organizations to save the world. The world persistently refused the offer. Discussing the matter with a friend some years ago I wondered aloud why so-and-so had never gotten himself off the ground. "The trouble with him," said my friend, "is that he got his drive shaft installed before his steering wheel."
It is a prime function of a liberal education to provide us with the moral equivalent of a steering wheel, and perhaps a map as well. A bishop of the early Church said much the same thing when he declared that society needs three kinds of men: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. Society needs someone to grow the wheat and bake the bread. It needs someone to stand guard and protect the producer against marauders. But in addition, it needs those who continually remind the rest of us that there is more to life than this, that man has a spiritual and intellectual nature with needs just as real as his physical hungers, that there is a meaning for human life which transcends material comfort or even physical survival, and that man will not solve his material and social problems unless he successfully seeks that meaning.
Scholarship, therefore, has a significance that extends beyond the ivy walls. The tradition of Western learning goes back to Socrates—or to Plato. These men laid down the lines along which most serious thought has moved until our own time. This body of thought which goes back nearly two-and-a-half millennia, comprises "the grand old fortifying classical curriculum" of our ancestors. It is like the
The custodian of this intellectual treasure of ancient learning is the university. Every college in the American colonies consciously partook of this heritage, and likewise most of the colleges founded during the nineteenth century. The first of our universities, Harvard, was founded in 1636, and William Bradford, in his Of Plymouth Plantation traces its line of descent as follows: "A light was kindled in
Much has been made of the alleged tradition of anti-intellectualism in
There were other facets to the Reformation, of course, and the unlettered enthusiasts had a field day; but their decisive influence on American life came later. The Puritan clergy were scholars, and their influence did not wane until the late eighteenth century.
The world in every generation perishes for want of purpose and direction, and it is the scholar with his wisdom, that is, the philosopher, who can save us from ourselves. But the cost of this kind of salvation comes high, and the world does not always want it at the price—as in the case of Socrates. Socrates might be said to exemplify the scholar’s plight in every age from his day to our own. Socrates was blissfully unaware of his plight, except when Xanthippe, his wife, reminded him of it—which must have been on the hour, every hour. No wonder Socrates spent so much time out in the streets and in the marketplace! The philosophical opponents of Socrates were the Sophists, and the Sophists had a practical aim. They taught men to use their wits so as to win an argument or a debate, and they also taught the techniques by which a trial lawyer could win a case no matter how guilty his client. The Sophists were teachers who accepted fees for their services, and the skills they imparted commanded a good price. Socrates was also a teacher, but his teaching had no practical aim. His teaching subjected men to the painful process of thought and self-examination. Socrates gave men new ideas, but all they could feel was the loss of the old ones; so they got rid of him!
‘Twas ever thus; it has always been the scholar and philosopher against the world. The two need each other as flint and steel need each other; but when they get together, the sparks fly. Perhaps there is a good reason for this mutual hostility and suspicion between the verbalist and man of intellect, and the mass of sensual and vegetative men. Deep down in the psyche of every one of us is the awareness that thought, even with the best of intentions, may betray us. At some point in our biological heritage we got separated from the sure guidance of instinct—which controls the behavior of the other orders of creation—and came reluctantly under the influence of the uncertain promptings and leadings of the intellect. Our conscious knowledge is still uncertain compared to the effortless assurance of that unconscious knowledge with which we breathe, circulate our blood, regulate our temperature, and so on. So, scholarship in every generation has to prove its merit and earn our confidence. Most scholars are men who deal in words, and those who manipulate verbal symbols are in danger of confusing words with what words stand for. Thus they may build a structure of thought so elegant as to be uninhabitable. Whitehead has warned us against what he called the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.
Let me continue the case against the intellectual. An artist or a craftsman works in material that is only partly malleable to his mind and will. His experience is with refractory substances. In order to carry out his design he must make some degree of accommodation to the nature of the material. He has to learn that there are certain things he can do with bronze, for instance, which he cannot do with marble, and that steel is indicated in other situations. Thus, the craftsman and the artist is limited by the nature of his medium; it keeps him within the norms of realism and physical law.
There are no such natural and inevitable inhibitors to help the intellectual keep his feet on the ground and his head on his shoulders. That is why so many productions in such realms as philosophy and political theory are pure moonshine. The cloistered word-artist time and again has spun a gossamer fantasy which, while it may charm thousands for a time, has only the remotest relation to any verifiable reality. Thought is a nonresistant medium; which is why the court philosopher often resembles the court jester!
Although I may appear to be serving as a devil’s advocate, my strictures against the philosopher and scholar are directed mainly at that tribe of True Believers who possess the Ultimate Truth, and who so often think of themselves as The Intellectuals. At this point I share the feelings of the late C. S. Lewis, the
The Power of Public Opinion
As a matter of fact, it is ideas that rule the world, for good or ill; and the strongest power in society is public opinion. Therefore, it should be the prime goal of idea men to work toward an intellectual climate in which ideas are respected, and sound ideas made attractive. The world is reaping now the bitter harvest of ideas sown during the past couple of centuries, and the soil is waiting to be planted with different seed.
The scholar and philosopher, from time immemorial, has had to contend against ignorance, stupidity, indifference, and personal antagonism from without; within, he had to overcome his own inertia, prejudice, and the mind’s natural frailties. The disciplines of logic and rhetoric aided him here, and an acknowledgment of the limitations of the intellect helped him think straight within those limits. The independent status of the mind in the universe was not successfully impugned; it was the mind of man which elevated him above the beasts and allied him with God, his Maker.
But in the nineteenth century, man as thinker had to face a challenge of a radically different kind—from a foe within his own household. I refer to the rise of philosophic materialism and mechanism which denies to mind and intellect an independent status in the universe. Materialism, briefly defined, is the doctrine that the universe contains no entities except those which can be analyzed exhaustively in terms of physics and chemistry. It is the notion that only material particles are ultimately real, with the corollary that the realms of mind, spirit, or intellect are mere offshoots of bits of matter.
This is a kind of anti-intellectualism beside which all other varieties of anti-intellectualism are child’s play! A theory is not a material thing; it is an idea, and an idea is nonmaterial. Materialism as a theory is, therefore, a contradiction in terms.
Seeds of Materialism: Darwin and Marx
Nevertheless, two seeds of materialism were sown in the year 1859, in Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Karl Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Marx, in his Author’s Preface to the Critique, writes as follows: "The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness."
According to the internal logic of this statement, the categories true or false cannot apply to it; certain sounds are emitted by Marx who, if the statement be taken literally, is a mere mouthpiece for the material productive factors of 1859. His mind may frame the words, but it does not originate the ideas. The ideas are generated mechanically by "the mode of production in material life," with no more inherent vitality than words coming from a phonograph record.
Charles Darwin is customarily regarded as Mr. Evolution: actually, there are many theories to account for the biological and geological facts, and
Darwin himself, unlike many of the Darwinians, entertained some doubts. Writing to a friend, he said: "With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind—if there are any convictions in such a mind?" In the Descent of Man occurs the despairing assertion: "There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties."
Mind Banished from the Universe
The intellect as an independent vehicle for the discovery of truth is now no longer master in its own household. There is only reflected opinion. For the Marxist, a man’s opinion is merely a reflex of his class status; it is hopeless for the bourgeois to try to grasp proletariat truth. For the Darwinist, the mind is a mere fragment of nature, a tool for adjusting organism to environment. A generation or so after these men, the Freudians would teach that the conscious mind is a mere pawn in the grip of unconscious mental forces over which, by definition, we have no possible control. The mind or intellect, in being explained, is explained away.
Twenty-five years ago, Gerald Heard discussed this painful effort to eliminate mind or reduce the stature of intellect: "The mechanist picture of the universe," he wrote, "is consistently imposed on all that universe’s contents, not merely on the motions of the heavens and of the earth but on the motions and motives of life and, finally, of consciousness. It is an immense achievement of coordinated argument and carefully selected illustrations—not of proof."
The trend that deprived mind of its citizenship papers in the universe and made it a mere appendage to the class, the organism, or the unconscious, was persuasive without being proved—or even provable. Proof is, in fact, impossible, because the thing declared incompetent—the mind—is our only instrument for proving or disproving anything. The intellectual cuts his own throat whenever he engages in the anti-intellectual conspiracy to sell short his chief weapon, the mind. Whenever he does this he damages himself, but in addition the scholar deprives society of his indispensable services.
Economic and Political
The scholar serves society by keeping its institutions under sympathetic and understanding surveillance, including its economic and political orders. The market place and the forum are two of society’s most important institutions, and freedom constitutes the health of both. Liberties of the mind, in most periods, are self-evidently valuable to most scholars; but economic and political liberties appear to be grubby concerns remote from the study and the classroom. The fastidious scholar might regard them with distaste, much as the finicky Platonist is chagrined to find that his mind and spirit are ineluctably yoked to a perishing carcass which has to be fed and housed, tended when ill, and whose aches and pains interfere with his philosophizing.
This attitude of hostility toward or disgust with the physical body, found in Platonism and the Eastern religions, is no part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The religious tradition in which most of us were reared has a robust, earthy attitude toward the body and its concerns. It holds that being in the body is a condition of the soul’s salvation; and it is concerned, not only with the soul’s immortality, but with the body’s resurrection.
Economic Freedom a Means
The theological stance here was psychosomatic long before that term was invented, and this stance has a carryover into the market place. The business, commercial, and industrial pursuits of a society are somewhat analogous to the bodily activities of an individual; they are not ends in themselves but they are necessary means, and if they are to be efficient means, they must be free.
If the economic means are not free, that is to say, if they are centrally planned by government, government’s role in society is immediately overextended and it perforce begins to impede the liberties of the mind, the scholar’s central concern. The economic means are the means to all our ends, and whoever controls them obtains an almost irresistible leverage over every human activity.
Freedom to teach and to publish are basic liberties of the mind, but if the central government owns the schools and appoints the instructors, what becomes of academic freedom? And if newsprint is a government monopoly and all printing presses are government owned, the liberty of publishing vanishes.
Material Roots of Progress
Liberties of the mind have their roots in affairs that are not spiritual but material, and it has always been so. The Scottish philosopher and historian, W. G. De Burgh, in his great work, Legacy of the Ancient World, declares that "all down through the ages, knowledge and the arts have arisen and fructified in close contact with industry and trade.
The mind is in the body, and the person is in society. The demands of organic life fret us in the first case, as do the imperatives of the economic and political orders in the second. Thus, there is an all too-human tendency to bog down at this point; to regard these ties as either ultimate—in which case we face into a dead end, or negligible—in which case their instruction is lost on us.
But if the liberating arts have performed their true role, the biological and social orders are neither slighted nor overemphasized; rather, they are put in perspective as the indispensable means to ends beyond themselves. If the liberation "takes," the mind and the person emerge as the fulfillment and completion of the purposes for which body and society exist.
A Fundamental Doctrine
Statism postulates the doctrine that the citizen has no rights which the State is bound to respect; the only rights he has are those which the State grants him, and which the State may attenuate or revoke at its own pleasure. This doctrine is fundamental; without its support, all the various nominal modes or forms of Statism which we see at large in Europe and America—such as are called Socialism, Communism, Naziism, Fascism, etc.,—would collapse at once. The individualism which was professed by the early Liberals, maintained the contrary; it maintained that the citizen has rights which are inviolable by the State or by any other agency.
Albert J. Nock, from the Introduction to the 1940 edition of The Man Versus the State by Herbert Spencer