All Commentary
Friday, October 1, 1965

The Liberating Arts

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.

Western Scholarship

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 Gulf Stream coursing through the Atlantic as it comes down to us through the generations touching, at any given time, only a handful of persons. There is only a little exaggeration in Emerson when he observes that “there are not in the world at any one time more than a dozen per­sons who read and understand Plato—never enough to pay for an edition of his works; yet to every generation these [works] come duly down for the sake of these few persons….”

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 Newtown [that is, Cam­bridge] in the Bay Colony in 1636. But the spark that touched it off came from a lamp of learning first lighted by the ancient Greeks, tended by the Church through the Dark Ages, blown white and high in the medieval universities, and handed down to us in direct line through Paris, Oxford, and Cam­bridge.” Harvard College was largely a duplicate of Emmanuel College, the most Puritan of the Cambridge (England) colleges, and the one from which John Har­vard came.

Much has been made of the al­leged tradition of anti-intellec­tualism in America‘s past and present. Unintelligent books con­tinue to ring the changes on this theme, stressing the scars left by the frontier, and so on. There’s some truth to the charge. We are a practical-minded people with lit­tle time for frills in education, or anywhere else. Our schools have tended to stress practical courses, the values of life adjustment, and quick returns. Then, too, there is our democratic ideology which, by­passing the important principle of equality before the law, introduces a leveling and egalitarian ten­dency into our attitudes. This sort of mentality is affronted by any excellence or superiority. But to say no more than this about the American mind is to convey a distorted picture.

Reformation Heritage

America was founded, and its institutions established, as a pro­jection of the Reformation. So keen were the Reformers for learning that the medieval schol­ar’s gown was adopted by the Re­formation clergy as their official garb. Professor Harbison of Princeton points out that “the Protestant Reformation began in a scholar’s insight into the mean­ing of Scripture. It was to a large extent a learned movement, a thing of professors and students, a scholars’ revolution. The Catho­lic response to the challenge, par­ticularly in the Council of Trent, partook of the same nature. The prestige and influence of Chris­tian scholars probably never stood higher in all of Western history than during the two generations which embraced the lifetimes of Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin. In no other period is there anything quite like the zest for learning, the respect for scholarship, the confidence in what scholarship might accomplish—and the revo­lution it did accomplish—of the age of the Reformation.”

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.

Useless Knowledge

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.

The Intellectuals

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 Oxford don. “It is an outrage,” he writes, “that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any vir­ginal ardor to pursue her… It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath—the seat of Magnanimity and Sen­timent—that makes them seem so.”

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 merely supplied the theory which sur­vived in the struggle for existence with the other theories. Darwin eliminated purpose from evolution and admittedly made no effort to account for the inherent creativity in organisms which produced the variations upon which environ­ment operates. Once the variations appeared, an automatic or natural selective process would occur, which preserved those variations favoring survival. Criticizing the Darwinian thesis, Jacques Barzun writes, “The sum total of the acci­dents of variation thus provided a completely mechanical and ma­terial system by which to account for the changes in living forms.”

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 Liberty

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.

Athens and Alexandria, Florence and Venice, Antwerp and Rotter­dam were great commercial cities, where artists and thinkers drew life and gave it back, by just ex­change, amid the seething tide of human energy.”

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

  • The Rev. Edmund A. Opitz (1914-2006) was a Congregationalist minister, a FEE staff member, who for decades championed the cause of a free society and the need to anchor that society in a transcendent morality. A man of wide reading and high culture, Opitz was for many years on the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. He was one of the few voices in the 1950s through the 1990s calling for an integrated understanding between economic liberty and religious sensibility. He was the founder and coordinator of the Remnant, a fellowship of conservative and libertarian ministers.