If you would like to browse past essays from the Notebook, you can see the big chronological list in the Archive or you can browse through the list of Tags. In this notebook you can read my attempts to work out my ideas in a public space before they make it into the longer and more polished Essays. If you are interested in receiving such writing along with my favorite art of the week straight to your inbox, you can join our cultural cadre by subsribing to the Newsletter.
Classical educators tend to be a bookish lot. We like Cicero and Shakespeare. We like Latin and Greek. We like musty bookstores with alleyway entrances in Edinburgh. We like traditional school uniforms. We use a picture of the library at Trinity College Dublin as our desktop background. We like Gothic arches. We like Lord of the Rings, and we wrote coded messages to our middle school friends in elvish script. We fantasize about a trip to Florence. We know the smell of damp tweed in the fall.
All this conjures an image in the popular imagination antithetical to another image which we attach to the math and science magnet school. Those schools, we imagine, are populated by an altogether different sort of creature (since our schools champion the humanities, we shudder to think what other sort of creature that might be). We live in libraries; they live in laboratories.
They like aviation and science museums. They wear NASA shirts and Birkenstocks (with mid-calf white tube socks). They loved marine biology in eighth grade, and they won the science fair by studying tadpoles. They like calculus homework. They put the new pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope onto all four of their monitors. They like the ring of the buckling-spring switches in their old Model-M keyboards. They also like more lucrative careers.
In the last two posts, we explored two ways of thinking about freedom that I have argued are ultimately inadequate. In the first post, I discussed the freedom-as-selection model found in Plato’s Myth of Er. According to this way of thinking, our freedom consists in an act of selection from a set of objectively given predetermined options. In the second post, I discussed the freedom-as-assertion model found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. According to this way of thinking, our freedom consists in an act of self-assertion in which both the form of life chosen and the evaluative criteria by which that life is judged proceed wholly from within the subjective depths of the hero. In this post, I will articulate a third option that I believe preserves the best intuitions in these two models while avoiding their inadequacies. This third option conceives of freedom on analogy with an artist’s act of creation.
When a sculptor works with his marble, he brings together in a profound way the polarities of interiority and exteriority, subjectivity and objectivity. The sculptor seeks to realize in the concrete a conception he has within himself, but he does not have the absolute freedom to realize just anything. He cannot create arbitrarily ex nihilo. The marble itself is a given. It lay in the earth thousands of years before the sculptor came along. It has a particular nature, a texture, and a grain, all of which the sculptor can do nothing about. He must work within the bounds determined by this antecedently given material. Some shapes that he might like to make are simply not possible given the constraints that he must work within. Nevertheless, he does not simply select from an array of logically possible marble-shapes. The shape he realizes proceeds from within his own soul. He can truly call the sculpture his own because it is an expression into the exterior world of something born of his interior depths.
In last week’s post, we explored Plato’s Myth of Er as a radically objectivist paradigm for thinking about freedom. According to this way of thinking, all the objects of freedom and the standards of choice already exist outside the self. Freedom exists only in the act of selection between alternatives, realizing one option rather than others. This week, I will contrast this freedom-as-selection with an opposite, radically subjectivist paradigm found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Echoing the sentiments of some sophists contemporary with Socrates, Nietzsche articulates a thoroughly constructivist (and therefore dismissive) account of conventional values. Every people, he says, develops its own “tongue of good and evil,” its “language of customs and rights.”1 This language is enforced by the state which serves the interests of the “all-too-many” so that they might seduce and use the “heroes.” What we ordinarily take to be objective givens of justice and goodness are therefore cast in a new, questionable light. None of these values are really “out there” to be chosen; we merely dupe ourselves collectively into believing so. “Verily,” he says, “men gave themselves all their good and evil.”
While this has its pathetic side, it also points to a profound capacity within the human person. Man is the “esteemer” and “to esteem is to create.” We have the capacity, by our own acts of esteeming not simply to select from objectively given options, but to create the very options and the terms in which we value them. This points to the possibility of a hero who will see through the obfuscations of the herd and realize his freedom by asserting his own values on his own terms. “First, peoples were creators; and only in later times, individuals. Verily, the individual himself is still the most recent creation.” In order to prove that he has the right to escape from the yoke and become an individual, such a hero must create his own good and evil. He must be the judge and avenger of his own law.
All translations of Nietzsche are from Walter Kaufmann.↩︎
At the very end of the Republic, Socrates tells a fascinating story about a man named Er who travels to the underworld while still alive. There he sees souls, about to be reborn, make a fateful choice between various models (παραδείγματα) that will determine the course of their next lives (βίοι; 617d–e). The souls are given lots that establish the order in which they choose, but the large number of models affords good options even for the last soul (617e, 619b). The motive for this arrangement is theological, pinning the responsibility for virtue and vice entirely on the one who chooses rather than the gods, pithily expressed in only four Greek words: αἰτία ἑλομένου: θεὸς ἀναίτιος (617e). Some of the models depict the lives of tyrants, others depict lives that end in poverty or exile, still others depict lives of men famous for beauty or athletic prowess, and so on (618a–b). Importantly, the “arrangement of the soul was not included in the model because the soul is inevitably altered by the different lives it chooses” (618b).1
Socrates calls this moment of choice “the greatest danger of all” because here each soul determines the whole fate of its next cycle of incarnation (618b). This is why, he says, it is so important to study philosophy in this life. By learning which kinds of life are better and worse for our souls we will be in a position to avoid the common error of choosing an evil life on the basis of surface appearances. The philosopher “will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else” (618d–e).
All translations from the Republic are from G.M.A. Grube as revised by C.D.C. Reeve.↩︎
Hildebrand is well known for his philosophy of value and value-response, which grounds many of his most important philosophical insights and appears in nearly all his works. Value, according to Hildebrand, is a basic datum of experience appearing as the “important in itself” as distinct from the “merely subjectively satisfying” and the “objective good for the person.” For example, suppose I see a case of moral excellence, such as a person forgiving an enemy under difficult circumstances. The encounter with this excellence presents itself as something more than merely neutral, something that demands a kind of respect even though it may not hold any element of subjective pleasure for me or involve a benefit to me at all. This second aspect of Hildebrand’s philosophy interacts with his phenomenological realism because the revelation of something as important in itself leads us on to inquire into the ways that reality must be structured such that it could contain this dimension of value. According to Hildebrand, we must avoid the temptation to think of value as merely the projection of our own interests or preferences because we can discern in experience a clear distinction between the sense that something is important in itself and the sense that something is important because of a particular connection to us.
Order is the path we follow, or the pattern by which we live with purpose and meaning. Above even food and shelter, we must have order. The human condition is insufferable unless we perceive a harmony, an order, in existence.
Orderliness is the first of the cultured virtues because the development of all the others presupposes an orderly way of life. The disorderly person might strike upon something, from time to time, that looks like elegance or intelligence, but such happy coincidence does not proceed from virtue because it does not proceed from deliberate cultivation.
When I taught introductory ethics classes to freshmen, I began to notice a certain uselessness in the default approach I took during my first few years. I taught them to reflect upon big, macro-level social issues or impossible-to-solve lifeboat dilemmas (because this was how it was done when I took the class myself). Sometimes the resulting conversations were insightful, but even on the best days I felt that I was failing to address the ethical concerns that were actually of pressing and immediate interest to my students. Even if they could say something intelligent about systemic injustice, how could they do anything about it if they could not manage to wake up on time, do their laundry, overcome addictions, hold a conversation with the people closest to them, or plan their finances for the next month?
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom:
and with all thy getting get understanding.
Ancient cultures had a special wisdom literature, such as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes in the Bible, a literature which gives direct, sage counsel. To a great extent, however, all of ancient and medieval literature counts as wisdom literature. The authors frequently understood themselves to be passing on wisdom to their readers whether they wrote poetry or philosophical dialogues, and readers sought out literature as a principal means of becoming wise. Certainly, the joy of a story beautifully told or the delight in syllables ingeniously intertwined played a role as well, but these things were secondary to the aims of masters like Pindar or Plato. Contemporary education has lost this pursuit of wisdom through reading, and when schools read someone like Homer at all, he frequently becomes mere history or fiction.
Wisdom involves two elements: (i) gaining insight into the way of things, that is, the objective structure of reality or what the Greeks would call the Logos, and (ii) learning to shape our lives in conformity with this objective order.
How do I know what to read? If I have not read a book before, how do I know whether it will be any good? After all, reading a book, especially if I read it well, is a significant investment of hours. Every time I commit to reading one book, I am simultaneously choosing, by implication, not to read a functionally infinite array of other books that may be just as good—or better. In reality, of course, this isn’t how it works. When I sit down to read a book, even one I have never cracked open before, I usually have a pretty good idea whether it will be worth my time. I know this because the book has a reputation.
The novice faces a similar problem but on a much deeper level. Without having already read widely, how is he to know where he should begin? To make matters worse, he has not yet developed the taste by which he is even capable of judging better books from worse. The best books have the double function of being intrinsically interesting in their own right and developing our capacities as readers. We learn how to recognize a great book by reading great books, but the novice has not done this yet. There is some danger that if he chooses unwisely his taste will develop in distorted ways.
Do you want to lose a culture war? Here is a simple recipe. Start by conceding to the radicals all the taste-making venues, the salons, the cafes, and the galleries. Next, concede all the educational institutions, the museums, and the endowments. Then conclude that, since the arts are now dominated by radical politics, there must be something suspicious about high culture itself. Encourage your children to become engineers, electricians, lawyers, HVAC technicians, doctors, scientists, or accountants—anything but novelists, sculptors, or film critics. When you read anything at all, read only devotional material and how-to manuals. Make your home, your clothing, and your personal affect as tacky as possible. Never listen carefully to Chopin with your children, but complain about the vulgarity of their rap music. Be strict about moral questions but a relativist about beauty, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. When you hang paintings, make sure that they are of the doctor’s office variety. Buy as much kitsch as you can while complaining about consumerism and corporate elites. Above all, make no effort to change any of this by improving your literacy or your taste because such pursuits are reserved for another kind of person, someone you vaguely resent, suspect, and sometimes, envy.
An older kind of conservatism knew that the conservative must conserve. He must conserve not simply the status quo of economy, religion, and family life, but the very vitality of a whole culture. This means conserving: the distinct architectural character of different neighborhoods and the will to build new buildings that are harmonious with the old; a literary inheritance given to us in a definite canon and the capacity to read it intelligently; the inculcated sense that there are gracious and tactful ways to speak, dress, move one’s hands, or sit and the self-respect to try; the knowledge of a musical repertoire along with both the skill to perform it and the cultivated sensitivity, on the part of the audience, to be moved by it; and the conviction that some things in life are better than others simply because they are more lovely.
John Henry Newman possessed many admirable qualities besides those that made him a saint. He was simultaneously an English gentleman, distinguished for his erudite prose style, and a conscientious man of the Church, just recently canonized. In his humility, he would be the last to draw attention to his own virtues, but he does discuss at length in several places these two dimensions of character. While he recognizes that “refinement is worthless without saintliness,” he nevertheless argues that it does not follow that refinement is “needless and useless with it.”1 An enormous swath of human life is admirable, the kind of thing we ought to pursue, even exquisitely precious without belonging to that ultimate core of spiritual and moral virtue, the sine qua non of a good life.
John Henry Newman, Newman the Oratorian, ed. Placid Murray (Gill; MacMillan, 1969).↩︎