This commentary appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
In chapter 47 of his 1998 encyclical letter, On the Relationship between Faith and Reason (Fides et Ratio), Pope John Paul II laments “that the role of philosophy . . . has changed in modern culture.” “From universal wisdom and learning,” he argues, philosophy “has been gradually reduced to one of the many fields of human knowledge.” As a result, traditional philosophy has been replaced by “forms of rationality [that] are directed not toward contemplation of truth and the search for the ultimate goal and meaning of life; but instead, as ‘instrumental reason,’ they are directed—actually or potentially—towards the promotion of utilitarian ends, towards enjoyment or power.”
Sadly, what the pope says here about philosophy in particular has become increasingly true of the liberal arts in general. Over the last several decades, American universities have adopted a utilitarian view of education. This vocational-pragmatic view has proved deleterious to the centrality and strength of the liberal arts, particularly such key humanistic pursuits as literature, philosophy, and narrative history focused on great men (rather than fact-based, socioeconomic history). The paradigm shift has manifested itself in a number of ways: (1) the traditional general-education core, grounded in the classics of Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe, is replaced with a cafeteria-style core that allows students to pick and choose courses that interest them; (2) the humanities are downplayed in favor of the social sciences; (3) non-Western and noncanonical works are privileged over the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition; and (4) the very status (and existence) of Great Books is questioned; and ethical, philosophical, and aesthetic standards of the good, the true, and the beautiful are deconstructed or dismissed.
To make matters worse, the agencies that accredit liberal arts colleges and universities have surrendered themselves to reductive, statistics-driven methods that squeeze the life and passion out of the humanities. To hold up the liberal arts as ends in themselves that invite students into the Great Conversation, that foster the growth of virtue and contemplation, and that help shape morally self-regulating citizens who love God and their neighbor would be considered unutterably naive by the social scientists who run our nation’s accreditation agencies. If the liberal arts cannot be justified along pragmatic lines, if their impact cannot be measured numerically, converted into flow charts, and backed up by aggregate data, then they have no place in the modern university.
In the end, when our once-fine institutions of higher learning have abdicated all responsibility to protect and propagate the best that has been known and thought in the world (to use Matthew Arnold’s trenchant phrase), when they have, to borrow a line from Yeats, dried the marrow from the bone, then will they become what they are already fast becoming: expensive vocational schools draped in whatever politically correct garb is fashionable at the moment.
Although my language may be stronger than most, I am hardly the first professor to warn against the slow decay of the liberal arts. The problem that I diagnose above is well-known to critics inside and outside academia who care about the intellectual, moral, spiritual, and aesthetic formation of the young. And many of those critics have mounted vigorous defenses of the liberal arts. Unfortunately, in doing so, too many have relied on the language and ethos of utilitarianism. We need the liberal arts, we are told, because they provide students with critical skills that will help them to survive and thrive in their more practical majors. Thus the study of Latin is praised because it calls for intense, quantifiable rigor and yields pragmatic results, such as the ability to recognize the roots of medical and legal terminology.
Whereas such arguments are helpful and necessary, what the modern academy desperately needs are arguments that present the study of literature, history, and philosophy—that is to say, the passionate pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty as it has manifested itself in the most lasting works of the human imagination, in the rise and fall of kingdoms, and in man’s search for meaning in the cosmos—as a good-in-itself, not merely as a training ground for medicine, law, and business. More than that, the “passive” life of imagination and contemplation must be held up as having a value equal to the active life of “hard work” that dominates the marketplace.
Enter Josef Pieper (1904–1997), a German Catholic philosopher whose work has received growing (and much deserved) attention and praise over the last decade. A Thomist who wrote often on the virtues, Pieper was a great apologist for the life of contemplation, a life that the master of his master (Aristotle) considered to be the highest and happiest. In Leisure, the Basis of Culture (1948), Pieper makes great strides toward defending the liberal arts by opening his reader’s eyes to a single, rather shocking etymology. The word school comes from a Greek word (schole) that means—believe it or not—“leisure.”
In book 10, chapter 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics—the very chapter where Aristotle argues that the contemplative life is the happiest—the thinker whom Aquinas refers to simply as the Philosopher makes a stunning statement: “we are busy (a-schole or “not-at-leisure”) that we may have leisure (schole), and make war that we may live in peace.” In sharp contrast to the modern man, who takes a vacation so he may work harder when he gets back to the office, Aristotle, one of the hardest-working philosophers the world has ever known, says that it is for the sake of the vacation that we work at all. Of course, in making this distinction, Pieper knows that he will be criticized by those who equate vacations with frivolity and leisure with laziness. Worse yet, he knows that he risks invoking the wrath of Christians who see no difference between leisure and the deadly sin of sloth.
In response, Pieper contends that sloth (acedia, idleness, spiritual torpor) does not manifest itself as a yearning for leisure but a rejection of our full, God-given dignity and potential. The opposite of acedia is not hard work but cheerful affirmation. The modern workaholic who uses endless busy-ness to shield himself from having to meditate on God’s purpose for his life is in far greater danger of sloth than the man who reads a book of poetry under a tree and opens his mind to the beauty of the words and the power of the images. Just as the purpose of the Sabbath was not to draw the Israelites away from meaningful work but to draw them closer to God, so the true purpose of festivals is not to drag us downward toward the beast (by means of unrestrained license) but to lift us upward toward the angels (by means of intimate fellowship and refined joy).
In like manner, an intensely leisurely study of the liberal arts, far from vitiating our spirit and vigor, makes us more human, more fully alive to the telos (purposeful end) for which God created us. Living and writing in mid-twentieth-century Europe, Pieper was sharply aware of what happens when a totalitarian work state comes to view its citizens as proletarians, as faceless cogs in an industrial machine that demands quantifiable work of all its laborers, whether their collar be blue or white.
Leisure, like the liberal arts, rescues us from the horrors of mass identity. It restores to us our soul, our uniqueness, our individual purpose. It broadens our dignity beyond the useful, and impels us, not to control, but to know. Truly may it be said of the liberal arts what C. S. Lewis says of friendship in The Four Loves: that though they have no survival value, they give value to survival. We seek leisure, just as we study the liberal arts, because we are human; and, when we do so, we become less like Camus’s Sisyphus (defined by Pieper as a worker who is “chained to his labor without rest, and without inner satisfaction”) and more like the ladies and gentlemen we were meant to be.
Between the modernist, progressive, ultimately Marxist philosophy of work and the traditional, conservative, Judeo-Christian philosophy of leisure there stretches a great gulf. According to the former, even thinking itself is a form of work. Knowledge is to be gained by an active pursuit, defined by effort and confined within the spatiotemporal limits of our world. According to the latter, true insight and wisdom come from a passive, intuitive reception to truth. Our mind, having been prepared by relaxation and tranquility (rather than assertion and struggle), grasps—or, better, is grasped by—the eternal moment. Though the Bible calls on us to be good stewards of our time, resources, and talents, an excessive focus on hectic, stressful work too often leaves us with stony hearts unable to receive.
All this is not to say that the traditional, leisurely study of literature, history, and philosophy does not take effort. It takes a great deal of effort. But the effort is not directed toward narrow utilitarian or vocational ends, and its goal is not to reduce, calculate, and quantify. It seeks not facts but truth, not analysis but synthesis, not to figure out but to understand, not to master but to know, not to do but to be.
It is true that leisure and the liberal arts seek, like Buddhism, detachment from the restlessness and fever of the world and a sense of inner harmony and balance. But there is this vital difference: the full Judeo-Christian understanding of leisure, together with the Platonic-Aristotelian and medieval-Catholic study of the liberal arts, ever exists in the presence of joy—and not just joy in the abstract but the joy of touching an eternal, transcendent truth that can be both studied and known. There is something metaphysical and supernatural that lies outside of our self and our world, and that something can be apprehended only by those who prepare their hearts and minds to seek after what both Plato and Aquinas called the beatific vision. To enjoy and to immerse oneself in aesthetic beauty, to contemplate the greater patterns of human history, to meditate upon the timeless questions that define us as human beings, is not only to live that life that Aristotle defined as the happiest but to proceed, if slowly and tentatively, up Plato’s rising path toward those eternal, changeless Forms that Augustine located in the mind of God.
In working out his definition, Pieper makes frequent reference to the Greek and medieval philosophers, and he is right to do so. And yet, strangely, he makes no reference to a group of poets who discerned in the overrationalism of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment the same dangers as Pieper observed in the twentieth-century totalitarian work states of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. I speak of the British Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular, who boldly sought to reclaim the importance of imagination and intuition and to revive a more subjective, holistic view of nature that would allow intercourse between the mind of man, the physical universe around us, and the spirit that interpenetrates both.
Although Pieper makes no mention of the Romantics, Wordsworth’s brief lyrical poem “Expostulation and Reply” offers a remarkably succinct gloss on Pieper’s work-versus-leisure thesis. Indeed, the debate that lies at the core of the Wordsworth poem reads like a dramatization of the distinction Pieper makes between ratio (“the power of discursive thought, of searching and re-searching, abstracting, refining, and concluding”) and intellectus (“the ability of ‘simply looking’ [simplex intuitus], to which the truth presents itself as a landscape presents itself to the eye”).
“Expostulation and Reply,” which first appeared in the collection that Wordsworth wrote in collaboration with Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads (1798), allows us to eavesdrop on a friendly dialogue between the Romantic William Wordsworth and his more Enlightenment-minded friend Matthew. Though the poem ultimately champions William’s less systematic, leisure-loving view, it is structured, ironically, like a formal debate.
Rather than begin with an introduction of the debaters and their topic, Wordsworth plunges in head first, allowing Matthew three stanzas to present his case:
“Why, William, on that old grey stone,
Thus for the length of half a day,
Why, William, sit you thus alone,
And dream your time away?
“Where are your books?—that light bequeathed
To Beings else forlorn and blind!
Up! Up! and drink the spirit breathed
From dead men to their kind.
“You look round on your Mother Earth,
As if she for no purpose bore you;
As if you were her first-born birth,
And none had lived before you!”
What initiates the debate between the two friends is Matthew’s consternation at the seemingly lackadaisical attitude of William. From Matthew’s perspective, William’s indulgence in leisure is simply a mask for laziness. Matthew discerns neither effort nor purpose in William’s passive musings: his slothful friend has wasted away his entire morning daydreaming on a rock when he could have been learning valuable lessons from studying books.
At first glance, it would appear that Matthew, not William, is the ideal apologist for the liberal arts. After all, Matthew, like a good Classics professor or Scholastic philosopher, seems to believe that the reading and studying of old books marks the only safe and proper road to truth and illumination. The analyzing, interpreting, and critiquing of authoritative texts, Matthew argues, not indolent woolgathering, represents the correct method for attaining wisdom. But there is a flaw in Matthew’s defense of old books, and he exposes that flaw when he counsels William to “drink the spirit breathed / From dead men to their kind.”
The problem with the utilitarian, social-science-driven philosophy of work, even when it disguises itself under the label of the humanities, is precisely that it views the Great Books as dead artifacts to be embalmed rather than as living beings to be grappled with. There seems to be little joy or passion in Matthew’s defense of books; he treats them more as collections of data than as repositories of wisdom. He certainly does not commune with them in the way that William communes with nature. William’s drinking in of the natural beauty around him suggests a receptivity to goodness, truth, and beauty that Matthew lacks. Of course, the problem is that Matthew cannot conceive that William is drinking in wisdom through his senses; all Matthew sees in William is a relaxed, careless approach to learning that betrays a streak of idleness and a false sense of specialness. And if William were to contend that it is right for him, as a child of nature, to take solace and pleasure in the wonders of the natural world . . . Matthew would likely not understand that either.
But that is no matter to William. Despite Matthew’s taunts, William remains in a state of peace and joy. Having allowed Matthew his say, Wordsworth the poet, after briefly establishing the setting of the dialogue, presents us with William the debater’s boldly gentle response:
One morning thus, by Esthwaite lake,
When life was sweet, I knew not why,
To me my good friend Matthew spake,
And thus I made reply:
“The eye—it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against or with our will.
“Nor less I deem that there are Powers
Which of themselves our minds impress;
That we can feed this mind of ours
In a wise passiveness.
“Think you, ’mid all this mighty sum
Of things for ever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
But we must still be seeking?
“—Then ask not wherefore, here, alone,
Conversing as I may,
I sit upon this old grey stone,
And dream my time away.”
Whereas Matthew would gain knowledge by active study (ratio), William would gain it by passive embrace (intellectus). After all, he asserts, we cannot prevent our senses from taking in the myriad splendors that surround us. Sensations rush upon us from all directions, enough to fill eye and ear to overflowing. So often the things that really matter come to us not after long and arduous study but in a flash of insight: direct, spontaneous, unpremeditated. Well, not exactly. Although they come in a flash, we can only apprehend that flash if our mind has been made receptive through leisurely contemplation.
In his response to Matthew, William speaks of invisible Powers that press themselves upon us, Powers that we must open our minds to receive. We need not seek them, William makes clear, but we do need to be ready to receive them when they appear. We need to stop and listen, to cease doing and commence seeing. What Wordsworth advocates in his poem is almost identical to what Pieper calls for in Leisure, the Basis of Culture. Indeed, an alternate title for Pieper’s book would be “Wise Passiveness,” a key Wordsworthian phrase that might best be defined as an active focusing that prepares the mind to receive passively. As I noted above, this kind of learning bears much similarity to Buddhism; however, as with the Catholic Pieper, the Anglican Wordsworth factors in an essential element of joy and directs his musings toward a divine Presence that transcends both nature and the self.
By no means is William dreaming his time away as Matthew claims in the opening stanza. His quest for knowledge is as serious and intentional as Matthew’s; it is merely carried out in a different manner. In fact, Matthew is even wrong in his assertion that William is alone. Though he may seem alone to those who lack eyes to see and ears to hear, he is, in reality, engaged in an actively passive dialogue with the whole mighty sum of speaking things.
And the same goes for the literature student who sits under a tree and reads an epic by Homer or a tragedy by Shakespeare or a sonnet by Keats. The poem is not a thing to be analyzed, categorized, and filed on a shelf. It is to be received both as an individual expression of beauty and humanity and as a single stanza of that great and timeless poem that mankind has been writing for the last four millennia. The history student who reads Thucydides or Livy or the Anglo-Saxon chronicle takes part in an intensely human journey; the philosophy student who reads Augustine, Kant, and Kierkegaard participates in an equally human conversation. And as they do, they build up within themselves reserves of tenacity and strength, tranquility and wonder, resolution and perseverance, independence and freedom.
Without such people, human civilization—always a tenuous thing—cannot flourish. Without such students and professors, universities as universities cannot continue to function. Without such citizens, democracy cannot long survive. Naturalism, materialism, scientism, nihilism—all are dead ends that confine us to a dark, claustrophobic world. Though the face of utilitarianism tends to be more benign, it too leads us down a reductive, antihumanistic path that seals us off from revelation, from wisdom, and from purpose.
Pragmatism is closely allied to utilitarianism, and, in chapter 89 of On the Relationship between Faith and Reason, John Paul II identifies pragmatism as one of a number of modern and postmodern schools of thought that threaten to sever us from the living Tradition of philosophy. That is so because pragmatism offers “a one-dimensional vision of the human being, a vision that excludes the great ethical dilemmas and the existential analyses of the meaning of suffering and sacrifice, of life and death.” I would propose that only a revitalization of the liberal arts as ends-in-themselves that draw students into an active-passive conversation with the past can restore the three-dimensional vision we have lost.♦
Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University and holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include From Achilles to Christ, The Eye of the Beholder: How to See the World like a Romantic Poet, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.