Andrew Sullivan weighs in on the mini-controversy over Limbaugh bashing Classical studies:
But the main reason for a classical education is precisely its uselessness. True learning is practically useless; and it should be. It is not about deploying knowledge to master the world, it is about the pursuit of truth for the sake of nothing else. It is about the highest things. How is a life worth living if it ignores them?
I think I see what he’s getting at, but I wouldn’t put it that way. If learning Greek or Latin is “useless,” and that very uselessness is an example of “the highest things,” don’t we invite someone to ask, “Well, who died and made those the Highest Things?” Why would Latin and Greek, and related fields of study, be the highest things one can do, and the very inapplicability of those things be justification for studying them? Why not gender studies, or queer veterinary, or poststructuralist puppetry, or some other trendy field that has little utility, but that certain leftist elites consider highly valuable? Is there any intrinsic value to Classical Studies?
This isn’t an abstract question for me. This morning I sat at the table writing this blog while my wife taught our older son Latin. It turns out that Matthew is really good in Latin. It’s impressive to see a kid master anything at that level of complexity, but I find myself kind of envious that this child, if he continues with Latin, will have access to a world I can’t explore. The older I’ve become, the more interested I’ve gotten in history and the Classical world, not only because I’m curious to know what they thought and how they lived, but because I want to know what their thought and their lives have to say to us about who we are, and who we might be.
What does the history of the Roman republic and the Roman empire have to tell us about power, for instance? You don’t have to know Latin to discover that from history books, but to learn Latin is to be able to read the primary sources. It’s also to be drawn into that world in the first place, just as learning French is to have the doors opened to the French mind, and French culture.
I have mentioned before in this space something Camille Paglia told me once, about the loss of cultural literacy among her college students — this as a result of their decline in religious literacy. These kids don’t know the Bible, and the stories of the Bible. Theologically, Paglia doesn’t care; she’s an atheist. But she cares greatly about what this does to their cultural sense. So many great works of art in the Western canon are less accessible to them because they don’t have the tools of interpretation near to hand as part of their cultural patrimony. The other day I finally watched the Terrence Malick film “The Tree of Life,” which was a stunning work of art (I’ll be posting on it later). Discussing it with a friend who also loved him, my friend remarked that you could really tell which critics had some sort of theological background or commitment, and which ones didn’t. The ones who did really understood what Malick was getting at; those who did not had no idea what he was up to. Yes, obviously! If you didn’t know the mind of the Bible, if you had no familiarity with the Christian concept of Grace, the movie would have been an impenetrable puzzle. But if you did, you had the key to what the filmmaker was trying to say.
Similarly, it seems to me that to study the Classics — whether Classical languages, Classical literature, Classical history, etc. — is to go to the secular roots of Western civilization, and to plumb the depths of the Western mind. If one is a cultural Marxist, and believes the past is nothing but the history of the oppression of one class by another, it is possible for one to see Classical Studies as useless at best, and destructive at worst (destructive because it could lead one to have a fondness for modes of thought and life that are oppressive).
But as a conservative, to sneer at Classical Studies as useless? It’s imbecilic. We can do better, though, than simply asserting the value of studying the Classics. There is a case to be made, and I wish Andrew, who is far better educated than I, had made it. Yet I think there is something to be said for what might be called his Ontological Case for Classical Studies. I think the fact that we’re even thinking about having to evaluate the field of Classical Studies based on its utility is a sign of how Protestantism, at least in its American form, has deformed our ability to appreciate the value of the contemplative mode of thought. Let me explain what I mean. The other day I was listening to the current edition of Mars Hill Audio Journal, which features an interview with the Reformed theologian William Dyrness, talking about his new book on poetic theology. Dyrness at one point spoke about how difficult it is for Protestants to understand the function of art because their tradition (his tradition, to be clear) is not accustomed to the contemplative mode of thought. I think host Ken Myers may have paraphrased it as Protestant congregations wanting a “to do list” at the end of the sermon. Dyrness’s point was that we can find God in contemplation, and we have to learn to see the world and God’s actions within the world not only in terms of something to be acted on (that is, something that tells us what to do), but also in terms of learning who God is and what His creation is by contemplation and delight.
If we were better acquainted with the contemplative mode of thought, the value of learning for learning’s sake would be more apparent to us. This, I think, is what Andrew was getting at in his original statement. It could be that his Catholic upbringing, or (more likely) his English upbringing, explains why this made sense to him in a way it doesn’t really for Americans.
And so, when a conservative like Limbaugh observes that it’s difficult for Classical Studies graduates to find work, the proper response is not to mock them for studying something useless, but rather to ask how it is that we, as Western people, have culturally degraded ourselves to the point where there isn’t enough work for teachers of the Classics — and how we can change that dismal condition.
UPDATE:Baconboy e-mails to say:
I’m on my way out the door, but I think Sullivan is right. Studying the classics is precisely a way of rejecting a utilitarian view of knowledge, one that places value on humans because of what they know. Literature, philosophy, history, and theology all require think carefully about just what it means to be a human, ultimately with the purpose that our knowledge be used to serve us as humans, rather than humans serving knowledge.
The classic case for this is Josef Pieper’s essay, “Leisure as the Basis of Culture”...
From a summary of the book’s content:
Drawing on the Western sages, both pagan and Christian, Pieper is careful to make a clear distinction between leisure and idleness. The former refers to the contemplative side of man; the ability to passively receive knowledge and wisdom. This same sort of passivity is at work when we accept God’s grace.In a key phrase, Pieper says that “man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult.” This is in direct opposition to Kantian rationalists who denied that the contemplative life was superior to the active. They maintained that all virtue consists in action per se. Therein lies the modern egotistical need to constantly “assert” oneself as if to confirm one’s being.Pieper explains that for the Greeks leisure originally meant education. It was time spent in intellectual activity, apart from servile work, which permitted men to contemplate higher things—not just technical learning, but inquiry into human society and individual responsibility.