Big Questions Online
James Matthew Wilson
January 13, 2011
Intellectual historians recall the 18th century as a golden age of public philosophers and men of letters, of discussion and speculation, but also, significantly, of experimentation in the physical sciences and in the art of statecraft. As an age of Enlightenment, it was an era of ideas, but one in which ideas had real consequences in action. Perhaps for this reason, the virtue its citizens held up for greatest praise appears nowhere in the Ethics of Aristotle or in the morality of any prior age — that of disinterestedness.
One finds the word frequently in private letters, public newspapers, and on crooked headstones in churchyards from the period. To judge without prejudice, to observe without inclination, to weigh the “facts” (another 18th century word) without placing a thumb on the scale — this was a measure of greatness.
One seldom hears open nostalgia for that time of couplets and courts, cabinet wars and musket duels, periwigs and knickers. And yet, whenever we lament the “bias” of the media, the politicization of the classroom, the manipulation of science for political ends, we are in effect observing problems that the Enlightenment bequeathed to us, and we are implicitly longing for the solution to these ills that the Enlightenment recommended: the virtue of disinterest.
In the Victorian age, the English poet and social critic Matthew Arnold looked upon the all-consuming materialism of his contemporaries — their thoughtless dynamism of making, selling, and getting — and longed for a realm of disinterested contemplation. Could the English sustain a place in their lives, where the best that had been thought and said could be contemplated for its own sake, free of considerations for its market value? Arnold was no admirer of Enlightenment poetry, but he looked wanly upon the freedom of thought enjoyed by those who lived just on the far side of modern industrialization and commerce. So, also, the French philosopher Julien Benda, writing amid the nationalist fervors of the early 20th century, denounced the “treason of the intellectuals,” of those who deployed their academic positions to advance the nationalist agenda instead of cloistering themselves in the life of disinterested thought.
We all can distinguish between speculative thought — whose purpose is primarily to lead to new knowledge within the mind — and practical thinking, that engagement of the intellect in the doing or making of something beyond the mind. Precisely because these two so easily become entangled with one another, we can also understand why it might appear so necessary to grant a particular freedom to intellectuals whose lives are spent in speculative pursuits. Most of us also understand that this freedom depends on the intellectual’s commitment to engage in those pursuits in a disinterested manner, betraying his vocation neither for petty gain nor distorting what he learns and says to suit the preferences of his friends or the causes of their hour. Such privilege may appear all the more necessary in a climate where ideas shape the destiny of nations, as they certainly did in the 18th century; it may seem all the more precious in a time like ours, where the din of manipulative rhetoric in advertisements, political speeches, and newspapers alike carries on almost unrelieved.
Disinterestedness practiced as a mode of intellectual engagement is necessary and precious. Yet I cannot help thinking that the age that gave us this virtue misunderstood the nature of the intellectual life it was supposed to make possible. Moreover, it would seem that the contemporary politicized classroom is not so much a violation of the rule of “disinterestedness” as it is a woeful but natural extension of it.
“Intellectual,” as we use it, is a new word, conceived to describe those professors, public philosophers, and men of letters who live by and for the realm of thought. They are supposed to be experts in their fields, caretakers of methods and disciplines, but what chiefly distinguishes them is a commitment to no cause that would cloud otherwise clear — we say, “objective” — thinking. But where did this exceptional character come from?
If we look back beyond the 18th century, we come upon some familiar but paradoxically alien figures. In ancient Athens, we find the philosopher, the lover of wisdom, who sometimes appears foolish to the washer-women of his city, so absorbed is he in contemplation. But this same fellow also appears great and noble at times, as if his visible actions sought to conform to an invisible beauty. The dialogues of Plato tell us that the philosopher possessed the virtue of temperance in regard to bodily pleasures, because he took far greater pleasure, admixed with some pain, in the yearning for truth, goodness, and beauty. He brooked no occupation that kept him from staring into the heart of light that was the Good — a light he relished though it blinded, and which humbled him even as it inspired him to the most noble of deeds. Socrates, after all, was not just a snub-nosed street-talker, but a great warrior whom foreign cavalry dared not to attack. Such was the founder of the first academy.
In the medieval world we find characters not much removed from the Greek philosopher. The medieval monks, who passed their days literally cloistered in monasteries or only figuratively so in the first great universities, did not sacrifice the life of pleasures to be found in the wider world.
Rather, like Socrates, they moved beyond those pleasures to bask in the one joy they believed truly fitting for the rational human being. By means of work and study they equipped themselves for the life of prayer; but prayer was not an exercise in mindless piety, it was the highest activity of the human intellect bathing in the light of truth. Plato had always stressed that the philosopher did not possess wisdom but yearned for it, stared into it, knowing it could never become a mere possession trapped by the human mind. So also did the medievals yearn in the thought-that-is-prayer for a light that is visible but blinding, a truth perfectly intelligible but ever incomprehensible. Academy and university alike were places where the most profound desires of the human spirit moved toward fulfillment, and where individual lives were given form and beauty as they sought to conform to light and truth.
In these antecedents we see the outline of the modern disinterested intellectual — but it is a hollow outline indeed, akin to those traced at a crime scene. The philosophers and monks set out on a journey with a real destination and their lives could be called happy because they advanced, by clear thought and a triumph over lesser goods, toward the highest good imaginable. Their lives were truly human, conducted not in scorn of self but in hope of its fulfillment. They moved beyond the mundane activities and concerns of this world so as to think and act the better within it.
With the rise of the “lay” intellectual in the 18th century, we do not find a reconfiguration of the monk on secular lines, as if the yearning for truth could be better conducted without the equipment of the monastery. Rather, we find the old forms continuing but without a clear sense of the purpose for which they had been designed. The triumph over worldly pleasure was re-described as mere “disinterestedness,” but disinterestedness for what? “For the life of thought,” was the reply. The thinking of what? “Of speculative rather than practical ideas, of sophisticated and free rather than prudent and servile ideas.” No further answer is forthcoming.
The modern intellectual engages in thought without end, for all purpose would be denounced as agenda or ideology. Restless before this convergence of freedom and uselessness, his occupation takes a critical turn and becomes the mere dissecting of all the interested buzz of the world of practical action. Because it lacks a sense of where thought might find fulfillment, the intellectual realm becomes not a place above the mundane world, but a parallel zone of criticism, where the beliefs of others may enter only to be seen through. The intellectual life reduces itself to functional nihilism, warding off despair only by means of attacking the latest ideology voiced beyond its doorstep.
This eviscerated condition of the modern intellectual can hardly be dismissed as a mere moral perversion or weakness of chin, of course. Those contemporary thinkers who still see their vocation as in continuity with the tradition of medieval contemplatives and ancient philosophers have provided us a wide variety of compelling accounts to explain the missteps taken in modernity that led to the nihilistic dead-end so evident in our age. One common argument holds that the emergence of late-medieval nominalism convinced many persons that ideas were but names imposed upon an infinitely diverse reality, and so the world itself began to appear unintelligible.
This rise of nominalism was but one manifestation of a broader tendency to divide ever more rigidly the realm of nature and grace, so that nature, or the natural world, came to include only the “facts” of things as inert and present entities, and the realm of grace, wherein the meaning, purpose, and essence of things was supposed to repose, stood in an at-best-tenuous relation to such “facts.” This division occurred not only — as talk of “grace” might suggest — in Reformation theology, but in nearly every branch of learning.
In the 17th Century, we witness the increasing suspicion of nature as dead and meaningless fact, and a consequent privileging of the rational ideas present in the human mind as the only plausible source of meaning to be found in reality. This led René Descartes to constrain what could be affirmed as rational to that which conformed to the model of mathematical abstraction: any idea lacking the clarity of an equation could not be rationally affirmed. Blaise Pascal, a mathematician like Descartes, similarly contended that neither nature nor anything external to the human being’s fallen interior condition could justify belief in the meaning or purpose of human life. While man could look in upon his evident wretchedness and sense, amidst it, a trace of fallen greatness, the touch of God, it would avail him nothing to look out into the world.
Such doubt over the “graced” intelligibility of nature, and such reliance on the clarity of mathematical ideas and the exclusively “interior” reality of human thought, had two marked effects. Man came increasingly to doubt the capacities of human reason to reach beyond the bounds of his “subjectivity.” He came to think that he knew with certainty only himself alone and those ideas clear and present in himself. Reason could no longer stretch beyond those bounds to a confident knowledge of nature, and it certainly could not over-stretch itself to the tenuous apprehension of the divine.
With the model of mathematical reasoning as the exclusive standard for what qualified as rational, thinkers after Descartes began to insist that only that which could be logically demonstrated could be affirmed as true according to reason, and they also took the methods of mathematics as the model for how reason worked. Rather than understanding the life of reason as an ascent of the infinitely capacious human intellect up to a faint taste of the highest good, the life of reason came to be associated with the hard slog of calling into question every idea and determining whether its truth could be methodically demonstrated. The intellectual life ceased to be a pilgrimage toward happiness and turned into an expert procedure whose end was simply the “rational” affirmation of what one already thought one knew — that one’s body existed, for instance.
The supposed alienation of meaning and purpose from nature, the subsequent restriction of reason’s grasp to the immanent, and reduction of its nature to mere method, bore fruit in the culture of the 18th Century. There, man found himself standing before two blocked roads. By pure intellectual ascent, he could no longer seek after God. Moreover, the natural world gave him no alternative pathway: it was no longer God’s “book of nature,” but a mere inert quantum, infinitely various but empty of intelligible meaning. As Karl Barth once described, this sense of interior and outward frustration hardly led Enlightenment Man to despair. Rather, he reconstituted the older vision of nature as the created expression of the Divine Intellect on immanent terms. The human mind, which alone gave birth to ideas, was the source of all intelligible form in reality. The natural world was raw life, crude matter, awaiting the impress of the human mind. Man’s task was to remake the natural world according to the forms and orders he himself invented. The test of an idea’s truth became whether it could be imposed upon nature.
Man, as a creature in God’s universe capable of rising above himself by means of the intellect to the contemplation of a truth he could never command or control, disappeared. Now, only that was rational which could be made or done. The conception of reason as a guide to the experience of truth went down before a model of reason as that which could dominate nature by means of experiment — by measurable, repeatable results.
If reason was, on these terms, exclusively practical, to what purpose did the 18th Century preserve, even in the diminished form of “disinterestedness,” the ancient tradition that man’s dignity lay chiefly in his speculative intellect, which alone could pass beyond the instrumental doings and makings of this world to the permanent things of truth, goodness, and beauty? What were truth, goodness, and beauty, in any case, if they could not be harnessed by reason to beget at our will new forms and inventions on nature’s crude matter?
From the 18th until the early 20th Centuries, the disinterested intellectual served as a reminder that the criterion of truth and goodness was not simply whether something was possible. His social function, as it were, was to serve as a check on action. His learned penury was supposed to beg the ambitious entrepreneur to pause and take thought.
But, by and large, the contemporary academic accepts this instrumental understanding of reason and so is in no position to encourage anyone to stop and think. Following Marx, he believes speculation a drug and truth to lie in practice, in doing, alone. His privileged position of “disinterested” speculation therefore appears to him as a largely empty and humiliating one. And so, he spends his intellectual labor in critique of the wider, “useful” world, exposing how the claims to progress, efficiency, rationality, and utility so typical as moral justifications for activities of State, corporation, or individual in our time, are mere masks upon the clenched jaw of man’s will to power.
Is there any place one can look in the contemporary world to find the contemplative life still lived as it once was? Of course the world is still full of monks: Matthew Arnold’s poem, “ Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse ,” speaks of the Carthusian monks, whose monastery he visited on his honeymoon (1852), as the last of a dying breed. The 2005 documentary film Into Great Silence shows us that Carthusians pray on, though Arnold has long since gone to his grave.
For many modern persons, however, the love of truth and the life of yearning for it have found most compelling and familiar expression in the works of the poets. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 19th century, and, to a lesser extent, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot in the 20th, captured in their writings the yearning for and basking in intimations of light and truth.
Such poets’ lives are almost one with their work, precisely because the truth they sought to manifest in language was also the truth they lived for, and so gave form to how they actually lived. The relative marginality of poetry in the modern world, its evident “uselessness” but also its natural function as an expression or extension of a full human life, has made it a natural oasis for those who wish to discover the riches of the intellectual life but stand hesitant before the claims to rational truth found in the ancients and medievals.
In an instructive misreading, E.F. Schumacher once interpreted the meaning of Virgil and Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy not as allegorical figures of reason and faith, but of poetry and faith; the life of the imagination may serve as a kind of initiation into the life of supernatural faith in an age such as ours, where a distrust and misunderstanding of reason seem to dam it off as a path to the divine. The skeptical W.B. Yeats did not think “belief” something to be talked of in a time like ours, and so absorbed his desire for divine truth and moral goodness within the precincts of poetry. He deemed himself “very religious” precisely because he had founded his life upon an imaginative vision that refused to be tethered to the instrumental rationality of the modern world. Similarly, the young T.S. Eliot gave up his study of philosophy in despair, seeing its pursuits futile, and committed himself to the life of art. Within a decade, however, the profound reflections in which poetry had involved him led him to baptism in the Anglican Church, and in later life, Eliot would understand that his recourse to poetry had been thrust upon him by a conception of philosophy that refused to be open to the divine. Poetry made it possible for Eliot to seek the good, the work of the imagination led him to a renewed confidence in human reason.
Having said this, we must bear in mind that most contemporary artists have succumbed to the same critical and ideological hollowness as did philosophers and other intellectuals before them. Poets like Eliot and Yeats become all the more important for being the more rare. Unsatisfactory though it may be for such poets of the imagination to become the residual tokens of the quest for truth, the cases of Schumacher and Eliot encourage us to recall that Plato himself, in the Republic , says that poetry — that is, storytelling — is the seed that germinates into the life of reason and virtue. Today’s lyrical tatters may be tomorrow’s hope. What many persons dare attempt today only on the stage of make-believe they may, on some future occasion, undertake as the real pilgrimage toward light and truth.
James Matthew Wilson teaches in the Humanities Department at Villanova University. He is an editor of Front Porch Republic and the author of a book of poems, Four Verse Letters (Steubenville, 2010).