Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Exhortation: Why the Liberal Arts? Is There A Lasting Good? (And Why the University of Dallas?)

After seeing a whole class of undergraduates sit like bumps on a log and not say anything or register any sort of reaction when the Gettysburg Address was being introduced, and then seeing more bumps on a log at the graduate level when the class was focused on Rousseau’s Second Discourse/the problem of whether any eternal truth exists concerning the nature of man, I think it is time for yet another exhortation.

And yeah, I’m pissed off. I’m realizing that many of you in my blog audience would be better students at this University than the ones who are here, because your willingness to learn is genuine. The evidence for this is that you’re putting up with my arrogance and saying “thank you” to me and asking good questions when you can. I half-joke that I’m trying to make the world my classroom through blogging, and keep forgetting that the audience I have now is amazing and showing what they’re learning from this blog and the others they read in every post of theirs I see, in every comment and e-mail they write for me and others. You are the proof there is a lasting good for reading and writing well. If this blog didn’t exist it wouldn’t matter: the liberal arts are alive and well in the blogosphere, and I’m happy to be a part of that.

1. To the undergraduates at the University of Dallas who did a very good job of making me nearly despise the human race through their lack of class participation:

What you are getting in Politics 1311, “Principles of American Politics,” seems rather strange. The Literary Tradition courses where Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Shakespeare, Melville are taught seem strange at first, but at least there is a continuity among them. Dante and Milton directly reference Virgil who himself references Homer; Moby Dick can be read as an epic, too. Shakespeare seems a bit out of place but his themes are continuous with the other works, even if the genre he writes in is different.

Furthermore, the philosophy classes you are required to take, which cover Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Ethics and De Anima, Augustine’s Confessions and introduce medieval and modern (meaning, for here, Descartes) philosophy in some form also make a loose sense. All those works talk about the right way to live, what knowledge is properly speaking, what the soul is, and what God can or cannot be.

So of course one class in politics is required of you, and while you probably understand nothing deep about all the other works mentioned above, the Federalist (the main text of the course) seems quaint and a rather pointless exercise. You live in America, after all, so you must understand the order that defines us intuitively. There’s like a President and stuff and people vote for him because wrestlers and actors and all the nice people on MTV say it is important to vote.

What you miss entirely is how the Federalist represents a crucial aspect of an intellectual heritage you are being made to understand. The whole of Homer is in the first line of the Iliad: the wrath of Achilles brought the plan of Zeus into being, and caused the destruction of all the heroes, the god-men who through their divine origins involved the gods too personally in human affairs, and caused us regular people who didn’t have divine blood to be subordinate regardless of our virtue. The strength of will which creates the ability of the heroes to dare and to rule has literally descended to Hades, and their bodies are all that is left in the first line of the Iliad. By the end of the Odyssey, all the heroes are dead except Odysseus, who seems to represent the human soul. Telemachus will rule as a constitutional monarch of sorts, but although he has been guided by Athena, he can never see her directly, and we note that the gods generally are making fewer and fewer appearances as the Odyssey moves to its conclusion.

The rough point is that rule of gods over humans is a problem: it orients virtue towards gain, whether that gain is material or honor throughout the ages. We see the virtues change remarkably from the Iliad to the Odyssey, and again, that is all part of Zeus’ plan.

But is rule of man over man the solution to all our ills? Perhaps there is a natural inequality among us, given that one man might be better at one art (techne) than another, and some arts are more important than others. If that natural inequality exists, who would end up ruling? Glaucon in the Republic absolutely falls in love with the guardian class of the city-in-speech, those who are best at war and have an art which makes all other arts seem like a deficiency. It looks like if you’re good at anything else other than war, your job is to be a slave to people who can conquer.

What Socrates does in the Republic is offer a “philosopher” as the founder of the city-in-speech, the one where one man/one art would lead to rule of those who can conquer. Strictly speaking, the proof that reason would conquer spiritedness (strength of will/courage/the basis of all martial virtues) in some way is offered by Socrates’ ability, despite the mock arrest and inability to ascend to Athens, to dominate the conversation however he wants to. Socrates hints at what a real philosopher would be all throughout the conversation, but cannot say what real philosophy is to Glaucon directly since Glaucon would quickly lose interest in the conversation. To moderate Glaucon, Socrates has to keep the conversation going, and the problems of moderation, justice and the search for the Good are there for those of us who wish to contemplate them all throughout.

Classical thought can be said to involve the creation of virtuous citizens for the sake of a body politic that is peaceful within itself, appreciative of the virtues of other cities, and receptive to wisdom and knowledge even while being pious. The introduction of Christianity changes this dramatically: Christian thinkers fall in love with the talking about “Being” and “Truth” that classical philosophers engage in, but see no need whatsoever for politics.

In dismissing the political teaching almost entirely, they create the world of Dante’s Italy, where people stab each other in the face and the Pope tries to give various Italian cities to his illegitimate children and no one cares. Christians can say with a clear conscience that this isn’t their world (Augustine, City of God, Preface) as it is defined by the lust for pride as opposed to humility. You would have to be bold to be virtuous, and God would be mad at you for being so prideful. Best thing to do is turn the other cheek and let some other schmuck get killed.

Dante in the Comedia isn’t just brutal to the Popes. Near the end of Inferno, a Cardinal is accused of locking a father and his sons up and throwing away the key. I think the father ate the children to survive and then died of starvation himself. You can go through and ask good questions about Virgil’s definition of love and whether it is pagan or Christian, what Beatrice actually teaches (and whether she is loveable in the Comedy), whether Dante’s pride is truly a problem at the end of Purgatario or not, and I think the net result will be this: the Church is a danger to politics and a tyranny of the worst sort. All secular power it wields has to be taken from it, in order for politics to be possible. I’m not sure of this reading, but I urge you to consider it, especially given that the problem of “pride” is that of “spiritedness” before – the question is whether man is fit to rule man, whether self-governance is possible or desirable. Dante isn’t exactly unsympathetic to the Roman Republic: consider Cato’s placement.

After Dante comes Machiavelli who openly talks about killing the Pope as being a desirable thing, and has none of Virgil’s qualms about material acquisition. Dante isn’t considered a modern because he is returning to ancient thought in some way. Machiavelli breaks with ancient thought decisively, and his thought in Hobbes and then Locke is reflected in the Federalist. Any exhortation to “virtue” or the “good” in the Federalist is very suspect given how much depends on human ambition stemming from self-interest. Ambition, of course, is pride stripped of any nobility that it might have had in ancient thought or the thought of Dante. Ambition is meant to make the actors discussed in the Federalist predictable: majority factions will always seek to oppress, the President will always seek a name for the ages (without being able to figure out how that’s done exactly, i.e. by founding a regime as opposed to serving in one), Congress will fight amongst itself, etc.

The point of this rant is simple: if you bothered for a second to put it all together, you would know how the Federalist is relevant to your studies. And you would know that even though this narrative can be disagreed with, you’re getting pure gold. Back when I did poli sci in undergrad, I was taught there were 100 senators and 435 representatives and 50 states and sent on my merry way with a diploma. The emphasis on practical education that defines most schools denies one the ability to take any other line of thought seriously. If you just absorb this narrative, though – addressing the inadequacies of it later, but recognizing that they’re there – you have the best of chances to have that rarest of things, an open mind. To be able to at least imagine an order devoted to a very different notion of the Good than your own, not just mere “goods,” is of enormous significance. Here, at the University of Dallas, we offer you at least two such orders.

2. To the graduate students who think they know anything at all (includes me, who is more guilty than most of doing nothing):

I am beginning to realize how slavish all of you are, that you need compliments and to be pampered and told where your opportunities are all the time. And I’m frustrated because I’ve been teaching anyone and everyone at any opportunity for years now, even without a classroom. Many of you know far more than I do and have an awful lot to teach me. Yet there’s a bigger task awaiting you than understanding the nature of the cosmos, which you wouldn’t understand even if you could have it anyway.

You need to get out there and show the liberal arts matter. I don’t care if you’re teaching your 5 year old niece or nephew about Heidegger. You have no idea what dire straits we’re in, that we don’t have the luxury of time if we want our generation to at least be able to think of something better.

And that’s what this is really about – other than the liberal arts, I’m not pushing an agenda right now (I do have my equality rhetoric, but that’s for another time). I personally believe that if many people read Rousseau or the Federalist carefully, candidates like Obama or Clinton won’t exist. There won’t be populism of this sort, complete with the consequences of what happens when that populism fails. That doesn’t mean things will be perfect: the same policy debates will still be there, this country will be divided 50/50 liberal and conservative.

But what will be missing is the extraordinary amount of passion going into… what, exactly? Is an Obama or Clinton vote an anti-war vote? Really? Is a vote for Obama a vote for “change” and “hope?” Does that mean Clinton or McCain is the enemy of “hope?”

Again, I’m not looking for perfection. Just a politics that reflects the fact that maybe not every American has an IQ of 60. Something that tells me that the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world can have citizens who can talk amongst themselves, and the speech makes sense and isn’t just bullet-points from some campaign operative’s Powerpoint.

I need to give you something to aid this project, something that will give you an incentive to go out and talk to people other than yourselves. What follows is very preliminary and subject to revision, but I think vital since politics – the creation of noble citizens – is not the only aim of the liberal arts:

If, as Dr. Parens has noted, the name/object distinction is crucial to materialism, inasmuch it is our naming that isolates and identifies objects, then we need a rough epistemology in order to show that the classics saw our materialist method as inherently immoderate and had an alternative.

I think the alternative actually exists: it’s Plato’s Ideal Forms. If we go to Heidegger and consider that the limit of a being is what defines a being, and that the Nature of a thing “holds sway” in its striving to achieve its own limit, what we get is this: it is possible to know an object in its end, without knowing all the particulars. It is possible to hold that literally limited knowledge as a possession, even though it is composed of more questions than answers.

The inquiry into the Nature of things that we conduct dialectically, then, allows us to “possess” the subjects we inquire into. Inasmuch as we strive to find out what justice is and ask good questions about it of each other, eliminating bad opinions as we go along, we create a body of knowledge about justice which seems like it is being recollected. It is as if we are probing our individual memories to find out more about them, and the knowledge we’re getting is in the memory itself, not coming from external sources that conflict so finally that it is one way or another entirely.

I think you can see how this “epistemology” is inherently moderate, as it depends on us as social beings and gives weight to authority even while questioning authority, and is a far cry from demanding Cartesian certainty, or the certainty of Revelation, for Truth to be had. Such certainty depends on outward criteria, i.e. actual control of things in the world or miracles and visions. Here, on the other hand, if you have doubts about the dialectical wisdom you receive, you can keep asking questions and its fine. In fact, it is more than fine – one might become very happy doing such a thing, making all others better in the process, and get to see how theoretical knowledge gives those who achieve it something lasting. The possession one achieves, after all, is purely one’s own, unique to the individual, and yet held sacred by all.


  1. This is an enlightening blog entry. I agree entirely with most of what you are saying. I would like to add something that I see as well; namely that people at UD tend to look at their favorites and say fuck the rest. I heard one say recently how they can’t wait to study Aristotle and Aquinas and hate Plato. Would there be an Aristotle or Aquinas if there hadn’t been a Plato? Would there have been a Lincoln and Gettysburg Address had their not been a John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson or John Adams?

  2. Interesting you should mention it, my little buddy at work (I say that because she’s 4 years younger than me, hardly a big deal, sure) is in an intro to political science class at Macon State and guess what they started the class with– I was quite shocked, actually, wondering why in he world a biology major at an itty bitty public school with only a handful of degrees would be taking what equated to an upper-level political science class when I was in school.

    They had their 1-day introduction where they watched some video with all the civics stuff we had in POLS 1001 (and she learned that the girl sitting next to her didn’t recognize Ronald Reagan…).

    Basically, though, she is clueless as to why they’re learning this stuff and focused on memorizing weird stuff like random latin terms in her textbook that have little bearing on the content of what she’s supposed to be reading. From what I’ve heard, she’s not the only one approaching the class in this way and most of the students are failing… miserably.

    Unfortunately, I just don’t think most undergrad students, especially at freshman/sophomore level, or most people in general really, have the ability to learn this way.

    Regurgitating facts is what they know. Application and independent thought processes- not so much. This, I think, is why you hear so much of this: “and the speech makes sense and isn’t just bullet-points from some campaign operative’s Powerpoint”.

    I’m really loving that point, btw. It was something that made me completely insane back when I cared. Why are people so content mimicking the nonsense they hear from some moron on tv?!?! If I’m gonna say something stupid, I’d prefer that it at least be my own stupid thought.

  3. Miklos Hollender

    February 23, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    May I ask you to give a bit more info about who is Dr. Parens and where did he say it? At least a book title or something. Thanks.

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