Careful, friends, don’t make means ends

By Gavin Beeker

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

The imprecision and open admission of no authoritative answer in the humanities and social sciences irritated me as a fresh student, newly introduced into the stream of academic thought. After all, why did I undertake this liberal arts education, if not to find the hidden answers to life’s persistent questions? Perhaps it is my lineage: My father, a radar engineer, will admit no gray area in the search for effective solutions.

I am sure I am not alone in the experience of attending a lecture or symposium on some subtle and sophisticated Continental thinker, expecting to see life’s secrets unravel before me, only to find a dry, pedantically scholastic tweaking of the minutiae of a theory of interpretation of the original work. If I wanted to experience the dusty reshuffling of the past, there are a number of antique dealers in the area where I could apply to work.

In my ardor as a neophyte, I rebelled against this dry hashing and rehashing of thought that endlessly multiplied itself throughout the drably-sheened halls of nameless universities everywhere. I dove headfirst into my favorite authors, seeking a glimpse of the Great Truths firsthand. Instead of clear answers, what I found was an infinitely divisible multitude of possible viewpoints, each differing only in the chosen ground from which to take in the matter at hand.

But out of the savage storms of disillusionment came the serene calm of equanimity. When I finally stopped grasping for a firm ledge, I found I was totally free, my anxiety having been self-generated by an instinctual reaction to a lack of concrete guidance. The previously unthinkable thought occurred to me: Rather than a symptom of mental and vital torpor, perhaps the calm and collected analytical affectations of these academicians was the result of an experience similar to mine. Particularly in the humanities, where one is exposed to the dizzying array of human perspectives reaching back into antiquity, the process of inundation can only produce a sense of humility in the initiate. In light of the heavy burden of tradition, how wonderful it is to work on one precise aspect of the collected works of humankind.

From this point of view, it makes sense that one should limit oneself to a very tightly prescribed sphere – the more focused the lens, so much the clearer and more precise the matter under consideration.

And as for prescriptions for action, who needs them? With that I could point out, with the force that only the gravity of history provides, my observation to political radicals of this and every age. His or her program for lasting change would possibly prove a bitter pill. Ninety-nine times out of 100, such cures have proven worse than the disease.

And as for that aristocracy of character, the 1 percent who managed to effect change that was shown to be positive in retrospect (for these matters are only ever understood with the benefit of hindsight), they did so with a solemnity befitting the task of one who grasps the wild and dangerous reigns of social change. But like our own Cincinnatus, George Washington, they understood that the power of change, no matter how benevolent in intention, must be relinquished after the task is done. They did so, charged with the verbiage of tradition, with an appreciation for the weight of past failures.

Gentle readers, this long-winded piece of advice is all but to say: Be wary of the confident. Take with a grain of salt those who, with a bar graph and piece of legislation, would solve all of society’s problems. How much more noble the old farmhand, the bespectacled professor, the graying hair stylist who from sheer variety of experience, good and bad, refrains from recommending a course of action whose ultimate ends are inscrutable. Your amateur sociologist only works with single variables at a time; the variables involved in the interplay of free minds are beyond calculation, even comprehension.

I find it necessary to emphasize here that I am not advocating a Nietzschean anti-moral view. Quite the contrary. It is the most stringent moral sense, which out of a genuine yearning for truth or gradations thereof, plumbs the depths of human thought with stolid discipline – not to find titillating, nihilistic phrases for seducing others at cocktail parties, but in search of guidance for understanding experience. There will always be an audience for subtle and sophisticated thought, but whether it has value and the integrity of self-honesty is often a different matter altogether.

The repeated testing and retesting of thought and the paucity of absolute truth that it reveals tends to produce a most grave reserve and nit-picking analytical quality – the skepticism of a seasoned mind. This is why we will always have need of the Humanities and the liberal arts; we must perennially be reminded that our concepts are merely tools. Once they have served their purpose, in bettering our lives or clarifying our understanding, we needn’t carry them around for their own sakes nor use them where they are ill-suited.

Gavin Beeker is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]